Me and Simon and the three Israelis are in the line for overnight train tickets, tip-top of Thailand south, to Bangkok. Simon wants to skip Bangkok, just use it to transfer to the train that would take us farther south, I pat through my pockets, no cigarettes, south to Surat Thani, the jumping-off point for this island, Koh Phangan—
I do not need to think about Simon’s reasons for going to Koh Phangan. I want us to stay with the Israelis. Simon gestures me to the side, says, “The real dealing’s meant to be on Koh Phanga—”
“Simon. Do not mess with heroin.” No wonder I like to smoke. It burns.
Between our group and the dimly lit ticket counter are two other groups, as random-looking as ours, also a German couple and a monk in a one-shouldered orange wrap carrying a cabbage. The monk looks like what my father would look like if my father were Thai. I move away from the monk. One of the Israelis, Lawrence, asks, “What’s all your top-secret whispers about?” and he does that thing where you shake the pack and a single cig pops out the top. My chin tilts as I take it. Simon pretends not to see or ignores it because he is British and British people are too British to call things out; he and I have been hanging out about three weeks, the Israelis, just since yesterday. The girl Israeli, D’vorah, says, “It’s cheaper to bunk by gender than by couple.” Her boyfriend Yuri exhales, an impatient mule. D’vorah strokes Yuri’s back. She might as well say it, It’s only one night. At the same time, she assesses me and Simon and doesn’t ask. Later, shelved by gender and clacking south, I ask how she knew she didn’t need to ask.
“Oh, Carlie. Carlie, Carlie. I have screwed around so much more than you.”
D’vorah brings out a fifth of Mekong, about half-full, which we spend the night slaughtering. She knows nothing about me and screwing. My sister took off when she was seventeen, too, but all she did was run away with some guy named Skeeter she met at an Iron Maiden concert. She calls, now and again. Asks for Dad. Asks him for money, pussy little traitor bitch, I’m whiskey smooth dreaming now pussy traitor. In the morning, D’vorah decides for all of us to spend some time in Bangkok.
* * *
Temples. The Thai say wat, we see temples, Wat Po and The Sleeping Buddha, we see Jim Thompsom’s Silk House and then The Emerald Buddha at Wat Phra Kaew and, how did that happen, it’s already our fifth day in Bangkok. It’s the endish of the afternoon rain. I stand around, pat-pat, pocket-pocket, this time under an awning on the corners of Khao San and Chakrapong Roads, Chakrapong Chakrapong let me feel for you strutting through my head on the high heels of a nicotine attack. Left my cigarettes at the guesthouse, happy birthday to me. Without a pack to whack against the heel of my palm, I have no clue what to do with my hands. Eighteen years old and I have no clue what to do with my hands. There aren’t many people to bum from, aren’t many in sight even, the most likely prospects being the pair of white guys straggling down the sidewalk. The taller guy’s t-shirt is drenched, the other doesn’t bother with one, if either had a backpack or the rumpled exhaustion that said, “Well, that was fourteen hours on the bus”—if any of that were in play, I’d swap information, guesthouses, places to eat, for a smoke. Plenty of times, I wouldn’t have to swap. Just tilt my chin, “Got a cig?” No backpacks and straggly in the afternoon, though; that’s straight from the whorehouses of Pat Pong, fuck them, but I still need a smoke.
The rain shakes out its last. At the end of the street, there’s a neighborhood wat and a monk, a different orange-swathed monk, his bald head reminds me of that cabbage. Double goose egg. A few shopkeepers come out to sweep cigarette butts off the sidewalks in front of their stores.
A bridge crosses a swatch of sludge they call a river. I land on a tree-studded market street where a zillion barbecued ducks hang by their headless necks. A chubby lady gestures from behind a fruit stall, her smile, so motherly, way more motherly than Mom’s, lots of old ladies in Thailand chew these nuts, supposed to be this great high, bet that’s why her smile, Mom’s smile, so jaunty when she drank, not showing the slap just behind it, but this smile is so motherly. Her stall, though, smells like garbage.
“Hallo, pretty girl. Rambutan?” She waves a radish-bunched of fruit, each piece golf ball-sized with spiky red outsides. Each time she waves, the garbage smell gets worse. She laughs so broadly that I see the thing wiggling at the back of her throat. Wiping the nut juice running down her chin, “Ten baht,” “Five”—that’s me—she peels, deftly but carefully peeling away the smelly, threatening spikes to offer the milky-colored flesh, peeling and spitting and fleshy flesh, asking the usual where you from, where you go, where you husband. I say I’m not married. She does the embarrassed face they all do when I say I’m not married. Like they suddenly noticed I had a charred limb.
“But you so pretty. Pretty body.”
My sister has the pretty body. I’m just skinny. Or too fat. I can never tell. A Barbie-pink kimono parades to the stall. The person wearing it carries a pure white rat and bats his fan in time with his downcast eyes, blinkity-blink. I stare at the rat. The mommy-type leans into me.
“He ladies man. You get? Ladies man.” She teases him in gunboat Thai. He takes a girly swing at her with his fan, but as he turns, blinkity-blink, he pulls me flash into his life, a ladies man because he doesn’t know how to be anything else, his fingernails, their swishing, the white men and their saggy stomachs, when all he wants to do is die. I am the white rat, staring from his Barbie-pink shoulder, then I bounce to the top of my way-old Barbie Dream House, staring at my own bed in my own room at home, staring at a shape on my bed on top of two stick-skinny legs; it is pulling, the string that pulls up, pulling my head off—I won’t let it. Slam, a five baht coin against the counter, I slam hard enough to hurt my hand—
“Pretty girl, you say ten.”
—on the bridge, not exactly hearing her say, Okay, you come back, as the ladies man shrieks, Eat shit—let me feel for you—Chakrapong. Corner, same corner. Khao San and Chakrapong Roads, string tugs. Stay here, birthday girl. Look. Look at Khao San Road. Backpackers, vendors. Tug tug, no, no—Stay. There are guys winkety winking at me, guys to bum from, there are We are the World t-shirts and Tracy Chapman tapes and Levi’s, I can’t—I can’t breathe Chakrapo—I can’t brea—
It is a guy. A normal traveler guy, his shirt on and everything “ ... a good guesthouse?”
Of course I know a good guesthouse. “Jalan Jaksa.”
No. Jalan Jaksa was. The backpacker neighborhood in, Jakarta. I was in Jakarta five months ago. How did five months happen? “I’m disappearing.”
“Can I bum a cig?”
The string wins.
Bangkok air carries the tinge of coconut oil.
Every day gets stickier than it starts out.
City street dense against my feet. That’s good. That means the white space is clearing. This is our guesthouse. Don’t ask me how I’m back but here I am, knock knock.
This is the room I share with Simon. No windows. Shabby wooden dresser, grey-brown, no mirror, our little room. Simon stretches on the bed, sheet wrapping his pelvis. Every time I see him thus trussed, I flash to Jesus in a drugstore frame.
Simon raises his head with a true smile. It’s not me. It’s the hash. He is on to a straight cigarette.
“Those are mine.”
Simon retracts all limbs, including my Camel. “Darling, you left them when you went walking.”
Neither of us looks at the other. He never asks why I always duck out before the afternoon rain.
“Did you leave me one?”
From nowhere, Simon produces, yes, yes, a cigarette. As soon as the nic hits, I sift down to him. He strokes my arm. “We’ll need more.”
Simon means hash, but he is British, so he says, we’ll need more. Perhaps this should be it with Simon and his interest in heroin. He’ll go find hash while I go to that island with the Israelis. If Simon shows up there, I’m with Lawrence.
Simon stubs out his butt. Stoner psychic. He can tell in a second when I’m thinking about Lawrence. He leaps naked out of bed. “My lady! A boon!”
I exhale, coughing with laughter. “Who are you? Robin Hood?”
“Allow me to—”
“—protect you from the ruffians of these Bangkok streets!” He flails madly, faking a sword fight. The only thing floppy on him goes flop. “That blasted cow!”
Oh, Christ. Something else went on that I don’t remember. Obviously last night, with one of the sacred cows kept by the neighborhood wat, mammoth creatures that wander into the surrounding streets. Nothing bad happened. I drag heavily to keep from shrieking, “I didn’t drink that much.” Unless I shriek it. How am I on the street? Little boy is selling sarung, who is Simon anyway, some guy I met on his way north hoping to drop a coin into The Golden Triangle. I’ve been heading north since I landed in Asia. Bali. Girl on the bus knew a place, a buck-fifty a night included breakfast, and the girl, Antoinette, adjusted my sarung, complimented my waist, she knew a bar. What about the temples I read about? We met two Balinese guys, nice enough. The three of them joked about how to spend time during the afternoon rain, there was that time that Dad had over his Army buddies to watch a game, football, and he made me stop getting them chips and beer and made me sit beside him, hand on my knee, proprietary, as they told the same kind of jokes in the same tone of voice—
“Please buy sarung, lady,” says the little boy I turn away from. Antoinette disappeared with the better-looking one, assigning me to buys more beer. Afterward, more beer guy slept, then he got hard again, so I walked, my first walk—
almost bump into two white guys, jerk my chin, “Got a smoke?” Nice enough guys. Shitty, whichever’s-cheapest Thai cigarettes, but nice enough guys, bye bye; Antoinette said a breezy goodbye to hers when I had no idea what to do with mine, it got easier, and I tagged after Antoinette for three weeks, tagged after her through Indonesian islands north, then north. Bus through Bali. Boat to Java, past Krakatoa, a volcano that erupted, I knew from a book I read over and over as a kid, read nights before Dad came in—the string is squishing my eyes together, pulling up from the middle of the squish—
Stay. Here. Bangkok.
Bali. Tiny temple old women saggy naked boobs no shame passed incense, priests sprinkled blessings over us. Java. Temples. Antoinette. Men. Afternoon rain, sex. If I walked, there was no round two. It really did get easier.
Antoinette flew home. It was N on the compass with fill-in-the-blank, always talking about the longest bus ride across the bumpiest road to find the most remote whatever. Blow-job. Malaysia Thailand Bangkok north, north, Thailand smooshes into Burma and Lao at Thailand’s tip top, The Golden Triangle. No more north. Burma is open strictly for day visits. Lao is completely closed. Where you gonna go now? Where you gonna go?
* * *
Train leaves at dusk, sunset jungle outside my window does nothing to fix what feel like hawk talons ripping at my head. I know what will, I will not ask Simo—conductor. Crisp white jacket, black trousers, dinner orders. Chicken curry. Two women in nearby seats, wouldn’t peg the Asian one as a traveller—who wears white to travel in? It’s a great look—they take out sweet rolls and strange dried meats. The tall one, white lady, positions their rambutan so that the breeze blows away the garbage smell. Simon leaves to blaze it on the platform between cars and presto, Lawrence, chivalrous gesture, unearths an amber-filled bottle. My tension is the plastic seal, cracking. Israelis tune their guitars, Lawrence sings clear and high, yummy golden hum, I babysit the Mekong, and harmonica, Can’t like Dylan as much as me and not play harmonica, song about rain buckets, army-green tank top smooth shoulder blow-job—
conductor, seats into single sleepers upper, lower. Move your hips song. Simon will take top bunk. When did—he came back?
“You will not.” When did I?
Israelis. “Let her have it, Simon.”
“ ... can sleep on top of me any night.”
Lawrence looking at me, Simon looking at me. Simon shoves his backpack into a bottom bunk. Lawrence still looking at, me. Thick twine, like from a fishing boat, hauls me toward Simon. Close the curtain, bye bye Lawrence mad face. Simon strokes my arm. Twice since we’ve met, he’s undressed me the way mama-type did, in Bangkok, peeling the rambutan. When Simon’s blunted, though, D’vorah’s right. His hand will never slide farther or grope harder. Lawrence’s would. Me and Simon become the clatter of the train.
Put the moment in a glass jar.
Keep it forever.
* * *
At still-dark the next morning, crisp white shirt and black—ow, lights on—snappy taps on bunks “Surat Thani, thirty minutes,” up and down the row. Me and Simon lag after the fifteen or so who transfer to a bus at Surat Thani, a noisy port city utterly unreflecting the conductor’s surfy sing-song. The Israelis sit toward the back. They haven’t saved us seats. When we first met them, I asked Yuri why they all looked alike.
“We don’t all look alike. We all look Jewish.”
As we approach, Lawrence attaches himself to his Walkman, scent coming off him, lonely sleep. Behind him, a tall lady stands, the white one of the two eating weird meat last night. Indicating her friend, she says, “If ya’d prefer to sit with your mates, I’ll shove over.” She rolls her r‘s like nobody’s business, totally Scottish.
I say, “Cool,” because fuck, my head hurts, as Simon tells her, “Please don’t bother.” It all happens anyway. The Israelis stay distant.
The bus shudders to a start. In ten minutes, we reach the Ban Don pier, where God presses the “Commence Sweating” button. The tall lady is next to us again. “We’re waiting for the train due in from Malaysia.”
On the other side of her and then Yuri, the Germans from the Golden Triangle-Bangkok train overhear her. They take out scary-thick books as a natural reaction, the way the Israelis take out their guitars. Yuri asks the tall lady, “How long until this train?”
Simon appears at the tall lady’s shoulder. “I say, you’ve made this trip often?”
“I say,” Lawrence snorts through his cigarette.
D’vaorah steps in, introducing everybody. The tall lady says, “I’m Ava. You-lot are bloody good on the guitar—Carol!” Ava waves over the Asian lady. “Come ’round.”
Carol comes ‘round at a pure dally. As Ava chatters along, Lawrence does that sexy thing with the pack to flip up a single for Carol, who allows him to light hers something like kindly, maybe like he was an noteworthy sample she would soon file. Her eyes find me, then Simon. At Simon, a smidgen of disgust moves under her skin as far as her cheekbones. Simon doesn’t notice or ignores it with class precision. He can’t bear the buddy-buddy-right-away types, like this Ava person, but he can’t possibly leave while Carol introduces herself. Carol Yamashita. The first traveler I have met with a last name.
About the time Simon deduces that these are not the smack-dealing womenfolk he seeks, Carol interrupts Ava’s bright banter, “Maybe these people don’t need to know our whole lives,” with an amiable little poke. The sun moves well into the sky. Even conversation between Ava and D’vorah hangs by its headless neck. The waiting part of traveling; man, all there is to do is smoke and
The air feels, free.
Patrice, about now, she should be calling for money.
The boat jerks. We launch, roasting for over four hours before reaching Phangan’s main town, Thong Sala. Our destination, and Carol and Ava’s, it turns out, is Haad Rin Village, on the island’s south side. All seven of us get into an old red skiff and spend forty minutes low to the water, cool from the spray. The sunlight is so bright that it’s like you’re living in yellow. I grow into a ribbon the color of one of the velvety blues of the water surrounding us, resplendent against the greens and soft browns of a nearby land spit. As we approach Haad Rin, we busy ourselves for the wade through hip-deep, baby blue water to the white beach.
Its sand under our feet, Phangan is standard issue traveler-island-gorgeous, except for the garbage strewn from the beach up to Haad Rin central. The island shows none of the pigs or fowl that take care of trash on the mainland. I spot cats.
Ava gestures over a hill rising to the south. “We always stay at Cliff House.”
D‘vorah decides on Cliff House for her clan, and I’m whatever. But then there is Simon. This should really be it, “I’ll meet you for dinner,” then phase him out as Lawrence phases in.
“I guess, um.” Simon hovers close, so I finish, “We need smokes.”
Simon and I buy a pack each and spend a sweaty hour squabbling as we search Haad Rin for lodgings. Stringy white women with darting eyes wander the beach in nothing but bikini bottoms. They scratch a lot. Simon drops into a whispered conversation with a beefy man behind some shack they call Hello Hotel.
“I can’t believe you’re gonna make me stay here,” I say.
Our new best friend belly laughs. “Ideal proximity to tonight’s party.”
Simon already has our backpacks in a room. I turn toward the hill that leads to Cliff House. Simon’s “Darling?” trickles over my shoulder.
I whirl. “Why did you even try to keep me?”
Simon licks his flaccid lips. “Wouldn’t it be more enjoyable, with you?”
The belly laugh strides away, confident of the invisible that tows Simon after him.
Stay, birthday girl. Look at the—the what? The path, the hot dirt path, up and over the jagged hill. Look, a narrow beach. Ava is vaulting my direction. As quickly as seemingly she can, she becomes the sea against the shore of me. “Hey ya, wee mucker, babble babble.” There is something appealing about Ava that I am starting to hate.
“Where’d the Israelis go?”
“You mean your new fella?”
“I’m so sure.” Truth be told, Ava has an adorable smile.
“Now, lass; don’t be crabbit—”
“What does that even mean?” I have to run to keep up with her leggy skip.
“—he’s oodling prettiness. Heaps better than that barn pot Brass Monkey—”
“Half the time, I can’t understand—” I have never met a grown-up who celebrates dips in the path, as she does now, with a “Tra-loo!” or who capers on the up-hills. Capers. I keep waiting for the ironic part.
Ava has me at a bungalow. “Your mates went along to Sunset House.”
Carol perches on the porch steps, tidier than ever in a fresh sarung and t-shirt. Her “No room at the inn,” recalls Simon’s disinterest on the boat, and Lawrence’s not entirely sober “sleep on top of me.” The uneasy combination prompts me to offer Carol a smoke.
Arms draped over her bent knees, Carol surveys my bribe. “Ava’s allergic.”
I light up. Right away, I can’t stand the pressure I created. “Where you guys from?”
Ava says, “Tokyo. I teach English. Carol’s an important body at her family’s department store. But she used to be a social worker.”
Carol rotates her even expression to Ava, who kind of whines, “Well, ya were.”
“Not an especially good social worker.”
“Why not?” I surprise myself by asking.
Carol trots out a grin. “I’m not that nice. How old are you?”
“How old are you?”
Ava says, “I’m thirty-three, the age Christ died.”
“Are you always this weird?” I ask.
Ava crosses her arms, not protectively, more like into armor. “As you asked, a wee mucker is a friend. Crabbit is cranky. And a Brass Monkey is what we Scots call a heroin addict.”
“He’s never even tried it!”
“Give him until sunset.”
Carol says, “After which, you will never see him again. I’ll take that cigarette, if you’re still offering.”
I am so outta there, flinging my own cigarette, a missile, at the rocky cliff bordering a footbridge, the breeze carrying snippets of their conversation, Ava, “ . . . I was unkind ... ” and Carol, “ ... you were fine... your lost kittens ... ” who cares about them anyway, following the footbridge to a path that continues to an open-air restaurant where the Israelis are having beers with three other people that look like them, dark hair and eyes, beautiful cheek bones, noses with the strength of generals. I approach with caution. Lawrence lifts his drink like a question mark. I am not a stray cat. Yuri introduces me around. D’vorah organizes everyone’s food. The only other girl is totally the kind I hate, zero-fat with gravity-resistant tits. A ladies man couldn’t not stare, the bottom halves almost peeking out the way they do every time she so much as takes a drag. It’s that almost that holds the entire table. Even Lawrence. I turn him down on buying me a beer.
Conversation proceeds in loud Hebrew. I am almost above the table, reaching for Simon as he won’t shoot up, won’t shootup wontshootup. Maybe I catch some English chopped into the Hebrew. Maybe “acid.” Pretty sure “ecstasy.” For no clear reason, Almost-Titties switches the conversation to English.
“I love X. You love everyone, you want to hold them all and stroke, even then dance wildly. I have to wait to come down, though, to come.”
The guys look as stunned as you would expect them to look. Under the table, a strong hand cups my knee. Lawrence appears to have learned his lesson. “You heard? Full Moon Party tonight. Most people take acid, but I thought, mushrooms.”
I am running, not hearing Lawrence, Carlie, D’vorah, Carlie, running straight to our hotel, strangely grateful. Our room. Our door.
No answer. I snap on the light. In the glint of time before Simon rises from the bed, there are things I never, instantly, understand. A syringe and a belt. His puke. I hear him, turn it off you’re ruining it. The string doesn’t even have to pull.
—somewhere in there, I buy a fifth and retreat to the beach. Three quick pulls. I wasn’t enough to stop him. Two more. The more drunker I get, the more here I—I hate this, life. I wobble toward Haad Rin. In a cove, the party, a couple shaggy guys—from the boat?—one boom box, maybe a hunnerd travelers writhe, writhe and drinking and smoking lotta hash on driftwood logs. There are my Israelis. They, checking. I’m good I’m good. I lean toward D’vorah, teeter into Yuri passes me to Lawrence takes my hand into the squirming human mass, raucous Irish rock, The Pogues batter away all woooosh
Reggae. Oh yeah, white people scream, Mar-leee! My hips and shoulders round and round, kimono lady with no kimono. Almost Titties, over there on a rock, her and her stunned men. We had a kitty when I was a kid. He came to me most. My sister’s eyes were slices of fury. Almost Titties, slice, when Lawrence forearms around my waist I let kitty out, knowing he would never come back. There is no cat to let out now, when slice when Lawrence guides me into his chest, my nose and mouth against his shoulder.
“ ... the mushrooms together?”
Bam. I am back.
Lawrence steers me to a quiet log, where he fishes a fold of paper from his pocket. The dried mushrooms taste like bitter wood. I guzzle his water and expect Technicolor cartoons.
Nothing happens. “So, how long does this take?”
“Could be fifteen minutes, could be more. Drink more water.”
“Let’s walk on the beach.” This time, I take his hand. We climb the hill. By the time we come down the other side, to the narrow beach, the wind is so like feathers that each hair on my body clarifies golden. I see the stars. I can taste them. A giggle. That can’t be me. I don’t giggle.
“Lawrence, can you taste the stars?”
He giggles back. “Carlie is tripping.” He lifts me easily and swings me around, newlyweds across an imagined threshold. Except there is no bed—only sand and sand, endless sand, endless sea, endless sky, endless night we fall all over each other near some rocks, half in, half out of our clothes. His mouth and skin are strange meat delicious. Usually, this is where I start doing whatever will get the thing over with but tonight, tonight, I want the sensation forever, to last and last so I can keep feeling Lawrence on me and the sand under me, every granule as I grind against him, up and up. Tonight. Tonight. He cries out my name and over the brink I’ve been riding close free-falling pulses from my center down my limbs swirls into the last little tingles between my fingers. I can’t believe it. I came, too.
Still kissing. Our breathing slows after uncountable time Lawrence pulls up my clothes tender, caring for me. “You were amazing. No girl ever loved it—”
I shoot above. It is not my eighteen-year-old body down there. A child, maybe twelve years old, I can barely see her skinny legs splayed under Dad. Flattening me—I can’t breathe. I am above me, I can’t breathe. He makes me come. You loved it.
Down a tunnel a trainload of shame. Smash. No one will ever make me come. Ever again.
Lawrence is trying to calm me, telling me it’s the drugs. He is so bigger, but me is electric. It is everything in the world to shove him away. Down the beach, a dip in the sand is a good reason to throw myself onto my stomach, cold sand, harsh harsh breath. I roll over stare into sky slips through my fingers I want to miss my sister, my mom, but I never have. Not once. Not really. It never got easier. I must pass out because I start from some dead zone to find the black softening into gray then pink, pink, blinkity-blink, time-lapse photography. Someone over me, determined bones, troubled face, D’vorah?
She’s Asian. She says, “Hey, are you okay?”
What’s-her-name, the clean girl. Maybe she walks, too.
“You’re Carlie, right?” She sits on the sand, her arms draped over her bent knees, her back curved like a spoon. I could fall off the world. No one would notice. Maybe my thoughts are really loud, because she says, “I would, Carlie.”
“I didn’t answer, before. I’m eighteen, double goose egg—oh, Jesus. I was just a little kitten.”
More might spill out, more about Dad, the mushrooms, the ladies’ man; “I am him,” I say, I know I say, “and he is me.” When I am finally totally silent, she watches me for a long time. Her hands slide down her calves, easily reach her polished toes. Her gentle rocking ebbs into the part of my body left vacant by the weight of things I’ve never told anyone.
Alle C. Hall is the Senior Nonfiction Editor at JMWW Journal. Her fiction and nonfiction appears in Creative Nonfiction Magazine, Brevity (blog), Word Riot, Treehouse, Crack the Spine, The Citron Review, Bust, Literary Mama, Seattle Times, Seattle Weekly, and The Stranger (Contributing Writer), among others. She won first place in The Richard Hugo House New Works Competition and was a semi-finalist for the Hippocampus 2017 “Remember in November” Memoir Contest and Screencraft’s Cinematic Short Story Contest. She received a Best of the Net from Word Riot, and two “Notable Essay” designations from Memoir Magazine’s #MeToo Essay Contest.