Women are meant to be Thai. That’s what your buddy Phil told you before you flew over from the States and became the man you’d sworn you’d never be, sitting at this strip bar with a woman, no, a girl, who you can only describe as a flower. Not because she’s pretty—she’s not pretty—but because of the way she leans towards you with an open face that’s as painted and perfumed as a false rose, glistening under a sheen of plastic moisture, the mouth widening in a way that reminds you of what’s between her legs.
“Her” is your wife—your wife’s legs. You haven’t slept with anyone except Sarah since you were seventeen. That’s twenty-five years. That’s fidelity, you told yourself during the divorce last year, when you were peeking down your daughter’s best friend’s shirt as the girls did push-ups in the garage. Her breasts hung down in points, you toyed with the idea of them over you, over your lips.
“Juicy,” Phil says on your left, eying the girl who curls over his shoulder to pour his drink. The green Heineken skin-suit cries her wares.
“Steaks are juicy, Phil. Not people.”
Phil puts a hand on your shoulder and kneads his thumb into your collarbone.
“Rick, look where we are. Why did we come to Bangkok?”
You came for this bar-lined street. Your drinking hole extends into the sidewalk, so that you’re sharing your space with passing motorbikes and drunks stumbling in the gutter. A fluorescent palm fountains above you. The metal stool between your legs scrapes the pavement as you shift, and you keep shifting like a crab because Sai—the flower beside you who’s now fingering the ice in her drink—has her knees pressed into your leg. Is she what you came here for? You notice the splotches beneath her eyes. She looks up at you and smiles.
“That’s what you came for,” Phil grins. He tells Sai, “My friend is a little quiet.” He takes her hand and slaps it down on your leg. “So you’ll have to do the talking, sweetheart. Kao jai? It’s his first night.”
But it will only take one. Phil will drunkenly recount this night a year from now, when you marry Sai. “So there’s our damsel, Rick, getting his lights punched out by some Thai kid, when this beauty here steps in to save him. She even taught him to dance. I remember the moves. Awful,” he’ll say, resurrecting your heel-shuffling on the podium of the Catholic church that you will insist on, even though those bonds didn’t hold the first time.
“You like dancing?” Sai’s hand is planted on your leg.
“I can’t dance. You would laugh.”
“Like him?” She indicates a foreigner, even larger than you, who keels from side to side like a rowboat. Sai mimics his gait on her barstool, rocking her head between her shoulders. “Dance with me,” she laughs.
You shake your head. You say you don’t know the thumping tune, something appropriate to Sai’s generation. Christ, Rick, she’s nineteen. Your daughter’s age. That’s if she’s telling you the truth. And nobody’s telling you the truth. Not your daughter, Charlie, who had known about the other man, and not your wife, certainly. What did you expect? That’s what Sarah told you—”What did you expect?”—when you found the condom floating in the toilet, limp and pink and still slimy in your fingers when you picked it up—unthinking—in your shock. Not my dick, you thought, sizing up your competition. You wondered if she had put it on for him.
“You like Bangkok?” Sai says.
What do you know about Bangkok? You’ve seen the inside of a mall and this street. You’re jet-lagged. It’s morning on the East Coast. This is the wrong time to be out. You pick up Sai’s hand and lay it on the bar.
“Is this where you’re from?” you ask, making a twirling motion with your finger. “Well, not here, this soi, but Bangkok I mean.”
Try again. “Bangkok. Are you from Bangkok?”
“Bangkok? No. My family in Udon Thani,” she says.
“Right.” Where is that? You’ve heard of Phuket, the beach where you’re going next week. You turn to Phil but he’s trying to explain the plot of some movie to the girl in his lap—”A real slugger, know what I mean?”—so instead you raise your drink and bite back the gin.
Sai takes your hand. Unexpected. She raises it like you’re going to make a vow.
“Bangkok,” she says, pressing her finger into the meat of your palm, somewhere near the bottom where hand joins wrist. “In Thai called ‘Krung Thep.’”
She traces her finger up the palm, racing northeast, across the callused expanse from your rowing days. You’re ticklish. The skin flinches. She moves up the pinky of your splayed fingers.
“Udon Thani. My home.” She pinches the finger at its tip.
“How about Phuket? I’m going next week.”
Back down the length of the country, through Bangkok, south, southwest, onto your wrist, lower, tracing the blue that rivers below the skin. She stops halfway down your forearm.
“Koh Phuket. Island.” She looks at you. Coyly, “I go with you?”
No. Reclaim your hand.
“Maybe.” You’re drunk. “My daughter is your age.”
“What her name?”
“She’s nineteen this year. Her name’s Charlotte.”
Sai tilts her head. “If I go US, I be friend with Charlotte?”
Sai puts your hand on her bare knee. Her legs have small hairs, and when your hand moves against them it feels like someone’s breathing on your palm. When was the last time you touched something that smooth. Sarah’s belly? At eighteen, maybe, and in the last months of her pregnancy with Charlie, flesh taut as a tent roof. Beneath the skin, you think you can sense Sai’s pulse. You’re remembering what Mr. Jobson told you back in high school biology, about where you can feel the beat of one’s body: wrist, neck, elbow crook, the fold behind the knee, the warm place between the legs. So you start touching with your fingers, not a stroke, softer, the way you used to do to Charlie in her crib after she’d screamed herself to sleep, laying two fingers across the cushion of her cheek, a curl of spit drying around your fingernails. You always saw more of Sarah in Charlie. Sarah’s boxy teeth and the way she slept with an eye peeking open, a white crescent that watched you through the night.
Charlie also has Sarah’s rolling temper. You were reminded that last Christmas when Charlie shut the front door on you, as if the divorce had been your fault. She didn’t even take the present—an Arthur Conan Doyle collection from your childhood and a tuition check, so she could reenroll in university—which was the only reason you were there, because you hadn’t planned to stay. Of course not. Maybe in the foyer, far enough to see the tree all lit. At the door you hesitated, thinking how stupid it was to knock, again, on what was your own door. You paused on the threshold. Your hand has stopped at the hem of Sai’s skirt. You’re poised to go farther, to breach the door, but also to take your hand back, heft the Christmas gift under your arm and return to the car. You teeter on the brink.
Sai scoots forward. You’re under her skirt.
She picks up her glass and takes the straw in her mouth.
“You like Thai woman?” Her knees squeeze together, pinching your wrist, an encouragement to get closer. Go on. Her knee against your arm. You think about knees around your back. Young, strong, embracing your waist. The tendons tight and pulsing against your side. You’ll feel those legs tonight, in your hotel room, when you’ll also discover that she’s never had sex. In your head: What kind of bar-girl—no, never mind. How will you know? Not the blood. She was forced to pop that herself—as she’ll tell you later, much later—squatting in a black toilet reaching up inside. You’ll know by her eyes: afraid of you. It will make you think about your crushing size and the swell of stomach that looms over her like a white moon.
You’ll recall the first time with Sarah, and how afterwards you sat on the car hood watching the moon rise, the red bulge on the sea horizon ballooning in your memory. Sarah was beside you, sitting up against the car windshield wearing panties and your T-shirt. Your jeans stood in boots nearby, and farther off your belt, in the bush where Sarah had tossed it. Her body stretched into the view: the dimpled muscle of her legs, the gloss on her toenails. It was her languid confidence that you fell in love with, the sense that she was strutting while lying still. That evening, it had been enough to make you come out with some stale line about her, the sun, you in orbit. Only Sarah shook her head. “No, nothing galactic,” she said, watching the stars. “We could be anybody.”
When you remember this you’ll stop. Your knees will sink into the hotel bed. You’ll stare at Sai’s dark face below you, like a stain on the white sheets. Her curry sweat. The slight sour between her legs. What are you doing? You’ll say it aloud, to yourself, only Sai will think it’s her. She’ll blink, then apologize. She’ll shift beneath you, fold her legs so you slip out. She’ll curl onto her side.
“I’m sorry.” You slip off your bar stool. You’re going back to the hotel. To the States.
Sai stands too. She’s worried. She looks over her shoulder.
“Please,” she says. She catches your hand. “Where you go?”
You see Phil dancing inside the bar. He’s laughing, lifting a girl against his chest as if he means to make off with her, dance her into the horizon for the fairy-tale finish that you have twice been promised. Once by your wife, on the day you were married, and again by Phil when he invited you out here.
“Why Bangkok?” You had asked when you met up to celebrate the divorce.
“Life is cheap. We could live like kings.”
But Thailand was too far from Charlie.
“You love your fucking women so much,” Phil said. “You want women? We’ll find some women.”
That’s what Phil came for. That girl and her swollen look, like bleeding mango heavy on a tree. Phil only saw Charlie once, a couple years after she was born. “Kids are anchors,” Phil had said. “Around your feet. You’re up here right now, but expect to sink for the rest of your life.” You and Sarah had laughed about it afterwards. You never invited him back to the house, only meeting him monthly for drinks.
“I keep him around to remind me,” you told Sarah, when she asked why you wasted time on that lecher, “what I would be without you.”
Phil’s dancing. He doesn’t hear you shout his name.
“Why you go?” Sai asks. On her feet she’s smaller. The dress loosens around her, pulls at her shoulders so that she looks like one of those Japanese cartoon characters, made up of all lengths and no girth.
“Stay with me.”
You know it’s a production-line comment, just another gear in the works of what these girls are taught. It’s also what you said to Sarah after you found the condom. Unlike Sarah, you’ve never had the conviction to walk away.
You sit. You make sure there’s an entire barstool between the two of you. You’d have to lean to touch Sai. She’s lost her confident veneer. Her pin-on twinkle.
“A year ago my wife found another man. Right in time for our big anniversary.” Sai pours your drink. “Twenty-five years. Can you believe it? Empires have crumbled in less.”
“Yes,” Sai says.
“That’s enough time to pay a mortgage. What do I have to show for it?” You empty the glass. “A lying, college drop-out of a daughter.” You point at Sai as you say, “No, actually, that’s not Charlie’s fault. I told her if she moved in with her mom I’d cut her college funding. So she left school. Look how that turned out.”
Sai’s eyes are fixed on your extended hand.
“You don’t even understand me, do you?”
In a small voice: “I understand.”
“No you don’t.”
You have to stretch across the one-seat length. A jagged kiss. Half lip, half cheek. Their mouths are so damn small, these Thai women.
Their hips too, thankfully. Years from now you’ll still be able to wrap her waist in the crook of your arm. Not like Sarah. One Thanksgiving you made a joke about Sarah easing off the pumpkin pie. “You all should have seen the woman I married. Wow.”
Sarah turned to the table with a smile, her smile: teeth that didn’t meet, more like a grimace. She gave a small laugh as if to say, What can you do?
“Why do you have to be such an asshole, Dad,” Charlie said, to the sound of your friends tearing meat off their drumsticks.
That Thanksgiving night, as Sarah changed by the bed, you pressed your chest into her back and bunched her stomach in your fist.
“Some things that stretch don’t go back,” Sarah said, alluding to Charlie’s natural birth. You told her that she wasn’t being fair, that it was a joke.
“You’re always making jokes, Rick.” She unclasped your hand and stepped out of reach, but red fingers clung to her rumpled skin. She pulled on a nightgown.
“You never used to wear a nightie when we were young.”
“I never felt like I had to,” she said.
Your mouth is still on Sai when it comes: an amateur shot, a stiff fist that hammers you out of your seat. You think you slipped off your stool. That the ground gave in, or your head, you realize, palm against the thumping temple. You stare up at the Thai boy who punched you. Young, Sai’s age. His eyes are bloated and red. Teeth shut. Teeth that you can smell, suddenly, as he throws his weight on you and jams an arm under your chin, forcing you back to the ground. Another punch to your ear, which you hear as though you’re under water. A muted ring. You fumble at his face. But he’s out of reach, in Sai’s arms. She’s facing the boy, blocking him. He won’t hit her. He won’t touch her.
Phil steps around Sai and takes an elbow to the boy’s head, and follows with a heel when the boy curls onto the ground. Huy, huy, huy. Some Thai men are yelling, pulling Phil away. The boy, clutching at his chest like he has something cradled there, is led across the street by two men. Sai follows them.
A yellow sign for Teen Love Massage Parlour winks above you. The bar girls lean in. Awake? Alive? their faces seem to say. They twitter in Thai. One’s in a cowboy hat. Another in tassels and a bra. The other, you suspect, is a man below the skirt. You tell them you’re not hurt. You lift yourself onto your elbows.
“Fucking junkie kids,” Phil says.
A bag of ice is dropped beside you on the street. When you lift it dirt has crusted on the plastic but you press your head against it anyway. The bar-girls laugh, as if you knocked yourself out.
“Keep it there,” Phil says when you let the bag drop. He curls his hand and looks at the knuckles. “Fuck me. He went right at you. You see that?”
“Man, sorry about that. It’s not like that here. These people don’t fight back. Trust me, I know.”
“Alright,” you say.
“I’ll get you a drink?”
The bag’s dripping mud into your shirt. Sai comes back, stepping around the motorbikes in the street. She kneels beside you and wipes at her red eyes. She smiles: no teeth bared, just the pinch of a dimple in her cheek.
“Koh todt.” She raises her arms in wai: hands pressed together, fingertips brushing her lips, lashes down. She looks so sincere that you clumsily lift your own arms. You fall onto your back.
“Sorry ka,” Sai says. A hand on your cheek, where she thinks he connected. But it’s higher, closer to your eye. Her thumb rubs the grit from your face. “Hurt?”
“What was that?”
She shakes her head, touches her chest. “My brother.”
“Oh, God.” You laugh hysterically. “What the hell is he doing here?”
“Come to see.”
“Shouldn’t your brother be used to this? Bring him back here. I want to meet him properly,” you say. But you won’t see that boy again. “Too far,” Sai will claim when you ask about her family, even though you’ll be living in Bangkok. And then, gently, “They don’t like farang men.”
“It’s too far,” Charlie will tell you after you decide to stay in Thailand.
“Not if you come to stay. There’s work here for English speakers. Everything’s cheap. You could move out here.”
“You moved there. You picked the other side of the world. There’s nothing for me in Thailand. You just want to keep me, to isolate me like you did Mom.”
It’s your wedding. You want your daughter there.
“Dad, stop,” Charlie will say. “I’m not going.”
“Please come.” Sai helps you to your feet and guides you through the bar toward the bathroom. Everyone watches you pass. You’re the injured player, the tipped pawn led from the board. You can’t shake the feeling that it’s all a show. They’re thirsting for a spectacle, their stares fixed on that nose, those eyebrows, that gut. Your emotions: inflated. In the corner Sai’s panderer has probably got an eye on you, on Sai. A matronly woman wearing—God knows why—an apron. A pimp in an apron. You turn. You’re looking for Mother Goose. Chuckle sheepishly. Who are you kidding? The bar is packed with your type: chalky men in loafers and breezy shirts; and her type: girls, young girls. You could be anybody.
You pass Phil. You gesture at the stage of your belly.
“Look at this mess. And the shit on my face.”
Sai leaves you with him and the girl on his arm.
“My first night is looking to be my last,” you say. “I’m going home.”
Phil hands you his beer. “That’s why I always come back to the same woman. She’s no trouble. This is Bee.” Phil tugs the zipper of Bee’s leather vest down to her navel, then back up. With a buzzing sound, he takes his mouth to her shoulder and stings her with a kiss. Bee laughs.
“No brothers?” you ask her.
“No family!” She takes the beer from you and drinks. “All here. All no parents. Orphans.”
Phil turns away and lights a cigarette.
“What about Sai?”
“Same same,” Bee says.
“It explains the protective brother,” you say.
“Brother? No, Sai have no brother. No family.”
“He just punched me,” you tell her.
“It was her brother that punched you?” Phil asks.
You both look at Bee.
“Sai strong woman. She like you. Fight for you!” Bee mimics kangaroos boxing, bouncing on her feet and rolling her arms.
“No, no,” Sai says, returning for the end of Bee’s act. She wipes your face with a cloth. You flinch. “Oh, oh,” she says, like she feels your pain.
But you wonder about hers.
“Your brother,” you say.
She waves her arm loosely. “He go home.”
“I’m going home,” you tell them.
“Please come,” Sai says.
“Okay but clean first.” Sai loops her arm through yours and pulls you toward the bathrooms. Looking back, you’ll know this point as the pivot. You’ll think: It was easy, like slipping back into a warm bed.
The last time you slept with Sarah was near the end, months after you found out about the other man. She had hired a divorce lawyer. Sarah was sleeping in Charlie’s room, empty since Charlie had left for college. But in the night Sarah had crept in, and you woke to find her back burrowing into you, furiously, as if she meant it to hurt. Your lips against her neck—how long had it been?—and behind her ear where the flesh was twisted.
You lifted yourself above her. Her eyes were shut tight, the crescent of white gone—she was awake.
“You aren’t just anybody, you know.”
“I know,” she said.
So you looked for it, the muzzle she had, a mouth made for tearing. Her kiss was fierce, but she let you do the work, moving downward to her downy chin, the nub of her collarbone. Callused hands catching on the fabric of her shirt, pushing it up. You skirted her breasts, afraid to go too close to the chest, where the rogue lurked. The taste of her skin: salt. Your tongue found the fold between thigh and body. There, you could feel her heart.
Sarah kept her eyes closed. Maybe she imagined the other man’s mouth, his attention. You lost yourself in another too, the girl you had married, before the meat of her waist was enough to fill your hands. You shut your eyes and recalled the feel of her. Eighteen. The firm press of her hips.
But Sarah knew what you were doing. She wouldn’t let you. She made it unfamiliar. She didn’t arch her back for you. She didn’t cry out, pull at your skin or your hair. She didn’t enjoy it. When you were done she stood and walked to the bathroom, and in the morning she changed the sheets.
The bathroom is a single black stall. The soot on your face matches the walls. Sai latches the door hook, soaks the cloth under a tap, and dabs at your skin. She hums as she works.
This is the only time you’ll think about the good mother she would make. After your marriage, when she asks you why you don’t want to have children, you’ll say, “I have a child. I left her behind for you.” You’ll feel vindicated by the unspoken half: So you give up yours. You’ll pat her school-girl hips beneath the bed sheets. “Why waste this?”
Her voice will flag. “You want me lone.”
“Speak English: You want me to be alone.”
“Yes,” she’ll say.
Sai will threaten to stop taking her contraceptive pills. You’ll check yourself into the hospital. It’s only when she sees the bruising between your legs that she’ll know what you’ve done.
But even during the worst times, when Sai shuts herself in the empty maid’s room behind the kitchen, you’ll tell yourself that you offered her a better life, away from the floorless homes of the northeast country, from the bar where you found her.
You’ll return to this beginning: the sound of cloth brushing around the red sore, softly, the way you used to touch Charlie in her crib. This makes you smile. The mud mask cracks along the wrinkles of your face. Sai follows one with her cloth.
“Happy lines,” she says.
You kiss her.
Sai giggles, sticks out her tongue and makes a face. You’ve left a smear of dirt on her mouth and black grains on her tongue. She makes the sound of something wet striking a wall: pahk. Then she leans into you, grinning, and licks your chin. You’re ticklish. You start and both of you fall against the wall, knocking the light switch. You leave it off.
When you kiss her again she’s laughing, the ripple of breath and muscle filling your mouth. This time, you think only of Sai.