Life, it would seem to me, is a mundane, saddening thing dotted with moments that shine from the gloom like gems in a crown. It is for these moments alone that we live.
I venture back often to my own. The mind is a powerful and terrible thing in that way, I suppose; allowing us to retrieve and relive these moments at will, sometimes for the worse. I admit that there are some in my collection I return to more often than others. There are those, even, that I have not and would not speak of to others. They are all the more special when they are secret. Both are true of the night on the beach in Siam.
I had been taken by a flight of fancy that night. With all the courage and impulse of a much younger woman I flitted off from home to the edges of the beach, not stopping until the water was lapping at my bare ankles. The sensation of that alone felt scandalous to some remaining vestige of my propriety but it was all slowly fading as I reached to lift off my nightgown.
I was planning to swim naked, like the wives and children had done. It was so very foreign and taboo to the world I had known...and yet, in my heart I knew I wanted to belong to a different world now. It was as though I would cast off the mantle of old life and be reborn a new in the baptismal ocean waters of Siam.
But it was then I heard his voice and my hands flew from the hem. Whatever spell had been cast was now broken, just like that, and I instead hugged myself, feeling very exposed before the King...perhaps by virtue of the fact that it was him and no other.
He had been gazing at the moon, he would confess, even as he chastised me for not being in bed asleep. Had I not been so flustered for coherent thought I would’ve pointed out his own willful insomnia. I would’ve named the reason for it. Perhaps all the better, though, that I did not.
“As the sun rises she will surrender the night...but she is always with him, even when he cannot see her.”
His words have stayed with me since. I did not realize then how closely this spoke of our own impossible situation. How could I have known? I barely acknowledged my own heart back then.
He requested then that I read a letter from the President of the United States regarding the offering of war elephants. This I did with every intuitive realization that he had read the letter already, that stolen spectacles (Fa-Ying, our beloved monkey, would always find a way, wouldn’t she?) and a need of my lantern’s light were not the reasons he stood beside me. I knew his eyes were not on the letter, but instead regarding me. I swore I could feel his breath on my cheek and temple.
To say I was uncomfortable with him would be inaccurate. I was uncomfortable with the feelings a simple act of standing near one another, in this vulnerable state, was conjuring inside of me. I had not felt such things since the death of my dear Thomas and I had felt certain I never would again.
“Mem is not wrong about moving on.”
The mention of my husband’s death had once offended me so deeply. It was a wound that I felt no one would cease from prodding, a wound that I seemed to have had no vested interest in healing. It was Mongkut alone that urged me a salve I could not and didn’t wish to refuse.
“Neither were you, your majesty.”
It was a bold thing to say...but if he was to speak of my loss then I would speak of his. It was different this time, however, and we both knew it. There was a vulnerability now between us, either afforded by being alone (a rare occasion, we were never truly alone after that) or the fact that I was bare beneath the thin sheen of my nightgown. We seemed keenly aware of that too.
Slaves unto the moment and the feelings between us, he drew near me. I knew I would not refuse him anything- had hoped, even, that he would push forward. Despite everything I was not bold enough to do so on my own and he was much more experienced in this than I...and yet, he wasn’t. I would soon find that out.
At some culmination of things we found ourselves together, limbs loosely wrapped and lips brushing with every hesitation within us. Mine, from the dulling remnants of my propriety, his, from the expectations of being King. Needless to say neither of us were in a position for this. A world of obstacles stood between us like a wall and still...it had prevented nothing.
I recalled the way it felt to first kiss Thomas. This was similar and yet so very different. I was melting inside at his touch, every bit of me that had secretly yearned for this crying out simultaneously with relief. I was a lost cause, no matter how much my practical mind wondered that I could trust him with something so precious.
Of course I can , I told myself, and that was that.
He said, a halfhearted protest out of obligation even has he brushed his lips against my ear and the curve of my neck. He knew as well as I there was no turning back from what we had started.
It was all I could manage, all I could think to say.
“I-...this is wrong.”
“...does it feel wrong, your majesty?”
“No, Mem, it does not .”
The debate, if it can be called that, was over just like that, just as I kissed him back for the first time with the same audacity that had propelled me outside in my nightgown.
Perhaps it was wrong in some respect, though even now I am at a loss to find any good reason why apart from our respective duties, expectations- things that seemed so trivial with his strong, warm hands on me, smoothing over my hips and back, cradling my cheek as our kiss deepened. I hadn’t been touched like this in so very long and it was only in this moment that I realized how I thirsted for it. Maybe not for any touch, but his alone.
After a time he laid me back against the sand, every bit of tenderness in his movements as if placing me on a marital bed. I had no doubt in my mind of what was to follow then. I had no intention of stopping it either, of that much sin I knew I needed to be honest.
His hands were ever so slightly trembling, however, and that touched me more than anything that came before. That a man so experienced and certain in the respect of making love to women could be here, shaking like a fragile leaf, like a young man that had yet to see a woman bare...I knew it had to mean my fears were unfounded. This was not the same to him as bedding a concubine. For me and my selfishness it couldn’t have been, even as I loved every woman of his, even as I found myself at times envying them in some secret yearning.
He couldn’t say why he trembled but I knew from the shame in his eyes exactly what it was. How does one make love when there is such feeling? How does one make love to a woman of a different world? Things he expected himself to know, things he assumed I felt he should know.
Where I lacked in his experience with intimacy I compensated in knowing how to comfort. And so I would attempt, while being careful not to wound his pride (it can be a fragile thing and so was true of his).
“It’s alright,” I beckoned, steadying his hand with my own, drawing it to the hem of my gown where my shaking hands had naught but a few moments before. “It’s alright.”
I offered an encouraging smile that he returned as I felt my gown begin to slide up my legs, over my hip, over my breasts…
It seemed in no time at all that I was bare as I had planned to be, though not under any circumstance I would’ve ever dreamed possible. Odd to me was my palpable lack of shame, naked as I was out in the air where anyone could see! But no one could see, after all. No one was there but my King and I.
No, not King, not here. He was Mongkut only in this moment. He was man in every raw sense of the word as Tuptim had described. I understood her fully now.
The waves still lapped beneath me, now against the exposed skin of my back, legs and buttocks against the sand, as he began to disrobe. I had only ever seen my Thomas like that before (many things in this moment I had only experienced from Thomas) and I could only marvel in my second sighting, the wonder and mystery and power that was the male form.
He was broad as I had imagined him to be, golden as the sand beneath us even in the pale light of the moon. My boldness undeterred I touched him, my fingers tracing the definition of his chest, arms, going lower still…
I blushed. A woman that knew as much as I of biology, anatomy…! And I blushed and halted in my actions as if I feared what he had to offer. In truth, I was scared. Having only touched one other man in this way I wondered that I would know how to touch, to please another.
“It’s alright,” he said, mirroring my words from before. His eyes were kind, calming, as I had oft found them to be. I knew then I could fear nothing when he was with me, but I would yet to discover the full meaning of that bravery until the fateful day a bugle and a set of fireworks would save us all from certain death.
“It’s alright,” he said again, guiding my hand as I had done his. My fingers closed around the length of him and my breath caught in my throat. More wondrous than even this was the way his eyes closed and a soft keen escaped his lips in rapture. This was true power, I thought, to hold a King under such sway. What I didn’t realize then was that I’d had it even before and would so after; it was the reason Mongkut would come to momentarily fear what was between us.
I had nothing to fear of not pleasing him.
With this newfound self-assuredness came the opening of the flood gates with my greed. I wanted so much more and I took it, feeling and pleasuring him and watching his beautiful face contort under the influence of my hand.
“Enough,” he said eventually, his voice hoarse but firm and as he pulled my hand away. I felt both startled and disheartened to the core.
“Have I done something wrong…?”
I know my voice was trembling, my power gone. I was so afraid I had displeased him, though nothing could’ve been further from the truth. I understood when, with a glint of competitiveness in his eyes, he placed his hand where I would be vexed the most, right at the center of my pleasure.
It had been his pride, no doubt coupled with a fear that he would reach completion much too soon. I would not have minded too much, but all the same, I was glad he took charge. I wanted to feel him completely and so I would- though, as with everything in Siam, our joining would have its own time.
Until then I was left to experience the full magnitude of what Lady Thiang meant when she called him a generous lover. Men in Siam, I supposed, were not taught in these matters the same as Englishmen. I meant nothing against the memory of my dear Thomas, but he could not have done these things. I would not have thought to expect it, not knowing it possible that a man could achieve my completion the same as I would have done for myself.
The evidence was clear, however, as the first peak of ecstasy washed over me with the tide. He soon after kissed my neck, my chest, adored my skin with his mouth. I shivered and huffed out a laugh of disbelief, at a loss of anything else to do in the wake of what he had given me.
“ Now you are ready,” he decided, every bit a King once more.
Briefly I was at a loss to discern what he meant, until I recalled that we had not been fully joined. Of course, how could I forget something so important? The heights of pleasure he had sent me to had given me the impression we’d already been there.
The reminder of it sent a shiver of apprehension through me, some remaining moral that told me I was wrong to do this unwedded, to join with a King that belonged to so many others. Would the other women mind, I wondered? Sometimes it felt as if I was as much a part of them as anything. Even so...
He positioned himself over me and so our eyes met again. My concern was gone just as quickly. There was such love and adoration to be seen there, so much of it that I felt for him that I could not care about anything else. Surely it did not matter when a man and woman felt so closely bonded as we did that night.
He said something in his language that I didn’t fully understand (though the meaning wasn’t lost in the gentle tone of his voice), caressed my hair and then drew my legs around his waist. Once more I was blushing, deep and hot, but not in the least bit deterred.
“Please,” I whispered, a plea meant to have just been in my head. My desperation could not be contained. “Please, Mongkut, it must be now…”
Perhaps it was some combination of my pleading -not commanding- and the saying of his name that made him keen again and press forward. We were joined fully then with a collective gasp. Just as with our voices it was difficult to tell where the one of us began and the other ended.
I often think of this time together as our wedding ceremony, the closest we would ever come to such a thing. After all, I never did again love another man- it would only ever be him and Thomas. The words of love we cried as we moved together were our vows, the joining of our bodies and intertwining of our fingers that of wedding bands. Something that felt so heavenly could only have been looked upon with favor by God, by Buddha, by the very deities that had seen to it that we find each other against all odds and every distance between us.
It was a sacred and private thing, all the more precious in being so. No one would ever know. No one would ever see. No one would ever know but man and wife.
I watched him unashamedly as he achieved his satisfaction, shortly after my second. The sight of him that night in the peak of his pleasure will forever be one of the most beautiful sights I’ve ever had the privilege to behold. I caressed his cheek and praised him with, “my darling”, and he replied back with a similar note of affection in his mother tongue.
We lay beside each other in the surf for a time, the warm water lapping against us as we embraced and reveled in happy disbelief of what we had done. Even now I hope that this will be my heaven when I die, once again on that beach in Siam, my King beside and all around me on that sandy marital bed, the waves as our only blanket.
“The sun will rise soon,” he said.
We had both seen it, those first few shades of golden pink creeping up over the horizon. I had never detested the sight so much.
“He will be alone again,” I replied, recalling the metaphor of the sun and moon as I caressed my new found lover’s back. I looked pleadingly to his eyes for an answer. There had to be one, there always was.
Mongkut only smiled.
“Not alone. She is always with him, is she not?”
To this I couldn’t help but weep, both of sadness and happiness.
“Yes,” I answered, cupping his cheek. “Yes, always.”