Lek was still trying to get used to the big city life of Bangkok. And to wandering its streets in high heels too. His splatulate feet – thanks to years of working the fields of his family’s farm – were not made for footwear that was supposed to highlight the daintiness of its wearer’s feet. As he’d been rudely told twice now by ladyboys at the mall who he’d enquired of landing a job at the make-up counter they manned. Being called a buffalo was offensive to any Thai. When your fabulousness was on display, it was just that much worse. Besides, Lek thought, that last bitch’s massive ass jiggled under her red and white floral dress like an earthquake in a snow covered rose garden, proving flesh stomps fashion every time. Obviously, she’d just been jealous.
Leaving CentralWorld in disgust, having decided that luck and looks alone weren’t working, Lek headed for the near-by Erawan Shrine, a religious monument to Brahma well-known for granting prayers for prosperity. The sky was clear and blue, unmarred by clouds after the gloom of the previous days; there was a cleanliness to the air as though, however briefly, some of the fumes and filth of the city had been miraculously purged from it during the night. A shard of clear blue sky peaked out from between the elevated Skytrain tracks as he waded into the incense-smoke fog surrounding the open-air shrine. Inside the black iron spike enclosure the faithful packed the small area surrounding the four-headed god; Thais being a religious lot, especially when it comes to the you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours promise of prosperity offered by the Erawan’s Hindu deity.
Intending to part with some of his dwindling wad of baht for an appropriate offering, Lek’s attention was drawn to the small stage of khon dancers at the back of the shrine, their long elegant fingers twisted into ritual shapes, like gang member’s flashing hand signals, heavily stylized and yet still graceful, moving in unison to punctuate the beat of an accompanying drum. Lek’s arm stretched out slowly,his fingers responding in pantomime only to quickly drop back to his side when he heard snickers coming from behind him. At the light touch of a tap on his shoulder he tensed in preparation for further abuse. Belying its age with a refined twirl that peaked into a perfectly formed mudra worthy of a royal court dancer, an ancient, gnarled hand appeared from behind him followed by a soft, lilting voice, “No my dear, like this.”
Lek turned and then looked down at the diminutive elderly lady standing behind him, her smile just one of the many creases in her wizened face. Her hair towered above her head in a style popular in the ’50s; her Thai silk enriched outfit dated from the same period. But what could have been an over-the-top homage to yesteryear transformed by the woman’s bearing into nothing less than regal. “My name Sawing,” she said in a low husky voice. Then followed up several octaves higher adding, “You may call me Grandma Nong.”
Lek greeted the old woman with a high wai, almost positive, but still not quite sure. Grandma Nong’s wink settled the question. Nong waved her hand as if to push the encroaching smoke from the multitude of incense offerings into another dimension, and then let loose with a definitely unlady-like hacking cough. Lek stepped in offering her his arm for support, worried the old ladyboy’s obviously not too far off in the future demise might be making its appearance sooner than later. Nong’s grasp on Lek’s arm was as light as a sparrow’s perch. Straightening her body and reclaiming her dignity again, Nong offered a grateful smile. And then regained her regal demeanor. “Come,” she commanded. “You may buy me a drink.”
The pair headed off down Ploenchit Road, Nong leading the way in slow, mincing steps, parting the crowds filling the sidewalk like a procession of the royal barges. At Amarin Plaza she veered to the right, claiming a seat in front of McDonald’s. Lek went in and bought them each a cup of coffee, relieved the old woman had not sat in front of the Starbuck’s instead; status was one thing, foolishly paying 300 baht for a cup of coffee quite another.
Settling himself into a chair across the table from the old woman, for the first time that day Lek felt at ease as they both finished filling their paper cups with sugar. At a nod from Nong, as though giving Lek permission to rant, he poured out his take of woe, recounting how rudely the katoeys at CentralWorld had responded to his attempts at finding suitable employment. The woman listened, a placid look on her face until Lek’s story ran down, and then frowned as if to dismiss the entire day’s events as nothing more than foolishness.
“This,” Nong said using her hand to encompass all of Lek’s being, “was meant for the stage.” “That,” she added nodding toward a katoey sashaying her way into the mall, “is not.” Lek stole a quick glance at the object of Nong’s derision. The ladyboy in question was wearing skin-tight pants with black and white stripes traveling vertically all the way up her legs. But when they got to her butt, they stopped going parallel and ran for their lives in opposite directions. Lek giggled.
“My dear,”Nong proclaimed, “your beauty is natural, those cheekbones alone threaten to shred skin when you smile.” Lek felt himself blush from the compliment, but Nong wasn’t just being kind. “The nice thing about being one of us,” she added in a conspiratorial voice, “is that you still have your balls. And you need to learn to use yours.”
Nong cut off Lek’s reply with a raised hand, “I know my dear,” she sympathized. “When I first came to Krung Thep with my sister just after the end of WWII, I was even younger than you are now. I was just a rural boy from the provinces, 15 years old, and frightened to death of living life as who I really was. But we both landed jobs dancing at the cinema show. And no one ever realized only one of us was a real girl.”
Lek listened intently while Nong recounted the tale of her years of performing in Bangkok. Picturing himself in the starring role, he allowed his fantasies to sooth the disappointments of the day. Lek appreciated Nong’s belief in his abilities to follow suit, but in his heart he could not believe such a life could truly be his. Working the make-up counter at a fancy department store in itself was a dream; headlining the show at a ladyboy review was beyond his wildest expectations. The sound of Nong clearing her throat pulled him out of his reveries, the stern glare aimed his way from across the table signaling he’d been caught daydreaming instead of paying attention.
“It’s attitude that I’m saying you are missing,” Nong scolded. “Forget what others may think; you know who you are and that is all that really matters.” A petulant frown crossed her face, unhappy that her message wasn’t getting through. Nong looked at Lek while her mind held a debate with itself, and then sighed, the answer further than she’d intended on going. “Tonight,” she said, “You’ll join me.” Nodding in agreement with her own decision, Nong turned to the prosaic. “Come,” she commanded, slowing making her way out of the chair. “We only have six hours to get you ready.”
That night, their taxi dropped them in front of a small, brightly lit club squatting on a tiny, dimly lit soi just off Suriwong. A man sitting in the corner of the club’s veranda, who had to be a contemporary of Nong’s, acknowledged their arrival with a wai and a smile; the doorman did his job graciously with a low bow, ushering the pair into the darkness of the bar. Lek was nervous, unsure of what to expect; Nong had not been that forthcoming about Lek’s role in the night’s proceedings other than to have draped him in a gown that sparkled with promise. A few details would have been nice, but their time in Nong’s room had been taken up by the efforts of Nong’s palsied hands attempting to apply lipstick to her ageless but aging face, and her insistence on selecting a wardrobe for Lek to wear that threatened to usurp her fabulousness. At least Lek had been able to convince her the tiara was too over the top and it remained back in Nong’s room.
Inside the club Lek followed Nong as she made her way to the back corner where their dressing room awaited. The houselights were low, the club’s confines packed with older farang men sitting in pairs or by themselves and small groupings of younger, local gay boys sitting together, their eyes glued to the stage where a handful of muscular men posed in black shorts that rode high, exposing their rock-hard buttocks. More similarly clad gods of the gym circulated among the crowd, a few occasionally stopping to greet the more affluent looking members of the club’s clientele. There was enough testosterone in the room to make a wig bald. It wasn’t quite the stately theater Lek had envisioned, but before he could become too concerned the lights dimmed and Nong, draped in Thai silk and scaling the steps as though climbing Mount Everest took to the stage.
A lone spotlight centered on Nong, the raucousness of the club quieted into a respectful silence that allowed the soft notes of a traditional Thai country song to float its way through the air. Her hips no longer swaying quite as well as they once did, Nong’s stylized movements across the stage were not the flamboyant gestures of a ladyboy; she made no attempt at lip-syncing unfamiliar words, the staple of the beauty queen persona that katoeys usually adopted had no room in Nong’s performance. Her age and demeanor combined to fulfil the illusion; she was no longer a man dressed as a woman, but a grandmother still spry enough to sway gently with the music. Even the farang unfamiliar with what they were witnessing gazed with rapt wonder as Grandma Nong performed her short dance.
Lek panicked as the song ended. Was this his turn to be on stage? They had not practiced, Nong had said nothing about him performing. Nor did she appear anymore communicative as two well-built lads helped her down from the stage. “Attitude, my dear,” Nong said, still beaming from the crowd’s warm acceptance while almost thoroughly out of breath. “Attitude must be your stock in trade.” Then passing over a few disposable lighters and a handful of cigarettes she added, “Now go make us some money.”
On their way back to Nong’s room, she carefully counted her haul from tips and the few sales Lek had managed to make. The 400 baht the bar had paid her went into her purse, the rest barely enough to pay transpo costs. Careful to not muss up her outfit and hair, back in her room Nong laid down to rest a bit, a smile taking up permanent residence on her face as she relived her night’s performance in her mind, and possibly other nights too when she’d been younger and her time on stage had been as well-received but for an entirely different reason. “Today was a good day,” she sighed. “Tomorrow it will be another show. But first,” she added, “we need to finish the day’s work.” And then promptly fell asleep.
While Nong napped, Lek considered his fate. Nong had suggested that he too could make a living as she did, but so far, other than the beautiful gown she’d lent him, his career as a performer wasn’t starting off as he’d assumed it would. He didn’t want to seem ungrateful, the old woman had taken him under her wings, but forcing tips out of an audience under the guise of selling tobacco seemed an uneventful start. Still, the money seemed good . . . if only Nong would help him so that he too could earn a spot as a paid performer. That, he was sure, would help his sister Noi accept him and the life he’d planned on living in Bangkok. Lek laughed, thinking that 400 baht would be enough to convince Noi to try being a ladyboy too.
An hour later, somewhat freshened, Nong awoke, ready to begin again even if this time around she was less enthralled with her upcoming gig. The tuk tuk they took back to Patpong suggested the expected income would be less; Lek wondered, as small as the club they’d been to earlier had been, just how much tinier this one would prove to be. Nong alighted as put together as she’d been when they had climbed into the tuk tuk, Lek had to take a moment to fix his hair and realign his dress. He made a mental note: as a ladyboy, taxi cabs were the only way to go. So intent on tugging his gown back into place and trying to keep up with the old lady who had suddenly put on a burst of speed he didn’t think her capable of, Lek was well into the soi before he noticed their surroundings. When he did, it made him gasp.
He’d expected to find himself facing a small run-down club nestled in a dark, tiny soi, half the impression the last club had afforded him. Instead it was like he’d stepped onto the set of a Hollywood movie. There were lights everywhere; huge neon billboards in all of the colors of the rainbow, fairly lights in blues and reds dangled from above. The soi was lined with clubs, the light spilling out from each doorway fighting tuxedoed doorman for space, and a scrum of men of all ages busily moving from one end of the street to the other. An open-air cafe provided a momentary pause to the action, a bevy of suspicious looking local boys punctured that quietude with rambunctious calls of, “Show Now!” Lek came to a screeching halt, trying to take it all in until a familiar gnarled claw grabbed his arm and pulled him through a darkened doorway illuminated by the reflected glare of red neon blinking its message of Bangkok Bois.
Inside the club a small troupe of ladyboys were on stage, the rhinestones and sequins of their gowns shooting rays of light through the club like a disco ball from the ’70s, and Lek thought they may have arrived too late. Sensing his concern, Nong scoffed. “No,” she huffed imperiously, “We wait. Settling her ancient bones into a nearby chair she added, “We are not that.”
Lek though to himself, speak for yourself. The katoeys on stage may not have had the dignity that Nong possessed, but from where Lek stood, they had glamour to spare. Nong noticed the look in Lek’s eyes and shook her head. This one, she thought, will take some work. But rather than spoil Lek’s evening, Nong instead told him to sit down and enjoy the show; Nong’s turn on stage was still a while off.
Seated, Lek became more critical of the girls on stage. There was something missing. They lacked polish, their carefully choreographed number did little to enhance their act. A few, the less lady-like looking who stayed to the back, looked nervous, unsure of themselves, unsure of what they were supposed to do next. And few in the audience seemed to be paying any attention to them. Until one of the girls tripped during an unskillful turn and several people laughed. Attitude, Lek thought, Grandma Nong is right, it’s all about attitude. And possibly mastering how to dance in high heels.
To great disinterest, the ladyboy act came to an inglorious end and the houselights dimmed. Lek wasn’t sure what to expect next. At the club earlier they hadn’t stayed long and the only thing he’d seen was a progression of muscle hunks taking their turn on stage, preening for the crowd while showing off their builds in shorts that barely managed to keep them decent. As the lights came back up Lek saw that that wasn’t to be the case at this club. A totally naked boy walked on stage, the flame from a lit candle held in each of his outstretched arms flickering, a play of shadows and light dancing across his face. Across his chest. Across his abs. Across his erect cock. Lek gasped.
His eyes wide, both embarrassed and enthralled, Lek quickly forgot about the ladyboy act, forgot about Grandma Nong, forgot about why they were there; his entire being focused on the naked man on stage. Until a second one, even more beautiful than the first appeared. And again Lek’s eyes traveled from the man’s face, down to his chest, down to the sight of his engorged cock standing out stiffly from his body. Lek thought he was in heaven. And then a third bar boy appeared; this time Lek’s gaze remained centered on his throbbing member as it made its way slowly across the stage.
His throat suddenly parched, Lek licked his lips, swallowed, and cast a nervous look in Nong’s direction only to find her attention too was focused on the stage and the marvelous hunk of manhood standing before them. The houselights turned up a notch, better lighting the stage and spilling over to illuminate the rapt audience too. Lek’s gaze took in the hard, throbbing cock in front of him again, and then slowly made its way upwards to the man’s chest, and then his face. And then Lek gasped again.
An equally shocked exclamation of surprise echoed back from the stage, “Lek!?”
And Grandma Nong laughed, then shaking her head at the foolishness of the world, rose from her chair heading back to the dressing room to get ready for her turn on stage.
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