Midnight Dinner in Pattaya
Roger looked at the blond man at the next table. The blond man was smugly watching the young Thai woman who shared his table as she poured him a glass of water. She moved a bit of fish off the serving tray and onto his plate, with an obviously forced smile. Her whole demeanor was one of faux jollity. She reminded Roger of the nurses in the cancer center, women using laughter to make a dirty, difficult job tolerable.
Roger returned his attention to his menu. He was looking for the cheapest item. His wife and daughter were obviously awed by the choices of exotic foods, and he didn’t grudge them their enthusiasm. He just knew that he would not eat more than a few bites of whatever he ordered, so why waste the money.
Since she finished her last round of chemotherapy his daughter Regina had been eating enough for two children her age. The chemicals had already swollen the flesh on her face, given her what the doctors called Cushingoid features, but Roger was glad to see the weight return to what had been his daughter’s dangerously thin frame.
His wife Sylvia was heavy, too. When they got the diagnosis of leukemia, and the 50/50 chance of survival, Sylvia planted herself next to her daughter’s bed and didn’t leave that spot, except to use the bathroom or bathe, for six months. She ate hospital food and what could be had from the vending machines. Emotional eating. She had put on 50 pounds in 6 months.
Their presence in Thailand they owed to the Santa Fe Playhouse. The week before they got the diagnosis Regina had been cast as one of the Royal Children in a community theatre production of “The King and I.” She had just time enough to be fitted for her beautiful costume, made of real silk the costume lady had said, before she had to check into the cancer center. All her friends were in the show, and even after the vomiting and joint pain and headaches and starvation, even after she was forced to face the possibility of her own death, missing out on “The King and I” was the hardest part of it all for Regina.
So Roger had early on promised her that when it was all over he would take the family on a trip to Bangkok. It would be better than being in a little community theatre production in Santa Fe, he said, it would be the real thing. Real palaces, real temples, maybe a chance to see real royalty.
And through the whole ordeal, through the losing of the hair, the losing of half her body weight, and the losing of her little friends (who were terrified of this new, bald, ghostly Regina and so one by one stopped climbing into the gloves, gowns and masks to visit her sterile hospital room), through all of the myriad pains of cancer Regina held onto that dream of seeing Bangkok. That was the light at the end of Regina’s tunnel.
As soon as the doctors told him they had done their best, but their best just wasn’t good enough, Roger made the reservations.
Bangkok did not disappoint. Temples, palaces, even a glimpse of royalty, in the form of a princess cutting a ribbon on TV. Terrible heat, terrible smog, terrible crowds that made it difficult for his fat, frail daughter to get around, but she enjoyed it all. In a week they saw everything in Bangkok that Regina had wanted to see, and while it all made her blissfully happy Roger could see signs of the returning illness in his daughter.
He knew it was time to go home and face what was coming, but before he took them back to Santa Fe he wanted them all to see the ocean. He wanted them to stand in the surf together, hand in hand, and enjoy one last moment of being a family. That had been Roger’s dream during his daughter’s chemo.
Somebody told him Pattaya had the nearest ocean, so there he took them. They had a day and a night before they would fly back to Santa Fe. In only a week they had not yet recovered from their jet lag, and there was no longer any point in trying, and so it was that they were sitting in a restaurant at midnight.
While his wife and child discussed what they would eat, Roger watched the blond man and his Thai friend. The blond man was obviously on holiday and enjoying himself a lot. The Thai friend was obviously at work. Roger wondered what she did when she was on holiday. He doubted she spent any of her free time serving foreign men.
He compared the young Thai woman to his wife. The wife he had watched bear their child, raise their child, and coax their child back from the brink of death. The wife who had shared his bed since they were teenagers, who had never refused him anything in that bed. The wife who knew every one of his secrets, every one of his joys, every one of his fears. This woman who was the only other person on earth who would remember his child the way he did, who would mourn with him, who would be his strength again in the terrible days to come.
Roger was surprised by the waiter putting a plate in front of him. He had no idea what he had ordered. He took one last look at the blond man and his Thai friend. At that table a couple who would be together for one night, and who were, Roger supposed, happy. At his table a couple who would be together forever, and who were fighting unhappiness.
Roger would not trade tables for anything. He could not imagine being so lonely that he would have to pay somebody to pretend to be his friend. He felt a deep pity for the blond man.
After their meal Roger took his family across the sand, sand just like they had in Santa Fe. He took them out of the glow of the restaurant and down to the water’s edge, where they stepped out of their shoes. He took his daughter and wife by their hands and together they walked into the dark, still sea, under the uncountable stars, and the three of them stood there, together forever, ankle deep in eternity.