This was my first trip anywhere with a girlfriend. My female friends said the trip would make or break the relationship. My guy friends said I was bringing sand to the beach. Karen's friends said she was crazy to travel to another continent with a guy who wouldn't even leave a contacts case at her apartment. As excited as I was while packing, a little part of me wondered if I was courting disaster and should be traveling solo like I had talked about so often in my twenties.
So Karen and I landed in Thailand with a strict itinerary that included scuba diving, seeing a shitload of temples, and returning to Los Angeles not hating each other's guts. And to our surprise, we traveled along with no major emotional blow-ups or vacation horror stories. I felt a smug satisfaction as we approached the last day of our trip in Bangkok. The plan was to blow the last of our baht on knockoff jeans and an upscale curry dinner, then get a good night's rest before our morning flight.
But that afternoon, I flipped through my travel journal without finding any seeds for a novel. I clicked through my digital camera and found only the photos I imagine a million couples take each year on the same travel route, more family-album than Vice Guide to Travel — nothing in there to elicit awed, envious comments on Facebook. I'd shot my vacation wad with this trek and we'd had an experience not so different from one my parents would have.
The first vacation of my thirties, and all that was missing was the fannypacks.
The first vacation of my thirties, and all that was missing was the fannypacks.
Flipping through our Lonely Planet book for "off the beaten path" activities, the lame irony of the whole exercise frustrated me even further. Coming to a section on the red-light districts, I wondered aloud if we should check out a sex show. I felt sheepish telling my girlfriend I was even considering them — much less asking her to join me. So I reassured her I wasn't some kind of pervert and, quoting a couple innocuous lines from the guidebook, I promised her that I was only as game for it as she was.
"I mean," I added with all the maturity I could muster, "it is part of the culture."
Karen was nonplussed. "What do you want? Line-dancing and bestiality?"
What I wanted was to get my Graham Greene on. I remembered my old college roommate talking about his solo trip through Southeast Asia. The hostel hook-ups, Full Moon parties, firearms, drug deals with tuk-tuk drivers. Karen and I had seen too many temples and not enough cockfights. One story that stuck with me entailed my friend getting hit in the face with a live goldfish shot out of a stripper's vagina. Karen stared at me. "Is that something you really need to experience? Really?"
Before I'd thought of the implications, I said, "Yes. Yes, it is." She protested, but I pointed out that she'd picked the restaurant for dinner
The complex was four stories of neon-lit go-go bars and fetish clubs, and I was instantly uncomfortable. My girlfriend was the only woman in sight who wasn't for rent, and the club's hostesses, uniformly dressed as schoolgirls or cowgirls or Robert Palmer back-ups, were working doubly hard to solicit us.
"Hey mister!" they screamed through the crowd. "Bring girlfriend in here! We'll show her good-time!"
There was something emasculating about barely-legal go-go dancers promising to show my girlfriend a good time, but worse were the looks we got from the johns. Pasty white men — dentists, community college professors and Todd Solondz characters — looked all the more menacing with slight, young Thai women at their side. They glared at me like a traitor for bringing my girlfriend to gawk. A German sexpat said something threatening (or just plain German) as he passed by with his "date," and spit closer to my shoe than I felt comfortable with.
"These men are disgusting. They should be in jail." Tired and fed-up with me, Karen made no effort to keep her voice down.
These men were disgusting. I offered to take us back to the hotel, but Karen wasn't having it. She didn't want me telling our friends that she'd held me back in our travels. She said she was fully aware that part of me was wondering if I would have had a better experience traveling alone.
"Why would you say that?"
"Because that's what men with commitment issues do. They always compare what they're doing as a couple with what they could be doing as a bachelor."
My surprised silence told her she'd nailed me. My head often projected a split-screen image: on one side the two of us following our itinerary, on the other my single self hitching rides, befriending strangers, country-hopping without a care in the world. I wanted to be a freewheeling traveler like Leo in the The Beach, but instead felt trapped and suffocated, like Leo in Revolutionary Road.
Karen pointed out that if we'd wanted to be more adventurous we should done the homestay at the secluded Muslim fishing village she'd suggested, instead of the cheesy elephant trek I voted for. Suddenly we were Monday-morning-quarterbacking the whole vacation. It was the first fight of the trip, and a gaggle of hostesses in black latex and chauffeur's caps hooted and cheered as we bickered.
Hastily picking a low-lit club that defied the alcohol ban, we grabbed a couple shots, a couple beers and seats in the front row. Thailand is appropriately nicknamed "The Land of Smiles," but you wouldn't have known it from this place. The sullen women had numbers clipped to their g-strings so customers could pick them out like lobsters. They played musical laps down the rows of seats, dry-humping for a few seconds here, a few seconds there as a way to drum up interest and tips. A few seats down from me, a guy was not-so-subtly jerking himself off inside his pants.
A loud pop made me jump. I looked up to see a stripper shoot a dart out of her vagina to pop one of a handful of balloons held up in the audience. Queasy, I cringed and looked down at my drink before she did it again. Anti-climactic would be overselling the moment. "Satisfied?" Karen asked with a smirk. "Or does it have to be a live animal?"
I felt like a moron. We should have had our faces splattered with blood at an underground Thai boxing match or gone into the jungle with rebel soldiers or just eaten a couple of fried cockroaches and called it a night. Anything but this. Besides being incredibly depressing, the whole scene was about as erotic as garlic breath. (And would've been easily viewable on YouTube from the comfort of my living room.) I'd dragged my girlfriend here to make our vacation feel less bourgeois and instead felt like Bangkok's ugliest American.
A series of new inanimate objects were now being utilized on stage — ping-pong balls, whistles — loaded and fired into the crowd like freebies shot out of an air gun at a football game. I was ready to flee, but dinner was churning in my stomach and I had to go to the bathroom, urgently. I wished we were back at the hotel. It's hard being a spontaneous adventurer when you like a clean, private bathroom.
"You're leaving me here?" Karen asked, motioning around. But I couldn't exactly bring her with me into the john — I'd already seen a few customers try that move with the dancers, only to have the bouncer jerk them back by their collars. And I certainly couldn't hold it for the long, bumpy tuk-tuk ride back to the hotel. I promised I'd be quick.
I wasn't. There was a long line for the club's single toilet, which seemed to be the most popular seat in the house for everything except the intended purpose. Even worse, I was so hasty and preoccupied with trying not to touch anything in the filthy stall, I accidentally soaked the crotch of my pants with the spray gun provided in lieu of toilet paper.
I rushed back to the main room, but Karen wasn't in her seat. I glanced around to no avail. Starting to panic, I searched the bar, squeezing by seedy businessmen and blacked-out bachelor parties. I tried to check the ladies bathroom, but a bouncer clapped a hand on my shoulder and pointed to a sign that read Dancers Only. I was the worst kind of tourist to have come here, and now Karen had paid the price. My head was dizzy with images of her being mickeyed and hauled off to some backroom for the full Eli Roth treatment. Soon, I'd be calling her parents from the embassy explaining where I'd lost their daughter. I was about to appeal to the DJ to make an announcement when I was groped from behind. Someone was grabbing my crotch — hard.
I yelped and spun around to find the guilty party laughing at me. "Wet!" She pointed to my crotch and laughed more. "Wet!" She was my height with broad shoulders. Karen and I had seen dozens of Thailand's ladyboys in our travels, many of them strikingly beautiful. This towering linebacker laughing wildly in my face, not so much. Everyone around me was chuckling, no one harder than Karen, who appeared from behind the prankster. I'd never been happier to see anyone in my life.
"Sorry. You were being an asshole. I had to do something," Karen explained between laughs, handing the ladyboy a wad of baht. This had been her revenge. Suddenly feeling very sober, I shrugged in agreement. The scare of losing Karen and an embarrassing public grope were the least I deserved. Still chuckling, she looked at her watch and told me we were flying out of Bangkok in five hours.
My female friends were right: the trip did make or break our relationship. I had gone in search of some kind of offbeat adventure to recount at dinner parties, and returned instead with a cautionary tale. A reminder that, while I liked to imagine my girlfriend was holding me back — that single and unfettered I would morph into not only a more intrepid traveler but a happier liver of life — the truth was quite the opposite. Karen was the one who'd realized the trip I had only talked about for years. She had made it happen while I backseat-traveled, second-guessing not only our itinerary but our entire relationship.
So I usually keep that Bangkok story to myself, but for Karen it's a well-worn favorite. As she relates the strip-club tale, I shrug and mug sheepishly as I'm exposed as the kind of traveler who gives Americans a bad name. But that's okay. I've come to terms with the facts: I'm not Graham Greene, I'm not single, and I'm happier this way. n°
|ABOUT THE AUTHOR:|
|Duncan Birmingham writes for film and TV. His work has appeared in nerve, Opium, Satire and The Weekly World News and his book — based on his blog petswhowanttokillthemselves.com — is due out in December. He can be reached at duncanbirmingham.com.|