Rainbow Awards Honorable Mention
Illusions & Dreams Excerpt
A HIGH-PITCHED shriek of pure frustration hurt Randy’s ears.
“I know you dress up to play a girl on stage! But I dress as a woman because that’s who I am!”
The scream ripped through the nearly empty club. Service staff scattered, leaving Randy and Jake standing alone at the entrance to the empty Illusions & Dreams club.
Randy peeked farther into the hallway. The air conditioning cooled his face while the heat of Bangkok still heated his back. Jake glanced over at him with a questioning look. Maybe this wasn’t a first-rate idea.
Jake opened his mouth and shut it before any words came out. The red curtains covering one of the doorframes fluttered open.
A man dressed in a colorful skirt swirled around the bar area. His muscular chest was bare except for a coconut bikini top he was tying with a pink ribbon.
He froze when he saw them in the doorway and adjusted the two coconut halves into the proper location on his chest. “Oh, my.”
The guy in front of them appeared to be in his late twenties or early thirties. His age was difficult to tell. Like most Thai men they’d met thus far, he was quite attractive and ageless. His large brown eyes were made up and his silky black hair twisted up with flowers. He had to be part of the show.
He turned toward where the shouting had come from and frowned. Sighing, he pasted on a forced smile and seemed to pretend nothing was wrong. “Hello, my dears.”
Randy and Jake were early, but Randy hoped the guy would let them wait until the restaurant opened. He promised himself it was the last time he’d let Jake talk him into a cheaper fare. Changing planes once sucked, but three times over the last two days had left him dazed and confused.
After they’d finally landed in Bangkok, when Jake suggested a quick shower before heading straight to Illusions & Dreams for a show, he didn’t argue. He wasn’t in the mood to fight the traffic in a cab or climb the stairs to the Sky Train just to go back to their hotel to wait for the show, so he hoped the guy would have mercy on them.
Jake greeted the flowered man as they stepped fully into the cooled room. “Hey. Everything all right in here?”
The man appeared out of sorts. He glanced behind him at the curtain again, his false smile fading. He must have realized they’d heard at least part of the argument.
“So sorry you had to hear that.” He gave them a shrug and a sad smile. “Finding one’s soul mate is no guarantee of life and love being easy.” His eyes widened as if he’d just realized they were clients and not his therapists.
He cleared his throat. “I’m Adirake, co-owner of this wonderful establishment. The show isn’t for another two hours, and the restaurant and bar don’t open for another thirty minutes.”
Adirake stared at them for a moment as if he were waiting for them to leave. Randy had no intention of facing that hellish heat until he was forced to, so he stood his ground.
Adirake readjusted a drooping flower in his hair and sighed. “Wait one minute.”
Jake crooked his head at Randy and gave him a questioning, wide-eyed look.
Adirake turned in the direction of a red door and bellowed, “Tong!”
A distant indistinct grumble rolled through the club.
“Tong!” Adirake wailed loudly as he smoothed down his skirt with a quick flick of his hand.
“What?” A disembodied, annoyed voice asked before a lovely woman appeared, encased in a sheer black gown with layers of silk that hid her full charms. “You shrieked, Adirake?” The woman batted her eyes coyly at him.
Adirake jerked his head toward Randy and Jake. The beauty had her hair smoothed into a light brown chignon. She followed Adirake’s pointing finger and noticed them as customers.
Not missing a beat, she raised her voice up into the female range. “Well, hello. You two are early.” She glared over at the co-owner and jerked her head toward the door. “Areva is upset. Go deal and I’ll take care of these lovely men.” She fairly purred as she pointed to them with her exceptionally long red nails.
Jake mumbled something, but Randy ignored him, captivated by the drama as it took place in front of him. Jake got his attention by elbowing him, grinning with mirth at the compliment.
“She thinks we’re lovely.”
Rolling his eyes, Randy griped, “Jake, grow up.” He couldn’t have gotten through the past few years without his best friend, but sometimes he prayed maturity would rain all over Jake. But alas, there had been a drought.
Jake made a face at him. Usually Randy didn’t mind Jake making light of any situation, but not now. Randy was in the club where the singer he craved sang. He wiped his hands on his pants and glanced around.
Ever since their first conversation about Thailand months ago, Randy had been researching the terms kathoey and ladyboys. He had discovered that the Thai people considered kathoey to be a third sex. Kathoey were popular in the entertainment industries—all types of amusements—but he didn’t want to think of his singer in those terms. Unlike the transgender community in America, who mostly wanted to live their lives quietly and not be noticed for being different, Thai ladyboys seemed to want to shine for those differences.
Randy’s singer did more than glimmer¬—she practically sparkled when she sang. He couldn’t wait to watch her perform in person.
Tong’s wiggle drew his attention to the present as she made her way around the bar in a soft sway. “My name is Tong. We aren’t open yet, but let me get you settled. It’s too hot to send you back outside. Right this way.” Her hips had a nice roll, made more evident by the way her black dress clung to her round bottom.
She settled them at a corner table, where the smell of basil wafted through the air, and handed them drink and food menus. “Will you boys stay for the show?” she asked, smiling prettily at both men.
“Yeah!” Randy fairly shouted. He flushed, and he added more quietly, “I mean, yes.”
He couldn’t help his excitement; Randy’d waited so long to see his singer. Finally, he’d see her show in person.
He’d lost hours to YouTube watching documentaries exploring the ladyboy culture and shows from all over Thailand, but it was the impressive Illusions & Dreams performance that mesmerized him the most. Those pictures and video clips he’d seen online remained with him, especially of one performer in particular. Meeting her was probably a long shot, but he had to try.
Randy noticed Jake studying him with interest as if trying to figure him out. Good luck with that.
In the span of their ten-year friendship, Jake had made it his mission to hook Randy up and get him laid. He’d dragged him to strip clubs for lap dances, which Randy found unappealing. Jake, comfortably pansexual, had even coerced Randy into going to an all-male revue to see if he could get a rise out of him, but failed. Randy drew the line at a new BDSM club Jake wanted to check out. Jake’s determination to help Randy find some “temporary happiness” seemed to top his agenda. Randy found it sad that “temporary happiness” was the only thing Jake claimed to trust.
Illusions & Dreams seemed to be the classiest ladyboy club in Bangkok. Most clubs appeared to be a thin veil for prostitution. This club, according to TripAdvisor, provided real honest-to-goodness talent. The performers weren’t prostitutes, but entertainers, or so the past clientele had claimed in their reviews.
“I’ll be back to take your order in a bit when the kitchen opens.”
Tong slowly undulated away. Randy stared at the menu as the kitchen door swung open, allowing the smell of garlic and mint to hit his nose. The scent made his stomach growl.
“’Kay,” Randy shook his head. It hit Randy. They were in Thailand.
“She’s a ‘ladyboy.’”
Jake apparently felt the need to inform Randy, like he was a remedial student. As if Randy could’ve missed her unique energy.
“No kidding.” His gaze tracked across the room to ensure he didn’t miss anyone who happened to wander in. He shifted in his seat and caught Jake gawking at him.
“Never seen you”—Jake gestured toward Randy—“all aflutter.”
“I am not all aflutter.” Randy sighed, and a big grin lit up his face. “Okay, I am a bit.” Jake’s rude laughter made him add, “A bit, damn it.”
Jake thumbed the trail of silver rings around his ear, making them click together. “Dude, I’m glad to see something interests you. We’ve been friends for what? Ten years? And you’ve never looked with interest at another person.”
Choosing not to correct his false assumption, Randy went for a slam. “Yeah, well, maybe if you’d have better conversation skills….”
“Fuck you,” Jake tossed back with no malice as he leaned his chair back onto two legs.
“Not my type,” Randy teased.
Randy froze as the enticing creature he’d watched via the Internet floated in. In the flesh, the object of all his recent fantasies, Lalana Dulyarat appeared. Her shiny hair flowed to the middle of her back in a silken waterfall. A few strands were artfully arranged over her full breasts. Her kissable lips pursed. She was feminine, but something in her energy told the truth of her genetics. She was breathtaking.
“She more your type?” Jake goaded as he put his chair back on all fours.
The online images barely did her justice. “Ah. Um. Yeah.” Randy was completely entranced by the vision, close enough to reach out and touch. He started to wonder if he might be a pervert. He’d gone hard from gawking at her smile at someone else.
Behind the tall beauty followed a young, adorable little waif, who giggled at something the singer said. They stopped in their tracks when they unexpectedly spotted the two men sitting at the table.
The waif whispered to the other and wiggled her way over to their table. Randy’s fantasy, Lalana Dulyarat, reached out to stop her friend’s forward motion but missed, so Lalana quickly trailed after her, trying to slow the pace. But Lalana’s determined friend kept ducking out of reach of her hand.
Randy’s singer glared at her friend with a touch of censure when they reached the table. The waif seemed paralyzed as she stared at Jake with her mouth open. Lalana held out her delicate hand to Randy, purposefully bumping into the little one next to her as if to knock her out of the Jake-induced trance she’d fallen under.
As he clumsily stood, Randy wondered if he should kiss the petal-soft hand proffered to him, but decided on a light shake.
“Greetings, sir,” a melodic voice chimed.
Randy gazed into Lalana’s eyes, getting lost in their depth until Jake cleared his throat.
“Oh. Hello. I just… you are….” He wasn’t making a goddamned bit of sense, and he should probably let go of the gorgeous lady’s hand. But he couldn’t. “I’m Randy Camster.”
“An American.” She said “American” like his nationality wasn’t a question, but Randy nodded anyway. She arched one perfectly manicured eyebrow and gently drew her hand back. “You’re too early for dinner.”
Jake reached out to take the smaller girl’s hand and bought it to his lips smoothly. The twentysomething barely held in her squeal. “I’m Jake O’Neil. I’m very pleased to meet you.”
Randy wished he had his best friend’s flair with other people. Instead he just stood there, mute, as the younger girl appeared near to a swoon.
She leaned into Lalana, who pursed her lips and shook her head. Glancing back up to Randy and Jake, she said in a silky voice, “I am Lalana Dulyarat. And this is Ms. Boon-nam Rattanawong.”
Randy finally found his voice. “I know. I, um, found you on the club’s website, Ms. Dulyarat. You’re even more lovely in person.”
Did that sound stalkerish? He probably shouldn’t mention he knew she was single. He’d conversed with a number of bloggers on travel websites as recent as last week to confirm. Not that he’d even the slightest shot in the dark to get a date with her, but he’d at least ask.
“Oh, how very nice of you to say so. Please call me Lalana.”
Lalana uttered the words with such practice, Randy could tell it wasn’t the first time she’d heard compliments from a panting male fan.
Jake grinned at Boon-nam, who seemed focused on him. “Are you ladies in the show?”
Boon-nam’s eyes remained glued to Jake. She nodded absently and said something in Thai.
Lalana tsked and answered, “Yes, we are.” Lalana nudged Boon-nam. “English, Boon-boon.” Turning back to the men, she asked, “Will you be staying for the performance?”
“Yes. Oh, yes. We wouldn’t miss it, right, Jake?” Randy answered immediately, smiling at the vision who haunted his dreams.
Boon-nam tugged Lalana down so she could whisper while her brown eyes remained focused on Jake. After hearing what her friend said, Lalana exhaled. She glared down at Boon-nam, who looked away from Jake to give the taller woman pleading puppy eyes.
Sighing, Lalana said, “Good, maybe we will see you afterward?” She dragged Boon-nam gently toward the door to the left of the stage.
Randy panicked, hoping for Jake’s intervention. He had to ensure he would see her again. This couldn’t be their only exchange.
He knew he could count on Jake’s experience. “Drinks?” Jake called out.
Boon-nam answered happily. “Yes. Meet us at the bar at ten o’clock.”
Lalana must have yanked her a bit roughly through the red door because Boon-nam vanished instantly.
After the ladies disappeared behind the door, Randy turned to Jake. “Thanks.”
“No problem.” Jake grinned at Randy and stifled a yawn. “Drinks at ten.”
Randy nodded as if he were trying to snap himself back to reality. “That’s like a date, right?”
“Indeed. Just like.” Jake rocked back in his chair, twisting his silver thumb ring as he assessed Randy a little too closely.
Oh, shit! “I haven’t had a date in… hell, forever.”
“Then it’s long overdue.” Jake slapped him on the back.
Randy drew in a long inhale.
The ambience changed, and Randy waited for the warning. He knew Jake didn’t want to pop his bubble, but he was going to say what he felt he needed to.
“You do understand those girls used to be boys? And they might still have their twigs and berries.” Why did Jake find it necessary to hammer home this fact? Jake continued. “I’m fine with it. I mean, a hole’s a hole.”
What the hell? “Do you always have to be so crass?”
Leaning forward, Jake shrugged. “Just a realist, my friend. I don’t dress up sex with emotion.”
This was a discussion for another time. “Your point?”
“Just that.” He actually appeared uncomfortable. “I don’t want you getting a surprise.”
To be fair, Jake didn’t know of Randy’s research. He’d been well versed in the facts, and if he were honest, maybe it accounted for a little of the appeal. While he found other transgender people attractive, he didn’t have the same response as he did to Lalana.
Lalana pulsed with vibrant energy, drawing Randy to her. Whatever she had or didn’t have under her dress didn’t matter all that much to him. As insane as it sounded, he felt a connection with her. A nonstalkerish connection, he amended.
Jake sat back hard in the chair and waved his hands in defense. “Hey, man. No issue for me. You know my cock is all about equal opportunity. I’m nondiscriminatory when it comes to fucking. Cock, pussy, mouth, or ass, it’s all good.”
“It’s not always about sex.” Randy’s hands itched to shake some sense into Jake, but he didn’t have that kind of time.
Jake chuckled. “Yeah, actually it is. Love is a fairy tale people convince themselves exists, so they can fuck like bunnies without the guilt society would heap on them. I say just fuck whoever you want and leave emotion out.”
Randy snorted. “Like a furred hole in the wall.”
Jake slapped his hand against the table. “Come on. I’d been drinking, was drunk perhaps. It was that one time… I think.”
Randy laughed harder at Jake’s confession. “You’ve no shame. You had relations, literally, with a hole in the wall.”
Jake grinned as he leaned across the table to grab the saltshaker and spin it around. “I’m sure one of the guys purposely lined it with fur. Whatever, man. I was hornier than fuck, and it was tight.”
“What does that even mean?” Jake exasperated Randy, but he’d gotten used to the idiot.
Jake cracked up. “Does it matter?”
“Probably not,” Randy glanced toward the door Lalana had disappeared through.
“I’m an ‘any port in a storm’ kind of guy.”
Jake pretended he was totally nonselective in his choice of partners and that “safe, sane, and consensual” were his only standards. But Randy had never bought his line of bullshit.
“Only requirements are hot and tight. I guess I didn’t know you were ready to swing in other directions.”
Randy shook his head. “Chances are neither one of us will be swinging anything.”
Jake’s laugh barked out. “This is Bangkok, baby, Bangkok! Why do you think they call it Bang Cock?” Jake’s face was an open book, which displayed each and every one of his obscene thoughts.
“You’re crazy, you know that?” Randy cracked up, but was glad the ladies weren’t there to witness Jake being uncouth.
“Yeah, I know. But you love me anyway. You can’t help yourself.”
True, but Randy didn’t have to admit it. Jake was a great friend and always made him laugh at life. Even when life had been dismal, Jake had always been quick with a joke to make him smile.
“Okay, back to the situation at hand. Didn’t know you had a hobby.”
What was he talking about now? “Huh?”
Jake laughed. “You know, the whole Internet-stalking thing?”
Randy dropped his voice, not wanting to be overheard. “Screw you. I did a little research and watched the clips of Ms. Dulyarat singing.” When Jake clearly wasn’t buying his watered-down version of reality, Randy added, “A couple of times.”
“Ha! Couple of hundred, maybe.” Jake saw he was right when Randy felt his face go red. “Whatever, man, no worries.” Slapping him on the back, Jake asked seriously, “You like her?”
“No. Yeah. I mean, I know I don’t know her, but there’s a vibe, a connection between us or something.” He rubbed his forehead, which started to hurt.
Jake’s expression spoke his disbelief so Randy simply tuned out his words. Sighing, he rambled on, “Shut up. I know it’s crazy. But now I’m seeing her at ten.”
Holy hell, he was meeting her in less than four hours! “What do I say? I mean, she’s way out of my league. What do I talk about with her?” In comparison to the glamorous and talented performer, Randy’s life was a snore. “How can they speak English perfectly?”
Jake grinned as if he enjoyed Randy’s spin of crazy rapidly turning into panic. “See. There you go. Your first topic of conversation.”
Before Randy could smack his ex-best friend in the head, Tong reappeared. “What can I get for you?”
Jake ordered the pad Thai with a Thai beer. Randy ordered the same, because he couldn’t form thoughts beyond the gorgeous creature he’d be seeing at ten.
Tong turned and almost slammed right into a muscular man behind her. “Oh, sorry, Jaidee.”
Randy was struck by how satiny and soft her voice could be. She was probably a singer too.
This Jaidee’s hands went around her waist to ensure she didn’t stumble. “No problem.”
Tong seemed almost to swoon from the sound of his voice. The drama unfolding before them riveted Randy. The guy’s hands lingered longer than necessary, and his eyes held Tong’s for several heartbeats as if he were going to say something.
Tong cleared her throat and stared at the floor before she confessed, “While you were away, I, um, I missed you.”
Jake was busy checking his phone and completely unaware, but Randy watched Tong melt like ice on a scorching-hot day.
Randy wondered if Jaidee was that toned from hours of dance and performing or if he was a gym rat. Hell, Randy should’ve hit the gym if that’s what surrounded Lalana all day.
“Did everything work out as Adirake planned?”
The transformation in Tong’s demeanor surprised the hell out of Randy.
“Yes, the brother and sister are over at Thai Haven. The restaurant owner is a friend of Areva. He’ll be teaching them how to wait tables and give them a job.”
When Jaidee turned to go, he hesitated. “I missed you too,” he said before he hurried down the hallway toward the stage door.
Aw, that’s sweet.
Tong didn’t move until Jaidee was out of sight. Then she must have noticed she had a captivated audience of one, because she turned to Randy and shrugged. “I’ll place your order with the boys in the kitchen, and I’ll get the beers for my two early birds.”
When she brought the two beers to the table, her sympathetic expression told Randy she’d overheard him obsessing over their upcoming date.
“So, I mean, what else do I talk to her about? She’s lovely. What is she looking for?”
“You’re winding yourself into a ball of anxiety. Just calm the fuck down.” Jake grimaced. “What do they want? It’s not even a date, for Christ’s sake. You just pay for their drinks. That’s what they want.”
Tong cleared her throat to get Randy’s attention. “Romance.” She sat down at their table with their beers. “Even though my love life is nonexistent, at least I can give some unsolicited advice.”
“What?” Jake questioned her.
Randy knew Jake well enough to know that he clearly didn’t like her sitting her ass anywhere she pleased. But Tong was secure in her place. She’d been here before Jake had arrived, and she would be here long after he left. Her posture almost dared them not to appreciate her crossed legs. Jake leered at them and relaxed back into his chair.
She smiled at him. “Romance. These girls crave romance. Their dreams are like those cheap happily-ever-after romance novels. They want a knight in shining armor to love them. To sweep away the miseries of the past and help them enjoy the sunshine of the future.”
Not one to kiss anyone’s ass, Jake chuckled. “Yeah, I’m sure a nice little bauble taking a chunk out of your bank account would suffice as romance.”
What the hell is wrong with him? Usually he could ignore Jake’s twisted view of love, sex, and relationships, but Tong knew Lalana, and Randy didn’t want her to blow him off because his friend was a jackass. Randy kicked Jake under the table.
“Ow! Randy! What? It’s true.” Staring at Tong, Jake asked, “Aren’t a few expensive trinkets excellent substitutes for true love?” The way he said love made the word sound tawdry and dirty.
“What do you mean?” Tong’s tone suggested she was daring Jake to say exactly what she clearly expected him to say.
“Come on. Who do you think you’re talking to? I mean, these places have the reputation of being high-class brothels,” Jake stated as if it were a matter of fact.
Randy’d read that most clubs tried to get clients to fall in “like” with the performers and convince them to buy expensive gifts and trinkets. Sometimes the performers would even ask for money outright for their supposed families still in the countryside.
Embarrassment flashed across Tong’s face before she regrouped. “Actually, that’s not what Illusions & Dreams is about at all. Our girls and boys are well paid, get their educations, and are well taken care of. We aren’t looking for a man to do it for us.” Sniffing in annoyance, she appeared to want to punch the knucklehead in the teeth.
Jake snorted. Randy shook his head and made the toe of his shoe find Jake’s shin again. Tong grinned at Jake’s yelp of pain right before Randy apologized.
“Please don’t be offended. My friend can be an ass sometimes. He was dropped as a baby.” Randy smiled and held out his hand. “I’m Randy, by the way.”
“Pleased to meet you. I am Tong.” She smiled at Randy and delicately grasped his hand to shake. “The girls here are looking for love and romance.” Standing, she said, “At least, until they grow up and realize it doesn’t exist.”
Randy stood up politely. “Oh, but it does.” He grabbed her hand back as if he were going to convince her. “Truly it does,” he told her adamantly.
Tong took the time to examine his sincerity. “Ah, you poor naïve thing. You still believe in happily ever afters. I really hope you’re right.”
As she hurried back to the bar, out of the corner of his eye, Randy witnessed Jaidee’s head duck back behind the stage door.