The X Factor
In the hot season of 1990 I was working two jobs: I taught English to the staff of the Phuket Yacht Club from nine to five and I was the only English-speaking disc jockey on the island’s single FM radio station from eight to midnight. I wasn’t getting enough sleep but I was making great money and having the time of my life.
I was living with a bar girl named Gaew. I had met Gaew my third night on the island and we’d been together ever since, mostly because I was too nice a guy to kick her out. She was a heavy drinker and an angry drunk, a sloppy housekeeper, a prolific liar and a consistently losing gambler. Her only redeeming qualities were a pixie’s face and a docile compliance combined with a technical brilliance in bed, but even these laudable attributes had lost their luster for me because she frequently flew on autopilot. I’m an insecure guy and I need to know that a woman is thinking about me when we’re having sex. I need to know that she’s not just going through the motions while she plots revenge on the girl who took her money at cards that afternoon. Gaew had been on the job so long that her mind drifted a lot.
It was amazing what she could do without even thinking about it.
But I like to be the center of attention, so after about nine months together I gave Gaew a bus ticket to go back home to Nakhon Nayok for a month-long visit, hoping she’d get the idea and find a new place to live when she returned to Phuket. She jumped at the chance to hug her daughter and her Mom and show off her gold bracelets, and after I kissed her goodbye at the bus station I set about touring the bars and bringing home a different woman every night. I was very happy in that month. My house was cleaner, too.
I could eat breakfast and lunch for free at the Yacht Club, and it was during my employment there that I developed an addiction to crème brulee from which I still suffer. During the month that Gaew went upcountry I’d try dinner at various restaurants and bars, and on one occasion I discovered a little open-air bar in Kata Beach called The Druid Bar. I was drawn first by the sign hung over the sidewalk: Asterix and Obelix each with a naked cherubic Asian maiden on his lap.
The Druid Bar was on a relatively quiet side street where the three-wheeled vending carts would park at the curb and sell cheap food: noodles, soups, fried rice, barbecued chicken and squid. I could eat dinner for something like fifteen baht, about sixty cents US at the time. I could sit under a ceiling fan in the first row of tables, not on the sidewalk but adjacent to it and raised a few feet, and watch the action both on the street and in the bar while I ate. The vending carts were a favorite source of dinner for unattached bar girls, who were allowed to sit and eat at the tables on the sidewalk as long as they didn’t fight. I very much enjoyed watching them come and go, learning their greetings and their farewells, watching their shifting alliances and animosities. If they sat at the tables just below mine I could try to eavesdrop; a bar girl will always assume a farang cannot understand Thai. A lot of what they spoke was Lao, anyway.
The Druid Bar was on the way from the Yacht Club to the radio station, so it became my regular spot to kill the hours between my jobs, and I got to know the staff pretty well.
One night a new waitress named Noi showed up. I remember she came from the Northeast and she had two kids, but that’s all I can remember of her back-story. We can safely assume that it included the abusive husband, the ailing parents, the drought-stricken rice paddies. Noi was older than most girls just starting out; I think she was probably in her mid-twenties. She’d had some education and was quite bright. But she was terrified of the farang customers in the bar. She’d bring drinks to the table and literally cower when somebody handed her money.
Noi was not particularly attractive at first glance. She had a smoking hot body, but a man starts to take that for granted in Asia. She had the usual Northeastern features that on first encounter struck me as coarse. Since I was a regular she learned my name and became more comfortable with me and we would sit and talk on slow nights. “I p’actit Eng’itch wissoo, okay?” I had three hours to kill, and I got into the habit of spending at least part of those hours talking to Noi. Sometimes I would stop in for a drink after I got off work at midnight and all the other waitresses would have been bought out, so Noi would end up serving the whole room. She was a great waitress. She was quick on her feet and never got an order wrong.
Then one evening I walked in and there was Noi sitting at the bar in this red sheath slit up one thigh almost to her hip bone. She had her hair piled up on top of her head and woven with flowers; she wore too much makeup. She looked like Suzie Wong’s older sister would look leaning on a piano in the VIP lounge of the Omaha airport.
She was shaking with fear. She was fidgeting and chewing her lip and when she saw me come in she looked at me like Lois Lane looks at Superman. I sat next to her and she told me that she was not making enough money waiting tables. She needed to move her career to the next level if she wanted to support her family back in Nakhon Wherever.
She reached out a hand and placed it on my leg and we looked at each other and there was this moment.
I knew she’d never had her hand on a customer’s leg before.
I knew that if I paid her bar fine and took her to bed, so her first time didn’t have to be with a stranger, she’d be grateful to me for the rest of her life.
But she wasn’t beautiful, you see. The beaches were full of younger, prettier girls than Noi. I was only thirty-two years old, which seems awfully young to me now. I was only nine months in the Kingdom, which is a very short time by any standard. I was a celebrity, of a sort, with a nightly radio show and a column every month in Phuket Magazine. I had a decent income and no debts; I owned my motorcycle outright, which made me middle class in the pre-condo expat economy of that time. I was pretty impressed with myself in those days. I knew that I could drop by and take Noi out any time I wanted to, so I didn’t take her out that night. I made the decision to take a pass. I saw her see me make the decision. She pulled back her hand and smiled a brave smile and moved the conversation along and after my meal I went to work and so did she.
I continued to eat at The Druid Bar but after that night Noi never made the offer again. As I watched her lose her fear of farang and gain skills in her new profession I began to see her as a very lovely woman. She had grace, and charm, and wit. She had a way of projecting interest in a man that made that man, even if he was just a customer giving a drink order, feel like he was the only man in the room.
Gaew came back at the end of that month. She and I lived together for a few more weeks but I met a girl named Neung, one of the much younger, much prettier girls the beaches were full of, and fell head over heels in love with her. The day I met Neung I came hom and asked Gaew to leave.
Gaew refused to leave, which surprised me. I didn’t know how to deal with that. So I left. One day when she was out I packed my things and moved to an apartment in Phuket Town. Three days later I came home from work and found Gaew and all her possessions outside my new front door. A couple of days later I left again, to a bungalow in Chalong, and this time she didn’t follow me. But she did find me at a bar one evening and hit me on the back of my head with a 20-ounce beer bottle. She stood there staring at the bottle in her hand, while I rubbed my head and yelled at her, and I knew she was distracted again, I knew that she was not paying attention to me.
She was thinking, “Why didn’t the bottle break? It always breaks in the movies.”
I lived with young, pretty Neung in that bungalow in Chalong for five months and ten days and then she broke my heart; in fact she damaged me for life. On the rebound I married a woman I didn’t even like and quickly grew to despise. I had two children with the woman I hated and that’s the last important thing that ever happened to me.
Meanwhile, Noi of the slinky red dress met a Dutch sailor and they bought a bar together just a few doors down from where I met her. They weren’t a couple; they were business partners who slept together when he was in town. Noi’s bar was called “Noi’s Bar” and it did very well. The sailor would go to sea and Noi would huddle over receipts and bills at a table in the back. She controlled her menu and controlled her girls and she bought the lease on the place next door. She knocked down a wall and put in some billiard tables. She wore tasteful clothes and a little bit of gold, just enough to establish her rank.
Noi brought her kids down to Phuket and put them in a good school; often over the next six years I’d drive by and see them in their white uniform shirts doing homework at the tables on the sidewalk in front of Noi’s Bar. I went in a few times, maybe once a year, and she gave me free drinks. We spoke politely to each other but I think she did not like being reminded of her short time as a bar girl. And I was always thinking about that moment when her hand was on my leg and how my life would be different if I’d made a different choice in that moment. I am conceited enough to believe that at least once or twice she was thinking the same thing.
We all have a lot of those moments, I guess. An “X” in our lives where our paths cross another’s and we have a choice. Go left and your life will be one thing. Go right and your life will be another. I chose not to pay Noi’s first bar fine and instead go find some younger, prettier girl, and with that small decision I changed both our lives. I have absolutely no memory at all of whoever I did sleep with on that night. But I can see Noi’s face in front of me right now. I can picture her in that damned red dress slit up the side almost to her hip bone.
She had fantastic legs.
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