Saturday, May 29, 2010

Rob and Anne part 2

To cross the street in Bangkok you have to go over it. Rob leads the way and Anne gestures me forward, bringing up the rear so that I’m flanked on either side, bumpered from Bangkok by two international Mid Westerners. We climb the winding concrete staircase in the sun, the day beading down our necks and thrumming in our ears – cars honking, motorbikes buzzing, people talking on their cell phones in this completely foreign language, something tinkling like metal, almost like a wind chime. A man in a ripped navy blue tank top sits at the top of the stairs on his stump of a body, a pair of white cotton shorts tied together in a knot where his legs should be. His lanky black hair hangs in his eyes and he squints as he looks up at our white faces in the sun, shaking a paper cup half full of coins in our general direction. He moans and drags himself after us like a dog or a zombie from a horror film as we shake our heads and continue walking. My heart chatters in my chest and my mind swoops into my purse, my wallet, the crisp creases of 100 baht notes. I only have 100 baht notes. 100 baht is only about $3 but I have a limited supply. I left my job and I don’t know when this one will pay me and I know it isn’t much. On the other end of the overpass an old woman’s wrinkles deepen further into her eyes and forehead as she, too, wields a paper cup and murmurs softly on her knees, gesturing towards a bundle of dirty blankets beside here where a little brown baby lays, its new face illuminated by the midday sun. We pass so quickly I don’t have time to worry about these people, about the world we live in that allows for such a situation, because Rob is talking, telling me some history about this part of the city, and we are going down the steps on the other side, and moments later we are entering the soft, sweet interior of the Intercontinental Hotel.

In the two-story lobby, we climb another set of stairs to the area made up for high tea. We rest our swollen legs in sleek teak chairs upholstered in creamy suede and look admiringly out the floor to ceiling windows. Perfect stems of white orchids adorn the table and a smiling Thai woman in a purple silk dress bows to us in a charming, friendly way, asking what we would like to drink.

“Emily, they have such fabulous tea,” Anne says. “Not every hotel has that great of tea even if they have lovely food, but here it is really nice.” She nods and giggles with the waitress, whose smile stretches wide, strawberry glossed lips over crooked, pearly white teeth.

“It comes from London,” the waitress says.

“Fabulous,” I say, and order Earl Gray, my favorite ever since I spent time in London myself, though I never frequented anywhere like this, unless you count the time a friend and I went to Harrods and tried on dresses that cost half a semester’s tuition. They asked us to leave because we took pictures of ourselves in the dresses.

A couple of young white men in the corner of the room begin to play jazz – one on a sleek grand piano and the other a tall wooden bass. Both wear black suits with white shirts and no ties. They tap their toes and look at their feet or up at the ceiling. The room is fairly empty; only a few other groups are having tea – a Thai businessman in a black suit and pastel blue tie, an older, distinguished-looking white man in jeans and a leather jacket with a young Thai woman wearing a short skirt and a yellow polo shirt with the strange, psychedelic symbol for Thailand over the left breast, and an Asian family with two young children stoically drinking chocolate milk with ice.

“Are you hungry?” Rob asks, rising from the sofa. “No need to wait.”

“They’ll just leave our tea if we’re not here,” Anne assures me, as if I need it. I trail after them, conscious of appearing over eager, but I can hardly contain my thrill at being able to take whatever I like from the silver platters and not have to worry about paying for it. I load my plate with a sampling of everything - sushi, sandwiches, dim sum, gyoza, soup, satay, every kind of cake, tart, and cookie you can imagine, four tiered trays of truffles and, to top it all off, a chocolate fountain surrounded by piles of fresh papaya, kiwi, strawberries, lychees, dragonfruit, oranges, and other fruits so exotic I don’t know their names. I have always had a good appetite, and it does not fail me now.

I can’t keep the grin off my face upon returning to the table to find Rob and Ann munching away and three perfect ceramic pots of tea steaming in front of them. With someone else I might feel naïve and unsophisticated displaying such enthusiasm, but Rob and Anne seem to enjoy everything just as much as I do and so, aside from what I have come to regard as my unfortunately frumpy outfit (all the Thai girls I’ve seen today were wearing the shortest shirt-dresses and low, slip-on heels) I feel like I belong here just as much as anyone else. Anne asks me why I decided to come to Thailand and I tell her everything – my soulless job, the breakup, my need for adventure. She and Rob nod as though all my answers are the most natural, sensible explanations in the world. The afternoon burns slowly on outside the windows while we eat and talk and sip our tea. I know this won’t be what my whole life in Bangkok is like, but an outing with Rob and Anne every now and then is definitely something I could get used to.

Finally we eat our fill and agree to call it a day, but not before we make plans for dinner next week at Cabbages & Condoms, according to my hosts, one of the best Thai restaurants in town. (They tell me about Mechai, an activist whose organization promotes sustainable farming and family planning. The Cabbages & Condoms restaurant is just one of many ways the group funds its projects. In college I lived in a feminist house and throughout my two years of having a real job I have given regularly to Planned Parenthood; this restaurant, these people, could not be more suited to my tastes). Outside the hotel Rob and Anne give me a last hug. We are close to their apartment so they will walk home while I take a cab. Rob slips me a 50 baht note and I thank them both profusely while they hail a blue taxi on my behalf.

“Tong lor soi yee sip,” Anne whispers in my ear.

“Tong lor soi yee sip?” I reply. “What is that?”

“Your address,” Anne says, patting me on the back while I walk to the cab. She nods in the direction of the cab driver. “Tell him.”

Rob holds the door open for me and I slide in to the cool grey interior, trying out my new words on the driver. “Tong lor soi yee sip, ka,” I say hesitantly. The driver nods sharply, looking straight ahead at the flowing highway.

“Kapoom,” he says. Rob nods and shuts the door and he and Anne wave as I drive away, on my own again in the big, bad city of Bangkok.

As soon as Rob and Anne are out of sight I realize I’m too wound up to go home. It doesn’t take long at all to get back on Tong Lor, and when I see that we are nearing a pub I noticed this afternoon, I ask the driver to stop. He doesn’t understand my English and so it’s not until a few blocks and a little bit of shouting later that he finally pulls over. I pay, collect my change, and walk back to the bar. The neighborhood isn’t too busy on Sunday afternoon but a few people are walking about and traffic trickles by steadily. Across the street a couple vendors are set up outside 711 and lazy-looking folks sit about on plastic tables eating noodles slowly, talking or reading the newspaper. Despite being lined with palm trees the street is still bright and sunny, and I notice for the first time that almost every tree has an orchid tied to its trunk. Stepping over large cracks in the pavement, I stop to take a closer look. I don’t know if the orchids grow that way naturally or if the community hires someone to put them there; either way it’s magical. I live in a city where orchids grow on every tree… I can’t imagine what to do with this information except have a beer to celebrate.

Big and cavernous, the Witch’s Tavern is a traditional English pub with gleaming gold poles over the central bar and stools all around it. The place is empty aside from a couple fondling the jukebox in the corner, but I don’t mind. I order a pint and open my notebook. There is so much to record, so much to capture.

The jukebox couple comes back to the bar and sits down a few stools away from me. I can’t help but notice that the young man with stretched earlobes, baggy jean shorts has extreme, painful looking scars all the way up one of his arms, the skin smoothly rippled like pink water. Tattoos of blue flames engulf his other arm. It is the scarred arm that he wraps around the young, pretty, girl with him. She’s like a picture of a heroine from a gothic romance, all pale skin and black clothes, a black plastic choker around her neck. I try not to stare but notice that their eyes, too, are taking me in.

The girl lights a cigarette and orders two more pints of cider. They speak to each other in English accents and something about their unhurried, comfortable demeanor makes me think that they’re not tourists. I want to talk, and their stolen glances suggest that they do too, but still, I play it safe.

“Hey, mind if I bum a smoke?” I say.

“Course,” the boy says. His teeth are like Chiclets and the bit of a goatee on his chin is patchy. “We were wonderin what you was doing in here by yourself. You on holiday?”

The girl smiles at me and hands me a cigarette. I light it with her lighter, inhaling deeply and letting the smoke out before speaking.

“No, not a tourist,” I say. “Just moved here a few days ago. I’m going to be a teacher.”

“Jill,” says the boy. “Did you hear that? She’s going to be a teacher!”

“Thank you, Sandy,” she says. “I’m not deaf.”

The boy laughs and asks me my name. Jill winks at me from behind his back, blows smoke towards the vaulted ceiling. I can’t help but wonder what a pretty girl like her is doing with this mousey cockney, genial as he may be.

“Emily,” the girl says, and I like the way it trickles off her tongue. “Did you go through the Thailand experience as well? That’s what we did. We did our TEOFL in Phuket, but we’ve come to Bangkok to work. Where are you working then?”

“Some place called Fun English,” I shrug. “I didn’t do a TEOFL, I just found it online…” but Sandy and Jill are grinning so big and starting to laugh now so I stop. “What?” I say.

“We’re teaching at Fun Language too,” Sandy says.

“We start tomorrow.”

“Me too!” I say. “Damn! I knew there was a good reason to come into this bar. That’s so crazy!”

My new co-workers agree that the whole thing is pretty insane, or “wicked,” as Jill says. We chat a bit and I finish my cigarette and, a while later, my beer.

“Have another?” Sandy asks, ordering one for himself, but I decline. This incident seems to me to be yet another example of my good luck lasting, and I don’t want to push it.