Miss Yanisa Loh, aged sixty, wondered how long it would take the man sitting at her bar to find what he was after. It was dusk. He’d been there for an hour. She pulled empty glasses into the large sink, throwing spent limes into a basket near the spot where her small dog slept. The dog was called Bobby, the name of a foreign girl she once knew, a name she liked because it sounded like her hometown, Bah Bhe. She patted her dog with a wet hand. The man eyed several Western women in cork-heeled sandals and short dresses who stood together, then two Thai girls in long skirts and blouses who sat at a table drinking Coca-Colas. Yanisa guessed which country he was from by his nose. All foreigners had big noses, but if you were experienced enough in looking at them you could see some differences. His was slightly upturned, American. She predicted his plans for the evening: he would have three drinks and at about eleven o’clock he would take a Thai girl to his room.
Yanisa had run the guesthouse by herself for thirty-five years, a fact that made her proud. She tended her bar each night, letting her day staff go when she arrived at five o’clock. The bar sat in the middle of a square yard, a row of rooms lined up motel-like on one side, and a garden on the other. From where she stood, she could see the entrance to the guesthouse, a cattle gate. It separated the property from a lane that led to the main road to Bangkok. A sign by the gate read, “Miss Loh’s Guest House,” the letters surrounded by red light bulbs. They were mostly burned out, some flickering as if stuck in eternal last moments. The pickup trucks driven by Thai boys stopped here, dropping travelers needing a place to stay, or wanting a drink on their way into town.
ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” sailed out from the boom box. A group of travelers sat near the bar, tall bottles of Singha beer amongst their guide books. They felt nostalgic for old songs like this one.
Yanisa tried to catch the American’s eye. “Enjoyable music,” she said loudly.
He stared into his drink, his Camel cigarette pungent like sweet, strong wine. Foreigners could be cold, like their weather. Mostly, she shrugged this off; other times, like tonight, it seemed harder to do. She rinsed the glasses, her fingers searching for remaining bits of fruit stuck to the rims. She knew his name was David from this morning’s short list of arrivals in the check-in book. She practiced the v under her breath. He was a little older than the usual guests – probably in his thirties. It was hard to tell. Foreigners often appeared older than they were because they didn’t wash enough. She looked at her face in an oval mirror hung behind the bar. The skin still shone like a young girl’s; her eyes were dark, bright. She looked past herself to David. His eyes were green, like the gems in the windows of Bangkok shops.
She opened a tin of polish while she waited for customers. The smell reminded her of old cupboards in her home in Bah Bhe when she was a child, a house full of people then. With the proceeds from her parents’ home, Yanisa had bought the guesthouse from an old proprietor. He’d had it built for the American fighters in Vietnam who came to Thailand on “rest and relaxation.” Those foreigners called her country free. Thailand had never been conquered by an imperialist nation. The visiting soldiers said they liked the Thai girls best. She could remember the men coming into town, their boots gleaming. Many Thais saw the chance for business: cocktails and girls. After the war was over, Yanisa expanded from five rooms to twelve to accommodate the new travelers who arrived. She furnished the beds with orange sheets and added soft lights.
The polish on her cloth smeared like butter onto the counter. She rubbed away recently spilled fruit juice and suntan oil. Leaving a soft glow behind her, she worked over the flaws in the wood, its hollows and eyes, moving up to the other end of the bar, to where David sat.
* * *
David watched the way Miss Loh so earnestly wiped the bar. Her forehead glistened with sweat. She seemed overdressed in a peach-colored suit, as if she were going to a wedding. He stubbed his cigarette out in an ashtray shaped like an island, green paint peeling off the edges. The setup surprised him: an old lady selling booze amongst long strips of yellow flypaper and a cracked blender, limes in a flimsy plastic bowl, cherries mashed together in a jar.
David was an accountant in Chicago. He hadn’t expected to be single at thirty-six. At home, he’d suddenly emerged as old. He’d caught himself lying about his age to a young woman at The Irish Arms, the pub down the road from his apartment.
“You’re too picky,” his best friend Ian said. But that wasn’t it. David worked late. Ian and Donna invited their son’s friends’ parents over to dinner on the weekend. Along with David. He joked about his presence. They tried to set him up but that became a standing joke, too. “Get away for a few weeks,” Donna said one evening, as she poured Grenache into his glass. “Change your luck.”
Bangkok was their idea. Ian had come here during college, years ago. The women were attracted to foreign men. This made David feel sheepish. But he had to admit to a sense of excitement teetering on the horizon. He’d forgotten what that felt like.
Downtown Bangkok had stifled him. There were traffic jams, loud radios, and men with microphones at dingy markets. Black smog hung in the air and he had to concentrate on avoiding puddles of green, oily water. He sweated profusely in his shirt and pants. He’d almost gone straight for a Holiday Inn, despite his promise to himself to do everything out of the ordinary. He’d thought Miss Loh’s hotel was quirky at first. It reminded him of an old movie set. But as the night came on, Miss Loh and her guesthouse seemed simply odd.
David glanced over his shoulder to see who’d arrived. It was still early. Miss Loh was smiling at him. She wore a large pearl necklace. “Can I get you something?” she asked.
“A Blue Lagoon,” he said, wondering if she knew the drink. He’d already had a shot of Mekong whisky. She left the cloth on the bar and turned to bend into a freezer, its electric cord wrapped in tape. She plucked out a bottle of curaçao.
“Good brand,” she said, pointing at the label. “From Britain.” She went over to a block of ice near the sink. Water dripped off the sideboard. She took a hammer and broke a corner of the block into small chips. “Ice?” she asked.
“No thanks,” he said, waving his hand. He’d read about that.
“Okay. No problem.” She put the hammer down.
She finished making the drink and brought it to him in a tumbler. It was a Blue Lagoon.
“Does this place get busy?” he asked.
“Yes,” she said. Her hair was too black; patches of dye stained her scalp. Her skin, loose beneath her high cheekbones, was damp with exertion. “Girls coming,” she added, her hands clasped on the bar.
David picked up his drink, his face reddening from her assumption.
* * *
Yanisa cooed to her dog. Bobby’s front paws stuck out sideways instead of straight ahead. She wobbled when she walked. Tonight, Bobby had hobbled to the gate twice and stared out. Stray cat, Yanisa thought. She took a bowl filled with noodles and sticky rice and gave it to the dog. She always cooked for two.
In the lane, a pickup truck slowed but no one got down this time. The driver started up again, gusts of diesel smoke veiling the tail lights, the tourists swaying in the back like empty beer bottles in a box as they gathered speed.
Yanisa knew their route. At Kao San Road, the pickup trucks waited at Hello Guest House, Beer and Peachy Guest House, and the No Name Bar for more riders before heading to Pat Pong, the red-light district, the last stop. Here, the travelers frequented the massage parlors and the strip bars, the coffee counter pickup spots, and the rooms for rent by the hour. The Thai boys would pick them back up outside the clubs when the red sun was coming up and the Buddhist monks were gathering alms door to door in the early morning light. The foreigners would make the trek back to their guesthouses and sleep well into the hot afternoons. Yanisa spied them through their doors, sometimes left open for air. She didn’t like it when they slept in their clothes, with their hiking boots on her beds. She put signs in the rooms: Please take shoes off the bed. This didn’t seem to help.
The group of travelers near the bar had been drinking steadily. Their conversation competed with Elvis on the boom box. Someone guffawed. She couldn’t imagine going halfway around the world to relax. But what people needed to do wasn’t her business. Her business was to give them a comfortable home away from home, a place to remember. Some of them showed gratitude by leaving her a key chain or a baseball cap. She only had to look at the trinket to recall the guest who’d presented it. She hoped they said to their friends, “Well, that Miss Loh sure was kind.” Small but honest sentiments made life. When she became too old to work, she’d always imagined these thoughts would sustain her. But lately, an impatience whipped her. Was she naïve to think her efforts mattered?
Thai girls were coming in the gate, and the ones with their boots on the beds would soon be down. She leaned into the freezer to get Coca-Colas.
* * *
David reached for a box of wooden matches on the bar to light another cigarette. Behind Miss Loh, cheap paraphernalia littered the wall – faded postcards, a baseball cap covered with yellow happy faces, tattered foreign currency. The mongrel wagged its tail furiously as it ate the leftovers. David’s own dog had been a mutt, too. He used to walk her in the pale morning sunshine, before the rest of Chicago was awake. Miss Loh’s dog licked the plate across the floor. He’d never seen a dog like that, with deformed front legs.
The bar was busy. He shifted in his seat. Four women standing near him paid for their soft-drinks. They wore fresh flowers in their hair and he could smell coconut oil. They laughed easily with each other, even if their faces were a little hard.
One woman looked his way. David tapped his cigarette against the ashtray as her eyes traveled down his physique and back up to his face. He appreciated her short black skirt, her taut legs, and yellow heels. After a moment of hesitation, he smiled. She smiled back and sipped her Coke. Her friends followed her gaze. They giggled amongst themselves.
“My name’s Su,” she said. She bobbed the ice in her Coca-Cola with her finger.
“David,” he said, stubbing out his cigarette. “Could I buy you a drink? Perhaps something stronger?” He didn’t know what else to say.
“Yes,” she said, putting down her glass.
David waved at Miss Loh behind the bar. The service was good. He ordered two more Blue Lagoons, and took a ten-dollar bill from his wallet, placing it on the bar. It covered much more than he owed, but it didn’t matter. He was on holiday, after all. And this was the Third World.
Su put one hand on his leg as she knocked back her drink. She wore bright red lipstick. It suited her. She tipped the empty glass toward him. “Make loving better, no?”
He cleared his throat. He’d be happy to talk for a while, to get to know her. Su’s hand moved towards his thigh. He stirred and peered down at her legs. They were long and smooth and dark.
* * *
Everyone had a drink, so Yanisa went into the kitchen and came back with a cherry Pop Tart. She leaned against the bar, peeling the foil from around the soft pastry. She got Pop Tarts from the Hilton near the airport, where they sold American goods in the food shop. They cost plenty but she treated herself once in a while. She sucked at the red filling on her finger, and crouched down to give Bobby a piece. Yanisa liked the American food in fancy packaging. But she felt pity for Americans, too. Most of the food they got at home was tinned.
Yanisa shopped daily for fresh vegetables and fruit in Bangkok’s China-town. The shopkeepers were kind to her before Thai holidays, giving her gifts of top quality prawns or roasted squid. They thought she must be lonely. “My family is international,” she always told them. This was her philosophy. During festivals, she let her staff go, working the bar herself, where one day was very much like the next. The shopkeepers thought her words were empty, she knew that. Yanisa tossed the foil into the wastebasket, chewing the last of the Pop Tart slowly. It was something she wanted to believe.
The sky was now black-blue, and the yellow petals on the lilies that grew tall in her garden shone like neon, disembodied in the night. The soapy smell of tea olive trees clung to the air, mixed with the sharp colognes that some of the foreign men wore. A light beamed down on the hard-packed sand in front of the row of rooms. By the bar’s entrance, Bobby made growling noises in her sleep.
Across the bar, David murmured to the Thai girl turned towards him. Yanisa couldn’t see her face. He looked happy. She expected the girl was pretty.
Many Thai girls had come tonight. Rural girls. Yanisa recognized a few of them. They liked the life the foreign men could offer, if only for a short time. The men had desires. The girls got fed well. Once, a girl and a traveler had scowled at each other while waiting for their drinks. The girl drew circles with her finger on the bar. “All you want to do is make love,” she’d said to him. “All you want to do is eat,” he’d replied.
Several women and men wearing large knapsacks walked up from the gate. Yanisa served them Mekong whiskey and Coca-Cola. When she looked over, David and the girl were gone. She squinted in the direction of his room across the way, and was just in time to see a triangle of yellow light on the sand vanish as the door closed. She glanced at her watch. It was eleven o’clock and David had finished three drinks.
* * *
Inside the room, it was muggy. The walls were slightly damp. The place smelled like the middle pages of an old book left outside in the rain. Fluorescent lights let off a yellow-green hue. David cursed himself for not staying somewhere with air-conditioning.
Su sat at the edge of the worn orange sheet on the bed, holding a black purse in her lap. David bent down and kissed her on the neck. Her perfume was sweet, like dried lavender. He was dizzy from the drinks he’d had. She nuzzled against him, her upper lip moist, her breath warm.
“Excuse me for a moment,” he said, pulling away.
In the bathroom, David rinsed his face at the sink. There was one tap with luke-warm water. He undid his shirt. The paint was peeling; the mirror was cracked. He could make things better if there was a next time, he thought. The Bangkok Hilton might be new to her.
He hung his shirt on the back of the bathroom door and removed his shoes and pants. He returned to the room wearing his red boxer shorts. Su considered him with what he thought to be a hint of surprise. He did a small dive onto the bed, landing beside her. The sheet beneath them smelled like mothballs.
“My turn,” Su said, tousling his hair. She stood up. “Let me get ready.” She put her fingers to her lips as if to quiet him, although he wasn’t saying anything. Su retreated to the bathroom, the door closing behind her.
David could hear the tap running inside. He wondered if she had a negligee in her purse. He got up and examined the door for any small opening. It was warped by moisture. The hole cut for the handle was slightly imperfect; there was a sliver encircling the doorknob that, on his knees, he could just peek through. She had the tap on full; water gushed into the sink.
David bent sideways and looked up as far as he could, his eyes smarting from the strain. One side of her face was visible. She was fixing her lipstick in the mirror. Then Su was gone. He moved around the sliver, searching for her, his neck beginning to ache. She was there again, in the mirror, looking down. David adjusted his view, following her gaze. With one hand she pulled from beneath her short skirt. A stream of urine arched through the air.
David sat back, his throat dry. A man. He peered in again, his breathing shallow. The space around the door handle went dark and there was a swishing sound on the other side. Coins jingled. He was going through David’s pant pockets. His wallet was in one of them. David got up and pulled open the door. The man inside halted, his red mouth open, his eyebrows raised.
David clenched his fists. One of the legs he’d admired corkscrewed through the air, the full force of the man’s foot hitting him squarely on the chest. David staggered backward, falling against the bed.
The man investigated David’s wallet. “Uh,” he murmured. “You owe me forty dollars.” He removed the money and lobbed the wallet onto the orange sheet. “Thanks,” he said, wedging David’s Camels and the cash into the black purse. He moved across the room, swung open the door, and was gone.
* * *
Yanisa sipped her tea from behind the bar. She noticed the girl as she emerged from the room, moving quickly into the dark. The figure walked towards the back of the property. She would have to climb over a fence. Ladyman. Yanisa was sure, now that she’d seen the legs: long and too sleek. Disappearing out the back meant he must be a dishonest ladyman. It didn’t happen often. The ladymen she knew were fun, gentle. But, like anywhere, there was bound to be one or two bad fruit.
Yanisa took another sip of her tea. She could have the ladyman stopped, she supposed. But she didn’t see the point. Tonight would soon fade into a thin memory for David. She suspected he was angry inside his room, but that would change. He would find some happiness here. They always did.
She rinsed her cup at the sink. Most of the customers were waiting at the gate for the next pickup truck going into Bangkok. The night would get quieter now. It went both ways, Yanisa mused. She heard the girls talk. When the men went home, they left behind a lot of promises. But most of them forgot the girls who were waiting. Sometimes the men got cheated. Sometimes the girls got cheated. Sometimes ladymen got into the mix. This was the situation.
David’s door was still closed. Yanisa picked her teeth with a wooden match and gazed out at the dark sky. Everything in life for foreigners was a novelty, something to be used up, she thought.
Bobby barked somewhere out front. Several travelers swung back and forward on the cattle gate as they waited for a ride. Bobby was beyond them, in the lane. Yanisa dropped the match and went after her.
* * *
David cringed against the orange sheet. It wasn’t much money, but still. He thought about shouting for the police. That would mean letting the others at the bar know he’d been taken. Maybe they already knew. Maybe they’d all smirked when they saw him go with the girl to his room. David stared at the door.
His mouth was sour. How badly he wanted fresh air. He picked up his shirt and pants from the bathroom floor, his hands shaking, and put them back on. It was stupendous, how blind he’d been. He leant against the sink. His desperation to be with someone had grown stark as an object, like something tangible right in front of him. This wasn’t how he wanted to be.
David stood outside his door in the warm breeze. He would get a glass of water. The bar stood unattended, the foreign currency on the wall flapping quietly.
A pickup truck was stationed at the gate, the travelers piling into the back. David was relieved to see them go. The Thai driver leaned out the window, squinting at Miss Loh in the headlights that lit the lane. She looked down the road, calling her dog.
Beneath her peach-colored suit, Miss Loh wore a pair of old slippers. She’d been caught off guard, David thought, with no time to change her shoes. But perhaps she didn’t care; this was her home after all. He’d never thought of his apartment as a place to build just for himself. Alone.
In the back of the truck, the travelers maneuvered, seating themselves. Why, David wondered, wasn’t anyone giving Miss Loh a hand? The driver started the engine. Miss Loh moved out of the way, still peering into the lane. The tail lights receded into the distance, strains of voices carrying on the wind. Miss Loh stood by the gate and continued to call, her voice persistent. The flickering of red bulbs on the guest-house sign reflected on her face. David thought he heard a high-pitched whine.
* * *
Yanisa turned to see David studying a cluster of low bushes at the fence near the guestrooms. He’d called out to her. She stumbled over a stone in her hurry to reach him. The arch of her foot stung with pain.
“She’s there?” Her voice was scratchy, unruly from worry.
“I think so,” David said. He bent down, putting his hand through the lower fencing, old chicken wire. Yanisa crouched, squinting at the dark shape in the underbrush. Bobby was somehow caught. She panted rapidly, clearly having worn herself out trying to get free. Yanisa reached through the wire and stroked Bobby’s head with her finger tips. She felt for her collar. Hooked on a branch. In the bushes, the dog sneezed in embarrassment.
“Stray cat!” Yanisa’s relief was immense.
Through the fence, David snapped low twigs away from Bobby.
“My dog was hit and killed a year ago,” he said. “A terrible thing. But your little dog is going to be fine.”
Yanisa was surprised by his voice. Gentle. No bitter traces. Well, Yanisa thought. Here was a good sign at the end of the evening. In the darkness, their eyes were adjusting. They could see Bobby in the undergrowth, could see each other where they knelt.
Jocelyn Cullity’s first novel, Amah & the Silk-Winged Pigeons, was published by Inanna and won the 2018 Best Book Awards in Historical Fiction. The Envy of Paradise, also published by Inanna, was a finalist in Multicultural Fiction for the 2020 International Book Awards. Both novels offer essential counter histories set in 1856-1858 India. Amah & the Silk-Winged Pigeons is translated into French by Les Éditions La Pleine Lune in Quebec, and is available in English in India and the Indian subcontinent by Rupa Publications, and in Tamil by Kalachuvadu Publications. Jocelyn’s short stories and essays have been published in the United States, Canada, and India. She teaches in the BFA in Creative Writing program at Truman State University, and lives in Columbia, Missouri with her family.