A Koh Samui Shirt by Mark Boyter
My Koh Samui shirt died. My John K shirt. Pulled it over my head instead of unbuttoning it and ripped it shoulder to shoulder. It was old and blotched and faded and threadbare, and I guess it’s time had just come, although in fairness it wasn’t particularly thread-thick to begin with.
Made from a rice sack. Dyed purple with three large red Thai letters I always assumed was the company name but could have said rice. In the sun, the purple faded into the colour of the cream after a bowl of summer blueberries, and the red letters that had given the shirt its soul clouded over in the milkiness and then were gone.
I met John K in China in Leshan. Summer of ’88. We were there to see the giant stone Buddha. John K was a beautiful young high school History teacher, with long wavy blond hair and piercing blue eyes from Frederick, Maryland. I was a month out of teaching in Japan. Nagoya. He had been in Asia the previous summer. Thailand. Hong Kong. Vietnam. This summer, Hong Kong again and now China. I’d been in Asia 28 months and was on my long, hard way home. The shinkansen south to Kagoshima, the boat to Okinawa milk-running its way through the islands in the East China Sea, then the boat to Kaohsiung, Taiwan. Then Hong Kong and up the Pearl River into China and make my way to Beijing and then overland west to Urumqi and Pakistan and finally Europe. That was the plan at least. What did I know? I was young.
China in July was stiflingly hot with overwhelming humidity, and while Chinese travel could be many things, what it always was was arduous, and by the time our train made Beijing, neither of us had the energy or desire to embrace ardu anymore.
“There’s this place,” he said over dinner, and his eyes brightened. “I was there last year. Long golden beaches. Palm trees. Cocoanut and papaya milk shakes. And long skewers of barbequed shrimp,” and he held out his hands and I believed him. “Koh Samui,” he said. “In the Gulf of Thailand. Nature Bungalows. Mae Nam beach. 50 baht a night for a hut, right on the beach. You open your door and there you are. A dollar-fifty. And girls. Beautiful girls. And long skewers of barbequed shrimp,” and he held out his arms again, and I believed even more. “The night bus from Bangkok to Surat Thani, then the boat and you’re there. It’s easy.” And he looked at me. “Long skewers of shrimp.”
When he said he wasn’t going to spend his last three weeks of vacation here, that he was taking the train to Hong Kong and buying a ticket to Thailand, I said yes. And he was right. About everything.
One day we rented 80cc bikes. 150 baht a day. $5. There was a shirt shop, he said, on the south-east side of the island, near Lamai Beach. A couple of Thai grandmothers ran it. Sewing machines in the back of the shop, piles of rice sacks beside. He’d bought two last year. He wanted more, for himself and for gifts. I loved the ride. I passed on the shirts.
When John K left Samui, I left too; a ten day Vipassana retreat at Wat Suan Mokkh, 40 minutes north of Surat Thani. On the eleventh morning I bowed good-bye and walked to the highway and flagged down a local bus and bought a boat ticket and caught the Mae Nam songthaew and pushed the buzzer at Nature Bungalows and got a hut on the beach and strung up a clothes line and stayed for 17 new days, looking into the turquoise water. It wasn’t the same without John K, but it wasn’t supposed to be. A pliancy set in, an acceptance. A new circadian rhythm that came with the sunrise and the delicate kumquat air of first tropical light before settling into mid-day sun and heat and a fiery demanding sunset and the enveloping blackness of night and then sleep and then again. In those new easy solitary days I rented an 80cc bike and rode back to that shop and bought two shirts, one mauve, one green.
I saw John K once more, in Kathmandu the next October. He’d told me he was taking a sabbatical and Nepal was on his list. I’d gone to Nepal the October after Samui and trekked Annapurna. The shirts were perfect; they weighed little in my pack, and I could layer both if I needed warmth. One hot morning I stopped to rest at a river and stripping off in the sun I laid the green one, soaked with sweat, on a boulder to dry and it blew off in an eddy of wind into the water and was gone.
I returned to Nepal in ‘89 to do Everest and Langtang and I wondered, looking every day on the off-chance I had learned to trust. One morning I turned a corner in Thamel and I recognised that long blond hair, and it was finding a brother and the universe saying yes to us both.
That was the last.
I got back to Canada after Samui in winter, and when spring arrived and I put the shirt on it didn’t feel right. There was no golden beach, no turquoise water and most distressingly, a different me. Whenever I cleaned my closet I always threw it on the discard pile and then picked it up and hung it back in the closet until the next time.
When the shirt ripped, I ripped it again and then again so I wouldn’t be tempted to save it. And then I stopped and folded it and set it on the back of a chair. It’s been a week now.
It’s just a cheap shirt from Koh Samui made from a rice sack that I never wore anymore.
That’s what I tell myself, anyway.