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A Girl Who Can’t Say No




Lear and I were singing “I’m Just a Girl Who Can’t Say No” from “Oklahoma” when the waitress brought our lunches yesterday. We were at the Pension Grillparzer on Somtam Beach. Three meters from our table the sea was Nembutal-calm and overhead giant lizards were hunting birds in the casuarina trees, and nobody in the big, airy dining room paid any attention as Lear and I sang, loudly, selections from the Rogers and Hammerstein catalogue.

The Pension Grillparzer is just that kind of place.

Lear is one of my favorite lunch companions, a veteran of the New York theatre world, a slow, steady beer drinker and a pretty fair baritone. He’s generous with his cigarettes, well educated, well read and well spoken, but just as willing to listen as to speak. Between songs the topic of our conversation yesterday was: The Trials of Fatherhood.

“Andy’s getting so willful,” I moaned. “He won’t eat unless Mem chases him around with a bowl and a spoon. Takes two hours to finish a meal.”

“Wait until he’s a teenager,” countered Lear. “That’s when they turn really nasty. Noi’s skipping school, staying out all night, lying and throwing tantrums. She spent the money I gave her for books on a rhinestone case for her iPhone. What does a 17-year-old girl need with an iPhone anyway? I tell you, if she doesn’t straighten out soon, she’s gonna find herself living alone.”

Despite the similarities in the tone of our complaints, my experience of fatherhood and Lear’s are radically different. Andy is only two years old, and so far I have enjoyed his company every day of his life. Noi, Lear’s “daughter,” is seventeen, and he only met her two years ago, when he was newly arrived in Thailand and she was brought to his house as a candidate for the position of housemaid. Lear says he was struck by how bright she was, and by her helplessness as a penniless orphan, so instead of a mop and pail he gave her uniforms and a little motorcycle and enrolled her in school.

Lear has told me often enough how he is touched by the plight of such young girls in this country. I’ve never asked Lear why he is not so moved by the plight of young men, in this country or in his own, who are similarly battered by their fate, or the plights of the old or the infirm or those spurned for the color of their skin or the name of their god. I never asked him “why just young women, and why only here?”

The Pension Grillparzer is just that kind of place.

Instead I croak my way through a chorus of “What’s the Matter With Kids Today?” from “Bye Bye Birdie” and help myself to another of Lear’s cigarettes. We eat lunch together fairly regularly, Lear and I, and we talk about all kinds of things, but because The Pension Grillparzer is the kind of place it is, he’s never asked me “Steve, why did the State of New York take away your driver’s license?” and I’ve never asked him, “So, Lear, you schtupping Noi, or what?”

If he’s not, he’s a saint. Noi joined us for lunch one day about six months ago, and through the whole meal I kept finding excuses to look to my right, anything to sneak a glimpse of the stunning creature seated next to me. She was as beautiful as a woman can possibly be in broad daylight, imbued with the charming naiveté of youth but also with a confidence that made her unhesitant about speaking up in the company of two adult farang men.

I should add here that Lear was born without myelin around the motor nerves in his hands, leaving the fingers permanently contracted as if he were always just about to scratch his head. His claws aren’t painful, and while he’ll never play the piano he is able to drive a car, cook an omelet and stage manage a Broadway show.

But his hands are a little grotesque when you first see them, so Lear has always been shy around women.

And that’s as much as I know for sure about Lear. But if I had to guess, this is how I would describe his situation: Lear is not a pederast. He and his “daughter” live a chaste life in separate bedrooms, and despite her almost unnatural beauty, Lear has never laid one twisted finger on her.

But of course he loves her, with the possessive, jealous and completely unrequited love of the Beast for Beauty, Quasimodo for Esmeralda or Grumpy for Snow White. But unlike those Disney martyrs, Lear expects that when Noi reaches maturity, he will take what he already considers his.

When she moved into his house two years ago, Noi may have been too young to recognize this expectation, or she may only have become aware of it after months in residence, or maybe she agreed to the deal at the beginning. But since then she has, perhaps, met a boy at school and changed her mind. Whatever the case, now that the due date on her debt of honor is drawing near, she’s looking for loopholes.

Noi is basically honest, and moreover, thoroughly Asian, so she takes a social obligation very seriously and wouldn’t dream of breaking the roof-and-rice contract. But it may have occurred to her that if she can get Lear to throw her out of the house before the day of reckoning, she will have been educated, liberated, and still unviolated.

Thus the sudden disobedience and disrespect. A child pushes her parents’ buttons to provoke a certain response, like Andy refusing to eat unless Mem follows him around with a bowl and a spoon. It’s on page 359 in Dr. Spock’s Baby Book.

But, as I said, I’ve never asked Lear to explain the exact nature of his relationship with his “daughter,” and who am I to judge? He maybe be a true Samaritan, and she may just be going through a difficult adolescence. I’ll probably know Lear for years and never know for sure, but in that time he and I will spend a lot of long, beery afternoons singing show tunes and throwing chicken bones to the giant lizards.

That’s just the kind of place The Pension Grilparzer is.