The End

It could be timing, or love or age or all three. In the end, we strive for a moment we can sit down and say, “I am happy. I have what I need, to stay put, dare I say… settle.” A friend recently sent me this quote: “With the adventurous lives that we live, the real challenge is seeing the adventure in stability.” After over two years of wandering and displacement, it seems I have finally found a comfort in “home” and love. With that, I have obtained an artist visa and decided to remain in Berlin to pursue my writing, life, and other endeavors.

After two years of living Wayward Betty, I am retiring the project. It is interesting to look back on her as a character—she is me, but I am not her. A friend of mine recently noted me that she gave me the kind of strength I needed, an armor and a kind of shield, the kind of person I would have been without weaknesses and doubts. She is the outfit I wore to face the world and I penned her with the greatest admiration.

Continue reading “The End”

Relapse

My landlord went crazy sometime at the end of June. To tell the background of my summer homelessness would mean attempting to articulate the irrationality of human behavior. Does that sound vague? It was meant to be; partly to spare the landlord in question, and partly to spare myself the wrath of publicly declaring one man’s instabilities and mental aberrations. Though, I am not the type to spare my subjects, in this case, it is only necessary to say that, Craigslist is never good at belying mental illness, until it is too late. Continue reading “Relapse”

Stray Cats (Notes from Berlin)

My first floor Tucson apartment was infested with stray cats. At night I heard them scratching, screaming, fucking beneath the basement floorboards. They made stray cat nests next to the heaters and swaddled cat-babies in the alleys. The ghetto-living was punctuated by a shattered window next to my bed, which looked starkly into a dusty alley lined with desert weeds.

One morning, I awoke to a patch of sun and something else warming my feet. It was furry. When I moved, it moved. Within seconds, I felt the slow crawl of hunting paws first along my legs, the my belly and slowly onto my chest. Before I could wrestle with nature’s invasion, the stray cat put its face in mine and gave a long, almost grateful, “Meeeooooooooow.” After breathing her cat morning breath in my face, she pounced towards the window and made an escape before I had time to offer a cup of coffee.

Throughout that summer, the cat would return occasionally and she was, sweet for a stray, prowling for bowls of milk, or just a warm nights rest. Knowing the elements, I didn’t begrudge her.

Continue reading “Stray Cats (Notes from Berlin)”

Fingerprints

On a sunny London morning, a woman careened towards me with a baby carriage, smiling and bouncing with happy. I had just spilled hot coffee down my arm and the front of my shirt. Often, my awakening to children and babies is forced—an occurrence delivered with high-pitched screams and tension, for me, most evident, while trapped at the airport. At LAX, I was waiting to board my flight to Sydney, when a family comprised of two sunken eyed, exhausted parents and three children entered my world: there was the eldest girl in pigtails, under ten, her brother, not over six or seven, and some version of a toddler (girl or boy, I didn’t care, the parents didn’t seem to either, belied by the deliberately androgynous haircut).

As in many travel situations, I tried not to be overwhelmed by natural, unavoidable annoyances—other peoples odors, amplified announcements, delays, lost baggage, and harsh lighting. The most affecting irritations are invoked by the ignorance of others: this is the kind that cannot be so quickly diffused or excused. In this case, the parents thought it a socially responsible idea to give their children toy instruments—one had a drum, the other, a recorder, and the youngest, some kind of electronic percussion instrument. The parents were oblivious to the eye-rolling directed at them, remaining not only unaware and slouching, but unsympathetic to the fact that no one, not even the most desperate, unmarried, Midwestern girl, thinks their kids are as cute as they do. When the little bastards got bored, they threw their instruments on the carpet and wandered towards the windows, pounding and pawing, leaving large greasy fingerprints that were made visible by a setting sun through the glass, the planes hovering distantly, in an otherwise beautiful shot.

When children are present, IQ’s plummet: speech, manner of reason, and appreciation for the general welfare of the public is irrelevant—normal social skills need not apply. I have heard from some mother-friends of mine that walking out of the house covered in bodily fluids becomes normalized. Parents are swayed only by acts that will potentially quell their screaming children and move as quickly as possible through each moment, each day. As my one divorced single-father friend once so eloquently explained, You give up your whole life to take care of these ungrateful little pieces of people.

Waiting to board the ferry from Malaga to Melilla, I was stuck at a coffee shop guarding a pile of bags while my twenty-something travel buddies wandered around looking to find the ticket counter. I was stopped on the street by an Irish woman and her husband, also lost, having just given a confused, panoramic, sun-shielded glance of the pier. Both looked younger from far away than they did up close (skinny and smiling, even if falsely, signal youth). She had the kind of legs even Barbie would admire, slim and tan, wearing a short jean skirt like a high school cheerleader. They introduced themselves (“Sheila and Jim”) and we helped each other navigate entry, gather tickets, find the ramp and forge ahead with our bags. Lagging behind, I watched them holding hands and skipping up the ramp.

After boarding the ferry, I learned that the couple was in their mid-forties and had married late. They fell in love and both agreed they did not want to have children. They had traveled to Africa several times and were currently on an excursion to Chefchaouen to find some of the best hash in Morocco. They had done their research. Jim pulled out a notebook of literature on how to buy pot in Morocco, the illegalities, ways not to get caught and the best cities to find what you are looking for. They invited us to join them on their exploits, but we were headed 14 hours in the opposite direction.

Sheila and I bumped into each other as she was coming out of the bathroom and I had to ask, “Now, really, what is your secret? How did you get those legs?”

She laughed and said, “Everyone says that. It’s nothing really. I have my father’s skinny gene.” She asked me about what I was doing in Morocco and my travels. We talked rapidly and succinctly, each of us baring our own life story as though there were no other place to have this conversation, but in the hallway, outside the ferry bathroom on the Strait of Gibraltar. When she found out I had called off my wedding she said, “I think that is great. You know, there are so many young girls who just don’t even realize what is out there. They don’t even know what they are capable of. I decided very young not to have children, so it was never hard for me.”

Not that I am one of these “young girls” she describes, but the advice, support and confirmation was well-received. For the first time, I wasn’t being asked, “Don’t you want to be married?” or, “Why don’t you have children?”

Sheila was wild and hard, but also tender and motherly: when a button broke on my shirt, she kindly gave me some scissors and sewing equipment. When I broke the scissors, she smiled, and winked, then the lines on her sun-infused, freckled skin feathered when she refused the leftover Euros in my purse. Sheila and Jim gave us maps and led us off the boat, hailing us a cab and giving us instructions on how to get through customs at midnight.

A month later, I met an older woman on the train to Manchester traveling from the Grasmere Lake District in Northern England. She was returning to Spain to see her husband and children, striking me as lonely and overly gregarious, almost pushy, but proud to talk about her family. She told us about her daughters, one who had two children, and the other, a married lawyer who had made the decision not to have children at all. This was the only moment she ever looked sad, looking down at her hands that clenched tightly, “I fear she is missing on what is important. She may have her travel and her money, but what is it worth in the end?”

My parents try to goad me into the childrearing life-phase, explaining that, “No one is ever ready,” but it seems clear that some people are never ready and should not be populating this world at all. Recently, I stayed with a photographer friend in Minneapolis: early forties, single father, half-French, half-Mexican with beautiful tan skin, green eyes, and white teeth, like the grown child of a dentist. Ramon and I sat at the picnic table in his backyard, drinking wine while he showed me a photo album, spanning his college years through the present. Most of them were of girlfriends, including the mother of his child, and sundry models, one he introduced as a heroin addict who had since overdosed: “I have worked with the best,” he told me.

While he proudly explained that his daughter was the best thing that happened to him, the story was complicated. His model-girlfriend became pregnant only weeks before he intended to leave her and return to Mexico to become a filmmaker. For the first year, he played part-time father, coming in and out and contributing when necessary. After they separated, when his daughter was only two years old,  he was called by Child Protective Services because his ex-girlfriend overdosed and ended up in rehab.

He was later awarded full-custody, which sparked a subsequent legal battle after her release. While looking at photographs, he showed me what was once a crucial piece of evidence during litigation: a photo taken of his toddler daughter draped over her strung out mother, covered and colored in make-up. There was something beautiful and haunting about the way his daughter had applied the eyeliner and blush, as though she mimicked the drug addict mother with dark, sunken eyes and heavy, pouting lips. The two small bodies were entwined, the child’s head resting on her mother’s naked and skinny hip. This photo that told a childhood of stories, was blown up poster-sized and called Evidence A.

The photo itself became infamous and he was awarded full custody. I suggested it was art.

I have a friend in New York, a few years shy of 40, who is unmarried and desperate for a child. Last time I visited her, we laid on our backs in her bed like crazy women, brainstorming how she could “accidentally” get her relatively new boyfriend to knock her up. In this case, the straightforward request would not do: he wasn’t ready and they weren’t married, though she felt her biological clock ticking inside her like a suicide bomb. The guy was also an overly responsible Wall Street type so it wasn’t like he was susceptible to any “fast ones.” We thought of the obvious: poking holes in the condoms or getting him drunk. When pressing other friends for suggestions, one recommended taking the used condom into the bathroom and pulling the turkey baster trick. Still, we found logistical, biological, and moral issues with this brilliant, but diabolical scheme.

This desperation is not unnoted. Children do become an extension of the self, even if unknowingly. It starts out biologically, then evolves, into general dependence and personal accountability, at some point sort of morphing into a kind of individual satisfaction though the inverse is also true. Considering the death of her child, I know of a woman who explained that even though she knew her son’s suicide was not her fault, she could not get over what felt like the death of something inside herthe  death of herself. The parent-child relationship is one I have yet to understand, though its beauty and tragedy, often confusing, cannot be shorted.

Recently I have been impressed by the simple, utter joy experienced by grandparents. I sat at a café in Vietnam and was approached by an older couple who were announcing the birth of their first grandson. Without knowing me, or speaking English, they treated me to breakfast and coffee (announced via our translating waitress). In Dublin, I met a man at the bar who bought a round for the bar celebrating the birth of his grandson, explaining to me that, “Der ain’t any greater joy than seein yar grandbabes.” My own parents are like reborn Christians, dizzy with devotion to their new grandchildren. Recently, at a hotel, I met a man at the bar who glowed when he announced his daughter was having twins, even though she was still in college and unmarried. There is no shame when welcoming new life.

Since my brief return to the States, I have had to confront the reality of the overwhelming place that children occupy in the world. This was a summer of family reunions, birthday parties, weddings, showers and birth announcements, introductions to newborns, and the harrowing sense that time is pushing all of us forward.  Grocery shopping, Interstate stops and suburbs remind me that the economy, culture and psychology of the world is directed at cultivating, socializing, and providing for the next generation. Why wouldn’t it?

My life is not amenable to children and I have not yet swallowed the rhetoric (women without children are selfish or sterile). Abandoning the Midwest seems like a good idea for now, where people like to procreate and mid-twenties pregnancy seems to catch like wildfire. Armies of families begin to form young, making it hard not to feel alone when everyone in your age bracket has at least two other bodies hanging from them.

Before I packed my car again and left for San Francisco, I was at a corner café/bar with a friend in Milwaukee. We were having mimosas in the afternoon before a thunderstorm forced everyone to huddle inside.  In close quarters, the owner handed out serapes to keep us dry.  While squeezing into a corner booth, we were approached by two children, a boy around eight, and his sister, probably five or six. This wasn’t the normal case of, “Jesus, where are your parents?” They were cute, funny, polite, and said things like, “When I grow up, I am going to be a rock star, a soccer player, or a restaurant owner,” (he had compelling reasons for all three). We talked about dinosaurs, favorite superpowers, fairies, vampires and children’s movies I hadn’t considered in years. Outside, the thunder crashed, the lightening lit the summer sky and the rain cut streams through the gutters and past the row of cars parked on the street. Until the storm settled, we played catch with a ball made of rubber bands, acted out dragon slayer scenes and pretended we were ninjas. Imagination transcends time and space…it didn’t matter where we were.

Though I am moving forward independently and perpetually feeling somewhat unhinged (for better or for worse), there is always the potential for new influences. Despite my reservations, I can embrace this one thing: channeling imagination and a kind of detachment from a world that has not yet jaded them, children make people happy…stupid happy, the kind of happy where you lose yourself, if only for a moment.

 

 

Cowboys in Asia

My first night in Saigon, I haven’t slept in two days. I am past the point of being tired—wired, where no self-medication will suffice. The host at the front desk says I look weary and suggests that I go to the spa, “Ahh, night massage. Good for you. Help you get rest.” After cramming my Germanic body into a sleeper bus (the ergonomics clearly unsuited) for over 15 hours and the trepidation of arriving in a new country, I didn’t hesitate and scheduled an 11:30 (PM) appointment.

The ride is prearranged—on the back of a motorbike, through the night market and the back alley to a place called, “Entranced.” I climb off the back seat and return to the driver his weathered and cracked helmet. The tinted doors swing open to a bright waiting room with gold, green and pink floral wallpaper. I am greeted by an overly enthusiastic male and two soft-spoken women wearing long silk nightgowns, one slightly older, both half my height.  They bow,  the man hands me a cup of tea, and I am lead upstairs by the older woman who is now pulling me by the hand. Trying not to spill, I climb a winding dark stairwell, “Wat-cho step,” she tells me, anticipating the forthcoming trip on a piece of loose carpet.

On the third floor, she opens the door to a darkly lit room with four beds separated only by white linen curtains. There is steam unfurling from a bucket of hot stones and a loud fan that masks the sounds of honking motorbikes below. Before I can set down my purse, she points to me and gives me the directive, “You. Take off clothes.” She doesn’t look away and waits until my shoes are off, my pants are in a pile on the chair, and I am draping an arm over my chest, before she gestures to a bed, “Here.” I awkwardly climb on the table, lie down on my stomach and within seconds she is straddling me dumping oil from a jar on my arms and back. The massage is made up of quick, violent movements—fist pounding, lifting and dropping my limbs, cracking my toes and fingers, and a prolonged period of forceful kneading; in short, not relaxing–painful.

Wanting to leave, but having the suspicion that I had only been there about 20 minutes, I commit myself to the long haul, clench my fists and close my eyes. At some point, the younger woman enters and says something hurriedly in Vietnamese. The curtains are drawn closed around my bed and I hear the muffled sounds of a man outside. I recognize his American accent. The pitches of the women change, becoming more drawn out and sultry as they arrange his bed. I listen to him go through the same routine as myself, before he settles in and I am forced to endure the following conversation:

“How ohl ah-you?” she asks him.

He pauses and I can hear through his smile, “Forty six.”

After some hesitation, he asks, flirtatiously, “How old are you?”

“Nine-teen,” (giggles), then “You have fam-i-ry?”

“Yes.”

“You married? You have wife?”

I can tell he is reluctant, wanting to avoid this conversation, but answers, “Yeah.” (Silence, then heavy breathing).

I then listened to a series of questions that I can only imagine were answered by head nods and gestures:

“You like?”

“You want dis?”

“Dis, good for youuuu?” the last word drawn out and punctuated by a slight moan. There is only a curtain between us and I am trapped between sloppy banter and slurping sound effects until my own massage finally ends. I am thrown a towel and whisked away, past his curtain, to the steam bath room two floors up, where the woman demands that I take off my underwear and closes the door. Looking around at the rotted tiles, the air so thick I can hardly breathe, I leave my underwear in place, and cling to my towel. I refuse to sit down. I am suffocated and the entire experience is becoming, not just a waste of money, but unbearable.

Abandoning the remainder of my “spa package,” I decide I want to leave. I open the door and start wandering down the hallway and the dim stairwells, looking for my clothes and purse. I hear her from a floor below when she yells, “NO! You go back in room!” I realized they took me up there so they could finish what was started with the American. She is intercepting me, when she yells, “You come here!” pulls me down  a flight of stairs,  and pushes me into a room without explanation, slamming the door in my face. I look around and realize, I am now, locked in a bathroom, standing in a towel (and my underwear, at least) waiting for this American guy to get off.

Great.

I jiggle the door handle and start knocking. First softly, then I am pounding. After a few minutes, the militant older masseuse opens the door smiling, as if nothing happened, and I say, “Just give me my clothes, I want to get out of here.” She understands, not my words, but my tone, and leads me back to the room where I quickly get dressed and grab my purse. The man has already been escorted out. Again, she takes my hand, holding it between hers, “My friend, my friend, you like me? You give me tip?” I hand her a five dollar bill just to end it all. She hugs me and says, “You are so beautiful. You very pretty,” a line I am certain she has used before.

This wasn’t my first run-in with the sex industry in Asia. I went to “Soi Cowboy” in Bangkok, where the street is lined with strip clubs and brothels, the women free to rent for an evening, or plausibly, a lifetime. The women stand impatiently, lined up, smoking cigarettes with painted, pouting lips, and drooping fake eyelashes, faint peach fuzz belying the gender of the surreptitious ladyboy.

I also went to a karaoke bar in Chiang Mai which operates as a front, the women hike up their skirts and bat their eyes as we enter. I feel bad for them, they look bored, withdrawn, sex appeal sucked dry with their own disinterest, “Let’s have them come in and sing with us!” I suggest.

“If you want to pay $1000 bucks to sing with them, go ahead,” my friend replies. I decide it’s not worth it.

There are some cities that look better in the dark: Austin, Tucson, and New Orleans, I suppose, most desert towns, and the American south, generally. This is my experience in cities throughout Asia, where nightlife, incandescence and the glow of entertainment, hide the smog and dirt your feet will kick up in daylight.

One night in Ho Chi Minh City, I head out with an English guy I met over breakfast. We had spent the day at the War Museum, examining the Agent Orange formaldehyde fetuses and decide that drinking was a necessary antidote. After a few beers on a busy corner, we are carving our way through narrower streets with blinking signs, when he asks, “Want to go to a brothel?”

Here we go.

The brothel is lit in blue lights, and marked by the shadows of dancing women in tight dresses. They have surprising curves. There is a man getting a lap dance in the back. After some cursory broken English is exchanged, a few of the women who are unoccupied sit down at the bar with us and take a shot.

We compare breast implants (this makes them trust me).

I see that the woman behind the bar is crying on the phone. When she hangs up, I ask her if she is okay, what is wrong. She is clearing mascara from under her eyes as she tells me that the man on the phone was an American, from Pennsylvania. He got her pregnant 10 years earlier and was very, how should I say, unreliable, about sending any support money for their daughter. From what I gathered, he also has a double life going on in a suburb back home with a bonus round wife and three kids. I imagine middle-management sloth and pudgy children with names like Steven, Sally, and Grace. His wife has no clue that he has fathered a child in Vietnam or that he left this woman begging and tending brothel.

She is still beautiful.

After being in Thailand and Vietnam, I felt the increasing compulsion to protect Asian women from Western men. I start getting pissed that there are no international child support laws and (drunkenly) consider waging a campaign before the U.N. As it gets later, the white men start trickling into the brothel and I pretend we are at a normal bar, just to put them off. They do not expect a blunt, American woman to come up and ask, “Hey, where you from? How long will you be here?” No one wants to answer questions and they know I can see through them. I successfully force at least three back out into the street. I am not doing these girls any favors, but still, I feel accomplished.

After leaving HCMC, I am in Nah Trang, a beach town about 12 hours north. There is a divorced man in his late 50’s from Chicago working up a story about the younger Asian women he has bagged on his short trip: “I feel like I am dreaming,” he says, making me mouth-barf. He is short, bald and unattractive, the kind of guy, you know, couldn’t get it back home. I think, “You are dreaming, buddy. A nice poverty stricken, war wounded afterthought. Glad scarcity is working for you.”

We are both staying in the same hotel, so we cannot help the daily run-ins. One morning he comes stumbling into the lobby. His forehead is bleeding and is eye is purple and half-shut. He is dabbing blood from his face with a dirty napkin.

Before I even ask, he starts in, “I like nightlife,” he says, “I like to go out late, you know. Maybe I had too many drinks.” I ask him what happened. Apparently, after he left the “club,” he was attacked by three Vietnamese women who charged him, knocked him down and stole his wallet. I hide my smile when I turn away, thinking there was some poetic justice in this robbery.

When talking to a younger Vietnamese man, I ask him what he thinks the older white men parading around his country, with young Asian women dangling like bracelets from their forearms. He thinks it is gross, especially when the men are really fat (he makes gestures of a swollen belly), but also concedes that he is not in their position. He says he doesn’t know what it is like to be a poor, Vietnamese woman: “They just want better life,” he says, “They want car, house, someone care for them.”

Not to glorify the exchange, but, these women are hard-asses, not to be pitied. They have been tried more than I can imagine or ever will. They are not  helpless victims of culture, though they are the victims of poverty, which could force any of us into making different decisions, including unleashing some battery on an ugly, rich, fat white dude trying to get laid.

The Asian sex industry is not so foreign, like most differences once you examine them closely: to quote an American hero and our old friend, Puff Daddy, “It’s all about the Benjamins, baby.”

Plastic

When I was 16 I told my parents that I wanted breast implants. I asked them if it were possible to consider it an “investment,” kind of like paying for piano lessons or gymnastics or college: “But think of the opportunities! The opened doors! I could do anything!” They didn’t buy it. Like any good parents, they ignored it like my other long string of attention seeking stunts and chalked up to a phase.

As a child, I examined the Barbie dolls and imagined what it would be like to fully “emerge” as a woman. When I was a teenager, I stuffed my bra, a trick I continued to pull through college which came in handy in toilet-paperless barroom stalls and fraternity parties. I watched old movies, the women pouring out of low cut dresses, and held out hope through my mid-twenties that maybe I was just a late bloomer. I think it took turning 25 for me to accept that I had probably completed puberty, even if unsuccessfully. The butterfly metaphor just didn’t apply.

I envied women who could wear those ridiculous corsets, even if they were strippers and Playboy models. Any lingerie would do. I even wanted to be a burlesque dancer—something I was very close to pursuing in New York. After watching a show in the Lower East Side, I was sitting at the bar stirring my drink when the respected NYC dancer, Runaround Sue, came and sat next to me, propping her bare chest on the bar, like she was carrying around too many bags. I tried to look her straight in the eyes, not the nipples, as I told her that I wanted my own act. “Chest size doesn’t matter!” she said excitedly, “You should do it! Come meet me and we can find you a costume!”

I masterminded a routine in the event that I was ever ready to bare all. The routine goes like this: I am wearing an eye patch, a pirate hat marked with a skull and crossbones, and I have strapped on a wooden peg leg. I hop in from one side with my arms on my hips and kind of sway around on the stump. After some enticing hip movements and a wink at the audience, I kick my leg and the wooden peg leg goes flying at the same time I tear off the eye patch, fling the hat and let down my hair. Sexy right?

With all the practice and planning, the whole stunt just didn’t seem right without swinging breasts and flailing nipple tassels. I still wanted implants. Yes, Dolly Parton is one of my role models and I adhere to her shameless, yet, dignified pursuit of plastic surgery. Broaching this topic with anyone usually invokes some kind of heated response. For some reason, people have very strong opinions about what we should or should not do to our own bodies. Men will say, “But you are fine just the way you are,” as if I just needed their personal voice of approval to change my mind: “Yes, of course! What was I thinking? How could I change something about myself that you believe to be just fine. Thank you for the compliment and highly relevant opinion of my body. I no longer want to go through with this.” I think it’s cute that every guy thinks he is the first to try and dissuade me. When it comes to this particular issue, I am immune to flattery.

In the same vein, women will categorize plastic surgery as an affront. It is anti-feminist, it means you are insecure, not happy with yourself. They think you are a secret cutter. I felt the most resistance from women who were already big-busted, although this, I kind of understood, the same way that women with straight hair always want it to be curly. We want what we can’t have.

For me, it has always been very simple. To put it bluntly: I wanted boobs. Big ones. The kind that fell out of my shirt and made people look twice. The kind that I could take shopping and go swimming with. Boobs that screamed, “Hey you! Look at me, even though all I’m gonna do is sit here. And maybe bounce around a little. Either way, it’s FUN FUN FUN, til her Daddy takes the T-Bird away!” I thought of them as long-lost friends. The term “bosom buddies” didn’t come out of nowhere. It just so happened that we had not met yet. We were like estranged family members waiting to get reunited on Montel Williams.

Some things we can change and some things we cannot. Fortunately, in my case, change came last week in a Thai hospital at a discount price. I planned the surgery months before arriving in Bangkok, corresponding with some androgynous internet personality called “Nann.” I sent him/her pictures, medical records, descriptive prose about my desired breasts, which I am confident went ignored or untranslated.

One of the reasons plastic surgery is cheaper is because the entire process is streamlined. Instead of making an appointment, you basically sit in a line and wait until the doctor can see you. Same day consultations and surgery make the process even more efficient. I had a nightmare the day before my appointment. You might think it would have to do with some infection or botch job, but no, my subconscious fear was that the doctor would have to perform the surgery Friday instead of Tuesday, as planned.

The waiting room was packed and felt a little bit like that afterlife waiting room scene from Beetlejuice: we are all kind of messed up, looking around wondering what happened and what needs fixing. I kept thinking about that guy with the shrinking head and all the dead people holding numbers. Some of the patients are legitimate: a child with a harelip, the burn victim, and the row of lady-boys waiting for sex change operations. Then there are the rest of us: Europeans, Australians, and Americans who are either seeking nose jobs, facelifts, liposuction, or implants (insert me).

I decide that the hospital, in general, is way too colorful and bright. Also (this is my favorite part)…. the nurses are on roller skates. They are wearing those tight suits like flight attendants from the 60’s gliding by holding documents, medication… SYRINGES .There is techno music playing in the background as if the whole experience should say, “Plastic surgery is fun! Let’s do it again!”

Throughout the hospital there are advertisements that say things like, “Be happy. Be beautiful.” On the posters there is a running list of procedures you can undergo to make this happen (beauty and happiness both start to seem like suspect outcomes). I find myself unintentionally holding my breath at several points: when I hear my mispronounced name and stand, weighing the implants in my palms, standing nude in front of the doctor while he took pictures and made incomprehensible comments in Thai, laying down on the operating table, arms spread eagle, a split second, right before I inhaled the anesthesia.

The good thing about general anesthesia is that you are fully aware that, in what seems like seconds, you will wake up and it will all be over. The bad thing is that when you wake up, you will have been sliced open, prodded, stuffed, and sewn back together like Thanksgiving dinner. I don’t remember much except for yelling at one of the roller skating nurses to rub my arms because I couldn’t feel them. This is one of those anesthesia horror story moments, although they reassured me in broken English that everything would be fine in a few hours.

So, in less than 48 hours, I landed in Bangkok and woke up with breasts. Big, swollen, tightly wrapped, fake breasts. It is one of those moments in life that makes no sense and you know that nothing you have ever experienced or will experience can compare. It’s like coming out of a coma or The Matrix only you have new body parts. And I don’t mean this in a positive or negative way… just that lying there, knowing that weight of what seemed like 50 pounds pressing down on my chest was now my own body is definitely a WTF moment.

I stay in the hospital overnight and within a few hours after waking up, I am trying to prepare for departure. I knew I had to go back to the creepy old Bangkokian hotel alone and take care of myself for a week before the stitches come out so I do my best to conquer the surgical feat with minimal angst. Everything hurts: sitting up, bending over, lifting, reaching, picking up the phone… reading. I start to feel like a good primate when I use my feet to pick up my purse. I had to learn to sit up on my own. Not to keep referencing movies, but I just watched Kill Bill and I was channeling Uma Thurman in the backseat of the Pussy Wagon. Instead of saying, “Wiggle your big toe,” I was like, “Just sit up. Sit up. Sit up. Sit up. Sit up.” Mustering only strength from my lower-abs and using some leg momentum, I lift my chest and throw my legs over the side of the bed. Success. I practice walking around the room but am off balance, because I am holding the new weight up with both my forearms.

After packing up my things, I throw some cash for my new tee-tas at the check-out, step out to the curb and hail a cab (unable to lift my arm, I give a low-five wave). Up in the room I was prepared: Luckily, pirated DVDs cost less than a dollar in Thailand and I learned that there was at least one guy in the kitchen who could take room service orders in English. I was in air conditioned recovery and spent the next few days reclining in a king sized bed, trying to avoid the ubiquitous Bangkokian smells of street meat and cat piss.

In a few days, I am out and about. Another thing I like about Thai health care is that you can pretty much get whatever you want from the pharmacy. They even have a Botox counter where you can walk up and they just start poking needles in your face. Be wary though: the guy behind the counter is so tight and shiny, he looks like robotic Jude Law in AI. Thai health care is pretty much a free for all. When I show the pharmacist the painkillers I was prescribed, she says, “Das for kindergarten pain! You need dis!” She throws me what I suspect to be some concoction of Oxycodone, Percoset or Vicodin, I am not sure what. She throws in a pack of Valium and says, “You jus take easy and relaaaaaa-AX, ” (winks and smiles).

The million dollar questions: How are they and how do I feel? My friend warned me about body dysmorphic disorder and the psychological dangers of plastic surgery. For me, there was no dysmorphia because (well, maybe this is dysmorphic), I believed they were supposed to be there the whole time. Like I said…. reuniting with old family… and just in time for Christmas. My only complaint is that they may not be big enough. The doctor laughed at me today when I asked if he could make them bigger. Since he does not speak English very well, he made a series of gestures and sound effects, which I interpreted to mean that the implant would overflow from the side, implode (or explode) beneath the muscle and potentially collapse and come out my mouth. Really, I have no idea what he was trying to indicate, other than something really terrible might happen if I tried bigger implants.

Maybe he is right and I should just get used to these. I already kind of have this feeling that I am auditioning for porn when walking down the street. Okay, to be fair, I have an active imagination.

I got my stitches out today and we are all healing on schedule. When I fully recover, I am thinking of putting that pirate routine back together… possibly integrating a talking parrot and a flute.

But, first things first: I am taking my new boobs and getting the F— out of Bangkok.

Nine Lives

Sometimes I like to count the number of times I have narrowly escaped death. Once I fell backwards off a two story balcony. Another time, I got swept into white water rapids and carried down a 15-foot waterfall. I was caught by a lawn chair and some large puddles, respectively.

Choking on the hamburger at summer camp.

A near drowning in Hawaii.

The accidental date with a convicted murderer.

Some crazy lung disease I had at birth.

Most close calls are the direct result of bad decision making. Take for example, the time I got kicked out of Mexico, carried across the border by the federal police, and got in the back of a pick-up truck with 12 guys I didn’t know. I watched the driver down a bottle of tequila before we peeled out and drove back to Tucson. This memory still makes me cringe a little bit.

The first night I arrive in Indonesia I am invited to go to a bar with the caveat, “Someone died there last night.” I have been in Bali only two hours and all I can think is, “Okay, how do we get there? And who’s driving?”  I am prone to recklessness. Also, one reckless person usually begets reckless company, a.k.a. “the bad influence.” There are some people you meet who know are going to be trouble. It’s like two people with really bad ideas bolstering and building upon each other’s really bad ideas. Like a messy snowball of trouble. We find eachother, because together, we feel normal.

So, upon considering my options (death club or rest),  I decide to climb on the back of a motorcycle with a 24-year-old Finnish kid named Janne (pronounced Yanni) who looks as out of place as the McDonald’s on the corner. He owns his own web design business and runs around third world countries slinging more money than most wage earners in the U.S. In addition to his being young, he has literally, been around the world—living all over Asia, Africa, Europe, South America (although never in the U.S.—“there are too many rules”).  I learn very quickly, that nothing seems to frighten him.

I climb on his bike in heels and a black dress and he careens through narrow  streets, darting between trucks, on sidewalks and through allies. If you have never driven in Indonesia, imagine no lanes and winding roads packed with motorcycles and scooters, all trying to race against the cabs and overloaded trucks.  It is not uncommon to seem them packing on more than two or three passengers. Also, they carry everything by scooter and motorcycle—flowers, food, animals, infants. It is kind of brilliant how they rig things up and even manage to balance stacks on their heads while riding.

I had a moment of panic when Janne starts going 70 kilometers per hour down a Balinese highway and find myself gripping his shoulders so hard that I am probably leaving chewed fingernail marks. Possibly a bite mark. He still doesn’t slow down. We are cutting so close that once I feel warmth on my right knee and realize we are rubbing against the side of a truck. When we draw closer to the club, he takes me down a winding ally, flanked by cement walls: it is only four and a half feet wide. He is speeding, honking as we round each corner, to warn any other traffic that may be coming head on.

We meet up with some other hostel kids at the club: the Belgian (who I call Belgian Waffle) and a pretty girl from Quebec (The M.I.L.F.). Belgian Waffle is wafer thin and reminds me of Kate Moss. I ask him if he is eating enough. The M.I.L.F., a single mom, is on a long-vacation looking to detox and get over depression while she waits for a diagnosis on a suspected personality disorder.

We are a motley crew.

Janne comes back from the bar and gives each of us what he calls a “smoothie,” then says, “The mushrooms are legal here. No big deal.”  For some reason, I trust him. Pretty soon I am thinking that Belgian Waffle is an elf with purple hair and The M.I.L.F. is a winged fairy. Janne has turned into an Avatar and the bathroom walls are the talking trees from Narnia. Turns out that those Grateful Dead stoners were not exaggerating.

And this whole time I thought mushrooms were a joke.

Janne fills my days with little reckless adventures. We ride past the “No Vehicles” signs and take the motorcycle down the beach. He teaches me how to surf  (ignoring the shark warnings). One night we climb to the roof of the hostel. Standing on the ledge, we look around: “I wonder how many angles there from the roof that would reach the pool?” I ask him, “Do you think we could make it?”

“That is so funny. That’s the exact same thing I thought of when I got here.”

One afternoon, we are riding back from the beach when we are stopped by the cops (no helmets and no license). Janne is taken by the police and I stand outside to wait for him, hoping that he recovers the bike and that neither of us get fined.

I am kicking dirt on the corner of a busy intersection, watching about 40 bikers lined up and revving their engines. Just before the light turns green, a small Balinese woman falls from her scooter and into the line of traffic. I run up to help her and realize she is frantic and panicking. This was definitely a “lost in translation” moment and I am unable to figure out if she is hurt. Between some hand motions and broken English, I find there is a small cat wedged in a rucksack and trapped under the bike. She had him dangling from the handlebars before she fell. We examine the cat: not visibly bleeding, but is scratching and trying to get away (understandably).

The woman is more worried about getting the cat back in the bag than the line of traffic coming up behind us, so I help her tie the rucksack and balance as she gets back on the bike. This part was admittedly strange for me: tying the knot around a cat’s neck so that she could hang the bag and keep riding. Another cringe moment, but… who was I to judge?

Janne walks out of the corner cop station smiling. He was able to keep the bike and get back on the road ticketless after paying a mere 50,000 rupiah (the equivalent of about 5 dollars).  We jump on and pull back into traffic as he speeds towards the beach.

In the following days, we are stopped two more times, each with the same result: a quick pay-off, a smile, and then the engine. All except one time, when the a cop stepped in front of the motorcycle waving  his arms and Janne just sped up and went around him: “He had no bike or car,” he explained, “He can’t follow us.”

There are some laws that don’t exist here. I don’t look them up, but trust Janne that buying mushroom shakes and evading officers are two of those absent laws.

My last week in Indonesia, I walk through the streets sort of blindly, taking steps over the potholes, and jumping on the back of motorcycles with the Balinese without thinking twice. Most things stop being scary after you do them a few times. And if you keep doing them, you end up thinking nothing is scary at all.

If you are fearless AND lucky, you get nine lives… just like a cat.