June/July/Aug 2013

Unknown Pleasures

An unlikely etiquette lesson from a sex worker in Bangkok

Kerry Howley


THE POINT OF THIS STORY is that I forgot it for years.

Perhaps on its own terms the city might have held a certain mystery, but for us Bangkok was a detour from Myanmar, where the three of us lived, and where we never expected to penetrate the meaning behind the matter of daily life. Myanmar was a place from which we could be blacklisted at any moment (as I later was), where our boss could be thrown in jail for no particular reason (as he later was), and where we always assumed we were missing not only the primary subtext of any conversation but six or seven levels subjacent to that. We turned to Bangkok as a city a forty-minute flight away in which one could go to McDonald’s or be invisible in a shoe store or pay extra for movie tickets with wait service in massage chairs, because Bangkok adhered to the clean, cold logic of capitalism with a rigor Westerners not resident in Myanmar might have found disturbing.

What I am trying to say is that in the context of Bangkok, paying a sex worker to pleasure your friend while you watched seemed an entirely natural thing to do. Time and again, we all heard our expat friends talk about how they’d been transformed by the touch of a Thai woman. These reports combined outlandish claims of virtuosic skill with a complete lack of detail, which didn’t make any more sense to Sikta or me than it did to Sam. It seemed like anyone changing lives in Bangkok, of all places, should yield her secrets as readily as the docent at the National Museum translated the ancient inscriptions therein; or as readily as I assume she did, because attending a guided museum tour is not something we would have been caught dead doing. We’d all been reading Houellebecq’s soft-core tales of Thai hospitality simply because books were hard to come by and a British friend had the full works.

We had three days in which to seek refuge from the uncertainties of home. On a street called Soi Cowboy, dancing women wore paper numbers clipped to their bikini bottoms, and Sam willed himself toward the tallest one. She drove us back to our hotel in a new Honda Civic, a luxury none of us could have afforded. It was 3:30 at night, but we were stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic, so we learned something about her life. Her English was decent, our Thai wasn’t sufficiently manifest to be called bad, and when we ran out of things to say I started to flip through the Civic manual I’d found on the backseat.

By the time we were back to the hotel, we were all friends.

“Wow,” Sikta said, “you have a nice body.”

“Touch it,” she said, putting Sikta’s hand on her breast.

“It’s firm,” said Sikta.

“My whole body is firm,” she corrected. Sikta frowned.

Sam turned out the lights. Sikta and I watched from our own double bed, until we started caressing each other so as to seem participatory rather than voyeuristic. It seemed like the polite thing to do. This was the most awkward aspect of our evening: making out with a good friend out of a sense of decorum. By the light of street lamps streaming through the window, we tried to see what was going on in the other bed, but all we could see was her slim form atop him, her knees splayed and back domed as if she were more shield than revelation. After ten minutes, in what was in retrospect a clear violation of our agreement with Sam, he and she disappeared into the bathroom. They emerged an hour later, and she embraced us before leaving.

Sam walked her to the hallway, returned to our inquisitive faces, and shrugged.

“She just paid a lot of attention to me,” he said.

We groaned in protest. Sikta fell back against the bed in frustration. In Yangon, in Hanoi, in Brooklyn, this might have been enough. In Bangkok we assumed that he was romanticizing some purely mechanical operation, a flick of the tongue, a trick of the wrist.

“I think she really did like me,” Sam said.

I don’t know why we can’t allow certain cities their particular magic, but with enough distance I can almost make the place strange. I can tell you that that night had something to do with Sikta moving to Singapore, that four years from then, just before being turned away at the Yangon airport without explanation and flown back to Bangkok against my will, I would become engaged to be married atop a glowing Bangkok dome, that Sam never mustered the momentum necessary to propel himself back West. I can write as if Bangkok were something more than what it seemed, but I still can’t make myself believe it.

Kerry Howley is a writer in Texas.

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