The Ladyboy Strikes Backby Brandon Edmonds / 19.03.2010
I’ve struggled this week over the second installment. I really have. Keep up the uptight impressionist shtick; a well-read dude in a vanilla suit armed with a hip veneer of Western pop culture – which I could do, caricaturing ‘funny accents’, ogling Thai bodies, scolding the runaway licentiousness there for all to see, furtively circling ‘the Other’ while quoting Wittgenstein, like so much soapy water down a drain. But I researched ‘sex tourism’ and ‘sex trafficking’ and read harrowing accounts of village girls sold by their in-laws into ‘sex slavery’ – caught a sobering glimpse of the scale of the ‘international sex trade’ (billions of dollars annually, a million or more children, a dirty global structure of bent cops and crooked officials, looking askance, turning trafficking, as the New York Times once put it, into “the slavery of the 21st Century”), and it’s given me pause. Moral pause. Then I realized the truth of my Thai trip might be, at the risk of facile rationalization, helpful. Might shine a light on a strain of masculinity that seldom sees much copy: the hesitant self-corrector, the guy who demurs, who falters in the face of sexual availability, refusing the role of ‘phallic mastery’, of alpha male potency, which haunts/taunts us men folk (in the bullying form of coaches, dads, older brothers, action movies and porn) from our earliest days. There’s nothing great about him. He isn’t heroic or Thomas fucking Moore (standing up to the King over his mistress). He’s every-dude. And occasionally, for the sake of his sanity, to be true to himself, he says no, not me, I can’t do this. Thailand liberated him in me. I never knew he was in there until I saw my reflection in that river of sex, less Narcissus than Napoleon Dynamite – it dramatized my own awkward, imperiled innocence. It made me, as Jack Nicholson memorably deadpans in As Good as it Gets, “want to be a better man.”
I set out, memorizing street signs for the way back, leaving my suitcase and the key-holder, my landlord, “no lay see”, behind. Past restaurants and bars, along unknown streets, enjoying not knowing what was to come, enjoying having cash in my pockets, enjoying the ripe potential of a night in Bangkok (playing that cloying song in my head of course – one night in Bangkok / and the world’s your oyster/ the bars are temples / but the pearls ain’t free). It was as if the scalding complimentary soup was a portal into belonging, a gourmet rabbit-hole, the clanging register of chili heat a kind of digestive analogue to the temperature, social and natural, of the place.
I was beginning to enjoy myself.
Merciful wind tamed my baking suit and turned my perspiration tepid. I began to drink. Cocktails and beer, wishing I could get my hands on some mescal to emulate the Day of the Dead madness of the doomed Consul from Malcolm Lowry’s wildly apocalyptic meisterwerk, Under the Volcano. I sat and listened to patrons. White men jabbering, white men leering, white men thanking their lucky stars. They didn’t want for company. There was none of that hangdog self-sorry air men get when it dawns on them that age, status, looks (all the unwavering invariables of regular attraction) are going to, increasingly, keep pussy from their door. That realization certainly accounts for a ton of male rage at women.
Thailand makes the boyish dream of sexual abundance real – the affect is an x-ray of masculine personality types. Untapped selves come out to play. Some men seem serene, blissed out, as if listening to their own private symphony, idly tracing suggestive circles with their fingers on the inexpensive flesh of the nearest whore. These are the connoisseurs. They believe what’s happening isn’t necessarily bleak or exploitative – it’s as inevitable as rain, it’s the age-old dance of men and women, nature simply taking its course. A strong GQ series on the sex industry quotes Donna M. Hughes, a professor who has studied ‘prostitutes and the men who pay them’ for over 16 years, “There’s a part of them that’s lying to themselves and creating this fantasy and believing these girls actually like them – they’re really just deluding themselves.” Hey, Donna, there are worse crimes than self-delusion.
Other men become wolves. You can see the lust in their faces. They want a feral fuck fest. They want to feed on piles of anonymous Asian girl-flesh. Thailand is sport to them. It’s a numbers game. These are the kind of soldiers who collect ‘trophies’ on the battlefield – fingers, skulls, and jawbones. The kind of men, close to their mothers, and violent at the offhand mention of her name, who’ve so internalized the competitive dic(k)tates of late capitalism, everything, even sex, is accumulation. They immediately reminded me of Patrick Bateman, the murderously affectless yuppie of Brett Easton Ellis’ grippingly salacious, American Psycho. Women, to these men, are no more or less than products, minimally esteemed, as useful and good for you in small regular doses as skin toner and prune juice.
Mostly its regular men folk though, curious, horny, ultimately well-meaning, looking like the boys they once were, posing for a snap on his new Christmas bicycle, taken aback, over-stimulated and sheepish. A half-smile of disbelief, a glimmer of anxiety – this can’t last, this can’t be happening. All this… for me!
The bar girls lift men out of themselves. Their brio is infectious. They chatter and coo. They flirt and circle. They settle and scuttle and work the crowd. It feels a bit like sitting too close to the comedian at a show. You know you’re going to get singled out. You know the spotlight is going to land on you. It makes you furtive, ever ready to flinch or grin. The showy force of their availability is like the onrush of a waterfall as you stand below looking up. Thai bar girls could coax life from a corpse. They’re the truly wicked witches of the East – irresistibly profane and lithe as gymnasts.
I moved on, picking places, as you do, for the quality of the whores outside. Not having a city mapped mentally means you revert to a kind of child-like reality-acceptance, no habit of seeing shapes input, you take it all in like a camera. There really are women everywhere. The mini skirt, that must-have whore staple, ubiquitous in these parts since GI’s first began letting off steam on furlough, free for a while from the mania of the Vietnam War, was in full effect. You could establish an exhaustive taxonomy of Thai legs, knees and thighs on any corner on any street. Bar girl shoes are militantly plastic, shiny and practical (heels never vertiginously high given the hours she’ll be squashed into them). Bar girl teeth suggests dentistry ought to be a human right. They smell like crushed flowers and exhausts.
Availability turns nightlife inside out. The arrow-like trajectory of an evening, shooting for intercourse, the nasty, is blunted – there’s no doubt you’re going to get laid. It relaxes men. Men in Thailand talk. They tarry over drinks. They luxuriate in the certainty of sack action. They become expansive, voluble, even interesting. It’s as if lifting the joyful burden of ‘doing it’ opens doors in themselves. I thought of the Seinfeld episode, up there with ‘Soup Nazi’, when George swears off rumpo and discovers undreamed of stores of energy and focus – learning Portuguese, flying through the Classics and playing chess. As that flagrant narcissist, Carrie Bradshaw, might put it, “is sex mania limiting our potential?” That fucking song again: “you’re talking to a tourist/ whose every move’s among the purest / I get my kicks above the waistline, sunshine.” Surely there was someone able, in the burning Thai night, to turn my head and fill my bed.
Then, right on cue, I saw her. She was, I kid you not, rocking the blazing white Lycra of my teen dreams. A late eighties tube dress straight out of a Soul II Soul video. (Back to life, back to reality – however do you want it?). Just a beautiful, beautiful girl – staring at me nakedly, obviously attuned to any glance, expertly able to pluck a sucker from the pack. She drew me to her with a slow shrug, crossing her arms, making nuclear eye contact as she waited. Easily the best-looking woman I had seen in my life. Easily. A young Joan Chen with Natasha Kinski’s mouth, Isabelle Adjani’s eyes and Natalie Portman’s tiny frame. A girl so immaculate the doubting Thomas in me baulked. I remembered that comic grotesque Allan Partridge’s lingering fascination with ‘lady boys’. I looked for an Adam’s apple.
Katoeys, transgender creations made from drugs and surgery, abound in Thailand. They’re the underside of the hetero projection of availability. Straight guys squirm over tales of taking one home and finding a pork banger in the broeks. Though secretly, I suspect, we’re all more than capable of the attitude of the millionaire in Billy Wilder’s perfect daring farce Some Like it Hot (1959), who, on finding the woman of his dreams is really Jack Lemmon in drag, shrugs and says: “Nobody’s perfect!” She was perfect though; too perfect, suspiciously perfect, the perfection of a scalpel slice. There’s no way she’s for real.
“Hello,” I said. She nodded. I noticed the girl alongside her, then, like a pilot fish, younger and meeker, blinking and shy. “What’s your name?” Tube dress seemed to think on that – mentally flipping through a storehouse of erotic monikers, seeking the one for me, then gave up and smiled. God she was lovely. I mean heart-meltingly lovely. She seemed to elevate her surroundings. I thought of swans in moonlight, sex scenes, a happy image of lasting marital happiness, I thought of redemption, lapping between her legs, wondering how she looked naked. I thought of her eyes widening a little in hot surprise as I enter her for the first time. Like anyone around beauty, I wanted it for myself. I wanted to snatch her up and hide her in my suitcase. I wanted to take her home. I wanted to hear her story. I wanted her to feel my kindness, to know that I was different, special; I wanted her to fall in love with me as easily and cheaply as I’d done her.
“Are you really a woman?”
She didn’t understand. Her face doing misunderstanding was as gorgeous as her face doing sadness or hunger or mild constipation. She was movie star pretty. Beyond that even, write a lyrical ballad that’ll ring out through the ages pretty. I mean hold the phone pretty. Okay, yes, granted, I may have emphasized the fact of her beauty sufficiently, but damn! Damn.
“Are you, you know…” – I dangled my hand at my crotch. She was incensed. Her fists balled. She began screaming at me in the street. “You’ve done it now mate,” a voice called out. “Better come in here.”
I turned to see a heavyset dude in a t-shirt and shorts beckoning me onto a balcony overlooking the street. His ginger hair was just about gone. He was as big as the Pixies’ Frank Black. Which is big. Gigantic. His T-shirt read ‘Cock-Eyed’ – it depicted a man with cartoon penises protruding from his eyeballs as a foxy lady passed. We shook hands. “Rudi,” he said. “Sydney.” His name and home. Rudi’s accent was quickly part and parcel of the floating weirdness, the ambient off-centeredness of Bangkok.
“You better buy her a drink,” he said, glancing at my fiery teen dream, still yelling, “or she can’t come in.” Like a vampire, my Thai maiden had to be invited. “What if I don’t,” I said. He liked that. “Then she’ll wait in the street for you, or tag someone else.” Both of those outcomes seemed fine.
I took Rudi in – his barrel chest, his powerful arms, and his sallow eyes. He was pale and freckled. His freckles bunched in clusters around his neck. He was a sous chef in Sydney, working the grill. “Come out here whenever I can,” he said. “Nothing like it. Been ‘bout 8 years now. Wifey doesn’t mind as long as I don’t bring anything home. Keep it clean. Bring a few gifts for the kids. Suntan. I’m a new man back. Happy, patient, generous.” He was 26.
Stand-up comedian, Louis CK, has a joke about how there should be a government department set up to check the pressure of our dicks – pressure built up over the time since it was last put to good sexual use – it gets too high, violence, so its for the greater good that it gets relief! This was Rudi’s outlook in a nutshell. We talked and drank.
He pushed me into Tequila slammers and tried on my suit jacket.
“You a fairy?”
I said not really. It began to dawn on me that I was paying for everything. Rudi was as much a practiced wallet-skimmer as the bar girls. He seemed to know everyone.
We got to talking to quite obvious katoeys – men transitioning as fast as cash allowed to another gender, a new life, new loves. They were articulate and sensitive, incredibly savvy about the street, insisting that most people wanted out of the game, that almost everyone sent money home, that Thai culture was old and noble, that what had happened here was ugly.
Drunk by now and overbearing, I asked a guy why he wanted to become a woman. He was a striking man – he had a kind of Harrison Ford thing, self-assured and quiet. It seemed insane to want to alter himself so utterly. He smiled. Thailand is marketed as a ‘land of smiles’. Which is true, but inadequate, since smiles are as much a form of camouflage, of emotional deflection, metabolizing sorrow, as they are clues of consent, agreement and fun. His smile was daunted and sincere. “I’m not so happy with this,” he said, pointing in his lap. “It’s like I got the wrong thing at the shop, so take it back.” That infernal song again: “I’d let you watch / I would invite you / But the queens we use would not excite you!”
Then Miss Tube dress burst in.
She stormed up to me. Her pretty shoulders were heaving. Her little pilot fish tucked in beside her. “You think I’m like them,” she yelled, sneering at the bemused katoeys. Rudi whistled and applauded. The bar reeled. I felt her up close, the perfumed heat of her. It was a great show. She was magnificent – a radiant fireball of outraged dignity. “You want to see?” She faced me, splaying her legs and bending at the knees. “You don’t know what I am?” I wanted her to do it. I mentally begged her to slide the milky sheath of her tube dress up over her slim hips, which she did, right there in the bar, wriggling to work the dress up her lovely young body, her teeth bared, her eyes blazing, until it was well above her waist, snug below her breasts like a bandage. She’d neglected to wear underwear. Her vagina was a furry nimbus, an exclamation point, and triumphantly emphatic proof of womanhood. Everyone cheered. She’d arrested the flow for a moment, claimed a slice of Bangkok life entirely for herself. She’d owned the meaning of her display and taken back the sovereignty of her body and its truth. Rudi said, “Fuckit! Let’s go to Soi Cowboy!”
End of Part 2 – Catch the final installment next week.
Read Part 1 here.
Read Part 3 here.