Life And Death On The Back Of A Motorcycle In Thailand


This is cheating death, that’s what this is, you know?

Cheating death.

The man is wearing an orange vest and smoking a cigarette, leaning all nonchalant against his little gas-powered scooter, or dirt bike, or whatever it is, like James Dean against that stupid wall, a greaser, wheeling and dealing, waiting for the man.

Which means I am the man.

Will I die today? I do not feel like I will die today. I very much might die today.

Will there be pain? Numbness? Tingles? A fade to black – or to white, dead air, a William Gibson sky? Warmth? Coldness? Will I feel my legs? Dying people do not often feel their legs, much of pop culture will have you believe.

So how much is it?

Communication is rudimentary. He shows me four fingers (index, middle, ring, pinkie), then a sign language “o.” 40 baht? Dutch Girl says something in Thai.

“Yes,” she says. “40 baht.”

So 40 baht for a ride. Come one, come all, step right up and see the show, death defying, exhilarating, scream the screams of thousands before you.

You know what happened to James Dean? Yes, I thought so.

So now I’m on the back of the goddamn thing, wondering if it would be acceptable to hold this man by the waist, because otherwise it’s just a balancing act, walking the tightrope above the fluid black asphalt streaming by, just inches from my feet, and it’s not that far now, is it? It can’t be much farther; the ride’s almost over, has to be. He’s going to stop, and I’m going to hop off — nimbly, even — and I’m going to hand him his money, and I’m going to walk inside, Dutch Girl on my arm, and order a beer and everything’s going to be fine. Everything’s going to be fine. Yes. Definitely. Fine.

And Dutch Girl, she’ll be fine too. We’ll be fine.

But for these bikes, God, these bikes, seemingly doing everything they can to kill us, not motorcycles, no, much smaller than that, fabulously tiny, they’re like a step-up from fucking Power Wheels, those electric-powered plastic cars, the kind rich parents bought their kids for Christmas, just big enough to seat little Andrew or Hailey or Robert or Sarah and why did I never get a fucking Power Wheels for Christmas?

A question, unfortunately, for another time, as we fast approaching a pothole. Does he see that pothole? He must see that pothole.

At a traffic light, I catch a glimpse of Dutch Girl. She is wearing a short, lacy black dress and it is just so obvious now that here on our -— what is it now, third? fourth? — date that I will bear witness to her untimely death, oh God how I was just beginning to like her and maybe love her and it is all happening so fast, why does it have to end now and Jesus she looks so delicate — she is not, I know this, even though I have not known her for long, but doesn’t she look it — helpless, strangely avian, perched sidesaddle, on the back that motorbike, and the heathen driving the goddamn thing is probably a drunken drug-addict rapist with a penchant for pretty young Dutch girls, and I cannot believe I am going to have to see her smashed, pulped into oblivion by a wayward Isuzu, the lacy black dress floating down bloody and torn, a defeated banner, the war over before the battle’s even begun. She will be over. We will be over.

The light turns green and the fucker rockets forward, bouncing along the pockmarked streets, and I lose sight of Dutch Girl and light seems to bend as we break the space-time continuum, must be, at the speeds we’re going and —

And is he getting on the highway? Surely there’s a hidden path, an overpass, a fucking wormhole, anything to avoid us taking the goddamn motherfucking highway.

He is actively on the highway. Driving alongside real cars. Real, heavy cars with big engines and large fenders and seatbelts — oh, luxurious seatbelts! It’s like being a high school freshman, a junior varsity benchwarmer, in an NFL locker room, surrounded by large, naked, muscled men, slick with sweat and ready for a hot shower, and me, skinny, prepubescent, tiny batwing bones, cottony wisps of hair under my arms, I am just not ready — and this is weirdly homoerotic, I know, but hopefully you get the picture, because these men are large and I am so, so small, so frail and fragile and vulnerable, and this is just not safe, not safe at all, one hit is all it would take, boom, you’ve fallen and you most definitely cannot get up.

And oh, how I wobble. It’s all so fragile. The bike, Dutch Girl, our relationship. Life. All it takes is a rock, a pebble, a speck of microscopic asteroidal dust, and I’m off-balance, swerving now, then the crash, over the handlebars, squealing, brake-fluid, the translucent rainbow sheen of oil, the wet snap of bones, the of icy, haunted crack of skulls upon cement. Fire. The blue-red strobe of emergency vehicles. Solemn phone calls to loved ones from strange doctors in foreign hospitals.

Did I mention I think I love Dutch Girl?

But that pothole. It was like a fucking dinosaur footprint. I’m serious. It was that large. A brachiosaurus, probably, and it looked fresh. There could very well be brachiosauri in our midst. What a way to go, crushed underfoot by what was, until now, thought to be a strictly paleontological being.

But what if this man swerves, loses control, skids? More importantly, what if I swerve, lose control, skid?

In either situation, it’s Dutch Girl down, and I’m left drinking overpriced mojitos out of a novelty-sized martini glasses by myself in this bar, which is famous for that kind of thing, eclectic, a thrift-shop-by-day-pub-by-night kind of deal.

But what if my driver falls, leaving Dutch Girl by herself? I mean, she will be alive, yes, but small victories, because if my driver falls, oh, he will be fine, his head encased in that matte black helmet, weirdly insectile, clonking down on the road and, oh sure, maybe he’ll break something — a clavicle, a coccyx, a patella — but for me there is no hope, unless — and this is my one tiny, microscopic sliver of a shot — if maybe I time it just right, I can leap off into a nearby bush, or simply climb on his back like a young sloth, clutching, hide my head behind the fiberglass of that helmet, like a child hiding behind his mother’s dress, pressing tightly, so tightly, against him, and just kind of bounce along with him, kind of sled him along the asphalt, the tear of cloth and skin and the squeal of metal, the sparks, and the few electric seconds of silence which so often follows disaster and cements future horror and pain and suffering.

This thing, whatever it is with Dutch Girl and me, is also so brittle, an eggshell, intricately painted and decorated, a work of concentrated art, and unless you want it to break into a million pieces, you should protect it, guard it with whatever you’re willing to give up, encase it in lead if you have to, but above all don’t let it shatter, because it is yours. If it is destroyed, you’re left with nothing but the imaginings of what was, sparkly could-have-been fables, shrouded dream-like fantasies, and I can’t have that, not now, not this one.
So it could be it is me who is delicate, and if my bike falls, I will break.

Then perhaps we will share a hospital room, the driver and I, mummy-wrapped bandages and morphine drips and the camaraderie that echoes down the halls of burn wards an through the fingertips of reconstructive surgeons.

Perhaps Dutch Girl will go, trot off to easier loves, the driver and I left to our own devices.

Yes, the Skin Graft Brotherhood of the Bangkok Expressways, all for one and one for all who have only one leg We could be fitted for prostheses together, him and I — Is this one too gaudy? Too much? Too subtle? Tell me, Brother, please tell me, would this one – and be honest now, tell me the truth here, pull no punches — go with a black and a brown pair of loafers? Is it formal enough? Like, could I wear it to funerals? To hi-so cocktail parties? But what if I’m just going to, say, Cheap Charlie’s for a beer, you know, would I be out of place there? This is a big decision, monumental, momentous, much larger than choosing my tattoo, although not that it matters any longer, anyway, no, because that’s long gone, cheese-grated off somewhere between Soi 77 and 32, a bloody patch on the asphalt, a greasy stain, what’s left long ago eaten by rats.

And to think, dear friend, not so long ago you were just an orange-vested stranger. To be here with you now, in hospital beds, listening to the steady beep of life-assuring heart monitoring machines is an honor, a blessing, fate, destiny. Perhaps I will marry your daughter — can she manage a colostomy bag? I imagine they can harvest the sperm from my torn testes, which have been found by now, surely, because they were only a few yards away from the wreckage, after all, just next to my blood-filled shoe, strewn carelessly aside, like a bloody wad of chewed gum on the pavement. Yes someone will find them, implant them into her perfectly intact little ovaries so I might father you a healthy grandson, a boy who will be raised in perfect, harmonious Thai-Western tradition, world-weary, wise, cosmopolitan. Thanksgivings and Loy Krathongs. Christmases and Songkrans. Our families entwined, tangled as earphone cords, you not only my brother, but my father, hobbling down the aisle with the young bride, giving her away (Do you see her smile, the love in her eyes?) and I will hobble back down with her. We will have to discuss this whole wedding business later, because it is hard to think with the wind in my hair, shrieking into my ears its harried visions of the future, sucking the moisture from my from my eyes, shrink-wrapping my contact lenses to my corneas and I just read that story on the Internet about the man who left his contacts in for too long and tried to remove them and tore his corneas out along with them. It’s so easy to envision his entire pupils popping out, little black buttons, a pair of googly eyes ready for a construction paper monster.

But this all hinges on the fact that Dutch Girl lives. We must remember she is on a motorbike of her own. Poor, sweet, Dutch Girl. The acrid burn of rubber upon cement, the protesting scream of metal, horrified cries. An explosion — three, four of them.

And it is at this moment when my driver pulls up to the curb and I pay him his stinking 40 baht and he zips off and I’m left waiting, waiting for Dutch Girl, who must be dead, because where else would she be, her has driver killed her, killed us, and again it is my fault, my fault for meeting her, for agreeing to go out tonight of all nights, the night when that garbage truck blew a tire and skidded out of control into Netherlands territory and her broken body and that tattered black dress and her skin was so soft.

I am so afraid.

I have been waiting on this corner for far, far too long.

I haven’t heard the sounds of the crash, but it’s happened, must have done; she is definitely dead by now, because where on Earth else would she be?

But now, just now, she’s turned the corner, on foot, and my God, she is smiling. It is a miracle. I should go to Church, become a Buddhist monk, slaughter a lamb.

And strangely, the only thing I want to do is hop back on a motorcycle, but this time with her. Ride into the night, high speeds and howling winds, danger be damned, uncertainty and unsteadiness, the steps of a newborn calf, clutching dearly to the bike, to the man driving, to our lives, clutching, clutching to one another with everything we have.

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