The drug might never have come to exist if Win hadn’t wandered into a bar in Gandayaw one muggy, sour night in 2007 to watch a Muay Thai match they were screening. One of the fighters was getting ground up like fish paste by the other, and the picture on the old TV set was flopping and wincing as if the satellite dish on the roof could feel the punches all the way from Bangkok. The only other customers that night were a handsome white guy in a sweatsoaked shirt and three drunken Burmese boys whom Win had seen around town several times already in the month or so since he came to Gandayaw. About ten minutes after Win bought a bottle of beer and took a seat in front of the television, he became aware of angry voices behind him. Evidently the three boys were determined to sell the white guy a carton of cigarettes but their English was so bad that the sales pitch just involved snarling ‘Cig-et! Cig-et!’ The white guy thought they were asking him to give them some cigarettes, and he kept pointing at the carton as if they might have forgotten about it. ‘But you already have all those,’ he was saying. ‘There must be ten packs in there.’ By now they’d decided he was being deliberately obstructive and one of them had just taken out a flick knife.
Win got up and walked over to the white guy’s table. ‘They want to sell you the box. Just give them five dollar and they leave you alone.’ His English wasn’t quite as good back then.
‘Oh,’ said the white guy, and laughed. ‘Shit. OK.’ He found a five dollar note in his wallet – holding the wallet under the table like a poker hand in that tourist way that’s supposed to stop anyone from seeing that you have a lot of cash on you but in fact just makes it immediately obvious that you do – and passed it across. The boys sneered at him and walked out. ‘Thanks,’ said the white guy, looking up at Win. ‘Do you want . . . uh . . . do you want some money too? Or a drink?’ They held eye contact for a waxy second before Win called to the barman for a glass of Johnnie Walker Red and Coca-Cola, which was the most expensive thing you could order in this bar. The white guy turned the carton of cigarettes upside down so that all the individual packs fell out onto the table. ‘There are only four in here,’ he said, and laughed again.
Win knew that if they went back to the white guy’s hotel room later, the white guy would probably offer him cash again at some point, and he wasn’t sure whether he’d take it. He had never quite decided whether it was more gangster to turn down money for sex, because a gangster couldn’t be bought and sold, or more gangster never to turn down money for anything, because a gangster was always on his grind. Anyway, tonight it didn’t really matter, because he genuinely wanted to fuck this guy. It had been a long while since he’d had sex with anyone but Hseng, and sex with Hseng was like having ten thousand scalding-hot pork dumplings shot at you pointblank out of a greasy mortar cannon.
‘You Lacebark?’ Win said.
‘Yeah. Just arrived yesterday from Jakarta. But I live in North Carolina.’ There was a wasp in the ashtray, almost dead, shivering in small circles like a mobile phone left to vibrate on a table. After a long pause, as if he was so surprised to be having this kind of conversation that he’d lost track of the rules of banality, the white guy said, ‘Are you from around here?’
‘No. From Mong La.’
‘Oh. I haven’t heard of it.’
Mong La was a town on the Chinese border where the United Wa State Army made such extraordinary profits from opium that one year they whimsically used some of the surplus to construct a Museum of Drug Eradication. Win’s aunt had sent him to work in Hseng’s small yaba factory when he was fifteen years old. The pay was low and the hours were long and the fumes gave him headaches, but at least he knew it was gangster to be so close to the drugs and so close to the money. Also, he was captivated by the chemistry: the magic and odorous grammar of the catalytic reactions, the precursor’s ascension to new forms like a soul moving through the thirty-one planes of existence, the idealistic, asymptotic pursuit of absolute purity. He even loved to watch the last fastidious hesitation of the electronic scales before they settled on a count, the polar shimmer of the crystallized product in the first few seconds after it was sifted out of the evaporator. His boss, Hseng, was an obese, mottled Chinese guy with a big appetite for boys. Once or twice a week, Hseng would bring Win into the back office, lock the door and undo his fake designer belt. But Hseng had what Win would later come to identify as a rare disability among males: he couldn’t seem to turn himself on by the use of force. Hseng was happy to let Win suck his cock for the price of a bowl of soup, but if Win ever started trying to fight him off, Hseng would immediately forfeit his erection. This left Win with some bargaining power. And quite soon he asked to be allowed to take some lessons from Hseng’s chemists and to spend a few hours a week in the Internet cafe on the corner browsing websites like Lotophage.
Within two years, he was running the factory for Hseng, and its output had never been higher.
For a while, everything was pretty good. Hseng paid Win quadruple his old wage, and even bashfully presented him with a gift: a shoddy Chinese-made portable CD player so he could take his hip hop with him wherever he went. He took to wearing a home-made necklace based on the hexagonal benzene ring common to all amphetamines. Then, late one night towards the end of the rainy season, Hseng came to Win’s aunt’s house and told her to wake him up because he was needed at the factory. Win blearily followed Hseng outside, and they stood in the damp shadows under a banyan tree while Hseng explained that a colonel in the United Wa State Army was planning to murder him and steal his business. ‘We have to leave Mong La. I have a cousin in a town called Gandayaw about a hundred miles west of here. He’ll set us up. We’ll start a bigger factory. You can oversee everything.’
‘Why would I leave?’ said Win. ‘My aunt is my only family.’
Hseng looked hurt. ‘You have to come with me. They’ll kill you too. They’ll gut you with hooks.’ Later Win would realize that Hseng had been lying about this – if anything, the colonel probably would have given Win a better job. And it was almost certain that Hseng had done something idiotic to provoke the colonel, because his second rate business alone would scarcely have been worth killing for. But at the time Win wasn’t savvy enough to understand any of that, so he packed a bag, said an inadequate goodbye to his aunt and set off west with Hseng.
When they got to Gandayaw, however, it was obvious at once that although the town had a lot of drug addicts and a lot of drug dealers it had no place for a drug factory. The Tatmadaw and the Lacebark security force had never been on such spiteful terms with each other, so even if one had tolerated a factory, that would have been reason enough for the other to shut it down. Also, Hseng’s legendary cousin turned out to have left for Thailand almost a year earlier. So Hseng decided he was going to start a casino. He used most of the cash he’d brought with him from Mong La to buy an old brothel that had closed after an electrical fire, with the intention of installing baccarat and blackjack tables. (Also he wouldn’t shut up about his idea for a fish tank full of turtles whose shells would be encrusted with tiny mirrors, like autonomous disco balls.) But Hseng didn’t have any connections here, plus no one trusted the Chinese, so he ended up paying for most of the materials and labour in advance, and in Gandayaw paying for anything in advance was like giving alms to a monastery: you certainly wouldn’t expect to see any direct benefit in your current lifetime. After a month, the former brothel looked even more dilapidated than when he’d bought it. One morning Hseng decreed that Win should start helping out with the refurbishment, but Win deliberately hammered enough holes in the walls that by lunchtime Hseng changed his mind and banned him from the project. So now he just mooched around Gandayaw, pining for his reactor and his drying oven and his rotary tablet press.
The white guy’s name turned out to be Craig. He was an ‘internal management consultant’ at Lacebark specializing in ‘process efficiency optimization’, and he’d been sent to Gandayaw for three months to find out how to boost the productivity of the mine workers in the Concession. Modern efficiency consulting, he told Win, was all about neuroscience: the old, loose terms like ‘alertness’ and ‘initiative’ and ‘morale’ just gestured at specific brain states that could now be described much more precisely in empirical language. When Win glow started posing questions about dopamine and norepinephrine, Craig asked him how he already knew so much about all that stuff.
‘Back in Mong La, I run factory for yaba pills,’ Win said.
‘Mix of methamphetamine and caffeine.’
‘Really?’ said Craig. ‘You were in the drug trade?’ His hair was dark but there was both ginger and grey in his stubble.
Win nodded and clenched a fist over his heart. ‘For life.’ He rapped a few lines: ‘The chemist is brolic, Pyrex scholars, professors at war over raw, killing partners for a million dollars.’
‘Did you do much business with sweatshops in Thailand? They get through amphetamine like it’s powdered milk. You can’t knock it from an efficiency point of view. But we’ve done a couple of studies and in the long run we think it works best for small, repetitive, seated tasks. Not so much for heavy resource extraction . . . Goddammit, sorry, I’ve got to stop talking about work.’
Three drinks later, they walked back to Craig’s room in the Lacebark-owned hotel on the north side of town, where the American turned out to have the biggest penis Win had ever seen outside porn videos. Afterwards, as Win lay dreamy and exhausted, Craig got up and started rummaging through his suitcase. Even though the windows were wide open, the air in the room was still fuggy and ammoniac, as if within the valvular manifold of their connected bodies they had synthesized a molecule so complex it couldn’t filter out through the mosquito screens. Craig held up a bag of coffee beans. ‘You ever had this? Civet coffee. I got it in Jakarta. The civet eats the coffee berries, softens them up in its stomach and craps them out. Then you make coffee with the roasted beans. Tastes amazing – like cherries. The Indonesians came up with it in the eighteenth century because the Dutch wouldn’t let them pick coffee berries from the plantations but they couldn’t stop them scooping up the civet crap.’ He started fiddling with some sort of expensive-looking black appliance on the desk. ‘I got the company to send this here before I arrived. I’m a coffee nerd, obviously, and there was no way I was going to live in a hotel for three months without my own grinder. You know, back in the States, you can’t use the coffee pots in hotels, because people like you use them to brew meth. Even in the good hotels, I heard. Do you want a cup?’
‘No,’ said Win.
Craig pursed his lips apologetically. ‘I’d rather come back to bed but it’s still the afternoon in North Carolina and I’m going to have a million emails. It’s like they’ve never heard of time zones.’
Later, Win walked home to the brothel. Craig hadn’t offered him money and Win was glad that he hadn’t. The room at the back was dark when he came in but Hseng was still awake. ‘Where have you been?’ he said.
Win lay down beside Hseng on the psoriatic foam mattress. ‘I was at a bar watching videos.’
‘You don’t smell right.’
Win realized he should have just rinsed his cock and arse before he left the hotel instead of taking a long, soapy shower – this was the cleanest he’d been in weeks, and Hseng could tell. ‘I swam in the stream on the way home.’ He spat on his hand and reached under the sheet for the chubby radish between Hseng’s legs. If he surprised him with a handjob right away, it would both etherize Hseng’s suspicions and pre-empt any larger demands that Win was still too sore to satisfy.
Win started meeting Craig at the bar about every other evening while Hseng was back at the brothel accomplishing nothing much. Even apart from the diverse pleasures of Craig’s company, he found that simply to carry with him a pleasant secret was in itself enjoyable. Growing up, you got so used to all your secrets being sad or shameful that you came to assume they were, like alkyl halides, intrinsically neurotoxic, and now he had learned for the first time that they weren’t. One night, after they’d gone at each other like Muay Thai fighters for a couple of hours, Craig got up to work on his laptop as usual, but instead of brewing a pot of coffee he took from his holdall a small clear plastic bag full of what looked like white petals.
‘What’s that?’ said Win.
‘It’s just a flower that grows out in the forest. Most of the Myanmar guys I’ve interviewed in the Concession say they don’t like our polyphasic sleep schedule, but if they eat this, it makes everything a little easier. I tried it yesterday. It works. I mean, it’s no Adderall, but it’s better than a cup of coffee if you want to get a whole draft report done in one night, and the really special thing is, you can still get to sleep afterwards without any trouble. We might start prescribing it officially, after a few tests.’ He tossed the bag onto the bed. ‘Want to try some? You just chew and swallow with some water.’
The effect was mild, as Craig had said, but Win was certain that he could perceive something more in this drug, an incandescence blotted out, an urgent thought left unspoken. It was there in the smallest seams of his awareness, in the instants of absent-mindedness or blurred concentration, when he turned his head or licked his lips or scratched his neck in the first sixty minutes after eating the petals. What had set him apart from the older chemists at Hseng’s factory wasn’t just that he could pick up chemistry so easily, it was also that he seemed to have powers of introspection that they entirely lacked, as if his eyeballs could swivel all the way round to focus on his own frontal lobes. And he’d tried enough different batches of yaba back in Mong La to know when a phenethylamine’s real potential was still unborn.
‘I can make this better for you,’ he said to Craig.
‘What do you mean?’
‘I just need some equipment and some lab chemicals and I can make this a better drug for you to give to your workers.’ In fact, what he anticipated from a more potent formulation of glo wasn’t the boring and reliable concentration and wakefulness that were needed at Lacebark’s mines – it was the lawless, luminous core that he’d already sensed. But he couldn’t admit that yet.
Craig was bemused. ‘How the hell would I get you equipment and lab chemicals?’
‘Same way you got your coffee grinder,’ said Win, who could feel his English improving with every night he spent in this room.
‘Oh. Right.’ Craig admitted that it might not be that hard to put in an order with Lacebark’s procurement department and make it look as if it was all needed at the mine. He’d heard rumours and jokes about the Lacebark executive – no one seemed to agree on who he was or whether he was still at the firm – who’d managed to use corporate money to set up his Burmese mistress and love child in a beach house in Los Angeles five or six years earlier.
When the supplies finally arrived, Win installed them in one of the two defunct indoor toilets in the brothel, telling Hseng that he’d scavenged them from a dump out of sheer boredom. Hseng, who by now had been obliged to sell off all his gold jewellery, accepted this explanation with his usual sceptical silence. Craig started bringing back several bags of glo a week from the Concession for Win to use in his experiments. At first Win tried to get something out of glo the same way you might get morphine out of a poppy or cocaine out of a coca leaf or ephedrine out of a joint fir. But he had no luck with oxidation or isolation or acid-base extraction or any of the other documented methods. There was something evasive, almost coquettish, about the alkaloids in the flower. It was as if the skin of the ripening molecule couldn’t be peeled away without pulping the flesh inside.
Then one day he came into his toilet laboratory to find that all his bags of glo had been ripped up. He accused Hseng, of course, because he knew that Hseng had some suspicions now, and this was just the sort of pathetic, thuggish way that Hseng might express his jealousy. But Hseng insisted he didn’t know anything about it. It happened twice more, and Win was baffled, until at last he happened to catch the perpetrators in the act.
Two foxes stared back at him as he came in, their jaws still working the petals like cud. He’d never seen a live fox before. Unhurriedly, one of them bent its hind legs and shat on the floor, as if that was the only comment it wanted to make. Then they darted out past him down the corridor.
There were at least three new smells in the small room: dung, and fox musk, just as he would have expected, but also a third that stood in some cognatic relation to the aftertaste of glo petals. Remembering Craig’s civet coffee, he pulled on a pair of latex gloves, picked the turd up off the floor, and began another experiment.
A fortnight later he brought an eighth of a gram of white powder with him to Craig’s hotel room. ‘Do we snort it?’ Craig asked.
‘No, it really stings.’
Win poured out two small glasses of Coke and dissolved half the dose into each glass. After they’d both gulped down their drinks, Craig kissed him and then looked around the room. ‘I can’t believe how long I’ve been living here. I never thought I’d miss my ugly condo in Charlotte.’
On the Internet Win had seen PDFs of the laboratory notebooks that the chemist Alexander Shulgin had maintained in the 1960s when, out of gratitude for his invention of a new pesticide called Zectran, his employer Dow Chemical had funded his experiments with drugs like MDMA and mescalin, and during those experiments Shulgin had made continuous painstaking observations on ‘visual distortion’, ‘mental coordination’, ‘mental attitude’ and so on, sometimes interspersed with hand-drawn graphs. Despite its complexity, the chemistry was often much easier for Win to follow than some of Shulgin’s other references. Win had planned to imitate Shulgin’s methods, even his irritatingly precise time measurements – why should anyone care about the exact minute that something happened? – and he persuaded Craig to take notes too. But when they checked the next morning, Craig had written only a few lines:
12.30 a.m. Nothing so far.
12.50 a.m. OK, quite tingly now – reminds me of that one time I took ecstasy in NY.
1.10 a.m. No, this is much better than ecstasy.
And Win had written nothing at all.
‘Did I say anything really schmaltzy to you last night?’ asked Craig. When they hadn’t been flipping the fluorescent light above the bathroom mirror on and off or gazing at the red neon across the road, they had mostly been having meandering, slithery sex, any possibility of orgasm suspended several miles out of reach.
‘About what?’ said Win.
Craig smiled and looked away.
There was nobody at the brothel when Win got home around noon. This was the first time he’d ever stayed out past dawn, and he wondered if Hseng had noticed. Too tired and stiff to work in his laboratory, with raw patches all over his body where he’d rubbed himself against Craig for too long without any feeling of pain to tell him to stop, he lay in bed eating a couple of poppy-seed cakes in such tiny rodent mouthfuls that they lasted the whole afternoon. When Hseng still wasn’t back by dusk, he began to wonder if something might have happened, and he put his flip-flops back on to go outside. Blue and gold and pink were piled up on the horizon like bolts of silk on a dressmaker’s shelf. Outside the bar where he’d first met Craig, he saw the same three boys who’d wanted to sell their carton of cigarettes.
‘Are you looking for your fat Chink boyfriend?’ said one. Win, who couldn’t be bothered to start a fight, just nodded. ‘Try the dump.’
For a while Win knelt watching two black cats gnawing at Hseng’s fingertips. A small landslide further up this hillock of rotten cardboard and burned plastic had already covered parts of the corpse, so it looked more like an old buried thing exposed by erosion than a recent delivery from a van or a pickup truck. In its back were three exit wounds, not too bloody, the bullets perhaps exhausted by the long slog through Hseng’s blubber.
Maybe Hseng had tried to default on a loan, or maybe an old enemy of his cousin’s had come back to Gandayaw; either way, it was a reasonably gangster way to die. Those were Win’s suppositions until he talked to a bald ragpicker at the edge of the dump who told him that the shooting had happened that afternoon outside the Lacebark hotel. The sight of Hseng’s body had only given him a gentle churn in his bowels, but as soon as he heard that he was really anxious. He ran all the way there, but he couldn’t see anything out of the ordinary, so he asked a woman selling biryani from a cart. She’d seen the whole thing, she explained excitedly. An American had been on his way out of the hotel when a fat Chinese man had rushed out of an alley and run him through the belly with a samurai sword. Then a Lacebark security guard who was smoking a cigarette nearby had opened fire on the Chinese man with his AK-47. Win asked about the American’s body, and she said it had been wrapped up in a plastic sheet and taken back inside the hotel. After she wheeled her cart on down the street, Win just stood there staring up at the hotel, trying to find the window of his lover’s room.
Photograph © Nadav Kander