Finishing high school in Barnaul, on the Obi river, a couple of hundred kilometers upstream from Novosibirsk, towards the end of WW II, we had grown up rather scared of sex. The recently invented penicillin has not reached those places yet, while syphilis was rampant and the traditional cure long and not always successful. In the street and the riverside flea market one often saw tertiary cases with fallen-in noses and red-rimmed eyes, and occasionally heard of young people committing suicide upon the dreaded diagnosis. To make matters worse, obviously because of the huge loss of life in the war, condoms had disappeared from pharmacies, and a doctor caught performing an illegal abortion could spend the next few years laying railway tracks across the tundra. Getting a respectable girl pregnant put one under a heavy pressure to marry her, which might mean goodbye to higher education and a decent standard of living. (Most of us went short of food and poorly dressed and future was very important to us.) The narrow path between syphilis and early marriage usually meant masturbation and sports, and most of us became good swimmers and skiers. I and another boy from our class even went into parachute jumping, long a popular sport in Russia. The aeroclub sent us, with a dozen other boys, to a stiff medical examination at the central clinic: general; a chest X-ray; eyes, ear, and nose; skin and VD; even a short talk with a psychiatrist. The clinic was crowded, with a long queue at each door, and the examination took most of the day. In front of the skin and VD office, we waited on a bench in the corridor opposite a good- natured elderly man with tertiary syphilis who engaged us in conversation.
"You see, boys," he said, "when you're my age and some pretty young thing opens her legs for you, take my advice and don't; stick to your old woman and resist all outside temptation; believe me, it's not worth it." There was no need to explain what he was talking about; it was literally written on his face
Embarrassed, we mumbled things like "Yes, you're right, of course", or just nodded in sympathy. A few of us could be quite sharp-tongued, but we did not feel like making fun of him.
"And what are you boys here for? Army medicals? A lorry- drivers' course?"
"No, parachute jumping," we said.
"Parachute jumping? Then forget what I told you; you will never get to be my age,"
We chuckled, thinking hard of some brilliant devastating reply, but just then his turn came and he stepped into the doctor's office without giving us a chance to retaliate.
After the the war our family returned to Poland, from which we had been deported by the Russians a year before the Germans attacked them, and a little later I left for the West. There followed two decades of penicillin, the pill, and the I.U.D. before the AIDS showed up. It was good to be the right age in those days, and I was also lucky never to have run into need of the cure. We thought it would last forever, with, for a spice, a sadness lingering at the memory of all those whom syphilis had sent or assisted to their grave: Maupassant, Flaubert, Heine, Verlaine, Schubert, Beethoven, Donizetti, Manet, Toulouse-Lautrec, Van Gogh, and a fictitious composer, Adrian Leverkuhn, from Thomas Mann's "Doctor Faustus", where the girl who had infected him is associated with an almost transparent tropical butterfly, Hetaera Esmeralda, which sounded to me like The Emerald Courtesan and enchanted me with the poetry of it. A bit of an amateur naturalist since childhood, I wondered what exactly this butterfly looked like - there is only a brief description in the book - but could not find a picture in any of the rather basic nature guides in my library.
Recently, for the first time, I went on a tour of the Far East. As soon as the plan became known, several friends who had already been there told me wonderful stories about the massage parlours of Bangkok. Such beautiful girls! You see them on display, behind a one-way mirror, each with a number, the massage twenty dollars, the full treatment about twice as much. The massage alone makes you feel like a new man. Another friend however, a doctor, warned me that they have about ten times as many varieties of VD there as in Europe. On the plane, a Bangkok newspaper in English carried, for every two or three advertisements of massage parlours and escort services, one of a VD clinic offering speedy diagnosis and cure. (Prices were not mentioned, but there are situations in life when one doesn't haggle.) An Oriental passenger sitting next to me told me that the problem was even worse than one could guess from newspapers. The Americans, for all their dollars, were beginning to be unwelcome because they brought AIDS into the area. In Manila alone, there were thirty thousand child prostitutes, not all of them girls. He did not know how many masseuses in Bangkok, but also a lot. The girls for the massage parlours were mostly bought from their parents, usually in the north - the most beautiful Thai girls came from the north - at the age of fifteen-sixteen, for fifty to sixty dollars, and by the time they were twenty-three or twenty-four they would be kicked out of the massage parlour, with almost no chance of continuing outside, and usually return to their village, with no chance of marriage either. Their parents would sell them for fifty-sixty dollars? Yes, it was a lot of money to them, and the girl would also be sending a part of her earnings home; family ties were very strong in Thailand. Was anything being done about it? No, not much; guerrilla warfare and the drugs had priority over prostitution, and so long as there was demand there would be supply.
One evening in Bangkok I did walk into a massage parlour, just to have a look. There were about twenty girls there behind a glass partition, seated in various seductive poses, with welcoming and expectant expressions on their faces; several were smiling. They must have been signaled that a prospective customer has entered, unless the panel was of plain glass and they could see me for themselves; but I noticed that some of the smiles were aimed slightly to my right or left- I was the only visitor in the place - so it must have been a one-way mirror after all.
With their bright robes, the first impression - perhaps because of "Doctor Faustus" - was that of tropical butterflies in a glass cage. But upon closer look one also saw the heavy make-up and the fixed smiles- some of the girls looked older than the upper limit of twenty-three or twenty-four mentioned by the man on the plane - and also brought to mind the brothel paintings of Toulouse-Lautrec. Before leaving, I bowed, Thai style, to the patroness in the corner, and she returned the bow with an understanding and friendly smile.
In London on my way back, I spent a morning at the Natural History Museum which I had not visited for some years. At the entomological section they had a large display of tropical butterflies and I remembered Hetaera Esmeralda but it was not there. I asked the man at the desk whether it would be possible to see a certain tropical butterfly if it was in the Museum's collection. He picked up the phone, asked for someone, and handed me the receiver. "Good morning," I said and introduced myself. "I am a visitor from Israel, and I wondered whether you have, and if so, whether I could see it for a moment, a specimen of Hetaera Esmeralda, an almost transparent tropical butterfly from..."
"Yes, we do have it," the man at the other end said without hesitation and without waiting for me to finish the description. I had been rather proud of having used my Polish- Russian accent to roll the Latin name off my tongue with greater fidelity to Latin than an Englishman would be capable of, and now felt chastised by having tried this on someone who obviously knew the Latin names of all the insects in the Museum's collection by heart.
Following his instructions, I went along a wing of the entomology section and through a door marked "Staff and Scientific Visitors Only", feeling more and more like a trespasser and an impostor. I found myself in a sort of foyer with a sofa, a couple of armchairs and a low table, and a moment later a young man entered through another door, carrying under his arm a glass-topped drawer with a lot of mounted similar-looking butterflies. (Actually he could have been in his thirties, and my impression of him as a young man must have had something to do with my own advancing years and greying hair.)
"Here it is," he said pointing to a smallish butterfly with transparent wings. There was a label under it, with "Hetaera Esmeralda" handwritten on it in slightly faded ink.
"So this is what it looks like," I said.
"May I ask what your interest in it is, sir?"
"It's a literary one," I told him. '"You see, this butterfly occurs in Thomas Mann's "Doctor Faustus", and I have always wondered what it looked like." He admitted that he had not read the book but would do so at the first opportunity. I told him briefly what the butterfly did in the book, and, to bring the conversation closer to science, also mentioned the theory in Mann's novel that the disease possibly helps the creative brain for a while before finally destroying it. He in his turn told me a few things about the butterfly, the regions in South America where it is found, and how it flutters through dense undergrowth in preference to open spaces on its transparent wings. I took another look at the butterfly and then got up, thanking him and saying I would not take any more of his time.
"You're welcome," he said, and then added with a little smile: "You know, this is the first time in my experience that anyone asked to see a specimen, and by its full Latin name too, for such a reason."
©1997 Zygmunt Frankel - All Rights Reserved.
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