An Excerpt from “When in Bangkok”

Erika Krouse

The morning after we landed in Bangkok, my father tossed some baht onto the restaurant table without counting it. Enough eating, he said. My sister and I stood immediately, still chewing.

But the girls haven’t finished their breakfast, my mother said, and got up to file out of the hotel restaurant behind us.

Our hotel was only two blocks from the Patpong district in Bangkok. Patpong was a different place during the day. All the bar girls slouched around in flip-flops and dirty tank tops. Crumpled cigarette butts clutched each other in the gutters, and the garbage of the night before rotted gently, mixing with the aging urine. We walked looking down to sidestep the vomit and sticky spit that would never dry here.

My father hustled down the street, his hands swinging, knocking into other people and swearing. He darted in and out of stalls, peering at the signs written in Thai and English. He strode so quickly, it was hard for the rest of us to keep up.

What are you looking for? my mother asked. A bathroom?

Not a bathroom, he snapped, and then he stopped.

A little girl sat alone on a stool outside a place with a sign that read, Oil and Thai Massage. She wasn’t more than four. Couldn’t have been. She licked a red popsicle that was melting rapidly in the heat. Red syrup dripped down the outside of her hand and arm and onto the pavement. Her lips were stained red, by the popsicle, maybe. She licked until the popsicle was gone, until she was forced to insert the stick into her mouth for the last nub. Black kohl lined her eyes, and her messy hair had a small dreadlock toward the back. She wore an orange tank top and pink shorts, and she kicked her brown legs in the air.

A woman appeared. She was middle-aged, with short styled hair, dyed black. She looked almost like my mother, except she was Thai and wore a yellow tube top over her lumpy breasts. She poked my father and asked, You like? You buy her another?

The little girl looked up at my father, juice on her chin. He shoved his hands into his pockets. One of his shoulders was up by his ear.

The woman said, You come back. I member you.

My father shook his head no and sidestepped off. My mother and sister were lingering by a vendor grilling food on a stick. My father pulled out his wallet and selected some charred meat for them. His gaze caught on the window of a nearby tailor. He jutted his chin at a white mannikin wearing a boxy black suit with a skinny piano tie.

I need a new suit, he said.

It’s a family vacation, my mother said, swallowing her meat.

But my father stared into a horizon he couldn’t see, obscured as it was by building after building full of more people than the world could possibly hold. He looked relaxed now, and even smiled.

I’ve earned myself a suit every now and again, he said.

This was our fourth trip to Bangkok, for our fourth family vacation since we moved abroad to Singapore four years ago. The company paid for the vacations, one per year, anywhere on the globe. My mother had asked for Paris this year, but my father said no. I was twelve, and my sister was fourteen.

My father was a genius, my mother said. He had graduated college when he was nineteen, some kind of prodigy in engineering. He was bossing around people twice his age by the time he was twenty-one. Now that he was forty-five, he wasn’t a prodigy anymore, and just bossed around people his own age. He had worked for the same oil and gas company his whole adult life. I never saw him in anything but white dress shirts, short-sleeved on weekends. He slumped, and his eyes had started to pucker at the edges. When he first got the assignment to Singapore, it was like he won some kind of big company prize. Now, he sometimes growled to our mother, They’ve all but forgotten me stateside. There’s nothing for me if we go home. Fucking Reaganomics.

To make him feel better about himself, sometimes my mother told me to ask my father for help with my homework, but nothing is for free. There was a space in the hallway of our Singapore apartment where we were meant to store bicycles, and I slept there at night until I got caught, and that was over.

Last year, on our third trip to Bangkok, we went with another family. My father was the other father’s boss. The two men went off shopping for menswear while we all lay around a hotel-roof pool. The other family’s kids ignored us, and my sister and I ignored them. The sky was Asia-gray, like a muffler above us. The two mothers drank bitter Tiger beers all day, tried and failed to suck in their chubby stomachs, and said, Now, isn’t this pleasant! Isn’t this pleasant!

When the other family’s father—why can’t I remember his name?—came back from his outing with my father, he walked straight over to the pool and fell in with his clothes still on. He wore a dress shirt tucked in, belt and pants, everything. He stayed underwater for a long time, while everyone pretended it was normal to do that.

He finally surfaced after I thought he had already drowned. I realized with shame that I hadn’t even thought of jumping in after him or calling for help. He was gasping, face tinted yellow, his glasses wet and flashing. His white shirt had turned gray from the shadow of his chest hair beneath.

Are you OK? I asked.

He shook his head and coughed for a long time, tethered to the side of the pool by one elbow. Finally, he pulled himself out of the water and sat next to me at the side of the pool. Water streamed from the hems of his pants legs, from the heels of his leather shoes. The water pooled under me, wetting my suit. His wife laughed at something my mother said, a laugh like a scream.
I poked him. Where’s my dad?

The sun slid out from behind a cloud. The man said, Your dad, he’s, he’s, he’s . . . We got lost.

Should we go look for him? I asked.

The man opened his mouth to say more, his round jaw wobbling. But then he just shuddered at the water casting its reflection onto his face, and said, When in Bangkok, man. When in Bangkok.

The next morning, that family was gone, checked out of the hotel in the middle of the night. That man quit his job before we got back to Singapore, and the company sent them all home to the States. We never saw them again.

. . .

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