All I Want for Christmas

by Christine Forte

Several journalists have interviewed me about the events that happened in December 2010 and for the most part they’ve later gotten the story completely wrong. So I’ve decided to write my own account of what happened in an attempt to set the record straight. Any details that were left out have been done so because the editor deigned them not suitable to print. I say this to highlight the fact that I’m not trying mislead anyone about my innocence or role as a bystander, I simply want to tell the story from my point of view.

It begins in November when I was still in the U.S. My fiancé and I broke up on November 21st, exactly one month before our wedding. He said he needed to “find himself” aka travel around the country with his joke of a garage band. I spent the next week crying and shaking and being prayed over by my mother’s Bible study group. Then I woke up and realized that if I wanted to have a chance at getting back any of my parents’ deposit money on the arrangements that had been made I better start making some calls. The caterer and the florist were generous; they gave me back 75% of the deposits. I managed to convince the bridal shop to let me return my dress and to sell my bridesmaids’ dresses to someone else, so no damage in that department either. Unfortunately the church in downtown Charleston that we’d booked for the ceremony was not so kind. They only refunded me 40% saying that they had a very busy weddings calendar which had to be respected, especially around Christmas.

The real trouble came with the honeymoon, though. We had booked everything through a travel agency specializing in couple’s travel and they refused to give any of the money back. Which made me wonder exactly how many couples are planning trips together and then trying to cancel them. In any case, the agency’s inflexibility was compounded by the fact that we were due to travel in the busy Christmas season so the airlines wouldn’t allow any changes in the flights either.

“You should still go,” my mother said. “You’re so adventurous, just find a friend to go with you and go have a good time.” Really? Me? Adventurous? I’d never really thought of myself that way and said as much to my mother.

“Of course you are,” she replied, dismissing my argument as ridiculous. “Remember that time at the little red beach cottage when you were six? You slept in the room on the opposite side of the house from the rest of us and didn’t cry once the whole week.”

Well, that was true. She had a point. So I decided to take her advice but it turned out to be not so simple. The wedding had been scheduled for December 21st, and so the departure date for the honeymoon was December 22nd, just three days before Christmas. I ran through a significant portion of the contact list in my cell phone asking people if they could go with me, but no one was free to just take off for Christmas. It was making me feel even more depressed so finally I just gave up and decided that I would go on my own.

To get myself psyched up for the trip, I read Bangkok Dangerous, a collection of essays about different real-life “characters” who live or have lived in Bangkok. Big mistake. With the exception of the essay about “Father Joe,” an ex-priest/teacher who runs an orphanage for slum kids, it was the most disgusting, misogynistic piece of writing I’ve ever read. It made Bangkok sound like the cesspit of a foreign city that our pastor was always warning us against. A regular Gomorrah. Which didn’t seem like the best place for a broken hearted girl like myself. What was I getting into? If only I could change the tickets to Cancun or the Bahamas or something. Somewhere a bit more clean and safe and in a Christian country. But the travel agency stood firm. So I figured I would just stay one night in Bangkok when I first arrived and then head down to the islands for some sun and sand. Maybe I would find one of those seaside places to meditate and do yoga. This thought cheered me a little bit.

My wedding day came and went. I spent it with a few girlfriends from church who prayed over me and asked God for comfort. I hate to admit it but it didn’t really seem to work very well. I felt just as miserable after all the praying and crying as I had before it. The next morning I dragged myself to the airport, a nervous wreck. What in the world was I doing? I’d never even been out of the country before and here I was heading off on my honeymoon alone. Fifteen hours and several panic attacks later (fortunately the man sitting next to me on the flight was a paramedic and helped me breathe into a paper bag and put my head between my knees), we landed at Suvarnabhumi International Airport.

When I stepped out into the bright sunlight all my hesitation was instantly melted. It was morning two days after I’d left home and I was about to have an adventure. It struck me that here no one knew who I was back in South Carolina. I could be anyone I wanted. I suddenly felt like myself again and it occurred to me I hadn’t done much of anything for the last two years except date Josh. “Okay,” I told myself, “No more thinking about him for the rest of the day. Or at least the next hour.” As I stepped into a taxi, nearly getting plowed down by an errant motorcycle in the process, I vowed that I would try some new things while I was here. That I would try to find out who I was, instead of just always feeling like half of someone else.

That night I ate dinner in the restaurant of the hotel where I was staying and ordered a glass of whiskey and coke. I hesitated when ordering the whiskey, looking around to see who might be watching. But then I decided to go for it. I didn’t think that the jurisdiction of the tee-totaling Southern Baptist Church reached all the way to Bangkok. Newfound bravado bolstered by Sangsom whiskey, I decided to go for a walk after dinner. Alone. In the dark. Without telling anyone where I was going. “So ha, mother. For once I’m throwing caution into the wind,” I thought, wondering what she would say if she could see me.

My hotel was in Silom, which I had read in the Lonely Planet was an up-and-coming nightlife district in Bangkok. I turned right out of my hotel and walked down Surawong Thanon, which was surprisingly quiet. But then I came to a street that seemed to be exploding with life and activity. Girls were standing or sitting in identical rows outside bars. Thai men were shouting at the drunken westerners who stumbled by while lights twinkled above it all.

I glanced up at the street sign. Thanon Phat Pong. That definitely rang a bell from Bangkok Dangerous and I grimaced involuntarily. But then I decided that I’d come this far, I might as well see what I could see. It was that or my lonely hotel room. I gingerly stepped forward, entering the narrow street.

“Sir, sir, what you want?” one Thai man called at me from outside one of the bars. A row of eeirly made up girls in short skirts and halter-tops stood in a row next to him.

Involuntarily I looked behind me for the sir that he was addressing. No one there, he was definitely talking to me.

“Sir, you want girl? Boy? We have both,” he gestured to the row of girls behind him.

Seriously? I could get a prostitute if I wanted one? I was completely bowled over; the idea had never occurred to me. What in the world, would I, a little blond girl from South Carolina do with a Thai prostitute? I walked a bit faster, trying to pretend I hadn’t heard him.

“Lady, lady, ping pong show!” the next man cried. Well, at least this guy had my gender right. I decided to see one of the infamous ping pong shows that I had read about. I was here to try different things, right?

I’ll spare you the details of everything I saw next; anyone who’s been to Bangkok or done a bit of travel reading can fill it in for you. Nonetheless, I sat inside at the bar amazed, clutching a bottle of Singh with both hands as though my life depended on it. The man sitting next to me looked over and must have read this body language.

“First time at one of these?” he asked amiably.

I nodded and looked at him to give my eyes a break from the vaginal gymnastics taking place in front of me. “I’m guessing it isn’t for you?”

He laughed instead of replying. “Name’s Butler,” he said giving me a nod.

“I’m Sarah.”

“Want to get out of here?” he asked. Seeing the shocked expression on my face he quickly corrected himself, “I just meant do you want to go somewhere where the beer’s cheaper and the air’s a bit, how can I say this, fresher?”

I remember that I smiled at this. “Why not?” It wasn’t as though I had anything else to do. So we hopped in a tuk-tuk and headed off for a party at his friend’s house, which to me sounded a bit more like the kind of scene I was used to. Surely there would be some nice people there. Maybe they would even have some ice tea or something. I was feeling a bit drunk from the whisky and beer.

Thirty minutes later we pulled up outside a ramshackle lane somewhere near Chat-tu-chak market in the northern part of the city.  As the tuk-tuk driver attempted to extort more money from Butler, I looked around curiously. The small street was lined with four and five story buildings that looked to be a mixture of shops and apartments. There were a couple of vendors still out selling pad thai and papaya salad. A couple of stray cats picked at some garbage and a single crying child stood under the lone streetlamp. I wondered vaguely where his parents were.

Our destination appeared to be a darkened dentist’s office. Butler rang the bell next to the door. “My friend’s family owns the building,” he explained. “Her mother used to work as a dentist here but has since closed up the shop and moved to Chang Mai, turning the whole place over to her daughter, my friend.”

An athletic looking Thai girl in her late 20s finally opened the door. She introduced herself as Puk and then took us upstairs to meet her friends. It was like meeting the cast of a beatnik movie from the ’60s. Everyone there was a character. There was Ivan, the former Russian soldier who had come to Bangkok to learn Thai and was wearing a long-johns shirt with his heavy military trousers even though it was about a thousand degrees outside. Benni was the German hippie backpacker who was trying to do the cheapest trip around the world ever and so was perpetually hitchhiking, sleeping on floors and eating street food. Chris was the American ex-marine who had obviously taken the weightlifting portion of his military training very seriously and was now studying Muay Thai with Puk, who, in addition to being a freelance photographer, was a competitive Muay Thai fighter. Chris’s Thai girlfriend was there with her twin sister; I never did figure out which one of them was which. Then there was Butler, a writer from Canada, and of course myself.

From this part of the story, I’m ashamed to admit that things really started to go downhill. It was as though I completely forgot who I was and where I came from. All of it just whoosh, out the window. Blame it on loneliness, blame it on my getting dumped, blame it on being in the sin city of Bangkok. But really, any way you slice it, the way I conducted myself is my fault. That night I, well, I took drugs. A couple of little white pills were offered to me and I swallowed them, chasing them with a glass of beer. Then some powder was spread out on the table, arranged into need little rows, like miniature mountain ranges. I copied what everyone else was doing with those and then followed it with a couple of blue pills a few hours after that. From there it all gets really fuzzy. I’ve no idea what any of it was and frankly I don’t care to know. In fact I’d rather be able to forget everything that happened over the course of those few days but unfortunately I remember just enough to be haunted by it.

At this point though, I’m going to go ahead and omit a lot of the rest of the details about that night so as to not further incriminate myself and because my mother, grandmother, and Bible study group will all probably read this. But I will say it was the first time in weeks that I hadn’t thought non-stop about Josh and so when we stayed up the whole night of the 23rd and the festivities began again on Christmas Eve, I didn’t object when someone asked me to stay and party. I knew I was getting dangerously out of control but for the first time ever in my life I had stopped caring.

That second night is even less clear to me than the first one was. More people came to the house and more pills, powders, and bottles of various liquids were passed around. At some point someone suggested we go out to party. The general agreement was in favor of the action. Taxis were called and we piled out of the house and into them. According to the security cameras at Supper Club, we arrived there at 12:23AM on Christmas Day and got table service at one of their second tier tables. I remember getting there and I remember dancing a lot. With a lot of different guys. And then two of them pushed each other. I’m pretty sure I thought this was funny and taunted one of them on to hit the other.

He did. And then someone else seeing the fray got involved and more punches were thrown. A couple of bottles got broken. I saw a knife pulled from god-knows-where. And then suddenly Butler was in the middle of it all. I think he was trying to break them up. All too slowly, a pack of security guards descended upon the melee and threw us all out onto the sidewalk. Back into taxis we went and retraced the route back to Puk’s house. When we all eventually got back there, someone noticed that Butler wasn’t with us. We shrugged it off, assuming he’d found another party elsewhere. The festive mood had been dampened by all of the violence at the club and one by one we dropped off, crashing on couches, beds, corners of the floor.

Around noon on Christmas day we were all still sleeping off the two-day bender. I had woken up and needed the bathroom so I stumbled down the narrrow stairs to the second floor. As I rounded the corner, I saw Butler stumbling his way up the stairs from the ground floor. His hands and shirt were completely covered in blood. It was smeared it great streaks up and down his arms and his chest had massive splashes of it like someone had thrown a rusty red can of paint at him. I couldn’t help it: I screamed. Confusion ruled in the moments that followed. My scream woke Benni and Ivan who had been sleeping in the living room and together we all tried to get Butler into the kitchen to clean him up. At first we couldn’t tell if he was bleeding or if the blood was someone else’s. Finally, after a fresh shirt and a sponge bath, it became obvious that he was not, in fact, bleeding. Which was initially a relief because it meant we didn’t have a dying person on our hands but then we realized that meant it had to have come from someone else. Benni asked him as much.

“What happened, man?”

“I don’t know,” Butler replied, shaking his head. He still looked totally dazed. “I just woke up on the sidewalk a few blocks from here. I saw where I was and walked back. No clue how I got there though or what happened before.”

“You’re sure?” Benni questioned. “What did you do after we got kicked out of supper club?”

Butler shook his head again, a bit dazed. “We got kicked out of supper club?”

We all looked at each other. No one knew what to say.

Just then a fierce pounding came from the ground floor; the sound of it startling all of us in the kitchen. We froze. More pounding.

Finally Puk came tumbling down the stairs. “What the hell, you guys? Why doesn’t someone answer the door?” She glared at us as she passed to go down to the ground floor and answer it herself. Almost in the same moment that we heard it open, four Thai policemen were storming up the stairs towards us. They were dressed in the brown standard-issue skintight uniforms of Thai cops, aviators shoved onto their faces in a “we-mean-business” sort of way. I had thought they were kind of cute before they were standing around Puk’s living room all yelling at once and gesturing at Butler.

She did her best to calm them down and talk them out of whatever it was they wanted but whatever she said didn’t work because after a few minutes they grabbed Butler and began to handcuff him.

As they hauled him out of the house he shouted behind him for someone to call the consulate. Puk sprung into action immediately, running after them and following them to find out which station they were taking him too. I called the Canadian consulate to alert them that we’d need some help and would let them know where to go. They seemed to know exactly what to do which was a relief.

The rest of the day passed in a blur. We learned that Butler was being charged with murder. Apparently a Dutch guy who had been in the fight at Supper Club had been killed just down the street from where we had all gotten back into taxis. All the forensic evidence seemed to point to Butler and the murder weapon, a switchblade, was found in a nearby dumpster with his fingerprints on it. Since he was viewed as a flight risk, the Thai police were going to hold him without bail until the trial in a few weeks. There didn’t seem to be anything that the consul could do about it except help Butler get a lawyer.

The moment the story splashed up on CNN, my cell phone exploded with calls from my mother.  At first I didn’t answer. I knew that she was going to be freaking out. Whenever I was away if something bad happened where I was she automatically assumed that somehow I was in danger. And this time she wasn’t necessarily wrong. By the eighth time she called though I gave in and hit the green “send” button. And then as soon as I admitted that I did have a small connection to the murder, it was really all over.

“I want you on the next plane home!” she shrieked. “What if they decide that you were somehow an accomplice and arrest you too?!” Then as an afterthought, “Were you involved?”

“No, of course not,” I replied calmly, trying to reason with her. “At least I don’t think so.”

That did it. “Suitcase. Airport. Go. Your father is getting online to book you a ticket right now.”

So as I’ve done for all of my life, I listened to my mother. I packed my suitcase and said good-bye to Puk, Benni, and Ivan. Then I hopped in a taxi. I felt guilty doing it. Like somehow I was jumping ship on my friends while that ship was sinking. But what else could I do? I had to save myself. We knew Butler’s sister was on the way to make sure he got a lawyer and a trial and all that. I didn’t see how else I could really be of help to him. My mom had a point, sticking around so near the epicenter of all this was risky. I certainly didn’t want to be dragged into court as a witness or later brought up as an accomplice.

Some witnesses from that night who have been interviewed by the media fingered me as an instigator of the fight in Supper Club, but I find these accusations unfair. After all, shouldn’t men be responsible for their own actions? Even if the men did originally get angry over something I did, it isn’t as though I was the one throwing punches. And I certainly wasn’t the one who pulled out the knife. Nonetheless, I will say that all of these events have helped immensely in my recovering from the break-up. For once I’m intensely grateful for my freedom.