Night clamps down on Pattaya like a vice — sky so black you forget it was ever blue. The only light is neon, glowing twisted tubes in red and pink and purple like every shade of organ meat. The tubes twist into "girls," "gogo," "massage," words repeated so many times you forget their meaning. Then, "coffee." Victor goes inside.
300 baht for a cup. Expensive for Thailand, but cheap when you consider the blowjob is free. Expensive again when you taste it: mouth-twistingly acrid, maybe to cover up whatever non-coffee substance they mix in. His girl, jackknifed under the pseudo-Parisian bistro table, is getting frustrated. She can't get the condom on. His penis squirms limply away from her like a kid who won't get dressed for school.
"That's okay," says Victor.
"I try again," says his girl. "You already pay." She puts him in her mouth for a second uncovered, verboten in a clean, police-sanctioned place like this. He hangs out like overcooked fettuccine. Eventually she gives up and mimes head thrusts to avoid attracting the mamasan's attention. Victor sips his coffee.
When Victor leaves the coffee shop the neon is fuller, more beautiful, split into countless colors like sunlight through the prism his mother used to hang from her bedroom window. There was definitely something in the coffee. Gogo, say the signs — a pure beautiful sound, repeated like a child's first words, as primordial and universally intelligible as mama.
He passes through the doors below the biggest, brightest sign. The bass throbs at a frequency that penetrates marrow. The girls dance on a stage that spins so slowly you could think it was your own vertigo. Their metallic bikinis camouflage with the disco lights, so when they move quickly their thin tubelike limbs seem disconnected from their torsos, their glittered cleavage suspended in space. Numbered plastic circles the size of hamburger patties dangle from their g-strings. Victor zeroes in on the smallest, brownest girl. Her hard round breasts hover above her chest like they have nothing to do with her body. Her tag is red, which means her bar fine is discounted. Victor motions to the mamasan. "Number 17," he says.
Number 17 climbs off the stage with some effort in her five-inch platforms. She straddles him and gyrates with the grateful enthusiasm of a wallflower asked to slow-dance at prom. Up close, Victor can see the fine pale stretch marks on her stomach. He lets her push her tongue into his mouth. She tastes like alcohol and garlic, and something else he remembers from a long time ago.
"Buy me a drink," says 17 when she's done tasting his tonsils. He buys her a Chang for five times as much as it would cost at the 7-11. "You luk khrueng?" she says after a sip.
"I look what?" he says, disingenuously. She heard him order the beer in Thai.
"You know," she says. "Farung face, farung papa, but you got a Thai mama?"
The mamasan, lurking nearby, thinks she's being addressed. "Bar fine is 500 baht," she says. "7000 for all night." Cheaper than a cheap hotel.
Victor shakes his head. The mamasan rolls her eyes and lumbers away.
"You want to go upstairs?" 17 says. "Cheap-cheap." She's on his lap now, pressing her kickball breasts against his chest. She pushes up on her haunches so her rubber nipples approach his mouth. "Free," she whispers — as close to a whisper as she can get over the thudding soundtrack.
Victor takes her hand and places it on his crotch. She pads like a cat and finds nothing. He buys her another drink and climbs back outside.
Victor's skin feels slicked with a layer of grease, the coagulated particulates of sate-stand smoke and motorbike exhaust, the shallot-scented breath of all the johns on the street. He wants to be clean. To be cleaned. The best soapy massage parlors only take Japanese clients, but a middling one makes an exception for farung-enough Victor.
The girls line up behind a glass wall like bream in a Chinatown fish tank. He chooses one that's pushing the definition of "girl." Her pale makeup crinkles linen-like over her skin, and her tight tube dress strains across her middle. She looks kindly but lacks patience for the soapy part of her job. The Japanese clients skip to the sex within ten minutes. Victor sits in the bath and lets the woman wash his hair for twenty. Finally, after cycling through her small stock of English dirty talk like a doll with a pull-string, she tells him in matter-of-fact Thai that she can't do anything for him and if he can’t get it up could he please get up so someone else can use the bathtub.
"Hey, sexy daddy," calls a high husky voice, pure of age or race or gender, when Victor is back on the neon street. The bars on Walking Street require regular health tests, so once you fail you have to freelance. This freelancer is over six feet tall in pink platforms, towering over even the white and off-white johns, leaning over sideways like an illustration of scoliosis to grab their arms flirtatiously.
Victor looks up at the freelancer's face and their gazes meet. Round, brown eyes, the same hybrid eyes as his own. Under the grease paint he is pale not from hydroquinone or bleach but a more powerful fluid. A moment of love made them both — love of domination, love of being dominated, love of a memory from a violent past. All the same here.
“Hey, daddy,” the freelancer says again.
“Hey, mama,” says Victor, and keeps walking.
Jennifer Fergesen is a fiction writer and freelance food journalist. Based in California, she has written for publications around the world, from Iceland to Thailand. She has a BA in English and Geology from Mount Holyoke College and an MA in Creative Writing from the University of California, Davis. See her work at jcfrgsn.journoportfolio.com.