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Ancient Vertigo

by Brandon Edmonds / 26.03.2010

The whore streets of Bangkok – are you as sick of them as I am yet? Let’s give it one last push, and then get on with our debt-flecked lives, freeing up the Friday Mahala travel slot for reveries of drunk-riding ponies in Paarl and satanic picnics in Doornfontein. Ja, someone got out of the wrong side of the bed this morning.

I’m in a noxious Bajaj, those whirligig auto rickshaws, relaying that Richard Thomson song about the ‘wall of death’ – “you can waste your time on the other rides / this is the nearest to being alive / oh let me take my chances on the wall of death.” It’s just that scary. Bangkok traffic tests your will to live. Our driver is a spindly cipher in a Harley Davidson t-shirt. I remember that: drunks tend to cathect a single random detail from wild nights, as an anchor point, proof that it happened, like a diary entry, a camera-phone photo, scribbles on a hankie, proof they are, in some way, prescient deep down despite the chaos. Great detectives are often drunks. You’d think speed and air would vanquish booze but the crush of the streets, the het up closeness, simulate drunkenness. Wraparound frenzy. Rudi keeps asking me, “You got any money left, mate? You got any money?” I truly, truly want to vomit on Rudi. I want the image of Rudi vomited on to accompany me through the tough years of later life, the twilight medical years of bone softening breakdown, so that I might lay in bed, old and unloved, and laugh, disturbing young nurses, laugh at the memory of that pushy grifting Aussie covered in my sick.

I’ve financed our empty, pointless Soi Cowboy jaunt. The place is more of the same – neon squadrons of hookers, drifting crowds of amped horndogs. Solicitation, fake charm, appeals entirely born of cash. Industrial sex, business nooky, commoditized tail, is so unsexy. Bad, grim, unlovely. I’m flagging. I’m dulled. I’m drunk and I’ve financed the table dances, the floorshows, the endless, endless drinking. I’ve financed Rudi’s long disappearance with two Thai sylphs in spandex. I’ve had hands in my pants, in my fly, in my pockets, hands reaching for me as in psychotic Catherine Deneuve’s swinging London apartment in Roman Polanski’s deliriously paranoid Repulsion, hands on my ass, hands everywhere. “The grabbing hands / grab all they can / all for themselves / after all / it’s a competitive world”. Depeche Mode in one of the bars. (Or just new wave Wordsworth, ‘emotion recollected’ in depravity?). I’m done with it. We’re back where we started. I recognize the bar where Miss Tube Dress revealed her hoo-hoo. I’m close to home. And incredibly, she’s still out on the street, hasn’t moved from her territory, working her hooker beat with the geographic loyalty of a bear. She’s less fresh by now. Her hair flatter and tired, her shoes in her hand, her lips rubbed pale. Miss Tube Dress! She pointedly ignores me and gathers Rudi in her arms, yanking him into the night. She yells in Thai to her pilot fish. Rudi’s parting words, “Her little sister will look after you, mate!” Oh, swell.

Pilot fish and I stare at each other, twin vaporous souls crowding the River Styx. Around us, the Thai night ends, shuts down, groups of hookers head home, lights go out, early morning workers in overcrowded busses trundle by. The heat haze has softened into tropical quiet. Sound systems stilled at last. I walk away and she follows. Her age is pure conjecture but she’s not old enough to drive, or make major life decisions, or write her memoirs. She’s tiny and wretched. My heart goes out to her. And inside, I admit, within that empathic impulse lay seeds, hard black devil thorns, of desire. Why not carry this bundle home and unwrap it? Ah, Thailand.

It takes ages for the landlord to appear. I bang on his door enough to make dogs bark. His expression clocking my companion, her exposed girly knees, her small eyes and tender neck, her little open-toed shoes, is infinitely distasteful, a beat of perfectly rendered disgust. “You so fucking lay,” he says. Yes, I’m late. Beyond late. Then he places the giant wooden key in my hands, says something to her in Thai, and slams the door.

My bare-knuckle room’s monk-like quiet has no light beyond the street glare leaping in through the sole window. We both sit on the bed. I touch her face and then her hair. She seems abstract to me, unreadable as JM Coetzee’s conveniently mute natives. I realize the hair touching is probably a misstep, seduction-wise, since Buddhism, someone told me, abjures head contact. Is she a Buddhist? She hasn’t said a word. Not a single word. I could lift her up with one arm. I could throw her against the wall. The streetlight makes her skin river-flood brown. Her skin is amazing to touch. She smells like street walking and the outdoors, like closeness and long-ago deodorant. I have a hard on, and put her hand there. Her touch makes me talk.

I realize I’ve never been with a hooker. I’m a hick, really, from a dumbass shantytown named after a colonial card-shark, called Benjamin D’Urban. Should I tell her? Pilot fish hops to her knees and puts her mouth on me. She’s an adept, an old hand at fellatio, her soft head a piston, her tongue working. “Jesus,” I say. Words spill from me. I’m yabbering about a school play I was in – and sang ‘The Great Pretender’ – “oh-ho-ho yes / I’m the great pretender / pretending that I’m doing well”. Her mouth feels so good. I may have even sung the lines. Right there, in a bare room in the heart of Bangkok, being thoroughly blown by a probable minor. Criminal, despicable me. Discombobulation, that glorious Victorian word for embarrassment, makes me talk and talk. Pets I’ve had, people I’ve known. The booze negates her expert mouth somewhat. I run a hand up and down her spine. Until finally, I burst. The lovely bright flight of orgasm makes the night worth it, for me, at least. Pilot fish remains an unfathomable mystery. Then slashing through the warm physical tingle, a voice, male, American, arch and unkind: “You gonna shut up and fuck her now – so we can all get some sleep!” Laughter from behind the low walls, my fellow guests, I’ve been a floorshow all along – they’ve heard everything, followed each sordid step. I’m Kafka’s roach, Gregor Samsa, exposed, overheard, hounded and belittled. I push pretty Thai money in the girl’s hand and close the door on her. And find sleep only once the sky is lit, fierce and burning.

I’m booked into a luxury hotel after telling a cab driver to take me somewhere nice downtown. I want to get away from whores and Aussie cooks and malefic college boys with big mouths – from backpackers and horndogs. My room has mirrored bathroom cupboards. The Hilton, I forget. The Hyatt? Any one of the branded seamless rattraps of modernity. It’s late the next day. Christmas eve. Who writes hangovers best? Bukowski, Cheever, Faulkner… Fitzgerald?
Raymond Carver, definitely. Mine felt like dishes falling in silence, mountains of pristine white crockery falling from a certain height in slow motion. It was the not hearing that was killing me. Just as Hitchcock shrewdly suggests the unspeakable without showing it, activating an audience’s own repertory of personal fear, so the silent breaking crockery meant I was filling in the noise myself. It was horrible.

Thai TV is squawky and brash. I rolled around on the plush hotel bed and fiddled with the air-conditioning. I masturbated and looked out of the window. Bangkok bloomed in every direction. Buildings and arteries coated in dust. I ordered hot dogs in Thailand. Room service hot dogs. Hot dogs in a country whose cuisine rivals Italy and India. I was losing it. Really fucking losing it. An email from my younger brother stated that he had cancer. Ball cancer, like that cyclist. I tried taking that in. And failed.

It opened the door to all kinds of welling sadness, mental pockets of unprocessed dread and recrimination. The night past had been awful. I was going to be thirty soon. Thirty. I had man tits and a small pile of disposable income to show for it. I had achieved nothing much of anything. No cure for cancer. No great novel spanning love and death and history. Not even the perfect pop song. No profitable enterprise. No lasting love. Even my friends seemed vague to me. Where had the days gone? What had I done with them all? Who was I kidding? That vanilla suit was like cheap wallpaper covering an inveterate loser, a gaping wound. Waves of heartfelt self-pity made me cry. I snuffled and went fetal and wondered what was waiting for me, what Being had in store? Orgies and speedboats, or a cardboard box and dirty frozen winter feet. Men do existential self-sorryness like women do emotional self-delusion. I ate hot dogs and cried.

As night fell, Christmas Eve, Santa popping speed and checking reindeer hoofs, elves cramming Playstations and sneakers into the sleigh, I stood naked in the wall of mirrors. I really looked at the dude staring back at me. I thought of the intense opening of Coppolla’s Apocalypse Now when Martin Sheen’s Willard waits for his mission brief in Saigon. The 38-year old actor had a real heart attack on set. Coppolla pushed and pushed him in this sequence. You can see the cracks. You can feel the delirium. “I’d wake up and there’d be nothing…when I was here, I wanted to be there, when I was there all I could think about was getting back into the jungle. Every minute I stay in this room, I get weaker.”

I had a night like no other. It’s private and strange. I went to my dark place and came very close to leaping from the window. Only the thought of Bangkok’s indifference, maybe, or my girlfriend, say, and my mother, or Rudi smirking over my remains, stayed me. At one point I was randomly punching numbers into the telephone, hoping for a voice. I bit the pillow until I could taste feathers.

I woke up determined to do something nice for Christmas. And headed for the mall. There I took in the culmination of ‘Lord of the Rings’ – laughing out loud at the pseudo-Shakespearean pomp and multiple, multiple endings.

Before the film, Thais stood to sing an anthem and the screen showed an image of their king. Who are these people? Devout whores, royalists, a land of smiles and civil turmoil, occupied airports and corruption, protest, breakdown. I passed schoolgirls in the street and thought of my pilot fish. I fantasized, like Travis Bickle, that the money I’d given her would buy a bus ticket home, where her family was happy to see her, fed and clothed and schooled her. I bought dried mango for my girlfriend’s dog and knew that all I really wanted was to be far away from here. I was supposed to amble through the country for 3 weeks, heading South to islands and bonfire parties and girls from the Netherlands in sandals. I’d barely made
it two days.

I would see a temple, any one, come face to face with a Buddha, reclining or otherwise, and then leave. So I did. Who knows what temple? A cabdriver took me to a big popular one with a Buddha in it. Kids hustled maps outside. The heat was invasive and maddening. I walked the grounds in my vanilla suit with my hands behind my back. Families asked me to photograph them whole. I felt okay after all the drama of Christmas Eve. Fuck it. I got blown. I’m alive. My balls aren’t riddled with metastasizing death cells. Even the suit felt right again. The Buddha was doing his thing. I prefer him to most of the deities. Slacker, moneyed, from prince to vagabond, touched by other’s pain, moved to enlighten us about letting go, a sloppy genius of principled withdrawal. Yeah he’s the closest to whatever is spiritual in me. But you’ve seen one Buddha statue, you’ve seen them all, and I instinctively headed for the temple margins, the far walls, covered thankfully, and cool in the afternoon sun.

There I traced with my finger a kind of comic strip – a colored, painted narrative running along the wall. It was vivid and strange. Gods in the sky looked upon maidens and villagers ran from devils. Seawaters engulfed multitudes and winged creatures tormented souls while armies amassed and marched. I followed the story with my fingertip, making no connection to anything else, meaning eluding me, intrigued by the emphatic savagery of the artist, the scope of the vision, the strange co-mingling of the super-natural and the everyday. “It’s actually Bangkok,” a slim, bearded Thai man told me. “The whole story of the city is here on these walls.”

I thanked him, stunned by the fact. Here was a kind of mythic newspaper. A creation tale done in paint on stone depicting the very city that surrounded me. I was in the imaginative fulcrum of the ugly citadel beyond the walls. An ancient vertigo made me dizzy – circles within circles, history within history, life within life. Then I hopped on the first plane home. Dario hated the dried mango.

Read Part 1 here.

Read Part 2 here.

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