Thursday, April 1, 2010

7) Mansion House

I left things open with Rich. He’s a catch, it’s true - good-looking, smart, generous, well endowed and great in the sack… But still. A year is a long time and I’m so over the long-distance thing. That’s what ruined my ex and I. Either that or it’s what didn’t ruin us soon enough. Either way I don’t want to do it again.

Before I left Rich helped me move some things to a generous friends’ basement in Queens where she had offered to store them. After the job was done the two of us nestled together on her couch, pawing each other as my friend served us fruit with freshly whipped cream. Luckily, my happily married friend found this adorable and was as sad as we were to see us board a subway back to Manhattan where we would have to finally part. Standing face to face in the center of the crowded train I noted again how perfectly proportionate Rich and I were; my head rested comfortably on his shoulder and his chin tucked down protectively over my forehead. His arms felt safe and sweetly greedy folded around my back.

“Ahh,” Rich sighed as the train lurched to a stop and we fell closer together. “I could do this forever.” A woman beside us rolled her eyes and I smiled at her sweetly, softly. I was already kinder, I thought.

“You’ll have to wait at least a year,” I told him. “Go ahead and get a girlfriend, but make sure she knows I’m coming back. If she doesn’t acquiesce to me then I’ll probably have to kick her ass.” I believed everything I was saying in the yellow-grey light of the subway car, amidst the many-colored people and their varying expressions of amusement, disgust, anxiety, and despair. Rich didn’t look convinced but he said he hoped I would do just that. We reached his station and he got off the train and I waved and as the train pulled away he stood there on the platform, following me with his green eyes until I was gone. I haven’t talked to him since.

Tonight, before I go to bed, we chat online. It is midnight in Thailand, noon in New York, and I think I’m finally worn out enough to sleep in this sweltering room. Rich wants to know what time the driver from Fun English picks me up tomorrow. “Can I call you again in the morning?” he asks. “I just like to hear your voice before I go to bed.”

What’s wrong with this guy? I wonder. He’s in New York, the capital of the world for hot, desperate girls; what does he want with me? I’m not buying what he’s selling but since I don’t have a cell phone here, and thus no alarm clock, I do need someone to wake me up in the morning by calling me on Skype. Also, damn it, I can’t help but like the attention.

“Okay,” I say, fake-reluctant. “You can be my wake up call.”

And he’s as good as the real thing – not a moment late. I open my eyes to the sun bleeding through the gauzy curtains and pull my laptop into bed with me, slip on my headphones to hear Rich’s all-American voice tell me that he’s outside of a bar uptown. He’s a little drunk, he says; he says he wishes I was there. It’s good, I think, that he’s at a bar and drunk and still remembers to call me. He must really like me, I guess. Maybe it really is more than just amazing sex. My body is hot, sticky, covered in sweat but I feel light in it. Someone nice likes me and I am in a foreign country and I will get an apartment today. I thank Rich and send him back to the bar, back to the New York night life. I am so good at not clinging, I think. I am practically a Buddha already.

Out I go, looking for breakfast. Though I’m fairly well-versed in Thai cuisine, I’m still surprised to walk down the street this morning and find everyone eating the same kind of food they had for dinner last night. All the street carts and shop houses sell curry, noodles, rice, and meat. A woman chops chicken heads on the sidewalk and gelatinous tripe hangs from hooks in portable glass cases through which the sun burns. People shuffle along the cracked pavement slowly in flip flops and I, worried about being late, rush around them flapping my wings and revving my engine while everyone else idles. Where is the food? Where is my egg and cheese sandwich on a bagel? Where is the deli? A green and black Starbucks looks cool and clean and familiar, feeling slightly desperate I pop my head in to look at the prices. Two hundred baht for a cup of coffee = almost $6! I shake my head in disgust and leave, holding the door open for a skinny white man who does not seem to notice me as he enters the building, talking loudly on his cell phone in an English accent.

After a bit more unsuccessful searching I settle for a packaged pastry and bottle of green tea from Seven-Eleven. We don’t have Seven-Eleven so much in New York but when I studied in Copenhagen they were everywhere. The offering here are very different from those in Denmark. There the hot food item was always hot dogs in crescent rolls and here it’s Chinese pork buns. I buy a packaged croissant but there are also sandwiches on crust-less white bread with butter, green pandan, or chocolate filling. Every single bottled drink is sugary, the tea shocking me with a sweet jolt. It’s not what I wanted but I gulp it for the caffeine.

The Fun English driver meets me in the lobby of St. Gabriel’s a few minutes after nine. A thin, moderately attractive middle-aged Thai man, he arrives in a gold sedan. He doesn’t speak a word to me but seems not at all troubled over my identity, perhaps because I am the only one in the lobby yet again. The driver takes a piece of paper from his pocket and I can see that it’s the list of apartments I emailed Fun English that I wanted to check out. The driver talks for a moment with the St. Gabriel’s doorman and then we drive away, speeding through streets humming with traffic. We drive on elevated highways and underground ones, through back alleys and parking lots. As we cruise around in the comfort of our temperature-controlled vehicle, I realize how extremely lucky I am to have a driver. I have no idea how I’d manage all this on my own.

I try to get my bearings but the city is too twisty. I don’t know how far one building is from the next, or where the Fun English office is in relation to any of it. I don’t know how I’ll get to and from work each day. I don’t know if I’ll ever find anything suitable to eat for breakfast, or if I’ll make any friends, or if I’ll figure out how to keep paying my student loans back in the states. I sit quietly in the car while the driver speaks to the managers. I have no idea what they say to each other but I take it all on faith that everyone knows what they’re doing. What choice do I have? Faith, right now, is my only hope. As we zig and zag through the mad city I cling to this faith, and to my past experience like a seatbelt. In my life in New York I’ve developed a trust for cabdrivers that borders on the unconditional, and it is that which I fall back on now, reminding myself that just because I don’t know where I am doesn’t mean the driver doesn’t. And if he doesn’t stop at red lights, that must be okay too, since no one else is either. I wonder about this until we do get stuck at a light and have to wait three minutes for it to change green for a few measly seconds. Then, I understand.

All the apartments I’ve chosen to see are furnished studios. They all consist of a single room, a bed, storage space for clothing, and a small bathroom. None have a kitchen. The first room is small and made tinier still with too much furniture. Bed linens are provided, as is weekly maid service. On the roof there is a new-looking wooden deck and gorgeous swimming pool surrounded by comfortable lounge chairs and huge clay pots of palm trees, frangipani, and orchids. But I think it’s too impersonal, too hotel-like, as well as out of my price range.

The next two rooms are decent but run-down. Neither has a shower stall, only spouts stuck to the wall beside the toilet. One has a pool but no deck. The other boasts plenty of practical wooden shelves, a tea kettle, and an English-speaking landlord, but no pool. In the quaint little room I sweat through my t-shirt and my black cotton skirt sticks to my legs. I clench my wet fists and I promise myself a swimming pool. I’m going to need something to do if I’m not smoking pot, I reason. (Which I’ve promised myself I’m not going to do, mostly because of a certain Claire Danes movie.)

The next apartment is the cheapest, and I can see why. The concrete block of a room has one plastic yellow window with a view of the balconies of the adjoining building, less than five feet away. It’s only 3,000 baht, about $90 a month, and so financially it would be good, if only the heaviness of depression didn’t settle upon my chest immediately upon setting foot in it. No amount of savings is worth the pain that living in this cell would cause. Loneliness and isolation are hard enough in a foreign country without living in an ugly room too. In the car I wash the sadness from my heart by gulping air-conditioned air and watching the scenery fly by as we make our way to the last stop – Chamchan Mansion.

From a small, dilapidated soi we pull into a parking garage under an aged, white concrete building. My buoyant feeling of adventure returns as soon as I see the smiling woman poking her body halfway out the door of a tiny lobby. Her crooked glasses, ugly green shower sandals, ill-fitting jeans and sweet smile give me a sense of well-being. As my driver speaks to her, though his face gives no indication of having made a joke, she begins to laugh and keeps on laughing as he gets back in the car and pulls into a parking spot.

The woman says to me, “Okay, ka. I show you room, ka.” Ka is a polite word, I know, kind of like please except used all the time. Women say ka and men say krap, and you should say these words after nearly every sentence if you want Thai people to think you’re nice. The very polite apartment lady nods and giggles and I follow her into the building. As we make our way up to the fifth floor via a small, fan-cooled elevator, I start to laugh a little too. She says “Okay, ka,” and “Ka,” again and bows her head and leads me to a corner room, opening the door and moving out of the way, so I can enter first.

Room #505 is big and full of light. Big sliding glass doors open onto a generous, triangle-shaped balcony. The full-size bed is pressed against a wooden headboard affixed to the wall. A little wooden night stand sets beside the bed and across from it is a cabinet with a TV and a makeup table and mirror. Four large closets line another wall and though there is no stove or hotplate, a medium-sized, teal green refrigerator, kitchen sink, small counter, and shelf space offer more of a kitchen than any other room I’ve seen. That there is no kitchen is not altogether surprising since I’ve read about this phenomenon, too. People don’t cook at home much in Bangkok; instead they eat at made-to-order shops and carts on the street. Groceries are expensive, and so is air conditioning, and who wants to stand over a hot stove in this heat?

The bathroom, done in teal green tile, has a raised tile ledge and a plastic curtain - clean and new and patterned with pink flowers - separating the shower from the rest of the room. It’s bigger than any of the other bathrooms, clean, and well lit. I feel good in it, despite seeing my white faced blotched with red and streaming sweat in the mirror.

Standing in my flip flops on the white tile balcony I can see into the soi below. In the near distance a purple apartment building brightens the blue sky, and beyond that the city stretches its long arms up and up, as if trying to climb out of itself. Down the soi the golden triangle of a wat (temple) gleams in the sun next to a huge skyscraper of blue glass.

The woman, speaking to me in Thai while continuing to bow, takes me to the second floor where a worn wooden deck, tons of plants, and a few weathered plastic lounge chairs surround a clear blue pool. It is my pool. Exactly right, just what I imagined. I tell the nodding, kaing woman thank you and I return, grinning, to the car. I give the driver a thumbs up and he responds with a weak smile. After he speaks to the woman he drives me just down the street to the Fun English office. I had no idea that it was so close and am struck with gratitude by my own fantastic luck. Can I really have found a beautiful apartment close to my job in only three hours?

Thitiwat makes the deal for me over the phone, then sends me and the driver out again, now to Big C, the Thai version of Wal-Mart, for supplies. I get pillows, hangers, sheets, one bowl, one cup, one set of silverware, and the driver carts me home again. I dole out ten thousand baht to the woman, who puts her hands together and wais to me before taking my money, and then that’s it, I’m done, officially a tenant of Chamchan Mansion. I even have wireless internet.

I sprawl out in the sunshine on my new yellow cotton sheets. My bed is warm and comfortable and I imagine that I’m lying in the gleaming petals of a sunflower. It’s peaceful, though not exactly quiet. On the soi below motorbikes thrum and buzz, flickering in and out like mid-day thunder. I listen and look around at my bare walls and empty pantry, and this with all my bags unpacked. But I like it that way, simple and unfettered. That’s my life now, loose and untied.

So far, everything has fallen into place without a hitch. Such easiness would usually make me nervous, but I’m not worried now. It’s clear that I should be here. Mai pen rai! I say out loud into my empty room. No problem, never mind, don’t sweat it – all the translations of the Thai motto apply. What is there to worry about? My country - its long work days, its taxes and insurance policies, its debts and wars and delusions - can’t reach me here. I don’t know what the gossip is in New York today. I don’t know where Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes are. I don’t know what offensive thing the president just said and I hardly have a dollar to my name. I feel fabulous. My legs bounce up and down on the hard mattress. They feel limber, ready to walk, anxious for jungles and temples and oceans. But where to go? And with whom? Then I remember a certain phone number.

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