When Mooey came back with the fish balls she asked Gaew about her breasts.
“Elder Sister Gaew, kah, I’m afraid the farang won’t like my boobs.”
Gaew was painting pink lacquer onto Jeep’s toe nails. She didn’t look up. “Why not? They’re big enough.”
Mooey was taking the fish balls off their sticks and arranging balls and sticks on a plate. She took three wads of sticky rice out of three plastic sleeves and put them on another plate. “Gaw, my nipples go inside. They don’t stick up.” She poured the sauce out of the little plastic bag into a bowl and, on her knees, placed the plates and bowl and some paper napkins on the bare concrete floor in the middle of the rough triangle formed by Gaew, Jeep and Noot. She gathered up the plastic bags and crawled across the floor to put them in the trash.
Gaew put away the lacquer. Jeep folder her feet behind her, being careful not to smudge the new color. The older women busied themselves with the food for a moment. They all had sarongs wrapped around them; their hair was wet. Noot was struggling to keep Gimmie, Gaew’s new puppy, from lunging at the food. “Fuck mother! I’m putting him out.” She slid across the floor and pushed Gimmie out the door, closing it before he could get back in. She slid back to the circle and used one of the pointed sticks to spear a ball, dipping it in the sauce before depositing it gingerly in her mouth. “Show us,” she said.
Mooey was sitting against the cinderblock wall, outside the circle, under an ancient poster of Phoebe Cates. She dutifully pulled up the hem of her sun-faded T-shirt and pulled down the cups of her bra. The older women casually looked up from their meal and examined her breasts. Her areolae were large and dark brown. Her nipples were inverted. The women turned their attention back to their food. Mooey waited for further instructions. The bra was cutting into the bottoms of her breasts but she didn’t move.
Noot wiped her fingers on a paper napkin and licked her lips. Outside Gimmie was whining and scratching at the door. She looked over at Mooey and said, “Are they always that way?”
“Gaw, I think so.”
“You think so? Don’t they ever stand up? What happens when a man sucks them?”
“I don’t know. No man has ever sucked them.”
The three older women exchanged looks but didn’t comment. Gaew asked, “What happens when you get cold?”
Mooey raised her eyebrows. “Oh, they pop up then. Back home it got cold sometimes and they’d stand up. But it’s never cold enough on Phuket.”
Noot offered the last fish ball to Gaew, since it was her home. Gaew demurred, and offered the ball to Jeep, who said, “Don’t want it, kah. Full already.” She picked up the ball and slid back over to the door, still being mindful of her toes. Opening the door a crack she tossed the fish ball outside to Gimmie. Mooey watched it go wistfully, but without any feeling of injustice.
Gaew slid over to Mooey and examined her breasts closely. “Pinch them,” she said. Mooey dutifully began abusing her nipples with her fingers. Noot slid over to watch. Jeep rose and moved to a cheap dressing table made of bent aluminum tubes and plastic, walking gingerly, her toes raised off the floor. She sat on the tiny stool and began examining her face in the mirror. Mooey continued massaging her nipples. She wouldn’t stop until she was told to.
“Nothing’s happening,” said Gaew.
“Gaw, she’s not doing it hard enough,” said Noot. She reached out and yanked on one of Mooey’s nipples. The girl squealed and the older women laughed.
“Cover them up,” said Gaew. “You’re right, the farang won’t like that. It thinks if nipples stand up that means it’s a good lover. You’ve got to make it think it’s a good lover if you want its money.”
From the dressing table Jeep said “Lizards.”
Gaew slid to a plastic basket of comic books and knick knacks and fished out a deck of playing cards. Noot slid over to join her, bringing a towel to spread on the floor. She said to Jeep, “Don’t be long, na? I still have to make up.” Jeep looked at Noot in the mirror, saw that Noot was not looking at her, and so she stuck out her tongue. Mooey busied herself gathering up the plate, bowl, sticks and napkins, but she saw Jeep stick out her tongue. Jeep saw that Mooey had caught her and she gave the girl a dark look.
Gaew finished shuffling the cards and started to deal. “Black Frog, Red Frog, na?” Noot nodded assent and began to gather her cards into her hand.
Mooey paused next to Jeep as she crossed to the bathroom with the plates. “Big Sister, kah, excuse me, na? You’re so successful, I hope you will teach me. How do you make the farang think it’s a good lover?”
Jeep gave the girl a warm smile. “You’re right, Little Sister Dear, I am successful. I’m the most successful girl in Sea Bees bar. The farang love Jeep, love much. Gaw, a silly little country girl like you, just come out from behind the mountain, can learn a lot from a successful girl like Jeep.”
Noot looked at Gaew with a scowl, but Gaew kept her head down over the cards. This was her home, and Gaew would not start a fight in her own home.
Noot spoke to Jeep without looking at her. “Gaw, I think Big Sister Gaew is the most successful girl in the bar. She has her farang who sends her money from America every month. She has its money and she can work too, if she has the mood.”
Jeep turned half way around on her stool and bowed her head in the direction of her hostess. “Of course, Big Sister Gaew is certainly successful.”
Gaew smiled thanks at Jeep and cut the cards. “Mooey, listen, na? Noot has two beautiful children back in Nakhon Nayokh. They go to school and they have food to eat and toys to play with and when they’re sick they see a doctor. She’s the most successful girl in Sea Bees bar.”
Mooey blurted out without thinking, “But you have children too, Big Sister Gaew!”
For a moment nobody spoke. Jeep suddenly needed to search for something in the apothecary of debris on the vanity table. Noot rearranged her cards. Gaew stared at Mooey. “Noot’s children recognize her when they see her,” she said. “They call her Mother Dear. When she is old she can live with them. That’s success.”
Mooey was frozen with shame and fear. She knew she’d said the wrong thing bringing up Elder Sister Gaew’s children, but she didn’t know what to say to fix things. Jeep saved her. She smiled at Mooey in the mirror and said, “Don’t worry, no man will ever put any babies in your hard little coconut body, Mooey. You’ll always be a maid.” And then she laughed. Noot and Gaew smiled at her too and joined in the laughter, and finally so did Mooey, in ecstatic relief. Everybody in the room knew that Mooey’s was the only laughter that was genuine, but it did not matter as long as everybody was laughing. Jeep said, “Go wash those plates, Mooey. When you finish I’ll let you brush my hair for me and I’ll tell you a few things about farang.”
Mooey scampered off eagerly. Jeep lit a cigarette and looked around the room for an ash tray. Gaew said, “In the drawer.” Only one object in the room had a drawer, the cheap aluminum and plastic stand under the TV. Jeep judged her toes dry enough for normal walking and fetched the ash tray back to the vanity table. Noot and Gaew threw a few cards down on the towel. Gaew leaned over to let Gimmie back in the room. The puppy ran around furiously looking for the missing fish balls. He made a circuit of the relatively bare room and then began his search again, in all the same places. Noot laid all her cards out and called a number. She made a note on a piece of paper. Gaew swore, gathered the cards and began to shuffle. Noot looked over her shoulder at Jeep, who was smoking and studying her own face in the mirror. “Ay ya, Little Sister! I still need to make up! Hurry, na?”
Jeep didn’t like it when Noot pulled rank by pointing out their relative ages, but she never took her eyes off their own reflections. “Mooey still has to brush my hair.” Noot took the cards from Gaew, dealt and arranged her hand. She remembered something, and said over her shoulder, “Jeep uuhy! Why do you think you’re the most successful girl in the bar?”
“Gaw, what other girl has gold like this?” Noot laughed and held out her arms, rattling the gold bracelets on her wrists. “What other girl owns her own motorcycle?”
Noot tensed. She was about to say something ugly, when Gaew said, “Other girls have babies to feed, Jeep.” She would not start a fight in her home, but she sure as hell would end one.
Jeep turned back to the mirror and watched herself smoke her cigarette. Noot smiled at Gaew and threw down a card. Mooey came back from the bathroom, wiping her hands on a dish towel. She hung the wet towel on the plastic cord that ran along the plywood wall that separated the social room from the bedroom. She approached Jeep, shoulders hunched, head lowered. Jeep handed her a brush and Mooey straightened. She began to brush Jeep’s hair with long, careful strokes, stopping when she got to a knot to work the hair loose with her fingers.
“Elder Sister Jeep,” she said, “you were going to teach me about farang, kah.”
“Fuck mother,” said Jeep. “Eeee, it’s a lizard! You don’t need to come give me bother, na?”
Neither Gaew nor Noot looked up from their game. They were used to Jeep’s foul tongue and bad temper. But Gaew heard Mooey gasp, and so she said, “You promised, Little Sister Jeep.”
Jeep stubbed out her cigarette and placed the ash tray on the floor, so gently that the glass made no sound when it touched the cement.
“Sure. I’ll tell you everything you need to know, na kah?. Just be careful with my hair, si!. If you break a single strand I’ll break your head.” Mooey bit her lower lip and concentrated on Jeep’s damp hair. It was very long; when she stood it hung to her waist, and brushing it was a project.
“Gaw… What to tell a stupid country girl about farang? Hmmmm… Here, listen good, na? Laugh at everything it says.”
Mooey stopped brushing. “Kah! I will laugh at everything it says. What else?”
“That’s all you need to know! Eeeeeee, it’s a lizard! Just do that and you’ll have gold falling out of your asshole in a month. Now brush! Fuck mother!”
Gimmie had given up his search for more fish balls and came to investigate the card game. He charged onto the towel and scattered the cards. Gaew laughed with glee and picked him up in a hug. “Ay ya! What are you doing, Gimmie Dear! You make your Mommy angry, do you know?” She plopped him onto his back and began to tickle his soft, fat belly. Gimmie squirmed in ecstasy. He playfully snapped at his mistress’ fingers and caught her a nip. Gaew shouted and pushed the dog hard. He slid on the towel across the slick concrete floor and struck the cinderblock wall. Cards scattered everywhere. The puppy yelped and dashed to the bedroom.
Gaew sucked her finger. Noot sighed and began to gather up the cards. “I don’t know why you keep getting dogs,” she said. “You pay good money to feed them for a couple of months and then they always die under a truck in the road.” Gaew looked at her finger and noted a lack of bleeding. “I don’t like to be alone,” she said. Noot gave her friend a soft look. “Nobody does, Elder Sister.”
Mooey was still brushing Jeep’s hair. Gaew said to her, “You want to know the truth about farang, na? Don’t go with it if it’s too drunk. You want one who is just drunk enough. If it’s sober you can’t control it. Too drunk and you can’t control it. You want it just drunk enough.”
Gaew and Jeep made noises of agreement. Gaew said, “Oh, listen here, na? Don’t worry, you’ll get used to the smell.”
Both Noot and Jeep in unison: “What? How long does that take?” More laughter.
Gaew: “Maybe a month. Longer for some.”
Noot: “Really? I’ve never been with one a month, but I can tell you that a week is not long enough to get used to the smell.”
Jeep: “It’s better to only go short time. More money that way, fewer problems.”
Gaew: “Let it win at snooker, si! Unless you’ve made a bet.”
Noot: “Never tell it that it’s wrong. About anything.”
Gaew: “Never tell it that you have kids.”
Jeep: “Never tell it that you have herpes.”
Convulsive laughter. Jeep was shaking so hard Mooey was afraid to come near her head with the brush.
Noot said, “Mooey, here’s something else. Tell it that its cock is the biggest you’ve ever seen, si!”
More happy laughter. Mooey looked confused. Jeep said, “Yes, a stupid country girl like you could get away with that. It would never believe that coming from me.” More laughter. Jeep noticed a tube of moisturizer on Gaew’s vanity table. She opened it and sniffed. She made a face and put the tube back down. Gaew noticed the gesture but was not offended.
“But, Elder Sister Jeep, the Buddha says we mustn’t lie.”
Noot snorted. “The Buddha never had to work with farang. And they all lie. You can’t trust any of them. They all have black hearts.”
“But Elder Sister, we must lie too?”
Noot said, “We lie to them, sure, but that’s only work. When you start to work you will tell a lot of farang you love them, na? You won’t mean it, of course, but you won’t be lying, either. Like an actress on TV. Just work.”
They were all surprised when Jeep said, in a soft, unfamiliar voice, “Some day one of them will tell you that he loves you. I’ll tell you now: don’t believe him. They don’t feel love, not like we feel love. They only think with their cocks, and that’s not love. But some day a farang will tell you that he loves you, and even though I’m warning you now, you will believe him. And then he will hurt you. They always hurt you, na? That’s what they pay for, you know? Not the sex. They pay to hurt you. It’s like a competition, who can hurt you the most. The one who tells you that he loves you, if you believe him, he wins. Because if you believe him, then you love him back. I don’t mean you tell him that you love him, because that’s just work, na? I mean if you believe he loves you, really loves you, then you’ll love him back. Love true true. And that’s when he’s hurt you more than anybody else could ever hurt you. And when he is done hurting you the lizard will leave.”
Jeep was looking at herself again in the mirror. “And then you have to go back to the bar and be nice to farang, every single day. Every single night. You know how they will hurt you, but you have to be nice to them and do what they want you to do and smile while you’re doing it. And what they want you to do is cry. So you have to cry and smile, cry and smile.”
Gimmie poked his nose out of the bedroom and sniffed the air for phantom fish balls. Noot rose to her feet, tightened her sarong around her breasts, and took the brush from Mooey. “I’ll do this, Mooey. You go iron my blue top. I want to wear it to the bar tonight.”
Jeep smiled at her friend in the mirror. “Your lucky top, na? What? You think you’ll get lucky tonight?”
“I beat Elder Sister Gaew at cards three hands in a row. I think I’ll be lucky tonight. And why not? I’ll be with my best friend, the most successful girl in Sea Bees bar. Who has gold like this?” She reached down and touched Jeep’s arm. Then she began to brush her long, glossy hair.
Mooey headed for the bedroom, and Gimmie ventured out. He crept up to Gaew, who absentmindedly began to pet him. “Mooey!” She lifted Gimmie and nuzzled him under her chin. “Get out my sequined tube top. I feel lucky tonight as well, I used up all my bad luck at cards. And take out that lilac dress, the one Little Sister Nim gave me. You can wear that tonight. I think you will look cute in that.”
Mooey came back into the room. “Elder Sister, kah? You will take me to the bar tonight?”
Jeep answered for Gaew, and she spoke in her old voice. “Eeeee, fuck mother! Only if you hurry up with the ironing, you stupid country girl. First we’ll go by the shrine on Soi Firefly and make an offering. You can pray for nipples, Little Sister. Who knows? Maybe tonight we’ll all get lucky.”