Khatoey

Khatoey, published in Asia Writes.

Khatoey

We were breakfasting at Ing’s Café, at the beach in Pattaya, when Mr. Gomez nearly choked on his espresso.

“Christine! It’s Pep!”

A gecko gazed at me from a bamboo pole, its fingers splayed and translucent.

“Our Pep?” I asked. “What happened, Mr. Gomez?”

Mr. Gomez had tattoos on his arms and neck. He was peering at the laptop screen while shaking his bald head. I walked over to take a look.

Sex-change khatoey slain in Chiang Mai, the web page said.

There were more details, as there always are, for the writer who sticks his fingers into a mess of dark matter will eventually wring out what many will consider a fine story.

Pep was shot at five in the evening as she was coming out of the massage shack. Nobody was willing to come forward as a witness, but there was talk of an assailant in a motorcycle helmet.

As I read on, I could hear Ing’s voice from the back of the shack, laughing and then talking on the phone.

Mr. Gomez, who was my benefactor, had explained to me about the world, how people will seek out the most fragile vase just to have the pleasure of smashing it to pieces.

I closed my eyes and said a prayer for Pep.

A few weeks earlier, in Chiang Mai, Pep’s eyes had that gentle look as she leaned down to wash my feet. Her posture was both modest and graceful. One would not have thought that she had been engaged in a long struggle with her body, trying for so many years to coax it to live up to her expectations.

When we first met, Pep was still a shy young man whose beauty seemed about to wilt away under a veil of sadness. Then, after years of hormone therapy and surgery, she had finally come into her own. Battle-scarred, she was still delicate, like a patchouli-scented leaf trembling in the tropical breeze.

Pep’s massages were worth every baht I had saved. Lying on my back, I would feel a pair of soft hands and sometimes a firm leg pressing on my hamstrings, and then my foot would be resting on her shoulder or lap. As I submitted to her will, my mind would descend into a well of swirling thoughts. I desired many things, above all to free myself of the shackles which made me feel alone and helpless. Meanwhile, Pep would work her miracles, kneading my limbs, absolving my body of all responsibilities.

Afterwards I would stagger out, my limbs limp, as if I had been battered. I would hear the chirping of crickets, the sounds of distant traffic, and the sunlight would bathe my skin in a radiant glow. The street dogs were unusually calm, and I felt momentarily blessed, as if the air itself was charmed.

The death of Pep cast a pall on the rest of our Pattaya vacation, which was not that much of a break anyway since it involved entertaining Mr. Gomez’s friends. But as soon as we got back, I visited Pep’s place.

When I had left Chiang Mai, the red flame trees were still in bloom. Now, in the dry season, the yellow flowers of the shower tree had formed a carpet on the street. The front door of the shack had a notice in Thai with the sword-and-shield crest of the Royal Thai Police. Fresh flowers had been placed at the foot of the spirit house near the entrance, along with the customary glass of whisky and a slice of chocolate cake, Pep’s favorite dessert. A black rhinoceros beetle, the kind children play with, was inspecting the cake, its horns lowered.

I felt uneasy standing there in front of that spirit house – it seemed more appropriate to lower myself on the pollen-strewn pavement beside the beetle.

Pep was not just my masseuse.

On the night of the lantern festival, the lights and fireworks were reflected in the river. Pep lit a candle and stuck it on our float, before gently sending it off on the water. Her face was aglow, the scarred skin carefully smoothed with powder, with a few beads of perspiration on her neck.

Did you make a wish? I whispered.

She touched my hand and then held it. We looked out over the water.

I’m tired of so much change, she said, her voice a little gravelly.

The float was bobbing against the bamboo bridge, and I leaned down to push it back into the current.

I made a wish, I said. For you to find peace. And all my other friends.

I made one for you, she said, with a sad smile. But I cannot say, for fear it may not come true.

I smiled back. Think of all the fish in the river, I said — how lucky they must feel, stuffing themselves with bread!

I am lucky too, Pep said. To have a friend like you, with a good heart. Her eyes were glistening as they followed the float which was now speeding away downstream.

They say the more you let go of the present, the more the future will bring better things.

We heard a bang, as a firecracker went off nearby. A Russian man came by and started talking to Mr. Gomez. The Russian stared at me, and then at Pep, who merely tossed her head. As he and Mr. Gomez continued their discussion, I remember noticing the Russian’s enormous pincer-like hands.

Mr. Gomez touched my shoulder. He pointed to his fat gold watch. Time to head home, he said. The Russian accompanied us back, his arms circling our waists. Pep walked stiffly at first, but soon her gait was more relaxed. I was nervous, as I still am despite all my training.

The beauty the Russian and his friends are after, Mr. Gomez said later, is only skin-deep. And it fades so quickly. His fingers brushed away a tear from my cheek. If there is a loveliness that lasts, my dear, it is beyond time.

I didn’t know what he meant then, but now, kneeling at the threshold of Pep’s place, I understood how loveliness can lurk like a jewel in the damp coils of memory — and how a green sliver of the self can glide away with our dreams.

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