Gone in a Moment
I spent last evening at the Pension Grilparzer listening to Melvin talk about his time in the Army. I knew every word of it was a lie, but on Phuket a man who will talk about something other than the woman he paid for sex last night is a rare man, and thus worth a listen.
I don’t know what Melvin’s real name is. He’s used several different names in the time I’ve known him, and I’m certain none of them are the name he was born with. I call him Melvin because he looks like a Melvin: lumpy, jowly, balding, stoop shouldered and splay footed. A real Melvin.
The first time I met Melvin he told me he owned a catering company that supplied the craft service tables backstage at rock concerts. He had all kinds of interesting stories about which rock stars preferred what kind of cold meat sandwiches. The one about Bryan Adams wanting fresh fennel in York was a scream.
But a year later Melvin showed up on the island again, and this time he had a different name and he was living off a million-dollar settlement he got after being injured on an amusement park roller coaster. He didn’t remember me, because Phuket is full of fat middle-aged guys with skinny legs and yellow teeth, so I don’t stand out. I blend right in. Melvin assumed we’d never met and he shared with me a completely different history than he’d had the year before.
Now it’s a tradition. Every summer Melvin spends a month on Phuket and every year he’s a different guy. The third year he was a private detective and this year he’s retired military.
I guess I’m a different guy every time he meets me, too. I have never used any name except my own, but since he isn’t interested in anybody but himself I make no impression on him and he doesn’t remember me from year to year. I look like a tourist, I never speak Thai in the bars, and when people ask me how long I’ve been here I always say, “not long,” so they assume I’m a tourist.
Melvin has met me for the first time four times.
I’ve come to realize that Thailand, and probably all of Asia, teems with guys like Melvin, guys who want desperately to be somebody other than themselves. The bars offer a perfect venue for being somebody else. Everybody’s a stranger, and everybody’s just killing time until a girl cuts them out of the herd, so nobody asks too many questions. Everybody is hiding something, so everybody lives on the surfaces of things. The girls, of course, without ever knowing their names or occupations, still know exactly who these men are.
Last night I half watched an old episode of “Blackadder” on the TV over the bar and half listened to Melvin describe how he saved a Turkish soldier from a burning airplane in Korea. Something about it reminded me of a movie I’d seen, but I couldn’t remember where or when, and even if I could remember the movie I’d never call Melvin a liar in public, because I feel sorry for him. His annual month on Phuket is almost over and The Moment is breathing down his neck.
The Moment must come for all of these guys, The Moment they have to be themselves again. Maybe it comes when they have to present a passport, with their real name on it, to border control on the way home. Maybe it comes when the stewardess on the plane asks, “What will you have to drink, Mr. Real Name?” and without thinking they reply.
Maybe it comes when the taxi rolls up to their front door, or when they step inside and see the pile of month-old mail addressed to Real Name. Maybe some of them can hold off The Moment until they get back to the office and the phone rings and they have to answer, “Good Morning, this is Real Name.”
Whenever it comes, The Moment must come, as certain and as unwelcome as death. The Moment when they have to resume being the guy they hate. The guy who never lived up to his potential. The guy with the unsatisfactory career and the failed relationships. The guy who never gets invited when everybody else in the office goes for pizza on Fridays. The guy with the stamp collection or model airplanes: hobbies that can be practiced at home alone. The guy with the freezer full of frozen meals for one. It’s romantic to eat alone in a dirty restaurant on a back alley in Beijing; eating alone in Pasadena is pathetic.
What is it like, knowing The Moment is coming? Does Melvin sit in dread through the whole flight home, knowing that The Moment is barreling toward him at 600 miles per hour? How much time is invested daydreaming of the other guy’s life, coming up with all the convincing little details that make the other guy’s life so interesting? All that hard work and imagination, gone forever without any record that it ever existed. A work of art, really, destroyed in an instant.
On one side of The Moment a hero, on the other side, a Melvin.
But an hour of luke-warm respect from some bored sex tourists in a crappy Phuket bar can, apparently, make up for eleven months of being whoever Melvin really is. So who am I to call him out? I’m satisfied being me, the fat guy with bad teeth and a worse job. I’ve never felt the need to be anybody else, and I’ve never faced The Moment.
Maybe I’m missing something. Perhaps next year, when we meet again for the first time, I’ll introduce myself to Melvin as “Steve the rock-n-roll caterer,” and tell him the story of Bryan Adams and the York fennel. Just to see his face.