Blinded by science

Love and molecules converge in a hot Thai swim one evening.

Published April 15, 2000 4:00PM (EDT)

About an hour out on the long-tail boat to Phranang, I had the uncomfortable realization that I ought not to have indulged in those six cups of tea. They went down in a teahouse as I chatted up a Thai love prince that Fate had plunked down in the center of my karmic field. Before departing forever from the idea of him and the real town of Krabi, I had forgotten such physiological details as peeing.

Trying to ignore the nasty threats issued by my sphincter muscle, I distracted myself by watching the every move of a tiny lady seated in the boat a few feet away from me. A lampshade hat kept her face from the sun, and she took out a wooden box, ritualistically removing several ingredients from its compartments -- a green leaf, a nut, some paste. She folded them up and stuffed the whole package into her mouth. I was mesmerized as her jaws mechanically downsized the bundle into a manageable wad.

She felt me watching, and after expertly projecting a quantity of blood-red spittle that shot six feet past the side of the boat, gestured that I ought to try some. I politely declined. I knew that betel nut chewing was a very respectable pastime among older Thai ladies, but I didn't feel I had quite come of age.

I was 26, and had a good case of Thailand on the Brain. Upon my arrival, the smog and the clamor of Bangkok could not blot out the sparkly phenomenal world that crooked its finger, beckoning me irrevocably inward. The jeweled Buddhas in the temples slurped me up into their ears, where I swore I heard the quotidian chants of the monks in their faded robes. I bought fruit from street merchants who kept tables in the shadows of gargantuan billboards that pictured ice-cold Coca-Colas pouring into thirsty Thai mouths, Ouzi-laden movie scenes of people getting blown to oblivion or the Marlboro Man riding off into an American sunset.

The merchants arranged their wares into the divine shapes of stupas -- dome-shaped Buddhist shrines -- and I felt slightly profane trying to delicately dislodge a mangosteen without sending Nirvana rolling to the dirt. Children dodged cars, radios blared and people smiled so provocative I felt myself falling blissfully backward from the force of them. The Bangkok air was scented with the fragrance of diesel and flower-bedecked shrines, and I became convinced that invisible Buddhas and dragons dwelt there and I, like the adored betel nut, was alternately chewed, savored and spat out by each.

By the time I had reached that apex in my journey where my bladder and I had become one, I had burned my taste buds off with a plate of green curry. (The proprietor had inquired whether I wanted it "White-Boy hot" or "Thai-Boy hot.") I had bought a lotus flower at the floating market and, as I bent to smell its fragrance, found it to be inhabited by a scorpion who menacingly brandished his stinger at me. When I almost blew my finger off with a firecracker I had bought at a street festival -- where the various gunpowder-filled concoctions had names like "Hen-Laying-Eggs" and "Bright-Minded Balls" -- I figured it was time to meander south.

The worst time to have to pee is when one is surrounded by water. The gentle lapping of waves against the side of a boat is like a radio ditty for a Palm Springs Resort: Relax! Enjoy life! Let go of your troubles, and anything else you are urgently holding on to! I did not relax. I double-crossed my legs, using about 12 different muscles in an effort to barricade my bladder. How I would later stand up and exit the boat was a bridge I would slosh across when the time came. I made a decision -- that if I had to choose between having the sensation of needing to take a pee for the rest of my life, or being dead, I'd rather be dead.

We were nearing the Phranang shore. The Thai lady in the hat took a tea kettle out of a basket and poured some tea into a glass. She held it out to me. That does it, I thought, shaking my head, and I stood up, managing to hold it in for a few more seconds while I asked a woman who had a German flag sewn to her backpack if she would keep an eye on my stuff. I didn't wait to hear her response before I dived into the sea, relief spreading through my body like a drug before I even hit the water.

When I surfaced, I had been born again under a lucky star. I swam, victorious, toward the fabled white sands of Phranang that shimmered in the setting sun, just another American fool, slogging out of the sea and over to where my German friend stood waiting, pissed off, with my pack. "Danka schvn," I said, as she stomped away. I decided to sit on the beach and dry off a bit before looking for a guesthouse.

As I sat watching the stars sidle out, one by one, I felt as though I had untied a heavy anchor that had been weighing me down forever. The nerve endings on the surface of my skin seemed to spring to attention, and luscious pheromones exuded from every pore. Large populations of glittery creatures were fluttering in my bloodstream, silver dragonflies, pink butterflies and golden honeybees of love.

Alas! I had no fine sweetheart with whom to indulge in my randy persuasion. As I watched the waves, the sparkles I felt inside me seemed to be floating there as well, whole galaxies of twinkling heavenly bodies, and I wondered if perhaps back in Krabi, some up-country opium poppy seeds had been tossed in along with my tea. Dazed, I watched as a shimmering humanoid form rose up out of the water, glowing from head to toe.

It was one of those terrifying "Twilight Zone" moments. Yikes, I thought, and immediately flashed back to a high school-era peyote ritual gone awry that had manifested a 10,000-fold hallucination of my algebra teacher, Sister Ursula, with Hinduesque undulating arms, millions of chubby hands grasping chalk and a great omnipresent mouth that bespoke, "The sum of X is equal to the square root of Y."

Realizing that the sparkle-clad figure was heading my way, I jumped to my feet and started running like the dickens, an instinct I am quite proud of. I ran along the beach, toward a rocky outcropping, and a glow that came from the rocks. As I got closer, I forgot about the strange figure, entranced by what I realized was a cave that was lit from within. An unfurling of incense and a flickering soft light beckoned me into its recesses, and dang! I bet you can't guess what I saw!

Scores of wooden penises, painted a shiny red, were wedged, stacked, glued with melted wax to every spare inch of a candle-lit altar. They were penises, there was no mistaking them, they were the most alert-looking save-the-race representations I had ever seen. Something inside me churned. I watched as phallic shadows flickered on the walls of the cave, a contingent of jiggling johnsons. The whole spectacle was starting to give me the willies, when I heard a voice behind me.

"Have you come to ask a favor of the Sea Goddess?"

I jumped. There stood a man, a Brit, by the sound of him. He was dripping wet, must've just come from an evening swim. He wore the shortest, tightest cutoffs I've ever seen on a guy. Aside from this disconcerting stylistic detail, he was handsome -- by my book, anyway -- with fetching eyes and a dark, well-groomed beard. He smiled.

"I'm Walker. I saw you running, thought maybe something was wrong. Or have you come to place an offering on the altar?"

"Melinda" I gasped, catching my breath. "So ..." I said, trying to act casual. "Penis Voodoo Cave, huh? ... I'm afraid I didn't bring an extra phallus with me today."

He laughed.

"This is the Princess Cave," he said. "The local fishermen place these wooden beauties in here to appease the Sea Goddess, hoping for luck and protection on the seas. Legend has it that she gave birth to an earthly man, whom she created to be her lover. He would come down to the water to meet her, and they would frolic in the waves."

I shivered. "I saw," I said, "I mean, I thought I saw a glow-in-the-dark person, I know it sounds weird ..."

"It was I!" Walker said, a sparkle in his eye. "What you saw were phosphorescent plankton, microscopic algae that feed on diatoms. This particular type are dinoflagellates, with flagellating tails. You know, like sperm. They can stick to your skin. The dinoflagellates, I mean."


We talked some more. Walker told me he was taking a break from anthropological fieldwork in Malaysia. Came to Phranang to do some writing.

"About life in the bush?" I asked.

"Not exactly. Poetry. Letting all the smells and tastes and everything I've absorbed for the last eight months float up to the surface, burst out of me and onto the paper."

"I know what you mean," I said. "I wonder if those dino-flago-thingies got into the drinking water. I've been sending cryptic postcards to my friends about being brainwashed by squids and Buddhas and Thai beach boys."

"Lovely!" Walker exclaimed.

And he was. Lovely. Especially lit by candles and surrounded by penises, which I stared at to avoid flagellating into his hazel eyes. That little vial of rationale I kept for emergencies on a top shelf of my mind -- the one that comes complete with a subliminal tape-loop of my mother's voice, which to listen to is about the same as wearing a chastity belt -- I could feel it shatter, exploding from the pressure of the high-voltage current coursing through me. As I felt the last few shreds of common sense take flight, I tried to recall all the variations I'd ever heard on the theme of male genitalia: Peter, Prick, Rod, Demon Stick, Dong, Manhood, Boner, Tumescence, Tool, Schlong, Old Betrayer ...

"Would you like to go for a swim?" Walker said. It was a sportingly grand idea. I had to get out of there before I did something rash. I figured, in my state, water would be safer than the Princess' Penis Palace.

"Ayo!" I said.

We walked down to the water. As it happened, I didn't have my bathing suit on, but I was wearing underwear and a bra that were a reasonable representation of one. Although it was dark, I shyly slipped out of my clothes behind a palm tree. Unbuttoning my shirt and my fly in front of Walker seemed very provocative at the moment, even if only to dive into the sea. I didn't need to whip myself into any more of a lather than I was already in.

The water was warm and calm, with glowing clouds of shimmering plankton creating a magical soup. We goofed around for a while in the water. Walker showed me how to play a "water drum," making African-style water music while I attempted water ballet. I think we were talking about something, the mating dances of the Trobriand Islanders, maybe, when all of a sudden the sparkles on my skin and the sparkles on Walker's skin had this overwhelming magnetic attraction to each other. It's the only way I can explain it.

There is something about touching somebody while immersed in the sea that is pure molecular biology. Like reproductive cells that are composed entirely of single-minded purpose, the surfaces of two bodies, when united by water, unconsciously seek each other out. Then, a chemical reaction takes place, magically cleansing away one's past, present and future sins. At least while in the water, anyway.

I won't say that anything came between me and my Calvins that night, because it didn't. But it just as well could have, for all the intoxication of that swim. During what liquidy conversation we did have, Walker mentioned that he was leaving on the late boat out of Phranang in a few hours, back to Krabi to catch an all-night bus to Singapore ... and would I come along?

Sometimes in my life I feel as though I move through space as if propelled by a benevolent force. I dip into the shimmering poppy bowls of life, sucking nectar from each like a butterfly, seeing myself reflected in everything with wide-eyed familiarity. This, my mother says, is called narcissism. I fight against that idea. I am NOT a narcissist! the narcissist sobbed. Maybe I could explain what came after that evening swim by telling you how all that is good inside me became inspired to divide and multiply, a bizillion cells of beneficence splitting off into infinity. Maybe I could find a scientific explanation for why sometimes my feet don't quite come in contact with the ground when I walk. Especially in places like Thailand.

Walker and I sat under a palm tree, dripping single-celled organisms, while I tried to figured out how to bail out on the beautiful inlet of Phranang, when I had hardly arrived. I told myself that the roaring tsunami wave of lust approaching from the horizons of my veins was not the reason I was catching an all-night bus to Singapore with a man I hardly knew. I convinced myself that it had to do with wanting the shimmery perfection of the moment to stay permanently fixed in my memory, without some bum moments busting in and taking over. Like getting eaten alive by bed bugs. Or getting the runs. Or running into those three Australian guys I met in Bangkok, whose vacation pastime was to go from village to village, sampling and comparing prostitutes. If I hung around that Penis Voodoo Cave much longer, I might unwittingly become an instrument of the Sea Goddess, my sole purpose being to beget more lovers for her enjoyment; or find myself addicted to the Love Sparkles in the water, forgetting who I was and where I came from, and never, ever be able to leave.

Armed with a dozen rational justifications, I left at 9 p.m. to catch the all-night bus to Singapore.

I could tell you about how Thais like to watch machine-gun videos at maximum volume at 2 in the morning while riding on buses that take mountainous turns at 45-degree angles, threatening to pitch themselves into the lush gorges below. I could tell you how two people can share a blanket and watch the glow of sparkles rising up and bursting through its surface. I could hypothesize how lust isn't a nasty thing (or maybe it is). It's about being a pilgrim of the flesh, making devotional offerings to the molecules of another, molecules that are, like Tuvan throat singers, chanting your name and the name of the universe multitonally, so they sound as one.

A scientific theory, anyway, that Walker and I thoroughly tested.

By Melinda Misuraca

Melinda Misuraca is a writer and an anthropology student living in Northern California.

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