I’d been walking down the street, hunting for the nearest Starbucks and hoping against hope that I wasn’t too far from my hotel, when I first saw Natalia.
She stood out because even though her Thai features were perfectly native in their subtlety, her skin was almost papery white. Her immaculate bangs ended just at her spindly eyebrows, and her lips were full and heart-shaped pink. The sun was just about gone and theBangkoksky had grayed, threaded with blues and dirty whites.
I was crossing the street to head into McDonalds –Starbucks increasingly seemed like a lost cause –and she was crossing the street towards Patpong.
“Don’t get me wrong I’ve had a perfectly normal childhood”, she says in perfect American English with just a slight twang, “A good education, decent family life, no drugs…” sitting across the table enjoying her cigarette after a long night, “But I could never really fit in anywhere, you know, even in school. So I just got used to the idea of being with myself, doing my own thing, and if I ever found someone to share my time with, it was alright… nothing really grand.”
This is the third morning in a row we’ve had coffee together and the writer in me still can’t figure her out (which is absolutely perfect since I barely have a job left to get back to and a story like this could really help my slowly dismantling career).
She doesn’t look like a dancer or an escort when she’s not working; you probably might not even notice her walking past you in her plain shirt and jeans, hair tied up into a thick auburn rope hanging down her back.
Her father had been shipped off to Thailand to take over the management of his company’s branch here, basically getting things in order, when he first encountered the beauty of Natalia’s mother –working as a server at one of the local restaurants in Silom at the time –and to say it was love at first sight (although clichéd), sort of sums up their love story. They were both in their mid-twenties and after a year and half of serious dating they decided to move in together.
A steady income from both parents gave her a reasonably comfortable lifestyle and an education she’s proud of to this day. But that education, her fluency in both English and Thai, the inheritance her parents had set aside for her, all came to nothing with the sudden demise of them both.
It’s not very rare for people to die in a car crash but it’s not a weekly occurrence either. On the other hand, going by most of the books I’ve picked up recently, that is the explanation provided for the absence of the protagonist’s family. A car crash. Or a flash flood, if you wish to up the drama quotient.
That night, after devouring my fast-food dinner and letting my cleanliness issues take a backseat, I switched on my laptop and pulled out my notes. The money from my last bestseller Template of Trouble had afforded me a high-end, silver laptop that hummed to life warmly. Here I was, almost five years later, sitting in a hotel all alone in a foreign country, smoking to myself, dirty crumpled paper and that seductively sleek laptop. Sighing to the walls I let myself walk off from reality, smoke still in hand, the day’s notes buzzing in my head.
But to me, it felt like my world had come tumbling down like a house of cards built on the beach. Little by little I could see myself raveling. Each falling thread a reminder of what I had lost.
Okay so I was romanticizing Talia’s story but I had to do it! I’d vowed to keep the integrity of the story and the narrative style, but I really needed this book to sell… the protagonist (Tasha) needed to sound more… More what? Even I hadn’t yet figured that out.
But something about her had changed the next time we met. Exhaustion dripped from her warm brown eyes and into the shallow dark pools underneath. I found myself wondering if she’d managed to get any sleep the night before.
Maybe she was just having a bad hair day or feeling a bit more tired than usual, but when I asked her what happened –as politely and unimposing as I could –she launched into a story I really hadn’t expected.
As I sat there listening to her, idly scratching notes onto the sturdy tissue, I could see it all happening right in front of me. These chats were almost always one-sided, she barely even looked at me once she’d gone deep enough into her life, and I would sneak in words etched onto napkins. Words, they were all I needed. Her story had something about it; I never needed more than ten words in a day to recall our entire ‘session’.
Bangkok is famous for cheap sex. There’s no point in denying it because the world changes when you take off your rose-tinted glasses. Many times I find myself thinking what my life would have been like if I had applied for the job of a waitress or something instead of, well… –it’s not something I care about, just a daydream of sorts.
It took me a while, but my body helped me get a decent paying job at a place where I had friends for the first time in my life. I’m not ashamed of being termed a sex-worker, or even a whore, it’s just a derogatory term for what I am.
Her literary counterpart was just as blunt, just as cynical as she was, and that she had to be. She’d been bullied at school, once even molested by one of her father’s business associates; her house was taken from her when she was barely seventeen and since then she’d learnt to survive on her own.
“Are you listening?” an impatient, irritated voice.
I hadn’t realized how I’d lost track of our conversation, idly sipping my Frappuccino, and shifted my eyes to give her a sheepish grin.
There was something different about her that morning. As silly as it may seem, I couldn’t quite out my finger around it. She was definitely exhausted, and still in the clothes from the night before, but I hadn’t noticed the bruises on her wrists and the gentle redness around her lips.
She gave me an impatient look and began her story once again. Looking out into the morning light that cast her face in an ethereal glow.
It had started off like any other night, a slight nip in the wind that had made her grateful for the warm interiors. When she’d stepped outside for a smoke she’d felt tiny shivers run through her body.
“That’s when I saw them entering. A party of five, German by the way they spoke, you know. So I quickly finished my smoke and hurried in, I mean, that kind of a party was sure to pay better. And I prefer muscular men” she side smiled, sipping her tea, “there were two girls, very beautiful, and three guys. One had dark hair, blue eyes and was taller than everyone around him; he was the most handsome of the lot. The one behind him was bald and tattooed, lot of muscles, and he had his arm around the third one.”
Talia knew how to advertise herself to the right clientele and that she did. She was called down from the stage along with another girl to sit and entertain with the Germans.
“Man with all the tattoos, Karl his name was I think, oh he was so loud. Kept sliding his hand up and down my thigh, buying me drink after drink. I’m more or less used to that, you know, that’s what most people do. Oh by the way, did I mention he had a thick moustache and looked like he hadn’t shaved? Anyway, he asked his other friend to offer me a cigarette, that guy was so shy he was almost embarrassed.” She smiled to herself wryly.
Long pointy nose, bright blue eyes, long blonde hair. I scribbled onto my napkin, filling in details wherever she was providing me none. She didn’t like it when I interrupted her and as I began to notice the bruises, I realized that I probably shouldn’t either.
She’d grown silent, looking out into the street, the light falling on her almost vacant face. Her pulled up sleeves gently came down to the tips of her fingers and she lit up another cigarette.
“Blonde, curly hair with these creepy blue eyes, like not exactly creepy but very staring. His beard was darker, though, not as bright.” I smiled at my notes, while she continued, “he was quiet. I felt bad for him, I don’t know why, he was like this little puppy I wanted to pet.”
As I left our usual hangout, I couldn’t help but feel sorry for her and sick at the same time. There was a lump in my throat that refused to go away and my stomach was knotted, so I just waved for a cab and curtly mentioned the name of my hotel. The way she’d described the place and everything else had me wondering if all that could have happened on the very floor I was on without me being aware of it.
It was going to be a long day for me; I guess that’s just one of the downsides of being a writer. Now that I’d acclimated myself so much, both to Talia and her story, I knew that it was too late to go back from it. I knew that her story had to be told.
So there I was, back in my hotel room, sitting next to the enormous bay windows that were sealed shut, staring at my laptop screen with absolutely no idea of how to word the events of the night before.
The bald man was quite a talker and seemed to have no qualms when it came to offering me a threesome. I wasn’t really unaccustomed to such requests and offers but most occasions forced me to refuse. But tonight felt different. Maybe I was just in a recklessly adventurous mood… maybe I’d had enough of saying no to new things, that’s how I’d be able to better my life right?
They took me to their hotel. Before we entered, baldy turned back and told me to let them do whatever they wanted for the night, money wasn’t going to be any issue. A little perturbed, I made it very clear –smiling and seductive all the time because that’s how I needed to be while working –that there are certain things I wouldn’t do at all. The five of them had two double-rooms booked. While the tall guy went into one room with both his girls, I was in the other with muscular, bald man and the shyest guy on the planet.
“So, it’s his twenty third birthday tonight baby. We need you to show us a good time.” You can pretty much guess who would have said that. He offered me a drink. I said yes.
Two vodkas down, he took his shirt off and groaned with exhaustion, stretched and headed in for a shower.
‘Yes.’ I thought to myself, ‘because being on a vacation can get so tiring, isn’t it?’
The two of us were alone in the room. I was perched on the bed while he was leaning against the wall. I figured he really wasn’t capable of making the first move. So without saying a word, I walked over to him. Our faces were barely centimeters away and the air had an electric charge that set him aflame with passion. His breathing grew heavy as I knelt down and unbuttoned his shorts. He smelled of aftershave and cigarettes, a combination that always got me in the mood. I was about to pull down his underwear when a pair of strong hands gripped my arms and pulled me up.
He wasn’t as tall as the other man in their group; I guess he would have been barely four inches taller than me too, but he was lean and muscular –and that I could tell because there was literally no space for air to pass through between us. He looked at me with those indigo colored eyes, dark blonde locks gently falling on his forehead, and just held me there. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t think. When he leaned in to kiss my neck, his hot breath washing over me, I felt lightheaded. This had never happened before.
For the first time in my life, a man had made me feel like I wasn’t a woman people would rent for the night. He made me feel like I was worth something. In the back of my head, I knew this was just a one-night affair. My world didn’t have any charming princes or white knights.
That’s when the beefy guy came out of the bathroom, tiny drops of water catching the light, towel tied at his waist. And that’s when things changed
I almost slammed my laptop shut and took off my glasses, wiping the faint sheen of sweat from my nose and forehead. For a first draft this was coming out pretty great. All I had to work on, in terms of the story up till now, was creating a more detailed history of Tasha’s family life.
“I should also”, I continued aloud, reaching for my notepad, “ask Talia for more details about her initiation into the business…” scribble scribble scribble “and her experiences during the beginning.”
I clicked the pen shut and let out a sigh. When you’re in a hotel room on your own, no one to talk to, it’s quite normal to talk to yourself. As I rubbed my tired eyes with the palm of my hands, I found myself declaring to nothing in particular that I should watch some TV and relax for a while.
“Okay…” replied an inner voice.
Before continuing, I hurried downstairs to grab a six-pack and some smokes. I wanted to stay indoors throughout the day and well into the night, and just focus on the story. I plonked myself on the bed. It felt like resting on a cloud high up in the sky, with a chilled beer and senseless movie for company.
The weather inBangkokis usually pleasant during the winter months and I like the air conditioning at a comfortable 19 degrees. The sky was dark and bordering on rain which made the entire street seem sinister. As the film played on, I was a little shocked at how easy it was for me to completely shift focus from my book. But then I realized that the story wasn’t one I could so easily escape. It was there at the back of my mind, while the majority of my grey cells lay down to rest.
The movie was a remake of some old-time horror flick, I’d been eager to catch it in theatres but hadn’t been able to. Oh well.
As the end credits began to roll after a carnival of blood and death, my eyes were staring at the television, unfocused, second beer still half-full on the table next to the bed. I lit up a cigarette and took a long swig of the beer while thinking about home. I don’t know if it makes sense to even call it a home anymore.
My wife left me after my second failed novel, and a messy divorce later, I still had nothing concrete to write about. My publishers were putting me under pressure but it was nothing compared to the horrible guilt and disgust at myself that I had festering inside.
I’d taken to alcohol when every word written by me had failed me. It took me a long time to get it under control. I couldn’t afford rehab or the shame of going to group therapy.
The smoke came out in seductive, serpentine forms from the cigarette before expanding and vanishing into the air. I pushed myself off the bed and undressed while the tub filled up with steaming water. As I immersed myself into the frothy bathtub, I felt my muscles relax. I’d been walking quite a lot these past few days, perhaps the only physical exercise I’d had since my birthday.
I’m not that tall, just six feet, but I could never stretch my legs completely in a tub. So, I grabbed the edges of it with my hands and slid down till my head was completely underwater and my knees were completely above it, drying in the cool, dry air. I resurfaced and just dosed off for a while, thinking of what life was like through Natalia’s eyes. But I couldn’t do it, especially the events that needed to be recorded next, I simply couldn’t.
I dried my hands and lit up another cigarette. I had to finish that by tonight. Tomorrow would be another day. Another day and another story.
I resolved to take my camera out with me as well, it was time to return to my teenage tricks, when I used photographs to fuel my imagination. I would see the city through Talia’s (well, Tasha’s) eyes and that would be the ingredient missing from my previous books. It had to be.
Towel wrapped at my waist, I wiped the steam off the mirror and stared at myself. Not exactly a hunk of muscle, but still well built. I needed a shave, my right eye was reddening and my dark brown hair looked horrible.
Once I’d taken care of my personal needs, I sat down on the floor right in front of the window, pad at the ready and glasses perched on my triangular nose. I needed to brainstorm a bit more.
What is the basic purpose of my novel? Is it a fictionalized biography? Or will there be more to it? If so, what? What is it that Tasha lacks right now? Do I have all aspects of her character nailed? What goes on in her head after those guys were so rough with her in bed?
“Blonde hair and blue eyes,” I couldn’t give a name till I figured him out, “turns out to be an asshole…” I wrote.
But what happens next?
Once I was done with a detailed description of Tasha’s night at the hotel, I was too nauseous to work anymore. I get it, I’m not the most consistent or perseverant when it comes to my work, but that somehow works to my advantage. Okay, well, it hadn’t for the past few years, but it will. And it’s easier said than done, at the age of thirty, that habits can be changed with a strong mind.
A few of my friends had flown in and I chose to meet them for drinks rather than stay at my hotel and go criminally insane. I needed fresh air. I could also use some time at the beach some time. But the time for lounging around on beaches wasn’t here just yet. My first draft needed work, sweat and painstaking effort to be converted into a decent manuscript so that I could speak to my editor, laugh at his confused, shocked face and make changes where necessary.
I was wondering what to wear for the night when the phone rang. It was the front desk. I rushed downstairs to see Talia waiting for me.
“Coffee?” was all she said as she got up from the black couch at the lobby.
Her hair was perfectly straightened and conditioned to softness just like mine, although mine was always a shade darker, and she had very light make-up on so I assumed that she had a night-off. As we were walking out, I saw them. The two women just as pretty as she’d made them out to be, the tall guy followed by the hairless tattooed wonder and ‘blonde hair blue eyes’. I wanted to pull her back so that her face wouldn’t be visible, but he recognized her in an instant. I saw his greenish-blue eyes widen and his jaw drop as he saw her walk out. And then they turned to me, scanned me from head to toe in a robotic glare before he was disturbed by the other guy.
Grateful for the diversion, I nudged her along and we were on our way to the nearby café. I’d assured her that it wasn’t a nuisance and I was glad to have been disturbed –god knows I needed the diversion.
She tucked in to her cinnamon roll and chilled coffee while I had a coke. The streetlights were just starting to come on and it was that dark transient period before nightfall. She still looked beautiful.
“I guess I just needed to talk to someone,” she declared, “and well, believe it or not, you’re one of the few people I can do that with.”
I smiled back at her, waiting for her to go on.
After a moment of hesitation, she continued, “I went home today and completely broke down. What went down last night is done, I’d never thought something like that could ever happen, least of all to me, but I just need to move on.” She saw me make hurried notes but didn’t bother to acknowledge or comment on it. “Look I’m not searching for sympathies or something, but there is this thing… I don’t know how to say it…”
I looked her right in the eyes and asked her to tell me. And when she did, I instantly knew that my new book would top the bestseller list. My notes went beyond the napkin and floated around me with definitive purpose and I sensed an all-nighter in the mix.
I was walking back to my hotel, take out McDonald’s –because I just couldn’t get enough of it –in one hand and some cigarettes, mint, etc. in the other, when I remembered the photographs that I needed to click the following day.
So on my way in, I stopped for a copy of the city map at the front desk. I was headed to the elevator when he stopped me in my tracks. I found myself face to face with one of Talia’s clients. Her latest one, in fact, who’d gone over-the-top in his rough passions with her. But I was no one to make any comments. She wanted a week to herself at the countryside and she deserved it. It was unimaginable, what she had gone through with not just one but two guys; two at the same time.
“Hey man, I really need you to tell me her name…” he wasn’t German, perhaps that was just the tall guy and his lady friends, “I need to speak with her!”
I was pissed. “Why? What more do you wanna put her through?” I replied acidly, moving past him and into the elevator. I thought he was going to follow me in, but he didn’t. There was something about him that made me want to tell him who she was and where she was going. His eyes looked as if they’d been robbed of all life; he looked older than he probably was.
The doors were sliding shut and my mind was buzzing with questions. I couldn’t decide whether I should tell him or not… what was the smart thing to do? Well I wouldn’t know, obviously, otherwise I wouldn’t have had a failed marriage and such an unsuccessful career.
Just as they were shutting, I put my foot through. “Why the hell do you want to know?” he looked up at me and half-smiled, lost in thought. This guy was twisted, I decided.
But just as the doors weaved shut, he softly confirmed what I already knew, but couldn’t believe.
“Because I’m in love with her.”
Image Courtesy [ Rohan Dahiya ]