When I’m feeling depressed I take out my old photo albums from Thailand. I was a handsome man when I was 30 years old, and I had a ton of money, in Reagan dollars, which was real money. My favorite old photo shows me on a motorcycle. It was taken by a friend in the back of a song-taew; I was following him to a new brothel he recommended and I was happy. In my exuberance I threw my hands in the air. I suppose I covered a hundred feet of road without touching the handlebars.
I have hundreds of old photos from that time, many of me in groups of men at bars. Today I cannot recall when most of those old group photos were taken, or the men in them. But I remember vividly the moment the motorcycle photo was taken. I still feel the thrill I felt then, flying down the road steering with my knees, on my way to a new brothel. I felt like a God.
The reason I like that photo so much is because it illustrates my relationship to risk at that time. I believe that’s the biggest difference between young men and old; young men do not recognize risk and old men do. That’s why old men send young men off to war and stay in the village with the young women. That’s why young men love Thailand and old men think it’s scary. In seven years in Thailand I took all kinds of risks I would not consider today. I think that’s what I miss most, not the food, not the women, not the weather or the scenery or the drugs. I miss the old Steve who took risks.
My first trip to Thailand as an adult came about by suggestion from a friend who had been there while in the Army. “The hookers there are unbelievable,” he said. “They meet you as you step off the plane, and in fifteen minutes they’ve got you in a hotel room and they’ve got your dick in their mouth.” At that time I was having sex, infrequently, with complicated women in the show business, relationships full of drama that always ended with bad feelings on both sides. I had been strongly attracted to Asian women ever since I had lived in Asia as a child. I was still a very young man with very clear priorities. Within twenty-four hours of hearing that description of Thailand I had booked a round-trip ticket, applied for a visa and cleared my schedule for the next three months.
In the week before I left I did not masturbate. I wanted to save my vigor and my precious bodily fluids. It was like skipping breakfast the morning before a big free lunch. I fantasized obsessively about what it would be like. I was in a state of constant unreleased sexual tension. The flight to Bangkok took almost a day, and I was erect for the whole trip.
The plane was late into Don Meuang and I missed my connection to Phuket. I thought I could spend the night in the airport, as I had done in other airports. I had a late meal in a coffee shop and at the table next to me were four Thai men, taxi drivers just finished with their shifts, drinking whisky and playing “Tay Me Ho, Cunty Loads” over and over and over on a guitar. They engaged me in conversation and when I told them my plan to sleep in the airport they laughed.
“You no sah-leep here, poleet catch you,” said one. “Airport finit at midnigh’. Better you come sah-leep my how.”
I thought this was an example of the famous Thai hospitality and I was quite moved by it. When they began to turn off the lights in the terminal my new friend took me outside to where his taxi was parked.
We drove and drove and drove. The streets became increasingly narrow. There were fewer and fewer street lights. There was a bad smell in the air. We finally stopped on a street with no lights at all, a street only about fifteen feet wide. My host ushered me into his house. It was a clapboard shack built on stilts over a stagnant canal. Inside was a sparsely decorated living room with a shelf of Buddha images, a shelf of royal portraits, and a lot of movie star posters on the walls. Three doors led off the living room.
One door opened and an old woman came out in her nightdress. I didn’t speak a single word of Thai at that time but I knew exactly what was said.
“Who the fuck is this?”
“He’s my friend. He’s staying the night.”
“The hell he is. Get him out of here.”
“I’m a grown man and I can have guests if I want!”
“If you’re a grown man get your own place. He’s not staying here.”
“I hate you!”
“Fuck it. Do what you want. You’re just like your father.”
His mother gave me a saint’s smile and went back into her bedroom. My friend took me through one of the other doors and tried to find space in the cramped room to put my bag. There was a bed about five feet wide and apparently we were going to share this. He took me back through the living room to the third door, which led out to a platform built over the canal. There was a clay oven and some pots and pans out there. He used a plastic bucket on a rope to bring water up and filled a shallow pan. We both bathed our faces and hands and I was glad that there was not enough light to see what was in the water.
We returned to the bedroom. He took off his clothes and laid down in his underwear. He was asleep almost immediately. He’d drunk a lot of whisky at the airport. I had had none, and my body thought it was two in the afternoon. I laid down next to him fully clothed. I had three thousand dollars in traveler’s checks, a thousand dollars cash, my credit cards and passport in a money belt. I did not sleep all night. At some point I got up to pee, and realized there was no bathroom. I went out on the kitchen balcony and pissed in the canal.
In the morning I woke him at dawn and asked to be taken to the airport. He was cranky and hung over. We went outside and his taxi was gone. He explained that the vehicle was shared by three men, each taking an 8-hour shift, and he would not have the car again until that afternoon. We walked through the awakening slum, taking turns carrying my big canvas bag. We finally reached a major road with a motorcycle taxi stand. There were two drivers waiting for fares. A big argument ensued. My friend wanted to engage both drivers, one to take him and one to take me and my bag. He said he wanted to go with me to make sure I made it to the airport safely. For some reason I could not understand the two guys did not want the job. But he convinced them and we started off.
We rode and rode and rode. We went on busy expressways with giant trucks running alongside us; we encountered morning traffic congestion and wove our way between mile after mile of stationary vehicles. We got to Don Muang but instead of entering the front of the place we went all the way around to the back, drove through a checkpoint where we had to duck under a barricade and zoom past a shouting security guard, and then drive down the margin of a runway under the wings of taxiing aircraft. We got to within a hundred yards of the terminal and we stopped. By now I knew that something was very wrong, but I wasn’t sure what it was.
We all four dismounted. The two other drivers immediately moved around until they were behind me. My friend dropped my bag at my feet. He had not smiled since we got off the bikes. He held out his hand.
“One hundred dollar,” he said.
“Why so much?” I asked.
He grabbed my bag and threw it behind him. He stepped right up to my face. “One hundred dollar.” His breath stunk like death. Neither of us had brushed our teeth, or even had so much as a drink of water, since getting out of bed.
He didn’t show me any weapon, but I felt movement behind me and knew the other two guys had come close as well. We were out in the middle of a field a couple of miles wide. There were probably a thousand people who could see us through windows if they looked in our direction, people in planes, in the terminal, in the tower. But I was absolutely on my own with these guys.
I opened my shirt and dug into my money belt. I handed over a crisp hundred dollar bill, expecting that once they had seen where my stash was they would take that, too.
As soon as my money was in his hand my new friend was all smiles again. He stepped back and gently replaced my bag at my feet. His two cronies stepped into my line of sight again and, as if they had rehearsed it, they all bowed to me at once.
“T’ang you berry muss!” they all shouted. “Welcome to Thailand!” Then they got on their motorcycles and roared off, leaving me out in the middle of the airfield. I picked up my bag and hoofed it to the terminal, where I asked directions of a very surprised baggage handler who walked me to a back door that led up into a departure gate. I had to go backwards through a couple of security desks to get to a desk where I could check in, then come back to my gate through the same security desks. I finally arrived in Phuket at about four o’clock in the afternoon and checked into the Patong Merlin Hotel on Patong Beach. I had been awake for at least twenty-four hours and I fell asleep in the clothes I’d flown in.
I woke up at about two in the morning, my body still on New York time. I got up and took the longest, hottest shower of my life, and then decided I needed a shave. I was still wired from anxiety and adrenaline, and at the same time loggy from leg lag; my hands were shaking and I gave myself a pretty deep cut on my chin. I stuck a piece of toilet paper on it and went out for a walk on the beach.
By this time it was perhaps 3:00 a.m. Most of the bars were closed, but a few were open and there was soft music coming down to the beach. The stars were unbelievably bright and there was about half a moon. I took off my shoes and waded in the absolutely still, blood-warm water of the Andaman Sea. I had not sloshed more than fifty paces when a woman glided up next to me from out of nowhere.
I don’t remember how she was dressed, because she chose a very dark stretch of beach on which to join me. She was much shorter than me and she kept hugging me and putting her face into my chest so I didn’t get a very good look at her. She asked me where I go, saxy man, and I asked her name. She told me it was “Fan,” and I told her that was a pretty name. It was years before I realized she had been teasing me, getting me to call her “girlfriend.” I don’t remember what else was said but in a few minutes I was stretched out in a canvas deck chair and Fan was kneeling on the sand between my knees.
Fan had mad skills. It might have turned out to be the best blow job of my life if it had lasted longer than thirty seconds, but after a week of celibacy and constant fantasizing my reaction was almost immediate and nearly fatal. My back arched until I was supported by the deck chair at only my shoulders and thighs, I bucked like an Arizona mustang. Fan buried her nose in my pubes, locked her arms around my hips, and held on for dear life. Her chin was still touching my balls when I was reduced to shivers and moans. She finally slid her head off its impalement, looked up at me, made a couple of exaggerated gulping noises and licked her lips. She opened her mouth wide in the moonlight to show me it was completely empty.
And in the moonlight I saw the face of a man, an ugly man, a man well into middle age. My spasms had knocked Fan’s wig askew and from this angle I could see his breasts were old-fashioned falsies, just domes of foam rubber in a padded bra. He grinned and said something about us being a couple now and I gave him waaaaaaay too much money and got the hell off the beach as fast as I could. I couldn’t face my empty hotel room so I sat by the dark and deserted swimming pool at the Holiday Inn and tried to internalize what had just happened. At dawn I decided to bury it in profound denial and check out the Inn’s breakfast buffet.
I had not eaten anything for almost thirty-six hours; I destroyed that buffet. I went back to my room and again I slept in my clothes, this time for twelve hours. By eight o’clock that evening I was rested and showered and powdered and ready to visit the famous bars of Patong Beach. I had been in Thailand already for two days, but I felt like I had just arrived. I strolled along the beach road looking at souvenirs and post cards, being careful to walk slowly and stay calm; I intended to take a long time finding just the right woman this time.
Apparently just the right woman was working in the first bar I entered. Her name was Laht and she was gorgeous.
I believe that all women are beautiful during sex. I’ve looked down into the faces of many women, their hair fanned out on the pillow, and said, “You’re the most beautiful woman in the world.” I was not lying, it was true every time I said it. But Laht had the type of beauty that photo editors put on the covers of magazines. Go to the convenience store this evening and look at the current issue of Maxim, that’s Laht on the cover.
During the next twenty-four hours we did not leave my hotel room, and neither one of us wore a stitch of clothing that whole time. We bounced off the bed and off the walls, we used every piece of furniture in the room for support, we enjoyed ourselves in the bathroom and on the balcony. In a manner of speaking, I destroyed that buffet. I enjoy, very much, a certain act of intimacy that leaves me deliriously happy but with an ache in the hinge of my jaw and the root of my tongue. It is probably because I’m very insecure, and I want a woman to enjoy herself so she’ll come back for more. I’ve spent a lot of time developing my technique and am proud of the compliments I’ve received. So during that long delicious day my face was in frequent contact with the fragrant flower at the crux of Laht’s torso.
Finally she said that a day had passed and she had to report in at the bar. I gave Laht waaaaaaaay too much money and she went to wherever “home” was to change her clothes. I took another long hot shower and we met again at her bar. During my shower I had remembered a couple of things I had not yet done with Laht and so I was anxious to pay her bar fine and get her back to my room, but after she poured me a drink she said, “I cannot go wiss you tonigh’.”
I was so new to the scene I thought I did something to offend her, or worse, had not given her enough pleasure in bed. I was really new to it all.
“Why not?” I whined.
“I sick,” she said. “Lady sick.” She demurely pointed at her crotch, looking around to make sure nobody else noticed the gesture. I assumed she meant she had started her period. She told me “You find ‘nozzer lady tonigh’. You come back my bar t’ree days, okay?”
I did as I was instructed, and of course at the end of three days I had become addicted to having a different new partner every day, so I never went back to Laht’s bar. It was a magical time for an introverted, self-conscious, insecure young man. But it was also an anxious time, because that cut on my chin I gave myself while shaving never healed. In fact, it grew larger. I went to a local doctor who told me I had infected the cut by riding a motorcycle on dusty roads; he recommended lots of sunlight and sea water baths. I spent a day on the beach and by the evening the sore was an open, weeping crevice in my face the size of a dime.
An Australian pathologist in a bar took one look and said, “Ya got yerself a real angry herpes simplex there, mate.” He sent me to a druggist across the street for some acyclovir, and told me to lock myself in my bungalow with some pot and a good book for a couple of days. “Whatevah ya do, mate, stay the hell out of the sun and wind and salt water. Those are all triggers.”
I read “The Power of One” by Bryce Courtenay and “Red Dragon” by Thomas Harris, stretched out in front of an oscillating fan on the cool cement floor of my bungalow, with a pack of Khrong Thips and a bong made of bamboo at my elbow. When I wasn’t reading or changing the bong water I was remembering Laht pointing at her crotch and saying, “I sick. Lady sick.”
For the next five years I had three or four outbreaks each year. I learned to avoid the triggers: sunlight, anxiety, fatigue, wind, cold. I grew a beard to keep my chin shaded and warm and to cover the lesions when they erupted. When I felt the tingle of an impending outbreak I would cancel appointments and call in sick to work. I would get some pot and some acyclovir and a couple of good novels, draw the shades, unplug the phone and wait out the storm.
Every time I entered a serious relationship with a woman I carefully chose a moment to warn her that I had genital herpes on my face. I thought it was the right thing to do. Most seemed to think that having it on the face was an advantage; you couldn’t ever be infectious without knowing it.
Eventually my virus matured and became less interested in procreation, as all organisms do. The outbreaks became less frequent and finally sputtered out completely. I haven’t had an outbreak in ten years, but a few years ago I rented the film adaptation of “Red Dragon” and half-way through my chin started to tingle.
I eventually lived in Thailand for seven years, even though within my first three days in the country a man made me a guest in his house and then robbed me, I paid for a kind of sex I never wanted, and the simple decision to shave resulted in an incurable disease.
I have always thought I would go back when I retired. But now I don’t think I will. Not because Thailand has become more dangerous. It has not. Thailand is no more dangerous today than it was then; it is no more dangerous now than El Paso or New York or Des Moines. Which is to say that today I would fall off that motorcycle as soon as I took my hands off the handlebars, whether I was in Thailand or El Paso or New York or Des Moines.
When I was 30 I probably would have survived the fall, as I survived the robbery on the runway and the blow job on the beach and the herpes on my chin. But today, any one of those things would probably kill me. I think I won’t go back because I just can’t take the risk.