by Bridal Beer
Phuket, I had heard of it for the first time in the news, the island sucked away by the tsunami. It is a year now, and the billboard on the way from the airport declared "Phuket is back!" the scrolling letters hiding tragedy, so it could have been a bankruptcy, a renovation, or a town on vacation. The bar is alive, the waitresses buzz among the tables, and the woman is singing a familiar song. This is not karoke, for noone is listening to her voice, it is atmosphere. The men, naked backs tanned into potato skin, are concentrating on their Thai companions, each faithful to one woman for the weekend. New love (sold at a post-tsunami discount), a touch of bare shoulder, a mysterious comment made, and she laughs, bending her back. Behind me, a circle of American women click pictures, the kind you will see on Match.com, garlands and purple drinks.
"Welcome to the Hotel California
It's a lovely place..."
The singer sways, and she smiles at me- I am the only person watching. I raise a fork of watermelon, and wave hello. She raises her voice, and it is nasal now. I spit the seeds of the watermelon, arranging them in a tidy heap. Perhaps the local hears our Hollywood accent as nasal syrup. Just like our ears hear their words like lyrics of a song, a sparse garland of words strung into the same melody.
The American woman erupts again in laughter, and for a second I feel like I am eating alone in a Thai restaurant in Second Avenue, people-watching. "Twenty bhat, mees. No-no. Noth gud." One of them has leant forward, a mouth gaping in imitation, eyes carved as hollows in the shadow of the candle. "Feethy bhat. OK?" And now she taps the buttons of an imaginary calculator, like sellers negotiating with tourists in the street bazaar along Patang Beach. The waitress is smiling at them, perhaps thinking, "Bitch."
The song is now rankling my ear, and the singer-woman's eyes seem to hold opinions. Unlike the rest of them. See that girl wearing a strappy blouse, she points her blue shoes in the air, like an achievement and the tourist (a foreigner, like me), he nods like one would to a child.
"Never a room left in Hotel California-"
I wonder what the singer-woman thinks of prostitution, does Iraq mean anything to her, and abortion rights. Who taught her that song, Hotel California, what she imagines Cal to be. And her life's difference if she were born close to where I was- would she be a Democrat or a Republican, a dog-person or a cat-person, would she hate red licorice.
My plate of fruit is now almost empty, ready to be carried away. The last slice of pineapple is crisp and cracks open between my teeth, its juice squirting into my mouth. A waitress appears like a genie. I conclude that I am drunk. I will need to watch out for dogs that lie like heaps on the streets here. An accidental kick and the bite will give me enough to think about.
I push away the plate, leaving the etiquette class of the law firm behind, and stretch my hands. This is a real vacation, no table manners. Fuck it. Besides, it's not rude unless the recipient reads it as such. And who knows, pushing plates may be seen by this waitress as an act of thoughtfulness: no need to risk irritating a client who wants to linger. Such signals make daily living more efficient, Sarah Moscowitz should have known. Everything isn't personal, with an intention to demean. When we got married, I would call her my ex-girlfriend, joking. A prenup seemed as irrelevant as fine print in an airplane ticket, only for the paranoid. Sarah, my ex-wife, ex-fiance, ex-girlfriend- in one word, past. Anyway, as the German associate at the firm likes to say, a woman is like a train-you miss one, take the next.
I wish I was drunk when I married Sarah, though I like to think I was. At least it would have been comical, a Friends episode lived, a back-slapping story about me and my wife. Now it is an expense, a storehouse of complex sentiment. And I had brought her flowers on our first date, called her later in the evening, remembered monthly anniversaries. Broken every rule and instinct, just to get her to like me.
"Anything else, Sir?" The waitress pins the bill on my table with her finger. "Four hundred baht." She whispers close to my ear, and her voice seems to be made of the same moist sea breeze, slipping through the blades of palm trees. I can see she wants me to vanish, creaking the chair, and leaving a tip, and space for another customer, another tip. Fair enough, and thank god for our billable hours. Any job's a joke without billables: clients will self-maximize, like me here in this place named Irish Bar where I sit, stretching my legs, drinking the warm March air. "No-I'm good," I say and cover my face with a straw hat, the do-not-disturb sign. Life should be like this, legs up and slow. Subtlety is sin (An excellent tagline, and Sarah would say she wished I were a creative professional. I said her wish has been realized-I have graduated from law school, and passed the New York bar exam.)
An alley cat with a half tail walks into the bar. I trace its path, and see tattooed ankles, Hawaiian slippers, strappy shoes, some hairy bare feet.
"Actually, can you please get me a glass of Coke with lime?" She will leave me alone if I order something, it is an implicit compromise.
"No Coke, Pepsi only, Sir. You like? Sir?" A wrinkle darts across her forehead, she is impatient.
I shrug, and the waitress turns away. "I like I like!" I shout after her, to ensure I have communicated. The American girls laugh again, in spurts, a rumor spreads like an infection. I do not wish to flirt, be their cabana boy for the evening. Too much effort with no rewards. It is not as if I can walk away with one, I don't see that happening, not when girls move in groups. Besides, the hat resting on my face is comfortable, and I am drunk, floating in that thin line between wakefulness and sleep, when the mind refuses to register external objects. The focus is on nothing, and to that extent, it is meditation... The experience of isness as Sarah would have said, with her Ph.D. thesis in the philosophy of Japanese haiku, and a cat called Basho. Basho, apparently, has not adjusted to a home without me, so she took it to a pet-therapist last month. Basho is evil, I used to say, and now I am paying his bills. Atleast he misses me.
A woman passes by, her white shorts pressed close to my face. I turn away but she pats my face, and I stiffen my neck and receive, like a dog. An intelligent press, and I remember the hands kneading my back in the Thai massage in the hotel. Her other arm encircles the waist of a man. Her bag is a fake Louis Vitton, resting on her tight frilly
hips. White man, Asian prostitute, I think, hoping I am not shouting it aloud. Sarah would have said: really-old man (possibly married), really-young young woman. And a fight flies in my mind- "Your thought processes suck, Josh. And what's this white towel doing in our apartment, I don't believe your story, that you picked it up by mistake at the JCC gym."
"Sarah," I say loudly, and the waitress stands with a requesting face. The glass of Pepsi stands empty, and she has noticed.
"And why couldn't you attend my niece's bat mitzvah, Josh, it was a Saturday evening, and you claimed you have work, you needed to speed up on a deal that has to close in a week. But when I called, I heard high-pitched female laughter."
"Sarah, would low-pitched male laughter have convinced you I was with other lawyers? Give me a break with your fake feminism and go bake me some challah bread."
The bar is quiet, and conversations are exposed. Someone pulls my collar, it is the singer-woman. She has melted into the crowd, so no one has noticed it is her. No one was listening to her song anyway. She plays with my straw hat with the ease of a long-time girlfriend.
"You sing?" She asks, snapping her fingers with a dancing face. Some skin has chipped along her jaw, revealing a darker layer beneath. Painted, with one of the skin-lightening lotions I saw in the mall. (The air is moist, I should have had the foresight to look for an air-conditioned bar.) I wonder what Sarah would have said about these fairness creams, jerking her square shoulder like she always did when reacting to a stimulus. Anything could be a stimulus, an innocent remark, a tanning salon, a white towel. "You will sing for me?" The singer-woman repeats, her palms patting my chest in a folk beat. Anyone would think she knew me.
My silence pushes her eyebrows by an inch, but they quickly recover, the error corrected. She is once again caught by the sun, an angry woman, trapped in a transparent blouse.
"So, you live around here-close to Patong Beach?" I ask in a voice that does not wish to be stretched further.
She nods, the same smile.
"Do you know Kohn Larn- Coral Island?" I ask.
Her eyes squint, perhaps at the sun which is lingering still on her, and she nods in a different slant. "Me busy-busy." She says, shaking her head.
* * *
It is difficult to admit when you don't like the sound of someone's name, it makes you feel ungenerous, uncouth. Her name was Solada, which means "listener." She had learnt the Hotel California song from another Thai singer, who left for a better job at a discotheque in Bangkok's red-light area, Patpong.
At midnight, we walked along the shore of Coral Island, and I thought of that cliché I saw on Sarah's Match profile, long walks on beaches. The Andaman Sea was quiet, the wet shadow of a desert. Except for Solada singing songs about the yellow moon, and the tide that ate her younger sister. "You will love me?" She had asked, knocking my eyebrow with an orchid, and continued singing, as if it didn't matter.
And then I did the cowardly thing. I ran away, emptying my wallet at her ankles in a pool of paper. I hope she remembers me as a good tipper.
About the author:
Srishti is a lawyer working in New Delhi. She is in her 20s (and always will be.) She has lived in New York City which is still a source of memories, friends and creative inspiration. She is working on a novel and blogs at bridalbeer.blogspot.com.