You used to think people who ride motorcycles were idiots. You are now mounted atop your own motorcycle, gunning it through the Thai countryside, and you realize these people are in fact geniuses. From inside a car the road is a rendering, a hologram. From atop a motorcycle the road is densely compacted earth, the road is the truth. The proof is in the pudding. Your problems are immaterial, time is immaterial, you are in the heat of the moment. The world is reduced to its essential elements. Periodically a pick-up trucks roars by in need of a racing stripe so you reach over and press the back of your fingers against the warm metallic side of the great beast as it goes, the rhinoceros to your oxpecker, letting the dust accumulate under your nails.
Yours is not really a motorcycle, rather a stylishly painted 110cc scooter with a wire basket mounted in the front, presumably intended to hold your burlap sack of baguettes. No matter. This is your first rodeo, and your horsepower is sufficient. Your cup runneth over. The kitty purrs, the kitty roars. Bugs kamikaze dive into your eyes and activate your tear ducts. You don sunglasses. You are Peter Fonda in Easy Rider with a bag of cocaine stashed in the gas tank, and al-Hamajj is Dennis Hopper. You bang your head to Steppenwolf.
To the canyon. To the waterfall. Wherever the almighty road goes. The bike is an extension of your body, an agent of your will. You are a master tactician so you draft behind al-Hamajj and wait for the straightaway to materialize. BOOM. You grip the accelerator and crank it into hyperdrive and al-Hamajj is but a speck in the rear-view mirror.
This excursion to Southeast Asia is financially unwise, but here you are. You are 23 years old and the years are already slipping away. Driftwood. Friends post pictures of themselves traveling the world to Facebook and you are consumed with the muted anguish of FOMO, of regret. Facebook stokes the fires of restlessness in your soul and you feel a powerful urge to SEE THE WORLD. Facebook turns life into a competition — a competition you refuse to lose.
Al-Hamajj is immune to the crippling FOMO that torments us all in this age of Facebook. Back in elementary school the coolest kid was Jack. At lunch Jack sat at one end of a long table. Your popularity was a function of how close you sat to Jack. Al-Hamajj always sat next to Jack or very close. You sat three people away on a good day. Al-Hamajj’s popularity waned steadily after elementary school and all the way through college. Not that he became less well-liked, or became depressed per se, but rather more inward-facing.
A former jazz piano prodigy, al-Hamajj ceased to give a shit about piano around tenth grade. You wish he had continued to give a shit. A few days ago he told you, not in so many words, that though he was never as technically proficient or disciplined as some, Jah had endowed him with a rare style of down-home bluesy face-melting that no one on Earth could duplicate. People would come to see him and his jazz band perform and, not knowing better, set their expectations to “tepid.” And he would play, inevitably melting face as only al-Hamajj could, and the crowd would respond with all sorts of involuntary noises, hupps and whoops and profanities and foot stomps and hollers, a symphony in its own right. Jazz, the sound of surprise. Defying these people’s expectations, al-Hamajj said, gave him an enormous thrill, until one day the thrill wasn’t there anymore. Now he makes beats, and his hi-hat game is strong. Boy wonder, Boi-1da.
Son of a swaggering Japanese father and a gorgeous Chinese mother, al-Hamajj has become quite the handsome, atavistic sumbitch. You are unsure if he is a monk or just lazy. Either way, you are certain he draws from a deep well of wisdom. His insecurities and neuroses are the foam atop a tankard of tranquility. Unmoored from certain trappings of modern society, al-Hamajj is committed to a lifelong quest to know himself, to know his body, to become a man. As ever, the quest continues. For al-Hamajj each day is a Will Shortz crossword puzzle, a wordless koan. Al-Hamajj is trying to tell you something.
Al-Hamajj is more daring than you. He heads up out of the valley, up where the road becomes a rugged Lombard Street from hell. It means certain death and you yell for al-Hamajj to stop but he is out of earshot, oblivious to your concerns with a mind only for the mountain. He does not look back. You pull over and wait for al-Hamajj to return and stew in anger and abandonment. Forty minutes later he returns and says he was worried you had died, and you can’t stay mad at him forever. On the descent back into the valley, you and al-Hamajj exchange the lead, back and forth like two dragonflies circling each other above the lilypads, a vaguely homoerotic dance. At the crest of one hill, about a kilometer out of town, a pretty young thang wearing mirrored Aviators and bare arms walks along the side of the road. Al-Hamajj comes to a stop beside her. He flashes his most winsome smile and pats the seat behind him. “Want a ride?” he asks. “No,” she says.
The mid-afternoon rain drives you and al-Hamajj inside for a nap. Freshened, you stroll down to main street for dinner, where food vendors are packed like sardines on either sidewalk for half a mile. Tone-deaf buskers play the System of A Down songbook. You are not particularly hungry. You are Thai hungry – you could eat – and you opt for what Louie CK would call a BANG BANG, papaya salad and a bundle of meat sticks followed by a hefty bowl of Khao Soi. Al-Hamajj is more judicious than you in his choices, for financial and spiritual and health reasons. He truly subscribes to the “you are what you eat” mantra. When you and al-Hamajj and the squad roll to Wendy’s at 2am, he’ll decline to put in an order and instead bust out a canister of mixed nuts.
You arrange with Johannes, your swashbuckling Swedish friend from the hostel in Bangkok, to meet up at the one stoplight in town. You are anticipating a big night as Johannes claims to be rolling with a crew of Europeans.
Al-Hamajj doesn’t want to go out. He requires two hours between activities to reset the juices. He adheres to this policy with a religious zeal. “It’s fucking crucial,” he explains. Al-Hamajj’s immunity to FOMO makes him the opposite of activity-oriented. He is going to stay in and get eleven hours of sleep. Only through a half hour of filibuster, subterfuge, and ruthless indictment of his character do you ultimately succeed in dragging al-Hamajj from of bed and out into the warm black night.
En route to the rendezvous with Johannes you engage Al-Hamajj in a ferocious debate. You posit that Eminem is the best rapper of all time and stubbornly dismiss all of al-Hamajj’s attempts to debunk your theory. In reality you are infuriated by his obsession with the mediocre Los Angeles rapper Dom Kennedy. You are two weeks into the trip and al-Hamajj has yet to go ten minutes without reciting the same dumb Dom lyric in Dom’s signature monotone sneer. Damn it feel good to say I did my thing out here. “Dom just speaks to me,” al-Hamajj will say.
Your argument ends in a bitter stalemate. You spot Johannes on the street corner wearing a “Full Moon Party” tank and cradling a large bottle of Heineken and you go to greet him. Johannes is 20 years old and in the midst of the original bildungsroman, eight months spent dicking around in Asia. A happy-go-lucky young buck who will strike up a conversation with just about anyone, he has indeed amassed a sizable crew of Europeans, who are chummy and of varying nationality.
You and al-Hamajj are assimilated into the crew for the evening and dubbed, respectively, “America.” You roll with the crew to buy sky lanterns. You head down to the riverside and set the lanterns free. You crave beer. Some lanterns make it into the stratosphere and some escape Earth’s orbit. Others die quick and set the Thai forest aflame.
You and the crew sit around a large outdoor firepit in the back of a bar. A Thai-Rasta version of Lloyd from Entourage tends to the flames. The crew is fast taking on newcomers. Ten deep, twelve deep, twenty deep. It splinters into sects, as crews are wont to do. You run into a French girl with whom you shared a taxi in Chiang Mai. The buckets come out. Maelstroms of Sprite and liquor bound together by voodoo magik. You chat up some Swiss guy about Wawrinka. Forty-five minutes later you talk to his brother about Wawrinka.
The buckets are a force of nature. Being a lightweight, al-Hamajj is particularly susceptible to their power. You know exactly how inebriated al-Hamajj is at any given moment because his BAC is a function of the rate at which he kisses you on the head and refers to you as “my nigga.” Tonight, he goes from 0 to 60 in the blink of an eye. You talk to a Brit named Marco (you love Brits) while al-Hamajj spits atrocious game at an Australian member of the crew. She thinks he’s hysterical. You and al-Hamajj take to the dance floor. Collectively, your dance repertoire comprises of the Shmoney dance, the Bernie, and a little move you picked up from Richard Sherman called the Grave Digger. You and al-Hamajj intrigue and delight the ladies of the crew as you Shmoney and Bernie and Dig Graves into oblivion.
You are unsure how much time you have accrued on the dance floor but the bar is closing now. So are the other ten bars on this street. White people abound. You join the army of wildebeests and migrate across the river to a large open-air late night party palace called Don’t Cry. It is packed with merry goers. Your buzz is progressing nicely. You later learn that many of the people here are on hallucinogens.
You talk to a guy from San Francisco about his silent meditation retreat. He is a chill bro but you realize you are probably talking to too many males this evening. You repeatedly call attention to the very attractive girl sitting ten feet to his 7 o’clock. As it turns out, she and chill San Francisco bro attended the aforementioned silent meditation retreat together. He calls her over and tells her you think she’s hot. Unblinking, she puts her face a couple inches from your face. Are you gay? she asks you. You reflexively tell her, no, I am not gay – a devastating mental error. You should have said, YES, I am gay and proceeded to kiss her then and there. As usual, a window of opportunity materializes and you shut it with AUTHORITY. She gives you one last lookover and storms across the bar, and there is nothing to do now but sip beer with chill SF bro and watch her from afar.
Meanwhile, the liquor has utterly consumed al-Hamajj. A food vendor slangs calories across the street. You buy al-Hamajj a stick of chicken to quell his frenzied donkey brain and he eats the whole thing in one bite. Not satisfied yet, he hops up onto the back of a police car and proceeds to Shmoney furiously. You coax him down and back inside the bar. He passes out in the corner. Then he is up and he is everywhere, no longer flesh but a laughing, loving, spitting, farting neutron star of pure energy. He is the hero of the party. He is the villain of the party. Yo soy fiesta.
Your grandpa suffered a stroke two days ago. He is in critical condition and you doubt you will ever see him again. You last saw him in August, at your cousin’s wedding in Colorado. You talked about college football, the Revolutionary War, your post-college adjustment to the real world, and such. The adjustment continues. Indeed you are in Thailand now, and you felt little when you received the news of his stroke. You’ve tried to process it, or have you. You are numb in your bubble on the other side of the planet.
You decide it is time to leave Don’t Cry and make for the barn. You bid farewell to Johannes, pull al-Hamajj from the fray, and disappear back across the river into the dark. The stray dogs are out this time of night. Al-Hamajj turns down for nothing and he yells and barks at them and chases them up the street. You catch up with him at the town’s main drag where you ate dinner. The food vendors are gone and there is a film crew of fifty or more and the whole joint is misty with dry ice crawling up the sides of the buildings. Someone with a bullhorn yells Action! and a man on a motorcycle zooms past you, the engine pitch turning fast from rumble to whine. He appears headed straight for the bank of lights on the far end of the set but then he expertly whips his motorcycle around an unseen corner and out of sight, the engine pitch rising still and fading into the distance.