Visiting bookstores with a hidden agenda to find a soulmate is one of those things I know will never work but I still keep on doing it. That, along with drinking to find inspiration and all those fake-it-till-I-make-it endeavors. I browse the bookstore from one section to another: autobiography if I feel like looking for a role model or some tragic people whose story fits my current situation. Or the religion section if I feel like reaching contentment or learn fasting strategies from Buddha. But once I overheard a couple of white dudes discussing their strategic personal year plans in the self-development section; I wanted to move to Cambodia and milk cows for a living.
My career at that time didn’t involve cattle but I was an interview writer for a Bangkok lifestyle magazine: the content was the giant beast that needed to be fed at least twice a day. Roaming random sections of bookstores allowed me to stock enough intellectual fare for the insatiable beast, but these days I often find myself lingering in the mystery section. The habit actually started with a rumor I heard from a Swedish friend that Jo Nesbo, a Norwegian novelist, , would flee annually from the winter to rent a bungalow for a couple of month at my favorite beach in Thailand.
Here was the testimony of the lifestyle I’ve always wanted—and, presumably, so did my audience. He would work on his next book in the morning and go rock-climbing in the afternoon, solving his own puzzle on his manuscript in the tropical climate. To feature him for my interview column I took a huge gamble by going on a block leave to the beach, hoping that I could find him. The spot was non-touristy and only drew some rock climbers and hedonistic fellows. Call them tourists and the next thing you know they’d stick a Beer Lao bottle up your ass.
What drew me to the place is that it had The Beach vibes attached to it. You have to get there by hiring a long-tail boat. There were small resorts and a stretch of reggae bars along the beachfront encompassed by limestone mountains and deep jungle. They provided a sense of secret community. There was no phone signal unless you went out to the beach. It’s the place that guarantees you no one would find you. They still have to generate their own electricity and every day from 1PM to 4PM the electricity would be cut-off to save power for the crucial activity after the sun goes down beyond the watery horizon—party.
Walking into a bar you’ll find and a sexy blonde girl wearing a lightweight beach top, exposing her cleavage to the flickering lights of the bonfire. Every two rounds or so (depends on your drinking speed) the island boys would start a fire show to attract more customers. Which was totally unnecessary since blondie, who was just standing by and rolling joints, already made every male traveler on the beach compelled to walk into the bar. I wagered that Jo Nesbo would walk in any minute and while I was mentally planning my introduction, a young ginger man sitting next to me at the bar elbowed me and said , “How the hell is someone as fine and beautiful as her ended up working in a place like this?”
“Why not? This place is wonderful!” I said, thinking he should have the nerve to change the pronoun in his sentence and talk to her instead. His ginger beard had Pad Thai noodle hanging on it but I thought he might want to keep it for later so I kept quiet.
“It’s good for a visit but to work and live here? Look at all these blokes; they’re all staring at her ass. I said “To hell with the blondes. They always keep making poor choices no matter where they are.”
Good or poor decision that blonde girls might have made, you don’t want to hear the word hell at a place you think of as paradise.
“My last girlfriend was blonde. Well she isn’t a real blonde. Was a brunette who wanted to try to be blonde. Said she wanted to have more fun.”
“Well, I guess. But not with me.” His eyes went weary all of a sudden; it was as if the combination of opium, weed and alcohol were waiting for an instant dose of sorrow to kick in.
The question of how she ended up working here may puzzle many people in the bar. I felt like nearly every table was discussing how her tits are and how did she ended up working here. Before we got the answer, she was making out with a deeply tanned skin island boy and shocked everyone. A few tables asked for the check. Maybe she was driven by a tragic incident, wherever she came from, and her options were narrowed down to moving to a tragic country and bartend just to get through the day, the same way I wanted to move to Cambodia and milk cows. Whatever decision she had made—she seemed to be happy with it.
“It’s funny how most people came here to escape reality but can’t put down the goddamn phone. Have you ever felt like your mobile phone is one of your organs?”
“I guess so. I would say it’s more of a prosthetic.”
“It’s going to become part of your body soon. And what you need is an amputation. RIGHT NOW. I haven’t been on the phone or internet for months.” He continued. “It’s such a strange, new feeling. I feel more liberated here in Thailand a Country with military government, than I did in America. Can you believe it?”
I told him my profession required that I have to constantly stay in touch with people, even after the interview article is published. He shooked his head, not in agreement but in disapproval. I was eyeing for Jo Nesbo. Comparing the image I found on Google Images with the faces in the evening crowd. Writers often enjoy solitude and I was looking at the men who came here alone. This made the ginger guy suspicious.
“Are you looking for someone?”
“Yes. A man.”
Here comes the stash of prepared conversations for a straight guy who wants to exude the I’m-straight-but-cool-with-the-gay energy. “Well, I’m not here to judge” and “I have many gay friends and they’re amazing.” It’s as if these are moral subconscious responses when we hear sad news and our month mutter ‘I’m so sorry’ on autopilot.
As the next round of fire shows begun, a text on Tinder from a guy I’d had a conversation earlier on came through. Followed by a notification from a local newspaper app, a headline in Thai that translated to ‘Northern Girl Gang Raped in Bush. Dating App. The New Community Threat.’ I ignored the newspaper and opened Tinder to read the message anyway.
“Hey! It’s low tide! Do you want to meet at your beach?”
He stayed at the nearby beach. During low tide you can walk from one beach to the other and it happens twice a day. Beyond the bar area it was completely dark. I looked around and surprised as the place began to reveal its dark side. There are millions of ways to carry out a crime act around here and I can see why Jo Nesbo chose this place to write mystery novels.
I agreed to meet up with my Tinder match on the dark beach and was preparing to leave, but the ginger guy said something that made me freeze. “You know I’ve never done it with a man. I’m always curious what it feels like.”
The atmosphere and isolation of the place can also make a man feel defeated, emotionally fragile. Maybe the choice for female companionship was limited as they’re mostly accompanied by their boyfriends; there was nothing much you could do. I thought briefly about the news headline and reassured myself that I wasn’t stupid enough to let it happen when, in fact, I’m about to do the exact same foolish thing the girl in the local news did.
I called the blonde for two straight shots of SangSom rum. Instead of going to join a science experiment project with the ginger guy or wandering in the dark, with the light from my phone screen, looking for my Tinder match. I went straight back to my resort and puked in the toilet.
The next afternoon I was out looking for Jo Nesbo during the power outage which was, basically, just to say hello to several rock climbers and showed them a picture of him as asked if, by any chance, they have seen him. It’s as if I was out finding a missing person after the place been washed out by a tsunami.
The search for Jo Nesbo was fruitless. I didn’t try email because that would cause so much trouble through his agent and publisher; therefore planning to bump into him by accident was the more professional move. (Oh dear. What the heck was I thinking?) My last day on the beach, I had a look at a flyer board. Most of the flyers were either looking for or selling rock climbing equipment and an announcement offering an opportunity from a European television channel recruiting fearless contenders to appear on their version of Amazing Race reality show. I thought it might be a good idea to leave a personal note to Jo Nesbo and pinned it on the board, next to the Amazing Race ad, in case he might be interested to join the TV program and would notice my message on the board.
It’s unbelievable how much things changed over the course of one year. My career trajectory changed from journalism to work in marketing, as did my habit when visiting a bookstore (I checked the mystery section to see Jo Nesbo’s achievements in the softbacks and mentally developing my own mystery fiction) and my opinion about smart phones. It took me an entire year to understand what the ginger guy said about phones . I want to take my words back. It’s not prosthetic, as I believed it was, but a parasite. I feel filthy every time I tap my finger on the screen.
New Year’s resolution: try to go out without phone at least once a week and clear my head. Late one evening, I was out for a run without my phone and just three hundred baht in my pocket to see what it felt like. It’s funny how I started to notice things that were there but I’ve never seen them before. A real life mystery that made my feet stop and my heart beat fast.
On the bus stops and electric poles on Wireless Road there were drawings, several encrypted messages, drawn in marker pen. The messages were mostly in Thai and there were names of popular tourist spots, famous people, and highways in Bangkok. I reached for the phone in my pocket, forgetting that I left it at home. So there was nothing else I could do except standing still, trying to make sense of all this. The thought that it could be a bored motorbike taxi driver that did it and they don’t mean anything came through. They might look like vandalism at first but I was compelled by the sophistication. It made me believe that it could lead to the discovery of something important. Maybe a treasure from the wreckage of a trade ship that sunk during the King Rama V period. I made a mental note to come back with my camera to take a photo of them before the police or the city hall ordered a clean up.
I went back to my apartment, soaking with sweat and found that I had a new match on Tinder. Another thing that changed in me: the congratulation messages from getting new match on Tinder are no longer making me pumped the way they used to. I thought about the guys I met on Tinder and in that moment, one in particular stood out. Someone I agreed to meet at the beach but I didn’t show up a year ago. The choice I made that ended up with series of angry texts I received afterwards. Why did he get so angry? Did he have to swim back to his place because he waited for me too long till the high tide? It’s the mystery I dare not to ask.
Just as I was on the verge of giving up online dating after a major Tinder date disaster with a Singaporean neurosurgeon, I had a feeling that this time it was different. It’s not just a match to hang out in a café or hit a bar to grab a drink or meeting in a secret and dark beach in the South of Thailand. Maybe this is something real that those drawings lead me to. I reached for my phone, and, reluctantly, texted him asking if he’d like to see the drawings and solve the mystery.