Unloading Maintenance Equipment at U-Tapao Military Terminal. Photo Credit: Will Pennington
Sasi. I dreamed about her. I shook the water out of my hair and stepped from the shower. Except for vague bits, I rarely recalled my dreams. Not that dreams had context. Did any dream make sense? Did dreams do anything more than increase the hurt? In the dream, Sasi was swimming in a channel running through a city, tall buildings lining either side. I watched from a dock as she receded in the distance. It was night, and I feared I was going to lose her. Just as I made up my mind to swim after her, a giant wave formed and towered hundreds of feet over me, not breaking but always on the verge of breaking. Terror filled me, and I wanted to run away, but I was rooted to the shore. When the wave began to break, Sasi disappeared and I woke, covered in sweat and lying in damp sheets.
I wrapped a towel around my waist and brushed my teeth. What if Sasi were not at the front desk? No. She said she’d be there. She wasn’t the type to disappoint. I grabbed my backpack, stuffed in a bottle of suntan lotion and a book, and grabbed my camera. I scanned the room and left for the lobby.
The aroma of fresh-brewed coffee led me to the breakfast bar. The attendant filled a travel mug for me. Hot and delicious. The staff had laid out a continental breakfast of fruit, croissants, bagels, and doughnuts. I stuffed a pink frosted doughnut in my mouth and three more into a sack and walked across the lobby to the front desk. The clerk, her back to me, was sorting mail into room slots. She turned at my approach. It was Sasi looking beautiful, happy, and fresh. I hadn’t recognized her with her hair in a ponytail. She laughed when she saw me, and my face reddened. I put the remainder of the doughnut in the sack.
“Oh, Thomas. Good morning. You are so funny. I’m sorry, I could not help but laugh.” She covered her mouth with her hand, laughing still as I handed her my room key. “Do we yet have a date for this evening?”
“Of course. I thought of nothing else all night.”
“Does that mean you dreamed of me?”
“Of course. I dreamed I skipped work today, and we ran off to Barcelona, where we married and had ten kids. I stayed home while you ran our hotel empire. We had become grandparents when I woke.”
Her ponytail shook when she laughed. Ponytails made my knees weak. They expressed fun, youth, freedom. Hers revealed a neck that cried out for nuzzling.
“You are so much fun, Thomas. I love the way you make me laugh.”
“I’m glad. I’ll be sure to stuff my mouth with pink doughnuts every morning.”
“Doughnuts are fun, are they not? If you cannot laugh while eating doughnuts, why, you probably don’t laugh at all.”
“Well then, the world should eat more doughnuts, don’t you think?” I looked around for the rest of the team. “Has anyone else shown up? They should be here by now.”
“I have not seen George, but some of the others are having breakfast.” She sorted the last of the mail, then picked up a heavy stack of international newspapers.
“Here, let me get those.” I rushed to help her. “Where do they go?”
“You may distribute them among the sofas and chairs in the lobby, if you like. Here,” she said, taking the top few papers. “You carry, and I will distribute. They are complimentary to guests.”
I followed Sasi through the lobby. “We make a great team, Sasi. I work cheap too. Feed me, and I’ll do anything you ask.”
“Hey. Leave my girl alone, Nelson.” George walked up carrying doughnuts, and stuffing several bottles of water in his backpack.
“Your girl, Mr. Avelar? When did you dream that this unlikely event took place?” Sasi was shining. Her eyes bore into George’s. He laughed and looked away. Not many people could intimidate George, but Sasi was his match.
“Hah. Just kidding,” he said. “You two sounded like lovebirds. ‘Oh, Thomas. Oh, Sasi. Kiss, kiss, kiss.’ I didn’t know you were that close. You work fast, Nelson.”
“And what is that supposed to mean, Mr. Avelar?”
George was in over his head with no way out.
“Just kidding again. Geez.”
George picked up one of the papers from the coffee table. “Hey, I need something to read at U-Tapao. How much for a newspaper?”
Without missing a beat, Sasi said, “Twelve dollars.”
I spit up my coffee and laughed. Sasi had her back to George, but I could see her smile.
“Holy crap,” George said. “I don’t need it that bad.”
Sasi turned to George and said, “Just kidding. Geez.”
George reddened. “Good one. How much are they really?”
“You may have it gratis, George. Compliments of Hotel Tropicana. Please come back and visit.” She smiled sweetly and returned to the front desk.
Chief Goff walked in from the restaurant. “Miss, are the box lunches ready? We’re leaving soon.”
“They are ready, Chief Goff. I will send for them now.” A few minutes later, the box lunches rolled in on a cart. The Chief directed the bellboy to the waiting van.
“Nelson. Avelar. Get your butts in gear.”
“Bye, Sasi,” I said. “I’ll see you tonight.”
“Goodbye, Thomas. Have a wonderful day. I can’t wait until this evening.” She smiled at George. “Goodbye, George. You have a wonderful day too.” She waved to us, then greeted the rest of the crew as they dropped off room keys.
The van idled curbside while the driver sipped coffee and thumbed through the Bangkok Post.
I ran for the front seat, calling shotgun and opening the door two steps ahead of George. George tossed his bag into the backseat and flicked my earlobe.
“Hey dickhead, I called shotgun yesterday.”
I reached around, grabbed George’s shirt, and caught his nipple between my fingers. “Too bad, dipstick, I got here first.”
“Owww. All right, all right, you can ride shotgun. Let go!” George twisted free but flicked my earlobe again before diving for the rear seat.
Chief Goff opened the front door. “Scram, Nelson. I’m riding up front. Clean up the coffee you spilled on the console. Matthews, stow the box lunches. Bennett, give him a hand. There should be two pack-ups: one for aircrew and one for maintenance. The rest of you knuckleheads help the driver stow the gear. Avelar! The beer is for after work.”
The guys scrambled to do as they were told.
“Matthews,” he called. “Make sure they packed the coffee grounds.”
I didn’t move. “Aw, Chief, I need to ride up front so I can take photos on the way.”
“Sorry, Sailor. Rank hath its privileges.” He waggled his thumb over his shoulder. “In the back.”
I grabbed my backpack, gave the console a cursory brush with a napkin, and moved to the rear. George mimicked my plea to the Chief, but I ignored him as the rest of the guys took their seats. The van set off, turned onto Beach Road, and headed for the airbase.
Maintenance Control inside the terminal. Coffee pot on the deck. Photo Credit: Will Pennington
Once out of town, the miles sped by. The driver stopped so we could take photos of Buddha Mountain, but the Chief rushed us. The driver promised to stop on the way back. Before long, the van passed through the main gate of the airbase, drove through the workers’ housing where clothes flapped on clotheslines, past the hangars, and stopped in front of the air terminal. We poured from the van and unloaded the gear. Chief Goff carried the box of maintenance records into the terminal and set up shop. We set up the holy coffee maker but couldn’t find the coffee grounds. The chief was pissed.
“Matthews! Where the heck is the coffee?”
“I don’t know, Chief. I looked everywhere.”
“You should have looked before we left the hotel. Christ.” Chief Goff made a cursory look through some of the box lunches. “All right, Matthews. Get your butt moving and find us some coffee. Check with the tower. If they don’t have any, ask them where we can buy some.”
“Aye aye, Chief,” he said and ran off for the tower.
I asked the Chief if I could walk around and take photos.
“Yes, but don’t go too far. I don’t want to have to look for you if we need a metalsmith.”
George, sitting on a luggage conveyor and counting the dollar bills in his wallet, probably anticipating a night at Caligula Club, jumped up. “Hey, can I go with you?”
“Go ahead. But don’t get lost. And stay away from the women.”
George tucked in his shirt and grabbed his cap. He called over his shoulder. “I can’t help being a babe magnet, Chief. Women can’t leave me alone.”
“Tell that to the hotel manager.”
Bob laughed so hard he had tears in his eyes. “Bam! Prince Charming goes down.”
“Funny. Haha. Good one, Chief.” George walked away. “You coming, Nelson?”
New Terminal at the Inactive Commercial Airport. HQ for the Navy Detachment. Photo Credit: Will Pennington
We left the terminal and walked toward the hangars a short distance beyond the terminal. American, Australian, and New Zealand P-3 Orions and British Nimrods lined the tarmac. I took photos of the aircraft and the mechanics making repairs and preflight checks. We waved back to familiar faces who promised to meet us in town for drinks. The aircrew vans drove by on their way to the terminal. One of the enlisted guys leaned from a window and called out.
“Hey, man. You guys got any coffee?”
George raised his arm high and gave the thumbs up.
“We don’t have any coffee, George.”
“He doesn’t know that.”
“You’re evil, George.”
We reached the hangars and showed our ID’s to the sentry, who waved us through the gate.
“I saw a C-47 in here as we drove past,” I said. “I thought I’d get a few shots.” I adjusted the settings on my camera and took photos as we walked around the rusting warbird. “What a thrill it would be to fly in one.”
C-47/DC-3. Photo Credit: Will Pennington
George didn’t say anything. I looked up, thinking he hadn’t heard me, but the wrinkled forehead signaled he had something on his mind.
“What’s wrong, George?”
He looked off into the distance like he was choosing his words.
“It’s none of my business, Tom, but what are you going to do about Aida?”
I’d expected George to ask me sooner or later. “I don’t know.”
“I only ask because you’re spending an awful lot of time with
Sasi. I’d understand if this were just another detachment fling, but you’ve been seeing Aida for two years. That’s a relationship.”
“A year and a half.”
“That’s still a relationship.”
“It’s pretty clear you have a thing for Sasi.”
A C-130 Hercules taxied by, and we walked to the edge of the tarmac, covering our ears until the engine noise abated.
George said, “Everyone knows Sasi has a thing for you.”
I stared at the C-130 as it rolled down the runway accelerating for takeoff.
He went on. “Like I said, it’s none of my business. I’m just concerned is all.”
I snapped a photo of a wingless C-47 airframe parked outside the hangar. The wings lay in a pile with other rusting aircraft parts. We walked on. Buddha Mountain rose from the plain a few miles from the base. I must have taken a hundred photos of the landmark over the years. I looked at it then without seeing it.
DC-3/C-47 Wing Sections. U-Tapao Airbase, Thailand. Photo Credit: Will Pennington
“You know, George, you caught me off guard yesterday when you asked if I had spoken to Lek yet. I’ve spent so much time with Sasi that I didn’t see her until yesterday as she left Whiskey A Go Go.”
“Did you tell her?”
“She wouldn’t have been with me had I told her. Besides, she left the club with another guy.”
“Oh. That sucks.”
“You should have seen them kissing.”
“Ouch. Sorry, man.”
“There’s no reason to be sorry. She has to look out for herself.”
“Yeah. I know how it is.”
We reached the next hangar, and I took more photographs. Two Thai sentries nodded as we passed their vehicle. I motioned for an okay to take their photo, and they assented, smiling for the camera like tourists. I thanked them, and we walked on.
“Where’s your camera?”
George shrugged. “I didn’t bring it. Didn’t feel like lugging it around.”
“Well, let me know if you want a photo of something.”
I said, “She was just having fun with you, you know.”
“Sasi. She was only giving you a hard time. She really likes you.”
“Oh, yeah. Cool. I’m not worried about it. I can almost take a joke.” He grinned. “She intimidated me, though. I didn’t know what to say.”
“Imagine you rendered speechless by a woman. I spit up my coffee when she told you how much the newspaper cost.”
“She has a forceful personality too, unlike Aida. No wonder you like her.”
“What do you mean?”
“Most of the women you go out with have strong personalities.”
“Really? I never noticed.”
“They exude confidence and optimism.”
“Optimism, yes, confidence, not so much. You can be indecisive. When it comes to women, that’s your weakness.”
We walked on, both lost in thought.
My indecisiveness sprung from a desire to please, to let others make decisions. Rather than risk hurting people by my choices or commands, I let others tell me what they wanted. I had treated Susanna and Sasi differently, though. They made me want to make decisions and lead. George had caught on to something.
He was wrong about Aida, though. Aida had a strong, decisive personality, but she needed me and that made her appear weak to George. I had never noticed it, but George was right: strong women did attract me. I had never cared for weak, needy women, but hadn’t consciously avoided them or sought strong women. Lek, who wasn’t strong, and Aida, who was, needed me. Sasi and Susanna didn’t.
“So, what are you going to do? Are you going to tell Lek about Aida? What about you and Aida? Or Sasi, for that matter?”
“I’m going to tell Lek I can’t see her anymore. I had decided not to see her at all when I spotted her kissing that guy, but she saw me outside Ben’s.”
I caught George’s glance and continued. “It caught me off guard. I mean, I know Lek is looking for a husband, and she can’t just sit around and wait for it to happen, but it bothered me. To tell the truth, it turned me off to her. I didn’t feel the same toward her after that. It doesn’t matter though. I came to Thailand to tell her I was marrying Aida.”
“Are you sure you’re going to marry Aida?”
“Are you sure you’re going to marry Aida?”
“Yeah, I guess. Why?”
“You don’t act like a guy who just asked a woman to marry him. You did ask her, didn’t you? Phil told me you had. Shouldn’t you be walking on air with your head in the clouds or something?”
George didn’t have much room to talk. George, the ladies’ man, the squadron’s Casanova. George, the man who never went out with the same woman twice. His false promises of love would reach to the moon.
“Why does it matter what I do here if I mean to marry Aida, George? What about people who have one last fling before they marry? Who tells them they’re doing wrong? Why do I have to be chaste as a saint just because I asked a woman to marry me? Who made everyone my judge and jury? What’s special about me that people think I’m a heel because I want to have some fun before I get married? Why don’t people worry about themselves and leave me the hell alone?”
“Whoa there, fella. One rebuttal at a time.”
“I’m sorry, George. I’m just tired of people using my relationship with Aida to practice self-righteousness. I don’t mean you. You’re not always harping at me. At least when you do, you mean well.”
“I only spoke up because this isn’t like you, Tom. You’re not the kind of guy who treats women like trash.”
“I’m not treating anyone like trash,” I said flatly.
“What do you call cheating on Aida? What about the way you’re treating Lek?”
“I’m not cheating on Aida, George. I haven’t slept with a woman, any woman, including Lek and Sasi, since we returned to PI. I made a commitment to Aida, that’s the truth.”
“What about Sasi? How deep is your relationship?”
“Sasi? I don’t know.” I turned defiant. I had grown tired of dissembling. “Yeah, I am going to continue seeing her. I don’t care what people think. I like her more each time I see her.”
“So, what about Aida? Do you really want to marry her?” He stopped in front of me and clasped my shoulders. “Do you love her, Tom?”
George’s concern was genuine. He was a playboy, but that didn’t mean he was ignorant of others’ feelings. His promises to women were the obvious false promises all men make, and women too when they’re the givers, or takers. They aren’t meant to hurt, only to persuade for the moment. Any hurt is the fault of the naïve, hopeless romantic, not the romancer.
“Growing up, I wanted the kind of love my parents had. I wanted the woman that, when we met, we’d know instantly we were destined to be together. That’s what happened to my parents, George. All my life, people told me my parents were born in love with each other.”
“But that was your parents, Tom. You can’t expect the same thing to happen to you. You know, it almost sounds like you’re in love with your mother.”
“That’s bullshit, George.”
“Wait. Let me finish. I don’t mean in love with her, but in love with the idea of her. You’re looking for the mother you never had. Your mother and Susanna were both Spanish, shared the same name, and worked as bartenders in Rota. Do you know what your mother looked like?”
I had never considered what George was telling me. Was I looking for my mother? That wouldn’t explain Aida, though. Was my attraction to Sasi based on her resemblance to Susanna? Were my Susanna and my mother the same woman? But what had attracted me to Aida if I were looking for my mother?
I shook my head. I couldn’t think straight. “Yes, Susanna and my mother resemble each other, but that’s not why I fell in love with Susanna. When we met, I knew it was meant to be. It’s happening again with Sasi.”
“Did you stop to think maybe it’s happening because you want it to? That your ambivalence over marrying Aida is making you act in ways you wouldn’t otherwise act? You told me Sasi reminds you of Susanna. Are you looking for Susanna in Sasi the way you looked for your mom in Susanna? You are, Tom, and you don’t see it.”
“That isn’t true. Even if it were, how does it explain Aida?”
“Even if it isn’t true, you can’t expect every love to be the same. As for Aida, maybe your head is telling you to look for your mother while your heart is leading you the right way.”
I didn’t say anything. George had poked me hard in the chest, and it hurt. What he said made sense.
“Seriously, Tom, I mean it. You need to lighten up, stop looking for a certain woman, love, marriage, whatever, and just let it happen. You can’t force it. I doubt if your mom and dad were looking for each other. It just happened when they weren’t expecting it.”
“No, George. When I met Susanna, I knew instantly we would marry. She knew it too. After she died, I gave up. I thought it would never happen again. I stopped looking for love and began to look for pleasure instead. I didn’t care how I treated women because I wasn’t looking for anything. Aida attracted me because she needed me. She wanted what I could give her, a ticket to the States. I knew that, but I didn’t mind because I knew Aida also wanted me for me. She could have had any guy at Rufadora, but she chose me.”
George went on, oblivious to my reasoning. “Your problem is that you’re looking for your parents’ kind of love. That’s the wrong approach. You’re looking for marriage when you should be looking for a companion, someone to have fun with. Not sexually, that will come later. It’s kind of like foreplay without expectation of sex.”
I looked at George in surprise.
“Sorry, sorry, poor choice of words. That only leads to frustration. What I mean is, you gotta enjoy being with a woman for who she is, without expectation of anything beyond companionship. Tell me I’m wrong, Tom, and I’ll shut up.”
“You’re not wrong. We’re in violent agreement.”
“I had stopped looking for love and wanted only a companion. That’s when Aida came along. Aida is the first woman I went out with for anything other than pleasure. So, I guess Aida is an interim love. I guess she filled the gap between Susanna and Sasi.”
“No, Tom. Aida is your heart love. You’re just not ready to see it. You need to ask yourself if you really want to marry her. That’s what you want, right?” I looked away over the airfield, toward the rock-solid permanence of Buddha Mountain shimmering in the sun’s cruel heat. “I don’t know what I want, George.”