“I’m so glad to see you.” Howard’s greeting at the Chiang Mai train station was far warmer than I would ordinarily expect from someone I’d met only two days before. “I was afraid you’d decided not to come.”
After several hours of sleep on the night train from
Bangkok, followed by three cups of wretched
coffee, it was impossible for me to match his enthusiasm. Chiang Mai was smaller, cloudier, and
chillier than I’d anticipated, and it looked like the sort of city where Nescafe
would be the highest form of available caffeine. My spirits sank even lower when I was
informed of the plans for our day.
“We’re getting quite the tour,” Howard announced, “the elephant camp,
the snake farm, and the orchid garden.
We were going to the Palace but the weather’s too bad.”
Suddenly the clouds cheered me, and I uttered a silent prayer for rain. Few things, not even instant coffee, can depress me as thoroughly as a tourist attraction. Faced with a full schedule of them, I could only wonder what atrocities I’d committed in past lives to deserve the day that lay before me. Caffeine withdrawal and hordes of big, loud, badly dressed, pink people¾I shuddered, and hoped that any expression of misery and foreboding that might cross my face would be attributed to exhaustion.
Howard, whose perky, Australian ebullience made Pollyanna seem like a Prozac candidate, appeared slightly strained as we sped toward the elephant camp. “I could use a bit of brekkie,” he confessed with a tinge of mournfulness, “but I don’t suppose we’ll find anything up here.”
He was right. The only food in the camp that was fit for human consumption were bunches of bananas, which no human had a hope in hell of eating if an elephant was anywhere nearby. Within milliseconds, the bananas I’d bought were vacuumed up by an enterprising elephant, and Howard found consolation with a bag of potato chips and a straw safari hat. “Only eighty baht, quite good value, don’t you think?”
The relationship between the elephants and their riders was obvious and genuinely moving. Perched upon the massive shoulders, feet tucked behind those huge ears, each rider choreographed the elephant’s actions with subtle movements of his own. Howard clambered up onto a saddled elephant, and, beaming under his new safari hat, was led about the camp. I sat three inches away from a teenaged elephant who suffered my reverent pats with patience, making me wonder if I’d misjudged tourist traps. When we left, I approached the snake farm with less disdain--but I should have held on to that.
An ugly display of reptile abuse and exhibitionism, the snake farm restored all of my natural cynicism and outraged Howard’s animal rights principles. Watching the audience venture onto center stage to have their pictures taken with the giant pythons, while being urged to “kiss it, kiss it,” united Howard and me in a spurt of rebellion. We politely but firmly refused the trip to the orchid garden and asked that we be taken to a waterfall instead.
As we trudged beside a pastoral little stream, surrounded by trees and silence, Howard eagerly unburdened himself. “It’s quite pretty here, and everyone is very nice, but I get frustrated. Everything is so complicated when you don’t know the language. And I like to eat things like bacon and Wheatybix in the morning, but I can’t get them here.” My assurances that the exotic could become quite palatable in a matter of weeks only made him look more alarmed. It was obvious that having rice porridge replace Wheatybix was of no comfort to Howard.
Arriving at the beauty and isolation of our friend Lek’s house and garden quickly erased any unattractive segments of the day. We collapsed into chairs on a riverbank, moving only to see something delightful that we had never seen before, garlic blossoms or a moonflower that would bloom that night.
Howard set off for a stroll with a friend of Lek’s, another houseguest. I was encouraged to stay behind, and understood that my absence would allow the two of them, both young, attractive, and gay, to become better acquainted.
By the time that we finished supper, Howard and Neung seemed to be quite good friends, and as the evening went on, I envied their ability to fall into unselfconscious, flirtatious touch. As I went to bed, alone, I wondered if I could ever be as easy and fearless about sex as the two of them seemed to be, and whether they were brave or incredibly foolhardy.
The following morning was grey and wet, and Howard was as dismal as the weather. Neung, in high spirits told him that they would explore the hills behind the house after breakfast. Howard looked painfully hungover, and retreated to his bungalow. Neung stared pensively out the window and sighed. "Last night Howard was so happy but today he is sad. I wonder why.”
As we sat and chatted, Howard scurried furtively around the corner of the house. When I followed him into the kitchen, he was standing in the middle of the room, looking far bleaker than a hangover would give him any right to be.
“Come on, what’s the problem?”
“It’s Neung. Things went wrong last night.”
“Oh, that happens all the time when people don’t have the same language.”
“No, that’s not what I mean. I went to bed late, and all I wanted was a good night’s sleep, but Neung came into my room. I told him I was too tired, but he forced himself on me. Now I want to leave. I don’t want to hurt Lek’s feelings, but I’m going to fly back to
Remembering how tenderly and thoroughly Howard had massaged Neung’s shoulders the night before, I was confused, and could clearly understand how Neung might have been as well. It also puzzled me that someone as small as Neung could force himself upon a man much larger than he was. I recalled times from my past when men had inexplicably withdrawn their attention, and looking at Howard’s pale and unhappy face, I had a strong urge to slap him.
“I’m going back to
next week. This place isn’t right for
me,” he said, and went off to pack, say his farewells, and leave.
Shortly after Howard’s departure, Neung appeared at my door, jauntily dressed in a tee shirt, shorts and white socks. “Come. I’ll take you to see Doi Suthep, very beautiful.”
Doi Suthep is a temple on the top of a small mountain, or a high hill, depending upon whether it was being regarded from a Thai or an American perspective. In the cab of a pickup truck, we headed toward it along a steep, winding, and narrow road. The fog shrouded the plunging cliffs that had replaced the ditches, and Neung became reflective. “Howard is the first farang I’ve loved. Why are foreign men so strange?” he asked. It was a question that my female friends had frequently and unsuccessfully pondered over countless bottles of wine in the States, and I could only shake my head and shrug.
We could dimly see a sheer drop looming mistily beside us. “Thai girls have jumped from there, calling out the names of men they loved who didn’t love them.” Neung observed, and then laughed, “Maybe I will do that later. Howard, Howard.”
I barely heard him. The clouds completely obscured the road as we went higher, and the curves were beginning to frighten me. Our driver turned on the headlights and looked impassive. I sank my fingernails into my palms and tried not to whimper. “It has to burn off soon. It’s early morning fog,” I told myself, “It’s almost eleven o’clock. It will clear up as soon as we go around the next bend.” It didn’t, and the twists were even more dramatic when they were invisible.
“I want to get out, now, “ I whispered, but nobody heard and neither Neung nor the driver had so much as a furrowed brow. We pulled into a parking lot at the summit of what now seemed to be
Everest, and as my weak knees scrambled out of the truck, I had to
restrain myself from falling on them and kissing the ground.
It would have taken the Taj Mahal to make that trip worthwhile to me, and Doi Suthep, although very lovely, was an anticlimax. Tourists with cameras swarmed over every surface, and it was very cold. Looking over the wall at the valley below, I could see only a carpet of clouds. Chiang Mai felt like a spacious refuge when we returned to its comfortingly low, flat surface.
As we strolled through the city, Howard popped up beside us, grinning and cheerful once more. “I couldn’t get a flight out until tomorrow, so I got a room at the Prince Hotel. It’s great; it has cable TV. But now I only have thirty baht until I get to my money in
Thirty baht wouldn’t even get him a sneer from a
taxi driver, and Howard could barely distinguish an air-con bus from an
ordinary one, much less one that would take him to his money. I had no cash with me, but told him the
restaurant where we planned to have dinner that evening, so he could join us,
and I could give him cab fare home. “Oh,
I’ll find you,” he assured me, and inwardly wincing at the thought of an
evening with Howard, I had no doubt that he would.
Seeing his failed romance flash before his eyes sent Neung into a dramatic soliloquy on our ride back to Lek’s house. “Look,” he hissed, showing me an ugly scar on his arm, “I had to go to the hospital when I did that. Maybe tonight I’ll do it again.”
Nothing is as disconcerting as hearing a suicide threat when you’re jammed into the back of a crowded pick-up truck, with the scar of a previous attempt inches away from your face. Soothing rejoinders of, “Let me get you a drink of water,” or, “Excuse me. I have to go to the toilet,” are impossible to fall back on. Wishing I’d spent time listening to TV talk shows, I tried to imagine how Oprah would handle this situation.
“Howard is only one man in your life. There will be many men who will love you. Try not to think about him. You’ll feel better tomorrow.” Speaking slowly, I carefully enunciated every relationship cliché that had ever been told to me.
When we arrived at Lek’s, I fled to the comforts of a shower and a nap. Later I emerged to find Neung regaling all within earshot with the details of his night of bliss and his broken heart, punctuated by groans of “Howard, Howard,” at regular intervals. He had quite a comedy routine going, and after doing a quick spot-check for nearby steel blades, I began to relax. It was generally agreed that Howard should be horsewhipped, and I was grateful that I couldn’t understand the Thai equivalent that Neung was gleefully elaborating upon to our hostess.
“Sex for fun is not good. People should care about each other,” Lek said, “But I am worried about Howard, if he has no money.”
“If he doesn’t come to the restaurant, we should call Eric and ask him to meet Howard at the airport,” I suggested, knowing that our Bangkok host wouldn’t want any guest of his to hitch-hike home from the airport, even if I personally felt that was a fate that would be well-deserved.
Howard didn’t amble through the restaurant , but he was with us in spirit, as Neung invoked his name and searched for an appropriate vein that he might open sometime after dessert was served. It was a relief when Lek’s mobile phone rang, and I heard Eric’s voice.
“Howard left early,” I told him, “He needs a ride home tomorrow morning. He has no money with him.”
“What happened?” Eric asked.
“He had a little trouble, a cross-cultural misunderstanding with Neung. Apparently they became closer than Howard wanted to take responsibility for.”
“Why, that little shit.” Eric’s voice was grimmer than I’d ever heard it before. His understanding and empathetic view of Thai people was so legendary that I couldn’t believe he was talking about Neung, but Howard was too tall to be “a little” expletive of any kind.
“Eric, it takes two people to make this sort of situation,” I protested, still bristling with relationship truisms.
“ Yes, but I’ve been on the receiving end of Neung’s attentions before myself, and it’s not something I’d wish on anyone else. He gets really aggressive when he drinks, and it’s not particularly pleasant. Don’t worry. I’ll take care of Howard.”
I hung up the phone and looked across the table at Neung, who smiled at me, took a swallow of beer, and said, “Maybe farang women are kinder than the men. I think you are a very good person.”
“Don’t bet on that,” I said, as I picked up my fork and tested the sharpness of the tines on my palm. “Show me your arm again. I think I know just the right place to put that next scar.”