One night in Bangkok

“Tell me Bill, do the surroundings amuse you?” Serene smiles as her outstretched hand glides across the scenery.

We are overlooking the Singapore River. The equatorial night air is warm and heavy. A slight scent of smoke, not unpleasant, from an Indonesian forest fire drifts across the South China Sea. I lean back into my wheelchair as an Asian woman dressed in hospital scrubs delivers an IV filled with a bright colored fluid.

It amuses me that I am in a country where every flight is an international flight. It amuses me that I am as far away from home that I could possibly be while still remaining on this planet. When I look in the mirror it amuses me that I hardly recognize myself; shaved head, goatee and thirty pounds heavier due to new found time indulged in a weight lifting and eating routine. When you are trying to find yourself it seems easier to begin by changing what is on the outside first.

“Yes, Serene, it amuses me very much.”

I can see that this pleases her. Serene is a trim Asian woman in her forties and a manager in our Singapore office. She shows me pictures of her recent birthday party on a smartphone. Two smiling girls, her daughters, present her with a cake, one picture after another, a variation of the same scene. Then a picture of Serene and a man, who I assume to be her husband, embrace and kiss passionately. “Ai-yah!” she says embarrassed, and quickly flips to the next photo. I look away at the IV and decide to take a sip of the liquid. A cool alcoholic concoction slides down my throat. I know this is why Serene has asked if I was amused. She has picked this bar called “The Clinic”, as our after work destination. Perhaps she thinks this is just the type of medicine that I need.

“Things are well at home?” She asks.

It is November of 2007. What is home? I live alone for the first time in my life. Images flicker; a basement apartment, boxes still unpacked. Sunlight pouring through a stained glass window colors my grandmother’s coffin; the new house that my daughters live in without me. Here on the other side of the world, I am a time traveller; living in tomorrow.

“Yes, all is well” I lie.

“And tomorrow Bangkok; you go shopping-la!”

Singaporeans love to shop and when they love something, they add a “la” to the end of it for emphasis. They also love eating-la and drinking-la, which is why I feel so fat-la and tired-la.

The next day four of us, a gay man, a New Englander, an Irishman and a German board a flight for Thailand. There is no punch line.

If Singapore was the calm, Bangkok is the storm. After arriving at our hotel we venture into the chaos that is Bangkok. Every sense is assaulted. Each square inch of pavement utilized by street vendors selling fried locusts, scorpions, maggots and noodles. Unidentifiable scents flavor the air. A man walks a painted elephant in the street. Beggars sit on the side of the road with missing limbs. A mother with a child drugged to appear lifeless holds out her hand for a spare baht. Motorcycles, taxi’s and Tuk-tuks, the Thai motorized rickshaws, honk their horns and swerve perilously below the elevated highway . The air is so heavy with heat that breathing is a conscious task.

We enter an outdoor bar and immediately notice eyes burning into us. It is filled with prostitutes. I tell myself not to make eye contact, but it is too late.

“You handsome man, big!”

“I’m gay.”

“That OK, I like gay.”

Well, you can’t really argue with that. She spends the next hour standing next to me as we drink Tiger beer. I work up enough courage to go alone to the gay district, Silom2, with my new found friend guiding me. The taxi stops at the edge of the district.

“I’m OK; I can go alone from here.” I say.

“You can’t change who you are.” She says enigmatically and smiles. I hug her and give her a few hundred baht. I watch as the taxi sputters off into the night, wondering if she believes the same about herself.

There is a loneliness that you feel when no one is around and a loneliness that you feel when surrounded by a sea of humanity, which is infinitely more profound. I walk through the district distracted by thoughts of all the changes in my life.

“What are your plans tonight, sir?” A young Thai man asks me, attempting to hold my hand. “This bar here is very nice. Believe me sir, I tell the truth.”

“I’m really not interested” I say and begin to head into another bar, hoping to lose him in the crowd. I quickly enter, walk towards the back and ask the bartender for a drink.

“I am a flight attendant for Thai Airways, sir and just on a layover.” I have not lost him and if he is a flight attendant, I am the pope. I don’t answer or look at him, but he continues to talk and move in closer. I have already used the gay card, should I tell him I’m straight?

“There you are!” I hear someone say in a British accent. He is talking to me. He has a broad smile and kind eyes. “We should go for a walk. We’re going to DJ Station.” He puts his arm around me and the Thai prostitute vanishes.

I thank him profusely. We spend the rest of the night together dancing, talking and laughing. At four AM the club is beginning to close.

“I’m going to the bathroom; you should join me or wait here.” He says.

“I’ll wait here.” I say and as he walks away, I walk out of the club and into a taxi. During the ride to the hotel I argue with myself. What were you thinking, why did you leave? Even if there is no possible future, did you get a good look at him? What are you waiting for?

In the morning I fly home to Boston. I climb into bed and sleep for thirteen hours, the time difference between Boston and Bangkok. When I wake up and look out the window a layer of pure white snow blankets the world.

The surroundings amuse me.

I pick up my phone and play back a message that was left while I was sleeping.

Hi, it’s Paul; we spoke before you left on your Asian odyssey there. I thought you might be back. Let’s meet and pick up the conversation where we left off.”

One week later on a cold November night I am standing in a restaurant parking lot in Burlington, Massachusetts shivering while I stand next to my car amid piles of snow. I look up at Paul’s face, seeing it for the first time. It is a kind and handsome face. This is what I was waiting for.

“This is new.” He says smiling while pointing to my goatee. “You didn’t have one in your profile picture.”

“No, I didn’t. But you can’t really change who you are.”

"The smile is still the same though.”

For years I have tried to find a word that described the look I saw in Paul’s face on that first night. Until now, I couldn’t find the right word. But now I know. When I looked into his face what I saw was home.

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