|At the Café Lovely
so often I dream of my brothers face on fire, his brown eyeseyes very much
like my ownstaring at me through a terrible mask of flames. I wake to the scent of
burning flesh, his fiery face looming before me as an afterimage, and in that darkness I
am eleven again. I have not yet learned to trespass. I have not yet learned to grieve. Nor
have I learned to pity usmy brother, my mother, and meand Anek and I are in
Bangkok sitting on the roof of our mothers house smoking cigarettes, watching people
drift by on their bicycles while the neighbors release their mangy dogs for the night to
roam the citys streets.
It was a Saturday. Saturdays
meant the city didnt burn the dump behind our house. We could breathe freely again.
We wouldnt have to shut all the windows to keep out the stench, sleep in suffocating
heat. Downstairs, we could hear Ma cooking in the outdoor kitchen, the clang of pots and
pans, the warm smell of rice curling up toward us.
Hey kid, Anek
said, stubbing his cigarette on the corrugated tin roof. Whats for
dinner? I sniffed the air. I had a keen sense of smell in those days. Like a dog,
Anek told his friends once. My little brother can smell your ma taking a crap on the
other side of town.
Green beans. Fried
No. I dont smell
Oi. Anek threw a
leaf over the edge of the roof. It hovered for a second before dropping swiftly to the
street. Im tired of this. Im tired of green beans.
Our father had been dead for
four months. The insurance money from the factory was running out. There had been a
malfunctioning crane and a crate the size of our house full of little wooden toys waiting
to be sent to the children of America. Not a very large crate when I think about the size
of the house, but big enough to kill a man when the crate fell on him from a height of ten
meters. At the funeral, I was surprised by how little sadness I felt, as if it wasnt
our father laid out before the mourners at allwasnt him lying there in that
rubberwood box, wasnt his body popping and crackling in the temple furnace like
kindlingbut a striking replica of our father in a state of rest. Pa had taken us to
the wax museum once, and I remember thinking that he had somehow commissioned the museum
to make a beautiful replica of himself and would be appearing any minute now at his own
After the cremation, we went
with Ma to scatter the ashes at Pak Nam. We rode a small six-seater boat out to where the
brown river emptied into the green sea. We leaned over the sideall three of us
tipping the tiny tin urn togetherwhile Ma tried to mutter a prayer through her
Anek lit another cigarette.
Are you going out
tonight? I asked.
Can I come with?
I dont think
But you said last
Stop whining. I know
what I said last time. I said I might. I said maybe. I made no promises, kid. I told you
no lies. Last I checked, maybe didnt mean yes.
A month before for my birthday, Anek had taken me
to the new American fast-food place at Sogo Mall. I was happy that day. I had dreamed all
week of hamburgers and french fries and a nice cold soda and the air-conditioning of the
place. During the ride to the mall, my arms wrapped around my brothers waist, the
motorcycle sputtering under us, I imagined sitting at one of those shiny plastic tables
across from my brother. We would look like those university students I had seen through
the floor-to-ceiling windows, the ones who laughed and sipped at their sodas. Afterward,
we would walk into the summer sun with soft-serve sundaes, my brothers arm around my
The place was packed, full of
students and families clamoring for a taste of American fast food. All around us, people
hungrily devoured their meals. I could smell beef cooking on the grill, hear peanut oil
bubbling in the deep fryers. I stared at the illuminated menu above the counter.
What should I get,
Dont worry, kid. I
know just what youd like.
We waited in line, ordered at
the counter, took our tray to an empty booth. Anek said he wasnt hungry, but I knew
he had only enough money to order for me: a small burger and some fries. I decided not to
ask him about it. I wasnt going to piss him off, what with it being my birthday and
what with people being so touchy about money ever since Pa died. As we walked to the
booth, I told Anek we could share the meal, I probably wouldnt be able to finish it
all myself anyway.
Even though he had been
telling me all month about how delicious and great the place was, my brother looked a
little uncomfortable. He kept glancing around nervously. It occurred to me then that it
was probably his first time there as well. We had on our best clothes that dayAnek
in his blue jeans and white polo shirt, me in my khakis and red button-downbut even
then I knew our clothes couldnt compare to the other kids clothes. Their
clothes had been bought in the mall; ours had been bought at the weekend bazaar and were
cheap imitations of what they wore.
Anek stared across the table
at me. He smiled. He tousled my hair. Happy birthday, kid. Eat up.
I unwrapped the burger. I
peeked under the bun at the gray meat, the limp green pickles, the swirl of yellow mustard
and red ketchup. Anek stared out the window at the road in front of the mall. For some
reason, I suddenly felt like I should eat as quickly as possible so we could get the hell
out of there. I didnt feel so excited any more. And I noticed that the place smelled
strangea scent Id never encountered beforea bit rancid, like palaa fish
left too long in the sun. Later, I would find out it was cheese.
I took a few apprehensive
bites at the bun. I bit into the brittle meat. I chewed and I chewed and I chewed and
finally swallowed, the thick mass inching slowly down my throat. I took another bite. Then
I felt my stomach shoot up to my throat like one of those bottle rockets Anek and I used
to set off in front of Apaes convenience store just to piss him off. I remember
thinking, Oh fuck, oh fuck, please no, but before I could take a deep breath to
settle things, it all came rushing out of me. I threw up all over that shiny American
A hush fell over the place,
followed by a smattering of giggles.
Oh, you fucking
pussy, Anek hissed.
motherfucking, monkey-cock-sucking piece of low class pussy.
I wiped my lips with my
forearm. Anek pulled me to my feet, led me out through the glass double doors, his hand on
my collar. I tried to say sorry again, but before I could mouth the words my heart felt
like it might explode andjust as we cleared the doorsI sent a stream of
gray-green vomit splashing against the hot concrete.
Oh. My. Fucking. Lord.
Why? Anek moaned, lifting his face to the sky. Oh why Lord? Why hast thou
forsaken me? Anek and I had been watching a lot of Christian movies on TV lately.
When we came to a traffic stop
an hour later, I was leaning against my brothers back, still feeling ill, thick
traffic smoke whipping around us. Anek turned to me and said: Thats the first
and last time, kid. I cant believe you. All that money for a bunch of puke. No more
fucking hamburgers for you.
We finished watching the sun set over the
neighborhood, a panoply of red and orange and purple and blue. Anek told me that Bangkok
sunsets were the most beautiful sunsets in the world. Its the pollution,
he said. Brings out the colors in the sky. Then after Anek and I smoked the
last of the cigarettes, we climbed down from the roof.
At dinner, as usual, we barely
said a word to each other. Ma had been saying less and less ever since that crate of toys
killed our father. She was all headshakes and nods, headshakes and nods. We picked at our
green beans, slathered fish sauce on our rice.
Thanks for the meal,
Yeah, Ma, this is
She nodded again.
Besides the silence, Mas
cooking was also getting worse, but we couldnt bring ourselves to say anything about
it. Whats more, she had perfected the art of moving silently through the house. She
seemed an apparition in those days. Shed retreated into herself. She no longer
watched over us. She simply watched. Id be doodling in my book at the kitchen table
and all of a sudden Ma would just be sitting there, watching me with her chin in one hand.
Or Anek and I would be horsing around in the outdoor kitchen after dinner, throwing
buckets of dirty dishwater on each other, and wed look over our shoulders to find Ma
standing against the crumbling concrete siding of the house. Anek told me she caught him
masturbating in the bathroom once. He didnt even realize she had opened the door
until he heard it shut, a loud slam so he could know that shed seen him. Anek
didnt masturbate for weeks after that and neither did I.
One night I caught Ma staring
at her own image in the bedroom mirror with an astonished look on her face, as if she no
longer recognized her own sallow reflection. It seemed Pas death had made our mother
a curious spectator of her own life, though when I think of her now I wonder if she was
simply waiting for us to notice her grief. But we were just children, Anek and I, and when
children learn to acknowledge the gravity of their loved ones sorrows theyre
no longer children.
That woman needs
help, Anek said, after we washed the dishes that evening.
Shes just sad,
Listen, kid, Im
sad too, okay? Do you see me walking around like a mute though? Do you see me sneaking
around the house like Im some fucking ninja?
I dropped it. I didnt
feel like talking about the state of things that night, not with Anek. I knew he would get
angry if we talked about Pa, if we talked about his death, if we talked about what it was
doing to Ma. I never knew what to do with my brothers anger in those days. I simply
and desperately needed his love.
I think Anek felt bad about the hamburger incident
because he started giving me lessons on the motorcycle, an old 350cc Honda our father had
ridden to the factory every morning. After Pa died, Ma wanted to sell the bike, but Anek
convinced her not to. He told her the bike wasnt worth much. He claimed it needed
too many repairs. But I knew that aside from some superficial damagechipped paint,
an ugly crack in the rear mudguard, rusted-through places in the exhaust pipethe
bike was in fine working condition. Anek wanted the bike for himself. Hed been
complaining all year about being the only one among his friends without a bike. Wed
spent countless hours at the mall showroom, my brother wandering among the gleaming new
bikes while I trailed behind him absentmindedly. And though I thought then that my brother
had lied to my mother about the bike out of selfishness, I know now that Pa did not leave
us much. That Honda was Aneks inheritance.
Hed kick-start it for
meI didnt have the strength to do it myselfand Id hop on in front
and ride slowly through the neighborhood with Anek behind me.
Ill kill you, you
little shit. Ill kill you if you break my bike, hed yell when I
approached a turn too fast or when I had trouble steadying the handlebars after coming out
of one. Im gonna nail you to a fucking cross like Jesus-fucking-Christ
My feet barely reached the
gear pedal, but Id learned, within a week, to shift into second by sliding off the
seat. Id accelerate out of first, snap the clutch, slide off the seat just so, then
pop the gear into place. Wed putter by the city dump at twenty, twenty-five kilos an
hour, and some of the dek khaya, the garbage children whose families lived in
shanties on the dump, would race alongside us, urging me to go faster, asking Anek if they
could ride too.
I began to understand the way
Anek had eyed those showroom bikes. I began to get a taste for speed.
Thats as fast as
Im letting you go, Anek once said when we got home. Second gears
good enough for now.
But I can do it, Anek. I
can do it.
Get taller, kid. Get
Please. Second is so slow. Its stupid.
Ill tell you
whats stupid, little brother. Whats stupid is youre eleven years old.
Whats stupid is you go into turns like a drunkard. Whats stupid is you
cant even reach the gear pedal. Grow, kid. Give me twenty more centimeters. Then
maybe well talk about letting you do third. Maybe.
Why cant I come?
Because you cant,
But you said last
I already told you,
vomit-boy. I know what I said last week. I said maybe. Which part of that didnt you
understand? I didnt say, Oh yes! Of course, buddy! I love you so much!
Youre my super pal! Id love to take you out next Saturday! now did
Just this once, Anek. I
promise I wont bother you.
I dont think
Please nothing, little
brother. Sit at home and watch a soap with Ma or something.
But why, Anek? Why
cant I go with you?
Because Im going
where grown men go, thats why. Because last I checked, last time I saw you naked,
you were far from being grown.
I promise I wont
bother you, Anek. Ill just sit in a corner or something. Really. I promise.
Ill stay out of your way. Just dont leave me here with Ma tonight.
* * *
When we were young, our mother would put on her
perfume every evening before Pa came home. She would smell like jasmine, fresh picked off
a tree. Pa, he would smell of the cologne he dabbed on after he got out of the shower.
Although I would never smell the ocean until we went out to Pak Nam to scatter his ashes,
I knew that my father smelled like the sea. I just knew it. Anek and I would sit between
them, watching some soap opera on TV, and I would inhale their scents, the scents of my
parents, and imagine millions of tiny white flowers floating on the surface of a wide and
green and bottomless ocean.
But those scents are lost to
me now, and Ive often wondered if, in my belated sorrow, with all my tardy regrets,
Ive imagined them all these years.
Anek finally gave in and took me. We rode out to
Minburi District along the new speedway, the engine squealing beneath us. We were going so
fast that my face felt stretched impossibly tight. I wanted to tell Anek to slow down but
I remembered that I had promised to stay out of his way.
We were wearing our best
clothes again that night, the same old outfits: Anek in his blue jeans and white polo
shirt, me in my khakis and red button-down. When we walked out of the house Ma glanced up
from the TV with a look that said, What are you all dressed up for?, and Anek told
her he was taking me out to the new ice-skating rink, he heard it was all the rage. I even
said, Imagine that, Ma. Ice-skating in Bangkok, but she just nodded, her lips
a straight thin line, and went back to watching television.
"Imagine that, Ma . .
." Anek teased when we walked out.
Eat shit, Anek.
Whoa there. Be careful,
little one. Dont make me change my mind.
When we arrived at the place,
it was not what I had imagined at all. I expected mirror balls and multicolored lights and
loud American music and hundreds of people dancing insidelike places Id seen
in the district west of our neighborhood, places all the farangs frequented at
night. It didnt look like that. It was only a shophouse, like the thousands of tiny
two-story shophouses all over the cityshort and common, square and concrete, in need
of a new paint job. A pink neon sign blinked in the tinted window. Café Lovely, it said
in English. I could hear the soft, muffled sounds of upcountry music reaching across the
This is it?
I can take you
home, Anek said. Thats not a problem.
The place smelled of
mothballs. There was an old jukebox in the corner. A couple of girls in miniskirts and
tank tops and heavy makeup danced and swayed with two balding, middle-aged local men. The
men looked awkward with those girls in their arms, feet moving out of time, their large
hands gripping slender waists. In a dark corner, more girls were seated at a table,
laughing. They sounded like a flock of excited birds. Id never seen so many girls in
Three of Aneks friends
were already at a table.
Whats with the
babysitting? one of them asked, grinning.
Sorry, Anek said
sheepishly as we sat down. Couldnt bear to leave him home with my crazy
You hungry, kid?
said another. Want a hamburger?
Hey, Anek said.
Leave him alone. Lets just pretend hes not here.
The song ended. I saw one of
the girls go up a set of stairs at the back, leading one of the men by the hand. I
didnt even have to ask. I wondered if Anek, too, would be going up those stairs at
the end of the night. And although I had been disappointed at first by the cafés
shoddy facade, I found myself excited now by its possibilities.
Anek mustve seen me
staring because he slapped me hard across the back of the head. Ow, I cried,
rubbing my head with a palm. That fucking hurt.
Keep your eyes to
yourself, little man.
one of his friends intoned, the one whod asked me if I wanted a hamburger. Be
careful what you wish for, boy. The AIDS might eat your dick.
Not before it eats your
moms, though, I replied, and they all laughed, even my brother, Anek, who
said, Awesome, and smiled at me for the first time all evening.
* * *
Anek had come home one night when I was nine and
told me that Pa had taken him out for his fifteenth birthday. The city dump was burning;
there was a light red glow in the sky from the pyre. Even though our windows were shut, I
could still smell the putrid scent of tires and plastic and garbage burning, the sour odor
seeping through our windows. I was sleeping in my underwear, two fans turned on high, both
fixed in my direction. Anek walked into the room, stripped down to his underwear, and
thrust out his hand.
Bet you cant tell
me what this smell is.
I sniffed his fingers. It
smelled like awsuan: oysters simmered in egg yolk. But somehow I knew it
What is it?
What is it, Anek?
That, my dear brother,
is the smell ofhe put his hand up to his face, sniffed it
I blinked at him.
A woman, kid. You know
what that is? Pa took me to a sophaeni tonight. And let me tell you, little one,
when he takes you for your fifteenth birthday, youll never be the same again.
This scenthe raised his hand to his face againitll change
your fucking life.
* * *
Anek and his friends had already poured themselves
a few drinks while I sat there sipping my colahalf listening to their banter, half
watching the girls across the roomwhen one of Aneks friends stood up and said:
Its getting to that time of night, guys.
I didnt know what the
hell was going on, I just thought he was a funny drunk, but then Anek got up and told the
bartender we were going outside for a breath of fresh air. One of the girls came up to us,
put a hand on Aneks shoulder, and said, Leaving so soon? but Anek told
her not to worry, to be patient, hed be back to give her what she wanted. The girl
winked at me and said, Whos the handsome little boy? and I smiled back,
but Anek had to be an asshole, so he said, Oh, thats my virgin brother,
which annoyed me because no girl had ever winked at me before and I thought she was
I followed Anek and his
friends out of the Café Lovely and into a small alley off the shophouse row. Anek
didnt want to leave me by myself. He said it didnt look
goodleaving a little boy alone in a place like thatbut I could tell that he
didnt want me to come either. As we cut into the dark alley, I had a feeling that a
breath of fresh air was the last thing we were going to get.
When we stopped, one of
Aneks friends pulled out a small container of paint thinner from a plastic bag.
All right, he said, prying at the lid with a small pocketknife. The lid flew
open with a loud pop and rolled down the dark alley, swirling to a stop by a dumpster. I
saw the quick shadows of roaches scattering in its wake. Thats what the alley
smelled likeroaches: dank and humid like the back room where Ma put away our
fathers belongings. Aneks friend poured half the can into the plastic bag, the
liquid thick and translucent, the bag sagging from the weight, while the others flicked
their cigarettes into the sewer ditch along the side of the alley. The thinner gave off a
sharp, strong odor, punched little pinpricks in my nostrils, and reminded me of days when
Pa and Anek used to fumigate the house. Aneks friend pulled out another plastic bag
from his back pocket and put the first bag with the thinner inside it.
Okay. He held out
the double bag with one hand, offering it to his friends, the way Id seen butchers
at the market holding dead chickens by the necks. I could hear the jukebox starting up
again in the café, another old upcountry tune echoing softly down the alley.
For a second, they all stood
with their hands in their pockets. Then Anek reached out and took the bag with a quick,
Lets just get this
over with, he said. I tell you guys, though, one hit and Im done. I
dont like having my little brother around this shit.
I realized then what they were
doing. I knew what huffers were, but Id always imagined little kids and strung-out
homeless guys in the Klong Toey slum with their heads buried in pots of rubber cement. I
suddenly became very afraidI wanted to grab the bag out of my brothers
handseven as I longed to watch Anek do it, wanted, in fact, to do it myself, to show
Anek and his friends my indifference.
Anek brought the mouth of the
bag to his chin. He took a big, deep breath, pulled his entire body back like it was a
slingshot, then blew into the bag, inflating it like a balloon, the loose ends covering
half his face, and it made a sound like a quick wind blowing through a sail. The bag grew
larger and larger and I was afraid that it might burst, that the thinner would go flying
everywhere. Anek looked at me the whole time he blew, his eyes growing wider and wider. He
kept blowing and blowing and blowing, and I knew that my brother was blowing for a long
time because one of the guys said, Fucking inhale already, Anek, but he kept
on blowing and blowing and all that time he kept looking at me with those eyes about to
pop out of his head. I dont know what he was trying to tell me then, looking at me
like that, but I remember noticing for the first time that he had our mothers eyes.
He finally inhaled, sucked his breath back into his chest, the plastic balloon collapsing
in on itself, and then my brother was blinking hard, teetering, like a boxer stunned by a
swift and surprising blow, and I knew that whatever it was he had smelled, whatever scent
he had just inhaled, it was knocking him off his feet. He handed the bag to one of the
other guys and said, Cmon kid, lets get out of here, and I
followed my brother out of the dark alley, back into the dimly lit street.
Years later, Id be in a different alley with
friends of my own, and one of the guys, high off a can of spray paint, would
absentmindedly light a cigarette after taking a hit and his face would burst into a sheet
of blue flames. He ran around the alley wild with panic, running into the sides of the
buildings, stumbling and falling and getting back to his feet again, hands flying
violently around his burning face as if trying to beat back a swarm of attacking insects.
He never made a sound, just ran around that alley with his face on fire, the flames
catching in his hair and his clothes, looking like some giant ignited match in the shape
of a man. For a second, we couldnt quite comprehend what was happeningsome of
us laughed, most of us were just stunnedbefore I managed to chase the boy down,
tackle him to the ground, and beat out the flames from his face with my T-shirt. His eyes
were wild with terror and we just stared at each other for a moment before he started to
weep hysterically, his body shaking under mine, the terrible scent of burnt flesh and
singed hair filling the alley. His lashes and eyebrows had been burned cleanly off his
face. His eyelids were raw, pink. His face began to swell immediately, large white welts
blooming here and there. And he just kept on crying beneath me, calling for his mother and
father, blubbering incoherently in the high, desperate voice of a child.
Back at the café, I could tell that the thinner
was setting in. Anek kept tilting back in his seat, dilating his eyes. He took a long swig
of his rye, poured himself another. I knew we wouldnt be going home for a while. The
same girl who had winked at me earlier walked across the room and sat down at our table.
She put her arm around my shoulder. I felt my body tense. She smelled like menthol, like
the prickly-heat powder Anek and I sprinkled on ourselves to keep cool at night.
I sipped at the last of my
cola. Across the room, I noticed the girls looking our way, giggling.
brother, Anek drawled.
I know, Anek.
Hes a little
high, I laughed.
Looks like it.
Yeah. Anek smiled,
slow and lazy. Just a little.
Where are the
rest? she asked me.
What about you,
handsome? Are you high?
Yeah. Of course. Plenty
She laughed, threw her head
far back. Menthol. I felt my heart pounding in my chest. I wanted to smear her carmine
lips with my hands. I reached across the table for Aneks Krong Thips and lit one.
adorable, she said, pinching one of my cheeks. I felt myself blush. But you
shouldnt be smoking those things at your age.
I know, I said,
smiling at her, taking a drag. Cigarettes are bad.
said, getting up abruptly, swaying a little bit. He reached out and grabbed her hand from
my shoulder. Cmon. He nodded toward the staircase. Lets
She stood up, her hand
dangling in my brothers, while I sat between them.
What about the
kid? she asked, looking down at me.
Oh, hell be
Maybe not tonight, Anek.
We shouldnt leave the kid by himself.
Hey barfboy, Anek
said. You gonna be okay?
I looked up at my brother. He
still had the girls hand in his own. I took a long drag of my cigarette.
Yeah. Ill be fine,
Anek. Im not a kid anymore.
Anek smiled as if he found me
amusing. I wanted to wipe the smile off his face. I felt angry. I didnt want to be
abandoned. Anek mustve sensed this because there suddenly seemed something sad about
my brothers smile. He dropped the girls hand. He reached out and tapped me
lightly on the head.
Okay, kid. You
dont have to be so tough all the time, he said finally. He took a deep breath,
his voice a little steadier, his eyes a little wider. Tell you what. Im just
gonna go put some music in the jukebox. Then Nong and I are gonna dance. Then were
gonna go upstairs for a while. Just a short while. We wont be long. I promise. Then,
if you want, well go home, okay? But I just took another drag of my cigarette,
watched the girls in the corner, tried not to meet my brothers eyes.
She led him out to the dance
floor. They stood by the jukebox and he slipped a few coins into the machine, steadying
himself with one hand. A record came on, the sound of high Isan flutes and xylophones and
a hand drum striking up the first few bars. Anek clumsily took one of the girls
hands, hooked an arm around her waist, and they started moving to the music. They stood
close, their chins on each others shoulders, though perhaps a little too close for
the girl, because she leaned away from my brother a few times. But then again, maybe it
was because my brother was high, drunk, and they kept losing their balance. They
didnt look like dancers at all after a while; they looked like they were just
holding each other up, falling into and out of each others body.
I hadnt recognized the
tune at firstI thought it was just another generic upcountry balladbut then a
womans falsetto came soaring over the instruments and I remembered that it was an
old record of Mas, something she and Pa used to listen to in the early afternoon
hours before the endlessly growing mass of garbage burned behind our house. Those days
curry and fish in tamarind sauce would be cooking on the stove, the aroma wafting into the
house, and I swear that right then, listening to that music, I could smell it on the tip
of my nose.
Oh beloved, so sad was my
departure . . .
I looked at Anek and the girl.
She couldnt have been more than sixteen years oldyounger than my
brotherbut it seemed clear to me now that she was the one holding him up, directing
his course, leading him. I wondered how many men she had already held up tonight, how many
more she would hold in the thousands of nights before her. I wondered whether she was
already finding the force of their weight unbearable. I wondered whether I would be adding
my weight to that mass one day. She held him close now and he pulled away, fell out of
sync, though they continued to move across the floor as slowly and languorously as the
music in the café.
. . . I am tired, I am
broken, I am lost . . .
When the song ended, they
pulled away from each other, and Anek took the girl by the hand and led her toward the
staircase. As they began to mount the stairs, the girl said something to my brother and
they both stopped to look back at me. My brother smiled weakly then, raised a hand in my
direction. I looked away, pretended not to see the gesture, stirring the ash in the tray
with my cigarette. When I looked back they were gone.
The place fell silent. A
balding, middle-aged man walked down the stairs. He made for the door, his steps quick and
certain, as if he couldnt wait to leave. When he passed by my table, I caught a
whiff of him, and his scent lingered on my nostrils for awhile. He smelled like okra.
I stood up. I dont know
why I walked toward that staircase. Perhaps it was childish curiosity. Or perhaps I wanted
to see, once and for all, what secrets, what sins, what comforts those stairs led one to.
Or perhaps I wanted to retrieve Anek before he did whatever it was I thought he might do.
I had imagined darkness and was
surprised, when I arrived at the top of the stairs, to find a brightly lit hallway flanked
on both sides by closed doors. The corridor smelled sweet, sickly, as if it had been
perfumed to cover up some stench. The bare walls gleamed under the buzzing fluorescent
fixtures. I heard another song start up downstairs, laughter again from the table of
girls. I walked slowly down the hallway; the noises downstairs faded to a murmur. I felt
like I had surfaced into another world and left those distant, muffled sounds beneath me,
underwater. As I crept along, careful to be silent, I began to hear a chorus of ghostly,
guttural groans coming from behind the doors. I heard a man whimper; I heard another cry
out incoherently. After a while, those rooms seemedwith their grunting and
moaninglike torture chambers in which faceless men suffered untold cruelties. I
wondered if my brother was making any of these noises. I thought of the video Anek had
borrowed from one of his friends, the women in them cooing and squealing perversely, and
how strange it was now that none of the women could be heard. Instead, I could hear only
the men growling away as if in some terrible, solitary animal pain. I imagined the men
writhing against the women, and I wondered how these womenthose girls sitting
downstairscould possibly endure in such silence.
Just as I turned the corner, a
hand grabbed me by the collar, choking me. I was certain, for a moment, that I would now
be dragged into one of the rooms and made to join that chorus of howling men.
Little boy, a
voice hissed in my ear. Where do you think youre going?
It was the bartender from
downstairs. He looked down at me, brow furrowed, beads of spittle glistening at the
corners of his lips. I smelled whiskey on his breath, felt his large, chapped hands on my
neck as he pulled me toward him and lifted me off the concrete floor.
Youre in the wrong
place, he whispered into my ear, while I struggled against his grips. I should
kill you for being up here. I should snap your head right off your fucking neck.
I screamed for Anek then. I
sent my brothers name echoing down that empty hallway. I screamed his name over and
over again as the bartender lifted me up into his thick, ropey arms. The more I struggled
against the bartender, the more dire my predicament seemed, and I cried out for my brother
as I had never cried out before. The men seemed to stop their moaning then and, for a
moment, I felt as if my cries were the only sound in the world. I saw a few doors open, a
couple of women sticking out their heads to look at the commotion. The bartender
walked backward with me, toward the staircase, as I kicked and struggled against his
Then, I saw my brother
hobbling in his underwear, his blue jeans shackling his feet.
Hey! Anek yelled,
staggering, bending down to gather up his jeans. Hey! The man stopped,
loosened his grip on my body. Hey! Anek yelled again, getting closer now.
Thats my little brother, you cocksucker. Put him down.
The bartender still had me,
his breath hot on my neck. As Anek struggled to pull up his jeans I glimpsed the purple,
bulbous head of his penis peeking over the waistband of his underwear. The bartender
mustve seen this too; he began to chuckle obscenely.
Get him out of here,
Anek, he said. Anek nodded grimly. The bartender put me down, shoved me lightly
toward my brother. You know I cant have him up here, he said.
You okay, kid?
Anek asked, breathless, ignoring the bartender, bending down to look me in the eyes. I saw
the girl standing in the hallway behind Anek, a towel wrapped loosely around her small
body. She waved at me, smiling, and then walked back into the room. The other women
disappeared as well. I heard the bartender going downstairs, the steps creaking under his
weight. Soon, Anek and I were the only people left in that hallway, and for some
reasondespite my attempts to steel myselfI began to cry. I tried to apologize
to my brother through the tears.
Oh shit, my
brother muttered, pulling me to his chest. Cmon, kid, he said.
Lets just go home.
* * *
We went to the bathroom. I stood sniveling by a
urinal while Anek leaned over a sink and dashed water on his face. When we came back out,
his steps were no longer unsteady, though his voice still quavered slightly. Beads of
water glistened on his face. He lit a cigarette at the door and waved to the bartender and
the girls in the corner. I couldnt look at them now.
We stepped into the street.
His friends were still in the alley, laughing and stumbling, flinging pieces of garbage
from the dumpster at each other. We stood at the mouth of the alley and Anek said,
See you later, boys, and one of them yelled back saying, Wait, Anek!
Wait! I have an idea! Lets put your kid brother in the dump! But Anek just put
an arm around my shoulder and said, Maybe next time.
We crossed the street. Anek
kick-started the motor-cycle. It sputtered and wheezed and coughed before settling into a
soft, persistent purr. I started to climb onto the back, but Anek said, What the
hell are you doing? Cant you see Im in no shape to take us home?
You cant be
Serious as our pa is
I stood there for a moment,
dumbfounded. I climbed onto the front seat.
I swear to God, though,
you make so much as a dent on my bike and Ill
But I had already cocked the
accelerator and we were on our way. Slowly, of course. I slipped off the seat a little so
I could reach the pedal, snapped the clutch with my left hand, and popped the bike into
second gear. We sputtered for a while like that along the streets of Minburi, crawling at
fifteen kilos, and I made a sharp right onto the bridge that would take us out to the new
Years later I would ask Anek if he remembered this
night. He would say that I made it up. He never wouldve taken me to the Café Lovely
at such a young age, hed say, never wouldve let me drive that bike home. He
denies it now because he doesnt want to feel responsible for the way things turned
out, for the way we abandoned our mother to that hot and empty house, for the thoughtless,
desperate things I would learn to do. Later that same year, my mother would wake me up in
the middle of the night. She would be crying. She would ask me to sleep again in her bed.
And, for the first time, I would refuse her. I would deny Ma the comfort of my body.
After Anek moved to an
apartment across the river in Thonburi, I gathered my fathers belongings from the
back room and pawned them while Ma was at work. I used the money to buy myself a
motorcycle. When I got home, my mother was waiting for me. She came at me with a thousand
impotent fists, and when she was finished, spent and exhausted, her small body quivering
in my arms, she asked me to leave her house. I did. And I did not return to that house
again until it was too late, until Anek called to say our mother was ill, that she wanted
us by her side to accompany her through her final hours.
That night as we rode back from the Café Lovely,
I felt my brothers arms around my waist, his head slumped on my shoulder. I remember
thinking then about how Id never felt the weight of my brothers head before.
His hot, measured breaths warmed my neck. I could still smell the thinners faint,
sour scent wafting from his face. I suddenly became afraid that Anek had fallen asleep and
would tumble off the bike at any moment.
Are you awake,
Do me a favor. Eyes on
youre awake, Anek.
I said third.
Its a one-time
offer, little man.
I slipped off the seat,
accelerated a little, squeezed the clutch, and tapped the gear pedal just as we hit the
speedway. I was so excited we might as well have broken the sound barrier, but the engine
jolted us forward just enough that my grip weakened and we went swerving along the empty
speedway, weaving wildly back and forth at thirty kilometers an hour.
Easy now. Easy. There,
there, you have it. Just take a deep breath now. Holy shit, I almost had to break your ass
back there. You almost had us kissing the pavement.
I could feel the palms of my
hands slick against the handle grips. Even at thirty kilos, the wind blew hot against our
No fucking way.
I said accelerate. This
is a speedway, you know. Not a slow-way. Id like to get home before dawn.
Youre out of
youre mind, Anek. Thats the thinner talking.
Listen, if you
wont do it, Ill do it myself, he said, reaching over me for the
Fine, I said,
brushing his hand away. Ill do it. Just give me a second.
We slowly gathered speed along
the empty highwaythirty-five, forty, forty-fiveand after a while, the concrete
moving swiftly and steadily below our feet, I was beginning to feel a little more
comfortable. Anek put his arms around my waist again, his chin still on my shoulder.
Good, he whispered
into my ear. Good, good. Youve got it. Youre fucking doing it.
Youre really coasting now, boy. Welcome to the third gear, my little man.
Now, he said.
I didnt argue this time.
I just twisted the accelerator some more, popped the bike into fourth, sliding smoothly
off the seat then quickly back on. This time, to my surprise, our course didnt even
waver. It was an easy transition. We were cruising comfortably now at sixty, sixty-five,
seventy, seventy-five, faster and faster and faster still, the engine singing a high note
beneath us as we flew along that straight and empty speedway. We didnt say a word to
each other the rest of the way. And nothing seemed lovelier to me than that hot wind
howling in my ears, the night blurring around us, the smell of the engine furiously