Koh Samet

Koh Samet was disappointing initially. The docks were dirty and old and so were the boats and all the people there. The docks reeked of Bangkok’s tubercular poverty. It didn’t look like an island paradise.

Angelo had memorized the map from the ferry dock. He knew the way he needed to go. He hoped it was as short as it looked on the map. He had a bag to carry. The whole island was only about six miles long and he only needed to cross a short strip right up on the top to get to the string of beach bungalows he was after. He picked up his bag and started walking.

A little blue pick-up modified to carry tourists on two benches zoomed by, filled to capacity, even so it honked at him to try to take on one more customer. He didn’t look. He liked to walk in a place until he knew it. He’d only be here a week. He wouldn’t be taking a taxi truck until the last day.

The road was just wide enough for a car in most places. Motorcycles with Thai teenagers zipped past him, kicking up fine gray dust. The plants were dense between houses and bars. A one room German restaurant advertised Bratwurst on its wall in old sun-faded brown paint.

There were a few medium sized dogs of no particular breed running along the road. The bitches had udders dripping like black ice. Testament to the dozen litters of hungry puppies they’d whelped.

Another couple of teenagers went by. A girl on the back of one of the motorcycles smiled at him—the easy smile he came to associate with the Thai—and stared until they were out of sight. Angelo smiled but looked down.

He was breaking a sweat. The sun was high and the sky was clear. Late December, dry season, no clouds, slightly cooler than Singapore but plenty tropical; eternal equity of day and night.

He got to the park entrance. He’d forgot the place was a national park. He paid for an entrance ticket and stepped off the pavement onto a one lane dirt track.

He came out on the beach and there she was. The cement mermaid. She’d seen better days but maybe not many of them. She was on a rock formation that eventually jutted out into the water. Angelo climbed up and then down so he could walk on the beach. He took off his shoes and tied them around his bag with their strings. He walked down where the water wetted the sand and made it easier to walk on.

The third bungalows he tried had rooms. It also had a terrific restaurant right on the beach. It was Ao Phai beach, rather between the kitschy places filled with Japanese to the north and the clubhouse places filled with Europeans to the south.

He rented it for two nights in case he decided to move for any reason. It was like a cave until he got the curtains open. The bath was grim but it was only dirty, not septic. It smelled clean. He threw his bag down and stripped. He pulled out his important papers and stuffed them under his dirty clothes in the corner. He put on his swim trunks and a blue T-shirt and put a hundred baht in the pocket. He grabbed his sunscreen and sunglasses and the room key and his copy of Pangyre and he went to the beach in his bare feet.

The beach was hot and wonderful. The sand was almost white. He walked to the water but didn’t get in. He went back and sat at one of the bamboo tables under the shade. He ordered a sandwich. The boy showed him the breakfast menu in response. He ordered French toast and orange juice.

He took a postcard out of his book. The post card was of Hong Kong. He addressed it to his friend Jayne. He wrote:

I’m not trying to exclude you. You’ve just chosen a path antithetical to mine. That’s the only real difference. The two. I like to think I’m right but I’m aware you may be instead.

I’m on an island in Thailand. The moon is releasing the water still high on the beach. It’s 10am. I just ordered some juice and french toast. It’s a very nice morning. I wonder if any Italians will assume I’m in the Red Brigade if I go swim. Most of the tourists are European. So a few of the women on the beach are topless. It’s better than the Go-Go clubs I went to two nights ago.

He ate. His body was trained from years of childhood propaganda to fear water proceeding food. He read a chapter then left his shirt and things in the chair.

The water was green in the shallows and a temperature that could keep you in it all day, no matter the weather. The breakers were two feet high when they did break. He swam beyond them but not far enough to be endangered by the jetskis that crazy Thai teenagers were showing off to get Europeans to rent them for a half hour. He just floated on his back—listening to the the waves move the sand—until he realized he was getting a sunburn. He retreated to the beach and a deck chair. He was aware of some Japanese men reading the Chinese tattoo on his shoulder. He hoped they would assume he was a gangster.

It was so nice to enjoy a beach with warm air and without seagulls. The only piercing cries heard all day came from the two little Norwegian girls who chased puppies on the sand.

At two or so he had a banana-papaya shake and took out his book.


The beach was very nearly white; the sand was fine. It was noonish when Jamie walked past the cement mermaid, going up the beach to the budget bungalows.

The beach was crowded in distinct pockets. She asked at the first bungalow office. Full. She asked at the second and heard the same. The beach at the third was not so crowded. There were Europeans. They were topless, one and all. She was envious of their detachment. Her body was much prettier than most of theirs. Maybe she couldn’t do it because she was too conscious of it in those kinds of terms.

She passed a group of Japanese company men coming up the beach in stylish swim suits. A couple made her think of Buddha, the others of basement-grown scarecrows. None of them belonged modeling those particular swimsuits. They stared at her and spoke in Japanese.

She asked the young Thai woman at the third bungalow office if there were vacancies. Then she asked if there were any empty rooms. There were.

Angelo was starting to nod off into his book. He set it down, open faced, and rubbed his eyes. There was a woman there. His age. She looked American. Angelo wasn’t sure how he could tell that but he could, almost always. Something to do with theater and screen, he thought. Americans, with the possible exception of the subtlety deficient New Yorker, sit and order food like they’re in a movie. Europeans do it like they’re on stage.

He tried not to stare, it was difficult. When it became too difficult he went to his room. He fell asleep. He woke up in the dark, sweating. He turned on the fan but he couldn’t sleep more. He grabbed his mosquito spray and went down to the beach barefoot.

The Christmas strings of lights of the bungalows’ restaurant were still on but there were only two tables with people. The boys were taking the rest of the tables in. Angelo checked his watch. It was after eleven. He took a chair down to the surf line where the mosquitoes wouldn’t be.

The moon was full and high. People walked up and down the beach. Some said hello while they walked past him.

She walked past. He hadn’t seen her coming. He didn’t recognize her at first. Earlier she’d been wearing sweats. She was wearing a one piece bathing suit now and her hair was down. She smiled at him and looked down. He didn’t watch her. He didn’t have to. He could see her behind his eyes.

The next morning he got down to the restaurant and she was there, drinking a shake. He was too late for breakfast. He sat where he could see her and ordered a club sandwich.

She was still there an hour later. It had taken that long to decide. Angelo picked up his things, stood, and went to her table. She watched.

“May I join you?”

“Sure.”

He sat down. He arranged his things and said, “Distance affords cruelty.”

“What?”

“It’s something I read today,” he said, holding up the book. “The idea that we can only afford to be cruel from a distance. For instance, I could be mean or merely insulting to you right now, without risk to myself. But if I ask your name or we discover we’ve been to the same places or we both like the same ice cream then I can’t. Then I have to be kind. For my own sake.”

“Jamie. Vanilla. Have I saved myself?”

“Angelo. Coffee, lately. Yes, probably.”

“Tell me more about cruelty.”

“The idea, as I read it is that the shrinking world will eliminate it eventually. Everything will become too familiar for it to work. Too local to give it the range it needs to survive and grow.”

“Don’t you suppose it will purify it instead of eliminate it?”

“What do you mean?”

“All natural things follow natural law. Cruelty occurs naturally so it isn’t exempt. It will niche adapt and the purest strains, the strongest, most subtle and deceptive, the ones that don’t appear to be cruel, will survive and propagate. Animal evolution is toward a compounding of emotion in relation to the brain. The higher the animal, the more emotions and urges to act upon emotion. Are you familiar with Coyote?”

“Yeah, but we usually call him Raven where I’m from.”

“Same thing. The bag of tricks grows, it never shrinks. It’s not in the interest of the animal for it to.”

“What do you do?”

“I’m on a research grant with a cultural anthropology team working in Chang Mai. What do you do?”

“I escape, mostly.”

“Really?”

“How long are you staying here?”

“Maybe a week.”

“I, uh, would you have dinner with me?”

“A date?”

“That’s a word with a lot of strings attached. If your best friend asked, you’d say, ‘Dinner, not a date.’”

“Why?”

“Are you trying to support your argument for the evolution of cruelty?”

“Yes.”

“Okay.”

“I meant, yes I’ll have dinner with you.”

“…Well, I had a bad couple of bus rides and the sun’s been taking it right outta me. So I’m gonna go lie down for awhile. I’ll meet you back here at eight? Too late?”

“No, that’s good.”

“See you, Jamie.”

“Angelo.”

He went to the bungalow desk to pay his restaurant tab. He lay down in his room but couldn’t sleep. The whole thing was too much. He’d been wrong. It was paradise to him, even without her.

Dinner was fish off the grill. It was more expensive than the little Thai dishes but it was huge and fresh.

“Where are you from, Angelo? You sound like a Canadian but you don’t talk like one.”

“Washington. Seattle, sort of. How about you?”

“Someplace else,” she said.

“Okay. You know, from one Houdini to another, it doesn’t work.”

“I’ll remember that for next time.”

“Ouch. What does your model say about pretend cruelty?”

“It’s a trick to subvert the familiarity element.”

“I’d like to see your statistics.”

“I’ll bet you would.”

“What’s your favorite book?” he asked.

They stayed at the table for three hours after the plates were cleared. Angelo had one small beer. He was comfortable with that. They talked about things with the capital T. It was easy, it flowed.

It was suddenly time to say goodnight.

“What are we doing tomorrow?” he asked.

“You’re so sure we’re doing something?”

“Would you prefer me to act?”

“Are you a good swimmer?”

“I could tell you stories.”

“Tell me tomorrow, we can go snorkeling.”

“Oh, great.”

“When do you want to go?” she asked.

“Let’s meet for breakfast. And then go.”

“I don’t know…” she said.

“Dinner and breakfast following too quick?”

“Okay, eight o’clock.”

“Ugh…”

“You aren’t gonna sleep all day?”

“No, eight’s fine,” he said.

“’Kay, see you then.”

“’Night.”

“Bye.”

They had breakfast at eight, they were both punctual. They both carefully paid their own halves of the ticket again. They headed overland down to the next beach where they could rent fins and masks.

When they got over the last hill they were down on Ao Vongdeuan. It was ritzier than their beach and dirtier; something about Europeans and litter. It was a large green cove with outcroppings of ocher colored rocks at either end. The cove was shallow. With the tide the way it was you could go out fifty yards and still be wading.

Angelo steered them around the cove. He said, “We should head for the rocks. More coral and stuff to see, I think.”

“There are so many pretty girls here.”

“I don’t know.”

“You don’t think she’s pretty?” asked Jamie, pointing to a beautiful Thai girl who was alternately chasing a foam football along the surf and being grabbed by a young European man who would never be her husband.

“She would be.”

“If?”

“Oh… sorry. I’m just an old man before my time.”

They got to the rocks, scaring off a tremendous navy-blue heron. She pulled off her sweat shirt and shorts. She had her black one-piece on. Angelo took off his T-shirt to put on a thick polyester long sleeved shirt that looked like a wetsuit top.

She saw the flash of color on the skin of his shoulder blade while he was getting the shirt on. “Oh, how many do you have?”

“A few. But it’s better to keep them out of the sun.”

“Let me see.”

He took the shirt off. She inspected them. “They’re so detailed.”

“There’s a terrific studio in Seattle. The sun’ll wreck ’em, though so I’ve gotta keep covered up.”

“Oh, I’ve always wanted one.”

“Bangkok’s full of studios, some looked good and clean. We’re both going back at the same time. Maybe we can go in one.”

“That would be so cool.”

“Come on, let’s hit the water.”

He pulled on his rented fins. They were too small but it was better than too big. He played with the mask’s straps which had the same problem. He spit in the mask, rinsed it. She was ready so he slid into the water face first.

The first thing he saw, he didn’t quite believe. He was glad he went in face first. It was a rock fish the size of a candy bar. He didn’t know if it was poisonous for sure but he had a pretty good guess. He pointed it out for Jamie. They gave it a wide berth.

The coral was great, so new for Angelo. The waters of his home were boring in comparison. The tropical water was perfectly silt free, clear, and fostered such diversity, even in these crummy little beat up reefs. They chased fish and Angelo played with a sea urchin by lifting it with a bamboo stick. Its shade of purple was amazing. All the colors of the sea animals were so strong.

It was hard work diving and swimming when he hadn’t done it in so long. Jamie was tired too. They headed back to land. He went through a dangerous little space between two rocks. The current was zooming in and out through them. They were covered with broken mussels and barnacles. As soon as he was halfway in, he regretted it and wanted to go back but it was better to go forward. She followed him. He was sure she was going to get hurt or stuck and it would be his fault. Her arms and legs being bare. He turned around when there was space and watched her come through without a scratch.

They got out.

“Man,” she said, “That was hairy. What were you thinking?”

“You didn’t seem to have any trouble with it.”

“Jeeze. I was scared though.”

“It’s good for you.”

“Next time, you can follow me.”

“Sure.”

They gathered their clothes and put their shoes back on. Angelo was still swimming in his mind. He wanted to buy scuba gear. He wanted to get back in the water already. He wanted to live there.

When they came out of the rocks and were back in the cove a middle aged couple carrying snorkeling gear walked past. Angelo stopped them.

“Hi. Are there any places you would recommend around here?”

“Oh, sure,” said the man in a German accent. “There is some wonderful coral on the other side of the island.”

“Is it far?”

“No, you go back,” he pointed, “and straight. It’s not easy because there is no beach but the rocks drop off quickly and the coral is wonderful there. We saw a very large octopus there.”

“That’s great. Thank you so much.”

They seemed somewhat uncomfortable with Angelo’s eager American gratitude. They headed off before he might thank them again.

Angelo said, “You wanna get something to eat and try over there? It’s only eleven.”

“Why not. I’m not so tired now.”

They ate and headed across the island to Laem Rua Taek. The rocks were steep. Angelo held her hand as she came down after him. They found a smooth rock they could sit on to put their fins on.

It was much different. The water was deep which made it quite darker. Angelo sucked in a good breath and kicked down. He made it thirty feet. He’d never been so deep. He could see things well once close to them. He saw a moray moving between rocks, which scared him. But he saw Jamie watching him from above, which made it okay again.

The corals were huge, making the little canyons he’d swum earlier on the other side of the island seem like a wading pool. There were many more kinds. They were nearly cowing. The fish were bigger in general too. More schools of multi colored tang and ferociously yellow butterfly fish. There were several pairs of slow moving grouper looking things that must have been a hundred pounds. Angelo kept swimming down to the ubiquitous giant clams, long grown into the corals, and touching them with a stick to see them snap shut. He measured the biggest one with his hands to be two feet across.

They followed the rockline, both intimidated by the depth and the changing light. They eventually made their way deeper where rising rocks made pillars of coral. They came around one of the pillars into a school of barracuda. Angelo wasn’t scared because he thought they were big silver pipefish. He pointed them out to Jamie but she didn’t recognize them either. They were the first fish that didn’t swim away from them. They came closer as an interested body and that was enough for the two. They headed away, out deeper.

Angelo dove again. She followed nearby. The shadows played strangely on the bottom. He had to let some of his air go to stay down without kicking. The current pulled on a collection of white objects, all coral and shells, bleached in death, becoming sand. Angelo sifted through them looking for something worth keeping. He ran out of air and headed up.

She was grabbing at him frantically. Angelo’s first thought was shark. He turned and saw a large shark. He froze which was good. He realized it was a dolphin, and then another with it. It was the same emotion he’d felt at ten when he saw a killer whale the first time. It was an emotion he’d forgot existed.

Jamie was slapping the surface of the water with an open palm. The dolphins came to them. They swam under their feet and then around them many times. Close enough that Angelo and Jamie got to touch them. It was the same shock of touching a snake. Not because it felt the same but because the skin was so alien. So unlike a living thing and still so vital.

They traded looks. Angelo could see, even through the water and the masks that she was crying. She looked back to the dolphins and suddenly she was holding his arm and then his hand.

The dolphins were gone.

Jamie let go of his hand and touched his shoulder to get his gaze. She had a big agate she’d found on the floor. She put it in his hand.

He held it, then put it in his trunks’ velcro pocket. He reached for her hands. She gave them. They stayed that way for a long time; floating face down, snorkel breathing, heads together, not seeing each other, watching five kinds of parrot fish, drifting. Angelo had the strongest feeling of wanting to die. He wished for it.

It was tricky getting out of the water. The tide had made the landing change. Angelo cut his palm on a barnacle and fell back into the water. He saw the cloud of blood misting out in the water, it looked black in the sea light. He made it out the second time. Jamie found a better spot and got out a dozen yards down.

Angelo’s blood dripped out quickly. On the rocks in the sunlight it seemed the deepest red he could imagine, backlighted, radioactive bright. He squeezed his hand to make sure the blood flushed the cut well. He knew someone at home who swore that coral could grow in human blood.

Jamie came over. She was upset about the cut but not the blood. She took his hand and wrapped it in her scarf. Though it would have been cleaner to leave it open, and it would stop bleeding soon, Angelo didn’t stop her. He was just shocked that a near stranger would touch someone else’s blood without thinking.

They didn’t touch again after that. They walked back across the island and up the trail to Ao Phai. They didn’t talk about the dolphins. The sun was setting. In the flowering bushes there were little moths with scarlet red bodies and white wings. Angelo took them for wasps at first. They stopped to look at them. There were a dozen kinds of butterflies too. Most of them looked like negatives of Monarchs, blue instead of orange, white bands on their bodies. They realized they were covered in mosquitoes. They’d each already got many bites around the ankles. They hopped around yelling at each other for repellent and running up the road to escape the insects when they realized neither had remembered to bring Off.

At dinner they talked about books and vacations and the best books to take on vacation. They wandered down the one lane dirt road to the clubhouses and little bars. They had some drinks and smiled and laughed and met people who made assumptions about them. A young Australian kept looking at Angelo with a dumb kind of malice every time Jamie would laugh. It was all frustrating for Angelo because he was unwilling to make the assumptions.

They walked back after a VDO movie at the bar. A huge insect went by their heads and crashed into the leaves under a lamp post.

“What was that?” she asked.

Angelo dug around until he found it. “Uh, I know this one,” he said, trying to pick it up. It was a black beetle, two inches long and an inch tall with short thick and prickly legs. “I just saw it in one of the markets in a case. It’s a… Heliocopris Dominus.”

“Sun King? At night?”

“I guess so.”

“Let me hold it.”

“Careful, its legs are sharp.”

She held it and gave it a thorough inspection. Angelo watched her do it. It made him drunk.

She put the beetle down in the leaves. He grabbed her wrist when she stood.

“Angelo.”

He kissed her, though he was sure she didn’t want him to. He found he was wrong when she pressed it back to him. They stayed kissing under the lamp for a long time. Many people walked by. She stopping kissing him and played with his hair.

“Angelo, you change everything.”

“Is that good?”

“Yes.”

“Let’s go.”

“Okay.”

They held hands and he steered them to the beach instead of the bungalows. They sat in the sand.

“Let’s swim,” she said.

He took off her sweatshirt. She took off her sweat pants without standing while he pulled his top off. Angelo expected getting in would be an ordeal but the water was almost the same temperature it had been in the afternoon. It was easy to dive right in.

She swam straight out from the beach. He chased her. They splashed water in each other’s faces until he did catch her. He held her firm, pressed against him. They kissed and bobbed and got salt in their mouths and laughed.

He dived under her and grabbed her feet and pulled her down. They both came up at the same time. He grabbed her and spun her into an emergency carry with his arm around her neck. She tried to struggle, she was scared for just a moment. Her head didn’t go under so she let him hold her that way. He dropped his hands to her shoulders, then played gently with her breasts. She leaned back to kiss him, reached behind herself to touch him.

They staggered out of the water completely alien to land. They sat on their shirts in the same place they had before.

It was warm but she was cold. He shook out his long sleeved shirt and put it on her and his arms around her. They didn’t talk but sometimes pointed at things. She moved to sit between his legs and rest her arms on his knees. He held her with his eyes closed. She fell asleep there.

He let her sleep until she was half awake, drowsily trying to lie down. He stood her up. She moaned and mumbled. He led her to her door.

She opened her door with the key and leaned on the door frame pulling his arm into the bungalow. He took her inside and set her on her bed. She reached up for him. He sat down next to her. They held hands.

“Go to sleep. I’ll see you in the morning.”

“Angelo.”

“This was the best day… this was a great day.”

“Angelo.”

“You’re exhausted. Sleep. We’ll have breakfast at nine.”

“Nine,” she said in a haze.

“Then we can take one of those cruises over to the little islands.”

“That would be wonderful.”

“Sleep.”

“I am.”

“Goodnight.”

“Angelo, I love you.”

He could feel his pulse in his face. He was completely conscious of his throat. The same feeling. An ocean of days watching the feeling she split with him.

He said, “In the morning.” But his voice gave her what she asked for.

In the morning he bought a copy of the Bangkok Times from the man who went up the beach twice a day with them. He read that he could buy a year long visa for two hundred and fifty dollars. He savored the idea.

He pulled out a postcard. He wrote:

Jayne, maybe you were right. Have I been so wrong? I met someone. I can’t believe it. How can things be this way? So strong and so short and so much that you can hardly stand it? Such thoughts. Alive, living, purposeful, here, permanent, me. Reasons to do what I have to w/ or w/o reason. I don’t mind being wrong. You always thought I would. I don’t. I’m happy I was wrong. I’ve always wanted to be wrong. To keep doing the right thing but be wrong about why I had to. Now I know why. She’s beautiful. I’ll tell her that for the first time today. And I’ll never stop telling her.

Write when you can, to Singapore, there’s a peculiar loneliness in this that requires it be shared w/ someone other than her. Angelo.

He waited. He was enjoying being hungry. Eating with her would be better the hungrier he was. He waited. He had a dread attack and told himself it was wrong. And that he had a right to challenge it; prove it was wrong. He got up, leaving his things at the table and went to her door. He knocked on it. Nothing. He looked in the window. It was empty.

He went down to the bungalow office to look at the inside tables. She wasn’t there. One of the bungalow boys behind the desk said, “Are you Angelo?”

“Yeah.”

He passed him a red and blue bordered envelope with his name on it. Angelo played dread against wish in his mind for the time it took him to sit down. When he was sure it was a draw, he opened it.

The note paper inside said:

Angelo, Don’t be mad. I went back to Chang Mai. We both know what would happen if I didn’t. You remind me of someone. Or I guess, more honestly, you reminded me of someone. It was so wonderful to spend the last two days with you. So great. I wish I had the words to tell you how much it meant. If there was any way I’d stay. I wish I could tell you. But you were right, and this is better. Read the one we talked about. I’ll be thinking about you. Love, Jamie.

He reached in his trunks. He pulled out the agate.

“I won’t,” he said quietly.

He wrapped the stone in the paper, which made him laugh; paper beats rock. He used syrup off his plate to make the paper wrap tightly. He threw it, from sitting, out into the water. He licked the syrup off his fingers.

He flagged the waiter and ordered a bottle of Mekong whisky and a bottle of water. He turned his chair to the water and stayed there, watching the water under the sky, until long after dark, and after another two bottles of whisky. He read his postcard once and carefully drew a line crossing out each word but not obscuring it. He added under his signature: I was right, keep this to remind me someday when I’ve forgot it. Tomorrow he’d catch one of the little blue trucks back to the ferry docks and mail it from Ban Pae on the mainland.


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