Happy For a Moment
On my first full day at work in Singapore, I was anxious to make new friends with all my co-workers. They were a varied lot, from New Zealand to India, with a few scattered Brits and Americans. They were all really nice people and very supportive with lots of invitations to drinks and dinner. All except one, an American named Gabe who was stand-offish at best and rude at worst. He had this way of looking at you, like a shark who knew one day you would end up in his stomach. Normally, I would just ignore such a person but he was heavily involved with customers I had been assigned to. I decided to find a way to work with him. I tried lunch invitations and drinks after work. He accepted all of these but seemed a disinterested participant and usually smirked his way through the night in that sharky manner of his. I eventually stopped trying.
We later traveled together to visit some big customers in Bangkok. Engaged in sales calls, we made a good team and eventually we had a few successes. But after work in Bangkok, he always disappeared, never available for dinners. Later on, one of my co-workers told me that Gabe had a Thai girlfriend that he was really serious about. I suspected he had fallen for one of Bangkok’s notorious bar girls. I laughed a bit, but not too much, especially after my first few weeks in Asia when I practically lived in the go-go bars.
Gabe and I eventually settle into an amicable, arms-length business relationship. Yet, it was with some surprise a few weeks later I receive an invitation to Gabe’s wedding. He was to marry a woman from Bangkok. At the wedding, she seemed to be from a Thai-Chinese family and by the looks of their clothes and the number of Mercedes in the parking lot; he was marrying in to a hi-so family of some wealth. A month after his wedding he transfers from our Singapore office to Bangkok. I lose contact with Gabe but I hear reports he is living in marital as well as financial bliss in Bangkok. That is the last I see of Gabe and many months later, I leave Asia and return to America to live in San Francisco.
A few months later in America, I attend a company sponsored conference in my city with many of my customers attending. While walking around the showroom floor, someone taps my shoulder. It’s Gabe and he gives me a big smile and a hug. We exchange some small talk and agree to meet at a nearby restaurant on Columbus Avenue later in the evening. There he tells me he is now a director of operations for a company his wife’s family owns in Bangkok. They live in a small house in a large family compound in the heart of the city. Life is good as everything is taken care of; everyone has great cars and lots of servants catering to every whim.
“It sounds like heaven”, I say.
He pauses and then stammers a bit, so unlike the confident prick he used to be. “Well, it was at first, but lately …”
He tells me that after his marriage he rarely saw his wife. She was always busy with family and friends while he worked long hours in the office. On weekends, they hung out with her family at various expensive venues around the city. He always had to dress and act properly at all times, as some of his family members seem to have misgivings about his wife marrying a farang. But he accepts his fate at first, as he really does love his wife. Lately work is less stressful and he is home early most nights. Yet his wife is still out, leading the life of a Bangkok hi-so. One night alone, he accepts the invitation from an old friend for a night out to a place he had never been before called Nana Plaza. After drinking way too much in three or four go-go bars, they both end up in the short-time hotel with a bar girl. His girl was funny and sexy and just out for a good time. It was nice to again be his old, uninhibited self, just having fun and laughing at silly jokes.
He knew this was dangerous activity. His enemies in the family would surely use any deviation from perfect behavior to break up his marriage. Yet as hazardous as Nana Plaza seemed, he knew that no hi-so Thai would be seen within a mile of the place, unlike the high-end Thai bars and discos some members of his family frequented. So, on nights when he got home early and his wife wasn’t there, he would jump into his car and make his way to a place where he could really relax and be himself. He was always careful to cover his trail; each night choosing a different bar and a different girl. With this plan, he thought, he could protect himself from curious bar flies and lecherous bar girls. And then he meets Tip.
When he first sees the beautiful Tip, she is dancing on stage and gives him the sweetest smile he has never seen from his wife. She seems shy when they first talk. She is curious about him and he answers in lies so sweet. But when he sees her warm smile he feels a tug at his heart that he has never felt before. Now they are holding hands and telling funny stories to each other, making them laugh like school children. Gabe realizes this is so unlike him but he cannot help himself. What is it about this little woman that breaks down his protective walls that he has spent years building?
They go to a short time hotel where she becomes very serious. Showering together, she is carefully watching Gabe’s eyes the entire time. She gets out first and slowly wraps a towel around herself and sits on the bed. Gabe finishes quickly and does the same. He knows the bargirl routine but instead pauses, embraces her and then starts to kiss her. She responds in kind and sometime later they have sex so slowly, they get the two-hour knock on the door just as they are finishing. They dress hurriedly and leave the hotel. He says he has to go now as he has to work in the morning. She gives him her mobile number and he puts it in his second phone. He says he will call her soon and she says she will be with him anytime he wants. He gives her double the money she requested. She tries to give it back but he insists. She takes it and gives him a deep wai before she turns away.
The next day at work, Gabe cannot think of anything else except Tip and what she is doing at that very moment. The weekend arrives and he goes through the motions of a devoted husband with his Thai family, while his mind is constantly thinking of Tip. He wants to find a quiet place to call her but resists the urge. She is just a whore, he tells himself. Why is he risking his tremendous life for her? This calms him until Wednesday the following week, when he returns home from work and finds his wife’s note on the table saying she will be home late. Now the urge to call her is overwhelming. So he pulls out his second phone and calls. She doesn’t answer and despair starts to creep into his soul. A few minutes later his phone rings and he hears Tip’s sweet voice say, “I have to talk to you.”
Her words sound slightly desperate which excites Gabe even more. After he arrives and barfines her, he says there is something she wants to show him. They get into a taxi and drive to a part of Bangkok he had never been to before. The neighborhood is dark and depressing. They get out of the taxi and walk up three flights of stairs. Tip uses her key to open the drab door and tells Gabe this where she lives. Inside, there is small studio apartment with an adjacent small bathroom. She says she lives here with another bargirl from another bar. She then shows him a display case where there is a large, gilded book. She opens it and tells him this is her family’s Koran. This is all she has left of her family, as her parents died in a bus accident two years ago when she was 17. And then her brother became hooked on heroin and dies of AIDS. She is now alone in the world with no one to take care of her. As a Muslim, she is discriminated against in Thai society and can’t find any job except in the bar. But she hates it and dreams about the day when she can stop. But now she worries what it is doing to her soul. She starts to cry softly. She looks up at Gabe and pleads, “I am not a bad girl. I love you Gabe and I want to marry you.”
Gabe is in shock. As he holds a crying Tip in his arms, he wonders how this has happened. He had heard the stories of men falling in love with bargirls and had always laughed. Now he was one of them. But he keeps holding on to her and later they lay down on her bed. They make love with a passion Gabe had never experienced before. He decides their love is strong enough to bear the truth. He tells Tip he is married to a rich Thai woman. They cannot marry but he can take care of her as his mia noi, something his family could live with. They could be together two or three times a week, he says. He could buy her a house. It would almost be like being married. They could be happy together.
Tip looks up at him in shock. No, she says. This is against God. It is one thing to do wrong things to stay alive, it is quite another to do so to have a good life. What kind of life could they have like that? She pushes Gabe away. He says he can save her from a life of fxxxing men she doesn’t know. How is that worse? She replies, “How are you different? When you love someone, you give them everything. You are no different from all the other men; you just have more money. Please go”, she asks.
Gabe tries to hold her but she pushes him back. He pulls out a few thousand baht notes and tries to hand it her, but she lets them fall to the floor. They stare at each other for several minutes, until Gabe opens the door and leaves.
After he gets to the street, he finds a taxi with a sleeping driver in it. He wakes him and before Gabe gets in the back seat, he looks up at Tip’s building and sees a light in her window. He screams as loud as he can, “Tip, you are my only love. Please stay with me!”
He waits a minute with the door open but the light go out. He waits a minute more. There is complete silence in the very early morning street. He gets in the taxi and closes the door. As the taxi drives off, Gabe looks out of the rear window hoping to catch a glimpse of Tip or any other sign that would make him stop the taxi. He sees nothing.
We are now back in San Francisco and he is sitting in front of me, drink drained long ago and with his head down. How long ago was that I ask? He says six months, and not a word from her. Have you tried to call her? Yes, but she must have switched phones and switched bars. He has not been able to find her, so he gave up a month ago. Now he hangs at ex-pat bars and occasionally takes a girl, but it doesn’t make it better. He still goes out with his wife a couple nights a week, but he thinks she has a couple of giks. Otherwise, it’s going very well with work with lots of dinners and lots of travel, he says.
“Why don’t you come home, Gabe?” I say. “It can’t be much of a life now”.
“Because I vowed long ago”, he said, “that I would be different and live life in an exotic place. I can’t stop now; I just can’t.”
We didn’t say much after that and we ended our evening with a promise to meet again someday.
Thinking of Gabe, I remembered Oscar Wilde’s “We are each our own devil, and we make this world our hell”. But later I found this quotation from the now obscure humorist Don Marquis. I decided it would be the way I would remember Gabe.
"It is better to be happy for a moment and be burned up with beauty than to live a long time and be bored all the while."