It wasn’t for the sex that I agreed to go on the sex tour. It’s not really the sort of thing couples should do together, I think, but Nathan seemed restless, and I knew what that meant. Suggesting a sex tour is a statement of intent, and at least this way it would be girls I didn’t know. So I bought the biggest box of condoms at CVS and let Nathan work out the plane tickets.
The plan was we would fly to Hong Kong, where we would meet the group, and from there we’d be hitting all the big spots, ending with a week in Bangkok. “Sex like you wouldn’t believe,” is what the brochure said, and when that was over, Nathan had arranged a short stop in Amsterdam, so we could experience a Western red light district.
And it maybe wasn’t that bad. Nathan and I would walk up and down the streets and look at the girls. He’d ask my advice, and I’d pick the girls with the best tits, or with eyes like mine, or the ones who looked the freshest. At night Nathan would crawl back to the hotel and press his face into the back of my neck, saying, “She did this thing I’m going to have to teach you,” and his hand would wrap around mine. “It’s so nice to be here with you, Anna,” he’d say, and I would pretend I was asleep, so we wouldn’t have to talk about it in the morning.
There were a few crusty ladies on the tour, so some nights the guides would split us by gender and take the women down a different set of winding streets. There we would find brothels full of boys, and though they never tried to entice me, they would always stare. Even when Marge and Betty would grab them by the waistbands, whooping at each other, the boys would keep their eyes on me.
I only ever looked.
We went like this through China and to Manila and Pattaya. I always had the sense that there was something to see in these places, beaches or grottos or exotic animals. Something to remind me of home, or remind me that I wasn’t at home, but all we ever saw was city: concrete, people, body heat.
And then we made it to Bangkok. Nathan looked like he was in his element under the neon. I took some pictures of his girls, but mostly of the way his skin looked illuminated like that. Lustrous, somehow. At night sometimes I would open my eyes, and for a moment it would seem like his arms and hands were glowing under the sheets.
For our last night they took us to a club called Pussy Collection, but I wasn’t really interested in the girls onstage. They were all wearing party hats and then they used some feather boas to pull Nathan onstage to help some girl do something surprising with a blow-dart, and so I slipped out the back. The tour guides told us that there would be something for everyone in Bangkok, and I could see why they would say that. I walked past brothels full of naughty nurses, or French maids, or girls covered in leather and grommets. Some girls were dressed in traditional Thai costumes, and sometimes they were dressed in traditional costumes from other nations: geisha make-up and kimonos, Dutch clogs and bonnets with dyed-blonde hair, Native American beaded necklaces and feathered headdresses. The brothels made less sense the further I went. There were girls covered in sequins, girls wearing wrestling outfits, girls with moustaches. I stopped at a brothel where the girls were smeared with mud and had twigs in their hair. A man approached and gestured for me to inspect them. One girl was wrapped in vines, and I realized that this was the first native plant I had seen.
“What’s with the mud?” I asked.
“Nature,” said the man, and waggled his brows at me. So I let him lead me inside. He put his hands on my shoulders and squeezed them gently. “Tense,” he said, and steered me down a sloped hallway. The walls looked like pressed dirt, and roots ran across the ceiling. He gestured to a door at the end of the hall, so I pushed it open. It was heavy and felt like bark. Behind the door was a thin man covered entirely in mud and a large tree trunk. Roots or branches hung down, but it seemed like the tree kept growing through the ceiling. The man did not look at me, and behind me the door swung shut.
The room was dark and I hoped my eyes would adjust. When they didn’t, I stumbled forward and my hands found the tree. Or maybe it was the man, and next to him was the tree. Everything felt like dirt and like bark and when I touched myself I felt like bark, too, but I couldn’t stop. I reached for what I thought was the man, pushed aside the bark and dug my hands in. The soil there was soft and fragrant and rich, and I pulled it out by the handful and raised it to my face.
When I left the room it was still dark, but Nathan was waiting in the hotel. “Thank God!” he said. “I’ve been calling embassies all day!” He opened his arms and pulled me close. “I’m sorry I brought you here,” he kept saying. “We can leave. I’m sorry.” I lay down on the bed and Nathan sat beside me, running his hands up my arms and neck. His fingers found their way to my scalp and tried to comb through my hair.
“Are these leaves?” he asked. I pretended that I was asleep.