Merry Christmas/Frowback Friday, reader. I’m Bangkok Seven, and I have a gift for you. Don’t get excited–it’s not a great gift. It’s not a lump of coal–it’s only slightly better. It’s part 3 of chapter 19 of my oft-ignored self-published semi-autobiographical mostly-fictional memoir, titled The Suburbs of Babylon. If you want to know where it picks up from, go back to my main page and scroll down. You’ll find parts 1 and 2 of this chapter. Or you can just dive in and try to get your bearings. It probably won’t matter either way.
“It was a bit of a jaunt back to the Strip, but I was making good time. The air was chilly but dry, and traffic was light. The solitude was relaxing; the only sounds between the approaching and dying away of cars was the crunching of my feet on the rocky dirt (very large portions of off-Strip Vegas go unpaved) and the slow rhythm of my breathing. There was a barely-noticeable twinge of loneliness tickling somewhere within me, but there was contentment overall, and a small persistent smile broadened across my face. Enough so that it attracted someone’s attention.
Now, I’ve talked before about Vegas prostitutes but I never really thought I’d lay eyes on one, and when it happened, it was so random, and took place so far from the Strip that at first I didn’t even know it was happening. I was walking along with a big dumb grin on my face, basking in something between irony and validation, when suddenly I became aware that someone was walking beside me. Well, not next to me, but parallel to me about fifteen feet from the street. I noticed it when her steps fell out of sync with mine, and I realized quickly that I had no idea how long she’d been walking with me like that. It was a bit disconcerting.
She was bleach-blond with blue eyes and a large mouth framed by dark red lips. Cliché until you saw the elegant dress she wore, Donna Karen I think, sheer, black, and backless with long sleeves. Black stockings, black heels. She didn’t look like she belonged on the street. And at first I just thought she’d lost her limo or was jilted by her millionaire husband and had been storming back to the hotel. Until she spoke to me.
She inquired if I wanted to get shagged for a hundred bucks. I almost said, “By you?” but succeeded in biting my lip. She told me not to worry, that she wouldn’t bite. How trite. I started to wonder if she had a brain, then started to brainstorm a way out of the situation. But that was the only proposition she made.
“Where are you going?” she asked next.
“Back to the Strip.”
“Oh, do you mind if I walk with you? I don’t like this dark stretch, you know, this late. It creeps me out.”
“Yeah, no sure, I don’t mind. Cool.”
She stepped into stride and put her arm in mine, both shocking me at her fragile elegance (for a hooker), and sparking the instant flash of the blind girl taking the same arm a day earlier. She smelled quite lovely, and reacted to me in a way that immediately made me see her in a beautiful light. I thought it must be a skill of the trade, to instantly make a man feel as if her were the object of her affections, for her to seem beguiled, her eye glancing, a flirting look reminiscent of teenage summer romances, filling the man with a false feeling of power, virility. I wondered if she was doing it on purpose or if it was reflex. Occupational hazard. But then it struck me that this might be the way she is. That this look, this charm, this talent, may have been in-born, may have predisposed her to her line of work, may have put her in the paths of those men who would defile the mild creature that unknowingly drew them in with her naïve seduction, reaping sex with an innocent, deflowering a divine creation until she had no choice but to embrace the carnality, to take on the face of sin.
Despite myself, I was enchanted. I may have even blushed. It was like being drugged and knowing it, but being unable to do anything about it. She didn’t seem to notice, but that could have been a part of the job, too. Like the woman is totally unaware that she is casting a spell. I’ve seen it time and again. But I wouldn’t allow her to get under my skin that way. I’m experienced enough to fend off an attack of beauty. It was what followed that hooked me like a halibut.
I expected her to be chatty. Most people who impose themselves on a stranger feel obligated to keep up the small talk. But she was content to walk in silence, breathing in the night air, looking dreamily off at the lights of the Strip. There was a mild smile on her lips, and her eyes half-closed as if she were in the most comfortable place in the world. She glanced over and showed me her teeth, then looked off again, tightening her grip around my arm and drawing closer with her body.
We passed a cross-street down which was the Crazy Horse, where I was the night before. “I work there,” she said matter-of-factly, as if she were surprised to see it all of a sudden. I didn’t respond, as I had no response.
“I saw you there last night.”
At this I turned to look at her fully, and still speechless, only gaped at her lovely face. She had light freckles on the bridge of her nose.
“I was too freaked out to come up to you. I have a strict practice of not approaching men I find attractive in there. It’s my business after all, and I find it complicates my life. I tend to get a bit overcome. My heart melts too easily for this line of work, I think.”
I opened my mouth to say something, but nothing came out.
“I actually though about you when I got home. I had this vision of kissing you I couldn’t get out of my head. And then when I saw you walking by I knew it had to be Fate. But I still couldn’t make myself talk to you right away. Which is why I was walking kind of a little away from you. Didn’t you think that was weird?”
“Well, this is pretty out of the ordinary for me. But there was just too much karma there, you know? To have you on the brain, and I only just saw you for a few minutes—and then to be stood up and be walking the street and then to see you there, as if you just appeared in my view, like you were placed in my life. I know this sounds insane, and I bet you wish you could get away from me so badly right now–”
“No, no. I don’t. And it’s not weird.”
“Really? You don’t think so?”
I shook my head and smiled. Then I looked off. I had no idea what I was doing. Comforting her? Being played by her? Being diplomatic? Coy? Stupid? My head was a blank. But she was beginning to make me feel anesthetized, and my heart started to thud a bit more heavily.
“What hotel are you going to?”
“The Imperial Palace.”
“Do you care if I go with you? I mean, this isn’t a come-on, we don’t even have to go to your room. We can play craps or do the slots, whatever. I just don’t want to go home. My roommate and I had a fight, and I don’t have enough for a motel tonight. I’d just get a date and shack up, but seeing you tonight, I don’t know. I must be crazy, but I think it’s a sign. Does that sound—I mean, I know you think I’m a psycho. I’m sorry.”
“No, no—I don’t think that.” I couldn’t find the words. Yeah, it did sound crazy, but how much craziness had shot across my brain in the last two years? And how many times had I looked at something and said it was a sign, Fate, God, Cupid? I was well acquainted with that sort of tomfoolery. And to hear someone else who was moved by the same forces, feeling so out of control and guided at the same time, my heart went out to her.
“I would be happy to hang out with you,” I said finally. She smiled and sighed with relief. We went on walking.
She was twenty. She came from Minneapolis two years ago to attend UNLV, spent or gambled her student loans away and found herself in debt and on academic probation. In the last year she’d raised her grades and started hooking and stripping to make up for the loans. She had an air of contentment, seemingly from her valiant improvements, but there was an underlying current. The black nights of sex acts and strangers had robbed her soul and killed her spirit. Her smile was a tired one, and the look in her eyes was well beyond her years. But a youthful earnestness glimmered through. I felt it in her grip around my arm, and heard it in her blind faith in karma. She actually believed I was meant to be here now, that there was a lifeline here that she needed to grab onto. And I wasn’t sure she was wrong about it.
We walked the casino, and both decided we were too tired to gamble. I took her to the room, where she turned on the radio and a solitary lamp. She slipped out of her shoes and reclined on the bed. I started to tell her that there wasn’t going to be any funny business, but before I could she started talking.
“I came out here with my sister. She was killed in the first month we were here. Stepped in front of a car outside Treasure Island. Right as the ship was sinking. She was killed instantly. I didn’t see her die. I was watching the show. I think I started whoring because I wanted to punish myself for that. I must’ve slept with twenty guys before I even started charging. It was a way to simultaneously forget, to give myself what I deserved, and to chase a fleeting pleasure of life. It’s funny how sex without love feels good and stings at the same time. Every day I want to kill myself, but instead I’ve just been going out and sleeping with somebody.”
I sat down on the bed beside her. She put her feet up and laid her head in my lap. It was so nonchalant I didn’t have time to feel uptight about it. I even had the courage to gently run my fingers through her hair. She went on talking.
“I made a decision today. The night before, coincidentally when I saw you , was the first time since my sister died that I had the notion to think that I deserved better than to throw my body and soul to strangers to be destroyed. And tonight, when my date stood me up, I took it as a sign. I said to myself that my whoring days had ended, and I threw the thought out into the universe. I called on the Powers That Be to give me some indication that it was the right time. And then there you were, the same person I was looking at the night before when I first had the notion to stop hurting myself. It was like you were there to save me. I tested you anyway, did you know? When I propositioned you. I wanted to see if you’d take me up on it, kind of like testing Fate one last time. But you didn’t. You didn’t.”
I don’t know why, but I got a lump in my throat. I covered it neatly, though, and went on raking my hand softly through her hair. She turned her face up to me and put her arm around my waist. There was a smile on her face that was so pure it looked as though her age had regressed ten years. It was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. Then she closed her eyes and appeared to doze off. I laid back on the bed and shut my eyes.
A moment later I felt hair tickling my face, and opened my eyes to see her looking down at me.
“Are you tired?”
“A little.” A better word was comfortable. I felt comfortable in the presence of this lovely woman. She beckoned me to sit up. I did, and she helped me off with my shirt. She let her hands run down my chest. I turned over and stretched, rubbing my face into the pillow. Then I felt her hands on my back, lightly stroking my skin, pressing down on the knots and the ridges of my spine. She ran her fingers over my arms and neck, and then lay down on top of me, her legs over my legs, arms over my arms. Her head rested on the pillow above my right shoulder, and she turned her face in so her lips touched my nose. I didn’t open my eyes. The feeling was just too sensational.
Then she started planting little kisses on my face and shoulder. There was a firestorm of tingles running over me, and when I thought I’d go insane from it she stopped and sat up. I heard rustling and turned over to find she’d taken off her dress. She stood there before me naked except for her black stockings. But instead of being pornographic, or even erotic, she seemed to exude a shamelessness, a plain innocence. For a moment, she even appeared virginal to me.
Then she stepped forward and lay next to me on her side, looking into my eyes with an expression that could only be described as trust. Like the trust of a child. I was smitten. I leaned in and kissed her closed lips. She smiled and shut her eyes. I began to run my hands through her hair again, but could not resist caressing her arm, then her side, then the slope of her leg. Her skin was golden brown, with tiny blond hairs covering it like a thin down. She looked so young, I was almost moved to tears again. To think of all she’d been put through in her life, of what she had been robbed of.
She turned over and I stroked her back. I thought of all the men who had taken this delicate creature in innumerable and horrible ways, and wondered if any of them had stopped to look at what they were devouring. If they saw this perfectly formed woman, if they sensed the enormous heart that beat within her, or the tender spirit that screamed at their touch. I wanted to heal her. I wanted to make up for everything that she had endured. I wanted to erase every agonizing picture of the rape of her life from her mind, and knew I could do nothing. I drew in close to her and put my arms around her, holding her close.
“I can feel your heart beating,” she said.
“I can feel yours, too. I think—you’re beautiful.”
“You’re very sweet.”
I kissed the back of her neck, and with that, we fell asleep. And during the night I had a dream. I was back at that canyon in Mexico, climbing past the waterfall, up over the cliff, turning around to watch the stream empty into the ocean, far off in the misty distance. I went to the deep blue pool, and looked out over the surface, at the reeds swaying in the breeze and the lush meadow beyond. In the reflection of the water, I could see clouds passing by in the sky above me. Then I looked up, and standing at the far side I saw what had to be the dark man, my somber friend, my nemesis, the man I loved and hated, who I longed to kill, or escape, but could not bear to abandon. He began to walk to me, over the water as he had done in my dreams before, but as he got closer, I could see I was mistaken. He wore no hat, and though I could not make out his face, I knew it wasn’t him. It was God.
When He reached my side of the pool, He leaned down and scooped up some water in His hand. He asked me if I wanted a drink. I told Him no, that I would get my own. I waited for Him to condemn me for not being more devout, more obedient—for not going to church. And as if He read my thoughts, He told me not to worry. He said that every time I came to this place, in reality or in my dreams, I was coming to church. He said this is where He came to meet me, waited for me, spoke to me, listened to me. He said love and belonging can’t be found in a place, or in a person, or in a moment in time. I asked Him what He thought I should do. He pointed out towards the ocean, and when I looked I could see all the way home, back to Los Angeles, to a valley laid flat and bare like a canvas waiting to be painted over. Like a work of art at the flashpoint of creation. I turned back around, but God had vanished and I was alone with the pool and the meadow and the whispering breeze.”
Reading this excerpt again all these years later, I simultaneously miss Vegas and Mexico, but not the religious guilt of my youth. Having settled in this sinner’s wonderland on the opposite side of the world, my notion of what diety thinks which thing about me has been shrunk down to a smal speck, not strong enough to make me feel guilty for anything, not yet weak enough to allow a sense of approval. But we playy the hand we’re dealt, don’t we reader? And the Thailand hand always comes with a pair of aces. Cheers to another week above ground in this post-pentacostal paradise. Grab your eggnog. Bottoms up.