Tom’s enthusiasm over his meeting and subsequent tryst with Amporn had pushed aside his original plan to see Lek. He had forgotten her as completely as if they had never met. He justified his actions as one final fling before marriage tied him to one woman, and told himself Aida could not be hurt if she did not know of his behavior while away from her.
Tom fixed his smile and turned up the street, his brain churning over excuses for not seeing her sooner. “Lek! Hello, sweetheart.” She ran to him and leapt into his waiting arms, warm teardrops falling onto his shoulder, her heart beating rapidly against his. He patted her, consoling her as her shoulders shook and she sobbed. Some passersby stared, others smiled at the display of affection between two obvious lovers.
“Oh, Tom, Tom, I thought I’m not going to see you anymore. Why you don’t tell me you are coming back? You don’t write to me and I am afraid you not come again. Oh, Tom, I am so happy you came back to me. How long will you be here? I just see you now when I am going shopping. I cannot believe it is you.”
“Hey, hey, slow down, Lek. Slow down, sweetheart. I’m here, honey, I’m here. It’s so good to see you again. I planned to see you tonight. I arrived a short time ago and have not had time to unpack.”
“Why you don’t write me, Tom, why? I am so worried that you don’t love me anymore, and I am afraid I not going to see you again.”
“We’re so busy now with work, Lek, and I’m gone all the time to other places; I forget to write because I’m so tired when I get home.”
“Tom, you got girlfriend in the Philippines? I understand if you do. I go away and not bother you, even if I love you.”
“Of course not. You know I only want you, Lek. I wish I could see you all the time, but I can’t come to Thailand whenever I want to, and I do want to see you. I almost didn’t come this time, but I replaced someone who got hurt… Lek honey.” Tom lifted Lek’s chin and looked at her with a rueful smile, his brain working fast. “If I had not come on this trip today, we probably would never have seen each other again. I am so happy I came once more. Aren’t you?”
“I am so happy we can see each other again.” She put her hands on his shoulders and stood on tiptoes to kiss him. “Can we go someplace, Tom? We go to my house, yes? Come.”
Lek grabbed Tom’s hand and started to walk away. He started to go with her, but pulled away and said, “Wait a sec, Lek; I need to tell my friends I’m going with you. Wait here. What am I thinking? You know them; come in with me.” He pulled her along with him and entered the shop, looking around for Brian, Phil, and George. He spotted them looking at necklace showcases, a clerk fastening one around Phil’s neck. “Hey, guys. I finally found you. I only looked all over Pattaya before realizing you’d be here. Look who I brought with me!”
Smiles broke out on the guys’ faces when they saw Lek, and they greeted her with fondness. She had won them over long ago with her obvious affection for Tom, and treated them all as her brothers. More than once had she made dinner for them at her house, going so far as to make sure they each had companions to keep them company. They knew how Tom treated her, and often gave him grief for it, but kept mum on the matter; any one of them might find himself in the same situation.
George picked Lek up and swung her around, drawing a long, giggling laugh from her. “Lek, you beautiful little woman, how are you? Hey, you got any t-shirts for me, honey?” Lek’s big, brown eyes crinkled and her mouth spread in a wide smile as she remembered George’s last visit. “No, no, no shirts, Gorg.” She broke into laughter and giggled again. Months earlier, during the previous detachment, Lek, at George’s request, had shirts personalized with his name embroidered over the pocket. A few days later she presented him with the shirts, all emblazoned with his name, “Gorg,” in prominent stitching. The mistake had mortified the poor girl. Fortunately, everyone died laughing when they saw the shirts, and told Lek how funny Gorg sounded. Since then Gorg had become George’s nickname.
Brian, wearing his boyish ‘aw shucks’ grin, took her hand and pecked her on the cheek. “It’s nice to see you, Lek. How have you been? Hey, have you two eaten? We’re going to get a bite; why don’t you join us?”
“Oh, Tom, I am so hungry, can we go, yes? Can we go? I like Ali Baba for Indian food”
Lek was hard to resist when she pleaded with him. Her eyes held a sad look even when happy, and more than once she had used that to her advantage. Not this time though: she fairly glowed with pleasure at seeing him again.
“I don’t see why not. If you guys are ready, let’s go. Shall we walk or take a taxi? Phil, you coming?”
Phil, from New Orleans, had that nineteen eighties New Wave cool manner that Tom admired, but lacked confidence to emulate. Phil’s southern accent sounded like music to Tom and only accentuated his appeal to both Tom and the opposite sex.
“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? Do you?”
“Phil, Bennie will love anything you bring her,” Brian said. “I’ve never seen a woman so easy to please.”
Brian spoke the truth. Bennie never asked for anything, and never pressed Phil to do things for her. She worked as a hostess at the Genesis Club, and still took care of her elderly mother at home. One of the good ones, Bennie deserved a gold necklace from her boyfriend.
“Okay, I’m ready. Why don’t we walk, we have plenty of time? Where are we going anyway, Ali who’s?”
“Ali Baba’s. An Indian place near the hotel,” said George.
“No,” Tom cut in. “Brian wanted to go to the German Restaurant.”
“Who mentioned Ali Baba’s anyway?” Phil said, as he 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 around, lifting her ponytail so Phil could fasten the necklace around her neck.
“I say Ali Baba, Phil. I say we go to Ali Baba for Indian food.”
She pronounced Phil as Pheel. Phil stifled a laugh, smiling instead, his angular face and blue eyes crinkling at Lek’s mangling of his name. Bennie pronounced it the same way.
“There,” he said, closing 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. She looked at them with a coy, coquettish look.
“Jesus, Lek. You look like a model. Don’t she look like a model, guys?” Her appearance was stunning.
The gold necklace contrasted against her bronze skin, her flawless, smooth, bronze skin, and the white of her blouse. The loose, open collar, her long legs and tight blue jeans, and the thrust of her hips made Tom swallow hard. God, even the pink zories on her feet worked to her advantage.
She was beautiful. Not seeing her in nearly two months had dimmed his memory of her until she was almost nothing but one more among the many people he had known overseas. A woman he had spent many pleasant hours making love with, and promises to. The lump returned, and again he swallowed hard. All thoughts of Amporn fled his mind. How could he have been so stupid to think he would not see Lek on this trip? Why had he gone with Amporn this afternoon? Could he be that weak?
“Tom?” Brian called again. “Tom?”
The noise of a passing jet gave Tom cover while he picked up the thread of conversation.
“Yeah. What?” He saw Lek watching him with a quizzical look on her face. He had forgotten all about going to eat, and didn’t feel hungry anyway. He’d go because Lek wanted to. He guessed he could eat a little. Where were they going to eat?
“Where do you want to eat?”
“What? Oh, um, the German Restaurant is okay, I guess.”
“Oh, no, Tom, we not go to German Restaurant.”
Phil 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. 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 town, the best in Pattaya according to Phil’s 5 Star Restaurant Guide.”
Brian laughed. “Phil, you’re too funny. I don’t care where we go; I’m game for anything but McDonald’s or KFC. What do you think?” Brian looked around, waiting for someone to make a decision.
“I don’t eat elephant,” Tom said.
All four of them looked at him. “What?”
He rolled his eyes, thinking of the fun he’d had with Amporn earlier. “Nothing. Bad joke. Let’s go.”
“Okay, Phil; here, you take off the necklace. I like it too, if it makes you like it on me. Does it look pretty?”
“Oh yeah, it does. I want you to keep it Lek; I’ll buy another one for my girlfriend.”
Lek protested and started to work the clasp loose.
“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 relented and the necklace stayed, looking beautiful around her neck, but held a dull luster compared to the look of happiness in her eyes.
Her face had retained the radiant look of happiness after seeing Tom at Ben’s. It became more pronounced when Phil gave her the necklace. She kept fingering it during dinner, sliding it around her neck, tugging it gently, now trying it outside her blouse, now putting it back inside. She acted like a little kid with a longed-for gift. Tom thought her the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. She fed him from her plate and leaned her head against his shoulder. Her hand clasped his when she was not feeding him. Tom took pleasure at the attention. She kept up a steady chatter about little things, domestic things concerning her apartment and roommate, her family back in the province. She laughed constantly, causing other patrons of the restaurant to smile. Tom watched Lek with amusement and a tenderness he had not yet felt for her. The waiter, himself smiling with Lek, returned again and again to their table to refill glasses, bring more food including, from the owner’s goodwill, a sampler of Ma Hor, the chef’s specialty, spoon-shaped slices of pineapple topped with sautéed pork, ginger and fresh herbs. Tom thought the dinner heavenly.
After dinner, they stood outside deciding where to go. The breeze wafting in from across the street brought the salty sea-scent with it along with a strong dose of coconut suntan oil. The friendly dinner and pleasant evening made the group want to sit back in beach chairs and put their feet up while drinking beer. George, Brian, and Phil, however, still wanted to head to the Apple Disco, while Tom and Lek wanted to go to her place.
George winked at Tom. “Geez, you two. Haven’t you had enough of each other today? You spent all afternoon together.’
Lek looked puzzled. “What you say, George?”
Tom cut her off and caressed her cheek. “Too much of Lek? Never. See you guys later tonight. Come, Lek. Let’s go.”
He pulled her by the hand and ushered her into a waiting taxi. “See you,” he called out. “Don’t wait up for me. If I don’t see you tonight, I’ll meet you in the lobby tomorrow at six.”
* * * * * * * * * * * *
They walked up Beach Road, George preoccupied and quiet – unusually so for such a gregarious person. Some minutes into their walk, he said to Brian and Phil “Man, as much as I like Lek – and I wish I had met her before Tom – I like Aida more. She’s definitely wife-material. Lek, as nice as she is, looks like a little brown fucking machine, but Aida has domestic bliss written all over her. I’d love to go home to Aida every night. If I could, I would never need another woman.”
“Yeah,” said Brian. “Some guys don’t know how good they have it.”
George nodded his head and said “I’ll say. He’s in a world of shit if Aida ever finds out about Lek. She’ll grab the nearest butterfly knife and cut off his happiness.” George flourished an imaginary butterfly knife as he imitated Aida’s voice. “You butterfly me, I cut off your happiness.”
Brian stopped to buy a bag of grasshoppers from a street vendor frying them in oil in a well-used, black wok. “Yeah, and she’ll burn his clothes too. I’ve seen her mad and, trust me, I like my happiness just the way it is.” The aroma of the grasshoppers hung over their heads and George breathed deep through his nose.
Phil, silent up to this point, spoke, his New Orleans drawl a striking contrast to Brian’s New England twang. “You know, guys, Tom and Aida aren’t married so what’s the harm in having some fun? Especially overseas.”
Brian was incredulous. “How can you say that? They’re going to get married. That should be enough to make Tom settle down.”
“Still, though, how many chances do you get to travel like this and do the things we get to do? I don’t know, I don’t see the harm in what he’s doing. It isn’t like he’s going to dump Aida to marry Lek. I mean, he still intends to marry, Aida, doesn’t he? Has he said otherwise?”
George popped a handful of grasshoppers into his mouth. His tongue licked at the leg of one dangling from the corner of his lip. “It depends on the time of day and which woman happens to be in his field of view,” he said with his mouth full.
“Eww, don’t talk with your mouth full of grasshoppers.” Phil looked disgusted; he couldn’t stand the thought of eating insects, fried or covered in chocolate. “Tom wouldn’t dream of cheating on Aida if they were back home and married and he had to travel someplace, like to a different state. He’d be the most faithful guy you ever saw. “
“Highly doubtful,” George said, still stuffing his mouth. “His track record speaks for itself.”
“No, it’s different back home; the rules aren’t the same as they are over here. People do funny stuff overseas; stuff they’d never dream of doing back in the states. It’s like a switch in the brain flips on and guys go crazy as soon as they get off the airlift in the Philippines or Thailand. They forget all about being the decent human beings they are back home. They get drunk all the time, screw a different bargirl every night, get the clap two or three times, go to work either still drunk or with a hangover.”
George laughed and said “You talking about the married guys?”
“Yeah, them too, with their wives, three kids and a dog. It’s insane, guys, but Tom is no better and no worse than anyone else. Look around. How many of these civilian guys you see in bars every night come here for the scenic beauty of Thailand or the Southeast Asia culture?”
“I come for the scenery. Female scenery.” George was on a roll. “Fried grasshoppers, cold beer, and naked chicks dancing on stage. All I need is a wad of one dollar bills, an appetite, and a box of condoms. A big box.”
“Yeah, well, whatever. Not many, if any at all. They come here to enjoy the beautiful young Thai women in the Land of Smiles. The book of decency doesn’t exist in the land of fantasies come true. The Orient is Fantasyland for soldiers and Sailors, always has been, always will be.”
Brian, silent so far, spoke up in defense of Tom. “Tom will settle down once they get married. He’s too soft-hearted. He falls in love with every woman he meets. I’m not kidding; he tells me what it would be like to be married to them.”
“I hope he settles down. But he’s no different than any other Sailor on liberty or single guy back home. He can have his fun now, plant his genes wherever he can, then go home, marry Aida, have a family, and spend the rest of his life reflecting on the memories of his youth, either regretting them or remembering them with fondness. That’s his business. It isn’t my place to judge him.”
George smirked. “Judging other people is fun. It deflects attention from your own sins.”