The Warning Label by Caroline Harvey

The Warning Label

Caroline Harvey

The outdoor bar was a dive. Its tables crude slabs of wood flanked by wobbly chairs, leaned on a sidewalk so cracked it looked detonated. The menu, printed in misspelled English, was limited to beer, instant coffee and “Thai Massage.” But despite its dilapidation the bar was crowded, and after fourteen hours on a train I was feeling something a more honest person might have called loneliness. I found a chair and sat down.

You are very beautiful. The compliment came from a thirtyish-looking Thai man dressed like the hipsters I’d seen on Koa San in Bangkok. Shiny jewelry, low-slung jeans, meticulously disheveled hair. He was too trendy for this hole in Kanchanaburi but his English was good; I pegged him as a small-time local, probably an un-licensed guide or a driver. My name is Jolie, he went on, which means beautiful in French. Since we are both beautiful, we drink together. It was possible that his pick-up line had just won the prize of most nauseating of all time, but, sadly, I have a weakness for sleaze. I puffed out my chest like a cold bird and agreed, a drink would be nice.
You like sake?
Sake’s fine, but I don’t think they serve it.
It’s OK, I know the owner.

Jolie went next door to the market and came back with rice wine and something else I couldn’t see, something he put in his pocket before he got to the table. He waved away the waitress and went behind the bar himself, brought out two glasses, opened the bottle and poured.

Our conversation, mostly small talk, was underscored by a group of Germans who’d gotten their hands on an out-of-tune guitar with one snapped string. They played rock ballads at the table behind us and smoked cigarettes, laughing off the pack’s warning label, which featured rotting skulls and women with grisly, yellow teeth. One of the Germans had a local girlfriend. She was a friend of Jolie’s and every few minutes they spoke fast, tonal Thai to each other, looked around furtively and giggled. Then the Germans would burst into hoarse, staccato laughter and make a big show of winking at me. I felt like a private joke that kept getting funnier. At one point Jolie caught me yawning, went back to the market and got a can of something that looked like coffee. It’ll keep you awake, he said, drink it. But unlike the sake bottle, which had arrived with a sealed lid, this can was already opened.

A friend of mine had once been slipped a tranquilizer at a club in America and she’d woken up with a bloody forehead and bruises she couldn’t explain. I looked around for a potted plant to dump the drink into, but there were only ashtrays and flip-flops, neither of which would work. I tried to casually catch the attention of a nearby Englishman; since traveling alone I’d developed the questionable habit of only turning to Westerners for attention when things got sticky with the locals, as if our shared heritage made us instant allies. But the Englishman didn’t notice me; a TV had been wheeled out and he was watching a dubbed episode of “Friends.”

I declined the coffee, saying, I should go.
Drink it, Jolie insisted, it’s good. Drink!
No, thanks. No.
Then you’ll try this drink tomorrow. Take my cell phone number.
Yeah, OK.
You must promise. Promise you’ll call me the moment you wake up.
Right, yeah, the moment I wake up, I promise.

Then, in the way that you might appease a child by giving him one piece instead of the whole cake, I let Jolie walk me to my door. It was a decision I would regret the next morning when I found him, still in his designer jeans, smoking a cigarette and drinking coca-cola on my porch.

Normally the view from this guesthouse was stunning, especially on a cool, windless morning. The river was dotted with lily pads, and men wearing red trousers still fished from small boats the way I imagined they had for hundreds of years. I was looking forward to enjoying a quiet moment before beginning what would likely be a chaotic trip back to Bangkok. But the sight of Jolie there, scowling at me, his hair now matted down and sweaty, was so disruptive, so incongruous, that I couldn’t help but speak sharply.

What the hell are you doing here?
What am I doing! What are you doing? I am waiting and waiting and waiting for your call! All morning I am waiting!

I looked at my watch, it was only ten. But from the looks of the full ashtray and six empty bottles, he’d apparently been camped out for a while, maybe all night. I wanted to protest that it was still early, still morning, but he stood up and lurched toward me. You said you would call the moment you woke up, but I hear shower! I hear you make other calls! But no call to me! Why no call to me? Then he shook his head quickly, like a wet dog, and staggered. I tried to steady him but he swatted my hand away. You American women, he went on, yelling now, you think because you’re beautiful and rich that you can do anything! But you broke a promise and now you will be cursed for life! Cursed!

As unhinged as he appeared, I had lied to him. I’d had no intention of calling; he was only a temporary amusement on an otherwise lonesome night. Like any of the other sites I’d visited that day—the Death Railway, the Bridge Over the River Kwai—he was something I’d found interesting, but ultimately, something I knew I would leave behind.

Jolie darted closer and I stopped him short with my hand, leaned my weight into his shoulder and pushed. Back off, Jolie. Right now. He tripped back, glared at me, and I saw that his eyes were unfocused, as if following the spinning blades of a fan. Then he shook his head again, like he had something stuck in his mind that he needed to get loose. I wondered if he’d taken whatever drug he’d pocketed at the market, the drug he’d probably also put in my coffee. I wondered what it was like for him here, how often Western girls flirted with the cute locals and then disappeared in the morning. Jolie had told me no one in his family had ever had enough money to get out of Thailand. His sister ran a road-side laundry service and he made a measly living pointing out photo opportunities to tourists who chuckled at things like “squat toilets” and “Thai massage,” tourists like me.

When I turned to go, he took a hold of my forearm, and spoke. You have hurt my feelings. But what do you care that you hurt me? You can leave. You can leave. And with that last comment, spit out like a bad seed, he let go, gestured regally as if tipping a hat, and pointed me toward the crumbling street.

About the Author

Caroline Harvey’s writing has been featured in print and film, including the anthology High Desert Voices, Harvard’s The Charles River Review, and on Season 5 of HBO’s Def Poetry. Currently an Artist in Residence at Berklee College of Music, Caroline has performed and taught at schools and organizations nationwide such as YouthSpeaks, The Esalen Institute, Lesley University, UC Berkeley and UCLA. A past member and coach of winning poetry slam teams, Caroline also works with The Attleboro Arts Museum to facilitate writing projects for teens in foster care. She is committed to working with at-risk youth and survivors of trauma.