It all started, as many good stories do, with a boy and his bicycle. At 34, one might argue that I'm a bit old to be referring to myself as a boy. But indeed a boy is how I felt, as I peddled home on my newly purchased Japanese bicycle -- a 2500 bhat black Beevill, fully equipped with a handle-bar basket for jaunts to the market and cushioned rear-passenger seat. It was my first new bike since 1979, when I badgered my father into buying a ten-speed Schwinn after my mother's irrational refusal to allow me a mini-bike. But that's a different story altogether.
The crushing heat of the Tropics encourages hallucinations. And no sooner had I imagined bicycling carefree through the backyards of my Pennsylvania Dutch childhood, was my mind suddenly transported to 1930s Paris, where I fancied myself as a cheerful Henry Miller, peddling along the brothel roads of Montparnasse, leering at sidewalk demimondaines, and calling out, Bon après-midi! Bon après-midi, les belles dames!
Thailand's southern cities are accustomed to bizarre behavior from Americans, having been over-run by hordes of GIs during the Vietnam War -- the US military conveniently transforming Bangkok and the small towns along the gulf coast into a playground for servicemen. But this Disneyland for adults didn't spread into provincial cities like Chachoengsao, where I've bunkered down. In towns such as these, omitted from guidebooks and tourist routes, Westerners are rarely seen. Thus the culturally condoned (albeit illegal) prostitution industry serves the local Thai population instead. A goateed American, wearing a fishing hat, and spouting French from a passing bicycle is a strange sight, for sure -- and one that made the ensuing incident all the more hallucinatory. For as I passed a brothel known in neon as "The Happy Karaoke Bar," a young lady on a tattered couch, waved and cried out, Bon Jour! Bon Jour! Voulez vous coucher avec moi ce soir?
Stunned, I hit the brakes. But not having ridden a bicycle for more than a decade, I accidentally squeezed only the front one and tumbled straight over the handlebars, face first into the road. Shrieks rang out, as the karaoke girl leapt from her post to aid her fallen admirer.
I raised my hand to my face and felt the warm wetness of blood. Lance Armstrong, I'm not.
"Are you hurt?" she asked.
"You speak English?" I replied, incoherently. "I thought you were French."
"Mai chai. Mai chai," she laughed. "Moulin Rouge! Moulin Rouge!" She then untucked my shirt and pressed it to my bleeding nose.
I groaned miserably, cursing Nicole Kidman and her cohorts for re-earthing the Patti Labelle classic for their tawdry film.
The pretty girl appeared increasingly worried as she caressed my head and said, "You need get home. Where you live? I go with you."
As I mumbled an answer, a tuk-tuk sped maniacally down the soi and suddenly came to an abrupt stop beside us. I became light-headed. Whether it was from the diesel fumes of the open air taxi or from loss of blood, I can't be sure. But I soon passed out. When I awoke I found myself back home on my couch, my head pillowed on the lap of the karaoke girl. Opening my eyes, I saw Ultraman zoom across my television set, undoubtedly on his way to combat some Godzilla-like menace. I wondered if I'd entered a time warp. But then I remembered that I was living in Thailand, where Ultraman is still popular. In fact, the Japanese program never stopped being made, but has continued on in such popular incarnations as Ultraseven, Ultraman Jack, Ultra Mother, and Ultraman Chuck, to name but a few.
My caregiver looked down and smiled at seeing me awake. "Oh good, you are alive," she giggled. "My name is Joy. You want me make you feel better now?"
I looked up at the pretty Asian courtesan and could feel my nose throbbing beneath the bandage that she'd obviously used to protect the wound. Her long black hair fell across her face and she pushed it back behind her ear. She looked again at the television. Ultraman's hands were akimbo in his classic combative stance and discharging gamma rays toward a monster that strangely resembled an immense Newt Gingrich, covered in blue paint, with antennae bobbing on top his head like giant slinky toys. The fight was reaching its climax, and Joy seemed engrossed in the battle between good and evil. I smiled and pointed at the TV. "Why don't we wait till it's over? We need to see who wins."
She laughed again and shook her head. "You Americans are so funny. You really not know who wins?"
"Who?" I asked.
"The good guys. The good guys always win." Then she turned off the TV.
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