Wednesday, December 15, 2010


As of today, I have been in Thailand for one year.

It's by far the longest I've ever lived in any one place outside of the U.S. It's three times as long as my time in London, and just slightly longer than all my projects in Latin America put together. It's about a third of the time I spent on my college campus.

Time has telescoped. When I'd been here for six months, I felt like it had been decades, but now I'm having a hard time wrapping my head around the fact that it's been more than a year since I hugged MD goodbye at the airport and wondered why she was getting teary-eyed when we'd done this so many times before. Looking back, I think that maybe she understood better than I did that I had no idea what I was getting into.

When I first decided to come, I promised Harriet that I would stay for a minimum of six months. Within two months, I had committed to a year. By August, I was telling people that I'd probably stay until June - then through the summer - then through the end of my next visa.

People are always asking me if I'm not homesick. Don't I miss my family? My friends? My own country?

I do miss MD, and I'm not just saying that because I know she'll be reading this with a pen in her hand, poised to strike me out of the will. I miss my friends, and my nieces, and my incredibly stupid cats. But I miss them - you - in a pleasant, wistful sort of way, the sort of warm nostalgia in which one is free to indulge from the viewpoint of a happy present. I enjoy thinking about everyone, imagining what they're doing, wondering how they've changed in the last year, and I look forward to our inevitable reunions.

But I'm happy, here and now. I enjoy my job. I'm part of a community. I spend every day among people I love: kids who make ghost noises outside my house at night, coworkers who slap my ass in front of visitors, women who invent gossip about my nonexistent love life. Most importantly, maybe, I really believe in the work we're doing here.

That's not to say that everything is wonderful and we all go about our days whistling a merry working song. This is a women's shelter, after all, and our work is frequently exhausting. Sometimes our women fight and cry and don't do their work and scream at their kids. In the grand scheme of things, we don't have a lot of full-fledged Success Stories. Everyone here - women, kids, staff, volunteers - is human, and flawed. We don't always do the right thing. Sometimes we don't even know what the right thing is.

And there are other things, smaller everyday things that don't merit much thought but are aggravating nonetheless. My work permit application is driving me cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs. My stomach turns when I see that we're having jellied pig's blood soup for dinner, again. I'm always broke. The Chihuahua-sized rats in my ceiling are forever body-slamming each other and screeching at 1:00 in the morning. Decent cheese and bread are nearly impossible to find, and this country has done horrible things to the hot dog. I frequently smell like pee or poop or throw-up or some tantalizing mixture of the three.

And then there are the other things, the things that keep me up at night and make my stomach hurt when I think about them too long. Alma, Josiah, Winnie, Rosalind and Saul are all in prison, indefinitely. Sally is back in her village with a host of emotional and behavioral problems, a neglectful-verging-on-abusive family, and a baby she can't take care of. Gertie may or may not be safe in her village in Burma.

But that's just life, isn't it? Terrible things happen to good people, sometimes, and it's not fair, but the universe doesn't have a reliable system for filing complaints. The fact is, I can't get the Vietnamese out of prison. I can't undo what's happened to them. I can't guarantee that things will work out for them. What I can do is talk to them during furtive phone calls, and buy them new underwear, and daydream about happy futures for them. I can love them. It's not much, but it's something.

And there are new people to love, as well. There's the new Vietnamese refugee family, who I thought I would resent but have come to adore, helplessly and against my better judgment. There are new women, and new children, and new volunteers. There are fat drooling babies who have become restless toddlers, screeching hellions who have become rays of sunshine, kids who have learned to read and write and count to twenty in three languages.

I haven't written much here lately. That's a little bit due to laziness - okay, a lot due to laziness - but mainly it's because this is theoretically a travel blog, and I no longer feel like I'm traveling. Don't get me wrong: I have no plans to settle here permanently, and I will probably come back to the U.S. sooner than later.

But the shelter isn't just a place I'm passing through. For now, for the foreseeable future, it's home. I have friends, and a routine, and some pretty compelling reasons to get up in the morning. I have a life, and it might not be perfect or easy or particularly sanitary - but it's pretty damn good.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

communing with nature, part ii

I was alone in the office for a while yesterday, which was kind of weird. Even with Harriet and Albert gone, I'm still sharing space with a small army of people: Agatha, Robin, Betty using the sewing machine, Nancy writing up grocery budgets, Blanche doing the admin work, volunteers teaching English (they used to teach elsewhere, but apparently they like having me nearby to answer questions), various small children who are generally crying or peeing or both, not to mention the world's most god-awful annoying cat.

So anyway, I was alone in the office, for once, which meant that I was the only person around to witness the big old snake scooting right in the door like it owned the place.

And, look: I've long since made my peace with the snakes here. I really had no choice. They're always frantically darting out across the path in front of me, like deer on a highway, because it literally does not occur to them that they could just wait two seconds for me to pass by. I see them wriggling and swinging in the trees next to the spider path. At night, I hear them dicking around in the irrigation ditch under my house.

(Aside: a volunteer recently asked if he could walk barefoot into the ditch to do some clean-up, and I was like, "Sure! I mean, there are snakes and frogs and bizarrely razor-finned fish in there, and you will probably die. But whatever, man, I'm not your dad.")

So anyway, the snakes and I have an agreement of sorts. I make plenty of noise to let them know I'm coming, especially at night, and they stay the ever-loving hell out of my way. I don't scream or grab a machete when I see them - unlike some people I could mention - and they haul ass in another direction. I do my thing, and they do theirs.

This snake had evidently not received the memo, because it attempting to do its thing in the office, a small building with limited escape routes and a no-shoes policy. There's a no-snakes policy as well - I checked - but as everyone knows, fucking snakes can't read for shit.

In the five seconds it took for me to think, SNAKE SNAKE OH GOD DO THEY REALLY HAVE TO MOVE LIKE THAT, the snake disappeared under a desk, leaving me standing there barefoot and catatonic, a pillar of salt in a pee-stained t-shirt. Completely stunned by what had just happened, I stared at the desk with intense concentration, as if by the power of my mind it might levitate or become transparent or, even better, explode and kill us all.

None of these things happened. I eventually summoned the courage to peek under the desk, but the snake was nowhere to be seen. I wasn't about to play hide-and-seek with the legless bastard, so I slowly went back to my desk and sat down in my chair. With both my feet up on the seat. For two hours.

Because, man, things are always crawling on me here. Geckos dart up my leg while I'm showering before bed. Millipedes get frisky with me while I'm in bed. I'm forever picking ants off my neck and arms, out of my nose and bra. (I don't want to talk about it.) I wake up every morning with bright red bites from the spiders that manage to infiltrate my mosquito net. I have actually had a snake zip across my feet out on the spider path, and somehow managed not to shit myself and die. I try to be a grown-up about these things. Whatever, I love waking up to millipedes on my calf! Come on, geckos, at least buy me a drink first! Ha! ha!

But you guys, there was a SNAKE in the OFFICE. Actually, for all I know, it might still be in here. Like I said, this building doesn't offer a lot of escape routes, and someone generally notices when a snake slithers across the floor. So just think about that the next time you're having a bad day at work. Your coworkers might all be idiots and your papers could probably be pushed by a monkey, but at least your risk of snake attack is < 0.1%.

And then! Oh, yes, there's an "and then," because when is there not, with me? And then I went out for my Thai lesson, to the little gazebo where Khruu Aajaan and I try not to strangle each other, and just as I was grabbing the whiteboard, a massive huntsman appeared out of nowhere right next to my hand. This was not the sort of spider you might keep under a cup on your bathroom floor - firstly because that would be like attempting to trap an rhinoceros under a trashcan, so you would really need a saucepan or a salad bowl or something, and secondly because upon finding that spider in your bathroom you would immediately evacuate all your vital organs through your, ah, asterisk and the spider would feast on your still-warm remains.

Back in the gazebo, I made a horrible, strangled noise of despair and jerked my hand back at approximately the speed of sound. Instead of investigating the cause of my panic, Khruu Aajaan peered curiously at my stricken face, like a dog that won't stop staring at your finger when you tell her to fetch.

"Spider! Big spider!" I said, or would have said if I weren't choking on my tongue. It came out more like, "HRGLDIBLRNK."

Khruu Aajaan eventually deciphered my gurgling and wild gesticulation, and finally glanced over at the whiteboard, from which the huntsman had by now vanished without a trace. He chuckled. "Mai bpen rai, mai bpen rai," he said, parroting the catchphrase of all Thailand. No big deal.

Mai bpen rai my adrenaline-shocked ass, buddy. Okay, so huntsman spiders aren't usually the biting sort, at least not where humans are involved, but I reserve the right to fear any arachnid that could beat me in an arm-wrestling match.

I'd like to say that all this is making me a tougher, more resilient person, a slightly more feminine Bear Grylls, capable of laughing off or snacking on any vermin that crosses my path. But the truth is that I have learned nothing. I am a bug-fearing woman-child and always will be. I deal with it - all of it, all the snakes and spiders and millipedes and the unspeakably boisterous rats in my ceiling - only because my sole alternative is death, and there are too many mangoes in the world for that to be a viable option. If I could somehow kill off every single creepy-crawly in this province, I would do it in a heartbeat, and to hell with the ecosystem.

As it is, I am become Death, the destroyer of invertebrate worlds. I crush helpless rolled-up millipedes on my bedroom floor; I mutilate any ant foolish enough to approach me; I smash spiders into the bathroom wall and leave their spider children to starve. Anything smaller and less powerful than me is fair game, and as soon as they cross a certain annoyance threshold, they are finished.

So just keep that in mind, cat.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

beggars would ride

I don't know why it never crossed my mind that Alma and Josiah might be put back in jail with the others. Perhaps because life has barrelled forward at an alarming rate recently, not unlike the out-of-control eighteen-wheeler in your more cliche action movies: you can't stop it, much less hope to make it go backward. We couldn't put everything back the way it was before, couldn't un-arrest the Vietnamese or reverse their conviction or untangle the distrust and dislike between them and Albert and Khruu Aajaan. The last few months have really hammered home the point that once something is done, it can't be undone.

Most of the time.


Josiah is a good kid. Quiet, except around friends his own age. Plays a mean game of Snakes & Ladders. He automatically reaches for my hand when we cross the street, and occasionally keeps holding it for the next kilometer or so. He has been known to eat donuts and ice cream for dinner. (I've been known to let him. Just the once.)

But Alma - Alma is my kid, in a way that Josiah will never be. She needs me more than he does. She whoops my ass at Go Fish. She explains soap operas to me. She claims to tell me secrets she doesn't tell anyone else. She trusts and relies on me in a way that makes me want to live up to her expectations. I am her friend and confidante, and she is my favorite kid in the world.


We don't tell them the truth.

I go with Matthew to pick up the kids at school. Matthew is a German volunteer who got swept into this mess shortly after he started working at the shelter. Pippi needed someone who spoke Thai to accompany her to the jail, and Matthew was able and willing. Two months later, he's as irrevocably tangled in all this as any of us. Josiah in particular is very attached to him.

The students stare at us as we walk across the courtyard, fascinated by the sudden intrusion of two very white farang into their daily routine. Matthew waves at them, and most of them grin and wave back.

We don't tell them the truth - not the faculty, not Alma and Josiah. For the director we spin a vague story about taking the kids to visit their mother, and we explain to Alma in English that Winnie is being sent to Bangkok and we're taking them to see her. Matthew is doing the lion's share of the talking, but I note his evasiveness and follow his lead, never dropping a hint that the kids are in real trouble.

Our justification, our toothless and spindly-legged defense, is that we are trying to protect them. We're still hoping that the kids won't have to go after all, that there's a way out of this, and we don't want to ruin everything for them if that's the case.

It's not right. It's not fair, not to the kids or to their friends, and I'll see that all too clearly later, when there's nothing to be done about it. In the moment, though, there's no more than a twinge of guilt as both kids emerge from the sea of their classmates and follow us out to the car.


Alma is angry. She argues with her mother over the phone, sharp indecipherable protests in her first and native language, the one she's admitted that she's starting to forget. Whatever she's saying, it's not pretty. Five minutes ago she was happy enough playing Neopets on my laptop, but that was before we both found out that it's not just the police who want the kids to go to Bangkok - it's their mother.

Pippi will tell me later that Winnie was baffled and upset by Alma's reaction. Apparently Alma had been complaining, the way kids do, that the food was bad and she missed her mom and she hated it at the shelter. Locked up away from her children, Winnie spun these complaints into an imagined nightmare existence. She assumed that the kids would want to come back to jail, to be with her and Rosalind and Saul.

Alma ends the call and sits there in the chair for a long, silent minute. She stares at the computer screen, ignoring everything and everyone: me, the meowing cat, the tears dripping off the line of her jaw.

I squeeze her knee. "You want me to help you get your stuff together?"

She shakes her head, eyes still fixed on the colorfully deranged Neopets. She named one after me, at one point. They'll probably all starve to death while she's in jail.

I'm at a loss. I've seen her cry before, but there's usually something I can do about it. I can negotiate peace agreements between squabbling friends and offer remedies for a toothache, but I don't know what to do here. I have to get her moving, somehow, get her to pack up her things and Josiah's. Instead, I get up and retrieve some toilet paper and cold water.

She doesn't acknowledge me wiping down her face, or reflexively smoothing back the hair that invariably escapes from her long braids.

"Come on," I say gently. "Let's go get your bags together."

"I want to go to school," she says, in that clenched voice so universal to stubborn, unhappy kids. She still has tendrils of sticky wet hair plastered to the side of her face, resisting my efforts to tidy her up.

"I know," I say - the old standby, the words I offer when there is nothing else to say. This time they mean, "I'm sorry," but I can't say that to her. It's useless, empty sentiment. She deserves more. She deserves so much.


Halfway through packing the bags, she's calmed down a little. I can't even believe this kid is real sometimes. If I were in her place, they'd have to shoot me with a tranquilizer dart to stop my raging and carrying-on.

She moves steadily back and forth between the bedroom and the bench outside, where I'm cramming things into bookbags and duffels. Her face is sullen, mouth pinched, but she's not crying anymore.

"Can you bring these back to my school?" She hands me a small stack of workbooks, and I'm suddenly struck by the incredible injustice to which I have contributed. She will never see her school again. She will never turn in her half-finished homework or explain her departure to her teachers or say goodbye to her friends. Matthew and I took that away from her, from both kids, and I can only hope that they never forgive us for it.

She left a few things over at Harriet's house, so we head that way next, avoiding the stares of the women and the curiosity of the kids.

"Where will I stay?" Alma asks suddenly. Her voice is still gritty with recent tears. I frown, and she clarifies. "It's full, they said. But if it's full, where will we stay? Who will I live with?"

Shit. She's obviously overheard the adults worrying about the conditions in the Immigration Detention Centre.

"I think you'll stay with your mom," I say carefully. I can't bring myself to explain that full doesn't really mean full, not at the IDC. There's always room for five more, even when there isn't.

She thinks it over for a minute. "What if there's not enough food?"

The question makes my throat close up. She's eleven fucking years old. She likes princesses and Sonny with a Chance. She shouldn't be thinking about this. She's a child, and I'm an adult who loves her. I should be able to tell her, "You don't have to worry about that." But I can't, because she does.

"I don't want to go," Alma says. "I want to go to school and visit them on the weekends."

It's not that she doesn't love her mother, or miss her. She's just a whip-smart kid who wants friends, books, some pale imitation of a real childhood. She will miss her friends at school, Elsa and Dotty, Sheila and Priscilla, Pippi, Betty, Matthew, me. She's tired of having her entire life taken away from her, over and over again. And she's afraid: of the prison, of the years they will most likely spend there, of what might come after.

"I don't want to go," she repeats, looking up at me.

"I know," I say. I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry.


We reach Harriet's house, and Alma goes about pulling her wet clothes out of the washing machine and down off the line. "Do you want me to go get a bag, so the rest of your stuff doesn't get wet?" She jerks out a nod, mouth pressed into a thin unhappy line, and I trudge off toward my house.

She's still standing at the open washing machine when I come back. Her back is to me, but I can see that her arms are loaded up with clothes - pleated navy skirts, Josiah's khaki shorts and knee socks, brightly colored jerseys and track pants for phys ed days. As I approach, she frees one thin arm and drags it across her face, scrubbing roughly at tears I can't see.

Of all the memories I have of Alma, the disjointed images tucked away in various pockets and files, this is one I know will never leave me: standing there in her uniform, hair frizzing wildly out of her braids, cradling the clothes she'll never wear again to the school I plucked her out of without a single word of warning. Clinging to that life with all her strength - as if it's not already gone, as if it's something she can keep.


Matthew drives, with Josiah next to him in the front seat. Alma asked me to sit in the back with her, and now she lies with her head pillowed on my leg, her shoulder hard and small under my hand. The positioning is familiar: she does the same thing in songthaews, dozing the miles away until I nudge her upright at our destination. She must enjoy the nap, or maybe she gets carsick like I do. I should have asked, at some point.

She scoots forward a little bit, toward the edge of the seat, and I reach down to rub her back without further encouragement. It'll be an awkward position to hold for the next twenty minutes. I'd keep it up for a year, if I could.

I glance toward the front. Josiah seems to be holding up okay, sprawled across the passenger seat in a way that takes up a remarkable amount of space, as small as he is. Matthew's eyes look sharp and focused in the rear-view, paying close attention to the traffic around us, but I think I spot a wet streak down the side of his nose. I look away, embarrassed at having invaded his privacy.

Alma rubs her cheek against my jeans; I can't tell whether she's scratching an itch or wiping away more tears. I wish I could tell Matthew to turn around, drive us somewhere else. I wish Winnie and the police would all decide the kids don't need to come after all. I wish, as Alma once suggested, that there was some kind of machine that would stop time, and we could just walk into the jail and open the door, and everything would be okay.

If wishes were horses, we'd have one hell of a get-away plan.

The car jerks as Matthew brakes suddenly. Alma's eyes open. "Are we there?"

I smooth back the fly-away hair. "Almost."

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

the day of lost children

I’m practicing my alphabet when Sally comes looking for me. “M!” she says. She clambers up next to me, tugging at my arm. “M, come here!”

Man, this kid never quits. I don’t even bother looking up from my workbook. “What do you need, Sally?”

“M,” she says, hand clamping around my wrist. “My sister is taking the baby.”

Bombshell. Citizens are advised to stay indoors and panic. “What? When? Why?” One question after another. I sound like - well, like her.

“The baby,” Sally says again, calm as anything, right before her face shatters into a thousand pieces. She falls into me, face turned into my chest, fingers clawing for purchase at my waist. “She’s leaving, she’s leaving. M. The baby.”

After she calms down from her initial outburst, she drags me over to where her older sister is walking toward the waiting Jeep, Sally’s baby in her arms. The social worker, Agatha, is trying to convince Sally to go with them, to see where the baby will stay, but Sally ignores her. She stands just inside the office, clutching the doorframe, and the three of us watch her baby disappear into the car.

The door slams, the engine revs, and Sally collapses. Something has buckled, her knees or maybe her heart, and she goes down hard, boneless and flailing like someone falling from a great height. I drop down with her, instinctively pulling her toward me, but she’s dead weight in my arms. Five minutes ago she was clinging to me with all the desperation of a drowning man, but now I’m the one hanging on, afraid to let go.

I try to get the story out of Agatha. Apparently the idea has always been that Sally would give the baby to her sister. I protest that Sally has obviously changed her mind, and that we have no right to make such a decision for her, and Agatha further informs me that Sally has been hitting and shaking her baby whenever she has a run-in with one of the other women. Of course we have to consider the security of the baby, the baby I would take a bullet for, and yet I can’t help thinking of the other women here who have been known to hit their children. They have been cajoled and reasoned with, have been given chance after chance to redeem themselves. We claim to be teaching these women how to be mothers, to be empowering them. Not giving up on them. Not stealing their children.

Sally cries for three hours straight, though “cries” does not really do justice to the force of her despair. She howls and sobs, keens and wails, gags and hiccups through the long, wordless moans that fill the spaces between lamentations. She is in agony, tortured, dying in slow motion.

I speak to her, gently, struggling for the appropriate vocabulary, as if anything I say in any language would make a difference. I hold her close with an arm around her shoulders, tucking her against me, until she squirms away to lie in a defeated sprawl on the floor. I rub her back, squeeze her knee and shoulder. I wipe each tear as it comes, damp fingers catching roughly on her hot, tacky skin. I cup her jaw, cradle her head, stroke her hair over and over again until she finally surrenders to a restless, exhausted sleep.

My fingers keep moving over her hair as she sleeps, unsure what else to do. She’s laid out in such a way that I can see the pulse in her throat, the flutter of skin between her collarbones. “It hurts here,” she said before, digging her nails into her chest, but as far as I can tell, her heart is still going, beating strong and steady, though maybe not quite the way it used to.


The afternoon passes in a haze of misery. Sally sleeps for a while, one fat tear balanced precariously on the side of her nose, then wakes up and cries some more. She claimed around lunchtime that she would never eat again, but at about 1:30 she lets out a tremendous, stuttering sigh and says, “M? I’m hungry.” I take her back to my house and feed her some leftover sticky rice, convince her to drink some water. She follows me back to the office and sits with me for a couple hours, coloring pictures of Disney princesses. She doesn’t speak much, breaking her silence only to show me her finished products and to dismiss my lavish flattery.

Pippi finally arrives after dinner, another skipped meal, and Sally falls apart again. Even Pippi’s presence can’t make this better, and we’re all crouched together in a miserable huddle when the second bombshell hits.

“Look who’s here!” Elsa sings, an oddly cheerful tone, and I look up to see Alma standing in the doorway of Sally’s room.

Later on, I won’t remember letting go of Sally, or standing up. Elsa is beaming, eyes lit up with happiness at having her friend back. Alma is smiling too, playing along, but hers is horrible, small and eleven years old and so goddamn brave, the bravest kid in the world.

“Oh, kiddo,” I say, stupidly. I reach out for her, and she walks straight into my arms and starts to cry.

As I will discover later, things are not looking good. Our many attempts at bribery and persuasion have failed, and the Vietnamese have a court date scheduled for tomorrow. Conviction is inevitable, to be followed by a long stint in the Bangkok detention center and then a forced return to Vietnam, where repatriated refugees have a tendency to disappear or be accused of terrorism against the state. Somehow, though, Harriet and Albert managed to get the kids out, and now here they are, Alma and little Josiah. Free, safe, and orphaned.

Sally was brittle and unyielding in my arms, but Alma folds herself into me: arms locked around my waist, head tucked securely under my chin, face pushed hard against my chest. Her tears are quiet and breathless, little hummingbird body trembling so very slightly under my hands, and we stand there together for a long, long time.


Rosalind reaches out for me as soon as she sees me, bony hands latching on and pulling me close until we’re both pressed up tight against the cell door, arms wedged through the bars and folded uncomfortably around each others’ bodies.

It’s been a long time since the last time.

She’s always been skinny, our Rosalind, but ever since her appendectomy and the shit-storm that followed, she has been disappearing before our eyes. I too am a lesser woman than I once was, two hundred extra pounds of grief notwithstanding, but together we still bring to mind Herbert’s old assessment of a human 10: one sharp, one round.

“You look not well,” Rosalind says, pulling back far enough to examine my face. I don’t know what to say to that. I never know what to say to her these days, veering cautiously between distraction and comfort and questions. I usually try to make her laugh, but that’s a lost cause tonight.

She asks if we saw Josiah and Alma. “I always fight with them,” she says, “but now they are gone, I miss them.” And then she’s crying, hot and guilty, and I want to break apart the world and put it back together the right way, a way that makes sense.

We detach after a few minutes, and now it’s Winnie I’m holding through the cell door, Winnie’s tears I’m trying awkwardly to smooth away, all thumbs, as if I haven’t had enough practice today. Beautiful, gracious Winnie, a scant ten years my senior and yet somehow the epitome of motherhood in my eyes, flexible and strong. Winnie, who has tried to save her children at the expense of her own heart.

I can’t help her. I can’t give her children back, and I can’t save her from what’s coming. Barring divine intervention, she and Rosalind and Saul will be convicted as illegal aliens, and someday soon they will be sent back to Vietnam. Perhaps they’ll be arrested straight off the plane, disappearing like others have before them. Then, too, there will be nothing I can do for them, or for any of them. I can’t give Alma her mother, or Sally her baby. I can’t promise them anything or say one word that will soften that killing blow. I can’t begin to understand their pain. In the shadow of what they’ve lost, my love is a pale, insignificant thing. It is nothing at all, but it is all I have to give, and tonight in my sleepless bed, it will be all I can think about: the shape of their bones against mine, the damp salty heat, the bars between us.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

the broken record

"I miss Pippi," Sally says. She's only said it ten or twelve times in the last five minutes, which is an improvement on the five minutes before that. She looks up at me expectantly, thin arms wrapped around her knees. "M, I miss Pippi."

"I know," I say. It's the same words, always, but I've been experimenting with different tones. Sympathetic. Tired. Sad. Frustrated. Annoyed. Distracted. "I miss her too."

I do miss her, my old roommate and confidante. Mostly, though, I'm full-up with missing Winnie and Alma and my dear, ridiculous Rosalind. They were moved to a different city last week, five hours away; I spent the weekend with them, soaking up the sound of their voices and the light of their smiles, gripping their hands through the cell door. One day, the police even relented and let us use a visitation room. This whole week has been haunted by memories: Winnie cracking my knuckles for me, Alma's stumbling recitation of the book we brought her (A Little Princess, because she loves fairy tales and I need her to believe that she will get a happy ending), the weight of Rosalind's skinny legs leaning against mine.

Back in the real world, Sally says, "I'm going home."

God, how many times can we have this conversation? I try to speak past the frustration blocking my throat. "I don't think you should."

She shakes her head, stubborn as always, a pretty teenage goat. There ought to be a cartoon. "I'm going home to the mother," she insists, and I don't have an answer to that. She might be working my nerves today, but there's no way I'm reminding a 14-year-old that she's here partially because her mother doesn't love her enough not to abandon her. "I miss Pippi," she says again, plowing ahead with her familiar argument. "I don't have friends anymore."

"Oh, really?" We've been through this a thousand times, but it still stings, somewhere in the over-sensitized mess of my heart. "Okay, so I'm not your friend, right? Julius isn't your friend. Betty isn't your friend. You don't love us. Go home, then. I don't care." It might sound cruel to an outsider, someone who doesn't get how we work, but I have to try to speak her language. Nothing else gets through to her.

She scowls, grabs at my foot, then my ankle, yanking at me hard enough that I can hear the creak of my old-lady bones. "M," she protests, and then again, louder, like she thinks maybe I'm not listening. "M." She doesn't say anything else, but she doesn't need to. God knows we've been through this enough times.

"Okay, Sally," I say. "Okay."

She stops pulling, and we sit together for a few quiet, melancholy minutes, her hands still wrapped loosely around my ankle. I'm grateful for the respite, but I'm feeling a twinge of regret for snapping at her. She looks sad, that dense kind of sadness that sits heavy in your chest, sugar in an engine, clogging up the works. I want to slap her and then tuck her into bed with a teddy bear.

"I miss Pippi," she says.

"I know."

Wednesday, April 21, 2010


The Vietnamese are being deported.

Sorry. I meant to bring you glad tidings this time, honest. Things just got a little jumbled up along the way.

Not all the Vietnamese, you understand. Just the ones I love the most. Rosalind. Winnie and Alma and Alma's brother, a sweet kid named Josiah. Saul, the bastard, though I'm pretty sure this whole thing is his fault.

They left the shelter last week, disappearing in a poof of smoke. They didn't tell anyone they were going, not even me or Pippi. I was a little mad, but mostly hurt that they didn't trust us enough, that they thought we might betray them. And I missed them, of course. I missed them a lot.

They'd claimed to be going to Bangkok, but they were spotted around the city by Albert, Robin, Pippi, and who knows who else. They should have been more careful. They should have been more fucking goddamn careful.

They were arrested yesterday morning by the immigration police. Maybe one of their new neighbors turned them in. They themselves think it was Khruu Aajaan, their former roommate, but I can't bring myself to believe that. He couldn't have known where they were hiding, I don't think. Anyway, if I did think it was him, that he'd narced on them, I would have to kill him. And there's no sense in all of us warming that jail cell.

If we don't get them out, they'll all be deported to Cambodia. They have no papers, nothing at all, so they'll surely be arrested while crossing the border. The Cambodian government may throw them in jail, or it may send them back to Vietnam, the motherland, the place they fled after having been targeted, imprisoned, tortured.

The options are not great. Elizabeth and Albert managed to buy Nancy's freedom in a similar situation a few years ago, and we might be able to do the same with the Vietnamese, since Thai policemen tend to have remarkably greasy palms. We've already tried to pay, but for once, the po-po aren't having it - or, rather, they say they'll accept a certain amount, then change their minds when we offer it. By "we," of course, I mean a Thai citizen. Farang have no leverage in these situations, nor should they, I suppose.

But it could still work, if we landed upon the magic number. What we need is time, and we don't have it. They're threatening to take them to Bangkok tomorrow, and from there to Cambodia. They might be bluffing, trying to scare us, but maybe not.

Pippi has spent most of the last two days at the jail, trying to work out what the hell is going on and what we can do about it. She brings them food, since the police station would happily let them starve, women and children alike. There are no cots in the cell, Pippi says, no chairs or cushions. Everyone sleeps on the floor.

I wish I were there with her, with them, but I'm not. I have shit to do, stupid shit, e-mails to process and staff meetings I'm required to attend, and Pippi thinks it's best if the police don't see too many farang involved in this. I'm trying to help from the sidelines, digging up information and passing it along to her at ground zero, but it's hard. I want to be there. I want to do something.

In Pippi's absence, Sally has become increasingly dependent on me. She's cried, a little. Once or twice she's sidled up for an uncharacteristic cuddle. Mostly, though, she sits next to me with her knees pulled up to her chest, asking the same questions again and again, apparently hoping that I might magically divine the answers between rounds: what, when, where. And of course, like a toddler: "Why? Why? Why?"

"I don't know, Sally," I say. "I don't know. I don't know."

Not for the first time, I find myself wishing I were the crying sort. A good sob might make me feel better, or at least like my grief and frustration were active, alive, instead of this dead weight crowding up against the press of my ribcage, a black hole where positive thinking goes to die. I don't cry, though. Instead, I pace, around and around the tiny main room of my house, arms crossed, hands tucked tightly against my sides like I can somehow hold in the inevitable decompression. I'm going to blow any day now; I can feel it. They'll be finding pieces of me for months after, heart muscle and bile, lead in my stomach.

Hour after hour, around and around, feet blistering against the smooth rub of the floorboards. I try not to think, but strange thoughts keep floating to the surface.

If Gertie ever comes back, this will kill her.
Did Rosalind say it was her grandmother they poisoned, or her grandfather?
Alma was supposed to go back to school next month.

Walking, walking, walking. Waiting.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

a calm and reasoned debate

I argue with Sally all the time. Pippi does too. There's really no avoiding it. The only possible way I can imagine that a person might go one single day without arguing with that girl would be to crazy-glue her mouth shut, lock her in the cellar, and shove pointed sticks into your own eardrums. And we don't have a cellar.

Sally and I argue over serious things sometimes, like how she refuses to study and is careless with the baby, but most of our arguments are short-lived and stupid. Sally, we can't go to the market at 8:00 at night. M, you didn't shower and you smell bad. Sally, I can't let you use my phone because I don't have any minutes left. M, why are you only taking one fish, you obviously hate me and you're going to starve. Sally, you know I can't give you any money or we'll both get in trouble. M, for God's sake, you must eat two fish or we will all die screaming. You're a buffalo. You're a monkey. No, you're crazy. No, you're a child. No, you wear diapers.

Whatever, don't give me that look. Like none of you have ever gotten into an argument with a 14-year-old over which one of you wears diapers.

You have to understand that I love Sally, far more than I can put into words. I really do. I worry about her, and I want her to make the right decisions, and every so often I fantasize about throwing myself into traffic and bringing her right along with me.

Like this morning, for example, when she rolled up to my humble abode at 6:40 AM shouting, "M! M! Where are you?"

Now, I get up without complaint at about 7:00 during the week, but I will defend to the death my right to sleep in on Sundays, when the women and volunteers are all off-duty and everyone does their own thing. I was especially tired this morning, since the heat had kept me awake until well after midnight. I'd been hoping to sleep until the luxurious hour of 8:00, but Sally would not be deterred.

"M!" she shouted. The house rattled as she stomped up the steps to the porch, then again when she flung open the entry doors. "M, what are you doing?"

"I'm sleeping, Sally," I mumbled, rolling over and pulling the sheet over my head. "What are you doing?"

"M!" she shrieked again, reproachfully this time. She sounded deeply offended, as if I had told her I was busy shooting heroin with my favorite underage boy-whores. "Wake up! M sleep big big!" This last bit she said in English; it's one of her favorite lines, combining the novelty of English with the pleasure of unjustified condemnation.

"Mai sleep big big, you liar," I groaned. I considered explaining that I'd slept for a mere six hours, but couldn't be bothered to puzzle out the required vocabulary. Besides, she wouldn't have cared. "What do you need, Sally?"

"I'm leaving! Get up! M sleep big big!"

Most of the women had already left to go home for Songkran, arguably the biggest holiday of the year. Sally had indeed mentioned that she was leaving today, though at the time I'd been pretty sure she was lying. Occasionally, however, she spots a real wolf, so I grudgingly hauled myself off the mattress and set about searching for clean clothes. "I'm awake, I'm awake," I grumbled. "One minute."

Having requested Sally's patience, I really should have been able to predict that she would jerk open my bedroom door as I was halfway into my pants. "M!" she said, brow furrowed with disapproval. "What are you doing?"

Fortunately for our relationship, I don't know the Thai words for, "What the fuck does it look like?" or, "Experimenting with cold fusion - it helps if I'm naked." I settled for snapping, "Getting dressed! I need a minute!" and slamming the door shut in her face.

In the thirty seconds it took to make myself decent, an ominous silence descended on the house. As I slid my door open again, I braced myself for any number of unpleasant developments. Sally had decided she hated me for snapping at her. She had found and was in the process of demolishing my stash of M&Ms in the fridge. She had entered a catatonic state as a result of her brief but traumatizing exposure to my ass.

She had...disappeared?

Now it was my turn to play Marco Polo. "Sally?" I called, peering into the bathroom. "Sally! Where did you go?"

"M! M, come here! You have to come here!"

I followed her voice outside to where she was standing by the "meditation pond," a little man-made pool filled with the darkest, foulest water you've ever seen. The water arrives pre-polluted by our neighbors at the chicken factory. We've asked them to clean up their operations; they declined, but magnanimously offered us 300 chickens in "compensation" - one of the weirder bribes I've heard of.

"M, look!" Sally held up an enormous fish, which she'd apparently yanked from the pond, where several of its comrades were floating listlessly on their sides. "The fish are dead, M. Do you see?"

"Yeah, I see. Gross. Where's Pippi?"

She pointed to the bamboo house, where Pippi had taken to sleeping. "She's in bed. Pippi sleep big big!"

"Uh huh. And when are you leaving?"

"Tuesday," she said cheerfully, dropping the dead fish back into the pond with a splash.

"Sally," I said, digging my fingers into my forehead so they wouldn't be tempted to reach out and strangle her. "Did you get me out of bed before 7:00 on a Sunday to show me a dead fish?"

She cocked her head and squinted at me, not unlike a puzzled dog, and I realized I'd been speaking in English.

"I'm going back to bed," I said, spinning on my heel.

Her voice followed me back as I walked barefoot through the grass, up the steps, and into my bedroom, locking the door behind me: "M! Come here! What are you doing? You're lazy! You're a child!"

"You're a lunatic," I muttered under my breath, collapsing onto my mattress.

"M! M! You wear diapers!"