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A Sense of Obligation




I met Gaew my third night in Thailand, in a little six-stool bar beer in an unnamed alleyway that was razed twenty years ago to make way for a bank. We played Connect Four for a while, she was charming and lovely, I asked her back to my bungalow and we spent the night together. A couple of days later I moved into her place and we lived together very happily for the next three months.

She lived in The Barracks, a block-long cinder block and tin shed behind a gas station. The Barracks was divided into three-room apartments and almost all of the apartments housed between three and five bar girls each. Gaew claimed she was 21 but her ID card said she was 28. She had been on the game, I figured, for about 8 years and was successful enough to have her own apartment.

She took me to the old home place in Nakhon Nayokh a couple of times and I met her “mother” and her “sister.” Her “mother“ was at least 70 and obviously not her mother; this woman had gone through menopause when Nixon was in office. Gaew’s “sister” was eight and obviously Gaew’s daughter. Her name was Namfon.

Namfon spoke no English and I spoke very little polite Thai at that time, so we were cordial but not chummy. Then one morning I came out of the shack in the middle of a desiccated paddy that they called home, and Namfon was squatting on the ground playing a game with a pile of pebbles. The game was just like jacks, if you can’t afford a one-dollar set of jacks. I squatted next to her and reached for the rocks, she gave them to me and taught me how to play with gestures and grins.

It was fun, and we were finally connecting, until I had two realizations at the same moment: when I was growing up, the only child of a single parent, I used to try to be fun and engaging with the men my Mom brought home. I didn’t do it because I liked these men; I did it because I knew somehow that it was important to my Mom that these men like me. That’s why Namfon was teaching me to play rocks. She was trying to be good company to help out her Mom. The second thing I realized was that all over Thailand bar girls were trying to be good fun with johns through games of Connect Four and dominoes, and suddenly I was uncomfortable playing rocks with eight-year-old Namfon.

Those first three months in The Barracks were golden days. I gave Gaew two thousand baht a week and paid for rent and groceries. She cooked and cleaned and took me around the island, to those places a farang and a bar girl could go. Gaew was a lot of fun, and I liked her a lot. She drank a little too much, but she was a happy drunk, and she seemed to actually enjoy sex. I’ve worked in the show business for decades and I think I can usually spot when somebody’s acting; I thought then and think now that Gaew was not acting in bed during those first three months we were together.

I enjoyed those three months with Gaew quite a bit.

So after three months in the Barracks and the bars of Kata with Gaew I went back to New York, but I had promised to send Gaew 10,000 baht a month, about 400 dollars at the time, so she could quit the bars and go to hairdressing school. One of those promises you make in bed when you’re sweaty and exhausted and you feel a sense of obligation toward this woman who’s just done you a big favor. I didn’t really expect she would quit the business, but I was making a ridiculous amount of money in the Reagan years and 400 dollars was what I spent on cocaine in four days.

Once I got home I went back to work but I had already decided to move to Phuket permanently. I began studying the dharma at the Thai temple in White Plains and I took out dozens of books about Thailand from the library. Gaew sent me a letter every week, and when I received the first one I took it to the Thai consulate, which was on a floor somewhere up in the sixties of Building One of the World Trade Center, and asked if they knew a Thai student who would like to make a little money translating letters for me.

The very attractive, very well dressed, very high-born young man at the desk told me to just leave the letter and somebody in the office would translate it for me for free. “Mai pen rai,” he said.

So I came back a couple of days later and this same attractive young man shouts over his shoulder to the cubicles behind him, “Farang rak gullee khlab laew!”

The farang who loves a whore has returned. I had been in the bars for three months; I knew that much Thai at least.

So I went from there to a bookstore and purchased the famous Mary Haas Thai-English dictionary. From then on I translated my own letters, and that’s how Gaew taught me to read and write in Thai. I never saw the attractive young man at the World Trade Center again, but he was the first thing I thought of on September 11, 2001.

I sent Gaew 400 bucks a month for a year, and in that year she sent me 52 very sweet letters. All pretty much the same, some with photographs, one with a photo of her graduating from hairdressing school. I became a pretty devout Buddhist and made some good friends at the temple. I learned a lot about Thai history from library books. A year later I went back to Phuket intending to stay forever.

I did not tell Gaew I was coming back. Thought I’d just surprise her.

I arrived at The Barracks at about noon on a hot, hot day in January, after dragging two duffle bags that held everything I owned through four airports, twelve time zones and the Phuket Town bus station. The woman who answered the door was not Gaew. I had never seen this woman before.

She didn’t like the looks of me. “Who you?”

“I’m Steve.”

Big eyes. Open mouth. “Sah-teep? Fum ‘merica?”

“Yeah. Say, is Gaew around?”

“Um… she hospital. Mai sabai. I go get her now.”

“Hospital? What’s wrong? I’ll go with you.”

“No! No, you wait here. I go get. If farang go hospital want more money.”

So this woman tore off on her motorcycle and I schlepped my bags into Gaew’s apartment. Just like I remembered it. Same poster of Phoebe Cates on the cinder block wall. A few of my T-shirts, forgotten in the laundry a year before, hung with Gaew’s clothes. I felt pretty good about things.

Then the unknown woman returned with Gaew on the back of her bike. Gaew looked like she really needed to go to a hospital. Wearing go-to-the-bar clothes, her hair a mess, her eyes bloodshot. She hugged me and she was reeking alcohol from every pore.

“Teeeeeee-rak! You come back! Why you no tell me when you come?”

So we showered and we screwed and we both passed out.

I slept for a spell, then sat outside and smoked with Jem from next door. Jem was a pool boy at a hotel, his wife Jeep was an ex-bargirl who left the business out of love for Jem. She was hugely pregnant the first time I was there; she was hugely pregnant this time too, with no sign of last year’s baby. Jem liked me because I let him hide his Playboy magazines in my place. Jeep hated his fondness for pornography and once chased him outside buck naked shouting, “I have the same things those women have, look! Look at me!”

Gaew eventually woke up and invited the neighborhood over for a Welcome Home Steve party. I have a hyper-acidic stomach and if I drink enough alcohol to get drunk I throw up, so Gaew got a friend to bring me some Cambodian weed and all things considered it was a pretty good party. Gaew drank herself into a stupor by midnight and collapsed fully clothed face down on the bed. She was not the happy drunk I remembered from the year before. Everybody else went home and I was alone in the living room. It was noon in New York and I was not going to be able to sleep. There was no such thing as satellite TV or internet in Kata in 1990, so I sat there in silence and smoked weed and considered stuff, until…

BANG!

I had no idea what made the noise but I was on my feet and looking for a weapon. Nothing in the living room but stuffed animals, dirty glasses and my bamboo bong.

BANG!

This time I figured out that somebody was hitting the front door really hard with something solid. And like an idiot, I opened the door.

In the gravel parking lot in front of the apartment was a farang guy on a little Dream 100 step-through. He was in flip-flops, ratty shorts, a T-shirt, and he had his right arm cocked to send another big rock at my door. I put on my best New Yawk voice and yelled, “Wha’ da fuck do YOU want?”

He looked me in the eyes, or at least one eye. His other eye was swollen shut and purple. His nose was bent to the left at a weird angle and dribbling blood; everything below his nose was bloody: his face, his shirt, his pants, his motorbike.

All the anger left me. Somebody had kicked this poor guy’s ass in the last five minutes. It was about five minutes after two, and the bars closed at two. I guess he didn’t want to leave and the staff was anxious to shut the doors and go home. He was a portrait in emotional and physical pain and as soon as I saw his pain he was my brother.

“Who are you?” I asked him.

“I am Hans. You are de boyfriend?”

“Well, yeah, I guess so.”

“Tell Gaew I luff her. Will you tell her? Tell her Hans luffs her too mutts.”

Then Jem came out of his door. He saw bloody Hans and picked up the one-gallon paint can full of beach sand we used as an ashtray when we smoked on the porch. He swung it over his head and charged the parking lot. Hans dropped his rock and sped away.

Jem came back onto the porch dangling the paint can like it was a basket of daisies. I swear he was trying to whistle nonchalantly. “Who was that?” I asked him.

“Who?”

“That guy you just tried to kill with the paint can.”

Jem looked back out to the parking lot like he couldn’t figure out what I was talking about. “I do’ know him. He just crazy guy. You go inside now, Sah-teep.”

I spent the rest of the night wandering between the bedroom and the living room. In the bedroom I’d look down at Gaew on the bed. I knew that if the rocks banging on the front door hadn’t woken her, nothing would. I imagined a lot of very rude things to do to her. But I did nothing.

I don’t remember the conversation in the morning but the upshot was that Gaew and I lived together at The Barracks for another three months. In that time I paid the rent, I bought the groceries, and if I took her to the bars I bought her drinks. Sometimes I didn’t take her to the bars, I went alone and spent the night somewhere else with somebody else. Gaew never complained. We never went back to Nakhon Nayokh and I swear I never gave her a dime. She stayed with me and was my cook, maid, laundress and fuck toy for three months without receiving any money from me, and without once asking for any.

Turned out that a bargirl with a certificate from hairdressing school can’t just walk into a salon and apply for a job. Society will always consider her a bargirl and unless she has the money to open her own shop she’s never going to work cutting hair. I was in no mood to buy her a hairdressing salon, so she spent her days washing my socks, cooking my food, and waiting for me to decide whether I’d fuck her or somebody else today.

I got a job working in the local English language radio station and one day when Gaew was out I packed my things and moved to a new place downtown, close to the station. Two days later Gaew showed up outside my door with all her belongings. I never had a clue how she found me, but she found me. She owned more stuffed animals than she owned anything else, and since my new place was tiny, only meant for one person, it was like living in a fuzzy zoo.

She was my cook, my maid, my laundress and my fuck toy for another three months without receiving a dime from me. I started doing things that I thought would make her leave. All the rude things I imagined but did not do the night Hans came to visit I did now. The first time I ever came on a woman’s face was because I thought it would make her leave. It made her puke, but it didn’t make her leave.

I did things to Gaew that I didn’t really want to do, just because I thought it would make her leave, and I made sure she was awake and sober when I did them. I looked her in the eyes while I did them. Throughout everything she was sweetly compliant, flirty and willing even when it hurt, and apparently only interested in pleasing me. Consistently charming and lovely. For those three months she was like Namfon with the rocks.

Finally I left for a visa run and before I left I put all her stuff outside on the sidewalk. I bought a new padlock for the door and when I came back from Penang there was no sign of her. I thought I was rid of her.

About a month later I was sitting in another little anonymous bar beer in Kata, watching TV, my elbows on the bar, when something hit me hard on the back of the head. Hard enough to bounce my face off the bar. I shouted a profanity and looked over my shoulder and there was Gaew, holding an empty 20-ounce beer bottle. She was not looking at me, she was looking at the bottle. I know just what she was thinking.

“Huh. How ‘bout that? In the movies the bottle always breaks.”

And that was it. Because I’m Jewish my default conflict mode is always going to be passive aggression, so I called her a giant lizard and got on my motorcycle and left. Never saw her again. Years later I heard a girl from The Barracks say that Gaew had married a German, went to live there for a few years but it didn’t work out and now she was back in the bars, this time as Mammasan. No idea if that’s true or not. But she’d make a good Mammasan. She had a good head on her shoulders.

I still have no idea why she stayed with me so adamantly for those final six months. She knew she was never getting any more money from me. In those six months I did not make any effort to make sex enjoyable for her. So I can only imagine she did it out of some sense of obligation stemming from the money I sent her during the year I was away.

Today I have no hard feelings toward Gaew. She taught me how to read and write Thai. She taught me how to play Gop Dam Gop Daeng. She let me do things to her in bed I have never done to any other woman, before or since. She gave me somebody to come back to, a goal to motivate myself during the year I prepared to move to Thailand.

She was hugely important in my life and I realize now that I’m glad she forced herself on me those last six months. I wish now I’d bought her that hairdressing salon.

I guess I feel some sort of obligation.