There she was with the glass of wine, sitting at the edge of high stool, swirling the sparkling burgundy, passing time while circling around her head were luminous fireflies, thoughts I longed to be privy to. I watched. Someone would come and join her by the time she came to me for a refill. She would lean on the bar, very casually, barely cast a glance in my direction and dangle the empty goblet. Tonight I would talk to her, I had decided. I would ask her something, anything. Why tonight? I am not sure, but I had long desired it. I would try and read her lips, have her talk to me, but that is ambitious. Could this be my lucky night? I am a man of few words but when the need arises, I have been known to make women talk. This one here, she was special. Her aura tingled. She was slight and carried an air of nobility, unlike other regulars. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one to have observed her special qualities. It’s not like she was any prettier than most.
“What? Look-,” she said, flipping the delicate glass on its head and setting its stem on the bar; unlike most of my other women regulars, she ordered. And it begins.
“Same wine, or can I offer something else for a change?” I smiled and tentatively ventured. She was pretty. There was a dim ring of light around those sad eyes. Yes, I observed a melancholic strain. There was definitely something there, a need, a yearning, a vacuum? Or perhaps I was imagining it. I wanted a story. I was going to find it too.
The male friend had arrived. He sat at her table and seemed to be scouting around, looking for someone or something. She stood at the bar, waiting for my move. The man had waved out to her. She had waved back, too.
“No, same, uh, please.”
“Your name? I need to write it down you know, for the receipt.”
“Why? I have not given earlier, why now? I am a regular customer. Your Manager know me, what’s his name- Ed or something.”
How quaint! Was she Thai?
“I’m the Manager and I don’t know it.” I was cautious on how I put this across. I was the new Manager, because the oldie had left the previous day. He’d taken premature retirement, quite suddenly, and I had been nominated as the next best man for the job. Yes, he was Edison, but Ed it was to most.
“Oh, you are? Well okay, it’s Manika- with a K.” Her eyes gleamed, and I hope it was respect I saw.
Her accent was definitely local – Bangkokese, to my trained ears.
“Got it, so do you want to try the new Chilean?” I insisted.
“Uh, how old?”
“Not very, from 2017, but touted to be an excellent batch, creamy with soft acidity,” I flaunted.
“Creamy with soft acidity,” she softly repeated, “Sounds good. Go on then.” She had perked up.
I turned my back on her, acutely aware of her presence on the bar stool where she had parked a part of her butt. I took my time, uncorking the bottle. I wanted her to keep sitting at the bar, not leave, but there was only so far I could delay her return to her male companion.
“Here you are,” as I poured out the wine at a tilt, and noticed her lipstick mark on the glass rim. A rich red.
She watched me pour, but it was eyes that watched. I could sense the mind miles away. Don’t ask me how I knew, but years of bartending had taught me to read people, and to pick those out who visit bars for a good time or for a better time; those who spend hours riding the evening into the night with nothing better to do, and those who are there to strike a business deal; those who sit and stare and imagine their lowly lives being whisked away in a glass of a potent mix of tannin and sweet acid that corrodes minds. Hard-earned or not, money was spent in large sums to draw out magic. Every type of available form of forgetting was marketed and ingested here at my bar. It’s easy to pick out those who visit my bar to forget, to live or to die. I needed to check some boxes, and then to perhaps paint new ones because surely Manika didn’t fit into all boxes!
Manika, meaning ‘jewel’; the name suited her. In my mind, she was already a shiny jewel. My own life was fairly simple: married with no kids. My wife was a nurse in another city. We met every other weekend. I didn’t ask her too many questions during our weekend sojourns, and she didn’t either. We had torrid sex, and shared a love of Hindi films, which we watched with gusto over food that we ordered in. I was a good cook, but she didn’t care much for food. As long as she was satiated in other ways we were good. There was no other demand made on our relationship, and we had fallen into this weekend routine of sorts. Expectations were few. The only understanding we had was that we would save up to buy a house in the hills, and whenever one of us was bored, we would quit our jobs and make a sincere attempt at joining the other. It was perfect.
In this life here, in Bangkok, I was doing quite well. I watched all customers with glee and befriended women with consummate ease. With my French beard and tanned skin, I’m sure I offered an attractive package. Maybe I was a little arrogant, and that’s perhaps why Manika had grabbed my attention. She neither saw me, nor heard me. I yearned for her to. She visited my bar at least thrice a week, order a wine, then another, and sit and wait. A bevy of both female and male visitors would come and sit by her, not all at once. She did most of the listening I had observed. She seemed to be in a trance. She just sat and stared at the skies and buildings around, occasionally fiddle with her phone, moving her finger rapidly, ostensibly running through photographs. The whole exercise fascinated me. While I mixed ingredients for various cocktails and assessed the needs of clients surfacing every now and then, I would watch her and will her to speak, so that I could read her lips.
Tonight I wanted her to see me, if not hear me. When she returned to her table, I noticed how the man swooped her up in his arms, just a few seconds, but he’d made clear his possession of her. She wriggled free of him, and sat down with half a crooked smile. I watched every now and then, as he grabbed her hands, or place his own on her exposed thigh. Was he the predator, or her beau? It was hard to tell in the dimly lit arena. Mostly her body language was more affable, warmer even, but tonight was different. There was something going on with her.
I served a few snacks around and arrived at their table.
“Ready to order something to eat?”
“Oh hi, yes, why not? Romi, you want? I like peanuts and some pork satay please,” she said with readiness. She always had peanuts with Pork satay.
“Would you like to try the lamb kebabs, Manika?”
The man with her, Romi, looked askance. Yes, I had called out her name.
“Not Manika, Malika is the name, and are you allowed first names here?” There was disdainful contempt dripping from his tongue. What an acerbic guy! Gosh! No wonder she appeared ill at ease. I felt like wresting her from the stool and have her join me behind the bar, stave off such like. He looked half-Thai and his accent was clear and his English proper.
She wasn’t even looking at either of us.
“Excuse me, but yes, with regular clients we do get familiar.” I responded with equal disdain without batting an eyelid
“Is that so, Malika?”
“Well, I think okay. Yeah, we try lamb kebabs,” she dismissed me.
Back at the bar I fumed. I gave the order to the kitchen and was back at my job of mixing cocktails and keeping an eye out. I doubled as a bouncer, if I sensed trouble and at the moment, the bouncer in me was ready to throw that Romi over the rails. In the meantime, she seemed to be further away- the two of them were tucking into the snacks. He was talking to her, and she was perhaps waiting for the evening to end. After paying up, they left. He had his arm around her waist.
The following evening she did not return, neither the one that followed. I had spent two troubled nights. I was certain she could use my help. I wasn’t sure though what the help would be for- I knew nothing about her. She was just a girl at a bar. There were so many of them. This was Bangkok. I was drawn to her because of her looks? Because she seemed hapless? Because she had beautiful but sad eyes? Because she didn’t speak much and always seemed to be in the company of folk I didn’t really like? Because we had a connection? I know that she liked me, and I am not even sure where I am getting this from. The thing is, the more I imagined her story, the stronger my feelings for her. I wanted to touch, but not own; I wanted for her to listen to me, and see me and I wanted to look into her eyes and see me in them. It was getting rather mushy. And my wife was to come over that weekend. How would I play this out- the inside of me, versus the outside?
My wife came as scheduled. I imagined spending both nights with Manika, as I lay entangled in my wife’s arms. I disrobed Manika, as the wife groaned and moaned in my arms; the pleasantness of her presence was all Manika’s, and it felt so good. The arousal and intimacy were all culled from the vision of Manika. I lay troubled in my bed, sweating profusely later. My wife’s eyes shone in the dark. I held her hands. We didn’t speak much, but I was afraid she could see with her sharply tuned senses. In my unsettled state Manika grew even more beautiful with limbs of satin. My wife left by the Monday morning early flight, back to her Working Women’s Hostel. The relief I felt with twinges of shame hurt me till I reached the Bar at six that evening and freed myself of it. Work distracted me till Manika arrived around 8 pm.
When I saw her arrive, my heart beat hard. I thought my assistant would hear it and see my longing. I didn’t want to be discovered, but by her.
“Can I have Chilean please?” she smiled. The sad ring was gone, the one I’d seen the other night around her eyes. I wasn’t sure if I was happy to note its absence. My heartbeats were still racing. I couldn’t utter a word.
“What you are offering?” she insisted. She was interested after all. I decided to name a cocktail.
“French 75, a Mimosa. Gin and Champagne sound good?”
She was drumming on the bar table now. She really did seem happy tonight. I could make her so much happier.
“Oh all right then, I have cocktail. On the house right?” and she burst out laughing.
I waited for her to catch her breath.
She looked resplendent, pinched cheeks and her short hair was in a gorgeous mess. She wore a very short maroon dress. I noticed her neckline, which wasn’t deep enough. I had also dared gaze at her legs when she walked toward the bar, but managed to look disinterested.
Somehow, her joy wasn’t sitting well with me. I mixed her cocktail, and placed it in front of her. She sipped it.
“Aaaah, this refreshing. You spoiling me now,” with a twinkle in her eye.
She walked back to her table. An hour went by and I got busy, but kept an eye on her. No one arrived to sit with her. She seemed fine. I did wonder though who had she dressed up for. I went to her table a couple of times and tried exchanging words, but she consumed the one cocktail very slowly and ordered more satay and peanuts, closing off my path to her.
It was nearing midnight. I decided to leave the bar to my assistant. It was a weeknight, and there were very few people on the terrace bar. It would be relatively easy to slip away.
I felt a surge of confidence.
I got my bag and walked to her table.
“So?” I prodded. She looked at me, as if for the first time.
“What you want?”
“Sorry, am I disturbing you. Do you need anything because I’m about to leave for the night?”
“Why I need anything, I have no need. You tell me….”
I bit my lip, and made as if to leave. Then I stopped and took a few steps away from her table, and then turned around.
“Uh, do you want to go from here, I’m free now. Like, we could go, uh, for a walk? You free?”
“Whaaaaat? You want to take me for a walk? Is that code for? Who you think I am?”
She wasn’t really accusing me, I could see that. But I was also a bit embarrassed. Should I have done it differently? She was drunk. I could try again, but maybe another night.
“Wait,” I heard her plead to my back, “I’m sorry, I was rude? I be rude. Yes, if a walk, then we go!”
I couldn’t believe my luck.
We walked from the hotel toward Lumpini Park. There were cyclists, and there were cars driving by speedily. She walked beside me, swaying a little. She was sad, having spent a lonely evening I told myself. I was happy that she was walking by my side. We said nothing for a while.
“So, you like walking yes?” she asked suddenly.
“I do, and you?”
“I don’t care much. I hardly eat, so I don’t need walk.”
A strange thing to say!
“So what you enjoy? I love bartending naturally, and making new friends…” That sounded so childish, and I was speaking her tongue. ‘Making new friends’- I wasn’t a school kid. But I did enjoy meeting new people, and my job provided ample opportunity. This was not the first time I had chosen to go out with a client. The few times had resulted in a quick lay, and then I never saw them again. I’ve no idea why, but that’s the truth of it. I never saw those I slept with at my bar again. I had only paid once, the others were casual and not in it for money, or love surely.
“I am simple. I don’t have many habit. I not choose what I like. I don’t know. You understand?”
I was certainly trying to. Her speech was rapidly reducing the sexy aura. I was wondering where this was leading, although somewhere surely. I looked at her silhouette as she stood a little up ahead and lit a cigarette. Yes, she was still very alluring. But taken out of the bar area, it was different. It was wearing off, in the absence of the arena where I watched and desired her. She seemed like someone else, so did I perhaps to her. We were two strangers yet again- a bartender and a girl at the bar divested off our labels.
“Yes, I understand. You come to the bar to meet friends, yes? You choose that, right?” I heard myself say as I walked to her. She was blowing circles into the still night. A motorcycle whizzed past, and she looked at it as if she recognized the driver or the sound.
I didn’t know what to say. I thought I would now invite her home, or would she invite me? I wanted this story to reach its finale somehow. One of us had to write the next part and not delay the narrative. I was tired. She herself seemed quite alive though.
“Okay!” I finally whispered out loud.
“You understand what I am saying, I am a mother with two children and a dead husband.”
I almost choked. I didn’t like where this was going. But of course I understood this to be her truth. She had no reason to lie to me. I felt my pocket which was heavy with tips. I’d received a rather generous amount tonight. So if we were going to pay for an act, it was fine.
“Oh I’m sorry to hear that,” I said. I wasn’t really sorry. I didn’t feel much. I mean, I didn’t really care what her circumstances were. I was just another guy. C’mon I told myself, go for it. I opened my mouth to invite her, when she spoke.
“No, it’s okay. All is okay. I am used to, I mean. I don’t mind. I get good money for my job, and I talk less. The men I am meeting at bar, they take me to night school, and in return I dance and do strip tease. I am not sleeping with all men, only a few. It depends.”
I wasn’t sure what to believe. She was a mother of two? Her husband had left her widowed? I couldn’t put her together.
She continued. “They are grown up now. They work in another town. I live with parents, old parents.”
How old could she be? Was she married off at age ten? I couldn’t ask her and didn’t want to know more details. The story- our story was getting all knotted up and I would have to work fast to stop it from going any further. But she quickly took charge.
“You want to sleep with me?”
“Yeah, sure!” It could be fun, aroused at the thought of her satin limbs.
“Okay, then it is ten thousand Baht for four hours, and if you stay, then fifteen.”
As I took in this information which took the wind out of me, as if on cue I saw a familiar shadow, that of Romi’s, the male friend up ahead: yes, the man from the bar. I stood rooted to my spot as my spine tingled with a foreboding. Something was amiss.
“Hey, guy from bar, right? Well done Maali,” and I watched astounded, united these two shook hands. Manika’s eyes shone, like those of an animal that’s just ensnared and made a fresh kill; a little out of breath but triumphant. Romi turned to me.
“So what you got there in your pockets?”
A man knows when he’s outwitted. I would empty my pockets, divest them of all their contents. I would pay for nothing, absolutely nothing. This was a vicious turn to the story. They had ripped me off my narrative. I could have ended this oh-so-smoothly and yes smooth it was, except that invisible and ugly currents had warped my status.
I watched Manika, or Malika or Maali, pull up her dress as she stepped into a waiting car at the curb. Romi waved her goodbye and put on his helmet and drove off on a very snazzy bike. I saw both the car and the bike turn the bend, as I stared at my reflection in a puddle. It began to drizzle and my reflection stirred as it turned from dazed to curdled. My tummy angrily growled to remind me that the night was retiring, and dawn had broken. My empty one-room apartment, fifteen kilometers from Lumpini Park, awaited my return. I would have to walk.