It was Valentine’s weekend. The idea of having a romantic holiday settled in when a French girl who I met a year ago on Railey beach was in Bangkok for the second time. Audrey was traveling from place to place for four years and a half. She asked me on Facebook if she could crash at my apartment.
Some would see Valentine’s Day as a marketing vehicle, but they’re tragically failed to reach customers when you implemented in Bangkok where people don’t hold their hands in public or they would see two grown-ups kissing each other on the cheek as repulsive. Even the one that went in the opposite direction didn’t work so well, ‘We hear ya! Single people out there!’ The ad would say and I would feel so defeated to admit my single status and attend the event specifically created for a group of outcasts well labeled with the hype of Valentine’s Day.
Fear of spending Valentine’s Day alone — I accepted and invited Audrey to join the weekend trip to the beach, which I mentally made plan as quick as my fingers could type on Messenger.
Despite having spent one night together in a resort — it was her pictures that she constantly uploaded on her Facebook that kept me informed. They spoke of what she has been up to over the past 12 months and it created an unexpectedly close bond between us. A picture of her with the snowy mountains in the background — she was wearing a pair of heavy hiking boots that looked way too big for her tiny legs in New Zealand, jumps to a photo of her wearing a pair of cheap flip-flops while standing on the back of a 400kg. Komodo dragon at The Komodo National Park, Indonesia.
She was a fine young woman. Her youthful energy and her up-for-anything enthusiasm were vigorously and gloriously infinite as if she came out of the vintage hipster photos you would find on Tumblr.
This was all it takes for me to break the cautionary instinct and invite a stranger whom I would describe briefly as I-have-seen-you-naked-but-I-barely-know-you type into my comfort zone, which was not happen very often in my life.
Of all her pictures on her Facebook projecting the idealistic life she seemed to be leading — her new profile picture was the ugliest picture of her I’ve ever seen. It was a screenshot from the footage taken during a skydiving session in Australia, her mouth wide open as if she was screaming for life rather than the trilling joy pumping from the adrenaline shot.
“Do you have ganja in your room?” Audrey asked after we finished the awkward catch-up prep-talk that we both know best skip it — just take our clothes off and have sex.
This recalled when I first met her at the swimming pool in a resort, in the middle of the jungle, where we had secured some weeds from the worker and we got totally stoned while we were trying to balance ourselves on a floating doughnut.
It was late when she flew in that Friday night, and even if I have ganja I would have lied to her anyway.
“No, I don’t,” I said and she began brushing her messy, unkempt hair in a way that suggested that it was already a terrible idea to stay at my place. ‘What good are you, when you’re young and living in Bangkok but choose to stay clean.’ I could hear her thoughts protesting my idea of how I spent my youth while she sat on the foot of my bed and began braiding.
Eddy — my best friend since high school — once said, “When a girl starts braiding her hair; that’s code for no sex tonight.” I happened to find this to be true.
The train we were supposed to take was an express train to Hua Hin — a cozy beach town situated a three-hour drive south of Bangkok — but the tickets were sold out. The woman at the ticket booth suggested we take a free third-class government service train instead.
We have to wait an hour for the train so we went to Black Canyon Café upstairs of Hua Lumphong Station and have a second-round catching up on our coffees. Audrey bought me a latté. When I asked her how much she said “Never mind. Only two-three buck.”
Two-three buck. I thought. That was the same price as a Starbucks latté. Looked at her hair, still braided, poorly, the only accomplishment of the night by herself in front of my wardrobe mirror.
“What are your plans?” I asked.
“I don’t know. I wouldn’t be with you here if I have any.” A typical girl-who-travels answer to a typical guy-who-does-not-travel question. “But I’ve been thinking about riding a horse from Mongolia to Europe.”
A horse. She’s talking about riding a horse back to Europe — ah that sounds terrific. I could see a New York Times best-selling memoir already.
“That’s an awesome way to end your trip,” I said.
“No. God. Why should it end?” She spoke in a rush as if defending herself in a courtroom. “Travel should never be finished.”
“But not everybody can do what you do.”
“Yes, they can. Everybody has a choice. I choose to travel. It’s as simple as that. You too can live like me.”
She went all philosophy on me now. I haven’t been in a relationship with anyone since I moved to Bangkok and spent most nights wallowing in self-pity, getting drunk in an Irish pub full of people whose purpose has nothing to do with my sheer self-indulgent joy of isolation. The heavy smell of damp wooden floor mixed with the lightly fermenting smell of a fresh brewery seemed to contain some magic tricks that powered my creativity in some strange ways.
I knew girls could be strange. The first time I saw her we only spent nineteen hours together but now we’re about to spend forty-eight more hours over the weekend. Oh God, I thought. I’ve just made a terrible mistake.
It was for the best that guys should be playing it cool in order to seal the porn deal by keeping their mouths shut and listening to the woman or else they would have to spend a dissatisfying weekend with no chance of getting underneath her undies for the rest of the holiday.
This is why I changed the subject. “What makes you go skydiving?”
“No reason.” She answered, her face was stern, knew that I had intentionally changed the subject. But it was the subject in which allowed her to brag about the thing she had been holding up to since the minutes she has done it. “I just want to do it whenever I feel like doing something I just do it. But — this may sound stupid — the truth is I am afraid of the height. I thought it could help me overcome the fear. But it ain’t do nothing.
Ain’t. She’s using the word ain’t.
“I’m afraid of many more things.” She continued. “I’m also claustrophobic.”
“Well, I have good news and bad news,” I said in the most considerate tone.
“What are they?”
“I have no plan to do anything relative to height except hiking on the trail this weekend.”
“Well, I am not afraid of height anymore. Skydiving was a failure in terms of overcoming altophobia because I wasn’t alone. There was a professional skydiver who did the jumping and stayed with me the whole time. Then I figured… to overcome the fear I have to do my own jumping. That’s why I went bungee jumping back in New Zealand!
“What’s the bad news?” She asked.
“The trail leads you to a very beautiful place according to the Google Image. But… it’s a cave.”
I showed the photos of the cave on my iPhone and she sighed.
“I think you will do fine. This cave is big enough. I don’t think it will trigger your… fear of small space.”
“Yeah, it would be time to try to overcome the claustrophobia.”
“Where are we going to stay though?”
I told her I had booked a room at the Intercontinental. I expected that this should impress her. But things went in a different direction. Her face has gotten more stern.
“How many bucks?”
I Google the conversion rates from Thai Baht to US Dollar.
“Wow, that’s expensive.”
There was a look of surprise on her face when she saw the currency on my phone.
“That ain’t right.” She said, horrified. “I mean New Zealand Buck. Not the US.”
Oh, God. This underlined the moment that I felt like it had been a mistake bringing her on the trip. The chance for both of us having sex in a five-star hotel room was so slim and it was getting thinning every minute passed. The world around her, buck means New Zealand Dollar and could be molded to other currencies ending with dollar such as Hong Kong Dollar, Singapore Dollar, according to her desire.
“That’s even more expensive.” She said, unimpressed. “You’re wasting money.”
“It’s okay,” I told her. It’s my fucking money. I thought about how to get rid of her but it was too late now. The train to Hua Hin departed on time. Of all the people you will meet on a rundown Thai train, a marine in the green camouflage uniform, the deeply tanned locals wearing cheap flip-flops drinking Coke from the bags, a group of German tourists in their middle age chatting so loudly, all the sch, until they began to fall asleep, one by one.
These people are normal — the everyday familiar faces you would see on a free train ride in Thailand. It was us — a White girl with an Asian guy on the train that made an easy target. Soon enough we became the talking subject among the passengers. I overheard comments like ‘She looks great but she wouldn’t be here if she’s not fucked up’ and ‘Only cheap tourists are boarding this train.’
Audrey couldn’t understand a word and then she said something that ultimately reassured the nasty remarks.
“Why not stay in a hostel? I always stay in a hostel.” She was still unimpressed. The idea of spending the weekend in the Intercontinental discomforted her — the same way hostels do for me. “I don’t know why you book that expensive place. The hostel is better. There you can meet a lot of interesting people.” She pointed out.
The train ride was interminably long and the reeking smell of peed was something that made you wonder where was the smell came from? Looking out the receding landscape from the window offered no relief. I can see Thailand slowly rotten before my eyes. The dried and dusty landscape. The local passengers on the train seemed to be hit hard by poverty and famine. Only when we were three stations away from the beach town, did these people begin to disembark and left only the well-to-do people who can afford to live or spend the weekend in the beach town on the train. I began to feel the fresh air and see the sight of some moderate civilization.
Instead of renting a car, Audrey insisted we rent a motorbike because she preferred to be out in the sun and feel the real landscape.
“But we can roll the windows down,” I suggested. But when she frowned and turned her back at me I knew just the right thing to do.
The hike was longer than I had expected. Audrey allowed me to hold her hands while we were hiking the trail but I knew in my heart that she didn’t need my support. This is the reward for the things I’ve done for her so far.
Audrey was wearing flip-flops even though I told her to wear sneakers before we left the hotel. She has to pause many times. She said I could go ahead without her. So I did. Leaving her behind with a group of Thai families that also followed the trail.
The cave was enormous. The magnificent limestone cave is situated in the jungle of Sam Roi Yod National Park. It was called Phraya Nakon Cave after the name of the ruler, under the realm of King Rama V, who discovered it 200 years ago while seeking shelter from a storm. I looked back at the trail and couldn’t help but wondered how severe was that storm to drive the ruler to climb over two mountains and sought refuge here.
I spent a good fifteen minutes and still no sight of Audrey so I went back and hope to catch her following the trail. There was no sight of her. I kept walking until I reached the beach and there she was, stripping off her elephant pants revealing the bikini she wore underneath and the Kiwi bird’s tattoo she’s got from New Zealand.
“I couldn’t get in.” She told me, panting, the expression looked fake. “I told you I was claustrophobic you remember?”
She had left her iPod on the beach chair. DJ Khaled was blasting out of her earbuds. It is evident that she must have been here for a while.
She sent me a beach chair — one New Zealand buck, which was sweet. Enough to cheer me up that at least someone has shown some gratitude. “Look at these islands?” She was referring to the islands on the opposite side from where we were hanging. “You think I can swim there?”
“They looked close but I think they’re actually far if you have to swim there.”
“Well, I’m going to check it out.” Without further ado, she ran towards the beach.
“Do you know how to signal the S.O.S.?” I shouted after her. She turned her side and gave me the middle finger.
I was lying down on the beach chair and continued to read a novel I had brought along. In the end, Audrey only made it less than a quarter way to the island before she changed her mind and swam back.
In the evening we went browsing the market area but everywhere seemed to eat up her daily budget. I suggested maybe we could eat at McDonald’s so she could save her money.
“No! I’m a vegetarian.”
“I remembered that, but they served salad here.”
“I will tell you one thing.” Her eyes looked fixedly at me. “I used to work at McDonald’s and I can guarantee you the things they’re selling in there is shit.”
Alright, no McDonald’s then. I thought. What else are you going to declare war with hon?
Finally, we wound up at an Italian restaurant. That was when things began to cook. I wasn’t hungry and neither was she. The restaurant manager looked quite handsome. He was using his Italian charm to allure her into his restaurant.
This wasn’t out of jealousy but the way she walked into the restaurant without asking me first was unsettling. Like she was on her own. Looking back, I didn’t blame her for doing so. She was navigating her own life by traveling by herself for four and a half years and all of a sudden she has to follow my direction — she’s like an alpha forced to be an omega. But at that moment I was very unhappy. She sat at the table and ordered food without waiting for me.
“Isn’t this place surpassing your daily budget?” I was ready for a fight.
“Well, the place looks good and I want to eat here.”
The Italian guy took a seat at the table next to us and tried to have a conversation. I introduced myself as a writer and food critic from Bangkok and interrupted Audrey to introduce herself by simply saying, “But she is just a visitor. She’ll be out of Thailand in a couple of days.”
I have to admit that I was a total jerk. The Italian guy was weighing his options on whom he should side with. I didn’t order food at the restaurant and when her vegetarian pizza arrived I took the opportunity to criticise her choice of food.
“I’m sorry to have to break this. But the McDonald’s food is better than this cold, soulless pizza.” I exchange eye contact with the Italian guy who seemed to be admitted that I was right. Audrey ordered this pizza in a super tailored-made and extremely demanding way. No milk in the ingredient for example.
“You’ve never worked at a McDonald’s. You have no idea what they put in their burger.”
“Yes. Their foods are junk but you know what they are unique and universal and I respect them for it. But why do I have to work at a McDonald’s? If you hate the organization so much? Why are you working for them in the first place?”
The Italian guy wanted to calm me down and tried to change the topic. I felt sorry for him.
“You believe everybody always has a choice. Where are you going to stand now?”
“I didn’t have a choice back then.”
“Do you think you have a choice now?” I folded my hands and rested my back on the chair.
“You have no direction in life and threw away years working in a farm or cleaning rich people’s houses instead of being in college and for what? Three months traveling around the cheap Southeast Asia countries because you can’t afford anywhere else?
“You don’t seem so happy after all these things I’ve done for you,” I said. “Why weren’t you go in that cave with me?” I was unreasonably drunk with anger.
“Because I’m claustrophobic!” She yelled.
I chuckled, she hadn’t touched her food at all. The Italian guy backed off.
“That cave was ENORMOUS! It was bigger than the fucking hostel room you love to stay in so much! And let me tell you one thing, hon, you’re not a claustrophobic…” Hold on, dude. I thought. Stay calm. But my mouth was faster. “You’re a bitch.”
Out. It was out there. Audrey stood and ran outside the restaurant leaving a small buck that wasn’t enough to cover the price of her food.
I caught her walking back to the hotel. Her face seemed to say, ‘Fucking Sam! Fucking stupid Thai bastard!!!’ and I stopped the bike and picked her up. She didn’t expect to reconcile that quickly so she hesitated for a minute or so before she jumped in.
The room at the Intercontinental looked alien to both of us. There was no chance for reconciliation at all. She grabbed her laptop and switched it on. That old, tattered electronic junk she owned has a switch to turn it on. Like she fetched it from a trash can somewhere and pieced them together with hardware she collected from various sources.
“What are you doing?” I thought she was about the browse the Internet looking for her own room. That she’s done being with me.
“Just checking the temperature in Mongolia, you know.” She answered, sulkily.
Unlike her, my free time was limited to the weekend so I wanted to make the most of it. I told her I’m going to go for a walk by the beach. Thinking that things would resolve faster if I gave her some privacy. I grabbed a small Chang beer from the fridge and left the room. The corridor was filled with the sound of a couple having sex, so loud it resonated the entire hallway and I found myself waiting for the elevator next to an embarrassed Chinese woman.
The weekend trips always feel unplanned and sudden like someone in my family has just died — the kind of urgent, top-priority calling situation that required you to drop everything, no matter how busy you are, and rush home as fast as you can to spend two days bereaving.
In this case, no one has died. But it was tragically disappointing when the idea that seemed novel and romantic has a dramatic twist. A French girl who was once charming turned out to be a seriously complicated mess who couldn’t keep her currency straight. Those poor horses in Mongolia. They didn’t even know what was coming.
As I walked along the beach at night. I was flushed with the memory of our supposedly only night together at the resort on Railey beach. We were both holding onto the side of the floating doughnut in the swimming pool. We lost balance and the thing flipped. We were both underneath the water and our expensive joints were soaking wet we cannot smoke anymore. That was a damn good memory — it was supposed to stay that way.
It’s difficult to imagine the good time alone when the unbearable present over-lapsed into an unruly mess of my memory. If I could turn back the time, I wouldn’t invite her to join the trip. I would rather be here to celebrate my single status alone and feel utterly content. Audrey would be that perfect girl who entered my life to make me feel alive like I’m a complete human. Even if it was only just for the night.
I closed my eyes and pictured her letting go of that floating doughnut and swimming to the side of the pool. Her hair was soaked but, still, so beautiful, uncomplicated. I looked at her standing under a bright sliver of the sun peeked over the palm trees, right there, the moment that could coexist somewhere in the parallel universe, she brimmed.