Trevor, Ivory, and I were sitting by the river, the awning of woven grass that had shaded us from the fierce Thai sunlight now blocking out the clustered evening stars. The restaurant's bug screen was working overtime. You'd hear the almost subsonic whine whenever an insect hit it, making a shrill counterpoint to the jungle noises: birds squawking, the trees' hollow rattle, the drip and drop of moisture from the leaves.
Trevor had scored a lump of hash as big as my thumb; a curl of gold leaf marked its side, and we were working on making it smaller. A hookah sat on the rattan table, and we used my pocketknife to shave bits from the surface and pack the bowl. The smoke was sweet and rich as homemade cake batter, and I had a solid buzz going.
Trevor's lighter sparked in the evening darkness. The candle lamp on the table was nearly dead. We were killing time, all three of us. The waning moon was high and misshapen, and its blaze danced like a guttering candle on the cups of the waves, a foamy gleam barely visible.
We were still and stoned. Hash, good hash, doesn't make you feel stupid or sleepy. Just remote. Remote from the world, deaf to the cries of the vendors, the blare and growl of traffic, and the distant thump-a-thump of the Banana Disco.
From the river came a sound of splashing as though something enormous were thrashing in the water.
"What's that?" Ivory said.
We stared down through the darkness. There was no one else around; it was off-season and our waiter had deserted us before the sun had set.
Trevor stood, glancing at me. "I'm going to check it out."
"Could be a crocodile. You never know what you'll find in Thailand." Ivory didn't move but her voice was unalarmed. "Feel free, boys. I'll be right here."
"Where's your sense of adventure?" He grinned at her, flashing perfect white teeth.
"Left behind in an LA hotel room," she said.
So Trevor and I went together with cautious steps. There was a steep grade to the side of the river, and thorny vines tore at us as we half-fell down it before encountering the sticky grasp of red clay mud threatening to pull our Tevas off.
She lay naked on the riverbank like a fallen swan. Her bare flesh white as snow, her hair midnight black. Her feet were thin and fragile as newly pedicured mourning doves, not a smudge or callus except for the mud that covered her.
As we slid towards her, she opened her eyes. Gray-blue, like the sea at evening, looking at us with a feverish terror. Another expression overtook the fear, unclenching the muscles, as she regarded me, a little startled but as though by an old friend.
We stopped a few feet away. I held out my hands and felt an absurd desire to say "We come in peace." Instead I said, low and reassuring, "It's okay. It's okay."
Trevor shrugged his way out of his lemon rayon shirt and draped it over her as she sat up. She fingered the material uneasily and leaned to sniff it, her nose wrinkling.
"Not this year's style, but a classic is a classic, my mother says," he told her with a nervous little grin. She didn't smile, just cocked her head interrogatively, glancing between us.
Every time she looked at me, it was like a drink of water or, better, some intoxicating spirit. I found I could not look away, and I know Ivory noticed that when we brought the girl back towards our table. I caught her cool speculative stare.
"Do you speak English?" Trevor said, and the girl gave him an inquisitive look.
She wasn't one of the Thai, though slim and small as one. At first I thought her an albino with dyed hair. But her eyes were gray and blue against the inhuman fairness of her skin.
Phuket was stylish a few summers ago, but its state now simply illustrated the aftermath of being stylish. The little shops were starting to dwindle and consolidate. The vendors, once insistent, had grown dispirited and lackluster, no longer offering polished gemstones, statues carved of opal or cloudy ruby, wonders worthy of an Arabian treasure cave. Instead they carried the detritus of tourism: cut-rate T-shirts, video clips of dancing elephants, rayon costumery—"Genuine Thai kickboxer suit, very cheap, very nice."
I'd been to see one of the painting elephants, Khwaam, the day before we found the girl. Standing in its clearing, I watched Khwaam's keeper fill buckets of paint before the elephant curled its trunk around the brush and stepped up to the paper. It painted a picture of blue and green water, an intimation of a face below the surface. I paid the keeper 500 baht and pinned the picture to my hotel room wall. My maternal grandmother invests heavily in animal art; I'd give her this one and see if she could help the elephant make a name for itself.
Though I get bored with places easily, after two weeks I still liked Phuket. The evening of the Loy Krathong Festival, I'd stood alone by the bridge, watching little boats filled with candles and the glowing tips of incense slip past on the dark surface of the water, following the undulating trails of the full moon's light. Underneath the bridge, there was a splash and a flash of scales as a large fish roiled the water, scattering the boats.
In Thai tradition, putting a coin and a few hairs on one of the little boats allows you to wash away sins and bless love affairs. I had no love affairs to bless, but launched mine anyway, laden with a five-baht coin and a quick snip from one sideburn. I was in one of those periods of life where you feel yourself changing, but I wasn't sure what I was changing into. Any kind of luck was welcome.
My family (you'd recognize the name) was eager for me to go into politics, back home in the US, but it seemed like a lot of work, and I'd just gotten done with four years of that at Yale. I was the family's odd duck, like my father before me. He escaped family expectations and became a novelist. Now the elders of the family were waiting to see what path I'd choose. And I wasn't sure, to be honest.
Ivory used to be a rock star—that was how we'd met her. Trevor, who was a wannabe rocker and my roommate in college, had sought her out when he'd found out she was staying in our hotel. Her jagged, gravelly voice, her edged and world-weary lyrics, had created an enduring aura of glamour. For an older woman—Google revealed she was pushing sixty—she was well-preserved. But her breasts, silicone augmented and perpetually perky, gave her an odd appearance. Like lipstick on a chimp, Trevor confided the day after we'd met her. Sexy but it shouldn't be.
She'd stuck with us, maybe for the quality drugs Trevor scored, maybe for his looks. I wasn't sure—although I knew they slept together whenever she felt like it.
Her real name wasn't Ivory, of course, but I don't know where the nickname came from. Perhaps her appearance: blonde and thin as a piece of bone, and as classically beautiful. Dry. Dry as salt, with a sense of humor to match and a mystic streak that only surfaced occasionally in conversation.
Somehow Trevor talked Ivory into taking the girl. I would have volunteered, but I was too unsettled by her blue eyes regarding me, the half smile whenever I returned the look. By the next day, Ivory had her outfitted like any American tourist: faded jeans, ratty T-shirt. And a pair of Converse sneakers that must have been red once but now were faded to a shade of rust, loose on her tiny, perfect feet.
Her ears were unpierced; she had no tattoos anywhere. "Odd, in this day and age," Ivory said, one white eyebrow arching. "No plucked eyebrows, no razor stubble, no cosmetic surgery. Like a princess from a bedtime story."
The girl watched me with a steady gaze. She smiled at me.
"Name?" I asked her, but she shook her head, looking confused.
"What do you call a naked woman that you find on a river bank?" Trevor said. "It sounds like a bad joke. She's not a Heather or Brittany or Tiffany."
"Mara. Marina," Ivory said, leaning forward. The girl did not respond. "Minnie."
And Minnie, with its mouselike connotations, stuck.
I found my reaction to her unsettling. I've worked hard at eliminating reactions to women. Too much potential trouble. Too much potential scandal. Here in Thailand it wouldn't matter, perhaps. Back home it would.
Children in my family are raised by nannies, governesses, tutors. Strictly vetted, of course, but a few oddities slip through here and there. Mine was Ms. Andersen. Tall, blonde, Danish. She had certain similarities to Ivory but was more magazine beautiful. She started teaching me when I was twelve, and that was the year I learned my cock had a mind of its own. There she'd be, talking about basic algebra, and under my desk my cock was shouting LISTEN TO ME while I sat there trying to will it down. After a while I started carrying a book bag that I could swing in front of my crotch as a concealing shield when necessary.
This would have been all right, I think, except for her sadistic tendencies. Some sort of quirk. I found her out in the backyard killing mice in the humane trap that my tenderhearted aunt had insisted we use. It was early morning and she didn't think anyone else was around. She'd reach her hand in, take out a mouse, and then squeeze, her face expressionless. I watched her kill six of them that way, my cock as hard and rigid as a ruler. And when she raised her hand to her mouth to lick off a smear of blood, I came, right there in my pants. First orgasm.
That experience left its traces. It's why I don't date much. My family would kill me if I caused a scandal. But I know that I've got a taste for it. A taste for pain, courtesy of ice princess Andersen. I just keep it hidden away, like a sorcerer keeping his heart in a box, safe from threat.
Minnie was so passive. Ivory treated her like a doll, dressed her, brought her to meals, dragged her with us to sit in the shade and watch the ocean. "She keeps away the vendors," she said. "Have you noticed?"
And it was true. None of them came near her. Usually sitting there we'd be besieged by fruit sellers, masseuses, men carrying monkeys, hawks, and snakes, asking if we wanted our pictures taken with the animals. Instead we sat at the bar, drinking shots of lao kao and playing Connect 4 on the battered plastic sets that seem the staple of every Thai beach bar.
"You've been here, what, a month?" Ivory asked me.
"Two, three weeks," I said.
"What tourist things have you done?"
I shrugged. "Went to Lampang and saw an elephant paint. That's about it."
"We should do tourist things," she said. The lao kao, mixed with whatever else she was on, had taken hold. Her eyes glittered with a frantic edge. "See the kickboxers, the dancers. Show your little friend around."
"She's not my little friend," I said. I didn't look at Minnie because I knew she'd be staring at me. "And she's a local, anyhow."
Ivory tilted her head to drain her shot glass to the dregs and slammed it down hard enough to crack it. "No," she said. "She's not a local."
The kickboxers are all show, or so an Australian man once told me. He said the displays put on for the tourists are just costumes and a few flashy, inauthentic moves. But the boxers looked real enough to me, moved faster, quicker than my clumsy American self ever will. They were followed by the dancers, who wore clothing that looked too tight to dance in and six-inch gilded fingernails. Their faces were heavily made-up painted masks.
Minnie danced with them. The women eyed her but made way as she stepped down from where she had been sitting with us. She moved with them, keeping her body as straight and upright as theirs, bending only with the knees. So graceful. So assured. Her eyes fixed on mine. With every step there was a flicker of pain deep within the blueness, and somewhere deep inside me something stirred, unwilling.
We walked all over that day, Ivory dragging us behind her like a covey of quail. A tuk-tuk carried us over to Patong, and the Butterfly Gardens there. I kept watching Minnie as we walked among the butterflies, colored leaves drifting on the breeze, to see if my suspicions were right. And it seemed as though, as the day wore on, the shadows crossed her eyes more and more. As though she were walking on knives, or broken glass, but was too proud or too stupid to make a sound.
My heart, enclosed in its box, twitched at the thought.
We even went back to Lampang and the elephant. Ivory had never seen one paint. We all watched as Khwaam lowered the brush in its trunk to create wavy lines of blue. And then red paint to make smears like footprints crossing them. Minnie turned away as though uninterested, but Ivory paid for the picture.
"Have you ever thought," she said on the way home, "of all the ways women mutilate themselves for love?"
"Women do it for themselves," Trevor said. "They like to look pretty. Ever seen a bunch of women turn on an ugly one? It's what sororities are made of."
"Sexist bullshit," Ivory said. "You don't deserve any of the things women do. The world would be happier without men."
"But would you?" he said, leering and putting a significant hand on his crotch.
"I don't know," she said, and the smile fell away from his face, replaced by confusion at the neutrality of her tone. But she wasn't even looking at him. Just staring out the window, her palm laid on her chest.
On a hunch, I said, "Do you regret the surgery?"
She laughed harshly. "Regret it? I'll have perfect tits until the day I die. What woman could regret such a thing?"
"Why did you do it, then?" Trevor asked. "Not that I'm complaining."
"Because you can't sell things unless you look good," Ivory said. "At least, a woman can't. Men can always rely on character."
Minnie looked between us, uncomprehending but hearing the hostility in Ivory's tone.
If I'd known what to say, I would have. Instead I leaned over and took Minnie's hand. It was the first time I'd touched her. Her flesh was chilly and moist despite the day's heat. She smiled at me.
Ivory stared out the window, watching the spirit houses on the side of the road, the rolled-up painting in her hand.
"Ivory's a little crazy," Trevor said apologetically that night in the lobby.
"You're telling me?"
"She thinks Minnie's a fairy tale."
"She thinks Minnie's the Little Mermaid."
"The one with seashells over her boobs and singing fish for pals?"
"No, that's the Disney version. She means the original."
"What's the difference?"
"The ending's not happy in the original," Ivory said from behind us. I hadn't heard her coming. "You know the story? She's the youngest daughter of the Sea King and on her fifteenth birthday she's allowed up to the surface. She sees a ship with a handsome prince on it, and she falls in love with him. So she goes to a sea witch, who agrees to give her the power to walk on land and pursue his love, in return for her voice. She does, but the magic's imperfect, and it hurts her to walk. But she does it, for love of the prince. He falls in love with someone else, of course. In the end, she turns into foam and dies, because she has no soul."
I looked at her in disbelief. "And this is what you think is happening?"
"Oh, you're not a prince," Ivory said. "But you're close enough in her eyes. So what are you going to do? Buy her fake papers, take her home with you? I don't know if you'd like a steady diet of tuna, but I guess you'll get used to it."
"You're full of crap," I said.
"I've never seen you look at a woman before. I thought it was a challenge at first, but then I just figured you and I would share Trevor. But you're not even interested in that. So what is it with you, Prince Charming? You've never given your heart away, have you? How about to a nice little mute girl?"
I shoved past, pushing her against the wall.
In my room I fired up my laptop. You can find anything on the Internet if you've got a credit card handy. Anything. I lost myself in blood and bondage and pictures of pleading eyes and tried to avoid superimposing Minnie's face over any of it while my hand moved on my cock, demanding release.
No. I'm not a prince. But I never claimed to be.
We were at the Patong aquarium, lost in mazes of murky, green-lit glass. I stood by a case and watched a diver feeding blacktip and leopard sharks, spots riding their backs like miniature saddles. Their eyes were flat and black and expressionless. I watched them tear the fish to bits, toss their heads like dogs with their teeth buried in something. Rending. Ripping. My heart pounded in my chest.
Minnie came up beside me but I wouldn't look at her. Out of the corner of my eye I could see her watching too, her face inanimate and nonjudgmental. To her the sharks, their teeth, the blood in the water, were just another fact of life.
I took her back to my room and closed the door.
It was early morning, and my head hurt from lack of sleep. I sat by the river again, but all the hash was gone. The coffee was bitter, and no matter how much creamer or sugar I added, it stayed that way.
Trevor and Ivory were still asleep, but Minnie had followed me out of bed like a silent shadow.
She leaned over and took my hand in hers, her eyes blue and enormous. She laid her fingers, her fragile, boney fingers, in my hand. Then she closed my fingers over them with her other hand and squeezed. She was much stronger than me. Her grip was painful but she didn't let go even though she must have been crushing her hand. She kept watching my face.
Arousal at the pain in her face surged through me like a crashing wave. It would have been easy to give in to desire. I'm not a prince.
I pushed her away with a sudden shove and she fell backwards, still looking at me. Then she stood, her face twisted awry with sorrow.
"Where are you going?" I said with a flash of panic. My thoughts boiled. Maybe I could take her home after all. No. No.
She ran down the riverbank and didn't look back, discarding clothing as she went. First the shirt, then the skirt, followed by the wisps of underwear. The rust-red shoes were still on her feet. I followed, slipping and foundering in the mud. I don't know why. Half of me had changed my mind, half of me was pursuing her.
She arched and leapt into the water of the swirling brown river in a single motion. And then there was only foam, dirty foam like polluted soapsuds, and my heart was still safe.
"Foam on the Water," by Cat Rambo, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 United States License.
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