In Bangkok, I am less than a thousand miles from the equator, and it feels as though it lies just outside my front door. It is early morning and already the white plastic patio furniture is too hot to touch. I throw a cushion from inside the house onto one of the chairs and push it and the table under the shade of a mango tree. I’m set on drinking my coffee outside.
The envelope lies on the dusty tabletop next to my coffee mug. Since finding it, I seem to be carrying it with me everywhere; propped up by the sink while I shower, zippered into my purse while I shop, tucked into the pages of my book as I read. Although I’ve copied the address down, I’m afraid it will become misplaced, and I’ve come too far to lose the sacred authenticity it will provide when the time comes.
Three weeks ago I found it hidden inside the pages of a book that my mother had been reading. It could so easily have never been found. I had picked the book up and was rifling through its pages and there it was, marking her place. At first I didn’t understand what it was or its importance. But as I studied it, read the names and addresses, I realized the facts my mother had always insisted were true, were now, of course, proven to be a lie.
I remember first wondering about my tangled heredity in middle school. My mother came from Thailand with my father when she was eighteen. They married there after a whirlwind romance, and my father, an American businessman, brought his new bride home to the states. My mother always maintained there was no family left in Thailand, no grandparents, no parents, no sisters or brothers. During the holidays, when my friends’ relatives swarmed around them like gnats, we would be in some exotic location. We ate dinners in the Eiffel Tower on Christmas Eve, cruised the Rhine on the Fourth of July. My father’s only living relative, a younger sister, Aunt Celine, always accompanied us. We were a more than sufficient foursome, a band of merry travelers, close, bonded to each other in love. No one ever seemed missing. But six weeks ago my parents’ lives ended, our foursome diminished to a grieving duo, when a drunk driver plowed head-on into my father’s silver Porsche. As their coffins sank down into their graves, I held onto Aunt Celine for dear life. She tossed a handful of coarse, dark dirt into the holes and wept.
I never saw it coming but who ever does? Distracted with putting the finishing touches on my gallery exhibition, I’d become blind to the world outside my own. Emails and texts hemorrhaged from my cell phone unanswered. Friends resorted to leaving sticky notes on my front door and I read them with a rush of guilt. The exhibit was a collection of experimental portraiture. My first. The weddings and bar mitzvahs I photograph pay the bills. But when I plow beneath the surface of a person, a face, pierce a vein and extract a certain truth, I find that interval of satisfaction. I’m twenty-four, but wise enough to know it’ll be years before this pays the bills.
The traveling and shooting were behind me, the prints all back from the film labs, mounted and framed. A friend of a friend had offered the use of her small, intimate gallery. Now it was all about placement, finding a meaningful order and suitable lighting for each image. Ten times I’d moved a woman, wrinkles spidering her face, hunched in bulky rags beneath the glare of a strip club sign. Each time I leaned her with great care against the wall or partition where she might be hung, weighing her emotional balance with the neighboring photograph. I remember thinking she must be as exhausted as I was when my cell phone buzzed. Aunt Celine asked where I was, if I was alone. Her voice spilled out in fissures of panic. I told her Celeste, the gallery owner, was with me. She told me the hospital Celeste should drive me to and why and the room swirled. My heart rocketed against my chest as I slumped against a wall and slid to the floor. Next to me was the image of a young woman sitting in a cluster of crimson-stained leaves, clutching a mirror in the bowl of her hands. I remember wishing I could slip inside that frame and become her until this all just went away. My parents lingered for seven hours with various tubes snaking from their arms and throats, surrounded by machines pumping fluids and beeping out reassurances until they fell silent with their deaths.
When I decided to come to Bangkok, I did what my parents always did when we traveled. I found a fully furnished, fully equipped house. I don’t like hotel rooms. The few times I have stayed in them, the air in the rooms has felt transient and thin; the rooms themselves, sterile and clichéd. I prefer places that have been lived in, where people have cooked meals and slept in their own beds, battled and surrendered, grown up and grown old. This house is cement, the color of cocoa, flat-roofed and two-storied. A wide sliding glass door opens up onto lush gardens and a simple concrete slab, on which I’m sitting. From inside the sound of cutlery mingling and drawers slamming reaches out into the heat. Aunt Celine insisted on coming with me and I didn’t put up a fight. She’s a writer, an accomplished one, with eight novels to date, so it’s easy for her to pick up and leave.
She finds me outside and wraps her skinny arms around my neck, rests her cheek on top of my head. I tell her often she has writer’s arms because they rarely hold anything heavier than a pen. She says the words come out pure and true when an exquisite writing instrument taps them out on the receiving end from her brain. She pulls a chair out of the sun and sits across the table from me in the shade, notices the envelope sitting on the table and gives me that look, the one I’ve seen far too often since the accident. The one that asks, “Are you okay? Something wrong? Is there anything I can do?” I’m glad she never asks these questions out loud because I’d want to pummel her lovely head one too many times.
Aunt Celine is tall and slim like a blade of grass. Her hair dips just below her shoulders and is the color of desert sand. These last few months, she has been my savior, confessor, the victim of my rants at an unjust world, my place of solace. In the times I felt I was swimming upstream in a cold river on a moonless night, my arms slogging through cattails and weeds, Aunt Celine was there, shining a bright beam ahead of me to light my way and keep me afloat.
“Tired?” she asks.
“I will be. I don’t want to think about finding anyone today.”
“Tomorrow then,” she offers.
Lately there’s been too much grief in the air around us for words to surface and breathe. Sometimes it’s difficult for me to even form thoughts and translate them into sound. So we sit in silence and listen to the raucous chanting of the cicadas and the squawking of birds as they rake their wings through the branches.
Banana trees crowd the yard, their leaves long as oars dipping into the grass. Heavy vines finger their way up from the grass, tempting me to trace each one as they twist around the tree trunks. The yard smells dense, like the primeval air of a jungle.
“Exhaustion will sink into us by early afternoon,” Aunt Celine says. “Plus, it’ll become so blazing hot cockroaches will melt on the sidewalk.”
I smile and feel my shoulders loosen. “Don’t you know cockroaches can survive a nuclear explosion?”
“An urban legend,” she replies and returns a cautious smile.
“The house is great, don’t you think?”
“It’ll do,” she teases.
“Come on, I did a great job finding something in this location.” I throw a twig that’s dropped on the tabletop at her.
“All right, already, you did good.” She fingers the envelope. “Jan would’ve approved.”
I flinch a little at hearing my mother’s name, at the fresh reminder that I am here finally and she is not. I shuffle my feet around in the almond-shaped leaves that dust the concrete. They’ve fallen from the stalks of bamboo brushing the back of my head and shoulders.
Aunt Celine eyes the brilliant green stalks lining the walls of the house. “Your daddy hated the neighbor’s bamboo, always shedding leaves onto the pool deck.” She smiles at the thought, leans across the table and covers my hands with hers. “I’m starving. You must be, too.”
“Yeah, I am,” I reply, a little nonchalantly.
“Let’s spend the morning getting our feet wet, find something good to eat.”
“Sure, okay.” I smile, but I’m envious at how easily she can say their names.
When I was growing up, my mother revealed to me the precious ordinary to be found in everyday life. We’d collect heart-shaped rocks and ride stick horses on lazy walks home from school. On sunny days when the tide was low we’d hike down the cliffs to Abalone cove and step from rock to rock. The tide pools shone with orange starfish and purple sea anemones. We’d put our fingers inside the anemones’ mouths and feel their soft, wet, feathery tentacles grasp our fingers and pull. One summer, we painted each room of our house a different color while Dad looked on, shaking his head and smiling. The paint colors had names like flamingo dream, lemon meringue and Serengeti sand.
We lived in a two-story Mediterranean-style home on top of a hill with views of the blue Pacific Ocean, a big square swimming pool in the back yard. It was modest, considering our means. My parents didn’t want to wander through empty unused rooms. My father had been an investor, a lucky one, but also smart. He’d invested in all the right companies at all the right times. He was 6’2”, brawny and robust. I called him my leviathan because he would grasp me with one burly arm and swim out in the ocean, past the break, where we would don snorkels and masks, spying on the fish and an occasional stingray or reef shark. But I was never afraid, not with him circling around me with his broad, strong strokes.
My mother was a full foot shorter than my father, but she loved playing the delicate lotus flower next to the big strong oak. Plus, it allowed her to wear towering, strappy high heels, which she collected and stored, color-coded, in a closet big enough to be a bedroom. I’d trail her through the ritzy South Coast Plaza mall as we shopped at Jimmy Choo and Prada, pulling out indigo suede and forest-green leather heels. Mom would parade around the store like a beauty queen and I’d giggle and ooh and ahh.
When I was ten, we picnicked on the wide sandy beach three blocks from our home on a wintry weekend afternoon. I asked her what had happened to her parents. I wanted to know why she never talked about growing up in Thailand. “There’s nothing to tell, Tamra,” she told me. “They died when I was young, end of story.” She pushed me over and began tickling me mercilessly and I decided neither my friends nor I needed to know.
Years later, when I pulled that small white envelope out of my mother’s paperback novel, and my fingers scurried inside and found it empty, my heart dropped a dozen stories down. It was a lightning bolt to the heart to think she had lied to me all those years. But in many ways I should have known there were secrets that Mother had buried beneath her life with us, pushed miles and miles down.
Aunt Celine’s gone back into the house with the coffee mugs. The envelope looks discarded sitting alone on the tabletop. It’s a bit crinkled and worn from all the traveling it’s done. On the front, in thin blue ink, is my mother’s Thai name, Janjeeya Chianphimai. We had always called her Jan, but I loved the sound of her Thai name, the way it rolled off my tongue and how it made me smile when I said the words. Picking up the envelope, I turn it over. On the back is a name and address I’ve memorized. It’s spelled out in neat, square script with the same blue ink. The first name, Darunee, is one I don’t know. But the last name matches my mother’s. And the postmark—it stretches back to just a few weeks before the accident.
We set off on foot down our very narrow soi, the Thai name for street. It is lined on both sides with five-foot cement walls topped by fancy, burglarproof gating. Over the walls hang palm fronds and tree branches, some flowering pink and yellow. Aunt Celine is right. We should get out so I can see the city I have needed to see for years. From the time I could toddle on two feet, my parents took me everywhere. I was whisked away to Red Square, the Venice canals, the fiords of Norway. But Thailand was a black hole we silently avoided, like a country infected with the plague. I’d rarely traveled without them and now an emptiness claws at me beneath my ribs. Thank God Aunt Celine is here. We dead-end onto a larger soi, which feeds out to Soi Sukhumvit, one of the busiest streets in Bangkok. I imagine it snaking out to the Chao Phraya River, going west and almost to the Cambodian border, stretching east. As we continue to walk, the heat presses down on us like wet cement and the damp scent of Jasmine hangs in the air.
We haven’t eaten since before our plane landed last night. The taxi dropped us at the house around two a.m. and we were so happy to have found a house with keys that fit the locks that we weren’t much interested in food. But now we are famished. Aunt Celine has been to Bangkok before, researching a novel. She says the best Thai food is several miles from here in the Saochingcha district. So we need to find our way to Sukhumvit to catch a taxi.
We pass a pharmacy, a seven-eleven, and a shop front with a pink and red sign that reads “Lovely Massage.” Silver tin pushcarts line one side of the street, some have slices of papaya and pineapple and coconuts that have been carved into bowls with straws sticking out from them. It’s all beyond tempting so we stop and hand the woman selling the pineapple ten Baht. She puts some slices in a small plastic bag with toothpicks and hands it to us with a gap-toothed smile and says, “Khap Khun Ka.” She tries to give us change but we refuse it. We spear the slices and eat. The fruit is cool and sweet. As we walk, we duck for shade under every shop awning we can find.
Ahead of me there’s a ghost of a girl skipping down the sidewalk, speaking a language like jeweled dice, laughing with her friends. I feel unimaginably close to my mother all at once, and then the feeling just slips away, the ghost gone, the sidewalk filled with strangers.
Sometimes when I remember they are gone, I go numb all over. My vision blurs and my skin feels nothing, not the air against it, not the ground beneath my feet. Then I will pinch my arm, hard, until my fingernails draw blood, and small, sticky beads drip down past my elbow. This is what I am doing when Aunt Celine looks back at me. She is standing next to the taxi I never saw her flag down and I see the anguish in her eyes, as she stands frozen, watching me come back into the world.
We slog down Sukhumvit in the taxi for forty long minutes. Motorcycles swarm around us like mosquitoes at every stoplight, their engines whining and gunning. Gray smoke spews from the back of red and green buses filled to standing room only. Aunt Celine has placed a small Band-Aid from her purse on the cut on my arm and won’t let go of my hand. Neither of us speaks. Finally, the taxi drops us at Wat Suthat, better known for the red towering teak arch that stands at its entrance. A giant swing once hung from the arch. Teams of men would swing on the arcs trying to grab bags of silver coins from posts eighty feet high with their teeth. I know a lot about Bangkok. In high school I began trolling for my own sterile facts from the Internet. But without the context of my mother it was just another crowded Asian city and I lost interest.
“Are you okay to go on?” Aunt Celine studies me, stands close. It’s obvious she’s questioning my state of mind.
I place my hands on her shoulders, look into her eyes. “I’m fine, really. Stop worrying.” I smile. “Can we go inside after we eat?”
She tops my hands with her cool fingers and studies me for signs of slippage. “Sure.” She smiles then, just a little, and we stand there a moment to take in the view.
The temple is an immense white structure with two steep, triangular roofs, red-tiled and gleaming. From the roofs spires rise to the sky and gold scrollwork covers the façade. The morning tourists crowd the courtyard and I think it is probably certain that my mother has been here, walked through the courtyard, worshiped the Buddha residing inside, and this fact both startles and reassures me.
We turn and cross a busy boulevard and head left down a narrow soi. On both sides small restaurants crouch between newsstands, barbershops and hardware stores. Cars and motorbikes take up every inch of curb space. We stop in front of a shop with gray metal fold-up tables and blue plastic stools set out on the sidewalk. A makeshift outdoor kitchen has been set up next to the tables. Long, thick slabs of pork hang from inside a glass case next to a wok, several rice cookers, and small bowls with chilies and limes. I marvel at the efficiency of space. Aunt Celine orders two moo daengs. Her Thai is passable, mine nonexistent. The man smiles and slices pork from the slabs in the glass case, chops them and fries them in his wok. I’m salivating when he hands us our plates. We take them to the tables and sit and eat, voraciously and silently.
When we are done, we push the plates aside and sigh, long breaths of relief. My eyes begin to ache from the jet lag and I rub them hard, until sparks of light flash beneath my eyelids.
“Why didn’t she ever bring me?” I ask. Up and down the street, above the awnings of the shop fronts, clusters of electric wires stream from pole to pole, and below the black humming lines, shuttered windows dot the rust-stained buildings. Inside them, I imagine, is a kind of poverty I have never known. But I’ve seen worse. This isn’t what she was trying to hide from me.
“Look, just because Jan wanted nothing to do with this place, doesn’t mean she didn’t want you to ever come here. She must have known someday you would. I think it’s good for you to be here.” She smiles and pokes a finger into my forehead. “It’s a part of you, in there, somewhere.” She pauses and wipes away the sweat beading on the back of her neck with a napkin. “She just didn’t want you asking questions she couldn’t answer.”
“Didn’t want to answer,” I reply.
“The same thing.”
“I want to know what happened,” I say.
“Well, you may find out.” She pulls out her wallet and leaves some loose coins on the tabletop, looks around and measures the surroundings, as I have. “For a long time I wanted to know. But then I learned to just let it be.”
Clouds have rolled in and the sky is now a vast sheet of gray. As we make our way back to Wat Suthat, the heat has diminished some but the air is heavier, it clings to my skin and hair, my t–shirt sticks to my back.
At the temple, most of the morning tourists have gone. We step inside the main hall and I almost gasp at the sight of the bronze Buddha. It dominates the far end of the narrow hall and radiates a simple sort of opulence. The hall is sacred, silent.
“Twenty-five feet tall,” Aunt Celine whispers. “Notice the walls. They depict the previous lives of the Buddha, and the columns,” she points to painted columns surrounding the statue, “the early history of Bangkok.”
My lungs feel like I’m breathing with sand bags and when I walk it’s as though ten-pound weights have grown into my joints. Looking at Aunt Celine, I can tell she feels the same. So we don’t spend much time standing before the Buddha, and we take cursory looks at the wall paintings, our eyes merely drifting over their color and detail. Back outside, we walk along the large, peaceful cloisters surrounding the temple. Buddha statues line their outer walls. “One hundred and fifty,” says Aunt Celine. We walk silently by them, each one gazes at us with the same quiescent face. Fatigue is spreading over every square inch of my body, so I sit down on the cool tiles and lean against a column. Aunt Celine does the same. The Buddhas’ gold faces smile down on us.
“Remember the story of how I first met your mom, how they came to my dorm room at UCLA?” Aunt Celine asks.
“Yes, of course. They’d just arrived from Bangkok, and that’s as far back as the stories go.”
“You sound angry.”
Of course I’m angry; angry because she’s not here, angry because they are gone and not coming back, ever.
We sit in silence. I look up and out of the cloister. Clouds are bundling into dark gray masses. They look like boulders in the sky.
“That first night I met her, and Mark took us out to eat, I remember…well, I remember a palpable sadness about her. It struck me because I wasn’t expecting it. Mark had written me weeks before, told me he was in love, found the one he was going to marry. Then he called right before they came, said they’d gotten married and were coming to L.A. to live. I was so excited for them. At dinner, watching them, I knew they were in love. But there was something in Jan that kept seeping out at the edges. I just thought it was jetlag. But over the next few weeks I kept seeing it, knew something was off.”
After hearing this, my anger loosens. Looking down the row of Buddhas, I watch them melt into one another, pools of gold flowing down the hallway.
“Another thing you should know; you were born seven months later. They always fudged on their wedding date. That part I was in on, nothing more.”
“God, you three were a conspiracy.”
“No, we weren’t.” Aunt Celine’s words are soft and direct.
An older couple walks by, cutting in between the Buddhas and us. The man is bald and his camera hangs on a strap around his neck. It bobs against his stomach as he walks. The woman’s gray curls frame a pale, kind face etched with lines around her eyes. She smiles as she passes. We smile back. They are holding hands.
“Tom and Jan loved each other so deeply, so completely, all the time they were together.” Aunt Celine pauses, wipes a tear from the corner of an eye. “Part of me is glad they died together. I can’t imagine one without the other. But I hate that you are left alone with only me.”
I stand and put myself down next to her and wrap my arm around her long, slender neck, push her head down on my shoulder. We’re both crying now, quiet tears slide down our cheeks. The Buddhas look down offering comfort with their gentle smiles. “You’re more than enough,” I say. My words stutter as they come out between sobs. But they come out, and they plant themselves there among the statues and I think of them as witnesses to all we are saying.
I take her left hand in mine, her lacquered nails shimmering a bright red. She’s wearing a thick gold ring on one finger. Small clusters of rubies and diamonds are set into the band. I twist the ring and watch the stones gleam and shine. “And we’re not alone. There’s someone here.” With my words I’m trying to parcel out to her what hope may still be lodged in the folds of my heart, the creases of my soul.
The bottle of Grey Goose that I had bought from the duty free shop at LAX is half empty on the coffee table. We have been slowly pouring it into tumblers of tonic and ice as CNN commentators chatter in the background. Aunt Celine watches me now and again as she sits cross-legged on the floor, typing away on her laptop propped up on the coffee table.
“Have you heard from Mitchell?” I ask.
“Of course. I have about a thousand texts already from him,” she says, still typing.
“He misses you.” Mitchell is her on-again, off-again boyfriend of the last two years.
After a minute she stops to pick up her glass. “Maybe I’ll marry him this year.”
“Really? Somehow I can’t see you married.”
“I’m thirty-eight. I might want to create a small brood in the next few years.”
“A mother now?” I tease and play with the streaks of condensation that have formed on the sides of my glass. “Wow, okay. I’m cutting you off.” I pick up the bottle of vodka and pour a bit more into my glass. The air conditioner lumbers and rattles and heat seeps in through the walls. Outside rain is pouring down. I listen to it crash like bullets on the roof and watch it slide in sheets off the concrete porch.
“Sure you don’t want me to come with you tomorrow?” Aunt Celine has shut her laptop and joined me on the couch.
“No, I want to do this myself.” I think about what I might find in the morning, my mother’s ghosts, demons she may have fled; or quite possibly, nothing at all. But regardless, I have it all planned.
“You know, you’re supposed to be talking to me about all this, but you don’t.” A small silver clock resting on the coffee table interrupts her, chiming out the late hour.
I don’t want to hear this; I don’t want to talk about anything. I’ve never seen how that could possibly help.
Aunt Celine keeps on me. “I’m afraid you’ll be walking into a lot of disappointment tomorrow morning.”
“That’s why I want to do this alone.” The vodka is seeping into my skin from the inside out, sinking in and taking hold. “You want me to talk about grief?” I look at her, a little angry, and then I realize she’s no better off than me, so my glare softens, and I look away.
“You can talk about grief or you can talk about them. You never do that either.”
She’s right. I can’t stand to refer to them as having lived in the past. It seems it will make it all true. I’m a child who wants to wake up from the nightmare.
“Okay,” I say. “I can see it getting easy to keep the sadness wrapped around me. I’m afraid I won’t be able to let it go. Like it would be wrong, like I’d be saying I could forget them.”
“That won’t happen, Tamra,” she says.
Across the room on a bookshelf sit two silver-framed photographs of a young couple and a child and I wonder where they are now. Older? Separated? Alive?
“That’s not what they’d want—”
“Don’t,” I say. “Don’t try and make me feel guilty by saying that’s not what they’d want. I know. I know if I don’t fight it off, I swear it will pick me clean, till all that’s left will be….”
Will be what, I think, what could possibly be left. Maybe just bone and memory. I pretend to be interested in something on TV. But actually, I have no idea what those people on the screen are talking about. I bring my knees up to my chest and hold them tight, let my vision blur until the colors on the screen are a kaleidoscope. “I can still smell the dirt in their graves.” I look up at Aunt Celine. She is sitting forward, her hands clasped together on her knees. Her eyes are narrowed, her lips parted as if trying to find words that will heal. “Will that ever go away?” I ask.
Before going to bed, I beg my brain to shut off and let me sleep, as I look at my reflection in the small mirror above the bathroom sink. Remnants of my mother are buried there. Her eyes languish within mine, only tonight there’s a hollow bruising beneath them. Her eyes were like thick molasses, mine butterscotch. Hers danced and sparkled. In mine there used to be a curiosity, an eagerness to grab the world and wring it out, know everything. But it’s receded, become dull. Since the accident I’ve not framed one moment, not thought about refracting light or how a shadow can glance a cheekbone and create a perfect image. I’ve seen nothing through a camera lens. Everything’s been painfully clear.
My mother was exquisite, stunning, and radiant. When she walked into a room, heads turned, and she never noticed. She didn’t know this about herself, or if she did, she dismissed it. She hummed constantly as she swept floors or folded clothes into neat squares. Everywhere we went she would take in details, consume them, the dappled sun through trees at a park, the waves curling and pounding the shore at the beach. Then, she would disperse these details to me over the course of a day, or a week. Show me things I had missed.
* * * *
The sun’s rays are blooming over the east wall of the yard, peach and pale watermelon. Insects screech and birds swoop in and out of the trees. I close the gate behind me and head out to the soi that spills out onto Sukhumvit. Again I pass “Lovely Massage,” but at this hour steel grates are pulled down over its door. The blacktop is already trembling with heat, like boiling water, and the smell of cooking rice and diesel hangs in the air.
Up ahead early morning traffic is cluttered and stalled on Sukhumvit, but there is a motorcycle taxi stand at the mouth of this soi and I know I can find a driver that will zip me through it all to where I want to go. Aunt Celine warned me against the motorcycle taxis, said they can be dangerous and did not like to obey traffic rules, although I know she’s used them herself.
A group of drivers are clustered underneath the shade of a large blue umbrella that is staked into a stump of cement. They all wear their official orange vests and most hold helmets in one hand and cigarettes in the other. As I approach the group no one takes much notice. I keep forgetting I look just like any other Thai girl on the street, looking for a ride.
I choose one, and he stands when I reach him. He looks younger than the rest, clean-shaven. He wears stiff blue jeans that look as though they’ve been pressed, and a plaid, short-sleeved shirt under his vest. His canvas shoes look almost polished.
“Do you speak English?” I can tell he is surprised to hear flawless English come from me.
“Little bit,” he says and smiles. He is missing a front tooth, but it’s nevertheless a charming smile.
“Can you take me here?” I show him the envelope and point to the address on the back.
He takes the envelope, studies the address, and nods his head. “Yes, yes. Not far.” He hands the envelope back to me. “Forty Baht.”
I nod okay.
“You look Thai. You no speak Thai?” he asks.
“My mother,” and I begin to say ‘is,’ then change it to ‘was,’ and then I just stop after ‘mother.’
“That good,” he says. “She have family here?”
“Maybe,” I say.
I offer my hand. “My name is Tamra. What’s yours?”
“Chet. It mean brother in Thai. I have many sister. I only brother in my family.” He says the word family with three distinct syllables. He’s smiling proudly as he tells me all this and we’re shaking hands. His hand is rough and hard boned, something dark stains his fingertips. “I no have helmet for you. Okay?”
“Okay,” I say.
He starts the motorcycle and I climb on the back, sidesaddle. I hold the envelope in one hand on my lap and with the other I clutch the seat and hold on tight. The ride is paralyzing. We zip between and around mini vans and buses, sedans and taxis. We come so close I’m sure my knees will scrape against the car doors, and I can almost feel the touch of metal against my skin. At a red light, Chet squeezes through the stopped cars and plants the bike just inside the intersection. Dozens of other motorcycles crowd around us until the sound of their engines is deafening, the smell of oil and gas stifling. After about five minutes we turn off Sukhumvit, and then turn again onto a smaller soi. It’s narrow, much like the soi where we are staying. But here, the pavement is spotless, like it’s been swept and washed down several times a day. The gates and walls on either side of the soi are painted a gleaming white and everything above them is green and thick with palm fronds and tree branches. A little ways down, the soi dead-ends and turns left, and this is where Chet stops the bike, right in the crook of the soi under the shade of a shiny-leafed mango tree. He shuts off the engine and removes his helmet.
“Here.” He points to a large, wide gate, painted silver, topped with scrolling metal. The number on the gate matches the number on the envelope.
I become frozen, I’ve forgotten, or maybe I never really knew, what to do next. I’ve envisioned myself coming here, ringing a bell, or knocking on a gate, and someone answers but I’ve never visualized a face. My thoughts have never tracked their way to a conclusion of any sort.
I nod and get off the motorcycle, pull a hundred baht from the small purse strapped around my neck.
“Can you wait just a little, let me make sure?” I move my eyes to the front gate then look back at him. “You can have all of this if you’ll wait a few minutes.”
Chet considers this a moment, then nods his head up and down and shrugs. He takes the baht and puts it in a front pocket of his shirt, then pulls a pack of cigarettes from the same pocket. He puts the kickstand down on the bike and holds the pack out to me, smiling, eyebrows raised.
“No, thanks,” I say.
Small gray swallows perch on the electric wires crossing overhead and the high–low squawking and warbling of myna birds falls from the branches above and I’m thankful for the shade.
My mother’s deception still amazes me. The only time I remember keeping secrets from anyone in our family was in seventh grade when my best friend moved away and my interest in school plummeted with her departure. Grades didn’t seem that important anymore, and English, social studies, French, science, all began to suffer. Math was the only thing keeping me afloat. It was straight-forward, numbers did what you told them to do. Failing at school was something my father would never tolerate. So my mother and I kept it secret from him. To this day, I can see the vanilla-colored report card laying on the kitchen counter and my mother grabbing it, shoving it in her pocket as my father came into the room. Our secret. I think about all the years my mother guarded her past, what determination it took to keep silent about matters that may have still clung to her heart.
Chet has a cell phone in one hand. The other holds a cigarette with two fingers while a third finger scrolls through texts or emails or whatever he is reading. That’s when I notice the tattoo; a maze of right-angled intertwined lines within a circle. I recognize it immediately. The endless knot. It’s an important Buddhist symbol having to do with balanced harmony and karmic destiny.
I’ve been pacing and shuffling my feet on the gravel edge of the soi. Over the gate, the top half of a second-story house with its whitewashed balconies and green vines fingering the stucco is visible. This could be my mother’s childhood home. She may have lingered on those balconies, watched those vines latch onto the walls, lengthening and thickening over the years of her youth. Every tree, every stair and cement path could hold legions of her memories. She may have skinned a knee on the driveway, spied a snake in the long grass. She may have shouted at and played with siblings behind these walls.
“You no want go in?” Chet looks at me with a visible sympathy.
I rub the back of my neck, feeling the muscles jump around under my skin. “Yes, of course.” I check my watch and move next to him as if I’m going to say goodbye.
“Your tattoo.” It’s on his upper left arm, just below the edge of his shirt.
“Ah, yes. Important for Thai people. Mean I do good thing today, then good thing happen to me, my family. I do bad thing today, bad thing happen maybe someday. Not good. You understand?”
“Yes, my mother was a Buddhist.” And there, I said it. My mother was. A cavern opens up inside me. One I can never fill.
“Are you married?” I ask. His face lights up and he stands and pulls a wallet from his back pocket. Inside is a picture of his wife. He holds it up with an outstretched arm and I take it from him. A young Thai girl, looking sixteen, smiles below brown almond eyes, black hair pulled tight into a ponytail. Her face is buoyant and zestful, as if she’s been plugged into life. “She’s beautiful.” I hand the picture back to him. “And so happy.”
“We just marry, um, last month.” He looks pleased at both the marriage and the fact that he has found the right English words.
“Congratulations,” I say. “Do you like her family?”
“Oh, yes. But her mother, how you say, very, very.....”
“Strict? That means has many rules,” I say.
“Yes, yes. Very strict.” He pulls out his pack of cigarettes and again offers me one. I’m going to have to do something before he smokes a third. “She live with us so sometime very hard.” He shakes his head and chuckles as he blows out smoke through clenched teeth.
A heavy weight descends upon me; it’s heat and doubt all mixed together. Do I believe whoever’s behind this gate will answer my questions? Am I expecting memories of my mother’s youth to appear and wrap around me, warm and soft like sable? It’s all a wild dream. Yet, I’m still willing to approach the gate. My finger hovers for a moment before I press hard on the buzzer.
My lips tremble and a cold sweat breaks out across my skin. Immediately, a whirring sound begins and the silver gate inches open. I stumble backwards, wondering how anyone inside could answer this quickly. Moving back next to Chet, I hear the velvety hum of a car engine.
A sleek black Mercedes glides out of the gate. The sun blemishes the windshield with sparks of light and blinds me from seeing the car’s interior, until it pulls forward, slips under the shade of a flowering tree and the driver appears. It’s a woman, so much like my mother my skin shivers and burns all at once, my knees collapse like toothpicks snapping. Chet grabs me at my waist and keeps me from hitting the pavement. Together we watch the car slip past us. The woman throws an uninterested glance our way and is gone. Chet sits me down on the seat of his bike. My heart is hammering and the roaring in my ears blocks the murmur of words coming from his lips. He shoves a bottle of water in front of me. The concern in his eyes tells me he understands this maybe more than I do. The Mercedes slips down the soi, a shiny black hole of possibilities.
“I think you go home.” Chet takes over. He puts one hand under my elbow and guides me off the bike, gets on and starts it, nods at me to sit back down and puts on his helmet. I obey.
My mother had her reasons, all of them probably quite good. And suddenly I don’t know why I’m here. The bike takes off slowly then straightens, its engine clucking. The sun flecks down through tree branches, like yellow confetti. The heat bears down, relentless. We turn the corner and the Mercedes is gone, already lost in the traffic of Suhkhumvit.
The doubt and fear break loose from me, smack against the gray cement, and are left behind, abandoned. Although I’ve been up since 4 a.m., a surge of energy is sparking through me, a current of renewal. I want to see the city, the monuments, the temples, the clogged streets, the shops, and the people. A blur of street vendors selling everything from watches and T-shirts to plastic shoes slides along the sidewalks. The colors stream by like fireworks. Young Thai women, smartly dressed, shop girls or secretaries, perch on the back of other motorcycle taxis, texting, holding down their skirts against the wind, bored, with beautiful faces. On Chet’s arm, the squares of the endless knot are inked with three rows of black lines. You can trace them, the lines are endless. No beginnings, no ends. My mother used to tell me it meant everything in life is interrelated, connected. We are bound to our karmic destinies. But is your destiny found in the ending of your life or is it in the series of events that design your life, give it all its fullness? I know the answer, the only one that makes any sense in a world stripped of sensible conclusions.
Clouds are gathering early today and the sky is becoming a terrible swath of bruising grays and purples. Back at the top of the soi I try to give Chet another twenty Baht but he refuses, asks if I’m okay. I say I am. The lady selling fruit is back on the sidewalk, just past the seven-eleven, and I ask for some pineapple. She remembers me from yesterday. I can tell by her sweet smile. As I near the house lightning splits the sky and I count, one thousand one, one thousand two, one thousand three. Thunder cracks open the air around me and it begins to rain.