Look for the Girl With the Sun in Her Eyes and She’s Gone
I rode my white horse Mescalito to the Wooly Gastropod yesterday, where a gecko engaged me in conversation.
The Wooly Gastropod is nothing but a horseshoe of cinderblocks topped with Formica, shaded by a tin roof and ringed by a dozen wobbly chrome and vinyl bar stools. Its only redeeming feature is its proximity to the beach. Yesterday that beach was packed with tourists and touts. Massage matrons, pineapple stick salesmen, parasail pilots. Chinese, Russians, Ozzies, mad dogs and Englishmen, walruses and carpenters, all cavorting on the sand under tangerine trees and marmalade skies.
It was hot as hell and the orange sunshine was brutal even through sunglasses. The surf was muttering something, something I was sure was important but I could not seem to understand. My beer had been served slightly chilled but soon warmed up. The gecko approached me skittishly on the bar, twitching around a puddle here, an ashtray there.
Without preamble he said, “Hey, Buddy, let me tell you about the two friends from Isaan I brought to Pattaya for two weeks of fun in the sun.”
“Wait,” I interrupted him, “you brought hookers TO Pattaya?”
“Just to make sure I’m getting this, you actually paid to transport two hookers FROM Isaan TO Pattaya?”
“Yeah. Why do you ask?”
“No reason, I guess. Go on.”
His black, pupil-less eyes blinked slowly. “I like to take bar girls out for meals, to what I think are classy restaurants,” said Gecko. “It makes me feel magnanimous. So I took these two scrubbers to Hemingway’s. The sad old farangs sitting at the next table with no dates were open-mouthed. Maybe they’d never seen Thai girls in Hemingway’s before?”
“Maybe it was your table manners they were staring at. Gecko, you know that paying prostitutes for sex is not really dating, right?”
He flicked his tail back and forth impatiently. He really wanted to tell his story. “My table manners are fine. I even cut up the food for the Sisters, showing them how to crack a lobster and which pieces to eat.”
“Wow. Any Thai who doesn’t know how to eat shellfish must have been raised waaaay behind the mountain. Or maybe they were just messing with you.”
He carried on with his story as if I hadn’t spoken. Gecko’s need for approval was cloying, but I still had half a lukewarm beer to finish so I couldn’t leave yet. And I was certain that vines had grown up out of the ground, chrome and vinyl vines, to wrap around my ankles.
Gecko climbed to the top of a Connect 4 frame to gain gravitas. “After a few drinks in different Western bars, the sisters found a real, live, Thai music venue,” he chirped.
“What?” Now my jaw was agape. “You found Thai music in Thailand? In Pattaya, of all places? Dude, you are blowing my mind!”
The gecko slithered back down to the bar, took a couple quick lizard licks at a suspicious puddle of something sticky, and said, “I felt so happy for my posse; they lit up when they played their local music.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I light up when I hear ‘Freebird,’ just like your doxies with their luk thoong. We all love the music we grew up with. It reminds us of a time when we had hope. When the world was a village and half the people in that world were family. When we could have a tender moment without some tourist making it about him.”
Now, I’m only a medical records editor, the most pedestrian and uninteresting thing in the world, and Gecko is a sentient lizard, something strange and wonderful. I have absolutely no idea why he would give a rat’s ass about my opinions, but apparently he cares a lot. When I didn’t praise him he got angry. His tiny green faced scrunched up. “Listen,” he said, “the sisters enjoyed themselves immensely. The look on their faces when I bought them cheap handbags was priceless.”
“Priceless? It’s price was whatever you paid for the handbag. By the way, have you ever done a kindness for anybody without fucking them first?”
There was steam coming out of Gecko’s invisible ears. “There were no victims here! No one forced to do anything they didn’t want to!”
“Really? You think those women were with you by choice? Depends on your definition of ‘choice’, I guess. For instance, I get paid to curate archived medical records all day, and at my age I’m damned glad to have the job and the health insurance that comes with it. Happy enough to drive an hour to get to work and an hour to get home. My employer might say, as you say of your employees, that I’m not being made to do anything I don’t want to do. But of course I am. I don’t want to do any of it. I don’t want to spend two hours a day on the interstate or lift the heavy boxes or breathe the 30-year-old viruses that float up off the crumbling paper all day.”
Somebody on the beach was plucking a sitar. I looked out at the water, the boats, the tourists and the touts. The cellophane flowers of yellow and green that grow so incredibly high.
“Gecko, I want to spend every day here on the beach in Thailand drinking beer, even if it has to be in the company of an imaginary gecko with extremely poor social skills. But I can’t. I have to pay my bills. Your hookers suffer the heavy lifting and viruses of their job because they have to pay their bills. Not because they’re grateful for your generous heart.”
Gecko is one of those guys who assumes friendship at the slightest acquaintance, but then if you don’t agree with absolutely everything he says he turns really, really nasty. I mean, super nasty. Like, looking up your mother’s street address on line nasty. We had reached that moment. He was grinding his little lizard teeth.
“Sure, there was a girl I lost 40 years ago,” he squeaked. “It hurt, but I don’t dwell on it or continually mope about it. I never wrote pity-pat letters to the world saying how I really missed her.”
“Oh. Are we talking about me now? What the hell is a ‘pity-pat letter?’”
“The point is I moved on, I took it like a man, like real men do.”
“Uh huh. You’re redundantly a man, Gecko. But you’re so lonely you have to pay women for sex, so don’t be so full of yourself. What makes you so happy is exactly what makes every other man happy, at least while it’s happening. You’re only doing what any lonely man would do if he had the money. There’s nothing wrong with it, but it’s nothing to boast about either. But if you’re talking about the things I post on Stick’s blog, you need to understand that most of the stories I write, this one excluded, are written in a genre called creative nonfiction. Nonfiction is playing the music of what really happened. That means that I have to write about my own life, and still make it as interesting as fiction. That’s the rule. Like there’s no better crime novel ever written than ‘In Cold Blood,’ but every word of it is true.”
His tail was switching back and forth so fast I thought it might break off.
“So I have to write about my own life, but my life is pretty limited and dull,” I said. “I suppose I could write about my job as a medical records clerk in a VA hospital. Harvey Pekar did that with ‘American Splendor.’ They made a movie out of it and he was a regular guest on Letterman for years. The only famous medical records clerk who’s ever been. But he was a better writer than me. I guess I could write about my relationship with my mother. I wouldn’t be the first Jew to cover that ground. Robert Bloch did okay with ‘Psycho.’ But again, he was a better writer than I am. And my Mom reads everything I publish or post, so I have to be careful.”
I took a sip of my warm beer. It was awful, but my mouth was dry. Really dry. I felt like I’d been talking a long time. The little sparkly things in my peripheral vision were distracting.
“I’m just a hobby writer, Gecko. After work I have dinner, watch the news, and then go sit down at the keyboard and build stories like other men build model ships in bottles. I’m not an artist, at best I’m a craftsman. So I need to use all the tools in the tool box to keep my readers’ attention. And while my life is dull now, there was a time, long ago, when I lived on a tropical island that was built specifically to provide Western men with an idealized version of their own masculinity, sort of an exclusively adult male Disneyland with testosterone vending machines and the most amazing rides in the world. In that place I met a girl with kaleidoscope eyes, fell in love with her, and lost her. The whole process took five months and ten days.”
There was a child laughing somewhere. I had these pleasurable little tingles running up and down my legs, and I was fascinated by the palm of my left hand.
“The theme of lost love is a very sharp writer’s tool,” I mumbled, “because like you said, we’ve all got a story about lost love, so we can all relate. Orpheus lost his Eurydice and went to hell to get her back, Menaulus lost Helen and went to war with Troy. In ‘Casablanca’ Humphrey Bogart loses Ingrid Bergman not once but twice. The old man in ‘Up,’ Tom Hanks in ‘Cast Away,’ Heathcliff in ‘Wuthering Heights.’ We read about another man’s lost love and we re-experience the bittersweet pain of our own. We experience a catharsis. Lost love is a theme that works. It just so happens that my story of lost love is true. I lost a woman and decades later it still hurts, like an amputee’s phantom limb.”
“But our lost loves, when remembered after decades of separation, become larger than life, Gecko. They throw enormous shadows. In my case, the woman I lost represents a whole kingdom I lost, like Edgar Allan Poe lost his kingdom by the sea when he lost his Annabel Lee. My lost love represents a paradise lost, a Thailand that used to exist but no longer does. My Eden, lost when I ate the apple of knowledge. That idea seems to resonate strongly with a few readers of Stick’s blog. So do the ideas of lost youth, missed opportunities, the roads not taken, the lives we might have lived… if only.
“It makes me feel a little bit better to write about my lost love, and apparently it makes a few of Stick’s readers feel a little better to read about it. Nobody else in the world would be interested, but on StickmanBangkok.com there is maybe a handful of guys who get some reward from investing ten minutes in something I wrote. But Gecko, if you know you’re not going to like my essays, believe me, you have my permission not to read them. I’m flattered that you show so much interest in my stories, but honestly, you don’t have to. Please stop Googling my mother’s street address.”
I finally finished my bathwater-warm beer. There was a liquid squish as my sweaty thighs left the vinyl bar stool. Six different joints went “pop!’ and each pop felt good. I was relieved to see that the vines around my ankles had disappeared. A newspaper taxi appeared on the shore, waiting to take me away.
I looked down at Gecko, who was stalking a fly around the rim of my empty glass.
“Kahlil Gibran said love knows not its own depth until the hour of separation,” I told him. “Joni Mitchell says you never know what you’ve got till it’s gone. Love doesn’t end just because the person you love leaves the room, Gecko. We all have object permanence of the heart.”
Gecko chewed his fly. Crunch. Crunch. Crunch. He slurped down the wings and asked me, “Is something wrong to be happy?”
I stared at him. I was fairly certain he was real. “Wow. ‘Is something wrong to be happy?’ Is English your first language, Gecko? Look, there’s nothing wrong with being happy. I’ve tried it and liked it. But don’t think that a woman who rents you her body is as happy about it as you are. They go to dinner with you only because if they did not you’d find another woman’s body to rent. They don’t go because they enjoy your company. So by all means spend your money however you want. Be as happy as you can be in this life. But don’t lie to yourself, and don’t lie to me, that you’re doing anything generous when you pay for sex. Acknowledge that it’s a purely selfish act.”
I smiled at Gecko. “Be honest about it, own it, and then enjoy it, by all means.” I reached out with a finger and patted his tiny green head, and then I tripped on down the road.