He gave me a look. “You make a joke,” he said, “to hide the fact that you are squeamish.”
“Who says I’m squeamish?”
“Here comes our dinner,” he said. “Let’s see how squeamish you are. You speak like a Thai, but can you eat like a Thai?”
The plates arrived, little cubes of meat broiled satay-style on small wooden skewers, with a mound of white rice alongside and a smaller mound of curried carrots. This once ran around and barked, I thought, and nuzzled people companionably with its cold nose.
Even so, I thought, how much cuter was a puppy than a bleating wooly lamb, or a bunny rabbit, or even a baby chick? All the animals available for our delectation are either endearing, like the dog and the sheep and the hare, or disgusting, like the snake and rat and the lizard. I’d eaten some strange things in strange places, and I’d had my share of mystery meat. More dishes have been called lamb than ever wore wool. In the present instance, I was fairly sure that what they served in this klong-side outdoor café was in fact dog and nothing else. And they brought it on a clean plate.
I unskewered my meat, picked up my fork, and took a bite. Chewed, considered, chewed some more, and swallowed. I’d been prepared for a gamy taste, but if anything it was on the sweet side.
“Not bad,” I said.
“I should take another look at your passport,” Suk said. “I never thought I would live to see an American eat dog.”
“Americans were eating dog two hundred years ago,” I told him. “Lewis and Clark would have starved to death otherwise. They kept trading with the Indians, taking dogs in exchange for blankets and meal and such. And the mountain men of the Old West ate anything that turned up in their traps. Beaver and muskrat, of course, but also weasel and otter and skunk.”
He looked a little queasy himself, I was pleased to note.
“Some of those mountain men took Indian wives,” I went on, “although they may not have felt wholly committed to the relationship, no doubt for lack of a proper church wedding. In any case, there were men who got through a bad winter by slaughtering their wives and roasting them a piece at a time. I don’t suppose it happened terribly often, though you could argue that once was enough.”
He was fairly dark-complected, was Mr. Sukhumvit, but all the same he was beginning to look a little green around the gills.
“I myself,” I went on, “have never eaten human beings. Except in Africa, that is.”
“In a place called Modonoland,” I said. “There’s never been any cannibalism there, so far as I know, but there was this one madwoman there who called herself Sheena, Queen of the Jungle, a white girl, as a matter of fact, and when her men massacred people they cut off certain portions of the male anatomy. Now I can’t swear they went into the stew pot, but I can’t think what else they did with them.”
“I spent a few days with her merry little band,” I said. “You might say it was eat or be eaten, and don’t ask me what it tasted like because it’s hard to remember.” I took another bite of dog. “As a matter of fact…”
He held up a hand. “Please,” he said.
“I was just going to say this isn’t very spicy,” I said innocently. “Do you suppose we could get some hot sauce?”
I’d told the truth about Lewis and Clark, and about the Rocky Mountain trappers, too. And Sheena, née Jane, and her version of missionary stew. The only time I’d stretched the truth was when I asked for hot sauce. Our satay aux chien was spicy enough the way they served it. So I was showboating, but what the hell. A little hot sauce never hurts.
And Suk was impressed. That’s what he’d told me to call him, shortly after I asked for the hot sauce. I told him to call me Evan, but he seemed happier staying with Tanner. Between the plate of dog I put away and the stories I told, he evidently decided my macho credentials were authentic. I won more points when they put a bottle of Johnny Walker Black on the table between us. By the time we got up it was empty, and I’d knocked back my fair share of it.
In return, Suk told me what he could about Burma, and the hill tribes and the opium trade and the smuggling of rubies and antiquities and Buddha images. (A drug lord in the Shan state controlled the opium, and SLORC was officially at war with him, but some of the generals seemed to be helping him launder his profits. The government controlled the ruby trade, and forbade the export of anything more than a hundred years old. You couldn’t take Buddha statues out of the country, either, new or old, but unless they were old there was no reason to smuggle them. Unless you were a tourist who wanted one for a souvenir, in which case merchants throughout Burma would be delighted to sell you one, and the customs inspectors would be every bit as delighted to confiscate it on your way out of the country.
Why? I wondered.
“They are afraid,” he said. “What use could a non-Buddhist possibly have for a statue of the Buddha? They might be used for a sacrilegious purpose.”
“Like what? A ring-toss game?”
He spread his hands. “They are afraid of everything,” he said. “Remember, they were afraid to have tourists, afraid to allow foreign investment. Now they see the money come in and they like that. One of these days someone will figure out that they can levy an export tax on antiques and Buddha images. ‘You want that bronze statue of the Enlightened One? Very good, it will no doubt make a splendid ornament in your fish pond. That will be twenty dollars tax, please, payable in hard currency, not in kyat. Thank you very much.’”
“‘And have a nice day.’”
“Ah, so,” he said. “‘Y’all come back.’”
I ate enough and drank enough so that I managed to get out of going to the brothel without looking like a wuss. Suk agreed that it was late, and that I had an early flight and needed to get what sleep I could. And then there was jet lag, always a factor to be taken into consideration.
But would I be able to sleep without having a woman? For his part, after a night of dog and whiskey, sleep would be unattainable without sexual release.
“In my younger days,” I said, “that was true of me as well. But as the years pass, so does the urgency.”
He seemed pleased to hear this, not at the prospect of diminished virility but at learning I had reached the downward slope before him.
“And then there was the leg of the flight from Seoul to Bangkok,” I added.
“I was in business class,” I said, as if that explained everything.
“But that should make you better rested, not more tired. It is more comfortable, is it not? Seats that recline. More room for your long American legs.”
“Very true,” I said. “But the stewardesses are more attractive than in the rear of the plane. And more attentive as well.”
“The stewardess I had could not have been more attentive.”
Was she a Thai girl? A mixture, I replied. My guess was that her mother was Vietnamese and her father a black American. Whatever the combination, the result had been a beautiful woman. And, I added, a talented one.
“So you will understand why I’d prefer to get some rest before my flight to Rangoon,” I said.
He nodded. He understood.
It was a lie, of course. The stewardess, who did not appear to be of mixed ancestry, had indeed been extremely attentive, bringing me an unending stream of drinks and snacks and hot towels and peppermint candies and cups of strong coffee. But if sexual services were part of her repertoire, you couldn’t prove it by me.
I figured Suk would believe me. It was the sort of thing a man would want to believe, because if it could happen to me, then someday it could happen to him, and the possibility, however slight, would make him approach every flight from now on with a feeling of anticipation. It might even move him to shell out big bucks and fly business class.
In the meantime, it would give him a fantasy to enliven his own visit to some over-the-hill twelve-year-old hooker. And it would make him feel a lot better about life in general – and Evan Tanner in particular – than the truth of the matter.
Which was that I hadn’t been to bed with a woman in twenty-five years.
Now that’s the sort of statement relatively few men can make, aside from those who are otherwise inclined to begin with. There are Catholic priests who might equal or surpass my record – though perhaps fewer of them than we used to think – and the Buddhist world has no end of monks whose vows forbid them to touch or speak with a woman, let alone have it off with her.
I would argue, though, that the first twenty-four and a half years of celibacy were none of my doing, and didn’t really count. Take any man, freeze him into suspended animation, and tuck him away in a sub-basement in Union City (or anywhere else, come to think of it) and the guy’s not going to get a lot of action. I don’t care if he’s Errol Flynn. I don’t care if he’s Warren Beatty. I don’t care if he’s a former governor of Arkansas. The guy’s going to have a very easy time keeping it in his pants.
The last six months are a little tougher to explain.
For openers, I was incredibly busy. I had a whole lot of current events to catch up on, and the computer age to enter into. That really did occupy me night and day, and it kept me almost too busy to think about sex, let alone get out and go after some.
And when I did think about it, I didn’t even know where to start looking.
For one thing, I didn’t know anybody. Before the Great Ice Age, I’d been slightly involved with a couple of women. I’d had a long on-again-off-again affair with Kitty Bazerian, but that wasn’t really going anywhere, and the other women I saw from time to time were just casual friends and equally casual bedmates.
Remember, this was 1972. This was before herpes, never mind AIDS. People slept around without having to devote a whole lot of thought and advance planning to the matter. If you picked up something, well, it was no worse than a bad cold, and, unlike a cold, a shot of penicillin could cure it.
Sex was wonderful, and sometimes it was a big deal, but the thing was it didn’t have to be. There were girls who stayed over at my place because it was late and they didn’t want to take the subway at that hour, or squander ten bucks on a cab all the way out to Forest Hills. There were girls I made a pass at because I didn’t want to hurt their feelings, and girls who went along because they didn’t want to hurt mine. And why not? It didn’t cost anything, it didn’t hurt anybody, and it felt good and was good for you. Why keep it in your pants when there were so many better places to put it?
By the time they thawed me out, the world had become a very different place. All changed, changed utterly, all right.
I didn’t go out looking to meet women, I was really too busy for that, but when I circulated for other purposes women occasionally appeared, and I wasn’t too brain dead to notice them. One Sunday afternoon in a church basement in the Bronx I joined a dozen Albanian monarchists to discuss the prospects of King Leka, son and rightful heir of the legendary King Zog. (Zog had ruled the Balkan kingdom for eleven years before fleeing Mussolini’s invading army in 1939. The communists took over when the war ended, and Zog died in Paris in 1961, although he lives on to this day in crossword puzzles.)