Fiction from Sunisa Nardone
She couldn’t know anything about the Southern Hemisphere, dressed as she is. The feeling struggles in me, that flutter of judgment and shame, seeing my countrywoman dressed so—.
A foreigner would no doubt mistake her for young and foolish but as a Thai woman myself I can tell that this long-limbed girl is actually in her late 30s, just about my age. Up-cut shorts showing a crescent of ass flesh befits no respectable lady. And here we are at the gate for Thai Airways to fly us to Melbourne in June, hot season in Bangkok but the beginning of real winter Down Under.
We sit in Suvarnabhumi Airport. It means golden land, but that idea is a mirage. When my family came to Thailand from China we scraped money together to buy a small plot so my sister could go to university from within the city. When they announced the new airport site so near us, my family thought: good fortune! Then we waited twenty-nine years for construction to start. The money the country poured into the airport lined the pockets of politicians, from local to municipal to national level. During construction copper wiring was stripped from electrical lines and sold at the thieves’ market. Two thousand luggage trolleys were stolen, melted for scrap metal. There is nothing golden about this airport; it’s just corruption, delay.
Each terminal is built like the extended wings of a prehistoric creature, a pterodactyl: tessellating glass with slender metal beams framing slivers of light. Palm trees peer through the gloom of the smog that wraps around my native land like a safety cloak.
Bangkok in my day was not this way at all. I mean modern. When I return to visit my mother and sister still living behind their orange-painted gates, the new webs of transportation, the ever-descending chill of air-conditioned interiors—they baffle me.
This woman has pimples of goose flesh running up her thighs. I know to wrap myself in a shawl in Suvarnabhumi. But the meat of her holds together, tight and toned. She must work for a living. Something physical. She pulls her metal chair closer so her knees almost touch mine, which is embarrassingly endearing, like a child, the way she leans in and over.
She says in halting, stuttering English: “Are you going to Australia?”
My, but her accent is terrible. Aus-tay-leeee-a she says slowly, the way Thai people say it, with that strange lilt. She mouths the word carefully—must not say it much.
“Yes,” I say, and because I can’t help myself: “Do you know it is winter in Melbourne? Are you going there?”
I’ve spoken in English to maintain our difference. But I have gone too fast for her. I slow down, say it again. “Winter… in Melbourne…” and when I wrap my arms around my body and shiver, she understands. She pours her trust into me like a child, so desperate.
“You help me?” she asks in English, not knowing that we are both Thai. She can’t tell because I am dressed too casually. I pass for the Westernized breed of Asians who have forgotten the clothing formalities of our continent. In Melbourne I’m the only Thai in my neighborhood, but I go to church with the Malaysians who emigrated to give their children less strict schools than Singapore and the chance to progress outside the racial work quotas of Malaysia. Oh yes, I’ve converted, too.
I can feel the other Thais repelled by our talk. They won’t socialize with her, not the way her frayed jean shorts and white tank top creep up the curves of her body.
I am trying to be a better person, a not-so-judgmental person like my church talks about. But why would she leave her country behind? I wonder, but can’t ask, because isn’t it what I did?
She says she’s from the South, beach country.
If I could hear her speak Thai I could confirm a suspicion: she doesn’t speak Central Thai. I bet she only has the Southern dialect. But I hold back.
She wonders how I learned English so good.
I tell her I went to school. I let her assume it was a regimented Singaporean operation, not the deficient Bangkok public school supplemented by heavy textbooks where I taught myself computer programming. My father gambled our small home into debt before he died of some malaise brought on by alcoholism. The other siblings couldn’t afford to help. Lek still lives with Mother. She does help, but has only a journalist’s pay, so when I got the chance to move, I had to, for the salary that stayed my family’s descent. My first port was Sydney’s budding technology industry; my second, Melbourne, where the better food and higher percentage of Asians suits me favorably.
She runs a restaurant on a beach in Samui. “What do they eat there?” she asks.
I talk about the slow-cooking sizzle of a Sunday roast, a hunk of meat dripping in the oven. Wandering home from church—I can take my time, with no carload of family to ferry—I smell that charred scent. The picture windows of houses as I pass reveal people coming together inside. They make it look natural, a beer exchanged with the handshake, the ease of native-born. Pretending to examine the fine red spray of a bottlebrush bloom, I’ll dwell a moment, peer in. Once, a child demonstrated its first steps across the gleam of a hardwood floor and I almost clapped out loud. When I glanced to my left a gala bird, its placid grey cut with that flash of pink, was perched on a low branch looking in with me. Having company, I experienced relief.
But I don’t tell the woman that.
With some pride she says she met a man on her beach, an Australian, who came to eat at her restaurant every day.
This woman doesn’t look like a typical mae kah, the female shop owners who are plump and shrill-voiced like older birds of established nests. I cannot quite imagine oil-flecked arm fat jingling over burners in a back kitchen smelling of grease. That she would attract someone—sure. She is a goddess in the way that foreign men like. I can’t help but be drawn to her tale. “Did you talk to him? Get to know him?”
My fingers are sorting through the contents of my purse. I find a shawl, a red one, and lean toward her. It is ridiculous to bare that much flesh. I drape it across her shoulders and feel her skin: dewy, soft. She looks much better with it.
He talked to her, approaching her with what Thai he had, which meant they talked in food. This is the way to speak anyway, like have you eaten yet, the question a marker of affection.
She doesn’t let up in her effort to communicate with me. It involves many gestures. We bungle on in English. I am torn between the need to break off our conversation because I should not associate with her, but my fascination, also protectiveness, have taken over. My feeling toward her softens. She is trying so hard with these clothes. Look how she speaks, how she holds herself. I am reckless with desire to care for someone.
“What’s it like in Mel-buhn?”
She pronounces the name correctly. Maybe this Australian exists after all.
At first I found my new city alien with its lack of street food stalls. Where do people go to eat? And too quiet, the roads and alleys wide, terribly un-inhabited. Then my rhythms changed and I too expected tranquil evenings and public parks, clean streets because people scoop up the bowel movements of their dogs. The woman laughs when I tell her that Aussies have outlawed soi dogs, those street pets of communal ownership, and that people take their dogs into their homes—
“On their furniture? In their beds?”
“Yes! And when their dogs do a poop—“
I give a dirty mime here, and we both laugh—
“People stoop to pick up the excrement of their pets.”
On board the plane the familiar hum of engines and that starched antiseptic smell. I unfurl my magazine to arm myself for solitude once again, but she bops and nods, smiles and nudges so she can swap seats with someone to sit next to me, and a feeling swells. This must be my reward for Christian charity.
The Australian was on Samui Island for two whole months. He came every day to the restaurant.
Seeing her fumble with the wide straps of the seatbelt I show her how to do it.
A primped-up flight attendant in a tight Thai Airways suit slides by. “Is this your first flight?” she asks in Thai, the words kind, the tone clipped.
“Yes,” says the woman sitting next to me in her meager clothing. I expect her to clutch the shawl tighter around herself, but she doesn’t have the propriety of city folks, I guess, and her long limbs and golden arms spill over the chair. “I took the bus from Samui to Bangkok,” she adds as if that’s helpful.
I was right; she does not speak Central Thai. She must not have much formal education, to employ only the regional dialect when speaking in Bangkok.
The steward nods, her lip curled in a smirk. She walks away to return with an airsick bag and explain how to use it.
“But I’ve got the stomach of a sea-sailing person!” The woman waves the steward away.
“I admire your…” I slip right into Thai as if continuing the conversation. Heat rises on my cheeks.
“Oh you’re Thai now!” the woman laughs. “Why didn’t you say? Yes, you’ve got to let their attitude bounce right off you. Those high class folk take themselves so seriously. ”
She’s forgiven me already. I admire her ease: the needlessness to hide who you are; the certainty that strangers will help you; the trust that a foreign person can import you to his country like some exotic fruit and it will work out.
Now that we can converse in Thai the full story spills out of her.
She has a one-way ticket, she explains. The Australian got her visa approved. He is retired. They are trying things out.
I am impressed because it is hard to get Thais visas. We are classed as part of the world that will overstay and emigrate. I myself was only just granted permanent residency this year.
I show her how to press the buttons for a movie, but there aren’t any soap operas on offer, so she curls up to sleep instead, her legs twisted together against the thrum of rushing air. When the scarf slips I nip it back between her slumped chin and shoulder. She is covered almost completely by the wash of red. It will be about ten degrees Celsius when we land. I mentally rummage through my luggage and am pleased to remember that I packed sweatpants close to the top of my suitcase. A feeling resurrects itself in me, some prehistoric creature opening to an extended wingspan. I find myself breathing easier, watching this woman sleep. She is quite beautiful in repose.
I could not entertain the possibility of children. They would have required a keen interest by the opposite sex that I was not able to attract. To secure scholarships to good schools I had to vault over boys from grade school through college. This was most unseemly. By the time my flabby body and sharpened mind made it to Australia, all my intellect went to the bureaucracy of visa forms, with no light-heartedness left to “catch an insect with my sweet nectar.” Mother calls it that. Lek had the charm in the family, but her nectar died on the blossom when her boy was killed in Black October. Still, Mother is forever telling me to practice alluring men, an art form that doesn’t fit with my regimented, cut glass and cool metal mind.
In Melbourne the day is saggy and grey through the double-layer of the airplane window. I put my hand on the glass. Even with an air buffer it sends a chill. She leans over my shoulder, peering out at a stone-colored sky, tall white people waving the plane forward on the tarmac with flashing batons. She puts her hand on the window next to mine. Her fingers are long and tapered; mine, short and fat. She spreads her palm, lifts it gently, hovers it over mine like a safe blanket.
“They don’t have the monsoon here, do they?” She murmurs as we wait for our bags. I try to explain the dry heat that shimmers a haze over black roads, the way even her tropical skin will pucker and burn when the summer comes.
She shakes her head, disbelieving.
I make her promise to wear a hat.
By the time we emerge from luggage check to the waiting room she is in my tracksuit pants, which gather at her rounded calves. She wears my good wool sweater and the red scarf. I want to clothe her further but I have nothing else to put on her. She is a transformed woman: casual, respectable, outfitted against the elements. I am proud to walk slightly behind her. She has an elegant gait.
I have promised to wait until the man has found her. Do I envy the fly she’s caught with her nectar? She searches each face as we step past. There is another Aussie bundled up, another person that is not him. Maybe he will not show up, this man who promised her much.
“You want to know why I’m here? Why I left Samui?” Finally she offers.
“My son—” she laughs at my surprise. “He’s 23!” Laughs again. “Love from my teenage love,” she explains, and I nod like I, too, have that experience. I am quite in awe of this unexpected dimension.
“My son is too sabai sabai, the way his father was,” she says, “trusting that everything will work out. He gambled debts up and I let him use the restaurant as collateral.”
I wasn’t even attached to our home, but I couldn’t turn my family out when the bank threatened to seize it. So I guaranteed the debt, packed my suitcase, and left for Australian dollars and remittances home. Now I see the puckered marks dotting her hands, kisses of hot oil. I want to tell her I have those same scars.
“So I need to do something new.” She shrugs, glances sideways at me, scared to see into my eyes. “Maybe I’ll open a restaurant here.”
“Do you know if he’s rich, your Australian?”
“All farangs are rich,” she says like I should know better.
“Things are expensive here,” I try.
She gives a snort of dismissal.
Just like her son she is too easygoing, too sabai sabai. Women who don’t win scholarships to good schools may have more fragrant nectar to catch men, but they also trap themselves with their optimism.
“You’re right,” I give in, “it’s a wealthy country, and with your good cooking how can you not build a restaurant up. Maybe you can bring your son over.”
I peer at my companion. My envy is replaced by this gap of opportunity. I could bring her home. I have some money saved up, a diligent accrual carved around the space of necessary expenses. We could live together for the duration of her visa. I’d help her get a job in a restaurant. The twenty-minute walk from the train station to my house is lit by the vision of someone inside, cooking with the basil and lemongrass plants I have installed in my garden. I could relinquish my habit of gazing through the front windows of other houses, watching their rituals of communion. Would she join my church?
I don’t want to do this walking. The suspense is too much. “Do you want a coffee? Farang style cappuccino?” I ask, so I can put my plan to her.
I pivot toward the café, but we’ve gone barely a step forward before I feel a tug on my arm. Turning, there she is and there she has her hand on the elbow of a man.
He walks with a cane! Hunched in a way that his skin droops forward. No wonder the Australian did what he could to get a companion like her. She is athletic next to him, a glowing goddess.
She didn’t even have his phone number. She put my address on her immigration arrival form, and now I am to relinquish her to… him?
In my most haughty English I inform him that I need his number, that I will be calling every week to check on her.
He jumps to scribble his details for me, asking her in English if I am a Thai friend.
She giggles, catching my eye, but I can see she doesn’t understand.
“How do you know Tip,” he asks me. “It’s faster if we—” he bounces a finger speckled with spots between the two of us “—communicate.”
“Tip?” I say.
His eyes widen when he realizes I don’t know her name.
“We met at—” I begin, then stop. We met at Suvarnabhumi. We met because of the air conditioning units and the cold metal seats. We met because of one red scarf, her lack of a Central Thai accent, a shared duty to family.
“Take care of yourself,” Tip whispers, using a form of endearment presumptive for the short time we have spent together, but.
I have nothing to reply.
He slips a large coat over her shoulders. She turns and walks with him toward the revolving doors that keep the cold air out.
He leans on her, moving as fast as he can manage. They are two sticks, one gaunt and wavering, the other a tight mass of flesh and strength. He trails her slim bag from one shaky wrist.
Cars stop for them outside the terminal. My scarf unwinds in the wind and falls to the road.
I stretch out a hand. “Hey! Tip!” The glass doors part. Wind smacks my chest. The sticks shuffle forward. “Hey!” A red gash on the road.
They tumble into a cab and close the door. She doesn’t glance back.
My feeling folds its wings and tucks tail.
In English they would say the pair are a May and December relationship—is that right? Him doddering through old age, she in a prime of some season. In Thai we would call them a golden land; we believe that such a woman is suited to service an older man in the last years of his life.
But maybe Melbourne will be too cold, too dry, too clean for her without someone to translate her native culture. Will she tire of his beaky bones, his sacks of skin that jiggle when she scrubs him in the bath? When the mirage fades, what will she do?
I hope she knows to look for me.
Sunisa Nardone lives in the Bay Area, where she is working on a novel set in Thailand, her home country. She tweets @sunisasn and loves to talk books.