What feels like no more than ten minutes have passed before I am woken from something resembling a decent nap by a repeated soft tapping on the door of the hotel room. Reaching over I pull my watch off of the nightstand and stare fuzzily into the aqua-green hands of the battered dial. Citizen, tells non-citizen the time. Like any faithful dog of a watch, the hands click over another third of a minute telling me I've either been asleep for ten minutes or six hours. Feeling for the distinct button at its lower corner, I manage to swing the watch to a more traditional orientation and figure out that it has been six hours. Less than two to go until I need to be at shore patrol, meaning the knocking at the door should be my uniform back from the cleaners. Three and a half hours late, however who am I to argue. Getting the door to open proves a challenge as between the period that I entered the room, fell asleep and woke up again I have forgotten how to operate the lock. In all honesty, I should have had the bellhop demonstrate that feature a few more times. I file the idea away in my brain to be shuffled under a series of other inputs, rationalizations and lost idealism. With a certain lovely grating noise the deadbolt pops in and the door swings on spring-loaded hinges.
The uniform is hung in the closet and I dispense Baht for the job. At least tonight, I'll be winning over the hearts and minds of the locals with a freshly pressed set of summer whites, and yes, no one likes the whites. Still trying to catch up, the processes my head is running at the moment aren't any help in figuring out what exactly is going on in this room. Somewhere I wonder if I am even in the room I am supposed to be in, perhaps while I was asleep someone stole me and replaced everything in my environment with an exact duplicate. Never mind it was a stupid train of thought anyway. I glance down at the watch now velcroed firmly in place around my left wrist, determine that I have one hour and twenty minutes before I have to be back at the destruction festival at the pier for the night's duty. This is not going to be a fun one, not by a long shot. Glancing at the closet, I remember the forethought to bring the flight deck boots. Crumpled polished black leather jutting from steel reinforced heels and toes beckons. Another night those boots will carry this body somewhere else, another night when I will see things that I have not before, another night out. Tonight. Grabbing a razor out of my bag, I head for the bathroom to shave and dress for what is coming.
I walk out of the back entrance of the hotel and down the alleyway, freshly polished mid-calf high boots slowly rubbing black polish onto the inside of whites now in need of another pressing. Already the humidity has begun to work it's wonderful magic on the creases, flattening the peaks into dull rounded averages. The physical symbols of my ability to do my job are pressed neatly into two rows of color just above the left breast pocket. The nametag bearing the crest of my squadron, (totally unauthorized but I wear it to annoy the ship people, or shoes,) rides above the right. A glance down causes a minor adjustment to one of the green and orange ribbons riding above the rest bearing a single gold star in the center denoting a second of the same award. I cross under the property line of the hotel marked by a man in a booth armed with a large steel pole balanced on a fulcrum with a block of concrete and drifting back into the year already disappeared. Remembering when I received that and what I went through before. Standing in the pitching galley of a frigate while descriptions of work I barely remember doing were read aloud, two hours of sleep in three days pulling at my consciousness like a steel cable. They had dug me out of the process of getting together things I would need to take a shower to change into a clean uniform versus grease and salt streaked coveralls and head to the galley. There had been no explanation, simply that I had twenty minutes to get dressed and down there. The last time I had seen my rack had been three days prior, without complaint or hesitation I accepted that it was probably something pointless and if necessary I would just take a nap while there. Napping sounded very good. I mumble quiet nonsense as I fumble with the buttons on my shirt in the darkness of the berthing. "Yurei needs a nap. La, la, la. Otherwise, his mind will take a crap. La, la, la. Then he will be as useful as burlap. La, la, la."
Weaving with the motion of the ship time dilates and then stretches back. Memories of late nights, dirty hands, and miles of wiring bleeding into a stained carpet not unlike what was on the floor of the hotel room I just departed. The pages of technical manuals laid end to end as far as the eye can see, then suddenly erupting into a blizzard with a abrupt wind. I snap back to the past present and realize I was almost asleep, and hope that my eyes weren't as closed to reality as my mind just was. Falling asleep in front of the CO would be a very bad thing to have happen.
"Gijutsuka, I want you to know." The CO's words are unfolding like the origami he occasionally produced from deft hands. "How proud we all are of how much you accomplished."
The emotional rapid uncontrollable descent, the threats of death and promises of war from the irrational. All of that time, all of my own blood, the six months of effort. Neatly crystallized into a single moment forever carried above a shirt pocket in the form of nylon, dye and cheap brass form.
"You've done so much."
There was no way they could have given me anything greater than that, I didn't deserve what I did eventually receive. The Chief kept telling me later that I would do well by the Navy, that this was a sign that I was good at what I did and people noticed this sort of thing. At the time, I made some sarcastic comment about the point of busting one's ass for two cents worth of useless symbol. He did not appreciate that or the retort concerning doing the job should be reward enough to do the job well that followed on the heels of the first one-line rant.
"You deserve this."
"Do I get to keep the medal?" There is a box that the object came in. I have a plan already in mind.
"Is it your first one?"
"Yes." The CO and I exchange salutes. Neat khaki in front of blue denim, a grease streaked arm held up for his inspection. He smiles subtly and drops the salute. "Sir."
Tell the kids who walked down the trails and paths that we all walk before me that didn't make it back and didn't see the end of their effort. Tell them that they're appreciated, get them to believe in The Cause, make it All Right and I'll accept the fact that this one is mine and no one else's. True I held together the failing souls of two devils in gray skin, at what karmic cost I do not want to know. Climbing in the back of another Jeepney, I recall that the box is still in my desk at home.
Despite the fact that night has fallen over Thailand, the humidity has not bled away at all. At the pier, the dinosaurs of construction equipment sit mired in their project like tar waiting to fossilize them for future generations. People mill around the area in slow circles still, some of them vending unidentifiable meat on sticks, others selling meat of a different sort for a different use entirely. Light, the cacophony of a thousand voices and music spill from clubs on the street fronts. Women gesture and yell to passersby to attract further business. The smell of cooking food, stale beer, sweat, sewage and automobile exhaust floats through everything to create a perfume unique only to this place. I meet up with the remainder of the people that I will spend the next eight hours with and relieve the tired faces who have been standing there for the last eight. More people from the ship are still filtering off of the pier in small knots after being discharged from the small boats ferrying them from the form illuminated in the bay.
Passdown accomplished, the four of us split into two groups and work out the rotation for who will walk first and who will stay at the pier and wait for the inevitable. Luckily, my partner and I will spend the first shift walking. Checking out a radio, bottle of water and a belt, a Chief Gunner's Mate and I will spend the next two hours wandering around Pattaya Beach, Thailand with set out into the street.
Neon light from numerous bars slides like colored water over the glass windshields of the traffic we're picking our way through. At least five thousand people are on this half-mile of street at the moment, most of them taking part in the nightly local revelry. We're the only two non-locals without a beer or a woman in one hand or the other, our white uniforms marking us as instant targets for the people making valiant attempts to recruit more business. The scene flows at a pace all its own marked in time only by glances, examinations and temptation. We plod up and down sidewalks and through jammed traffic on the road for an hour before stopping and heading back toward where we came from. Dim white light from innumerable strings of bulbs just hanging over the street and just over our heads paints faces in a church-like glow. The fall from grace and search for salvation hidden in small instants between laughter and the search for an open drink. We stop for a few minutes to consume warming Coca-Cola from scarred glass bottles at the behest of one of the bar owners. The conversation reveals nothing beyond that we're being used as window dressing for a few moments in another ten seconds of drama. Finishing the soda, checking in over the radio and setting back out through the tide of steel perpetually jammed on this street we enter another building on the other side of the street.
Shore patrol is nothing more than an excuse to see what you can poke your nose into, and to see what you places you can get into for free. The uniform works like raw liquid cash on doormen, bouncers and attendants stopping anyone else and charging them the brute flat rate. The inside of a strip club, my hat suddenly plucked off of my head and on a stage. Chief finds this funny. On the other hand, he still has his hat. He would find it funny. Eventually the hat orbits back and I cram the thing back on my head. A few minutes later we inadvertently stumble into a rave in full swing, a few hundred people gyrate to dance music issuing from huge mounds of speakers set in all corners of the expansive yet packed room. The drugged out disbelief of a uniform reflected in eyes of someone who probably will not remember our pair beyond the next down. More humanity flooding around us as we ride escalators under mirrored ceilings back to the street and out of the brief respite of air conditioning. Eventually Chief, as all Chiefs do, begins to speak in addict's terms about finding a cup of coffee. Settling on a Mister Donut as probably the best bet, we settle into a booth with illogically hot coffee and improbable American donuts.
"Gijutsuka, how long you been in?" Chief asks abruptly, using my last name. "What, six, seven years?"
"Yeah. Seven and change." I mutter around one side of a half-eaten donut. Considering that I haven't seen a donut in four months, you would think I would savor the moment a little more. Washing it down with iced tea containing enough sugar to cure an army of diabetics for life doesn't help anything. In about an hour I should be bouncing off the walls nicely.
"I hate places like this." Chief mutters, blowing on his coffee. It smells like vaguely like coffee, has a color akin to motor oil and tastes close to paint thinner. Just like the ship. "Can't even get a goddamn decent cup of coffee here."
"Uhh, Chief, not to be an ass but this is Thailand." Thinking of adding the fact that Thailand is not known for good coffee, I reject the idea after a brief period of consideration. Chief is not a happy guy at the moment and agitating him is probably not a good idea. Without memory of the previous train of thought, I blurt it out anyway. "They're not exactly known for that here."
"Goddammit I know that. I mean Jesus, they've got electricity, why the fuck can't they make decent coffee?" Chief glances around the little shop and eventually settles on the attendant behind the counter, whatever is about to happen I know it will not end well. "You call this coffee? Shit."
"Chief, we're not in the U.S."
"Will you shaddup? I know that." Directing the fuming in my direction now, he tapers off into a mutter after a few seconds while intermittently stirring the liquid in the cup steaming in front of him. "Two o'clock in the goddamn morning, you'd think I could get a better cup of fucking coffee than this."
We finish in silence and wander back out into the night air. The pace of the evening slowing now with the early morning hours as we pick out way back through the construction equipment and onto the pier to send the others out for their turn. The pair takes over what little we have to tote around and wanders off with a wave as Chief checks in with the ship. I pull my hat off, wipe the accumulated sweat from my forehead for the Nth time and gently rest the circular fabric piece on my knee after gingerly settling onto a stool. The pier is dark and still crowded with people moving in the darkness like shadows. Fishing in my pocket for a cigarette I fend off two kids trying to extract a living from my pity, I have at this moment no pity and no money. The only thing I am carrying at the moment aside from a developing case of fatigue is enough change to get back to my hotel room in six hours. The small concrete cube we're sitting at for the duration of the next two hours looses dingy light and the sound of moths banging into the overhead lighting onto the small patio area we're sitting on through a battered doorway. More music from across the street bangs away in mute testimony to the nature of supply and demand. Smoke from the end of the cigarette I am smoking drifts into the darkness to collect under the tarpaulin tent rigged over the area to shade it during the day. Sighing, I watch two prostitutes ply their wares for a small knot of tourists.
"So we sit here for the next two hours." Chief says, walking out of the doorway and taking a liberal pull from a bottle of water.
"I think that's the general idea."
Again the hush closes in for drawing minutes, I rest watching the flow of people out on the sidewalk drifting by bound for destinations that I do not think I would want to visit even briefly. There are the women, smiling and laughing, trying to earn the whatever faith it is that their customers have in them. On the other hand there are those who are just there, the minority who are just walking away or toward the end of destiny and a definition of time spent. Glancing over my shoulder at The Cube (as I have decided to call it,) I recall a dream I had several days ago. For some reason, the motion of the ship tends to produce very strange dreams in the vast majority of the people that I know and talk to often. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that I usually associate with strange people, then again I like to think of it as the sloshing action at work on the brain. Id and ego, on permanent press.
The entire dream was made up of a scene from William Gibson's Neuromancer. I am sitting on an endless beach talking to some woman in a dilapidated pillbox. It started off at noon or so waning later into a dark indigo sunset. Distant City lights at the one end of the beach that seemed to sit just beyond the realm of perception winking on towards the later stages of the fading daylight. I am unable to recall the conversation only that it was terribly important. Something about redemption, about letting go, without forgetting the past. The woman looked like someone I knew in Japan, someone drifting through circles whose shape that I could now not even guess. The name floats on the end of my tongue, draped in the sensation of having not acted fast enough or in the right way to change the eventuality that has become the current situation. Regret is something of an event horizon, once the decision is made there is a definitive point at which nothing else can be done except examine small pieces of the larger whole. The mechanics of the chaos leading to the choice become hidden, disappearing into the past only to be theorized about later. Never proven, absolutely defined or delineated by black and white lines, the decisions we make through our lives merge to form a single gray sheet of morality. Things are done neither right or wrong, yet no one is infallible.
"Yurei?" The voice comes from behind me in the construction, slurred with alcohol. "That you?"
"Hey Sheila." I glance over and wave limply, trying not to move too much to avoid generating heat which will eventually turn into sweat. There is a small group of five people walking through the dwindling darkness at the deconstruction. "What you guys up to?"
"I got painted."
"Painted?" Electing to stand instead of sit, I rise and make an attempt at straightening out the white uniform slowly acquiring a myriad of small spots. Failing miserably, I greet the people in the group from the ship. Four of them I know, one of them is a local that seems to have attached herself to the inebriated travelers. "You had a painting of yourself done?"
"No, goof." Sheila wraps her arms around my neck and the two of us stagger backwards two steps. "I got painted."
"Ahh." Disentangling myself from her under Chief's bemused smile I move the cigarette away from where it could do damage. She seizes my hand and then leans in again to whisper something in my ear.
"I'll be good, I promise."
"Where?" Backing away again another of the people I know from the ship laughs loudly at something Chief is telling them. From what I am catching of the separate conversation, it concerns my hat. I make a solemn promise to ensure retribution of some juvenile form at a later date, possibly never.
"Here." (Author's Note: Have some decency. This is my overly verbose angst, not pornography.) "All the way down to there."
"Ahh." Chief begins laughing and wanders back inside The Cube. Josh, Matt and Jessica wander over to where Sheila and I are standing. Their attachment remains outside the door for a few seconds and then wanders in to, (hopefully,) annoy Chief. "Matt, how is it?"
"Okay, you know. Little drinking, little watching fish come out of places they shouldn't have swam, that sort of thing." Matt and I, despite professional rivalry, are good friends. Ship's personnel and people from the air department on smaller ships like the 975 series, (Refer to the boats like this and it makes them sound like Porsches, not a Pintos.) Destroyer sitting in the bay usually do not get along too well. He and I had a hell of a debate over the nature of art versus the medium of popular culture that has yet to have reached a conclusion. There is a bar, some beer, and time tomorrow for that. Mainly what I was arguing is that pretty much everything is art in some form or another due to the nature of individual perception. Matt on the other hand was arguing against an individual basis for this half-baked theory and more for one of a social meme. We're both right, it is simply something to suck up long hours when both of us have run out of work in the middle of the night. Sheila and I were introduced to each other through Matt a month or two ago in Saipan. Then there was the last night in Singapore. Chicane's 'Behind the Sun' is spinning quietly on a CD player resting in an expansive lawn. Discussion on beauty and the history of the American nuclear weapons program. Cigarettes. Decent bottle of wine. Fresh cut grass sticking to my back. Long walk back. Hasty and interrupted glances on the ship, trying to hide during the inevitable unmasking at the end of the dance from the rest of those attending the ball.
"How's the watch?" Matt asks jokingly. Matt and his deadpan gallows humor reminds me of another friend I had on my first cruise who had a similar sense of style.
"Stupid question." I drop the cigarette and crush it under the toe of a polished boot. The edge of a dog tag glints briefly in the yellow light spilling out of the streetlights beyond the tarpaulin cover. Peeking out from under that is the curve of a single fifty Yen coin, kept for luck and symbolic reasons. No matter where home is at the time, I will always be close to a small piece of Japan. "Are they ever any different?"
"Gotcha. You off tomorrow?" Glancing at Sheila's arm which is in turn attached to her hand which is in turn drawing an uncomfortable line up my spine Matt raises an eyebrow in my direction. "Or uhh, are you busy?"
"Off then, and for the two days after that."
"You're always off." Sheila mutters mainly to defuse Matt, who is now staring at her.
"Thanks Sheila, appreciate it." I grimace in mock offense and fish for another cigarette while Matt drifts over to where Jessica and Josh are trying to relieve Chief of the current target of his wrath. "Careful now, Chief is there."
"I know." Disconnecting herself from the not too unpleasant ministrations being delivered to my spine she trails gracefully around to stand in front of me, head tilted to one side. "You know my room number?"
"Nope, but I have a feeling you're going to tell me."
"505." Stepping backwards slowly, Sheila begins to close the connection for the time being. "Goof."
"Be there, with bells on. 'Bout three or so, gimmie some time to sleep." Light flares in front of my face from the scarred brass lighter my friends refer to as 'Christine.' For some reason, this particular Zippo will only light for myself and a rabble of other strange characters the number of which you could easily count on one hand. "Don't lose the paint, 'kay?"
"'Kay. Don't lose your hat." Sheila smiles wickedly and drifts off, the little group following in tow to a waiting Jeepney playing a rendition of the Venga Boys 'We Like To Party' that I have heard about fifteen times tonight. As the vehicle rounds the corner halfway down the block from the pier, Chief catches me in the middle of a long stare at Sheila's departing form. Catching my eye for the last time she waves almost imperceptibly and mouths words that I miss in the darkness and motion.
"You uhh, tapping that?" Chief jokingly slaps a heavy but compact hand into a shoulder blade, knocking me forward half a step. For a man nearly two feet taller than me he is powerfully built. Nearly twenty years working on 5-inch guns and other large pieces of destruction inducing equipment will do that to a man. "You know she's in my division?"
"Chief." Responding to the accusatory tone of the last statement, mine is one of exasperation and fatigue with such questions. This is the fourth time in as many days that I have had similar people invite an explanation for her and I being seen together from time to time in the smoking area. Nothing physical, just sitting at a distance that would please a nun but cause overactive shipboard imaginations to run rampant. "Nothing like that."
"Keep it that way. I don't want any kind of fraternization going on between anybody, not just you two." Finishing off with a withering stare that only Chiefs can deliver, the man caps off the tacit threat with something that I never saw coming. "You're not stationed in Japan, the last thing I want is to lose a worker to some stupid fucking fling. Too much of that bullshit going on with your fuckin' det right now as is."
"I haven't heard anything." This is true, not that I particularly want to either. The situation between Sheila and I is difficult enough, having someone else decide to bond to me because they're going through it as well is something I want to avoid. "Is there a problem?"
"No. I don't mean to insult you or any shit like that, just that we've had problems." The man is very carefully hinting at something neither of us will commit to discussing openly. For starters its beyond the scope of even my disregard for the rank structure to do so, second there are some taboos you do not violate for fear of being crushed instantly. I realize all at once that this entire exchange was intended to elicit a very different response. Chief has been goading me the entire time. Flushing, I wonder how much of a fool I could have been had I taken the bait and told him more of the truth than I already poured forth. To give him specifically what he wanted and thereby finish his proof with some as yet undefined given of which only I am aware.
"I heard about that bullshit. That wasn't us and we're not like them." There were problems with the last det and serious ones. Inappropriate sexual conduct culminating in a Captain's Mast, a ruling which was later overturned due to the charging party reversing their story and admitting to a lie. Bad scene, a marriage ended in divorce for no reason, a life shattered because of petty jealousy. This marred the first two months of the six-month cruise. I very clearly remember our officer in charge's words the first night we spent underway on the ship: 'There will be no, repeat absolutely no social contact between the air department and any member of this crew.' Sorry sir, it wasn't meant personally. "I wouldn't do something stupid."
"Let's hope so." Dropping the matter in the dust like so many empty and faded beer bottles scattered in front of The Cube, Chief wanders back inside to grab a drink of water. Four and a half hours to go on watch, ten until I will yet again force the entrenched desire for adherence to regulations to yield under pressure of will. Drawing heavily on the cigarette, I try to determine if I am right now doing something stupid. Consciously arguing over whether this entire endeavor equates to nothing more than biology running rampant or if it stems from something more complicated proves difficult. Eventually I come to the conclusion that it is not morality in question but timing. Sheila's last words on the lawn in Singapore drift back through time, mixing with the smell of cooking chicken from the cart near the end of the pier.
"Strange how people kinda leave when you're just getting to know them." There is a comfortable pause as crickets and mellow trance bleed through the background. "Yurei, don't fall in love with me."
"I can't." Croaking voice grates into thin air, at peace with the whole complex while at war with a sum total of my own reality. The coldness bleeds around the edges and I want to be at work again, up there and under the gun. Water rustles under the pier behind me, mocking the answers never uttered until now. "I don't think I know how."
"Whuzzat?" Chief turns from watching the other pair washing across the jetsam in the road. "You say something?"
"Naah, just thinking out loud. Sorry 'bout that Chief." I rise, adjust the hat to a centered and level position where it ought to be and make another futile attempt directed toward flattening out the front of the uniform shirt. As with all previous energy sent into that particular toilet, I fail miserably. "Another round, Chief?"
"Yep, our turn to go wander the fuck around some more."
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