“One night in Bangkok and the world’s your oyster, the bars are temples but the pearls aren’t free.” – Murray Head
On New Year’s Day in 2000, I woke up alone save for my three dogs. At the time I had the pugs, Sable and Zoe, and my beloved terrier, May. Later that year, my brother, Danny, and Dad would retrieve the pugs to take them to their new home as I slowly dismantled my life in Memphis. It felt like I was breaking camp except instead of carefully packing everything away for my next trip I burned everything in the camp fire.
The world limped into that year. The Y2K hype and fizzle had exhausted everyone. By spring, the stock market tanked, shiny, once-new Dot Coms died a miserable death, and everyone dismissed the internet as an illusion that had betrayed us all. That tepid summer left a lot to be desired. I continued to travel, but I kept looking for other opportunities. A few false promises emerged only to evaporate, which only served to prolong my Memphis misery.
I had never warmed to Memphis, which initially didn’t matter because I was rarely home, but the forlorn town seemed like an anachronism shoe-horned into modern America despite its protests. Living there felt like a bad dizzy spell. Its claims to fame, Beale Street and Graceland, were markedly over-rated and disappointing. The massive FedEx operation that overwhelmed the otherwise dinky airport offered the only fascinating sight to see in that slice of western Tennessee.
By fall, my job search within FedEx heated up and I found myself vying for a position based in Los Angeles. I had always enjoyed the West Coast and imagined myself running along Huntington Beach every morning before work. It seemed idyllic, and I wanted the job in the worst possible way. What better way to start over than to move to the other side of the country. But it didn’t work out that way.
Instead, I received an offer for a similar role based in Chicago. I had never considered moving to Chicago because I had a visceral dislike for terrible winters, but given the choice between a desperate town on the Mississippi River or six months of inhospitable winter weather every year, I went with the latter. There were worse things than freezing my ass off, and I needed a fresh start. Cold be damned.
Before I made the move to Chicago, I had one last hurrah in the Audit Department, a trip to Thailand and its famous capital city. I’d never been to Bangkok despite flitting around Asia for much of my time at FedEx, and the city did not disappoint. A gleaming, relatively modern city juxtaposed among the remnants of Thailand’s past greeted me. Countless motorbikes and scooters with one, two, or more passengers buzzed through the city’s streets like angry bees darting among the cars. We had a van and a driver who took us back and forth from our hotel to the office for the whole week, while we gaped through the windows at the throngs of bikes that clogged the narrow streets.
On our last night there before a very early morning flight, one of the managers offered to take us out for Peking Duck and to see the “real” Bangkok. Most of us agreed to go since we thought it better to stay up all night before the flight out so that we could adjust back to Central Time in the U.S. more readily. He took us to a tropical-themed, wood-paneled restaurant near the bar district in Bangkok where we had a private room and feasted on duck wrapped in lettuce and drank copious amounts of alcohol. I’d never been a big fan of duck; I just didn’t like the texture or taste of the meat, but that didn’t stop me from enjoying the meal and the sense of camaraderie on my last trip with my coworkers.
Feeling a little light in the step after the drinks, a few of us decided to venture into the bar district, while the others went back to the hotel for some sleep. The drinks kept rolling and the wanton Thai women kept approaching us like we were some sort of novelty. We danced with the women to pulsating Thai music and some bad renditions of American songs. We felt like rock stars, at least in our heads, which were becoming foggier by the moment.
At some point, the night dissolved into a blur. I barely remember going back to the hotel and packing my bags for the predawn shuttle to the airport. I do remember sitting in the back of that van with my head spinning and thumping as if the loud music from the bars had somehow implanted itself in my skull to follow me home. My stomach lurched with each turn toward the airport and bubbled like some witch’s cauldron. I was ill in the worst way.
Luckily, the airline bumped us up to first class on the 747 heading to Tokyo, which meant I had a seat in the upper level of the plane that lowered into a flat bed. I’d never been so thankful for first class. I sat in my seat with a headache so tremendous that I could barely keep my eyes open. As the plane rumbled down the runway, I dreaded the six-hour flight ahead of me. I didn’t think I could make it. Once we were up to cruising altitude, I became so agitated that I went to the restroom and threw up the contents of my stomach into the big silver bowl. I felt some measure of relief, at least to the point that I could sleep. I ambled back to my seat seething with the burn of vomit in my throat. I never wanted to see or smell Peking Duck again.
By the time I landed in Tokyo, I started to feel marginally better, but the remainder of my flights back to Memphis were a blur of fitful naps and tentative sips of water. When I landed in Memphis in the bright fall sunshine, I covered my eyes with my sunglasses and grunted and nodded goodbyes to my coworkers before I headed home for the last two weeks I’d ever spend in that vast empty house on the east side of Memphis.