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Goodbye, Farewell, auf Wiedersehen, Adieu




My friend Stretch and I were having a beer at The Strip yesterday. The go-go scene was not my scene back when I had a scene, and if I had a scene now it certainly would not be the go-go scene. But the go-go scene was what introduced me to Stretch, and when I found out he was finally leaving Bangkok I thought The Strip was as good a place as any to say our farewells.

I met Stretch through business; he was helpful in promoting my books, and even though it turned out that not even his connections could sell my claptrap we discovered a somewhat similar point of view on Life, the Universe and Everything. We have enjoyed a friendly correspondence for years.

I could not tell you what Stretch looks like. He wouldn’t want me to even if I could. He’s not physically memorable, not one of the characters in Bangkok who stands out because of his pumped pecs or lurid tattoos. He doesn’t look like a guy who floats through the veins and arteries of Bangkok like an antigen, as welcome and as comfortable in the brain of a university as he is in the colon of Soi Cowboy, but that’s what he is. I think he looks and sounds like a guy waiting for a bus on a street corner in Wellington. It is probably just that very bland anonymity and lack of drama that makes him welcome in, and comfortable in, any home, office or brothel in Krung Thep. That zen-solid center, that granite core of non-pretension, of level-headed honesty, so rare in the City of Ego, is certainly one of the things makes me appreciate his company.

Around us the girls and boys cavorted in the neon playground of arrested adolescence that is The Strip. It’s not much different than any other chrome pole showroom in Bangkok, but it’s got a vibe that we both find pleasant, a relaxed and easy ambiance, especially in the late afternoon, before the serious punters show up.

Go-go dancers, coyotes and “hello” girls. There was a time when bar girls were just bar girls, but what’s in a name? Everybody needs money and everybody needs sex, and if you’ve got one she’s got the other and the stars are aligned in your favor. But as we sat there yesterday the bar was nearly empty except for the girls and me and Stretch, and neither he nor I were going to give away any money so the girls were not going to give away any honey. For the moment we were all just friends enjoying the air conditioning on a hot Bangkok prevening.

But that didn’t stop the girls from judging me and Stretch, and as we slouched on our stools and nursed our drinks (and I chain smoked in one of the last places I can do that in air-con and Stretch glared at me like my mother because he does not approve) we knew the women were scoping our clothes, our watches, our phones and our Thai language fluency and estimating how difficult it would be to shake the peaches out of our trees. In the bars there’s short time and long time, but then there’s two-week visitor visas and non-immigrant permanent residence visas.

A resident expat can be a big catch for a bar girl, but we’re hard to catch. We swim fast and deep, and we’ve seen every plastic lure and fish-gut bait there is. A girl scores brownie points with her family and neighbors if she brings home a polite, successful expat for Songkhran, but she knows before she throws out her line that he’s probably already got a wife and a Thai boss who would both roast his pale white ass if he was ever seen in public with a bar girl.

A long term expat who does not have a wife and steady job is almost always shifty, sneaky and scary. They’re worse for a bar girl than a tourist with handcuffs in his carry-on bag.

As the women of The Strip judged me and Stretch we judged them. That’s what men and women do to each other whether it’s in a knocking shop or a nunnery. Stretch and I reminisced lazily about the guys who’ve come and gone during our period of Bangkok history, about floods and riots, about the prices that have gone up and the prices that have gone down. But as we talked we did not look at each other, we were looking at the milling, jostling, dancing, jiggling, wiggling, willing and wonderful mass of soft, warm, brown feminine flesh around us. We’re expats, but we ain’t dead, and even though they all knew that Stretch and I are less likely to buy them a lady drink than the Dalai Lama would be, it was early and the place was not very busy yet, so they all managed to drift over to say Hi.

Dao is tiny and slim and looks more Italian than Thai. She is popular, though if I wanted to screw a woman dressed like Annie Oakley and sporting a dream catcher tattoo on her belly I’d go to one of the Indian casinos on the Navajo reservation outside Gallup, New Mexico. I came to Thailand, back when dinosaurs roamed the earth, to find comfort in the arms of an Asian siren, not a faux Dixie Chick. But like most of the other girls in The Strip Dao is bubbly and her enthusiasm is infectious, and I did not mind her soft grip on my bicep and her come hither smile as she wiggled past us in her Daisy Dukes and snake skin boots.

Ji is tall enough to play basketball in the WNBA, a testament to the massive increase in available protein in the Thai diet that has occurred over the past 30 years. Look at the family portrait hanging on the wall of any hut in Udon and note the difference in size between this generation and the ones that came before it, and if you like tall girls you can thank UHT milk and McDonald’s for that. What gives Ji her opalescent skin has more to do with three centuries of Chinese men coming to Thailand without their women and marrying local girls instead. Ji’s nose and cheekbones are Isaan, but her skin and eyes are as Cantonese as hundred-year-old eggs.

If Ji owes her height to the switch in Thai culinary protein from insects and amphibians to yoghurt and Big Macs, certainly Ann has that sea change to thank for her big boobs. Her face reminds me of a stern librarian, but she’s as feisty as the other girls at The Strip and she loves to throw those fun bags in your face, and who can argue with that?

Kwan’s boobs may be bigger than Ann’s, and she’s got a slender athletic build that shows them off to great advantage, but Kwan has spent too much time under the tattoo needle and looks like a half-finished comic book. I’m old, I’ll cop to that, and in my mind tattoos still mean sailors and bikers, so as enthusiastic and friendly as Kwan is her sketchy dermis turns me off.

Stretch took a sip of his beer (Stretch got his name because he can stretch a single beer out over an entire night) and said to me in his Kiwi twang, “What is it with the schoolgirl look? Small, slim and young-looking is a favourite look for many older guys (when Kiwis speak you can hear the “ou” where an “o” should be) and that’s kind of creepy. What is it with old dudes who like small girls who look young? Why would anybody want to be with someone young enough to be their granddaughter?”

It was a long speech for Stretch, who usually lets a photograph be a thousand words. I supposed that since he had put that much effort into the comment he expected a reply.

“Well, Stretch,” I said, “I hope you realize that when you say “small girls who look young” you are just listing two synonyms for “Asian women.” Last year they arrested the Prime Minister in this country, and she looked about sixteen.”

Stretch took another meditative sip of his eternal beer. “Yeah,” he said, “but you know I’m talking about the bar scene. I’ve never been able to get my head around this thing some older guys have for small-framed girls who look young. Is it a manipulation and control thing? Are they latent paedophiles?”

“Well,” I answered, “listen, Stretch, I’ve worked in two different psychiatric hospitals, and I also spent the most important five months of my life spooning a girl who could have fit into the palm of my hand.”

As I spoke, a woman who might have entered the bar by walking upright under the door with room over her head slid past me and let her hand languidly slide across my lap. She climbed up onto the catwalk and began to grind sinuously against another woman whose body was composed of only three hydrogen atoms and a G-string.

“In medical terms, attraction to a late-adolescent partner, as opposed to a child, is called ephebophilia, and it’s not listed as a pathology in the DSM-V, because far from being unnatural it is a textbook example of natural history. Women are most fertile from their late teens to their late 20’s, but through most of human history nobody lived past their 20’s, and of course male humans are programmed by evolution to plant their seed in the most fertile field available, so for 200,000 years men have been sniffing around the local girls as soon as they grew boobs. Old enough to bleed, old enough to breed was the age of consent from the Olduvai gorge until the 20th century. That’s why women hit puberty a couple of years earlier than men.”

Stretch wasn’t buying it. “Creepy,” he said. That’s a Kiwi polemic.

“Yeah,” I countered, “but we’ve only been out of the trees for 5,000 years. We still sleep through the night to avoid saber tooth tigers. For all those countless millions of generations, while men were hunting a fertile womb, women were hunting a successful hunter, and a successful hunter is an experienced hunter. A guy with some years on him knows how to kill a gazelle, a kid doesn’t. And think of this, five days out of every month human females are predator magnets, so even if they don’t have a baby on their hip they still can’t leave the village. When they’re in flux they smell like lunch to half the animals on the veldt. Nobody can live on the roots and berries that grow within shouting distance of the teepees. You need protein. You need meat, and even today, a young woman can trade her body to a mature man for meat. Or on this particular veldt, for tom yum goong.”

“You sound like you’re defending the sickos.”

“I’m not. I have a daughter who’s half Thai and she’ll always look younger than her American peers. I publically advocate for stricter gun control laws in one of the most heavily armed states in America, I’m a public and private pacifist, but if some perv came near her when she was a kid I would have killed him. Young and sweet is just what most of the women in this part of the world look like to guys from our parts of the world, Stretch. Hey, you ever look at that Stickman Web site?”

“Why would I? I live here, I don’t need some guy on the Web to tell me where the beer is cold.”

“Yeah, well I haven’t paid a woman for sex in 20 years and I read it every day. But listen, he’s got all these banner ads on his front page, right? And every banner ad features photos of Thai women’s faces. Some time take a look at those women. They all, and I mean ALL, even the lady boys, look like teenagers. Hell, there’s this one girl on there, in an ad for a dating Web site, and I swear she looks like she’s six years old. Her name’s Babaraccs, whatever the hell that means. Go take a look at her. You wanna see creepy? That photo is serial killer bait.”

Stretch was taking some money out of his pocket. Not much, but some. I knew he was about to leave The Strip, and Bangkok, and maybe my life, forever. And I’d wasted our last contact by lecturing the guy on human sexual biology. This is why there aren’t many guys who’ll sit down with me for a beer. I tried to make peace.

“I’m sorry, Stretch. It’s a compulsion. My Mom was a school teacher and I grew up with lectures at the dinner table. I don’t’ know how to have a real conversation. And, you know, you just sounded pretty judgemental there for a minute.”

“Look who’s talking.” The warm Kiwi voice had lost some warmth. “You used to make a living out of publically judging the people in this Kingdom, and you were particularly mean to the mongers. Hell, you’re still picking on the poor mongers, and you’re not even being paid to do it anymore.”

He was on his feet. He was tucking in his shirt. I’ve always imagined Stretch as the only white guy in Bangkok who walks around with his shirt tucked in. I knew I had this one last chance to tell him what I thought of him.

“Listen, Stretch, you’ve done something nobody else has ever done. You’ve conquered Bangkok, something that Burmese armies and Japanese armies and American armies couldn’t do. You’re up there in the elite of expat businessmen who not only navigated the murky klong water of the Thai Way but beat the system. You’ve spun gold from the tarry flax of the bars without getting your hands dirty. You are leaving with your honor intact, with what I must assume is at least a small stack of sheckels and without being stabbed or shot or getting herpes or hooked on drugs.”

He had paused, but I knew he was just a moment away from being a memory.

“Let me tell you a story before you go,” I said. “When I came back to Iowa from Thailand I had this job interview in a great company. I really wanted to work with these guys. And I nailed the interview. I’m glib, and I can be pretty entertaining on first impression. It takes knowing me a few days before you hate me. So I slam dunk this interview, and the boss all but promises me the job as he’s shaking my hand goodbye. Then an hour later he calls me, and with this snarly, dark voice he tells me they’ve decided to go with somebody else. He Googled me, Stretch. He found a bunch of old articles I’d written in The Nation and he did not like what he read. Then I got accepted into the famous Iowa Writer’s Workshop, but I’d been in Thailand for seven years and all I had to write about was Thailand. The faculty and other students treated me like shit, they ignored my writing. They acted like I wasn’t even in the room. I dropped out of the most famous writing program in America because I was embarrassed about my Thailand stories. The Kingdom has been a stone around my neck since the day I left, Stretch. But you’re getting out clean, you’re walking away from the table with no baggage except the chips in your pockets. You’ve got the granddaddy of all fresh starts in front of you. The world is your fucking oyster, and I’m jealous, but more than that, I’m in awe of you. I admire you like you couldn’t imagine.”

He didn’t reply, and the silence made me nervous.

“I wish you all the best, man. And I hope you’ll still write to me, because I can’t wait to see what you do next. I’m going to miss you Stretch.”

It was pretty dark in The Strip, and Stretch was in the doorway, the late afternoon Bangkok sunshine blasting in behind him. He was a black man-shaped silhouette with a brilliant golden aura like Robert Plant in the final bars of “Stairway to Heaven.” I had to squint, his face was an ebony void, but I thought I heard a smile in his voice when he said,

“I may miss you, too. I’ll let you know. But I sure as hell am not going to miss Bangkok.”

And then he was gone. He left behind nothing but an empty beer bottle on the bar and a bunch of girls who will forever be wistful when they think of the one that got away. I thought about taking that bottle with me. Stretch’s last beer, drunk in The Strip. I knew I could have sold it on E-Bay for a fortune. But I left it where it was, because that’s where it belonged. Stretch didn’t belong there any more, and he knew it, and he did the smart thing, the thing that so many Bangkok expats never do, the thing I didn’t do when I had the chance.

He got out while the getting was good. Smart man. Chok dee, khrap.