Bold: The characters are speaking in English.
Morning arrived and I had a chance to rest by peacefully enjoying breakfast alone in my room. I ate while watching TV and despite not knowing the language, I found the brief respite to be pleasant.
Today’s big news pertained to the convening of the Kazakhstan parliament on the basis of some sort of urgent agenda. The TV continued to repeatedly display images of the president yet I still couldn’t grasp what his name was–in any case his surname felt familiar to my ears…. Apart from that, posh cars belonging to members of the political party appeared onscreen as they arrived to the conference.
This country was amazing dear readers. Kazakhstan functioned on a democratic system yet it had no opposing parties whatsoever. As to why this was the case, I would need to investigate and explain it to you some other time. Aside from news of the convening parliament, the following political news nearly lulled me to sleep when… Hey! Mr. Alexander Nazarbayev, what are you doing on TV!?
Projected on the TV screen was a gigantic building called KazmunayGas (КазМунайГаз). Upon it, the hottie was announcing something towards a conference of twenty people. The atmosphere was dark, each of them arguing with one another to the point where their faces had turned black and red. Honestly it would be no surprise if a fight erupted in the middle of the conference room. The majority of people attending the conference had Russian name tags, save for a few who had English ones with names of big oil companies labelled beside it. The image then cut to when the conference was finished as an army of reporters ran over to surround Alexey before being tucked back by his booming voice and intimidating gaze which forced them to retreat. Not retreating would be crazy actually. I saw this and felt pity. Hey Mr. Hottie you’re not a reporter so you don’t understand how us media people make a living. Of course… you’re just a gangster in disguise as a civil servant after all, what would you care…?
Upon completely demolishing my pickled cucumbers, the entertainment news started to air on TV–and what story could it be other than… a shot of Alicia exiting out of her posh Bentley car with four bodyguards as they were surrounded by a mass of bloodthirsty reporters who bombarded with questions about last night’s incident. A photo which I had secretly taken from behind the curtains was enlarged until it covered the entire screen, accompanied also by rapid commentary. Alicia then made a frustrated noise before vanishing into the luxurious hotel which she was staying at.
I was shocked… The conversation I had heard last night in my sleep… I really wasn’t imagining things. Alexey was willing to use every method possible in order to get rid of whatever it was that obstructed his eyesight… Matters such as ruining a famous model’s career was insignificant when compared to the impact it would have on the husband who was currently running around lobbying his position in the cabinet…
By now, Alexey was probably puffing his hazy cigarette smoke and laughing to his heart’s content inside his office…
Continually pressing the remote, I eventually found an English version of the local news and came to an understanding. As it turns out, the cabinet was undergoing a number of changes. Significantly, several important positions were being reshuffled: The assistant minister of defense, the minister of finance, and–eh? …What was this position? The minister of energy? As a result of my extremely slow reading, I still couldn’t grasp the entire story. Following this news was–ah! There it was again. KazmunayGas turned out to be a large state-owned enterprise that had opened negotiations about excavating oil and natural gasses in collaboration with other private companies. And by extension of this, I became a little more acquainted with Alexey as well. From the information provided by this channel, Alexey was cited as a civil servant working under the minister of energy. Eh? But since when were civil servants such a high-earning profession…?
The news segment on this channel was slightly longer than the previous one so I ended up seeing Alexey give a short English interview. However… as expected of someone who belonged to the mafia: “This country’s resources belong to the people, if companies refuse to pay the concession fee imposed by the government, then find somewhere else to drill oil from.”
“And how much is this government-issued concession fee sir?”
“That’s your duty as a journalist to find out for yourself.” The female reporter was taken aback…
My god!!! Alexey must be having an identity crisis, he’s mixed up his roles between being a civil servant and being a mafia gangster! As if giving an interview like this was acceptable.
The sound of knocking could be heard from my front door and I walked over to open it without any thought.
“Petch dear~ I miss youuuu.“
An abnormally high-pitched voice, a powerful hug, and two silicone lumps which shoved and pushed against my chest until my lungs nearly concaved. Jessica was smooching my cheeks so vigorously that I didn’t get a chance to defend myself. However, after struggling desperately for a while, I managed to escape death in the end. Facing forward, I saw Isakov stood staring apathetically along with the hottie who had just entered the room to do the same.
“Hey, how’d you get here Pae–I mean, Jessica.”
“Well… Alexey said you needed a model for your work so I offered to help.” Jessica puckered her lips together, her expression full of haughtiness. “He also said a face like mine would make your photos more dignified.”
“*****” Sorry for my vulgarity. “I never said that, and never would I want a kathoey for a model, it ruins my eyesight.”
Only upon seeing my kathoey friend’s somber expression did I realize that my words were too harsh. “But… if you have time, going out for a drive with me… would be pretty fun, arguing with you makes life more colorful.”
Round eyes thick with mascara like peacock feathers blinked rapidly. She nodded energetically, then sauntered over to fawn on Isakov who had been listening to our conversation. Isakov nodded before dragging Jessica’s three-person thick suitcase into the room. Taking the key and opening her suitcase, Jessica pulled out several sets of clothes which had already been washed and ironed, depositing them into a separate smaller bag. I was left puzzled. “What are you doing? Why are leaving your belongings in my room?”
“I prepared a lot of gorgeous outfits in case you needed them for your work… but… since your camera is far too superior for a lady like me, I’ll just walk around and show off these beautiful clothes while you take photographs of some other redhead or blondie instead, doesn’t that sound like fun?” Despite showing an expression of indifference, I could sense that she was sulking. Haah… consoling girls was already a hard task but consoling kathoeys was proving to be several times more difficult.
Jessica took out a mink fur hat, patted it into shape, and posed gleefully in front of the mirror, changing her sunglasses, necklace, ring, purse, and shoes until my head began to spin. Eventually I had to give her a nudge and convince her that she was already beautiful, only then was she satisfied and walked arm in arm with Isakov as they led the way forward. Upon seeing my red BMW convertible, she let out several squeals and screeches at its classic design before requesting that I take a few shots of her with it. I was beginning to wonder though, was I going to get any work done today?
“It’s cold as sh*t today Petch.” Jessica muttered as I drove my car after Isakov who was leading the way. “My lips are dry, they’re not luscious and kissable like Megan Fox’s at all.”
Megan Fox, really? You must be barking to an airplane! It would already be fortunate if your face looked at least a tenth as attractive as Megan Fox’s.
“Use the lipsticks that you went to the effort of hauling with you in that cosmetics chests then woi.” I wasn’t exaggerating. Jessica who agreed to accompany me on this drive had hauled along a chestful of cosmetics, three hats, and four sunglasses (I wanted to know, was she hiding her other eyes or something?) I had no desire to know what was in that enigmatic chest of hers. And she only had a single damned face as well, why did she need all that makeup for just a simple drive?
“I’m only complaining. Honestly, you don’t understand a beautiful lady like me at all, it’s such a waste of your life to choose to become a fashion photographer.”
Sure, I’m the one who’s wrong… I grumbled internally before deciding to ignore Jessica, leaving her to chatter on by herself. Jessica was someone who loved to talk. Her talking was relentless whereby even if I drove from Kazakhstan to the borders of Afghanistan, she would still have a story to tell throughout the entire trip.
I forgot to mention our destination. Admittedly I didn’t manage to catch the name of the town, however, it was a town that was relatively rural, far from Astana by one and a half hours. The roads in Kazakhstan were much better than the ones in Bangkok. Even though they weren’t very wide, they were at least entirely covered in asphalt. The people who drove also had compassionate hearts. Most exemplary of all were the bus drivers who even possessed a good semblance of standards, it was so admirable that it nearly brought tears to my eyes.
Despite not having much chance to chat with Viktar today, he still made sure to secretly observe me from afar as I walked around taking photos casually. On one occasion, Viktar directed my attention to the view of a farming valley. The tilled fields had been leveled into steps which alternated between high and low. Atop the peaks of each tall hill stood a couple of aged wooden houses and a number of large bulky dairy cows which strolled together in a herd.
Viktar informed me in a hushed voice that these fields belonged to Isakov’s grandparents. Furthermore, if I drove another fifteen miles past this valley, a large dairy farm created as a pastime by the elderly couple could be seen–and it was here where I would meet that hottie and his thuggish underling again.
Let me confess, I didn’t really like landscape photography all that much. It’s not that I wasn’t skilled at it. Rather… it just didn’t impress or inspire me. As such, it couldn’t be helped that I became bored of this town after two hours. Yet Isakov wasn’t discouraged, going so far as to lead the way by car so I could get a glimpse the dairy farm and also a horse racing farm (that Viktar refused to disclose the owner of, only smiling.) I managed to obtain several nice photos of the well-bred horses but upon seeing Jessica implore the hottie for a horse ride, my good mood started to sour once again. Why? Because she was being noisy. Furthermore, my Alexey had the nerve to agree to Jessica’s request. As her butt met the horse, she made such a piercing artificial screech to get off that the hottie had to carry her down gently…. If I were to act like that however, I would instantly be kicked off the horse and break my neck in the fall.
The underhanded allure kathoey’s possessed was honestly tiresome, good grief.
It was four in the afternoon now. Currently I was strolling through a farmer’s market where various vendors had laid out their goods for sale in the middle of the bustling square. Jessica’s sickeningly sweet voice buzzed close to my ears. Every time I turned to look, I would see her walking arm in arm with Alexey, buying and tasting things along the way merrily. Moreover, she was even feeding him. The hottie played along obediently too, receiving what was held up to his mouth with a radiant and relaxed expression on his face. From a cursory glance, without knowing that Jessica was a man, one would assume that these two were a normal unsuspecting pair of lovers. As for me, I could only watch them from afar, taking photographs occasionally from time to time. Eventually we settled down to rest at the entrance to one of the old nearby houses. Seeing fallen orange and yellow leaves clutter the street, I couldn’t help but release a sigh. My heart felt inexplicably vacant for some reason.
“You’re tired already?”
The hottie who had fallen to a kathoey’s allure sat down beside me, lighting his cigarette. “What’s up?”
“I’m… fine.” I replied reluctantly as I bent over to look at my photos. “Do you want to see them? After all, you went to the effort of bringing me on this eye-opening trip.”
Alexey took the camera, silently looking at my photos for a moment. When I turned back to look however, I was met with a mischievous smile.
“Even a preschooler is capable of taking photos like yours.”
It was like I was struck by lightning. My face felt numb like it had been slapped. “What did you say?”
“A preschooler equipped with a similar camera can take the exact same photos. Do you only think to rely on the camera’s abilities but not your own whatsoever…?” His lips were curled into a smile but his eyes stared cruel and mercilessly. “Bringing you on this trip and asking for Jessica’s help didn’t make you any smarter at all… what a disappointment.”
Hit with this single uppercut, I was instantly dizzy. Pangs of hurt flooded my chest to the point where I couldn’t suppress my desire to lash back at the man. I latched onto his arm before he could walk away.
“Don’t just insult me. If you’re serious then please be so kind as to explain to an idiot like me how the professionals do it.”
“And prior to this, have you never acted like a professional before? Just work like you do everyday except do it smarter, that’s all there is to it.” The gangster steeled his voice. He took the camera out of my hands and showed me the final few photos. “Fine, in case it brings any merit let me tell you… that I’ve never met a professional photographer anywhere who takes landscape photos as terrible as you. Your photos are flat, dull and boring.”
“Well that’s because your country is boring. You took me sightseeing on a farm so of course there would be nothing to photograph except for some farmhouses–as if it would come out looking extravagant like a royal palace.”
A palm struck my mouth with a loud thwack. “Petch, quit barking!”
I was beyond shocked at being slapped, but also at being addressed so humiliatingly. “You…”
“How about it, would you like to hear it again? …In case that tiny brain of yours has gotten smarter now. If not… then shut up, listen to me speak and use that tiny lump of brain to work out a way to solve this problem!” The tone he used… was icy frigid, as if hurting my feelings didn’t make him feel bad in any way. “You’ve been working for several years now, can you not differentiate between what photos are good and what photos are inadequate…hm? Tell me… look at the photos you’ve taken… and tell me how these photos are better than an amatuer with a camera.”
This question stabbed directly into my heart…
P’Chid himself… had said the same thing to me… it was one of the reasons why he was ever so adamant about assigning me fashion photography work instead of sending me off on trips to photograph skies, mountains, stars and oceans like all the other photographers.
‘You, do you not know how to take landscape photos?’ P’Pun questioned me as well.
‘There’s nothing interesting about it P’Pun. Photographing the scenery, anyone can do that.’
‘Well it’s you who can’t.’
‘How are they even different? Photographing people is much more interesting since you have to transform the subject into the embodiment of a concept.
‘Landscape you see… I think it’s difficult… it’s difficult to express the emotions of non-living things to others. Viewers expect to sense emotions, feelings, mood… everything from a single landscape picture… Just admit it Petch, you can’t do it. But I can teach you if you want.’
Except this was during a period where I was starting to make a name for myself. As work was beginning to pile up, I refused P’Pun’s generous offer without a second thought, simply thinking that if I became skilled at taking portraits, edited photos like an expert, and earned a lot of money, it would be more than enough.
“I’m the person who asked Jessica to help you… don’t just assume that she’s here to model for fun.” Alexey pushed the camera into my hands. “Tell Isakov to start the car, we’re going back to the same location. If you don’t have a good photo by the end of the day… you’re sleeping in a barn tonight.”
“Do you think using threats will scare me?”
I shoved Alexey, his back hitting the ascending stairs with a loud resounding crash; even I was surprised. Isakov sprinted towards us, however, in that chaotic moment the person who had just fallen yanked my body off the ground and hurled me at his own bodyguard. Isakov staggered back a few steps after catching me so my head wouldn’t end up smacked against the floor. Alarmed, the townsfolk were gathering one by one to observe the ruckus.
But the well-intentioned man did not care, merely shrugging his shoulders as he concealed his face with a pair of sunglasses. He beckoned Jessica over from a stand selling vegetables and we got on our cars to return together.
“What were you arguing about Petch?”
“That guy was the one who provoked me first, he deserved it.” Tailing the car in front of me, I stepped on the gas pedal. Currently I had no means of escape. In front was Isakov leading the way, my car trailed after in second place, and as for the back, a posh carmine Benz tied off our small procession of cars–the chauffeur being Viktar and the passenger… none other than Alexey. “F*ck, what right did he have to lecture other people? I doubt he even knows how to remove a memory card from a camera.”
The person sitting beside me cleared her throat reprimandingly. “Petch, I know you’re angry but have no right to judge him. You don’t even know him that well yet.”
“Either way I’m a f*cking idiot for letting him make a mess of my life.”
“Yeah, I think you’re an idiot too. All of my friends are smart except for you who chooses to eat grass instead of rice.”
(TN: Implying that Petch is as dumb as a water buffalo, an animal that eats grass as its main diet.)
Hua… to even rub it in. I sent Jessica a warning glare but it wasn’t like this kathoey cared.
“You carelessly let a guy who you know nothing about into your life… that’s the first stupid thing. Moreover, you didn’t even try to study him… this is stupid times two… not to mention instead of realizing that…”
“You *** Jessica.”
“You’re going to what? I’m speaking Petch.” Jessica growled back in a stern masculine voice. “You’re angry aren’t you? Take your anger out on me until you’re satisfied. Yell at me as much as you want if it makes you any smarter. Does taking your anger out on me make you happy? …No. Does it make you smarter? …Even more no. Does it make you work better? …Well there doesn’t seem to be any improvement. If you have a brain then try using it for once. Even Alexey who’s not a professional photographer could tell that your work was terrible, and he gave you his honest opinion as well. But you couldn’t accept it, so what do you do instead? You start lashing out at everyone.”
“Jessica, are you my friend or are we going to stop being friends right this instant? Decide.” I raised my voice, battling the loud torrents of wind outside. If it wasn’t for the fact that I was driving, I would have punched her already.
“Then stop the car, I’d gladly not be your friend anymore!”
Fury overwhelmed my thoughts and the little patience which I had remaining, braking the car abruptly!
My emotions were strung taut with anger and hurt, sulking that Jessica was now blatantly ignoring me. Alexey didn’t bother to speak to me either, merely shooting me his psychopathic gaze as an added pressure to get work done, if not, I would have to go sleep in a barn with the cows.
Jessica didn’t even glimpse at me. She refused to meet my eyes for even a single second unless it was when posing for the camera.
It was the end of autumn. Strong biting winds signalled to people that winter was soon approaching. As I stared up at the dusky orange and red sky, it made me feel inexplicably vacant and lonely. In truth, the sunlight and shade created by the clouds casting light and dark onto the grassy fields looked impressively beautiful. But it was my heart which was muddy like a dirty camera lens. I couldn’t take any good photographs.
“Even if I work until my camera breaks, the photos won’t end up any damned better.” I complain audibly, intending to make Jessica angry as said person was fixing up her makeup not too far away. Isakov who helped set up the lights glanced my way without saying anything. As for Alexey, he had already walked off to take a phone call.
It wasn’t as I anticipated. Rather than yelling back to annoy my ears, Jessica’s silence had me at a loss. Not to mention, it made me want to slap my own mouth.
“Is the model ready…?” Since she was acting cold, I made sure to instil my voice with indifference as well. Jessica posed according to all of my directions… and I began to take decent photographs according to my fashion photographer’s instinct… however… the photos displayed on my camera were cold and emotionless, no different from our current mood. Nevertheless, I was determined to prove that I could do it. I had to refute that cocky guy’s criticism.
“I guess this is the most… kathoeys are f*cking capable of, it taints my camera.” I didn’t want to say these words at all, but I hated the silence.
And it worked as Jessica hurled her high heels narrowly past my head before letting out a scream. Everyone was stunned at Jessica who now exploded into a loud mess of crying noises. I quickly collected her high heels and went up to her.
“Hey Jessica… I… uh…. I…”
“Don’t touch me! If you hate me that much then don’t bother showing your face in front of me ever again.” Jessica yelled in her sharp high-pitched voice, alarming a nearby herd of cows immediately. “I’m not good enough to be your friend is it? Then what angel out there is willing to lower themselves to be your friend Petch!? Do you think I flew from Frankfurt to see you so you could insult me? Do you despise me that much? And am I not the only friend who can put up with you?”
Jessica fumed amidst her sobbing, tears soaking both of her cheeks. “With just me being a kathoey, wanting to dress pretty, have long hair, and wear high heels like all the other girls, how does it debase me as a human being to the point where you feel its necessary to attack my feelings? Ask yourself, have I ever been the one to make you sad before? And is it not you who has made me cry since five years old up until this day?”
Jessica’s words made me feel helpless… and guilty for the first time in my life since we became friends.
“The littlest things make you angry. I speak seriously and it makes you angry. I give you advice but it never reaches your ears. Does your head exist only to partition your ears!?” Although it hurt, her words spoke true. I was too speechless to argue back.
Jessica accepted the tissues from Isakov then handed it back to him. “Huu, I don’t want these, it’ll ruin my face. Give me my makeup wipes, huu… Isakov… Jessica’s heartbroken.” Despite being heartbroken, she was still concerned about her beauty. “…Jessie doesn’t want to help Petch with his work anymore. We’re not friends anymore so I don’t want to help him, huu…”
Jessica burst into another wave of tears, this time with Alexey helping to console her, rubbing her back and shoulders while gently wiping away her tears. Upon seeing this, my nasty emotions took a dive. I felt like I had reached the lowest of the low and it caused tears to well up in both of my eyes. Unable to bear it any longer, I turned my back to everyone, burying my feeling of defeat deep inside my heart.
Jessica was correct about a lot of things… no, she was correct about everything. Be it my stupidity, my bad temper, my sulky attitude, my self-centeredness, my foul insensitive mouth, or the fact that I was a sore loser with pathetic skills… it described me immaculately.
But I was human too… I felt anguished at what had happened.
Wanted to be encouraged to fix this problem… as well.
“Petch, where are you going?”
A familiar voice halted my feet. I took a deep breath and assumed an expression of indifference. This way, nobody would have any idea… what I was thinking.
“I’m going to find a barn to sleep in… as for you… go back and rest at the InterContinental, it’s more befitting of your status after all.
Never before in my life… did I hate myself as much as I did this day.