© Tom Tuohy
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(N.B. everything inside [i]...[/i] is italicized, inside [c]***[/c] are scene breaks.)
John takes another sip of his black coffee, squinting at the unopened bank statement. A stream of sunshine strikes the blue and yellow glass globe that hangs in the kitchen window. Sunisa will be standing in front of the bathroom mirror upstairs, going through her morning routine: washing and drying her face, rubbing cream into her cheeks, cleaning her teeth and, then, like a model in a toothpaste commercial, she’ll be smiling into the mirror and admiring her expensive dental work.
Few days pass without John being grateful to have such a beautiful wife. At forty-two, Sunisa has a pleasing face with smooth skin, long, shiny hair and lively eyes. Her love of gardening ensures she keeps her slim shape, with her daily excursions to tend her beloved [i]dok ma-lee[/i] or Jasmine buds, her [i]dok lee-laa-wa-dee[/i] Frangipani tree and her [i]dok chaba[/i] hibiscus, the latter of which she carefully dries to make tea for John’s high blood pressure.
When Sunisa enters the kitchen, John is attempting to sweep shards of a broken plate into a dustpan with a brush.
“Here, let me do it,” she says, taking the implements from his hands and pushing him aside.
“I’m sorry. It was the one of the plates your mother gave us,” said John. “For our wedding.”
“Mai pen rai,” Sunisa replies. “Things get broken.”
John nods and sits back down, the letter still in his hand.
“What’s that?” his wife asks.
“Bank statement. There must be a mistake. 250,000 baht is missing. I’ll have to call them when they open.”
Sunisa looks at the floor tiles as she fidgets with a button on her dress. Her mouth is open, but no sounds came out.
John straightens a crease on the edge of the paper before looking up.
“You know something about this?”
“Yes, it’s not mistake.” Sunisa’s eyes shift to the dining table. “I take money out and give to Khun Suranand.”
John puts down the letter and stared at his wife.
“Sorry? You did what?” he asks.
“I forget to tell you. I’m sorry,” Sunisa says, her hands clasped together as if praying. “He met his soulmate and wants to marry. He ask for money, and I say I help him.”
Loosening his collar, John tries to stand up but dizziness overcomes him. He gazes at his wife, his eyes open wide.
“Who is this man and why did you give over 8,000 US dollars of our money to a complete stranger, Sunisa?”
“I think you not understand, so I not see point of telling you,” she replies.
“But…but…goddammit, you know we agreed that...Who is he? Does he need an operation or something? Is he sick? Is he dying? I don’t understand!” John shouts.
“I know you be like this, so I not tell you before,” says Sunisa, her voice rising. “I know him from long time ago. He came to the shop many times, and we talk for hours. We were in the palace together. We were lovers. During King Rama IV reign. He tell me he need [i]sinsod[/i] money, a dowry I think you call it, but will return money in two weeks.”
As she walks towards the kitchen door, Sunisa turns to face John. “I go to work now. When I come back, I tell you everything. Maybe then you be calm, listen and try to understand.”
John watches from the kitchen window as his wife walks down the driveway, past the recently mowed lawn, the carefully manicured bonsai, the water hyacinths and the frangipani trees, and gets into her car.
His wife departed for work, John would usually walk to his study at the back of the house to continue with an assignment. Today, he goes to one of the kitchen cupboards, opens it and pulls out a pack of cigarettes hidden at the back behind some pots. He lights a cigarette and inhales, only now conscious of the fact it has been six months since he’s last had the bitter taste of tobacco in his mouth.
Sitting at the kitchen table, he picks up a photo of their wedding day, smoke rising towards the ceiling fan. The face looking back at him is of a quiet, thoughtful, thirty-one year old New Yorker with horn-rimmed glasses and a shy, awkward smile. He’d accepted an assignment for a travel magazine in Bangkok, the City of Angels in the early nineties and fully expected to return to the US within a week. He could not have known a beautiful woman like Sunisa would steal his heart, he’d fall in love with the city, and that he’d make Thailand his permanent home.
Yet the photo didn’t lie. When he married Sunisa, he hadn’t been much of a catch. In it were two smiling lovers beaming with mutual love, and Sunisa looked as beautiful as ever. Next to her, he looked out of place with his ill-fitting tuxedo, his bug-like, brown eyes due to his hyperthyroid issue, his large, aquiline nose and loose, pimply skin. The more he looked at the photo, the more he realized Sunisa hadn’t changed at all, not outwardly, though he now realized that perhaps she‘d changed in other ways, and he’d failed to notice.
He hadn’t forgotten her mother Boonsri‘s description of Sunisa as having [i]hoo bao[/i] in Thai or a “light ear”, meaning she was a bit gullible, but it was always a quality he liked about her, a certain vulnerability and innocence he found attractive. Once, when they were dating, a street hawker offered Sunisa a cheap key ring for the equivalent of twenty dollars. Without any haggling, she went to put her hand in her purse for the money before he’d intervened giving the hawker a dollar as he whisked Sunisa away.
Her superstitious nature sometimes amused him, too. When he asked her why she wouldn’t leave the house when [i]jink jocks[/i], tiny geckoes, made a noise, Sunisa had replied, “they may be warn me about something”. Rather than make a fuss, John just accepted it for what it was, but in all their years of marriage, he’d never had any reason not to trust her with money.
Now as he peered at the seventeen-year-old photo, a realization came over him that he‘d have to re-evaluate that shared sense of trust. [i]What if one of us gets sick? If there is a financial emergency? An unforeseen event? If all the money is gone, how will we deal with it?[/i] He forced himself to consider the possibility his wife might have gone mad or was displaying the early signs of dementia, so out of character were her actions. [i]And what if this scammer comes back for more? Where will it end? When we are completely broke?[/i]
Needing reassurance from a familiar voice, he calls one of his oldest friends in Bangkok to get advice, a fellow American and former colleague, Bill Jansen, at the [i]Bangkok Post[/i].
Bill sympathizes, but no, he‘s never heard of such a scenario before; no, he doesn’t think she‘s losing her marbles, and he runs through a few of the possibilities, some of which John has already considered.
“You could make her go to the police and file a complaint,” says Bill, in his Texan drawl, “but since she gave the money freely, I’m not sure that’d do any good.”
Being able to talk about it with someone calms John down. Both men agree that a police station visit is a good idea if only to have a formal record of what happened.
“Don't worry. She'll figure out she's been scammed. You'll see."
“God, I hope so Bill,” John replies.
John smokes another cigarette and goes to his study. He tries to work on an assignment but his thoughts are on the missing money and how his wife has behaved so out of character. When he glances at his watch for the umpteenth time, he lets out a long breath of air. Five o’clock has finally arrived.
Sunisa will be at the shop on the edge of town, a medium-sized pharmacy her parents bought and developed into a profitable business. She’ll be saying goodnight to the three employees, switching on the alarms and shuttering the shop for the night. It won’t be long before she’s turning her car into the driveway of their home.
As expected, Sunisa walks into the kitchen at her usual time, and they go outside to talk. It’s a mild, balmy evening in early November as they sit on the veranda at the back of their house. It overlooks a well tended garden full of mango, jasmine and rose apple trees bordered on each side with lilies, hibiscus and rosebuds. The tranquil sounds of the evening’s aubade have already begun as crickets chirp and birds settle down in the trees for the night.
Sunisa explains to John how she met Suranand, how he had recently started to come to the shop often and how she was sure they had known each other in a former life. She tells John why she‘s convinced she‘ll get the money back in two weeks and entreats him not to pass judgement until that time. It‘s a test, she says, and related to a good deed she did in her past life. It makes her very happy and she knows she‘s going to pass the test and if she does, she’ll get even more good karma for this and the next life.
“Darling, how exactly can you be so sure he’s a good man?” asks John.
Sunisa is quiet at first. When John presses her again, she says, “You not...not know way of the Dharma, of Buddhism, so I think difficult for you to understand.”
John winces at the blow, not just at how calmly it is delivered, but because it‘s true. He’s never made much effort to understand her religion though he has learned her language and can hold a conversation in Thai.
To try to convince John, Sunisa shows him messages on her phone from Suranand which he reads with a mixture of dread and wonder. When Sunisa tells him that Suranand introduced her to his future bride who was beautiful and sincere, John asks to see photos, and Sunisa obliges showing him photos from her phone.
A native New Yorker, brought up in the Bronx, John has known his fair share of charlatans and snake oil salesmen. This guy Suranand, whoever he is, has some cheek leaving a trail of evidence as traceable as a thumbprint. John tries to sound reassuring and non-judgmental, but his suspicions are etched all over his face.
“Why are you so convinced he’s not a crook and will pay you back, Sunisa? Can you tell me that?”
Now Sunisa’s face bears a wounded expression. “He not a crook. I told you. Why don’t you believe me? We know each other from the past. When he tell me stories about our life together, I remember everything. We also had child together, but the baby die.”
John clasps his head in his hands. He needs to know the truth, but to hear his wife say such things pains him, and each word is like a shard piercing his heart.
“Darling, you’ve been scammed, and you have to report it to the police. C’mon, get in the car. I’ll go there with you. We’ll explain it all to the police. Everything will be ok. I promise.”
John gets up and makes as if walking off to get his car key, but Sunisa remains seated as though frozen to her chair. She gives John an icy look of disgust.
“Now we know this not about me,” she says. “This show you not trust me. This show you think your wife crazy. What happened to words you say in church in Brooklyn? Hmm? To love, honour and cherish? No, you not trust me. You not respect me. And you not love me. You farang all the same! You think everything be measured with money. Why you not trust anyone?”
With anger in her voice, her eyes watery, Sunisa takes off her wedding ring, throws it at John and runs upstairs to her bedroom. She gathers a few clothes, flings them into a suitcase she pulls down from the top of her wardrobe, and collects toiletries and make up from the bathroom.
John follows and stands at the top of the stairs as she packs.
“But darling I was only-”
Stretching her hand around one of her suitcases as she zips it up, Sunisa says, “I will go now to my mama’s house. I need some time to think.”
John tries to calm her down by putting his arm round her waist, but she pushes him away. He follows as she goes down the stairs, out the front door and gets back in her car. He stands in the doorway as the engine starts, the car lights come on, and she pulls out of the driveway.
Back in the garden, the daylight has now faded and given way to night, so it takes John a long minute of crawling on his knees until he eventually finds Sunisa’s wedding ring. He puts it in his wallet for safe keeping and potters around the house angry at himself for letting the situation get out of control.
That night remains mostly sleepless. A few whisky and sodas help take the edge off his anxiety and dull his feelings of helplessness, but little else. After tossing and turning in bed, he gets up and paces around the bedroom. He turns on his computer to tries to do some editing which usually makes him sleepy, but it doesn’t work. He tries to watch some television, and several times when a headlight flashes outside his window, he goes to look for his wife's car in the driveway.
At the heart of his anguish are the feelings of mistrust he’s never experienced before with Sunisa. She had always listened to reason whenever they had quarreled before, but now she is different. She has been brainwashed; Of that he is certain. Someone has seen her soft, naive nature and taken advantage of it.
In the stillness of the night, he goes back to bed. Lying awake, in the darkness of his empty bedroom, his troubled mind brings him back to his childhood in New York, to a time after his father’s death in a car accident. His older brother had promised to teach him how to swim. He‘s twelve and memories of the swimming pool come back to him: the laughter of the children, the smell of chemicals, the soft lapping of the water splashing against the tiles, the strange shadows on the walls and the loud whistles of the life guards.
In the pool, his brother is gentle at first, but then when they gradually drift into deeper water, still supported by his brother’s brawny limbs, the latter suddenly withdraws his arms from under him and swims back to the other side of the pool. John panics and can feel his tiny body sinking. He can taste the chlorine in his mouth and his eyes are stinging. At the bottom of the pool he panics as water fills his lungs. A lifeguard, noticing he’d been submerged for longer than normal, whistles frantically and dives in to pull him to the surface.
When John asked his brother later why he did it, he reminded John they were the men of the house now that Pops was dead. He wanted John to learn to be tougher, to be self sufficient and to find a way out of problems for himself. Wanting to teach John a life lesson, his brother had instead, given him a lifelong fear of ever fully trusting people.
When he’d come to Thailand and met so many trusting and friendly people, including Sunisa, many of those feelings had dissipated. He recalled the time before he even met Sunisa when Thais stopped to help after his motorcycle had a flat tyre, how the 7/11 cashier had run after him when he forgot to collect his change, and how the taxi driver had located his address and brought his wallet to his house after leaving it in his taxi. With such acts of kindness, his trust issues had disappeared and he no longer found himself thinking about them. Now they had resurfaced again as if awoken like a sleeping pachyderm, like an elephant that had perhaps always been in the room but he’d failed to notice.
With no sleep and the dawn light creeping through the curtains, John gets up, goes downstairs and turns on the coffee machine. As he sits down at the kitchen table with his espresso, the caffeine hit perks him up. He takes out Sunisa’s wedding ring from his wallet and holds it up to the light. It represents seventeen years of marriage which means everything to him, and he isn’t about to lose that. He’ll have to go to Sunisa and seek her forgiveness.
After a shower, he locks the house and gets in his car. His eyes tired, he has trouble focusing on the road during the drive to Sunisa’s parents’ house, some forty kilometers away. He puts the AC on the coldest setting and turns the radio on full volume. He wantes more than ever to speak to Sunisa, to hold her, to kiss her, to tell her he loves her, and that whatever she she’s done, it doesn’t matter, that he doesn’t want to lose her.
John always had a reasonably good relationship with Sunisa’s parents, who were recently retired and down to earth. They had built a chain of retail outlets dotted around the southern Thai province of Hua Hin: mostly hardware stores, a few convenience stores and two or three pharmacies. Because of his pride, John had never taken any money from Sunisa’s parents when it had been offered. They lived in a large house that wasn’t showy but with expansive gardens, a personal chef, a driver, with about eight staff in total.
When John arrived around 10 am, he learned from one of the staff that Sunisa had already left for work that morning. Not wanting to appear rude having arrived at their family home, he went to say hello to her parents, her father Ananda and Boonsri her mother.
“Ahh! My favorite son-in-law, John, how are you today?” asks Ananda, as he walks into their spacious living room and sees John standing there. But before he could reply, Ananda leaned over to him. “I hear you be growling with the lioness. That right?”
“Sorry?” says John.
My wife says Sunisa is upset and that’s why she came home last night to stay. Have you two been fighting? The two lions fighting in the forest?”
John smiles. “Not fighting exactly.”
“Well,” says Ananda, “you should to fight more often. Then we can get to see more of you both!” He lets out a big, throaty laugh and slaps John on the back playfully. “Don’t suppose I can to interest you in a round of golf in an hour, John? Meechai hurt his back and we one short for a foursome.”
“No sorry. I’m not much of-”
“Yes, yes, I know you don’t to play. Thought I’d ask anyway.”
“Can I ask you a question, khun Ananda?”
“Of course, but before you do, I have something give you.” He walks over to a cupboard and bends down to pull out two wooden boxes. “One of my partners just come back from Cuba. You like cigars? Saint Luis Rey Coronas, and in this box is the finest single malt whisky you probably drink this year. You do like drop of this, don’t you? Yes, I know you do.”
“Wow! I don’t know what to say,” John returns. “That’s really very kind of you,” was all he could manage.
“Well, you won’t take my money, so at least this way I can help you enjoy some of the pretty things in life, eh?”
Both men laugh and sit down.
“Now, what was it you want to ask me?”
“Khun Ananda, I want to...do you know why...why Sunisa and I were arguing yesterday?”
“Yes, I think so. My wife say it something be about Sunisa lending money to someone. That it?”
“Yes, kind of,” replies John. “Except...it was quite a large amount. It was 250,000 Thai baht to be exact. And to a man she says she knew in her past life.”
John watches Ananda to gauge his reaction but he doesn’t flinch when he relates the story to Ananda. Ananda simply smiles and nods his head at intervals to show he understands what’s being said.
“And you don’t think that’s a bit...unusual?” asks John.
“A bit, but even if he has cheated her, she’ll get over it.”
“Yes, I suppose so,” John says.
“Did I ever tell you the time I was cheated out of six million baht?”
“No, what happened?”
“It when I just starting out. I order some pharmaceuticals from China, but the products never come. The man the supplier, he came highly recommended as well. It take me long time to recover, but I did. You can’t trust anyone these days. Everyone is out to make some money as easy as possible. That’s life!”
“So, do you think we should report it the police?” asks John.
“Yes, probably. No point in waiting a few days is my advice. You’ll upset Sunisa for sure but she not think same as me and Boonsri. We study in America and we try to get Sunisa to go abroad as well, but she like Thailand very much so not want to leave. But she study business here at Chula and we teach her well. That’s also why she very [i]Thai-Thai[/i]. You know this word?”
John nods fully aware it means Sunisa was set in her ways and didn’t like to cause trouble, what the Thais called, [i]mai tawng greng jai[/i] or “I don’t want to disturb you or make a fuss.”
“In my long business life, I think much as we should always try to see the good in people, in many cases, if opportunity come to make easy money, they are crooks and they forget the Buddha teachings, don’t you think?” asks Ananda.
John smiles, for he is not sure he‘s qualified to give his opinion as a non Buddhist.
“If this man say he going to return the money, he might, but the story about past lives sounds like it not true at all. Leave it with me. I talk to Boonsri and together we make Sunisa see she probably is cheated. We’ll advise she make statement at police station. I know the station chief, General Chalermkiat. One of my golf buddies.”
“Thank you so much, Khun Ananda. I think what you say makes a lot of sense,” says John.
Driving home, John wonders how Sunisa will take the news of him visiting her parents. It worries him that she will see him as interfering and that he’s overstepped some invisible boundaries. The last thing he wants to do now is make things worse.
As he drives back, he thinks about how Ananda will sit her down and talk it through with her. Sunisa has always respected her father and would almost certainly not go against his advice. After work, Sunisa will probably return to her parents’ house, and they’ll sit her down and explain why she should go and make a formal statement at the police station. Ananda will take her himself and watch as she recounts the events probably to a junior ranking policeman who’ll give them both a deep and respectful [i]wai[/i] as they enter. The policeman will write everything down as carefully as he can and Sunisa will sign her name at the end. Then later in the evening, Sunisa will kiss her parents goodbye and begin the trip back to her home with John.
At home, after taking a shower, John’s ear pick up the sound of an engine idling and he goes over to the window to see Sunisa getting out of her car. He smiles with relief. When she enters the house, she cries and hugs John who cries in return, and they kiss and say sorry over and over like two fighting children making up. John then takes out her wedding ring and places it back on her finger as the tears run down her face.
“I’m so sorry. I promise I will not give away any more money dear. I will show you.” She goes upstairs and comes back with her jewelry box, the deeds to land her father has given her, and her bank card, all of which she gives to John.
“I trust you and want you to take care of those things till you trust me again, ok?” she says.
John smiles and takes the items.
“But first something I must do,” Sunisa says.
“What is it?”
“I must go to the temple and pray. Will you come with me?”
John smiles, visibly relieved. “Of course I will, darling.”
They take Sunisa’s car and she drives them to the local temple called [i]Wat Chanasongkram[/i], the “Temple of Victory”. Before she gets there, Sunisa stops the car and John watches her buy food at a roadside stall to donate to the monks and to perform [i]tam boon[/i], a Buddhist custom of making merit.
At the temple a group of middle-aged monks in saffron robes are sitting in a semi circle chanting a [i]tam wat chao[/i], a common buddhist chant.
John and Sunisa, hand in hand, climb a set of steps that take them up to a reclining golden Buddha. Releasing Sunisa’s grip, John watches as she folds some large Thai banknotes and places them in a large, stainless steel donation box. Then she lays some smaller notes on a silver plate and picks up some candles and incense sticks. She lights the candles and places them in brass holders.
Lighting the incense sticks, she places them between her fingers and drops down on her knees in front of a statue of a large, golden Buddha. John watches as she clasps her hands to her chest and lowers her head several times in prayer. As he watches, he imagines she will be praying to put the recent events behind her, that all will end well, and the money will be returned, or if not, that she“ll be forgiven and that her karma will remain intact.
The visit to the temple finished, that evening they drive to an open air restaurant, have an expensive meal and then drive home. They celebrate with wine and made love like they are teenagers again.
At breakfast the next morning, they sit shoulder to shoulder sharing a Spanish omelette, toast and coffee that they prepared together, and as they steal kisses and teenage glances, they chat in hushed tones as they cup each other’s hands.
“Do you remember after we were married and we went to the temple, darling? The one with the caged birds?” asks Sunisa.
“Yes, they looked so happy when we released them.”
“We will do the same thing, my darling. Then we will watch all our bad deeds fly away,” she declares.
Sunisa goes to work as usual and John kisses her from the doorway. They agreed not to speak about the money any more and when the time comes around for its return, if it has not been paid back, they‘ll just chalk it down to experience and move on with their lives.
The two-week deadline comes sooner than expected, and no money is returned, so they go to the temple as planned and release ten doves into the sky watching them soar high towards the clouds.
The following Sunday morning as usual, Sunisa potters around in the back garden and tending her flowers. The sun is slowly rising in the November sky and the dew drying from the lawn. As is his habit, John drives to the local delicatessen to get breakfast for them both. He likes the sesame bagels, a reminder of his childhood in New York. Sunisa is partial to their croissants and scones, both of which she smothers with liberal dollops of clotted cream and strawberry jam and washes down with a cup of her favorite iced tea. John whistles happily as he drives back, relieved at last to have finally put the recent events behind them and to be back into a semblance of their normal routine.
When he parks the car in the driveway, it‘s getting warm, and he can smell the sweetness of the frangipani trees in the front garden mixed with the aroma from the latte he‘s carrying in a styrofoam cup.
As he walks through to the kitchen at the back of the house, he places the items down on the counter top, and his ear catches the sound of voices. It is Sunisa in the back garden talking in Thai through the speaker of her phone.
“He doesn’t understand or trust me. I told him we’re different, and we do things differently in Thailand,” says Sunisa.
“Yes farangs will never understand [i]Thainess[/i], that’s for sure,” says the male voice. “Have you transferred the money, yet?”
“No. I’ll do it tomorrow. When the bank opens.”