BKK by Leigh Hellman

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December 2012

I called it Silom because the thought of some unknown stranger who would probably never meet me clutching their proverbial pearls in judgment was, ultimately, too much. It’s the stranger that I cared about, because I told all my friends what I really meant: Patpong.

I got off the brisk, clean train and exited the subway station—all fresh-paint white walls and fully functioning electronic ticketing machines, not an “OUT OF ORDER” sign in sight—walking the way that Chicago raised me to. Eyes forward: cold, glassy, seeing everything and noticing no one. No smile, no teeth. Quick, brusque steps weaving in and out of amblers and wanderers. Purposeful—I had someplace to go and someone to meet and you don’t even know but I belong here.

Of course, I didn’t know where I was going. I glanced up occasionally to catch a street sign or peer down an alley but there weren’t any big neon lights flashing SEX STREET HERE to a thumping techno beat. I looped back and forth, crossing the street to avoid the prying, suspicious eyes I imagined everywhere. It struck me that I was being paranoid—that I am paranoid—and I wondered if that was something bred out of four years of being the visible other after twenty-two years of being the “normal”.

Or maybe I am just a paranoid person.

WikiTravel warned that there was a night market, and WikiTravel was right. Dirty, white tarp pop-ups with kitschy tourist shirts and floral print sundresses, stainless steel lighters, glass bead bracelets and gaudy-bright necklaces, knock-off brand men’s underwear, jade and wood carvings labeled “AUTHENTIC”, bootleg porn DVDs and still-encased sex toys, socks, neon plastic sunglasses. Lined up over and over, vomiting out of the Patpong side street and oozing along the sidewalks of Silom Road. A six-story glass-front mega mall and a table selling dusty packaged dildos ten feet from its front doors.

None of the sellers hawked their wares too aggressively; no one yelled at me as I strode by. Even when I paused—my eyes catching something so bizarre on the table that I couldn’t not stop—only about half of them put down their smartphones and got off of their stools. There were probably so many dazed, drunk, good-exchange-rate high foreigners milling in and out of the stalls that the vendors don’t need to do much of anything to make a sale. I watched two sunburnt and saggy old men buy matching T-shirts that read: “What Happens In Bangkok…” in obnoxiously bold letters. They chuckled between themselves and added a porn DVD with a notably tame cover to the tab as a last-minute impulse buy. I could have read the DVD title if I had stopped, but I didn’t. Instead I passed them and made a hard right into the belly of the beast.

This was it—what I came for. I don’t really know what I was expecting, but this wasn’t it. Families with kids weaved between longer market booths stacked with silk scarves and hemp pants; a group of women in hijabs haggled with a middle-aged Thai lady over gold bangles. There were at least three beer grottos where Western frat boys in pastel polos and boat shoes drank bottles of imported Japanese beer and shared plates of $15 appetizers brought by waiters in cummerbunds. Only the hovel-dark doorways and the rotation of single, male passersby into and out of them hinted that this might be anything other than a respectable bar district.

I paced up and down the street, trying to look without looking. A leg and clear heels. The curve of frills over an ass. A push-up bra, less up and more out. My stomach turned, and yet. I was wet, and yet. It took me four walk-bys before I could bring myself to go in and beyond the doorless threshold.

I was simultaneously flush with adrenaline and punched in the gut by disappointment.

It was a strip club. At least, it was what late 90s pop movies had taught me strip clubs were. It was less scandalous than that—really—because no one was naked, or even topless. I would read about it later as I unlaced some random forum on the Internet: Public nudity is illegal in Thailand. The experience I was looking for was in closed-off second floors with solicitors on the street-level shoving laminated menus at pedestrians who they thought might be reasonable targets; I got no menu offers—even when I lingered to leer into the shows from a safe distance.

I might have gone upstairs, I might have asked to see a menu with girls’ pictures and specs listed out like a job applicant spreadsheet. Upstairs was private rooms and anonymous hallways and a huge plexiglas one-way window with girls sitting around in faded teddies and G-strings playing games on their phones until a knock on the glass told them that a customer was there. Upstairs was the order to stand up if you are willing to do women. Upstairs was girls with numbers pinned to their frayed bras going to auction for him-her-them-me, an invisible buyer who could accept or reject them with impunity. Upstairs was transaction, trafficking in sex acts for school tuition for the family back home for the desperate misbelief of intimacy for the thrill and the danger and the secrets I could boast about or take to my grave. Upstairs was soapy breasts sliding slick, a hard-working tongue between my legs and blunt fingers pushing in, kissing if the girl trusted me enough (if I asked politely), and a silence that grates like a nail file down a sheet of steel after we both come. Upstairs was my expectations with all the titillation and shock that I’d built up in the Patpong of my mind.

Downstairs was a narrow strip of stage with two unused poles and a troupe of go-go girls dancing only enough to be termed mediocre. It was red-tinted and shadowy and customers keeping at least two tables between them. I sat down along the far wall between two younger men huddled in the corners. None of the men—the young ones nearby or the older ones along the opposite wall—looked at me. They didn’t look at me with all their might, not even daring to shift their gaze away from the stage when my head turned pointedly in their direction.

The girls did look. They looked and nudged each other and a few of them giggled. The bartenders looked too, the way that the customers looked at the dancers. I smoothed my skirt over my knees and tried, fully aware of the mounting absurdity, to sit up straight and dignified. A few girls shimmied if they caught me staring but I didn’t know what to do about that—didn’t know what I wanted to do about it. Well, I knew. I wanted to meet one of these girls in a coffee shop or a bookstore or at a bus stop somewhere in the middle of the day when the sun was out and we both didn’t look like washed-out, red-scaled, funhouse versions of ourselves. I wanted to strike up a conversation, ask where the girl was from and what she was doing here and how life was treating her so far. I wanted to talk and laugh and get cut off too soon and hastily exchange phone numbers-emails-chat handles as the intersecting lines of our lives spun out and away. I wanted to call or text or email, but only after stressing about not coming off like a weirdo or a stalker or a loser. I wanted to meet again, and again; build a flirty friendship that strays in and out of ambiguity until finally we just can’t take it anymore and there’s a rambling, messy confession followed by a frantic yet passionate first kiss. Maybe in the rain or at the departures terminal or some shit like that.

I wanted to be single again, or not here at all.

I wanted to look each of these girls hard in the eye and tell them that they aren’t just sentient sex toys. I wanted to tell them that I love and celebrate them as sisters, that I respect them and their choices, that they don’t have to do this but that they can if they want to. I wanted to hug them close and sing Kumbaya and reassure them with Thai phrases I picked up from a 99-cent tourist guidebook. To show that I care, that I wasn’t like all the other people who drift in and out of the revolving doors of Patpong even if we share a language and a pale skin color and—more than infrequently—a passport. I am better than them: more self-aware, more empathetic, more qualified to tell these women how they should live their lives so that they’re worth something. I am a feminist, goddamnit, and that means that I am allowed to express my sexuality and challenge societal stereotypes and it isn’t oppression. It’s different.

But it isn’t different at all, not really. I only stared long at the girls I found physically attractive, and I imagined in the hypothetical being pushed up against a wall with a fishneted knee to grind down on and I calculated how much money I had to spend—what the cost analysis of another human being was that would alleviate my ugly guilt but still leave me with (more than) enough to spend on things that were important. This wasn’t a love story, epic or otherwise. I wasn’t looking for a partner. This wasn’t even a spiritual mission; I was not going to save any vaginas tonight. This was an experience, a service, and as I thought about it, wasn’t paying a woman fair wages for her labor one of the tenants of equality?

Or something like that.

I ordered the cheapest drink on the menu. I didn’t want to drink at all but it was part of the culture, and I was afraid someone would ask me (awkwardly, deferentially) to leave if I didn’t. I watched as some of the initial girls who had caught my attention were pulled off-stage and shuffled over to some of the other customers. There was a signal—there had to be—but I couldn’t figure it out so I sucked air through my thin straw and tried to look bold. A new girl positioned herself in front of me and started a goofy, arrhythmic kind of repetitive movement. It wasn’t sexy—it didn’t look like it was trying to be—but it sure as hell was more enthusiastic than the exhausted bounce-thrust combo that the other dancers relied on. Not that I could have blamed them; if I had to dance on stage for alternating half-hour shifts in 7-inch stilettos I would have been half-assing it too.

This girl was a little butcher than the others, though it might be more accurate to say a little less femme. Her hair chopped off above her shoulders and her thighs were thick with muscle. She smiled lopsided, revealed a few crooked teeth in the set, and I smiled back. Couldn’t help it. I kept up the eye-contact between song fade-outs and tossed around a few tentative gestures. The girl’s face scrunched confused, her features contorted in the pulse of dull neon.

I shrugged and took another sip and was too much of a coward to make another move but, at some point, the girl seemed to have a miraculous epiphany because she turned sudden and arched her fingers into an okay sign. When the buzzer went off to signal a shift change, the girl made her way down the stage steps towards the expanse of empty booth beside me.

We were shy—both of us—and it seemed so ridiculous that I wanted to laugh loud and obnoxious and long until everyone in the room was staring at me. But I didn’t. Instead I wound my hands together tight and balled my fists and maintained a buffer zone between us. I asked for a name but forgot it immediately, if I could have even heard it over the din in the first place. I gauged the level of English that I could use; the corners of the room were filled with silent groping and dry humping and I wondered how necessary small talk was at all.

But this was different, I was different: I wasn’t going to do anything in public, exposed. I was a customer but also a woman, and I couldn’t be so sure that the hungry male gazes recognized the distinction. The bartender edged in and asked if I wanted a drink. Two sets of eyes flicked to me and I nodded consent. Pulled out the 100 baht bills that I had rationed carefully and slipped under my bra strap so that I wouldn’t have a purse to pickpocket while I coursed through the Patpong crowds. The girl dropped a warm hand on my knee and I told myself that it was camaraderie, female affection—anything more than just a bargirl’s required shtick. It had to be something more, because the girl hesitated and ordered from the low-end drinks section.

I asked the girl questions:

How long has she been dancing? (A little more than a year.)

Does she like it? (Yeah, it’s okay but boring sometimes.)

Why did she start doing it? (To pay for her college tuition. She’s studying psychology.)

What do people think about it? (They understand. It’s a job—money. They understand.)

The girl asked me questions:

Where was I from?

Where did I live?

What did I do?

Did I like men?

Why was I in Thailand?

How long was I staying?

When I answered tomorrow morning, the girl’s smile fell. She yelled over the cacophonous ebb the she wished I was staying longer, wished I lived here. That we could see each other more, get to know each other.

I was flattered, my ego and my ethics, and I felt genuinely sad for the potential of us that never would be.

Then the bartender butted back in with the girl’s Jack & Coke and the moment fractured. He loitered, eyes dragging up from the hem of my skirt to the dip of my neckline. No cleavage even though my bra was sweat-soaked underneath.

“Hi.” He smirked, smug but not nasty.

“Hello,” I offered back.

The girl grabbed my hand and rubbed a thumb in circles across my palm. She leaned close and we giggled conspiratorially; I wasn’t sure what was so funny but it felt intimate again so I went with it.

“Live in Bangkok?” He hovered, ruffled a too-long mohawk with his left hand and propped an elbow against the unbalanced metal table between us. It rocked with the weight shift.

“No, just visiting.”

His face creased disappointed. Behind him, the other bartender glared but didn’t shout any warnings at him. He shifted his stance, opened and closed his mouth a few times like he was stretching out his jaw. He finally turned to the girl and spat out a fast stream of Thai; she cut back with sharp retorts. It sounded like an argument but they were both grinning and the girl hadn’t let go of my hand.

They were talking about me. I listened, imagined that I could understand a language I had never learned. I dropped my eyes and heard it like it was Korean, translated it because I already knew the questions and answers and I had gotten fairly used to being left out of conversations by now.

They cut off abrupt and he turned back to me. “Beautiful…sexy.” He nodded appreciatively and offered a thumbs-up.

I chewed on my bottom lip and pushed my chest out instinctively. I was flirting, not because I was interested but because in that moment I was desirable in multiples.

The bartender fished a cellphone out of the pocket of his khaki pants and typed a password onto the wide LCD screen. I knew he was going to ask for something that I couldn’t give and I shuffled through excuses trying to decide which one would be the most diplomatic. Somehow we’re just using each other to validate our social-sexual desires so let’s not make it weird just didn’t seem like it would cut it. Luckily, the girl leaned in to whisper-shout in my ear before he could bring up whatever app it was that he’s been looking for.

“You want to go out? You have time?” The girl’s fingertips brushed under the edge of my skirt. She wasn’t stunning, but she was real, genuine and warm, and I imagined that we both knew it was almost closing time and the night tended to be long and starving after it.

“I don’t know,” I murmured. “Maybe? I’ll think about it.” It meant no, even though the honest answer was yes. I wanted to go out, to enjoy this girl’s company and explore the city until dawn together. I wanted to hold hands and share a styrofoam plate of mango sticky rice. Now that I knew the girl—even in the abstract—I didn’t want to abandon her.

But it was money and time, and I told myself that I had too little of both. My plane was leaving at 10 a.m. and I had to save my last baht for—for what? A bubble tea at the boarding gate, an overpriced tchotchke in the shape of a white elephant to remember my time in transit by? I had a credit card with a full available balance and a reckless streak that had gotten me here in the first place—but I didn’t pull either one out.

It wasn’t time or money. It was the principle. It was the leap, the transaction, the dropped pretenses of friendly drinks and harmless chats and innocent curiosity. If I took that girl out, if I paid and we left, it wouldn’t matter what happened after. It wouldn’t matter if we stayed up all night watching discount DVDs or dangling our feet off an empty pier or if we rented out a motel room by the hour. If we left this bar, I would be part of the system. The thought bucked hard against my ideological core—made my educated, progressive, socially conscious trappings bristle.

I ignored everything else and focused on my moral repugnance so that I didn’t have to admit that it wasn’t about the system or the girl so much as it was about my own fear, my own hypocrisy.

In the end I was nothing more than the same coward I was at the beginning, and as I both defended and condemned myself, the girl drifted away. A man on the other side of the stage called her over and she went to stand in front of him. He motioned for her to spin. He was south Asian with a thick moustache and a loop of gold chains around his neck that glinted when they caught the shuttered light from the open doorway. The bartender sidled in and a frenzy of hand waving and finger pointing filled the air between them. The girl stood off to the side, staring at nothing in particular, and I thought she looked more bored than anything else.

Money changed hands—crisp red bills out of a silver money clip that the bartender folded slowly before shoving them into his pants pocket. The man gestured vague and jerky to the girl; she stood a head taller than him in her heels. He gathered up his discarded blazer and went to settle the tab on the drinks he had bought other dancers.

The girl caught me watching and I glanced away fast, a flush of defeat and embarrassment and shame and regret crawling up the back of my neck.

It was time to go.

When I stood up the bartender came over to shake my hand; his expression was so forlorn that I almost gave him an instinctual hug before recalling all the ways that could be misconstrued. I wanted to slink out, avoid the girl and the usurper but the place was a shoebox and they were positioned right by the door. So I decided to be brave, now that I wasn’t actually risking anything by it.

I walked soft towards the girl, face etched in apologies. She took me by the hands and squeezed like she had always been the one to comfort and reassure.

“You can still take me,” she offered with a half-smile. She could have hidden the pleading in her gaze if she wanted to—she was good at her job—but she didn’t.

“I’m sorry.” And I edged back out towards the unnaturally bright night.


Leigh Hellman Author PhotoLeigh Hellman is a recent graduate of the MA Program for Writers at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a current entry-level grunt. After gaining the ever-lucrative bachelor’s degree in English, she spent five years living and teaching in Gwangju, South Korea, as well as scraping together all her spare change for extracurricular travel. Her creative work has been featured in the Fulbright Infusion magazine and the American Book Review. In her spare time, Leigh enjoys obsessively rewatching her favorite films, perfecting her bad accents, and bartering with online coupon sites.

STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/Yuta Yamamoto

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