Everyone laughed about its name. In the 90s, the old concrete building had been a brothel, but it was now owned by a dreadlocked Israeli living out his dream of running a cut-rate hostel-cum-bar. For 100 baht, you rented a cinderblock room in one of the top three floors, a little box with exposed electrical wires and fluorescent lighting that flickered like life was quivering out of the tubes every time a semi clattered past. For 150 baht, the Israeli rented you a mattress.
Nightly, the first floor flooded with backpackers wanting to shoot at the Five Star’s red felt pool table. As they waited their turns, they’d sit at the bar, propped on their elbows, sipping liter bottles of Chang, the one beer on the menu. Every night it happened just the same way: an unshaven twenty-something—uncomfortably similar to myself—would sit beside me at the bar and tell me about where he’d just come from, how dangerous it was, how many monks had housed him in the gold-roofed temples of Chiang Mai Province. When his bravado ran out, our conversation withered. I could never keep up my end. Every night, a new guest would discover this fact: My body was here. My mind, elsewhere.
“Have you been to the royal palace?” you asked the morning I called from a pay phone on the second floor, the place I went to be alone. The second floor was once a dance hall, but the mirrors covering its walls were all broken now. Shards of glass and white plaster dust covered the floor. On the air: a tang of gasoline.
“No,” I said. “I’m done with that tourist stuff. I’m not a tourist anymore.”
It was evening in the U.S. and I pictured you washing dishes, phone clamped between your ear and shoulder, your copper bracelets waiting on the counter. I’d seen you do this so many times since we started dating a year and a half ago.
“So if you’re not a tourist,” you said, “what are you?”
“I’m just traveling,” I said, though I hadn’t left the Five Star in days. “Just wandering.”
The fact was I’d been thinking of breaking it off with you for months, but I couldn’t seem to work up the nerve to decide. Now that I was in Thailand I didn’t want to come home and face it.
“Did you see that temple with the baby tigers yet?” you asked. “The one where they sedate them a little so that you can hold them? They say you should avoid it because it’s inhumane. But come on—tigers, right?”
“I told you to stop reading those Lonely Planets.”
“Why?” you said. “I have to know what you’re up to. You never tell me.” There was a rustling noise I couldn’t make out on the other end. “When are you coming home anyway? Don’t they expect you back at work?”
“I talked to Jeb about it,” I said. “He told me I banked enough vacation days.” I’d come here to help my company configure a suite of language software at a Thai university and I’d decided to spend a few days afterward bumming around like I used to do after college. A few days had turned into ten. At this point, you suspected something.
“Jesus,” you said. “Long-haired Jeb. I wish I had a hippy for a boss.” There was the clattering of dishes as you finished drying. There were footsteps as you walked down the hall. “And where are you staying?”
“It’s a backpacker place,” I said. “It’s really authentic.”
As we spoke, I pictured you lying on your bed’s lavender quilt, gazing up into the paper lantern that lit your room, your hair splayed over the pillow like you were suspended underwater. It hadn’t taken long for it to grow back once chemotherapy was over. I remember the first of it to fall out. I awoke and heard you frying an egg in the kitchen. The hair lay on the pillow beside me, strands of black fused at the root by a pale sheath of skin, like a dozen snakes merging at the head. We’d only met a few months before when I picked you up at a bar, never thinking it would last. That was until you found a nodule in your left breast, a cancer that arrived disturbingly early in life. I had to stay with you then, I thought. It was the right thing to do.
By now, you were better. Life had returned to normal. But I couldn’t tell if I still wanted out or if I had come to love you in spite of everything. In Bangkok, too much time on my hands, the question devoured my thoughts: a coal burning in my throat, a cloud of smoke filling my head.
“Well I’m waiting on the home front whenever you get through with the vision quest.” The receiver’s static made your voice faint. “Just let me know when you finally find yourself.”
“The self is a harmful construction,” I said. “You don’t need to find it. You need to escape it. That’s freedom.”
Billiards cracked below and the smell of dope filtered into the ruined dance hall.
There was always a party here. Even at ten in the morning.
“Freedom?” you asked, trying not to be annoyed. “When did you start talking this way? You don’t sound like yourself at all. Are you okay?”
I wanted to say: I’m not who you think I am. But all I could say was: “Who do I sound like?”
“You sound like Marlon Brando at the end of Apocalypse Now.”
We laughed for the first time since I’d left. When we stopped we didn’t want to say more. We were afraid to leave the moment’s shelter.
“I’m serious though,” you said. “Something awful is happening to you.”
By the tenth time I called I’d run out of vacation days, a fact I dealt with by getting more drunk than intended. I called you from the patio roof of the Five Star with a pay-by-the-minute cell phone and a bottle of Chang in the other hand, staring ahead to where the skyline pressed itself into a hazy, polluted sunset. We said nothing for minutes. Each empty minute was a dollar, a silence that filled whatever chambers contained an international call. The satellites. A web of cables under the ocean.
“I know you would have left me if I didn’t get cancer,” you said at last. “You think you’re such a good guy for staying with me. But what you really are is a coward.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” I said. “We can talk about it when I get home.”
“You’re doing it again. You’re doing that thing where you act like a martyr when all I want is to talk about this seriously.”
Night was falling. City lights were coming on and the stars slowly propagated above.
“If you’re going to be like this, why did you even call me?” I asked.
“You called me,” you said. “I’m at work. It’s almost 9 a.m.”
I saw you in your cubicle, copy-editing textbooks on the day-lit side of the world, the twelve-hour difference I always forgot when I drank.
“I’m coming home tomorrow,” I said. “We’ll start all over again. It will be okay. We can move in together and everything.”
Even as I spoke, I wondered: Why was I saying all this?
“You want me to love you,” you said. “But you don’t want to love me back.”
“That’s not true.”
“It is,” you said. “You think I’m a trap. That I trapped you with my cancer.” On the street below, a motorbike’s engine popped and grumbled. “You think the whole world is a trap. That you shouldn’t be responsible to anything.”
I turned around. The rooftop patio was filled with green nylon tents, their flaps stirring in the breeze. All the Five Star’s rooms were full, forcing a few backpackers to camp up here. Earlier one of them had been lecturing me on Buddhist theories of reincarnation. If you were angry, you came back as a demon. If you were gluttonous, a pig. Jealous, a ghost. Wherever your mind went in this life, your body followed in the next.
“Well you’re free now. You have my permission,” you said. “Take as long as you want to come back. It’s over.”
In the distance, the motorbike engine faded to a mumble, then to a whine. “What?” I said.
“Freedom,” you answered. “That’s what you said you wanted.”
“What?” I said again.
But your end of the line was already dead.
Freedom. The word sat in my mouth like a scrap of food I could not swallow. You were right. I had said it so many times. Just then, though, the cell phone nearly out of credit and the Chang gone warm in my other hand, the word—like so much else—seemed a lie.
The 2015–2016 Tickner Fellow at Baltimore’s Gilman School, Cam Terwilliger’s fiction and nonfiction can be found online in Electric Literature, The Rumpus, and Narrative, where he was named one of Narrative’s “15 Under 30.” In print, his writing appears in West Branch, Post Road, and Mid-American Review, among others. His work has been supported by fellowships and scholarships from the Fulbright Program, the James Jones First Novel Fellowship, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, the Massachusetts Cultural Council, and the Virginia Center for Creative Arts.