‘Would you like some pineapple, Michael?’
Am offered a plastic bag filled with chunky pieces of freshly cut pineapple to him with a smile which he failed to return. He was hungry but he didn’t like pineapple. That was how it started.
Later she told him how rude she thought he was, and how serious and unfriendly, and he explained that he was unaware of the social convention which dictated a person take some of what they were offered even if they didn’t want it. Swimming in a humid sea of new faces and strange dialect, Michael arrived in Thailand excited and overwhelmed. Am was just another friendly stranger with a warm smile and an offering of food.
Michael’s team had Monday’s free from work responsibilities and Am and her friend Nong were assigned to the team to take them sight-seeing. Their two guides were very knowledgeable, very tolerant and they had a terrific sense of fun and humour. Michael noticed that Am, in particular, was always engaged in some playful banter with the group, smiling and carefree. She seemed incredibly happy.
Michael, on the other hand, always felt on edge with the constant stream of new experiences and the inevitable uncertainty which arose out of less than ideal communications about what was expected of them.
Am and Michael saw a lot of each other, during the week at the Language centre, Sundays at church and Mondays were always an adventure. They travelled to the ancient capitol, Ayuthaya, where they rode elephants and ate exotic foods on a floating restaurant. And to the beaches on the eastern coast of the Gulf of Thailand, where they swam and played in mild tropical waves and had foot massages whilst sitting in deck chairs shaded by umbrellas. And to the breathtaking seven-tiered Erawan waterfall in Kantchanaburi province to the west where they slipped and slid along muddy tracks beside crystal clear pools of fresh mountain water. They enjoyed these things together without either of them ever thinking of themselves as being together. That was the simple beauty of it.
It was at a school camp in Pattaya on the eastern seaboard that something changed for Michael and his world was turned upside down. A quiet word from a friend of his, a Thai man, named Som Chai who knew Am well, was the catalyst for a revolution in his mind and deep in his heart.
‘She’s a good girl. Not the best looking. Not typical Thai but very good girl.’
Michael noted the knowing smile on Som Chai’s face and said, ‘I like her.’
Som Chai laughed in his cheeky manner and slapped Michael on the shoulder.
‘Good. Good man. Good woman.’
More laughter followed and Michael pondered.
At dusk one evening, a group of students and staff sat on the soft sand which was still warm from the baking rays of sunshine, talking as they watched others playing volleyball at water’s edge. Michael sat with his knees tucked underneath his chin next to Am who did likewise, and with a casual flick of his toe, flung a pine needle onto her foot. She looked at him and smiled, then attempted to flick it back but only succeeded in sending it into the back of Nong who was sitting in front of them.
Michael and Am looked at each other, then back at Nong expecting some reaction and when she turned they shared a laugh which left Nong confused. That was the moment.
On the bus ride back to Bangkok, Michael was consumed with thoughts of Am. He recognised the feelings, they were not new to him, nor were they unpleasant but they were strong and exhilarating in a slightly scary way. The fluttering in his stomach and a lightness in his head told him that he had fallen in love.
Am invited Michael to a movie to celebrate his birthday. For him it was confirmation of reciprocal feelings, but for her, as she later pointed out, it was just a friendly gesture and as she liked to say in a playful mocking tone,
‘Would I have chosen to see Die Hard 2 if I was pursuing romance?’
Around that time, Michael’s dad was holidaying in the south of Thailand, in Phuket, so Michael flew down to spend a couple of days with him as he had been away from Australia for six months already and had no idea when he would return. Am took him to the airport and stayed with him until it was time to leave. He felt sad to be leaving her and he told her so. She just smiled.
Michael spent most of his time in Phuket thinking of her and his always perceptive father noticed.
‘Couldn’t you have brought your brain with you down here?’
‘Sorry Dad, I’m a bit distracted. I met someone special.’
‘Go on,’ said his Dad. ‘Tell me all about it.
Michael also told his journal everyday how he felt about Am but in the two weeks that elapsed following the pine needle incident in Pattaya, Michael had not detected any change in Am’s behaviour towards him. When he returned to Bangkok, she was pleased to see him but from where he stood, emotionally fragile and sick in love with her, no more pleased than when she had offered him some pineapple on the first day they met.
Now he spent his days wandering around in a daze, trying not to make it obvious to anyone but himself how he felt about Am. Work became a sideline activity, as did eating and sleeping. Even talking was an effort sometimes and his total resources were focused on being in love with Am and trying to figure out how to tell her and find out if she felt the same. The thought that this powerful affection was misplaced felt like a brick in his stomach. He had to do something.
During another sleepless night under the feathery brush of cool air from the overhead fan in his room, Michael decided to end it all.
Am lived with her sister in a dormitory on soi 35, only a few blocks from Michael’s place. The next day, he hopped on the back of a motorbike for a quick ride up his soi to the corner of Ramkhamhaeng Rd, where he dismounted, handed over five Baht to the driver and began his walk to see Am. The rich aromas of the street stalls filled his nostrils and buoyed his spirits. Sweet corn roasting on an open fire, jasmine rice steaming and the rich brown broth of noodle soup. Beautiful.
He walked quickly, dodging the oncoming crowds as well as the stop dead shoppers, and ducking under low hanging awnings, umbrellas and signs. It required concentration to traverse the sidewalks of Bangkok.
Thanks to his nerves, his mouth had gone bone dry, and he desperately needed a drink. Arriving at Am’s dormitory parched inside but sweaty on the outside Michael saw a familiar face. He asked after Am.
‘Down the back studying,’ she said, gesturing with her hands as she passed by Michael on her way out.
‘Hello,’ he said to a face buried underneath a thick textbook. ‘That’s a funny way of studying.’
Am sat up, closed the book, put it down on the seat beside her.
‘Hello, what are you doing here?’
‘I have something to tell you,’ he said, as he sat down opposite her and placed his hands together on the table.
So far so good for Michael but he had not said anything yet, and was actually surprised that he had been able to speak at all. His tongue felt like cotton wool in his mouth.
‘What is it? Is anything wrong?’
Here goes, thought Michael, just before he said, ‘I like you Am and if you like me too… would you like to be my girlfriend?’
The look of surprise on her face was very disconcerting and having to repeat himself and then explain what he meant was highly disturbing. Still, he pressed on.
‘When I say girlfriend,’ he continued, ‘I’m sort of meaning future wife. I mean maybe. I mean I’m not just messing around.’
‘Okay,’ she said sweetly and matter-of-factly as though it was the only response possible.
After that they just carried on as before, except that they now spent more time alone and they talked more and learned more about each other, laughing a little shyly at the attention they drew from their friends who approved wholeheartedly of the match. Am would later admit that she had not really understood what Michael was talking about on that day; the day of his ‘proposal’ but she liked him and would have willingly done anything to please him.
The main stumbling block to their continued happiness and the wedding Michael dreamed of was her family. How did he know? One day he met Am’s eldest sister who was in Bangkok visiting family, and he casually mentioned his feelings for Am as they walked along another bustling sidewalk. The conversation went like this;
‘I love her and I want to marry her,’ said Michael.
‘Over my dead body,’ she replied. ‘There is no way!’
‘There is a way,’ said Michael.
Michael was not deterred but Am was of the view that she would not be doing anything without the approval of her family. As a result, a trip to Am’s hometown of Ubon, ten hours drive to the northeast of Bangkok, was arranged. The main purpose was for Michael to meet Am’s mother. A Christian man in a family of Buddhists. A high school drop out in a family of university graduates. A foreigner with no home, no job, and no prospects; Michael’s credentials were not good.
The first night in Ubon, after they had eaten dinner, and the left-overs had been cleared away, they sat in the living room. Michael, using as much Thai as he could manage to put together and relying on Am to translate the rest, addressed the four women whose opinions mattered most to Am.
Michael was really up against the wall. He offered so little and yet his heart was so full of passion and love that if only he could have laid all his feelings out like a well spread dinner table, then her family would have gladly feasted with him. But they didn’t feast. They cried. Am’s mother, and her three older sisters all fell apart at the sound of the word marriage, especially coming, as it did, from the mouth of a man who represented the antithesis of who they would have dreamed of for the baby of the family.
In that moment when, surprised as he was by the strength and transparency of their emotions, he realised the height and the width of the wall over which he would have to climb in order to gain Am’s family’s approval, Michael smiled.
The smile was magical; a soothing balm on the raw feelings flooding the room. It was confidence and empathy, and it was genuine. In the land of smiles it was the perfect gesture although Michael would never have thought so nor planned it. He smiled at Am whose beautiful round face was contorted by sadness, stained by tears. He smiled at the woman whom he hoped would become his mother-in-law. Without knowing exactly what he was trying to convey with that smile, Michael won a very small victory in the battle that lay before him.
The proud matriarch turned to her youngest daughter and extended her hand in a calming gesture. ‘Is this what you want, Little One?’
Am nodded and her mother turned her gaze to Michael.
‘Do you really love my daughter?’
Michael looked all four ladies directly, then focused his loving attention on Am.
‘Yes, I really love her.’
Am’s mother nodded, and the deal was done. There was still much to discuss, and so far left to travel for Michael and Am on the road to their dream, but the formidable mountain of family opposition had been reduced to a mole hill by a smile and an honest answer, and Michael believed that nothing in all the world, could keep them apart.