Along Walking Street, Pattaya, Thailand. 1983. Photo Credit: Will Pennington
The crucial moment lay before us, quivering with anticipation, awaiting resolution. I was anxious. I had to see Sasi again, but kept putting it off. We spoke in the morning before I left for the airfield, exchanging little more than pleasantries, and again in the evening when I returned. I think she waited for my return, hoping for some break in the dam between us. She always seemed on the verge of breaching the dam but stopped short, as if having second thoughts. The same happened to me and wrenched my heart each time I clammed up instead of baring my soul to her.
I had to do something, but what? What held me back from taking her in my arms and whispering how much I loved her? I couldn’t leave Thailand without putting to the test my feelings for her. To leave without seeing her meant living the rest of my life wondering what might have been. For the first time since Susanna died, I was sure of my feelings for another woman, and I needed to tell Sasi. The question of Aida, however, remained unresolved as well. How could I tell Sasi of my love without also telling her of Aida?
But Aida was the problem. I was afraid of hurting her and afraid of finding out how much I loved her. I was also afraid I loved Sasi because she reminded me of Susanna. Fear was king over me. I feared commitment, and I feared loss.
Another night on the town was in full swing. I joined George and the others and headed for Whiskey A Go Go. We crossed Beach Road and continued as it turned into Walking Street at the south end of Pattaya. Here we left behind the pleasant ocean view and fresh air of the broad, palm-lined seaside promenade and entered the nightclub district. The change of smells was immediate as the fragrant sea breeze gave way to an aromatic mingling of cooking spices, fresh fish, cheap perfume, diesel fumes, and raw sewage.
A few minutes more brought us to Whiskey A Go Go. The heavy drumbeat of the live band assaulted our eardrums well before we reached the entrance, but the full force of the music didn’t hit us until we entered. Like a tsunami, the sound filled the void outside the door, temporarily vaporizing the fine hairs of the inner ear and rendering us momentarily deaf. The screaming guitars and pounding drumbeat sent a thrill through my spine.
The electric atmosphere stirred some primeval human emotion and forced a surge of adrenaline into the bloodstream. Successive bursts of energy found outlet in loud, excited voices, bodies bobbing on the dance floor, and smiles stretched so taut that the face ached. A thick pall of cigarette smoke obscured the band from view.
We found an empty table, thick with spilled beer and cigarette butts, and nabbed a chair from another table so everyone had a seat. I turned at the touch of a bikini-clad barmaid tapping my shoulder. She wanted my drink order.
“I say what you want to drink?” The flickering lights caricatured the girl’s face and movements into stop-motion animation.
“Tiger beer, please.”
“What you say?”
I repeated my order, straining my vocal cords to be heard.
Another one yelled in my ear that Lek was in the back, and she would let her know I was there. I didn’t tell her not to bother.
We eyed the dance floor and occasionally caught ourselves bobbing to the music. Normal speech was impossible. We could only look at each other and smile and raise our eyebrows. A few tables away sat a group of aircrewmen enjoying a rare night on the town.
The barmaid returned with the drinks and passed them around. George raised his glass in a toast. “Cheers, fellas.” As he tilted his head back and guzzled the bottle, Lek walked up, wet her finger, and poked it in his ear. He jumped, and beer dribbled down his chin.
“Lek!” He wiped beer off his face. “You owe me another beer — on the house!”
Lek sat in his lap and laughed with the others. When she caught her breath, she snatched away and drank the rest of his beer.
“Oh, George, you so funny, you make me laugh too much.”
She wrapped her arms around his neck and pressed her cheek to his. She kissed him, then came to me. George leaned his chair back on two legs and grinned at Lek as he dabbed at the beer on his shirt with her bar cloth.
“I’m glad I can make you laugh, but you still owe me a free beer.”
He reached out and corralled a passing barmaid.
“Hey baby, you wanna dance?”
She giggled as George swept her into his arms and carried her to the dance floor.
I asked Lek if she wanted to dance.
“No, my sweetheart. We go after I finish my work?”
“Sure. Let me know when you’re ready.”
“Okay. I want to walk with you. I am tired of here, the Whiskey A Go Go, and want to walk alone with you. Always we are with other people, your friends, and hardly we ever get to be alone except late after I work, and then you have to work too early.”
She pressed against me and tightened her arms around my waist.
“I like to be in your arms. I like to stay here always.”
She nuzzled my neck. I told her the things she wanted to hear and touched her with enough caress to reassure her that she was my girl. I had put off saying goodbye because I didn’t want another crying woman on my conscience. I had to tell her that night, though. I could leave at any time, and I didn’t want our relationship to remain unresolved. It was the least I could do for her.
“Tommy, you drink your beer. I go finish my work.”
“What work are you doing tonight?”
“Serving in party room. They will finish soon, and then I can leave. Only two hours and I come back.”
The tedium was already unbearable; two hours would seem like an eternity. I ordered another beer and settled in for the long run. Dancing might have killed time, but I didn’t feel like dancing. Neither did Mark and Don.
“Hey, why aren’t you guys on the dance floor? Where did Alex and Bob go?”
“They’re dancing,” George said as he returned from the dance floor. His face glistened with sweat and pleasure. Nightlife was his element.
“Together?” I raised an eyebrow. “I always wondered about those two.”
“They’re close, but not that close. Look at Alex. He’s such a stud dancing with two women. He reminds me of me.”
George sat on the edge of his chair, his back straight and eyes on the dance floor, still breathing hard. He downed his beer between breaths and tapped his feet to the music. “Man, I am pumped. This place is jumping. Who’s up for a foamy later? Let’s go to Sabailand. That’s the best place for a massage.”
No one else wanted to go.
“Man, you guys are wimps. We don’t get to Thailand often, fellas. You gotta make the most of it while you’re here. C’mon, let’s go. Who’s with me?”
Don yawned, looking tired and bored despite the deafening music. A passing barmaid winked at him and rubbed her hand across his face as she walked to another table. He put his hand on hers until she slipped away.
“No way, dude. I can barely keep my eyes open. It didn’t hit me until I sat down. I’m going to stay here and drink for a while. Maybe Mark will go with you.”
“Nah, I’m okay. I’m going to stay for a while and then get a bite to eat. Anybody want to share some fried grasshoppers?”
Fried grasshoppers tasted okay after a few beers, but not when they came up the next day.
“C’mon. You know you like them. They taste like chicken. Just grab the head, and give it a twist. The head comes off and brings the guts with it. You eat the shell. Tastes so good!”
“Grasshoppers and balut have the same appeal as fried rat, which is what I think I had for dinner last night,” said George. “It was supposed to be hamburger.”
“You’re on your own, George,” I said. “I’m going out with Lek later. Maybe Alex and Bob will go with you, but I doubt it. They look like they’re having too much fun.”
“When are you telling Lek what’s up with you and Aida?”
“Tonight. I can’t put it off any longer.”
“Poor kid. It’s gonna hurt, you know.”
“I mean, it’s going to hurt her. You have someone to nurse your poor little heart later, but she doesn’t.”
“You wouldn’t say that if you had seen the way she was kissing that guy last week.”
“Well, good luck anyway.” He patted my shoulder. “I’m off. Maybe the aircrew guys will go to Sabailand with me. See you tomorrow morning. Wake me up in time to get a shower. Unless Lek cuts off your happiness. Later.”
Don stuck it out for two more beers before leaving with Mark. Alex and Bob returned to the table between dances but were away most of the time. After a while, I gave the table to a group of Aussies and moved to the bar. I had another beer and made small talk with barmaids as they waited to pick up orders.
Lek finally joined me, chatting with other barmaids while I finished my beer. I observed her as she spoke, noticed her manner, how she leaned against me and smiled at the girls, how they seemed to concentrate on her words, her gestures.
It was a few minutes before I realized that she drew confidence and stature from me. The other girls were jealous of her relationship with the American Sailor, while she showed pride in the attachment, almost like she owned a pet the other girls wanted to take home. It had never occurred to me that I could have that kind of effect on a woman, and I found I liked the feeling of power.
However, after a few minutes of self-satisfaction, awareness thumped me between the eyes, and I understood the reality of what had occurred between the girls. I wasn’t the cause of it, but what I represented: opportunity and freedom.
The sobering thought reminded me that Lek would never find with me what she sought so earnestly. I would leave in a few days and never see her again. There would be tears and hand-holding, tight hugs, and tender kisses as we parted for the last time. With pleading eyes, she would beg me not to forget her, to write her often. I would echo her words and make the promises she wanted to hear.
I knew that, for a while after I left Thailand, she would cling to the diminishing hope that I would live up to my promises. The hope would fade, and she would gradually stop expecting anything from me. She would ignore the looks of pity from her friends, who would say they knew all along that I hadn’t cared for her, that I only wanted her in bed, that they had not liked me.
I downed the beer then took Lek’s hand and said goodbye to the others and left the club. “Where would you like to walk, Lek? Along the beach?”
“Yes. I like walking there. Here, I put my arms around you and hold you like this. Now you cannot escape me. I hold you forever, Tommy.” Her arms circled my waist, and she rested her head against my shoulder. “Oh, you always got bony shoulders.”
We strolled along window-shopping. She admired a gaudy bracelet so I bought it for her. Every few feet, it seemed, Lek had to stop and look through sale items. Her face glowed as she slipped the bracelet on her arm. “I like this one so much. I will keep it always as a reminder of you, Tommy.”
She wasn’t making it easy for me.
Walking Street, narrow and hemmed in on both sides by buildings and shops, ended after a half mile and turned into the wider Beach Road bordered by clubs, restaurants, and hotels on the one hand, and by the Gulf of Thailand on the other, its turquoise water now dark in the night but reflecting the white of the full moon. Running lights from sailboats and freighters riding at anchor rippled on the moonlit water.
We sat for a while on the seawall, dangling our legs over one side then turning around and digging our bare feet into the warm sand on the other. We leaned against each other, silent, not speaking of my imminent departure. I was likely on my last visit to Thailand for several years unless I found a way to stay in the squadron when my current tour ended.
I would never see Lek again. Whatever I had felt for her had fled once I saw her with the other man. Besides, I told myself, she had no right to expect anything beyond my infrequent trips to Thailand. I had never told her I loved her, had never told her I would marry her and take her back to America. She had assumed it because I came back to her with each trip to Thailand. She had assumed it because hope like that consumed her life. How many other men had dashed her dreams and broken her heart?
Lek’s grasp on my arm tightened. Her shoulders shook.
“Lek, are you crying? What’s wrong, sweetheart? Hey, don’t cry, honey. What’s the matter? Oh, sweetheart, what’s the matter?”
I lifted her chin. Anguish contorted her face and tears rolled down her cheeks. My heart panged. “Oh, Tommy, please don’t leave me. Don’t leave me, my sweetheart. I love you, Tommy. Please don’t leave me.”