by Joel Carillet
He discovers the meaning of paradise.
I was thinking about paradise, a word so often flippantly tossed around in churches and mosques, at Club Med resorts and on Norwegian cruise liners. The word could be powerful, but we’ve made it soft.
It was 1:00 a.m., an hour before closing. A bottle of Heineken hung from my left hand and a pen from the other. And on the stage before me were six women wearing black high-heeled shoes and black thongs, dancing as if they thought paradise were far away indeed. They danced with remarkable disinterest, each clutching her respective pole, moving their knees and hips with the same tired pep as an old Volkswagen about to break down. One woman kept her hand around her navel, self-conscious of her stretch marks. For her, the pole was a shield she used in a vain attempt to hide herself. This was anything but an erotic sight. It was more like witnessing a subtle form of torture.
Is paradise a place we stumble upon only after death, where, if we are to believe some Muslims, seventy-two virgins await, ready to indulge us in sensual pleasures?
“Pretty Woman” played on the sound system and I finished what was left of my beer. An American businessman-type with a Texas drawl sauntered in and found a seat. Now four of us guys were in a room with eight girls, six on stage and two sitting among us. It didn’t take long for the Texan to find the prettiest of the bunch, a woman in her early twenties who had quit her job as a bank teller about two months before. She was not here because her family was poor; she was here because she wanted to be rich and men like the Texan would pay well to spend the night with her. She was quiet, polite, and intelligent, and I had no difficulty imagining her working in a bank. But now she looked so small next to this big man. Her dark eyes stared straight ahead—straight into the wall—as he put his arm around her and began to caress her shoulder. I thought of a quiet animal caught in the claws of a hawk, too frightened to move as it prepares to be swallowed. But she was here voluntarily.
Is paradise, if we are to believe some Christians, largely an individual enterprise where, by simply believing in Jesus but otherwise going about our lives as we normally would, we will find ourselves in celestial glory after we die?
Back on the stage another woman, Ann, was about to rotate off. A twenty-seven-year-old mother who speaks Thai, three tribal languages, and a few words of English, she had been working here one and a half years to earn money for her extended family, most of whom live in a poor village seven hours north of Bangkok. I had asked Ann if she likes her work—I knew some women did—and she replied with a tired smile that said she did not. She danced and prostituted herself only because providing for the needs of her family was her top priority. Her seven-year-old daughter remains in the village, in the care of her grandmother.
The lights were dim and the music loud, yet it was conducive to note-taking (in Asia to write a book, I was taking a lot of notes about a lot of places). Just before Ann stepped off the stage and returned to my table so that we could continue our conversation, I made a note to ponder the idea of paradise as “right relationships.” Later, back at my hotel, I would write, “Paradise is not indulging in selfishness, it can’t be bought with money, it can’t be had without including the poor. It will not descend so long as we sit on a couch watching television, or stand among pews singing songs. We enter into it neither by driving planes into towers nor by hoarding storehouses of grain. It is deeper than ‘feeling good.’ And it is wider—much wider—than personal salvation.”
This was my second night in Soi Nana, a square three-storey structure with the feel of a frat house. Or was it more like that ride at Disney World, Pirates of the Caribbean? Yes, that was it, Nana reminded me of a Disney World ride: Pirates raucously chasing screaming women, people living out of bounds, with ogling eyes, on a quest for ill-gotten treasure. Yo, ho, ho, a pirates life for me! But here many of the swashbucklers were upper middle class businessman from the West, strolling in and out of clubs with names like Spankys, Lollipop, Carousel, DC-10, and G-Spot. And at less than two dollars, which covered your first beer, it was considerably cheaper than Orlando.
Over a three-day period I would visit several clubs in Nana, all of which were pretty much the same. They were like trash compactors, all of us pressed too tightly together, fighting the heat and humidity, sensing that intimacy was strangely recyclable here. It was a raucous environment indeed, with so much careless movement that hearts were easily broken. At least this is how I read the looks on the faces of several women, and later what I would hear them say.
And yet it was here, in a minefield of flesh and dreams, where black cats prowled on sheet metal awnings in search of geckos, where satellite dishes pulled in ESPN which overweight German tourists watched as girls nestled compliantly into their girth, where sound systems belted out the likes of Billy Ray Cyrus so that girls could rock their bodies to the rhythm of “Achy Breaky Heart”…it was here that I stood on the verge of discovering something new about paradise.
* * *
With few exceptions, Nana was not a place of desperation. It was something more playful and ambitious than this. When the ladies weren’t sitting with patrons they were often in the back room giggling together, as though they were kids enjoying a late night at a friend’s house. There was an atmosphere present that would have had an appeal even if everyone had been fully clothed.
Nor was Nana merely a place where money was exchanged for sex, since hundreds of women brought their dreams to work. They sought a quality Western man, someone with whom they might live happily ever after. And so a clearly demarcated border between business and friendship did not exist. It was easy to see why men who might not seek a prostitute at home might do so here. The girls radiated playfulness and innocence, and made you think you simply had a friend. You never knew when you’d be met with real affection.
But, you never knew a lot of things, and vision is difficult when the lights are dim. There was something unsettling about all this flesh, as if it had been so exposed that it managed to become ghostly. The music was the most real thing here, or at least the clearest, and so I tethered myself to it in an effort to see well. The musicians and I were old friends, friends I hadn’t heard from in ages, and I listened to every word they had to say because they reminded me of a place and time that tonight I couldn’t afford forgetting. Music is rarely as potent as when it is heard in a strip club.
In its moral ambiguities and brokenness, Nana was a place where you saw everything in a new way. Flesh wriggling on poles was an unusual teacher, not the kind that demanded rote memorization of facts and figures but one that instead employed the Socratic method, asking questions of the student to which the student had to craft an answer. And the women were not merely teachers from afar. They often came over to sit a while. They were scantily clad, sometimes naked, but many of them were keen on leaving sex behind and simply sharing a story and hearing one in return. The place was all about human connection—its possibilities, failures, and dangers—and this is precisely why I sensed that something of paradise was here, just waiting to take shape.
I recalled my first visit to Bangkok four years earlier. I don’t remember her name anymore, but she was a go-go girl in Patpong, another adult entertainment district, and it was there that we met one night and sat in a corner of a club. She was completely nude, as were the other thirty-some women in the room, and I think this may have been why her eyes were so striking—with no clothes, the body was left unadorned, and her eyes, so earnest and intense, contained a power they otherwise might not have. I could think of only one parallel in my experience: looking into the eyes of a Saudi woman, who is fully draped in black fabric except for a slit at the eyes.
She was in her mid-twenties and had seen many men, she said, but I was different—why? I fumbled over an answer. It might sound strange, I told her, but after watching so many men who did not seem loving enter these doors, I decided to enter them as well, and invite someone out for dinner. “Would you like to join me for pad thai?” I asked. She said yes, but her shift wouldn’t end for three more hours. After about one hour, she was called to take the stage, where she would join three other ladies to (there is no delicate way to describe this) shoot bananas from her vagina and then pop open bottles of Coke, also with her vagina. For the last hour her eyes had looked broken—broken, but not defeated—and now they begged for trust. “Please don’t go,” she pleaded, “I come back soon.” Of course I would wait, I said. Then she stood up to leave. With her eyes looking at the stage, she appeared nervous, perhaps even pained, and for several moments she didn’t move. When finally she did take a step it was not toward the stage, though she would be up there in only a few seconds; rather she turned back toward me. She leaned close to say something, her eyes still begging.
“Please don’t watch,” she whispered.
* * *
Walking around Nana now, four years later, I remembered her and wondered how her body and spirit had fared with the passage of time. But while I could still remember her eyes, I knew I wouldn’t be able to recognize her even if she were still in the city. I couldn’t even remember her name. I hoped that if I were to meet someone again tonight that I would remember her—her story, her name, her face—for many years to come.
It was about midnight, in a sea of bubbliness and hardness and crassness, when I met Fon. She was dressed in jeans and a white t-shirt, had a tattoo emblazed on her right arm, and sat on a stool at the door to a club, urging men to peek through the curtain and enter. She snagged my arm as I passed.
“Come inside!” she screamed, just as all the other girls outside all the other clubs would scream. But Fon seemed particularly obnoxious.
Tired, I said I was on my way home and needed to sleep. But she persisted, “No problem, five minutes, drink one beer.”
“No, really,” I said, “I’m almost out of money. I’ve got to go home.”
“No problem, I buy,” she responded, and then slipped into the club. She emerged a moment later with a cold Heineken and an extra stool.
“Really, I don’t have money to buy that drink—I will not buy that drink,” I said, suspecting some catch in her offer. But she was clear: the drink really was her treat.
We exchanged biographies. She was twenty-four years old, from Phuket, and had been living in Bangkok for two months. Her boyfriend died three years ago in a motorcycle accident. As for the tattoos, she got the first at the age of fifteen and now had a total of five, all of which she pointed out to me. The last one cost a whopping 7,000 Baht—the equivalent of $175.
Fon was an enigma, not because of her generosity—three times this week I would invite prostitutes to dinner to hear their stories, and each time they would insist on covering the bill—but because talking to her was like trying to start a cantankerous car, one that might turn over but then croak a moment later. She was not quiet, nor was she unsocial; she simply chose to be difficult. “Who are you?” I wanted to blurt out several times. But I will never know. And maybe neither will she. Kind one moment but caustic the next, she was incapable of prolonged conversation and kept much of herself locked away.
The conversation wasn’t the smoothest, but after some time it suddenly fell headlong into a jarring pothole. “Do you want to fuck me?” she snarled. I winced at both the question itself and her tone, which really was vicious—like someone maliciously running fingers down a chalkboard. She was admirably blunt, but I had no idea what she was actually saying. Was this a test, or an invitation? Was it the voice of a wounded woman who wants to be attacked so that she can attack back? Whatever it was it didn’t even intimate love. It screamed of its absence.
“No,” I said, suddenly feeling more worn out.
At 2:00 a.m. Nana closed. The neon lights were extinguished and the people—giggling and screaming ladies, all sorts of men—spilled into the street, where they plopped down at food stalls or hailed taxis. The area swelled with energy—something like the halls of a high school on the last day of the year when the final bell rings—and it was contagious. I let the rush of people go ahead of me because I wanted for just a moment to experience Nana void of its people. When the crowd had passed and it was just Fon and me left in the courtyard, what I noticed most was the litter strewn on the ground. And I felt that not all the trash was visible because some of it had walked out, buried in the hearts of all who had spent time here. I knew that more wholesome venues get trashed as well, but here the litter made me think that joy does not come cheaply, and if it does come cheaply it will not likely stay. I thought of the word “sex industry” and felt keenly that the emphasis here was on industry. I thought of a construction worker wearing his work boots, factories polluting the sky, and laws trying to regulate it all. I thought of a wilted flower, a poisoned spring, nature in decay. And I thought how ugly is the floor of a place that sees innocence as a marketable asset. The whole environment was an odd mix, a troubling mix, a place that if not now would later call out your tears to cleanse yourself. And maybe in some odd way you’d even feel that your tears came from someplace else, that because they were not entirely your own they were not merely personal property, that they were meant not only to cleanse yourself but also in some very small way to bathe things like this trashy courtyard.
Fon asked if I was hungry—I was—and recommended a family-run food stall a couple blocks down. We ordered hotpot and pulled meat and vegetables onto our plates as a downpour swept through the area. When the rain passed Fon invited me to see her apartment, which wasn’t very much farther down the street.
The first thing I noticed when she opened the door of her one-room efficiency was the bed, neatly made and occupied by a stuffed animal. It was Tweety Bird. The walls were decorated with posters of Western boy bands and Leonardo DiCaprio. On a Buddhist altar beside the bed were two open bottles of Strawberry Fanta, some peeled fruit, and joss sticks. And for an entertainment system she had a portable CD player and tiny speakers. Sitting down next to Tweety, Fon pulled a shoebox full of pirated CDs out from under her bed. “Do you like Enrique Iglesias?” she asked.
Fon was a rough personality—tattoos, a stud in her tongue, a callous sneer reflecting her many, many sexual encounters with men. But her room was that of a child.
* * *
I met Fon for a late breakfast about noon the next day. The night before we had talked about my love of news, and this morning she presented me with a copy of the Bangkok Post. She also offered to let me stay at her place the rest of the week for free rather than spend money on a hotel. “I wouldn’t bother you because I work nights when you sleep,” she said, “and I sleep in the day while you away. Really, no problem.”
I didn’t see Fon the rest of the week—I had thanked her for her offer but needed to stay across town—but two days before my scheduled departure from Bangkok I wanted to return and say goodbye. But how?
Michelle, a backpacker from the Seattle area who I had first met three months earlier at the Thai-Cambodian border, helped me out. We met for dinner and I told her both Fon’s story and my wish to say goodbye in a memorable way. “Take her a rose,” Michelle suggested without much thought. It was a beautifully simple idea, and Michelle urged me to make the hour commute back across the city to follow through with it. “Trust me, she will remember a rose.”
It was almost midnight when I arrived at Nana. A young girl—she couldn’t have been more than twelve—was selling roses at the entrance to the complex. It almost seemed right that a child—someone who had an innocence about her, who might remind us of another way—was selling something as fragrant and tender as a rose. I walked up the steps, took a left on the second floor, passed several clubs, and was soon at Fon’s. Someone else was sitting at the entrance though, and I asked her if Fon was around. The woman looked at the rose and smiled, then tore into the club to find her.
When Fon came out she looked surprised. Her face turned tender, and for a moment the tattoos looked like they didn’t belong to her. Her eyes were vulnerable and her movement almost graceful. “I wanted to say goodbye before I leave Bangkok tomorrow,” I said, “And I wanted to give you this rose.”
All around us Nana roared. The music didn’t stop, nor did the screams and giggles and whispered invitations to adjourn to a hotel for an hour. And it struck me that Hell and Paradise do not always have a large no-man’s land between them, and that at times they may even share the same space. The vision of Paradise held by some Muslims—women available for sensual pleasure—suddenly looked as shallow as a muddy puddle. And the vision held by some Christians—personal salvation, just ‘me and God’—appeared emaciated and tragic.
At least this is what I thought when Fon took her rose. We stood together in the midst of noise and brokenness, but I also sensed that, at least for a moment, we stood together in the hope that right relationships are possible.
That is to say, we stood together at the door of paradise.
Joel Carillet is a freelance writer and photographer based in Tennessee. His work has appeared in a number of publications, including The Christian Science Monitor, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Encounters with the Middle East, and, perhaps oddly, Chicken Soup for the Tea Lover’s Soul. “Red Lights and a Rose” was excerpted from his unpublished memoir, Sixty-One Weeks: A Journey across Asia. His biweekly travel column “Reflections on the Road,” along with other stories and photos, can be found at jcarillet.gather.com. “Red Lights and a Rose” won the Grand Prize Gold in the Second Annual Solas Awards.
About Editors’ Choice:
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