As my love of Thailand grew, so did the glaring evidence of the problems in my relationship. I often woke in the morning to find Top already gone, leaving me to go sightseeing with his brother Bop. When Top did bring me along, everyone told him in Thai how beautiful I was, and he glowed. Like they were complimenting his choice of Mercedes. I knew my white skin was a status symbol for him, proof of his American success.
Other times, he brought me along but vanished halfway through. When he offered me a tour guide at the Grand Palace, I refused. So Top hired a guide anyway, then walked away looking for his sister. He was gone for hours, and I was left listening to an elderly man narrating the Ramayana, a classic of Hindu literature that I had read in college, as if it were a porn film.
“See?” The guide mopped his brow with a white handkerchief, stained yellow from long use. He pointed at the breasts of the women in the painting. “Monkey play. Monkey have sex. Play with girl monkey.” Then, he tittered. I did not smile. He was pointing at Sita, the avatar of a Hindu goddess who deserved more respect than this.
When I did not laugh at his joke, he waved dismissively at the whole mural. “Take picture.” He adjusted his glasses, which kept sliding off his sweaty nose. Sweat trickled down the backs of my thighs.
I wondered if this was the version of the Ramayana he presented to all farang tourists. I wondered if he found it sold well. Hanuman, the monkey sidekick, is indeed a trickster of the highest order. But this was too much. To have been ditched by my partner, without explanation or assurance of when I might see him again, and handed off to an old man who reveled in prurience, in the noonday monsoon heat no less—
It was humiliating.
“Okay,” the guide continued, leading me to one of many stupas on the palace grounds. He described which king’s ashes it held and the dates of his reign. “Take picture, please.”
I tried to explain that there had been a misunderstanding. I didn’t need a guide. He only laughed at me and proceeded to point out every last stupa. Take picture, please.
By the time the tour guide said thank you, end of tour, I was close to tears. I searched for Top throughout the palace but never found him. I finally wandered over to a quieter corner of the grounds where I hoped that if I did start crying, no one would notice. Finally, in Wat Pho, we crossed paths. I was enraged and heartbroken.
“What happened?” I asked him.
“Where have you been? I couldn’t find you.”
“Talking with my sister.”
“It’s been hours.”
“We talk for a long time.”
“If you needed to talk with your sister all day, you could’ve just told me. You haven’t seen her in three years. I would’ve understood, and I could’ve made my own plans.”
He said nothing.
“If you disappear like that, I have no way to find you.” I said. “No way to find anybody. At least give me your father’s address.”
“Why?” He demanded. When I waited, he spit it out in rapid-fire Thai, knowing it would be too rapid for me to retain. I asked him to write it on my brochure. Instead, he said “Later” and walked away.
Along with his sister, we went to lunch at an air-conditioned noodle shop across the street. “How did you like the Palace, na?” His sister, PiLee, asked me in English. She was an elegant 28-year-old who made me think of Audrey Hepburn or Gemma Chan. She had traveled the world as a flight attendant, a job which she had recently quit when Chai, a wealthy music composer and retired banker in his forties, proposed to her. She was gracious, savvy, articulate. It surprised no one when, a few years later, she and Chai founded an air charter company, which they co-own. Her kindness towards me—speaking English, asking about my day—stung in contrast with Top’s indifference.
“Suai mak ka,” I answered, trying to reciprocate.
She nodded. “Suai mak. You know, Thai people look at the Grand Palace, and we think this is what Heaven looks like.”
Top glanced out the window at the traffic, as if my experience at the palace couldn’t have interested him less, then turned to his sister and said something in Thai too rapidly for me to understand.
I started crying into my noodles.
“Everything all right, na?” PiLee asked with concern.
“It’s just so spicy,” I said and wiped my nose on my forearm. She eyed me for a moment. I knew she didn’t believe me. This was shameful and childish, to be crying at age 23 because I had been humiliated.
I hadn’t expected to do everything with Top. The number of visits he owed was dizzying. The night we arrived, his father had handed him a silver cell phone, and it rang every 30 minutes from dawn until long after dark. I’d known, first and foremost, this was a trip for his family. But Top had bought my ticket. So I had expected him to involve me. Even just a little.
* * *
At the end of our month there, his father flew the entire family to Phuket for a three-night stay in a resort with its own lagoons.
At night, we played Risk together, Bop sharing fried pork rind with me, or we all sat by the pool sipping drinks until dark. I asked PiChai about his years as a Buddhist monk. He crossed his ankles on the lounge chair and looked up at the darkening sky. “Hard, at first. Especially giving up sex. That was very, very hard.”
“Does the discipline help?”
“No,” he laughed. “Not at all. For a while, that makes it even harder. I started to think about sex all the time, even more than usual. You are meditating and chanting and collecting alms, and the whole time you’re thinking about it. But then it happened. One day I woke up and discovered I couldn’t remember the last time I’d thought about it.”
I remembered how my Asian Literature professor, Neal Vasishth, had opened his lecture on Buddhism by snuffing out a candle flame. The extinction of uncontrolled or destructive desire was one of the primary goals of Buddhism.
“And did you feel any different?”
PiChai thought for a moment. “Not really,” he said. “Calmer, of course. My mind was clearer. There was more space for other things. But it became normal, just like obsessing had been before.”
My Chinese father-in-law, who was the family ping pong expert, taught me the game one morning after breakfast. I had never played before. He was a patient teacher and gave me one of his rare smiles when I gaped at my own success. Satisfied with his lesson, he passed me off to Bop, who flourished and spun his paddle before serving. “And now you will see how I am the epitome of style!”
I laughed. PiLee played with me for nearly an hour, the two of us giggling and taking turns chasing after the ball.
When we went out for lunch, everyone promised me a traditional Phuket meal. Frightened of Thai dishes ever since I’d made the mistake of ordering a curry in Bangkok, I had ordered nothing but pad thai. PiLeng, the oldest sibling in the family, took away my plate of pad thai from me as soon as it arrived and swapped it with a noodle dish I didn’t recognize. “Pad thai, pad thai,” she said. “Always pad thai with you. Try something new. You’ll like it, na.”
Later that afternoon, we went swimming, and PiLeng floated her son towards all the farang in the hotel pools. He was almost three years old. “Say hello,” she coaxed him in English. All of the guests adored him. As we waded away from a German couple, she told me, “I don’t want him to be afraid of white people because in the future, he will have to talk to them. For his education. His job. Who knows? So if he starts now, it will be easy for him later.”
She had been distant at first, but in Phuket, I came to know her better, and she was revealed as the true Mother of the House. The heart of the family. She was the one who took over the family’s business when Top went to America, and she had expanded it into an international enterprise with offices around the world. She was the best mother I have ever seen. In Bang Saen, I had left offerings at the feet of a statue of Kuan Yin. She towered over the sea and poured compassion over the world. PiLeng reminded me of Kuan Yin. The same strength and nobility.
She would laugh at me for writing that.
I loved his family. I felt at-home in a way I never had before. But each night, Top and I slept in separate beds. Our supply of condoms gone, neither of us cared enough to purchase more. I was grateful that we had stopped pretending. He only touched me that weekend during a family photo, his arm casually draped over my shoulder, his hand dangling over my breast. He squeezed. I shoved his hand away. He grabbed me again. In the photo, I have a firm grip on his hand to stop the assault, my smile tense.
By the time our flight banked over the Washington coast, I had been in Thailand for a month. I pressed my forehead to the window and looked down at the breaking waves and sobbed with relief.
I was beginning to face that Top had initiated our relationship with a sexual assault and that ever since, he had demonstrated disrespect. Many years later, a therapist would speculate that he had entered the relationship fully believing love might heal him, but after the death of his mother when he was still so young, he had detached himself from his own feelings. And those of others. It was the closest I ever came to an explanation.
His numbness was contagious. To survive in such a disengaged relationship, I too had become numb. It was exhausting.
In front of his father’s house in Bangkok, there stood a stone pot three feet tall, black and filled with water. Koi swam in it, and water lilies floated on the surface. I felt as if I had dropped my heart into it. It sank to the bottom and lay submerged; the calls of street hawkers and the honks from traffic only dimly reached it there. Roots tangled about it, drawing sustenance but giving nothing back. Lost there in the darkness beneath the lilies and with only fragments of sky between the petals, my heart began to go cold. It hardened. The roots were strangling, the close stone walls suffocating.
My heart might have been safe there from feeling everything I no longer wanted to feel. But it was killing off what was left of me.
Two weeks later, I ended it.