This essay was originally published in The Nation in 1993. I submit this to StickmanBangkok now because I think that it speaks to the ongoing thread about “when to leave Thailand.” And I want to point out that this is not a particularly new idea.
I woke up on the couch this morning. I’m sleeping on the couch because my wife Mem is in another of her moods.
The couch is upholstered in vinyl so now I’m upholstered in heat rash. I went into the bathroom and splashed myself with tepid water out of the big urn. I scrubbed all over with Asepso soap, the stinging, stinking stuff that doctors scrub up with before surgery, supposedly good for tropical skin infections. I dried off with a towel stolen from a Patong Beach hotel, holding my nose against the mildew smell.
I smeared antibacterial cream in some highly sensitive areas, applied Betadine to the motorcycle muffler burn on my right calf, and powdered myself liberally with Desenex. Lastly, I rolled on a thick layer of Ban for Men, because to offend by scent in this culture is a mortal sin. I dressed in a pair of briefs that were way too small, because finding underwear in my size on Phuket is impossible, and tried unsuccessfully to arrange my various creamed and powdered parts comfortably. I put on shorts and a T-shirt and had breakfast: curried fish and rice. I’ve taught Mem how to make French toast and pancakes, but when she’s in one of her moods she hides the maple syrup and brings out the shrimp paste.
I fought the cat into a flight bag and took him to the vet; he got mange last week from the neighbor’s gibbon. On the way there the rain poured down and I had to sit in the frigid air conditioning of the doctor’s waiting room feeling my lungs fill up with fluid while my clothes froze solid.
On the way home the sun came back out in all its tropical strength and I arrived at our compound with forearms, nose and cheekbones burned pink and tingling. The cat, who was understandably angry about having to wear a wide collar that made him look like Elizabeth I, gave me a nice long scratch down one biceps when I let him out of the bag, and Mem gave me hell for not remembering to pick up bleach on the way home. I don’t know why she needed bleach, maybe for another curried fish recipe.
I showered again, and repeated my cream-salve-powder-deodorant regimen, which leaves me smelling like a stick-on air-freshener in an operating theater, and dressed for work. With the necktie cutting off the blood to my brain, I drove to work and spent a few hours kissing the boss’ butt and trying not to cause anybody to lose any face. Lunch was a plate of greasy noodles eaten in the smog of a roadside stand where I was charged 5 baht more for the same food than the Thai guy at the next table.
I spent the afternoon trying to call Bangkok from the office, a bigger drama than Othello. My secretary was out sick with menstrual cramps, something that happens to her every five or six days, and the fax machine was down due to a power surge, something that happens like clockwork every 28 days.
At three o’clock the air conditioner died, and by five I was dripping wet with perspiration, all my Ban for Men having run down to form two puddles in my shoes. The Thais in the office were all bone dry and asleep at their desks. I drove home and was almost forced off the road by some sailors in a rented jeep, probably not used to driving on the left side of the road. At home I bathed again, powdered and salved again. Mem gave me left-over curried fish for dinner and I watched the news on Channel 7, understanding all of nine words in an hour.
Mem made me put mange medication on the cat, which earned me some fresh scratches across the knuckles of my left hand, and I thought of trying the stuff on the rash between my toes. About nine o’clock I went down to my friend Pan’s bar, and got there in time for us both to ignore the fact that I’d walked in on him pouring tap water into a bottle of Johnny Walker Black Label. I had two beers and two conversations. The beers were room temperature, but the conversations were heated.
One was with Barry, another expat who says I owe him money. The other was with a tourist, who heard me speak a little Thai and immediately assumed I wouldn’t mind answering all his stupid questions about this country. Finally, inevitably, he begged me to take him someplace that had “nice girls.” By this he meant young, pretty girls with sweet, innocent natures, who nonetheless would have sex with a stranger for money.
“Like schoolgirls earning their tuition, I’ve heard that happens here,” he said. I told him to get lost, out of Pan’s bar, off my island, and out of the Kingdom. He took offense and challenged me to a fight, claiming knowledge of some form of martial arts so deadly that even Bruce Lee was afraid of it. I beat a hasty and undignified retreat, and spent five minutes trying to kick over my motorbike’s rain-soaked engine while Barry and the tourist sat in Pan’s big front window and laughed at me.
At home I found the bedroom door locked, my pajamas laid out on the sofa, and my cat laid out on the pajamas. Mange medicine was smeared all over sofa and sleepwear. I performed my day’s last bathing ritual and went to bed on the couch, vowing for the hundredth time to buy a mosquito net for the living room.
Just before drowsing off, I remembered a news story I saw on TV back in the World some years ago.
It was about this European guy, in his mid-20’s, who got arrested for murder on the Marquesas Islands. The guy had a history of mental illness, and his family had promised him a liberal allowance if he would just stay the hell away from home. He had been backpacking around the South Seas and met a young lady of similar nationality, also a tourist, and they began to travel together. They made it to the Marquesas, and one night, in a tiny, dirty shack littered with drug paraphernalia, he had a violent episode and stabbed her seventeen times with a kitchen knife.
Now, the Marquesas had not seen a violent homicide in more than fifty years, but looking over the record books the local magistrates determined the punishment for this crime to be banishment to a deserted island, which the Marquesas have in plenty. They put this guy on a small bit of land in the wide ocean with a handful of tools and instructions to harvest coconuts, which a local fisherman would come periodically to trade for rice, clothing and medicine.
After about six months the European had become pretty good at harvesting coconuts, and the fisherman was bringing not only necessities but also books, liquor and cigarettes. Eventually the fisherman told the murderer that he had a daughter who was an old maid at twenty-two because she was abnormally tall for an islander (she stood about five-feet-ten-inches in her bare feet and breasts) and asked if the murderer would be interested in a wife.
The next supply run came with a bride and a priest. Ten years later, when the film crew came to interview him, this guy was living on an island whose reef was teeming with fish and shellfish. He had built a reservoir and a huge wooden house surrounded by a vegetable garden, taught his wife to play gin rummy and had two young sons.
His beaches were pure white and unspoiled by resort hotels, there were no tourists taking pictures or throwing trash around, there were no cops or tax collectors. He needed no visa or passport. Every six months a government nurse came to check on his family, and he was producing enough coconuts to have built up a tidy sum in the bank on the main island, overseen by his doting father-in-law.
And this is the part I couldn’t get out of my head last night: The interviewer asked the murderer if he ever had any more mental problems. The guy said, “No, never. I’m cured now.” He was asked, “If they said you could leave now, would you go?”
The murderer just laughed.
I thought of that guy as I lay sweating on my sofa. Phuket is chock full of expats who have come looking for Paradise and found only debt, dishonor and deceit. This guy commits a terrible crime and gets exiled to the Garden of Eden.
Maybe I’ll stab my cat. What have I got to lose?