The Songkran festival turned uglier faster than the previous year. Thai street vendors hawked squirt guns of every capacity to hooligans mixing itching powder into gutter water. Industrial drinking fueled the unholy holiday madness. Playful water fights escalated from harmless sanuk or fun into vicious shootings redressing old grudges. Pick-up trucks jerry-rigged with plastic reservoirs recklessly raced through unwary pedestrians and ya bah-demented motorcyclists imitated crackheads fleeing a 7-11 robbery.
Within three days the nationwide death toll exceeded five hundred and the walking wounded numbered in the tens of thousands. Most westerners fled the weeklong mayhem. Ae considered any Puritan disapproval as a sacrilege against sanuk or fun. Her daughter arrived for the closing day of Songkran, when the police in their tight brown uniforms were open targets for a drenching.
Sam Royalle hired a truck. The driver loaded the flatbed with three titanic barrels of iced water and we armed our extended families with multi-liter water nozzles. Overloaded by ten people the pick-up’s tires scrapped the steel chassis, as we cruised Pattaya’s streets with the audacity of Somali tech fighters whacked out on qat.
At Beach Road and Soi 8 the girls from two beer bars deliriously chucked buckets at the passing cars. Sam deluged them into submission with a high-powered hose.
On the corner of Walking Street we unleashed a hurricane on two ranking police officers. This win streak instilled a predatory glee and Sam’s tattooed wife leapt from the truck to soak several foreigners behind a tree. It was supposed to be fun, but a humorless weightlifter wrenched away Dtum’s water gun.
Knocking down the teenager might have been an innocent mistake and his misshapen body bore no semblance to my mental image of Ae’s lover, but hearing Italian snapped a fuse and I leapt off the truck with a long PVC tube. The steroid muscle junkie lifted his fists.
I lashed his wrists with the plastic pipe.
His watch exploded into a shower of tiny gears.
I kicked the inside of his knee and he genuflected in prayer to anguish. Dtum and I jumped onto the truck. She flipped the finger to the battered farang and the pick-up truck lurched down Beach Road.
“You hit him like napalm.” Sam handed me a Singha beer. “Thanks for saving Dtum.”
“It was nothing. Nothing at all.”
Ae was clouded with embarrassment. My outburst had cost her nah or face. My hands trembled with a fifteen year-old’s adrenaline.
“Lucky, my ass. You kicked his ass."
The Londoner didn’t buy my humility and the Thais bragged about the encounter to their friends. Sam suggested a victory dinner at the Lao BBQ. Dtut yawned on cue. Ae had had enough. She said, “You go. I take Dtut home.”
“I’ve had enough too.” I tapped on the roof of the pick-up and the driver dropped us at our soi. Her two children ran ahead and we walked in silence along the dark alley. She was angry and more so upon seeing her children re-enact the fight.
Ae barked for them to go inside the house. They wai-ed thanks for a fun day and she brought them upstairs for a bath and bed. I sat in the garden. The bedroom light went out and Ae came downstairs to sit on the other end of a bamboo bench.
She had changed out of her wet clothing into a sarong and swirled her hair into a bun. She had studied traditional dance and could bend her joints at impossible angles. I wished the electricity, the TV, the cars, fast food, and every other farang would vanish from Thailand.<
“A-rai?” I asked, since the Thais are adept at avoiding confrontation.
“You not hit me same you hit men.”
“I scared you?”
“I scared me too.” I kissed her gently. “I’ll never hit you.”
“Please do not. My father beat me. I young girl.”
“What you do wrong?”
Nothing wrong. He angry all the time.”
“I won’t hit you. Promise.”
“Sure?” A cautious smile indicated her doubts.
“100%.” I had hit two women in my life. Both had cheated on me. Even betrayal wasn’t a good reason and I vowed never to touch a woman in anger again.
“Thai 100% or farang 100%?”
“Both.” I released her, hoping she would watch the stars with me, instead Ae climbed the stairs. It was 9:30.
A swarm of fireflies floated before the bougainvillea. The bedroom window glowed blue from the TV. Ae was probably enthralled by a sordid Thai movie. Across the fetid creek the karaoke bar cranked up the volume of a Bird McIntyre song. He was Thailand’s #1 pop star.
The Songkran festival had nothing to do with violence and Ae touched the raised scar on my upper lip.
"How you get?"
"I was dancing with a girl. I was only 14. She had a boyfriend. He cut me with a knife. Long time ago."
"You not change."
"I did nothing wrong."
She went inside and I lifted my eyes to the cosmos pulsing across the tropical sky. Each star seemed to symbolize one of my brawls, free-for-alls, donnybrooks, one-on-ones, sucker punches, kicks to the balls, black eyes, busted knuckles, broken ribs, and bloody noses.
Some fights had protected the weak and a few could be excused for defense. Most had occurred because of the wrong word said at the right time and I mercilessly damned my violent trespasses as the acts of a forty-eight year-old fool. A red star glowed overhead. I wished for eternal peace and hoped it wasn’t wasted on the Planet Mars.
After the Songkran monsoon rains pounded Thailand. Ae exiled her older daughter to the Isaan plateau for the new school year. Dtut stayed with us. My vow of non-violence remained intact, although Ae acted distant other than when we were having sex.
I discussed her frigid demeanor with Sam Royalle, as we sat at Hot Tuna Bar on Walking Street and the Londoner said, “Most Thais were slaves until Rama V freed in 1905, so they have a weird thing about losing face to people about whom we wouldn’t think twice. Just wait it out.”
Three weeks later I finished my novel about punk rock set in 1976 and needed a break from the computer, which Ae called my mia noi or mistress.. Ae suggested a holiday on the island of Koh Samet. She dished off Dtut to her father.
“We not have time together. One and one. Not three.”
“Like second honeymoon.”
“Koh Samui holiday. Not honeymoon.”
“Maybe we get married soon.”
“You never talk marry. I think not sure.”
“We can speak about it after this holiday.”
She packed her bag with the essentials; two bikinis, a sarong, hot pants, and a sexy shirt. “You always say later.”
“One day later will be now.” I promised not knowing the date of now.
Koh Samet was three miles off the coast. The rutted roads effectively banned cars. The sandy beaches were lapped by gin-clear water. The first day we swam in the tepid sea and drove a dirt bike across the spine of the island. At night we ate fresh fish under torchlight and danced beneath the palms to Thai rock. I couldn’t have been happier.
The electricity cut out in the morning and Ae complained about the sullen heat. At breakfast she listened to the fat farang women whined about the mosquitoes. The men stared at Ae. She looked 16 in a bikini.
On our boat tour around the island she sulked in the captain’s cabin and drank beer. She was drunk by the time we arrived at our bungalow. She refused to go to dinner and watched Thai TV. “You go look at fat women. Maybe they have sex for free.”
“What did I do wrong?”
“Wrong?” You not know.”
I stormed out of the bungalow.
Five beers later it came to me what was wrong. There was no phone service on the island. She wanted to be speaking with someone other than me. I had a good idea who. I drank five more beers and fell asleep on the beach. Mosquitoes had their way with my flesh. I crawled to bed before the dawn.
“You go with woman last night.”
“I slept on the beach.”
The answer was that I was a fool. The love potion was working its old magic.
When I suggested leaving, Ae packed her bag in five minutes. We rode the noon ferry to the mainland and by the afternoon Ae was reunited with her son and TV. We didn’t make love for a month.
I secretively checked Ae’s phone. No incoming numbers began with Italy’s double digit. Paranoia was an old friend. I drank for a cure. Bish visited again. Ae was happy with his gift of lingerie. He brought a medical how-to book. There was no chapter for love potions.
My cousin and I visited to the go-go bars. He mentioned I was drinking more than normal.
"I have a few things on my mind."
"Here it's always about women."
Ae met us at the Marine Disco. She was having fun. I went home alone. She showed up much later, smelling of cigarettes. Everyone smoked in Pattaya. Not here, but all the farangs. I sought comfort in the thought that if she had been with someone, she would have showered and smelled of soap.
In the morning Bish dropped over to my house with a young friend. I mentioned that we should go to the islands. He shook his head.
“I didn’t come here to see fat westerners soaking up sun.”
“We can go to Khao Chamao Mountains.” Ae interjected from the house. Her family came from the mountain range north of Rayong. She didn’t want to go too far away either.
“Have waterfall and can eat fish at beach. Not far. Three hours. Go one day, back night.”
The five of us drove through the countryside to a long shoulder of mountains. Ae’s family worked at the park. We didn’t have to pay the entrance fee. Bish and I climbed to the summit. Ae, her son, and Bash’s friend lingered by a pool beside a waterfall. Afterwards we visited her original home. Charred stumps stood in a neglected rice field.
“Boy knock over candle.” Her brother had spent most of his youth in jail. I had never seen him work. Ae gave him money.
“Sounds like negligence to me,” Bish quipped in a South Shore accent. His sisters and he had been in dispute over the sale of the family home on the Cape. “It's tough to sue family. Trust me.”
“The Thais don’t settle their problems in court.” The Bangkok Post was peppered with cases of corporations and millionaires extra-legally negating a poor man’s attempt to right an inequity with a bullet to the head.
“So I guess I couldn’t set up a law practice here.”
“The last thing you ever want to do is get involved with a dispute between Thais.” A westerner was always wrong. We knew nothing about Thai life. In many ways they were right.
Returning to Pattaya we purchased dried octopus in Ban Phe. Her father was happier with a bottle of Mekong whiskey. Den was a mean drunk and accused Ae of not being his daughter. Between sobs she said she wanted to leave Thailand, “Have too many family here. Have too much trouble. When you take me America?”
“America?” New York meant working at Manny’s, fat people, family, big cars, and expensive shops. “I like living here.”
“You not want me go America.” She pouted and disappeared to her father’s shack. I didn’t chase Ae. She had her own way of handling her father and this was Bish’s last night. He had ordered a taxi to the airport for 2am.
Sitting in the Blackout a Go-Go I asked my cousin, “How long you think Ae would last in New York?”
“Oh, about a week.”
“That long.” Thais hated anything not Thai.
“She loves it here and America would ruin her. Every American gets dissatisfied with the USA after a few days in Thailand, but I loved the Land of the Free and the Brave, if only in theory. “And what about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?”
“They have been replaced by cars, work, and debt.” He flirted with a passing waitress in a schoolgirl outfit. They were over 18, but looked younger in the black light of the go-go.
“What’s with the uniform fetish?”
“They remind me of the girls at St. Ann’s.” Bish and I had spent our formative years at parochial schools. He tipped the waitress a 100-baht and she giggled off to fetch our beers. “Didn’t you think the Catholic girls looked cute in those uniforms?”
“Of course.” Ae was incredibly sexy in a Thai school skirt and blouse, which was a little unsettling, as the Herald-Tribune had published an expose on Boston Diocese priests systematically abusing young boys.
I had served as an altar boy and attended Catholic school and asked, “You ever have any trouble with the priests?”
“In what way?” He handed me another drink.
“Saying you could tell him anything in the confessional.”
“I confessed about swearing and lying. I was a good Catholic kid.” He beckoned to dancer #34 to join us for a drink. She was the youngest girl on the stage and the prettiest. “Didn’t you almost enter the seminary in high school?”
“For a weekend.”
"You would have made a good priest, because you believe in the mysteries of the universe like magic and love."
"Yeah, it's a last option."
"All the others are gone. You think I'm a failure?"
"Failure?" # 34 sat on his lap. Her name was Bee. "Anytime I mention you to my friends workiong to pay off a mortgaged house for a divorced wife, their eyes glazed over with admiration."
"I happy here in the Last Babylon. You should be too. Nothing lasts forever."
“There is a joke about the saint who wants to see Hell and St. Peter grants him a week’s parole from Heaven. Hell is Marilyn Monroe, Jimi Hendrix, and free beer. A great time for all. In heaven the saint can’t forget his holiday in Hell and asks for another visit. St. Peter warns him this decision is permanent. The saint says he’s had it with worshipping God. Whoosh. He steps foot on Hell and the Devil has at him with pitchforks and brimstone. The saint protests that Hell wasn’t like this last time. The devil smiles and says, “Now you know the difference between a vacation and living someplace.”
“The point of which is?”
“I enjoy my holidays in the sun, but you live in the Last Babylon.” He signaled the mama-san for the check. “Two different things.”
“Heaven and Hell.” Pattaya wasn’t Hell, but a 1000-baht note elected us Mr. Sexy for the mini-skirted bar girls, while $25 in the Land of the Free bought two tickets to the movies, a bucket of popcorn, and a giant coke with two straws.
“The only things I miss about the States are family, friends, and pizza.”
“I miss the Quincy Quarries most of all.”
“But they’re buried by the debris from the Big Dig.”
“Gone so suburban drivers in SUV can get to work 10 minutes quicker.” I had swum at the quarries throughout my teenage years. Jumping off those cliffs into the cool spring water had been a forbidden pleasure. There were few of those left in America.
“Stop already, you’re making me cry.”
“You never swam there.” He lived less than a mile from them.
“My mother wouldn’t let me.” Kids died in the quarries every summer.
“She loved you.”
“You too.” Both of us missed our mothers, but we were Irish bachelors at heart. Bish paid the bill and we headed over to the Carousel a Go-Go. Sam Royalle and his Aussie office manager from Bangkok greeted us with tequila shooters. Bish pushed away his shot away, as naked girls sat on our laps. “Two different worlds.”
Watching the girls on stage soap each other up for a show, I realized that the nuns and priests had not warned us about go-go bars and brothels, mostly because evil had worn more clothes in 1965.
“Heaven and hell.” I clinked glasses with Bish.
I should have been concentrating on the naked girls, instead I pictured Ae at her father’s place, playing cards, smoking cigarettes, and yapping about how she hated farangs. She would sleep on the floor of her father’s place and show up in the afternoon with a pounding headache. We left the bars at 1. I accompanied Bish to the airport.
“Ae have any idea what you do?”
“I told her I was a writer.”
“She know what that means.”
“She says it means we have no money.” Ae had never read a single word of my books. Thai was her language. She needed someone to translate my letters. Probably her other boyfriends’ epistles as well. My own comprehension of the Thai written language was confined to the words for men’s room and Coca-Cola.
“She right about that?” Bish was worried about my future. It was as promising as the past.
“I also act like the Peace Corps for myself.”
“Charity is best served at home.” We were pulling into Terminal One. “When are you coming back next?”
“Not for a while yet.”
“When’s your money run out.”
“In about three months.”
“I’ll be back here before then.”
In the departure gate Bish gazed at the girls saying good-bye to their boyfriends.
greeting new arrivals.
“Sam thinks we should open a bar here. The HELLO-GOODBYE LOUNGE. Girls saying good-bye to one boyfriend and saying hello to someone new once the other has left.
“Probably make money.”
“Give my best to my father.”
“I’ll tell him you’re fine.”
“Thanks for lying.”
“It comes easy. I’m a lawyer.”
“You’ll be back before you know it.”
“I’ll keep telling myself that.” He disappeared behind the customs barrier and I returned to Pattaya. Dawn was a numb blue on the horizon. Ae sat on the bamboo cot in the garden.
Dtut lay on her lap. She had been crying.
“I think you go away.”
“No, take Bish to the airport.” I was starting to speak English like Ae.
“But you no call me. No come find me. You not care.”
“No, I care too much.” I had given up New York for her.
“Sure?” She lifted Dtut into my arms. He was small. Ae had been as defenseless once. She looked up to me. “I never tell you about my mother.”
“No.” I thought she was dead and suspected that her father had killed her.
“My mother leave me. Leave all of us. She never call. Never see me. One day I am on bus and a woman sit with me. She ask about my children. Ask if I have mother. I tell her everything. I am not thinking, but when she get off bus, I think she my mother. Not know for sure. I want Dtut to have mother.”
“He has you.”
“And I have you.”
“Yes, you do.”
I checked the water on the night table.
Nothing blue was in it.
I warned myself to not care too much. She was a Thai. They cared about their own. Never a farang, but we went to bed like a man and wife and that’s was all I was asking from her for the moment.
A week later I traveled to the Cambodia border to renew my Thai visa. Ae offered to come for the ride. Taking Dtut on the ten-hour round-trip through the bone-dry rice fields didn’t make any sense. “Stay with your son and we’ll go out tonight.”
My refusal was music to her ears and she kissed me affectionately.
The next morning a van picked up five other westerners. I spoke with Ae twice on my cell phone. She was in bed each time and I envied her sleep. None of the passengers talked during the four hours to Cambodia and no one delayed our departure with a visit to the casinos or short-time farms of Poipet.
I fell asleep and woke at Chonburi turn-off. Pattaya was another forty minutes away and I called Ae. No one answered and my second attempt resulted in a disconnection.
This was not right.
Ae answered her phone at all hours in any situation.
The congestion on Sukhumvit conspired with my paranoia to construct a pyramid of a burning house, her father murdering his neighbor, or her brother having another baby capped by her ex’s arrival. I cursed every red light until my soi.
It was night. The little food stall was serving pad-thai to the day-workers from the tin shack slum across the muddy creek. Frogs croaked in the water. I walked toward my house blanketed with outward calm. My facade was wasted. Ae wasn’t home and an empty box for a washing machine lay on its side in the garden.
We had agreed to discuss any major purchases and my blood sizzled with exasperation. Ae had hocked the washing machine at the jum-jam or pawn shop to cope with an unexpected family crisis. The TV was on the stand in the living room and I was grateful the unexpected crisis hadn’t been required its exile to the pawnshop.
Ae had to be at her father’s shack and I decided against driving up to the slum across the railroad tracks. Any explosion in front of her family was a black mark. I wasn’t fighting any more. Instead I ate at a seafood restaurant on Beach Road. Ae wouldn’t like that, since she suspected I was conducting an affair with the 23-year old hostess.
It was hard to believe we were friends in a city, where sin slept in cheap hotels, but Nu explained that she offered nothing as long as I lived with Ae. Drinking three beers eased my anger. A plate of curry crab squashed my hunger. The passing of traffic soothed my anxiety. People led normal lives, yet nothing was normal with Ae. She was a problem. Her family was a plague. I told Nu about the phone calls from Italy and the missing washing machine. She cut to the chase.
“Ao ting khao?”
“Leave her?” I had the answer.
Before I said the words, my cellphone vibrated on the table. Nu frowned and I answered my phone.
“Where are you?”
“Ti-ban. You angry?” Tears choked her voice. “Come home. I explain everything.”
Everything must have taken her a good hour to concoct and I apologized to Nu, who shrugged contemptuously, “Law te khun.”
It was up to me.
I raced on my motorcycle to our house. Ae waited by the empty box. Her son lay on the bamboo cot, a bandage around his head. Her tear-stained eyes melted my hard heart to a puddle.
“Dtut fall and hurt his head. I not have any money. Kor-thot, kor-thot, kor-thot.”
Thais are as allergic to apologies or honesty as they are silence, since they realize you’d much rather than hear a lie to avoid getting hurt. I accepted her excuse and forgave her with a kiss. Later when Dtut bandage fell off, his head had no bruises. A brief interrogation rooted out that she had bailed out her ex-husband, who had been arrested once more for ya bah.
I smashed my fist through a door and ordered Ae to leave the house. She cut her wrists with a broken piece of glass. I bandaged the diagonal slashes. Ae cried and we made love, after which she nuzzled her stone-smooth skin against mine. “I tell old boyfriend not to call anymore. I love you too much. More than pizza.”
“More than cigarettes?” I threw her Marlboro Menthols out the window. Her eyes widened in horror to demarcate her love’s borders. She surrendered this frontier. “More than cigarettes.”
It was a small sacrifice.
One small enough to not matter in the arms of a woman half my age.