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The Boys Next Door
True story about living across from a gay sex club in Thailand.
BY Jessica Olien
Every night, Nature Boy beckoned. On my walk home I passed its modern, rocket-ship glow, which somehow sanitized the fact it was a gay sex club down a Bangkok alleyway. Across the street, The Golden Cock had less to brag about. One lone man sat out front wearing the posture of a girl wanting desperately to leave the prom. Nature Boy's outside boys were of a much higher caliber, with their cute, monosyllabic nicknames ("My name Pae, you come inside!") and skintight sailor whites. Each evening, the sight of my sundressed body rounding a corner would set off a flurry of excitement among them, as though Cher herself had just materialized on the road to the opening notes of "Believe," and from that point until I entered the parking lot of my apartment, they would do whatever it took to get me through that terrifying white door. I assumed it was because I was a novelty. There were precisely zero other white girls living on my street. Perhaps to them I seemed glamorous or something, though I'm fairly certain, looking back on my relative lack of style, this was not the case.
The ploys to get me inside would start off simple, "You come in?" Oh, no. Off to bed with me! Have a lovely night though.
Then they'd take it up a notch. "You want drink?" Always. But no thanks.
Then came the pouting, "Why you never come in?" they'd ask, lower lips jutting in a rehearsed seductive manner.
One night Pae got crafty. "We talk about girl things," he said plucking at my shoulder strap. I hadn't talked girl in a very, very long time. Maybe we could discuss my hair and where I could go to get my roots touched up. Then this drink would be productive as well as illuminating, not to mention neighborly. I hesitated, and they knew they had me. Before I could change my mind they grabbed my wrists and sashayed me into Nature Boy.
The stark neon-lit interior carried on the white and titanium-theme of the façade, the only difference being that the boys inside wore only Calvin Klein boxer-briefs — but with such confidence! The strange smell male flesh takes on when it has been slathered with too many grooming products permeated the air. Among the tanned torsos, I could see only one other actual patron, a burly man with a beard who appeared to be from the Lansing, Michigan division of the Hell's Angels, flirting with a be-Calvined youth in the far corner.
My posse took me past a long glowing bar and a raised platform where several performers wiggled around in their skivvies to Britney Spears, and sat me at a white table. The outside boys crowded around asking questions, giggling to each other in Thai, waving for drinks from the bartender. It turned out that I and a bunch of Thai "sometime" male hookers had less in common than you might think. Beaming and giggling at one another gets tiresome after a while. As my fabulousness wore off, some of the boys dispersed and went back outside to their jobs as man-bait, and I began to talk to Pae about his family, who lived in a rural part of the country. He told me how hard it was to be hustlin' every night. Amen, I commiserated, without having any clue how hard hustlin' was. It was — as I would come to realize — the classic sex-seller-talking-to-someone-who-obviously-isn't-buying conversation. We had just had a shot of something pink when he leaned over and plaintively whispered in my ear, "We not gay."
I walked back to my apartment trying to figure out the logistics of this and shuddering at the indignities of selling one's body. I was repulsed. I was attending Evergreen College, an especially liberal brand of liberal-arts college that allows you to travel freely while completing "contracts" drawn up with a professor whom you pray is as lazy as you are.
My semester was to be spent completing a photo-documentary project. This was mid-college and after a few deviations (lawyer, archeologist, illustrator), I was planning on becoming a photographer, National Geographic style. While I was good at taking pictures, I had not yet admitted to myself that I wasn't really cut out for sinking knee-deep in leech-infested waters or huddling in my hotel room as people threw Molotov cocktails outside (both facts that I eventually learned the unpleasant way), and Getty didn't really hire young journalists for their pictures of cute children.
While my affable but inattentive boyfriend volunteered in a slum, I wandered around in the spongy Bangkok heat with my camera. Sometimes I'd take a three-wheeled tuk-tuk to Chinatown and look at shops filled with fake gold coins, firecrackers, and cakes with characters stamped into the tops. I was achingly lonely most of the time, and lethargic from heat and lack of conversation, so I ended up spending most of the semester I was supposedly working on school projects eating street food alone and hunting for t-shirts with funny English phrases on them. (On the Bangkok Skytrain I once saw a hunched elderly woman wearing a t-shirt with a picture of the globe on it that read "All I want is world peace…and a blow job.")
By the time evening came I would almost always be depressed. One can only wander alone for so long. I would walk from the Silom Skytrain station through the streets surrounding Patpong, Bangkok's oldest — and when compared to its competitors, least offensive — sex district, on my way home. Women sat fanning themselves at open-air bars, calling out sharply to the men who walked by, just as my neighbors at Nature Boy did to me. Shakira songs played from tinny speakers. The neon faces of Connect Four boards glowed from rickety bar-tops staffed by young women wearing cheap high heels, lycra-blend dresses, and hardened expressions.