I was staying at a hostel in Chiang Mai, Thailand, along the moat area, not far from the famed Maenam Ping River. On my fourth day in the historic city, I decided to work on a freelance assignment and sat my self on one of the tables near the entrance.
There were two Chinese women at the table beside the one I occupied. We shared the same dormitory room and I got to talk to them for a bit when I arrived four days ago. At that time, I didn't know much about them except that they were staying in Chiang Mai for three weeks to study English. They were still in the early phases of learning the language so that was all the information I gathered from them.
I set up my phablet on the table, attached my portable mini keyboard and prepared to write. I must have looked so boring to other travelers, but I needed extra funding for my ambitious 40-day backpacking trip. I had no time to be concerned over other people's opinions. It was a write-or-starve situation.
So caught up was I in the writing process that I failed to notice a bunch of tourists suddenly entering the lobby. The noise grew louder and I had to look up to see where it was coming from. Apparently, one Chinese guy contracted rashes at the neighboring hostel. The hostel owner was kind enough to accommodate them. Booking arrangements were subsequently sorted out.
The group that had just entered and my dorm mates were happily talking to each other. Busy as I was then, I wasn't in a friendly mood. The only thing on my mind was to finish the article as soon as possible. Alone in a big table, typing feverishly on a childish keyboard, and squinting at a small screen, while the others mingled and talked animatedly beside me - I sure did cut a lonely figure.
I quickly ignored the thought and continued to type. In the midst of all the loud Mandarin conversations, a guy's deep voice speaking in heavily accented English wafted through my ears. I carried on with my boring task, willing myself to concentrate. But despite my efforts, the surrounding noise kept me from making steady progress.
And then I saw him.
It's impossible not to. His blonde hair was so flashy and conspicuous - like shiny hay in a sea of jet black hair. How could I not see him when he was hovering at my dorm mates' table a few inches from where I sat?
"Hahaha." He was laughing with them but the fake laughing was too obvious.
"I... daughter... 22... married." One of my dorm mates explained. She was having a hard time getting the words out. The whole ordeal seemed painful to her.
I couldn't help but steal a glance. Their interaction amused me.
"Oh... I see." His brows furrowed. Communication barriers are exasperating indeed. I could sense an aura of frustration emanating from him. But still I carried on and pretended to be engrossed in my writing. It's not right to stick my nose into other people's business.
"Ah!" One of my dorm mates, the short-haired one, suddenly seemed to have an idea.
Before I realized it, she tapped my shoulder and muttered something that would have sounded incoherent to the untrained ears (I guess mine were trained enough).
"You... English. My daughter... twenty-two. Two. In States. I... married," she was saying. She gestured to the blonde guy, then back to me.
Did she want me to translate?
"She says she has a twenty-two year old daughter in the United States. And she's married with two children." I said to him.
"O-oh." The guy nodded, his eyes slightly widening while staring at me. Perhaps he was relieved to know there's someone he could talk to after all. Or maybe annoyed that I kept silent even though I was aware of his struggle to communicate with my dorm mates?
"You're from?" His eyes looked at me searchingly.
I told him where I came from. It was as if a fuse broke. He talked non-stop. He told me his nationality, how long he's been in Thailand, the places he'd been to and so on. I had to keep up with the conversation since I was still pretending to be "at work."
So Blondie had stayed in Australia on a Work Holiday Visa. As soon as his Visa expired, he decided he needed a vacation and flew to Thailand. He wasn't used to such a vacant schedule after three years of working his head off. Now he was just trying to kill some time until his flight to Japan within a week.
"Actually, I'm relieved. It's so hard talking when no one understands you," he said.
"But aren't you always around them?" I asked.
"Ah, well..." He scratched his head and made a sheepish smile. I guess he was pretending to understand even if he didn't. Like how I was pretending to be "busy" when I was absolutely thrilled to have his company and silently hanging on to his every word.
"I just laugh when they're all laughing. Like when they go "Hahaha" so I go "Hahaha" too. When they go drinking, I tag along. It's been fun but for the fact that they couldn't speak English very well. I mean, look at us, we're talking straight and it feels great to be able to communicate properly."
"Well that's because I've been speaking the language for as long as I can remember. Other than that, I couldn't speak anything else," I said
"But did you know when I first arrived in Australia, I couldn't even talk in English? I was somewhat like them," he subtly gestured to my dorm mates, who were smiling our way. They were obviously relieved that I undertook the burden of entertaining a conversation-starved Blondie and spared them the trouble of talking in a language they couldn't speak at all.
"It wasn't the locals who taught me English either. They have a different accent so it was hard to follow."
"Oh really? So who taught you?"
"I had a girlfriend. She's Japanese. We met in Cambodia two years ago and were always talking online. So I learned English by talking to her all the time."
"Well you speak the language so fluently now."
"That's true but I speak with her accent - Japanese accent." He said, his expressive face showing his feigned annoyance.
"It's better than nothing, you know. Besides, it sounds neutral to me." I laughed. His carefree and adventurous personality was starting to show.
"Well people who try to learn English should just get a girlfriend or boyfriend and talk to them all the time. They'll learn faster."
"That's not right. And what if they're married?" I countered.
"Still it's more effective to get a girlfriend when learning a language. Some of my friends go abroad to study English but they don't really do some learning there. They just party and get drunk all night. I even speak better than them!" He said while simultaneously scrolling through his phone.
"So you'll date someone for that reason and not because you like them?" The idea was preposterous to me.
"Hahaha." He laughed. A deep, soothing laugh that didn't seem to suit his flashy hair and boyish looks.
He suddenly showed his phone screen to me. Taken aback, I could only say "Errr... yes?"
"Your name," he said.
On the screen was his Facebook account and an open search tab. I guess he wanted to add me as a friend. Well he didn't seem like a bad guy, so why not?
Now that we had connected through social media, I felt the need to end the conversation. It's been hours and the sun was setting. This had to end or I wouldn't get any work done.
"I have to go," I told him. "I have some deadline to beat." Something stung when I said that.
"Oh. Me too. I think I'll sleep some more since I was so drunk last night." It must have been my imagination but he seemed a little disappointed that I couldn't be with him longer. I simply smiled.
I wanted to keep going had there been more time to dispose of. But nah. That's just my excuse. I knew then that I could have but I had to put up those walls again. Deepening any association with him would only work against me. I wasn't prepared to go through another round of false hopes.
"What are your plans later?" He asked.
"I'm gonna buy souvenirs at the night market."
He nodded. "I'll be going to the night market too." Was it me or did he sound hopeful?
I was aware of the hint but the cold spinster in me refused to read beyond the lines.
"Right. See you around, dude." I waved goodbye and hurriedly went upstairs to my dormitory room.
I got to my bed, flung my stuff and stared blankly at the ceiling. I recalled everything we talked about from start to finish. I recalled his amusing expressions, his nonsense analogy that getting a girlfriend who speaks English is more effective than studying, the way he furrowed his brows, how his blonde hair went so well with his facial expressions and that moment he gave me that hint. A smile slowly crept up my face.
And then an idea struck me.
Why don't we test it? That thing called "fate"? I have never been a fatuous fool for love or romance, but I sure would like to be proved wrong. It's a silly, childish thought but no one had anything to lose anyway.
It was a simple game. If I see him at the night market, then I'll know. If I don't, then there's no point insisting. That would've been our first and last meeting. The absurdity of my plans excited me.
Night markets always start at dusk. This should be fun, I said to myself. I got up and changed clothes.