Ghost Guide by Jonathan Mack

Bangkok, Soi Twilight, 2013

I thought I might die and did not wish to die in my room. My budget room, at the depraved and eternal Malaysia Hotel, was more hospital than hotel, with nothing in sight that couldn't speedily be mopped or bleached or burned. Mop the floors, bleach the sheets, cart the occupant to the crematorium. If I were about to die, I thought it would be better to die in Silom, among the arcade lights and drunken tourists, among green yellow red street curries, ping-pong shows, fake watches.

I was pleased to find my death was such a non-event. I had no pain. The procedure at the hospital, a few days previous, had been judged a success at the time. On my spine was only one small mark. But now it appeared that something was seriously wrong. There was a problem in my electrical system. I don't know how else to say it. My lights turned on and off. I thought that I might soon flicker out. Then there would be some trouble about the body, unpleasant but quick. But that would be a problem for someone else. A few swipes of the rag, a puff of air freshener, and the Malaysia Hotel is ready for the next occupant. There are always more tourists in Bangkok.

I left the hotel and walked slowly toward the train station. I could have hopped on a motorcycle taxi, but I was highly susceptible to death, or so it seemed to me, and I did not wish to die in traffic. The empty train station was like the space between thoughts. Then I came back up the escalator into color, into Silom at night.

There was no sense in preliminaries: I'd start where I only ventured late at night. I walked past the vendors of noodle soup and papaya salad, the bars for Japanese salarymen and the aquariums for "fish massage." I crossed the street at the Pink Panther erotic boxing show and entered the little street called Soi Twilight, or Soi Pratuchai, though nowadays most people just call it Soi Boy.

Stubby bright Soi Twilight, like strolling inside a pinball machine, the touts on both sides grinning and grabbing you by the arm, promising depravities both fresh and extreme, as well as totally affordable, hygienic, and safe. At the top of the street the same man was there, a man like a monkey on a narrow bridge, with the same round face and jug ears and gift for seeming cheeky but harmless, so that even when he tucked his arms around the shoulders of delicate Japanese ladies on tour, they didn't shout or flinch, but giggled and twirled away.

It's remarkable how many women will pay to watch boys fuck. I'd observed several young women sipping their vodka oranges in the front row at Tawan, the muscle-boy bar. They remained perfectly unperturbed by the flogging and the hot wax, by chicks with dicks and double anal. During the jack-off show they draped their slender white hands over the tops of their cocktail glasses. Everyone has seen everything now.

I seldom went to the shows. Despite the glittering song and dance routines of hard-working ladyboys, most of the show was still only young men in white underpants, tagged with red plastic numbers, slowly changing positions on the stage. To me, they always seemed as bored and sad as a display of rotisserie chickens.

What I liked best was to remain outside, to sit on the edge of Soi Twilight with a one-hundred-baht beer and watch the procession: the sex tourists liquored into their pre-sale moment of cheer, the arm-wrestling touts, the massage boys in blue shorts, the small band of Sihks who apparently owned most of the soi, everyone swift and covert except the drag queens, who stood straight as ballet and blew kisses, who reminded us that life was not after all wholly regrettable, and the next show was starting right now.

I allowed the man who resembled the friendliest of monkeys to steer me toward a chair. His job was to stand in the middle of the soi and cajole passers-by into seats at the bar. He was a doorman, a guard, or a tout. Whatever was needed, he did it; whatever was wanted, he got it. Here in Bangkok, these men are called ghost guides.

I'd spoken to him several times before. He told me that he was from Burma; he'd been in the city just three months. Over the years, I'd heard other men ask. He was always from Burma. He'd always been here just three months. It was the truth. He had a knack for remaining cheerful that was almost supernatural. He was always new.

Steering tourists in from the street was his number one job. He had a way of catching people that made them want to stay caught. That night, however, when he'd brought me my beer, he did not return to the street but remained standing beside my chair. You okay? he asked. I said I was perfect. When he said I was handsome he looked into my eyes like a doctor.

I had no pain. I had no visible symptoms. I was simply flickering out. I always left parties without telling anyone. I thought I'd die the same way. He could not have known that anything was wrong. No one knew. My death was something I was doing privately in my own time, like a hobby.

What exactly was happening? A dull ache at the back of my head just above the neck, a feeling like static electricity between my ears, dizziness, an inability to judge distances, a heaviness in my face, an invisible tremor on my right side. A few days before the procedure had been done; it had gone so drastically wrong, it seemed, that I was now about to quietly die. Very, very, quietly die, and how did I feel about that?

I felt relieved. As if I'd gotten out of a messy situation far easier than expected. It was as if I'd been away at boarding school and it had been decided that, instead of dressing up and giving a speech, I would be quietly sent home. There was some regret, of course---I'd been preparing for so long. Not much regret. Did I really want to dress up? Did I really want to make a speech?

How excellent, it seemed to me, to die very quietly. To just slip out. I was certain that it was worth as much as a lifetime of achievement. Even more.

The doorman remained standing beside me. He asked if I was having a good time, if I minded the heat. If anyone sat down in a chair, he excused himself and went and took their order. Then he came back and talked to me some more. He was supposed to be working the street, dragging people into the bar, but he wasn't. He went on standing and talking with me. I did not understand it. He knew I didn't have any money. I never had any. Just to be sure, I told him again. I only had money for beer. He ran his fingers across the stubble on my face.

He had recently changed jobs. He used to work at the bar on the other side of the soi. Now he worked on this side. He'd changed jobs and moved about three feet. While he was telling me this he held my hand.

I could die now. I could just flicker out. It would be all right. I could die sitting at the edge of the Soi Twilight, holding hands with a rent boy, with a ghost guide, watching the neon lights and passers-by. I would die peacefully and everyone who had heard would feel wistful and satisfied, their suspicions confirmed. He looked at me and cocked his head. I said I was all right. I did not want another beer. I was fine. He looked at me very seriously. Then he kissed me.

He kissed me and I kissed him back, his goatee nestled in my beard. The kiss went on, it extended like a crack in a windshield; it spread slowly but durably, like a fire in a place where there's been no rain for years. It was, I could not help but feel, a remarkable kiss, the likes of which had not yet been seen in Bangkok, or Asia, or my life.

I was delusional—no doubt about it. (Even at that moment the essential life-giving nutrients derived from delusion were streaming into my blood.) All right, I was fooled, I must have been fooled, but this was at least highly irregular. Please understand: ping-pong show, fucking show, sex massage, boom boom, hot wax, double anal, four hands, piss on my chest, come in my mouth—all that was routine, in Bangkok, at this time of night. Whereas, two men making out like love-struck drunken schoolboys as the crowd walked past, as money was lost… I cannot say it has never happened before. But I have not seen it myself.

We kissed. I was foolish and deluded and magnetized. I felt myself hauled into life. The light shuddered once, then stabilized. The light no longer flickered. The ghost guide kissed me and I felt myself rescued.

Of this one thing I am fully convinced: if rescue is determined by being laudable or commendable, useful or deserving, then it is not real rescue. Actual rescue has nothing whatsoever to do with being worthy, with being good. Do not let anyone tell you otherwise. The ghost-guide-in-chief of Soi Twilight had broken the rules for me. He'd understood that it was an emergency, that it was life or death.