PiMam

About five months after I moved in, another woman joined us upstairs. PiMam*. She was another relative of the owner, and she too hoped to make a name for herself and earn a profit. The family voted to grant her an equal share in the restaurant’s ownership, and she was given a room towards the front of the restaurant next to Top’s. A shy and self-effacing woman, she already had years of experience in customer service, having helped manage her parents’ cluttered shop in Pattaya.

I have stood in that shop. I have smelled its odors of incense and dust, cigarette smoke and gasoline fumes. It was something like a family-owned 7-11. There were sodas and tins of talcum powder and little golden cakes wrapped in cellophane. There were broken things her father fixed, piled high on a shelf behind the counter. Small, fragile items like wristwatches and mantle clocks.

Everyone in their neighborhood knew her and her parents. They trusted the whole family with their delicate, damaged things, confident they would mend them and make them whole again—all for a fair price.

PiMam wanted something more.

I could understand that.

*             *             *

PiMam wore her black hair in a bob and had a nervous little laugh that I immediately liked. One night, she invited me into her room and pushed a bootlegged DVD into her player. It was a Thai comedy about a soccer team of “kathoeys,” people assigned male at birth but who identify, dress, and behave as traditional Thai women. We laughed at their over-the-top victories, and she patiently explained the parts I could not understand.

On our next day off, I invited her to my room, and we watched the only movie of mine that had Thai subtitles, Glory. She slept through most of it, which I couldn’t blame her for. Why would a Thai woman care about the American Civil War? Yet she woke up when I started to sniffle. The camera was sweeping through the camp as the men prepared for the final battle, knowing that the U.S. military had sentenced them to their deaths.

PiMam put her arm around me. “Don’t cry, na” she said.

“It’s just so sad,” I whispered in Thai. “So not right.”

“But it was such a long time ago,” she said and gave my shoulders a squeeze. “Don’t cry.”

That was PiMam. Almost British in her pragmatism with emotion.

*             *             *

I began to see less of PiMam after one of the uncles hired a new waitress nicknamed Miao. Many Thai nicknames are animals, rich with onomatopoeia. Nok for bird. Gop for frog. And Miao means cat. 

Miao had a reputation in the Thai community as a tomboy. Whenever anyone whispered this to me, I shrugged. So was I. What was the big deal?

But “tomboy,” I gradually came to understand, meant more than dressing as a boy or identifying as boyish rather than feminine. It’s a gender and sexual identity in Thailand that does not easily map onto a Western equivalent. While rejecting the label “lesbian,” Thai tomboys usually date only women. And although they adopt masculine fashion and gender roles, tomboys identify as women. Their nearest neighbors on the U.S. identity spectrum are butch lesbians, but tomboys—also called “toms”—are truly a distinct identity.

Miao, I much later learned, fit the profile exactly. My in-laws were not being mean-spirited or insulting. They were calling her what she was, naming her by the identity she expressed with pride. Miao wore jeans and tank tops with sturdy work boots. Sometimes she wore T-shirts, always with the hems on her sleeves folded up. She looked, through my very white and very American lenses, like a sleek 1950s greaser. Right down to her hair, which she lacquered with gel and combed up and over into an undeniably sexy whorl, somewhere between Elvis and John Travolta in Grease. She swaggered and hooked her thumbs through her belt loops and took in entire rooms with one sweep of an arm, claiming space with a boldness I had never before seen a Thai woman dare.

Miao began to stay the night with PiMam sometimes. It shocked me at first. The word “tomboy,” which I strongly identify with, had in no way signaled orientation to me. And although I had grown up on Capitol Hill, the heart of Seattle’s gay community, orientation was not anything people discussed in Bothell or in my Mormon ward. Strolling down Broadway after ballet classes, I had seen women go down the street hand in hand. I had seen men kiss on the street. But this was the first time I realized anyone I personally knew might have an orientation or gender identity other than the one I assumed. It startled me. Suddenly, PiMam’s choices—leaving her parents, moving to the U.S., asking for a share in the restaurant—it all clicked into place. Unlike me, she was a woman with a plan. A plan she had pulled off. I was impressed. I was moved.

“You look so happy,” I said to her one day in Thai as we passed in the hallway.

“I am happy,” she replied. And she was. I could tell. There was a glow to her cheeks. A radiance to her I’d never seen before. She smiled at everything, all the time.

But then, something happened that PiMam hadn’t planned for. Her extended family started to “worry.” They were “concerned.” In Top’s room after dinner, before he started the VHS of our nightly Thai soap opera, he began to tell me that Miao was taking advantage of PiMam.

“How?” I was skeptical. “If anything, Miao seems to be helping her, and she’s always bringing her gifts.”

“That’s just to manipulate her.” Top shrugged. “She’s no good for PiMam. The whole family is worried.”

I searched for a sign that Miao might be the con artist everyone claimed she was. Miao had a car and a job. She was a steady worker, a reliable employee. The family kept her at a distance, but that reflected on them. She was far more skilled at everything than I was. She was generous and loving with PiMam, who was always happy around her. I had never seen PiMam give her anything but affection. It looked like the relationship I wished I had with Top. I racked my brain for the problem and couldn’t find one. Yet everyone insisted that PiMam was not a dee—one of the ultra-feminine women who usually date toms. And not a tom. And definitely not lesbian. Miao had simply brainwashed her.

Such are the stories that families will tell themselves.

After two months of PiMam’s happiness, her parents ordered her back to Pattaya. Soon after, Miao vanished from the restaurant. I never learned if she had been fired or if, fed up with the suspicion and homophobia, she had simply quit.

I found PiMam in her room, packing two large suitcases laid out on the bed. One bulged with family gifts and supplies for their shop.

“You don’t have to go,” I said, standing in her doorway. I knew I sounded childish. Idealistic. Idiotic, even. But no one else was saying these things to her. “You’re 25.”

She nodded emphatically and zipped a suitcase shut. “I have to.” She kept her back turned to me.

“But why?” I asked. “Stay here. You’re happy here. What can they do to you?”

She shrugged. Finally, she turned to me, and I saw her eyes had filled with tears. And I knew I’d better shut up. I was only making it hurt more.

*             *             *

The next time I saw her was in Pattaya where she was living under her parents’ watchful gaze, minding their shop again, single and more alone than I had ever been, facing the world with a smile that was both brave and heartbreakingly sad. All the radiant colors I had seen in her face during her time with Miao had been leached away. At lunch that day, she ate in silence as her mother industriously made conversation about the different family businesses. When I pulled PiMam aside afterward, snatching a moment alone with her that her mother had tried to prevent all day, I asked if she was happy.

“It’s okay,” she said. Which meant she wasn’t. But that she wanted me to know it was okay that she wasn’t. Her smile made me want to cry.

Her mother died a few years later, and I knew that now PiMam would never be able to leave Pattaya or that ground-floor store. For the rest of her father’s life, she would fix his tea while he mended wristwatches and sorted through mail. For the rest of her life, she would breathe in that dusty, smoke-filled air and listen to the oscillating fan, red streamers fluttering in its wake, gold Chinese characters for luck and happiness winking out at her. She must have gray in her hair by now, just as I do. I wonder if she thinks of Miao. Or perhaps she tells herself what she once told me:

Don’t cry, na. It was all so long ago.

But sometimes, I tell myself her story ended another way. Things are changing everywhere, and Thailand is no exception. The year I met her, the Thai government had finally declared that homosexuality was no longer a mental illness. Since 2018, a bill has been working its way through the government to grant same-sex couples more rights—though still not as many as heterosexual married couples. So sometimes, I tell myself that if her father is still alive, he has been alone for so long now that he understands. He understands loneliness, and he doesn’t want his daughter to suffer the same bottomless ache. I tell myself maybe she has met someone, someone who is out and proud and celebrates Gay Pride in Bangkok. Someone who can show PiMam she doesn’t have to be so careful anymore. She doesn’t have to be alone.

Sometimes I tell myself that this year, on this stroke of midnight, PiMam will be out there somewhere on a Bangkok sidewalk, in the smoke from street vendors’ grills and the sickly-sweet stench of rotting fruit. She will be standing in front of a gay night club watching the fireworks on New Year’s Eve. A woman’s arm wrapped around her shoulders, PiMam’s head tipped back, her face glowing with that smile I never saw again. A kiss planted on her lips. And a flag rippling overhead, the night sky illuminated with all the colors of the rainbow.

 

*Details and names have been altered to protect the identities of these women.

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