Reuben and I were at the Siam Mall in Bangkok and I had repeated “silk robes” into a red phone six times.
Reuben’s arms were crossed and he was shaking his head, smirking.
“I am looking for silk robes,” I said again.
“Single rope?” the operator said with her soothing, patient Thai purr.
“Silk robes!” I barked.
“Singha?” she suggested.
I hung up the phone and spun around.
“Mary, we’ve been looking for these damn robes for hours—this is ridiculous.”
“I’m over it,” I said defeated and hungry.
“I mean we can keep looking if you want.”
“No, I’ll look for them next time I’m in Bangkok. Isn’t Thailand like, known for silk?”
“I mean you’re clearly doing something stupid.”
I found out my cousin Joyce was engaged by e-mail. I was at the sleazy internet shop down the street from my house in the village I was living in the south of Thailand. Bam, the owner, was asleep to Bob Marley and a sea of machine guns popping off on every computer screen. I was the only girl in the shop. I didn’t care. The shop was close to my house and it was cheap. At that point—after having lived there for over a year I was over it, worrying about what might be seen as proper and improper. I was over a lot of things.
Bam’s ashtray was filled and a single tendril of smoke was climbing out. When I said, “Ka torkah?” he jolted awake and instinctively looked towards the ashtray. Then he blinked twice. Looked up. Nodded. And he was back in his wits.
“Ten baht,” he said and held out his hand. I was smiling as I fingered through my change purse. Joyce had asked me to be her bridesmaid. Joyce and I were both only children. She was three years older than me and when I was younger I said I liked everything she liked. For years I did this. I have a small extended family and there are only four cousins all together. Joyce was my closest family member. She was my ally.
Anyway, I wanted to get her and Doug Thai silk robes for one of their wedding presents. I was going to get their initials embroidered. I thought it would be funny. Doug was so big and tall and hairy. He was a man man. He freaked me out.
“It’s like, owning a big pit bull or something,” I once said to my mother over the phone. “What if he turns on you? You don’t have a chance.” I laughed, “I like boys my size. I like to be in the same weight category.”
I would cry under my mosquito net with my face pressed into the mildewy pillow. The fan would click slowly in the corner. The fan’s face would rotate from side to side like a slow moving disapproving head, over and over again whispering “No.” The cover of my two-month old Harper’s Magazine that my parents had sent me in a care package would rise up in a wave, settle down and then rise up again.
What was I crying about? I missed everything. What was I crying about? I felt so alone.
Joyce’s wedding was taking shape and my mother would tell me about the details over the phone. I would pace in my front yard barefoot, even though there were snakes and the grandmother next door would walk to my gate and point with exaggerated motions towards her shooed feet with her stick.
“We saw Doug at Uncle Matt’s 60th birthday. He was talking to everyone. But his pants were baggy.”
“Like a homeboy,” my father shouted from the background.
“They don’t say that anymore!” My mom laughed.
I paced back and forth. I listened to it all. I imagined everything.
“You look too thin.” I said that second.
Joyce smiled and I could see her tan foundation cracking on the sides.
“There’s so much planning for the wedding,” she said, “I never have time to eat lunch.”
Joyce’s wedding was in a month. I had come home from Thailand. Abruptly. One day I said I wanted to go home out loud and 36 hours later I was on a plane. I had no idea what I had done. Why I had done it. I was delayed for hours in Tokyo and I thought about running away. But then a waitress came over with sandwiches and sodas and I forgot about it.
My mother had thrown Doug and Joyce a surprise wedding shower. It was the first time I had seen my cousin for years. It was the first time I had seen anyone in my family.
“World traveler,” someone would say and pat me on the back.
“One day you’ll have to tell me all about it,” another would toss out.
Doug gave me a bear hug and then he wouldn’t stop talking.
“It’s just so great to see you, Mary Lorraine. I’m just so glad you’re here. This wedding shit’s killing me. Jesus Christ. You have no idea. I’m so glad you came home. Boy, you went far away. Where was it again? Way over there, right? This wedding. Why aren’t we eloping again?” Doug let out a loud laugh and cracked open a beer. He settled down on the couch next to me in the back of the room. He took a big sip and then kept rattling on.
Joyce was opening the presents on the other side of the room and all the aunts owed and awed.
Doug kept on talking to me but I had stopped listening. I watched Joyce. She was neatly unwrapping each big box. Her mother sat with her legs folded underneath her on the beige carpet below Joyce. She kept a list of who gave what on a yellow legal pad.
I was watching Joyce and I was trying to think back to our last honest conversation. One that was real and not rushed. Then I remembered it. It was a second cousin’s graduation party my senior year of college. Three years ago. We were drunk off of margaritas. Joyce was opening up, I was opening up. So this is the sort of person you’re becoming, I remember thinking that curiously. Pushing her for more. Like pulling back a flower’s petals and seeing the carpel. Here you are, I thought. And then I realized, to my relief, that we were still very much alike.
And then it happened again. Suddenly and for a moment. Joyce broke out of herself and came back to me.
“Come on, come on, show me outside!” Her bony hand squeezed around my wrist and she pulled me out the back French doors. The presents had all been opened. Doug had left to get more cigarettes. The women were eating cake and chatting in circles in the living room.
“You can do it on the grass,” she laughed. I had bragged about a yoga move I had mastered in Thailand.
“Joyce, I can’t! I’m wearing a dress,” I protested, laughing.
“No one is out here! No one will see,” she pointed and flung off her sandals. I followed her. We ran to the azalea bushes. She egged me on.
I threw myself on the ground and did it quickly. Pulled my legs over my head. Brought my feet to the floor above my forehead. My orange dressed spilled over my head, all over the cool grass. She made fun of my old underwear. She got on her back and copied the pose.
“See! I knew I’d be able to do it, too!”
We were lying on our backs when our old aunt came to the back porch and hollered out our names. I turned toward Joyce and put a finger to my lips. We went silent, holding our bellies and rocking side to side on the lawn. Quietly laughing and rolling around like children.
This is why I came home, I thought. Squeezing in my laughter as if it were about to rip through my dress. There were grass stains on my thighs.
Nine days before Joyce’s wedding I was in the woods in Oregon. I hadn’t checked my voicemail for three days and I thought it was about time. There were fourteen new messages.
My mother was crying. “Mary Lorraine,” she wept some more and then said it quickly, “Doug is dead. He’s dead.” Click.
“Mary Lorraine, it’s your father, look call us back as soon as you get this.” Click.
“Joyce found Doug’s body in their basement. He ODed.” Crying. Click.
“Mary Lorraine, the funeral is in three days I’m not sure what you want to do about this. If you want me to get you a flight—”
I was on my knees now. I started crawling on the ground. I dropped the open phone and my hands began to frantically grope at the soil.
The phone kept crying, kept telling me Doug was dead from the dirt. I continued to dig at it like an animal.
The airport in Eugene is small and doesn’t sell coffee. I was sitting on a chair in my gate with my feet pulled up. It was four am.
When I was very young I had a reoccurring nightmare. I was in a station wagon with a family who was not my own. We were driving to the bank. We parked and everyone would get out of the car except for me. I was sitting in the backseat, in the middle, with a tight waist buckle.
“Mary Lorraine,” the mother would ask from her opened door, “would you like us to bring you back a lollipop?”
“Yes,” I told her.
The family would go into the bank but the key would be left in the ignition. I would hear a sound and look up. An invisible force would turn the key slowly and I would be horrified. The engine would start and the car would begin to drive out of the parking lot, then it would accelerate and speed down the streets. I was horrified.
My sobbing would wake me up. Cold, long sobs interupting the night. I was afraid of the car crashing into bits. I was afraid of being alone when it did. I was afraid of not knowing where I was going. It would take a while for the fear to go away, so I could go back to sleep.
When I saw Joyce she was standing by Doug’s open casket. When it was my turn to hug her I don’t know if she realized it was me.
“Thank you for coming,” she managed to get out between sobs. She didn’t hug me for long and she let go of me first. I was surprised. I realized there was a long line behind me and that I had to move. Shortly later she collasped. People rushed over. Her bony, white hands were gripping the side of his coffin, she was pulling herself up with it. Leaning over the side as if it were a ship. “Come back,” she wailed to Doug. “Come back, Come back.” Then she started to scream. No one knew what to do with her. Someone took her away for a while. When she came back she stayed quiet.
I walked to the corner of the funeral parlor. I stood by some purple flowers. I was alone and it was very hard to breath.