The sun seared my skin as I walked down the C-130 cargo ramp. The U-Tapao terminal shimmered like an abstract watercolor in the heat waves emanating from the asphalt. I set my bags down and took in the familiar scenery.
U-Tapao had been a U.S. Air Force base during the Vietnam War, and later a processing station for refugees. Sentry towers once manned by armed guards now kept ghostly watch over the perimeter. Buddha Mountain, low and squat, and looking more like a bullfrog than a Buddha, dominated the landscape to the northeast.
A van honked and pulled up next to me. The rear door slid open, and Bob Dixon called out.
“Tom. Hop in. You’re just in time to ride to the hotel with us.”
“Thanks. Toss my bag in the back, would you?” I wedged myself between suitcases, flight bags, and George Avelar.
“Here you go, buddy. Drink up.” George handed me a beer from the cooler behind the seat. “Hot enough for you?” He looked on as I swallowed half the can of beer. “Sorry, man,” he said. “No Klosters. PBR is all we have. Tastes like formaldehyde, doesn’t it?”
“Yeah.” I wiped my chin with the back of my hand. “But it’s cold. Where’d you get it?”
“The embassy liaison, Dan something, gave us a case when we landed and another case before he left for Bangkok a little while ago. There’s a few left. Have another.”
George took another beer from the cooler, a Styrofoam model shedding white crumbling pellets that clung to beer cans and melting ice.
“I like that guy. He sets priorities,” he said, handing me the beer. “By the way, first flight is at six tomorrow morning. We’re on the launch crew; the other poor bastards get to handle recoveries.”
Poor bastards all right. The nominal work schedule was twelve hours on and twelve off. The aircraft launch crew had evenings free to spend in town. The recovery crew had to swap shifts with someone if they wanted a night out. Not likely to happen in Thailand.
The drive to Pattaya was uneventful, though the driver took the long route to point out potential side trips for sightseeing. The van, part of a package deal that included transportation, box lunches, hotel, and tours of local attractions, deposited our luggage and us at the Tropicana Hotel on Beach Road at the north end of town.
I checked in and gave the clerk, a good-looking Thai girl with the smoothest skin I had ever seen, my personal information. George passed around beers while he waited his turn. He crowded me at the counter, leaning against me and making kissing sounds.
“Hurry up, Nelson. I don’t have all night. There are women in town waiting for my lips.”
“Wait until they find out where your lips have been.” I handed him the pen and smiled as he moved aside.
“Very funny, mister comic relief.” George leaned over to sign the guest book, his left arm curved in a painfully awkward position.
I winced. “Doesn’t that hurt?”
“Doesn’t what hurt?”
“Screwing your arm around like that.”
“No. We geniuses get used to our little peculiarities.”
“No woman has ever complained about my peculiarity being little. Yours, on the other hand.”
“How would you know?”
“Haha. I’m not going there, buddy.”
George, of Cuban descent, was tall, dark, and gap-toothed the way women found attractive. When he smiled, the gap set off the white of his teeth. Many an unsuspecting woman had fallen victim to George’s gap as much as they had his charm.
George picked up his beer and room key and reached for several complimentary bottles of water. He stuck them between his arm and ribs but dropped two when he reached for his bags.
“Tom, man, stop looking at my butt and help me pick these up. Stick them in my arm. Not there, my arm. Thanks. Darn,” he said, as another fell to the ground. “Hey, grab that, will you?”
“I’m not grabbing that.”
“The bottle, wise guy.”
“Why not just leave them at the counter? There’s water in your room.”
“No way. They might run out.”
“You’re funny, George.”
“Come. I’ll walk you to your room, dear.”
“All right, but no kiss at the door.”
Inside the room, I put the bottles in the small refrigerator, already crammed with pricey hotel swag, and turned to leave. George was already shedding clothes.
“Hey. Are you going to see Lek?” His voice was muffled as he pulled the tight undershirt off.
I rolled my eyes. “Eventually.”
“Give her a kiss for me.” George wrapped a towel around his neck and pushed me out of the room. “We’re grabbing a bite to eat before heading into town.”
“Who? You and Lek?”
“Where will you be?”
“I don’t know. Go. I’m in a hurry. Just head toward the lighthouse. Maybe Caligula Club. Maybe the Pussycat. Check both. Go.” He closed the door and turned the lock.
“Okey doke,” I said, picking up my bags.
The door opened again. “Check Ben’s too.”
After settling into my room, I stripped to my jeans and dashed off a postcard of the hotel’s pool area to Aida. She would tape it to her mirror alongside others I had mailed her. The quirky habit started with a postcard I mailed from Hong Kong. The hotel’s rooftop pool fascinated her as the ultimate symbol of luxury. Now she made me send her swimming pool postcards from each of my liberty ports.
I unpacked and showered. Refreshed and dressed like a tourist in shorts, loose shirt, flip-flops, and shades, I walked to the lobby. A new desk clerk had taken over, a tall, beautiful Thai woman who wore her black hair in braids tied around her head. She smiled and greeted me.
“Hello, sir. May I help you?”
A sense of familiarity rushed through me as I handed her my room key; had we met? “May I mail a postcard from the hotel?”
“Yes, of course. I will ensure it goes to the Post Office.”
I had to concentrate not to stare. “How much for postage?”
“Where is it going?”
“Oh. You are with the American Sailors who arrived today?”
“I lived in America. My father was the cultural ambassador at the embassy in Washington.”
“That explains your good English.”
“It’s helpful when dealing with tourists. Nearly everyone speaks or understands some English.”
“You speak better English than some Americans I know.”
She leaned toward me and spoke in a confidential voice. “You would be astonished by how many native Thai speakers mangle our language.”
“I never looked at it that way. Say, What’s your name?”
“Saucy. I like that. Is it short for something?”
“Sasithorn. It means beloved moon, and it’s pronounced Sahzee not Saucy; do I look like that kind of girl?”
Her smile dazzled me. She ran her finger down the guest register and placed the room key in my mailbox. “Your name is Tom?” Surprise filled her voice.
“Yes. How’d you know?” Duh. She’s the desk clerk. She’s supposed to know.
“I’m the desk clerk. I’m supposed to know.” She leaned forward and whispered, “It’s written by your room number. Your room number is on the key too.” She smiled.
“Ah. Of course. I thought you had fallen madly in love with me and memorized my personal information so you could write love letters to me.”
“Silly, man. I thought you had fallen madly in love with me and were waiting for me to finish work.”
Her manner had begun lighthearted, but the intensity of her gaze and the lift of her eyebrows when she tilted her head caused me to wonder.
“Alas, dear lady. My dance card is full, and no amount of longing could tear me from my commitments. I am genuinely distressed.”
She pursed her lips and frowned. “Ah, well,” she said. Then, nonchalantly, as she ran her finger down the list of countries and postage requirements, she asked, “Are you friends with the one named George?”
“George? He with the black curly hair, attractive gap between front teeth, and gold necklaces around bronze neck?”
Her eyes sparkled. “Could you be a little more descriptive?”
“Funny lady. He’s my roommate.”
“Is he? He asked me to go out with him. Is he a good guy?”
“He’s a great guy, and a great dancer too. You’ll have fun with him.”
“Good. I don’t often go out with hotel guests, but your group has some charmers.” She gave me a wink that made my heart leap.
Her lovely smile melted me and I blushed. I didn’t know what to say.
“You Americans blush more than any people I know. You’re so funny that way. It is endearing, though.” Sasi ran her fingers across my hand. “Are you sure we cannot tango tonight?”
“My heart breaks, Sasi, truly, but I’m engaged tonight.”
Her eyes drew me in with their disappointment. “My heart breaks too, Tom. Truly.” She gave the slightest pause, then said, “May I call you Thomas?”
Something in Sasi’s voice, in her manner, moved me. I nearly became emotional. “You must always call me Thomas, Sasi.”
I handed her the postage and postcard and walked away. Something about her tugged at me. The déjà vu had unsettled me, leaving a thrilling undercurrent of joy. The emotional lift limned our brief encounter, giving it the vividness of a dream. I wasn’t the brightest intellect when it came to discerning female emotions, but Sasi was forward enough that I was sure she wasn’t playing a game. Susanna hadn’t played games either. Maybe that was it; her manner reminded me of Susanna. She was direct where Aida was the opposite.
Aida. Oh boy. I fluttered my lips.
End of Book 3, Chapter 13, Part 1
Part 2 will be available on November 10th
Previous Chapters may be found here