The mosquitoes drift in circles over the drain as I towel off and find a dry linen shirt. CNN International babbles on the TV, the only English I can find this time of day, while the setting sun paints my room a sickly yellow. I splash on some cologne copped at the duty-free store, swallow a mouthful of whiskey and I'm out the door.
In the swarming streets, people pass me over. Tall white guy, they know who I am. They've seen me or someone like me a thousand times. I'm as predictable as a macaque monkey, with double the sex drive. Getting near me is nothing but trouble.
I drop a coin in the bowl of the beggar squatting before a large Buddha decorated with bits of gold leaf and spent incense sticks. Sewage gas threads the haze of the leaded exhaust fumes, the sky darkens. Like angry bees, the mopeds buzz past, driven with the determination possessed by those who have nowhere to go.
Me, I'm in no hurry. I'm going to get what I want. I take dinner down by the water under a string of colored Christmas lights. No waitresses, only waiters. I perversely ask for chopsticks, because the locals never use 'em. While I wait for my food, I notice another occidental at a corner table and he's got his lady already. He's lecturing her and she's nodding, because of course she doesn't understand more than two words of what he's saying. I sip my beer and he glances over without any concession that we are members of the same club.
The waiter arrives in minutes with a freshly broiled fish dressed in tiny circles of green chili, a mound of white rice and a beer. Like some Graham Greene expat, I contemplate the dark water lapping up at the ancient Buddhist wharves, wallowing in exoticism "lite." I pick bits of flesh from the little ribs on my plate and chew slowly. I am the ugly American. So what?
After dinner, I amble through the cluttered market lanes, past the young guys hawking packs of Marlboros, past the skinny hookers trying to meet my eye. I avoid the transvestites passing little cards illustrating all the sexual positions of the zodiac. I'm sized up by the mock-friendly vendors standing by their piles of cheerful souvenir T-shirts and bootleg videos. At the food stalls, silent cooks, cigarettes dangling from their frowns, supervise smoking bits of fish and egg.
Streetlights are an accident and deep shadows carve every wall. Down the gloomy alleys, men gather, beckoning me to sins that have stood the test of time: "Banana show," "ping-pong show," "razor blade show." Been there, done that. I want something more personal. I could hit a massage parlor, take my time in my selection, gazing through the 10-foot-high plate glass. Here the girls let their minds watch TV as they wait for their bodies to fetch a companion. I have no idea whether they're watching "Baywatch" or kickboxing because the TV set is facing them and they are facing me. If I wanted one to join me upstairs, I'd nod to the Mama-san and give her the number pinned to the chosen one's blouse. But blatant slavery doesn't do it for me either. I prefer the subtle kind.
I follow the bright lights, because that's where the pretty young girls are. They are in the go-go bars, mutations descended from the Vietnam War R&R days. In places like these, stoned GIs kicked back their fear and anger just long enough to embrace a warm body before rejoining the nightmare. Billy Bob nervously created a secret memory never to be shared back home with Betty Sue. Here, the girls know what lonely Americans like: laughter and eye contact -- they show their teeth and flirt. Makes us Yankees feel like we're back home in Red Wing.
So here I am at "Supergirl" or "Baby Go-Go," studying the slim, laughing nymphets. It's a fantasy Asian high school cheerleading team, bopping their tiny bikini bottoms to the rhythms of Guns n' Roses. Mirrors, pink tin foil and tissue paper flowers remind me of some teenage slumber party. It's the senior prom and the theme this year is "sex." I check out the hard little nipples and big brown eyes. I sip my sweet drink, inhaling the scent of exposed skin. All I have to do is look. Just eye one cutie for a few seconds and next thing I know she's sitting in my lap, working me with her miniscule repertory of English phrases.
"Hi, my name Mai." "You funny. You come from States?" "You like me? Yes? We go hotel? Now?" Who knows where these young ladies come from? Bought from a farmer up country or sent into town by their grandma. They're bored, they want out. They want to party. Anything is better than dancing for hours on tired legs, better than stooping over in a knee-deep paddy replanting rice seedlings. Better than getting smacked in the face by some fat guy with beer breath from Hamburg, Germany.
This one girl, Toi. Probably about 16 years old. Probably HIV-positive. So happy and small and devoted like a human pet. Eager to please me. I really believe it makes her happy I am there, because I am certain I add something to her life. In her dark little world, happiness is the absence of bad people, absence of pain. And so I'm happy to oblige. It's the way things are. I didn't invent it.
She whimpers and moans because she thinks I like that. And I do. It's true. In the big world I'm small, but here I'm big.
For a split second, when I come, everything turns surreal. I can't remember how I ended up in this no-name hotel on the other side of the planet. How did it happen that I'm holding this delicate human in my arms? We're not passing like ships in the night, we're bouncing off each other like atoms in outer space, anonymously dancing the dance that spins the world. As close as we've been, we'll never see each other again, that's absolutely certain. And then it's over, and she's getting dressed and everything reforms into shapes and sounds I can deal with only because I saw a movie once that looked something like this.