Phloi stared listlessly as his students arrived. They shuffled in with their fancy Nike tops and careless English. A barrage of "Hello Phloi, what's up Phloi," distracted him from the dull throb of depression settling in. He watched as they plodded in with their canvas bags, their tired faces and their ungainly bodies.
Behind his vacant eyes, Phloi sneered. As a child, Phloi rose at the crack of dawn, running miles across mud trails and paddy fields. The life of a child fighter meant a spartan existence of pain and routined meals. To this day, he remembered the smell of metal against his sweaty fingers and the ache of his skinny arms hoisting himself up to his chin. Phloi was glaringly aware of anyone without a tight waist.
Phloi, the Muay Thai trainer was popular. His skill and selfish smile won him many fans around the gym. Even more so than Fang, the kungfu instructor or Paul, the boxing instructor. At 5ft 6, Phloi looked a lot taller than his height. He had the tough built of a fighter and a slim predisposition from years of fighting and training. He wore clothes well with his muscled frame and never felt inadequate next to a taller counterpart. In the area of physicality and looks, Phloi was guilessly confident.
But that was where the happy feelings stopped.
Five times a week at 8pm, he taught a two hour Muay Thai class at Psyche Kill Gym, an upper class fitness centre in the posh Mutiara Damansara vicinity of Kuala Lumpur. The centre was frequented by twenty-something girls in pink headbands and potbellied men nursing, fighting fantasies. Phloi loved teaching and the occasional banter with his students, but the thought of upper cuts and body kicks filled him with gloom today. He was having a bad day where all he wanted to do was lie in bed. Evening depression was a visitor that called in lately.
17 years ago, when Phloi was a celebrated Muay Thai fighter in Thailand, depression was a Western conundrum too far removed from him. Phloi remembered all his victories with the clarity of a crystal glass. A swift kick to his hefty opponent's head, a vicious elbow to the ugly fighter from Nakhon Sawan. He remembered the pain and quick recovery of a sharp punch, the tread of his feet as he nimbly danced circles around his opponent. Each time he won, Phloi felt on top of the world. The women looked at him longer, the men fought to buy him beer. Thailand's dailies carried his action shots - perfect fighting moves captured in perfection forever, the ultimate testosterone fuel that lasted Phloi on a high for weeks. Life was beautiful when he was on top.
But, of course nothing lasted forever. Debts, bad choices and foolish peers proceeded to give Phloi a life that soon forgot his name. The mediocrity of normal life quickly sank in when he was told how much he would earn in an esteemed gym in Bangkok. Insulted and angry, Phloi had cursed and broken a table. He had flung money in an officer's face.
"I am never coming back," he had shouted, slamming doors as he stormed out.
He had spent the better part of his youth battering his legs against tyres and honing a brutal punch that flayed the skin of opponents. Yet, life had betrayed him.
Relieving his glorious past was that drug that assuaged his broken spirit. Just like the rest of the world, life happened to Phloi. An obligatory wife and two children later, Phloi was a different man. But hardly for the better.
Why, Phloi wondered in his solitude, did being the best cruelly lead him to being a prisoner of life, earning a paycheck that bought nothing and friendships that meant even less? Phloi suffered from feelings of inadequacy all the time. And while he bellowed loudly in class, he was often shy with his students after class.
Phloi had the graceful gait of a fighter and a back kick that photographed beautifully. He did no wrong when he stealthily shadowed around the ring, arms up, knuckles tight. Yet he felt intense envy all the time. Envy that choked him in the throat each time he saw Kevin, one of his better students saunter in with a glint in his eyes. Kevin with his expensive iPhone6 and pedigree eyebrows. Kevin who smelled of expensive cologne. Fuck Kevin!
"Weiiiiiii whatsuuup Phloi!" came the jovial Kevin who thumped him hard on his shoulder.
"Hi Kevin," Phloi replied, bristling with hypocrisy.
Phloi was friends with many of his students on Facebook and Kevin was one of them. In Phloi's limited world view about class and pedigree, Kevin had everything. A fancy job he didn't understand, a pretty girlfriend with shiny hair, holidays in Spain and Boracay and happy birthdays with a Jack Russell in the background. Phloi exaggeratedly imagined that beyond the Muay Thai supremacy, Kevin must surely look lowly upon him.
"Go change, go change, I hand wrap later," ordered Phloi waving Kevin away and gesturing to his phone.
"Okay boss," said Kevin knowingly with a broad smile.
But of course Phloi had no one to call. The last communication he had with his ex-wife Samorn was a week ago. They had argued and Phloi was holding on to his end of anger. She had demanded to know when he was coming to visit their children. Taranh was 7 and constantly fighting in school. Samorn had called him a useless man. After that phone call, Phloi had sent a glass crashing into the wall.
It angered him immensely, being reminded of his failed marriage. He felt enormously guilty about the family he abandoned. It pained him greatly to admit he didn't miss his children. It made him feel inhumane. Seeing happy Kevin reminded him of his failures. It pained him each time Kevin did well in class. It was almost like a jab to his ego, that he was helping his student overcome him class by class. Without the glory of Muay Thai, Phloi had nothing. Phloi had so assiduously made himself part of Muay Thai that he struggled now when it embraced others.
Phloi wasn't a man of many words. He spoke little English and had few friends. He spent a lot of free time alone in his room wasting away on Facebook, commenting on pictures he didn't care for and thinking of life in the worse ways.
With five minutes to go before class started and with students still shuffling in, he tapped on Whatsapp. City kids, he smirked, as he scrolled disinterested on his friend list. They didn't kick naturally, not like the boys back home.
The scrolling stopped. Swensen was online! Swensen who had joined some 3 months ago and wore a high ponytail and striped singlets to class. He marvelled at Swensen who picked up Thai like lightning. The bright-eyed girl kicked the worst in class yet had a memory that bowled him over. In halting Thai, she had attempted to speak about self-belief and happiness. "You must believe," she had said, her face bobbing like a toy cat Phloi had seen in a souvenir shop. "Do you believe you can attract happiness to your life?"
"No." He had replied flatly. Swenson had thrown her head in a huff.
Later she google translated the word "universe" to explain to Phloi some mumbo jumbo about the law of attraction. Phloi felt special. Like most men, he thrived on being useful and feeling important. Swensen gave him a little bit of that. He tried not to look at her so much in Tuesday and Saturday classes. Her kicks remained awkward, farcical even. But her smile never.
Phloi clicked his phone shut. But that was that.
At 8:15pm, Phloi was leading a class with 30 students watching him intently. As he lunged forward to demonstrate a swift punch, running footsteps interrupted him.
"Hello, Phloi, sorry I'm late," sang Swenson with a cheerful smile. "Replacing Tuesday class."
The lead in Phloi's heart seemed to dissolve. Suddenly his punches turned rapidly harder.
The first time Phloi kissed Samorn, she was wearing a yellow smock dress that blew gently in the wind. Her hair was let loose and she had looked shyly into his eyes. Phloi knew she was proud. He was something of a hero in his hometown. His racked up victories were often talked about and the young boys idolised him.
Samorn had skin the colour of rich ale and almond shaped eyes. They had met when he caught sight of her after a fight. She was beautiful, polite and accommodating in the Thai way. Her womanly body sent Phloi in a frenzy for the first three months, after which, Phloi was tired of her. As a fighter, Phloi was used to hard work and striving for more. Samorn was a woman who simply wanted children and to love him forever. Phloi was the wrong man but they stupidly married anyway. She was happy, he was not.
The memory of him leaving home with Samorn screaming and crying, burned in his mind for a long time. Phloi had been out of work for 4 months. Samorn's soothing of "everything will be alright as long as we are together" no longer soothed him. It wasn't alright. Phloi felt like a failure. It angered him more when Samorn used the children to blackmail him. He wasn't interested to know how hard she worked to take care of them. He knew.
But what was the meaning of life beyond the daily routines? To have Sunday dinners with the relatives in the cramped house? To watch TV and think the expensive life didn't belong to them? To spend evenings sitting shirtless and penniless on a motorcycle? It angered him that Samorn did not understand his need for winning. It angered him that she sang the same song of "As long as we have each other." What crock!
He no longer loved Samorn. And with no more Muay Thai victories in Thailand, Phloi left for a better life. "I'll come back in a year tii-rak," he told her as she cried. "I love you," he lied.
Five years later after stints in Europe and US, he returned to Thailand a lost man. By then, there was no salvaging between Samorn and him. She had remarried a childhood friend and in the quiet of one night, she whispered that their handsome son Tharanh was on his way to becoming a lady-boy.
Phloi always spent a little longer preparing for Saturday class. Gel, aftershave and lots of deodorant. On days when Swensen didn't come, he felt a stab of disappointment. Since they exchanged numbers, he had the heads up. She was the most colourful student in his class with her silly blonde hair and penchant for showing off her smooth tummy. Lately, he found her tummy distracting. He liked looking at her when she stretched; the curve of her waist did many things to a man.
Today she strutted in with her headphones and neon green singlet. She had brought a frothy Starbucks to class and insincerely offered him a sip. He felt the usual shyness rise to his cheeks and forced himself to hold her gaze without betraying his composure.
During class, he looked at everyone, trying hard to block her from his peripheral vision. But she was so distracting with her swinging pony tail. He could tell she been practising. Her kicks were better today.
" Kick higher today," he said, taking over the block pad from her partner Jun. He held up the pad to his neck and motioned for her to kick
"Are you kidding me?" she asked in typical fashion.
"Try," he said firmly and readied himself for her kick.
She seemed to take in a short breath, clenched her lips and then lunged forward with a vicious kick that hit Phloi in his chest and sent her tumbling on the mat.
"Yikes!" She screamed drawing the entire attention of the class. Jun her partner collapsed on the floor laughing.
"Are you okay?" gasped Swensen running to Phloi and rubbing his chest hard."
"No pain," Phloi replied. He was laughing too.
"Don't flatter yourself Swen," teased Kevin from the other side of the room.
"Practice more," ordered Phloi breaking up the fun.
"Sorry, sorry, sorry," she said earnestly and patted him on his knee before he got up.
At that moment, Phloi decided he really did like Swensen.
Phloi needed people to be happy. Close friendships and relationships fulfilled him. Winning was paramount to him. Making a respectable amount gave him esteem. He had none of these. Was it any wonder why he regularly went into depression?
He suffered from terrible guilt when thinking about his family. He sent huge amounts of money back home, leaving hardly enough for himself. Phloi had become so comfortable with guilt, he had forgotten what happy felt like.
Sitting back on his bed, he thumbed a thorough copy of the book "The Power." Two weeks ago, Swensen had walked up to him after class and pressed the book into his hands. "You look sad all the time. Please read this book." She had somehow found a translated copy of the book in Thai.
And every class after that, Swensen would ask him "Have you read the book?" Over and over again until Phloi finally curled himself with a can of Singha one Sunday night and read one page. One page became two and two became fifty. And then he completed the book. It that moment, Phloi suddenly found clarity.
In all the countries he had trained, the people he had seen, the convenient relationships he had had, the deep rooted feeling of shame and irresponsibility never left him. He had walked around half alive, expecting life to continue its cruel plan. The torment of guilt was so deeply embedded that he would wake up trembling in the middle of the night, cold sweat on his forehead.
Phloi understood why Swensen gave him the book. For as long as his mind remained shackled in guilt, he would never win in life.
With cold nerves, Phloi hit the send button. "Me go Thailand for two weeks." He had texted Swensen. Ten minutes later she had returned the message with a medley of happy smileys and thumbs up.
The days that followed seemed to magically become brighter. Phloi had called Samorn.
After years of terse conversations, they had talked for hours. She was joyous when he said he was coming to visit. "I will come home more from now," he had said before breaking into uncontrollable tears. Both wept and loving words were exchanged.
With the burden of guilt ebbing away slowly. Phloi experienced a lightness he had forgotten.
His classes took on a new spirit. Phloi became more involved with his students, urging and encouraging the slightest improvements. He made an effort to learn more English and soon started hanging out with students after classes. Sometimes they took him along for parties. The running thoughts ceased. Facebook was no longer opened often.
Soon after, Psyche Kill Gym received an invitation for a Muay Thai presentation and Phloi was asked to lead. He prepared like a warrior in training. On the day of the presentation, Phloi covered himself in warm oil. As he stepped before the crowd, his body glistening and his senses heightened, he remembered how it felt like before a fight. A million memories rushed through his mind as he lowered his neck and tightened his jaw. Phloi felt alive. He felt like a fighter. The crowd loved it and the gym received a barrage of enquiries that week.
Phloi trained relentlessly after that. The gym began receiving more advanced students and visiting fighters from other countries requested time with Phloi. He started feeling important. He started feeling like a winner again. And like the law of attraction that rewards abundance with abundance, Phloi graciously accepted a new letter this time stating his new and very attractive monthly compensation. Phloi began buying Starbucks before Tuesday classes.
Two days before leaving for Thailand, Phloi mustered all his courage and sent a message on whatsapp. He had spent 20 minutes looking at his phone, crafting and recrafting his message, fingers cold, not daring to message Swensen. "Swensen." He had texted. "Go out with me after I back from Thailand?"
The wait for her reply was like eternity. She didn't appear online for 5 minutes. Phloi put his phone away but couldn't sit still. 10 minutes later, he was checking whatsapp again, his breath hot with anticipation. Thoughts swarmed through his mind. Was she ignoring him? Did she find his request repulsive? Why would she even go out with him?
Desperately he wanted to take it back. He started typing. "Wrong messa....." But then. She came online. He saw the two familiar blue ticks and a swell of fear rose in his throat. She remained online. The seconds ticked. Then she went offline. Phloi wanted to bury himself.
Humiliated, he stared at his phone helplessly before attempting to continue typing his feeble excuse. He was going to say the message was meant for extra classes. He was just about to hit the send button when she came back online. Phloi stopped typing. She started typing. The fear. The fear. She stopped typing. The fear became unbearable. She began typing again. Why was she taking so long?
And then her replied appeared.
เป็นคุณการล้อเล่นฉัน (Are you kidding me?)
ใช่นรก (Of course)
Phloi slumped against the bed and the phone slid from his hand.