Posted by: facetothewind | February 5, 2007

Quilting Mister Mack: my obsession with a Thai masseur

Mister Mack as Bathseeba

Wandering through the Homo-Habitrail of Babylon, I had the unoriginal notion that I should experience one of the famed signature oil massages about which I’ve heard round the world. Stepping out of the stream of towel-clad Asian men and occasional Farong (foreigner), I entered the massage kiosk to find an officious, effeminate man sitting at the computer, booking appointments for his team of Thai massage therapists who sit along the wall in uniform ready to unknot your body for 500 Thai baht, the equivalent of 15 US dollars. “Sawatdee, kap. You want massage? Please have seat.”

The masseurs all sit along the wall on a bench hoping that someone will request them. Now, I had heard that some of them are straight but it’s nearly impossible to tell unless you speak Thai. That whole notion of straight vs. gay is one that has its roots in the Bible – creating distinct “them and us” identities…sinners and saints…heaven and hell. Thailand does not see the world in such myopic, binary terms. For me however, raised in America, they are terms of navigation – setting the social etiquette. I cannot ignore them.

In fact, I find it a little disorientating to navigate a culture largely absent of the primary signs of homophobia. It exists, I have heard, but I have not seen it. Not even the slightest hint of it. Everyone returns a smile here – male, female, straight, gay, young, old, rich, poor. No one displays that aggressive testosterone-poisoned classic American male behavior. If anything, I’ve seen straight men being extremely polite and tolerant of poorly behaved gay-identified men hitting heavily on them.

I nervously eyed the line of men in blue pants and white smocks and wondered who would be chosen for my massage duty. I simply could not make this choice myself – I felt a bit like Sophie with the kids in the German train depot. How can one choose in such matters? (This actually has become my own new brand of burden in Thailand – how to choose among so many beautiful men? To do so means to have to look away from people who, at least in my eyes, are extraordinarily beautiful. One simply cannot be with everyone and so one is forced to make difficult choices.) But faced with a lineup, I could not make a choice. So they chose for me.

The massage team smiles from the bench and sometimes they even cuddle with each other – hands on laps and heads on shoulders. Is this for the benefit of the Farong or are they just genuinely affectionate? I was certain they were straight – gay Thai men never display public affection. I have, however, seen straight men preening each other, sleeping with a head on a thigh on the ferries. It’s all too much for me to witness – coming from a culture of such shame and disregard for male softness.

Mister Mack was the man chosen for me. The concierge must know who is the best and schedules him for your first time. Up pops a little man who looks like a monk – shaved head, slightly older (36 years old – but looks about 26). He beams ear-to-ear, claps his hands together and lifts them to his nose and bows to me. I return the bow with my locker key dangling from my fingers and smile back at him. He began to push my ecstasy buttons in the right sequence…one he looks like Patrick (admittedly paramount of my defining criteria). Two he looks like a monk. Three, he’s an elf – short with big head and ears. Four he smiles all the time. Five he is strong and grounded. Six – I’m a puddle on the floor trying to behave myself. Seven – I lose consciousness.

Mister Mack leads me upstairs and as we awkwardly try to exchange the cursory pleasantries in our non-native languages. I discover he has a nasal voice – an imperfection – wehooo! Over the course of 6 days, Mister Mack led me up those black slate stairs, unlocked the door to the massage corridor and took me on a non-sexual (the sign at the desk does say “no happy endings given here”) journey of pleasure and intrigue.

My first day beneath his strong hands, I laid in silent awe of his craft and his beauty. The only breaches in my solemn respect for his work were when his hands made a farting noise as it cupped air on my lower back. I burst into laughter and then he followed suit. Our giggles echoed in the empty massage chambers. It was great to bond in laughter with him.

Later, I sneaked open my eyes the tiniest bit when he was focused on a part of my body where our eyes would not meet. I admired the fuzz on his head, his thinning hair pattern, the peacefulness in his face. Each day I would leave him and go downstairs and designate an anonymous, generous tip to be left for him. But each day I became more emboldened to ask a question.

Finally on day three, I broke the silence asking, “In Thailand – many straight people give massage. You are straight?” He laughed shyly and uttered something like, “What YOU think?” “I don’t know. I think you straight.” He laughed again. Then he said, “I no answer.” Flushed with embarrassment thinking I’d gone too far to break not only a professional relationship but may have offended him, I dropped it. Thai people are incredibly gracious and so he would never let on that I had overstepped my boundaries. Surprisingly, he began to ask me questions. Obviously my presence at Babylon revealed more of my sexuality to him than his to me. Not only am I incontrovertibly gay, but I’m also a slut – no one chaste would ever throw open the giant doors of Babylon. The deck was stacked in his favor and he knew it. He began teasing me about my attraction to Thai men, or as he called them Thai boys.

The next day, I decided to push the envelope even further. This time I was getting a Thai-style massage, which required me to wear a towel that kept falling off and revealing my burgeoning attraction to Mister Mack. On previous days, he would exhale a bit of humor through his nose and move my parts out of the way, clearing a path for his hands to move up and down my thighs. But the Thai massage does not use oil and there is no sliding. This technique involves at times, his mounting me, taking my legs into the air and pushing them back toward my head. My towel, of course, fell off again and this time he just left it off. Ahah, we have developed some rapport at last! This time he dabbed at my balls and said, “ Farong big balls. Thai little balls.” Ahah, another clue. I liked where this was going. So I said back, “You are gay, yes?” He responded, “I have boyfriend. He from Holland. Meet two weeks.” (My Japanese friend living here pointed out accurately that Thai people parse any English sentence in three words. No more, no less: You want eat? You like kiss? You have boyfriend?) I shrieked under my breath at his revelation so as not to create too much of an embarrassing echo in the hallway.

For a moment I thought this amusing game of intrigue was over – I’d ruined it. I could have gone on like this for years, writing a whole novel around the secret life of Mister Mack. But I really only had a couple more days in Bangkok and I couldn’t stand the mystery anymore. “What your boyfriend name?” I asked. “His name secret.” He was trying to hold on to some small piece of mystery before I tore it all up with my prying questions. He knew perhaps, that my interest could be quelled, and the tips would end, if he gave away too much too fast. Again, I dropped that line of inquiry. I knew though, that I was about two weeks too late for the hope of accessing Mister Mack.

Although every massage at the lucky end of Mister Mack’s meaty paws was deeply pleasurable, each time I was left with a burning longing to connect with him more deeply. And yet there is no way to do so. He returned me each time to the stream of towels walking by the massage kiosk, in front of his co-workers, who are notorious gossips. Any extras he would give me in the form of a hug, or even an exchange of phone numbers would result in untold rumors, jealousy, and perhaps even termination from his post. I couldn’t risk hurting him in this way, so I would peel off from his side and leave him to his next client wondering if he enjoyed our time as much as I did.

This is where I began “quilting.” It is a term I have given to a survival skill of mine that I have put together over years of not finding all that I seek in one person. After leaving Mister Mack, I would go into the maze of hallways and hunt down a man who most closely resembles Mister Mack. Eventually I would find a man of similar stature, shaved head and then I would quilt. A smile is all it seems to take me to land a man into my arms in Bangkok. And so each night, in a dark triangular room somewhere in the habitrail of Babylon, I found men who resembled Mister Mack, who resembles Patrick, who resembles someone lost long ago. And for a half hour or so, we are together and I have a quilted a full blanket of comfort.

I wander the hall back up to my room with Vivaldi’s Four Seasons playing yet again in the hall. I return to my cell (what a room at Babylon is called for good reason). And I repeat the sequence the next day, massage, yearning, quilting, relief.

Before leaving for Thailand, I could not explain to myself why I suddenly took interest in the story of King David and Bathsheba whom he spied bathing on a nearby roof and the adultery that ensued which ultimately leads to his downfall. Bathsheba came to me in the form of a Leonard Cohen song that surely you’ve heard. But I could not stop thinking of that – truly a gay story in ancient scripture, if you can leave out the pregnancy part. (We have to extrapolate a bit to fit ourselves into history, you know.)

Anyway, today I came back from my birthday lunch in the teeming market of Bangkok and awoke from my nap, pulled out my greasy earplugs, open the curtains and discovered that my room overlooks the break room for the Babylon massage staff. Thirty-seven of them spend their downtime rinsing off, toweling down, washing their clothes and hanging them to dry, lounging shirtless in the tropical heat waiting for a call from the concierge on the walkie-talkie. Who do I see sitting on the bench on his cell phone, but Mister Mack! I nervously fished in my bag for the camera thinking I have to catch this on film. I set my camera to maximum zoom, forced the flash, threw open the window and yelled, “Mister Mack!” He did not hear me over the noisy rooftop AC units that must be blowing hot air all over the poor guys. I yelled again. This time he heard me and flashed a huge smile back up at me. I waved and motioned with my camera for him to come to the edge of the roof. He obliged and I captured him in his yellow shirt – worn by everyone on Mondays in deference to His Majesty, the King of Thailand.

He yelled back a couple things, one of which, miraculously I was able to discern, “Are you alone?” I yelled back and nodded, “YES!” He pointed to the rest of my still-curtained room and laughed, insinuating that I would be harboring some newfound Thai boyfriend in the room. I bounced over to the other bed in my boxers and threw open the curtains to show him that in fact no one was in my room. He laughed and his buddies now were curious what he was up to – fraternizing with the guests. I switched over the camera to video and gestured an instruction for him to wave to me, which he did. I shakily captured seven seconds of my Bathseeba on his rooftop.

On my forty-third birthday, I waved goodbye to him and cursed the chasm between us: linguistic, economic, cultural. And I heartened to take up the challenge of the conquest of Mister Mack sometime in the future. I am certain I will be back to Bangkok, to Babylon. After all, there is still a kingdom to be lost.

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