Middle Left — Ben’s Jewelry, Pattaya Beach, Thailand. 1983. Photo Credit: Will Pennington
The following week passed in a blur that left me breathless. I rose early each morning to meet Sasi at the front desk for coffee. In the evenings, she showed me her favorite restaurants where we sipped sangria and watched the sunset from dockside tables. We strolled along the beach and back, then down and back again, countless times, chatting about nothing, walking in the silence of each other’s thoughts, and satisfying curiosity about things we felt important. I walked her home in moonlight, reveling in her company. She never spoke of Susanna, and Aida seemed so far away to me.
Sasi’s voice, her fragrance, the sparkle in her eyes when she laughed at my wit reawakened feelings I had suppressed since Susanna’s death. Infatuation for Sasi turned quickly into passion. Sasi stirred in me a reservoir of love that had lain dormant while I waited for the woman who would heal my heart.
When I thought of Aida at all, it was with a twinge of regret. My feelings toward her had not changed, but my commitment to her was less certain. Sasi gave me something that Aida did not: a hope and passion for the future that thrilled my heart and gave me reason to forget the past. I saw Susanna when I looked at Sasi. I loved Aida, but I wanted Susanna, and Sasi was giving her back to me. Soon, I would have no reason to remember the past.
One night, after a long day at the airfield, I returned to the hotel as George and the others were heading into town. George looked every bit the dance king with the top three buttons of his shirt unfastened and gold necklaces around his neck.
“Hey, Tom,” George said. “You’re going the wrong way, man; town’s that way. Come with us.”
Bob, minus the gold necklaces but nearly bare-chested with most of his shirt buttons unfastened, joined us. “Yeah, Tom. We’re going to Ben’s to look at necklaces, then to the German Restaurant for dinner. We’re going bar hopping later.”
Alex Severs, exuding Southern charm, rolled his eyes. “Y’all mean George is looking at gold necklaces. Like he don’t have enough already.”
“I’d love to go, guys, but I made other plans.”
Bob smirked. “You mean you’re going out with the hotel manager, right?”
I ignored him, reading the smirk as either “you lucky bastard” or “don’t let Aida find out.” It was none of Bob’s business, anyway.
George minded my business too, but without the smirk. “Have you seen Lek yet?”
He sounded just like Phil. “Not yet, Dad, but I will.”
George laughed. “Okay. But you gotta do it eventually, and you don’t know what later will bring.” He turned to go and said, “By the way, Sasi looked pretty busy a few minutes ago. If you end up alone, we’ll be at Ben’s, then either Whiskey A Go Go or Caligula Club.” He walked away shaking his head. “I still don’t know why she prefers you over me. Poor woman.”
They left me at the curb and headed for town, arguing over which clubs to visit and which side of the street to walk on. They’d spend an hour at Ben’s Jewelry while George looked at gold chains, then hit the Whiskey A Go Go. Alex and Bob disliked the Caligula Club and wouldn’t go there with George. At least not until they’d had a few beers first.
Sasi had met me at the desk every night for the past week, but she wasn’t there when I looked for her. I walked to my room intending to call her. I didn’t want to ask the desk clerk for her; I didn’t want to be a bother. Besides, George had said she looked busy. The message light blinked on the room phone. It was Sasi. She had unexpected hotel business and couldn’t see me. I lay back on the bed, disappointed.
The glare of the setting sun rippling across the blue water of the Gulf made my eyes water when I left the Tropicana. The heat had lessened with the onset of night, and the walk uptown was pleasant, with daytime’s busy odors giving way to nighttime’s entrancing fragrances. Street vendors set up their cast iron fry pans for the sausage pies, pasties, pad Thai, and fried grasshoppers tourists loved. I bought a sausage from a familiar vendor and ate it from my hand while making my way along Walking Street.
I was a few doors from the Whiskey A Go Go when Lek walked out of the club, arm-in-arm with an older man. Turning into a doorway, I watched them over my shoulder. They stopped at the corner and kissed. When she turned to leave, the man pulled her to him and kissed her again. A long kiss. The kind that says hurry back, babe; I’m not done with you. A twinge of jealousy passed through my mind. She would deny it, but I knew she saw other men when I wasn’t in town. Why shouldn’t she? Each man she knew was special, her guy, the one she wanted to marry, insurance. The rich American, Australian, German. The nationality of the day.
It occurred to me that I wouldn’t have a hard time saying goodbye after all. In fact, I didn’t need to say anything. I came to Thailand about twice a year. Lek couldn’t say we had an understanding or commitment. I’d deal with it if we met, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to see her. I had no reason to tell her about Aida and me. Without realizing it, I had set myself up as her hero, her savior, the typical man looking out for the weaker sex. Seeing her with the other guy had deflated my ego. But it didn’t matter now.
I waited for Lek to move on before continuing to Ben’s. I had intended to check the club for the guys, but Lek wouldn’t have left with the man if she had known they were there. I kept an eye out for her as I arrived at Ben’s and peeked in the window. The guys were inside. I was about to enter when she called out in her throaty, husky voice.
“Tommy! Tommy!” She waved to me from the doorway of a shop up the street.
Forcing a smile, I waved back. “Hello, Lek.”
Alibaba. Pattaya, Thailand. 1983. Photo Credit: Will Pennington
Lek weaved her way through the crowded sidewalk and ran to me, grinding her breasts against my chest as she kissed me.
“Oh, Tom, Tom. I thought I never see you again. Why you don’t let me know you are coming back? You don’t write to tell me you are coming here. Oh, Tom, I am so happy you came back. How long will you be here? I just see you now when I’m going shopping. I can’t believe it is you.” She stopped speaking when she ran out of breath.
I leaned away from her. “It’s good to see you again.”
“Why you don’t write me, Tom. Why? I am so worried that you don’t love me anymore. I am so happy you come back to me.”
She took my hands and pulled at me. “Can we go someplace, Tom? We go to my house, yes? Come.”
I pulled away. “Wait a sec, Lek. I need to see my friends. Wait here.” Halfway inside, I reached back and took Lek by the arm. “What am I thinking? You know them. Come on.”
“Hey, guys. I finally found you. Look who I brought with me!”
George had always liked Lek and treated her with an open, easy familiarity, the way a guy treats his best friend’s girlfriend. He picked her up and swung her around, drawing a giggling laugh from her and a horrified stare from the salesman behind the counter.
“Lek, you beautiful little woman, how are you? Hey, you got any t-shirts for me, honey?”
During a previous detachment, Lek had bought him several t-shirts embroidered with “Gorg.” The mistake mortified the poor girl, although George had laughed it off and worn the shirts, anyway.
Lek blushed a deep red. “No-no, no shirts, George. I not buying shirts for you again.”
Bob greeted Lek and asked if she were hungry. She jumped at the offer. “Oh, Tom, I am so hungry. We go, yes? Can we go? We go to Ali Baba’s for Indian food? I like Indian food.”
“I don’t see why not. If you guys are ready, let’s go. Are you coming, Alex?”
Alex had a suave coolness that I admired. Not only that, his accent sounded like music and only accentuated his appeal.
“Hey, Lek. Yeah. Ya’ll hang on a sec, guys. Let me pay for this and I’ll be with you. You think Bennie will like it, Bob?” Bennie was Alex’s PI girlfriend, a sweet, charming Filipina who lacked the drama of his on-again, off-again girlfriend in Hawaii.
“Alex, Bennie will love anything you bring her. I’ve never seen a woman so easy to please.”
Alex said, “Okay. Let’s walk. We have plenty of time. Where are we going anyway, Ali who’s?”
Everyone spoke at once, each trying to sway the others toward a particular restaurant.
“Ali Baba’s. An Indian place near the hotel.”
“No. Bob wanted to go to the German Restaurant.”
“Who mentioned Ali Baba’s anyway?”
“What about Pizza Hut?”
“Pizza Hut? Seriously? Who goes to Pizza Hut in Thailand?”
“All you talked about at work today was KFC. ‘Oh, man, I’m dying for some KFC.’”
“Well, it’s better than Pizza Hut.”
“I’ll give you a pizza.”
Alex took the necklace out of its red cloth pouch and held it up. “Hey, Lek, let me see how this necklace looks on you.”
Lek’s eyes brightened and she turned, lifting her ponytail so Alex could fasten the necklace around her neck.
“I say Ali Baba, Alex. I say we go to Ali Baba for Indian food.”
“There.” He fastened the clasp. “Turn around now and let me see how it looks on you.”
Lek turned, letting the ponytail fall down her back. She swung her head, tilting it to one side and stood with one hand on her hip, the other hanging loose, coy, coquettish.
“Jesus, Lek,” Alex said. “You look like a model. Don’t she look like a model, guys?”
The gold necklace stood out against her dark blue blouse. The tight, white jeans and the thrust of her hips made me swallow hard. God, even the pink zories work to her advantage. Not seeing her in so long had dimmed my mental image of her. I had to force myself to look away.
Bob’s voice called through the noise of a passing jet.
“Where do you want to eat?”
“What? Oh, the German Restaurant is okay, I guess.”
“Oh, no, Tom, we not go to German Restaurant.”
Alex shook his head. “Lek’s right. We always go there, and I’m not in the mood for brats and sauerkraut. Let’s go somewhere else.” He opened a walking map of Pattaya and looked over the list of restaurants. “Hey, we should go to the Siam Elephant Restaurant. It’s by the police station and closer than the German Restaurant. They serve the best Thai food in Pattaya according to Alex’s 5 Star Restaurant Guide.”
Bob cursed. “I don’t care where we go, but let’s go already. We’re in frigging Thailand, for Christ’s sake. Anything but McDonald’s and KFC.”
“And Pizza Hut,” I said.
“And Pizza Hut,” Alex said. “Lek wants to go to Ali Baba’s.”
“Lek. Do you mind if we go to the Siam Elephant?”
“I go wherever Tom want to go.”
“It doesn’t matter where we go. I’m so hungry, I could eat an elephant.”
Lek stared at me, her face lined with concern. “You eat elephant? No one eat elephant.”
The guys cracked up. Lek, confused by their reaction, joined in the laughter.
“Okay, Alex. I will take off the necklace now. I like it too, if it makes you like it on me. Does it look pretty?”
“Oh yeah, it does. You keep it Lek. I’ll buy another one for my girlfriend.”
“No, I mean it. It looks so nice on you. You deserve to keep it. It’s my gift to you. Besides, every time I see the necklace on Bennie, I’ll think of you.”
Lek’s face glowed. She fingered the necklace all through dinner, sliding it around her neck, tugging it gently, trying it outside her blouse, then trying it inside. She acted like a little kid with a longed-for gift. She laughed, hugged their arms, and nuzzled the guys she could reach.
I was glad I hadn’t been the one to buy the necklace. She was playing for the guys, enjoying her moment as the center of attention. The necklace was the barfine, and she gave the guys what they had bought, the only thing she had to give. Herself. Her body. Her sensuous movements and velvet laugh. I imagined her desperation, her crying inside. I imagined Lek yearning for one of the men to take her away. American Sailors had everything they desired, and she wanted in. She didn’t feel they owed her anything, but they could give her what she wanted.
When she wasn’t performing for Alex and George, she performed for me, feeding me from her plate, and clasping my free hand when I fed myself. I regretted the attention. She kept up a steady chatter about little things, domestic things concerning her apartment and roommate, her family in Chanthamuri. I joined in the light atmosphere, but my heart wasn’t in it. I touched Lek when I was supposed to and smiled when she spoke to me. Something had changed.
Something in our relationship had switched off when I saw her with the other man. Was it a loss of power over Lek? Was I upset that I couldn’t control her when we parted? Maybe she didn’t pine for me when I was gone, after all. I didn’t love her, but I loved being with her. I loved being the sole object of her attention. The other guy probably did too. Lek was no fool. She knew what she had to do to achieve her objective, and she wouldn’t place her bet or attention on one man. My heart turned cold and hardened against Lek. I lost my appetite and picked at my food. I was sick to my stomach.
After dinner, we made our way up Walking Street, arguing over where to go. George insisted on beginning the night at Caligula Club, but Alex and Bob remained steadfast against going anywhere but Whiskey A Go Go, where they hoped to pick up dates for the night. Lek wanted me to go to her place. I had no desire to be alone with her.
“I’m going back to the hotel, Lek. I have a headache. It’s been a long day.”
She took my hands and pleaded with me. “Oh, Tom. Please come home with me. I massage you and make you feel better.”
“No, Lek. I need to get some sleep. I have an early day tomorrow, and I don’t want to be fatigued. I’ll see you tomorrow night.”
Her face fell, but it held hope. The truth would hurt when it dawned on her. But she had been hurt before. She had told me of the hurts.
“Okay. I see you, then. Will you come to see me at my work?”
“Sure.” I let go of her hand, once soft and warm. “I’m off, guys. I’ll see you in the morning.”
George understood. “Are you sure you don’t want to have a drink before you head back?”
“No, that’s all right.”
“Okay. See you in the morning,” he said as he joined Alex and headed for Whiskey A Go Go.
Lek kept trying to hold my hand, and I kept pulling away. “I really need to lie down for a while, Lek. I don’t feel well and just want to sleep. I’ve been up since three this morning. I’ll see you tomorrow. I promise.”
“Okay, Tom. I will wait until tomorrow. You promise you will come to my work and see me?”
“Yes, I promise.”
“Okay. Good bye, Tom.” She grabbed me and kissed me, but I pulled away and our hands slipped apart. She would probably go back to the man she had left earlier. It was apparent she preferred me to the other guy, but she couldn’t afford to let preference get in the way of opportunity. I doubted the thought had entered her mind, but she probably sensed my waning interest and wanted to cut her losses. What would she do if I didn’t show at the Whiskey A Go Go?