Although it was thrilling to be a stranger in a strange land, there was a hollow disassociative feeling that accompanied it and grew as time went by. As much as I have loved Saigon, my first year there was not wholly a positive experience.
I was horribly culture-shocked: days on end of listening to nothing but chatter in a language I could barely speak, logic I found impenetrable. I was jonesing for a conversation that went beyond: â€œHi, you are how? You what name? You how old? How many babies?â€ I was dying to participate in a conversation where the focus was on the content and not the grammar. I wanted to be able to say, â€œYou know what I mean?â€ and for someone to answer back, â€œYeah, I know exactly what you mean.â€
The heat, the noise, the endless crowds, the daily battle to hold back the quiet and ravenous tide of humidity that slowly ate away at all my possessions. I had made the well-meaning but ultimately stupid choice to live native, rejecting the company afforded by tight and incestuous cliques of expats, refusing to eat at western restaurants, living in a part of town where no one had met a foreigner in thirty years. At the end of that first year, on the advice of a friend, I flew to Bangkok for a weekend of decompression.
The hotel I booked into was off the Kaosan road. It was cheap and shabby, a long low rise built in the 1960â€™s to house US soldiers on R&R leave from the war in Vietnam. It was called the â€œFreedom Hotelâ€.
The marble-tiled lobby smelled of tropical decay and air conditioners that had been running far too long. The young man at the desk was clean-cut and smiling as he took my passport and my money and handed me an old-fashioned key with a tag on it with the numbers 214 in raised, melamine digits. The gold had rubbed off them and they looked like an artefact, an archaeological find from a time long past.
The elevator was a small, wood panelled affair and the floor indicator lights above the door didnâ€™t work. I shuffled my feet and hefted my luggage from one shoulder to the other.
The landing was wide and a night-desk stood empty, abandoned, by the elevator doors. The low hum of Bangkok traffic seeped in from the outside as I walked down the broad hallway, reading the numbers on the doors until I found mine. 214.
They say that ghosts only survive in the emotional intensity of a place where great tragedies have taken place. I say itâ€™s not so. They live also in the places of great relief and displacement, where they pick apart their souls in the night and knit them back together before dawn.
As I stood in that wide hallway, with its hideously patterned, thread-bare carpet, turning the key in the door, I knew I wasnâ€™t alone. I could feel him there with me: the twenty-year-old boy with the regulation haircut and the clean, pressed uniform. His young face and his old eyes innocent no more. Heâ€™s seen things I havenâ€™t seen. Heâ€™s lost friends in ways I never will. He has prayed in trenches.
But we were both equally alone as we walked into the artificial chill and darkness of the room, dropped our bags on the floor, and fell backwards onto one of the two neat single beds.
* * *
The ceiling is stained in abstract but compelling patterns and the old air conditioner makes a noise like a looping death rattle. The light from the window, filtering in through the khaki and orange curtains, reminds us â€“ him and I both â€“ of sunlight weaving through dense foliage. Coloured shadows move on the wall in the mechanical breeze. Beneath our fingers, the candlewick bedspread feels like home, wherever home was. The room smells of cigarettes and the cloyingly sweet smell of decay that permeates the whole of Southeast Asia.
I roll over and turn on the console radio beside the bed but it doesnâ€™t work. Perhaps it worked for him. But now itâ€™s dead, perhaps like he is.
The bathroom is standard. Tiled in white. But something is slowly eating away at the mirrorâ€™s silvering, and my face, like his face, is marked and slightly distorted, like a stranger peering out of an old photograph. I imagine that I am him: tall and thin, angular and slightly awkward. I catch interior glimpses of a narrow wrist bared by a uniform cuff that is just a little short, a deep hollow at the base of the neck, a reedy clavicle and sharp, boyish shoulder blades.
I undress, folding my clothes neatly, and I place them on top of the closed toilet that boasts of its perfectly hygienic state in bold printed letters on a paper banner across its lid.
For the first time in a year, I step beneath a shower that actually feels like one. The water thunders out cold and clean and strong. Unlike the showers in Saigon with their needle-like spray that only make you feel damp and slightly less sweaty, this one is magnificent. I submit to it, imagining whole reservoirs draining dry just for me. Did he feel the same? Did he stand there as long as I did, feeling beaten in the proud onslaught of water?
I bath for a long, long time, until the skin of my fingers shrivels and my shoulders feel bruised. The small neat bar of courtesy soap smells like it always does. In hotel rooms all over the world, there are people unwrapping soap that smells the same. I imagine him smelling it as he lathers his body and uses it in his hair because he has forgotten to bring shampoo, as I have.
Wrapped in a towel, I walk back to the bed and lie back down, and in my mind he does the same. He turns onto his side, just as I do, and weeps.
We weep because itâ€™s safe and quiet and because, in this moment, we are entirely alone, as if the world has ended and everyone else is gone and someone forgot to tell us. Bone lonely.
I turn on my stomach, pushing my hands between my legs, and try to masturbate. But it doesnâ€™t work. I canâ€™t bear the silence of the room. Is it the same for my ghost? Or have men always been different that way. I hope to god he had the refuge I couldnâ€™t find. He deserved it so much more than I do.
* * *
In the evening, I stroll down the Kaosan road in the failing twilight and sit in a bar, drinking bad margaritas and watching Rambo kill untold numbers on a wall-mounted television screen. The movie is dubbed into Thai, but I donâ€™t bother reading the sub-titles. I dream about my soldier boy and what he did on his first evening in Bangkok. What did he drink? Did he sit in a bar and gaze sightlessly up at a television screen like I am doing now?
When I order a plate of Phad Thai and another Margarita, I find I have company. As lonely as I am, it is hard to talk at first. But heâ€™s English and twenty-three and wants to tell me about the drugs he smoked in Laos and the urchins that stung him while diving on a reef in the Indian Ocean. I eat and nod and smile.
â€œAnd it was incredible!â€ he says, showing bright, sharp teeth. â€œDo you know what I mean?â€
I nod again and smile. â€œYeah, I know exactly what you mean.â€
â€œCool,â€ he says, and grins. Heâ€™s almost a child. He smiles like one, pushing a flop of blonde hair out of his eyes: clean, clear eyes. Young eyes.
I want to fuck him, to fuck his sunshine smile away, to make him come and close those clean, clear eyes. I want him so badly I can taste his sweat on my tongue and hear the sex sounds he is going to make, before I ever touch him.
My meal paid for, I lead him wordlessly by the hand back up the Kaosan road, through the smoke from outdoor grills, and throngs of brightly clad tourists. The hotelâ€™s doorman smiles. The boy at the reception desk doesnâ€™t bother to ask for the English boyâ€™s passport when I ask for my room key; they donâ€™t do that to foreigners. But I wonder if my soldier boy had trouble getting his girl up to the room. Did they ask for her identity card and a 50 Baht tip?
I know that Gary (thatâ€™s the English boyâ€™s name) is more than a little surprised. I kiss him in the elevator to calm him, and my hand snakes down to his crotch. Heâ€™s surprised but not, it seems, unwilling.
* * *
Someoneâ€™s been in the room. The bedside lamp in on, the bed is turned down. The clothes so carelessly left on the toilet seat are now sitting neatly piled on the desk. I start pulling off the ones Iâ€™m wearing.
â€œWow.â€ Gary doesnâ€™t succeed very well in his attempt to hide his confusion. â€œYouâ€™re not even drunk.â€
Jesus Christ, I scream in my head, at least my soldier boy didnâ€™t have to deal with this. Thereâ€™s something to be said for making sex a financial transaction.
â€œJust take off your clothes.â€
And Gary does, because heâ€™s a sweet boy and heâ€™s obedient and it has probably dawned on him that, if he pisses around, Iâ€™m going to put my clothes back on and find someone else. I donâ€™t want to talk about his last year at university, or his heartless father who wonâ€™t wire him a little extra cash. I just nod and rummage through my bag for a condom.
His body is pale and almost hairless and his skin is soft. Heâ€™s carrying an extra ten pounds and when I push him down onto the bed, I feel it break my fall. The bed squeals in protest at this rough treatment, but it canâ€™t fool me. Itâ€™s had a lot worse than this.
Itâ€™s been more than a year since Iâ€™ve lain skin-to-skin with anyone. The soldier-boy too, because I can see him now in my head, climbing on top of the sweet Thai thing. Did she giggle the way Gary does?
Heâ€™s trying to remember all the things he was told about making a woman happy. But he doesnâ€™t know me. He doesnâ€™t know this woman at all. And, as he fumbles with my nipples, I slide off him just long enough to roll the condom down onto his erect cock.
â€˜Donâ€™t you want to fool around a bit first?â€
â€œNot really.â€ I climb astride him, pushing myself down onto his dick.
â€œWow.â€ He opens his mouth to say something else, but I stop him.
â€œIâ€™d really like it, Gary, if youâ€™d just be quiet and fuck me.â€
In the next bed, my soldier boy is possibly more polite. But perhaps he doesnâ€™t have to be. I can see him, between her legs, pushing his cock in and lowering himself on top of her sweet, brown body.
To Garyâ€™s credit, he doesnâ€™t sulk. He grabs my hips and pumps up into me. All the pretence of social niceties are gone, and I am glad, indescribably glad to be sharing skin with anyone.
Itâ€™s the truest of all true things that I see in Garyâ€™s face as I ride his cock. That beautiful serenity of absolute pleasure that changes only in shades with every thrust. He reaches up and makes handfuls of my breasts, and I let him now, because I know itâ€™s out of need and not of duty. Besides, it feels good when he loses himself in sensation and squeezes hard. It keeps me from drifting over to the other bed and into the body of the soldier boy who is pounding himself into the girl like his life depended on it. Perhaps it does.
I can feel my orgasm long before it arrives, a plane in the distance and my body the control tower. The landing lights in my belly light up to guide it in. Garyâ€™s cock has grown huge inside me and thereâ€™s a pleasant dull pain each time he thrusts upwards.
â€œFuck â€“ this is too good.â€ he says.
â€œYeah, I know exactly what you mean.â€
There are sirens going off in my head. All my neurons fire at once and I start to come. I hear echoes of my soldier boy; his grunts keep time with his hips. Wordless and animal, the inhuman stuttering of being alive and absolutely human.
Gary gets it. He can feel it around his cock as I orgasm, and he holds my hips still for the last few thrusts it takes him to get to the same place.
* * *
I sleep in a strangerâ€™s arms. But heâ€™s not strange because heâ€™s been inside me.
In the morning, we fuck in the shower, standing up. Iâ€™m in a better space now, because Iâ€™ve had human company for more than eight hours and Iâ€™m getting used to it, so I kiss him in the flow of the water, my back against the cool tiles. Over Garyâ€™s shoulder, the mirror reflects his ass flexing as he fucks me. I can see the soldier boy watching.
â€œGo away. This time itâ€™s private,â€ I whisper.