Bangkok Butterflies

Waking up alone in the morning heat of Bangkok was weird. Angelo had plunged in a new city and country without even a guidebook. It was time for breakfast. He stumbled through a shower and got downstairs quickly. The croakiness of his voice thrilled the desk woman when he said, “Good morning.” She stared openly at him when he came last night and she was staring and smiling again.

He stepped out onto Khaosan Road and bought water and started looking for someplace to eat. He wound up window shopping the two hour interim away. He found a great little covered alley way that was full of biker culture shops. Leather accessories and jackets, a hair and nails parlor, a boot maker, two tattoo places, assorted juice bars that reeked of cannabis. There was a back-packer inn with a courtyard restaurant at the end of it. It felt distinctly European which was somehow what he was looking for in a breakfast place. He had acrid yogurt crepes and juice and coffee and listened to conversations spoken in modern branches of Indo-European and thought about how time and place change everything.

He was glad he was there alone. It would make him get going on the To-do list. He went back toward his inn, passing all the biker places. A new tattoo was not on the list. He went to one of the used book shops. They also rented them. He found a fairly recent Lonely Planet guide for Thailand and bought it.

When he paid the woman she laughed at him and called to her Thai friend to tell her about it. He knew why. He had got into the habit of handing money with two hands, left supporting the right. It was Korean etiquette and though he’d been out of Korea for eight months he couldn’t stop. He had always found the compounding of habit easier than the reducing. The woman returned his change to him the same way, left hand under right, bowing slightly, smiling, demonstrating for her friend. A distant link to the Mongols who left their cultural seed here and there and everywhere.

He was headed up to his room to study the guide but he was still caught up in the shops and atmosphere. The road was crowded with tourists from everywhere in the world. It reminded him of San Francisco, all races, styles, affectations, accents, clothing. He saw a group of young Thai adults. Two of them were clearly transvestites and the other two boys were likely gay or just affecting it for their friends. They played loud voiced tag, which seemed to be escalating into a water fight, in the front of a shop. No one noticed. The shop owner joined in the game once or twice. They were just a part of the scene. It was completely unlike eastern Asia where confucianism demanded that homosexuality not exist; enforced penalties when it refused to admit it didn’t.

He cruised cassette tape stalls finding bands and bootlegs that the import shops of Seattle hadn’t been able to offer. He made his way down the street; tour shops with posters of islands, jungles, elephants, dances, giant gold Buddhas, bus schedules; silver shops with millions of rings in thousands of styles; teak shops with reproduction African sculpture; T-shirt stalls with every cartoon character that had been popular in the US three or four years before. In a shoe shop he saw a entire king cobra skin offered for sale. It was twenty feet long and nearly a foot wide. It was almost a thousand dollars. Whenever he crossed the street or even got too far off the sidewalk he was assailed by three wheeled tuk-tuk cabbies trying to get him to come see the rest of the city. The shops were all interesting and appealed to his American urge to elevate mood through purchase but he didn’t buy anything. His wonder was being fed and that was enough.

At the end of the street he saw it. He hadn’t known why he’d picked Thailand for his Christmas break. Now he did. It was a cart parked in front of the stalls. It was covered in wood frames and inside the frames under glass were insects and arachnids. Angelo walked straight to it.

Enormous black scorpions, eight inches long, tarantulas as big as his palm, divers beetles of science fiction glosses and sizes, cicadas with seven inch wing spans. But the butterflies. There were butterflies he could hardly believe were real. One was so large that Angelo’s outstretched fingers on both hands weren’t as big as its wings. Though the antennae of this paper winged king were a give away that it wasn’t a butterfly but a moth. Its wings were twelve inches and its orange and brown colors were rich. He’d seen one wild on Hong Kong. They made him think of Alex.

Every year got harder. When Alex was born there was so much going on that he missed feeling some of the things he’d wanted to. Every year passing without seeing her was increasing the ramp of the pain. It wasn’t any work to push up it at first but it was becoming strain. It was becoming somatic. He wanted to buy her the butterflies.

He looked over the collections close up. They weren’t shoddy or tacky. They were museum quality. Each insect had a tiny bore hole where it had been filled with a solid preservative so the skeleton wouldn’t collapse into dust someday. They were glue mounted expertly, it was nearly invisible. The fine antennae and legs were lacquered for strength. Each frame and shadow box had napthalene in it to kill the littler bugs that might come to feed on the corpses. Each mummy also carried a typed epigram in Latin: Pandinus Imperator, Cicada Speciosa, Neogerambyse Gigas… He poured through them, lifting and stacking, moving them like a Chinese puzzle to get to the right shape to connect it all for him. He found what he needed.

“Hi,” he said to the insect vender.

She handed her calculator to him upsidedown and there was a yellow piece of paper taped there. It read: Hello. I am deaf. Please make me an offer.

Built in haggling. It might even have been an advantage. In communicating with representatives of thirty different countries the only thing that was necessary was a grasp of Arabic ciphers and the operations of basic math. Anything else might get in the way.

He had no idea where to start. The collection he had singled out was 22x30 and contained forty-seven butterflies and moths. His giant Hong Kong moth was the centerpiece and the borders were lined with jungle colors and green false eyes staring out of night colored wings. It was the most beautiful array of animal colors he would ever see. At home it would cost at least six hundred dollars, by his guess, maybe a lot more. He knew that’s not what it would cost in Bangkok. On the back of the collections was stamped, “Produced in Chang Mai.” It was from the most rural and probably the poorest part of Thailand.

He passed her the calculator and lowered his sights so he wouldn’t face the disappointment. He pointed to a medium sized single butterfly, a Paris Peacock.

She punched in, “210,” and handed him the calculator. She turned it over to remind him it was time for a counter proposal. It was five bucks US, which meant the real price was three. He smiled at her and pointed to the big collection. She didn’t miss a beat. She punched in, “5,500.” And handed him the calculator. He divided it on the calculator by the exchange rate, for the barter value of the action. He already knew it was just about a hundred and twenty dollars. He dug his heels in and made his counter offer, “2,800.” Her mock dismay made him laugh. She did some quick sign language, pointing out the most wonderful specimens in the frame and assigning them individual values to underscore the incredible bargain she was offering and then entered the original price and subtracted 800 baht. They continued for a few minutes then he looked over some smaller collections to make her believe he’d given up on the big one. They haggled slightly over some smaller ones. He decided it was time to do the walk-away to budge her the last distance downward. With sign language they quickly established that he had no money with him, that she would still be there at six o’clock and that he would come back then with money to start over.

On the way to his room the desk woman asked that Angelo take a picture with her. He was happy to. She held him tightly around the waist. Her head just under his shoulder. Her sister, or perhaps daughter, took the picture. They all talked for a long time. The physical friendliness of Thailand made him unsure he was in Asia. But of the two great philosophers of Asia only one had made it to Thailand and thus only half of the culture was crippled.

He went back to the bug cart. She was there. He bargained her down a bit more on the big collection and he took it back to his room. His eyes adjusted to the low watt incandescent as he sat looking over them again and again. Trying to see them with the eyes of a child. The eyes of his child. Memorizing them should he never see them again.

They were dead things but they weren’t. They had life to him. They existed wild. They lived out their own brief passion plays and were ant food every year; all year in the tropical forests of northern Thailand. Under this sheet of glass they were immortal. They were teachers. They were travelogue and time machine taking him in the future and in that future they would bring him back to this past. They had their run in the game. They were now only required to be beautiful. They excelled.

He headed out into the night to have a dinner and some beers and maybe meet people.

He wandered off Khaosan. He was able to see the modern capital of the Kingdom of Thailand differently. The poverty was more evident at night away from the bars and inns. There were unconcealed coughs from figures lying in the portals of ruinous tenements. It was the sound of the previous century’s squalid clamoring toward the riches of the industrial. It was the sound of tuberculosis. He found room to be ironic that of all the stray cats he saw, none was Siamese.

Back on Khaosan he walked past the little restaurants and bars trying to find a place or a reason to stop.

A beautiful skinny blonde was sitting on a table spilling out on the street. She was talking with some Thai girls. Her hair was done in corn rows, each braid ending in plastic beads. The Thai girls were selling the service.

Angelo asked, “How much does a beer cost in this place?”

“Fifty baht for a little one. Eighty for a big one.” She had a great accent. Angelo told her so. Asked where she was from.

“Slovakia.”

“Really?”

“Sure.”

“What are you doing in Bangkok?”

“Practicing my English. I’m on my way to America, someday.”

“I’m Angelo.”

“I’m Eya.”

“That’s a beautiful name.”

They talked for a long time but he never sat down. He wound up walking up and down the street three times. It was very difficult to sit down by himself. He wished he’d sat with her. But it was too late now. He managed to find a place to eat and talked with a couple of Germans about soccer. They ended up drinking together but the talk turned political and Angelo had to bite his tongue for two rotten hours.

The next day he went to a Mailboxes Etc. and had Alex’s butterflies carefully packaged and mailed to himself in Singapore.

He decided to go see some kickboxing in the evening. He did some more rounds of the shopping thing. He bought small presents for co-teachers. When it was getting dark he grabbed a cab. The fight stadium was a fifteen minutes away.

He got a seat in the second tier. It was only thirty feet back from ringside, behind cyclone fencing. The first two boxers were just coming out. Thai music played and they did a dance around the ring, crossing at the middle of the canvas. Then they bowed at each of the four corners and came back to the middle of the ring. All Thai boxers wore Red or Blue. Angelo checked his boxing syllabus: 111 pound fight. Both the boys looked about nineteen. They were wearing lace up boots to their calves.

The fight began confusingly with stylized punches and continued with nothing else. Angelo recognized it from the occasional historic TV show. It was Queensberry rules. It wasn’t kickboxing. Angelo checked the sheet and sure enough, the first fight was going as advertised. The next eight were five round Muay Thai. The heaviest two boxers tipping the scales at 129 pounds. The fights went quickly. Angelo began trying to pick winners during the initial dance. The betting going on around him rivaled the freneticism of the NYSE’s trading floor. It was just as occult to him. Men shouting with fingers raised and making marks on sheets of paper when twenty men returned the shout.

He’d always wanted to see Muay Thai. It took him back to roads almost traveled. He was loving it. They always said that the elbows and knees were the thing in kickboxing but the two fights that ended in knock-outs were both from kicks to the head. One came just into the second round.

Angelo picked seven of the eight winners and abstained from choosing the eighth. He felt great.

The next day he saw Eya again. She was talking with a couple of Swiss boys with shaved heads wearing a lot of local color. They chatted more about Thailand and what was good there. She recommended a couple of little islands and that he avoid the elephant tours. He was compelled to ask her to keep him company for the day. He didn’t.

He decided to hit the serious shopping. Khaosan was crowded with shops because it was crowded with back-packer inns but it was a short road. One block from end to end. Silom Road was the main shopping corridor in Bangkok. A mile long, it was lined with western retail places, corporate outlets, and street stalls. He grabbed a cab.

The cabbie passed him a fold out color card. It had pictures of five naked girls on one side and on the other there was a whole cadre of beautiful girls in white robes in front of a steam bath. It was the third such advertisement a cabbie had shown him. The cabbie said, “I take you now. You get a massage, make love, fucking, sucking. Beautiful girls. Let’s go.”

“No. I’d rather not. Silom Road.”

“Oh! Silom Road. This is better. You get a massage, take a bath, make love, fucking, sucking, everything.”

“No. No, thank you. Not today.”

Silom Road was densely outlined with stalls selling anything. There were silk stalls, luggage and leather, weapons, watches, lasers, jewelry, sunglasses, electronics, mini-TVs, walkmans, handcuffs, jeans. The prices were lower than anything he’d thought possible and, though a lot of it was cheap and crappy, a lot was quality. The trick was figuring out which was which or which stall proprietor wasn’t sure.

Bargaining was king in the markets of Bangkok. Ten American dollars was a powerful unit. The Thai sincerely thrived on meeting strangers this way. Angelo saw hawkers become insulted when a customer didn't bargain. If a customer asked a price and then started to leave, the Thai would tersely offer a new price, trying to bait the customer back for a good haggle to make up for the rude shopping behavior.

Angelo found a watch he wanted. He knew it was probably fake. It was an Omega. The shops in Singapore were fairly overgrown with them. They bottomed out at about four hundred Singapore dollars and the ones he liked were about one and a half thousand which was almost a month’s take home pay. He found one on a bright yellow cloth beside other jewelry, knives and laser pointers.

“How much?” he asked pointing at it.

The man proceeded to put it on Angelo’s wrist, “Very cheap for you.”

“Yeah, great. How much?”

“Two thousand baht.”

“Get out of here! Really? That’s so expensive.”

“Very good price. Very good watch. You like it. I know.”

“One thousand,” Angelo offered.

“Oh, no. No chance. This is an Omega watch. James Bond watch. Best watch I sell. I can give you a good price.”

“How much?”

He took out a calculator and subtracted two hundred from two thousand and showed Angelo the result.

“I don’t know,” said Angelo taking off the watch but not putting it down.

“Very good price. Ask anyone. Look at the watch. It’s beautiful.”

“How about fifteen hundred?”

The man handed Angelo the calculator. Angelo punched in the number and turned it to him. His eyes went wide with horror. He took the calculator back. He punched in two thousand again and subtracted three hundred. Angelo looked at him skeptically but the man knew he had his sale so he just shrugged his shoulders and said, “I know you like this watch.”

“Okay. You win.” Angelo paid him. It was about forty bucks US.

The high traffic of shopping tourists also made it the place with the most sex shows and go-go bars. Patpong Road off of Silom was particularly crowded with these places. Places you could see things that could make an American prostitute blush and make an Italian nun’s heart infarct. Angelo was there for the shopping but he had a passing curiosity about the sex shows. It was difficult not to. It was Bangkok. He hadn’t got into a cab that hadn’t tried to take him to one. Patpong was lined with signs and placards listing available shows. The big draw seemed to be the “Pussy Shows.” The activities printed on the boards and bar facades ranged from opening bottles to shooting ping pong balls and blow darts. The one that particularly made Angelo alarmed and curious was the “smoking a cigarette” entry that was on every place’s table of content.

He said aloud, “That, I gotta see.” But the Thai man who tried to drag him inside had no luck. Angelo wasn’t ready for that. He thought he’d try one of the hooker go-go places first. They seemed nearly American in tone.

He went shopping for portable CD players instead. He managed to kill another two hours this way.

Angelo went in one of the go-go places at dusk. He was joined immediately by two girls. The music was pounding loud American 80’s pop. He supposed it was to make tourists feel at home. Well, he didn’t like bars at home so it was working.

One of the girls was beautiful in a candy striped bikini. The other was all right with fantastic breasts. She was wearing a one piece. There were four more dancing up behind the bar. One of them was naked three were topless in bikini briefs. None of them had much make-up on. They didn’t need it. They were all under his age.

The girls asked his name. He told them three times. He asked theirs and didn’t see a reason to ask again until he could hear or pronounce them.

They demanded that he order them Cokes. He could see on the menu that Cokes were fifty baht which was almost as much as a beer. He realized immediately it was a scam. Looking around the bar he saw other occidentals in positions similar to his. Buying ten dollars of Cokes for three girls.

Angelo was brave because he wasn’t there for any reason. He asked one girl, “How much are you?”

She yelled back, “I like you. No money. Free.”

“Really? For sex?”

“Yes, of course,” she said like they were best friends.

“How about oral sex?”

“You rent a room. We go to the room.”

“How much?”

“Four hundred fifty baht.” Then they both demanded that he order Cokes again.

“How about oral sex?”

“Same. Just for the room. Whatever you want. Four-fifty baht.”

She was nine dollars by the day’s exchange rate. But her beauty, the exchange rate, the good reputation of Thai condoms, and the awareness of his own erection from looking down the other girl’s bathing suit did not even begin to make him seriously think about it. His curiosity was satisfied and he didn’t need the rest of the information. He ordered them Cokes and put his arms around them. That was equitable. It was the first time he’d touched a woman’s skin in two years. For 100 baht it was bargain. He had a small Carlsburg.

He went out and wandered to clear his head. He narrowly avoided being dragged into a couple of sex shows. His resistance was diminishing.

The street curved around and mingled luggage/leather places with street bars. The night was wonderful and the air in Bangkok, while not delicious, wasn’t anywhere as bad as Seoul. He found himself feeling really wonderful.

There were a few sex businesses on the road that had more polish to them, more money showing through. They invariably advertised their name and services in only one language: Japanese.

Angelo went back into the sidestreet vendors to look for sunglasses and whatever. Most of the stalls were packing up for the night. It was probably the best time to hit them. The first and last sales of the day were important things. Lucky things. It worked and he got a bargain on a pair of what may or may not have been Ray Bans. For six dollars he was leaning to the may not.

The stalls all closed. He was grabbed by a sex show proprietor and he let himself be led upstairs into the place with promises that he was just taking a look. The place was poorly lighted and the ceiling was low. It felt like a basement. The girls were waiting for an audience, though there were others there. They all were Thai and seemed to be installations. As soon as he entered the girls took off robes and started gearing up for whatever he might choose from the menu. It was too much. He bolted back out the door with the man chasing and yelling at him to come back.

The next go-go place he went by was playing his high school class’s theme song so he said, “Why the hell not?” and went in and ordered a beer and waited for the girls to come to him. Two did. It was slower though, almost had an air of the personal over the professional. One girl wore a blue bikini the other wore street clothes.

The place was chilly with AC. He supposed it was to keep the girls lively. They all asked each other’s names. The girl in blue yelled in his ear.

Her name was lost in the noise and cultural barrier. The dressed girl shouted, “Oy-oy,” in his ear. The name was at first repelling, for no reason in particular, and then part of her allure. Something he knew he’d never forget.

He asked where they were from. He thought the girl in blue said, Shanghai, and he said, “Really?” in surprise.

The girl in jeans and a denim shirt that was half open was a Bangkok girl. She was also a couple of years older than he was though he wouldn’t have guessed. He got the impression that she didn’t work there. Or maybe had once but didn’t anymore.

She stared at him and it was electric. There was awe in her face and it was beautiful. It was naïve. It was an expression of emotion, from what he took to be a retired prostitute, that seemed impossible. It was the look an American teen virgin gave a rock star.

He focused on the dancers momentarily. One of them was smiling at him in an intelligent, loving fashion. She was the least attractive but immediately the most interesting. She indicated she was displeased that he was sitting with other women. He laughed, What can I do? he gestured. Part of the fascination was that he thought maybe she wasn’t really a girl. Her body lines just weren’t quite feminine. But still, she was interesting and becoming attractive.

He bought beers for Oy-oy and her friend and had another himself. They cuddled up to him and it was good. He had his arm around the bikini clad girl. Her bare skin was giving him a sense of completeness he had learned not to care about. They stayed that way, talking and drinking for a long time. The girls smoked. The dancers on the bar were finishing their set. The girl in blue was up next.

She leaned against him tightly, in parting. In mid stroke of the girl’s shoulder his hand passed nearly over her breast and he dipped a finger in and out of her top, running over her nipple.

The animal excitement dissipated immediately. It was the kind of thing he might have attempted on a third date at home if he was kissing the girl for an hour already. Here was a complete stranger. It was a criminal act in his homeland. And yet she was there for sale, for his sampling, for his pleasure and convenience for the price of a Thai six-pack. Contradicting positions assailed him. The right versus the confucian attitude toward women who sold themselves that he hadn’t realized he’d adopted so thoroughly.

Oy-oy stayed with him, asking what he thought about women. What he liked. What he might like. She got up to go to the bathroom and kissed him slowly and with pressure on each cheek. There was a third kiss coming if he wanted. He couldn’t do it. Not the lips, not now. She left, promising to return. He took a napkin to the lipstick she’d left on him.

The interesting girl came and replaced the girl in blue. He asked her name and he knew her cells didn’t harbor a matched set of sex marking letters. Her voice was that of a teen boy. They sat shoulder to shoulder.

When the girl in blue finished dancing she left the bar fully dressed. This added to Angelo’s discomfort. Was she upset and running from him? Or was—much more likely—her shift over and she become a real human again leaving this trap to live for the hours until she had to resign herself to work?

His questions, his arousal and comfort, gone, he was disgusted with himself. He stayed and had another beer. There was nothing embarrassing left. She’d left. He was where he was. It was what it was. Nothing was going to make him feel differently.

He put his arm around the girl who hadn’t always been a girl because he knew she’d like it. They talked about her hometown but not her childhood.


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