"Where'd you find this one?" he said in Thai, smirking, walking toward us.
"Boy," Uncle Mongkhon yelled from the porch, also in Thai. "You irritate me. Tell that girl to put on some clothes. You know damn well I don't let bikinis ride. This is a respectable establishment. We have rules."
"What are they saying?" Lizzie asked. Farangs get nervous when you carry on a conversation they can't understand.
"They just want to know if we need one elephant or two."
"Let's just get one." Lizzie smiled, reaching out to take my hand. "Let's ride one together." I held my breath. Her hand shot bright, surprising comets of heat up my arm. I wanted to yank my hand away even as I longed to stand there forever with our sweaty palms folded together. I heard the voice of Surachai's mother coming from inside the house, the light sizzle of a frying pan.
"It's nothing, Maew," Uncle Mongkhon yelled back to his sister inside. "Though I wouldn't come out here unless you like nudie shows. The mongrel's here with another member of his international harem."
"These are my friends," I said to Lizzie. "This is Surachai."
"How do you do," Surachai said in English, shaking her hand, looking at me all the while.
"I'm fine, thank you." Lizzie chuckled. "Nice to meet you."
"Yes yes yes," Surachai said, grinning like a fool. "Honor to meet you, madam. It will make me very gratified to let you ride my elephants. Very gratified. Because he"Surachai patted me on the back now"he my handsome soulmate. My best man."
Surachai beamed proudly at me. I'd taught him that word: "soulmate."
"You're married?" Lizzie asked. Surachai laughed hysterically, uncomprehendingly, widening his eyes at me for help.
"He's not," I said. "He meant to say 'best friend.'"
"Yes yes," Surachai said, nodding. "Best friend."
"You listening to me, boy?" Uncle Mongkhon got up from the porch and walked toward us. "Bikinis don't ride. It scares the animals."
"Sawatdee, Uncle," I said, greeting him with a wai, bending my head extra low for effect; but he slapped me on the head with a forehand when I came up.
"Tell the girl to put on some clothes," Uncle Mongkhon growled. "It's unholy."
"Aw, Uncle," I pleaded. "We didn't bring any with us."
"Need I remind you, boy, that the elephant is our national symbol? Sometimes I think your stubborn farang half keeps you from understanding this. You should be ashamed of yourself. I would tell your ma if it wouldn't break her heart.
"What if I went to her country and rode a bald eagle in my underwear, huh?" he continued, pointing at Lizzie. "How would she like it? Ask her, will you?"
"What's he saying?" Lizzie whispered in my ear.
"Ha ha ha," Surachai interjected, gesticulating wildly. "Everything okay, madam. Don't worry, be happy. My uncle, he just say elephants very terrified of your breasts."
"You should've told me to put on some clothes." Lizzie turned to me, frowning, letting go of my hand.
"It's really not a problem," I said, laughing.
"No," Uncle Mongkhon said to Lizzie in English. "Not a big problem, madam. Just a small one."
In the end, I took off my T-shirt and gave it to Lizzie. As we made our way toward the corral, I caught her grinning at the sight of my bare torso. Though I had been spending time at the new public gym by the pier, I felt some of that old adolescent embarrassment returning again. I casually flexed my muscles in the postures I'd practiced before my bedroom mirror so Lizzie could see my body not as the soft, skinny thing that it was, but as a pillar of strength and stamina.
When we came upon the gates of the elephant corral, Lizzie took my hand again. I turned to smile at her and she seemed, at that moment, some ethereal angel come from heaven to save me, an angel whose breasts left round, dark damp spots on my T-shirt. And when we mounted the elephant Yai, the beast rising quickly to his feet, Lizzie squealed and wrapped her arms so tightly around my bare waist that I would've gladly forfeited breathing for the rest of my life.
This is the complete text of 'Farangs', one of seven short stories collected in Sightseeing. Copyright © 2005 by Rattawut Lapcharoensap. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this book maybe reproduced without written permission from the publisher.
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