|Soi Dungthawee - where Pee worked for a number of years|
When I first met Pee he was a strikingly handsome young man of 22. He was at the peak of both his desirability and his go go boy years at a club in Bangkok, making what was to him and his family a small fortune each month. He was bright, upbeat and a delight to talk to, even through his English was pretty limited and I'd needed a Thai friend to help with the translation. Although I'd taken a couple pictures of him myself my friend took one of us together, arms around the other's shoulder. Before I left I'd dropped copies of them off to him at the club.
He had been one of my earlier interviewees, and like some of the others I'd been able to keep in touch with him and get updates every so often. Even if schedules didn't allow time for a lunch or dinner visit I spoke on the phone with him every time I was in Thailand over the years.
In a photo I received of him at 27 he was a mere shadow of his former self; hollow-cheeked and scarred by the skin condition that had ravaged his face and upper torso on and off over the past year. His eyes rested deep in their sockets, surrounded by dark skin highlighted by even darker circles beneath them. His beautiful high cheekbones were still there, but unless I'd looked directly into his eyes I might have walked right past him on the street without recognizing him.
In the picture I'd received two months ago he was worse. He had a colorful towel draped around his shoulders and was sitting on a beautifully finished wooden bench in front of the equally beautiful family home his tips had built - but a world away from the high life of the Big City. Beneath the towel his once gym-toned torso appeared the most gaunt and bony I'd ever seen. He'd made an attempt to smile.
I hadn't seen a photo of him for about nine months, and although my medical knowledge is limited to "playing doctor" every now and then in my youth it looked to me that barring a miracle Pee wouldn't live even to see Songkran, one of his very favorite play times of the year.
"Oh, Pee..." I said quietly to myself as tears welled in my eyes that morning. I figured I now knew why I hadn't heard from him for a while and I sat down and emailed Tum, his best friend who lived nearby. Tum had sent the photo for Pee, but there was only a very short message with the picture. Tum and I weren't really friends - Tum thought all modern medicine was suspect and was one who discouraged Pee from getting the help he needed early on - but if my emails were about Pee's health he'd usually reply fairly quickly.
He did this time, too, and said that Pee was resigned to letting go and moving on and that he hadn't been well enough to email me himself, other than just the short note with the photo, in which he (as usual) was more concerned about how I was doing.
"It what he want," said Tum, and although I knew that to be true, it seemed a lot sooner than I'd thought it would be. "He so tired, he want sleep."
Tum is gay and has always had a crush on Pee, but Pee had fallen in love with Nee, a girl in his village, and had a daughter by her. Nevertheless, he and Tum had been best friends as far back as either of them could remember, and had remained so - regardless of following different paths sexually. Tum had always hoped for more than just friendship, but that had never came to pass, other than one evening Pee had followed Tum's lead after they'd both had a couple bottles of beer. While he found it physically pleasurable, he didn't feel the connection or desire he had for girls, and they only shared that single evening of intimacy.
Tum had stayed in the village while Pee went to seek his fortune, or more accurately the fortune he'd heard was there for the taking in the clubs of Bangkok. Tum had warned him of the dangers of drugs and disease and was probably the nagging reminder that kept Pee safe. Although Nee had moved into Pee's family home for help caring for their infant daughter Tum became the "doting auntie" and would check in daily to help after Pee had gone off to Bangkok.
Through a friend who already knew the ropes Pee quickly found work in a club on Soi Dungthawee (also known to many as Soi Twilight) where his astoundingly good looks and bright attitude made him a customer favorite, and he rarely had a night without an off - sometimes two, sometimes three, depending on the details involved. He worked six nights a week, keeping only Sunday to himself for laundry, rest and prayers at the temple. Sunday was the only day he didn't go to the gym, also, but he worked hard at keeping himself in tip-top shape.
Pee had arrived in Bangkok armed with as much safe sex information as Tum could drum into his head, and although he says he took some foolish chances (collecting extraordinarily large tips) during his early months in circulation he soon learned of the dangers involved and made the vow to himself not to lose focus of his goal of a long life with Nee and his daughter while helping his family over the years. Gazing dreamily out the window of the restaurant we were having dinner in before he went to work one evening he said he'd be happiest when some day he could sit outside and see the sunset outside of his own home up North.
Pee was consistently careful with every customer after that first few months - even if it killed a deal or got complaints registered against him with the club - and still was making plenty of money. He'd have himself tested on a regular basis, even though he very, very rarely would bottom and risk a condom problem. If the customer's appendage was of an acceptably thin circumference and he felt comfortable trying it he'd sometimes make an exception, but it was rare. His looks, charm and his own equipment bought him a lot of grace.
He learned how to successfully manipulate an unpleasant or risky situation with a pushy or insistent customer, and, more importantly, how to firmly say "no" if he had to. He didn't ever try drugs and preferred to be in his room watching TV or reading if he wasn't being paid to do otherwise so he rarely went out and got drunk.
While working and with a customer he didn't care for the feeling of being "out of control" so he learned to skillfully nurse a drink. If the customer with him was distracted or off in the bathroom Pee would often pour most of it out or send it away with a waiter. That worked better in his own club, of course, but he had other tricks he'd shared with me one visit.
The money rolled in faster than he'd ever dared dream. Pee bought himself a nice cell phone and clothes to keep himself attractive, but other than his gym membership he put almost all of his money away. Once a month he'd take a break and make the bus ride home to see his family, his girlfriend and his daughter. They'd talked of marriage, but Pee said he wanted to wait until he was done working so he could be "with Nee only". Thanks to his income construction was started on a new home for the family, and due to his thriftiness Pee had it paid for (and then some) before the job was half done. It was a beautiful, two-story home.
Three years ago Pee had a regular customer come into the club that he'd been off with before; someone he'd liked for several reasons that aren't important here and someone he hadn't seen for about nine months. The farang said he'd been busy with work and unable to come to Thailand, but now he was making up for lost time. Pee was happy to accept the overnight off and go back to the man's hotel with him, stopping only for some things at the Family Mart near the hotel.
The man opened a Coke for Pee and didn't seem to mind that Pee wanted to watch one of his favorite Thai shows while he went to shower. When he came out of the bathroom sporting the white hotel towel wrapped around his waist Pee got up to go shower himself. He came back out in an identical outfit, downed the last of his Coke and re-joined his off on the bed to watch a little more television, as they'd done in the past before getting down to business.
About 15 minutes after finishing off his Coke Pee rapidly began to feel dizzy, and found himself being dragged unwillingly into unconsciousness in what seemed like mere moments afterwards. He'd heard about guys being drugged, but he never suspected it could ever happen to him; especially not from this repeat customer who'd always been so gentle and polite. Nevertheless, he knew something was wrong and tried to get up off of the bed to go dress and leave. The last thing he remembered was the sensation of falling, hitting his head on the floor, and his view of the carpeting at an odd angle mere centimeters from his eye before losing consciousness.
[Tomorrow: the conclusion]