John Ottey |
MISSIVE TO T
From the moment I arrived, Asia attached itself like a new skin. The way night fell in on me when the automatic airport doors slid open. Bangkok. More than that. On a dirt road between two humps of an island, the endless roar of insects. Hill trekking through opium fields, passing armed patrols. Fried garlic beetles in the marketplace. A thigh-high boy buying whiskey at noon in the Seven-Eleven on Khao San Road. Something primal in the difference. Even the trees had it. Trees, yes, but differently featured like the cajeput. Cicadas. Coconut. Cobra. My new vocabulary. Krong-Thip, Mekong. Ping-pong. Pretty-pretty. Tuk-tuk. My new vocabulary.
When I sat with you in a bar back home two weeks before Asia, you said, Don’t worry, going by yourself. Meet people on plane. Easy entry. That was San Francisco. Nobody by Vancouver. Nobody by Hong Kong. And then the last leg. The video showing the plane getting closer, tracking our movement through the atmosphere. Me, praying for a mishap or a ceaseless orbit—suspended between two worlds. Stewardess, more peanuts, please.
Touchdown. Midnight, bright lights and still all these yellow bodies. You were wrong and absent. Tuk-tuk, Mekong, Krong-Thip, and all these yellow bodies. Sawadee, mai pen rai. Yellow bodies. My new vocabulary.
Khao San Road crouches like a tiger, impatient to assume the world. So you’ll remember, T., I’ll reconstruct it for you.
First visually. At one end: a monastery, a police station; the other end trailing into blackness. Khao San: four blocks of buildings piled precariously, one on top the other. A thick tangle of bodies worming between them: humanity. Neon scratches at the night. Music crackles through cheap speakers. Everywhere the tuk-tuks, motorbikes, men on bicycles towing kettles of street food, spilling coals that glow red on the pavement then become ashen and trampled. In the daytime: Buddhist monks, wrapped in saffron robes and rapt in prayer nibbling hot dogs and sipping at Coca-Colas. Bangkok, a magnetic spinning wheel; Khao San, its hub. Videos blast from open-air restaurants, the market stalls—cheap tapes, fake clothes. Mekong buckets, cheap-cheap. You buy. Hey, mister, dollar? Mr. Dollar.
Khao San Road. I’m staying again at the Paradise Guest House. I don’t know what draws me to this center, why I circle back to Bangkok and the Paradise. Somehow, I keep forgetting about the nightclub downstairs. It fires up around three a.m. and the pulsations travel through the cinder block, lodge in my bones. Mornings, my skeleton still thrums. The lounge crawls with lady boys who are, at this hour, dangerously hard to distinguish from the real girls. Pretty-pretty. I think of Jane with the hoops in his fingernails and the corncob teeth. The ones downstairs aren’t like that. These city boys have had the Adam’s apple removed.
Most nights I lie on my back and stare at the ceiling fan, held together with duct tape and band-aids. Its dubious brand name, “Lucky.” On each rotation, it threatens to launch from its orbit and bore a hole through my chest. It’d be quite a way to go—Krong-Thip clenched in my teeth and a bottle of Mekong by my side. Lucky.
It’s getting dicey, hard to hang on. Two nights ago I sat on the edge of the bed with the sheet between my teeth, took out my Swiss Army and cut off the infected part of my toe. Memories. It took two pints of Mekong, but I got to it before the maggots could hatch. I could feel them squirming in there. I bought some salve and tore up my last clean sock to wrap it.
The monsoons have come and the trick is not to let the toe get wet. The streets flood every afternoon to ankle-high and the sewage backs up. Everything reeks of decay. This isn’t how I want to remember things. Most of the tourists have fled and the hangers- on are a different breed. This afternoon I saw three guys drain a Mekong bucket and then beat each other bloody. I’m telling you, T., maybe it’s better you’re not here. All for now. Still no word for goodbye.
From where I sit on the dock at Phra Athit, I see black clouds descending on the city. In a few minutes they will explode and the waters of the Chao Phraya will swell the banks. I have just enough time to hobble back to Khao San before each street is a small river. There’s a travel office next to the Paradise and for the last few days I’ve become an afternoon regular. They call me Mr. San Francisco because that’s where I want to go. Every day it’s the same thing with Nong. So sorry, Mr. San Francisco, no ticket today. You try again tomorrow. I don’t know how long he expects me to wait. I’m not getting through. He laughs, nods happily. I want to strangle him. But I need that ticket. His little white dog sniffs my toe, licks at the blood seeping through the sneaker. When I point out the blood to Nong, try to press him with some urgency, he points to his feet, smiles, and says, mai pen rai, which means never mind. Then he grins, exposing teeth blackened by beetle nut and shows me the door.
More coming soon. Please keep this. It’s my only record, and I’m trusting you.
There’s the danger of repeating myself, circling back on a thing. Never getting anywhere, never connecting A with B. That’s what you’re for, T., to keep me straight.
The music from downstairs stops thumping—a good sign that it’s morning outside. I don’t know if I’ve slept. My toe has bled through the sock again and my hair is tangled with chewing gum. Patpong. I check my pants and there’s money enough for breakfast. A bowl of rice, some chili sauce. Maybe get a big Beer Chang. Lucky. I’ve got big plans today. First thing after I eat, I’m going to swing by Nong’s, see if Mr. San Francisco’s ship has come in. Then I’m going to the herpetological institute to watch them milk the snakes for venom. It’s how they make the antidote and this intrigues me. What kills us holds the key to our salvation. I plan to write all this to you, T.
Some time this afternoon, before the rains come, I’ll go out to the river and sit on the dock at Phra Athit and try to get it just right. Already, I’m missing so much. The python on Ko Tao, the fire ants at Laem Kung Yai, for starters. Tuk playing "Led House Ovel Yondel" in the Brasserie in Chang Mai, taxi dancing at the Rim Ping. Cockfights under the Nawarat Bridge on the Ping River. Wat Pho and the reclining Buddha. Last night’s jaunt with Sven to Patpong. Whatever else today holds and the weeks that are to come. I hope I can last. I hope Nong has my ticket. I can’t keep track. Everything is fading like the last rays of the sun on the Chao Phraya River, floating away from me. Being cut by the wake of a long-tail boat. Washing away with the rains, draining into the enormous waters of the Gulf of Siam. But I’ve got to try to get it just right, while it’s still fresh. Another missive, ensuring my past. Still no word for goodbye.
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