I first met Gracie at one of the long-stay guesthouses in Soi 9 Moon Muang Rd in Chiang Mai when I lived there in 05/06.
We'd pass each other on the stairs or in the foyer from time to time and exchange the usual niceties. I could tell by her accent that she was Canadian. However coming from across the 'Big Pond' – I'm never quite sure – maybe even American!
Gracie was different from the rest of the inmates. Attractive, petite, balanced, poised, half friendly – it was always a delight to steal a smile from her, an idle word in passing, a whiff of her perfume. She was a breath of fresh air amidst the eclectic bunch of crazies who inhabited that place.
One guy – we colloquially called him Mr Uniform – spent every waking moment trudging around clad only in a bath-towel. I cannot recall a single time when I ever saw him clothed. I was always terrified that through some tragic mishap he would become separated from his loin cloth and reveal to the hapless inmates the mysterious apparition that lurked beneath the tattered remnants of his modesty. He was a loud raucous Aussie and I shuddered each time he opened his mouth. Resplendent in his 'hair shirt' his guts exploding over his towel, and the ubiquitous fag drooping from his choppers – he looked like an even more bedraggled version of Michael Moore!!
I had just escaped from a seven year stint at a high pressure sales job in Sydney, preceded by five years teaching in its public high schools – it had all taken its toll. To add insult to injury I had made the fatal mistake of dating one of the women who worked there. She had become my sales manager and after our not too acrimonious split, in order to short-circuit her move to the top, she had decided to accuse me of immoral shenanigans that had never happened. Police were threatened, phone calls were implied, names were dropped, icy stares were the order of the day, so consummately and ignominiously I was dumped like a soiled diaper. I lost my job, my livelihood, reputation and friends all in one foul swoop.
I sold my house, car – everything – and invested the money. The dividends were only modest and could not have sustained one for long in Australia, but 60,000 plus baht a month goes a long way in Thailand. I knew nothing about the place but decided it was there or a nervous breakdown for me. My guilt looked even more certain because it was said that I 'fled' the scene, but it was time for me to call the shots and to hell with them all.
Being an avid archer and budding Robin Hood all my life I had been sure to bring along a couple of my beautiful hand-crafted longbows. Archery was my way of coming back into the world, my way of feeling human again. Taking time to inhale the beauty of fresh timber as my plane took another shaving off the specially selected strip of Cedar – slowly began to restore my soul.
I would sit most days out the front of my room just planing my square cedar billets into perfect cylinders. Sanding them smooth and round, varnishing and preparing the tips before I would put them in the fletching jig to apply the feathers.
I am sure I intrigued Gracie even more than she appealed to me. She would often stop and chat and ask what I was doing. I must have looked an odd sight sitting in front of my room each day ankle deep in wood shavings with a hint of varnish wafting throughout the place.
She told me she was a professional dancer from Oregon and she was travelling with her friend. I had seen another young woman with her when I first arrived at the guesthouse. Her friend had gone back to America for a few weeks on family business and she was soaking in the local sights now that she had time to spare.
Once or twice a week I would drive in my car out to the mountains in Maerim where my girlfriend Princess lived with her mum. I would go out beyond the quad bike park, past the monkey school, out by the snake farm and turn right and head up into the mountains. This is what I had dreamed about for years as a kid – roaming the thick jungles with bow and arrow in hand – just me against all that nature and its fury cared to hurl. Where was that crumby ex-boss of mine and that scrawny wench now that I was armed and dangerous?
I am not sure what I enjoyed the most – shooting each arrow that I had so painstakingly fashioned by hand, the awesome feeling of freedom with no demands on my time, the perceived danger of facing off some dangerous critter or seeing the bewildered terrified looks on the faces of the locals as I appeared, Rambo like, from the steamy jungle, covered in camo paint and sweat.
Princess's mum had put the word out, that there was a crazy Farang cutting loose with bow and arrow up in the hills, but for once it appeared that the Thai rumor-mill had gone awry- they always looked so terrified when they saw me. My AUA course hadn't kicked in properly so any attempts to speak Thai were only met with further bewilderment on their ashen faces.
Gracie would often see me returning at night clutching my bow and she would be keen to hear my stories and exciting tales of jungle adventure. We started to share an empathy with each other. I did not say much about what had happened to me back home, why I was there, whom or what I was running from. I knew though that she could tell what I was doing was therapeutic – each stroke of my plane, each arrow loosed was slowly crafting the bits of my broken life back together.
Princess would drop in from time to time to see me and we would go out to dinner. Gracie seemed perplexed and wondered why a guy in his mid forties would be dating a young girl of 20. She often quizzed me on this and I couldn't find the words to make it sound seemly or sanitized. Sometimes Western chicks just don't get it!
I had met Princess when I first arrived in Thailand a few months before. Fresh off the plane, I staggered into the nearest travel shop in Bangkok and booked a tour – to anywhere – by fate or providence I ended up with five nights in the SP Hotel in Chiang Mai. Princess was doing her last year at University and was there on work experience helping in accounts in the front office. She could not speak a word of English and my Thai was zilch. I was attracted to her gorgeous smile and oh she was so painfully shy. She had never had a boyfriend before and when she took me out on the taxi to meet her mum she just stared at me, with huge bug-eyes all the way out to Maerim. Her dad had been a Captain in the army but was MIA – a skirmish on the border with Myanmar, a few years before. I am sure if her dad had been around I would have been issued my marching orders and not allowed near his beautiful daughter.
Princess was allowed to accompany me to dinner but her mum would not sanction her visiting my room. I had to take her to the yellow taxi in Chiang Mai by early evening or she would miss the last one out to Maerim.
I would often come back and chat to Gracie, just bits and pieces of disjointed stories, parts of a puzzle that slowly take the shape of whatever it is that makes us human. She told me her 'friend' was her lesbian lover and that they had recently been married in America. Apparently the laws had changed there so they had taken the opportunity to get married. I was cool with that. Like most New Zealand guys I am a bit homophobic, but the thought of a couple of dolly babes doing whatever they do best in their private chambers sounded ok to me.
On one of my arrow making sessions Gracie sidled up to me and asked if I would like to accompany her to a social evening. She had booked into a Thai culture tour which included dinner and a Thai dancing show afterwards. The thought of escorting this pretty little dancer who was fifteen years my junior, with free dinner, didn't sound too bad at all.
I made sure I told Princess because I didn't want her to hear via the grapevine and think that Gracie and I were double crossing her. Princess trusted me and I expected no less from her – so it behoved me to keep this purely platonic. However it was great to be able to have a mature adult conversation with somebody who was conversant in English. At that stage of our relationship my conversation level with Princess was akin to that of my five year old niece. I was starting to talk like a blathering half witted idiot so it was good to brush up on my English skills.
The evening went well and I really enjoyed the cultural show and Thai finger dancing. After being fully satiated with a good meal and relaxing back in the subdued light of the arena, I noticed Gracie sidled a little closer and brushed against me.
Frederick Buechner once wrote that we are all akin to a man standing knee deep in a raging river – yet dying of thirst. The things that we each so earnestly desire are always close to hand – often the very things that we despise – but in our blindness and rage at life we often somehow miss them.
The soft music maintained the perfect ambience in that place as a cool evening breeze slowly drifted through. Gracie leant a bit harder against me and I felt a surge of guilt and desire shoot through my thirsty soul.
Where was my Princess now, what would she be doing, thinking – wondering about this 'good man'?
On the drive back to our guesthouse Gracie shared from the depth of her soul and in the dim street light, she appeared like a wounded kitten – vulnerable, dependant, needy.
We lingered in those moments, not wishing for them to pass but each unaware of what the other was desiring. I was deeply attracted to her beauty and softness, the way her hair fell across her face, her tight athletic body, her beautiful feminine smell, her vulnerability.
Life has a way of dealing out its cards that we would neither wish nor despise. We have no control over the serendipitous occasions that grace an otherwise bleary landscape. Months before I was on the receiving end of bitter vitriol, now I had the attention of two beautiful creatures, neither of them aware that I was creating for myself an unenviable situation.
Gracie and I spent more time chatting each day and I was concerned that I was thinking more about her than Princess. She was like a drug and I desired her company and closeness more. Gracie could not come to grips with the fact that I was dating Princess. She seemed to think that Princess was the fortunate one having a relationship with a mature Farang of comfortable means and demeanor. I on the other hand thought I was the lucky one to be spending time with such a fresh, beautiful, innocent and exotic belle.
I have always believed in honesty in any relationship and had never been one to two-time a woman before. I have a fairly black and white personality – its either off or on, good or bad, I'm either in or out and there ain't much in between. I therefore knew it was probably not a good thing to suggest but I asked Gracie if she would accompany me one evening to listen to some live music. I don't drink, therefore I do not spend much time in bars, however C/M does have some good popular venues with live bands. Being a drummer who played in many gigs over the years I still enjoy kicking back with some good company and listening to live music. Gracie gladly accepted my suggestion and we soon found ourselves listening to a great band, surrounded by a jovial crowd.
I found the atmosphere great and as I was the driver Gracie was able to cut loose on a few cold refreshments to lubricate her for the evening. We soaked in the atmosphere and reveled in our own company. Even though I tried to broach the subject in order to clarify my confusion, I did wonder why she never talked much or offered any hints about the relationship with her partner. I knew that the time was drawing near for her return – I did wonder how earnestly Gracie desired that.
When we drove back to the guesthouse in the early hours of that morning Gracie lent over and kissed my cheek. I had never had a close friendship before with a gay woman, so I was wondering if they were like this with all guys, just overtly warm and physical, but not meaning it to lead to anything further. When we got back to the guesthouse and I walked her to her room, she grabbed my hand and pulled me in and shut the door. I just knew if I stayed that I would not be able to resist this beautiful creature. However, by virtue of the fact that I had made a decision 10 years before, I knew what I must do.
In 1995 my then wife had an affair with a friend I invited around to our house. The stolen smiles, the giggles and flirting became more and more obvious over the months until I had to believe what my numbed brain would not allow me. By then it was too late, but I made a vow that I would never come between two people and be the instigator of the pain that I was made to endure.
These things often seem ok at the time but I knew the gossips who inhabited that place. Having just removed myself from one terrible situation I did not need the stress of Princess and Gracies's partner hearing about our little fling. I think it was Henri Nouwen who once said it is those who are the closest to us who have the potential to wound us the deepest.
I also knew that Gracie had a few drinks and because her guard was down I did not want her to awaken the next day to guilt and fear. I hugged her and thanked her for the great evening then left for my room.
Two days later, on the Thursday afternoon, I was laying on my bed reading when Mr. Uniform stuck his head in my door and asked if I had heard the news. He said that there had been a fatal traffic accident near the Central Plaza Robinson. Gracie had been hit by a motorcycle, crossing from the songtaew to the Centre. She had hit her head on the road and died on the way to hospital.
There is an awesome song by one of Australia's best known pub rock bands of the 80's and 90's. Probably my all-time favorite song is by these guys – 'throw your arms around me' by Hunters and Collectors. As Gracie and I sat there on that special evening we shared, the covers band played this song. Coming from the States she had never heard it before and loved it immediately. Whenever I hear this song I always think of Gracie.
"I will come for you at night time
I will raise you from your sleep".
A few days later a young woman appeared, and started to gather up Gracies things. She was the one I had seen her with when I first arrived in that place. Like most of us I am rendered mute in times like this and never know what to say. I approached her and introduced myself. I did not say much, did not want to embarrass her, I just said we all liked Gracie and that I was so sorry.
"I will kiss you in four places
I'll go running along your street".
Tears puddled in her eyes as she said "so you're the bow and arrow guy"? On my confirmation of that she told me that Gracie had mentioned me on one of their phone conversations. She said "Gracie probably never told you this, but her brother had been a keen archer and was killed in a hunting accident in the States". "She told me that you reminded her so much of her brother".
"I will squeeze the life out of you
You will make me laugh and make me cry".
A week never goes by that I don't find myself thinking about Gracie. Such a tragedy, such a beautiful person who had so much life left in her and so much love to give.
"We will never forget it
You will make me call your name and I'll shout it to the bluesummer sky".
Yes, these words – probably one of the last songs that Gracie ever enjoyed, speak of her, to her, about her. As the song so fittingly says – I will never see her again.
However, just now and then I steal a moment away from my hectic work schedule back in Australia. I head out to my favorite haunt in the forest – it reminds me of another time, another place, that seems so far away now. As I haul back on my bow and loose one of those arrows – and let it fly – I think of a special girl who I was so privileged to meet and that our paths crossed for that brief moment of time.
"We may never meet again
And you will throw your arms around me".
That's a really nicely done tribute to her.