Like Us For a Whiter You
We’re waiting to get into Metropole when a native thirty-something in a miniskirt takes Bird’s hand and tells him in English, “Mister, my friend, you want sexy massage, Mister?” Stella and I stamp our heels and laugh. It’s funny because this woman’s so floorcountry Thai that she could be Bird’s ma. Well, his ma before she married up and into Bangkok, settling in with his Yankee dad like he was a retirement plan. Bird says in easy Thai that he’s fine, no thanks, and this woman looks like she’s swallowed a straight capful of rum. She splutters and recovers: “Then I’ll give you half-off because you’re luk kreung.” Half-off for a half child. Sometimes these natives are even funny.
The club’s guard takes IDs but reads faces. When we reach him, Bird and Stella have to nestle me between them, wash out my muddy color, something I lay at my mother’s feet.
It’s Bird’s table, so Bird buys. The rum drips out golden and familiar and smelling like metal.
Stella drags her chair next to me, sets my head on her shoulder, and holds up the bottle. “Photo please.” She hands Bird the phone. “Can you see the label?”
I check the image. “Don’t post that. I look like a raccoon.”
“That,” she says, tapping the screen, “is why we have face correction.”
She brightens us up. Even though we’re both luk kreung, I’m dark beside her. Hers is a color I know well from the billboards that make a rat maze of our city. Stella modeling this yogurt drink or that instant noodle, but mostly it’s whitening creams. Her latest a skytrain spread, Stella one of twenty winking women, their portraits cobbled together to make a palette grid. White Peach is the darkest on their skin gradient. Stella’s color they call Mascarpone, as if natives know what the hell that is. Now they think it’s a skin tone, only two squares off Porcelain.
Even when it’s not Stella up there, it’s her I see. Her showcasing a push-up bra. Or the latest lace thing from Seoul. Stella’s body, you could strum the lines of it.
Yoga, she tells me always.
Like hell yoga, I don’t say. Like I don’t look at the ‘P’ stamped pill she slips under her tongue before a meal—what she calls her supplements. And what, whenever Stella is ten minutes in a toilet stall, sniggering Bird calls puke pills. But that’s also false: it all comes out her ass. Picture that on your palette.
Bird slaps down his empty glass. He closes his eyes, rolls his head and smiles, his cheeks like waxed apples. He wants to dance. Stella and Bird and I come together like old lovers, the moves unambitious but satisfying. We know what not to talk about: the hooks of Stella’s hips, and Bird’s eyes traversing the contours of that man’s shoulders, of that man’s jawline.
Visiting Metropole is soothing, especially a night like this. As long as you hit the selfies early, you can dance seams through your body cream, through your face cake. And tomorrow you’ll have something to show for your night when your cubicle buddy asks you, over the top of a mirror that’s magnifying her brow, where you went, with whom.
Oh, Metropole, you can say, knowing she wouldn’t get in. Because the club is really a temple. It’s about ritual, dance, idols. Entering the black box shores up a glossy-magazine worldview; only uppity natives with big-eye contacts, premium-bright whitening cream, and quiet perms manage to steal by the guard. So what you’re looking at—you with the beauty needs and a hopeful reflection, you with the fine-tuning filters, you with an income disposed on cosmetics—is the fairest in the land.
“It’s two in the morning,” Ma says, discovering me in the kitchen at barely one forty-five, fighting the corkscrew.
The cork pops out and red wine sloshes over the white tiles. I steady my arm to pour a glass, playing sober. “Why are you awake?”
Ma says, “It’s two on a weeknight.”
And I say, “Stop. I’m an adult.”
I make an exit with my glass. Ma follows me, turns the lights out one at time, chasing me into my room.
Sleeping’s hard. I can’t keep the day from coursing through me—echoes of interactions and what I didn’t say in them. Most evenings I need my comedown wine, a habit I inaugurated one night in a hotel room, an American’s (I know, I know, but the farangs are easier, most are just passing through). I drank alone at his kitchenette, twirling the complimentary corkscrew, my thigh sticky with his goo. I thought of Dad’s scratchy good-night kisses when I was young. Dad would set down his leggy wine glass, a busty woman in red waiting for him to finish with his child. Ma was never that curvy woman, not even in her next-to-spinster age when she should fill out from the middle. Ma will always be severe through and through. Dad’s gone.
I was halfway down the comedown bottle when the American woke up for the toilet.
Sorry, he mumbled, running his thumb down my spine. Jetlag. He stood with me at the window.
See those apartment towers there, like a row of graves? I pointed. The second is me and my ma.
And your dad? he asked.
You ever meet a man named Rick on your travels?
I guess? he said, reaching for the bottle.
Yeah, me neither. I took another swig and left him the tannins.
In the morning there’s a gruesome smile of wine spit on my pillow, the closest thing I’ve had to a lover in months.
My morning routine: rubbing cream on my butt. There’s a coin-sized spot where since thirteen I’ve been blotting whitening Gluta, testing, testing, turning my private part pied. Most women spread this stuff on their faces, but you don’t know what the gunk can do to you. It gets rashy sometimes, my spot.
You’re not using it between your legs, are you? asked my dermatologist, seeing that my face is the same color as it was on my last visit. Because I have something for that too.
Gluta, you know what it is? Some say it’s cancer cream. I don’t know whether that means cause or treatment, but next time you’re too up to sleep, next time your best friend’s over and she complains between swipes that she’s bored, bored!—try Googling glutathione injections.
You know the saying: beautiful by way of the knife. Nowadays: by needle. By self-induced vomiting and snacking on ice. By sanding down your face. By the belt-machines that jiggle cellulite off your hips, like fat sloughing off a spit roast. By acid masks. By sweat boxes. By the hour on a high stool in the cosmetics section of the mall, the fluorescence spotlighting your every flaw. By hamster-wheeling in the gym. By breaking your cheekbones and trimming your lips, snip, snip, let’s re-stitch that face, doll.
Fakes, Stella likes to say, with her beautiful-by-birth entitlement.
But it’s a way of life. It’s the way of the ‘pretties’, those second-rate models famous for their car-convention appearances. Pretty as title, as vocation. My question about the profession is: who has the ambition to become a car accessory? Also, is there a pretties hierarchy? It’s one thing to drape a Maserati—at least that machine has curves—but whose job is it to sexy up the family wagon? I’m just saying, because once when I was younger Ma’s friend suggested I try it someday.
You might be dark for a luk kreung, but the fact that you are half white should be enough to land a pretty job.
What if that’s how my life went? (What would I look like to you, followers?) Me, in a bar, pushing beers, Heineken’s outsourced sex appeal. “Hey, boys, how about I bring you the BIG bottle?” Ha! But that’s how those girls live.
Only yesterday a newspaper story about a pretty accidentally injecting Botox into her bloodstream. She died.
You’ll understand my caution with the cream.
Ma is outside my door, yelling, “Lara, it’s seven-thirty already!”
Ma in the driver’s seat taking me to my magazine internship. Taking advantage of commuting time, of record-breaking traffic to tell me what I’m doing wrong. It feels like we’ve stalled forever among anonymous greys and whites, fiberglass encasing other people’s lives, shutting in the shit slinging that I know is going on.
This is the hour when across Bangkok, on skytrain platforms and outside police depots, in factories and parking lots and schools, superiors stand with megaphones, imparting daily lessons to those lined up before them.
“I know you don’t want to listen to me,” Ma says, as the light turns from green to red again.
I eat cornflakes from a Winnie-the-Pooh cup and watch motorbikes trickle by.
“You remember Bo, Nina’s daughter?”
“Ma, you’ve told me about Bo. Also about Inky, Waan, and Joy. You’ve shown me their graduation photos. I practically know their starting salaries.”
I flip down the visor, pretend to retouch my eyeliner. I review my reflection, a practice ritualized during childhood ballet lessons, bi-weekly exercises in bearing the sight of my body sausaged into a unitard and practicing grace, practicing my plié, my belly an accordion. Also the nauseating rubbing of my thighs. Also the hashed and furrowed flesh. Hell is a hall of mirrors.
“You can’t waste your life. Everyone else has grown up. When are you going to finish university?” Ma says.
“It’s not like I’m a failure. It’s just taking me longer to figure things out. My career isn’t a straight line.”
“What would your dad say?”
“He tries to talk to you.”
“No, he sends you money—that’s not trying. He doesn’t get to tell me what I should and shouldn’t do with my life.”
Ma falls quiet. The row of cars, like a belt of luggage, conveys us onward.
A man grins into his mirror, taps his front teeth as if adjusting the fit of a smile that he’s just installed. He tests the effect walking past a woman, who undulates, goes weak at the knees.
“That’s how we sell toothpaste,” my editor tells me, handing me the storyboard sketch he just acted out.
Not all the luk kreung are modeling. Somebody has to write copy.
My editor demonstrates his own grin now. He’s the reason we use sex to sell bottled water.
“He’s right though,” Stella says later, when I complain about my day organizing a tooth shoot. “The woman is the measure of the product’s success.” She points at the stage that’s been erected in a shopping mall’s foyer. “Hey, here’s Bird now.” Applause. Bird emerges uncomfortable, leveling that bowtie.
We’re here for the launch of MRMan Magazine, Modern Renaissance, a lesser GQ. MRMan’s staff is under the impression that Gatsby-themed events are novel.
“Here’s Bird,” I echo. He stands up there with the MC and looks good. His hair is a polished car hood, his teeth newly minted. He takes his white looks from his white dad.
Already I’ve eaten too much of the finger-food borne by pretties displaying matching flapper-girl chignons. My nails raise red tracks on my skin. This is how I handle discomfort, scratching like a child, pretending the problems are only skin-deep. I take another flaccid piece from a pretty. Her torso is a cigarette.
Stella eats nothing. Her boot heel makes a testy tap-tap, impatient with the media team in the corner that has yet to flock to her, to broadcast the word, the who-what-where of her outfit, the oh-this-little-thing? that ornaments her hair. Tommy Mookjan designed it for me, she would explain. But tonight nobody asks and on stage Bird is floundering.
MRMan’s MC is too native to understand Bird’s illiteracy in Thai—our boy is international school educated. He’s a modern heir to the colonial bootlickers of old, those officers with their clean Queen’s English unable to communicate with the natives.
So when the MC gestures a wand here, at this Thai slogan, at this Thai headline, Bird, sign here, endorse your voice to this, read it for us, Bird!—when that happens the polish rubs off. The petals of his bowtie wilt.
“I forgot how bad Bird’s reading is,” Stella says.
“I didn’t.” Not me who tutored Bird through a belated Thai education, which is how I know that he can’t read the letters, that any typeface beyond what might be employed in a picture book is also beyond Bird.
And here’s Bird on stage and here’s something Romanized, Thai letters wrought to look like an S, a W. It’s what’s familiar that unravels him, the shape of his own language.
“Bird?” the MC tries.
And Bird tries. He sweats through his shirt; he reads; he sounds out the syllables.
We leave the mall, step out onto the skytrain platform. Lights play off of water fountains, jumbotrons flit through images from a sushi promotion, and poor Bird, caught in the open, is swathed in television hues. And he’s mistaken for that heartthrob from the latest lakon up on YouTube. One teenager’s cry rallies the idling rest. Before Bird even has a chance to deploy his shallow modesty he’s swarmed, the teens at the back whispering, “Who is this anyway?”
“Bird,” Stella says afterward, “how is it you’re never mistaken for yourself?”
“Meaning what,” Bird says, knowing well Stella’s aptitude for sideswiping a person with her questions. Pretending to be pleased, he’s actually punctured, smarting in that B-list model way: does nobody recognize him from the chewing gum commercial? It’s enough to spur him to suggest another night at Metropole.
“It’s a Thursday?” I say.
“Be an adult, Lara,” Stella tells me.
At Bird’s table he swallows the pain of the earlier performance and Stella any commentary on said performance. For me it’s my guilt that I gulp down when my phone announces Ma Ma Ma. She calls three times. She leaves one message.
I don’t look. I leave that all behind. I lock it away in the house like our fights, like that damaged cassette of me singing Billie Holiday—Ma sliding it into the player again, again saying, This is the gift that you waste. I tuck it away like the picture of Dad on a bench in quaint New England, his coat collar popped and pointed against a chill we never have in Bangkok.
Bird pours the rum. We ring our glasses together. We drink it down.
“Bird I forgot what your Thai is like,” Stella says.
“Shut up, Stella. You didn’t forget,” I say.
Bird spins the shot glass and doesn’t look at Stella.
“No need to pout,” Stella says. Finding no response, she stands and steps onto a dance floor of Hello Kitty types trying hard not to sweat as they bounce up against a circle of men. The men train their barbed eyes inward, downward, as if around a fishing hole.
They have been waiting for Stella. Men have waited since she reached puberty, when modeling agencies started bidding on her future: a floodlit stage. All she had to do was show up.
“She didn’t fucking forget,” Bird says.
He’s right, my arms look like railways.
“Pour me another?” I ask.
“Maybe you should slow down.”
But we’re both watching Stella dance and he tops me off.
Stella’s dress of wide black ribbons fans out, whips away from her, opens to the eye like a zoetrope.
“She’s got something everyone wants,” Bird says.
I say, “I can be like that too,” and to prove it before he can laugh at me, I’m up and walking at the farangs on the other end of the bar. Not even the world-weary variety of farang, those arriving feverish and bug-spotted from aid work on the border. No—these men have soft, broad bodies rounded by the mold of a business-class citizenship.
When I eye one he’s twenty years too old but tonight I’m dangerous, reckless. I stand in front of him and cross my legs, present myself like a question mark: Yes or No?
“Hi,” he says.
“Name?” I ask.
I say, “The first man. I like that.”
Adam gets me a glass of wine that’s sour and not a quick gulp the way our drink is. He’s tall and holds his shoulders behind him like wings. I have to look up to talk. He’s here with some trading group. Staying where?
“Oriental House. A boutique hotel down the street. I wanted to be closer to nightlife. You know it?”
I nod, yes, yes, everyone knows. Rooftop bar. Water feature. Floorcountry women prowling. Chuckling, I say, “One woman tried a line on Bird the other night, right here outside Metropole, and I nearly fell laughing so hard.”
“Bird?” Adam says like a dull nut.
I wave an arm, gulp the wine and say, “Anyway those women like it because of all the farangs there. Like you.”
He says, “Farang? Meaning fruit or foreigner?”
He’s trying to play along. “Ah,” I say, “Adam’s practiced his Thai. A hidden one of us halfies?” I push against him, stare up into his eyes, move my thumbs under his belt. “You don’t look like a guava to me, must be the other farang I’m talking about.”
“Right,” he laughs. “Foreign.”
I lean back and survey him. “I don’t know,” I say. I lean in. “Let’s peel you and see.”
“We could go back,” Adam says, his harmless flirting curdling into forceful desire.
“We could, but there’s booze here and none there. You know the corner stores stop selling alcohol at midnight? Yeah—welcome to Thailand where we’re governed by a fairy godmother.”
“I could get us a bottle of wine to go?”
“What a good idea. Let’s,” I say.
I see the price of the bottle he orders—how can I not, he makes sure to angle the bill as he pays.
“I need to tell the guys I’m leaving.” He gestures backward.
“Go.” But when he leaves, I hurry back to the table, bringing the wine because it’s already open and I don’t know what I would do with the bottle. What I would do with Adam, who’s already heading back to the bar.
“Bird,” I say. “Bird can we go? I promised some farang I’d go back with him but I’m not feeling it.”
He doesn’t hear me. He’s watching Stella.
“Bird, look! I got us wine.” I hold out the bottle.
“Stella’s a mess,” he says.
It’s true. She’s unspooling on the dance floor. It’s her go-to drug cocktail, something devastating. We know the results.
“Let her spin out. She wants that,” I say.
But Bird has a stake in Stella’s public face, and you can’t give that away for free. He knows how hard it is to earn. Even with all the baiting he’s been doing, the cheap promos he’s taken for exposure, nothing moves Bird’s numbers like a photo with Stella’s arm thrown like a life preserver around him.
He enters the ring of men, their phone cameras spurting flashes at Stella, who snaps around: “Hey! Hey asshole! I charge for that.”
Bird saves Stella to save himself.
Outside, Stella and I climb into an empty police booth shaped like an officer’s helmet. Bird goes into a 7-Eleven to buy Stella an electrolyte drink.
Stella gestures at the wine bottle in my hands. “Where’d you get that?”
“I had a man buy it for me.”
“Farang in a suit.”
“You’re more resourceful than you look,” Stella says.
Bird comes back and hands Stella a bottle. She rubs it on her forehead.
“Drink,” he says.
I sweat. I notice all the ways my body folds. The wine’s warming in my hands. Its sour smell makes me queasy. I get up to buy ice water from a street vendor. The tin cup stings my lip with its cold.
Back in the police booth, Bird’s chiding, holding the bottle for Stella.
“You have to drink look at you you’re sweating and so pale hell Stella always too far…”
And her bobbling, “Okayokayokay.”
The two of them shoulder to shoulder reminding me that even when I angle Bird to see Ugly Stella, directing him to see her as I see her, he still loves her more.
You’d pick her too, you know, if a magazine asked the hypothetical: Which girl would you rather _____? Yeah, fuck you too. Why don’t they ever ask which you could love? Which could love you?
I consider Adam’s wine, reconsider Adam’s company. Bird suggests a taxi home. I say I’ve got a boy (a boy—ha!) waiting for me inside.
“Bird I’m sorry,” Stella says, head bopping against his shoulder. “Sorry what I said about your shitty reading.”
“That’s okay. My reading’s shitty, you’re right.”
“That’s right,” Stella slurs. “Isn’t that right. Mine’s not great either.”
But not me, I don’t say. Not the girl who Ma enrolled in ‘traditional’ Thai extracurriculars all the way through her youth. To cultivate an understanding of where you come from, Ma said always in stilted, formal Thai, like a court herald announcing my presence: Here, the mongrel.
But a younger me did try drinking from that well, staining her knees on their turf, getting a taste for native flavor. I mean I dated a native boy. What it was like: lovely. Briefly lovely. His eyes two magic mirrors and me shining in them, believing for a spell what he saw in me: slim, glamorous, foreign. Best sex I’ve had too; it’s always the earnest boys. It was a fairytale I danced shortly through. You can’t stay long with his type. Not of my world, I thought, watching the girl in the boy’s eyes. Since then, I’ve learned the rules of entry and exit. Metropole has taught me. Our mothers’ lives are cautionary tales too. They know the cost of crossing boundaries. The sense of unbelonging has worn Ma down, like it did on those days she spent in Dad’s winter country, the absence of sun and humidity changing her, turning her skin into a landscape fissured and coarse.
“Stop scratching,” I hear Bird say.
Bird and Stella are steepled against one another.
I say, “Ha—yeah, I forgot my Thai reading too.”
Stella snorts. “Please. We all know you’re more native than not.”
“You’re as much Thai as I am.”
“Chemically.” She yawns. “Or biologically or whatever, sure. But look at you.”
“Look at me what,” I challenge.
“Hey, calm down,” says Bird.
“So sensitive! Sorry.” Stella reaches out as if to pet me. I step back.
“You think because you’re whiter you’re better than me.”
Stella holds up a hand. “Sweetie, who do you think you’re kidding? I’ve seen the whitening cream you hide in your bathroom.”
They watch me expectantly, as if I’m the problem and not Stella. The wine bottle in my hands is heavy. I hold it out. An offer of alliance. “Here, Bird. You can have it.”
“I don’t want it.”
“Okay.” I study the bottle, take a sip. This taste is my cue: the night is over. “I’m going home.”
I walk away from the police booth thinking of Ma waiting in the kitchen, reciting accusations, what she’ll tell me about who I am and what I don’t understand. And I’ll do the same. I’ll say, as I’ve said before, that it was her fault that he left us for America and another family (me only a girl then) or just that winter in the photo he sent back. It was Ma and her gently crooked accent, her limp curtain hair. I’ve told her this. I’ve said, It makes me sick to be half you. It was you, Ma. You made my dad leave. It was your floorcountry dirt skin.
I can see Ma in the kitchen. I can see the fluorescence blanketing our stoop’s three steps—too much to climb tonight.
I want to return to an earlier phase of the night. Dial back the moon. I drink my comedown wine and walk back to Metropole, the sidewalk now blighted, heaped with garbage bags. A pick-up blares floorcountry music and a man hosing the pavement catches my feet with his spray.
“Closed,” the guard tells me. I turn from the lolling doors to the street, walking along the row of shop-houses. The wine’s half gone and making me sick. I pass a parked pickup, its gleaming hubcaps guarded from strays by rows of water bottles. My wine joins the other sentinels and I continue down, down to… Ah, Oriental House. An eight-story of concrete and recessed windows.
“You’re in there, aren’t you, Adam?”
Nothing. Filmed windows.
“HEY, ADAM. COME ON DOWN.”
Here he comes, bowlegged, stooped and ashamed, my Adam.
“Come back here and talk to me again. I’ve been waiting for you. All night. All these years. I’ve been waiting for you.”
It’s hotel security. This chimp waves me off. Says in Thai, “Go.”
“Not you.” I speak slowly and in English. “Adam.”
“Go! You can’t be making a living around here.” He points across the street.
Up at the windows: “ADAM.”
The guard tries to grab me and I lose a heel backing away. “Hey! Don’t touch me. Don’t!” He seizes my wrist, twists it, and uses my arm to steer us across the street. In Thai: “Okay, stop! I get it!” He leaves me on the opposite sidewalk among a line of women facing the hotel.
“You think I’m one of these whores!” I yell at the receding guard.
The hotel lobby swallows him. The image in the glass door ripples like a lake coming to rest. When the door stills, it shows the lineup of women, me among them.
I could stand here and add my call to theirs. I know how to sell a product. If a man led me toward the hotel, I would look at the door, watching until the woman in the reflection disappeared into the black glass.
“You think I’m one of them!”
“You have somewhere better to be?” the woman beside me asks.
In the taxi home my nails score my arms until the skin, that color of hard earth, blossoms with spots of blood. Skin that I’ll later soothe with cool gluta, smearing it over my body, salving my hurt, thinking, This! This is how to efface your history.
You don’t appreciate your heritage, Ma says always.
I know where I come from, I always tell her, thinking always of the women outside the club, the women outside massage parlors and by-the-hour hotels. Women on the street edge, scrabbling, making work of the sidewalk, making a home of farang men. Women on the edge of their marriage beds, crowded out by a man tossing, stretching, throwing his arm across her face in the night, throwing himself across her in the night. Women making fathers of such men. Fathers who will later tell their daughters, Hon, you have to understand I never meant to ________.
Make a life here. Make a child here. Die here.
Back Dad went to a motherland spreading to embrace him (Welcome home, Rick!), condemning two women in Thailand to the fringe of his life. He maintains us from afar through generous greenbacks, the exchange rate so generous too. Enough to keep Ma small-stepping around the kitchen, barely lifting her feet, feeling acutely what she calls a weighing-down force—not gravity but a more sinister pull that makes her flesh bag and her knees swell. It is the force that has pinioned her all this time to a distant man but a very close unhappiness. Only she manages each year to widen her orbit, to pull away. She climbs the stairs for exercise, has strength in her limbs, calls to me, Look! I’m moving. Moving on. Look how far I’ve come.
“Ma?” I find her slumped at the foot of my bed, asleep, waiting for me with one of my magazines in her hands. It’s still bookmarked with the permanent marker I use to leave the models with masks and mustaches, with ink bruises. I might etch a super-man torso or darken an especially bleached woman.
I let Ma sleep. I close the magazine. I uncap the Magic Marker (Writes On Anything!) and sit before my mirror.
“You see,” I tell the face. “There’s this Thai saying. Beautiful by way of the knife.” I put the pen to my chin and cut its tip up the middle of my face. Its felt point is a lover’s tongue. I take my time looking for the telltale luk kreung features. You know what to look for, don’t you? We’ve all been trained to know, to say, “Such dark brows” (I color in the eyebrow on the right side), “and that high nose bridge” (I sketch contour lines against my nose’s right side), “and your beautiful, Mascarpone skin” (carefully, I cross-hatch the left half of my face).
I powder my face and neck with talc. Then my hands and forearms, like I’m wearing white evening gloves.
Ma’s still asleep. I move beside her.
“Ma?” I touch her. My white hand against her hand. The white of mascarpone, of porcelain, against skin.