UMM Thailand Ch. 7: Trying. Trying very hard. Trying extremely hard. Trying too hard.
Author’s note: this is a rough draft. I’m writing by the seat of my pants. But I need to get this out of my head. Charlie Holiday is taking over and I’m just following along as if I have a camera or a pen or an entire film crew. He does what he does and I document it and try to share it here. I honestly don’t know what he’s up to next. There’s the girl, the checkerboard something or other, and tomorrow. It’s now tomorrow. Miss Plotter, where are you when I need you?
There was no woman yodeling about ham and eggs. No young man rapping his knuckles on the metal wall just above Charlie’s head. No train tracks. No green curtains. It was downright peaceful.
Charlie checked on Jacqueline as if there were a chance she might be awake, but nope. He turned over, snuggled his head on his pillow, told himself it was too early to wake up, closed his eyes, and knew instantly that he wouldn’t be able to get back to sleep.
What for some might evolve into an hour of tossing and turning or maybe a session of should-I-get-up-or-lie-in-bed-some-more back and forth debate, was broken in seconds as Charlie threw off the sheets and was on his feet.
He quietly put on shorts, a button-down shirt, and sandals, brushed his teeth quietly and slipped out the door.
He had both forgotten about the receipt and it was also on his mind every waking moment — maybe even every sleeping moment, he couldn’t remember. Somehow it was light and fun and on the other hand, it was somehow important for his future. It was both a dilemma and a game.
Within a minute, he was out on the streets of old town Chiang Mai and realized soon that he was almost the only one out and about. As he walked aimlessly, more and more people came out of the woodwork. Shop owners rattled open those vertical metal grates as if to try to wake up anyone who wasn’t awake yet. Others swept the front of their shops with home-made brooms consisting of a thicker tree branch for the handle and thinner branches for the brush. Some splashed buckets of ammonia-laced water in front of their shops, as if tossing around those smelling salts they put under boxers noses to wake them up. They were waking up the city.
“Sa wa dee!” they sang out and he did his best to return the morning greeting.
“Sa wa dee!” he chirped back, inspired by the morning types he encountered. His family was mostly put together of snoozy night owls, with the exception of Lu who slept maybe less than he did but could be distracted for hours with a book or a screen of any kind. The morning was his time. The air was fresh, brooms swept up the dust of yesterday, and nitro glycerin cleaning solution washed in the fresh new day, making sure to kill any organisms that thought they might have survived the night.
His eyes unfolded and the spring awoke in his step. The city was waking up and so was he. He both tried to consciously not look for a girl and a picnic table and at the exact same time couldn’t help trying. Now was the perfect moment: morning, his time, early, before his family was awake, before most of the city was even up and about.
He walked and looked, searched and scoured. The morning Thai people greeted him with such big smiles and open arms it was almost as if Charlie were an ambassador, as if they were waiting for him, but then again, they probably did the same thing with the next tourist who walked by in another ten minutes.
Come on, where are you? he said aloud as he walked by a restaurant that advertised pretty much any dish served in half a coconut shell. Even though it was the crack of dawn and the place was closed, it looked appetizing. The green curry has so much flavor per square centimeter it could qualify for NASA space food if they dried it and made a powder of it. It might be able to power the rocket, too. Charlie made a mental note to file a patent when he got home and kept going through the less-and-less quiet streets.
He walked faster and looked into more and more restaurants, motorbike repair shops, and anything else that had an open door. He was looking hard and fast, thoroughly and intensively. Where was she?
If he had had a watch, he would have looked at it. It was still early, especially for his family, so he had some time, but he quickly felt pressured to find this girl, get this over with, get on with the day. But get what over with?
He went past the same coconut place and only then realized he had been walking in a circle. He needed to be more mathematical, more strategic, more thorough. He needed to try harder.
He walked faster. More shops were opening. Tourists walked out of hotels and backpacker lodges. He looked for tables, for girls. As he saw a few girls, he also realized he had no idea what he was going to say to any of them even if he thought she was the right one.
Thai iced tea with milk. They were open. He ordered one of the iced drinks, a reddish tea with an earthy flavor drenched in sweet and thick condensed milk, always from the red and white Carnation cans. He thought of sitting down but decided to go American style and walk around with his plastic cup and straw and keep up his search.
He walked faster and looked at more people. When there was a girl, although he had no idea what girl he was supposed to find, he looked into her eyes for some sort of sign, some mention of something that he was on the right track. At one point, a girl looked back at him but it could have very well been because she was wondering why this man was looking into her, almost through her, as if for answers. She gave him a bit of a worried look and Charlie realized he was maybe taking this whole thing the wrong way.
He slowed down. He stopped. He took a sip of the sweet tea and let his shoulders fall and sighed a heavy sigh. But today was supposed to be the day. I’m working hard to make this happen. I’m trying. He thought and calculated and tried to think of how he could do this better. He looked left. He looked right. He wasn’t sure where he came from or where he was going. He looked straight ahead.
‘Foot massages. Chat with the monks to help them learn English.’ the sign said. There was a small temple complete with the bling-bling shiny objects that adorned all temples in Thailand. He walked in.
Twelve reclining chairs were lined up under a canvas structure protecting them from the melting sun rays. Charlie walked towards them.
“Sa wa dee,” said the woman who came up on his side and sang her morning greeting with the voice of an opera singer. She was either 25 or 45, it was hard to tell.
“Sa wa dee,” Charlie replied.
“You want massage?” she asked.
“Uh,” he stumbled but only for a second. “Yes.”
“Sit down, please,” she said and pointed with her arm to the row of empty chairs.
“Kòp kun,” Charlie thanked her, emptying out the rest of his five-word Thai vocabulary. He made his way to a chair, picked one near the middle, sat down, removed his old sandals, and closed his eyes.
As if he had walked the city all night and all morning, he was exhausted. The chair was a simple outdoor lawn chair, but the simple padding felt luxurious and glorious. The hum and drum of the city was drowned out by what sounded like chanting. His ears adjusted and filtered and soon the motorbike mayhem and rubber on asphalt was replaced by only the chanting of what must have been monks — seeing that it was a temple in Thailand, after all.
“Soft or strong?” came the question from right in front of him. A different woman was sitting in front of him who had started to wash his feet with a wet cloth. Even that felt good. How far had he walked this morning? Maybe it was ten kilometers. Maybe it was one. It felt like one hundred.
“Medium,” he said and immediately regretted it. He consciously tried not to be that person who ordered the low-calorie Ranch dressing on the side and no anchovies person. Go with it, go native. But it was too late.
He looked at her. ‘Medium’ might have been beyond her English vocabulary and if her English was anywhere near as limited as his Thai, he was going to have to tone things down.
“Soft,” he said as visions of torture devices flashed through his mind, his body hanging from his ankles as this darling woman raked his calves with a cheese grater and whispered ‘Strong enough?’ as he whimpered and wished he was back with yodeling Mary on the night train, back when life was normal.
“Soft,” he said again as the medieval torture scene vanished from his overly-active imagination.
She smiled and kept caressing his feet with the towel which already felt so refreshing that if the whole foot massage were over in four more minutes, it would have been worth it.
She spoke in Thai and he looked at her to see who she was talking to, but it seemed to be to him. Surely she realized that he had already completely emptied the thimble full of words he knew and that he couldn’t understand a word she was saying. But she kept going.
There was something with her eyes that Charlie couldn’t quite work out. There seemed to be a twinge of blue in them, but so far, the Thais had pretty much only had brown eyes. He looked again. There was absolutely some blue in them. Maybe they were lenses. ‘Contact lens’ was fairly certainly not in her vocabulary, so he let it go. She kept talking as she worked.
Thai was so distant from any of the languages Charlie knew that he could only hear the rhythm and intonations. Some words seemed to sound like a little girl, high pitched but still innocent. Sometimes the words went faster and contained lots of stops and starts, almost clicks and tocks. Together it was an opera and a rap song that merged into a lullaby and Charlie felt his eyes get heavier, his head fall back into what seemed like royalty of a recliner, and as if she had injected the soft underbelly of his foot with a sleeping serum, he was almost asleep.
Almost in a trance, he used all of his strength to open his eyes one last time. She was right there in front of him, now working her strong fingers through each of his toes. But her gaze wasn’t on his toes. She knew where each one of those was and what to do with them. Her eyes were looking directly into his.
Charlie spent the last of his strength trying to decipher what she was saying as she just kept talking, but there was no hope. It was just like background music that was going to lull him deeper into a state of Buddha bliss.
His eyelids were falling even as he fought to keep them open. His gaze fell from her eyes downwards. Her chin, her neck, her shirt, and there were his feet in her hands. She was working them expertly finding zones and sensations he didn’t know his toes were capable of.
She had a Henna tattoo on her left hand comprised of curly cue designs and then something of a flower, maybe a Lotus. On her wrist were a collection of bands and bracelets. One of them was a little wider than the others.
His eyes were almost closed. The band was a cloth or fabric. It was brighter than the others. It had something of a pattern to it. It was red, but there was also some white.
A chill came up through his body from his gut through his chest, up to his neck, behind his face, and that same chill came up to his eyes and closed them and he was gone.