I stand on my balcony and watch strangers tend a fire. The thick banana leaves frame them well and they are beautiful, their bodies bent over the small flames. They press against the glowing twigs and scraps of paper with thin metal sticks. They do not speak, but the bleat of the jungle hangs about them. It hums and so do they.
They stand close enough so that their elbows touch. They smile at each other, but mostly watch the fire. It is dark but I’m sure if they wanted to they could see me watching them but they do not look up. If they did, they would see me framed by doorway, framed by the blue glow of a computer screen.
They would see me small and see me lonely.
If they invited me to stand with them I think I’d cry for not knowing what to do.
I am sick
with the wanting
Life is grand and weird
and I no longer fear it
like I used to.
When I think about the past I feel lonely. I feel lonely and small. I feel brittle, like a frozen corpse floating in space. I feel like a pinprick could send me to shatters. I feel like I want to grab my past self and shake him until his blue eyes turn white with knowing. I want to slap him and tell him to make things better. To smile at the people who smile at him and to love the people that love him and to let the light in but I know there is a sonic boom living in his chest and it deafens him. I know the winds howl and reach out for him, I know he lets them pull him lets them drag him into the pit where he will lose himself. I know he cries some nights but mostly just stares at the corners and coaxes the dust. I know he stares at his hands too and wishes they were bigger or that his arms were longer so he could hold himself up but he’s wickless and the wax is cold so nothing burns or thaws him.
The nights are long there and they are deep and sometimes I get lost there and when I think about how lost I can still feel after all this time it’s easy to feel lonely and so small.
is cold and so like
Of all the promised
seeds, so few cracked
I have lost myself
too many times to the calls
of wayward things.
There is an aching
and it hollows
The red gravel road stretches before me. I have in my pockets a book of matches and two old photographs. The sun is a beer-gutted old man tonight and he winks at me. I feel his hot, thin eyelashes against my cheek. I feel his hands on my ass as he bends over his own waist to fish for a shiny nickel he thinks he sees under a table leg. He sinks and slips and the thin-ringed promise of a new moon rises. I step onto the gravel road.
As I walk, I light the matches one by one.
Bangkok days, intro
In Bangkok, I lived on the 9th floor of a hotel called the Krik Thai Mansion. When our program directors emailed us a month before our arrival telling us we’d be staying at a place called the Krik Thai Mansion for orientation, I assumed we’d be staying at some swanky place in the heart of the city. I was on a prestigious government program and figured they’d be sparing no expense to set us up with cushy digs. I envisioned terry-cloth bathrobes and thick down comforters, massive flower arrangements engulfing a spacious lobby. Little did I know that every other hotel, regardless of quality, you walk by in Thailand manages to incorporate one or several of the following words into its name: mansion, orchid, paradise, river, mountain, valley, good, view. It became a running shtick later, as we sat around drinking in random hotel rooms throughout the country, to come up with ridiculous hotel names (Orchid Valley River Paradise or River Mountain Good View). We’d laugh especially hard if, upon further research, these hotels turned out to be real. Many of them were.
The Krik Thai Mansion, then, is no mansion, but rather a large, simple, cement box of a building located on the edge of the Silom shopping district. It faces Rama 1, a major road that cuts east through much of touristy Bangkok. Running above the road is the BTS sky train, an above ground rail system with two lines that extend as far as the Chatuchak weekend market to the north and to the Chao Phraya river to the west, from whose banks ferries shuttle large groups of tourists to wonder at the golden temples Wat Arun and Wat Pho. Across from the Mansion on the opposite side of Rama 1 lies National Stadium, a collection of buildings and fields where groups of high school students gather to play football and practice cheer routines in the steamy heat left over from afternoon thunderstorms. We’d see them on our way back from Chulalongkorn University, where we took classes on Thai language and culture. The students would stare at us and we would stare at them, both groups perhaps thinking the other strange and foreign. There was no secret to the way we took each other in, but still it left me feeling unsettled, as if I were both the fish in the bowl and the person outside the bowl tapping fervently upon the glass.
Down the road from the mansion and National stadium sprawls the major complexes of the Silom shopping area: MBK mall and Siam Paragon. MBK, within spitting distance of the mansion, is a typical mall with a variety of stores, bowling alleys and a Cineplex. To its food court we were again and again directed when asking for food suggestions and so again and again we bent over plates of Pad Thai on the always full fifth floor MBK Food court, feeling comforted but a bit disappointed in our lack of innovation or adventure. It was in the Starbucks on the second floor of the mall where I would spend my Sunday mornings drinking coffee, reading books and, generally, feeling sorry for myself. To have travelled this far and to find such solace in a Starbucks made me feel small, yet it was a routine that stuck throughout my time in Bangkok and helped me to shake some of the blue out of my soul.
Further on Rama 1, away from the mansion and the cheerleaders and MBK, sits the Siam Complex, a collection of malls and other venues full of luxury cars, luxury clothes, luxury food and beautiful luxury people. One of the most instagrammed places in the world, the main mall in the complex, Siam Paragon, is the great lantern of the capital, attracting farang tourists and Thai alike to bask in its expensive fluorescence. To walk on these streets is to feel like every movement is a pull, an invisible tug—one moves through Silom like a moth, drawn without much thought to the light of store-front windows or the pulsing pink neon of a movie marquee.
For that first month in Bangkok, I, too, moved like a moth. Because of its newness, everything seemed to roar: the tuk-tuk engines, the aromas of grilled pork and fish, the lights of the football field at National Stadium. When I would make an excursion out of the mansion, I never really had a purpose unless I was going to Chula for one of our orientation classes or trying to scrounge up some cheap eats from the 7/11 or a nearby food stand. Often, I’d step into the current of the roar and let it sweep me up and drag me wherever it wanted. I’d follow the sound of a guitar down an alleyway or the clamor of people disembarking the water taxi along the river. I was desperate to figure out the geography of this new life and thought it best to navigate it with my eyes, my nose, my reaching hands.
The last time I’d lived in a foreign country was during my college semester abroad in Madrid. Then, the roar had crashed into me much the same, but I came equipped with the language, with a meek and rudimentary understanding of Spanish history, music and art. I found my rhythm on the cobblestone streets quickly enough and was able to read maps and maneuver my way around swindlers and prostitutes within a matter of weeks. There was a certain boldness to the impermanent nature of the program—whatever mistakes I made would matter little in four months’ time, when I’d hop on a plane and cross the Atlantic and land safely in the bosom of my wintery college home. Madrid was not a life in as much as it was a detour, an electric dance with a stranger whose midnight hands slipped out of my own at dawn. An imprint on the heart, but one whose pressure, though significant, was light.
As I walked the streets of Bangkok, I realized that whatever imprint Thailand would leave on me, it would not be light. I’d knowingly (willingly, enthusiastically) agreed to work and live in Thailand for a year, a time that felt, and still feels, both long and short. Short in that, in the grand mysterious timeline of my life, one year was nothing, a single thread in the tapestry, a small slice of the pie, a miniscule part of some other comforting cliché. Short in that the months would be easy to count down. Short in that I wouldn’t have enough time to acquire fluency in Thai. Short in the ironic truism of leaving a place right as one is beginning to feel at home there. But long in missing Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s, Homecoming, Easter, countless birthdays, concerts, gay pride parades, graduations and hundreds of other unknown things. Long in longing. Long in the dull gnaw of homesickness. But also long with travel, long with getting to experience the rich diversity of this country, long with discovery.
Such were my thoughts as I stood on the 9th floor of the mansion staring at the BTS train as it pummeled right outside our hallway’s window. I’d watch the train and think about time and re-convince myself that I’d made the right decision to come to Thailand. When I wasn’t actively engaged in conversation with one of the other teachers or miming interest and attention at one of our classes, I would lose myself in an endless cycle of mental pep-talks: You committed to doing this, there’s no turning back now! It’s only a year, you’ll be back home in no time! It’s a year, think of all the things you’ll get to see! I was never fully swayed by any of my mind’s best intentions, but learned to settle into the gray uncertainty of my decisions and find some semblance of peace there with which I lived my Bangkok days.