Saturday, February 3, 2007

SMOKE is a 4,000 word piece of fiction

First North American Rights



Jonathon Siminoe

Pon stepped out of the bright blue taxi, her pink skirt rising up and showing more than enough of her fair skinned thigh to catch the attention of the table full of office men sitting just outside the front doors of the Star Coffee Shop. She glanced about the patio and spotting Seth gave a smile, wave, and a bit of a curtsy.
Seth acknowledged her with little enthusiasm and walked to the curb to meet her. "Where have you been? You're late."
"Not so much. Its Bangkok Seth, rot dit mag (traffic was terrible)," she explained.
"Well I came through the same traffic, but anyway… Let's get a table inside. It's too hot out here to drink hot coffee."
"You could always have a cold coffee."
He didn't bother to answer. In all his years living in America he had drunk hot coffee and to him the idea of putting in ice, sweetener, and God forbid whip cream was unthinkable. Thailand was a sweltering land, but still quality coffee should be enjoyed hot.
Pon ordered for them on their way passed the counter. It was easier for her to speak Thai to the waiters because Seth's accent was thick and at times completely a mystery to the workers who had not originally come from Bangkok. The natives to the city of angles had grown accustomed to the Farang's (white foreigners to Thailand) toneless mutterings. But some worker fresh from the north or north-east would struggle greatly with the lack of lilt and pace in the Western man's Thai.
They were lucky and found a table near the back by the enormous window. Water ran over this rectangle pane creating a soothing blurring of vision. As Lad Plakao road ran just behind the glass it made for an attractive sight as car lights, especially red break lights, glowed through the enchanting watery transparency.
Pon leaned back exhaling a cloud of smoke just above Seth's head; it was her way of avoiding choking him with her self indulgence and usually avoiding his scrutiny. On most days this token effort was enough, but he was particularly sensitive today and the smoke - although it missed him completely - seemed to set him off. His hand came hammering down on the table, sending the utensils jumping.
"Sorry," she offered mechanically, her face turning down so as not to make eye contact with the curious coffee house crowd which had all been startled by the noise. Thai people seldom argued in public as drawing attention to one's problem was a complete loss of face.
Within a few seconds a waiter, dressed in the establishment's uniform of a brown polo shirt and gray pants, released a steaming blast of aromatic coffee into a ceramic mug as he began crafting a cappuccino. The many patrons, realizing they weren't going to hear a thing over the whine of that machine, returned to their reading or Internet surfing.
"I hate that shit! You know it killed my grandfather!" Seth said.
She frowned, and when she frowned this angelic Chinese beauty's face underwent a transformation of decay, a degeneration of such a massive contrast that she looked just shy of a demon. It was her perfectly plucked and brushed eyebrows curving upward like a cat about to strike, and her eyes which narrowed to black slits, and her lips not only turning downward, but thickening with a nearly geriatric looseness, which formulated this evil persona.
"It's my only one of the day," she said.
"I doubt that," he snapped, pulling his fingers through his thick blond hair which he allowed to flop about his face much the way a teenage surfer would do, despite being nearly 40. His green eyes speckled with gold, fixed on her face. "I doubt most everything you say to me to be perfectly honest. I'm not sure if you have an honest word to offer."
"Then what's the point?"
He winced with the sharpness of her words; he used to be able to chastise her without retort, but now almost nothing he said went undisputed.
"I admitted to you what happened which I did not have to do. I told you what I did. You said you forgave me, but every time you have a bad day I get punished for it again. Or are you really just scared of smoke?"
He huffed. "Smoking killed my grandfather, I'm not afraid of it I'm disgusted by it. It's a dirty habit; besides, it's so behind the times, first world nations haven't allowed smoking in public in twenty years. Thailand just never got the health memo. I am surprised a hip girl like you would cling to it."
"Well you are such a modern guy. You're the first one people check with to find out what's fresh in Bangkok."
She was fifteen years his junior and enjoyed reminding him of the fact that he was anything but up to date when it came to fashion, taste, or attitude. It was a joke between them most of the time. He teased her about her lack of film knowledge, "Blade Runner was one of the finest films Hollywood ever produced."
"In 1982 I wasn't born yet, how would I know," she would retort. "But I do know that wearing your shoes, with the leather tassels on top, that hasn't been cool since 1982."
He was the epitome of a man of routine; struggling with change, new approaches, even with putting on the new clothing which her father's generous allowance allowed her to lavish upon him. He was afraid of anything unfamiliar to a nearly manic extent and this was getting worse seemingly with each passing week.
He leaned on routine especially when he was stressed. The weekend after her confession to him of a romantic indiscretion - an 'I didn't mean for it to happen' type of offense - they'd driven to a restaurant which they often visited and when on arrival someone was seated at their usual table, he turned to her and with no particular annoyance or contemplation said, "Well, it's taken so let's go for Chinese food instead."
She knew his mind was far too preoccupied with their problems for her to point out that there were several other tables - albeit not the one which faced out toward the fish pond he loved - which were available. She nodded her agreement and they silently departed. They went for Chinese food; sitting at the table they always sat at located near a tall Ficus which he enjoyed hiding their conversation behind. He was always in contradiction with himself about being in public, desiring privacy while being out - wanting crowds and noise to keep things lively - but wanting to observe it from solitude and serenity, from his private reserve.
The coffee house waiter came around to deliver his American Black coffee upon a saucer. The Thai customers would come up to the counter to get their drinks when the workers would bellow or wave to them that it was finished. However, Seth had given no indication that he spoke Thai and so rather than have a miss understanding, the young man just walked it out and set it in front of him.
Seth would add two packets of sugar to the drink, stir with five quick circular churns, and then - before it had cooled in the slightest - take a lip smacking sip. Once he had finished this ceremony she knew his mood would mellow. She waited.
"And will we go to the sea tomorrow night or should we put that off?" he asked between the stirring and the drinking.
"Why would we put it off, we've been planning it for a couple of weeks now? You said you were looking forward to it."
"Well we planned it, but now we've been fighting."
"Are we?" she hummed.
"Aren't we? Yes. I don't want to be in a bungalow on the beach together if we are going to ruin it by fighting. It's a lot of money to spend for a better ring for us to box in."
She shrugged her shoulders. "I thought the trip would get us away from the arguing. Help us forget our troubles and move on… It's a perfect chance for us to relax a little bit."
He wanted to snap at her that it was easy for her to forget, she'd been the one fooling around with someone else and she was the one now starving for forgiveness and complete denial. He did, with every fiber of his being, want to give her amnesty, in fact if he could erase the images of her entangled in the sweaty, urgent arms of some young lover after a night of drinking whiskey and dancing on the beach, he certainly would pay any amount to lobotomize this vision. But, it had happened and no matter how many times he promised her that he would forgive and forget it over time - especially as it was a singular occurrence - he knew it was a cancer that would lay dormant beneath the skin of their relationship until someday it would once again surface. Deceit is never benign.
He had learned from his own mistakes that they are never truly forgotten. Two wives had already departed his life when he had committed similar crimes and just like Pon, begged for forgiveness and anticipated complete salvation - the kind promised by youth leaders in Sunday school - only to find that any and seemingly all disagreements which occurred after said forgiveness reintroduced a new fervor for opening those old wounds.
When he cheated on his first wife Nancy it had been with her cousin's best friend on a rafting trip which Nancy had been too busy to attend. He was in his middle twenties then and flirted with this college co-ed vivaciously as they paddled along the predominantly calm waters of the Colorado River. The group slept in tents along the river, the sound of rushing water an ever-present noise in their camp. She had slipped into his one-man tent late the first evening well after everyone else had gone to sleep. The second night, probably because of the beers she'd quaffed, she was recklessly early and Nancy's uncle Ed watched her slither in through the flap in his tent and then he crawled close enough to listen to their lovemaking through the canvas. The following weekend Uncle Ed dropped by uninvited, taking Nancy into the kitchen so they could talk in private and revealing the tawdry story to her between can after can of beer.
The screaming began the moment Uncle Ed's car rolled out of their driveway. He calmed her down with pledges of a 'lesson learned' and 'first offense' and 'never again.' For three weeks Seth moved around their home like a bat in the sunlight, nervous and scared. Finally he awoke late on a Sunday morning and found her note saying she was going to Florida for a week and on her return she did not want him there.
With his second wife Kay, nearly a decade later, his deceit was far worse. They had been together for three years and he felt closer to her than he had ever felt with Nancy. Kay's occupation as a flight attendant gave him far too many nights alone, and despite himself and his love for her, he met a young woman who had just graduated from university and began an affair. She was going through a terrible breakup with her violent and abusive boyfriend and wanted only someone to talk to, to hold her gently, and to pass the time. They were substitutes for each other - temporary replacements with no misunderstandings about a future. But when Kay discovered her key in Seth's jacket and went to confront her, there were no words that she could say that explained this reality to his wife.
Kay suffered through forgiveness for nearly six months. She'd break down crying in restaurants, begin to tremble at times without warning, and often fly into fits of random rage that Seth dare not confront. Finally, she asked for a city transfer from the airline and when it was granted simply stood in the doorway of their home and screamed as if she were a kettle crying out upon the open flame of the stove with her belly full of boiling fury.
Now it was Seth's turn to feel the sting of betrayal. When he first heard Pon say the words he had nearly suffocated from the shock - as if breathing's innate blessing had been forgotten and become a labor of paramount complexity. For days after, his gums bled from his habitual mashing of his teeth as he literally chewed upon the agony, silently lost in thought. When his teeth ached beyond what he could bear, he would gnaw upon the knuckles of his hand almost manically.
It wasn't the one night stand which was torturing him. It was his unceasing imagination which incessantly crafted an intricate web of betrayal far beyond any weekend imprudence. He envisioned romantic notes, secret hushed phone conversations, rendezvous in dim lit places, and worst of all he pictured their youthful passion abounding far beyond his own rather measured lovemaking. His heart stopped with every phone call she received. He would, after asking about her day, take mental note of every word she uttered for fear that he might miss some telltale sign. He would question, always silently to himself, the distances she would say she traveled. With traffic, he'd wonder, could she really have gone from downtown to home between lunch and meeting me, or did she come from somewhere else?
"Maybe the sea would be good for us…" he mumbled, attempting to calm the storm within his mind.
"I know that it will be. I'm sure of it. There is no place you and I feel better than the sea. It will be so romantic."
The idea of romance, the mere mention of it, and immediately his thoughts - unable to bring into focus the multitude of nights he and Pon had shared, the love, the conversations over dinner, the physical ecstasy - and he pictured her with the guy she had betrayed him with. In truth he had no idea what the young man looked like, only that he was young, her age, and the son of a wealthy land developer who could afford to whisk her away for a quixotic weekend to any island of her choosing. Seth had been golfing with his work buddies the weekend it had happened and he'd been shocked, when returning home early Sunday afternoon, to find her note detailing a spontaneous trip with college friends to Ko Samui. Ironically it was a location she'd been asking to take him to for months.
Perhaps he had been arrogant or just absent minded about his doting upon her. In Thailand she was the essence of desire. Her China white complexion, long black hair, tiny features, and wealthy heritage made her desired by Thai's elite and the nation's commoners as well. Much like the TV actresses she resembled, she was blessed with the unusual skin tone, the contrasting shade - her white skin was opposed to the usual Thai dark brown and her long egg shaped face contrasted their square profile - and this otherness made men desire her and women aspire to look like her.
Seth's thoughts were flashing, but he'd paused too long in their conversing. She exhaled a slow breath. "Seth, are you okay?"
"Yes… Sorry. I know the beach is your favorite."
"Our favorite," she argued. "You are always so relaxed there; your face loses all those worry wrinkles. It is perfect for us to get out of Bangkok and smell some salt air."
He nodded in agreement. His heart was pounding as if he'd been running to catch a cab in the rain, but in truth there was no reason for his anxiety, this had all happened a while back and since then she'd been making every effort to make him blissfully forgetful. There were just days, his exhausted ones, when the old wound seemed to reopen in him and both of them knew - without any need for it to be stated openly - that her prior unfaithfulness was why his tongue was razor sharp.
Memory was his tormentor. Her words playing over in his mind like a CD's song on repeat - crystal clear echoes of her voice, wavering a bit from tears, detailing her journey - with no ill intent - into the circumstances which would lead to her ultimate betrayal of him. She'd only told him the story once, and in fact had made him promise to never ask her to say it all again, but he could recall every sob and syllable verbatim. To make matters worse, as he had no idea of what Samui or the lover truly looked like, he had crafted - probably mostly from movie images - the most handsome young man and the most idyllic of settings, and now his visual memory ran with her narration in the background like a documentary of a tragedy.
He was being too quiet and it was making her uncomfortable. He was staring, lost, at the pavement and the passing vehicles zooming by outside the coffee shop. "If going is too much for you to handle right now then let's stay in Bangkok," she said nearly whispering. "We can see a movie or go to the park and walk. We haven't visited Thun and Ling in a while, we could go for a nice dinner with them."
He snapped from his self torment. "No. I'm so bored with Bangkok. I'm so bored with my work. I'm really sorry. It's not you; I just have a lot on my mind from work. Just can't get any peace and quiet there you know."
"Peace is important."
"Well yes, I'm tired of the struggle. Maybe I don't have that rookie vigor I once had… I wish you'd have seen me in my late twenties. I was running a division in Boston back then. I was a handful, never quit, good enough was not good enough for me or for my staff. It was a thrill in those days just to be such a player in the field."
She smiled. "Your eyes always come alive when you talk about your Boston days."
"Memories, just memories, but I'm happy since coming to Thailand… Slow paced, but steady and interesting."
"And the promotion you mentioned last week? You have hardly mentioned it since that first time, and you never told me the details."
He shook his head, leaning back as if he was about to tell a joke. "I turned it down in the end. It was a generous offer and a compliment to my work, but not right for me at the present time."
"Why? I mean maybe a new challenge is just what you need. You're still very young… Not even forty. Sometimes you talk like you're sixty or something and ready to retire and go sit in a rocking chair all day."
"The promotion would have taken me to Singapore…" he said, pausing to observe her expression.
"A plane ride away… A short one…"
It was not the response that he'd been hoping for. Only a few months ago her eyes would have been filled with tears at the thought of him leaving Bangkok, but now, despite her begging for his forgiveness for her infidelity, her heart had hardened-tempered by his verbal shots and their recent squabbling.
"What if I said,” and he paused to look into her eyes and be certain that she could feel his words, "I said that you were my new challenge. I make plenty of money, well for living in Thailand anyway, but I've never had a relationship worth anything."
Her eyes closed as if she was catching his words behind her eyelids and holding them there for a moment; and then she smiled. "Maybe we could go to Singapore together? Maybe we could move there, just the two of us."
"You want to go to Singapore?"
"Together, I want us to be together and why not Singapore? It would be the two of us; it would be the place for us to start our relationship again."
That was it, he thought, Singapore, an island refuge from their Bangkok problems. A place for them to begin anew-be alone, without her friends and their incessant phone calls-and there his painful memories could be endured if it would finally bring about peace. Every man had to sacrifice to achieve a peaceful existence. Every prize comes at a price. And what a sweet surrender this would be for him, a doting girlfriend spurred to please him by their dependence upon one another in a city of strangers. He could picture it and this was returning some of the color to his pallid cheeks and putting a smile on his face.
"Besides," she continued, "Singapore is a lovely place, so clean and orderly. It is the exact opposite of Bangkok."
He hesitated, fighting an eruption, feeling the tremor before an emotional earthquake. It was his memory, that most specific and distrustful mind of his was rotating a detail-chiseling it from the hundreds of arguments and discussions concerning the boy she had given herself to, and suddenly the nation of Singapore became vividly clear. "You would like to live there, in Singapore?" he said, just as monotone as he could manage, but beneath his words was an air of suspicion.
"I think it would be away from Bangkok and I want to get away from Bangkok, from our problems, and start over. It's all I've ever wanted. You and I to have a chance…" her words faded as his eyes, intense with distrust and indignation seized her tongue.
"Wasn't he from Singapore?"
She shook her head. "He'd gone to university there, but why does that matter? It has nothing to do-"
"Is he there now?" he insisted, "Is he there?"
She lowered her head hiding beneath her long black bangs. Her nails scraped lightly across the tabletop as she slid her hand in his direction.
He did not allow her to reach him; instead he lunged forward and combed her shock of black hair away from her face so that he could unveil her eyes. It was a stage curtain falling down around its players or a film melting frame by frame within the projector - all fantasy evaporated.
Every patron in the coffee shop turned to see him as he began laughing, not a chuckle or a snicker, but a belly-laugh which rattled up through his lungs and bounced from ceiling to floor and from the coffee counter to the patio door. Her head went from side to side in a slow motion acknowledgment and then, he rose to his feet looking down on her as if he were a priest upon a pulpit. "He is there," he said, his words vibrating through his tight lipped frown. "Isn't he?"
Her top row of teeth pressed almost undiscernibly into her bottom lip. She sipped her coffee as if in thought, then set the mug down. He stood there waiting for her response - a denial or confession - but she said nothing. She was mute even as she, after gathering her things into her purse without haste, brushed passed him on her way to the door. She exited the shop, leaving him standing there with a room full of strangers. Once outside she lit a cigarette releasing a white cloud out through her pursed lips before sauntering away.