(Excerpted from "BANGKOK SUNSET")
......The low sun casts an orange-tinged glow on the leafy green premises of the hotel garden. Already the insect chorus heralding nightfall is going full bore, while frogs mournfully call out their mates. An olive colored snake slithers onto the path in front of him, causing him to shudder with fear before it flees, melting into the moist undergrowth in search of cover. The narrow path gives way to an expanse of concrete, a sterile clearing in the otherwise teeming jungle garden, where lounge chairs and a diamond shaped, aqua-tinted pool serve as a focal point for foreign fun-and-sun worshippers.
John gives the pool terrace a wide berth, cutting across a broad lawn flanked by massive jamjuree trees. Under the trees he meanders along, this way and that, trying to avoid hidden puddles and squawking birds until he comes upon the velvet ropes that cordon off the lake pavilion from the rest of the hotel grounds.
The VIP dinner party slated for the lake pavilion is already underway, with music playing and food being served. Barefoot Thai dancers clad in traditional garb gyrate as if in slow motion, their ornate crowns tipping left and rotating right, glittering in the candlelight. Brass cymbals ring and glasses clink while the whiff of fried garlic and hot chilies, jasmine and alcohol lace the air.
He’s back, back in the fragrant, hope-infused oasis where he first fell in and out of love, a place that has lurked seductively, sometimes menacingly, in his dreams ever since. What better night to reunite than a full night moon like this one?
It’s Loy Kratong, the festival of lights. Distant fireworks are already pricking the remnants of the dark vermillion sky somewhere over the banks of the Chao Praya, while candle-lit kratong floats being cast adrift on the banks of the mighty river, as well as in lakes, canals and ponds across the land.
The sky is free of rain; the moon is placid and rotund, floating buoyantly in the heavens to the east. The chirp of crickets is everywhere, cool-season flowers are coming into bloom and thanks to a gentle but steady breeze, and holiday traffic patterns, auto exhaust has lost its chokehold on the air, at least in this lush, privileged corner of the city.
Thwarted by the knowledge that the ravishing object of his affection has yet to arrive, he ambles around the lotus pond where candle-lit, flower-decked floats are being launched by conscientious tourists and sentimental Thais.
On the side of the pond open to the public, a pair of pretty silk-clad hotel staffers introduce elderly Europeans to the colorful floats crafted of banana root, explaining that the kratong are typically decorated with pandanus leaf, purple Amaranthus petals, and sticks of incense. The candles are said to represent the light of the Buddha, while the launching and setting adrift of the candle-lit float is said to be a good way to get rid of bad karma.
“Welcome, sir!” greets a uniformed hotel attendant who emerges from the shadows, puncturing John’s dreamy vision of the intimate past. The sun is gone and the stars are starting to show. “Are you lost, sir?”
“No I am not.” John quietly bristles. Why does he keep getting lumped together with all those fresh-off-the-plane tourists? Lost? Perhaps. He’s at ground zero of a lost love, about to reconnect with a life that has eluded him for so long.
“Happy Loy Kratong, sir.”
“Happy to you, too,” John answers distractedly, his eyes focused on the enticing constellations of light emanating from the private party. He isn’t happy yet but he will be any minute now.
“Come this way, please sir!” the attendant warmly urges. “Welcome to enjoy International Loy Kratong Party.”
Obediently walking towards the glow of Christmas-lit trees and twinkling bushes, John immediately realizes the futility in protesting that he isn’t a tourist. The man means well, though the word “international” is not exactly music to his ears, just fancy codeword for not belonging.
“Ah, thank you.” John sighs resignedly. Once a farang, always a farang.
As the attendant leads him deep into the tourist pen, he feels like a mustang being roped into the wrong corral. He keeps up a facade of calm, but he is champing at the bit with silent indignation.
Now that the hotel staff is keeping an eye on him he’s got no choice but to pretend he’s enjoying a little segregated shindig for flight attendants and package tourists; a dash of local color, a sprinkle of hotel hospitality. It’s Loy Kratong for dummies, and to all but the most astute eyes, he’s one of them.
The International Loy Kratong tourist party is but a consolation prize, a sideshow to the main event, he’s stuck with the clowns and jugglers on the periphery when he is really here to see the lion-tamers and the high-wire act. For now he will humor the hotel guests and hotel staff as he must, until the time for his brush with destiny comes. Then they will see an entirely different side of him, not another forgettable farang, but a personage, a player, a contender integrated with the local elite when Joy welcomes him with open arms. Being linked with her will make it easier for others to see him as in insider, to see his hard-to-see Thai side, that invisible je ne sais quoi that puts him a cut above the other farang.
But there’s no point in trying to crash the gates yet, it would only arouse suspicion and perhaps create a scene. He has only to keep his cool until he can finesse it. Once she arrives, he has only to catch her eye, and the angelic trumpets will blow and the walls will come tumbling down. The moment she sees him, hears his voice, she’ll welcome him in with her smile, take his hand into hers, and they’ll cross the threshold from this world into that.
How impressed the tourists and hotel attendants will then be! But for the time being he has no choice but to lie low, undercover, alert and ready to assert his unannounced presence at a moment’s notice.
Preparing himself for such an eventuality, he makes a point of avoiding idle chitchat with the jolly tourists who, upon discovering him to be a seasoned Asia hand, would be apt to pounce on him and pump him for information about what temples to visit and where to buy cheap jewelry. It’s not that he is averse to showing off his street knowledge and proffering useful advice, but he can’t afford to miss Joy’s entrance, not by a minute.
Milling around mindlessly on the tourist side of the rope, trying to mind his own business, he passes several white people who greet him with the forced familiarity reserved for greeting strangers of one’s own kind in a strange land. It’s a silent, self-conscious greeting that states, I’m not Thai, and you’re not Thai either. Better yet, we both hail, if not from the same country, the same side of the world. It’s the secret handshake of inter-farang solidarity, as if to say, hey, we are all in the same boat.
“How do you like Thigh-land?”
“Aren’t those Thai transvestites something else?”
A few of the farang ladies shoot him flirtatious glances, suggesting he’s looking every bit as primped and vulnerable and raw as he feels, but he assiduously avoids returning the gaze, in no mood to lead on, let alone let himself be led on by any of them.
He gazes past the velvet ropes and gun-toting guards to the other side of the garden. The lights are brighter, the aroma of the cooking is more delectable and the tinkle of jewelry bespeaks infinitely greater luxury. Try as he must, John just can’t get excited about a tourist roundup when there’s a glittering fete, a bespoke local event going on just across the pond.
So close yet so far.
John orders a tall drink to calm his trepidations. Because of the missteps and mistakes that led to ten long years apart, he dare not take his childhood sweetheart for granted like he did the first time around. It’s his understanding the estranged husband won’t be in tow this evening, but a man of malicious influence such as he is bound to have his informants.
Mum’s the word. It behooves him to do things the discreet Thai way as much as possible, though he senses deep down inside she won’t be entirely herself in front of others, nor will she be entirely welcoming of such an impromptu encounter.
Being hidden away among his own kind while waiting for her to make her arrival among hers makes him feel like a guerilla fighter in camouflage. Although he shuns conversation he feels a certain anonymous comfort in being surrounded by people who look and dress more or less like him. The rootless levity and mono-cultural simplicity that Euro-American innocents bring to bear on the setting is at once familiar and exotic. They strut around shamelessly in their Bermuda shorts and bathing suits oblivious to mosquitoes and local decorum, they snap up overpriced souvenirs without bothering to bargain and pleasantly take turns posing for photos, arm around hotel staffers for a little bit of instant cross-cultural friendship, before going back to their guest rooms to order room-service club sandwiches, watch satellite TV, get online and zap emails home.
Where was home? LA? Tokyo? Bangkok? For a man who had been bouncing back and forth between distant shores, docking in different ports and sailing with different social sets, there was no easy answer to the question. The best he could come up with is something he once heard from a forest monk in Ubon; having no home makes one at home everywhere.
The pond is twinkling with light as candles flare, sputter and die on little toy floats whipped and washed by light wind and little waves.
He meanders past makeshift arts-and-crafts booths where silk-wrapped hotel staffers sell gaudy silk, rough-hewn wooden elephants and candle-studded floral floats to wide-eyed Westerners. He overhears a salesgirl explain, “Put on water make unhappy go away,” and while she has a gaggle of New Yorkers scratching their heads he knows precisely what she means. Loy Kratong is all about the ritual dispatching of rafts, rafts of past sorrows, just the sort of thing he needs to re-jigger his uncorrected karma. Buddhism is all about letting go, isn’t it?
He buys the cheapest float available, which is to say the least expensive given the jacked-up tourist prices, and then gets down on his knees to launch it on the placid pond. He borrows a lighter from an admiring attendant and lights the onboard candles and then pushes it off, watching it wobble and spin, inwardly worried about the most minute symbolic significance of the course it takes, while outwardly regarding it with the bemused contempt he has for all superstitious practices.
His little kratong float gets a lift from the low breeze, slides halfway across the inky pond before promptly changing tack. It bobs up and down on the black surface propelled by unseen currents, then boomerangs slowly, waterlogged and limping, drifting back, right back to its dispatcher.
The chirp and chirr of crickets fills the humid night. Lizards skitter up and down white walls, a peacock cries. He abandons the ritual reed boat, laden as it is with the weight of past karma, to the unknowable whim of the currents and then moves on. The sky is ebony and indistinct, marbled with creamy incandescent clouds. He can’t see the moon, but he knows it’s up there, somewhere.
As he cuts across the grass, one high-pitched cry after another pierces the humid air. The sharp plaintive squawk of the resident peacocks is at once familiar and startling, eerie enough to make the hairs stand on the back of his neck.
He backs off in response to the territorial wail, vacating the lamp-lit lawn that looked so green and inviting just a moment before, and steers back to the straight and narrow path that circles the garden. An unusually luxuriant tree labeled “flame of the forest” catches his eye as he edges along the south rim of a small lotus pond. He sniffs the air expectantly, seeking the source of an enticing scent.
He comes upon a shadowy profusion of pink and orange blossoms on a tree labeled “frangipani” and decides to pluck a few of the buttery flowers. Pressing the fragrant petals to his nostrils, he inhales greedily, thinking rich thoughts of her.
He slinks stealthily behind the natural barrier of manicured hedges and a row of squat spiky-leafed palms to establish a discreet lookout. Peering out from behind the thick trunk of a coconut tree, he can see without being seen. She’ll be here any minute now; and he’ll be ready and waiting, deep in the heart of this scented oasis.
She’s close, and coming closer. He and she are not only in the same enchanted city now, they breathe the same air and see the same clouds; if she were to look up at the sky this very minute she might see the same shy moon struggling to break free of the glowing misty wrap that is backlit with such intensity.
It was under such a moon, many moons ago, in the garden of the Peacock Hotel where they had first bared themselves body and soul and fallen in love. He tries not to think about why she neglected to invite him to this glittering Loy Kratong gala, an event even the newspapers boasted knowledge of. Joy was always a big believer in the romantic power of Thai folklore, and she would understand why he chose this day to present his credentials. It was more than worth overlooking the silly oversight if this “chance” reunion got the two of them jumpstarted on a new journey.
He glances disinterestedly at two stiff pelicans resting upright on the side of long rectangular pond that abuts the west wall of the compound when the glimmer of broad feathery tails catch his eye.
Five peacocks are vigorously unfolding and flexing their iridescent blue-green-yellow feathers, vying for the attention of two disinterested gray peahens. The boys are strutting and shaking, quivering and baking but the hens are playing hard to get. The boy-birds unfurl, vibrate and purr, mooning their targets like satellite dishes aligned with the focal point of desire. Horny, desperate, lusty and vain; the feathered beasts radiate desire without shame.
Indistinct instincts tug within but he’s not about to let himself be wagged by wanton lust. Nor would it do him any good to be overly disciplined and play hard to get. The best thing was to pretend to happen upon Joy, as if “just by chance.”
He nurtures impossibly high expectations perhaps, but that’s the delusional magic of lost love. The sky was the limit. Like the lunar-lit night that first brought them together over a hundred moons ago. He was not exactly young at heart, yet he was earnest in his hope that it was not too late to recover what they once had and had lost.
But things are looking a bit shaky. For one, he’s not so sure who John Joyce is anymore. To make matters worse, the only person he wants to see at the party to which he wasn’t invited was nowhere to be seen. The later it gets, the less time he’ll have to play with, the less likely this calculated chance encounter will spark the magic he’s hoping for. If she makes a grand, last-minute appearance, she’ll be up to her neck in nice people, and will be burdened with the weight of obligatory social calls and formal photo-ops inside the velvet ropes.
Just then there’s a sudden flurry of fuss and motion near the side entrance to the garden. Someone important has just arrived. He abandons his hideout and hurries to the pond’s edge, thinking it her, but it turns out to be merely some “distinguished” guest, a tycoon or a tyrant of the sort whose invisible aura of power was rendered visible by the way other people acted. There are men in crisp uniforms snapping to attention and old ladies in blue-and-purple-tinged hair tittering expectantly. The incoming entourage has the look of low-level royalty, but it could also be the pretentious prime minister, judging from the tight security, the resplendent red carpet, the cackle of walkie-talkies and the hushed attention of armed guards.
And then he sees her. When she finally arrives, in the shadow of the prime minister, it’s almost without ceremony and her grand entrance goes all but unnoticed. She just sort of walks in, looking a bit lost, looking a bit late. She’s dressed in a floral sequined gown that fits her body so tightly it slows her gait and stiffens her carriage, yet she still manages to stroll gracefully down the red carpet. Then the photographers spot her and she is belated welcomed with a tropical storm of strobe flashes and the booming shouts of eager admirers. His heart starts beating faster, he stands up straight, his eyes widen, and the butterflies in his stomach go bonkers. It’s her, and she’s but a dozen paces away. It’s her, and she’s just on the other side of the bushes.
“Oh Joy!” he squawks, jumping with happy anticipation. “Joy? Joy!” Each time he calls her name a little louder, hoping to catch her attention without bringing too much attention to himself. “Joo-oyyy!”
A few heads turn in puzzlement while a watchful security guard closes in on John, but otherwise his little cry for attention from the sidelines has gone unnoticed, as if mugged and muffled by the thick humid air. If she’d only turn round, look this way, he’d wai her and wave at her and run over to the velvet rope and they would usher him in, and he’d embrace her in open arms, a true storybook reunion.
She’s as vivacious and engaging as ever; so much more so in the flesh than on TV or in the paper. He’s so close he can pick up on her perfume! So magnetic and magnanimous, the emerald sequins appear to cling to her bare skin of her body out of sheer attraction, without the need for cloth underneath. He waves erratically and jumps up and down trying to catch her eye, but his line of vision is blocked by bodyguards, body-conscious grandees, and other erect, dazzling bodies moving with her as part of an impromptu but swanky entourage. Even when he gets an unbroken glimpse of her, and she appears to be looking his way, nothing registers, as if she does not recognize him or has chosen not to take notice. She is preoccupied with garlands and greetings; overrun by well-dressed well-wishers and positively swarmed with sycophantic socialites.
He’s pretty sure she heard him because she squinted and started to turn when he first called out her name. Maybe it was the glare of the lights or the tinkle of the xylophones, for she appeared to look his way and frown so ever lightly just before he lost sight of her. She was near-sighted but would never make an entrance wearing glasses; it was contacts or nothing at all with her. He is reluctant to shout again, seeing as the security guard is now an arm’s length away, eyeing him with alarm. Even as a cackle of speech erupts in security man’s earphone, he keeps his eyes on John.
Fearing an awkward scuffle, John remains obediently on his side of the rope, the wrong side of the rope, straining to catch a legitimate glimpse of the star, weighing the import of the moment. Joy. At long, long last Joy.
He cranes his neck to study her in the natural habitat of her and her hi-so crowd, a claque of dowagers and well-wishers, older women weighed down by jumbo gems and young ingénues with gravity-defying hairdos. He studies her achingly gracious smile as she responds with solicitous care to the playful questions of her lady friends, while bystanders listen in with rapt attention. The mutual admiration society is stroked by solidarity-building sighs and conspiratorial giggles. It’s obvious they are complimenting her on her outfit, scrutinizing her gem necklace and admiring her accessories with theatrical oohs and aahs.
Bursting with excitement, John decides to take a chance. He impulsively ducks under the rope and starts loping across the lawn, getting within a few feet of the star of the party when he is unceremoniously blocked and collared by the security guard who restrains him gently, but firmly.
“May I help you, sir?” asks the guard in practiced English, forcing a wan smile.
“No thanks, I’m just—” The sight of the man’s gun holster takes John’s breath away.
“This is a private party, sir.” The guard speaks with rote precision, intoned with authority.
“I know, but I know her.”
“Who you know?”
“Ah yes. Her Ladyship.”
“She’s an old friend, you see.”
“She is the wife of an important man.”
“Oh, yeah. So, can I go in?”
“May I see your invitation?” The guard inquires shrewdly.
“No. I want to surprise her.”
“As there are many important VIPs in attendance, I’m afraid that is not possible.”
“Just for a few minutes?”
“Are you a guest at the hotel?”
“Well, not exactly.”
“Sorry. This is private property.”
There are no more smiles to be exchanged, no more lies to be traded in. John knows he’s been beat, so he has no choice but to retreat, cutting across the lawn, impressed at the man’s silky forcefulness, fully aware he’d be forcefully evicted if he failed to cooperate.
Burning up inside, he feigns departure out the main entrance, but unable to walk away from Joy without putting up more of a fight, he stealthily reverses course and slinks back into the gardens by meandering along the shadows of the perimeter wall on the other side of the hotel, making his way back inside the gardens via a roundabout path that takes him all the way to the murky, putrid-smelling canal in the back. He then swings back, skirts the tennis courts and approaches the roped off area from the rear, coming within view of the event, but security is evident at every angle of approach. For all his sweat and effort, there was only one way to enter the party, and that was to enter as an invited guest, in formal dress, invitation in hand.
He slowly backs off, admitting defeat, seeking to calm himself in the floral splendor of the night garden. He opts for obscurity rather than exposure, settling for a bench near a row of botanical plantings. He can no longer see the party but he can still hear it, the tonal murmur of small talk, cackle and roar of inebriation, set to the thumping of a drum and the tinkle of chimes. As the interminable and intolerably festive night wears on, a black tide starts to erode the poorly buttressed white castles in his mind.
He can’t quite bring himself to leave before she does, hoping beyond hope that the tide of his luck will turn. After doing solitary penance on a decorative wrought iron bench of the sort made for couples, he stealthily works his way to a secret rendezvous spot well known to Joy, taking a seat on the wobbly wooden railing of the garden bridge, trying to keep his balance. This is where it happened, the site of their first kiss. The planks are a bit rotted and worm-eaten from endless annual cycles of pounding rain and abusive sun, but the bridge is essentially as he remembers it, the lotus pond its eternal self. Even the mosquitoes offer a sense of continuity, most likely multi-generational descendants of the buzzing pests that he and she had to contend with as young lovers many, many moons before.
Let ’em bite. As he was feeling old and death’s shadow was starting to flit cross his door with unwelcome frequency, he found himself increasingly drawn to the misery of the tropics, where heaven and hell were integral spheres of daily life, where the weather, with its age-old cycles of violent rain and scorching drought, conspired to make suffering both ubiquitous and inevitable, where brutal poverty subsidized insane wealth, where the predations of the rich made others necessarily poor, where the common people so kind and pliable as to be useful fools for the ruling class, lorded over by billionaires both rapacious and capricious.
Life could be so cruel, like God, like man. With unknowable mystery and manifold misery a constant companion, could one not help but be drawn to the wisdom of Buddha’s basic truth, that all life is suffering, that birth, sickness, old age and death are inevitable and obligatory? It seemed a reasonable observation now, but what a shock it had been to him when he first encountered the hard teachings of the Buddha as a wet-behind-the-ears kid coming from Los Angeles where there was no past but an endless tomorrow, where the Hollywood rules ruled and corporate financiers reigned hidden from view.
By the time the moon assumes its midnight zenith directly above, the music has stopped and the party is over. So why does his mood sink further still when he sees that the velvet rope is gone, the security guards have vacated their posts and all of the important guests have already left, including the only one he cared about?
No one challenges him or objects to his presence now, as he slowly steps into the wasteland of what’s left of the party, where bored hotel workers from the toiling class exchange raunchy jokes while knocking down floral displays, packing up sound equipment, collecting dishware and shoveling the remains of the buffet into plastic bag-lined trash receptacles. John wanders through the ruins of the invitation only zone he had been kept from, trying to pick up on her lost scent among the uneaten platters of fruit, the burned-out candles, the multicolored puddles of melted gelato and ant-festooned morsels of abandoned sweets.
There are emerald sparkles on the ground where she was standing, perhaps plastic sequins dislodged from her glittering dress? He bends down to examine the little shiny circles, and then pockets a few green sequins before beating a moody retreat. The air, which had seemed so fragrant upon arrival, is muggy and laced with the odor of rotting flesh, the decorative lights which were twinkling so merrily minutes before are but tangled heaps of cold wire and glass. The gutted remains of the gala bring to mind a trash-strewn beach after a storm, nature’s beneficence betrayed.
He hurries back toward the lobby building, skirting past forlorn fruit trees, ducking under the baleful branches of the giant umbrella tree. The finger-like fronds of the fan palms that welcomed him hours before give him the backhand, shooing him away. Ahead the dramatic sloping roof of the hotel tilts ominously, as if it’s about to tumble down. In his jaded eyes, the Peacock is reduced to a squat, flightless bird, clipped of wing and sinking into the ground; all show, no substance.
The heavy glass door is unattended —there’s not a doorman in sight. He plods through the deserted lobby, narrower and gloomier than he remembered it. He feels short of breath and panicky as if the lobby has been drained of air and is starting to close in on him. When a bellhop approaches, saluting smartly, hand to his cap, John instinctively speeds up, assuming he is being asked to leave.
Startled at the sound of his name, he pivots round to see a grinning boy in a baggy uniform waving a dainty little cloth bag at him.
“Yes?” he responds in trepidation.
“You are Mister John?”
“How do you know my name?”
“Something from the Madame.”
“Spet-chun for you, sir,” the bellhop declares cheekily, handing him a small wrapped package. It was a silken shoulder bag, wrapped and ribboned, with something stiff inside. Tucked inside the folds and inner pockets of the silky fabric he finds a sturdy cream-white envelope and a garland of fragrant flower buds.
John looks around expectantly, but there’s no one in sight except for a pair of American tourists at the front desk arguing about the unfavorable exchange rate they were getting while trying to cash their traveler’s cheques at midnight.
He knows full well the hand that scribbled, no inscribed, his name on the hotel stationery, but he’s in no mood to read the missive from the miss yet. He’s unsteady enough as it is; he can only handle relish and rejection in small doses.
Thanking the boy, he slips him a tip before hightailing it out of the hotel. He hits the busy road and limps off into the headlight-streaked dark of night, as far away as his weak legs will take him. Exhausted from aimless wandering, and not a whit closer to home than when he started, he hails a tuktuk for the last leg of his ignominious retreat. While roaring down the semi-deserted streets, he lifts the jasmine garland to his nose for therapeutic delectation. When he gets back to the old wooden house there’s no one to greet him. Sombat’s still out; well, well, good for him. Maybe, improbably, impossibly, he lucked out with a dazzling mem-ferang journo after all, and was now exchanging war stories while knocking back late-night beers at the Hot Luck. To each his own…
John pulls the moist missive out of the back pocket of his damp jeans and flops down on the rickety couch to confront words he wasn’t sure he was ready to read.
Happy Loy Kratong! I miss you. But I am Thai and you are American so there are many things you cannot understand. I wish you good fortune and hope you enjoy your time nicely. Please do not contact me yet as he is jealous guy. I wish you only success and prosperity!
With fond memories and no regrets,