It was the middle of the dry season, but the thudding droplets of water came anyway. Raincoated people in green, blue, white, and yellow rode their motorcycles in double file. They zoomed by like rainbows, sending waves splashing onto the sidewalk.
In the small city of Chiang Mai, in the mountains of northern Thailand, I met up with my old friend, Maya. She twirled her pink Hello Kitty umbrella in her hands while excited words rose from her lips. “Yee, I have an interview next week!”
“Koh Samui!” She drew a wide teeth baring smile and let out a little squeak.
“What an awesome place to work.” I said about the luxurious, tropical island.
“Yep, after I start working you will have to call me Dr. Maya.”
“I can call you Dr. Maya now.”
“Ahh! No!” She stuck her tongue out at me, “if you call me Doctor now you will give me bad luck!” Maya had a strict unspoken list of things that were lucky and unlucky. I often ran into the unlucky ones.
“Do you have to go to the island for the interview? That’s a whole day’s trip.”
“No, it’s a phone interview, if they give me the job, I’ll go down, not before.”
The restaurant owner bounced over, a spring in her steps, her grey hair flailing side to side, as she laid plates in front of us. Thick delicious spices burnt my nose and watered my mouth. Heaps of rice covered in vegetables, sauces, minced chilies, and toasted tofu. “You will reincarnate well,” she told me. She had been doing this ever since she found out that I too was a vegetarian.
Maya’s voice rose. “Uhh, Eric.”
I scooped up a bite. “Yea?”
“Nothing. Just eat, we can talk after lunch.”
Maya’s eyes bounced from her hand mirror to me and back, “So Eric,” She layered the final stroke on her soft pink lips. “There is a minor problem. I can’t stay in Chiang Mai, I have to go home.”
My eyes widened. I had come to Chiang Mai to explore the city with her. Now she was going to leave.
“But, but, but” she grabbed my attention and gave a sharp smile, showing off her perfect teeth, “you can come with me to my village. My mother wants to meet a foreigner, especially one as crazy as you.”
My mind turned the question over. Should I go? Why not? I have nothing else going on, plus this way I can see the Thai countryside. My first adventure. “Ok, sure, I’ll go. But why do you think I am crazy?”
“Ha, Eric, don’t make me list everything.”
The next day we loaded huge brown boxes into a tiny red truck. The cab overflowed with Maya’s relatives, so we scrunched against the boxes in the back. For four hours we squeezed in-between books and blankets and soared under the blast furnace heat of Thailand’s tropical sun. I hid under a blanket, trying to sleep through the uncomfortable heat.
The truck horn blared, pulling me back into consciousness. Another Buddhist temple, the roofs of these golden Wats, lifted, peaked and cut the clouds with their razor-sharp eaves. Maya pressed her palms together, raised them, and rested her thumbs on her forehead. She waied, a sign of respect in Buddhism. The truck didn’t slow, it continued along the narrow highway, cutting into a jungle dotted with warning signs about tigers and elephants.
The sun beat down, showering the truck with buckets loads of heat. I took deep breaths, warm air in, hot air out. Sweat dripped. I searched the hot metal and warm boxes for anything cool to touch. I found nothing.
The truck sped into a dirt parking lot. Dust hissed and rose, settling onto my sweaty skin and filling my panting mouth with a dry iron flavor. We leapt from the truck and stumbled into the shadow of a marketplace. Maya held out bottle of water toward me. Ice caked its outside. I reached out, with my trembling hands. The cool aura around the bottle sucking the heat from my fingertips. She jerked the bottle away. “If you want something you have to go for it, you can’t just wait for it to be handed to you.”
I leapt forward and snapped the bottle from her hands. I dragged the frost across my neck, sharp jagged cold bit into my skin. I cringed with euphoria. I guzzled it down, letting its coolness flood my stomach and soak through my body.
Around us, behind tiny stalls smothered with Buddhist amulets, hunchbacked old women, with long white hair, called out to me. They assured me their amulets would bring me fortune, good luck, a better sex life, true love, relief from ailments I do not have, and protection from my enemies, which hopefully, I also do not have.
Maya’s mother, a wrinkled woman with rough mahogany skin, and black sun-beaten hair that frayed at the tips, held out an amulet. “Elic” she said, mispronouncing my name. “You have, you have,” she said in English. She continued in Thai, “wear this and Lord Buddha will bring you good luck in this life and the next.”
Inside the plastic case, a Buddha sculpted from amber sandstone sat with his legs crossed in a Lotus position. She tied the amulet around my neck and toured me around the market. Vendors threw out complements, and gave me snacks and wide smiles.
Like caged chickens, Maya’s ancestral village stood above rice paddies on skinny wooden legs. Their thick, black teakwood frames merging into one another, so closely that families often passed things from one window to the next.
Under the house, above the hard, clean, dirt floor, empty hammocks swayed in front of a TV, bolts of fabric, and half-sewn garments awaited attention. I passed by them, and tossed my shoes off at the stairs, adding them to the pile already crowding the path. My bare feet thumped up the narrow stairs and the building rattled and swayed with my elephant steps.
Inside, the small, nearly unfurnished single roomed home grew as the ceiling swept high in a rising peak. A wave of heat bashed my sweat glands open. I stood startled, Maya’s boxes still in my arms, when her mother came in. With a wide smile, highlighted by her protruding overbite, she handed me a dark purple ball spotted and scarred with red rust. A tiny stem and minute gnarled leaves sat on the trop. “Mangkhud” she said, seeking connection.
“Mangkhud” I answered back. I took the fruit, a mangosteen, and lacerated it’s middle with my fingernails. Maroon blood hemorrhaged from the fruit, staining my hands. I pinched the bottom and twisted the top off. The pure-white fruit, rippling like garlic cloves, glowed. I bit into the soft, super sweet fruit, the flavor of ecstasy. I slurped the pieces into my mouth, watchfully protecting my lips from touching the bitter shell.
Maya’s mother looked on, her smile broadening. “Elic you can eat mangosteen!” She said in Thai, speaking slowly so I could catch everything. “berry gud” She showed off her English.
Maya came upstairs carrying of box of bed sheets animated with Hello Kitty caricatures. She dropped it with a hollow thud. “Of course he knows how to eat mangosteen, he has been living in Asia for almost three years. If anything he is lazy, after all of this time, his Thai is still terrible.” She said in Thai.
“No, No, Elic berry gud.” Her mother said in English and gave me a thumbs up.
Maya’s skinny fingers searched through a wooden chest, she ignored us. Her mother gave her a thumbs down. “Maya ehhh.” She added sticking her tongue out.
Her mother pointed at me, with one index finger, and then to Maya with another. She joined her hands, her fingers side by side. “Hmmm?” she inquired, her eyes eager, her cheeks lifted for a full-face smile.
I shook my head, “friends”.
Her smile held strong, she gave a slow sarcastic nod. “Mai pen rai” she added, invoking a favorite expression of Thais. It means – more or less – “never mind, everything is ok”. The Thais use it to resolve all kinds of conflicts, misunderstandings, and upsets. Now that she said it, everything was ok, no problems, and no misunderstandings.
“Mai pen rai” I repeated.
Maya stood up, her eyes locked onto mine. They shot to the door “Let’s go Eric, it’s time to pray.”
Maya sped ahead her high heels clinking on stones and sticking into mud. We poked into a narrow thoroughfare between the houses, the walls closed in tight, both within arm’s reach. Sunlight and shadows zebra-striped the path. The steaks of light flamed under the sun. The shadows were cool and damp, a refreshing relief. We snaked along as Maya listed who lived in which house: her aunts, her uncles, her cousins, and her grandparents.
The maze ended in an orchard. Yellow mangoes hung above, suspended above from tiny vines. The sun pierced the shield of saggy, green mango leaves and freckled the grass floor with stars. Enclosed in a golden sunbeam, a crimson house-shrine stood in the back.
Like a dollhouse, the miniature Buddhist temple opened up and a sculpture of the Buddha sat behind offerings of oranges, silver painted bananas, sun dried mangosteens and red furred rambutans. A bowl, full of sand and the remains of burnt incense sticks lay in the corner.
Maya handed me three incense sticks and lit them. She took three of her own and lit them. “Do as I do” she explained.
She dropped to her knees. I followed. She rose the burning sticks to her forehand, her hands in a wai. Three times she did this. Three times I copied. She sent silent prayers, I watched. We finished and stuck the sticks in the bowl of sand.
Back home we relaxed in hammocks under a slow moving fan that kept the mosquitos at bay but did little to keep us cool. Maya’s Pink tank top and pink shorts fluttered in the soft wind. Maya’s young cousin came over. I began to wai, she jumped up and grabbed my hands. “Don’t wai to him, you will shorten his life.” She Lay back down.
He gave me a quick wai, showing me respect and sat beside me. “Are you married?”
“No I’m not married.” I wasn’t offended or taken off guard. In South East Asia, I hear this question regularly.
“Are you too old to get married?
“I’m 27, that’s not too old.”
“Yes it is, my mommy says it is weird that you’re not married.”
“In my country it’s normal, but I will get married someday, when I am ready.”
“Will you marry my sister?” He said, talking about Maya. “She’s pretty.” He added with an energetic nod.
“She is pretty, and a nice girl, but she is my friend. When people are friends they don’t get married.” I explained.
He shook his tiny head, “When the boy is a foreigner they do.”
I smiled. Maya cracked her fingers like snapping twigs and sat up. “Nope, I’m going to find a better man, someone more predictable, one who doesn’t travel so much. And Eric is going to go find a traveling girl.”
The sun slid down the horizon as we sat down for dinner inside Maya’s home. Nearby anti-mosquito-coils pumped thin lavender smoke. Maya, me, her mother and father all sat on the floor with plates of rice in front of us, and bowls of vegetables adulterated with chunks of red peppers between us. We each had a fork and spoon, Maya glance at my fork and then at me.
“I know how to use them” I insisted.
“You didn’t in Chiang Mai.”
“Those were noodles. I can’t eat noodles with a spoon, but this is rice, so no problem.” I ate, using my fork to drive rice and vegetables onto my spoon. For good luck and polite manners, the spoon, and never the fork, carried the food to my mouth.
Through a mouthful of food, Maya’s mother spoke, “Maya is a good cook. If you spend a lot of time with her you will become fat”.
“No I’m not” Maya chimed in. I am a terrible cook” She faced her mother, “and Eric doesn’t want to be fat.” They spoke Thai rapidly, losing me. Her mother laughed. Maya turned to me. “She says you should be fatter, you will be healthier that way.”
“But, I don’t want to be fat, it’s unhealthy.”
“Well she thinks it’s good, she also thinks you’re too skinny and you need to eat a lot more fattening foods, like meat and oil. And she thinks I’ll should cook for you, which I’m not going to do. If you ever visit me on Koh Samui we’re going to a nice restaurant and you’re paying.”
Her mother broke into the conversation. “You jai dee,” she said, meaning that I am good hearted. “She jai dee” her mother added as her eyes flicked toward Maya. “Jai dee and Jai dee – good”.I tensed and I threw a smile on my face. She noticed my unease and went back to eating.
We ate near the door. Beside us lay Maya’s parent’s bedroom: a straw mat topped with a thin comforter and enveloped by a gray mosquito net. Next to this, but separated by a wardrobe and an aged bookshelf, lay another sleeping area covered in Maya’s Hello Kitty blankets. Her mother walked me to the second bed, and explained that I would sleep here.
I waied in thanks.
Maya walked to the other side of the sleeping area and crawled under the mosquito net. She sat with her bare feet touching. She clasped her hands in her lap, and looked at me through the netting. Her long silky hair tumbled down and framed her soft young face.
“I’m sleeping with you?”
“Yes. We don’t have any more mosquito nets, so we have to share a bed.” She smiled in the darkness, her white teeth flashing.
“No touching” her mother said in venom-less words.
We slept well.
I woke up alone, the open window blinds cast long bars of sunlight across the wooden floor. A morning breeze carried cool air. The blue sky, sprinkled with white stretchmarks, peaked through at me. I slid myself from under the mosquito net.
The sound of popping grease announced itself. Through the cracks between the floorboards, I could see Maya’s mother squatting in front of a concrete pot. She threw in small wood scraps and large flames leapt up. She flung the pan on the fire and scrambled limp noodles, tofu and a rainbow of vegetables and roots together to make Pad Thai.
I came down, Maya hand sewed neat white stiches into a dark blue shirt. Her mother hummed from behind a bamboo wall fashioned with black pots, and silver pans. “My mother has a question. She won’t stop bothering me about. No matter what I say”.
Frying pan in her hand, her mother turned the corner and waddled over. Sweat bathed her forehead and she took quick hurried breaths. “Elic, Elic” she said followed by Thai too advanced for me. I looked to Maya for help.
Maya’s ivory skin, flushed scarlet. Her eyes studied the floor. “She wants to know when you will marry me.”
My eyebrows snapped up, my eyes wide. “Umm, uh, but we are just friends. You told her that. Right?”
“I know, I know. I told her that over and over and over again. But she just won’t listen to me. She wants you to tell her. She says you will tell her the truth.”
“Ok, then tell her that I said that you are an awesome girl, that you will make some man very happy someday but that we are just friends.”
Maya told her mother, her mother laughed and said something back. Maya shook her head. Her voice rung with irritation “She says we should get married, I would make a good wife for you. We could adopt some children and then go to America and live a good life”
“Maya, you’re a doctor. Life will be great for you here.”
“You know that, I know that, she knows that. But she knows we can marry in your country and she thinks that when a Thai marries a western, life will be better. I’ve told that I am a doctor now and I can take care of myself, and that life is going to be good, but she is afraid that if I don’t act quickly, I’ll never find a husband.”
Maya’s mother, still holding a frying pan full of excited oil, smiled at me, her eyes probing me for clues. “America no cheats,” her mother said in broken English referring to a rumor that American husbands are less likely to cheat on their spouses than Thai husbands. I am not sure if this is a fact, or just hopeful thinking.
“Tell her, I think you are awesome, and we are good friends. But we are only friends and will only be friends.”
As Maya translated, her mother let out a continuous “mmm” while nodding her head. She went back to the kitchen and hummed a happy tune.
The day went on long, hot and sticky. Maya and I managed to come up with a Thai name for me. “Yim” was my new name, meaning smile. After my second shower, I strolled out of the bathroom, clean, and smelling like coconut soap. I stood in the evening sun. My wet bangs dangled in front of my eyes as the sun baked off the leftover moisture.
Maya’s mother hurried over. “Yim, Yim” She said, throwing my new name out like darts. She rattled on in Thai.
“She’s speaking too fast, what is she saying?” I asked Maya as she swung in a hammock under the hard shade of her house.
“I’m not translating that.” She yelled back.
“I don’t understand” I said and side-stepped away. She stepped too. I gave a wide smile and stepped again. She followed. I was a trapped animal.
For three times, each slower than the last, she explained. “I prayed to Lord Buddha that you and Maya would become a happy couple. I know that you two are only friends now, but whenever you want, you can come back and marry her.”
I gave an understanding chuckle.
“No you can’t Eric! I don’t want to marry you!” Maya shouted from the comfort of her swaying hammock.
“Ok, when I come back, maybe I will marry her.” I answered. Her mother let out a broad, gentle, broken toothed grin.
Maya threw her feet to the ground and stomped over, angry dust swarmed around her. “No you will not! Don’t tell her that! Don’t say it! I don’t want her telling me to marry you every time I call her. Just tell her you hate ladyboys like me, and that I am not really a woman, or that you only want a real woman who can give you babies. I know we’re not a couple, you know we’re not a couple, so just say something hurtful and mean so she will know we’re not a couple!”
“Maya is too angry for me, I can’t marry her. Maybe she is too dangerous”.
Her mother broke out in laughter “Maya is dangerous, like a tiger, maybe you should stay safe and not marry her!”
Maya stomped away. We watched her as the dust rose and settled. She threw herself back in the hammock and turned her head away from us.
“Ma pen rai” I said.
Her mother giggled and repeated “Mai pen rai”.