As the plane climbed, Michael lifted his head from the back of the seat and looked out his window. As if needing some reassurance that all was well he stared at the ocean below, blue and glittering in the sunlight. Michael had hoped it would create a much-wanted calm, but weariness swept over him with a surprising suddenness. Anxiety shivered through his body, awakening the quiet worry that he was making a big mistake. He pulled down the window shade, leaned back and closed his eyes. “Breathe,” he told himself. “Just breathe.”
Michael tried focusing his mind on all that had happened during the last few months. Everything that had led him to talk to Drake and decide to put together a new import business with his old buddy. Even up to the moment when he boarded this flight Michael had never considered Bangkok as a high priority destination. Helen had never wanted to go but then that did not matter now. She was gone. Michael shook off the doubt and forced himself to reaffirm that he was not grasping at the first opportunity that had come his way. He was not the kind of guy who acted rashly. No, he was the guy that could make everything look effortless. Good looking, piercing blue eyes, affable, and with a business sense that drew all manner of loyalty to him, he had done better than well for himself. Recent events, though, gave Michael that moment’s doubt, had shaken him although he wouldn’t admit that to anyone, anyone except maybe his devoted older brother, Jay. Michael closed his eyes and tried to relax into the journey he had before him.
Nowhere to go for twenty hours, his mind began to play through unfocused thoughts. He considered the plan he had drawn up with Drake over the course of the past few months. It was solid. He was sure of that. Burying himself in work, he had spent the entirety of the last four weeks in meetings drafting the sections of the agreement for which he would be responsible, including the back-end of the new venture with Neiman Marcus, or Bloomingdales if Neimans did not work out. He had emailed Drake the finished proposal along with his itinerary to Thailand — a direct first-class flight on Thai Airways.
And here he was, on his way to a country where he didn’t know a word of the language. Michael only knew a little about the culture, mostly about the historic importance of the city as a cultural and financial center for South East Asia, and he had heard tales of the sex industry like everyone else. He had to admit that he was a little hesitant but more excited than not about the adventure that awaited. Drake, never a shy friend and certainly one who did not like the confines of long term female relationships, had told him some of his exploits there. Totally foreign to Michael, having been with only one other woman apart from Helen, he grinned, wondering if the stories of bargirls with “happy endings” were true.
As the plane leveled out, Michael’s wandering mind took him back to Helen, his wife of so many years. How could she have just up and gone? Simple gestures suggested that she left while still caring for him very much. When he got home on the day she left there were two grocery bags of fresh fruit and vegetables, and one small recognizable brown paper bag nearly overflowing with four persimmons and a dozen passion fruits. He particularly liked these two fruits, and the only store that sold them was a forty-minute drive a way — a sweet footnote in a book whose pages had just been slammed shut on him. The fact that Helen had only emptied her bank account of the $378,201.53 she had in there when, in a divorce, she could have had so much more, made it all the harder on Michael that she was simply gone. This couldn’t set in. He could still feel her at times. That was perhaps the worst part of it all, a pull toward an unfamiliar void where, before, it had been tender and caring. She was out there, somewhere, even still.
She hadn’t left a note. He had thought things were still good between them, not perfect but good, and thought she felt the same. The only issue between them was that he wanted children and she, for reasons he could never fully understand, did not. Or at least “not yet,” she kept saying, even though her clock was ticking louder each year. He wondered if she was having an affair, if that is why she left so suddenly, if she would decide to have children with another man. He shuddered, unable to imagine her with anyone else. But for the last few months when he couldn’t fathom a life without her he would start imagining her with this guru guy, Bob, the leader of the cult that brainwashed so many wealthy women on the East Coast. Helen was perhaps his most willing, his newest, but certainly his most wealthy convert. Michael had to shut out the poisonous thoughts.
Desperate to come back to the present, Michael asked the stewardess for some orange juice. He readjusted himself in his seat. His long legs feeling cramped even in first class. With the drone of the plane as a steady background, he found himself slipping back to the smell of her hair, the way that she would rest her hand on his back as they slept, the way she would tease him while parading for him in her favorite La Perla Lingerie, brushing of a finger across the back of his neck accompanied by a single sultry kiss just behind the back of his left ear. Even after so many years Helen could easily get a rise out of him, and she always played the eager partner. He was falling into the memory when the thought of her with that pseudo-hippy charlatan popped to his mind. It was maddening, impossible. It just couldn’t be him, Michael fumed, trying to turn his thoughts elsewhere. Secretly he was devastated by the weight of her absence. That and the sudden, forced career change. Two heavy blows in a row.
The FBI had stormed the offices shortly after Helen had left him, taking his longtime business partner, Ridley, away in handcuffs. Smirking, Michael replayed in his mind a recent lunch. He had met Jay at The Nest, Jay having arrived early and hailing Michael in his usual outgoing way. Michael remembered giving Jay a restrained half-hug, belying the fact that he loved his older brother dearly.
“So,” Jay said, “big doings.”
“You catch the evening news?”
“Nice segment on Ridley. Being escorted, if that’s the right word, out of Federal Court. Smartly dressed. Nice tie. But,” Jay paused, knowingly, “he held his arms out in front of him with a raincoat draped over them. Curious,” he said with a laugh, “with no rain in the forecast. But it’s good to be prepared, just in case, I guess. I will say that he didn’t look that happy about the, how shall I say? Forecast.” Trying to get his brother to smile, Jay poured Michael wine from the bottle he had ordered and gave him a nudge.
Michael dipped his index finger into the wine and swirled the finger around the rim of his glass making it hum. He exhaled deeply and let his hand slide down the stem.
“What?” Jay asked.
“Funny,” Michael replied through the kind of laugh that suggests it isn’t funny. He studied the wine glass as he turned the stem with his thumb and finger. “I remember, oh, ten years ago or so, I read this book on US naval history. Told from many perspectives — you know, from the admiral down to ordinary seaman. There was this one account by a seaman on a cruiser during a major Second World War naval battle. It was in heavy seas — big swells. So big that when his ship rose up a swell, he could see their destroyer escort. And when it dipped into the trough, the destroyer disappeared from view. Up the swell — destroyer. Down the trough — no destroyer. He heard an explosion. Up the swell — no destroyer. Gone. Ten, fifteen seconds at the most,” Michael said. “Gone. Just like that. Like it had never existed. You go along thinking everything is fine. And then suddenly it’s over. Gone. Like that destroyer.”
At the next table, close enough that conversations were quasi-public, a single diner put down his newspaper as the waitress arrived with his lunch. The gentleman looked their way and smiled casually before turning to his meal. Jay and Michael nodded a hello, both noticing that there was a photo of Ridley above the fold of the paper.
“There’s the destroyer himself,” Jay noted.
“It seems one can’t get away from the S.O.B,” Michael said.
“You in the clear?” Jay aksed.
“Yeah. Totally. I think only one other person knew what he was up to. Reggie Blank, a malleable guy if ever there was one. He’ll turn state’s evidence. He’s malleable that way, too. And guess what? I got all my money out. All of it,” Michael emphasized, “with no claw-back on the horizon. That is very big. Otherwise, whose money would it ultimately become? It could have gotten very messy with all of the investors, and it certainly will be for Ridley and the adjustors. I already put ten million into tax-free bonds. Just to ensure that I have a cushion even if everything else tanks.”
The man at the next table gesticulated too broadly while talking to the waitress and knocked over his glass of wine. Some spilled on the newspaper and half of Ridley’s face went red. But most splattered on the floor and a few drops splashed Michael’s trousers.
“Oh, excuse me!” the man said. “I’m so sorry.”
The waitress dashed off to get cloths to wipe up the mess.
“Forget it,” Michael said waving it off. He dipped his napkin into his water and cleaned the spots on his pants. He looked at Ridley’s partially new complexion. “Say, you mind if I complete that painting?”
“Be my guest,” the man said with a relieved laugh.
Michael carefully poured some of his wine onto the other half of Ridley’s face.
“Quelle artiste,” Jay observed. “So many talents. And a wealthy man, to boot.”
“A man of leisure.”
“Sure. Sit back and do nothing. You know I can’t do that.”
“Been thinking about it. Guess there’s no hurry.”
Jay was unconvinced.
“Michael, you okay?”
“I mean you already got hit by a right cross. And now this left hook.”
“I’m still standing.”
“If you ever feel like taking a knee, you let me know.”
“Appreciate that.” Hoping to turn the conversation away from the last few months’ frustrations, Michael asked, “How ‘bout you? That commission come through for you?”
“Don’t know yet. Probably a couple of weeks. If I get it, it’d be a dream come true. I’d be full time on it for a year or more. It’s a perfect gig.” Jay was beaming.
Michael couldn’t help himself, feeding on the infectious excitement in his brother, “Well, I’ve got a new iron in the fire, too. My friend Drake’s been calling. He wants me to partner up in a big franchise deal in Asia.”
“I’ve never met Drake,” Jay said, taken aback.
“He’s never in the States. Hates it here. Go west young man. Far west. Then you’ll meet him.”
It all had come back to Michael like a waking dream and after being engrossed in his thoughts for over two hours he slowly pulled himself back to the cabin on the plane. Almost eighteen hours left to go on this flight to some exotic location halfway around the world. Michael sighed a dispirited sigh — he had been turning the Montblanc pen around in his hand, the one that Ridley had given him after the conclusion of the biggest deal in their company’s history. He stopped and looked at the token from his now indicted partner; it was a sober reminder of the lies Ridley had told him. So much betrayal. Michael was done with it all, the pen now taking on unintended symbolic meaning. He tried handing this pen to the Thai stewardess who had been so attentive to him during the first hour of the flight.
“This is for you.”
“Sir,” she said earnestly, “I cannot take such an expensive gift, well, not any gift. It’s against company policy. I am sorry. It is very kind of you.”
Really noticing her for the first time, with what must be her very long hair pulled back into a tight bun, the natural glow of her olive-complexion skin, her light brown eyes — unusual for a Thai he later noted — he could not resist. “Look, how about this,” he surreptitiously said motioning her to come a little closer. A glimmer of familiar mischievous mirth, the kind that had been absent from him for a while, crossed his lips, “I am going to drop this pen on the floor. You pick it up and ask me if I lost a pen. I will say no loudly enough for others to hear. Then ask the gentleman behind me. When he says no you just pocket it. Okay? I want you to have it. I am asking you to do this for me. Your taking it will be doing me a favor, honest.”
The stewardess smiled a nearly unnoticeable grin at the earnestness but also the playfulness behind Michael’s request. Her eyes brightened, as she looked him full on, and unabashedly. It went off without a hitch. As Michael watch the trademark snowcap-lid of Ridley’s gifted pen slide into the breast pocket of her tight white button-up shirt, as she gracefully and subtly pulled back her official blue stewardess blazer, maybe just a little farther than she needed to, he felt something that he had not felt since Helen had left: desire.
Michael headed out of customs and directly into the car Drake had ordered for him. When they finally arrived at the hotel — somehow making it through the worst congestion that Michael had ever seen — it was immediately clear that it was an upscale place, luxurious even, especially when compared to the standards of some of what Michael had seen on the way in. An intense feeling that he sensed, even through the tinted windows of the town car, as he passed from the airport to the center of town hit him as he stood in front of what would be his home until the deal was signed: this was a city of contrasts. That and the jetlag had already taken hold, and any bed was starting to sound sumptuous.
A message from Drake awaited him at the hotel front desk.
Sorry, but I am delayed. I’ll join you in a couple of days. Meantime, check out Julie’s. 10th St. on the other side.
Michael smiled at the note surmising what Julie’s might be, knowing Drake as well as he did. He tipped the bellhop 200 Baht, and headed to his room. Michael did not bother to unpack. Shoes off, he lay down and was asleep before he could even register that he was now twelve time zones away, where morning felt like night.
At seven o’clock that evening Michael woke up ready to start the day. Easy to do in a city that never sleeps. He looked out the hotel window, seeing Bangkok’s nighttime persona lit up for the first time.
He showered and headed out to pass the time, quickly deciding to find out just what it was that Drake wanted him to see — imagining that it would be entertaining and a diversion at the very least. It was raining lightly, and it was warmer than he had expected. Cars, bikes and motorcycles crowded the main roads forcing one to navigate the packed side streets and their nearly impassible sidewalks. Evidently they were both public and private property, Michael noted as he opted for the sidewalks weaving his way around food vendors, nearly wall-to-wall stalls, and hurrying people. Stopped by a bottleneck of people he noticed five men sitting around an up-side-down crate playing a card game under the shelter of a Tabac awning. The game blocked the sidewalk entirely. No one seemed to care much about the obstruction, they just forced past, but Michael found himself lingering. The guy winning the game was smiling and providing a steady-stream commentary while the others seemed to concentrate more intently on their own hands. Michael kept looking at the group as he moved to the street, catching his toe as he did so. Stumbling slightly but managing to stay upright, he realized it was just as well that the sidewalk was blocked. On the sidewalks of Bangkok he quickly discovered, one walked looking down to negotiate the slabs that had heaved as well as to avoid outright holes that were ankle-breakers for the unwary. The streets were only slightly better, this in a country where temperatures never dropped below freezing. Michael began questioning his long-held view of the old Western mantra that cycles between the freeze of winter and thaw of summer is what made the sidewalks heave.
Sukhumvit Road cut through the heart of an old section of Bangkok — older in all ways except for the brand new Sky Train that whisked would-be pedestrians in elevated comfort above the sidewalk congestion. For the majority who remained pedestrians, there were a few overpasses where one could cross Sukhumvit Road. Perhaps “Road” was too limiting a designation, Michael thought seeing that it was four lanes of wall-to-wall cars with a concrete divide that dissuaded any at-grade crossing attempts.
Michael was forced back on to the crowded sidewalk where he steadily encountered bold stares from women in tight short skirts. All were attractive, many beautiful. Many would have been so even if they had not overdosed on makeup, perhaps even better had they not. He was surprised how athletic a couple of them looked, the two bolder than just stares. The first one body-gestured and called out, “Me love you. Me love you number one.” The second approached him, running her hand down his arm and whispering, “Me come you. Have good time. You no forget.” As he slipped his arm away, she went firm and pulled back. “Nice man. You, special price.” He tugged himself free and walked quickly away.
To avoid another confrontation with a similar group, he crossed over at 14th Street. Here instead of solicitations there were occasional beggars pleading with passer-byes from the metal stairs. On the flat traverse, a clearly destitute woman, cradling her baby, sat leaning against the concrete wall. The woman, unkempt, was clothed in a dress one step up from a rag. Her baby was not as well clothed. She held out her plastic cup with lowered eyes, but her baby looked out at the passing masses through weary eyes, both infected with conjunctivitis. It could not beseech even if it had known how. They sat there silently, her cup less that one-quarter full, mostly with 1-Baht coins, a few 5-Baht bills and one 20-Baht note. The sheer need Michael witnessed in this vulnerable pair made him open his wallet, handing her five 100-Baht notes. She bowed and bowed and bowed, trying to kiss his feet, but he stepped back, hoping to avoid seeing the rivulets that were forming in her once distant eyes. He continued on for a few steps, stopped, returned and took out a 500-Baht note and four 1000-Baht notes and handed them to her. She folded her hands in prayer. Tears were now streaming down her face. He responded with a nod, the only outward acknowledgment he could muster in recognition of her and her genuine reaction to such unexpected succor — and too, of his troubling reflections. Later, when he returned to his hotel, Michael used a different overpass, too guilty to ever use her overpass again — the divide was too large between them, and it would have wrenched at his heart to see her and her child again.
13th, 12th, 11th, one with no sign, then 9th. He reversed direction. Still no 10th, he wondered. He turned up the unmarked street. It ended at a run-down wooden building. A sign read Sukota School for Girl boasting a lack-of-maintenance exclusivity as the third “S” had worn off. The building was dark. It was beginning to feel like a wild goose chase in a city where he did not know the language and dared not ask the locals for fear of finding himself fleeced, or worse. Back to Sukhumvit with the bold stares and smiles, he said to himself, resigned to enduring more catcalls. He continued down the sidewalk, and one of the sinewy girls he had seen earlier made a soft grab for his arm. He avoided it. She feigned hurt and continued catcalling at him as he retreated. After the street with no name, it was 9th again. Getting frustrated he came to an alley wondering why he was on this nighttime mission anyway, This is a city with a million things to see and do. Great food, or so I have been told, nightlife that is beyond mention. Why is Drake sending me here? What am I doing, thinking about heading down dark streets alone at night? Thoughts started flitting thought his mind about Drake and his exploits, his own desire that he had felt on the plane, his missing of Helen, what kind of place Julie’s must be, and what Drake had had in mind for Michael. He chuckled to himself for even beginning this trek, lightning what was becoming a dark mood. Hitting another street with no sign Michael looked up and down what was barely an alley. This couldn’t be 10th. It isn’t even a street! He thought to himself. Rather it was an unlit dirt path, more potholed than level, Mugger’s Lane, he thought and finally turned back to find his way to the hotel.
With his head time-zone-spinning, he decided to sit for a while at one of the outdoor cafes to clear his mind. A tight-skirted girl approached and stood in front of him. Not a bold move compared to what he had already witnessed, but bold for her. She had the look of a young, inexperienced girl, maybe what Drake would call, “an eighteen plus one.” Her demeanor was wholesome — she had yet to acquire that Baht-guesstimate-calculation-gaze beneath her invitational smile. Her features were fine, especially her nose, her skin whiter than some of the others he had seen that night. He gestured for her to sit. Within a few seconds, she took out a pocket mirror to freshen her eye make-up.
“Better?” she asked.
“More better with none at all,” he offered.
She stopped mid-mascara, gave his comment a perplexed smile, but it had hit home, and sadness crept in. He offered her a drink — vodka tonic, the same for himself.
She took a sip. “Me like you.”
“You a student?”
“How you know?”
Someone bumped into one of the two empty chairs at their table and knocked it over, nearly taking the table with it. It was put upright with what appeared to Michael as exaggerated apologies, but Michael graciously brushed it off, continuing his conversation.
“But not,” he gestured with his hand, “around here?”
“No. Me die they know.”
“How many before me?”
There was no response.
“Too many to count?”
She flashed a quick no, shaking her head slightly.
“So?” He waited for an answer.
No response came.
“That’s all right,” he said, feeling a little ashamed at having tried to force her to answer. Clearly she was inexperienced.
“Two,” she blurted out almost as a confession, looking away.
He glanced at one on the street who had just snagged her prey.
A boy came up with roses and held out one for Michael to buy for “his lady.” He dismissed it with a slow hand.
“What do you study?”
“Then a good job?”
“Then maybe okay job.”
She had sipped her drink dry.
“You ever drink this before?”
“No. Me like. Me think good.”
He ordered two more — a mistake. Even he was feeling something from the second.
“Me sister, him want come Bangkok. I tell no. Him think me waitress.”
She nodded. “Live same day. What you think? Him come Bangkok? Now him no money. Work no good.”
“I don’t know.”
“You good man. You say me.”
“She speak English?”
She nodded, her face brightening. “Him speak good English. Same me.”
“Better she does not come.”
Suddenly she forced her eyes wide open and giggled. “You head. Go round. You funny man.”
“You come with me.”
“We go long time?”
“Yes, long time.”
“How much you pay long time?”
“We’ll talk. Later.”
She went anyway, not having settled on a price, she stumbling, him moving steadily towards what she assumed was his hotel.
He had her sit in the lobby of the closest hotel he could find while he went to the front desk and spent two minutes with the receptionist. Bhat quietly exchanged. Michael had everything settled, and this “eighteen plus one” and Michael were on their way upstairs.
Once in the room, she steadied herself against the wall.
“Me wash first?”
“No. Bed.” He pointed to the king-size bed with over-stuffed pillows and white downy comforter.
He pointed to the bed again. “No. Bed.”
Puzzled, she took off her shoes and skirt. He led her to the bed and sat her down. He pulled back the covers, lifted her legs and swung them onto the bed. She lay down. He sat next to her, his hands pressing down, not too hard, on her shoulders. Looking her straight in the eyes, “Now listen.” He shook her to attention. “Listen, tomorrow morning, ten o’clock, someone will knock on the door. You understand? Then afterwards you go. Understand?”
“Me no understand.”
“Ten o’clock, someone knock on door,” he knocked on the headboard and then motioned to the door. “After, you go. Understand?”
She was a little more awake. “Him you friend? Him pay me?”
“No worry. But after, you go. You must go. Understand?”
He got up.
“Where you go?”
“You sleep first.”
Her eyes were drooping, and she was snuggling into the pillows as he closed the room door on his way out.