This story was published May, 2020 in After Happy Hour, A Journal of Literature and Art: https://afterhappyhourreview.com/
By Bill Stauffer
Boonsri Srimapan glances at the English word written in red lipstick on the mirror and wipes a mascara brush through her lashes, evening out the little black clumps of polymer. For the last six years she has learned English this way, one word at a time, as she dresses for work each evening.
She fingers the glass vial hanging from her neck. Even the pretty girls—and she, humbly, believes she is one of them—rarely find a foreign husband. Tomorrow she will turn twenty-five. It’s 2016, the year of the monkey, and she calculates she has one more year until age siphons away the better prospects. One more year until her mother’s pleas and daughter’s duty shame her beyond compromise.
“Prerogative.” The word chosen randomly from her dictionary. She sounds it slowly, follows the changing shape of her crimson mouth.
At the bar, everyone calls her Lek, little. The reason is obvious: she stands five feet tall wearing four inch heels. Most clients don’t seem to mind. Some prefer a petite girl, especially the ones who think she’s underage. She does her best to maintain this adolescent image, though she always tells the truth if someone asks. She’s never seriously considered wasting money on fake braces.
When she finishes her make-up, Lek chooses her red plaid skirt. It rides high so she pulls on a pair of shorts underneath. So clever, how the outfit makes her look youthful and sexy but still decent if a customer wants to play her at billiards. She puts on a simple white sleeveless blouse, straps on her red pumps last. Outside her apartment, she flags a taxi.
Lek looks out the cab’s window at columns of red taillights. Almost six and the hot air floats up from the pavement, wavy and distorted, Bangkok’s temperature still stuck in the high nineties. She ignores a call from her mother, not wanting to mix the incessant questions about money and time and obligation with her own stress of running late.
She loves her mother, loves the feeling that warms her body just beneath her skin when her mother says, Lek, you’re a good daughter. Last month, with her mother’s motorbike in the shop, Lek travelled to Phuket with an older German man. He didn’t wipe his ass clean and she nearly puked from the smell. After returning to Bangkok she wired twenty thousand baht to her mother and waited for her call. Waited for her mother’s words to dissolve any memory of the shit-stained man from Germany.
The taxi lets her out at the entrance to Soi Cowboy. Steam wafts from the noodle cart that sets up every night outside Country Road Bar. Scents of cilantro and lime, chili pepper and garlic hollow out the emptiness in her stomach. She hesitates in front of the cart but decides against a bowl when she spies Mama San standing at the edge of the bar’s patio, watching her over the top of those old lady glasses.
Lek stuffs her bag in her locker, slides her phone in the waistband of her skirt, and goes to find her friend Kita. They’re an unlikely match; Kita comes from Surat Thani, and Lek’s mother warned her to beware of southern people, yet they became close.
Kita and Lek are different in another way. Lek finds it hard to go with a customer she doesn’t like or find attractive; she’s putting her faith in finding a man to marry. Hopefully a man from America or England. Better than a Thai man with no money. Kita has given up on finding anyone. Instead, she sometimes goes with two or three customers a night. Kita has built her mother and father a beautiful teak house on the banks of the Tapi River. Her father no longer fishes and her mother does laundry in a Japanese washing machine.
Kita is upstairs with a short-time customer so Lek walks outside to the patio. The sun has set behind the alley; charcoal and copper layer the sky. Against this background the neon signs pop like foiled candy. Lek feels happy her birthday isn’t today, that tonight she is just another bar girl in Bangkok.
Mama San comes up beside her, nudges her toward a customer sitting alone at one of the patio bar tables. His face is fleshy, but also handsome and youthful, safe and pleasant looking. He pretends to scroll through his phone, but Lek can see him looking at her out of the corner of his eye. She walks over.
“Hi,” she says to him.
His English is clear but not American. He keeps staring into his phone. A thin film of sweat coats his forehead.
“You want to be alone?” she asks.
“You can sit.” He says this without looking up.
She sits across from him, locks her heels over the lower rung of the stool. He’s still looking at his phone. Sweat now covers his entire face. His beer is empty but she doesn’t ask if he wants another, as she is supposed to do. Instead, she takes a pink tissue from its holder and wipes his forehead.
“Thank you,” he says. “This heat.”
“Where are you from?”
He still won’t look at her.
“It’s cold there?” Lek already knows this. Ireland is close to England, though not as rich.
“Well. Compared to here, yeah.”
For the first time he looks her in the eye. His eyes are tired and blue. “You don’t have to sit with me,” he says again.
His words surprise her. She can’t think of what to say so she takes another tissue and wipes his forehead and the side of his face. Bits of pink tissue moisten and stick to his late day stubble.
Lek covers her mouth and smiles. “I’m sorry.” She tries to pick the pieces out with her nails. “I’m sorry,” she says again.
“It’s okay,” he says.
“What’s your name?”
“Robert. Robby. Look, you really don’t have to sit with me.”
“I’m Lek.” She reaches her hand across the table. Robby’s hand engulfs hers. It is warm and sweaty and soft.
“Hi Lek. You don’t…”
“Why wouldn’t I want to sit with you, Robby?” She wipes her hand on her skirt.
Robby frowns, then erects his posture, bites over his lower lip so tight his canines hang out of his mouth like fangs.
Robby pushes his hands against the table, his stool scrapes along the concrete patio. He stands up and walks over to her. His body, massive in all ways, betrays his handsome face. His breasts sag like those of an old man, his stomach could swallow two or three of her.
“You see, there’s this.” Robby waves his hands over his body.
The fat on his arms jiggles like a dish of Mizu Yokan. His body rolls and crashes with the slightest shift in his stance. She pictures Robby towering over the men in her village, plucking sparrows from the sky, feeding them live into his mouth, shitting dung like an elephant.
“It’s okay. There’s always the older girls or the uglier ones.” There’s an edge to his voice. It’s more knowing than spiteful, as if he’s ridiculing not himself but something ubiquitous and universal.
He smiles and shrugs, takes a step toward her.
His body emanates a sweet, musty smell. She imagines burrowing into him, covering herself with the soft, pliable folds of his skin. Once settled she’d lick the salt from his fat, bite into his flesh, peek out at his face wincing in pain. Robby would pull her closer, until she disappeared inside of him.
“Sit down, Robby. Please sit back down,” she says, as if out of breath.
Robby returns to his stool.
“Do you want another beer?” Lek holds up his empty glass.
“Yes,” he says.
She doesn’t ask him to buy her a lady drink, hopes Mama San isn’t watching. Inside, she waits for Robby’s beer. Kita has returned. She nudges Lek with the tip of her pool cue.
“Now you have a thing for fat guys?” Kita’s braces sparkle in the red light.
“I know. But his face is handsome. And he’s shy. I like shy.” Lek brushes blue dust from her forearm.
“He’d kill you if he fucked you on top.” Kita laughs again.
“Who says he’d be on top?”
Robby’s staying at the Sheraton Grand on Sukhumvit, a five star luxury hotel. It’s a block’s walk from Soi Cowboy. Regardless, he insists on taking a taxi. Lek hesitates before following him into the back of the cab. What if he’s lying about the hotel, about being able to pay her? Five minutes later the car pulls into the hotel’s circular drive and Lek’s body exhales.
Robby has a large two-room suite on the twenty-eighth floor. When he asks her if she wants anything from the minibar, she decides he must not be a cheap man.
Lek is licking peanut skin from her fingers when Robby emerges from the bathroom dressed in one of the hotel’s soft cotton robes. It looks like a child’s. It’s tied over his belly like a girl’s top knot. His legs emerge like trunks of a baobab tree. She has worn one of these robes before and recalls how the belt went around her waist twice and still there was slack. She wonders if it could even be the same robe, washed and bleached in the hotel’s industrial washing machines many times since.
“The robes are small, you know?”
Lek realizes her smile is too pronounced, reins it in, and tilts her head in admiration for his courage. She turns out the bed lamp but leaves the bathroom light on, the door ajar. She wants some light, as if complete darkness would suck away the truth of this moment.
Robby moves his hands around her body hesitantly, yet un-clumsily. She is happy when his hands pass, uninterested, over the glass ampoule that bounces cool and heavy between her breasts. She doesn’t want to have to swat his hand away, as she has done with so many other customers. She doesn’t want to be thinking about it at all, the oddest of gifts from her mother, the delicate glass vial filled to three quarters, piss-like with the venom that killed her father.
When they finish, sweat shimmers on Robby’s chest, pools in the crevice between his breasts. Lek runs her hand over his skin, spreading and dissipating the puddles of perspiration. She presses her other hand over her own chest like a stethoscope, listening to it heave like a heart attack.
Robby reaches for his wallet.
“You want me to go now?” she asks.
“I…I just thought…well…you don’t then?”
“I’d like to stay, Robby. It would be nice if I could stay the night.”
She backs her body into the den of his mass and falls asleep.
They have sex once more, in the early morning, as white sunlight slices through the dark curtains. At nine-thirty the hotel phone wakes them. Robby listens and grunts a sleepy reply.
“Who?” She tastes the staleness in her own breath, feels comfortable and safe in Robby’s massive embrace.
“Hotel. Letting me know the buffet closes in forty minutes. Want to eat?”
Lek wants to sleep but she is hungry.
“Okay,” she says.
Lek’s friends often joke—where does all the food go? With Robby she sees where all the food goes, yet she is still amazed at how he can finish off so many plates: massaman curry with rice and a few slices of dahl puri, an omelet stuffed with ham, cheese, and scallions, two croissants, one chocolate and one plain, and a bowl of fruit. He also drinks two cups of espresso, heavy with cream.
One of the waiters gives Robby a ten-minute warning that the buffet will be closing. He rises from his chair and Lek wonders how he will eat another plate. Robby returns with only a small banana.
“For later.” He smiles and reaches out his massive paw, pulls her up from her chair.
In his room he hands her an envelope. It’s a nice gesture, putting the money in an envelope. Last week a man threw the money at her. He was incredibly handsome with slivers of silver in his hair. He told her she was the girl of his dreams, bought her a new dress just because she said she liked it. In the morning he patted his ripped abs incessantly. He said Lek needed to leave so he could get to the gym. The money wasn’t right for an overnight stay; she looked at her toes when she said this. Fuck if you didn’t enjoy it. He stood over her talking like this, then tossed a thousand baht at her. It still wasn’t enough, but she said nothing more, just fell to her knees to grab the money before the King’s face touched the floor.
She folds the envelope and puts it in her purse.
“You’re not going to open it?”
“Later,” she says.
“But I need to know. If it’s enough.”
Lek slices a nail through the back of the envelope, counts out fifteen thousand baht, three times her normal overnight fee.
Robby raises his eyes and smiles.
“Because I know about the duty girls like you have,” he says. “To take care of your mother and father.”
“Ka.” She fights an urge to punch him in the stomach.
Instead, she decides his ignorance is well-meaning and tells him, “It’s enough, Robby. Khapkhun Ka.” She stands and waiis him.
She pictures him taking her to one of the beaches. Koh Samui or Phuket, better than Koh Samet where there are too many Thais who might stare openly at them, at the dichotomy of their physicality. She’s surprised by a sudden desire to fuck Robby at night on a blanket with the surf rolling close to their feet.
“When do you go back to Ireland?”
“Day after tomorrow.”
Hearing this, Lek struggles to breathe. She hates this part of the job. Hates feeling close to someone and then having it ripped away so quickly until there is nothing but silence and dead air. It’s this the abolitionist church ladies don’t understand. The women who visit the bar once a month speak soft and kind, smell funny, and leave cards with clever sayings and their local number. Lek has tried to tell them about the hollow feeling when a man she likes leaves and disappears back into the real world, as if she were just a plaything, a plastic mold, a toy made in China. This feeling of something and then nothing. The grey woman who visits again and again, wears a tarnished cross that pulls her head forward, whispers so close lipstick courses her wrinkled mouth, it’s not love when a man pays you for it. Lek doesn’t want to be rude so she keeps it to herself: what else but love could have the power to ferment such loneliness?
She doesn’t tell Robby that today is her birthday. She doesn’t want to give him another reason to be nice to her. Still, she needs the money and they spend the next two days together, separated only when he has to attend a short business meeting related to his family’s import clothing business. She goes home to grab a change of clothes, tries to take a nap but can’t stand the silence of her apartment and returns to Robby’s hotel room to wait for him. On his last day she accompanies him to the airport.
Lek ignores the stares and reaches up to his bent body to kiss him goodbye.
“Will you wait for me?” he asks.
“Wait? What do you mean wait?”
“I’ll come back next month.”
She has heard this many times before.
“I’ll be here if you come back.”
“Not if. When. Next month. I don’t want you to go with anyone else. Please.”
“I have expenses. Rent. My mother.”
“I will send you money.”
This she’s heard before, too. Yet she believes him.
“Will you? Wait? And not go with any other guys?”
Robby keeps true to his promise and sends her money, sixty thousand baht, twice what she earns in a typical month. She continues to work at the bar but doesn’t go with any customers. It’s too soon, too risky to cut ties with her job. She knows men are fickle and Robby’s money could slow to a trickle, or to zero.
Robby asks her to Skype him when she gets home each night.
“I just want to know you’re safe,” he says.
One night she’s so tired after her shower she falls asleep, her phone cradled in her hand.
“Were you with someone last night?” His face searches behind her small profile on the screen.
“I was alone, Robby. Just tired,” she says. “When are you coming back?”
When she greets Robby at the airport, he is more handsome than she remembers. In his hotel room, he hangs up his one suit and asks her if she wants to go eat. Instead she pushes him to the bed. Later they shower, stop by Country Road Bar to pay her bar fine, and go to Oskars on Soi Eleven for oysters and steak.
Robby is telling Lek about the rapid growth of his family’s import business. She understands some of what he says as she looks at the one uneaten oyster, glistening under the buttery light. The twenty-three empty shells give off a smell of low tide. If he asks me to go to the beach with him, I would want to go, she thinks. It wouldn’t be a compromise. It’s an unsettling feeling, wanting something that also serves her filial obligation.
Instead of this, Robby wipes his mouth with a white cloth napkin, asks her, “So were you good while I was gone?”
“Good?” She knows what he means but good means something different for her.
“Faithful.” Robby folds his napkin in half, and half again.
“I waited for you, Robby.”
“Because you can tell me, if something happened. If you were with someone. I know…”
“I was good, Robby.”
“I know girls like you…well a lot of guys would want to…and it’s what you’re used to here. I can…If the money’s not enough…”
“Can we go to the beach, Robby?”
Lek lifts the last oyster from the plate, tips it into her mouth, and licks the salty brine from her lips.
The next day Robby pays five thousand baht to the bar for her time away from work. For ten days they act like boyfriend and girlfriend on vacation—riding elephants in Chiang Mai, driving ATVs in Chiang Rai, and snorkeling the reefs off Koh Samui. When Robby agrees to try surfing in Phuket she decides she could like him at least as much as some of the other men she has liked, those few she still remembers, nice men who wanted more than short time and made promises they couldn’t keep.
Lek can’t stand to be alone in her apartment days after his return to Ireland.
For business reasons Robby delays his third trip and Lek becomes so melancholy that she calls in sick twice. For missing work, Mama San fines her one thousand baht. Because she had expected Robby this week, she uses her last five hundred and borrows the rest from Kita to pay for her stupid mistake.
At home she calls Robby to ask for his help.
“Whatever you do, don’t go with any customers,” he says.
“You think I’m bad like that?” Lek says.
“No. But it’s what you’re used to, isn’t it? When you have no money.”
“Can you help me? Or not?” She says.
“On one condition—you leave the bar,” he says.
“You want me to leave my job?” She’s not surprised by his ultimatum.
“Don’t you want to? I mean, don’t all the girls want to leave? If they could?”
“Yes. Of course. Nobody wants to work at the bar.” Actually, the thought of leaving is unsettling but she doesn’t say this to Robby.
Instead she asks, “Leave and do what?”
“I don’t know. Work at the mall or something? In an office?”
“It’s not easy. I never finished high-school,” she says.
“What can you do?”
“You mean …?” She remembers a word from her mirror. “Like talent? What talent do I do?”
“Yeah. What are your talents?”
She can’t recall anyone asking her this question before. She is twenty-five and believes her life has been framed not in terms of what she can do but what she is willing to do.
“I speak English well. Mama San always asks me for help when one of the girls needs help speaking with a customer.”
“Everyone speaks English good these days.” Robby says.
“But it’s useful here. Maybe I could do a translation business.”
“What you do is your prerogative, but…sorry…what I mean is…”
“I know what you mean,” she says.
“What else can you do?” asks Robby.
“I can make great som tam. Everyone says I should open a cart.”
“Papaya salad,” she says.
“Well that’s something. That’s a start,” Robby says.
“I’d need some money. To get started.”
There is the cart, the food. She will need a larger mortar and pestle; the one in her apartment is too small. And bowls and utensils. She multiplies and adds numbers in her head.
“Twenty-five thousand baht,” she claps her hands.
“It’s a lot of money to make a few salads.”
Lek uses Robby’s money to purchase a used cart and the supplies she will need. For a share of the profits, Mama San let’s her set up outside Country Road Bar.
All night Lek is busy filling orders. Her little fingers grip the pestle and pound, pound, pound first the garlic and chilies, then the palm sugar, fish sauce, and lime until the dressing dissolves, releases into the air, spicy and sweet. Roasted peanuts, tomatoes, and shredded papaya, she pounds and twists the pestle.
She moves so quickly the glass vial repeatedly works its way out from under her shirt so she has to stop and tuck it back under her collar. She thinks about removing it but likes how it feels against her skin.
The next morning Lek wakes early, not even ten yet. She can barely straighten her right arm which makes her laugh out loud. Eight thousand baht makes her laugh again and she wonders why she didn’t do this before; before there were choices.
Lek uses most of her money to buy more supplies. The following week business steadies but doesn’t slow. She ties a cotton scarf around her head to keep her hair back and to prevent the sweat from clouding her eyes.
When she gets home she calls Robby.
“When are you coming back?”
“Working on it.”
“I miss you, ka.” She hasn’t told him how well her business is doing and he hasn’t asked, except to confirm she’s home alone each night. She’s excited to show him when he comes back.
“Me, too,” he says.
Another week and her orders are still strong. Word has spread up and down the alley. Her fingers are calloused and she wonders amusingly why both her arms are lean and strong. Why not just her right, the one doing all the work? She can’t believe how much energy she has.
To save money she purchases a higher volume of food, knowing she will go through it quickly. Maybe she will have to hire someone to help her, one of those immigrant girls from Myanmar or Laos. With the holiday coming the alley throngs with tourists which seems to make the bar girls less stingy with their money.
While Mama San waits for a free plate she points out that Songkran starts in a few days. Lek knew this but her mistake punches her in the gut. No carts can be on the soi for the water festival. Too many people spraying water from hoses and dumping buckets on one another. For the first time in her life she is not happy about the holiday.
Mama San looks at her. “Aren’t you ready for a rest? You’ve been sweating over your cart non-stop for two weeks.”
On the first day of Songkran, Lek tries setting up the cart outside her apartment but she makes only two plates. Everyone is off “playing water,” celebrating the holiday. She stuffs as much as she can in her apartment’s half fridge. Most sits on the cart. She showers and takes a taxi to Country Road Bar.
Mama San greets her on the bar’s patio.
“Happy Songkran,” Lek waiis Mama San. “Have you seen Kita?”
“Gone with customer. What brings you here?”
“Just bored at home.” How can she save her business? Without being unfaithful to Robby?
“Bored, na?” Mama San tilts her head, inserts her forefinger and thumb into her mouth, and yanks out her top row of dentures. Her breath smells like gin and her face is red. She holds them up under the warm light and laughs. In her hand the fake teeth look prehistoric.
“Go home.” She reinserts her teeth and walks away.
“Hey.” A man she doesn’t know reaches a hand around her wrist, pulls her close. So close she smells his sour, expensive cologne.
“Sit with me a while, eh?” he says and sips from his bourbon.
His biceps and chest push against the fabric of his black T-shirt.
“Here…” Still holding her, he squeezes his other hand into the front pocket of his jeans, pulls out two thousand baht. “Just sit with me and then we can decide.” He sets his drink on top of the bills and Lek is bothered by the condensation spreading toward the King’s face.
They take a motorcycle tuk tuk instead of a taxi because the man’s hotel is on soi seven, which is always so crowded with tourists and bar girls.
In bed he says, “You’re so fucking sexy.”
She doesn’t reply.
He cups the necklace in his hand. “What’s in it?”
She doesn’t want him to speak so she leans forward and shuts off the light.
The alarm clock shimmies off the glass. “Looks like it could be whiskey.”
Lek closes her eyes.
But the man keeps talking, talking, talking.
Lek pulls the necklace over her head, bites out the cork, pries the man’s mouth open, and pours in a few drops.
“Nasty…what the fuck..?”
Lek recorks it, tosses the vial into the darkness.
When he finishes, Lek rolls on to her back and stares at the grey ceiling. She waits for the man to fall asleep then dresses and leaves without getting paid.
It’s after three in the morning when she returns to her apartment. She needs a few minutes to assemble her thoughts. Robby is a good man who understands her needs, knows that Lek is like all the other girls who grew out of a singular path to feeling whole. She is nothing unless what she decides is good for her mother. Yet, for Lek, there has always been a duty higher than filial obligation. She carries the burden of repaying her mother for stopping her father—another father doing what fathers aren’t supposed to do with daughters. Every decision must consider this: her mother deciding that for Lek to live, her father could not.
She hopes Robby is too busy to answer her call.
“Hello? Lek! I’ve got good news!”
“I messed up, Robby. I’m so stupid. Can you help me?”
“Wait. What?” his voice softens.
She tells him about the cart, neither embellishing her initial success, nor glossing over her big mistake.
“Well,” Robby says.
“Can you help, ka? Just a little more?”
“No need? I don’t understand, ka.”
“That’s my good news! I’m coming next week and will be staying for a while. At least a month.”
“Good news,” she agrees.
“You don’t need to work anymore. It was never about the money.”
It’s always about the money.
“So forget the cart,” he says.
“Forget the cart. Ka.”
It’s in the shower, after her call with Robby, she senses nothing that feels like something. Lukewarm water pings off her shower cap. She doesn’t remember his room number or floor, never bothered to learn the man’s name. Still she leans back, then forward, a silly attempt to feel its touch, to make the necklace reappear around her neck.
Lek towels dry and slips into bed.
The next day the papayas leak their insides onto the ground and the tomatoes collapse in on themselves. Even the garlic begins to mold. The roasted peanuts sweat.
She pushes the cart into the corner, behind the outdoor laundry machines. Her arms are too weak to lift the mortar out from its opening so she leaves it there, imagines it filling with rainwater. She carries the rest of the supplies to her room, balances what will fit on the small table, the rest on the floor. Lek sits on her bed staring at all of it: the pestle, butcher knife and block, and pile of blue plastic plates. She considers dialing Robby again but decides against it.
Her room darkens with time. The supplies still sit where she left them, colorless shapes. Lek rolls off her bed, carries everything from the table and floor, stuffs it all in her armoire, out of sight behind her bar clothes and high heel shoes. She closes the door and sits back down to wait for Robby.