I can’t tell you about it just yet, farang. It’s sort of sacred, embarrassing, and comic at the same time. And it doesn’t show me in a particularly good light. Anyway, it’s all still alive down there in my guts, sending conflicting signals all over my nervous system, killing my appetite for food or work-and all you want to know is did we do it or not, Tara and I, right? I’ll get back to you. Meantime, I’m going on a tour of Freak Street in search of the Nixon Guesthouse. If you’ve forgotten Freak Street, farang, here’s an aide-m'emoire: Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix were both still alive; their work formed the sound track to a social experiment which began in San Francisco but was much better tolerated here, where the dope market was a significant segment of the economy. For the full initiation you needed to have traveled overland through those wonderful, exotic countries the late twentieth century turned into impenetrable battlefields in the name of civilization. Pilgrims who survived were distinguished by lice, long hair, dysentary, entry-level mysticism, a massive dope habit, and an addiction to rock and roll.
I could hardly find the place and kept winding up back at the market, where women in shawls squat over gigantic melons, carrots, radishes, and other vegetables of such outlandish size you wonder if the whole Kathmandu Valley hasn’t been magically modified. Carbon monoxide, plentiful in the air, does nothing to stunt the spectacular growth of the local produce, nor are conscientious housewives put off by the presence of free-range hens, cows, monkeys, and dogs at the morning market, where the main attraction today is a bucket of fish someone has caught in one of the rivers-perhaps the Baghmati, where all those cadavers crackle and pop on the ghats? After a good deal of searching I find a wan, handwritten sign attached to a lamppost: FREAK STREET THIS WAY.
The Nixon Guesthouse is a large four-story half-timbered converted Elizabethan-style terrace house with a small courtyard where laundry hangs; presumably you could have breakfast sitting between the billowing sheets if you remembered to stock up on your yogurt and granola the night before. I arrive at ablution time: no guests are visible and I retreat into the street while two brawny cleaning women in saris throw buckets of water over the tiled floor, which quickly floods into the courtyard. I decide to hang out for ten minutes until they’ve finished and go back to the market. I am in the process of examining a carrot more than fifteen inches long-with phallic implications not lost on the toothless, betel-crunching female vendor-when Lek sends me a text message.
Now I have to go back to my guesthouse to pick up a document he has faxed. There are suddenly no taxis, but a trishaw driver miraculously appears and presents himself as an obvious and only alternative. Like a fool I forget to negotiate a price in advance, and by the time he has heroically pedaled me all the way back up to Thamel and the Kathmandu Guesthouse, guilt has crippled my negotiating power, and I give him the small fortune he is demanding while ostentatiously groaning and rubbing his calves and thighs. I realize how badly I’ve been screwed from the way his eyes pop when I hand over the full sum he named as fairly representing the extent of his suffering. Now he is thanking me with extravagant gestures for bringing early retirement; I think he sees me as an unlikely avatar of Krishna.
In the guesthouse they have put Lek’s single faxed document into a brown envelope, a sophisticated touch I had not expected. When I pull it out, all I see is a group picture prominently featuring a man in his late forties whom I do not recognize. From the context-he is with six Asians-I would say he is quite tall, over six feet. He is very handsome, looks American, slightly overweight but not much. He is also clean shaven. I call Lek.
“You’re not going to tell me it’s him?”
“Darling, that is a verified photo of Frank Charles.”
“It must have been taken about a hundred years ago?”
“Nope. It’s a media pic sent out when he was filming up in northwest Nepal seven or eight years ago.”
“That would make him early fifties. But he looks younger than that. It’s shocking. Even for an American, it’s shocking how fat he got so quickly.”
“Mmm, quite a hunk. I suppose they all run to seed in the end.”
I close the phone on Lek and meditate for a moment on the photograph of Frank Charles. He is smiling generously, his arms around two women, one of whom is Tara. Others of the group I assume are actors or part of the film crew. Many are in traditional Tibetan costume, and at least a couple of the men look quite wild with their heads tied up in rags, just like highland yak rustlers. I fold the photo in a way that does not distort his face, slide it into a pocket, and go back out onto Thamel.
There are plenty of cabs now; that must be because I’ve decided to walk. When I finally get back to the Nixon, I’m pleased to see the Augean stables have been flooded back to cleanliness by the Herculean cleaning ladies, and a man can light a joint among the billowing sheets once more.
And what am I thinking while the THC goes to work? You already know the answer to that, farang, because you wondered the same thing yourself when I told you about the photograph of Frank Charles with his arm around Tara: did he sleep with her or not? Am I alone in lamenting the way karma from our reptilian incarnations continues to trap us in the sewer of sexual jealousy? Is this the time to confess all I know about Tara? Well, here goes.
As you recall, Tara said, Do you still want to sleep with me? shortly after showing the obnoxious Frenchman not one finger, but three, all blackened, the tips lost to frostbite. Naturally, that was the moment when she morphed from a butter-wouldn’t-melt-in-the-mouth product of UN social engineering, mostly of the northern European kind, to a beautiful bitch with attitude. Of course I said yes. Three times, like this: Yes, yes, yes, not with the shy lust of a young man, but with the full-bodied desperation of one hurtling toward forty whose wife has retreated to a nunnery, whose only child is dead, and who really did, at that moment, see her as salvation in the form of a last chance.
She explained it would have to be her place rather than mine. After all, despite appearances, this was a very conservative, third-world town and a girl really could not afford to be seen visiting a foreigner in his hotel room. Bottom line, as a Tibetan refugee she risked expulsion for prostitution. It seemed indiscreet to ask how the situation could be improved by a man visiting her in her own room, but I figured it out when we arrived at what must be a kind of unfinished housing project on the way to the airport. From the costumes of the men and women, their highland roughness, the raggedness of the dress, and an indefinable atmosphere of anything goes, I concluded that this was an exclusively Tibetan compound for young people between the ages of about twenty and thirty, who seemed to be squatting in the raw, half-finished buildings made of reinforced concrete. The Tibetan version of the Hindu mandala, thanka, was everywhere, for this seemed to be an artists’ enclave; someone was blowing a huge Tibetan horn about ten feet long, sending a low wave of yearning sound to bounce off the walls and out into the city. There were kids who had the air of belonging to everyone and no one, playing in an unfinished house at twilight. There were also Tibetan prayer flags everywhere, making great parabolas on cables which stretched from the earth to the roofs. When we had entered her small room-the communal toilet was outside-and she had locked the door with a sliding bolt, she came close to me, smiled, and quickly found my member with her good hand. It was a strangely familiar kind of reconnoitering caress which puzzled me. I was further puzzled by the tone in which she told me to go wash under the hose outside. I obeyed, returned to the room, and waited while she showered in turn. We had not yet kissed.
Then came the moment of revelation, when she returned wearing only a towel. She grinned at my discomfort, then parted the ends of the towel in a theatrical manner. I smiled and paid homage to her breasts. When she took me to the mattress on the floor and had me lie down, she examined my penis carefully, using both sight and touch, as if she were looking for something. Now I was laughing at myself.
I said, “It’s okay, I’m clean.” She seemed not to understand why I would say that, but the signs were too many for me to be fooled any longer. I said, “Look, I understand. You’ve found the one guy in the world who is not going to judge you. My mother was on the Game, I help out in a go-go bar she runs, I could fairly be called a part-time pimp. I have no moral objection to any woman from a poor background making an extra buck or two-especially a refugee.”
I thought I was saying the right thing, but I only succeeded in making her frown. She shook her head, then told me to relax and close my eyes. “I hope you don’t mind,” she said. “I want to do it a little differently. Ask me about it afterward. All you have to do is lie there the first time. Try not to come too soon.”
When I was about to speak, she covered my mouth with her left hand-I felt the rough edges of the stubs resting on my forehead-then with the long finger of her right hand found a pressure point between my anus and scrotum, which she pushed on forcefully. It had the effect of diminishing the immediate need for orgasm without ruining the erection. How could this not be a professional? And one of a skill level I had never before encountered. When she leaned over so that her breasts were dangling around my chin, she whispered, “Don’t get emotional, you’ll ruin the ecstasy.”
This was not a line I’d heard before; I could not even imagine it coming from my mother, Nong, who could be pretty adventurous with the right customer, and I was thinking, Wow, these Tibetans really are different, while allowing her to play me like a pennywhistle.
Except that the music was somewhat more sophisticated. Fine-tuning was achieved by means of the long-finger technique heretofore described; once when I was really about to come, she leaned forward to whisper gently, “Imagine a wheel, a spinning wheel, a spinning wheel with tiny spadelike cutters…”
But the rest of the time she was astride me, arched back, head high, eyes closed, a clear light (almost visible) emanating from her forehead, which was free of all furrows; hanging from her neck-she must have put it on in the shower, for she had not worn it at supper-there was a silver medallion in the form of a vajra, the Himalayan symbol for the thunderbolt.
Her room was without electricity; her naked eternal motion I found best viewed in black silhouette against the left wall, thanks to moonlight entering through a window on the right, which also captured a piece of iron sticking out of one of the incomplete buildings, which now appeared to me like a piece of iron bamboo, thick as a fist, black as a stump, painted on a relative paleness.
Well, I’m prepared to swear on the whole of the Pali Canon that, with the help of Tara ’s finger, I held out for a full forty minutes. After that I figured she’d had her fun and if she wanted any more she could pay me.
A full condom later, we were lying in each other’s arms. I allowed a couple of beats before the grumpy words fled my mouth: “You didn’t come.”
She stretched out a hand to cover one of mine; I was tempted to withdraw it, but I opted for good manners and let it lie there. “I haven’t come for a very long time, Detective. My partner went back to Tibet and the Chinese threw him in jail.”
I gulped. “I’m sorry. Really. Stupid of me.”
“He was not my lover. He was my partner.”
I took a deep breath. “What does that mean?”
“Don’t tell me you haven’t guessed? Do you still think I’m a prostitute?”
I shook my head. “Oh, no. I’m starting to get the idea about Tibetans. Prostitution would be way too simple an explanation-and far too worldly.”
“But you really are a part-time pimp?”
I coughed. “You’re a yogin? You do Tantra?”
“Of course. Didn’t you like it?”
“It felt terrific, but it would have been nice if you’d remembered me from time to time.”
She smiled. “I think it is difficult for people with a Western background to understand how impersonal bliss really is.”
So to her I looked thoroughly Western? I mulled her revolutionary worldview for a moment, before descending to the mundane. “You do know Tietsin.”
She frowned. “Why do you say that?”
“Blade wheels. They’re a dead giveaway.”
She rolled to one side; when she rolled back I could see she was laughing her head off. “What’s so funny? Don’t tell me, blade wheels are ten a penny in Lhasa?”
“Of course. Blade wheels are central to our culture, like traffic jams in Bangkok.” She thought this very witty and cackled for a while, making her breasts shiver.
“You win,” I said. “Your blade wheels hurt, but they don’t do as much damage to the environment.” She nodded, as if to a backward child who was starting to get the idea.
Like an old-fashioned hostess of good breeding, she would not let me search for a cab on my own. When we found one, she insisted on sharing it with me, to make sure I got back safely to my guesthouse. Actually, she wanted to talk. I sensed a burden of responsibility toward me she needed to get off her chest.
“It’s all to do with Tibetan history. Buddhism came quite late to us, around about the eighth century, but didn’t really get going until eleven hundred. Tibetans then were wild people who lived in the most inhospitable region of the earth. Only the strongest, most virile men and the most resilient, fecund women survived. They were very physical people and very warlike. And eating meat was the only way to survive-it still is. So there was a lot of sexual energy to deal with. We weren’t going to go the Brahmin route and suppress it all by standing on our heads and living on weeds. Something had to be done to divert that energy into the higher chakras. So we developed Tantra, also known as Vajrayana Buddhism, also known as Apocalyptic Buddhism.”
I thought this was a way of explaining herself to me. But then she said, “I don’t know this Doctor Tietsin personally, but I’ve heard of him. He’s famous among some Tibetans, even revered. He helps a lot of people, especially newly arrived refugees. He gives them money. Some say he’s a kind of godfather with connections to the Nepal government. Some say he’s a throwback to our atavistic past. Some say he is the reincarnation of Milarepa.”
“Milarepa?” I remembered from the guidebook: the patron saint of Tibet.
“Yes. You see, like in every religion, there is the orthodox and the spiritual. Milarepa was a wild man, crazy, radical beyond belief. He started off as a black magician and slaughtered lots of people before he found the dharma. Maybe that’s why we love him so much.”
“Tietsin isn’t even a monk.”
“That’s his strength. He isn’t bound by anything. Some say he is beyond the path-that he is already free from suffering. He is just using that damaged body as a vehicle to help Tibet in its time of crisis.”
“And what do the others say?”
“That he’s quite mad and about seven hundred years behind the times.” She giggled. “He gave you a mantra, didn’t he?” I nod. “That’s what’s secret, not the blade wheel.”
She fell silent for a moment, just as we were turning in to the guesthouse. I said, “He gave me a mantra-what about it?”
“Oh, only that with him, you could be fully awakened in seven years-you won’t be interested in women at all.” She let a beat pass. “Or you could be the permanent inmate of a mental hospital. He doesn’t mess around. What you call psychosis, for him is a path to health. Or you could say that to him we’re all psychotic anyway, so there isn’t too much of a risk.”
When I was standing in the driveway, handing her money for the cab, she leaned out to say, “I don’t think it’s wise for us to meet again. I’ve opened your heart chakra too much, there’s a serious risk you’ll fall in love with me. Sexual slavery is the last thing I need. It creates such heavy karma. I’m sorry if I misled you. Goodbye.”
Well, how about that! I was doing a little jaw scratching when one of those niggardly, academic questions struck, as they do at times like these. I returned to the cab, which was in the process of turning around, and, feeling more like a traffic cop than a lover, knocked on her window and had her roll it down. “Just out of interest-why did you go with me tonight?”
She looked away and took a deep breath. “Male energy. The power that comes from all that boiling sperm. A girl has to have it from time to time, and there aren’t so many opportunities now that my partner’s in jail. You’ve restored balance and power, and I no longer feel I’m about to come down with the flu-and you were cute, too.”
That was it, farang. My one and only affair since I married Chanya, and the lady turned out to be a perfect yogin. I finished the joint about two hours ago, and I’ve been sitting among the billowing sheets of the deserted guesthouse all that time in a pleasantly ironic reverie. When I come out of it I realize what should have been obvious. There is no management, and the guesthouse is not open for business. The cleaning ladies are gone, and when I find a cop at the corner of the street he tells me the Nixon was busted last week for drug trafficking and won’t be open again until the owners have paid off the cops. He gives the impression that this is a routine event. There is also the suggestion that large-scale drug-running operations need government approval if they are to survive up here for any length of time.