Those years in Thailand come back to me now like a pleasant form of indigestion. Each mental belch retains the flavor of durian, the odor of fish sauce, and the release of a gaseous form of pleasure mixed with disbelief that I was ever actually there – working, eating, and loving.
I met Joom at the Bedrock Inn, a semi-respectable restaurant/bar/hotel on the beach in Ban Phe. I was eating Penang curry; she was looking for her dog Nipoo. Something about her face struck me as accessible as well as challenging.
I invited her to sit with me and let me buy her something to eat. She gave me a wolfish grin and accepted – after she found her dog. I offered to go with her on the search.
“Sit and eat, mister. Nipoo will not come to me with a stranger nearby” she replied laughingly.
She left and I thought “Well, I’ll never see her again”.
But she came back fifteen minutes later, with Nipoo in tow. Nipoo sniffed my ankles disapprovingly, then circled under the table several times before lying down with a resigned snort.
Joom had green papaya salad and sticky rice. She told the server, a slatternly maiden who complained of being so hung over that her eyes had changed color and would not focus, to grind ten ‘mouse droppings’ peppers into the mixture. This was excessive, even for a heat-loving Thai.
I raised my eyebrows at her order. She gave me another wolfish grin – her teeth an aggressive white against her brown face.
She accepted my doubting look as a challenge, and when the green papaya salad came she took each bite, mixed with a ball of sticky rice, slowly and deliberately.
When her face broke out into a torrid sweat, the drops coursing down her forehead and spreading out on her broad nose, I asked her with a smirk if she would like something to drink.
“Leo beer” she croaked. I ordered her a large bottle.
She finished her plate, and her beer, in silence, looking at me with mischievous delight while I looked back at her with frank admiration.
We became a couple at that first serendipitous meeting.
She was an easy woman to love.
About my age, with the lithe figure common to Thai women and about ten inches shorter than me, she was fiercely independent and tenderly possessive at the same time.
She drove a truck, but didn’t tell me she owned one until a month after we started going together. Up until then she let me walk her around and deigned to let me pay for taxis.
“Why the dickens didn’t you tell me you had a truck?” I crossly asked her when she finally offered to take us down to Pattaya Beach in it.
“I didn’t know if I would keep you” she replied saucily. “Now I know; we’ll ride together for a long time.”
I was not interested in casual sexual adventures, so once she revealed her truck and her thoughts to me I began to press her to marry me.
Most Thai women of a certain age have got at least one ‘marriage’ behind them. I use quotation marks because until very recently a young Thai girl in her home village was considered as a commodity to be casually sold to the first young man who wanted her. The marriage ceremony, such as it was, was performed casually by the local Buddhist monks, and it usually lasted no more than a year before the young girl, now an experienced and disillusioned young woman, would leave her husband to strike out on her own – in business, at college . . . or as a prostitute.
After 2 such ‘marriages’ and ‘divorces’, with 2 grown children already successfully married and out on their own, Joom wanted an enormous bride price before we got married.
She was going to use it to build her mother a grand house, a regular McMansion, up in Loey by the Laotian border. It would give her and her mother great face, she told me.
I demurred. I’d already been married once, she twice; there was no need for a thumping great dowry or any ostentation. And so the bargaining between us began.
We haggled on the beach in Pattaya.
We traded propositions while eating fresh coconut ice cream out of coconut shells at Chatachuck Market in Bangkok.
We grew furious and costive with each other on the way to Trat while I got my work visa renewed.
In Krabi, sipping soda water infused with sweetened hibiscus syrup, we at last came to an agreement.
I would buy her mother the largest plasma screen television available, and I would take over the payments on Joom’s truck.
Once that was settled we began to gather the required documents for a civil marriage. The red tape involved would have choked the most dedicated bureaucrat.
But then Joom decided she didn’t want to be married again; she wanted a looser relationship. Couldn’t we just be friends and continue to hang out together and travel around Southeast Asia together?
I said sure, why not?
Then I came back, alone, to the States to renew my passport.
That was four years ago . . .
And I’m still alone.