My Thai ex-boyfriend wasn’t planning to share his HIV test results the night I visited him. He was in bed watching the news at the modest suburban home in Bangkok where he lived with his younger brothers. This was in 1997, the year Asia stood on the brink of an economic meltdown. The Thai currency had crashed, and the region was rocked by mass layoffs in South Korea and deadly food riots in Indonesia. The crisis caught me in an interesting predicament. I was a Filipino expat earning my salary in U.S. dollars, meaning the value of my salary skyrocketed while everybody else fell onto hard times. I stopped checking my bank account. All that money terrified me. I wasn’t used to it. I needed somebody I could trust financially, so I turned to my ex-boyfriend Somchai, who had a solid career in managing the finances of international agencies. As a local, he received his salary in Thai baht, meaning the crisis could eat away at his savings. But he remained calm. He was smart. He knew what to do. When I turned to him for advice, he gave me sound options, where to invest, how to save and spend wisely. He was ten years older than me, the sturdy, load-bearing post that held their household together. He visited temples often, didn’t drink or smoke. I went to church occasionally, drank and smoked. Thailand was my first assignment abroad, and I saw his self-contained world as a labyrinth. I was hungry for adventure. He was gentle and caring. We always had safe sex. He was a Buddhist who aimed for presence; I was a foreigner who yearned to blend in, be invisible. We broke up after two years but kept our friendship.
I went to see him that night and picked up the holiday airline ticket he had helped me purchase. He was always up-to-date on budget rates. I thanked him [End Page 15] and asked about Tao, his young new boyfriend who had lost his job when his company folded. We’re okay, he said matter-of-factly. We heard a knock on the door, and Somchai’s six-year-old nephew walked into the room, climbed onto his uncle’s bed, and told us, “Uncle, pai khin kao.” Dinner is ready.
The open space downstairs was crowded with stacks of magazines and boxes of VHS tapes and Gameboys. One area stood out, the empty space where their mother’s folding bed used to be. They had kept it clean since the old woman passed away. There were no chairs. We sat on the floor in the middle of that room, cross-legged around a low, square table, facing the boxy TV. It made me smile to see the brothers again, all three wearing glasses. I sat between Somchai and his nephew. The little boy sat next to his father, a government worker. In his mother’s lap sat a toddler, born around the time that Somchai and I had broken up. Rounding out our circle was the youngest brother, a factory worker with squinty eyes. We rolled balls of sticky rice.
I brought up the topic to Somchai. It wasn’t meant to ruin the family dinner. I was 100 percent sure that only he and I spoke and understood English in that household. The TV was always at full volume and we kept our voices low.
There was a time when the explosion of HIV infection in Thailand had been hair-raising. In the late ’80s, among drug users alone, infection rates rose to almost double in one year. But funding poured in, and by the time I arrived things had started to turn around. Schools were required to teach HIV prevention and control, radio ads ran every hour, and condom use was enforced in all sex establishments. Bangkok was already conducting randomized AZT trials. Unfortunately these initial gains turned out to be short-lived. The economy crashed, and the campaign suffered serious funding setbacks. The night I visited Somchai, I was already riding the crest of a monstrous wave. I told him...