What You Are Doing on This Side of Town

You straighten your skirt and dig around in your purse for a twenty baht bill to pay the motorcycle driver. He nods and speeds down the street. On the way to the dock, you pass a small man leaning against a blackened wall. He rattles his tin cup. You drop in a few coins. He has sun-baked skin, one arm, and no legs. He does not say thank you. You don’t know that he is Cambodian and lost his limbs while crossing landmines to reach the Thai border.

Around the corner, a man sells squid kabobs; the smoked creatures curl around their sticks, the color of manila envelopes. You hide your disgust with a Thai hello. The vendor gives a broad smile and turns to his wife. “The farang speaks Thai,” he says, but you cannot understand his Isan accent—any more than you understand your students when they hold five toned conversations in front of your face. You don’t understand the vendor but you do know the word farang because that’s what you are: A farang. You are a farang but not a tourist.

You are not a tourist but today you need an adventure. On any other night, you’d be sitting in the You Cup coffee shop planning lessons or browsing fashion magazines you can’t read, except for an occasional headline in English: ‘Look into her heart,’ and an occasional headline in almost-English: ‘Fill the unknown.’ The more you frequent You Cup, the lonelier you feel. You’re tired of looking around at the familiar faces of strangers.

That’s why, today, you’ve given yourself a destination: The About Café, which your Bangkok guidebook calls the best café art gallery in town. You have printed out a map of the neighborhood and tucked it into your purse. The street names are too long to fit near the clutter of lines and you didn’t notice, while gazing at your computer screen, that they had been abbreviated. You’d brought the map into the teacher’s lounge and your colleague pointed out that the gallery was in Chinatown, clear on the other side of the city. Any other person would have opted out but not you; not even after she said Chinatown is dangerous at night. She offered to be your tour guide but you told her, “I’m not a tourist. I live here.” You need to know you’re capable of getting around by yourself.

The canal taxi is as big as a bus, and all the seats are taken. To distract yourself from the rotten smell, you stare at a young monk sitting on the bench closest to where you stand. He wears a saffron robe and listens to his iPod. You are not to touch him because you are a woman, and you probably shouldn’t be staring at him either. The boat hasn’t moved; people continue to file in across the scant floor space. You scoot over until the only thing left to grab is the bench where the monk sits and you are now staring at your hand, five inches away from his shaved head. A woman moves closer. She wears what looks like a long t-shirt and no shorts. Her red plastic heels click against the wooden floor and you hope she doesn’t fall into the water on the way out.

A tarp comes down. The boat thrusts you into the back of the bench. You do not touch the monk but you say to him, excuse me, in Thai. A sliver of space stretches across the tarp, like an open window; droplets of water slip through and land in your hair. The woman next to you fiddles with her cell phone. You make a mental list of Thai words and phrases you know: I’m from America, chicken, chili, spicy, sweet, rice, I love Thailand, numbers one to one hundred, stop here, turn left, how old are you, I’m a teacher, turn right, I’m hungry. Your students have taught you but you’ve forgotten how to say: dinner, breakfast, tomorrow, it smells, I’m hot. You never learned how to say: can you give me directions, I’m lost, I’m going to faint.

At your stop, Asoke, you marvel at how effortlessly the woman in red heels hops off the boat, and you hesitate a moment over the dark gap between the wobbling ledge and the pier. One of your students shared in class that when she was a young child, she’d fallen into the canal because the boat started to move while she was jumping off. You feel a hundred eyes on you. When your feet hit the damp ground, you wonder how your student survived.

Everyone in the subway car seems more beautiful than you: young and poised. You hold onto a rubber loop from the ceiling. When you glance down either aisle, you feel as though you are standing in front of two adjacent mirrors; lines of infinite passengers fade with distance. A pair of schoolgirls sits across the aisle, holding hands; you know they are in high school because their uniforms match your students’ white blouses and navy skirts. The one with the bigger eyes and darker skin smiles because you are a farang, you figure, though she’s also admiring you because you are a woman alone and out of place. Five more stops to Hualamphong.

At 6:00 in the evening, the sky dulls into a pale blue. You have one hour to find the café before it gets dark. Your map does not name the main road you stand on; the streets resemble sections of an orange. You’re looking for “Th. Mait,” but don’t know that it stands for “Thanon Maitrachi.” You see no street signs and walk ahead. Three blocks later, you stand at the entrance to a Chinese temple, indicated on your map by a chubby Buddha. Smoke swirls around women praying and placing incense sticks into clay bowls across a tabletop. The place smells like an explosion of hot jasmine that’s set the corridors on fire. A few moments and you wonder if you’re being disrespectful, gawking at a place of worship.

Outside, four men sit at a card table, smoking cigarettes and drinking Johnny Walker. They yell at you in Chinese. You slip around them and avoid eye contact. They call you beautiful and ask what you’re doing here. You reach in your purse for your map but before pulling it out, scan the block for a shop to disappear into, away from these men. As if this will prevent them from knowing you are lost.

A woman pulls a steel sheet down over her shop and locks it into place. She is the last to close on this block. You speed your step, glancing around for a 7-11 or a Family Mart corner store, but find none so you stop and pull out the map there. It would help to know what street you’re on.

A man in a red golf shirt greets you in Thai and asks where you’re going. You jump and he apologizes. His face is similar to the man who sells fruit juices near your condo: lighter eyes, apple cheeks. You ask, “Where is the About Café?” in English and he shakes his head. You point to the star on the map and say “Where?” in Thai.

“This way, please,” he says in English and leads the way around a corner and down two blocks, past an open fish market and a driveway full of used shoes. The sky is gray; pale light washes out the reds and yellows on storefronts. He stops at a corner and points, saying in Thai: “Turn right at the corner and then walk three blocks. You’ll cross a big road there, so be careful, then turn left, I’m sorry, turn right and the place should be on your left. Be careful.” And you thank him, pretending you understood every word.

You pass a crowded grocery store covered in dust and banners depicting snowflakes, Santas, and Christmas trees, four months out of season. At another intersection, you’re blinded by headlights and almost run over by teenagers on mopeds. You’re not sure whether to turn right or left, so you step into an incense shop. There, a small boy runs around with a box of chocolate Pocky sticks because he already ate his dinner. His mother shakes her head to tell you the shop is closed. You ask for the About Café. Your English and then your Thai goes right over her head but she does understand the word café. She yells to her husband in the back of the shop and he comes out in a pink towel, frayed at the edge above his flaking knees. “Café, na?” he asks.

“Café, ka,” you say.

You guess correctly when he tells you in Thai to go to the end of the block, but when you get there, you find a curbside coffee stand. A fat woman in a white apron stands behind a stack of instant coffee containers and a pyramid of sweetened-condensed milk cans. You cross the street, passing a dark bakery, which reminds you of the bean cake a student gave you on her way out of your office earlier in the afternoon. You took one bite out of it but didn’t want to tell her you didn’t like it, so you just told her you weren’t hungry. Now that bean cake is still sitting under your monitor on your desk and is probably getting devoured by roaches half the size of your palm.

The map tears a little as you unfold it. The pale blue streetlamp doesn’t give enough light for reading so you stuff the map back into your purse and keep walking. You don’t want to pass the incense shop again; you don’t want the family to see you lost, so you take a quick left. Now you are in an alley. Another group of men watches; they’re leaning on parked motorcycles. Shadows cover their faces. They ask where you’re headed but you can’t understand them. One hops off his bike and approaches.

“I need the About Café,” you say in English, but regret saying anything. Close up, he seems less harmful; lanky, not much taller than you. His t-shirt reads: ‘I don’t bite, I suck.’ You ask, “Do you know where I can find the About Café?” He smiles and then leads you deeper into the alley, which you realize is getting darker with every step. The streetlights are out.

You stop. “The café is over here?”

The man does not answer.

Before you left for Bangkok, you promised your grandmother you’d never go for walks alone. She’d read that female tourists are targets for frequent abductions. You’d sat in her breakfast nook, eating her biscuits and you promised her. You haven’t talked to her in months. You can’t remember what biscuits taste like. Still, you follow the man past a line of storefronts hidden behind sheets of metal. Some are whitewashed over, marking the water level from last year’s floods. Where the alley curves, you pass a dark hole in the ground; an abyss full of rats, probably. This is where you figure they’ll put your body when they’re done with you. They’ll stuff you in that little abyss, and no one will know you’re there until the floodwaters wash you onto the main road.

The man stops in front of a screened door and motions for you to knock.

“This is it?”

He nods and waits.

“Hello?” you call through the screen, too weak to be heard.

The man pretends to knock; his fist comes inches from the door, as if he’s giving a lesson, and then steps back towards the main road. You think he’s gone, but he’s just a few feet away, standing in the shadows, watching. A woman, half your size and three times your age, emerges onto the pavement from across the alley. She carries a blue tub full of dirty dishes.

You try to open the screen but it’s locked and you whip your hand away. You see no doorbell. A pair of worn red Chucks sits at the bottom of a narrow staircase, next to a pile of crumpled newspaper. You smell cats. The walls are green, freshly painted and bare. You consider knocking, that is, until you picture eight men rushing at you with rope. It’s time to go home. You don’t know why you hadn’t thought of that an hour ago.

As you back away from the door, the man who led you here steps out into the pale light pouring through the screen. You’d scream if you could breathe. He rushes back to the door and before you can stop him, pounds on it, laughing because you are an idiot, you should have just listened to him. He does not wait for someone to come to the door. He’s run off. Left you for good. You hear rustling from within.

A door opens at the top of the stairs and the first thing you notice about the man coming down is that he’s a farang. “What can I do for you?” he asks you in a New Zealand accent. He unlocks the door.

“Is the About Café around here?”

“The About Café,” he says. “Yeah. Right around the corner.” He points but then decides to just take you there. You want to ask him if he’s the only farang who lives in the neighborhood, or how he ended up living on this part of town, but you can’t bring yourself to say anything. The old woman continues to wash her dishes but this time she smiles—bearing one tooth in the center of her mouth. You hadn’t noticed the pools of light on the street from second or third story windows overhead. They are full of families; full of people you will never know because you will never be able to talk with them.

The man leads you to where the alley runs into another street. You thank him and he says, “It’s nothing. Right over there, then.”

“Great,” you say but he’s already on his way back to his house.

At the intersection, you find a warehouse with wide windows painted red around the rims. The lights are out, and except for an upside down table and stack of white chairs, the room is bare. There’s no sign but you know this was it. You stand gazing into the window, stunned, and two women walk past you, chatting about the Canadian supermodel who will marry Thailand’s tennis star, but you can’t understand them. They stop a moment to make sure you are a farang and continue on their way.

According to your map, you are two roads away from the subway station, but as you start towards it, you decide to take a taxi and go to the curb. Cars rush past from the left, a sensation you’ve nearly grown accustomed to. You wave down a taxi—a green one with a sign over the passenger window that says, ‘Love Farang,’ and underneath, ‘We speak English’.

You open the door to the sweet smell of toey leaves. A string of jasmine dangles from the window, which you know is there to protect the driver from bad spirits on the road. You tell him in Thai to take you to Bangkapi.

“300 baht,” he says in English.

You shake your head. “I only go by meter.”

“You speak Thai.’’ The man grins.

“A little,” you say, politely. “I only go by meter.”

He laughs and says, “Okay, okay. Let’s go.”

You wait for the flashing 35 baht to appear in red over the radio and climb in. You tell him to take the highway.

“You are very good,” he says in Thai, and you are elated enough to slide to the edge of your seat and lean towards the windshield while he asks how long you’ve been here.

This is a conversation you’ve had many times, with nearly all the taxi drivers, and the phrases come like clockwork: you’ve been here eight months, you teach English at a high school, you like Thai food, your favorite dish is tom yum soup, the chicken kind. And when your Thai runs out, you pull out your list of questions for taxi drivers and find out that this one has two children, a boy who is eleven and a girl who is six, the girl is naughtier than the boy but they are both smart, that he’s worked in Bangkok for two years, and that his favorite dish is laap moo. When your questions run out, he turns up the radio and a woman’s saccharine voice weaves around you, buzzing from the speakers. You stretch your arms towards the passenger windows on each side and fall back into your seat. The Thai country music seems to propel the taxi onto the highway overpass and over the city, in and out of the blinking high-rises. You recognize the shapes, the Bangkok skyline, like constellations close to the ground.  

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