by Andrew Lawrence Crown
Copyright © Andrew Lawrence Crown, 2004. All rights reserved.
The late autumn afternoon sky was a cloudless blue, bluer than the bay at Kwongonli, bluer than the ink in a fountain pen, as blue as a sapphire gem and twice as radiant with the sense of endless possibility for recovery and recuperation from a taxing week of work. Relieved to have just finished teaching my last class of the day and week at the language institute, I marched straight out of my workplace to the bus stop half a block away from the front entrance where a small crowd of students still hovered about waiting for friends and trying to finalize plans for the weekend. The Korean college kids looked hesitant to leave the area near the entrance of the institute, as if they would have lingered about their school for hours on end had we let them. Their demeanor contrasted so sharply with mine since I wanted so decidedly to leave the place without being troubled by any conversationalist, be he student or teacher, who would slow me down with a call for drinks at Murphy’s, a proposal for a hike in the mountains, an idea for a pilgrimage to Pomosa Temple, an invitation for a stroll down Kwangonli, and what’s more, conversation and still more tiresome conversation to while away the time with the gab and the chatter full of expatriate or Korean drivel all through the weekend. I wanted no such company for I had other plans as I strode with a purpose straight to the bus stop for the number 52 Pusan city bus to take me from the Pusan Station neighborhood downtown where the language institute was located, to my Samik Beach apartment near Kwangonli or Kwangon Beach.
Happily not a single one of the Korean students had managed to delay me with more than a short “Hello Mr. Robertson” or “Have a nice weekend Paul.” I was overjoyed to be done with work so early on a Friday afternoon with an entire weekend absent of appointments and engagements to rob me of my precious free time and distract me from what I hoped would be a creative and productive stint with my notebooks. Moments earlier in the faculty room in the institute I had shaken hands with Pierce and said goodbye to him since he was off to Seoul for the weekend where he planned to visit a few galleries and shop for antiques in Insa-dong. Berkowitz wanted me to go out with him later to Murphy’s, the nightclub at the Hyatt, but I had refused his invitation this time, a bit weary already of his boundless energy and prolific nonsense. After several months of following the indomitable New Yorker around town and playing spectator to his ego inflating antics with Korean women, I was ready for a weekend alone with my notebooks.
More importantly, I had promised myself I would spill some ink that weekend, or suffocate from the weighty pressure of self-contempt if I did not, and so a brilliant distraction like Berkowitz was the last thing I wanted to follow me out the door of the institute that Friday afternoon in November 1997. I successfully dodged the New Yorker as I escaped the faculty room and left him searching confusedly for me though all the classrooms of the school and hollering an indelicate summons which could be heard through an open window as I made my way quickly to the bus stop. “Pauli. Pauli. Goddamned Pauli. Where are you man? It’s Friday and time to thank the good lord, time for you and me to go hit the sauce in preparation for spectacular feats with a hostess we will meet at Murphy’s, feats and accomplishments which will leave you spellbound, fascinated, and stupefied.”
I ignored the summons this time as I pledged to myself, I would not use my desire to study and examine Berkowitz in one of his most natural environments, a Pusan nightclub full of hostesses in sleeveless sweaters and miniskirts, as an excuse for me to squander the tide of creativity I had felt welling up inside of me all the previous week. I believed the coming spurt would be an especially strong one and I wanted the weekend to myself so I could do some serious work. Indeed, the stories had intruded themselves upon my consciousness all through the week, distracting me from my work as an ESL instructor and making even the simplest of conversations with my co-workers at the institute difficult to tolerate as the benign but mundane predictability of small talk seemed so frivolous to me when compared to the tales forming out of the amorphous accumulation of potentiality which I so desperately wanted to believe lay only dormant in my soul. After I got back to the Samik Beach Apartments at Kwangonli I would go alone to the sea wall behind the massive block of tall apartment towers and there I would sit with my notebooks and pen, looking up between paragraphs to contemplate the meaning of sky and sea, gazing far across the bay to find the sense and significance of the tiny throngs of Koreans parading far away through the sands of Kwangonli. Like so many beloved children they existed to be studied and understood, some viewed in full clarity, happy and contented with their lives in the bright sunshine of day, others lost in the glare of an all too powerful sun which revealed the imperfections and longings better left hidden by the concealing tones of night. There on my sea wall I would sit and put pen to paper to record for posterity a finely crafted catalog of human significances full of beautiful metaphor and magnificent simile.
Little did I know at the time as I waited full of anticipation for the bus to carry me to the sea at Kwangonli, fate would not have me convene with my muse that weekend, and I would produce not a single declarative construction, nor character, plot, theme, setting, tone, voice, nor even noun, verb, or adjective. Come Monday morning the notebooks would be as full of blank white sheets as they were the moment I stood there waiting for the bus on Friday afternoon fantasizing and dreaming of prizes, renown, and fame. It was a missed opportunity to be sure, a shameful one at that since I so sorely wanted to create something, anything really, but it was not a total loss that I would be forced to regret for too long a time. Even though I wrote no colorful story to match the magnificence and purity of the blue sky above, I was fortunate to bear witness to another tale from below, a tale the significance of which I find myself still longing to seek after several years have passed between that clear autumn day and this day in the cloudy confused here and now that I finally make good on my promise to Kathleen to make a record of her struggle and disappointment.
I say I was a witness to the tale, but actually it was related to me by its central characters, Kathleen and her husband Kyle Peterson, during the course of two short days of that weekend I have already begun to describe. The first to speak to me was Kathleen who caught me at the bus stop Friday afternoon where I was waiting for the number 52 to Kwangonli.
“Paul Robertson,’ she shouted as she ran out the door of the institute, through the crowd of students loitering about the entrance, and down the sidewalk crowded with Korean men in business suites and working women in their office uniforms. “You save me a seat on that bus Paul Robertson.”
I watched for a moment as she hurried towards me through the crowd of students and pedestrians in her sandals and colorful country pattern red skirt. Her long, frizzy black hair bounced about her shoulders with each step, her skirt fluttered above her knees, and she appeared to leave small puddles of color on the sidewalk in her wake as she darted behind, in between, around, and through throngs of Koreans who seemed to enjoy making obstacles of themselves as she rushed to catch the bus. She neglected to bow, say “shillea hamida” or even “excuse me” after she knocked into one poor fellow, sending him teetering and flapping his arms like a chicken to save the seat of his neatly pressed pants from an encounter with the pavement.
The bus rolled up to the stop, I got on, found a seat by the window and a saved one next to me for Kathleen. Kathleen hopped on the bus just before the doors closed and the driver pulled away from the stop. A moment later my coworker was sitting next to me, arranging her skirt with her hands so as to cover her pleasing thighs with the red fabric, and panting like tiger as she tried to catch her breath.
“You made it,” I congratulated her. “That was a close one.”
“I had to. I just had to,” she managed to say between deep breaths. Out of the corner of my eye I caught her splendid chest heaving up and down. I noticed that some of the Korean men on the bus were staring, unable to contain or conceal their interest in the attractive brunette.
“Another bus would have been here in a few minutes. You didn’t have to kill yourself sprinting after this one.”
“I wanted to catch this one. I had to catch this one,” she said, still with some difficulty.
“Why this one?” I asked.
“Because I wanted to catch you. I wanted to tell you something. I need to talk,” she said, her panting only slightly reduced.
“I see. I see,” I said. “It must be important the way made your way through the crowd on the sidewalk like a running back. Why don’t you rest a minute and catch your breath? Then you’ll be able to talk much more easily. In this traffic we could be stuck on this bus for another fifty minutes before we get back to the beach. You’ll have plenty of time to say what you want to say.”
“Thanks,” she said. “I just need a minute.”
While I waited for Kathleen to catch her breath I studied her face as she looked out the window at the booming downtown scene and maze of traffic all around us. Her checks were flushed red, redder still were her thick sensuous lips. Big dark blue eyes under heavy elegant lashes searched frantically for some object on which to stay focused, but the bus moved through the scene too fast and frantically and her eyes darted about as she looked from building to building, taxi, to car to bus, and at all of the Korean people crowding the marketplaces and sidewalks. She possessed a fragile sort of attractiveness and I would have openly told just how beautiful she looked on that bus that afternoon had I not known her husband Kyle so well.
Kathleen quickly regained her breath and was ready to speak to me.
“I have to talk to you about Kyle. It’s very important,” she said.
“Go ahead. I’m listening,” I said. “I hope nothing’s wrong.”
“I don’t know Paul. I just don’t know anything anymore Paul. That’s why I wanted to talk to you about it. Paul, we haven’t talked that much before, but I have seen you teach and I know how careful you are about listening to your students. You try so hard to help them, its obvious you care a lot about people. I need to talk to a good listener and I think you might be that kind of person. Paul, I respect you. You’re smart. You gave me good advice once about applying to graduate school. You seem to know so much more than the people I used to spend my time with back in Ohio. Our friends at Ohio State, the people Kyle and I used to hang out with all of the time in college, all they wanted to do was drink and have a good time. You know the type of people I’m talking about. You’re different. You seem to want something more than they did. Chicago, that’s a good school, isn’t it. What was it like for you there? I’d never be able to get into a school like that. I know I’m not smart enough.”
“You never know Kathleen,” I interrupted. Maybe you’d have shot at Chicago. The travel experience you are acquiring here in Korea might help you portray yourself as a worldly cosmopolitan type with a wealth of real life experiences.”
“I know I’m not smart enough and that doesn’t bother me Paul. I will go to graduate school and study for an advanced degree someday because, like you said when we talked before, it will help me in my career as a teacher. But I won’t go to someplace like Chicago because they’d never let me in. Maybe I’ll go back to Ohio State. I don’t know. Someone like you wouldn’t even consider a school like that. And that’s why I trust you and your background, because you always seem to want so much more for yourself and other people. You’d never settle for what’s ordinary. You would never be happy with mediocrity. I need the help of someone like you.”
“I think you are smarter than you realize Kathleen. And Chicago’s no paradise. When I was there the undergraduates used to wear t-shirts that said “The University of Chicago: Where Hell really does freeze over.” You would never imagine the kind of difficulties I experienced when I was a student there.”
“Difficulties? Paul Robertson? It’s not easy to believe. You’ll have to tell me about them some day, but not now. Now I have to talk about my difficulties. Now I have to tell you about Kyle and me. I know I have never really opened up like this before and I hope I’m not making you uncomfortable talking about problems in my marriage but it’s important, terribly important.”
I shifted in my seat to face her as her big blue eyes shifted their wandering focus from outside the window to finally settle on a single object, me. The long thick lashes fluttered above the big blue marbles as I turned to face her in order to demonstrate through my body language that she had my full attention.
“What is it Kathleen? What’s wrong? Is he talking about another one of his students again. You mentioned he did that when you and I talked at Pierce’s last party.”
“I fear its worse than that Paul. I think its more than just talking now. And its not a student this time.”
“Tell me about it.”
“It happened a few weeks ago, during Chusok the Korean thanksgiving holiday and harvest festival. I had wanted to fly back to Ohio for the two week break to visit my parents in Columbus, but Kyle argued strongly against it. He said we were over here in Asia to see the world and that there was no telling when we might have another chance like this to visit an exotic and beautiful country like Thailand or Vietnam or Cambodia so cheaply. I tried to reason with him and let him know how important it was to see my folks with my mother’s heart condition and me being so homesick all of the time, but he was so unyielding and inflexible about us going on holiday to someplace tropical there was no use in trying to argue against him. Kyle settled on Thailand after Max Berkowitz told him about the terrific time he had there during the summer break and he soon became fixated on the idea and would not give it up no matter how hard I tried to convince him I needed to visit home. You know Kyle. Once he gets an idea into his head it never finds its way out again until he is satisfied. So after quarrelling about it with him all through September, I finally gave in out of sheer frustration at being constantly at loggerheads, and we made our plans for our trip in October.
As soon as we arrived in Thailand and got off the plane in Samui after our connecting flight from Bangkok I apologized to Kyle for putting up so much resistance about the trip. Samui was just beautiful, so magnificent. When we got to our resort and saw the place where we were to stay I swear I thought I would never forget the azure Gulf of Thailand or the lovely palm trees shading our little bungalow on the beach. It was an exquisite little tropical paradise, what with the ocean just yards from our front door and the picturesque island of Koh Phangan floating off in the distance so green and abundant sitting out there in the sea like an island from a painting hanging on the wall. We swam, snorkeled, sunbathed, read Robinson Crusoe and explored the island of Samui on a rented motorbike during the day. Kyle drove and I sat behind him on the bike, my arms wrapped around him just so tight it was perfectly romantic like a scene from a movie. At dusk we sat on the beach with coconut shakes spiked with rum and watched the sky grow dark and jade Koh Phangan transformed from the clear picture to hazy misty dark ship hovering off in the distance illuminated only by the moon, the stars, and the tiny twinkling lights of the bungalows on the beaches where night entranced lovers probably sat gazing across the water thinking the same thoughts about us as we were thinking about them.
How remarkable it was and so much like a dream. At those moments, when we were laying on our blanket on the beach and watching the sky grow dark, I felt Kyle and I were never so close or so in love, gazing up at the moon and past it into the eternity of space, whispering endearments to each other late into the night. We had several nights of this serenity and intimacy until it happened on just our fourth night in Samui.”
“What happened,” I asked. “What happened on the fourth night?”
"We had spent the day lazily at leisure on the beach, swimming a bit and idling through our novel, each of us taking turns reading a few pages aloud to the other before drifting in and out of sleep on our blanket in the sand. We dined late on coconut curry prawns under the bamboo canopy of the little restaurant of our resort, and I was expecting that we would take our blanket to the beach after dinner to watch the stars come out again before retiring early to bed. One gets so tired lounging in the sun all day long, I was ready for an early bed. After we finished our curry I told Kyle I would go to the bungalow to fetch our blanket for the beach, but he said never mind that, he didn’t want to spend another evening star gazing. He said he was getting tired of it and he bemoaned the fact we had spent the last three nights doing the same old thing. Of course I was completely taken aback to hear Kyle refer to our precious time together in Samui during our first real vacation in the tropics as the same old thing, but I wanted him to be pleased with me so I asked him what he wanted to do instead. He told me he wanted to ride into town and find someplace where he could get stoned drunk. When I told him I would have rather we stayed at the bungalow and work on finishing reading our novel he nearly exploded right there under the canopy. His lost his temper and shouted insults which he seemed to pull from out of nowhere. He called me a boring old plague and said I never let him have any fun. Then he told me he was sorry we married so young and he cursed the day he met me back in Ohio. I asked him why he was all out of sorts and pleaded with him to lower his voice since there were other people eating all around us. What would they think about us I asked, what with him yelling at me like I was something so contemptible? He said he didn’t give a damn what anyone thought about him, including me. Then he stormed out of the restaurant and rode away on the motorbike.”
“Where did he go?” I wanted to know after keeping quiet for a long time.
“He wouldn’t tell me. Still even now he has not told me. I mean he has not told me the truth. Sure, he made up some sorry tale to keep me from “pestering him forever with my questions” he said. When he stumbled into the bungalow late the next morning he smelled strongly of drink and sweat. There was the smell of another person’s body all about him. Paul, you know what goes on in Thailand with all of those young girls for sale. There in the bungalow that morning I was afraid to think about who he spent the night with, but I asked anyway. I asked him to tell me where he had spent the night and who he had spent it with and why he smelled so terrible the way he did. He answered slowly, like he was making up the answer just then that second and told me he spent the night on a deserted beach alone with a bottle of whisky. I knew he wasn’t telling me the truth because he also smelled like smoke so I knew he must have been someplace where there where a lot of people smoking and drinking and probably also a lot of women, maybe the bad kind. But I did not ask him any more questions because I could not stand to watch him lie to me that way.
Kyle did not go out alone again in Thailand after that. In fact he never left my side until we got back to Korea. Nonetheless, the episode cast a long dour shadow over the bright sunshine of our formerly blissful retreat. Kyle was different after the night he rode away on the motorbike, acting odd and curious. Sometimes he was too nice, if you know what I mean. He had the owner of the resort prepare me a special breakfast in bed and he read to me lovingly and finished the rest of our novel in two sittings. He spared no expense for our meals and drinks, and even though everything was dirt cheap because we were in Thailand his refusal to economize was deliberate and obvious. Then, all of sudden he would withdraw into himself and completely ignore me. He was not confrontational or insulting like he was when he exploded under the canopy after our ill fated dinner, but he was different, changed, transformed, distant, as thought he were erecting a wall of separation between the two of us so that we could not talk, share, enjoy each other. This happened even though he was physically next to me nearly 24 hours a day. Abruptly again he was too nice, then unexpectedly he grew distant and hazy once more, like Koh Phangan vanishing into the lifeless silence and misty solitude of a cloudy, moonless, starless night. He was cast away on his island and I was stuck across a vast expanse of sea on mine. I might see the outlines of his territory there across the gulf and Kyle searching for me from what seemed like far away, but it was impossible for him to be pacified and permit himself to reunite himself with his wife who loved him.
Even now that we are back in Korea and following our daily routine of teaching at the institute, meals, conversation after dinner, and sleep Kyle is still under a spell. He dotes on me one moment and then inexplicably he is distant again the next. At those times when he is far away even while he is by my side I can’t get him to talk to me about anything. Even ordinary small talk is impossible.”
“I’m so sorry Kathleen,” I said. “I wish there was something I could do to help.”
“Paul, the reason why I have told you all of this is because I think you can help me. I think you can help me to get out of this place I’m in with Kyle. I want you to take a lifeboat to his island and see if you can convince him to sail it back to me, or at least tell you what happened that night in Thailand.”
“What do you want me to do,” I asked.
“I want you to talk to him about the night he rode off on the motorbike. I want you to find out what really happened that night he left me alone on our dream vacation.”
“And I assume I should not let on that you put me up to it when I talk to him?”
“You absolutely can’t do that Paul. If he knows I asked you to talk to him for me he will clam up, afraid you’ll report back to me.”
I thought about Kathleen’s request for a moment. I was not thrilled by the thought of intervening into the delicate matter of someone else’s marriage, but Kathleen appeared to be so desperate for my help, I simply could not refuse.”
“Alright Kathleen,” I said. “I’ll talk to Kyle for you. I’ll do what I can to find out what happened that night.”
“Thank you Paul,” she said. “I’ll never forget your help.”
The bus slowed down and pulled up to our stop in Kwangonli. As we got off the bus I thought about Kathleen’s request again and almost reconsidered. It was a tall request to ask me to make a man a witness against himself, and I was not sure Kathleen would be able to stand the testimony.
“Kathleen. You had better prepare yourself for this. If I find out that he did not go alone to the beach with a bottle of whisky, you had better think hard about what you are going to do about it after I tell you.”
She looked at me confused for a moment, almost as if she had not yet seriously considered the possibility of Kyle deceiving her even though it should have been foremost in her mind from the sound of concern in her voice as she related her sorrowful tale.
“Thank you Paul,” she said. “Thank you ever so much,” as she turned to head in the opposite direction from me to meet Kyle at the couple’s apartment.
The rest of the afternoon and late into the evening I ruminated over Kathleen’s story, unable to think about anything else. As soon as I had gotten off the bus I had returned to my apartment, dropped off my ESL textbooks, picked up my notebook and pen and then gone straight to the sea wall to write, but I was unable to craft a single line of prose since my own stories seemed so inconsequential and trivial when compared to the woeful tale Kathleen had narrated. Her words lingered at the forefront of my mind, beating back any of my own so that there were none I could think of to match hers for a succinct description of pathos. I considered her story to be a tragedy because it was obvious to me what had happened on the night that Kyle left her alone in Samui. I had only to set up an appointment with Kyle to hear his side of the story to have my gloomy suspicions confirmed. I knew he would tell me the truth because he was one of those young men who could not resist the opportunity to boast, even if it meant boasting about his involvement in an affair with a woman not half as beautiful as his wife as if to say to you, see what I can do, you could not do what I have done even if you wanted to because you simply lack my audacity. Surely the tale I knew Kyle would tell me would be fuller of passion and deceit than any tale I could conceive alone as I sat staring at the ocean, then at my empty notebook, then again at the ocean trying to get myself inspired to write. After a considerable time of doodling and scribbling some nonsense in my notebooks I decided to throw in the towel for the time being in full acceptance of the fact that my chief task for the weekend was more properly to hear rather than make tales. I left my seat on the sea wall and walked to the beach where I strolled up and down through the sand among Koreans in more jovial spirits than I for some hours before returning to my apartment sometime near eight when it was long past dark.
Kyle answered the phone when I called up Kyle and Kathleen’s number after my late supper and arranged for Kyle and I to meet at our favorite bar on the beach the next afternoon round about five p.m. Ostensibly we were to have few drinks before we would meet up with Berkowitz later in the evening for the kind of night on the town only Berkowitz could show us. In reality I was in no mood for a hell raiser with the New Yorker given the gravity of my task, so I planned to duck out at the last second even if this meant I had to make up a sorry excuse about being sick to mollify Berkowitz when he would stridently protest my refusal to join him in the bar.
Saturday evening at the appointed hour I was waiting at our table in Youmyunghan Beemil, the bar on the beach we teachers at the institute most frequented. We liked the comfortable atmosphere, reasonable prices, and Western styling of the place with its posters of American pop icons hanging on the wall. There were Monroe, Dean, and Brando all in row on one wall, and across from them hung a life sized velvet portrait of the King himself. With puffy images of celebrated western stars all around us, we felt we could easily be back in the States whenever we drank at Youmyunghan Beemil, which translated to “Secrets of Fame.” Though the décor was conspicuously Western, when the place was crowded most of the patrons other than we English teachers were young Koreans drinking and socializing the way Koreans do with copious orders of the required anju or drinking food accompanying the alcohol as they chatted and whiled away the time for hours on end.
The bar was nearly empty of Koreans and I was the only foreigner in the place when I arrived at five to meet Kyle. That was as I had intended because I knew it would have been impossible for Kyle to speak with veracity had other teachers from the institute been in attendance in the bar, as I expected they would be later in the evening. He would speak to me and not the others because the man who called himself Kathleen’s husband also thought he and I were chummy in spite of the scant evidence for both delusions. I ordered a Hite while waiting for Kyle who tread into the bar when I was about half way through with my drink. He looked rather distracted and preoccupied by something weighty, and I thought I knew just what. A tall blonde, muscular enough and masculine, his jaw neatly chiseled, his eyes greenish brown like leaves turning autumn cast, Kyle was as handsome as Kathleen was beautiful. Based on looks alone he appeared to be an appropriate match for the shapely brunette.
While Kyle walked across the bar towards me I quickly tried to devise a scheme for sending our conversation down the intended path towards Thailand, motorbikes, and bottles of whiskey. I considered it would not be an easy thing to do bearing in mind how I might awaken his suspicions if I headed too directly towards my object. If he caught on that I aimed to gather information for Kathleen he most surely would button his lip and Kathleen and I would be none the wiser for my trouble. Understand then how relieved I was when Kyle soliloquized right in the direction I hoped for immediately upon sitting down and ordering himself a Hite.
“Paul, I’ve got to talk to you about Kathleen,” he said after the waitress left us to fetch his Hite.
“Really? Is anything wrong?” I asked
“I think so. That’s why I need to talk. Kathleen has been acting peculiar lately, ever so quiet and remote. Last night after work she didn’t even talk to me once before going to bed alone at seven. It was the same way the night before and the night before that. I can’t draw a sound out of her to save my life, not even a peep unless it’s something mundane like, “Please do the dishes before you go to sleep.” When she does say something as ordinary and commonplace as that she puts on a show like it pains her to utter each single solitary word in that sentence. I don’t know what’s the matter but it’s obvious she’s angry at me about something.”
“What is it? What could she possibly be angry about?” I asked.
“I don’t know Paul. That’s what I’ve been trying to say. Well, maybe I do know. That’s what I need to talk to you about. I haven’t been myself lately either. Ever since our trip to Thailand I’ve been finding it hard to concentrate and maintain a consistent focus on things. At work I’ve been distracted by morbid thoughts, like how I might be dying of some terrible disease and not even know it. At home with Kathleen I fly back and forth from sheer devotion to drift and glide into a world populated by illusive phantoms which make me as reticent in conversation with her as she is with me.
“Tell me about the phantoms. What do they look like?”
“Slight, bony, and young. Ever so young.”
“When did these feelings commence?”
“It all started in Thailand, in Samui, the place we went to for our vacation. At first we were having a wonderful time, lazing in the sun, taking in the beautiful tropical scenery, swimming in the blue ocean, riding around the island on a rented motorbike and feasting on the delicious Thai food. Spectacular, that’s the only word I can think of to describe the place. I was feeling quite romantic too, like I felt when Kathleen and I were on our honeymoon in Fort Lauderdale, only more passionate because Samui was so much more, well, so much more remote, exotic, and luscious. I had been looking forward to our trip for a long time and was relieved to be finally in the middle of it since it had taken me considerable pains to convince Kathleen that Thailand was the place for us. She, protesting of homesickness, had wanted to go back home to Ohio for the Chusok holiday to visit her mother, but I was steadfast in my opinion that while we were away from home traveling the world we should take advantage of every opportunity available to see exotic and foreign lands. Kathleen thanked me for being so stubborn after she saw how lovely Samui was, and the two of us were like springtime lovers we were so happy and close with just our bungalow, our beach, our sea, a novel we read to one another, our curries and pad thai all day long, and our star filled sky to gaze up at each night.
Suddenly, after several days of this paradise, the intensity of our delight in one another started to get to me, the closeness I had first welcomed enthusiastically beginning to feel suffocating. I had the sensation of being surrounded by an enclosure of obligations and promises, fenced in and tied down by a heavy responsibility. Sitting on the sand by the ocean next to Kathleen one evening watching the sunset before dinner I experienced the transformation as complete. Instead of taking pleasure in the wide open view of the majestic sky spread out with vastness and majesty in fantastic color above the sea, I wanted to soar through all of the empty space and fly far away from where I was at that moment, from Kathleen. There was another island we could see from our beach, Koh Phangan it was called. I saw that dark green island looming in the distance and I thought it looked like a fantastically large ship making a slow departure into the immense forbidding sea. I wanted to find a small boat for myself, a row boat, a canoe, a surfboard, any kind of floating object, and I wanted to row, paddle, kick, even swim past sharks and sea monsters to meet Koh Pahngan before it slowly sailed away from Samui and Kathleen and all of my obligations towards her.”
“Why did you feel that way? What lead up to the transformation?”
“I don’t know. The ardor of Kathleen’s devotion scared me. I’m still too young to be trapped like this I thought. I thought of a dozen girls back at Ohio State who I had wanted to seduce but could not because I was married. We had married as undergraduates. Now that’s a sorry way to squander the lustful energy of your college years. It could have been all of that, it could have been something more or less profound or trifling. I don’t know, honestly I don’t know.”
“So what did you do about it.”
“I tried for a brief while to keep it all bottled up inside and secret from Kathleen because I did not want to see her hurt. I didn’t say a word about it to her and went on pretending I was having the time of my life playing the part of romantic fool so well. I lay with her on the beach and stared up at the stars. Then we retired to our bungalow to make love late into the night, and though my heart wasn’t in it I put on a good show. I was able to play the part well, hide myself from Kathleen though I was with her each moment, keeping everything buried inside. But when you’ve got so much volatile substance bound up in a tight space it only takes a spark before you’ve got an explosion. I finally lost it and blew my top one evening after a late dinner. We argued over our plans for the rest of the night and I shouted shameful words at her in front of strangers and then rode off into the night on the motorbike.”
“Where did you go?”
I rode away furiously from our bungalow and resort down a dirt road nearly crashing and killing myself until I reached the main paved road which makes a loop around the island. I wanted to find someplace where I could buy a bottle of whiskey and then head for a deserted beach where I could drink myself to sleep on the coarse sand underneath the blasted stars, but there wasn’t a liquor store anywhere to be found where I rode off to look for it on a remote island in the Gulf of Thailand. I soon tired of the search and turned around to head back to our resort, but when I slowed the engine to make my turn I could hear music from the beach, not clearly or loud, but noticeably disrupting the calm quiet of a tropical night. I rode in the direction of the sound until I came upon a dirt road which I traversed cautiously as I could see the huge pot holes illuminated by my headlight. At the end of the dirt road I found another resort with bungalows surrounding it. This resort was larger and more crowded than our lonely place and full of a raucous international crowd of young travelers, some dancing on the beach, most convening around a small tiki bar set up on the sand not too far from the water. There were a good number of young attractive Thai women at the place drinking and dancing with foreign men, some intently involved with them in confused conversations in heavily accented English. I overheard some of the conversations and could barely make sense of the incomprehensible racket produced by foreign tongues, some German, some Dutch, others Belgian and Japanese. What I could understand from what I overheard quickly convinced me that the Thai women were the kind who made their living selling themselves to foreign tourists. I didn’t care and even welcomed the fact. They were beautiful and slight each and every one of them, their Asian features looking so lusciously exotic to me that I could not help myself from staring at them. Their apparel was revealing enough to enhance their attractiveness, but neither showy nor gaudy like that of Bangkok whores; their moderately applied makeup had much the same effect. They did not look at all like decent girls but neither did they look so dirty and tainted as to be untouchable.
One of them in a red sleeveless blouse and tight white short shorts saw me staring at her, so she walked over to where I was standing by my bike. She walked over to me with a purpose, took me by the hand and lead me to the tiki bar where she matter of factly told me to buy her a drink after we sat down next to two large drunk German men. I ordered two shots of whiskey and beer chasers, the bar tender smiled knowingly as he poured the drinks, and the girl and I drank together for some minutes in silence before she started up a conversation in her faltering English.
“You come Samui alone?” she asked.
“Yes. Alone,” I answered.
“You must be lonely all by yourself,” she said.
“Maybe,” I said.
“It’s no good to travel alone,” she suggested. “That’s no way to have fun.”
“Maybe I’m not really traveling alone,” I said.
“You just said you here in Samui alone,” she said confused.
“I know,” I said.
“Well, make up your mind. Are you alone or not?” she asked.
“That depends,’ I said.
“Depends on what?” she asked.
“On whether I feel like being alone at any given point in time” I said.
“You’re an interesting one,” she laughed. “I think you need a traveling companion. You need a tour guide, someone to show you Samui and any part of Thailand you want to see. I am an excellent tour guide. I’ll show you all the beautiful and best places in Thailand. You let me lead you and I’ll make sure you no have a lonely vacation. You can use me for a week, two weeks, a month, a year, as long as you want. You just pay for my food and my drinks and buy me a nice gift every now and then and I’ll take care of your needs for you, all of your needs and your desires too.”
“I don’t need a tour guide.”
“Why not? Is this your country? Do you think you know Thailand like you know your home country. Where is your home? Where are you from?”
“I’m from America.”
“I love Americans. I know just how to show an American a good time in my beautiful Thailand. I know what an American likes. He like beautiful Thai girl just like me. I can make his vacation happy and delightful. I can make him content and satisfied. He take me with him wherever he go in Thailand. You take me with you and make true your biggest fantasy. It won’t cost you much money. I’m a poor girl and I have to support my mother and my little brothers and sisters who are still in school and want an education so they won’t ever have to work a job like mine. America is a rich country but Thailand is not, so poor Thai girl like me have many trouble. But if you take me with you as your guide all trouble disappear, yours and mine. Your girlfriend in America never find out about me. When you finish your vacation we say goodbye and you never hear from me again. No body know what you pay me and nobody in Thailand care anyway. Please make me your tour guide and I promise to pay you back for your generosity the only way a poor Thai girl can.”
After she told me in detail how she would repay me for my generosity I wanted to go away with her to some secluded place and forget all about Kathleen. Although I knew it was not possible to make the girl my tour guide because I had to return to Kathleen at the bungalow and with her to my job in Korea, I asked the girl if she would agree to a shorter term of employment, for perhaps an hour or two or maybe for the entire night if she proved herself to be talented enough.
“O.K. guy,” she said. “You can have me all night if you want. You won’t want to leave me in the morning because I’m good at my job, you’ll see. First buy me another drink and then you can go get us a room right here at this resort.”
“What will you have.”
“I want another whiskey. Have one for yourself if you want to.”
I ordered another whiskey for the girl and one for myself. We drank them quickly and then I went alone to the manager’s bungalow at the resort to get a place for us. I came back to the tiki bar and the girl was flirting with the two big Germans. I saw one of them get up from his seat and move to sit closer to her. She saw me coming back to the bar with the key to our place and she pinched the German on the cheek and walked over to me. She took my hand, looked at the number on the key, and then lead me to our place. As we walked away from the bar I heard one of the Germans shout to me, “Congratulations American. You just found yourself a lovely new girlfriend. It was so easy, wasn’t it?”
“So, you went to the room and slept with the girl?” I asked.
“Yes Paul,” Kyle said. “I’m not proud of it but neither do I regret it. I wanted to hire her out by the month by the time we were through.”
“And you paid her too?” I asked.
“Not a cent more than twenty dollars American after you figure in the drinks and the room. It doesn’t sound like much but the girl was probably so poor it must have seemed more than generous. Yes it must have been generous the way she showed me her gratitude just as she promised she would.”
“It was easy for you to do what you did?”
“Before we got started, when I closed the door to the room and looked at her bare under the light I thought to myself, now, what is this going to take, how much is this going to cost me, not in terms of dollars or money or time, but more in terms of the lies I would have to tell Kathleen. Well, I thought about it some and then I thought about it some more and finally after a short time I realized clearly that it would not take much because I was willing to pay any price for that experience. And it is not hard to lie Paul when you have a reason for it, or when you get yourself into the habit of deceit. Strange in a way how simple it was because I had not lied that much to Kathleen. During our three brief years of marriage I had been rather true and faithful to her, at least as much as I could be considering how we had married so young when we were still in school. I had never felt very guilty about my affairs with those other women, at least not on a level where I could sense the guilt and know what it was. I don’t know why. There’s really no reason or explanation for it other than the fact that I’m nothing special, I guess. What I’m trying to say is that I’m not a complicated person, not very difficult at all to figure out. When an opportunity presents itself to me I’m not one to turn away from it. I never claimed to be perfect and good, or like you Paul smart, and I don’t want to try to be either.”
“Do you know how old she was?” I asked.
“Who, Kathleen? Of course. She just turned twenty-five in August,” he answered.
“No. Not your wife. The girl. How old was the Thai girl?” I asked.
“I don’t know. She was old enough. I’m sure of that,” he said.
“Are you sure?”
“She didn’t look like a kid with all of that makeup. She performed like a grown-up, believe me.”
“I hope she was old enough for your sake Kyle.”
“What do you mean Paul?”
“Kyle, don’t you know what goes on down there in Thailand with the trafficking in young girls. Some of them are barely teenagers. Are you certain this one was old enough? You could be prosecuted if the authorities ever found out that she was a minor. And you would deserve to get caught too. I would tell them exactly where to find you. And Kyle, please tell me you used protection.”
“Well, come to think of it she did look kind of young, but I don’t think she was below legal age. No, I don’t think she was. Why should I care now anyway? It’s all over and done with. No one in Thailand can touch me about it now. I could always just deny it if they tried. What are they going to do, extradite me or something. Paul, are you trying to make me paranoid? Hey, that’s not funny. Don’t worry. I used protection. There were condoms in the room.”
“You have slept with Kathleen after your, what did you call it, you called it your experience?”
“Yes, but only once. I already told you we aren’t getting along, sometimes barely talking to each other.”
“You don’t think Kathleen’s in any danger?”
“I told you there were condoms in the room. Don’t worry Paul. I used them. Do you think I would be so foolish as to forget something as important as that. If Kathleen got sick that would make me a murderer. Surely you don’t think of me as that bad, do you Paul?”
“They were in the room. You said that already. But what if they hadn’t been in the room? What would you have done with the girl’s bare body in the tropical heat glistening under the light in the room? Don’t answer. I don’t want to know. Let’s just be thankful they were there, just like I’m thankful, thankful that I’m not you, that I’m not like you. Kyle, you must know even though I sat hear listening while you spilled your guts to me that I could never do what you’ve done.”
“Don’t be so sure about that Paul. If the opportunity presented itself your entire perspective might change in an instant.”
“The opportunity did not present itself Kyle. You went looking for it.”
“I rode away on that motorbike looking for a place to buy some booze, that’s all. I had no intention to find a woman.”
“Keep on telling yourself that Kyle. Maybe it’s true. Tell me again Kyle, why did you choose to go to Thailand in the first place.”
“To travel. To see the world. To experience life. That’s the truth Paul, but don’t worry, you don’t have to believe me. Paul, I knew you would judge me like this. A guy like you with your background and sincerity would almost have to. I’m happy you have made up your mind about me Paul. I wanted you to. Now, judge me if you must, but please, not so severely. I’m not afraid of judgment. I consider us to be friends. How many times have we met in this bar to drink and have a ball with the boys from the institute? I couldn’t count the times. What about all of our wild times with Berkowitz and the late after hour parties at Pierce’s? I’m not saying you have to respect me for what I’ve done, but please say you don’t hate me. Say we’re still friends. If Kathleen splits I’m going to need my friends.”
“Kathleen was the best friend you ever had Kyle. Can’t you see that?”
“So tell me Paul. When are you going to tell her about it?”
“She already knows. She just can’t bring herself to accept it. That’s why she put me up to this. That’s why she wanted me to talk to you tonight.”
“I know she knows already. It’s obvious from her behavior.”
“Kyle, it was your behavior that aroused her suspicions.”
“You’re probably right Paul. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to account for that, the way I’ve been flying back and forth between tenderness and seclusion. Maybe I’m not so simple as I thought I was. A person can be a complicated thing.”
“Some are,” I said. “Others are quite easy to figure out.”
“Perhaps. Perhaps you are right Paul. Maybe you are correct about everything. You seem to know so much, more than other people know. But I don’t know much. There’s not much I do know. Sometimes I think I don’t know a damn thing about anything. I do know this at least however. You’ll be doing Kathleen and I a huge favor when you tell her what I have told you. She needs to know and I can’t be the one to tell her.”
“You’re right about that Kyle. It would kill her to hear it from you.. I’ve got to tell her immediately so that she’s no longer in danger.”
“What do you mean in danger. How is she endangered?”
“You were in Thailand for God’s sake Kyle. Don’t you know about the epidemic? HIV?”
“I told you there were condoms in the room. I used them. I’m sure of it.”
“Well alright Kyle. I just pray for Kathleen’s sake that they weren’t defective.”
“Not defective. Right. I’m sure they were fine. I hope they were. Anyway Paul, my friend, thanks for talking to Kathleen for me. You’re a real pal. I won’t forget your help. I don’t know what is going to happen when Kathleen finds out, but I figure she’ll go back home to see her mother and leave me for a while, or maybe for good. That might be best for her. After she recovers from all of this she can get on with her life, go to graduate school like she always wanted. Then I know she’ll be a great teacher someplace where she’s happy. She loves to teach Paul, like she’s found her true calling. Not everyone is so lucky. Do me a favor won’t you and keep in touch with her for me, send her an e-mail every once in a while and make sure she is doing alright. I’m not sure what I’m going to do. When Kathleen takes off I might quit my job at the institute and head on back down to Southeast Asia for a while, perhaps a few months, maybe half a year. I’ve got some things to figure out and I want to see if I can’t live high on the hog dirt cheap they way Berkowitz said he did last summer. There no sense in forever being despondent when I’m so young and there’s a whole world out there waiting to be experienced. But boy oh boy, let me tell you, Kathleen was a special one. It won’t be easy to see her get away from me. Well, there’s not much I can do about it now.”
I thought about questioning him on that last point, but I reconsidered when I saw how resolutely he stood up and finished his drink. Then he somewhat surprised me when a look of yawning anxiety overtook his resolve in a flash.
“I better go back to the apartment and make sure she hasn’t done something stupid and gone and hurt herself,” he said. She’s been acting so strange lately you know.”
He looked genuinely concerned that something could be amiss with Kathleen, but I wondered how long the feeling would last. I was silent when he left and I stayed in my seat at the table in the bar for a few minutes afterwards, contemplating whether or not I would stick around and wait for the other teachers from the institute to arrive at the bar. I thought I might be able to use the company to lift me out of my dreary hole I was in spiritually, but then I imagined how before long Berkowitz would storm into the Secrets of Fame with a whole pack of teachers itching to get drunk. I had a vision of the unconquerable New Yorker vigorously shaking my hand up and down and saying something like, “How the hell are you Pauli boy. Ready for another night to remember? You’d better be because after we load up on the drinks here we’re going straight to Murphy’s and you know with the women there it’s not possible to fail.” Almost immediately after this strange revelation I decided I wanted no part of all the exuberance that night, even if I didn’t have my writing to hold up as a legitimate excuse for isolating myself from my coworkers and all of their merriment. I wanted to be alone. If I could not write anything worthwhile that night at least I could go back to my apartment and read. That would be better than me deflating everyone’s high spirits with the deplorable sulking I knew I would be unable to shirk.
I walked out of Secrets of Fame and down the beach back to my apartment in the darkness passing crowds of lively young Korean and numerous couples holding hands as they walked in the opposite direction toward all of the bars and coffee shops and nightclubs I was leaving behind me for the night. Some of the couples looked so contented to be strolling together arm in arm I was satisfied that at least someone had escaped the gloom I could find no way out of. As soon as I got inside my apartment I pulled a book off the shelf and sat down on the couch to read. If I could not write, at least I could read, and reading the great books would make me a better writer or at least a smarter one. Thankfully as I delved into the story I drifted freely into another colorfully created world and through it into the center of another man’s mind. I felt deeply indebted to the author for my much desired escape into his brilliantly conceived fantasy. Since I could not sleep and had no fair voiced woman to read to me or keep me company I stayed up until dawn on my own studying the pages of Robinson Crusoe. I tried to imagine what it must have felt like for Kyle to have Kathleen read the book to him and I wondered if he had felt anything at all. I got lost again in the story and forgot about the hapless couple until I was reminded of them once more as I read a scene about Crusoe’s lifeboat. The next day, I knew I would call Kathleen and report to her on my conversation with Kyle at the bar.
“The distance is too great Kathleen. The sea is too wide. No lifeboat can bring him back to you.”