© 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 of his Bangkok home. His wife 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.
He is 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,” says John. “For our wedding.”
“Mai pen rai,” Sunisa replies. “Things get broken.”
John nods and sits back down, the letter still in his hand, but now open.
“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?”
Sunisa nods as her eyes shift to the dining table. “Yes, it’s not mistake. I take money out and give to Khun Suranand.”
John puts down the paper and scrutinizes his wife’s face.
“Sorry? You did what?”
“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 feels slightly dizzy.
“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.
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.
After Sunisa leaves for work, John usually walks to his study at the back of the house to continue with a journalism 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‘s 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 seventeen years later, Thailand would still be his permanent home.
Yet the photo doesn’t lie. When he married Sunisa, he hadn’t been much of a catch. In it are two smiling lovers beaming with mutual love, and Sunisa looks as beautiful as ever. Next to her, he looks 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 looks at the photo, the more he realizes Sunisa hasn’t changed at all, not outwardly, though he now realizes that perhaps she‘s changed in other ways, and he’s failed to notice.
He hasn’t forgotten her mother Boonsri‘s description of Sunisa as having [i]hoo bao[/i] in Thai or a “light ear”, meaning she’s a bit gullible, but it was always a quality he liked about her, a certain vulnerability and innocence he found attractive. When they were dating, a street hawker offered Sunisa a cheap key ring for the equivalent of twenty dollars. Without haggling, she 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 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.
Until now. Studying the seventeen-year-old photo, a realization comes over him that he has 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 forces himself to consider several possibilities: given Sunisa’s actions are so out of character, his wife is going mad or is displaying the early signs of dementia. Unlikely, but not impossible. The guy could also be a blackmailer. But what could Sunisa have done to have this guy on her tail? [i]And what if he comes back for more? Where will it end? When we are completely broke?[/i]
Disturbed by the morning’s news, he calls one of his oldest friends in Bangkok to get advice - fellow American journalist and former colleague, Bill Jansen, at the [i]Bangkok Post[/i].
“Howdy John,” Bill says, in his Texan drawl. “What’s cooking? Haven’t heard from you in a while.”
John explains the bank statement and his concerns as Bill listens replying with the occasional [i]uhuh[/i]l
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.
“Y’all could make her go to the police and file a complaint,” says Bill, “but I dunno it’d do any good since she gave that fella the money freely.”
“Yeah exactly,” agrees John.
Being able to talk about it with someone, John has already started to calm down. Both men agree 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,” says Bill. “Then she’ll be back in your arms like a Houston Prom Queen! 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 is behaving 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 arrives home at her usual time, and they sit outside on the veranda to talk. It’s a mild, balmy evening in early November, and the veranda looks onto 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.
After fidgeting and smoothing her hair, Sunisa explains how she met Suranand, how he’d recently started coming to the shop and how she was sure they’d known each other in a former life.
“He tell me he need [i]sinsod[/i] money, a dowry I think you call it, but will return money in two weeks.”
She tells John why she‘s sure she‘ll get the money back and entreats John 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 make me so happy,” she says. She believes 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’ll pay back the money? Or that he’s even 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 slightly upon hearing this, not only because of 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.
“What is there to understand?” he asks.
Sunisa ignores the question and shows John messages on her phone from Suranand which he reads with a mixture of apprehension and wonder. When Sunisa tells him that Suranand introduced her to his future bride who was beautiful and sincere, John asks to see photos from her phone, and Sunisa obliges.
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. And while he may not be blackmailing her, he seems to have an unnaturally strong hold over her which disturbs John. He tries his best to sound reassuring and non-judgmental, but his suspicions are etched all over his face.
“Why are you so certain he’s not a crook and will pay you back, Sunisa? Can you tell me that?”
Where Sunisa’s face was outwardly calm before, yet showed a hint of her inward nervousness, now it bore a wounded expression. “He not a crook. I told you. Why you not believe me? We know each other from the past. When he tell me stories about our life together, I remember everything. We also have child together, but the baby die.”
John feels the tension rising in his body and his hands tighten unconsciously into a fist. To know the truth is one thing, but to hear his wife speak of another husband and a dead baby pains him so much, he can feel his soul shudder. Sunisa’s words have a greater significance too given the only reason they don’t have children of their own is because she is barren though a medical condition.
“Darling, you’ve been scammed. C’mon, we’ll explain it all to the police. Everything will be ok. I promise.” Sunisa sat as though frozen to her chair. She stared icily at John, and her face wore a look of disgust.
“Now we know this not be about me. This show you not trust me. This show you think your wife crazy. What happened to words you say in church in Brooklyn? When we repeat our vows? Hmm? [i]To love, honour and cherish?[/i] No, you not trust me. You not respect me. And I think maybe 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 into the house.
John’s eyes follow as she leaves the garden. Initially uncertain whether to search for the ring or not, he decides on the latter and follows Sunisa as she runs up the stairs. He waits outside the door and watches helplessly as she packs.
Standing on a chair, she pulls down a suitcase from the top of her wardrobe, then gathers a few clothes from inside the wardrobe and flings them into it. She leaves the bedroom to collect toiletries and make up from the bathroom.
“But darling I was only...” John says, trying to put his arm round her waist, but she pushes him away and glides past him.
She stretches her hand around one of her suitcases as she zips it up. Walking out of the bedroom with the suitcase, Sunisa says, “I will go now to my mama’s house. Don’t call me.”
Back in the garden, the last vestiges of daylight are fading fast, so it takes John a long minute until, after crawling on all fours, 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.
A few whisky and sodas take the edge off his anxiety and dull his feeling of helplessness, but the night is sleepless. After midnight, he throws off his bed covers and paces the room. He opens his editing file, which usually makes him drowsy, but no luck. Cookware commercials on late night TV don’t interest him. Several times a headlight flashes past his window and he looks out for Sunisa's car.
The feelings of mistrust are what bother him the most. Sunisa 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.
[i]Should I ask around? Seek this guy out? Confront him about his actions? Treat him like a New York low life? Maybe even rough him up a bit?[/i] But John soon discounts this as a viable way to deal with the problem. He guesses Sunisa would never forgive him and it’s not the way Thais deal with problems. He concludes that to confront the situation head on would be marital suicide.
Unused to a house that feels so quiet and empty without Sunisa, he goes back to bed. Lying awake, in the darkness of his bedroom, he’s brought back to his childhood in New York, to a time after his father’s death in a car accident. His older brother promised to teach him how to swim. He was twelve and memories of the swimming pool come back to him: the laughter of the children, the smell of chlorine, 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 gradually drifting into deeper water, still supported by his brother’s brawny limbs, the latter suddenly withdraws his arms from under his small body and swims back to the other side of the pool. John panics and can feel himself sinking. The taste of 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 him 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. Now they had resurfaced.
With no sleep and the dawn light creeping through the curtains, John goes downstairs and turns on the coffee machine. Leaning against the counter with his espresso, the caffeine hit perks him up. He pulls out Sunisa's wedding ring and holds it up as the yellow metal glints in the morning light. It represented seventeen years of marriage, everything to him, and he wasn't about to lose that. He'd find 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. More than ever, he wants to speak to Sunisa, to hold her, to kiss her, to tell her he loves her, and that whatever 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, 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 live in a large house that isn’t showy but with expansive gardens, a personal chef, a driver, with about eight staff in total.
When John arrives around 10 am, he learns from one of the staff that Sunisa has already left for work that morning. Not wanting to appear rude having arrived at their family home, he goes 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 can reply, Ananda leans 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. Think I good to ask anyway.”
“Can I ask [i]you[/i] 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,” is all he can 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 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 one of her previous lives.”
John watches Ananda to gauge his reaction, but he doesn’t flinch when he relates the story to him. Ananda 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 start 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 is set in her ways and doesn’t like to cause trouble, what the Thais call, [i]mai tawng greng jai[/i] or “I don’t want to disturb you or make a fuss.” This is the Sunisa John has come to know and love but recent events have now made him reappraise that opinion of her.
“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 will to return the money, maybe, but the story about past lives seem 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 Anada," John said. "I think what you say makes a lot of sense."
Driving home, John worries how Sunisa will take the news of him visiting her parents. She could see him as interfering, as overstepping invisible boundaries. The last thing he wants is to make things worse.
As he drives back, he imagines Ananda sitting her down and talking 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 smiles with relief when his ears pick up the sound of an engine idling. When Sunisa 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”. Along the way, 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 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. He imagines her 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 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 return 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 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 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.”