I drank a bottle of whiskey with two bronzed, blond British girls on the 25-hour train from Penang, Malaysia to Bangkok, Thailand.
Let me tell you about it.
What did we talk about?
Stupid shit, mostly. Jobs. Crossover comedians (Brand, Gervais). TV shows. Their plans for when they would fly home in three days. What I miss about America (burritos, friends). Favorite drinks. Stories of losing passports. How they almost missed the train.
All around us, others talked too – the inane chatter of strangers trying desperately to connect through trite, overarching maxims about life and politics and religion. Where are you from? Where are you going? Where have you been recently? What do you think about Obama/religion/token recent news event?
How did we meet?
We didn’t, at first. I stood behind the gate as passengers exited the ferry from Butterworth to Penang Island. A blond bombshell sprinted off first, barefoot, her skirt riding up. I looked at my phone. I was late too. The ferry left at 1:55 and I usually calculate half an hour to get across. The train was scheduled for 2:20 and I was going to miss it.
Hurry, ferry. Post-haste, currents. Patience, train. Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me, a sinner.
I made contingency plans in my head. I could still make it back to the Air Asia office before closing, get a plane ticket for the next day. I’d arrive roughly the same time.
The ferry obeyed my prayers. As I disembarked at 2:10, I saw another girl standing with two bags, peering pleadingly into the exiting throng. Ah, I thought — her friend.
The train was delayed an hour. Welcome to Asia. Fifteen minutes earlier, the runner burst through the doors of the station breathlessly: “What train are you waiting for?” Someone told her, “Bangkok,” and she squealed. “You don’t know how happy that makes me!”
When I boarded the train, they were sitting opposite me. “Hey,” I said, and then was quiet because strangers terrify me. But at some point we started chatting.
What did I see?
I saw Kayla’s curls, the thick triumphant mane of a lioness. I saw her book, The Perfect Man (“My biography!” I joked, on account of I’m hilarious). I saw her white heart-shaped earrings and thick tanned thighs. I saw her rhythmically remove and apply new nail polish. I saw her eat chips (“crisps”) in bread (“rolls”).
I saw Tash’ silver nose stud twist down so that it stuck out of her nose distractingly. I saw her skirt fail its modesty duties several times. I saw her roll a cig (“fag”) and smoke it at the border crossing. I saw her pull down the front of her shirt to scratch a boob idly. I saw the grime on her feet. I saw her fill several pages of a diary with thick, bold lettering. I saw her hold a bag to her bottom as she lay sideways napping.
What did we drink?
We planned to wait until after the border to start, but didn’t make it. Out of a ripped tote bag came a bottle of cheap Malay whiskey and some carbonated citrus concoction as mixer. I stole three paper cups out of a plastic bag in the back, and Kayla poured me in. We played cards. We drank and were not drunk, because Malay whiskey is useless. We downed the bottle, both bottles, and let them fall to the floor at our feet merrily.
What did we eat?
We brought snacks. I had a bag of coconut peanuts which weren’t very good. They had blown the last of their Rinngit on goodies: Mr. Potato chips, dried mango, gummys, stale chocolate cookies. We shared all. Come meal-time, they constantly rebuffed the server (whose name was Black. I asked) before I could protest that I had cash, even if they didn’t.
A middle-aged Minnesotan sitting kiddy-corner from us accidentally ordered enough for two, so he passed half of it our way. (I had helped him at the border when he couldn’t understand the Thai lady’s butchered English.) We demanded spoons from Black and dug in, one plate of steamed rice and mushy seafood dumped on top. We were on top of the world.
What did we have in common?
One shared experience aside, not much. They were Daily Mail readers. They were bartenders from Cornwall, England, at the end of four months partying across Asia. They were 22. At one point that life would have appealed to me. But they played music on an iPhone 4s out loud to the glares of an older white man behind them.
Kayla just wanted to watch “shit Saturday TV” with her “mam” once she got home. Tash mentioned that she didn’t need “uni” to become a chef, just experience. I agreed: College is largely useless. But then I thought maybe people who read the Daily Mail should have to take some university courses just to broaden their bases. Then I felt super judgmental and icky.
How did we part?
Amicably but awkwardly. We split a cab to Khao San. I paid since they had provided the whiskey. When we got out they asked, “Which way are you going – left or right?” and I looked around and saw my guest house and pointed. They said they were glad to meet me and nodded the direction they were walking. There were no plans to meet up later, no mention of friending on Facebook.
I saw them, two days later, in the middle of Khao San, looking as burnt and unkempt as before. “Hey,” I said, and we chatted briefly, hesitantly. I kind of suggested grabbing some drinks, but they were off to the airport in an hour and had no money left. “Later,” I said, but there will never be a later.
We weren’t soul-mates and we weren’t kindred spirits; we were hardly friends. We were the shared participants in an event we’ll bring up as a fun party story three or four times over the courses of our lives to hopefully persuade people that we’re more interesting than we really are. [Honeysuckle Rose.]