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.

1 comment: