Last night I visited my friend Lek at her bar in Kata. Lek is Thammasat educated with a background in advertising. She used to produce TV commercials in Bangkok but something went wrong. Now she spends her days drinking up the profits and staring at the TV over the bar, dreaming about the old days. She pays no attention to the shows, but when the commercials come on she freezes in place, no matter what she’s doing, and stares at the screen until the show resumes. Then she’ll resume mixing your drink.
I had taken Lek photographs of my wife Mem’s birthday party. Lek looked them over, then put them down on the bar and we fell to staring out at the soi dogs picking through the trash cans on the street. That’s Kata Beach in the low season. The bar’s only other customers were the woman who sells noodles from a three-wheeler parked out front, who was seated under the ceiling fan reading a comic book, and Shaky Derek and his wife of the week.
Shaky Derek is a Brit about my age, although I flatter myself that I look ten years younger than he does. We call him Shaky Derek to distinguish him from Fat Derek, although anybody who drinks Mekhong every day will soon earn the handle “Shaky.” He’s a merchant seaman who spends half the year on a container ship and the other half in a cinder block cube in Kata Noi that’s half the size of a shipping container and has just as many windows.
He’s pure farang kee gai, a “chicken shit farang.” I like Shaky Derek most times, in part because he’s part of the Old Guard, a member of a tribe rapidly vanishing on Phuket: The Sex Tourists. Someday I’m going to apply for a grant from the Ford Foundation to study them before they become extinct, forced out of their traditional hunting grounds by waves of new predators: the Japanese Honeymooners, the Aryan Backpackers, and the American Retirees.
Shaky Derrek picked up the photos of Mem’s party and was thumbing through them, having put down the Clive Cussler paperback he’s been reading since I’ve known him. He was two thirds of the way through the novel, and one drink into his second pint of Mekhong for the day. His companion was picking her teeth with a plastic drinking straw, staring into the ashtray full of Krong Thip butts in front of her.
“‘oo’s this, then, ‘ey?” Said Shaky Derek.
“That’s Heidi,” I said. “She’s a customer relations officer at Le Meridien. Speaks seven languages.”
“Wot’s a farang bird doin’ at yer party, then?”
I wasn’t quite sure what he meant, but it finally dawned on me that “farang birds” aren’t very common on Shaky Derek’s Phuket, which is probably one reason he lives there.
“She’s my wife’s best friend, and I don’t mind her company, either. Look, there were lots of farang women there.”
I flipped through the book and showed him a group shot, about fifteen people standing around the barbecue watching the Australian steaks cook.
“Wot?” he said. “I dinnow there were that many white birds on The Rock!”
“There’re more than 5,000 expats living on Phuket, Derek. Odds are, at least five are women. These two teach at the international school. This one owns a book store; this one lives on a yacht with her husband in Chalong Bay. I don’t know who this one is. She came with Aussie Jamie.”
But Shaky Derek wasn’t listening, he was staring at the one Thai woman in the photo.
“’Ere, now,” he said, “who’s this bint, then?” He had his big dirty fingernail pressed against the image of Daeng, a beautiful girl who has unusually long legs and unusually large breasts for a woman of her race. Daeng is my friend Marty’s girlfriend, and since about the age of 13 she has suffered the curse of being the sexiest woman in the room wherever she goes. She has learned to overcome this disability and lead an active, almost normal, life.
“That’s Daeng. She teaches aerobics at the Golden Body Gym in Phuket Town.”
“Bloody ‘ell! In a gym! Whatta country. Next they’ll ‘ave ‘em workin’ at the airport.”
“No, Derek, she really teaches aerobics. The girl has a degree in political science. She spent two years studying meditation at an ashram in India and a year in France studying the ballet.”
“Crikey! Wot a waste.” Derek tsk-tsked between chapped lips. “She could make a lot more kickin’ up her legs at hotel ceilings than kickin’ ‘em up at Jane Fonda on the video. Wot’s the name o’ that gym again, ey?”
“Nevermind. Just gimme back the photos.” I was getting pretty pissed off. Derek’s company I tolerate because I’ve known him forever and way back when he once loaned me money. But Marty and Daeng are real friends.
“Owroit, no need ta get huffy. Oi aint looked at ‘em all yet.” He flipped on through the book, and then stopped at a picture of seven Thai men and women, their faces thrown into renaissance light by the 29 candles on the cake.
“Wot’s all thet mob, then?”
“Just friends, Shaky. Friends of mine, friends of Mem’s. Nobody’s a hooker. There were no hookers there, alright? Just friends and neighbors. Some people from work. That’s all.”
Then a look went over Derek’s puffy, sunburned face. A look of pain, almost. He asked me, in a whiney little voice, “ere, why weren’t oi invited, then?”
What could I say? I’ve known the guy for years, he was one of the first people I ever met on The Rock. He never once badgered me to repay the money he loaned me, and it took me a while.
I looked at him slouched on his stool, the one he occupies every afternoon, so that they leave the Clive Cussler novel in front of it to mark his place. I looked at him with his blurry tattoos and his ragged flip-flops and the infected mosquito bites on his calves that never seem to heal. With his Krong Thip wheeze and his Mekhong jitters and his shopworn bar girl.
What I wanted to say to him was this:
“No way, man. Get real. In the first place, Mem never would have allowed it. It’s her name on the lease, she pays half the rent, and it was her birthday. In the second place, there were important people there, people who can get me work. People who know people in Immigration and Labor, even one guy who works at the Post Office. I’ve been trying for years to find a friend at the Post Office, and one look at you with your sweaty Singha Beer T-shirt and your twitchy hands and I’d be back in line with all the other peasants at the EMS window. There were Mazdas and Audis in my driveway that night; the only rented Honda Dream there belonged to me.”
But I didn’t say that, of course. He loaned me money when I needed it. What I said was, “I told Lek about it; she was supposed to invite you. She didn’t tell you?”
“Well, she may ‘ave. Oi was on the piss las’ week. I moit have forgot.”
“Yeah, I’m sure that’s it,” I said, and I grabbed the photo album and beat a retreat. One thing about the rainy season on Phuket, the perpetually impending storms are always a good excuse to leave a sticky social situation. “Gotta beat the rain, Shaky. See ya.”
And off I went, back home to Mem, to a world where people carry business cards and work in brightly lit offices with fax machines and computers. A world where people pay taxes and have driving licenses and own their own cars. I left Derek and Lek and Derek’s mia chow behind on Kata Beach, in a world where there’s nothing to do every day but get drunk and fall down, where all the women are for sale and all the men are suckers.