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Bear Claws and Ching-Chocks





There are donuts in the break room, and the coffee this morning is flavored with synthetic hazelnuts. I take a cup and a bear claw to my office. It’s 7:30 a.m., time to split myself in two again.

Ever since the Veterans Administration built this building in 1949 the space my body occupies on the ninth floor has been an office in the psychiatric ward. There’s no reckoning how many veterans have been treated for hallucinations and delusions in the very spot where I sit, but the windows were sealed in 1961 because somebody jumped out.

Within minutes of taking my seat I’m gone. I’ll watch my goldfish, Yin and Yang, endlessly circling their tank but I’m not living this moment, I’m living my life on Phuket with Vilai.

We live in a nice house in Rawai, walking distance from the beach but screened by casuarina trees from the monsoon winds that would otherwise ruin my carefully tended ornamental garden. It’s a great neighborhood, not wealthy but not poor. Reliable water, relatively honest cops, no busy roads, no tourists. We know our neighbors and like them. All the young men of the village have jobs at hotels and only come home at Songkhran, so the village is quiet at night.

A coconut plantation to the East, bananas to the West, jungled mountains behind us. South of us nothing but ocean all the way to Penang. The song-taew bus stops at the end of our lane, the weekly market is a block in one direction, two fantastic seafood joints a block in the other. My old dog Yoo-Yee is miraculously still alive, a rare survivor of the eternal war between Phuket’s ten-wheeled trucks and every other form of life on the roads. She’s still warning us about snakes in the bamboo, still keeping tokays out of my koi pond, still looking at me like I’m God.

In the mundane universe the federal government pays me to spend eight hours every day in my office, and the physical half of me does just that. But my soul spends those hours with Vilai. I may help an agitated and confused veteran find his way to the clinic, or send a prescription out to a vet’s social worker because the vet’s living in his car and you can’t send drugs to a parking lot behind a grocery store, but all of that is fuzzy and unreal. My mind is not in it.

What’s real: Eating lunch with Vilai, cold curried crab and somtam. I let her pour my beer into a glass because she thinks it’s low class to drink from the bottle. We joke around over the food, trading gossip about the neighbors. I love the sound of her voice. I love the way her eyes crinkle up when she laughs.

After lunch my fingers type the keys necessary to order our special felt tip pens from the warehouse, the soft bendy ones you can’t hurt anybody with. But in my head I’m listening to Vilai wash up the lunch plates in the kitchen. I pass behind her to get a beer from the fridge and give her bottom a pat as I go by. She makes a brief sound of protest but her eyes say she doesn’t mean it.

We wait out the heat of the afternoon in the living room, under the ceiling fan. I have a vague impression of sending an e-mail to Compensation and Pension requesting a review of a veteran’s travel pay, but it barely distracts me from watching Vilai fold laundry, seated on the floor with her legs tucked up under her. She watches a soap opera on the TV and I watch her. I love the way she pairs my socks. At a commercial break she checks my beer, gets up and brings me another. When the laundry’s put away and her show is over we take Yoo Yee for a walk down the beach to the nid noi shop. I need cigarettes; Vilai comes along because it’s Wednesday and the talaad nad will have fresh chicken.

“The war broke me,” says the veteran on the other side of my desk. “I came home from Asia in pieces.” He looks down at his shaking hands. His eyes are wet. “Sometimes I think I never came home at all.”

I am always surprised by the end of the working day. I notice people leaving from other offices and discover that my tour ended some time ago. I put on my coat and hat. I say goodbye to Yin and Yang. Sometimes I think they are aware of my presence or my absence. I lock my office door and start the walk home. I walk slowly, no reason at all to hurry.

Yoo Yee is dead. Vilai is in England. She’s been married for 20 years to a man who sells Asian art. She has two attractive kids and a big house next to a park in some place called Surrey.

She has absolutely no idea that we still live together in Rawai.

My evening will be spent in front of the TV. At bedtime my body will lie down alone and my mind will listen to Vilai breathing as she sleeps. On the ceiling a ching-chok will catch a mosquito and chirp about it to his friends. In my head we’ve slept together every night for twenty years.

I have never cheated on Vilai. Sometimes in my head the garden changes, the house changes, sometimes we live in Rawai and sometimes in Chalong. But in my mind I have never slept with another woman since the first time Vilai came to my bed. Never. That’s the most solid, certain, real part of it all. I know as sure as I breathe that I never would have wanted anybody else.

In my head, at least, she never did either.