“You know, flying kills your brain cells.” Eddy told me on the phone while I’m about to book a flight online, “this is why you find yourself a little washed up lately.”
After I quit the interior designing job I hit the road again, but this time I’ve spent my time more up in the sky. I flew from Bangkok and wound up staying in an Ibis hotel in Phuket, looking out the window at a group of Chinese tourists huddling to the shuttle bus and expecting one of them to start doing something bizarre so I could fill a blank page with the bizarre, Chinese-ish things I’d soon to be witnessing.
I would rather say that I was observing human behavior than saying that I was peeking out the window which is a more accurate –and creepier — term. If the guy, who told his daughter to hold his lit cigarette while he was down on a knee to tie his shoelaces, sensed that he has been gazed at and looked up to my window I would swing my body back, instinctively, to my bed. It made me feel like I’m a lion in his den. A picky one. Hunting on an empty stomach, but is too proud to chase prey that isn’t appropriate for his pride.
Whenever I’m on the road I always get hundreds of new ideas along the way. It’s hard to pinpoint where exactly that I lost my inspiration. Maybe it was lost on a high-speed taxi ride to the airport. Maybe at the baggage carousel where I stood watching heavy expensive bags, golf bags, music instruments until I saw my battered and saggy backpack coming out at the very last. It looked as if I had thumped my rides across the country or been hopping on and off a freight train, but the truth is –I hadn’t. People do this kind of thing in order to get the experience. That’s what it means to be hitting the road. They are not all broke, even if they are, they roughed it by choice.
This evening after receiving a phone call for the job interview from an English magazine in Bangkok, I decided to go out. I met one guy, a Thai in his mid-thirty, singing a Thai song quite awfully in a cleverly decorated American-themed whiskey bar. As soon as I walked in, he put down the guitar and greeted me in English. His name is Mason and actually, he’s half-Chinese. I told him I am Thai.
He laughed and said he was just fucking around since there’s a lot of Chinese, Korean, and Japanese tourists visiting Phuket. I wasn’t here for vacation, but I wasn’t doing anything else. He started to judge me by asking about my education. Being too excited about the phone call in my hotel room so I told him about the interview. Turned out he was a food critic for some magazines in Bangkok.
“They, the restaurants in Bangkok, — ” he said, “ — know that if I write these two words in my review about their fucking fancy-ass places, they’re fucked.” Being a wide-eyed and a new graduate, I was intrigued to learn more about him and the story of his success, but he didn’t seem like he wanted to dwell into details about his personal experience, he was more inclined to talk about traveling choices.
“How do you travel?” he asked. I answered, ‘plane’. I did fly a lot and I have a morning flight to catch in a couple of days. I guessed it’s sophisticated, my answer, but it didn’t seem to satisfy him. “Flying is not the way you travel if you have time on your hands.” His gleaming eyes reflecting his inner thought showed that he thought he has said something clever. “I used to be like you. A quitter.”
At this point, I cut in and assured him that I’m no quitter. As far as I know, I didn’t have an early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, and I told him that I’d just graduated, not that I just quit my job. I wonder if my face tells it differently. Do I look like a quitter when I sit, drink and talk? Mason told me about how things would have turned out differently if he traveled by plane instead of a car.
In December 2004, a tsunami hit Phuket and killed a lot of people. It was the first time Thai people learned a geographical lesson. He would have arrived at the beach, clueless about the tsunami, at the exact same time when it happened if he didn’t do his own driving. Now he opened and stars in his own bar. He looked at the untouched burger that I ordered from the bar and sighs before he wished me good luck and leave me –his one and only customer — alone.
Upon the first bite of his burger, I finally came to the realization that this guy might have hit his bottom. People tend not to acknowledge their own false that is confined in themselves. But I know better to keep this kind of thought to myself because a guy who sings a song like singing a national anthem should not be messed with. Those two words he mentioned earlier are ‘bad service’.
I didn’t like him much, but because of the conversation we had, I decided to change the way I travel. After Phuket, I bought a train ticket from Bangkok to Chiang Mai for the first time in a year and I knew what to expect; poor service, loud and un-clued tourists, white kids who get too excited about the toilet on the train.
I loved the lack of everything one would expect when travel overnight on Thai train because it reminded me of the time when I was a university student and thought that sleeping on the upper bed is good enough. Never mind two hours delayed. I hoped that a long interminable train ride would make me feel like a student again.
When you’re sitting in the sleeping compartment with three different people you need some kind of ice-breaker. Most times, I talked to strangers on the train to make sure they are not going to rob me or kill me in my sleep. I hadn’t been good at introducing myself until I advanced my traveling skills and had repeated my introduction many times, constantly improving it.
I stepped into the train –five minutes late- and everyone on the train is already confined to their compartments, and reading books. With or without company, books seem to be the best travel companion. You had never felt the need to absorb words so intensely until you have hopped on a train in a foreign country. There, all of a sudden, a book is written in your own language gives you the feeling of comfort, as if you haven’t felt it in such a long time, and eventually it becomes your new best friend.
I pretended to read the book I brought along for one more paragraph while trying to avoid making eye contact with a young dude sitting on the opposite side of me. The thing about young solo travelers is that they don’t bother reading. No matter how boring the trip would be, it would kill them to read.
“I hate this train.” He said. This is the common expression I’ve heard many times when I was on a Thai train. I wouldn’t want to hear otherwise because I probably wouldn’t talk to someone who really loves being on a Thai train.
I put down the book which I pretended to read and said that I agreed with him. I had heard the word ‘lad’ before. I thought it meant a young boy in general. Never had I thought that the word exists for a specific kind of person.
The word has a European feel to it, and it matched his neck tattoo which looked more like a mistake than art, his blonde hair, and his European facial structure in a way I couldn’t quite explain. To me he looked a bit older than his age but when I asked how old he is he answered, “Nineteen.”
“I thought you and I were the same age.”
I was twenty-four and I think some might get offended because it means that his face looks old. I was going to make up some excuses like you’re not allowed to have a tattoo if you’re nineteen years old in Thailand. But this guy, with the cheerful laddish spirit, overlooked my social misbehavior and asked me if I wanna go to the lounge car and hang out.
During our walk from the sleeping compartment to the lounge car, I learned that his name is Jamie from England, and he just dropped out of college. “But I’ve got ma plan.” He gleefully speaking. “I’m here in Thailand to learn how to do massage so I could go back and give massages for guests in five-star hotels.”
I totally thought he was being serious despite his yellowish, villainess teeth and the hideous neck tattoo that oppose to the word five-star hotel guests, but since I had hosted a few people back in Chiang Mai, via Couchsurfing, who was there to learn traditional Thai massage, I found this thing very common.
“I heard that all the Thai people know how to do massage because they usually give it to their parents.”
“That’s true,” I said. But the truth is I don’t think every Thai knows how to give a massage but sometimes, for people whose company I enjoyed, I would give it a pass and stop being cynical and being all lawyer about what they say. From my travel experience, most people I seemed to get along with are people in their seventeens. Or young people under twenty. A nineteen-year-old boy in Myanmar who traveled with his family and busted out from his hotel room to explore the dark bar alley at night by himself who I made friends with. A seventeen-year-old Swedish girl I invited to join me on a day trip to the waterfall in Vietnam. A sixteen-year-old amateur French singer who still sent her new album to me every year since we met.
When we finished our beers and the bar had closed. We were alone, still wide awake and seeking another ice-breaker.
“What are you reading?” Jamie asks. I forgot that I brought a book with me to the lounge car.
“A book Hollywood is making it to a movie right now.”
“I think most of them are terrible.”
“I think they’re good enough, they wouldn’t make the movie of it otherwise.”
This ‘that’s true, after all, is translated to ‘okay, I don’t want to argue with you.’
“What were you doing in Bangkok?” He asks.
“I got a job interview from a magazine.”
“That’s cool mate! So you’re a writer?”
“Well, not yet,” I say.
“Do you have any book published?”
And at this moment, I came to the full realization of why I seemed to get along well with young people rather than people who are older than me or people my own age. It has something to do with my first book.
It was one of those days before Smart Phones marched into everybody’s pocket where you can check your e-mail directly. I was the first amongst my peers to understand the anxiety from using e-mail. It happened because there was a publisher in Bangkok who wanted to publish the novel I posted online. Being young and naïve, I sent them the finished manuscript.
I would try to resist not to dial the publisher and ask for the possibility to really get published. My impatience grew every day that passed to the point I would visit the library to use the computer to check my e-mail whenever I get a chance, until one day when I got home from school and opened my inbox to see that there’s an e-mail from the publisher confirming that my book would get published. That’s when everything changed.
Or, I would say, that that’s actually when everything stops changing. What I didn’t know was that having your first book published when you’re young can be tricky. It is the kind of accomplishment that could be life-altering, especially if it almost gets a movie deal.
The novel is about an unfortunate high school boy who falls in love with a girl who lives next door. It was autumn 2007, and there was a popular website called dek-d.com (which translated to nice kids) where young writers can build their profiles and upload their stories online. And because I was in high school then, a lot of people who read it often asked if the protagonist was me.
I was at a certain age when all of my peers were obsessed with having it away for the first time. I would go to school one day and learn that someone got laid at the cinema’s toilet last night. I didn’t have enough gut to turn my sexual obsession into anything graphic or even expressing it in words. So my book started off as a regular high school fairy tale and I didn’t intend for it to feature anything sexual until I noticed the number of my readers began to fall.
It was Eddy who gave me the idea to write some sex scenes in it because anything sex-related is what people obsess with when they go online. But the lack of experience made it almost impossible for me to write. I didn’t want to rely on watching porn or plagiarizing other erotic novels, so I (along with Eddy) embarked on a journey trying to get laid for the first time.
For Eddy, he was in one of those long-term, puppy-love, relationships and longed to experience what it was like to reach the climax. He didn’t want to try it with her, so he came up with the idea of picking up bar girls. The idea was totally absurd, but it made a lot of sense back then when we were still in high school and weren’t allowed inside a bar or any clubs. We would drive his father’s rickety Toyota truck with the excuse that we had to help our friend carry their drum-set. Instead, we rolled down the windows and drove through Koh Samui’s red-light district, thinking that was the coolest thing we had ever done so far in our lives.
We ended up with two girls in the backseat of our truck. One of them seemed slightly older than the other. But both of them were obviously old, too old for us. I was amazed by how easy it was to pick up a bar girl. We didn’t even discuss rates or anything. These women were more than will to step into our truck. We drove into the dark uncluttered highway of the island’s low season. Rain began to fall and me and Eddy sitting at the front seat diving into the great ‘what now?’ I would fool myself into thinking it was cool to actually experience it and to write about it with authenticity. How can one write about sex if one had never had sex before?
Eddy stopped at 7-eleven and bought two condoms. While waiting for him in front of the shop, I puffed on a cigarette nervously, thinking that this was a terrible idea. This is how people get on the front page of the national newspaper. This is exactly the beginning of the headline that read ‘Two High School Boys Get Slaughtered.’ When Eddy came out of the shop, I gave him a cig and let out.
“I don’t think we should do this.”
I got chicken out. But the truth is I didn’t want to have sex with these women.
“One of them, the one in blue, looks like she wanted to piss on me.”
They were waiting in the car while we were having this conversation. It was supposed to be a private conversation until a man came out from behind the bush.
“What are you boys doing at these hours?”
I let out the smoke and ignored him, thinking he was just another creep. But Eddy’s pale face suggested that something was about to go wrong. It didn’t take long for Eddy to realize that this man is the police. I looked at the condoms that could see through the thin-plastic 7-eleven bag at the same time as the man and groaned, ‘Oh, we’re fucked.’
“Is that your car?” The man asked.
“Yes,” Eddy said. “We are about to go home, sir.”
I crushed the cigarette on the floor and Eddy turned to me with the look that said, ‘Are you fucking serious?’
“Those two girls are friends of yours?”
He walked to the side of the car and pulled out his flashlight.
“What the hell?” He let out. “What’s wrong with you people? Do you even realize these boys you’re fooling with are underage?”
These words were direct to the two women. Not us. But from this point, I started to imagine another headline that says ‘Two Minors Caught Paying for Prostitutes.’ That would be a great article to be involved in I suppose.
I imagined he handcuffed the two women and then sent us to our parents to report the story. Then, I didn’t know what got into me, but I said something that saved us all.
“We are giving these women a ride home,” I told him. “We’re just driving past the area. We didn’t pay.”
“Don’t try to be a smart-ass young boy.” He looked at me now. “You think I’m blind I didn’t see what is in the 7-eleven bag?”
It was the first time I defending myself in front of a cop. To my surprise, it felt very natural. I didn’t know I could make up something on the spot that could convince a cop to let us go. It’s like I’m a natural liar. “It’s for them.” I continued. “We just stopped here to buy a cigarette and they were asking us if we could buy some condoms for them. You know what they do for a living. It’s a good thing for them to always keep protection for their customers. It’s raining and they’re waiting for a shuttle car because they couldn’t afford to ride a taxi with no customers. So we thought we could give them a lift home.”
The cop was still unconvinced and he asked the women a couple of questions. I hope these two women would collaborate with the story I just invented. The thunder started to rumble and the cop eventually let us go.
We got back into our seats and were shell-shocked by the incident. “I will never come to this 7-eleven again,” Eddy said before we drove off. We decided we didn’t want to risk ourselves trying to get laid anymore so we drove back in silence to the red district. The woman who looked like she wanted to piss on me thanked me before she got out with her friend.
I wrote about it in my novel (added a little bit of my imagination) and posted it online. The characters are a couple of curious teens trying to have sex but didn’t succeed.
What I learned from that is that more sex meant more readers on nice-kids-dot-com. These kids are nastier than my fictional characters. It’s terrifying how the number of my readers started to increase after I uploaded the first love scene. So the next seventy percent of my story is sex-related and inexplicably love scenes. I would describe the actions correctly, based on R-rated Hollywood movies, but left the character’s feeling unclear. Isn’t it true, though, the feeling unclear when we’re having sex. The clarity isn’t what comes afterward as we sometimes hope. What made it worked was that my readers were also young and were at a certain age when we develop our sexual curiosity. So the vague descriptions somehow worked on them.
The good thing is even though I wanted it to appear as a dirty, crude, story but I thought that I was responsible to make it gentle at the same time. Like those American Pie movies, the original movies. I used to watch it alone when my parents weren’t home. I guess I had a better influence than those who read my online novel.
It has to be a lesson in the story, I realized when I was about to finish it, so I decided to kill one of the main characters to teach my readers a lesson. It made me feel like God. I was in control of all my characters’ faiths. But turned out I am the one who has to learn from it. To kill off a character isn’t the only way to teach a lesson. After that, I made the wrong turn by turning the funny, energetic, and hormone-filled story into a sad story. The sad ending took three chapters. I didn’t have the experience of what it was like when my best friend died all of a sudden, but it didn’t take long for me to write.
The sex scenes I invented barely survived the final edition. Maybe because it was too much. Maybe the lack of authenticity. But when I looked at my first book for the first time, I noticed that my hands began to shake.
Four months later the movie deal came, and then they rejected it due to too much sex and misguided lessons for teenagers. Of course, who in their right mind would trust someone under eighteen years old who wrote such a novel. I moved on with my next project. This time I tried to leave sex out of it. As expected, this story didn’t attract as many readers as my first novel. By the time I finished the story, Facebook had arrived and everybody left nice-kids-dot-com. I didn’t seek for this book to be published. I left it there, waiting for it to be discovered by someone from a publishing house. They would think they had found a gem and would try to contact the author.
I had nothing else to do but to move on. I went to architect school instead of study journalism because I thought that I didn’t need a degree in journalism to write. My first book stands as a testimonial to my obstinate belief. That I would just write another book and get another movie deal and this time I will do it right. The difference is that back when I was seventeen I didn’t have the feeling that there’s no one but me who can finish the manuscript. Had I suddenly died of a heart attack, anyone could finish up my novel. The story isn’t that complicated and, therefore, easily appeals to young readers.
Now, I am stuck. Trying to write another book that can top the first one. Which means I am the only one who can pull it off from the beginning to the end. It’s not about my flying habit I’ve adopted as the way I travel recently that blocked my creativity. I may look older now, but, at the core, I am not actually grown-up from that point forward. Stuck in the cerebrum of a seventeen-year-old teenager who got his first book published. That is why I refer to myself as a mentally seventeen-year-old and still think I could publish another book if only I work hard enough.
I had been unwittingly shanghaied by the event to think this is who I am, that I had won the game of life, that I had figured who I want to be at such an early age. I missed the opportunity to explore other options.
The train ran under the night sky and crossed the dark moody river below a bridge.
We talked until the alcohol wears off and we both agreed that we should get back to our sleeping compartment. Jamie has a way of his walking that reflected his life back home in England. The confident movement, fast pacing make it hard to catch up with him. There was only one direction, of course, it was me being slow and caring about the other sleeping passenger too much I didn’t want to make unnecessary noise.
I look at his neck tattoo –the ultimate reminiscent of someone who could throw his life away believing in its art– before I closed the curtain and grabbed my notebook from a day bag and started writing my idea in it. This notebook, I received from an old woman when we shared a sleeping compartment of the train in Vietnam. It was when I thought about quitting the writing business and only focus on architecture. My seventeen-year-old self was temporarily been pushed aside once I stop writing. It allows me to travel with more sense of a grown-up guy.
I hold on to this notebook like my life depends on it because I don’t know when I would receive such an unforgettable friendship from a mature wayfarer again. We’re all having that young version of ourselves kept inside our own psyche, I believe. Deep inside my skull, there’s a seventeen-year-old version of me locked up in there, and publishing another book seems to be the only way to get him out of the labyrinth.
When I arrived in Chiang Mai, Eddy called and told me that our best friend has died from a motorbike accident and we should both go back to Koh Samui for his funeral. I really wanted to explore the city that I used to live for five years with Jamie and even pretend that it is the first time I’ve ever done sightseeing in Chiang Mai.
Our friend is a devoted Muslim and according to their ritual, he has to be buried within twenty-four hours. I look at the time from the clock at the train station, I have roughly eight hours to travel back from the north to the south. It wasn’t a sudden death. We had heard that he was unconscious and has been in a critical condition in the hospital for a few days so I thought I would wait until he comes back to life and I would pay a visit.
I thought I just quit my flying habit but here I am, standing at the boarding gate in no time after receiving the bad news. Thinking this is how it actually feels when you lose your best friend. I recalled what I wrote in my first book. I was completely wrong about it. I didn’t do anything stupid like crashing a car into a building or thinking that it’s the end of the world like what I made my fictional characters do in my book. I’m more in shock about how the hell can I get home before his funeral than the fact that I am losing him, forever.
If someone would write my story, it is me. I am the only one responsible for what going to happen. Maybe I would have missed the funeral and all my effort trying to get back home would account for nothing. If I am to write my own story I should hop on the next flight possible because I know that I don’t want to miss his funeral and I want to be there for his friends and family.
As the plane taking off, I can feel my brain cells dying. I peered out the window to see the world becoming a miniature.
I felt renewed.