Cats and Kitties
Last night I was watching two Muay Thai guys pat and paw each other in the Wooley Gastropod Bar on Kata Beach, and at the same time I was trying hard not to listen to Anus Mooney on one side of me and Canadian Joe on the other. Normally I don’t pay much attention to Muay Thai, but last night I would have watched C-SPAN rather than listen to Anus and Joe.
I knew the two boxers, and they reminded me last night of two cats my Mom used to have, Duke and Olde Bob. Duke was 19 years old at that time, which is a bazillion in cat years. Mom had had his front claws removed when he was a kitten to save her sofa upholstery, and in his dotage his teeth hurt him so badly that he couldn’t even chew his Friskies Mixed Grill; he survived the last couple hundred cat years of his life by lapping up the gravy. He looked like a cat skeleton covered with the dirty floor mats out of a 1964 Dodge Dart. His bones hurt him so badly that he walked as though the floor was covered with broken glass.
Despite his name Olde Bob was barely out of diapers. Mom found him in the driveway one night when she came home from Yom Kippur services. He was about six weeks old, and obviously the runt of some doomed litter of strays born under the deserted trailer across the street. Bob had been born with only one eye, and no vocal cords so he would forever be silent. On that day an upper respiratory infection had sealed shut his remaining eye and plugged his nose with pus. He was blindly stumbling around the driveway with his mouth wide open, panting for air, trying to scream for his mother with his non-voice. It was just after dusk; if Mom hadn’t brought him inside he would have been coyote chow within the hour.
She named him Olde Bob after a one-eyed cat she saw carved in a niche in a thirteenth century monastery in Scotland. In those days the monks greased the pulleys in the bell towers with ox tallow, and rats, just as hungry as anybody else in the dark ages, would chew the ropes. So cats were crucial members of the religious orders in pre-Renaissance Europe. Apparently this cat, the original Olde Bob, was so good at his job that he once tried to take a rat away from an owl, and lost an eye in the battle. The monks were so impressed with his service to God that they immortalized him in stone, curled at the feet of a saint, a rat dangling from his jaws and one eye a gaping hole, and there he’s been for seven hundred years.
Mom paid the vet for antibiotics and gave the new Olde Bob some Friskees, so in the twilight of his life Duke, who was named after John Wayne because in his youth he led with his shoulders and took shit from nobody, was teased daily by a younger, stronger cat with all his teeth and claws. As an adolescent, Olde Bob wanted to go outside and chase birds, but Mom still worried about coyotes and Bob’s inability to see anything coming at him from the right. He was full of youthful feline vigor and frustrated by being an indoor cat; so Duke became the focus of all his attention.
Bob tormented Duke, but he never hurt him. He would pounce on the older cat but then immediately roll on his back and show his belly. He never extended his claws, and he never bit, he only nipped. Duke would howl and fight back with his soft, useless paws, and bite as hard as his aching teeth would let him, but he never ran and hid in the kitchen cupboards like he did when the doorbell rang. I suppose he knew Bob would never hurt him, and it was all in good fun. Senior citizens appreciate any attention at all from the young.
Like I said, I knew the two boxers who were listlessly pushing each other back and forth through the clouds of cigarette smoke floating over the makeshift ring at the Wooley Gastropod last night. The older man is a teacher at our local gym, the younger his best student. When they’re in the gym they never spar because the young man, if he was really training, would hurt the older one. But they’ll pretend to fight each other in bars to pick up pocket money from the tourists, and I suppose to most of the tourists in the WG last night it looked real enough.
I once saw a 10-year-old girl give a 9-year-old girl a cut over her eye that would leave a permanent scar and mar the younger girl’s face forever. Her father whipped her for losing the bout. When the kids fight in money bouts in Khon Kaen there’s no patty cake shit about it. But that’s not for tourists.
As dull as the bout was I watched because it took my attention away from Canadian Joe on my right and Anus Mooney on my left. Joe was telling a long, supernaturally dull story about dating a Thai woman in Canada. I only caught bits of it, but from what I could understand the story was about how Joe just can’t make it work with a woman, any woman, and he blames feminism for his lack of success. It’s a story that’s told nightly in a dozen languages in every bar in Thailand.
Anus Mooney was shouting over the recorded squawking of flute, cymbals and drums that provide ambient sound for Muay Thai in order to tell me about how the Kingdom was better now than it was the first time he came in 1982.
“Was Thailand better years ago than now?” he asked, rhetorically. Since I was not about to pick up the conversational gauntlet he answered himself. “I’d say it’s way better now!”
I hate imprecise language. I hate vague speech more than I hate herpes. So even though I knew I’d regret engaging him, I spoke.
“You don’t mean to say that Thailand is better now,” I said. “What you mean to say is, the very small collection of hotels, bars and beaches that you are familiar with, a Monopoly board of safe and boring farang ghettos that starts at Sukhumvit and ends at Samui, which have little or no relationship to the vast, intricate, and fascinating place that is Thailand, is way better now.”
Anus heard me, but he didn’t listen, because he came back with, “As for the ladies, I saw and photographed fat ones, skinny ones, ugly ones and stunning ones. Nothing has changed. The old timers who insist that the ladies were more beautiful then are deluded.”
I have a book of photos at home of myself and a young Thai woman I met in a bar in 1989. About a dozen photos, that’s all. She was then, and to my mind is still now, the most beautiful woman in the world. I lost my heart to her then and I’ve never gotten it back. Over the years I have lost the photographs of my high school and college graduations, I’ve lost a few teeth and my appendix and most of the diameter of my left anterior descending coronary artery, but I have never been without those few photos of me and Neung in the Sea Bees bar in 1989. If I have my way, I’ll be buried with them.
“Anus,” I said, “Since we’re being all shallow and judgemental, what did you look like in the 80’s? Cuz even though I can’t see you well in this light, I’m pretty sure you’re not much to look at now.”
In the ring the two boxers were dancing around like Astaire and Rogers, bobbing and weaving, taking little swipes at each other, pushing each other’s tummies with their feet like juvenile kangaroos. They hadn’t even broken a sweat.
Anus was telling me now about taking nudie photos of bar girls on the beach. His conversation actually included a LOT of references to taking photographs of bar girls. Some guys like that, I guess. Back in the day I used to hang around with a guy named Shrimp. He took photos of naked bar girls for a living, and I’m sure some of his old calendars and posters still hang in garages and basements in the West. He sold his photos to glossy men’s magazines and arranged special scenarios for fetishists, back before the internet gutted that market. He eventually gave it up to open a legit advertising agency in Bangkok, but I remember that when we knew each other he never bragged about the bar girl pin-ups. It was just his job for 25-plus years. Maybe a thousand naked bar girls, singly and in groups, on beaches, under waterfalls in the jungle, splayed out on beds in high-end hotels, sometimes in boots and funny hats but never anything in between, handling toys and props, girl-on-girl, girl-on-girl-on-girl, sister-on-sister, mother-on-daughter.
But when you went out drinking with Shrimp he talked about football and photography. I cannot remember him ever bragging about photographing bar girls, and I think when he finally left that line of work he was glad to be rid of it.
The two boxers were in their corners now, getting some water. The younger one was checking his phone. He gives traditional massage in a beach resort in the evenings and had probably called in sick to put on this little dog and pony show. There were maybe a dozen women working in the WG last night and none of them were watching the fight. The WG still draws girls from the Northeast and probably half of them had boxed as kids. Muay Thai provides the physical education curriculum in poor rural schools that cannot afford soccer balls. Nobody was paying these girls any money to watch a fake fight and the only reason a Thai woman goes to a bar is to make money.
I thought that if one of these women had been bragging about taking pictures of naked farang tourists on the beach, that might have been worth listening to. I haven’t bought a lady drink in 20 years, but I’d buy one to hear that story.
Canadian Joe was saying how white women were frustrating and hard to date. I reckon Joe himself is pretty hard to date, since he was in the Wooley Gastropod instead of curled up on his sofa with a woman at home watching the Maple Leafs beat the Oilers. I leaned away from him but that just put me closer to Anus Mooney.
He was telling me about how a woman wanted 500 baht to screw him in 1982 and he thought that was too expensive. He’s right; in 1982 on Phuket 500 baht would get you 24 hours and while you were recharging your battery she’d wash your dishes and iron your T-shirts for you. But it’s not 1982 anymore, something that nobody needs Anus to point out, and I thought that tonight 500 baht would not be enough to pay me to listen to Anus finish his story.
The two faux gladiators spent another three minutes tickling each other with their feet while the centuries-old train wreck of flute, cymbals and drums reminded me of Duke howling at Olde Bob, and then the boxers came down and circled the room with their hands out, looking for tips. Since we know each other the older guy and I didn’t make eye contact, me pretending I didn’t see him debase his art form for a few baht, him pretending he didn’t see me sitting among the farang kee gai.
Anus had a far-away look in his eyes. He wasn’t telling his story for my benefit, he was telling it to remind himself that he’d once had something that reminded him a little bit, if he closed one eye and squinted with the other, of an adventure. An adventure that he really couldn’t tell too many people at home about because it involved things that he should have been ashamed of.
“Back then,” he said wistfully, “ladies were offended if you produced a condom, and would protest, ‘me clean lady, you not need.’ Happy days.”
I wanted to point out to Anus that the thesis of his story had started out that things were “way better” in Thailand now than they were back then, but I was flummoxed by the idea that to this guy bar girl sex without a condom meant “happy days.”
On my other hand, Canadian Joe had a gleam in his eyes that said he was looking at the future, or at what he thought the future held for him. If he hadn’t been seated on a sticky bar stool he would have been bouncing up and down on the balls of his feet. He was Charlie and he thought he’d found a golden ticket to the chocolate factory.
“Regardless of the race,” he said, like he was answering Alex Trabek’s last question on Final Jeopardy, “I know the game and I can get laid.”
Jesus. That’s a young man’s idea of heaven, I suppose. Life seen through testosterone goggles. A big, beautiful planet out there where a young man can climb mountains, learn languages, meet mentors, have epiphanies, carve out an empire or even save the world, all things that women admire in a man and make them want to drag him off to bed. But at that age a young man wants things without earning them, and a young man thinks that sex is the achievement, when the fact is that real achievements are the things that earn us sex.
He’ll learn. Much too late, of course, but he’ll learn.
The boxing match was over, Joe and Anus had told their stories, and the man I came to the WG to meet had never shown up. Nothing left to do but pay my bar tab and ride my motorcycle over the mountain to home. There’s a cat waiting that will want to be fed.