He wants me to take him to Thailand. It’s a subject he brings up a lot. He brought it up tonight after the awkward silence that followed trying to order dinner in the Thai Flavors Restaurant in Medford, Oregon.
Twenty years ago he could have ordered a meal in Thai with his head underwater. When he first came back to America he made a point of taking old friends out for Thai dinners just so he could show off his fluency. But tonight he croaked out what he thought was dinner and drinks, and the waitress, a Thai woman probably in her 40’s, rolled her eyes, heaved a sigh, and said, in English, “What did you say?”
Thus the awkward silence.
After the waitress took the order, in English, and spun from the table without a word or a smile, he asked me, “You remember that little place in Krabi? The place with the Christmas lights outside on the fence. What was that waitress’ name? Tukata? Or was it Jeep?”
“Krabi was Tukata,” I said. “The place with the huge Bo tree growing up though the middle of the dance floor and out through a hole in the ceiling, in that little town just over the Phang-Nga bridge, that was Jeep.”
“Oh, yeah…” He was smiling now. “Jeep. God, she was amazing. I gave her a 500 baht tip. Meant to go back the next day, but instead I proposed to Mem.”
“You should have gone back to the Bo tree.”
We both spent a few seconds thinking about what life would have been like if he’d gone back to see Jeep instead of proposing to Mem.
“Mai pen rai,” he said. His eyes had been looking at something thousands of miles away, but after he said that he brought his attention back inside the restaurant. There were some plastic bamboo trees, and a Buddha shrine over the cash register. A wooden elephant on a shelf, a couple of royal portraits way up near the ceiling. On the longest wall a scene of fishermen in conical hats toiling on a river that wound under high cliffs. It was pieced out in mother of pearl on lacquered wood; Vietnamese, not Thai, but again, mai pen rai.
The place had orange vinyl booths and scuffed linoleum. There were fliers for the Medford Kiwanis club on a little table by the door, and cold rain sliding down all the windows. There was a coat tree in a corner, and it looked like a woolen lollipop with all the winter coats on its hooks. Aside from the royal portraits, the Thai Flavors Restaurant was about the most un-Thai place on earth.
“Take me back, man, please!” he whined. “I’m begging you. Let’s go to Krabi. I’ll bet there are still little joints like that out in the boonies, and still girls like Tukata and Jeep working in them. I’ll find them for you. Just leave the talking to me. Let’s go, man. Why not?”
He can’t order gaeng kiow waan in Medford, Oregon, but he thinks he can get me laid in Krabi.
“I can’t afford it, man. I’m broke.”
“You’re always broke.”
The food came, and with it a knife and fork wrapped up in a paper napkin. I asked the waitress for a soup spoon and she looked at me like I’d asked her to go out in the parking lot and rotate the tires on my car. She served two other tables their food before she brought me a spoon.
The Thai food in Medford, Oregon, bears little resemblance to the Thai food that I knew in Thailand. Of course, I ate at the same five restaurants for the whole seven years I lived there. Maybe this is what Thai food tastes like wherever the mean little waitress comes from. The wait for my spoon had allowed the food to cool to room temperature, which at least made it a little more familiar.
I ate the bland curry, and drank the sickeningly sweet iced tea. As I ate, I considered his dream of going back to Thailand. I’ve considered his dream a lot, over the past two decades. I’ve considered his dreams more than I’ve considered my own. I’ve listened to him argue and bargain and beg for two decades and I understand all the reasons why he dreams of going back.
I wish I could take him. I really do. But here’s the thing. Even if I had the money for a trip to Thailand, he is still a relatively young man, while I am not.
He has never stopped on his way out his front door, and stood there for a solid minute checking all of his pockets over and over looking for his keys. He has never lost half a day of work because he left his computer glasses at home and had to drive back to get them. He has never paid attention to a Viagra ad.
He has never had a tooth pulled or a colonoscopy. He’s not yet had his heart attack, burst appendix, or 24-needle biopsy of his prostate.
He’s never come home from work one day to find his wife and children gone, the house stripped of everything, every piece of furniture, every rug, lamp, drapery, pot and pan, even the light bulbs taken from the ceiling fixtures, so that when the sun went down his footsteps on bare floors rang in pitch darkness.
Those kinds of experiences make a man weary. They make a man cautious. They make a timid.
He promised himself a long, long time ago that one day he would go back to Thailand. And now he wants me to take him. He’s been begging me for years to take him on a tour of the bays and bars and brothels he remembers.
But I don’t have to keep his promises. For good or ill, I’m not him. Not anymore.