Lady Boy, Shmady Boy
I had been bar tending on Koh Chang, Thailand for about a month and a half: long enough for all the locals in Lonely Beach to know me and give me discounts in their shops and restaurants. It’s a part of the island full of young backpackers and beach nightclubs, known for its parties and cheap accommodations. I was surviving mostly on tips, which was enough to cover the rent on my beach bungalow, my food, and the roughly $1.50 a day I paid for my motorbike rental.
The longer I lived there the better I got to know the Thai people and their culture. I learned their codes of morals and ethics, which centered on mutual respect. Codes if violated could have deadly consequences, literally. I came to know the love they had for their king and the reverence they showed for his mere image. I even learned how to count in Thai. Since there was no cash register at the bar and I worked alone, I had to do all transactions in my head and communicate prices to the customers. No easy feat after a cold Chang beer and a few shots of Sang Som Thai rum.
I also learned about the phet thi sam, Thailand’s notorious lady-boy culture. There was a group of them who lived and hung out around where I worked. They were a tight clique, always together in search of a good time. It was a group of about six girls. The “leader,” Mimi, was a loud, outgoing soul who had a way of talking to everyone as if she was flirting with the love of her life. They would all show up at the bars on those humid jungle nights, after all the ferangs (Thai for foreigner) were half in the bag, and begin to work their sweet transgender charm on their unsuspecting prey.
They were like spiders with freshly spun webs. I watched them in their short tight skirts and heavy makeup as they lured in “straight” male tourists night after night, whispering low in the dark corners of the bars and clubs with feigned interest and sinister grins, all in an attempt to snag these unsuspecting men into bed. And night after night, I watched these wily girls depart with another victim, giving me a wink as they passed by with their arms locked around their new morsels’ hips.
I came to know all the girls and their slick ways. But there was one who stood out to me: Mia. She was stunning. I was sure she was a natural woman. She seemed to be the beautiful straight girl who tagged along with her third gender friends. I would always make comments and try to elicit her true gender identity, but I could never get a straight answer. She would playfully respond to all my passes with a shrug and a smile.
One night I closed the bar early and went to Himmel, a nightclub down the street. I was doing my usual hanging out, drinking, and making the rounds when I saw Mimi and her crew. I said hello and pulled up a chair with the group. I sat and rapped with them as we all eyed the dance floor, each of us in search for that pretty face we would potentially bring home. I had just put my drink down on the table when Mia grabbed my hand and shouted over the music in her thick Thai accent, “Let’s dance!”
She dragged me up as I stumbled to my feet and adjusted my hat in the dim black lights of the bar. We made our way to the dance floor, and I immediately felt the booze in my system take control of my feet as we whirled around the room like two tangled tornadoes.
It was already late. The air was hot and the music was pumpin’. The dance floor started to flood with last-minute attempts at something romantic from everyone who had spent the night striking out. The walls were outlined by couples engaged in intimate conversation and singles who were so drunk they could no longer stand on their own, their eyes red slits behind blank masks.
We stayed and swayed as the beat went on, getting closer and closer with each song, eventually to the point where it felt as if we were exchanging breaths. The scent of her hair filled my nasal cavities and my primal instincts engaged. I could hold back no longer. With my hands gripped firmly around her waist and lower back, I licked my lips and gave her neck a long, soft peck. When I pulled back, she cocked her head and our eyes locked. It was on.
We began kissing in the middle of the room as if no one else was there. The music continued to play in the background until the lights came on and the club shut down. Mimi came over with those in her clique who hadn’t hooked-up, and said they were going down the road to Ting Tong bar for the after party. Mia left with them, while I ordered a drink to go before meeting there.
The bright lights and low reggae music of Ting Tong was a stark contrast to the dark rave-type scene of Himmel. The change in atmosphere and the fresh air seemed to bring me out of a daze. I found Mia with Mimi and the rest of the girls, sitting on some cushions on the floor; I walked over to join them. I plopped down next to Mia and offered to share my drink with her. She took a sip, and we slipped away from our detour and back into our hazy dreamland.
We exchanged glances and kisses as we held hands while lounging on ratty bean bag chairs; we let the world of people and chatter melt around us. We continued to finish my drink together as the night carried on. Then Mia pulled back abruptly, looked me in the face and said: “You know I’m a man right?”
My head spun! All of a sudden, I felt as though I had been kicked in the stomach, while simultaneously having my heart pulled out through my testicles. “…No…n…no…no way…” I stammered. I looked her up and down sitting there. “Uh-uh.” I shook my head. “You’re way too pretty.”
“Would you still want to kiss me if you knew I was a man?” she asked sincerely.
I was stuck. I quickly decided to speak openly and bring her in on my thought process. “I’m not sure,” I said. “On one hand, I consider myself straight. I’m not attracted to men, and the thought of being with a man doesn’t turn me on. Quite the opposite, but if you’re sitting here telling me you’re a man, and I’m clearly into you, I’m not sure how I feel.”
She gazed at me patiently like a mother watching an infant investigate a new toy. I continued, “I also consider myself pretty open-minded, and don’t think of myself as homophobic, but, all the same, I’m bumping up against a real internal struggle here.”
I sat dumbfounded and stared at the floor, as I absorbed the new revelation. After a minute, I heard Mia’s voice again, “Well?” Hearing her snapped my attention back into the room. I looked at her, paused, took a deep breath, and, almost without thinking, I leaned in and gave her a deep, committed kiss.
As we continued to make-out, my mind shot around like a pinball. Was she just fucking with me? Was she really a man? I had already been kissing her all night, anyway, so did it matter? Is this the type of shit you can just walk off and recover from? What’s the going rate for a therapist these days?
The last call rang out and everyone began to file out of the bar. I grabbed Mia and lifted her up and out the door. I’ve come this far, I decided to myself, I gotta know for sure. We walked in silence to a dark quiet corner of a hotel front on a side street. It was now about 4:00 am and everything was deserted, except for the few stray dogs that prowl and scavenge the empty streets in the moonlight. We sat down on a bench and continued to kiss, even more passionate now that we were no longer in public.
I eventually placed a shivering hand on her slender thigh, as I slowly inched-up and under her skirt. My heart began to race, picking up speed as the gap between my hand and the unknown closed. In my head I was whispering to myself, like a mantra, Don’t be a dick, don’t be a dick, don’t be a dick…. She didn’t stop me as my fingertips continued to creep gently upwards.
Suddenly I reached my mark. She pulled back, looked at my face and began to laugh hysterically as if she just heard the funniest joke ever told. The relief in my eyes must have been almost tangible. “You really believed I was a man?!” she cackled. “You’re really sweet.” She hit my chest with an open hand, and declared, “You think I look like a man!”
“No! I knew you were too fine to be a man, that’s why I ignored you,” I answered as I chuckled with alleviation, trying to play-off my previous doubts.
“I’m a woman. I even have a son in Bangkok. He lives there with my mom,” she said. “I just wanted to test you to see if you really like me for who I am.” She blushed as she swooped her dark black hair out of her face. “Tourists always come here to meet the Thai women only for sex. Sometimes I want something different.” She pierced me with her glance.
“I get it, but you know lying like you did is fucked up, right?” I asked.
“Will you forgive me?” she asked, pouting.
I took her hand, “We’ll see,” I said as I led her off to my room…
Some might read this and see it as some “bro-ish” type tale of kiss and tell. For others, maybe it’s a romantic story with a funny twist. But for me, it was a character-defining moment and a real life lesson on multiple levels.
For one, I was forced point blank to question my morals and sexuality. Kissing a man was a thought I had never entertained before, and I didn’t even realize I had never thought about it. When confronted with the idea in the moment, I had to come face to face with the person I am. I had to be honest and, in a split second, redefine my ideas of beauty and attraction. On one hand, I’m proud of the decision I made, not only because I was right about her not being a dude, but also because, in the end, I was open-minded enough to accept the circumstances as they were, without judgment, regardless of whether or not she was telling the truth.
But on the other hand, I feel shame in my hesitation and my initial inability to see past the surface. I never considered myself homophobic, and I like to think I’m not bigoted toward anyone. And Mia was a smart, funny person. So what would have been the problem if she was a guy and not the beautiful girl she turned out to be? And still I struggle to accurately articulate the feelings I grappled with at the time. In the end, I was looking for the same thing anyway, a one night stand with a body to which I was attracted.
But the story doesn’t end there. My morals continued to be tested the next night when I saw Mia again. We embraced and flirted a bit, but then she began acting funny, nothing like the cute sensual fox from the night before, or the cuddly playful vixen from the next morning. I saw her look over my shoulder, and then she turned cold and silent. I asked what was wrong, and she just shook her head.
“You wanna get out of here?” I asked, my mind already imagining a rerun of our time together.
“I can’t,” she replied. “That’s my boss over there.” She stuck her chin out at a heavy- set Thai woman behind the bar across the street. She was staring daggers at us from the distance. “If I go with you now, you have to pay.”
Mia was a prostitute. She had gone with me because she had somehow gotten away and out from under her pimp’s greedy thumb for an evening. More and more events of the past started to make sense. The lie about being a man and her coy shyness, followed by her sudden forward approach. She was looking for true affection and trying to tease it out wherever she could.
I informed her I don’t pay for sex and made my way out of the bar. A few days later, I saw her again; the fragile lotus flower I felt for now more than ever. She was back to her normal bubbly self. Her pimp must have been gone again. She started to coax me to leave with her, and, again, I was at a loss. I wasn’t sure how I felt about being a hooker’s good time on her day off. I struggled for a while, but I eventually gave in. The power of a woman’s charms will do that to a man.
We spent another night together, but now it wasn’t the same. My knowing she was a working girl changed the dynamic and my drive. I felt bad and wondered how often she had this kind of thing happen to her, as she looked for a polished love wherever she could scrape it out in life, but always only coming up with rusty flings.
I laughed at the irony and twistedness of the whole situation. I had continued to kiss her without knowing if she was a man or not and slept with her when I thought she was just a regular girl who was into me. But when I knew she was a pro with a soft spot for me, it was too much. I look back now and recognize it was a strange arbitrary line to draw, but apparently my moral limit and the boundary of what I was comfortable with at the time. I still often wonder how I would handle the same situations today.
We stayed in bed together in silence that night. In the morning when she left, I knew from then on we would just be friends. Not that either of us was ultimately looking for anything more serious. We were merely fulfilling each others needs for fleeting moments. But what she taught me about sexuality, lust, and the world, without even knowing it, will stay with me forever.