Cleveland woke to roosters crowing at daybreak downstairs in one of the hotel garden courtyards. He and Anong had left the balcony door open by accident the night before, enjoying the cool beach breeze, drinking Chang beer and swigging sang som whiskey, fucking and falling asleep to a Steven Seagal movie marathon playing on one of the cable television channels. Now, a slight hangover, his head felt heavy. He looked at the flat, ruffled sheets next to him. Anong had already gone, but he could still smell her moist, tamarind skin and the bergamot lotion from Victoria’s Secret she kept at the bedside. The stifling, summer Thai air tasted like a spiced mango lodged in his throat. He chugged water, put on his swim trunks and running shoes, and left.
Jogging was one of his daily routines, even on a fight night. The hotel staff saw Cleveland and nodded excitedly, too spry and cheery, as usual. I am a spectacle, Cleveland thought, but he figured he’d been there long enough to not get the why you running smile and stare. Ten years in Asia, the last four of those in Phuket. He sprinted through the hotel parking lot until he reached a cobblestone path lined with palm trees by the beach. He slowed to a jog—partly because he thought he might vomit.
He watched soft waves break on the shore. The town felt tired, but in Phuket time didn’t matter. It was either day or night. The day was recovery: motorized street sweepers spewed sanitizers that swabbed the filth and then sank them into sewers and drains that eventually led to the Andaman Sea. The night was neon: blinking, flashing, pulsing, pumping, jerking the rhythms of passersby, the naughty night-crawlers.
Early sunbathers had set out on the beach already, mostly too-tanned Europeans or Russians obsessed with the sun. On the town side of the street, security grilles closed the shops and market entrances; only a Seven-Eleven and a coffee shop were open. He ran well past the main business district and ascended Thaweewong road. The morning sky was more clear and crisp than the rest of the day; a strange haze would settle by noon because of burning forests and the burning flesh of wild monkey corpses somewhere in Indonesia.
At the top of Thaweewong road, he stopped and gazed at the beach below. His chest heaved. He thought about Anong and how he loved her and how beautiful it was or would become. And then just like that, as effortless as the breeze, he had another thought and his mood changed. Why had she left that morning? She usually waited for him to return from his run or she’d wake with him so they could have breakfast together. But not today.
He realized he had sweat out his headache, but could still go on. There were more beach-goers below him now and they looked like ants, he thought, which was a cliché, but that’s all he could think of. Ants scurrying along sandy borderlines until they stepped into the water and it swallowed them and they looked like ants either floating or drowning. Ants either float or drown.
Boredom scared Cleveland. He ran faster along Thaweewong road, which continued up and down jungle hillsides and patches of lemongrass and murky-greenish ponds of water lilies and torn plastic bags strewn along sagging branches of forgotten flora and stretches of palm and coconut forests and banana trees and clouds of humid air thicker than paint and finally he arrived at a village he was sure he’d come before. Debris and garbage littered the dusty road and stray dogs wandered like boys on summer break thinking themselves invincible. Smoke curled from burning wood stoves; villagers sat and stood and drove motorbikes and three-wheeled tuk-tuks.
He stopped by a roadside vendor’s shop and asked for water. The vendor, a woman of an indeterminate age, smiled and waved her hand at him in a movement that looked like a butterfly flapping through the air.
“I know you. I know you,” she said and disappeared quickly to the back of the shack.
Cleveland knew the feminine Thai-English accent well—it carried syllables a little longer and higher at the end of each sentence, phrase, or word even. His heart beat fast. He was tired. The woman returned with a stack of poster flyers for Muay Thai fighting events. She scanned and flipped through them with the quickness and precision of a librarian.
“Yes-yes,” she said, wiping dust from one of the laminated posters and then shaking her head yes. “You, no? Ah-ha, you see, I know you.”
That is me, Cleveland thought. Fists raised, elbows wide, face stern, eyes staring with an empty, almost aloof gaze: picture worse than any mug-shot he’d ever had. He tried to remember that fight, but couldn’t recall…the fights. How many had there been? Oh-Ya-Yo! He hadn’t come up with that. He’d told the ring officials his name was Cleveland, and they said, “like Ohio?” Ohio was easier, and then he pummeled the local champion El Papi in three rounds. It was a knockout. Who can beat Ohio? The crowd yelled, but it sounded like Oh-ya-yo. No one can beat Oh-ya-yo, he’s too fast and too strong. Too fast, too strong. Too…You are a fighter, Cleveland. Always. You are the Miracle Baby, remember.
“For you,” the woman said, “beer free.”
“I need water,” Cleveland said. He took two slimy twenty baht bills from his sweaty shorts pocket.
“Oh,” she said. “Water sixty-five baht, not forty. Sorry. Just for you, beer free.”
He paid the woman and as he exited, he thought he spotted Anong climbing onto the back of a motorbike. But it can’t be Anong, he thought. He looked closer, examining the girl’s thin waist and firm, stout legs. Anong was the shortest girl he’d ever been with. Same perky breasts. The girl’s long, russet hair hid her face. Cleveland nearly dropped the open water bottle in his hand.
“Anong,” he said, calling to her.
She didn’t hear him, and the driver, a young Thai man, made a U-turn on the road. As they passed the vendor’s shop, Cleveland stepped out in front of the motorbike. It was an impulsive step that Cleveland wasn’t even sure why he made. He saw the driver’s eyes fill with panic and confusion. He looked again at the girl; it wasn’t Anong. The motorbike swerved past him and almost skidded off the road. Neither the driver nor the girl wore a helmet. The man stopped the motorbike, turned, and stared at Cleveland. The girl jabbed a finger and yelled. Cleveland didn’t know what to do so he pressed his palms together and bowed, something he did before and after a fight, and while he knew it was a shameful attempt at an apology, he knew he would get away with it because of his boring Aryan skin and beach-blue eyes. He didn’t have to remember that; it was innate.
He watched the girl on the motorbike turn to the man and hold him tightly from where she sat behind him on the saddle. The man kicked-started the motorbike again and revved the engine. They drove away. Cleveland guzzled the rest of his water and ran in the direction he’d come from.
At quarter to two Cleveland heard a knock on his hotel room door and thought it was a cleaner or an employee to refill the refrigerator bar. He’d moved from place to place, hotel to hotel, since he’d been in Phuket, but settled at Bhukitta Village Palace seven months ago; it was no palace, but it was on the beach, affordable, and offered free breakfast, in-room WiFi, and discounted rates for long-term stays. He had been resting in bed, falling in and out of sleep, surfing cable channels. “No,” he said. “I don’t need anything now. Thank you.”
“Oh-ya-yo,” a voice said.
It was Anong. He stirred from the bed and tied his robe.
“Knock, knock, Oh-ya-yo. This no clean lady.”
The room was cooler than she liked so he turned off the air conditioner and then opened the door. He leaned in the doorway. “Hi,” he said.
Anong smiled. She was dressed in the same clothes from the night before—short-short jean shorts inconspicuously torn and fringed on purpose, scarlet red tank top and matching heels, not too high. She’d slung the purse he bought her over her shoulder: smooth, red, snakeskin leather, gold buckle, thick brown leather strap. She’d picked it out. She reached her hand to his neck and he bent toward her. They kissed.
Cleveland felt a heavy rush of something warm and flooding cover him then. Something magical and invincible. She withdrew first. He found her eyes and remembered waking alone and then paranoia pricked him again. Something like despair tickled his throat. “Where did you go this morning?”
She sighed and reached to kiss him again. Their teeth clinked. He looked at her, and there was a pause, and he knew what could happen: he could take her right then and there however he wanted, over and over and over and over—to the point of his own, sad exhaustion, like a hamster tiring himself at his cage wheel. They were good at sex. But for Cleveland, there were rituals: no sex before a fight.
“Oh-ya-yo,” she said softly. “No worry me. I here with you now-now.”
Was that a begging whisper, he thought. A riveting Thai beauty, standing here at the door. Did rules and rituals really matter? He couldn’t help himself. Swiveling insides. He pulled her toward him.
“Oh,” she said.
He started to untie his robe, but she held him still then.
“Ah, ah, ah,” she said. She allowed one more kiss and then held him back. “No funny-funny before fighting.” She kidded him, mocked his Muay Thai moves, jabbed his chest and stomach. He loved it. “Unless you want it now-now,” she said.
Outside on the beach, swimmers and sunbathers rode jet skis through the bay and out into the ocean and surfers and waders and beach walkers were clad in next-to-nothing and vendors sold Chang beer right on the beach and it was mid-day, the time to soak in the sun and wait for the night.
Cleveland looked at Anong again. Soft skin. Subtle freckle on her lip. Silky hair strewn perfectly so it cuddled her face and neck, then tickled and paved her shoulders. “Why do you torture me?” he said.
“Maybe you love me too much.”
Love her, he thought. Yes. I do, don’t I? Why can’t I? You are a fighter. You are a miracle, remember. Fight, and she will love you. She has to. “Where’d you go today?” he said.
“To see my friend Kanda. She sick, so I take look her. She live near airport, too far-la, so I go early.”
He hadn’t met Kanda before, but he’d heard Anong talk about her often. They had “worked” together. Anong said she knew Kanda was a real, true friend because they always laughed at the same time.
Cleveland actually knew little about Anong—in regard to her life, where she came from. She said Udon Thani, and Cleveland knew that was in the north, where many of the hot, young things came from. But what was life like there? She said her father farmed rubber and rice. Cleveland said he didn’t know you could farm rubber. My mother Vietnamese, she’d told him. I have six sisters. He didn’t ask too many questions. That world—rubber farming in the north—seemed like another galaxy away.
Cleveland knew what “work” meant for Anong. That was before, wasn’t it? Before me, he thought. It was an umbrella title for the things she did when men hired her to do fun things and naughty-naughty stuff: tour guide, masseuse, escort. There was more. It was a livelihood. “Is Kanda very sick? Does she need money?”
“No,” she said. “I just visit her because I love her.” She pulled the purse from one shoulder and settled it on the other. “I see you later tonight. Okay-la?”
“Why did you come here now?”
“To tell you have good fight.”
“You mean to wish me luck.”
“No luck. Have good fight.” She looked at him. “Remember, I thinking you.”