When I left for Southeast Asia I was 25. I told everyone– and I really thought this– that I would stay in Thailand for two years teaching English and then I would return home and figure out my life. But I got sidetracked.
I met Goi. That was probably a bigger part of it then I care to admit.
How did I meet her? In Bangkok. At a snake show. I mean, a show where they show you snakes. This was right when that movie Snakes On A Planes was coming out. The host of the show with this giant yellow snake wrapped around his arm, was saying how producers contacted him to ask questions about snakes. I don’t think I believe that. But I laughed. And so did Goi, she was sitting in the row in front of me with her girlfriends. That’s when I noticed her. I pointed her out to my buddy, Q. After the show Q egged me on and I went up to them. Q followed me.
See, these girls over there, they’re are all bones and skin with long black silky hair. Beautiful. Even the girls who aren’t beautiful are beautiful. They have this look about them like they are keeping a dirty secret. They are always giggling. But in a way that’s– that’s not how American girls giggle, how they make you feel like clueless jackasses– these girls giggles are just. Adorable.
So Goi and her group are giggling when we approach them and at this point I’ve been there for well over three years so my Thai is pretty tight. The girls in Bangkok, they’re pretty Westernized, it’s not like village girls. They go out to bars and clubs with their girlfriends and they aren’t seen as whores, they just go to have fun. That’s not how it is in the villages. Girls have a lot more freedom in Bangkok. So Q and I invite them to London Bar that evening and they say maybe, maybe. But I had this feeling they would come. I was right about that because Goi and her two friends did show up. All giggles and short denim skirts and everything. And Goi and I just hit it off. And after that night, bam, together for years.
Yes, for a while I really did think I’d marry Goi. Her family lived in a village 14 hours south of Bangkok, in Trung. We took the overnight bus down there twice. I didn’t feel guilty about going because at the time, like I said, I thought I would marry her. If I didn’t think that of course I wouldn’t go. It wouldn’t have been fair to her or her family. I know that. I feel bad now, knowing what I know. I think about how that might have affected her, with her neighbors and all. In the villages, for her to bring me there, show me around, this white man from Bangkok– any man really. And then just having me disappear. That’s the sort of thing that makes the neighbors think you’re a whore. And that’s a hard stigma for girls to have to carry around.
She loved the dumpster cats by her parents’ house. She really liked animals, but these dumpster cats, she told me about them on the bus ride down the first time. She said all the grandmothers on the lane sit around all day and chew beetle nut and watch the babies. Their faces are slapped with while talcum powder to keep cool, so are the babies. After breakfast and dinner they will scrap their rice scraps out on the streets by the trash cans where the dumpster cats eat. Goi told me about when she was younger how the boy who lived in her neighborhood who was always up to trouble, he was speeding down the lane on his motorbike– drunk off whiskey– and somehow decapitated one of the cats.
First I heard a pop, she said. And then the boy crashed his motorbike so she heard all that. Everyone ran outside because everyone heard it; everyone keeps their windows and doors open all the time. Goi saw it right away. I can imagine this. I can imagine Goi as a child. Scrawny with her hair cut short to her ears and straight across bangs. Wearing an oversized t-shirt with a cartoon character and flip flops. The motorbike’s lights are still on, illuminating that dead cat’s head and body and she cries out then quickly covers her open mouth. Her lane rests at the bottom of a cliff that juts out from the ground. The moon is bright above the cliff. The boy wipes off his jeans, spits, tries to walk straight.
Goi said the grandmothers hurried to the cat first, saw that it was dead and then swooped in fast on the boy. Yelling like an angry bunch of crows. Hitting him with their fans. Spitting beetle nut on him. The grandmothers owned that lane.
I don’t know, I guess I started to freak out a bit. It’s both easy and hard to be away like that. I was there for 6 years. I didn’t leave Goi for any good reason. It’s just that all of a sudden Thailand started to make me feel claustrophobic when it used to make me feel open. Being away, it can make you feel like you have all these lives that you can pick from. You can be away, or you can go home, or you go some place else. But it started to creep in, the roots, it felt like they were fingering into that dry, hot soil all around me. Goi and I were talking about buying our apartment in Bangkok, my teaching job at the university was secure, I know she was expecting me to propose. What unnerved me was how Thailand was becoming my only life. I couldn’t explain that properly to Goi. So I never really told her why I was going home. I know that’s bad. I know.
But this is the crazy thing. This is what I’ve been trying to tell you the whole time. What I saw yesterday. I’ve been home here, in New York, for the past two months. Going around seeing family, seeing my new nephew and a new niece. Seeing friends who have kids and wives. It’s strange but I go around, try to figure things out. But yesterday, that snow storm that just came down. It was the first time I had seen snow in 6 years, so I’m ecstatic. I’m like a 10 year old. And I’m with my old buddy, Jerry, and his new wife Susan. And Susan goes, well why don’t we take a walk through Central Park because it’s not coming down that hard and the snow is stuck on the trees and it’s lovely. The city was still with the snow and so was the park. We turn into the park from 67th and then right away we see the man who was struck by the fallen tree. A large branch was lying by his head and there was the nearly perfect halo of blood just weaving out steadily into the snow. A cross country skier saw him from the other side at the same time we did. His face was hard to look at but the blood was something else. I know that’s morbid. Jerry runs up to him. He pulls off his mitten and feels for a pulse on the man’s neck. Susan is calling 911. The cross country skier is out of his skies crouching by the dead man with Jerry. There is no one else in the park, it feels like there is no one else in the city. All of the trees are heavy with white snow and the quietness feels like a weight. I forgot how snow can do this, how it can make everything look so different and so strange.