What the Heart Wants
In the dry season of 1990 I was working at three jobs. I taught English at the Phuket Yacht Club during the day, I taught English at Phuket Community College in the evenings, and from 9 to 12 every night I was the rock n’ roll DJ on 89.5 FM, the only farang in the Kingdom who had a work permit to broadcast outside of Bangkok.
My free time was from 3 to 6 in the afternoon, and since the bar sois of Kata Beach were half-way between the Yacht Club and the college, I’d float around those dusty gravel streets and the little six-stool bar beers for a couple of hours every day. I’d get dinner from a sam-law, pick a stool in the shade, and watch the village wake up and begin to dress up for the evening.
Not many of the bars were open at that hour, but the Sea Bees Bar always was, and Vilai was always there, wiping road dust off the bar and glassware, setting out the bottles, shoveling the ice.
She was seventeen, and only tending bar, but everybody on the soi knew that when she turned eighteen she would start going with the farang. That’s why Noi, the mamasan at Sea Bees Bar, gave Vilai room and board and let her keep her tips. Vilai was young and lovely and sweet. She was a good investment.
Vilai was friendly to everybody, but she was in love with Spenser. He was a Brit in his early twenties, slightly built with long, dirty blonde hair and a collection of rock band T-shirts. He was always full of big plans and big boasts and he was very ADHD. He was spending as much of his father’s money as he could in the third month of his three-month visa, and the first time he met me he said, “I’m stayin’ here till I get a virgin for free, Mate. That’s my goal. After that I can go home happy.”
Vilai was the virgin he’d decided to “get” for free. I figured that it was just another of his big plans that would never go anywhere, like the rock music festival he was going to organize on the beach. Everybody knew “Sah-pen” was farang kee kai, all the girls told Vilai that. He was a scruffy, irresponsible scalawag. But the heart wants what the heart wants, and Vilai’s heart wanted Sah-pen.
Noi was having none of it, of course. Once she saw what was happening she made Vilai stay with her, in her little room behind the bar. They slept in a single bed, but Noi was a heavy drinker and deep sleeper. There was apparently room on Noi’s bed for three. One morning Sah-pen showed up at my bungalow to show off two spots of blood on the leg of his filthy shorts.
“That’s virgin’s blood, mate!” he said, like it was putting a man on the moon. I never saw him again; he probably left the island that day.
For weeks I watched Vilai suffer. Nobody feels a broken heart like a teenaged girl. She forgot drink orders and randomly burst into tears with no provocation. Noi was furious with her. As Vilai’s eighteenth birthday approached she got more and more depressed.
I don’t know why I did it. It was completely out of character. I invited Vilai to come and live with me. At first she refused. She liked me, but not enough to be my woman. Noi reminded her that the only other option was going with a different stranger every night, and so Vilai accepted my offer. The other girls from Sea Bees Bar came around my house and snooped in my closets like the Department of Human Services. They pronounced me safe and did the negotiating.
Vilai moved in a few days after her eighteenth birthday. In bed that first night I asked her if she minded if I did something, and she said, “I am for you.”
By morning I was for her.
I was in love. Drop dead, stupid love. Love like nothing else I’ve ever felt. I was thirty-two years old, she was eighteen. We looked ridiculous together. I didn’t care. The heart wants what the heart wants.
We lived together for five months and ten days. We did nothing special. We lived in my bungalow, she went to school and I went to work. On the weekends we went bowling and took in a movie. Nothing special, just the best days of my life. Five months and ten days; I was happy in every single moment of it. Purely, honestly happy, without complication or qualification, for the first and only time in my life.
Then Vilai met Luca, a 20-year-old Italian professional footballer, and she fell in love. Drop dead, stupid love. Like she felt with Sah-pen, I suppose. Luca was another charming loser, and destined to go back to Italy soon. But the heart wants what the heart wants. Vilai left me.
A quarter of a century later, I think of her every day. I have an album of old photographs of us together that I’ll never throw away. I get misty when I hear “Can’t Touch This.” Nobody else gets sentimental about MC Hammer. I’m stuck permanently in 1990 with no hope of ever getting out.
I’ve never felt anything like what I felt with Vilai. Not with any other woman, and God knows I’ve tried. Since then I’ve had all sorts of relationships with other women, hell, I was married for ten miserable years. I’m pretty old now and I look back on my life and it’s clear to me that those five months and ten days with Vilai were the best I’m ever going to get.
I have never heard any other sound as sweet as Vilai’s voice saying, “I am for you.”
So here’s my point: I have absolutely no memory of what I paid to take Vilai out of Sea Bees Bar, just like I don’t remember what I paid for a movie ticket on Phuket in 1990. Negotiations with the older girls went on for days, but now I don’t remember what I paid for her night school classes or her motorcycle or her uniforms or text books or groceries. I remember that I gave her a gold necklace. Don’t have a clue what I paid for it.
I see on line that they’ve paved the streets in Kata, and I suppose there are no more little six-stool bar beers. I assume the bar fines have gone up since 1990, but I don’t care. What some other guy pays to get his dick sucked is none of my concern.
Here is my concern: What keeps that other guy awake at 3 a.m.? That interests me. What scares him interests me. Trying to figure out what happened in his childhood that made him unable to form healthy adult relationships with women, that interests me. How he and the woman he’s paying for sex each rationalize the moral ambiguities of their relationship fascinates me.
What drives these men and women into those bars on Kata Beach, and on Soi Cowboy and Walking Street and Loi Kroh Road? How do those men and women cope with pain, with loss, rejection, hunger, rage, sadness, and joy? How do they cope with the inevitability of death?
And in these bars, where sex is made dull and almost worthless, how do we give the heart what the heart wants? Why do some of those men and women fall in love?
And why do some not?
These are questions worth considering, and worth writing about. But the question of whether bar fines have become too high? The question of whether or not “the scene” has “deteriorated?”
I couldn’t care less.