It’s balmy tonight. I’m talking 90 degrees at 22:00 hours. But it isn’t that oppressive, don’t want to move, kind of heat. No, it’s the sensual kind. The kind that makes your cheeks flush and your collar bones dewy . The kind that makes you want to wear nothing at all. But nakedness just won’t do in conservative Thailand, so I, the ever-respectful traveler, am wrapped up accordingly.
The jade-colored silk scarf draped over my tanned shoulders doesn’t match the pink, elephant printed skirt that swooshes about my ankles, but I feel lovely all the same. Perhaps it’s the sweat creating ringlets on the back of my neck that’s making me feel so sexy. Or maybe it’s all those eyes on me.
People stare at me here, more so than any other place I’ve roamed. And I’ve roamed everywhere; a symptom of a long dead family and a childhood notion that I was born to be an adventurer. Maybe that’s still the goal: adventuring. Or maybe I’ve just realized a need to experience what’s left of the “real” world before it all goes to shit. And it will, in fact, all go to shit soon enough. Just give them time…
But this city isn’t shit. Not yet at least. It’s found a way to keep a pulse in a dying world. And the city has curious eyes. And all of those eyes are all on me.
I guess the long, dyed-pink, hair that rolls in waves down my back doesn’t seem so absurd in places like Hong Kong. And in East Africa, my porcelain skin and doe eyes are viewed primarily as an invitation for salesmen looking to make some credits. But here, I am a work of art. Something so foreign it’s like I walked straight out of a movie scene. And that feels strange. And a little intimidating. And also, in a vain way, a little good too, however much I hate to admit things like that.
I drift slowly down the noisy Ratchadamnoen Road. The sweet smell of mango sticky rice reminds me that I haven’t eaten a damn thing all day, but who’s got time for that when there’s so much to see? Uniform booths display scented oils, batik fabrics, and jewelry made of precious stone. Most of it is made normally. By machines, I mean. But some of it was made by real, artisan hands. You can always tell the former from the latter. Crafting something without the help of a bot is a lost art in most places, but I’ve always loved handmade things best. They have personality. I think personality is becoming a lost art, too.
I heard that once upon a time, real people used to sit at these booths. That you could haggle with a smiling stranger about how much you wanted to pay for goods and make deals and both parties would leave thinking they won somehow. They say that these markets were once alive. But now, they’re just a bit stiff. AI filled streams of wires and chips wrapped in metal, like everything else.
But there’s nothing stiff about these, I think to myself as I slide my fingertips over seven perfectly handcrafted string instruments set out on a booth carefully covered in red cloth.
Each instrument is propped up on its own stand with a sign beside it listing the product information. I massage a knot in the sanded wood of a small guitar and it sends a magic current through my body.
I lift this one from its perch. The brightly lit sign beside it reads in nearly 30 different languages: GUITARLELE – 200 CREDITS. A retractable, metal wire attached to the bot behind the booth is adhered to the back of the instrument. As soon as I lift it, the clunky machine registers my native language from the AI jingling on my wrist and begins speaking English in the sing-songy voice of a cheap salesman: “Handcrafted guitarlele, priced at 200 credits, made of mango wood from Chiang Mai, Thailand, nylon strings. If interested, press “Confirm Purchase now.”
I ignore the command and continue to admire the craftsmanship. I twist it in my hands this way and that before holding it close to my chest and playing it softly, humming the melody from Fleetwood Mac’s Gold Dust Woman.
A petite, old lady with sweet eyes watches me from a few feet away. I know instinctively that I am holding her work. She had come to watch over it at the market. Perhaps I wasn’t the only one stuck on the idea of the old ways. But unlike me, she got to experience it. I smile slightly at her and nod to show my appreciation and she grins girlishly before turning her back on me. I say “Confirm Purchase” and the wire detaches from the guitar as the outdated machine says, “Thank you for your purchase.”
With my new guitarlele in hand, I step behind the old woman and whisper in her native tongue, “Thank you, Ka.” Ka is the feminine title of respect amongst the Thai people. She turns and gently wraps both of her small hands around one of mine. I figure that, in her silent way, she’s thanking me for learning the words instead of having my AI speak them for me.
I slide the strap of my new guitar over my shoulder and glide farther down the road. Bots call out to passersby, advertising local delicacies and foot massages. I’m laughing at one’s outrageous attempt at pitching “nice lady-bots on display inside,” when I almost walk directly into an older gentleman who has his hand outstretched towards my stomach. I stop abruptly and mumble and apology in broken Thai.
“You are 24 years old,” he responds, unphased, in perfect English.
“Erm, yes,” I mutter, slightly taken aback.
“You were born in the early summer. June is it?”
“Yes, sir,” I stand there rooted to the ground. I don’t know why I’m answering him, but it feels almost like a compulsion.
“Something happened to you, child. Please sit and talk to me,”
Unthinkingly, I let this strange old man usher me to a seat in the middle of the road. He pulls one up beside me, turns his knees toward me and looks me deeply in the eyes. His are warm, but he’s looking at me as though I am too familiar and it makes me a bit uncomfortable.
“You’ve been violated and it has broken you in ways you haven’t begun to address yet.”
I didn’t know what he was talking about but I felt it somehow. Like he knew details about my life that I wasn’t privy to.
“It was a..a thing, that did it. Your violation felt almost sexual in nature. You are closed off. Your invisible scars numb you. But worse than that, it controls you.”
“No,” I say defiantly. But it felt like it was’nt me saying the words.
“Shhh…” he coos at me. “Tell them to let you speak.”
“Tell who?”. Why does it feel like he’s speaking a truth that’s distantly mine?
“I can help you. Follow me around the corner. I have a room where we can go,” he said.
Get away from him, my mind urges me. And before I have moment to process what is happening my legs are moving. I push my seat back abruptly and rush to my feet. The old man stands up too and puts his body in my way.
“I have to go,” I say meekly without meeting his eyes, but he doesn’t budge and I can feel his eyes boring into me.
I meet his eyes now with fire in my own. “Move.” I spit the word from my mouth with uncharacteristic malice.
Just then a hand reaches out from between us and lands firmly on the man’s chest.
“I do believe the lady is trying to get around you.” The voice belongs to a tall, dark and strikingly handsome man with a thick Manchester-esqe accent. I look up at him, surprised, but his eyes are on the old man, and he’s angry.
“I’m only offering my services,” the old man says with calm defiance. His eyes never leave my face.
“And she’s refusing them.”
Wait a second… what the hell is this? I’m not the kind of woman who requires a security detail.
“That’s right, I’m refusing them!” I say testily.
Pretty boy turns to look at me, excited by what he assumes is my validation, but seems surprised when he realizes my harsh tone is directed towards him. In a moment of understanding he smirks a little. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to suggest you couldn’t take care of yourself. I could see how uncomfortable you were from a mile a way. I stepped in before I had time to assess the situation.”
With my eyes still unwaveringly on him, he adds, “Had I, I might have noticed that you, of course, are not the kind of person who needs rescuing.”
I wanted to find a rebuttal for the seemingly patronizing response, but much to my annoyance, it was oozing with genuinity. I eyed him with skepticism for a moment before deciding he didn’t intend to threaten my hard-earned independence.
“Well what the hell were you doing watching me from a mile away, anyhow?” I say, flashing a cheeky grin.
He smiles and then seeming to remember the reason he came over in the first place, he turns to where the old man was standing. But he’s nowhere to be seen now. Lost in the bustling crowd. All that’s left are the two empty chairs, side by side in the middle of the road.
I stare at them for a moment, that moment seemed so far away now. “That was so bizarre,” I say under my breath, more to myself than anything.
“You’re alright, then,” he says, too seriously.
“Yes, Superman, I’m fine,” I say with idiosyncratic sarcasm. “Thank you, truly, for your concern,” I add softly, earnestly.
I begin to walk past him, eager to escape the discomfort of the previous moments.
“Robbie!” he calls at my back.
“Excuse me?” I look over my shoulder at him with a smile.
He takes a few hurried steps towards me to close the gap between us. “I thought you might want to know Superman’s real name. You know, in case you ever want to fall in love with me. Then you’ll be a step ahead of Lois Lane because you’ll already know… I am him and he is me. No wasting time with all the love triangle drama.” He’s rambling a little. It’s charming.
“This line of flirtation is entirely dependent on me being a comic book geek… bold move. You don’t know me well enough to be sure.”
“Either I’m braver than Clark Kent, or far stupider.”
“I’m Julia,” I say sticking out my hand to him.
He pauses for a brief moment and gazes towards his right side self consciously before slowly raising his hand to meet mine. Where his tanned right hand and forearm should be, there is only steel. A bionic. His eyes seem to be searching mine for fear or shock, but I’m certain all he’s finding is appreciation. I think it’s beautiful. I think he’s beautiful.
He takes my hand in his and his cool, custom-crafted fingers and squeezes them gently. “An absolute pleasure, Julia. Let me take you for a coffee?”
And all at once the butterflies that have been in my stomach since he called out to me transform into venomous spiders. And they’re making me sick. Taking all of my peace from me and replacing it with an overwhelming sense of foreboding. I can feel the color drain from my cheeks and judging by the worried look contorting his too-pretty features, he can see it too.
Him, too. RUN.
“I’m sorry, I have to go,” I say with what little composure I can muster.
I turn too quickly and bump into a woman trying on a pair of slippers. She says something angry and unintelligible as i push past her and deeper into the crowd.
The sickness subsides a little more with each step I put between the handsome stranger and I.
Damnit, I think to myself once I’m far enough down the road to begin thinking clearly again, couldn’t have played it cool around the hottie, freak?