Every Word Matters
The first time I arrived in Thailand as an adult I fell in with a group of taxi drivers who were drinking whiskey and singing along to a guitar in the coffee shop of the old Don Muang airport. At some point in the evening I asked them how to say “thank you” in Thai, and as a joke they taught me “khop khun khaaa.” Now “khaaa” pronounced with a long vowel in a falling tone at the end of a sentence is how a Thai woman expresses respect. A man puts the word “khrap,” pronounced with a short vowel in a middle tone, in that position for that purpose. But for the next week I went around the Kingdom saying “kop khun khaaaa” and people would smile and say, “khrap!” I thought that “khrap” was how you said “you’re welcome” and I was very proud of the linguistic progress I was making.
On my fourth night on Phuket, in a tiny little bar beer on Kata Beach, I met a woman named Gaew, pronounced like “Gay-w” with a long vowel in a falling tone, which means “Crystal” in Thai. It can also mean glass, and when not a name is most often heard to refer to a drinking glass. We spent the night together and it was marvelous. In the morning she went away and I whiled away the daylight doing the usual tourist things, but that evening I went back to her little bar, one of a dozen similar bars in a row, hoping to rekindle the romance of the night before. Since I was eager and new to the scene I arrived at the bar quite early, at least by bar standards. Gaew had not yet arrived.
There was one woman setting up the bar for the evening, and she asked me what I wanted, giving me a big smile and stroking the hairs on my arm. I said, “I’m looking for a woman.” She brightened and flashed a big smile. “I’m looking for Gow,” I said. I had only heard Gaew’s name spoken once, when we met. After that she had called me “Teerak” and I had called her “Sweetie,” which has always been my stand-by affectionate nickname for lovers. I could not remember her name exactly, but I took a shot with “Gow.” The woman at the bar stopped stroking my arm and gave me a quizzical look. “Gow.” she said. “Yes,” I said, “I’m looking for a woman. Gow.”
Gao, pronounced “Gow” with a long vowel in a low tone, means “old.” The woman at the bar shrugged, wandered about three bars down the lane, and came back with a woman who would have been described on the internet, if such had existed then, as a MILF. She may have been about forty, was not dressed for hooking, but seemed very pleased to be sought out. I was trying to back out of this predicament gracefully when I felt a tap on my shoulder and there was Gaew, all dolled up and ready for work. She was happy as hell that custom was waiting for her already.
“Oh, you want Gaew!” said the first woman. Then she rattled off a sentence in Thai that ended with “gow” and all three women fell into hysterics. Not yet being familiar with the Thai custom of greeting awkward social moments with laughter, I thought they were laughing at me, and I became embarrassed and very angry. Still, I took Gaew back to my bungalow.
But my shame had not left me, and I was sullen. She noted my mood and asked me what was wrong. I told her that I had not liked being laughed at.
I was sitting on the bed naked but for a towel around my hips. Gaew had a similar towel tied around her chest. She fell to her knees in front of me and put her hands together at her forehead.
“You ek-kew me!” she wailed.
“You ek-kew me! Ek-kew me!”
In my short time as a student of the Thai language I had already noted that Thai people had difficulty pronouncing an “l” at the end of a word. What I thought I heard her say was, “you kill me.”
I thought, “Christ, this woman is suicidal. I’ve hooked up with a madwoman!” I told her, “NO! I will NOT kill you!”
She heard, “NO! I will NOT excuse you!”
She clutched at me and begged me to ek-kew her. I retreated to a corner and tried to put on my pants, determined to send her away. She pursued and her towel came off. There was a naked woman in my room, crying, begging me to kill her. What the hell kind of Asian hari-kari ritual had I triggered? What happens if you don’t kill a bar girl who begs for it? Do her relatives pursue you in a vendetta to reclaim the family honor? Do the cops put you in jail? I had smoked a lot of pot that day, spent the whole day smoking the best weed of my life, in fact. I may have been a little paranoid.
I pulled her to the bed and held her. “It’s okay,” I crooned, as if to a baby, “Everything is going to be okay. You don’t need me to kill you. You’ll be alright.” Gaew, finding herself naked in a man’s arms, immediately fell back on habit, and took control of the situation the best way she knew how. It was fantastic. After all that emotion, after all that shouting and crying and tension, the sex was amazing. It was a huge, cathartic explosion of frustration and lust.
Afterward we rested in each other’s arms, sprawled on a bare mattress. The sheets had somehow come loose and were bunched in a corner. We were both slippery with sweat and completely exhausted.
After that night Gaew and I would live together for three months. I would return to the US, send her 400 dollars each month for a year, return to Phuket to find that (of course) she had been living with a German man while I was gone. But I still shared my house with her for another six months before I could get the woman to leave. But on that night, only our second night together, I turned to her with sincere gratitude flooding my heart. I looked in her eyes and I said, “Khop khun khaaaaaaaa.”
She laughed at me, a deep belly laugh, and just like that we were back at square one.