Hellos and Goodbyes
It’s early AM in Bangkok, but it’s already sticky hot. I’m sitting on the steps of a travel agency, waiting for it to open so I can buy a bus ticket to Chiang Mai. The smell of exhaust fumes and incense fills the air. The sounds of Tuk Tuks whizzing by, utensils clanging against woks, and Buddhist monks chanting somewhere in the distance remind me I’m a long way from home.
I become aware of a figure to the side of me. My senses are fine-tuned by now, having travelled alone multiple times before, and I’m pretty good at spotting both opportunity and danger when it comes to other people. Something unsettles me about this guy, so I shoot him a glance and see that he’s disheveled, sunburnt, wearing ragged shorts and a t-shirt and coddling a laptop bag. I’d put him in his early forties, but it’s hard to tell. It strikes me as a little odd; he’s not a backpacker because he has no backpack, so what’s he doing here?
He takes a swig from a bottle of Thai whiskey and extends it out to me.
“Want a drink?” he asks in a distinctly American accent.
“I’m good,” I say, smiling and politely declining. He takes another swig and caps the bottle.
We engage in the usual chit chat that travellers always do to break the ice. Where have you been? Where are you going? What’s your story?
He tells me his name is Jeffery, and he’s a former United States marine. He’s a Gulf War veteran and can’t hear properly because of damage he endured in the war, so every so often, I have to repeat what I’ve said a little louder. After a few minutes pass, I notice a tear stream down his cheek, and I ask if he’s OK. He reaches into his laptop bag and pulls out a few photographs and hands them to me.
I study them and see him smiling with a beautiful Asian woman in front of a temple with a golden roof. He’s clearly happy and proud. She’s beaming a gorgeous smile, so I guess it’s his girlfriend.
“This your lady?” I ask.
“Was,” he replies.
I don’t say anything, waiting for him to continue. A Tuk Tuk stops in front of us and asks us if we need a ride. Jeff says something in Thai to him and waves him off.
“Two months ago we went to a party. We got smashed. I mean, we got fucked up,” he says. “Next morning, I asked her to go out and get some fresh fruit and coffee. She got hit by a truck and died,” he tells me.
I’m completely stunned, unsure how to answer. So, I say what everyone says “I’m sorry, man.”
“Yeah, buddy, every hello is just a goodbye waiting to happen,” he tells me, draining the bottle of whiskey and letting out a belch. “I just keep thinking...if I’d gone, she’d still be here.”
I don’t exactly recall what happened next, but I know I spent the next couple of days with Jeffery. I bought my ticket to Chiang Mai for the weekend, and I asked him if I could buy him a bed at the hostel so he could get some decent sleep and a shower. By now, I’d realized that this guy was literally living on the streets of Bangkok. He agreed.
Over the next few days, I realized this man was in deep pain and slightly mad. He was heartbroken, was probably suffering from PTSD, and was stealing to survive. He stole a book from a store and asked me to buy it from him at half price. I gave him the full price because I wanted to read it anyway. He challenged me to see who could do the most underwater laps in a rooftop pool for a 12-crate of beer. I took the bet, but I stood no chance against an ex-Marine. He threatened to batter a dude on the street because he looked at him funny. He told me all sorts of wild stories about the war and his life.
Eventually, the weekend rolled on, and Jeff walked me to the bus station. He told me again what he had said the first day we met “Brother, every hello is a goodbye waiting to happen. This is goodbye for us.”
I nodded, but before I left, I told him something that popped into my head.
“True, but every goodbye is a new hello waiting to happen, too. Think of all the people you said goodbye to before you met Mai (his lovers’ name, if I recall correctly). You wouldn’t have met her if you didn’t say 1,000 goodbyes first. You wouldn’t have met me here if you didn’t say goodbye to her, not that that’s any consolation. There are two sides to that coin.”
I still remember the look on his face in that filthy, crowded, noisy bus station. He flipped his aviator sunglasses onto the top of his head, beamed a massive smile and gave me a bear hug and a manly pat on the back.
And with that, the ex-Marine turned street hustler turned and walked away. I never saw him again. I don’t know whether he’s dead or alive, but I hope he’s well and found some healing.
Jeffery, if you’re out there, I wish you well, brother. I still remember you all these years later. I hope you found peace.