I went to Koh Samui during a time frequented by temporary setbacks that I didn’t even bother counting. I wanted to leave for a faraway place, and it was the first place that came to my mind.
My friend Kai offered to give me a ride to the gym upon arrival, but I turned it down, saying I’d like to explore the island a little bit before getting down to business. I changed into my swim trunks and lay down on the beach, attempting my best to be a normal tourist. The sun was glaring upon me. I sat up and looked at the people whose white flesh was shining in the gold. A middle-aged man came toward me, hopping a little bit, possibly stung by a jellyfish or something sharp. He was laughing though, unlike my father, who hadn’t ever emanated such an aura. He had been a bantamweight boxer before a stroke hit him a couple of years ago, and was limping now. Although what I thought hurt him the most was his left side being paralyzed, a pain in the ass for a former southpaw. Sometimes I felt sorry watching him struggle to raise himself from his wheelchair. There were times, after he left, when I would just stare at that chair for a long time.
One night we had a loud disagreement and he told me to fuck off. The next day I bought a ticket to Koh Samui and left home unnoticed. I was twenty-three years old and unemployed. The money I had could only sustain me for two weeks. Somehow, I didn’t feel bad or insecure. I’d always wanted to visit Kai. He had been my roommate back in college and had dropped out of school during sophomore year. One night we were drinking on the balcony and I told him that my father was once a boxer. Some local champ before I was born, I guess. Kai began beaming hearing this, and said he’d always had a hankering to do something like that, something not in the least promising but limitless. Sometimes it hurts so bad, he said, looking at the night sky, you have to do something to stop the pain.
Months later, even before that semester ended, he went off to a Muay Thai training camp in Thailand, leaving me no time to figure out what he truly meant.
I lay down again and tried to shield the sunlight from my eyes. Despite the sweltering heat, I couldn’t stop my shivers. I’ll be doomed two weeks from today, I thought. I didn’t know why I told Kai that I wanted to fight, since my only martial arts experience was some vague memory of boxing when I was little. Kai somehow seemed to be pretty fine with it. A lot of Westerners come all the way here for a fight, he said on the phone. It’s like a souvenir for their vacation. We’ll just let the promoter pick a rookie for you. Yeah whatever, I thought, and hung up the phone. I’m not trying to prove anything, I said to myself early that morning before leaving home. Besides, it’s hardly possible to prove anything with my reed-like body.
Finally I got up and reached for my bag. It was already late afternoon, but the sun was scorching mercilessly. I checked my phone and tossed it back into the bag. No one had called. I left the beach where clusters of tourists were still gathering, and headed for the gym, which I hoped to locate before dark. The bag on my back, with its loose straps and overall slack look, possessed in some way an I’m-leaving-for-good kind of flair. At least that’s what I imagined a person looking at my back would think.
After asking for some directions and meandering through those entangled streets, I finally arrived at the gateway. It was isolated from the main street I came from, where dozens of gyms and bars collided, and it somewhat resembled a parking lot from the outside. I fished out my phone and called Kai. No one answered. He might be in the middle of something, I thought. I was about to hang up when I heard someone yell my name.
A figure dashed out, wearing nothing but a pair of red shorts, his sinewy body drenched in sweat amid the burning sunset. We are actually wrapping up, he said, like I met him only yesterday. I was just about to call you, he said, waving his phone. I looked at him and watched water drip down his forehead. Damn you look so dazzling, I thought, and smiled a little.
We kind of skipped the whole greeting thing and walked across an unpaved yard to the training area of the gym, a half-alfresco place where you could see a row of heavy bags dangling with two large rings in the background. A kid, some fighter in the gym I assumed, was wiping one of the bags. I’ll take you to my Kru, Kai said, he’ll arrange your training and fighting. What’s a Kru? I asked. Oh, it means teacher in Thai, he responded. So this is for real, I thought. God, none of this makes any sense. But I followed him and didn’t say anything. The Kru, a paunchy middle-aged man with only shorts and pads on him, featuring some full-armored medieval knight in all his glory, greeted me with his palms put together, the whole Buddha gesture thing, and I hastily returned the Thai style handshake.
Kru Mac, as Kai called him, spoke pretty decent English. He asked me how long I would stay there. I said two weeks. He looked a little surprised, it seemed, after calculating the dates in his head. But you’re not gonna stay for the Full Moon Party? He asked. That’s why people come. No, I said, smiling awkwardly. I didn’t even know there was such a party. Actually, I knew nothing about Koh Samui except that Kai was here.
Mac dropped the topic and started explaining the training routine to me: we train twice a day, six times a week. Training always kicks off with long-distance running. As a warm up, he said. The whole thing sounded brutal. He then beckoned the kid I saw to come over, who was about eleven and just as skinny as I was. You run with him before training, he said. And you train only once a day the first week. I nodded, but didn’t find it soothing at all.
The next day, my training began, along with the suffering. Although for the time being, I was so grateful that my carnal self was too winded to care about my mental health. The kid was either wrapping his hands or shadowboxing by the time I finished. It was hard to keep up with his pace after about five kilometers. That whole week I struggled with running, but my body still wasn’t conditioned well enough for roadwork. One time I watched the kid’s body dwindle in my view, while wisps of steam ascended from my body and blurred the surroundings. I thought of the city where I lived back home and the possibility of staying in Koh Samui forever.
We became a new trio: Kai, the kid, and me. We always had lunch together, normally some rice, chicken, and som tam salad. I imagined the simplicity of days like these prolonging to eternity. Most of the time, it was Kai who did all the talking. Because he liked to talk, and since I didn’t speak Thai, he was the only medium through which I could talk to the kid. One day I asked the kid how come he wasn’t going to school. He said (with Kai’s somewhat exaggerated manner it seemed) that his family was destitute and he wanted to get back at the other kids that bullied him after he grew up. And I won’t stop, Kai continued, until I become the best Muay Thai fighter in the world. I looked at Kai, whose eyes were glistening with pride and determination. Maybe he felt the same way. Maybe they were his own words after all.
The kid was nowhere to be seen. As I dragged my rotten lungs and legs along, I thought about the three of us with desperate hope: the kid had quit school at an early age; Kai was a dropout; and there was me, alone being out of the system, living in another vacuum, but who somehow knew he’d never truly get rid of the past. I wanted to shout out, we are all students at large. I wanted to extend my arms. But I had no wind. None at all.
Days passed. The night before my fight, I couldn’t sleep. I knocked on Kai’s door. He opened it, looking drowsy. Sorry to wake you up, I said. You only woke me halfway, said Kai. I’m not asleep yet. He didn’t ask me to come in, neither did he say anything. Instead, he left the door ajar and led me back to the training area. We sat on the matted floor, heads and backs against one heavy bag. Everything was still, and I was leaving in two days. I had tons of words clogged in my throat, as a matter of fact. We didn’t really get to talk much during the last two weeks, due to all the grueling training sessions we had had to endure. But somehow, turning around to see his impenetrable face, I found that my words still failed me. I looked at the moon and said, unwittingly, I wish I could have some beer. I heard Kai let out a light laugh. Fighters ain’t supposed to drink, he said. Especially on the night before their big day. Yeah, whatever, I said. The mosquitoes were killing me already. I wanted to leave. Just then Kai asked, so how do you like it here?
For a short time, I didn’t know how to reply. All my curious questions about him were swallowed back into my stomach. I said “not bad” for a short answer, which I earnestly meant. Kru Mac is very kind to me, I added, feeling the gentle bump of the heavy bag transmitted from the movement of Kai’s head. It reminded me of all those sultry nights back at school when we stayed up and rambled on about nonsensical stuff. Only the heat here was more suffocating. Yeah, right, replied Kai, of course he is. What do you mean by that? I asked. No offense, he said, but you’re not his fighter, you’re his guest. I could almost sense the pride in his tone. Guess you’re his true warrior, I said, a trace of bitterness creeping up to my throat. Yeah, I’m his bitch, he said, half-mockingly. I straightened up and looked at his profile, a dim complexion under the moonlight, yet dank and misty and more energetic than mine.
The next day Kai came to me and volunteered to be my corner on my fight night. To be honest, I’d turned into a complete nervous wreck and couldn’t care less. My limbs were all stiff and numb. After a light dinner, he escorted me to a local bar on that very street where I had lost myself on my first day. The rookie bar, as he claimed, was the place where most of the tourists gathered and had their first and last fights. By the time we walked in, there were barely any spots left, and the crowd went wild for the fighters in the ring. The bar was seething with roars intermingled with the smell of booze, sweat, and boxing oil. The whole atmosphere made me feel dizzy. I was told to lie down, after God knows how long, in that square of space environed by heels and chair legs. I’d lost track of the time. Kai was squatting by my side, rubbing my whole body with boxing oil. I stared blankly at the ceiling, imagining the sky I had seen by the beach of Koh Samui; imagining my father, limp and downcast on that fucking chair. If I won this fight, I thought, if I ever won this fight, I’d show him the video. I didn’t know why, like most of my motivations in this story, they were all cloudy and miserable. But I had made up my mind.
Live it up a little, will ya, said Kai, who was putting Mongkol on my head. Just flail some arms and kick some air, then we can binge drink like you wanted. He patted me on the shoulder. My nostrils were tainted with the smell of boxing oil. And when I was walking toward the ring, for an instant I thought I was a real fighter. In spite of the farce of such a fight, I had to perform everything, so to speak. First I jumped over the top rope and walked full circle to seal the ring. Then I performed the Wai Kru, a pre-fight dance to pay tribute to your trainers and friends and family. And when I knelt down with my face on the greasy canvas of that ring, I thought about how he would’ve fought, back when he still had a career, before I was born. Then I breathed in that pungent smell, and the racket around me subsided to a remote echo.
The fight was just like Kai had described. I thought we were both kicking the air a lot. By the time I got off the ring, the pain on my right foot was growing acute and I felt that my shinbones were cracking. Kai couldn’t contain his grin and laughed. I laughed too, some kind of emotion brimming over the surface like the beer we later quaffed in celebration. I can’t believe you won by points, said Kai, sort of hoisting me back to the gym in the small hours. The guy’s a southpaw, and you’ve only sparred with orthodox fighters, and I think he weighs a few pounds more than you. He might have had blabbered on about something else, but all I could focus on at that moment was my right foot, swollen like a little hill. Kai stopped at my door and told me to hang on. He came back later with a huge bottle of boxing oil and handed it over to me. It’s just something you can’t live without, he said. Massage your legs with the oil or they’ll hurt worse tomorrow. And the video of my fight? I asked. I’ll send it to your phone, he said. Spotty reception here, but a couple of hours should do it.
I found it hard to sleep again. At first I thought it was the pain, but it turned out I’d long ago adapted to its constancy. The room looked still in the deep moonlight. In Koh Samui, the moonlight was always there. I kept staring at that bottle of boxing oil on the windowsill. Something haunted me, for no special reason. I got up, almost enjoying the next wave of stabbing pain to pass onto my right side. It was like a wave of some newfound consciousness, or a forgotten revelation. Then the awareness of leaving hit me like a nightmare. But deep down I knew I wouldn’t survive even if I stayed. The only thing I could grasp at the moment was me standing by the window and looking out at a patch of barren ground until I couldn’t stand the pain anymore. I went back to bed and tried to sleep, but ended up getting up once again. I cleaned an empty travel-size shampoo bottle, and poured a small amount of boxing oil into it. I had to take some back, I thought. The whole action was done as if under a spell. Soon afterward I lay down on my bunk, and finally I was out in its pungent, alien smell.
Kai went to see me off at dawn. I still hadn’t asked him those questions about how he got here, how his parents condoned his behaviors, and so forth. Guess none of that mattered anymore. On my flight back home, I kept thinking about what my father’s expression would be when he saw me fighting. He only called me once during my two-week escapade, asking about my well-being in a laconic fashion like some lousy speaker. I tried to stop thinking and get some extra sleep, just shut off from all the chaos in my brain, but failed again as expected.
The sun was dropping when I arrived home. I was welcomed by a distant hug and some casual greetings. How was your vacation? Fine. Did you enjoy yourself? Pretty much. My father looked at me and cast me a wintry smile, the kind which can’t be mistaken. I looked at his stagnant face and held tight the phone in my pocket. It was all over. Then he asked me, in some kind of taunting manner, or at least I thought it was taunting, if I’d spent all my days goofing around or if I’d considered job hunting. I shrugged. Being thrown back into the same desert made me shudder. I wanted to flee, and maybe I did. Only this time the moonlight wasn’t as bright.