After two decades of obsessive introspection I’ve decided that I like it in the Kingdom because this is all I deserve. The disfigured beggars, the scabby dogs who chew on used condoms in the gutter, the pimps, the punters, the whores, and the 5-year-olds who sell roses to the punters (who think the whores care about roses) would all rather be someplace else. Everybody here, except the tourists, would rather be someplace else. I would rather be someplace else, but I have never felt at ease anyplace else. Truth be told, if I love anything at all, I love it here.
She’s still sleeping.
I have a busy day ahead of me, but never mind. It’s already past lunch time and I really need to be on my way, but never mind. I’ve been awake all night and out of bed since six, moving around quietly, trying to pack, trying to take care of all the tics I must indulge before I can force myself into any public conveyance. Never mind. She slumbers, she snores, she stretches lazily under the sheet each time she shifts position. Any other punter, any of the tourists or foreign service officers or predators who buy her out of the bar for a night would kick her adorable marketable ass out of the bed and out of the room. But I act like she’s an invalid relative and I’m in her will. This woman will sell her body for a night to anybody with thirty American dollars, and do whatever he wants without complaint, but her self-esteem is still healthier than mine and so she controls the situation this morning without even being conscious.
At home I wouldn’t mind. If she was one of the women I regularly bring home to my tidy two-story teak wood house by the beach, the local women who know me and who bring the tolerance they show other men’s sexual quirks to my compulsive need for order and consistency, if she was one of the local whores who I consider my best or only friends, I wouldn’t mind her sloth. I’d do whatever I needed to do in other rooms and let her linger in the bedroom as long as she liked. But in an unfamiliar hotel room, a damp, moldy room populated no doubt by its own species of virulent dust mites, a room in which I’ve spent a sleepless night lying next to her, listening to her breathe wetly through her mouth and trying to levitate myself an inch off what I’m sure is a mattress purchased second hand from a tuberculosis ward, here her somnolence makes the room a cell.
If it was a better hotel perhaps I wouldn’t mind quite so much, but the Nana Hotel sucks. I complain about almost everything and almost always without what others would consider valid reason, but in this case I know I am on solid ground. I write hotel reviews for a living, and on the job I stay for free in the finest accommodations the world’s hospitality industry can provide. But as I’m paid by the word, and not much per word at that, when I’m on my own nickel I must be as price-conscious as any other traveler. An acquaintance who is tired of hearing me bitch about the hotels that I can afford suggested the Nana Hotel and so I gave it a try on this trip.
Coming out of my extremely narrow comfort zone of upscale beach resorts and into the Great City is psychic shock enough without having to shower in water that looks just like the lukewarm Nescafe served in the dining room. But either my friend has lower standards than I do (which is unlikely since he, like the rest of the white, middle-class world, has a better job, better health, and a better disposition than I do) or else the place has gone radically downhill since he stayed here last. Either way, this morning, like every other morning I’ve ever spent in a mid-range Asian hotel, I debated whether it would be best to drink what came out of the shower nozzle and bathe in what the Room Service waiter brought me in a cracked china mug.
Since I have to take my morning medications with food, but I was not going to pay the extortionists in Room Service for anything more than a cup of Nescafe (or go down to the dining room and leave my elfin captor alone in my room with all my possessions) I began my day by eating the fat I had trimmed from my dinner steak the night before and which still rested on the plate which rested on the plastic tray which rested on the threadbare carpet outside my door, washed down with a four-dollar can of Japanese lemon grass essence from the honor bar. I cleared her clutter of eye shadow and personal lubricant from the bathroom counter next to the sink so I could lay out the pills in their correct order and in an absolutely straight line, above, not below, the least mildewed line of caulk between two rows of pink tile.
The pills always go in order of size, from largest to smallest: Omeprazole for my reflux, metopralol for my blood pressure, chlorthalid also for my blood pressure, baby aspirin for my heart, atenolol also for my heart, Terazosin for my prostate, acyclovir for my herpes, and a multivitamin because the pills must always be taken in even numbers, two at a time, in four gulps of water from an eight-ounce glass. As far as my life goes, this is a fairly un-involved process that takes little time or thought. It can take me an hour to eat a bag of M&M’s, because there are so many ways the candy can be counted and arranged. I’ve never told anybody what I must go through when I defecate, which I do three times each morning, at 7 o’clock, 7:20, and 8:15. I once spent three days fasting in a monastery in Cambodia and even with my colon empty and rinsed with water from a holy spring I had to leave meditation class three times each morning to squat without production in the outhouse.
I can feel the greasy fat churning around in a cauldron of bitter digestive acids, burning a hole through my stomach and puffing me up with gas. I’ve brushed my teeth and flossed and brushed again, eight strokes per tooth outside, eight strokes per tooth inside, exactly a half-inch of paste on the brush, but still I can taste the grease. Generally my health is terrible and it’s a wonder to me that I’m still above ground. Not just the usual complaints of a man of my age and race, the prostate problems and digestive problems and heart problems, and not just the venereal diseases common among men who spend a lot of time with prostitutes. I can’t drive at night any more because staring into a computer monitor for a lifetime has ruined my night vision. I have to ask them to leave the ice out of my drinks, which they manage to remember about half the time, because cold or heat hurts my teeth. I’ve got pains in my joints when it rains, which it does often in the tropics; I’ve got skin rashes that pop up when I wear certain fabrics. The skin around my fingernails dries up and splits and catches painfully on my sleeves when I dress. Sometimes my food sticks in my throat. It’s been years since I’ve been able to breathe through both nostrils at the same time; one of them is always plugged. My ears hurt when I swim and I get painfully inflamed taste buds on my tongue if I eat Kiwi fruit or pineapple. Grains and cheeses bind me up; apples and pears give me the runs. The list of things that can go wrong with my penis would be as long as the New York City telephone directory. But I take comfort in these ailments, because sometimes I honestly don’t know who I am. It’s my aches and pains and flaws that convince me I am who I need to be, maybe because my weaknesses are constant while my strengths are only fleeting at best.
She’s pretty gorgeous, I have to admit, splayed diagonally across the bed shrouded like a fallen nun in stained white linen. I’ve done everything I can do to prepare for my trip without making noise or turning on a light so I am sitting in a chair watching her sleep in the dim illumination thrown around the room by a single wedge of pure white sunlight that comes in through the split in the curtains and divides the room like a Ginzu knife slicing through black Jell-O. I’ve watched that thin blade of photons creep across the room from where it first appeared, at almost exactly six o’clock, jabbing like an accusing finger at the minibar crouching in the northwest corner of the room. The blade has crossed half the room while I fidgeted and sat and paced and stared at my reflection in the mirror. When I would pace across the beam my white shirt would explode with light, every three seconds somewhere near the middle of my orbit. I tried slowing my steps to stretch it out to four seconds and that did me some good, but I was afraid the pyrotchnical flashes of light bursting off my shirt would wake her.
I can’t wake her. She must awaken on her own, so I sat back down and didn’t pace any more.
Something in me respects her ability to control me by remaining asleep, to be passive-aggressive without ever lifting her brain activity above the REM-wave. I have an almost professional envy for that kind of emotional manipulation. That appeals to me more than her adolescent-appearing cone-shaped breasts or her wispy, almost invisible pubic hair. The sex almost doesn’t matter anymore; taking home whores is just another ritual I must observe lest something terrible happen to those I love. I can’t really name anybody I love any more, but even so I must keep them safe by touching every light switch when I come in a room and never riding in any train car but the first or last. If I sleep alone I know in my bones some outrageous disaster will befall the world. The metopralol I’ve taken for 10 years makes the mechanism of erection unreliable most of the time, and the Terazosin has decreased my sperm production to the point that often there’s nothing in the condom when I’m done, assuming I can finish at all. Adding Viagra or Cialis to my evening medications would produce an uneven number of pills, so instead I spend hours trying to bring to climax women who have focused for so long on reproducing what an orgasm sounds like that they’ve probably forgotten what one feels like. But there’s a challenge in this pursuit that intrigues me, and it takes the focus of attention off of me and my response, or lack of response. I’d be a rich man if I had a nickel for every hour I’ve spent using my tongue, fingers and various toys to stimulate a working girl’s G-spot and clitoris while she emoted like a howler monkey. Still, I consider it time well spent, the most satisfying time in days that otherwise don’t hold enough hours to perform all the little things I must do to ward off floods, famine and fire.
This one’s name is Mai, a monosyllable which, when pronounced with a long vowel in the low tone, means “new.” A single, brief sound that tells a story: It is a name commonly given to a couple’s second, or “new” baby. The woman who is currently holding me hostage in the Nana Hotel is not an exception to this custom; she is the second of seven children, as I found out last night during the empty time between sex and sleep. She does have one unique feature, at least in my experience: Her clitoris is invisible. Believe me, I’ve been nose-to-nose with her vagina and of course I mentally catalogued what I found, because making lists is one way I hold back the terror: Mons veneris, labia majora and minora, urethral meatus, marital introitus, perineum, anus. Each item was given the attention that is required to ensure that a meteor not hit Paris. However, at the apex of the labia, while I could find the hood and find the shaft, there was no visible exterior organ to stimulate. I’ve seen women whose clits were as long as a small dog’s penis, and I’ve seen women whose clits were tiny pink knobs no bigger than an immature pea, but Mai’s is simply not there. I assume it’s buried underneath her skin somewhere, since there was no visible evidence of trauma and she seemed to react quite loudly when I stimulated the spot where one normally expects to find a clitoris, but gosh, with a pro, what does that mean?
I did not ask Mai if she ever had a clit, and if so, where did it go? I guess that, like men with tiny penises, women with little or no visible clitoris would be sensitive about it and not welcome queries. My job is not to question a whore’s anatomy, but to procure it, praise it, palpitate it to climax, and finally, pay for it. Only by following this menu can I ensure that the things that hide in the dark stay in the dark.
In every way other than this one small and evolutionarily insignificant anomaly of reproductive anatomy Mai is emblematic of her race, gender and profession. She has a broad, flat nose and prominent cheek bones, upturned lidless eyes and raven black, glossy hair that she has for some reason I will never understand tinted red. When she smiles the corners of her mouth actually turn down instead of up, but she smiles with her eyes so there’s never any chance of mistaking her mood.
Buy her a Cola and she lights up like Macy’s at Christmas. Pay her bar fine and she bounces around like a red rubber ball. Don’t try to bargain her down on her asking price and she’ll giggle like a baby with an ice cream cone. Once she knows you won’t come on her face or stick your cock up her ass she’ll wash your socks. I heard a tourist in the bar last night bragging to a friend about the woman he’d paid for the night before. The guy had only one button closed on his shirt and his white skin glowed in the gaps like a neon hourglass. He had rings of dirt around the pockets of his ragged shorts and ancient flip-flops on his unwashed feet, this in a room full of women who bathe five times a day and choose their outfits with the care of an angler picking out his lures. He said “I talked her down to half of what she asked for, and back at the hotel she not only fixed me one drink, she played bartender all night long.”
Ha! These women like to rub a guy’s toothbrush on their asshole when they’re alone in the bathroom, if he tries to bargain. The ones who know me at home, who know that bargaining is not part of the necessary ritual and thus not something I do, will take out my trash and then scour my garden for weeds while they wait for the taxi to pick them up outside. It is rare, but not impossible, if I do my job right and one of them surprises herself by enjoying a genuine orgasm, for me to receive a slight discount in the morning, or even an extra day’s company at no added cost. But to receive from this hostile universe a blessing like that you have to know how things work in the world, and the Great City is nothing like Des Moines.
The girlie bars of the Great City in some ways no longer resemble the similar venues I discovered when I first came here twenty years ago. There is international TV on the sets hung over the bars now, international newspapers with today’s date scattered around, and internet cafes next door. Protesters still camp outside Parliament House but the protesters are drinking yoghurt smoothies instead of bottled water. “Hotel California,” “No Woman, No Cry,” and “Take Me Home Country Roads” still play endlessly on the stereos, but from an iPod now instead of a cassette tape. The games that used to litter the slimy bar counters, like Connect Four and dominoes, ice breakers for new couples who do not share a common language, are no longer in evidence and I don’t know where they’ve gone or why they’re no longer used. What hasn’t changed is the law of Karma. The Buddha still smiles serenely down from his perch on the sins of Men and the penalties for what we do are exactly what they were when I walked into my first Asian brothel, what they were at the beginning of Time, and what they’ll be after the sun burns itself out and we’re all dust.
The dominoes and checker boards used to be the way bar girls kept a punter on his stool until he got his courage up to pop the question, but I normally stay in the bar only long enough to pick out a girl and interrogate her about her medical history. A lot of the girls are bigger hypochondriacs than I am, understandable since they depend on physical beauty to feed their kids but work at a job with more hazards than underwater arc welding. Their vanity tables normally hold as many patent medicines and voodoo cures as they do cosmetics. Show an interest in her health and a bar girl will share her most intimate complaints with any stranger. Ask her about the scabs on her knee and the burn on her calf, and you’ll learn not only about the motorcycle accident but also about the dog that ran in front of her and the hair dresser who let her wait in the air conditioned shop for her sister to come pick her up and take her to the emergency room.
Even so, while I listen carefully to their health histories, and social histories and family histories, and even though I don’t accept so much as a dinner invitation in the Kingdom without dipping my body in latex, I never touch a whore with anything other than a finger tip until I’ve checked her all over for lesions and discharge. If you know how to do it, a bimanual pelvic exam can feel like foreplay, and medical doctors were able to examine a woman’s cervix for thousands of years before the invention of the speculum and halogen lamp. A whore doesn’t mind at all if you leave the bedside lamp lit and tip her pelvis up to it; a shy girl doesn’t last long in their business. If her cervix doesn’t look like a cherry Lifesaver I pay her, call her a taxi, and go hide in the bathroom until she’s gone. I’ll spend the rest of the night cleaning the room. I’ll sleep on the floor rather than on a mattress that’s touched the ass of a woman whose vagina smells like yeast.
She’s snoring again. The sword of light has swung across the floor another ten degrees. I’ve noticed she snores when she’s laying on her back but not her side; that means the obstruction is in the glottis and not the sinuses. She should see a good ENT man for that. The treatment is not expensive; it’s an outpatient procedure and at certain clinics she could pay for it with three blowjobs. But she probably would say her snoring is part of her karma and thus should not be messed with. They have a wonderful stoic acceptance of the pain in their lives, which is fascinating to me because I have no patience at all for the slightest disruption of my equilibrium. Their courage always makes me feel stronger, and better about my own life. This conversation is fairly routine, though not reliable enough to be a ritual:
“Why does Uncle take so many pills, with respect?”
“My health is not good, with affection.”
“I think too much.”
“Oh, really? About what?”
“Things. Stuff. Death.”
“Oh. Uncle should not think so much, with respect.”
“When you have problems, you have to think about problems.”
“Uncle has problems?”
“What kind of problems, with respect?”
“Well, things don’t often go the way I want them too.”
“Oh. Little Sister understands. Do you know? I left my children with my Mother’s Elder Sister when I came to the Great City, and a month later my children’s father found them, cut my Mother’s Elder Sister with a knife, and took my children across the border. I have not heard from my children in eleven years. Then a year after that I caught a venereal disease from a German man, German men are no good! The disease destroyed my ovaries and I can’t have any more children. But I don’t think about it as much as you do.”
”Well, often I have problems at work.”
“Uncle knows what I do for a living, yes?”
“You win, Little Sister of my Affection.”
“So don’t think so much.” And as an afterthought, “With respect.”
Her cell phone, crusted an inch deep with rhinestones, is on top of her purse, which is on top of her neatly piled clothing on top of a mass-produced wicker chair on top of more threadbare carpeting in the northeast corner of the room, below a badly done oil painting of chubby water buffalo trudging through an aquamarine rice paddie hung on a wall the color of egg yolk under a ceiling tile that’s hanging on by its fingernails. Like all the girls she places her underwear and bra beneath her pants and shirt, instead of on top of them as an American woman would do. I ask them to turn their phones off in my room, or at least set them to vibrate, and this one has been buzzing like a rattlesnake every ten minutes for the past hour.
Last night she asked me to translate a text message on that cell phone for her. The message was almost a week old; of course she’d had it translated as soon as she received it but like they always do she’d pretended last night that she didn’t know what it said. They believe that it increases their value in a customer’s eyes if he knows that other men send them love notes from abroad, and maybe it does with some guys. When I first came here they used to ask me to translate long, weepy letters that were fifty percent beautiful excuses for not coming back and fifty percent badly composed soft-core erotica, written on air mail paper so thin you could see through it. Those letters took weeks to reach them and the girls would carry them around in their purses for years. They were classic billet deux, with exotic foreign stamps and seals and stickers. Some had return addresses.
When a man took the time to buy the special stationery and compose a letter with a pen, sign his name to it with his own hand, go to the post office and pay the extra tariffs for overseas mail, and send it across the ocean to be treasured and shown to other men, that meant something. The letter became a prop in an opera of uncountable acts, a thing of weight and substance. Now the messages arrive on their phones in fractions of seconds, and they are erased with the other junk when the inbox gets full. Today’s love letters are written in teenaged text-speak, a noxious illiterate code full of anagrams and emoticons, completely lacking grammar, syntax, punctuation or style. After all my studying and memorization I still don’t know how to say “winking smiley-face” in Thai but it’s not necessary; these hieroglyphs carry so little information, and the information they carry is so vague and timid, that they are intuitively translatable by almost anyone.
She’s rolled over onto her stomach now, languid as a Siamese cat on Valium, and I pray it’s a sign she may wake up soon. Her bottom juts up under the thin sheet and it’s all I can do not to jump on her. I don’t do it because she’ll be slightly angry at me for waking her and while she would not stop me, I am not sure I could follow through with the initial volley and if I didn’t she’d be even angrier. But mostly I don’t flop on top of her and set the little wet man in my mouth to climbing that soft warm mountain because it’s not in the program. Instead I watch her buttocks rock slightly with her breathing and reminisce about what they looked like last night, when she got on her knees and grabbed her own ankles. My cerebral cortex processes information more thoroughly when it’s presented visually. I suppose that’s true of all men, but with me objectivity intensifies the data collection process in a way that I believe is more acute than in others. I’ll never be in anybody’s head but my own, but I believe it’s true because the women seem to pick up on it and of course they play to their strengths. A woman usually only has to be in my bedroom for five minutes before she begins to pose like a desperate aging rock diva “surprised” by the paparazzi outside a Monaco casino.
I like them to pose, but only in positions of surrender. If a woman expresses any assertiveness at all in bed she becomes invisible to me sexually. I like them to be submissive objects of my scrutiny, and certainly I have no interest in any position where the woman is on top. I’ll let a whore assume the dominant role if that’s what it takes to bring her to climax, but I’ll be thinking of something else while it happens. The very thought of a woman putting my dick between her teeth, of being just one rash decision away from emasculating me forever, makes me shrivel like a slug in salt. On the other hand, a woman who can convince me she’s scared of me can take anything I have in my pockets. It isn’t at all easy; it takes a real actress to portray “frightened” when the villain is kneeling with his head between your thighs. But a woman who can convince me she’s scared of me, and yet so turned on that she simply can’t stop herself from coming, can give me her dirty laundry and get it back washed and pressed and folded before dinner time. Of course, they don’t want me to wash their laundry, they want money, and if they turn in a praiseworthy performance they get it, lots of it. Some manage to win gold in the category of Best Expression of Fear in a Recumbent Role, in fact some find my actions truly frightening. They’re used to guys who slap them and spank them, guys who call them vile names during sex, guys who punish them for things “normal” women in other countries have done. But they don’t know what to make of a guy who wants, who needs, to make them happy. Pulled out of their own comfort zones, pulled out of the scripts they’ve performed for years, seven shows a week and a matinee on Sunday, some actually are afraid.
Unfortunately it happens only once; after they hit the jackpot they’re never afraid of me again.
Walk into a bar, any bar in the Kingdom, and you’ll see a bunch of women. Sit down and one of them will introduce herself and ask you where you come from. The next ten minutes are all scripted and they’ve been rehearsed a thousand times and I find an enormous comfort in that. I’m very careful not to speak any Thai in the bar. They’ve rehearsed these lines in English and deliver them by rote, so I always know just what’s going to be said. Take the conversation into their language and you never know what they’re going to say, and I hate not knowing what’s going to happen, in any situation. Satan is spontaneous, God did his homework and knows his lines. Not until the initial scene has played out to its inevitable conclusion, the deal made, the price arranged, the bar fine paid, will I speak with them in their own tongue. More rules. More ritual. All the tensions of the day drain out of me as soon as a woman says, “Hello sexy man, where you come from?” It’s a ritual that’s older than the Catholic mass, and it never waivers, not by a word, not by a syllable. The words are always delivered in the same intonation, with “frooooooooooom” drawn out at the end of the sentence because in Thai the sentence ends in “nai” pronounced in the rising tone with a long vowel: “Khun ma jak naaaaaaiiiiiiiii?” Theirs is a tonal language and even the elder sons of nobility will speak English, French, German, or whatever languages they learn as adults with the cadences they learned at their nannies’ breasts.
“Where you come froooooooom?” and we’re off and running. The incense is burning over the bar, Bob Marley is witnessing for Jah on the stereo, the acolytes are gathered around the long altar polished with sacramental alcohol. We play out the opening scene of our little romance like the scene where the helpless Ann Darrow is offered up to King Kong, lashed spread-eagle in a bikini on a plinth of skulls, a scene that’s been made and remade by Hollywood with different actors each decade; over the years the face of the virgin changes but not the ape’s, and the dialogue (howls of hunger and loneliness that sound almost human and screams of terror that sound suspiciously like screams of passion) never waivers.
Our little potboiler has two possible, and polar opposite, endings: In five minutes I may grow bored with her or notice that gap between her front teeth and suddenly she’s not attractive any more, or an hour from now she will have changed my life forever. I won’t change her life, not at all, no matter what I do, no matter how I behave or what ministrations I inflict on her or how much I pay her. I could take her abroad and marry her and plant a dozen children in her womb but I won’t be changing her life because whatever happens had to happen as a result of things she did a thousand lifetimes ago. But a bar girl will change a punter’s life without even trying, by giving him a disease, stealing his wallet or capturing his heart, and they don’t care one way or another whether they make our lives heaven or hell. Every single woman I’ve ever taken to bed has changed me, even the ones I no longer remember. I know this and it’s a scary, thrilling, addictive thing, like cliff diving or driving down a dark road with the headlights off.
Rituals are just as important in a bar as they are in a church, but nobody judges you in a bar, so while I pray every day, I prefer to do it in bars rather than in churches. Icons litter the bars: the Buddha seated serenely on a shelf in the angle of roof and wall, the gilded portraits of dead kings over the cash register, the gaily painted and beribboned spirit house at the corner of the lot. These shrines are important, to be sure, and no bar girl who really needs to be paid tonight will begin her work without bringing a bottle of strawberry Fanta to the spirit house, a string of jasmine blossoms to the royal portrait and three sticks of incense to the Buddha. But there are other, more covert, rituals necessary to sanctify a holy site, to turn an air-conditioned room full of over-priced watered-down alcohol into a temple. For instance, there’s always an open lesbian working in the bar, mixing drinks, fixing the broken stereo, carrying in the cases of liquor from the truck on the street. Every bar must have its “Tom”, from “Tomboy,” an English loan word. They’ll be dressed as men, serious as hell and meaner than any man in a fight, and they’ll always be hopelessly in love with the one girl in the bar who won’t swing that way. The punters pay extra for two girls at a time, which is ironic since most of the girls prefer to be with each other than with a punter.
Rituals require rules, and as the bars have their rituals they also have their rules. Say a group of girls is sitting at the end of the bar chatting, and a new girl sits a few stools away eating sunflower seeds from a bag. After a while she slides the bag down to the group without a word. If any of the other girls takes a seed, she can move down and join them. If not, she must stay where she is, because that’s the rule.
The first girl who talks to a punter has dibs until she decides she doesn’t want him or he decides he doesn’t want her. Then he’s fair game for anybody else, but not a moment before. That’s the rule.
If a girl has been hurt by a punter, or by her Thai husband, if the State has taken a girl’s children away or her mother has put her children on the street to beg, if a girl finds out she has a disease or she’s gotten pregnant again, she must be stroked, she must be comforted. If her pain is exquisite enough the mamasan will mix her a drink on the house. That’s the rule.
These rules will be observed in the exclusive members’ clubs where former beauty queens and minor movie starlets cater to Japanese billionaires, and also in the smallest crib brothels where the daughters of taxi drivers and rice farmers lay motionless beneath taxi drivers and rice farmers. When the doctor says that sore is not a common herpes simplex but instead Kaposi sarcoma a girl’s worst enemy will bring her sweet rice cakes, but if she speaks to a punter when the girl he’s been talking to for 10 minutes goes to the toilet, her best friend will steal her phone out of her purse to punish her. I suppose a thousand years ago they’d have put sand in her sleeping mat. Rules are nowhere more important than in prison, and a prison can have chrome poles over the bar and thumping Euro-techno music just as easily as steel bars and blaring sirens. The Buddha believed we all live in a prison composed of the eight bones of the human cranium, and I know in my case that’s true.
I’m not saying their prison is as bad as Alcatraz, or that the damp, dark, beer-sticky rooms they work in are as inhospitable as the inside of my skull. Those rooms are Xanadu compared to my head. There are light moments in their lives, funny TV shows over the bar when there are no tourists in the place, and every now and then a girl can break the head off a wooden match and stick it into the end of a cigarette slipped into a punter’s pack when he’s not looking. There are all sorts of silly games you can play with a punter. You can clink the bottom of your glass down on the rim of his in a toast and then watch him stick all the filth that’s on the bar in his mouth next time he drinks. You can get your friends Colas and stick the chits in his bamboo cup and watch him unknowingly pay for it before he leaves. There’s lots of fun to be had with the tourists and the punters before you have to put on your clothes and get them back to the hotel and go to work. The fun and games end when the work starts.
There are quiet, thoughtful moments when a whore will sit at the bar and look out at the street and the history of mankind is in her face. The things they see. The things they hear. They can sit at that bar and pick out of the crowds the few tourists who come to the Kingdom with their wives. They smile because they know the tourist is wishing like hell he was alone and trying not to show it. Of course he can’t hide his feelings, he’s a man and so he’s as transparent to women as clear, cool water. Any woman who sees him, including his poor, uncomfortable, embarrassed wife, knows what he’s thinking. Knowing a man that completely, knowing his most private thoughts, holds power. It’s a source of control in a world where women are used to being told what to do, what to wear, what to suck on. Knowing a man better than he knows himself is a warm quilt on a cold night in monsoon season, it’s food in the time of famine.
They see it all from behind their bars, out the windows of the taxis on the way to the tiny, identically anonymous rooms, in the mirrors that for some reason known only to God line the elevators in the short-time hotels. All the truths of the universe can be seen over a man’s heaving shoulder traced on the ceiling of a room rented by the hour. All the world’s eternal truths are to be seen from their haunts, but all its eternal mysteries as well: You see a white man and a brown woman driving down the street on a motorcycle and you don’t know if they’ve been together for five minutes or five years, nothing in their faces gives it away. It could be their first night together or their last; he could be ready to devote his life to her or just as likely to kill her. You can see the outline of labia under a pair of tight shorts but it could be a penis and scrotum shriveled by artificial female hormones and sculpted with duct tape. That’s probably the easiest part of the charade.
Personally, I can’t stand a mystery. Not knowing something is one of the thousands of things that other people don’t mind but that make me physically ill. Like not knowing when this damned woman is going to get up, get dressed, and get the hell out of my fucking hotel room. I’ve got just slightly more than three hours before my plane takes off and that’s barely enough time to do everything I need to do. I have to use exactly four of the disinfectant wipes I buy from a medical supply house to wipe down everything I’ve touched in the room before I leave. I do this whenever I enter a new room: I wipe the phone, the TV, all the door knobs and light switches, the refrigerator, the knobs on the ends of the pull cords for the venetian blinds, and virtually every single thing in the bathroom. Of course, if I do it when I enter the room, I must do it when I leave the room for the last time, because of all things necessary to put order in the universe symmetry is the most crucial. I will need to do the same thing in the airplane as soon as I sit down, wipe the tray table, the arm rests, even the in-flight magazine, and then wipe it all down again once we land. Before I leave the Nana Hotel for the last time I will need to count all the pills left in all the little plastic bottles in my medicine bag, I will need to count every pair of underwear and every sock in my suitcase and I will need to check the zipper and snaps on that suitcase exactly four times. Many, many, many, many things to do yet and I can’t do a single one of them if there is anybody else in the room with me.
Increasing my anxiety at this moment, if such is possible, is the knowledge that I don’t have a clue what her rituals will be when she wakes up. Does she need to sit on the toilet for ten minutes talking into her cell phone before she even begins to bathe and dress? Will she expect breakfast and cab fare? I’ve already placed her payment for the sex in her purse, exactly four gray bank notes, each one crisp and clean and uncreased, unfolded, laid out on top of the rest of the junk in her purse with the royal portrait on each bill facing the wall. (This has become much easier since the introduction of the ATM, which has standards for money just as stringent as mine.) If she asks for cab fare or meal money I’ll give it to her; hell, she’s helped me save the lives of thousands, maybe millions of people tonight and she deserves to go home with a full belly in an air conditioned cab. But those bills will have to be counted four times, inspected for blemishes, stacked in order, and placed in her purse, not in her hand. This will take time, and time is running short.
I check my pulse and of course it’s elevated by a few beats per minute. Nothing to be concerned about, not yet, but with each passing minute it will get worse. I wish I had my blood pressure monitor but it’s packed already and digging it out will necessitate re-counting, re-inspecting, and re-arranging every single item in the bag. This trip is a long one, two weeks, and there’s a ton of shit in my bag. I’ll forgo the blood pressure check for now but now that I’m thinking about it I’ll have to do it the moment, the very moment, I enter the next hotel room.
She stirs and I sit up straighter in my chair. My clothes are impeccable, buttoned and zipped and tucked exactly right. I’ve checked around the room for any forgotten items, even though I’ve been working on the road off and on for 30 years and never, not once, have I left anything behind in a hotel room. That’s as unlikely in me as one of these girls actually enjoying sex, but just as I keep licking their vaginas I keep checking under these hotel beds. I could no more stop doing it than I could leave my airline seat assignment up to a ticket agent. Amateurs.
She moves, I sit forward in my chair, she is still again. I don’t handle disappointment well at all and I can feel the frustration building up in my chest. My favorite therapist and my favorite monk both espouse breathing techniques; I close my eyes and count my breaths but of course counting anything just reinforces my compulsions so that’s not going to work. My last panic attack was only a week ago, and my nerves are still raw. It happened on an airplane during takeoff. That’s the most risky moment, you know, statistically I mean. Most air travel disasters happen during takeoff, then those that happen during landing, and almost none during flight. So I am always a little more jumpy at takeoff, and last week the tourist in the seat next to mine had been staring at me ever since we sat down. I guess he didn’t like the way I wiped down the surfaces around me.
His hostility put me on edge and there was a crying baby right behind us and I couldn’t put my bag under the seat in front of me because the tourist in that seat had broken the rules and used the space so I had to put my bag in the overhead and that’s just wrong, it’s not part of the program and if one small chink appears in the dam the pressure will soon crack the whole edifice and thousands of tons of steaming, reeking, putrid filth will come flooding down on the sleeping village below. Somewhere, somehow, I got it in my head that I am responsible for that village and all its faceless innocent inhabitants. It’s up to me to make sure the terror stays behind the high walls and a crack, a chip, a tiny nick in that dam will scare the living bejeezus out of me. It was a three-hour flight last week and while it’s not easy to assume the fetal position in an airplane seat I accomplished it for the whole trip. The son of a bitch next to me grinned at me until we landed. I got him back, though. When he went to the bathroom mid-flight I slipped his reading glasses out of his carry-on and dropped them under his seat. He never noticed and when we finally left the plane, him casual and happy, me cringing and twitching, I managed to return his big smile.
She’s been still as death for minutes now, and with a childish vengeance I get up, sneak over to the bed and slowly pull the sheet off her from the waist down. I’m hoping the chill from the air conditioning on her naked legs will wake her up, but I’m also enjoying the view.
The girl’s got an ass designed by nature to hold a man’s attention, and that’s a fact. She’s still laying prone, her pelvis turned slightly to the right and her left knee raised a bit so that her legs are parted by about two feet at the ankles. The only solid proof of God’s mercy in a wicked world is peeping out at me like the dirty little tease that it is. I want to lean over and take a sniff but I don’t. Nothing is stopping me; she would not be surprised to wake up with a punter sniffing at her crotch like a stray dog. She wouldn’t mind at all. Her mind would be elsewhere. I want to bury my face in there, I want to hold her by her knees and force her thighs open so it can’t hide from me, so it must blossom wide and reveal its slick, shining folds to me. I want to lick it and bite it and make it my bitch. But I don’t do it because you’ve got to ration your pleasures. The Buddha says all suffering stems from desire and I believe that. I also believe what Freud says about suffering generated by suppressed childhood trauma, but it’s the Enlightened One’s teaching that keeps me from sticking my nose up the poor girl’s butt.
Finally, finally, finally, finally she stretches a little more fixedly and with more intention. She yawns and smacks her lips and snorts back some phlegm. She lifts her head and peers around in the gloom; first and most important thing when waking up with a stranger is to find out where he is and what he’s doing. She spots me in my chair in the southwest corner between the window and the tiny writing desk and lifts her eyebrows quizzically. Most mornings a girl has to beg for time to pee before she gets the last pummeling of the transaction, but this morning the punter is dressed, packed, and sitting like a stone statue staring at her.
“What you do?” she asks in English. No “good morning,” no “how are you.” Being with one of the pros from the countryside, the ones who work in the little port towns and mill towns and rice villages, the girls who normally work only with Thai punters, is always a treat because of their constant politeness. The women who work with foreigners lose their manners when they realize that most tourists can’t recognize good manners or value them when they see them. If I had my way I’d live in the countryside and only ever go with the sweet girls who work out there, but obviously my job requires me to move around. So I forgive her rudeness and greet her in a familiar and respectful idiom; my rules require me to be polite and I cannot, under any circumstances, break the rules.
“Dawn greetings with affection, Little Sister,” I say, even though it’s early afternoon. “Did you sleep well?” She stretches and smiles and without thinking about it responds to politeness with politeness. “Yes, thank you with respect. And Uncle slept well?”
“Just fine,” I lie. “Little Sister of My Affection, I don’t want to cause you to receive annoyance, but I have a lot to do today. Are you hungry?” I move my hand toward the phone, indicating a willingness to call Room Service for her. I am praying to what Gods may exist in such a dismal place as this that she declines.
She’s pretty astute for somebody whose kidneys have not yet resumed their function. She sees my packed bags, the airline ticket poking from my shirt pocket, the orderliness of the room. “No with affection, thank you with affection. I see you’re in a hurry, I will go.” The tiniest bit of a pout in her pretty little rosebud of a mouth, in her body language, in her tone. For me, the submission she’s expressing is intensely erotic. But I’m so anxious to get rid of her I sit perfectly still. The brilliant sliver of white hot light comes into the room over my shoulder; she probably can’t see much of my face at all but still I show no expression. She lifts the sheet to cover herself and slides to the edge of the bed and pads to the window next to me. She opens the curtains a bit, making a slab of the blade of light, and looks outside. I always make the girls wash off their makeup before we go to bed, and after a full night’s sleep her face is fresh and bright and beautiful. She looks down at me and places a soft hand on my shoulder. I want to respond, but the need to get the hell out of here is so strong I sit absolutely still. She smiles and shrugs, turns, and pads to the bathroom. Before she closes the door she looks back at me over her shoulder one last time, offering me one last chance to grab the morning sex that we both know I’m paying for, and just barely visible in her look is “What the hell is this guy’s problem?”
You don’t want to know, Sister. I like Mai quite a lot. Her technique in bed is nothing special, in fact she’s kind of clunky and clumsy and too obvious in her acting for my taste. But checking the weather at the window is something guaranteed to make me like her, something honest and decent and normal, and most important, something I’m sure she’s done every morning of her life. She probably saw her mother do it when she was a child, a small habit with which anybody raised on a farm anywhere would begin their day, and I would not be surprised to find out, upon death when we realize all things that are true, that this little ritual has been in the family for uncounted generations. Even though her mysterious lack of a clitoris kind of creeps me out, being privy to one of her private rituals makes me feel something for her that I believe is close to what normal people call romantic love.
For me to admire a woman so is fairly unusual. I’m hypercritical and not easy to please. But the light I shine on the Holiday Inn in America’s Sunday Travel Supplements, and the light in which I view other people, is dim compared to the middle of the desert at high noon glare I project on my own speck of a soul. My ex-wife used to say I’m impossible to live with and I couldn’t agree with her more. Those were the truest words, perhaps the only true words, that bitch ever spoke. If I could get away from myself by calling a lawyer and packing a bag I would do it too, but I can’t get away that easily. Know thyself say the poets. Be thyself, say the monks. Control thyself, say the priests. Understand thyself, say the rabbis. Forgive thyself, say the therapists.
Don’t get me started on what my mother says.
When Mai finally comes out of the bathroom she’s dressed again in the clothes she wore in the bar last night but looks not the least bit rumpled. She smiles at me with her upside-down mouth and gives me a spearmint kiss. Putting a toothbrush in your purse indicates an assumption you’ll achieve a “long time” assignation tonight and that’s tempting fate to punish you for hubris, thus most whores will use a punter’s toothbrush in the morning without bothering to ask for permission, assuming she hasn’t already sought her small vengeance by rubbing it on her anus. I left a brand new toothbrush in the bathroom for her when I packed my things, it’s one of my habits and I buy them by the box for that purpose. Not that any of the women ever thank me for it. When she walks into the bedroom and gives me my minty buss I’ve already got my bags, one big and one small, both black and soft-sided, over my left shoulder and with my right hand I’m throwing whatever change I have on the bed for the maids. I’m obviously anxious to be away; there are readers of newspapers that subscribe to a certain syndicate who will need to know this summer which hotel has a Kosher menu and which one has a pool shallow enough for children 10 years old and younger.
She leans back a bit and scrutinizes me. She’s surprised by my behavior, and probably a bit angry; almost all the men she deals with are on vacation and in no hurry. If a punter is in a rush to get rid of her it either means he’s upset with her or anxious to go back on the hunt. Because she has not yet looked in her purse she takes my impatience for a warning sign that I’m going to argue about her price. Girls who don’t know me assume that since I usually don’t achieve climax I’ll try to weasel them down in the morning. I never do; I don’t buy them out of the bars because I want to ejaculate in them, or on them, or even within the same room with them. I can take care of myself fine alone with certain Japanese internet sites, thank you very much.
I do this because the world needs me to do this. I do it because, however it has come to be, I’m somehow responsible for all the pain and suffering in the world and by following my patterns, by paying attention to the rituals, I can redeem myself. That’s chapter one in any textbook that covers my condition, and in a more diluted, anemic form I think it’s also the basis for most of what passes for religious faith. I don’t know how this works or why the burden of the world’s sin has fallen on my shoulders, but I know it’s true like I know my own name. The truth of it is as constant and steady and natural as my own heart beat, something that’s always there but never noticed except in moments of extreme panic or extreme bliss. I’m guilty of some nameless, horrible crime, and I must pay for it. I am responsible for the tourist whose glasses I hid and the tourist who took the space under his seat and the squalling baby and the graceful stewardess and the pilot and everybody else on the plane so I must, must, must, must disinfect my tray table. I am responsible for these girls and their missing kids and their chopped-up aunties and their murderous ex-husbands and so I must buy them out of the bars. I must make them come, or at least try. I must give them money, too much money usually, more than they expect always. It’s God’s will and not my own. It’s all I deserve.
I’ve opened the curtains all the way now and the room is filled with sterile gray light. When she’s checked her hair and makeup one last time in the big mirror, discovered the money in her purse, asked me when I’ll be back in the Great City and expressed disappointment that I won’t be coming back soon, I usher her to the door and say goodbye. She’s happy, I’m as close to happy as I ever get, the universe is happy at least as far as I’m aware.
When she’s gone I throw myself into the necessary rituals with an enormous sense of relief. I attack the room, I penetrate its corners and discover all its hidden, dirty secrets. My jaw clenches and my toes curl and it feels so good, it’s primal and insistent and necessary and the right thing to do. All the poisons rush out of me in a flood and I surf the wave as long as I can, but in four minutes I’m putting the last soiled wad of disinfectant wipe into its plastic bag, compressing out the air and sealing it, and dropping the flattened bag into the bigger shopping bag for disposal outside in a sidewalk trash can. I police the room for the last time and find nothing amiss other than some dust balls under the bed. I consider picking them up but I’m almost out of bags. I’ll have to buy more on the way to the airport, which will eat up whatever time I’ve gained by speeding through the litany, proving again that you can lose with God or draw a tie with God but never win. I shoulder my bags again and go out the door into the hallway. I count to four and let the door close itself, and as it snaps shut the double click of the lock sounds, to my ears, like an “Amen.”
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