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The Sightseer

by Sari Wilson

Lewis has been traveling for two months and three days. He likes the
north of Thailand more than the touristed south. He’d done his
two months in the south on another trip, several years ago. He had a
blast, sure, but he likes the northern country’s dusty roads, its spicier
food, its hill-tribe markets, the subtle fret in the air from the brewing
conflicts along the Burmese border. The lack of consumer luxuries has
made the people more honest, even amidst the inevitable treacheries,
small and large, that a tourist boom brings.
         In Chiang Mai, he is often unable to sleep. He leaves his guesthouse
bungalow to wander the streets in the pre-dawn hours. The low houses
and ramshackle huts are dark and quiet. Occasionally he passes a bicycle
rickshaw driver curled up asleep in the open metal cab where the passengers
usually sit. Sometimes he encounters a pack of mangy dogs slinking
down the street with their heads down, keeping their distance from him.

                                                                          ~

One night, Lewis is in a bar on a Chiang Mai backpacker strip
when he overhears a conversation that piques his interest. A middleaged
Thai man wearing a Hawaiian shirt sits at a table across from a
middle-aged white guy.
         “But isn’t it illegal?” says the white guy, an Aussie.
         “No, no,” the man smiles. “These women arrange to sell their services.”
         The Aussie’s face flushes, and he scoffs. “Wrong sucker, mate.” He
gets up and walks out, leaving a half-full Singha on the table. The Thai
man does not turn around to watch him leave. He takes out a toothpick
from his shirt pocket and puts it in his mouth, chews on it as he
examines his hands.

                                                                          ~

         The next day Lewis goes back to the bar. It is late afternoon. The
place is empty, with the exception of the bartender, who sits on a stool
turning the pages of a newspaper. The string of red and green lights
behind the bar is dark, the fan is off, the bamboo chairs are still on the
tables.
         Lewis describes the man with the Hawaiian shirt to the bartender.
The bartender smiles slowly.
         “So you want a wife?’
         A wife? A wife? Lewis thinks to himself:“I want a wife.” He is surprised
by the clarity of this thought. And this is the odd thing: It strikes
him as not at all odd. The idea of buying a wife. A wife. The word has
promise. In a world where you can buy everything else, what would it
be like to buy a wife?
         “Yes,” says Lewis. “I’d like a wife.”
         The adventurer in Lewis has spoken up. As a self-appointed professional
observer of the world and its ways, he has seen how brutal
economies of scale can be. He has even courted these moments: they
have made him, a privileged man from a privileged part of the world, feel
more alive. He has met girls who had been sold into prostitution and
they touched him greatly, with their new skin of toughness that you
could still peel away, the delicate hurt beneath. He recalls, once, in a
dusty, torpid country, visiting a house where a family lived half-dead from
starvation while their horse—their only source of income—chewed
from a fresh barrel of feed.Witnessing privation is somehow a balm to
Lewis. He feels that there is some wisdom in it: is it that true tenderness
requires sacrifice, a fact his own country does not understand?
         Before this current tour of Southeast Asia, Lewis trekked in Nepal,
caravaned through the Sahara, and spent time on a wildlife refuge in
Africa. He is now in love with Chiang Mai, this bustling northern
town, gateway to the tourist route that runs as far north as Pai and Mae
Hong Son. Lewis has been in love with places before—many places.
How many times has he felt what others describe as love—a sense of
comfort, rightness, possibility—for the curve of a bridge, for a certain
crowded avenue at dusk? But Lewis is like one who begins to take
weary glances at his lover. Lewis is becoming restless with the wandering
life. He is becoming sick of traveling. This fact is still hatching
in his subconscious. He is not yet aware of it. But perhaps this is why
he latches on to the possibility suggested by this most exotic and transgressive
of actions, crossing borders that are not just geographic.
          A wife. Yes, the word has promise.
         The bartender takes a crumbled handwritten receipt from his pants
pocket, smoothes it out, and writes down an address on the back. He
hands it to Lewis, then turns back to the paper. Lewis does not recognize
the name of the road. He folds the paper gingerly to honor the
bartender’s confidence. As Lewis walks slowly back to his guesthouse,
he fingers it every so often to feel the satisfaction of possessing this
information, this secret information.

                                                                          ~

         Lewis gets up in the middle of the night. He pulls on his shorts and
quietly leaves his guesthouse room. The streets are washed in a bluish
light from a low half-moon. It is, perhaps, three or four in the morning.
The sky is a solid blue-black, with a sense of light brewing behind
the darkness.
         He approaches a bicycle rickshaw parked in the shadows of an
alleyway. The sleeping driver opens his rheumy eyes and stares at Lewis
silently for a few moments. Lewis reaches for his wallet; the driver
stumbles from his perch and, in a movement clouded with sleep, pulls
a thick, short-bladed knife from beneath the seat and raises it. Lewis
lowers himself to his knees and raises his hands. The driver crouches
lower, mirroring Lewis’s movements with his own. Wordlessly, Lewis
holds out the address. The driver sits down on the metal seat, the hand
with the knife on his lap, and rubs his eyes. He nods at Lewis in what
Lewis supposes is apology and Lewis, still on his knees, nods back. He
offers the preserved piece of paper carefully. The man folds the knife
back into itself and takes the paper.
         He laughs and hands it back to Lewis. “Too many ladies,” he says.
He slips the knife into a dirty sash of cloth tied around his pants, climbs
out of the cab and onto his bicycle. They ride out of town, past several
institutional-looking buildings, and then even farther. The road narrows
and the foliage grows denser. They are the only ones on this road,
and the air is filled with the rickshaw driver’s ragged breath and the
whine of the bicycle’s rusty joints. Lewis is reminded of something his
father said after his mother asked him for a divorce. “In order to really
love a woman, you must possess her.” Then his father had cried, an
abrupt heave of tears. “But, then again, she may not let you love her.”
         The temperature drops a few degrees, the air grows chillier. The
driver turns off the pavement onto a smaller dirt road. They pass many
low-slung, hastily-built concrete bungalows. The driver stops in front
of one of them. Except for the flickering gray light of a TV in one of
the four front windows, the house is dark. The driver gets out, lights a
cigarette, smiles at Lewis, and leans on the cab as if he were settling in
to watch a show. Does he think Lewis is going to knock on the door
now? At this hour? No, Lewis is simply appeasing his curiosity.
         Lewis stands on the road facing the house. He can dimly make out
an open chicken-wire coop, from which come the sounds of shuffling
birds. They sense him: for each step he takes, the birds ratchet the noise
up another level. When he is standing almost next to the coop and the
birds are squawking and yakking ferociously, the light comes on in the
front window of the bungalow. Lewis turns quickly and walks—no,
runs—back to the rickshaw. The driver has already mounted his vehicle,
he flicks his cigarette into the gutter water and begins pedaling. Lewis
can feel the driver’s unsteady motion as he struggles to gather momentum
against Lewis’s inert weight. When they are halfway down the block,
into the street behind them comes a woman’s voice. In quick high short
tones, she flings a string of words after them into the moonslung street.

                                                                          ~

         In the hot blare of midday, Lewis, clean-shaven and wearing his best
clothes—a madras button-down and a pair of khaki shorts—returns to
the address the bartender gave him. There, to the side of the house, is
the very same chicken coop. Beside it, a woman in a head scarf and T-shirt
squats over a metal bowl, cleaning and preparing a chicken. Lewis
stands in the cool dark hallway shuffling his feet. A woman in a sarong
and bun emerges and bows. She leads Lewis through a living room
with a television and couch, then a concrete-floored kitchen into a
back room where a handsome middle-aged Thai man with a shaved
head sits behind a small desk. Lewis takes in the stucco walls, the
Buddhist shrine, the photo of the King and Queen, the masks from
other Southeast Asian countries.
         The man smiles at him.“Welcome, my friend. Welcome,” he says
warmly, extending his hand. “I am Kris. That’s with a K.”
         Lewis laughs.
         “Please, sit down, sit down.”
         Lewis sits gingerly on the edge of a black leather chair, a smaller,
less-imposing version of Kris’s.
         “Do you come without an appointment?”
         “I’m sorry,” says Lewis. He stands to leave. “I didn’t know how to
make one.”
         “Of course, of course. Do not worry. For you, it is no problem.”
         Lewis sits down again. He is sweating.
         Kris leans back in his chair and begins to ask Lewis questions. His
manner is easy and conversational, as if he has only a passing interest in
the answers. Here is Lewis’s story: a programmer living in New York
City, single, never married, no children. He loves to travel. For eight
years now, his life has been arranged around extended trips abroad. Jobs
are easy to come by, and easy to leave, mostly a diversion for him. He
has family money—not an enormous amount, mind you, but enough.
His wife will never have to work, never have to worry. He has visited
over twenty countries. Caroused in several more. Heh, heh. Now, he
says, he is ready to start a new phase, to settle down with a wife. A wife,
he repeats, the word layered with awe.
         The man tells him how much a wife will cost him. It is a flat fee,
forty percent of which goes to his organization and the rest to the girl’s
family. Though it is a lot of money, it is less than Lewis would have supposed.
It is about the cost of a new living room set.
         Kris tells him that a deposit—half of the overall payment—is
required up-front and, with this money in a type of “escrow,” Lewis is
permitted—no, encouraged—to take his woman on a weekend trip to
Bangkok. If they are “well-matched,” says Kris, with a generous smile,
“then you will be married when you return. You and your bride!”
Lewis wants to believe this man’s smugness is based on some record of
success in these matters.
         “Okay,” says Lewis. “Okay!”
         “Wouldn’t you like to meet the girl first?”
         Lewis feels himself blushing.
         “Today we have one special girl for you. Very sweet, nice lady. Very
dependable. Good wife. Strong,” he winks,“strong for children and to
keep house.” Kris yells in Thai and the woman who led him to the
office reappears. She and Kris speak for several minutes and during the
conversation she glances at Lewis only once, a discerning, categorizing
glance.
         Then Kris stands and nods. The woman bows to Lewis and
motions for him to follow her. She leads him down a short hall to a
room with yellow walls and a rattan table and chair. He sits in the chair
and drinks the tea that the woman brings him. Here, he waits for what
feels like hours.
         The woman with the bun returns with a girl behind her. No, she
is not a girl, but a mature woman. His first thought is that she is the
woman he saw outside in a head scarf cleaning the chicken. They have
pulled her inside and wrapped her up, ready to sell her, ready to go!
But no, this woman is tougher-looking, less bowed in the spine. She is
wearing a pink sarong and a puffy white blouse, and an oversized flower
in her perfectly straight, long black hair. She has darker skin and higher
cheekbones than most Thais. Beneath the sarong he can see the
beginning of a rose tattoo snaking up her ankle. She is solid, with a full
bosom and a thick waist. She has the body of a field worker, but her
face, made-up expertly, says otherwise. She is smiling at him, and her
smile has something maternal in it, and something sly.
         Lewis holds his breath as she looks at him. Something happens to
him. He has a sense of his own body as a fact he cannot hide. Here is
the thing: he feels something powerful for this woman. “Love at first
sight” runs through his mind—a phrase that he quickly discards. He
cannot love her. He only knows that her body is the most real thing
he has ever seen. He wants to touch her. The idea of possession comes
to him with a new meaning—to buy a person, with the weight of her
past written so firmly into her body. The enormity of what he might
do.

                                                                          ~

         On the long train ride to Bangkok, Sumalee flips the pages of Thai
tabloids and fashion magazines, scanning columns of type with her
pinkie finger sheathed in a heart-shaped gold ring. Lewis checks the
length of his fingernails, re-crosses his legs, wipes imaginary lint off his
shirt. When Lewis took women out in New York, he liked to throw in
an element of surprise. He might pick them up on a rented motorcycle,
or wear something a little different, an orange sweater or leather
pants. He insisted on paying for the women he dated, and he loved it
when they accepted—these independent single women—flushed with
the naughtiness of the suggestion of their dependency.
         After his divorce from his second wife (Lewis’s mother), Lewis’s
father became a serial dater. On returning from a date, he would
debrief Lewis on what he had observed and together they would categorize
the woman according to a certain system Lewis’s father had
developed. According to this system, there were four types of women:
Fixtures (not beautiful but dependable), Turntables (changeable as
music), Lovelies (lovely lovely lovely), and Trouble (trouble trouble
trouble). He was unwavering in his assignments; a woman had to fit
into a category and could not be a combination of more than one.
Lewis had stuck with the basics of his father’s system, though he did in
fact allow overlap. But with Sumalee, he is stumped: she is not beautiful,
not exactly; he doesn’t know if she is a Fixture, a Turntable, or outright
Trouble because he does not speak her language. Much can be
hidden under the cover of a common language, but without even that,
well, what is there? He doesn’t even know enough to consider what is
being hidden from him. Yes, she is a mystery. In addition, he does not
know her culture well enough to guess what might surprise or charm
her. On this weekend jaunt with Sumalee, a trial run for married life,
he is at a loss. Sumalee herself seems calm and self-possessed, as she
thumbs through her magazines. She glances up occasionally and gives
Lewis a quick, shy smile that does not last long enough to be an invitation
to talk.
         In Bangkok, it is better; there is much for Lewis to do. He must get
them a taxi, deliver them to the hotel where Kris has booked them a
room, and deal with checking in. Sumalee lets him handle these tasks,
stands stolidly at his side and occasionally adjusts her bracelets. Lewis
usually stays in backpacker digs, not because he can’t afford better, but
because he likes the low-class, barracks vibe. Occasionally he treats
himself to a night or two out at an upscale tourist hotel. But he isn’t
familiar with hotels like the one Kris has reserved for them. The
threadbare furniture in the lobby, the worn carpet, the lingering odors
from the restaurant next door—everything is standard, unremarkable, a
bit shoddy. Hotels like this one he suspects are mostly for Asian businessmen
whose expense accounts can’t handle the top end.
         Their room, too, is unremarkable. The queen-sized bed is covered
by a blue bedspread that is flattened with repeated washings. The room
smells of must and stale cigarette smoke. The situation now seems
banal. How many foreign men come to Thailand to buy a wife? How
many come face-to-face with the exotic notion of commitment to
someone they don’t know and might never know? How many end up
flirting with a sudden, possible future? How many men come to just
such a threshold, the doorway of an anonymous room just like this one?
         He drops his backpack and Sumalee’s small duffel bag and pulls out a
guidebook. He locates where they are on a map and looks for the nearest
tourist site. It is a small wat, not one of the significant ones, about a
quarter of a mile away. When Sumalee comes out of the bathroom,where
she has fixed her hair and makeup, he suggests a walk to the temple.
         It is late afternoon and the clatter and hustle of the city is a shock
after the steady rhythm of the long train ride. Moving outside by the
power of their own bodies feels strange to him. The sky is overcast but
without the threat of rain. When they are a few blocks away from the
hotel, Lewis begins to regret his suggestion. The street leading to the wat
is a narrow one-lane road, dense with traffic. Trucks bump and clank
down the rutted road and the horns of tuk tuks compete with the din.
         “Are you okay?” he shouts.
         “Yes, yes. Okay.” She nods and smiles.
         Sumalee stops in front of a spirit house outside of a drug store. The
shrine floats on a raised platform. At its center is a statue of a woman
sitting on her knees with one hand beckoning. Next to the woman are
statues of an elephant and a horse. People have left offerings: a loose
bunch of yellow flowers and half a durian. Sumalee puts her hands
together and bows, then reaches up and adds the half-filled bottle of
water she is drinking to the shrine. It occurs to Lewis that the whole
Thai thing around spirit houses is charming and pointless in equal
measure. Though not religious himself, he subscribes to the American
belief that the religious impulse should be accompanied by a measure
of contrition and guilt. But Sumalee’s offering to the statue is made
matter-of-factly, a public-private ritual as familiar as brushing one’s
teeth.
         “This is Nang Kwak,” Sumalee says. “Very important lady.”
         “Oh?”
         “She give money to the house and to owner of house.”
         He asks Sumalee where she is from. He wants to know where she
was born, to picture her as a child, an innocent.
         “Chiang Mai,” she smiles and begins walking again. “Where you
see me at Uncle’s.”
         “Uncle’s?”
         “Uncle is man you meet in Chiang Mai.”
         “Oh. Kris. He’s your uncle?”
         “Not real uncle. Many girl call him Uncle.”
         They stop in front of a shed filled with open-topped flatbed wooden
crates packed with baby chicks, hundreds of them, pressed together
beak to beak making tiny chirping sounds. Lewis and Sumalee stare at
the singing crates.
         “Poor things,” he says.
         She pops a candy in her mouth and giggles. He avoids staring at
her; does she think he has told a joke?
         They turn a corner onto a quieter stretch of road and pass an old
woman in jelly sandals pouring waste water into the dirt in front of a
tiny,well-kept shack. A boy stands in the doorway behind her wearing
a T-shirt that reads “BEST QUALITY FROM THE PAST UNTIL
NOW: OUR LONG HISTORY.”
         At the temple, they watch a group of orange-robed monks cross in
front of them heading toward a temple shrine at the far side of the
compound for afternoon chanting. Several monks gaze steadily at
Sumalee as they pass. Lewis usually feels a bolt of clean energy entering
a wat—the bright colors, the cool open space of the temple rooms,
the smooth, untroubled countenance of the Buddha statues. But he
does not feel it this time. They stroll along the walkway under one
colonnade past a row of sitting Buddhas covered in flaking gold leaf.
Now the resonant sound of the monk’s chanting starts up, filling the
courtyard. Sumalee follows Lewis closely. She seems uncomfortable,
feeding herself candies and checking her digital watch. Then Lewis
realizes that everything about Sumalee, her clothing, her makeup—
everything about her—is wrong. She does not belong here. As a
tourist, a foreigner, he is welcome to covet the exotic, the smells,
sounds, images. But Sumalee, she is not welcome. She is a different
element within this society.
         Back on the street, outside the temple wall, he takes out his pointand-
shoot and tells Sumalee that he wants to take a picture of her.
Playfully, with more intent than he has seen from her, she grabs his
camera and hides it behind her back. He makes a swipe for it. “Give
it! Give it!” he shouts. “Give it!” She runs a few steps, giggling.
“Wife!” he shouts running after her, but she keeps running as if she
doesn’t hear him.

                                                                          ~

         After dinner that evening, back at the hotel, with his backpack and
her small duffel bag stowed away, their ablutions complete, they sit on
wooden chairs across from each other, like two children who have been
left alone in a room. Is this how a grown man is supposed to feel? He
is amazed to look down and see his tanned and veined hand, a thirtyyear-
old man’s hand. He fears the loss of his voice if he tries to speak.
         Sumalee lights a cigarette and crosses her legs. She is wearing a
turquoise dress, gold earrings, and white panty hose that coat her darker
skin. If it weren’t for the rose tattoo, the rough angularity of her face,
and her hair that now hangs long and unfettered, she could be a suburban
American housewife dressed up for a garden party. It has always
been Lewis’s tactic with women to be excessively kind and gentle
before sex, but something in her face warns him that this will not work
with her. He tries anyway. “You must be tired,” he says. “You must
want to rest.”
         She stretches a sinewy arm up and smiles. He thinks of a phrase he
once heard, Asian women are tigers in bed.
         “You like to make love now?”
         He blushes.“No, no.”
         Her hands fall on her lap. She lets her eyes run around the room,
and then she seems to change modes. Her face takes on a business-like
quality.
         “You have house?” she asks.
         “No, not a house.” He blushes. “I have an apartment.”
         “How many bedroom?”
         “One. But it’s large. And we can get a new apartment.”
         “You have sick mother or father?”
         “No, no. They are alive and well.” He has never in his life used that
phrase before—alive and well.
         How much money does he make? How far to supermarket? How
much costs loaf of bread?
         He clears his throat. He once had a girlfriend named Liza who had
left him to become a Peace Corps doctor, a scenario that, for reasons
he didn’t totally understand, couldn’t include him. She left him with a
list of things he needed to work on. First of all, she said, his idea of a
relationship lacked imagination (blowjobs and champagne, hotels
rooms, physical contact limited to hand-holding in public places, sex in
bed, etc.). And, it bugged her that he wouldn’t spend more on something
than he thought it should be worth, even if he loved it, even if it
is the best, most unique thing ever. This was a problem, the reason he
wouldn’t take her to Playland for her birthday (it cost $30 to get in),
even though she had offered to pay. And, she had said, “the problem
with you is that you don’t understand the difference between needs and
desires. Watching a basketball game on TV is not a need.” He had been
the most hurt by her statement about his needs. He had used this word
because he had read that women like to speak openly about their
“needs.” He had taken to the word “needs,” with its broad wellwrapped
finality, its clarity. Needs. It had comforted him.
         Out of this rush of thoughts comes an unfortunate phrase.
         “I have,” he stammers now, “needs.”
         She looks perplexed, then her face brightens. She puts the cigarette
she is smoking in the ashtray and lifts up her skirt to show him her knees.
It is an absurdist moment, a moment in a bad play. Her eagerness, her
knees. He looks at them, bonier than the rest of her. He wants to laugh.
         He bends to roll up his pants. He will show her his knees. A good
way to start married life. As good a way as any.
         It occurs to him that things could be different with her. A communication
not of thoughts and ideas, but needs and desires: a more
basic language.
         She takes off her bracelets, one by one, then her necklace. Then she
lifts up her skirt all the way and shows him her naked vagina. He
stands, forgets about his knees. He wants to tell her that they do not
need to have sex. But he says nothing.They lie on the bed next to each
other. He reaches for her waist but she moves her hips in a way that
makes it hard for him to hold her. Her hands move expertly over his
body. He wants to tell her that it is not necessary, that he does not want
her for sex, but as a wife. Well, what does that mean? His own logic is
faulty. Something to do with long-term plans, companionship, a future
together. Her chipperness, her ease with this role, her skill (he now
begins to abandon himself to it) suggests to him that she is not as serious
as he is about their future, that she has not thought things through.
Perhaps she doesn’t think much beyond the next day, the next week.
What has he done? Where is he? Who is she?
         She kisses his chest, runs her hands down to his crotch, unbuttons
his pants. While kissing him, she slides him out of his underwear and
giggles, and then she moves down his body. A strange thought gallops
through his head: what if she hurts me? He is naked, she still in her
turquoise dress, looming over him. He watches the top of her head.
Her stray hairs tickle his stomach, his hands, as he tries to pull her up.
“No,” he wants to say,“this is not what I intended,” but he does not say
this, and she waves his hands away and then it is impossible for him to
stop her and then he fills her up and his hands are quiet.
         “I’ll take good care of you,” he says. He is on the verge of tears.
He means it, he means this. “We’ll have a good life.”
         She wipes her lips on a handkerchief that emerges—from where, he
wonders. His release obtained so expertly, he feels rise in his own
throat some ancient guilt that he recognizes only as pure desire. He
desires her, like he has never desired another woman. Not like Liza, not
like any American woman. He loves her. He does.
         She turns over. She kisses him, rests her face on his chest.

                                                                          ~

         Lewis wakes in the middle of the night and watches Sumalee sleep.
He doesn’t want to wake her. He just wants to watch her. She wears
a burgundy lingerie top and a matching set of underwear. The top has
become twisted in her sleep and, because her underwear is low on her
hips-bikini briefs, that’s the word he thinks—her stomach is exposed to
the light radiating from the street. A scar, faded and puckered, is visible
across her lower abdomen. He reaches out to trace it with a finger
and she wakes. Returning from her sleeping world, her first gaze at
him is extraordinary: eyebrows raised, brow furrowed, eyes wide and
pitying, she tilts her head as if she were answering a child’s plaintive
query. An old sadness is released in his throat; he swallows before it
turns to tears.
         “Did you have an operation?” he asks softly.
         She rolls over and giggles. “Operation,” she says.
         A cesarean scar—the puckered keloid line, the placement on the
abdomen—“You had a child!” he says under his breath.
         She stands and lights a cigarette. “No child,” she says.“Operation.”
         “Darling,” he says, and the word shines in his ears. Another possibility
has occurred to him, just-born, magnificent. They will have a
child together. He wants to hold her strong shoulders, envelop her in
his arms. Where is her child now, he wonders? Perhaps it has died?
Oh, the possible sadness of her life!
         “We can consider the possibility of children,” he says, sitting up in
bed.
         She inhales, shrugs, and looks down. “You are nice man,” she says.
         He says, “How about two? Two children? They will be magnificent.
With your hair . . . and my . . . .” He looks down at his body—
has always liked his ass, high, unobtrusive, not too round, not too flat—
“. . .And my ass! Okay, four? Six? Do you like a lot of children? We
can have a lot of children!”
         “You are very nice man.”
         “Are you sad?” he asks. “Don’t be sad.”
         She laughs. “Okay, not sad. Happy with Lewis.” It is the first time
she has said his name. It gives him the shivers. His own name sounds
foreign to him: it has a woody round sound, not the even droning
sound of it in an American accent.

                                                                          ~

         He wakes the next morning to see her emerge from the bathroom
in a towel and flip-flops. As with the first time he met her, her physical
reality is a revelation to him. He watches her iron her clothes for a
few minutes, then he stumbles into the bathroom. She has left false
eyelashes in an open plastic case on the side of the sink. He picks one
up. It is light as air, as nothing. She couldn’t have meant to leave her
eyelashes here, could she? No, she has forgotten them; she has left a
trace of her secret self. How he wants to know about her—everything
about her—all her secret dips and hollows. The wiry black thing lies
in his hand like a stunned insect. He closes his eyes and tries to detect
its miniscule weight, the very atoms that make up its existence. But he
cannot, he cannot feel it without looking at it; he blushes, feeling his
failure as something illicit.
         She is sitting in front of the mirror, fully dressed. He comes up
behind her, turns her around and kisses her. She smells of coconut. She
lets him kiss her, then turns back around. In the mirror, he catches sight
of her eyes without their appendages (he still holds one in his hand);
they look smaller, more close-set and vulnerable. He forgives her her
flaws, all of them. She was an idea first, a chance he gave himself, a transgression
against his principles. He marvels now at her reality. He marvels
at the creation of something from nothing. He thinks: from the
beginning, I loved her. Is this is an effect of having bought her? In purely
financial terms, she is more valuable to him than his own family. But
it is not, he knows, just that. Still, he cannot figure it out. It baffles him.
She is not really beautiful. There is a roughness about her face, her thick
lips, and her distracted eyes that he does not always like. Yet he loves her.
He does. He had not thought about love as part of the deal. In fact, it
was not supposed to be. The idea of a wife came to him without an idea
of love. He mistrusts love, knows it can only lead to disappointment, but
he can’t help it. He does not even want to help it. He feels that his
whole life has been spent in preparation for this moment—to love with
completeness and wildness a person he does not know.
         “You are so real,” he says, handing her the eyelash case.
         She giggles as she takes it. Yes, he was not meant to see it. She bows
her head. “What is ‘real’?” she says.
         He sits on the edge of the unmade bed, thinks for a moment. “It’s
like ‘true.’”
         “Like ‘true love’?” she says. She gets up suddenly, the sweet smell
of her strong in the air, and sits on his lap.
         “What is love in Thai?” he says, holding her around the waist. She
is not light and his knees protest.
         “Rak. This is word meaning ‘love.’”
         She tells him about a movie she once saw. “Man and woman are
‘true love.’ He leave her to go to city, when he returns she is married.
He wait too long. But they have ‘true love,’ so together they kill
woman’s new husband. They drown him, but it is okay, because they
now have true love forever.”
         “That’s not a nice story.”
         She shrugs. “Some men want wife, some men want love.” She gets
up, goes to her purse for another cigarette. “Okay,” she says, taking a
drag. “I will be your wife. I will be good wife.”
         He follows her with his eyes. “But I don’t want a wife, really,” he
says. “I’d rather that you love me.”
         She looks at him then full-on. “If you don’t want wife,why do you
buy wife?”

                                                                          ~

         Sumalee’s giggles and her occasional sharp-sounding laugh make
some turn and stare at the couple: the white man, the Thai bar girl. Not
unusual, they resume their business. It is Sunday and they are walking
in a shopping area known for its newer malls, traversed by highway
overpasses in the shadow of which street vendors have set up shop. The
late-morning Bangkok streets are filled with a lethargic din, the churning,
grinding, and beeping of tuk tuks, the somnolent purring of taxis,
the wheeze of buses. Everywhere Lewis looks, people are buying
things—vegetables, soup, pancakes, batteries, cigarettes.
         Sumalee shakes her hair, smiles grandly. She grips both of Lewis’s
hands in her own.
         She says, “I’m so happy.”
         “Say it,” he says. Say it again.”
         “My handsome sailor,” she says.
         “Who am I?” he says.
         “You are handsome sailor.”
         Her use of the phrase “handsome sailor” embarrassed him at first,
but he is growing to like it. He wonders where she learned it. From
the movies? When he asks her, she shrugs and giggles.
         They stop at the corner and wait for the light to change. Sumalee
is wearing a black miniskirt that shows her legs and tattoo, a tight red
tank top, gold hoop earrings that glint in the sun. Her hair is tied back
in a red ribbon. She wears a bracing shade of red lipstick and black
sunglasses. All her clothes, he has noticed, are cheaply made, but she has
taken care to iron them. He watched her this morning, handling them
so carefully, as if they were made of the finest material. As they cross
the street, people flow around them without touching them.
         At home, Lewis wears respectable clothes,waits at the light patiently,
merges with all the others in midtown flowing to and from their
offices to the lunch-special delis and back to their offices. But here he
stands in opposition to all that. With a bar girl like Sumalee on his arm
in broad daylight, he is an outsider. Not just a foreigner: he represents
the illicit life. So it is. Does Sumalee notice it too? he wonders. The
perimeter of space around them, the circumspect glances? She is not
from Bangkok; she says she’s been here only once. He assumes that it
was with a man. It strikes him that a husband and wife must become
part of each other in a certain way; they must melt together until they
transmit to people one way of living. How will he and Sumalee ever
do that?
         They pass a crowd that has gathered in front of a highway overpass—
people in bright colors, gesturing and staring. “It is elephant,” says
Sumalee, walking faster. An elephant! In the middle of Bangkok! The
elephant’s regal, bony head rises about a quarter of the way to the overpass.
The sound of the cars overhead is magnified into a roar below.
         “Yes,” says Lewis. “An elephant.” Now he recalls reading something
about elephants on Bangkok streets. Refugees from the logging
camps in the north. Disappearing forests. Something like that.
         “Elephant is good luck,” Sumalee says. She smiles apologetically.
“Good luck for the ladies.”
         Closer up, Lewis can see the mahout, the elephant handler, a boy
really, with a pitted face and thick black hair, directing an orderly line
of women. Some women wear skirts, silk shirts and have carefully
coifed hair, others have sallow tired faces and wear T-shirts. In solemn
fashion, a woman will step forward, put some baht in the mahout’s outstretched
hand. The mahout will give her a slice of fruit from the
makeshift table in front of him, and she will offer the fruit to the elephant’s
roaming trunk. While the elephant is busy eating, the woman
will bend over and, with her hands on her knees, timidly or stoically,
perhaps with a grimace and eyes squeezed tight, perhaps with wide eyes
and a shy smile, make her way in mincing steps underneath the elephant’s
belly.
         “Do you want to do it?” Lewis asks.
         She looks at him with sympathy. “For why? Lewis is same like elephant.
Change bad luck to good luck for Sumalee.”

                                                                          ~

         They stop at a café and order iced teas. Sumalee asks for a certain
kind he cannot pronounce, with lychee. It is too sweet for Lewis to
take more than a few sips. She rests her hands on the table, and he
places his hands on hers. They are warm and dry.
         He can feel it. They will become one. They will find a way to
merge their other-side-of-the-world identities. They will find a place
where they can coexist in marriage. The image of her face from the
night before, just awakened, nude and concerned, is still with him. Did
he see love in it?
         Sumalee takes off her sunglasses, places them on the table, then folds
her hands in her lap.
         “One request for Lewis,” she says looking down.
         He marvels at the word request. Her English! And they have not
even been two days together!
         “Yes?” He smiles encouragingly.
         This is Sumalee’s request: She has a cousin who lives in Bangkok,
whom she has not seen in many years. She would like to visit this
cousin before going back to Chiang Mai. “Meet my American husband,”
she says and smiles. “Show Sumalee her good luck.” The request
makes Lewis nervous: he has become attached to this notion of a discrete
time in which the two of them exist only to be consumed by each
other. Still, her request cannot be denied. It is the only one she has
made all weekend.

                                                                          ~

         The cousin’s house is in North Bangkok, about a mile off of the
expressway, in one of the more modest new housing developments. It
is a two-story, pink town house with a terra-cotta roof on a street of
similar houses. A quiet street, far from the downtown shabbiness and
glitziness and hustle. When they step out of the taxi, Lewis has the confused
sense of having been on this street before. There is the familiar
cch cch ccch of sprinklers and that spooky daytime quiet that permeates
housing developments everywhere—the sound of life being lived
indoors.
         They get out of the car and Sumalee checks a piece of paper that
she pulls from her purse. He follows her up the sidewalk. She stops in
front of one of the houses and turns to him. “Stay here, please,” she
says. “I want to give cousin big surprise. My American husband!” She
kisses him quickly.
         “Your cousin doesn’t know? You didn’t say on the phone?” She
had called her cousin from a payphone downtown.
         She shakes her head.“You wait here. Okay? One minute.“
         She goes in through the gate, takes out a key from her purse and
lets herself into the door.
         As he waits, he stares at the fresh tarmac of the wide street. The late
afternoon light drives the shadows of the houses onto one side of the
street. He can see the glint of a pointed, golden wat roof in the distance
beyond the low rooftops of the development. In the softness of the
light, he imagines that he feels the steely determination of this fastmodernizing
city. He watches a bow-legged woman bending over
some flowers in her yard across the street. A young woman with a
short, stylish haircut walks out of one of the houses and climbs into her
car. Sumalee, he thinks, is vastly different from this urban young
woman, driving off to a mall no doubt. How is it that in just a few
days, a woman he barely knows has become so much to him? He is
not a romantic. He abhors romantics.
         He thinks about the cousin, Sumalee’s cousin. He realizes he doesn’t
even know if her cousin is male or female. He had assumed that she
was female, but maybe the cousin is a man. He didn’t ask, did he? Or
did he, and she not tell him? He can’t remember. He will have to be
prepared for either. And how should he introduce himself, he wonders.
As her fiancé? He wishes he knew the Thai word. He wonders if her
cousin might let slip some clues to Sumalee’s past.
         Where is Sumalee, anyway?
         He lets himself in through the gate. He does not want to disturb
them, but he is hot and thirsty. Is it rude to knock? He decides he
doesn’t care. He knocks loudly. There are no sounds of movement
inside. He knocks again.“Sumalee!” he calls. It now occurs to him that
if Sumalee, as she said, has been to Bangkok only once before—if this
is true, then why would she have a key to her cousin’s house? Maybe
her cousin has sent it to her in the mail? Yes, that’s possible.
         The bow-legged woman across the street looks up from her flowers
then looks down again. He moves to the large paned window, cups
his hands around his head and peeks in. He can see only a couch, a rug
and a dark TV set. No lights on. There are some shadows in a room
beyond that could be people. He calls “Sumalee!” again and knocks on
the glass. The shadows do not move. They are too still and angular for
people, anyway. He feels silly. Perhaps they are upstairs? Perhaps something
has happened to the cousin and Sumalee is taking care of her.
But what? And why does she not come to get him? He walks quickly
back across the small concrete yard, where a patch of fallow dirt lies
waiting to be planted. It looks as if no one lives in this house.
         Lewis has a desperate thought: what if she never comes to get him?
Then he has another thought: he paid a lot of money to a businessman
450 miles away he has no reason to trust. He has no phone number,
no contract, no receipt, only a woman who is no longer with him.
How could he be so foolish? He was frightened by the reality of the
transaction, unsure of the legalities; he had been only too ready to let
contractual formalities go. If Sumalee doesn’t return, what recourse
does he have? If he goes back to Chiang Mai will Kris even be there?
         Lewis sits on the steps. If Sumalee doesn’t return by the count of
ten, he thinks, she is not coming back. He counts to ten slowly. It is
growing dark in one corner of the sky and there are no street lights in
the development. The glow of the city, emerging in the purple light,
lies at one end of the street. A swift prick of despair cuts through him.
He begins shaking, with fear and anger, the knowledge of betrayal. He
made an honorable deal. He did, didn’t he?
         But even now, within Lewis’s despair, the beginnings of a new
sensation are forming. He will, not yet, but soon, come to claim the
catastrophe of his failed vision in the same way he takes possession of
the places to which he travels. He will approach this final image of
himself, alone, gypped, lovelorn, too ready to give himself to a woman
who wouldn’t let him love her, with a growing tenderness. He will
begin to colonize—for what end we do not know—his own lost
hopes.

 

Sari Wilson has held a Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center fellowship and a Wallace Stegner creative writing fellowship at Stanford University. Her fiction has appeared in New York Stories, Third Coast, and the anthology The Thing About Second Chances Is . . . . She is at work on a novel and a collection of stories. (10/2004)


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