small stories from beneath military rule
June 2014, Bangkok
He never imagined, before he began to wander, how many other people were wandering too, not quite living anywhere, just floating about, how many other people were naturalized citizens of the country called, “I have no place else to go.” A lot of other people, it turns out, had also done the math and figured that they could live for a very long time in a cheap country and, because ties had grown so weak, had immediately done so, without ever deciding what, exactly, they would do during the day, without recognizing that sanity is just as fragile as any other form of health.
The first night the curfew is relaxed, Bangkok plays to an empty house. The girls on their bar stools, the boys in white shorts, the rows of fake watches with no one to love them. Even for the indomitable, maintaining the appearance of cheer is a strenuous task, like a devoted mother who makes her voice sound cheerful every time she walks into the room of her beautiful son, lying there hooked to machines. Almost everyone is capable of heroics. The trouble is that trouble goes on and on.
He was lost. He recognized that he was lost. He did not wish to be lost. He did not want to go on being lost for a long time. It was exhausting being lost. It was better than wanting to die. He knew that he was lucky to be lost in this way, in what seemed the luckiest possible way to be lost: alone in a bright stark room with white walls, white linoleum, blue polyester curtains, with desk, attached toilet, even a small refrigerator. He did not wish to be lost and still he did not neglect to be grateful that he was lost in this way, so empty, so clean and so bright.
Thank You So Much
Those men who say, before removing their pants, Please ignore me if I say totally stupid and crazy things during sex, like I love you.
Ice Age Updates
Often it seems to me that return visits to the gay scene in Bangkok are essentially updates on the progress of meth, on an ever-encroaching ice age. Sneaking up to hug an old friend from behind, hands over his eyes, Guess who? he turns, and I find his eyes like gutted candles, a smile but no one at home in it, and that voice, the voice of ice -- the words all the same, all correct, and the tone like reading aloud from old newspapers.
Sure, he’s using some, he admits, but only on weekends and he’s totally keeping it together, absolutely together, tight, the same four skin creams in the same order and all his porn alphabetized, the door knobs covered in plastic wrap and the shoes lined up, the bottles of poppers lined up, everything neat as a spice rack and he can tell you everyone he hates, either alphabetically or in order of intensity.
Even then there are surprises. Like the news that one friend, long since zombified, has taken vows as a monk and returned, by all accounts, to being quite recognizably human. Such is the state of affairs: losing another friend makes me shrug, but the news that one has returned leaves me here crying helplessly into my breakfast of rice soup with chicken.
How is Bangkok?
People want to know. Speaking as a queer wanderer, Bangkok is fine. Fine as long as it is enjoyed in a very ordinary way: for bags of sliced papaya, pineapple and guava, for aimless wandering in Lumpini Park, for the pleasures of a clean and silent room, for orchids and sidewalks. Coup or no coup, the rule is the same: Bangkok is fine as long as you do not attempt to have fun. If you attempt to have fun, the dogs of misery are at once set upon you. The trouble is not so much the price list as it is being reminded you are worthless. We do not require the army to police us. We have been policing ourselves all along. Try to have fun and you will have toes shoved in your mouth by men who wish to make themselves feel big. Attempts to have fun are besieged with old pictures of oneself, regrets, catty remarks. Attempts to reprise one’s career in pornography result in a kind of cascading nightmare. But if you give up, if you do not ask too much for yourself, it is all right. Sometimes it can even be fun.
I heard a British woman ask, with zero irony, “Is there a coup rate?”
My very rich friend is part of the Chinese-Thai aristocracy. He calls deposed prime minister Yingluck, that whore. When the U.S. makes clear it disapproves of the coup, he refers to the ambassador as that bitch. Nowadays almost every one of his sentences includes one of these words. If he’s useless in sex, if there’s shit on the sheets, he says, “I’m Yingluck!”
My other Thai friends are not rich and they hate him. Chink, they call him.
This sign at the cafe that reads
Beware of your belongings.
When he jacked off I was astonished by how far out in front of him his hand was, as he tugged on the first third of a cock so remarkably long that it seemed a great distance away from the rest of him, like Florida, or even Alaska. Reminded me of the photos I’ve seen of Matt Hughes. Not Matt Hughes the boxer. Matt Hughes eleven inches. Didn’t look like he’s jacking off. Not exactly. More like he was strumming on a small guitar.
As for him, he was rightfully offended that people assumed he was a prostitute just because he was young and black and had a perfect muscular body, as well as a gigantic penis. “People with big penises need sex too!” he insisted and I agreed vigorously, as vigorously as I could, while trying, at the same time, to seem neither patronizing nor desperate.
One of those things that isn’t mentioned nearly often enough:
You deserve to be warned that more than half the people who urge you to follow your dreams will never forgive you for doing so.
Every day I buy fruit from a vendor on the side of the street. I feel lucky to be in a place where buying fruit can be such an ordinary thing. Not like Tokyo, where buying two kinds of fruit that aren’t bananas is classified as an event.
I noticed that the kindly man who chopped up the guava always threw away the central part with the seeds, but that part is tasty too, as well as nutritious, so that I learned to say, in Thai, “give me all of it” and I practiced and then, when I went to buy my fruit, I said it to him, and he looked happy and surprised that I had learned a little Thai. He put every part of the guava into the clear bag. When he handed the fruit to me he grinned and asked, in English, “So -- where’d you learn to say that?”
The military has arrested the son of the former prime minister. He was released after “a talk to fine-tune understanding”.
Because that is just what armies do.
I dreamt I was looking down steep stairs to a river, as though I had returned to Benaras. Lined up in the water were five very narrow boats. In each of them a young man was lying calmly, face up, with eyes open. Each man gleamed, as if lightly coated in oil.
As I watched, the first young man was set on fire. He had already been doused in kerosene. His face contorted in agony and then the flames consumed him. After a few minutes only a black husk was left. Then it was time for the next young man.
I watched helplessly from the top of the staircase. I did not understand why these young men had chosen to sacrifice themselves. The second young man screamed and burst into flame. The next three waited quietly, staring up into the sky.
If you are fortunate enough to receive an invitation, the host will greet you at the door with a plastic basket for your clothes and a remote control wrapped in plastic wrap. “This is your remote and that is your TV,” says the host. It is one of six flat-screen TVs lined up against the wall in a large room which has been cleared out except for the TVs, two cots, a sling, and a table in the corner with bottles of poppers and sugary drinks.
Each television has a memory card with hundreds of movies. The movies are grouped according to both studio and theme. You can choose twinks, bareback or Brazil, as well as HotHouse, Treasure Island, or MenAtPlay. Thus every man can have exactly the porn of his choice. It is no wonder that the host is renowned and that everyone wants to attend one of his parties.
Here at the orgy you may do whatever you like -- but you must not lose track of your remote and you must not touch anyone else’s. Any man who attends a party must be both adventurous and versatile. You must be beautiful and/or hung. You can fuck the men or get fucked, suck or get sucked, you can fist, you can piss -- in the area designated area, please! You can do anything -- but you must not touch anyone else’s remote. Anything else you can do. The man won’t mind. He may not notice. He is watching his television. Even with his cock is buried in the back of your throat, he has his remote in hand and he is fast-forwarding, searching for the very hottest scene in Viral Loads.
Even if you are one of the passionate minority who believe that a man on the screen -- horsehung, ripped and gleaming -- cannot compare to an ordinary man in the flesh with hair on his belly and his briefs around his ankles, it is of no use. The man has his remote and he is not letting go of it for anything.
The deposed former prime minister in exile, the man who is perhaps the cause of it all, is asked to comment on the coup. He says, “I hope the military will soon return smiles to the faces of the people”.
Because, again, that’s just what armies do.
“Sure, I get fucked, I want to feel what my man feels like, but mostly I am a top. I like to flip fuck. If you fuck me, then I am going to fuck you, that’s my rule. Of course Antonio Banderas and Sean Connery can fuck me, but mostly I am a top.”
My friend is 71. He makes a fine Manhattan and has just attempted to blow me on the fire escape. He is upset because he has only gotten fucked in his fancy temporary apartment, he hasn’t fucked anyone, and he can only afford two more months here on the 21st floor.
I ask him what he will do when his visa runs out. He says he might fly to Sweden -- because who doesn’t want to fuck a tall blonde Scandinavian? “But it’s expensive,” I say, because I am a paragon of good sense and caution. He says, “I haven’t figured that part out yet.” Then he runs his fingers along my neck. “I assume you’ll be staying over.” I explain that I am a person who needs a lot of time alone. It’s my all ages excuse. He says, “For breakfast I brought croissants.”
I take my shoes from the shoe closet. I kiss him quickly on his fuzzy mouth. I didn’t bring flowers or fruit or wine or cheese to dinner with him. I didn’t bring anything. Manhattans were my father’s and grandfather’s favorite drink but I had never tasted one. I don’t wait for the elevator. I run down the emergency stairs, all the way down twenty-one floors. It feels good to run. Nothing will ever change unless I change it. My bad habits are not going to just peter out on their own.
“He got everything he ever wanted for his funeral. Except he didn’t want an open casket, so on that we fudged a little. I decided it was OK because he couldn’t have imagined how good he was going to look! He hadn’t looked that good in years. Except they did his hair wrong. So I got his comb and combed his hair the way he liked it. He was a good-looking man, I realized then. I hadn’t really known before. He was my man and I loved him, but I didn’t know what a good-looking man he was until he was in his casket and I was combing his hair.”
Making to love to a tender tall broad-shouldered man in the afternoon behind blue curtains on a clean hard white bed at the infamous and eternal Malaysia Hotel, I feel that my lover and I are just the surface. Beneath my body, his body, the sheets, the bed, the Malaysia Hotel, there is a broad red river of molten earth and blood and we are just appearances, ripples, in that molten river, which is nothing like I have described, or is only so from this perspective, which is itself entirely dreamlike, an appearance. That river is a hum, is being. I see the river as a current underground, but in fact the river is all that is going on.
As I saw this, I carried on kissing him, holding him, tumbling with him, and although I suspect he guessed that something was a little strange, he was a great broad-hearted man and he did not mind.
The sense that a disaster would at least provide some structure. Surely this is a more popular option than is generally recognized?
Because it is exhausting to make each day from nothing, and then to try to determine what the days before meant, or if they were worth anything. Such a temptation: to want to know that you are doing it right. I ought to have agreed on who I was for just one day, knowing full well that it was arbitrary, that I was not that. I should have at least provided for myself a working title.
When I visited her in the hospital, my friend told me about the first time she ever smoked ice. “For the first time I was fine just as I was. I wasn’t being crushed to death. Everything was so bright.
“I went to take a shower and, as I dried off, I stood before a full-length mirror. I looked at myself, at my whole body. For the very first time in my entire life I did not feel ugly or ashamed. Even then, high as a kite, it seemed to me a little sad that I had decided to destroy myself, just at the moment I discovered I was all right.”