Beach Road turned into Walking Street at the south end of Pattaya. Tom and his friends left behind the pleasant ocean view and fresh air of the broad, seaside promenade with its towering palm trees and cabanas and entered the nightclub and business district. He immediately noticed the startling change of smells as the fragrant sea breeze gave way to an aromatic mingling of cooking spices, fresh fish, cheap perfume, diesel fumes, and stale beer. City officials enforced regulations on cleanliness and disposal of sewage, but behind the movie-set façade of buildings along Walking Street lay a living, breathing, and excreting population propping up a lucrative tourist trade; their human needs often outweighed the good intentions of local government. The mixture of smells and city sights gave Pattaya, despite signs in English, and the ever-present KFCs, McDonald’s, and 7-11 convenience stores, an exotic, oriental feel Tom did not experience elsewhere. Thailand represented as broad a departure from western culture and its influences as any land he had visited, and he absorbed as much as possible in the limited time available during the squadron’s detachments.
Another few minutes of walking brought the Sailors to the Whiskey A Go Go in the center of the nightclub district. The heavy drumbeat of the band assaulted their eardrums well before they reached the entrance, but the full force of the music did not hit them until they opened the door and walked inside. Like a sonic boom, the sound filled the void outside the door, temporarily vaporizing the fine hairs of the inner ear and rendering each of the Sailors momentarily deaf. The screaming guitars and pounding drumbeat, and the kaleidoscope of lights and strobes raised pulse levels and sent a thrill up and down Tom’s spine. The electric atmosphere stirred some primeval human emotion and forced the surge of adrenaline into the bloodstream. The successive bursts of energy found outlet in the loud, excited voices, bodies bobbing to the rhythm, and smiles stretched so taut that the face ached. Gyrating bodies swarmed the dance floor under a pall of cigarette smoke so thick it obscured the band from view. People yelled to be heard, and were answered with a repeated chorus of “What?” yelled back with equal intensity. Tom turned to the touch of a barmaid tapping his shoulder. She wanted his drink order. He had to stifle a smile: the flickering lights caricatured the girl’s face and movements into stop-motion animation.
“I say what you want to drink?”
“Tiger beer, please.”
“What you say?”
He raised his voice and repeated his order, straining his vocal cords.
The girl’s bikini covered little but the most essential modesty.
The guys found an empty table, thick with spilled beer and cigarette butts, and nabbed a chair from another table so everyone had a seat. Several barmaids swarmed the table, with one yelling in Tom’s ear that Lek was in the back and that she would let her know he was there. Another cleaned the table and took the rest of their order. Tiger beer for George and Brian, rum and coke for the rest with the exception of Hoi, who did not drink; he would have a plain coke. They ribbed him over his abstinence and voted him the designated drunk-sitter – he would make sure they all got back to the hotel, unless they ended up elsewhere.
They eyed the dance floor and occasionally caught themselves bobbing to the music. Normal speech was impossible; they could only look at each other and smile and raise their eyebrows. Some enlisted aircrewmen had a table near the bar; the two groups acknowledged each other but made no move to sit together. There were many friendships among the two groups, and they mingled now and then, but aircrews’ odd flight hours and crew rest requirements made partying together virtually impossible.
The barmaid returned with the drinks and passed them around. George raised his glass in a toast, “Cheers, fellas,” then tilted his head back and guzzled the bottle. Lek walked up, wet her finger, and poked it in George’s 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 Tom’s lap laughing at George with the others, then 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 Tom’s neck and pressed her cheek to his. George leaned his chair back on two legs and grinned at Lek. She grinned back, then laughed again as George 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 an arm out and corralled a passing barmaid. “Hey baby, you want to dance?” He jumped up, swept the giggling girl into his arms, and carried her to the dance floor.
Tom kissed Lek and asked her if she wanted to dance. “No, my sweetheart. We go after I finish my work and walk someplace?”
“Sure thing, Lek. Let me know when you are ready and we’ll leave. Do you want to go somewhere else? Another club? Are you hungry?”
“No, Tom. 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 him and tightened her arms around his waist. “Oh, tee-rak, I like to being in your arms. I like to stay here always.”
“I like having your arms around me, Lek. I like holding you, and the feel of your touch.” He nuzzled her neck through her hair and whispered in her ear. “I like making love to you too, sweetheart; the way you move makes my heart sing.”
“Oh, Tommy, you only thinking to making love. You drink your beer. I go finishing my work.”
“Okay, Lek. What work are you doing tonight?”
“Serving in party room. They will finish soon and then I can leave. Only a couple of hours to go and I come back.”
Tom ordered another beer and settled back in his seat. He didn’t feel much like dancing and, apparently, neither did Hoi or Glenn. “Hey, why aren’t you guys on the dance floor? Where did Phil and Brian go?”
“They’re dancing,” George said as he returned from the dance floor and plopped into his seat.
“Together?” Tom raised an eyebrow. “I always wondered about those two.”
“They’re close, but not that close. Look at Phil; he’s such a stud dancing with two girls. He reminds me of me.”
Sure enough, Phil had two barmaids by the hand, dancing with both, while Brian danced nearby with another girl.
“Hey, who’s up for a foamy later? Let’s go to Sabailand – that’s the best place for a massage.”
George was pumped from the excitement and wanted to make a night of it, but no one else wanted to go.
“Man, you guys are pussies. We don’t get to Thailand often, fellas; you have to make the most of it while you’re here. C’mon, let’s go. Who’s with me?”
Glenn, laid back and quiet, the introspective one from New England, yawned, looked tired in spite of the deafening music and crowd noise. A passing barmaid rubbed her hand across his face as she walked to another table; she smiled and winked at him. 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 and started to drink my beer. I’m going to have another then head back to the hotel. What about you, Hoi?”
“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?”
He smiled at the look on the others’ faces: except for George and Brian, fried grasshoppers were not for everybody.
“C’mon guys. You know you like them; they taste like chicken. Just hold the body, grab the head, and give it a twist. The head comes off and brings the guts with it. You just eat the shell. Tastes so good!”
Tom grimaced. “Now you’ve made me think of balut.” He had tried fried grasshoppers – a large bag – on one of his first trips to Thailand. They had gone down quite well, but came up so painfully the next morning at the airfield. He spent the rest of the day nursing a pounding headache and a sour stomach. The mere thought of grasshoppers made him queasy.
“I’m going out with Lek later, George. Maybe Phil and Brian will go with you, but I doubt it; they look like they’re having too much fun.”
“Well, I’m going alone then. Maybe the aircrew guys will go. See you tomorrow morning. Someone wake me up in time to get a shower. Later.”
They didn’t see George again that night. Glenn stuck it out for two more beers before leaving with Hoi. Phil and Brian returned to the table between dances, but were away most of the night. Tom eventually gave the table up to a group of airmen from Australia and moved to the bar where he waited for Lek. He had another beer and made small talk with barmaids as they waited to pick up orders at the bar.
Lek soon finished her duties and and joined him at the bar, chatting with other barmaids while waiting for him to finish his beer. He observed her as she spoke, noticed her manner, how she leaned against him and smiled at the girls, how they seemed to concentrate on her words, her gestures. It was a few minutes before he realized that she drew confidence and stature from him. 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 Tom that he could have this kind of effect on a woman, and he found he liked the feeling of power. However, it took a few minutes of self-satisfaction before awareness thumped him between the eyes and he understood the reality of what occurred between the girls. He wasn’t the cause of this, but what he represented – opportunity and freedom.
The sobering thought awoke in him a feeling of sadness that she would never find the opportunity and freedom that she sought with him. Without consciously thinking it, the knowledge passed through his mind that he would leave in a few days and never see Lek again. There would be tears and hand-holding, tight hugs, and tender kisses as they parted for the last time. With pleading eyes, she would beg him not to forget her, to write her often. He would echo her words and make the promises she wanted to hear.
He knew that, for a while after he had gone, she would cling to the diminishing hope that he would live up to his promises, that his first letter would arrive soon. But she would gradually lose hope and stop looking up in expectation of a letter. She would ignore the looks of pity from her friends, who would say they knew all along that he would not write to her, that he hadn’t cared for her, that he only wanted her in bed, that they had not liked him. He had heard similar stories from Lek and her friends, and they made him uncomfortable.
Tom downed the beer then stood and took Lek’s hand. They 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 his waist and she rested her head against his shoulder. “Oh, you always got bony shoulders.”
He squeezed Lek’s shoulder and kissed her. They strolled along Walking Street window-shopping, and stopped for a bag of hot peanuts from a familiar vendor. They chatted with him for a few minutes before moving on. The streets had grown more crowded in the past few hours, but people were considerate and made room for strolling couples to pass. Every few feet it seemed, Lek had to stop and look through sale items. She admired a gaudy bracelet so Tom bought it for her.
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.”
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. The reflected lights of sailboats and freighters riding at anchor rippled on the moonlit water.
The two sat for a while on the promenade seawall, dangling their legs over one side then turning around and digging their bare feet into the warm sand on the other. They leaned against each other, sometimes talking, more often silent. Only a few days remained of Tom’s detachment to Thailand. They avoided speaking of it. This would be his last visit for a long time. Unless he found a way to stay in the squadron when his current tour was up, he would likely never see Lek again.
Lek’s grasp on his 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?”
He lifted her chin, and her face, contorted in anguish, tears rolling down her brown cheeks, softened his heart. “Oh, Tommy, I know I never see you again when you leave soon, and it make me so sad. I want you not to go, to stay here with me. Oh, Tommy, please don’t leave me. Don’t leave me, my sweetheart. I love you, Tommy, don’t leave me.”
Her quavering voice echoed the sorrow and fear in her heart, sorrow at his leaving, fear for her future. “Tommy, all the time you are here I stay only with you, I see no one else, I promise you. Even at my work when other guys want to pay me to be with them I do not go with them. Even if my family in my village need money I do not go with other guys. I stay and wait for you, Tommy. Please don’t leave me, Tommy.”
Tom’s own anguish over his feelings for Lek, and his discomfort with the situation, was palpable; he could only listen to her pitiful cries and hold her in his arms. He stroked her head and stared at the ground, unsure what to say or how to act. He was experiencing what he had witnessed other Sailors experience. They carelessly raised the hopes for marriage of a young girl from an impoverished family, and then dashed those hopes when the fun ended, when the time came to leave the amusement park, get on the airplane and fly away, leaving the girl heartbroken and her hopes crushed.
“But Lek, you always knew I would leave, that we could only be friends. Oh, sweetheart, I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to hurt you; I thought you understood.”
Lek shook her head and looked at Tom, her eyes full of tears. “I know, Tommy, I know. It’s okay. Someday I find a nice man like you who will take me to America. We go now? I want to walk some more and go home.”
“Of course, Lek. Come.”
He put his arm around her and she moved against him, clutching his arm, grasping a thin shred of hope. They walked slowly along the beach front, talking little. He knew she hurt, that she felt empty inside, but he was powerless to do anything to help her.
“Come to the hotel, Lek. We’ll rest there for a bit, then get something to eat.”
“Okay, Tommy.” They left the promenade and walked to the hotel. As they entered the lobby, the night manager rushed from the front desk to meet him.
“Sir. Oh sir. You have a visitor.”
“A visitor? Where?”
“They are waiting in your room sir.”
“Who is it?”
“Oh, I do not know, sir. I am sorry to say, but I do not know. The desk clerk gave the key to the visitor who say they will wait in your room.”
“It must be one of the other guys. Thanks.”
He and Lek walked on, past the front desk where the good-looking girl gave him an odd look, past the pool, and up to his room. Lek stood on her tiptoes and kissed him as he fumbled for the key.
“Oh, Tommy.” She gave him a thin smile as he inserted the key and opened the door.
She walked in ahead of him and stopped. Amporn stared at them.
“What this?” Lek asked. “Who are you? What you do here?” she asked in Thai.
Tom didn’t understand the language, but he understood the situation. Dizziness came over him as his pulse raced and blood rushed from his head. He suddenly became aware of the weight of the medallion around his neck. He stretched and turned his head to arrange the medallion more comfortably but it only made it worse as his neck muscles tightened. The surreal scene between Lek and Amporn played out before him like a nightmare.
Amporn’s look bore defiance. “What you say me? Who are you? Why are you with him? He is my boyfriend.”
She glared at Tom. “Why you with her? Who is she? Where does she work? How you know her?”
Tom’s head began to spin and beads of sweat speckled his forehead. A dozen lies flitted through his mind, one after another, excuses to get around the churning in the pit of his stomach, a feeling that he had been found out, that his sneaking around with two women had caught up with him in the most humiliating manner. The odd look from the good-looking desk clerk made sense now. She had found him out.
“She’s a friend of mine, someone I’ve known for a long time. I see her when I come to Thailand. You should leave, Amporn. Go home. You should not have come here.”
Amporn’s look of defiance turned to one of hurt and bewilderment. Tom looked at the floor; he couldn’t meet her eyes. She looked from Tom to Lek and back. Her chin trembled and she began to cry. Her voice broke as she spoke.
“Why you do this to me? Why you do this to us, to her and me? What we do to make you this way? Why you think you come to Thailand and be bad with girls here? We do not hurt you. We want to make you happy even if you do not stay here long. We are poor from small villages. You are rich from America. What you think, we are stupid? Because we do not look like you? Because we do not speak like you? If we are American, we are better? I leaving. I glad all Americans not like you. I think I like you when I first see you, and I think you like me, but I am wrong. Thai girls are not stupid. You are stupid. You are a liar. You say you do not have a girlfriend anywhere. You lie. I sorry for you. Thai do not lie. Only American Sailor lie.”
She spat the last words with a vehemence that surprised Tom. Amporn wiped her eyes with the back of her wrist, teardrops falling onto the nightstand beside her. She turned to pick up her handbag and left the room, leaving the door open. Tom watched her walk away, dreading what he knew Lek was going to say.
When Amporn had gone, when her forlorn figure faded from sight, when the click of her heels on the hard cement became a permanent echo etched forever in his memory, Lek turned to Tom. She had stood quietly by, unmoving, while Amporn spoke. Tom, without being in physical contact with her, felt Lek pull away from him, felt her turn cold to him, could almost feel her skin crawl as revulsion at his behavior crept over her. She did not cry or tear up, there was no tremor in her voice, no smile on her lips, no light of happiness in her eyes. He knew he was dead to her, nothing now but a stranger. She might cry after the shock wore off, and would wonder what had happened, how she had been fooled for so long. She would wonder how many other girls Tom had slept with. She would feel humiliation when she faced her friends at the bar again. She would forever feel betrayed when she remembered Tom, for she would remember him; no one forgets a broken heart.
“I sorry for you, Tom. I tell you I love you and all the time you are with me you are also with another girl. Why, Tom? Why I not enough for you? Why you are not happy that I only spend all my time with you when you come to Thailand? For two years I tell my family about you, how nice you are, how handsome you are. All the girls in my village they are jealous because I have you, and they see your picture that you give to me, and they think I am so lucky. They ask to me when I getting married to the American Sailor and going to Hawaii. All the girls in Whiskey A Go Go think you are a nice guy and I am lucky too. They say I am going to be happy with you.
But you break my heart, Tom. I love you but you do not love me. I do not break your heart because you do not love me, but you break my heart. I love you, but you break my heart. I’m sorry I know you. I know now that you have girlfriend in Philippines, and I sorry for her. I hope she find out about you so you don’t hurt her too.”
Tom kept his head down when he mumbled, “I’m sorry, Lek.”
He knew he would cry. He did not want Lek to see him. He wanted to tell her how sorry he was. He wanted to hold her and tell her he wanted only her. But he knew he did not, he would only do again what he had done so many times before. Numbness filled his heart, and his head ached not with a headache that aspirin would fix, but with an ache that pounded without pain, as if he was pounding inside his own head with a mallet. He wanted Lek to leave so he could lie down and let the numbness subside and the ache go away. But the ache would never go away. It would return every time he remembered Lek, and he would burn with shame each time.
He stood rooted to the floor, unwilling to move until Lek had gone. The last words he heard from Lek stung.
“I sorry for you.”
Lek walked away without a glance back. She had no desire for one last look. A shriveling feeling came over Tom, and the hollow in his stomach made him weak. All the excitement of the night, all the adrenaline surges that had kept him pumped and on edge subsided the way a sugar high subsides and he crashed. His knees wobbled and he trembled as though he had just escaped a life-threatening danger. He watched her walk away, torn between the need to explain himself and the knowledge that it did not matter what he said, he was dirt in Lek’s eyes now.
His last few days in Thailand were grim. His spirits low, he had avoided the risk of running into Lek and Amporn by spending his few remaining nights at the hotel bar. Now, the detachment at an end, Tom packed his flightbag and placed it by the door. He jammed his wallet into his back pocket and made one last check of the room for anything he may have missed. He checked the desk drawer one more time for the letter he had written to Aida. Maybe he had mailed it after all; he couldn’t remember. He left a tip for the maid, picked up his room key and walked out. He closed the door behind him. The click of the latch echoed around the pool area, each repeat of the sound jabbing him like a stab in the chest, a sorry reminder of the confrontation between he, Amporn, and Lek. He crossed the pool area and headed for the lobby, dreading the sight of the good-looking front desk clerk.