Sunday, February 28, 2010

6) St. Gabriel's

All alone and with my many bags about me, I enter the Holy Ghost-like silence of St. Gabriel’s. No electric lights are on but a skylight casts grey beams upon the mini jungle and bubbling stream in the center of the lobby. A few uncomfortable-looking couches separated by a low table wait in vain for occupants. Aside from the security guard who got up from his folding chair to nod at my driver, I haven’t seen another living soul. What the hell is going on here? I wonder. What is this place and what am I doing in it?

Artificial light emanates from a window in a wood-paneled wall, and I go to it, knocking hesitantly upon the glass. Cool air strikes my face as a small Thai girl slides it open. I crouch down in order to get my head level with hers, and tell her I have a room booked for tonight. She gives me a key, and a bill.

“But didn’t Fun English pay?” I ask her, my habitual money anxiety bubbling my blood, making my face flush. The girl smiles and turns her head, searching vaguely behind her. She seems not to understand.

“The people who booked the room,” I try again, “they told me they would pay.” She continues to smile but shakes her head, bowing towards me a couple of times, saying nothing. I give up and get out my wallet, pay in cash and make sure to get a receipt; Fun English did say they would put me up tonight, and I intend to hold them to it. Thailand isn’t the most lucrative place to teach, and since the company didn’t pay for my flight, I’m in the red so far on this job.

I take an empty elevator to a deserted floor. When I step into my room, all my anxiety seems to fall away. I can’t help but laugh out loud, the sound echoing through the long corridor past the open door behind me. “Oh God, you are a funny thing,” I say.

I come into the room and drop my backpack on the cold white bed, the sheets pulled hospital tight over the corners. On one wall is a portrait of Jesus’s face, his long brown hair in waves about his white cheeks. A large, wooden crucifix hangs on the wall between the two single beds and a brown copy of the King James Bible rests on the nightstand. I laugh because I may as well be at my Catholic grandparents' house in Minnesota. An old friend gave me her ancient Lonely Planet Thailand before I left, and I read that to understand Thailand you must know it as a Buddhist country. I have been reading about Buddhism in preparation for my trip, because I would like to understand. But here in my small, sterile room I see only familiar religious iconography, nary a Buddha or mandala to be found. I’m at a bit of a loss.

At a payphone in the lobby I call my mother to let her know I’ve arrived safely. She was raised Catholic, switched to Lutheran when she married my dad, and now sleeps late on Sundays, though she still advises prayer in time of trouble. She’s glad to hear from me and, I suspect, downright jolly about the fact that I’m staying in a monastery, or whatever it is.

“Maybe they thought you’d be more comfortable there because you’re an American,” my mother says.

“Maybe,” I say, but I doubt it. Jesus on my wall does make me feel “at home” in a way, but it doesn’t make me comfortable.

It used to, once. I ride back up to my room in the elevator alone and try to wrap my head around just what happened between me and Jesus. I was raised Lutheran. I did the whole thing - baptism, communion, confirmation. Some of my friends did it only to appease their parents, but I was always happy to participate. Even though I haven’t gone to church much since junior high, I’ve always held a place for God, and there was a time during college when I loved to talk about Jesus whenever I was drunk. “He hung out with tax collectors and prostitutes,” I’d tell my equally drunk, agnostic friends. “He said ‘Judge not, lest you be judged.’ He said, ‘Love your neighbors as yourself.’” He preached non-violence, patience, and loving kindness, and I was and still am a believer in all of that. There’s nothing wrong with any of that.

I come into my room and lay down on my bed. My stomach rumbles in hunger and I roll back and forth on my back on the bed. Wanting direction, I think maybe I should pick up the Bible, but I don’t want to feel bad. I’ve read the Bible; it can make you feel bad. I want to love God but I have too many questions. If I can’t understand my own religion, how do I expect to understand another culture’s?

I stand up, go to the window and look out at the backsides of buildings and rows of hanging laundry. The sun shines now and the palm trees and the bougainvillea wave in a slight breeze. Raindrops sparkle like gems on the shiny leaves. I will go out. I am scared to go out but that is what I came here to do, to see and be, not sit alone, at least not in a Catholic monastery.

I shower. The shower head is in the bathroom, but there is no separate stall for it. It hangs on the wall next to the toilet and the sink and I wash there with the water spraying everything. There are rectangular open windows along the tops of the walls, I suppose so it can air out and not grow mold. It smells dank and damp but not terrible. It's good to wash and I’m surprised at how much better I feel afterwards, normal, in control of myself and my destiny. Am I a sinner? I ask myself. Yes, but a clean one, I answer. I am a clean, pretty girl who is working on it, who is trying her best.

I don a short purple polo dress and put my wet hair in a braid. I do my mascara and eyeliner, which I never leave home without, grab my purse and the key and go out again. I walk down the stairs and out the door and into the sunshine without passing anyone.

I step out into the road and am nearly run over by a motorbike. The driver, wearing a helmet and an orange vest with white Thai letters on the back, makes no indication that he’s seen me, just speeds on and turns the corner, leaving me standing clutching my throat and my chest in terror. I look around, wondering which way to go, which will be safe, but I see no sidewalk on either side of the tiny road. I know that the bigger road lies to the left, but I have always been a back-road kind of girl, and so I turn right.

I walk along, passing a wooden kindergarten with a multicolored sign, a bakery, and some other nondescript buildings without signs. The air is slightly smoggy, and every now and then a car or motorbike passes and I have to hug the side of the road to avoid being hit. No one looks at me twice.

Sometimes the wind blows so that I can smell the flowers in the air, but sometimes it wafts another smell, noxious and terrible, worse than anything I’ve smelled in my life. I thought New York smelled bad, its subways reeking of urine, but this stench is so strong it makes me stop in my tracks, my hand automatically lifting to cover nose and mouth. I can’t place it and, thank God, it’s gone again in a moment.

I pass a street cart selling food but I don’t know what it is so I keep going. I want Thai food and I know it’s safe to eat from street carts (my friends who studied here have told me so) but I don’t see anything I recognize and I don’t speak Thai and I don’t know what to say to order. Then I see a person laying face down on the side of the road.

Coming closer, I see that it is a man, a white man with bright red hair and pale freckled cheeks. He lies outside of a black metal fence, his legs hooked back behind him as if be tangled in the fence. His face rests on one of his hands and the other is splayed out beside him, in danger of being run over by an errant motorbike wheel. I approach slowly, butterflies shooting into my already tense belly. I remember passing similar men on the streets of Brooklyn, Manhattan, people either sleeping or dead. If he’s dead, what help can I give him? I reason now, as I did then. If he’s sleeping and I wake him, will he attack me? Will he expect me to take care of him? Touch his soiled body with my hands, lift him to his feet, call someone, take him home? I am here alone. It is just me and the white man sleeping in the gutter.

I turn around, walking faster now, back towards St. Gabriel’s and Tong Lor, the major road. My heart flaps about inside my chest and I know it’s looking for something to replace the certainty I once had in prayers murmured in the dark, when my mother and father fought down the hall and things bumped into walls, chairs screeched across floors, in the middle of the night police showed up at our door. Will the police show up here? What will they do with the farang (white person) in the street? I wish I could pray to God but His way just seems too narrow now that I know the width of the world. Christians can’t be the only ones who’ve gotten it right. It doesn’t seem right. Nothing seems right.

The bad smell comes back as I turn onto the big road, the “high street” they’d call it in England. Here are people, shops, cafes, Thai girls in short skirts and heels, Thai men in suits and ties, farangs in shorts and t-shirts and flip flops, hordes of orange-vested motorbike men clumped together around street corners. Passing Western people I smile but they do not look at me. Incense mixed with black smoke floats up from street carts selling meat on sticks, whole barbecued fish, brooms, Chinese trinkets, ice cream, balloons. Cars and bikes stream past in the wide street without intersections. I would like to cross but there are no lights, no crosswalks. A restaurant with a sign in English – Little Home Bakery – has their menu on the door, Thai food and Western food, at reasonable prices.

A bell tinkles as I walk in and a blast of air conditioning brings goose bumps to my fair skin. A pot-bellied man in a wrinkled yellow shirt and white apron picks up a menu, nods and seats me at a booth next to the window. Here they have a picture of the King and Queen on the wall, a shelf with a collection of Buddha statues and offerings in the corner. I am given ice water and the menu and the waiter smiles, patient and unworried by my hesitation. I order green curry, because that is what I came for, and I open my notebook on the table in front of me and, with my face in the sun, I begin to write. It doesn’t matter what I write, I tell myself. It doesn’t matter that I write, I add. I do it now because I want to, and that is good enough. I didn’t help the dead/sleeping man in the street, but I am doing my best. Not worrying what I write, or about the dead man I don’t know, that is a start. That is something - not to worry. That is something I want.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

5) Welcome to Thailand

I leave New York from stinky, crumbly old JFK, and I am happy to say good riddance for now. I board the plane and sleep until Seoul, South Korea. The airport here is newer, cleaner. The toilet stalls have signs on the backs of the doors that show a stick figure squatting on a toilet seat with an X through it. I am too tired to think much about this. I have a six hour layover – not long enough to go out, yet too long to sit and wait. I manage to get internet through my aging Dell laptop and feel proud of myself; I am certainly cut out for international living.

My gate is in a great, cavernous hall half constructed of bricks, part painted and part not. I doze nearby in an uncomfortable chair, waking off and on. An Asian woman next to me says hello. I don’t know if she is Thai or not; I don’t have any idea what Thai people look like, other than “Asian.” She asks if it is my first time to Thailand and I tell her yes.

“Awww!” she giggles with seemingly undue excitement. She is an adult woman with Winnie the Pooh on her t-shirt. “So good, na! Me Thailand, people. Fra Koh Samui.” Or something like that. It’s all an accented jumble and I haven’t slept well and it’s 5 am. I don’t know much about Thailand, but I do know that Koh means island, so I’m interested, keep talking. She tells me her name is Meow. I find it hard to believe that but after she repeats it a few times I have to accept that her name is Meow. She shows me a Disney Princess backpack and another with the characters from Toy Story on it she bought on her trip to New York.

“Very nice,” I say, and as she attempts to explain to me the relationship between herself and the recipients of these gifts, I wonder if Meow's English is better or worse than other Thai people's: I'm hoping it's worse.

“Yes! They love!” she says. “New York it beautiful, right? Very nice home!” she chucks me on the arm and my mouth opens in wonder as I smile back at her; I don’t know what to make of her but am charmed nonetheless. My first Thai person, what fun! That "land of smiles" thing is true, at least if Meow is representative.

“Thank you,” I say, “I like it too. How about Koh Samui? Much warmer, right?”

Hot! she laughs. She tells me her sister runs a hotel there, that her family has lived there for years, that she works at a big chain hotel, that her sister’s hotel is better. “Cheap!” she says, “Very nice. Beautiful! Beach, sun… You visit me?”

“Um… sure, I mean, I’ll probably go to Koh Samui. Yeah,” I say.

“You stay me?” Meow says. “Stay my home, my sister home. You no pay! You have email?”

Though I doubt very much that I will connect with her after this I cannot say no to such an offer, so we exchange emails. Our flight begins boarding and Meow tells me to wait for her in Bangkok; she will help me find my hotel, she says. I mumble some kind of ascent, feeling flabbergasted, my cheeks worn out from smiling. I grab my computer bag and my purse, weighted down with novels, and make for the gate.


Perhaps I am so nervous that I’ve reached my threshold for nervousness and moved on to a state of denial without realizing it, because I don’t feel anxious at all. I attribute my composure to the fact that I am a New Yorker now. I am all business in an airport. I know exactly what I’m doing and I do it quickly, efficiently: restroom, customs, baggage claim, taxi. Check check check!

I wait for Meow for a few minutes but don’t see her so I keep going. Though I am constantly moving and, I hope, not looking like a tourist, I keep my eyes open. The airport in Bangkok is extremely modern, all shiny silver and glass, like a space ship. Palm trees and flowers groomed into elaborate shapes dot the landscape. I find a silver luggage cart and haul my bags outside, into the public taxi line. As I walk I am not surprised to hear the calls of “Taxi? Where you go?” from men loitering at the airport exit. These private town car guys are everywhere you go, but a metered taxi is always cheaper. I almost never bother with busses or shuttles from airports; the ease of a cab ride is worth the exorbitant fare. I shake my head at the private taxi men and set my lips in a frown to deter the offers, just as I do back home. But then I hear something different.

“Helloo? Sir? Where you go? Sir? You want taxi?”

Did he just call me Sir? I know I don’t look very good; I’m wearing my glasses and my hair is in a greasy ponytail. My jeans are too big and my brown linen shirt is all mussed and lopsided, but still! I’m obviously female; why on Earth would he call me Sir? If I wasn’t worried about being solicited I would stop to ask. Instead I raise my chin and keep walking, settling my shoulders away from my ears and down my back like I’m learning to do in yoga class, letting the Sirs sputter and fall short behind me. Calm as water over moss grown stones, I remind myself, for this is my goal. No more anger; no more cynicism. Now is the time for softness, lotus buds and orchids, blue skies and swimming pools.

I begin to sweat as soon as I leave the building. The taxi line is at street level of a many-tiered parking garage so I can’t see the sun yet, but I can feel it. Everything smells and looks normal, big and busy, like New York. I don’t really feel that much like I’m in a foreign country, except that I don’t know where I’m going and don’t speak the language.

Sweat drips down my back and tickles in a cool, refreshing way. I know that it’s going to be hot in Bangkok all year long, but it’s hard to believe. I didn’t bring a coat but I do have a few sweaters, some jeans, just in case. What will it be like not to wear a winter coat all year long? How does it feel never to see the grass die? Will I be happier without winter? Will my soul blossom with endless summer sun? Of course not all the time, of course. But maybe more. Maybe more than it does now?

It is my turn for the taxi. I hold a piece of paper with the address of the hotel Fun English is putting me up at tonight in my hand. But when I see the skinny little woman at the taxi stand, her thin lips and narrow eyes, I don't know what to say.

“It’s ah, Tong Lor? Soi 13? Soi 13 Tong Lor.” I don’t know if I’m pronouncing it correctly or if I should just hand the woman and her seated male sidekick in an electric yellow poncho my paper. Can they read English? But before I can think any more about it the woman rips the paper from my hand and scribbles something in Thai in a yellow notepad, and passes that to the man next to her. He hands it to another Thai man who smiles at me and makes for my bags.

The woman is already staring at her next customer with the same disinterested gaze when I turn to find my driver. He takes my bags and I follow him to the parking lot across the street in front of us, full of parked cars in every color. He opens the trunk of a kelly green taxi and puts my bags inside. Pink, blue, orange, yellow, red taxis! I am smiling now; now I am in a foreign country. And I have a happy, smiley little man to drive me.

I let the driver take care of my bags and get into the front seat. This is not done in New York but there isn’t a dividing wall between the front and back seats of this car, and I want the best vantage point for my first drive in to Bangkok. The driver settles himself beside me and off we go. To Tong Lor, soi 13, and St. Gabriel’s Academy, which is supposed to be my hotel. I don’t know what to make of the name but that’s what Thitiwat wrote in his email, so all I can do is trust it. Letting go, that’s what it’s about. Right? I'm in Thailand. I'm alone in Thailand!

As we speed along the highway I gaze out the window, straining to see the exotic land I’ve come to find. So far, nothing much is out of the ordinary. The cars are just as new as those in America; the highway just as wide. What can you expect from a highway, really? The sky is gray outside our windows. Rain starts to fall. I knew that it would be the rainy season here, but I did not bring an umbrella. I lost my last one a few weeks ago, drunk at a cookbook release party on the Lower East Side.

“Nam!” the cabdriver shouts over the din of the air conditioner, and the rough sound of his voice shocks me so much I nearly snap my neck. He has been talking this whole time, and I’ve been smiling and nodding back as though to a crazy person or a child, since I had no idea what he was saying. Now I look right at him. The driver takes a hand off the wheel. He gathers my eyes with his own and flings them toward the glass. “Fon toe!” he says. “Nam, na? Loo mai?”

“I’m sorry. I don’t speak Thai,” I say, shaking my head. I feel bad; he obviously wants to talk, shouldn’t I know something to say in Thai? Then I remember the pod cast I listened to on itunes while cutting and pasting photos of fucking cookies.

“Sabai di mai?” I say, not at all sure I have the tone right. I’m fairly tone deaf so probably not. I’ve read that some words in Thai can have as many as five different meanings depending on the tone. Hey, I didn't move here because I wanted to learn to speak Thai. Likely, it will just be a byproduct.

Luckily I don’t have a moment to wonder if I’ve accidentally said something vulgar or rude. The cabbie immediately cracks up with laughter at me asking him how he is (Literally: Are you fine?). He hoots and guffaws and smacks the rubber covering of his steering wheel with the palm of his hand. Outside a truck rumbles by, splashing the taxi with a spray of dirty water.

“Sabai di, crap!” the cabbie says. “I am fine, thank you!”

I smile, happy to please. I think that this will be enough, that the man will leave me alone now to contemplate this great journey and take in my new surroundings in peace, but he’s excited. He points out the window again.

“Nam,” he says. It sounds like the American way of abbreviating Vietnam, and I cringe. Everywhere you go, I think, somebody wants to tell you how things ought to be. Like that arrogant Swiss man who followed me around a nightclub in Denmark just to rant about America’s foreign policy. Is that what’s going on here? Or maybe he’s trying to say he’s from Vietnam?

“Nam,” the cabbie repeats. “Nam, nam!” He’s getting frustrated. He pokes his finger at the window where it clunks against the glass.

“Rain?” I ask. He shakes his head and waves his hands in front of his face, exasperated. Muttering to himself, he speeds around another car to exit the highway.
When we are on the next road the cabbie throws his head back and cups one hand like a C in front of his face, as though drinking from a glass. Finally, I understand.

“Ahhhh!” I exclaim. “Water! Nam means water!” His eyes tell me that I’m right but my pronunciation or tone must be off because he makes me continue repeating nam over and over again. I can’t hear any difference between the way I say it and how he does, and after a few minutes of this repetition I grow annoyed and fall silent.

We continue driving, forty-five minutes. We are in town now and every single lane is clogged with traffic. Motorbikes scoot through the lanes between the stalled cars and trucks. The drivers wear cheap-looking rubber flip flops and many of the motorbikes carry entire families – mom, dad, brothers, sister, and a baby standing up in front, holding on to the handlebars. Clearly, this would never happen in America, but instead of that making me feel superior or scared or worried about these families, it makes me feel giddy, free. Maybe life is cheap here, or people just aren’t as worried. Maybe life just isn’t so goddamn sacred as we make it out to be. Maybe they understand that. Something to do with reincarnation, perhaps? No sacred blood shed for them but their own. I bet they don't have that many lawyers here.

There are plenty of sights that confirm my suspicions of a lack of litigiousness in Bangkok. Power lines hang in tangled nests of black rope over poles, frighteningly close to sidewalks, streets, parking lots spread with gravel and covered with eating carts. Buildings seem equally mixed between new and old, glass skyscrapers and concrete shop houses. Construction crews bang, pound, drill everywhere, and I have to admit I’m surprised and, okay, a little worried, by construction workers without helmets, wearing only jeans, t-shirts and rubber flip flops. Those using welders do not wear goggles. They climb bamboo scaffolding and carry heavy-looking bags of sand and rocks without close-toed shoes. It's hard to miss; construction sites are everywhere and more construction crews are piled into the backs of trucks with wooden planks covering the sides but not the back, so that some people spill out and practically hang off the bumper. All the construction men and women wear the same color of baggy t-shirt, so it’s nearly impossible to determine their gender. Some look out blankly from where they sit, others sleep. Yet another occupational hazard, a fatigue so great you can sleep in the back of a packed truck, in the middle of a hot, rainy, fumy Bangkok traffic jam.

We drive over canals of grey brown water, under raised highways and over bridges. The city blurs in a colorful wet fog before my eyes and I feel like if I blink I might miss something I'll never see again. We turn onto a smaller street, and then an alley. Concrete walls on one side close us in a burst of pink bougainvillea.

“Ah ni?” the cab driver says, stopping in front of an unusually square brick building. “Sir?”

“St. Gabriel’s?” I say, staring out at the ugly building. The cabbie points to the gold lettering on the side of the wall, where it does bear that name in English and what I assume must be Thai. He swings the car into the driveway, following the road over a hump and then down, under the building and into a parking garage. I see no one outside or through the open entryway. What the hell kind of hotel is this? I wonder. Is this even a hotel? And what will I do if it’s not?

Open heart, I say to myself, trying to push aside my disappointment. Adventure, oddity, discomfort, that’s what it’s all about. I count out one hundred and fifty baht - less than $10 - and hop out of the cab. As soon as I step out into the humid air again, I start sweating.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

4) Fung Wah

Unfortunately, wonderful weekend journeys usually end the same way they begin for me - on a bus. This time, it’s the Fung Wah. As any young, broke New Yorker or Bostonite can tell you, the Fung Wah is the cheapest, easiest way to travel between the two cities - $15 one way and it runs every hour. Despite persistent rumors about busses catching fire on the expressway, every Fung Wah bus is packed, and today is no exception.

My things are spread out on the seat next to me - magazines, a banana, a plum. The hope, of course, is that this will deter anyone from sitting there. But no.

“Excuse me, do you mind if I sit here?” The voice comes from over my head, and my first inclination, after two years in New York, is to roll my eyes. I start in with my customary disgust but find myself starting to smile even as I turn my head to look up. The voice has such a disarming gentleness to it, an easy friendliness so uncommon it’s almost foreign, and yet familiar, somehow, too. When my eyes meet the man attached to the voice I smile against my better judgment, and look down again quickly. I nod at his request, and gather my things.

He is a tall, thin, hollow-cheeked white boy, about my age, wearing a maroon t-shirt, jeans, and a black baseball cap just a little too big for him. His eyes are even more striking than his voice - green and deep-set in dark circles in his greasy face. He looks tired and dirty, and I wonder if he spent the weekend partying, maybe popping pills. We keep looking at each other and I think of my ex; he had pretty eyes too, but not like this. This boy’s eyes are soft and bright, like moss under water. But there is forlornness there too, the color of deep bruises,the tenderness of skin. I think about someone hitting someone else I loved a long, long time ago.

The boy looks at me so intently that I have to look away. He reminds me of someone I know. Not anyone specific, just the type of person who might be a friend of mine, an amusing acquaintance. I feel okay about him sitting beside me, even though I know he’s going to start speaking at any moment and that once he begins it is unlikely he will stop. I hesitate, wondering if I should give him an opening or turn my back, but I remind myself of my new goal of being more open. I’ve decided that living in New York has made me angry, hostile, short-tempered – a harsher version of how I’ve always been, and I’ve resolved to change things.

“Wow, Boston is such a great city,” the boy says. “I was just visiting a friend from college.”

“So was I,” I say, but I keep my eyes away from him, out the window, looking at the cars in the parking garage of South Station. They boy says he spent most of the weekend in bars. He’s lived in New York for one year, he says. He says he likes tall buildings and I laugh, not knowing if that's the reaction he was going for.

The bus lurches forward, signaling the start of our four and a half hour journey. The boy does not appear to have anything with him - no books, no magazines, no iPod. I start to regret my friendly demeanor, then rebuke myself.

Emily, I say, you are leaving New York for a reason. Remember how you used to speak to people you didn’t know? Remember chit chat, small talk, pleasantries with strangers? Recall your own damned roots, woman! You are from Iowa, for God sakes. Now shoot the shit with this nice young man.

“If you like tall buildings,” I say, “I guess you moved to the right place.”

So, now, we are talking. His name is Richard, Rich.

“Yup,” he says as he stretches himself out in the seat. “I’m just a poor medical student, so I gotta take the Fung Wah.”

I’m surprised at myself, the way this statement makes my ears perk up, like I can hear gold tinkling in my lobes.

“I work at a fancy magazine,” I tell him, “but I still have to take the Fung Wah.”

He asks which magazine and I tell him, the usual mixture of shame and pride rising with heat to my face. But fuck all of that. Why dwell on the present? There are far more interesting things about me, and that’s what I’m focused on now.

“Actually,” I say, “I’m moving to Thailand.”

I start to giggle to myself as I have been doing constantly since making my bold decision. I tell Rich how I haven’t given my notice at work yet, but that I’m moving to Bangkok, Thailand at the end of August, to teach children to speak English.

“That’s great!” Rich says. “Wow! Gosh, that sounds like so much fun!”

I feel a little silly after sharing my plans with this complete stranger, so I turn my face towards the windows and watch the green hills of Massachusetts pass by. There is too much traffic and our bus can do no better than inch along.

I open a magazine and give Rich Women’s Health to keep him occupied, but as soon as his face turns down to look at pictures of women fitter than I, I find that I still want to talk.

“Where did you come to New York from?” I ask.

He came from California, where he went to college.

“My best friend lives there now,” I say. And we talk about her and Iowa, where I grew up, and Oregon, where he did. When the conversation lulls he thinks up questions to keep me chatting. He asks, “What do you really want to do?”

“Write,” I say.

“Have you ever done any volunteering?”


“Do you ever feel like you want to be really healthy?”

“Sometimes, after yoga,” I say.

The bus stops at its halfway point for food and fuel and toilets. Rich says he’s going to get McDonald’s. He doesn’t ask me to come but I follow, my flip-flops slapping against the sticky rest stop floor. I stop a few feet away and watch him at the back of a long line, his finger on his chin as he looks at the menu from under the brim of his stupid hat. His tennis shoes are pristine white and his jeans are baggy. What am I doing? I ask myself. I don’t know this guy; he isn’t my type at all, and I don’t want McDonald’s.

Confused, I turn around and head back outside. I perch my ass on a guard rail and eat my banana. By the time the boy comes back out, I am started on the plum. I feel odd, calm but unnerved at the same time.

Rich sits down on the rail next to me and all of a sudden, I feel normal again. He asks me to hold his French fries while he unwraps his burger. “Help yourself,” he says. “Have as many as you want.” I eat some, but not too many. It is not my habit to accept food from random men I meet on the bus.

Back on the road, my body moves closer to Rich's without my knowledge, so that in a few moments I’m surprised to find us so near that our upper arms touch. Rich presses his warm, white arm against mine and smiles in a way that prompts me to lower my eyes and say meekly, sexily, “I don’t think it’s quite time to play doctor yet.”

He offers me an ear bud to his iPod and I accept. We are watching the Simpson’s Halloween special as the Fung Wah rolls back into Manhattan. We’re entering China Town now, one of New York City’s many nexuses of evil, yet I feel great. I had a fabulous weekend with my friends, I’m quitting my job and moving to Thailand, and now I’ve met this guy.

“We should hang out,” I say.

Rich grins. “Yes we should,” he says. Both of our phones are out of batteries so he writes my number on a piece of paper from the bottom of his bag. It looks like an old rolling paper and I hope it is.

We file off the bus and stand there on Canal Street, stock still in the buzzing dark of New York City, blocking the flow of passengers. I wonder if maybe we should go somewhere together now, and Rich asks me if I want to but even though I do I say no. I need to go home, I say. It’s late and I have to work in the morning. I think that I should kiss him. My body moves again without my volition but I pull myself away. We only sat on the bus together. He isn’t at all the type of man I usually find attractive. I’m not supposed to be interested in men right now. I don’t know what’s gotten into me.

Rich hauls the straps of his back pack over his shoulders while people push and curse us. We move out of the way, but don’t take our eyes off one another.

“Aw, come here,” he finally says, and he reaches his long, thin, arms around me in a hug. It feels wonderful but I can’t wait to get away, to have the night over and have today be tomorrow already, so that he can call me, and we can see each other.

We say goodbye and walk off to our own respective subways – him to Harlem and me back to Brooklyn. I keep watching him until I round the corner and he is out of sight, and then a great panic comes over me. What if he loses my number? I don’t have his and we don’t know each others’ last names. What if I never see him again?

Down on the subway platform, in the bowels of the city, I run into a friend from work and grab her tiny white hands in mine. “You look so happy!” she says.

“I just met the cutest boy!” I say, and tell her everything, gushing until we are home in Brooklyn. I fall asleep to dream of a cute, New York doctor, his healing hands stroking my skin.

Three weeks later, with his goodbye present, a first-aid kit, tucked into my suitcase, I board a plane at JFK, and fly to Bangkok.