9:47pm, Chiangmai, Thailand

   There are at least seven different rap songs blaring within earshot. They all blend together and create one single sound, drowning out all voices except for sporadic bursts of drunken laughter. When I listen close enough, I know some of them, creating an odd mix of familiarity and despondency. I breathe through my nose. It smells like green curry and cheap perfume. I remember that I am in Thailand. The tacky fluorescent lights blink in every color, clashing starkly against the darkness of tonight. I can still see their glow when I close my eyes.

    Everywhere I turn, something captivates my attention. His overcompensated body language as he sits at the bar over a bottle of beer. Her deliberate persona, consistent through every move she makes from her hot pink lipstick down to her six-inch stilettos. Their ear-to-ear smiles and voice inflection as they invite me in to the bar, “sawadeekah!” followed by short scripts of memorized English. I manage to zone out the stimulus for a single moment –

Complete emptiness.

    I look down the street of dozens of bars with beautiful Thai women in crop tops and pencil skirts waiting outside the doors to their bars, competing for the attention of foreign men. My gaze is stolen by a girl a few feet in front of me, she can’t be much older than 19. I’ve never seen a woman wearing more makeup. She reaches out to grab my hand invitingly, asking me to come in.

    I sit down. They laugh mockingly when I order a coke, and her face shifts a little when I offer to buy her one too. We carry on a conversation and she invites us to play a game of pool in the bar. She pretends she can’t play, but unfortunately she’s been here too long to fake it. I find out she goes by “Meow,” and she’s actually 21. The same age as me.

    She doesn’t speak much English, but soon we’re friends. She laughs at me because I can’t hold the pool stick right. “Do you like working here?” She changes the subject. I reach over to pick up my coke from the bar, and realize it is sitting right next to a condom dispenser. My stomach drops. Sex slavery is so often whispered and sugarcoated. Not here. She calls my name from the pool table, it’s my turn again.

   Our game doesn’t last long. A group of three men walk into the bar. I think they are in their mid-60’s. The bar owner calls Meow’s name and shouts something in Thai. She looks back at me, and for just a moment, I see past the thickness of her façade. She quickly throws on a cheap smile, but there is nothing but shame in her eyes. She tells me that she has to go now, but invites me to come again. Sawadeekah.

    As I walk out, I look over my shoulder and see her approach one of the men enticingly. The interaction is raging with blatant sensuality along with the unadorned awkwardness of encountering a stranger. 40 years apart. His hands on the swell of her back. She leans in and whispers in his ear. Three seconds have passed. I should probably stop staring.

    I say a quick prayer under my breathe. I plead with the Lord that she won’t be sold for sex again tonight. I pass the bar again later. She’s gone.

As I walk home from the bar street, I feel a sting of remorse.

   I am free, she is not.
We’re both 21.
    I am free, she is not.
I am a college student, she is a prostitute.
    I am free, she is not.
I have hope, she does not.

I am free, she is not… yet.

Isaiah 61

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