Amy Parker | Beasts & Children, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt | February 2016 | 30 minutes (7,639 words)
Our latest Longreads Exclusive is “Rainy Season,” a short story from Beasts & Children, Amy Parker’s acclaimed debut collection. The book’s interlinked stories unwind the lives of three families, casting a cool eye on the wreckage of childhood and the nuances of family history.
“Rainy Season” is nightmarish but entrancing—two young American sisters living in Thailand sneak out of their diplomatic compound and into the Chiang Mai night with a trio of Korean businessmen who have mistaken them for prostitutes. Parker’s sentences are lyrical and brutal, her gaze both kaleidoscopic and piercingly straightforward.
The maids are leaving the compound on their scooters. Maizie and Jill watch from the tennis court. The red clay is still hot, and when Jill closes her eyes the white fault lines linger behind her eyelids. Jill lobs a ball, and Maizie misses.
“There’s Neepa!” yells Maizie. Their maid’s nightly transformation — from a self-effacing shadow who sweeps the floors with a handleless broom to a glittering sexpot with flying hair and high-heeled feet — thrills Maizie.
The guards roll back the gates and the maids shoot out into the heat and noise of the city, their laughter high and bright as they perch sidesaddle behind their boyfriends and grip the seats when the scooters go over the potholes, catching air, fishtailing a little before regaining traction on the uneven street outside. The guards wave to the maids; the guards never salute them. Jill and Maizie stand there silently until the gate clangs closed.
“Where do you think they go?” Maizie asks.
“I don’t know,” Jill says. “To nightclubs. The way they’re dressed.”
“Do you think Neepa has sex?”
“Don’t be tacky, Maiz.”
Jill hits another ball, and Maizie ignores it.
“I just want to know.”
“It’s too hot to talk,” says Jill. “Go chase that ball you missed.”
It’s the rainy season in Chiang Mai, but the rains haven’t arrived. Songkran, the New Year’s water festival, has come and gone, and the mountain has yet to pull the stopper from its bath of cloud. Jill hates tropical heat. The heat’s intimacy drives her out of her thirteen-year-old skin.
Jill and her little sister, Maizie, have been in Chiang Mai for three months. Their father works at the consulate; his job is classified. Jill knows it has to do with drugs; they’re close to Burma and the Golden Triangle, and he goes north all the time. But Jill is too self-involved to care what her father does. She’s never had a boyfriend. She wonders what a kiss feels like. Not that she’ll find out here. Not on this compound, where she and Maizie are the only kids. They spend afternoons swatting flies and feeding them to Maizie’s turtle. Evenings they play tennis, sending the balls wild and high, sometimes over the compound gates, where they roll into gutters and are lost in the street.
Jill looks up at the darkening sky. Maizie crawls into the oleander to pick up balls. She’s lithe and her movements are purposeful. At eleven, she has no idea how pretty she’s becoming. In a year or two Maizie will be the pretty one. Her calves are smooth and tan and dusty, and she rattles the bushes, rolling balls out between her legs so that they come at Jill from all directions. Jill doesn’t bother to corral them. “I’m so bored!”
“Dad says only boring people are bored.”
“Easy for him to say, he gets to travel. And maybe it’s true for grownups. If you can do whatever you want, it’s your own fault if you’re bored. But when you’re younger, you’re a prisoner. You can’t do anything. If I could do whatever I wanted, I wouldn’t be bored.”
“What would you do?”
“I don’t know, go places. England. Italy. Someplace nice, with old buildings and museums. Oil paintings. Fountains. Someplace where Americans go to be creative. Not diplomatic. Like Paris. I’d stroll. See things. Go on rendezvous. I wouldn’t stay here.”
Through the netting enclosing the court, Jill can see their entire compound. It’s a box enclosing more boxes. It has high concrete walls tipped with barbed wire and glass, and a square metal gate on rollers. Weird pink flowers spring out at wild angles from the square clipped hedges, and crewcut lawns fight weeds that want to grow into tall flame-tipped trees. There are flippant palms, rosebushes, banana plants, jackfruit, lychee trees, and a strange, spindly bush with leaves that fold shut when you zip a finger down the central vein.
When their father goes away on government trips, Maizie and Jill stay up all night watching Gone with the Wind. They can’t sleep. They usually live with their mother, in various embassy dwellings in various nations. Australia most recently. They still have slight accents. But their mother’s in language training in D.C. for six months, and the government pays for housing only if you live overseas, and she can’t afford an apartment for the three of them. They’ll join her in Georgia (the country, not the state) later. Jill says they got sold down the river, abandoned in the jungle. The horror.
They’re supposed to be lucky. A chance to see the world! Broaden their horizons! Jill is sick of it. She feels dizzy, like a cartoon character treadmilling on a spinning globe. She’s never lived anywhere longer than two years. She’s never gotten used to the gates, the guards, the language she can’t read. Their father learned his parenting moves out of some ancient 1950s handbook. He’s needlessly strict and has blind spots you could parade an elephant through. Maizie and Jill aren’t allowed to pierce their ears until they’re sixteen, he says. But he goes on trips to the Golden Triangle and leaves them alone in the house.
He’s been gone for a week. He’s due back in a couple of days. The kitchen is stocked with sodas and commissary boxes of Tuna Helper. The house has a VCR and plenty of toilet paper. But Maizie and Jill can’t sleep, hence repeated viewings of Gone with the Wind. Jill reads the book on airplanes. It’s the right length for international flights. It blots things out, and there’s
no danger of coming to the end of it, of being stranded with no place to escape. You can board a flight with Scarlett and the Tarletons and be reassured that no matter how fast you read, you won’t hear Rhett not giving a damn until after you land. It’ll get you through unexpected layovers, even an eight-hour layover in the Bangkok airport, where a trumpet version of “The Impossible Dream” plays over and over.
The movie of Gone with the Wind is good too, nice and long. They have it memorized, and Maizie imitating Prissy makes Jill laugh. When the video ends, the two girls sneak out of their house and hop the pool fence. They turn off the pool lights and go skinny-dipping, pretending the guards care enough to enjoy being flashed. The girls’ father, even if he knew, wouldn’t care. There’s nowhere they can go. Maizie says, “Let’s go visit Moon-Face.”
[pullquote align=”center”]Just wait until you’re older, Maizie, thinks Jill. You’ll see.[/pullquote]
Moon-Face is their favorite guard. He likes Maizie to sit with him in the guard box at night. She’s taught him to play double solitaire. They wait until his partner dozes off, and then they play well into the night. Jill usually comes too, sitting behind her copy of Jane Eyre and peeking over it at the guard intent on his cards. Jill loves his crescent eyebrows and smile, loves the creases at the edges of his eyes and the playful snapsalute he gives them when they leave through the gates with their father. Maizie salutes him back. “Kap!” he says, and she says “Kap!” And that breaks him up, though the other guard glowers because it’s inappropriate for a little farang girl to use
a masculine term of respect, and it’s undignified for a guard to laugh at a consulate car.
Maizie gets away with familiarity because she’s young and cute. Her hair is still blond. Jill feels too tall for Thailand, too dark, and too chunky and uninteresting. Out in the markets, people smile at Maizie and press little gifts on her — embroidered felt vegetables, durian candies, tiny silver rings. The same people point and laugh at Jill, whose feet are so big that the only shoes that fit her in Thailand are men’s.
Just wait until you’re older, Maizie, thinks Jill. You’ll see.
Jill sits with them in the guardhouse, listening to the slap of the laminated cards and the sound of the night frogs. A tokay lizard calls from the bushes, and she counts the hiccupping cries — seven in a row is unlucky: you or someone you know is going to die. She looks at the hat Moon-Face has laid aside. She imagines sniffing the groove of the sweatband where it pressed against his forehead. She drums her fingers. She feels sweaty and her legs itch from a million bug bites. Nothing ever happens, unless she picks a fight with Maizie. Jill sighs. She thinks she hears a rumble of thunder. She sits up — maybe it will finally, finally rain. She can run out in the warm downpour, screaming into the wind. She can lean backwards into a wind so strong, it will hold her up like she is its fainting lover. She can let the rain drill her skull, part her hair, and flay her until she is wet and shining.
The thunder rumbles again, louder this time, but metallic, backed by drunken voices. Not rain, but people banging at the gate. It sounds like they’re kicking it, hitting it with fists. MoonFace’s partner rubs his nose, pulls himself slowly to his feet, and goes out with a flashlight. Moon-Face follows with a fistful of cards, and Maizie and Jill come after. Every once in a while groups of plastered tourists, usually Japanese, mistake their compound for the whorehouse located a few miles down the road. Both are brightly lit all night and have heavy steel gates that give out onto the street and high white walls tipped with broken bottles and razor wire. Moon-Face opens the pedestrian door, and Maizie and Jill crowd against him to get a good look.
Three men lean against one another, tripod style. Their business suits are sopping wet, and their ties are askew.
“Songkran ended two days ago,” Maizie says to Jill.
“Not for these guys.”
Two of the men look old; they have little bellies and their faces are lined. The third, a young man, appears the least drunk. One of the older men raises his head, unhitches a water pistol from his waistband, and squirts Moon-Face’s partner in the eye.
Moon-Face goes through the formalities, explaining the men’s mistake and giving them directions to the whorehouse. They don’t appear to understand any Thai. The youngest keeps bowing sheepishly, and each time he does, a blunt lock of his black hair falls into his eye. The two older men prod him impatiently with the noses of their water guns.
“English?” he asks Moon-Face hopefully.
Maizie muscles her way forward. Jill follows her out.
“He only knows how to say ‘We named the dog Indiana,’” Jill says to the men. The third episode of Indiana Jones is the only English-language movie in theaters. Jill and Maizie have been to see it eleven times, and that line about the dog tickled Maizie so much, she taught it to the guards.
The two older men straighten up and clap the young man on the back. One of them points to Maizie’s blond hair and grins. Jill moves closer and can smell the ferment on the men.
Up close she notices that one has a long, straight nose and a face shaped like a melon seed. The other is worse; his ears stick out and he has bad teeth.
“Wrong place!” shouts Maizie. Her white cotton T-shirt sticks to her back. She pushes a strand of hair behind her ear.
“Yes, please?” The young man turns to Jill.
“This American compound. No hookers,” says Maizie.
“Hooker?” he asks Jill.
“No . . .” — Maizie hesitates — “pussy.”
“What? He gets it.” She speaks loudly and distinctly, sweeping her arm in a broad arc. “Pussy down the street!”
The two old men vociferate — apparently the one word they catch is “pussy.” The young man’s face lights with comprehension. He looks directly at Jill and says, “Please forgive, I have shame.”
“Oh . . .” Her tongue feels thick and gawky. “It’s okay.”
He turns to his cohorts and explains. They look at Maizie, laughing, and their eyes gleam.
[pullquote align=”center”]The air outside the compound seems fluid — not cooler, exactly, but less still, and filled with exciting smells — alcohol and motor oil and the lingering smokiness of the fields. [/pullquote]
Melon-Head steps forward and takes Maizie’s hand. She twists away, wiping it on her cutoffs. Bad-Teeth says something to the young man. And then the young man looks at Jill.
“You come with us, please?”
Tuk-tuks hung with garlands and colored lights buzz past on the street. The young man’s hands are pale and tame. She looks up at the sky. Clouds race. The moon is a dim smudge.
“Jill! Are you crazy?”
The air outside the compound seems fluid — not cooler, exactly, but less still, and filled with exciting smells — alcohol and motor oil and the lingering smokiness of the fields.
“Drink, some boogie, we not bad men, please.”
He has a way of working his upper lip with his bottom teeth.
The teeth pull and release in a slow drag that brings red to the well-cut wave of his lip.
“Okay,” she says.
“Jill, no!” says Maizie.
The young man’s shirt sticks to him, transparent against his chest. Goose bumps stand out on his neck. He looks at her, and it makes her dizzy.
“We’re not supposed to go out alone!”
“So? Dad’s not here. Are you going to tell?”
“They think we’re hookers.”
“No, they don’t. I’m going.”
“You can stay here like a baby if you want. I don’t want you to come, anyway. Go home, Maizie.”
Maizie looks at Jill, and then at the young man.
“Just because you want some guy to kiss you.”
The businessmen giggle. Jill sees the long red shape of a songtao and flags it down. It pulls up and she scrambles aboard, defiant. The men follow.
“Jill!” Maizie stands in the doorway of the pedestrian gate. Her face is white and drawn. She looks very small, and so pretty. Beside her, the guards consult each other. One of them picks up the gatehouse phone.
[pullquote align=”center”]For as long as Jill can remember, Maizie has embarrassed her by being — what’s the word for it? Better. More pure of heart.[/pullquote]
“You’re so selfish, Jill! Why are you so selfish?”
Jill closes her eyes so she doesn’t have to see the anguish on Maizie’s face. For as long as Jill can remember, Maizie has embarrassed her by being — what’s the word for it? Better. More pure of heart. If Jill is Scarlett, then Maizie is Melanie. She doesn’t tell lies. She never pretends to be someone else, doesn’t change the way she talks according to who is listening. She’s better at everything than Jill and never does anything wrong. And it’s so easy to hurt her. It isn’t fair. Jill grits her teeth.
Moon-Face runs forward, waving his white-gloved hands at the driver. The driver answers back. The Korean men pound on the glass, bounce in their seats, urging the driver to go. The engine revs.
Moon-Face frowns, shouting at the driver. Jill’s dad told her once that if a Thai person shouts, which is almost never, violence is sure to follow. Thais never show anger, he said, unless they’re about to go berserk.
Jill can’t remember how to say stop in Thai. She feels sick.
“Wait for me!” Maizie runs out of the gate and hurls herself into the back of the songtao. The old men clap with glee and reach for her. She holds her hands out like a shield. She’s shaking.
“I hate you, Jill. You’re getting us in trouble.”
“I don’t care.”
Jill is almost relieved when the songtao starts to pull away.
“Dad’s way north. Even if they call him, what can he do? He’s not here. Besides, we’re Americans. Dad says Thai people assume all Americans are immoral, so for all they know, we’re allowed to go out.”
“Moon-Face chased us. Didn’t you see him chasing us?”
“Whatever. The guards probably think we’re both whores waiting to happen.”
“They’re my friends!”
“Not anymore. Now they think you’re a slut, because you came with me.”
Jill hates herself for being cruel to Maizie, but it feels good, too.
They sit on the benches in the back of the red songtao. Every time the truck hits a rut they all bang knees. The two older men hold on to each other and laugh. They’re very drunk.
“This Mr. Yoo. This Mr. Lim,” says the young man. The two older men, Melon-Head and Bad-Teeth, bow.
“My name, Kyung Moon. You know moon?”
“Someone will come for us,” Maizie insists.
“I doubt it,” says Jill.
“Do you think Moon-Face will get fired?” asks Maizie.
Jill hadn’t thought of that. “I’ll say it’s my fault,” she says.
“They can’t fire him if it’s my fault. Can they?”
Maizie settles back with a frown. “They better not. I’ll really hate you, then.”
The songtao hits a rut and they are lofted. Jill feels the rush of her insides — a swoop of stomach, a flush in each breast. The hairs all over her body tighten, as if she’s stepped into a hot bath.
“Are you Japanese?” Jill asks Kyung, turning away from Maizie as brightly as possible.
Mr. Yoo makes an offensive gesture. Mr. Lim blows a long horse breath through his rubbery lips.
“Korean!” he says.
The conversation jolts along in the careful bad grammar of international English. They piece together that Lim and Yoo own an electronics company and want to set up factories in Thailand. Kyung is an engineer. They live in a sort of bunker in the foothills. Eighty Korean men, sleeping in shifts, working eighty hours a week. They get three days of leave every six weeks. This is the last day of their leave.
Maizie sings under her breath the way she does when she’s nervous. The wind butts through the vents of the songtao and lifts tassels of her hair. It blows Jill’s hair into a sheep’s nest.
“Why are we stopping?” Maizie whispers.
Mr. Lim and Mr. Yoo go to a white gate and negotiate with a guard. They hand over a wad of baht mixed with U.S. dollars. A woman comes outwearing a shiny yellow dress and a boa of blond fur. She squeezes into the truck between Maizie and Jill. This woman is exactly the same size as Maizie. The woman notices this and taps Maizie on the chest conspiratorially. She perches as far forward as she can without falling off the seat. When the truck hits a bump she flies into Mr. Lim’s lap, laughing.
The fur thrown around her neck opens its eyes and bares black gums in a yawn. It’s a monkey, a golden gibbon. The woman unwinds it from her neck and makes it sit on the floor at her feet. It closes long fingers around her ankle while she burrows into her purse and pulls out a miniature diaper. She leans down, showing little breasts that sway inside her dress, and pins the diaper on the gibbon.
“Ich heisse Heidi,” she says to them. “Das ist meine Nico. My baby.”
Heidi knocks on the cab window and speaks to the driver. He makes an abrupt U-turn, and they drive past a field of sunflowers under the moon, a huge field, acres deep. Jill recognizes that field: it’s next to their favorite billboard near the compound. It’s hand-painted, sometimes advertising bloody Chinese movies, but this month it’s painted with hypodermic needles and skeletons, a frieze of dancing condoms, erect cocks, and skulls.
“We could hop out right here,” Maizie whispers to Jill.
Jill’s tempted. They could just walk back to the compound and watch Gone with the Wind again. But Kyung catches her eye and smiles, and Jill shrinks. She reaches for Maizie’s hand and squeezes it.
They pull into a dark driveway and stop. Heidi slithers out, Nico knuckling after.
“What’s this?” says Maizie.
The men shrug and follow. Jill hops out and sees light glimmering on greenery — moonlight and shadows. Bamboo rustles.
They’re in a sacred grove. Candles twinkle from a spirit house set up on a stilt. Next to it, life-size, sits a black iron statue of the starving Buddha. Candles gutter at the statue’s base. Broken incense sticks lean at drunken angles in little pots of ash.
The statue shouldn’t be beautiful, but it is. Buddha is skeletal, his sinews caved around curving bones. His ribs stand out, his sternum juts below his corded neck. The expression on his face is one of infinite weariness and pity, but so tender that Jill catches her breath. Visitors have pressed tiny squares of gold leaf onto his body. The gold leaves tremble in the air, bright gold against the black iron, so that the statue appears to vibrate.
Jill ignores her sister, ignores the men. She steps closer. She wants to touch the knob of Buddha’s knee, run her fingers over the concavities of his stomach, chest, and cheek.
Heidi hands Nico to Maizie, and Heidi’s posture changes — she becomes graceful, reverent. She slips off her high heels and glides forward. She drops into a prostration, rises, lights a candle, dips a stick of incense to the flame, touches it to her forehead, and places it in the cup of ashes in front of the Buddha. She puts her palms together, bows, and stands in front of the statue. The men hang back. Maizie strokes Nico’s head. The gibbon hooks one arm around Maizie’s neck and picks through her hair.
Jill, too moved to keep silent, has to spoil it. “I thought Buddhas were fat,” she says.
“Before he Lord Buddha, he no eat, long time, long time,” says Kyung. “He try, try. Old way. Many days, he no eat, and he look like this.”
“Was he on a hunger strike?” Maizie asks.
“He close to dying. Still he sit, no eat. Then a girl come.” Kyung looks at Jill. “Like you.” He smiles. “She give Buddha ice cream.”
“Ice cream. For respect. He holy man, she give respect.”
Jill shakes her head. She can’t follow what he’s saying.
“Lord Buddha not want to hurt feelings, so he quit starving and decide to eat.”
“Why was he starving himself? What was he doing?”
Kyung looks puzzled. “I do not understand.”
“Can you explain what he was doing? Why wouldn’t he eat? Why did he eat ice cream? Why did they make a statue of him starving? Don’t you think it’s kind of sick?”
Kyung frowns. “He eat ice cream. He sit under tree. He awaken. This show determination.”
Mr. Lim and Mr. Yoo squirt Heidi with their guns. She turns on them, furious. But she draws a smile around her fury and leashes it with painted lips. The gibbon chews an incense stick, swinging from tree to tree. Heidi whistles for Nico. They all get back into the songtao.
“Love time!” shouts Mr. Yoo.
“Happy time!” shouts Mr. Lim.
All the nights in Chiang Mai are dreamlike, a rush of scents and neon, soft black mountains, low walls tipped with broken glass, children on bicycles, men selling pinwheels of colored lights, a blur of marionettes on a sidewalk, streetlights, fragments Jill recognizes but can never fit together. Traffic slows. They’re near the Night Bazaar, in the center of town. They idle behind a truck full of pigs. Heidi yips at the driver in an electrifying torrent of Thai, then, digging at Maizie and Jill with her pointy shoes and tugging the men’s ties, she forces them all out.
Jill follows the group into a tiny bar whirling with colored light. She feels Maizie stumbling behind her, gripping the back of her T-shirt so they won’t be separated. The light pulses, strobing and uneven, and the air pulses, too, with the smell of alcohol, cigarettes, air freshener, and perfume. A bank of televisions plays karaoke, a white ball bouncing from word to word, a miked voice wails Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time,” off-key. Jill’s hip bumps a table and upsets a woman’s drink, and the woman squawks. Kyung bows and grins and flings baht. He steadies Jill’s elbow and then strokes the small of her back with his palm. It makes her legs weak and she stumbles again. Yoo and Lim push them forward to a table near the stage. Maizie sits down and puts her hands over her ears.
Heidi sits in Mr. Yoo’s lap. The gibbon clings to her neck and grabs with its back feet for Mr. Yoo’s hands, which are trawling in Heidi’s dress front.
“You like drink?” asks Mr. Lim.
“Thai iced tea,” says Maizie.
“Me too, please,” says Jill.
“No Thai iced tea here for American girl,” says Mr. Lim.
“Long Island iced tea. You try. You like.”
The tea arrives in schooners spinning with ice. Jill takes a sip.
“It’s okay, Maiz. Tastes like Snapple.” Funny aftertaste, though. But then, Thai drinks are all kind of weird. She should have asked for a Sprite, if only to hear the waitress repeat it, “sa-plite,” which makes her smile.
“I like Thai iced tea better,” says Maizie ungraciously, but she drinks anyway.
“Thirsty!” Mr. Lim says. “Good, you drink.”
Maizie bends forward and sips. Lim orders her another.
“You how old?” asks Kyung.
“Sixteen,” lies Jill.
“I twenty-three,” he says. “You, boyfriend?”
Jill blushes. “No.” She twirls the ice in her tea with the straw.
“Very beautiful, you,” says Kyung.
He puts a hand on her knee, moving his fingers delicately, just under the ruffle of her skirt. His fingers feel cool, deliberate, and mindless. Jill jiggles her leg, tries to scoot closer to Maizie. His fingers lift, return, then settle higher under the skirt.
Mr. Lim mounts the stage. The white ball bounces on the monitors.
“‘Like a Prayer’! I love this song!” Jill says.
Maizie leans in and whispers, “Jill, I want to go.”
“I don’t have any money!”
“That’s not my fault. I didn’t ask you to come.”
“Please, Jill. Can we just go? I feel sick, and I’m really sleepy.”
“Nico keeps touching my hair, Jill. I’m scared.”
“She’s grooming you. It’s because you’re blond. You and Nico. Two dumb blondes. I’m staying.”
Kyung’s fingers lift, then settle higher up under Jill’s skirt. She doesn’t know if she wants him to stop or continue. She can’t move. She can feel her heart, and every inch of skin. She gulps her drink and glares at Maizie.
“I’m going to find a phone and call Dad,” says Maizie.
Jill glances at Kyung to see if he understands this. He nods to the music, smiling.
“Okay,” Jill says. “We can go, I swear. Just finish your tea, okay? Please? We never have fun.”
“This isn’t fun! They’re old, Jill. And Heidi’s a prostitute.
What if she has AIDS?”
“Shut up, she’ll hear!”
“Do you promise we can go?”
“I promise! I swear.”
Maizie gulps her tea and hoovers the straw around the remaining ice cubes. “There,” she says. “All done.” She stands up, staggers, and crumples back into her chair. “Jill?” Her eyes are squinty and confused.
“Serves you right,” Jill says.
Maizie lays her head on the table.
“Sleepy!” laughs Mr. Yoo. He hauls Maizie upright and pins her with his arms. He shakes her back and forth in time to the music. Heidi straddles her and paints Maizie’s eyes with a glittering green wand. The gibbon eats lychees. Onstage, Mr. Lim is singing surprisingly well. Maizie, Jill sees, is crying. She knows she should go to her, but Kyung’s arm hangs around Jill’s neck and his pale hand inches down toward her breast. One finger traces the little curve by her armpit. Adrenaline detonates her heart. Heidi paints Maizie’s lips and Nico picks through her hair. Maizie struggles. Nico crouches over her and mumbles at the crown of Maizie’s head. Kyung is stroking Jill’s breast now, grazing the nipple with his fingertips, tickling around the sides. Onstage, Mr. Lim brings his song home.
[pullquote align=”center”]Adrenaline detonates her heart. [/pullquote]
Kyung slides his hand up past the elastic of her underpants and plunges a finger into her. Jill gasps. She is all slippery but it hurts. His finger works deeper. She tries to pull away but Kyung’s other hand squeezes her breast and she can’t move. Inside her is a wave she suspected when touching herself all alone, but this is different because it hurts and she can’t get away. Then Kyung leans in to kiss her, and his tongue, thick with liquor and cold, wraps her tongue and she can’t breathe. She doesn’t know how to kiss back, and she can’t breathe, so she, too panicked to care that they’re in public, she bites him.
Kyung pulls back with a bleeding lip. He swears in Korean and pushes the table, hard. Glasses rattle, ice spills. Heidi dismounts Maizie’s chair and slinks over to Kyung, cooing. She fishes ice up from the table, wraps it in a napkin, and presses it to Kyung’s mouth. She strokes his hair with a free hand, presses her breasts against his arm, which steals out and encircles her. They glare at Jill. Jill stands up. Her legs are shaking and her stomach feels confused and her thighs are damp. Her chair clatters backwards because her legs don’t want to hold her up. She shakes Maizie, who blinks, her eyes gummed green, her lips swollen.
“Let’s go,” Jill says.
“What’s wrong with you, Maizie?”
Jill feels dizzy, the lights popping on and off and the karaoke ball bouncing.
Kyung is kissing Heidi, and the gibbon climbs onto Maizie’s shoulders. Mr. Lim gives it a cigarette, which it smokes. The lit end of the cigarette singes Maizie’s hair, and Jill douses it with tea. The gibbon shrieks and shows its teeth.
“Jill,” says Maizie, “get it off me.”
Jill pulls on the gibbon, but it’s much stronger than it looks and she recalls that a monkey is strong enough to break a person’s arm if it wants, so she hauls Maizie to her feet and makes her jump up and down, but the gibbon won’t let go. It hooks its fingers under Maizie’s chin and raises its eyebrows, flashing its eyelids in warning.
Yoo and Lim are on stage together sharing a microphone, and Kyung has buried his face in Heidi’s cleavage.
“Let’s just run,” Jill says. “If we run, it’ll let go.”
Jill pulls Maizie through the crowd, pushing aside chairs and butting against sweaty-backed Australian men who hoot at them, past twinkling women with glittering eyes — so many tiny women in scanty dresses, all of them laughing, the bar roaring with laughter, and dimly, as Jill pushes and burrows into the crowd, hauling her tottering sister, she hears Heidi screaming for Nico, who won’t let go. They stagger out onto the street.
Jill hesitates in the blur of traffic and flashing lights, pedestrians stumbling, tourists laughing, ragged boys, and little girls with babies strapped to their backs approaching with outstretched hands, and why hasn’t it rained? Rain would make everything clear again. Jill tries to flag a tuk-tuk, but none of them stop for her. The crowd drags the sisters down the pavement and into the dark beyond the Night Bazaar.
They’re near the klang, one of the city’s canals, along the old temple wall. It looks familiar, like a place she’s seen through the smoked panes of the consulate car. Maybe they’re closer to home than she thought.
“Jill,” says Maizie, “Nico won’t let go. I can’t breathe.”
The little hands are bruising Maizie’s throat.
“Spin around really fast,” says Jill.
“Maybe if you jump in the water?”
“I can’t jump in there! It’s dark. Dad says it’s sewage.”
“No, it isn’t. We see kids swimming in there.”
“You can swim.”
“Jill, don’t make me. It smells like poop.”
“There are water lilies, look.”
There are, a drift of them, spinning in a path of light.
“Just stay in the light. Duck the monkey under. It’ll let go.”
“No!” Maizie sways. The monkey grins.
Jill hears a splash and a cry, and then nothing.
Jill leans out over the bank. Lights gleam on the water, on the lilies with their pale blades closed up for the night.
Maizie cries, “She won’t let go!” She scrabbles at the bank. The water’s shallow but the banks are high. The gibbon pulls at Maizie’s shirt. She shivers, with the golden monkey riding her shoulders.
Jill lies on her stomach and holds out her arms. But she isn’t strong enough to pull Maizie up over the bank. The gibbon makes her heavy.
“Why won’t it let go?” Maizie wails.
“I don’t know! Oh my god. I’m sorry. I’ll go find a phone. I’ll call Dad. I’m sorry, Maizie.”
“Don’t leave me by myself!”
From the shadow of a tree a figure detaches itself. It’s some white tourist guy, punked out with spiky hair and wearing skinny black jeans and a Ramones T-shirt.
She hails him. “Please, do you speak English?”
He wades into the water, Doc Martens and all, and picks up Maizie and hoists her onto the bank. Then he hops it himself and walks off, back to his tree. Wait, Jill wants to say, don’t go, but the man comes back carrying a candy box. He opens it to reveal a nest of white balloons, at least a dozen, uninflated but bulging. He works a finger into the neck of one and his finger emerges dusted with white powder. “What’s her name?” he asks Jill.
“Maizie,” Jill says.
Smoothly, he strokes the gibbon with his undusted hand, murmuring in a high and childlike voice, “Who’s a little baby? Who’s a good little Maizie girl?”
“No, Maizie is my sister. The monkey’s name is Nico.”
He pets Nico. “Actually, gibbons are small apes,” he says. “They’re going extinct. Golden ones are supposed to be protected. But nothing ever is.” He says this without blame, just stating it. “Nico. That’s a perfect name.”
He scratches the gibbon around the neck and shoulders. The gibbon tips its head and smiles, and the man rubs white powder on Nico’s shining black gums. The monkey rolls her eyes, sucks her teeth. The man strokes her.
“That’s it,” he says. “Who’s my good little ape?”
Nico sighs, gurgles, and falls to the ground.
Jill crouches by the fallen gibbon. Her eyes are closed. Her chest rises in little pants, and her lips and eyelids tremble. Nico moans like a baby, then twitches and goes still.
“Is it dying?”
“I think maybe,” says the man.
“This is all my fault.”
[pullquote align=”center”]“There,” he says, “at least you don’t have to be a person anymore.”[/pullquote]
Next to them, Maizie curls herself into a ball, shivering. Jill aches all over. Her throat burns. She is so ashamed. There’s no taking Nico back to Heidi, no way to find the bar again in all that dark, bright tangle. But maybe Nico will wake up, climb the flame tree, and spend the rest of its life eating jackfruit and throwing flowers into the klang.
“Poor monkey,” she whispers.
The man gathers Nico in his arms. He squeezes her feet. When she doesn’t respond, he kisses her on the lips. No, not kisses. He’s giving her mouth-to-mouth. Jill wants to giggle, but she can’t. Mouth-to-mouth on a monkey. But Nico doesn’t breathe. He unpins her diaper then, and flings it away. He lays her naked in the grass at the foot of the flame tree.
“There,” he says, “at least you don’t have to be a person anymore.”
“I’m sorry,” Jill says.
“Hey, don’t cry,” the man says. “Come on. You can help me. I need someone with me tonight. I don’t want to be alone. You guys can help me now.”
“No more,” Jill says. “I want to go home.”
“You’re drunk. You’ll never get home like that,” he says.
“Come with me. I promise to get you home.”
Maizie is moaning among the tree roots, and at least he understands English, so Jill nods. They braid themselves around Maizie to help her walk.
“Come on,” he says to Jill. “I’ve got a hotel room. We can clean up there. Hold this.”
He gives her the candy box. He doesn’t ask any questions and he speaks English and Jill feels relieved to be rescued by someone who speaks English, in spite of knowing what’s in the box. It has nothing to do with her life, none of it.
“What’s your name?” she asks.
“It used to be Peter Pandemonium. Sometimes Peter Panic. I don’t know what it will be when I get back home.”
“Hi,” he says, with that strange child’s voice again.
In the hotel lobby he presses the elevator button, and the doors open and they lean together in the lifting mirrored space, all three of them, a skeleton man holding up a little girl covered in mud and a third, a girl, standing a little apart, and reasonably clean. She’s holding a candy box and staring at herself as if to reassure herself that she’s real.
They put Maizie under the shower and wash the klang mud from her clothes and the makeup from her face, and while she pukes Peter stirs the puddles so they dissolve down the drain. He gives her a hotel toothbrush and helps her brush her teeth, and then he discreetly shuts the door while Jill undresses Maizie and washes her again, and dries her. He passes clean clothes through the door, skinny black jeans Maizie barely fits into, his Ramones T-shirt, which hangs on her like a dress, and socks with skeletons on them. He tucks Maizie into the big hotel bed and puts the wastebasket next to her in case she pukes again.
Without his shirt he is the thinnest person Jill’s ever seen. There are track marks on his arms.
He asks Jill if she wants to order some food.
“You’re the skinny one,” she says. “You’re the one who’s starving.”
“I can’t eat anything,” he says. “It makes me puke. But I’ll have a beer with you.”
“You should eat ice cream,” she says. “Ice cream is good if you haven’t eaten in a long time.”
“I can’t afford to throw up,” he says. “I have this thing to do.”
White balloons in a pink candy box.
[pullquote align=”center”]He tells her he’s doing it because what’s in the balloons creates a bliss so perfect that ordinary life ceases to matter; even sickness, even dying, can’t hold out against the bliss.[/pullquote]
“I have to smuggle them back. Hide them away in this old skin bag,” he says, looking down at himself. This man is someone her father would arrest, if he could, and hand over, if he knew. He’s one of the bad guys. He’s doing what she has only heard about and never really believed.
He tells her he’s doing it because what’s in the balloons creates a bliss so perfect that ordinary life ceases to matter; even sickness, even dying, can’t hold out against the bliss. Weeks ago, back in the States, he faced a mirror and saw he was close to death, but health and the body seemed just an illusion compared to bliss. So he lay down in perfect bliss and died. Then an EMT ungraciously brought him back, and everything was different. He was different, because the bliss was an illusion. The bliss would kill you. The bliss killed bliss.
So he came here to swallow the balloons, to carry the bliss to people who still believe in it, because that’s all he can do, if he wants to start again, if he wants to quit. To start a new life you need money. So he’ll do it just this once. He’ll get fifteen thousand dollars for it, which sounds like a lot to Jill. But she knows the risk. Her father talks about Thai prison. Or capture stateside.
He’ll take the money and hit Mexico, he says, where you can buy opium-based cough syrup to get through the worst of withdrawal. Then he’s going to Santa Fe. He’s heard the vibe there is good. He’ll drink his way through the rest. But you need money to quit. You need money to get by until you’ve quit.
The balloons look like shriveled eggs. Jill nudges one.
“I wish,” he says, “I’d had a chance to see an opium flower before I did this.”
“Are you scared?” Jill asks. “What if they catch you?”
He draws water into a glass.
“You shouldn’t drink local water,” says Jill. “It will make you sick.”
“Just sit with me and make sure I don’t choke.”
So she sits in the chair and watches over him. Maizie snores from the bed, and Jill sits as tense as a stick, willing him ease and peace. The balloon is on his tongue. He tips his head back, and the balloon sticks in his throat. He gulps from the glass and closes his eyes. The balloon moves down his throat and Jill imagines it landing in his stomach. She wonders about the strength of the knot. He swallows a second, and a third. His eyes are watering. His lips are cracked and chapped and he needs a shave.
She jumps up and refills his glass. He drinks and swallows, and drinks again. He jiggles a balloon, testing the knot. He drinks. Finally the box is empty. The balloons are all inside him. But he drank the water. If he got a bad case of the Thailand trots, would the balloons simply slither out of him — in the toilet of the plane, maybe, or in the airport bathroom? And even if he makes it back into the States — then what? He has no gated walls; no one will salute or scold him. He is free.
Jill can’t stand the pity of it. She reaches for him. She holds him tightly in her arms, pressing her cheeks painfully into his spiked hair. I am so selfish, she thinks. And then he kisses her. His mouth is awkward and hungry. It tastes bad, and his lips are so chapped, they scratch and catch on hers. Jill is afraid of all the things she, a virgin, and a good girl, never quite believed in — AIDS, prison, death — but she doesn’t pull away. She kisses him back. More out of shame than anything. And she understands this about herself — that her shame will endanger her again and again. That curiosity and shame will bring her lip to lip with all of it, all the germs and uncertainties and suffering and terror from which nothing, certainly not her nationality, certainly not her virginity, will protect her. And part of her rejoices. But mostly she feels horror, and then a settled dread. She pulls away from him and runs to the bathroom, where she gives in to the urge to rinse her mouth.
[pullquote align=”center”]I thought it would be beautiful,” she says. “I thought it would be different from this.[/pullquote]
Peter is not bad. But he is, she realizes, contagious. He carries the accident of his life and spreads it. And so does she. She buries her head in her hands. And, not for the last time, she prays. Let it be okay. I get it, I understand, you don’t have to punish me; I see it, please, let us be okay. Let us all be okay.
He knocks on the door. Jill opens it.
“You should go home now,” he says. “I’ll be okay.”
He gives Jill a fistful of baht and rouses Maizie, who is groggy and who, in spite of her shower, reeks. Jill wants to stay here, in his clean, cold room with its generic Western lines, its purple orchid bedspread and photograph of the king and queen. It’s safe here. She’s no one. She wants to be no one always, in a cold room where no one would ever dream she’d be, where her life won’t touch anything or hurt anyone or make things spoiled. She doesn’t want to want anything. It no longer seems worth the risk.
“I thought it would be beautiful,” she says. “I thought it would be different from this.”
He paces. She watches his bare feet on the carpet.
“It should add up to more than this. It’s supposed to mean more than this. Isn’t it?”
“I don’t know,” he tells her, “but you have to get yourself home.”
He paces the room, rubbing his stomach; he cracks a beer and pours it past cracked lips, and she imagines the balloons in his gut rising to float on the golden foam.
Maizie lists hot and damp against her, and Jill holds her hard because the tuk-tuk bounces and swerves and they could spill out into the traffic. It would be so easy — the seat is slick and gummy and Jill is so tired. Maizie is coming awake now, leaning out of the tuk-tuk to vomit. Remember this, Jill tells herself, remember all of it, don’t let it become a dream, remember it, hold on.
The tuk-tuk slows. The driver gestures at Maizie, looking at the two of them in disgust. He pulls over. Mai di, he says, mai ow. Jill gives their address again, insists. The driver shakes his head. But it’s all right. Jill recognizes the road, the great field of sunflowers beside the AIDS billboard with its skeletons and needles.
The driver stops beside the ditch, and Jill pays him and pulls on Maizie, who wakes up without surprise. They step out beside the field of sunflowers, holding hands. Rows of sunflowers radiate back and back, a thousand bright mandalas wheeling against the line of mountains, where the sun is rising. On the mountains, racing clouds are blue-heavy, and a breeze kicks up and stirs the girls’ hair. Jill hears thunder and smells ozone.
The girls stagger through the bright green grasses in the ditch, following the line of barbed wire that leads back to their compound, where, no doubt, there will be explanations, and punishment, and soda cans in the fridge. Sunflower petals come flying on the wind, damp and torn. They stick to Maizie’s face, cling to Jill’s neck, so the two of them are pasted all over with yellow petals, every inch of their drenched skin.