Saturday, April 22, 2017

Rains Moving Over the Land like Sheets Flapping in the Wind


Usually, I don’t mind the heat. But lately it’s been confining. When I’m not at work, I feel drained, not tired enough to sleep, but just to be still like a cat that seems put out by the need to make the slightest movement. I come home and collapse into something, then slowly, I pick myself up and head lackadaisically in the direction of the shower not to clean myself but to cool my burning skin—burning not from sunburn but from the warmth which gradually builds up in the blood and works it way outward until the entire body is red, pulsing and febrile.

I take showers three or four times a day, only in attempt to cool off. I don’t even bother with the airconditioner. It’d be like trying to cool a lava flow with a fan. In the evening, the heat gradually creeps back over my body, invading my dreams with the strange images discomfort usually brings on and finally waking me around around 12:30 and again around 2:30. Every night it’s the same time. I guess it’s when I reach some kind of critical point.

Yesterday was Sunday. Gina had to work so I spent the day at home by myself. I had the fans going, but it didn’t make much difference. The hot air was whirling around our apartment. Even with the window shades closed, it had found a way in. Drying the laundry was easy. When I went to take the clothes off the rack I’d hung them from out in the sun, the were stiff, like they’d been starched from the intense heat of the sun; I expected the colors to be a little bleached but they looked ok. I sat in the living room, reading Henry James, drinking coffee and feeling like I was in one of those colonial stories in which the British Army conscript goes nuts from the heat (and cultural differences) in Burma and starts drinking gin at all hours of the day until he’s just a husk of a person peeping out redly from under his pith helmet. The fan was making a whining noise and, outside the door, I could hear the heat radiating off things, sounding like a faint zipper gradually moving up and down the tines.

In the afternoon—no time to be outside—I got sick of being in the house and decided to go down to the supermarket. I took another shower, put on my hat and sunglasses and threw myself out of the apartment, the way a person dives into a cold body of water, all at once and grimacing in expectation.

Even the dogs were all in, having found shelter in shallow holes they’d dug under the rubbery shade of banana leaves. The afternoon, was completely still and I trudged through it like a hunted man unable to stop moving. The only other person I saw on the street carried a huge sun umbrella and didn’t look to be going far.

The heat has made me too lazy to do much studying. My progress in Thai stopped before it got beyond ‘hello’ and ‘ thank you,’ but sometimes I still try to read signs I pass by. Because Thai is a tonal language and I don’t know how to recreate the tones, even reading things doesn’t mean I’m saying the word right and because there’s such a drastic difference between the regular alphabet and this simplified version (which looks a lot more like the Latin alphabet, only upsidedown) that I’m often unsure if it’s an ‘L’ or and ‘R’ I’m looking at. Also, depending on where the ‘L’ is in the word, it becomes and ‘N’ anyway and I’m not at all sure how the hell that works so even trying to read signs is entirely unsuccessful for me. But the languor brought on by the heat somehow made it possible to concentrate on useless things and I watched one sign as I approached, puzzling over the letters. An ‘M’ and an ‘N’ were next to each other, above each a vowel mark, one of the few I knew, the character for /i/. ‘Ahh ‘mini’ I thought to myself. ‘Surely the next part must be...’ and I looked up to confirm it. ‘Mart’ I finished reading the word. The first I think I’ve ever read in Thai. After that, the walk wasn’t so bad.

I stumbled back through my threshold about two hours later after waiting in a Sunday-afternoon line and walking the length back with a week’s worth of potatoes and other heavy vegetables on my back. I was set to collapse into my book again, but I wanted to start something for dinner. Having been the one who’d been home all day, I didn’t want to fall down in my domestic duties. I’d bought all this stuff for pizza and I prepared to put on some music and make the dough, but then I remembered that the dough didn’t take very long to make so the music seemed pointless. I would listen to it for a few minutes and then be left standing there, staring at the rising dough, waiting for the album to finish. (I’m terrible at turning off records before they’ve played out).

I sprinkled some yeast into a bowl of warm water and looked around for the other ingredients. I was having a hell of a time trying to remember how much of each thing I needed and kept having to go back and check again. I’d measured out the sugar and the olive oil (well just used the last little bit in the bottle) and then realized we had no sugar. After having walked about 2 miles round trip back and forth to the supermarket, I had zero desire to go back outside, but the dough needed to rise for a while and to do that, it needed sugar. In angry jerking motions, I pulled my sweaty shirt back on and went stumbling back out into the mid-day oven.

The little shop down the street had a bag of sugar for me and happily, I came heaving back into the apartment not long after I left, little succor that it provided from the heat, but at least I was able to peel my shirt off again. Outside, it was terrible the way the thing clung to me like an oily rag, suffocating, trapping the heat like a wool sweater. I added the sugar, stirred in the flour, took another shower and then put a different shirt on (my third that day) to go meet Gina.

I brought a thermos full of tea as I still believe the idea that hot beverages and somehow cooling on hot days. Maybe I don’t even believe this, but I just can’t derive the standard satisfaction from cool beverages. When it’s hot, the only thing I want to drink is water and when it’s too cold you can’t gulp it down, which is what you usually need to do. Drinking room temperature water has never been something I’ve relished doing unless I’ve let myself get really dehydrated.

We went down to the riverfront to drink our tea and look out over the chocolate milk-colored water of the Taipee River. They were out there taking down the stages and awnings that had been up for the food festival for the last two weeks. We’d gone down to see it the previous weekend. Lots of grilled fish, roasted grubs and squid flattened and dried like fruit leather but in all the stalls, nothing vegetarian—and there must’ve been over 100 in all. We’d bought a little package of the hearts of jackfruit which I’d puzzled over eating—cantaloupe, pineapple and a hint of gasoline, like a whiff of it on a summer day when the lawn is being mown.

We stepped over the piles of girders and folded pillows of sailcloth and went down to the pavilion-like steps leading down to the water. I poured the tea and we talked about our day. I mentioned the ‘minimart’ sign. Gina talked about a kid who absolutely refused to do anything at all in her class, even hold a pencil. She was telling me about a worksheet the students had been doing when the water stirred and swirled in an agitated way at our feet. A long, scaled green head rose peacefully from the water, a head the size of a small alligator but that looked more like a python with much more rugged scales. The lizard glanced around over the surface of the water. He was hardly concerned with our presence as through he were quite used to petrifying people. We stared in absolute amazement as he flicked a tongue about the color and width of a power line, licorice black and lashing like a whip. His eyes, the same lustered black, scarcely regarded us before he slipped, slowly back into the murky water, like he’d never even been there.

We ran down to where the pavilion steps met the water, jumped up and down and swore at the magic that we’d just witnessed, begging it to come back, but knowing that it didn’t work that way.

We went back to our seats, keeping an eye on the water, waiting for it to disgorge another dinosaur that had escaped extinction laying in the river mud in southern Thailand.

When I was a kid,” I told Gina. “That was why I wanted to move to the tropics. I knew things like that happened. That was like something from a Marquez novel.” Gina agreed and while the sun set, we continued to marvel at the oily dark surface of the river able to let our minds revert to juvenile states and imagine the water boiling with the frenzied movements of the grotesque and the inspiring.

We watched the water until a jet ski roared by and destroyed the primordial fantasy we’d built from the river. It was just another modern river, wending its way past a city filled with people, buildings and cars, but there was at least one monster in there and one’s all it takes to keep things from getting too comfortable.


I was exhausted yesterday. A storm was coming. The heat had been swaddled in a heavy blanket of cloud from which nauseating waves of humidity seeped like waves in a stagnant sea. I had been trying to teach persuasion to my students but they’d had a difficult time understanding my less-structured tasks. Across the world, students are told exactly what to do; how to fill out the worksheet, what viewpoint to take, etc. I like my students to find their own voices and I like to hear what they think, but they are unaccustomed to answering in this way. Their default response is to say what they think is most agreeable. For social interactions, this is fine, I guess, but for a classroom it can be very dull.

I came home after work and told Gina my dilemma. She was hardly in a place to hear my problems, teaching all day, all weekend had worn her out and she could only nod in agreement while I ranted and raved about how kids needed to have opinions, even if they didn’t realize it. To shut me up, she suggested we go to the walking track. As there are no parks by us, no green space, many people from the neighborhood take over a complex of regional court buildings in the late afternoon. The august buildings of law reverberate with the panting sound of joggers and the staccato music that accompanies various Zumba workouts being held around the complex. There are a few trees left around these buildings, set back as they are from the road and surrounded by a green buffer zone and ring road. We walk around the ring road, along with the others, circling the buildings; gerbils on a treadmill.

To be off the crowded sidewalks, away from the noisy onslaught of the motorbikes, is an incredible respite to me; it keeps the irritation down. I walk around the track, like an automation, but I can let my mind wander from topic to topic. Gina and I have our best conversations while we’re walking. We always have. From the early days in Arcata, to the crowded avenues in Buenos Aires; sometimes it feels like we’ve been continuing a conversation we started when we first met that’s never been completed and is resumed every time we start moving unconsciously through a neighborhood or a park or along a riverfront.

When I first arrive in a new place, I find it hard to concentrate on the present. Being catapulted from California to Thailand, I find my solace in looking backwards and forwards, like Janus, to the past and the future. We walk around the track, the thick, ashen clouds are still overhead, but they’re becoming turgid with a storm. The air is cooler. Dry leaves scuttle across the cobbled paths like crabs running sideways. I talk about Paraguay. I remember the parks we walked through, the quiet of the streets on Sundays, the different places to eat. I forget about the noise, the lack of work and the feeling of resignation. I talk about the future. Maybe I’ll go back to school, I say. Maybe we’ll stay in the States for a while. But I know, and so does Gina, we won’t stay long. We’ll come back. We’ll take jobs, rent an apartment and try to understand what it must’ve felt like to be our parents. But, in the evenings, after work, I’ll go online and browse the job listings, looking for certain country names. Some mild night, after an overcast day, I’ll send in an application and for a while, things will be exciting. I’ll get the job; we’ll buy a guidebook, we’ll pack and we’ll arrive with smiles of uncertainty, looking down on our new home from the windows of the plane, trying to make out, by the contours of the roads and the homes, if this is the place we’ve been waiting for, if this is the place we’ll make up our minds to stay.

The storm clouds intensify until the sky is an electric gray, menacing like a sky tornadoes appear from. The wind has increased and the smell of rain mixing with the hot dust fills the air with something dry and floral like the smell of a hot summer attic. We keep walking, into the oncoming storm, in a loop and it feels incredibly good just to be out and moving.


One day in English class, Mr. Snyder starts telling us this story. He’s a kid. It’s an overcast day. Summer. 1960s Michigan. He’s mowing a lawn singing that song Sweet pea. He sings over the sound of the motor, his voice getting louder. Oh sweet pea, won’t ya dance with me. Won’t ya, won’t ya, won’t ya dance with meeeee. It starts to rain, but not on him. Off in the distance. Mr. Snyder sees the rain coming, a hissing gray wall advancing down the street, pouring on the sidewalks, the oaks lining the street and the last of the Packards parked on their whitewalled tires. Mr. Snyder leaves the lawn mover and runs from the rain, hopping fences and lawn ornaments, all the time singing oh sweet pea won’t ya’ be my girl, won’t ya, won’t ya, won’t ya be my guuuurl.

I can’t remember if he beat the rain home or not. He must’ve told us that story in 1996 on a rainy day, or maybe it related to something we were reading. It was a long time ago but it’s one of those memories that, for whatever reason, has stuck with me. I have this image of my jr. high English teacher as a kid running down the street, away from an advancing wall of rain, running between two worlds, one sunny, vernal and warm, the other gray, thunderous, rain water overflowing in the gutters; a deluge. It’s a picture I like and on rainy days and sunny days alike, I take it out and look at it. I look at the neatly cleaved worlds of tempest and halcyon and wonder, did the rain really do that?

Yesterday, I took my last trip to the immigration office. In order to give taxi drivers something to do this office was recently moved from the court building downtown to an office that occupies a liminal area between coconut and rubber tree plantations, miles out in the jungle. The roads leading out to it are cracked and scooped away by heavy seasonal rains and, one assumes, trucks used to cart coconuts, rubber and palm fruit away.

If I hadn’t been there before, I would’ve thought we were lost. The trees press into the narrow road as it slinks deeper into a patchwork of jungle and plantation. From the window, I looked out into the rows of palms with no undergrowth, dark hedgerows that seemed to go on forever.

The sky was clear and the sunlight radiated up from the white concrete of the parking lot surrounding the immigration building. There were a few cars parked in a desultory fashion, like the parking lot had been full, but now, late in the afternoon, many of parking spots had been vacated leaving gaps between cars and transport vans that bring whole cadres of foreign workers in at once to have their papers updated.

The customary memorial to Rama IX stood outside the door, the mourning colors of black and white clashing with the opulent gold worn by the king in the picture.
Inside there were no lines. A bevy of workers from Mayanmar waited in the seats by the door, enjoying their time away from the construction site by sleeping or staring straight ahead, remembering. The looping lines of their alphabet had been added to the signs in Thai and English; the letters curved and doubling back, looking like instructions for tying knots.

I sat with my handler Didi by the desk, passing forms, papers and my passport over to him to hand across the desk to the officer. Initially, I sat at attention, wanting to look helpful, willing to answer any questions, to clear up any ambiguities, but none arose. A few times the officer said something in Thai to Didi, but I couldn’t tell if it was related to my visa or if they were just chatting. I started to feel dumb just sitting there and took out my book. It was too loud to read, but I tried anyway, doggedly pursuing the same sentence over and over, each time set to wring the meaning out of it and move on and each time being frustrated in my efforts by a guffaw, a chair scraping or a ringing phone. After an hour, I had the feeling that I’d been clenching my jaw too tightly, like I’d been trying to bite down on my concentration and hold it to each word on the page. I thought about going outside, but there was nowhere to sit.

The multiple entry stamp took twice as long. As soon as the extension stamp had been pressed into the dollar-bill paper of my passport, I carried it ten feet across the room to ask that it be amended for multiple entry. This was to take another hour. The workers from Myanmar had, by this time, gone and a drama was playing out behind me. A French tourist had overstayed a visa years ago; things had been cleared up, he said, and since then he’d even returned a few times with no problem but, when he went to leave this time, they’d detained him, told him he needed some form before he could leave. He had that tone of voice at once worried and fawning; grateful for any information.

While I sat there and pretended to read, a Filipina English teacher came to have her papers updated. A South African tourist extended his visa, saying ‘yes’ in Thai repeatedly to anything anyone said: “chai, chai, chai...chai”. Some Germans came in and milled around for a while, but they spoke so quietly, I didn’t catch what they’d come for. I don’t know if anyone did.

Amerika!” A voice rang out from one of the desks, I jerked to attention. A desk officer was holding my passport like she was asking ‘whose is this?’ though the photo of the bearded slouch seated before her inside should have made it obvious. I went over to the desk, collected my last stamp, surprised to see there was no new visa, just a few blurred blue-ink stamps with the dates written in by hand, something which seemed like it would’ve been very easy to fake.

I was so ecstatic to be finished with the waiting room, I forgot to ask for a receipt and immediately made for the door, stepping over the extended feet of the Laotian group who’d just come in and were waiting en masse as the Myanmarese had been, sleeping and staring.

There was a hint of rain in the air, but the concrete was dry. The sky was blotchy with storm clouds and watery sunlight. Walking to the car, I heard the sound of rain falling which I assumed was the wind blowing through the heavy fronds in the palm plantations. I looked up to confirm this supposition and saw a steady curtain of rain falling on the Honda and Suzuki motorbikes at the other end of the parking lot. Already in the car, Didi yelled to me, “hurry up the rain’s coming!” But I couldn’t, I was frozen to the spot, waiting to see if it would advance or just hang there like a dim partition between two worlds. Gradually, the rain moved forward, but too slowly to allow me to run from it. In a few steps, I was at the car. There was nothing to do but get in. The door shut and we drove forward into the curtain of rain. I listened to it spatter on the broken roads, the muddy lanes between the palms, the metal roof of the car but all I could hear was an old song playing in my mind, almost triumphantly:

Oh, sweet pea, won’t ya dance with me, won’t ya, won’t ya, won’t ya dance with meeeeee!

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