Surawong Road is choked with tuk-tuks and old dented Toyotas, shiny new Mercedes, motorcycles pushing helter-skelter through walls of right-hand-drive cars. Electric signs flash as I walk past: CABBAGES & CONDOMS OPEN DAILY. DARLING TURKISH BATH. DR. LEK CHINESE HERB BY APPOINNTMENT ONLY. Complaining horns rend the warm Bangkok night, thick with gasoline fumes that line my nostrils with blackish mucus. Office buildings rise twenty stories on either side, the new concrete pearl-grey beneath its gritty jacket of exhaust. Last night was Loi Kratong, and Thais descended on all the canals to float lotuses of pink and green paper there. The paper flowers winked, each with a pure candle flame, and the Thais sang while they shimmered in their thousands on the black velvet waters, like clusters of yellow stars. Tonight masses of paper lotuses clog up the bends of the khlongs, bobbing waterlogged in the foul greasy soup; they drift, sink, melt into sludge at the bottom, and the people have other things to do.
Up ahead the Golden Arches glow luridly. Through sheet-glass windows, the walls and deserted tables gleam antiseptic white under high-wattage lighting. Young boys sit outside on the McDonald’s front steps, in pairs or alone, their shoulders and slim necks silhouetted in the glow. They are thirteen, maybe. An older boy, fifteen, gold chain loose round his neck, sits with his arm around a girl. He’s kissing her openly. Her long hair brushes the step they sit on. One of the boys sees me looking closely; his eyes glint and I look away, because what else am I doing here? a man of prime buying age, a square wallet bulging the front pocket of my jeans, my cock lying alongside it.
The street is wild with meter taxis, throaty roar of motorcycles, the din as loud as an auto rally. I step out into the street, my hand stretched out, waving slightly, to stop impatient cars. Brakes screech. I cross the final lanes at a run. Brightly lit stalls dispense tourist junk: silk-screened T-shirts, leather wallets, boxes of watches and shiny rings. The vendors, all men, call out with admirable persistence. “American friend, look here, genuine Rolex, best price.” Arranged in rows on wood planks, Buddha statues of injection-cast mahogany sit in lotus-posed meditation.
Two Australian women sort though piles of scarves. “You’ve got to burn one of the threads with a match, that’s how you tell if it’s real silk.” The vendor cries “You like scarf?” The women mutter crossly “They’re lovely” and rummage some more. The man smiles. “I lovely too?” “Yes, you’re lovely too.” He turns to the next stall, face beaming. “I… so lovely” and he frames his face with his hands. “I can sell face… for looking.”
The blonde unfurls a broad swathe, printed with the Temple of the Dawn in day-glo.
I push through the crush of bodies, turn into Soi Thaniya. As if I’ve passed from the storm to a sheltered cove, the pushing and shoving ceases. The only car, a sleek black Jaguar, coasts down into an underground parking structure. A neon sign blinks in katakana over every doorway, a noren hanging from each lintel: the Japanese bars and brothels. Japanese businessmen in light-grey suits, black ties, white shirts crisp in this heat, walk in phalanxes of five or six. I walk too near one group; the man closest to me, eyes hard on my face, forces me off the curb. He sweeps past, head up and back, refusing even to look sideways, to do me that much honor.
At the corner of Silom Road a slight man, nylon windbreaker, calls to me softly. “Sir? You like Thai girl? Thai boy?” On his flat black hair he wears an Iowa Hawkeyes cap: the graphic stencilled in gold and black, the hawk’s eye circular and rapacious. I push past in my turn, without response.
The doorway glitters with Christmas lights. THE BURBERRY CLUB. The doorman waves me in past a sign: “Women 500 Baht Cover.” A long staircase leads past murals of Apollonian torsos rendered in streaky aquarium blue, the bodies lumpy and stiff, proportions not quite right.
Heavy disco beat rattles the walls, each downstroke thudding my chest. “I-want-you-to-take-me-to… FUNKYTOWN!!” On stage seven or eight boyish teenagers, gold skin taut, jiggle to the music. Plastic discs like poker chips stud their white loincloths, each with a gold-embossed number. 18. 27. 5. Pink and white stagelights gleam off oiled chests. Westerners sit at tables, beers and mixed drinks standing before them, and stare at the stage, a flat dead look in their eyes.
On video monitors overhead, American men fuck dispassionately.
“Naam sodah khrap,” I say. The waiter brings soda water with slices of lime, smiles elegantly. “You like boy, you tell me the number.” He places a discreet bill in a glass on my table. 125 baht. Five dollars. You’d have to be a rich Thai to come here. But there are lots of rich Thais. Near center-stage tables have been pulled together for a large party of Thais. Helium balloons and streamers festoon their chairs. A sign reads HAPPY BIRTHDAY, Thai letters marked around it: clean vertical lines thick with curvy serifs, like wind-whipped flags. The Thais chat, call up at the stage, laugh, call for more beer. Around them Westerners sip drinks in grim silence.
Funkytown fades out. The stage clears. Lights dim; cool smoke wells up from floor vents. Berlin screeches and moans from the loudspeakers: “Wee maake looove to-ge-ther.” The mist billows out, thinning; through it shimmers the specter of two nude boys lying on the floor, grinding their bodies together, the taller one cradling the smaller on his chest. They kiss openmouthed; the smaller boy pulls his face shyly away. Out from gushing grey fog steps a third boy, thin and cocky, pelvis gyrating, deep-thrusting to the music: gripping a long penis in his hand, rubbing it to hardness. The tall boy against the floor hooks the smaller boy’s knees with his ankles, draws his legs apart, and the boy dutifully hauls himself up onto his knees, presents his hindquarters. Strobes flash, blinding white in the mist, like sheet lightning. Colored bulbs wink and blink.
The cocky boy kneels between two sets of spread legs, spits into his cupped hand. Straddling the offered rear, he pushes in his unrubbered penis, manfully and not gently. The speared boy shudders, falls down onto the chest below him, tries to straighten himself. Arms pull him back, hold him still. They rotate clockwise, all three, an entangled mass of limbs jiggling and shaking with each thrust. Synthesizers wail, guitars howl. “I’m a man–I’m a goddess–I’m a man–I’m a slut–I’m a man–I’m a geisha–I’m a lit-tle girlllll….” Slaps crack out over the music as the cocky boy whacks the buttocks of the boy he’s fucking, pounds harder and harder from behind. A mirror ball casts spangled chips of light to the furthest corners, brushes with white ovals eyes and faces dull with lust. Leaning back in abandon, the boy thrusts and pounds to a shattering fake climax. The stage goes dark.
On the video monitors, the Americans pump and suck unwatched.
Now five young boys are bumping and grinding in the stark white holes opened in the dark by spotlights. Birds, butterflies, flame blossoms of fluorescent pinks and greens cascade over their shoulders, down their torsos, trace the lengths of their thighs, glow weirdly under ultraviolet light as the boys twist and turn girlishly. A gentleman, perhaps Thai-Chinese, perhaps sixty, pale wrinkled face of an ascetic, beckons to a waiter; and a boy with the muscles of a gymnast, chest asplash with orchids, comes to sit by him, permits the man’s hand to rest upon his wiry thigh. Beer arrives, is poured and left untouched. Presently the boy rises, withdraws to the back of the bar. The waiter reappears with a deferential tray, upon which the man drops banknotes in a preoccupied manner. The boy reappears, now in tight jeans, follows his grandfatherly patron out the door.
Out and through passageways heavy with the smell of frying pork, sweet rotting trash piled: puddles festering, rank as blocked drains, in the tepid air of a Thai winter. Plastic Polaris water bottles, three-baht bus tickets speck the ground. I push through crowds into the Tawan Bar, its door jambs and lintels ornate with Thai carved wood, flame tongues flickering up. The doorman, bulky as a Samoan linebacker, sits on a four-legged stool. He eyes me, a mild speculative gaze, jerks his chin and I’m in.
A long narrow wood room, mirrored on both sides. Press-on particle board in lacy temple cut-out shapes, stupas spray-painted pink, yellow, baby blue, line the mirrors from one end to the other. A microphone crackles. “Sawat-dee and welcome, gente-man from Ameri-caah, from Australi-aah, from German-neee! Welcome to Thai Men of Tawan Bar Body Building Show!!!!” On the raised platform broad-shouldered men flex and strut in black posing trunks, each with its numbered poker chip attached. 35. 9. 16. Muscles bulge through tight wet T-shirts plastered to their smooth bronze skin, little air pockets running underneath. Short black hair drips with water and sweat.
I order and drink more five-dollar soda water. Above my head narrow waists, perfectly swelled thighs, buttocks thick with muscle writhe sinuously. All around, middle-aged men both Thai and Western sit behind beers and scotches, eyes narrowed. The glasses bead with water, trickling down onto the table. One man wets his finger on the leaky wet circle, traces lines on the table, raises his glass for another sip, his eyes fixed on the stage.
Now bare-chested men take turns stepping forward, flex and lock into bodybuilding poses: front double biceps, side triceps, overhead lat spread, most muscular. The crowd applauds, catcalls for one young man’s beautiful physique. He steps up, head rocking back on the firm neck, eyelids lowered; accepts the praise as no more than his due. Square shoulders ripple under the rain of adulation. Dark tattoos of lacy Thai letters, long thin stupas traced in faint dotted lines drape his flaring back like an openwork shawl, deep blue against the deep tan.
With a display of reverence, the doorman ushers in a portly Italian businessman. Drinks appear instantly on the table. The businessman sips, wipes his face with a white cloth, loosens his silk tie, unbuttons his collar; grizzled hair curls at the base of his neck. The doorman takes the next chair, his arm draped casually around the businessman. They watch the show. The businessman whispers a word in the doorman’s ear, takes another swig of beer, eyes raised to the stage. The doorman calls over a runner with a flick of his finger.
Lights dim as the stage clears. Two men juggle gas-flaming torches which whirl and spin like batons, twirling in orange pyrotechnic glory, leaving long purple tracks like glowing ribbons and a pall of black smoke. The beautiful young man from the stage appears by the businessman’s table, now in a dark Polo shirt; puts his palm on the table, leans forward onto his arm, the shoulder muscles bunching seductively against his neck. The doorman scribbles on the check, jumps to help his client on with his Armani double-breasted. The businessman fishes a few bills from his wallet, tosses them onto the table. They sweep out together, the young man going before the older. Two well-fed Englishmen in plaid shirts follow with their eyes, sip amber brew. “He’s got that lovely thick neck, looks like a Greek god. But come to find he’s just a thug what’s a bit thick in the head.” “Well Nigel, you’re not paying for conversation.”
At the exit the doorman’s smile clicks off; he riffles through receipts, figures a few sums.
Bar boys traipse in their skivvies down the aisles. A pudgy Thai sits wordless behind a bottle of Black Label, wine blush creeping across his broad gold face. At the bar across the room a brush-cut man in khaki vest, erect military bearing, hoists beers in the company of a towering Euro-Goliath in tight black muscle shirt. The doorman bustles from table to table, bent on errands of mercy. On stools around me, overweight Asians stare heavily at the bodies onstage, tinkling drinks in hand. No one acknowledges me, nor I them. I take a deep breath, slide off my stool.
I push on the bathroom door, to find within a perfect Thai dancer resplendent in draped brocades, shoulder shields flaring like a scaly ruff, tall jewelled crown. She’s applying the last touches of black round the eyes. Her eyes meet mine in the mirror; moth brows arch. I withdraw.
Now I am by the bar. Mr. Brush Cut looks down at me, back to the stage, back at me. I stand there, innocently.
The musclemen clamber off the stage, sweaty and boisterous. Disco beat fade-blends to gongs and drums. Transvestite dancers in full court dress file on, step forward, tilt delicately sideways, fingers curling over their wrists like strange bug-like blooms, chrysanthemum or tarantula. The men mill up and down the back stairs, rest leaning against the wall, against each other; chat, laugh, slap each other’s beefy shoulders. It’s much more interesting over here: a backstage Carnival atmosphere. Waiters push through with drink orders and posers line up to go on next.
“You’re American.” Mr. Brush Cut speaks. It’s a statement.
“That’s right,” I say.
Behind him the Thai posers swarm over Euro-Goliath: prod him to flex, feel his slabs of muscle, pound his back wide as two of theirs. He stands a full foot above them, but they pull him up the back stairs anyway.
“I come here, from time to time.” Mr. Brush Cut drinks deep from his beer. “I like it. I like to talk to the young men here. There’s no other bar like this, anywhere in the world.”
Two men in leather hoods strut on stage, silver-studded straps squeezing arms and chests. The whip cracks. One man twists the other back by his collar, presses the whip handle between his own clenched thighs till it juts forward, long and thick. He wags it to and fro.
“You live in Bangkok then.”
“Yes.” The eyes regard me frostily, the blue of glacier ice.
I press on. “Doing what?”
A measured pause. “I’m a soldier.”
Of fortune, I think. Be still, beating heart.
Euro-Goliath reappears overhead. “Henk, a Dutch friend? You two are talking about Netherlands, yes?”
“The Netherlands,” I say.
Mr. Brush Cut looks disgusted. “This is Nils, he is from the Norwegian Merchant Marine. My name is Henk. And yes, I am Dutch. What brings you to Bangkok?”
“Travelling around the world,” I say.
Henk and Nils discuss orgies. “What of the party in Bombay next weekend?” asks Nils. “Are you flying out? I am.”
Henk purses his lips. “Rather far for a party, don’t you think? And not very interesting. I have work.”
We stand close. Nils’s elbow bumps me. I look up, to the top of his massive bulk: black hair, a fleshy nose-bridge, puffy lips, small hard eyes the flaming violet of an acetylene welder. The eyes shift onto me, rolling like hot blue marbles, and a shiver goes through me: as if within this muscle-slabbed Zeus lived a pitchfork demon, one who demanded the most freakish propitiations; as if it were the demon’s eyes looking me over, considering me next. My eyes skitter, and Nils’s interest shifts away.
Henk’s knuckles graze mine. I look up at him: not as big and tall as Nils, but big and tall enough. More than enough. Long cords of sinew widen the neck from ear to shoulder. An eighth of an inch of blond stubble sprouts around a smooth, shiny pate. He freezes me with an Arctic eye but I smile anyway, because somehow I know I’ve got this one in the bag. The ice-floes crack, the first faint thaw; his lips twitch under the toothbrush mustache, flirt with a smile. Then a brawny arm clinches me right round the waist, holds me up tight against him.
Together we watch the show. The Speedo men are back up, slathered in posing oil, twisting and flexing under the hot lights. I play with the dog tags around Henk’s neck. It all feels different now.
“I’m impressed,” I say. “Where do they work out? Here? Upstairs?”
Henk shakes his head. “Weight pen at Lumphini Park.”
“How do you know? You work out there too?”
“Course not.” Henk looks indignant. “I’m at the Clark Hatch Fitness Club.”
Standing behind us I recognize the two men from the leather act, talking in Thai, smiling at us. They carry their black hoods in their hands and their arms are wrapped round each other. One pokes the other in his hard gut, and the poked one collapses in giggles.
Shouts and applause go up for another young man with buttery skin, who bears the swelling muscles on his body like the grace of God. He ducks his head modestly. His brow is wide and smooth, unpuckered by care. His friends the leathermen shout to him, and his face broadens in smile.
“I wish I spoke Thai,” I say. “Can you?”
“Not really,” says Henk. “Only moved here a year ago. Arabic’s my language. Lived fifteen years in Egypt.”
One leatherman wraps his arms around Henk’s thick chest, dry-humps him energetically from behind. “You like we do?” Henk, his arm still tight round me, looks wistful. “Wish I could.”
Now the beautiful young man has stepped down and black-shirted Nils with his executioner’s build is towering over him, catching him between two massive red hands like a butcher’s, dwarfing him: running his palms down the spine extensors, spanning the trapezius, the deltoids in an absorbed, systematic way, fingers splayed like calipers. The young man leans forward, bears it all patiently, the prodding and manhandling, as if undergoing a mildly unpleasant doctor’s exam that will soon be over. On the stage kickboxers in silk trunks wheel and spar, whole bodies full-thrust behind each whirling round-house kick. Light twinkles from the flame-carved gilt pediments, inlaid with bits of mirror and glass.
Henk drains his beer. “Time to go home.”
“That’s funny.” I lean my head back, onto his solid shoulder. “I’m going home too.”
“Really? Where’s that?” A raucous laugh. “Don’t know yet, do you.”
Nils watches us leave impassively, his restless hands roving and probing the flesh beneath them as if switched on automatic. The young man smiles at us, head bobbing from the force of the feeling-up. “Pai tio,” he calls.
Henk and I step into the street. The doorman side-eyes us, shocked: two white guys are not supposed to be leaving together.
“So this is how you sightsee,” remarks Henk.
“Happy to,” I say.
A hand-lettered sign, paint trickling from the brushstrokes. THAI BOXING AND SADIST SHOW–10 PM, MIDN. Snapshots stapled to the butcher paper: sweat sprays off smacked faces, spurts of glistening diamonds. Whiff in the warm air, of sewerage and frangipani. Henk takes my hand. “Have you ever been whipped?”
“Never,” I say.
Thai teenagers huddled on the night street, outside the glassed-in foyer, scatter at our approach. We elevator it to the twenty-ninth floor. The door opens. A buttoned vinyl sofa, brown armchairs, impersonal as a hotel lobby. The air-conditioner hums. A poster on the wall, for a Poussin exhibit at the Rijksmuseum, frames the martyrdom of St. Erasmus.
“Can’t offer you a shower,” says Henk. “It’s broken. Excuse me.” His answering machine squeals, rewinding messages. He rips faxes from the top of the machine: the long sheet crinkles in his hands. “Christ, I have to work tonight. They’ll need a report on the Cambodian peace talks.” He sighs. “I suppose I’ll have to go out there in a few days.”
I look out the window, over Bangkok at night: a forest of flood-lit cranes dominoed with high rises. Behind me Henk places a call, speaks at length in Dutch. On the coffee table, scattered back-issues of the Far East Economic Review. I poke over his bookshelves. Kapuscinski’s The Soccer War. Spinoza’s De Zedekunst. Ernst Jünger’s Gesammelte Tagesbücher. Rows and rows of books in Arabic. I want hot hands cupping me, crushing my flesh, hard rummaging fingers plumbing my tenderest places. But so far there has only been that arm around my waist, the faint grazing together of our knuckles.
The receiver clicks off. I walk over to the desk where he works. A framed snapshot sits there, of four sun-brown boys lean as knives, splashing into green water from a sandstone pier. Beads of water sparkle as they duck each other mercilessly.
“Who are they?” I ask.
“A boy I knew in Oman. And his friends. Just boys growing up around the wharves.” Henk picks up the picture, studies it. “I pulled a lot of strings to get this one into school. Islamic school, of course. Paid for it myself.” He lingers over the snapshot, with something approaching sorrow; then, setting down the frame, he shakes it off. “When do you leave Bangkok?”
“Tomorrow,” I say.
He stands. “Time for a little music.” He inserts a CD of Dido and Aeneas into the player. Baroque horns pipe, lutes strum. Those brawny arms go around me, streaming with warmth. Two sopranos sing a lilting duet. “Fear no dan-ger to ensue…” Whim strikes like lightning, and I climb up onto him as if onto a column, my legs latching round his waist. He doesn’t stagger; he hitches me mid-air to his chest as if my weight were nothing and dances, a little bobbing dance back and forth, bouncing me on his chest like a kitten. I yield to bliss. Henk sings into my ear: “The hero loves… as well as you.” He settles me gently back on the floor.
Slowly I pull off my shirt for him. With a forefinger Henk traces the thin line of my hair, from sternum to navel. “You have a beautiful body,” he murmurs. “This thin line… it’s very beautiful.” He leans down, brushes his lips against mine. Such sweet kisses, the whiskers of his close-cropped mustache tickle my nose. His lips run down my neck, graze over my chest, find my nipple. And his teeth fasten onto it like a leech.
I fight back a yell, suck in my breath. I make myself rigid while he grinds my nipples between his teeth: first one side, then the other. He takes his time. Done, he looks deep in my eyes. His gaze is tender.
“What’s this?” he asks. His thumb caresses my lower lip.
“It’s nothing,” I say. I rub my palm over his stubbly head.
He claps his fingers against my cheek; a held-back slap. Once, then again. “Into the bedroom with you.”
In a niche in his bedroom, a camouflage-green helmet sits on a special stand. “Seen action, haven’t you?” I ask. “Where? Cambodia?” Henk shrugs. “Here, there. Somalia. The Gulf.” He hands the helmet down to me. I fit it square on my head, chin strap dangling.
“You’ve put it on backwards.”
I fit the thing back on, right way round. He hangs his dog tags round my neck.
“What’s your last name?” he asks.
“Odd of God to choose the Jews.” His face beams with mirth.
Too late I remember the comeback: Not odd of God, the goyim annoy him. But his face has gone grave.
“I know some Arensons. In Holland. Their son was in the U.N., like me. Very brave young man. He was murdered by the Iraqis.” He shakes his head. “A nasty business.”
The helmet goes back up on the stand. I put rubbers and lube prominently on the nightstand. Henk cocks an eyebrow severely. “What do you think we’re going to do with those? Get on the bed.” I strip, painful erection flopping from my shorts, fluid dripping from the tip in thin glistening strands.
Henk clicks his tongue ruefully. “And there it is. Standing at attention.” I dive face-first onto the bed and he says “No. Kneel.”
I kneel as he says, my knees cracking and protesting. Though still young, I have the joints of an old man. My penis bows out over the sheets, pink and hard.
Henk kneels beside me. He is naked now, a rugged old soldier’s body, body of an aging boxer, lustrous with sweat. The nakedness of that powerful body, so present, sets me to shaking. He’s enclosing the head of his thick white penis in his fist, the length of it stretched across his thigh. “Beautiful,” he murmurs, leaning down, and again his teeth crush into my nipples. A hiccupping sob escapes me–my nipples are very sore–but I force the groans down. I suck in breath, bear it as best I can. Like a man.
“How I would love to beat you,” he says. “But I would make you cry. I’d hate to do that.”
“So beat me,” I say.
He shakes his head.
“Come on, hit me, I want you to.” I haul off and whack him, hard ringing slaps on his thighs, buttocks, flanks: the fly baiting the tiger. Red marks bloom on his white flesh. He bears it all with indulgent fatherly patience. I dive forward onto his lap, my butt straining up for the flat of his hand. He pushes me off.
“No,” he says sadly. “A shame we aren’t in Cairo. I have many friends there. The chief of police, for example. You’d sleep with him if I told you to, yes?”
“Yes,” I say.
“Surely,” says Henk. “He’d take care of you. And a select few of his command. I’d watch. You wouldn’t sit for a week after. Have you ever been fisted?”
“Do you want to fist me?
Henk looks away. “No.”
“Let me suck you.” I lunge forward and he pushes my head away, sex shielded behind a protective screen of fingers. I wrap my legs around his neck, my butt against his groin. “Please.” He pulls my legs down from around his shoulders, gently pushes me aside.
“Will you at least lie on top of me? I want to feel you on me.”
“No,” he breathes, hand still covering his groin. “Jerk yourself off now. I will watch you come.”
He reaches out with his other hand to touch my penis. I reach to touch his; and his whole body jerks sharply away, leaping backwards to avoid my touch.
“I’m not like most guys,” I say. “I can’t just jerk off.”
“Try,” says Henk.
I lean back, start to jerk at my penis. I rub myself raw. Despite air-conditioning the sweat drips from my skin, trickles down my sides till the sheets stick to my back. The blood constricts in my face. I race and race, straining.
“But what’s this?” Henk shudders. “The sheets. The sheets. It’s too much.” He climbs off the bed, races to the next room. “Too much.”
I stop jerking, lie in my puddle of sweat. Henk reappears, unfolding fresh linens. He has pulled on a T-shirt and shorts, his penis now safe from view behind thick cotton.
“Henk, you’re a man of many secrets,” I say.
“Not your fault, I know,” he says, striding out. “But… it’s too much.” The crisp sheets lie tossed on a chair, ready and waiting.
I sit up heavily, then start to dress. I find my shorts, my jeans, my socks. I go to the front room for my shirt. Henk is back at work at his desk. The computer whirrs; paper sheets crunch one by one through the fax. My semen has curled back inside me and my testicles ache, a loud dull ringing, as if they would burst. Marvin Gaye moans from the CD player. “Oh bay-bee, you sure love to ball.”
I spy my black Reeboks kicked off under the chrome coffee table, lace them on. They feel funny. I stand. They’re my shoes all right, but it feels my feet have shrunk inside them. I walk over, put a hand on Henk’s shoulder.
“I’m sorry,” I say.
“Why? No reason to be.” And he stands to take my hand. I go on tiptoe to kiss him and he holds his head away.
“I come to Los Angeles sometimes,” he says. “You should give me your card.”
And then he reads from the start in my eyes that maybe it would not be such a good idea to visit me in Los Angeles.
I dig into my wallet, press my card on him. “Yes, call me, I’d like that.” But that little deceit cannot take back what has passed between us.
Marvin Gaye croons:
If it’s time for us to say farewell…
Farewell, my darling–
Maybe we’ll meet again… down the line…
“Don’t forget your shoes.”
“But I’m wearing my shoes.” And I follow Henk’s pointing finger to an identical pair of black Reeboks, lying on their sides by the bookcase, kicked off in my haste.
I sit down to unlace Henk’s shoes from my feet.
Henk shakes his head. “We have the same shoes.”
“Yes,” I say. “I was sure these were mine. But they felt wrong.”
Henk looms over me. The bare fact of my desire for him lies like a weight between us, inescapable and heavy as lead. “Listen, I have something for you.” From rough veined fingers dangles a yellow stuffed Garfield on the end of a string. “It’s yours if you want it.” Garfield bobs at the end of his elastic tether, regarding me with droopy eyes.
“It’s sweet, Henk,” I say. “But you keep it.” I place my hand on his wrist.
“Don’t be sorry,” says Henk. “I’m not.”
And then he’s standing in the doorway, watching me walk down the hall.
From the elevator I look back at him, heavy-set Atlas, the weight of the world on his shoulders and five minutes to dally with me. I look again, and this time I see: a man no more than what he is, with his own burdens to carry through life. He nods, raises his hand to acknowledge me; and I raise mine back, in farewell.
Boys scatter as I step out the glass double-doors. From over my shoulder I hear a drawn-out kissing smack. Though I’ve been warned not to, I walk a while before catching a taxi home. On Charoen Krung Road I step around a clutch of Lao children sprawled on the sidewalk. Their mother cradles a new baby at her breast, buttoned inside her torn flannel shirt. Under moonlight the grime glistens on their sleeping faces like soft velvety down. Five feet from their fragile skulls the tires of heavy cement mixers, of long-bed trucks piled with I-beams, whoosh by at thirty-five miles per hour, linkages clattering and clanking, air brakes hissing, gears grinding, exhaust spewing: early morning traffic shoving and rumbling towards the building sites.