2023 – 3rd place winner

“By Association” by Dhana Musil


        I’ve got this habit of chewing the inside of my bottom lip when I’m nervous, and right now, standing here with my best friend Nancy in the entrance of this Bangkok guest house, I’m chewing like crazy. This bulletin board I’m pretending to be interested in is a patchwork of handwritten messages: missed connections, a warning about a dengue outbreak, Lonely Planet Thailand for sale. A note: Missing Antique Flute––Reward––No questions asked. What kind of an asshole would steal someone’s flute?

         Nancy hugs her imitation Gucci duffle bag to her chest. Her eyes dart in all directions. She rubs her hand quickly over her clean shaven head. “Be chill when he gets here, okay?”

         I’ve heard about Shai for months––the slim, dark haired, Thai-speaking junkie/dealer. Nancy once described him as “broken-sexy.” Now, as he makes his way towards us, I understand why. He wears a flimsy tank top and fishermans pants that hang off his lean frame. He’s got a dark tan that comes from living here rather than just visiting. Wet hair hangs snake-like down his back and silvery tracks on his forearms. I’m simultaneously attracted to and afraid of him.

        I extend my hand towards Shai and blurt out a casual greeting but he completely ignores me and talks to Nancy.

       “I can trust her?”

       “Of course!”

         I look down at my flip flops and wonder. I’m not here to transport anything, that’s Nancy’s job, but I am here to see how it’s done, to “learn the ropes” as they say, in case it’s something I might be able to pull off myself in the future.

         I’ve sold grams of hash to friends here and there, but I’ve never smuggled drugs across borders. Nancy howeverhas transported contraband in and out of Asia underneath various wigs for years. She’s not a greedy person, she does it to make enough money to enjoy winters raving and doing smack on the beaches of Goa. In between runs, when money runs low, she travels to Japan on tourist visas, works as a hostess, and turns tricks with Japanese businessmen. Nancy seems to live freely, without guilt or remorse. I find this intoxicating.

         We follow Shai to his third-floor room. I take off my sunglasses and my eyes struggle to adjust to the absence of light. He turns on a flickering neon lamp. A velour blanket with an image of a jaguar hangs over the only window in the room. The air is laden with cigarette smoke and my throat feels as if I’ve inhaled sand. The ceiling fan struggles through the stagnant humidity. Below it, a bare mattress is covered with an assortment of ratty towels and crumpled sheets. In the corner is a card table with a mound of plastic-wrapped packages piled like a haphazard pyramid. This is the heroin Nancy will carry to Amsterdam tonight.

          It’s hard to believe that only two days ago Nancy and I were pouring whiskey and flirting with wealthy businessmen in a Tokyo hostess club. We had met at a Roppongi gaijin bar three months before. Intrigued by her Sinead O’Connor vibe, especially the Libra tattoo above her left ear, I sat down beside her. “I’m a Libra, too,” I said.

          Nancy told me she was from New York City, loved Dal Bhat, playing guitar—though she wasn’t very good at it—and heroin. We bought one another tequila shots, discovered that we both had a thing for Harvey Keitel and Israeli men, and finished the night crouched in a toilet stall, inhaling crystal meth off a strip of tin foil.

          Now, Nancy sits on a stool in front of me, chin lowered to expose the pale nape of her neck. I look away and notice a matchbox-sized square of sunlight on the floor near her feet.

         The pile of heroin looks to be about fifty packages. How are all of these going to fit underneath her wig?

         Shai grabs one of the packages and holds it up to my face. In broken English he says, “Tape package down, top-edge first––like this.” His fingers are dextrous and steady. “Make sure tape sticks very good. Push hard.”

         Nancy’s head dips under the pressure of his hand. She lets out a whimper. I try to follow Shai’s taping instructions, but my hands tremble and the tape doesn’t stick well––it’s too hot in here.

         Shai hands me a towel from the bed and I pat her scalp dry before attempting to place the next packages. I press the edges of the tape delicately but firmly; I’d never forgive myself if one fell out. If she were caught here in Bangkok, it could mean the death penalty. I try to convince myself that if I were to be caught here in this room with a dealer and a drug mule and a table full of heroin, my sentence would be light––I’m not transporting or selling. I’d only be guilty by association.

         Rip. Tape. Press. Rip. Tape. Press.

         Nancy chews her cuticles and winces occasionally but stays mostly quiet––unusual for her. She’s typically one of those extroverts who can talk to anyone about anything, whether they are interested in what she has to say or not.

         Shai and I work without speaking. Outside the room the comings and goings of travellers walking to and from the shared bathrooms. Australian accents. A woman yells at someone in Italian. When Shai’s not looking, I rub my palms on my cut-offs because I don’t want him to think my sweaty palms are from nerves. If I show any weakness or hesitation he may change his mind about my being cool and trustworthy enough to potentially work for him, in whatever capacity that may be.

         Rip. Tape. Press. Rip. Tape. Press.

         One afternoon, while we were soaking in a jacuzzi at a fancy Tokyo hotel spa, courtesy of one of her customers, Nancy said something that hurt me. We’d been talking about our friendship and how lucky we were to have found one another. I don’t know if either of us used the term “soul mate,” but I sure felt that way about her. We spoke about things that light us up, things that make us feel most alive. I brought up the time we watched the sunrise from Mt. Fuji the morning after a rave. We were just coming down from ecstasy and sitting there, with the sun rising, I felt so much love and gratitude for our friendship… I thought she’d say something about me too, but no.

         She said, “Nothing in the world makes me feel more exhilarated than slipping through security with a head full of drugs.”

         It was then I understood. Nancy’s thrill is smuggling. My thrill is Nancy. Being with her is like the rush of standing on a cliff, one foot over the edge—without having to jump.

         Before covering Nancy’s Libra tattoo, I take a deep breath and steady myself. Part of me wants to rip all these packages off her head and drag her out of this room. But another part, the part I don’t want to acknowledge, knows that none of this can or will happen. I don’t have the guts to pull off any kind of intervention, and Nancy will always choose this life over me.

         Once her head is three-quarters covered, Shai leaves us alone while he goes to meet the guy he buys his passports from, and to get Nancy’s airline ticket.

         I pull back a corner of the jaguar blanket and watch Shai disappear down Khao San Road. Tuk-Tuks race past in the dusk glow. Lines of laundry flutter like prayer flags at the guesthouse across the street. A mess of electrical cords dangle below. For a moment, I consider walking out of this room and not looking back. I’ve got my passport and a wad of Baht in my fanny pack, there’s no one stopping me––but I can’t abandon Nancy. Not when we’ve come this far. In a few hours she’ll be on a plane to Amsterdam, and I don’t know when I’ll see her again.

         I wipe the sweat between my breasts with the back of my hand, then rifle through Nancy’s bag. I pull out a couple of bottles of water, her barely-written journal, the Rider Tarot deck someone traded her for some smack, and her wig and suit. The silk skirt and blazer were tailor-made in Manila, but Nancy never hangs them up, so they’re wrinkled.

        Nancy sticks out her tongue and widens her kaleidoscope eyes in the mirror.  She looks like an alien with all the packages taped to her head.

        After running her nylons, we decide to scrap them altogether. Nancy hates nylons, but I thought they’d make her look more polished. Nancy shimmies into her skirt, tries unsuccessfully to smooth out her panty lines, and finally, I adjust the collar of her button-down blouse.

       “I’m so thirsty,” she says. “Hand me a bottle of water?”

        She drinks the whole bottle down without taking a breath.

        Finally, I reach into the bag for Nancy’s wig. She’s got three that she rotates, depending on where she’s going and which passport she’s travelling on. As it turns out she’s only packed her blonde bobbed wig. I do my best to stretch it from front to back and back to front, from left to right and right to left, but no matter what I do, I can’t cover all the packages.

        “What the fuck Nancy? This wig’s too small.”

        “Well, what can I say? Shai’s never made me carry this much before.”

        “Why didn’t you pack the others just in case?”

         “I couldn’t find the Cleopatra one,” Nancy says, “and I sold the long blonde one to a customer. He paid triple what I paid for it.”

         I can’t believe Nancy is so nonchalant about a situation that could potentially mean life or death for her. I do a more thorough job of making sure I’ve packed all the right gear even if I’m just going on a beach vacation for a few weeks.

        My shoulders ache, and my fingers are sore. I sit on the edge of Shai’s stained mattress to drink my water while Nancy lights a cigarette. I feel the faintest breeze but wonder if I’m imagining it. I’m not. From behind that jaguar blanket wafts a bit of outside air. It carries with it the familiar smells of Bangkok– fish sauce, motorcycle fuel and cooking oil.

        I pull Nancy’s wig over my knee in another attempt to stretch it out. In the end, it’s with brute force that I finally manage to get it on and all the packages covered. I stand back to have a look. The wig sits unnaturally high and tilts to the left. Nancy resembles a customer at some back-alley hairdressing school. All that’s missing is a hairdryer with a bulbous hood to swallow her up, which at this point may not be the worst thing.

        Nancy pencils in her sparse brows while I clasp my hands behind my back to stretch my shoulders, and come to terms with the fact that there is no way my nerves could handle this job. I’d be so scared people would be able to smell it on me before I even got to the airport.

        I’ve made Nancy my destination, but for her, I’m only a stopover. I’m here risking possible arrest and/or incarceration because not only do I want to be with Nancy, I want to be Nancy.

       The truly fucked-upness of my beliefs and choices climbs so far up my throat that I feel I might choke. I lie back on Shai’s mattress, and something hard jabs into my shoulder blade. Half-hidden, under the pile of crumpled laundry, is an antique flute.