Between Then And Now
It's dark on the porch, but there is just enough light that I can see him as soon as I step out of the house. He's standing in the corner, his back to the wall, trying to stay out of the wind. He's dressed as I am: winter coat over pajamas, bare feet in winter boots. He's staring out into the street, watching the tiny, jagged snowflakes blowing around. There isn't anything to do on the porch but smoke and look out at the street. He's having his last cigarette of the day out here because his mother, my mother, our mother won't let him smoke in the house. I'm out here because my wife won't let me smoke in that same house.
The porch is really just an alcove, only four feet by ten, smaller than a monk's cell. Just a sheltered place to hang the flag on the Fourth of July, a platform for jack o'lanterns at Halloween. We're only a few feet apart, and when I light my cigarette he turns and looks at me. We smile at each other, and then we both look back out into the street. It's a quiet street, with very little traffic, especially on a snowy night like this. There is only the hiss of the snow, the crackle and clack of stiff branches moving in the wind. There's a big old pin oak and a white birch out in the yard, and the oak taps the birch and the birch taps the roof of the house as if they're passing on secrets. Tap-tap-tap, scritch-scritch-scritch, tap-tap-tap.
We both smoke for a minute, and when I've gathered my courage I say to him, "Don't worry, you'll make it back there." As I know he will, he looks at me and says, "Make it back where?"
"Make it back to Thailand," I say. "You'll go back in April." As he always does, he grins and asks, "Will she be waiting?"
I look out at the snow, where the street light creates a dome of white gauze that ends in total blackness at either end of the street. We're standing in a giant snow-globe that somebody keeps shaking. I want to lie to him, but I don't, because he thinks he's prepared himself. He knows that he'll be gone for a year, he thinks he knows the worst that might happen, and he thinks he's strong enough to take it if it does. He'll find out that he's not strong enough to take it, but right now he thinks he is.
"No, she won't be waiting."
He's looking out into the street again, at the dark houses and shrouded fences. The naked concrete cherub holding an umbrella over Mrs. Gay's bird bath is standing in ice up to his dimpled knees. The Styrofoam shells that Mr. Price put over his rose bushes in October, five bushes that march across an otherwise flat and featureless lawn, each have a mound of snow on top; they look like a caravan of camels lost in the desert.
He's toughing it out, wearing a smug little smile like he always does. The truth is, I'm not the first to tell him that she'll disappoint him. All his friends told him that before he left and he didn't believe them just like he doesn’t believe me now.
"So you're saying I shouldn't go back?"
The cold is burning through the pants of my flannel pajamas already, aggravating what my doctor has decided is new arthritis in my knees, but I light another cigarette. I smoke a lot more than he does.
"No, you have to go back," I say. "It will be the most important time of your life. You'll stop trading restaurant reviews for free meals and you'll start to take your writing more seriously. Eventually you'll publish everywhere from the Christian Science Monitor to Hustler. You'll make good money at it, good enough to live in a big house with a maid. You'll travel all over Asia. You'll fly first class every time and somebody else will always pay for the ticket. Hey, you'll have lunch with Tiger Woods!"
"Who's Tiger Woods?"
"Somebody who'll be famous soon, trust me. My point is that what you’re doing now, all the hard work, holding down three shitty jobs, scrimping and saving, explaining to everybody why you've moved back home with your mother for a year, it'll all be worth it."
We've each got one hand wrapped around a cigarette and one hand jammed in a pocket, and we're bobbing up and down like hunchbacks on a see-saw. My breath comes out in solid gray plumes that pass right through him; his pass through me.
"I never should have left," he says, throwing the butt of his cigarette out into the snow and immediately lighting another. He's been smoking on this porch since he was fifteen years old. He smoked here in high school, in the year he dropped out of college, the year he abandoned his stage career in Memphis, the year he gave up his film career in New York. Here he is again, in the year he left Thailand, smoking on the porch. And here I am now, smoking with him. Every spring when the snow melts the grass around the porch is littered with hundreds of cigarette butts, and every spring the robins and jays and cardinals come here to pick up the cotton filters to line their nests. Before the grass is long enough to mow, all the butts are gone.
"You had to leave," I say to him, as I've already said to him a million times. "It wasn't your fault that Iraq invaded Kuwait. It wasn't your fault the only way a European tourist can fly to Thailand is through Riyadh. Without guests the hotels had to send their waiters and room maids back to the rice paddies, and then there was no point in paying a foreigner to teach them English."
He doesn't believe me, he never believes me, he'll always think that if he had just made a few more phone calls, peddled his syllabus and lesson plans to one more hotel, he could have found a way to stay.
"It's okay," I say to him. "You'll go back and you'll do things you can't even imagine right now. You'll camp on the beach of an uninhabited island the size of Manhattan, and in the morning you'll find tiger tracks in the sand outside your tent. You'll eat bugs and snakes and dogs and monkeys; you'll eat Perigord truffles and beluga caviar and you'll drink three-hundred-dollar bottles of wine." He seems interested, at least he isn't sneering at me, like he does at his mother when she tries to tell him something.
"You'll go bungee jumping and parasailing and scuba diving. You'll learn how to curse and flirt and tell jokes in Thai, and how to chant the Buddha's dharma in Pali. You'll ride an elephant into the Golden Triangle, and you'll smoke opium with the matriarch of a hill tribe whose dress will be decorated with hundred-year-old Chinese coins. The grandson of a Kuomintang general will point a pistol at your head, and two Burmese soldiers will hold their M-16’s on you until you give them all your cigarettes. You'll make a lot of good friends in the next five years. You'll have to write obituaries for three of them."
He is interested, I can tell he is. On this cold November night, a few weeks after his thirty-fourth birthday, he'd give his right arm for an afternoon spent drinking beer on the beach. In this town, where he knows every street and alley but has no desire to go anywhere, from this porch on this night a place where the people speak different languages, eat different foods, worship different gods, seems to him like heaven.
He looks out at all that snow flying around, at the juniper bushes bent under the weight of it, at the barren trees looming over the house and the street light with its fuzzy halo, at all the things that don't look like anything in Thailand. He's looking at the snow but he's seeing the crescent of a beach, the sweep of jungle and the impossibly high limestone cliffs behind. I can tell he's interested, but not convinced. I decide to appeal to his ego.
"You want women? Listen to me, you want women? You'll have lots. It’s Thailand, after all.”
I'm rocking from foot to foot, back and forth, trying to keep warm. There's enough room to pace a few steps, but my knees feel like they're wrapped in barbed wire.
"Believe me, you really don't want to tie yourself down to one woman at this point in your life. There's too much out there you haven't experienced yet. If she was waiting for you, you'd be happy for a year or two, but then you'd begin to see what you were missing, and you'd begin to hate her."
I've gone too far. He gives me the snort again. He gives me his bored look. He knows there's no way he would ever hate her.
A meteor shower is shaken out of the birch tree, is swept up by the wind before it hits the ground and climbs into the branches of the pin oak where it dissipates like frozen smoke. He's been quiet a long time, and I look closely to see if I'm getting through to him at all, but bringing up women was a mistake. It's always a mistake. He doesn't want women, he wants one, specific, woman.
He always asks, "What about her? What happens to her?"
I want to hit him. I want to knock him off the porch and push his face in the snow until he smothers, but he's younger than I am, and much stronger. I can't touch him, so instead I hiss at him through clenched teeth.
"Forget about her, Stupid. Have you been listening to me? You don't need her." I lower my voice, afraid I'll wake my children. The boy and girl sleep together in a single bed, Asia style, protected from the cold by a wall of brick and sea-foam-green aluminum siding, Iowa style.
I put my face in his and I whisper, "You get to see her just one more time, see?”
Even if he wasn't listening, even if he wasn't there on the porch with me, I couldn't stop now. I feel like if I go over the story enough times it will somehow end differently.
"You’ll go for dinner at the Bluefin Tavern one night. You’re in Kata and you’re hungry and you know they have good burgers so you just go. And you walk in and there she is, sitting alone in a booth, and she’s absurdly pregnant. Big as a house. She’s sitting there rubbing her tummy with her fingertips and staring off into space with this saint’s smile on her face. She’s beautiful. She’s just fucking gorgeous. She has no idea you’re there."
We're standing shoulder to shoulder on the edge of the porch, looking out at the abyss. We're not bobbing or rocking any more. When I speak my teeth chatter and my breath comes in short little gasps.
"A group of Brits is whooping it up at the bar and you figure one of them is her husband, so you turn and walk out and you never see her again, all right? That’s the end of it. You just walk out of the Bluefin Tavern and you never see her again. You never watch her get ready to go out again, never watch her waking up, never watch her sleep again. All right? You hear me? Never again, so just get over it."
I've hurt him, as I intended, as I always do. And as I always do, I immediately try to make him feel better.
"It's okay, though. Listen to me. Please. One day, a few months after you get back, you get hired to write some brochure copy for a big resort. You spend the day touring the property with the public relations manager, she buys you dinner that night and six weeks later, on the fourth day of the first lunar month in the year of the Monkey, you're married. You'll spend ten thousand dollars on your wedding, and two hundred people will attend the reception. The two of you have a couple of kids and they turn out beautiful. Nothing you've ever done has been noble enough to make you worthy of these kids. Your son will be dark and thin and grave, with a mandarin's eyes and a Cossack’s nose. He'll look like a tiny Mr. Spock. Your daughter will be elfin and temperamental, quick to laugh and quick to cry, with miles of mahogany hair and a face like a china teapot. She'll be born to play Puck and Ariel and Peter Pan. Those two kids will fill up your life so that you don't have time for anything else, not for women or travel or even writing. But you won't mind, because they're better than all that. The kids are worth it. You can look at those kids and know for sure that your life hasn’t been wasted. There's nothing else in your life, nothing else you've ever done, that makes you feel that way. You'll see. You'll bring them back to Iowa and you'll get on with your life. Forget about her, man, please forget about her. It's been eight years."
Now he looks at me. He looks at me and he looks through me and he hates me. He doesn't care about Tiger Woods. He doesn't care about kids; nobody who doesn't have kids cares about kids. He looks in my face and he wants to hurt me, too.
"For you," he says. "Eight years for you. Six months ago she was sleeping in my bed. Six months ago she was sitting across from me at the breakfast table, she was stepping out of my bathroom in a wet sarong, she was on the back of my motorcycle with her arms around my chest. Right now, right here in all this fucking cold and snow, I can remember what her mouth tastes like. I can feel her breath on my face, I can smell her skin. It's been eight years for you. You forget about her, then come back and talk to me."
He’s too close to me. I move off the porch and onto the steps, and my boots make a crisp sound in the snow. I can tell from the noise that this is a dry snow, light as air, and it will be easy to shovel tomorrow if it stays this cold through the night. I know all about snow. I grew up in snow. I grew up in this snow, on this street. This snow that's blowing in my face is the same snow I shoveled as a child, as a teenager, as a young man smoking on this porch dreaming about a girl in a kingdom by the sea.
"So… do you love her?"
The first time he asked me this it surprised me. It no longer does. For him, romantic love is everything. In six months he'll give up the country of his birth for the woman he loves. He’ll go back and everybody in Kata Beach will know his shame but he’ll stay there because he still loves her and he thinks she may come back.
“Do you love your wife?”
I keep my eyes on the School Crossing sign across the street, where the stick figures of a little boy and a little girl are blurred under a crust of glittering snow.
"That's not important," I say, with the hard snow peppering my chest and shoulders like buckshot. "I have an obligation. She didn't have to agree to raise her kids on the other side of the planet from everything she knows, from her family, her friends, from temple bells and buffaloes. She left behind a private office and a secretary and an expense account; now she clips coupons for ten cents off a tube of toothpaste at Wal-Mart. This is a woman who never washed a dish or scrubbed a toilet in her life, not until she came here. Before I brought her to Iowa she had never seen a tree that wasn't green. Imagine how bleak the view from this porch is for her. She didn't have to come here, but she did it for me, because I asked her to. Because I begged her to. She didn't have to do it, but she did, and now I owe her."
I haven't turned around, but I know he's sneering at me. For him, love is everything. He would never give up Thailand just because his mom gave him a big old house across the street from an elementary school. He would never settle for a boring job with a good dental plan, for cars with seatbelts, for police officers who actually protect people, for a bathroom faucet that produces water you can drink.
I disgust him, and he turns his back on me.
I come back up onto the porch drying my face with my hand. I'm shivering, my toes and fingers and ears are numb. I fumble in my pocket for another cigarette, my third since I came outside. Yellow flame, trembling fingers, a glint of light off my wedding ring.
I step out of the house onto the porch and they’re both surprised to see me. I light a cigarette. Yellow flame, trembling fingers, no ring.
“You’re still smoking?” the one closest to me asks.
“Yeah. Quit for six months after the heart attack, but then I started again.”
“Went to Bob Braverman’s funeral.”
“Yeah. Colon cancer. Ron Hamm’s dead, and his twin sister too, both from brain cancer. About a dozen people I graduated from high school with are dead. That I know of. I bummed a smoke off somebody at the funeral and within a week I was back to a pack a day.”
They both consider this. They both look down at their cigarettes and then throw them out into the snow.
I take a puff and blow the smoke through them. “But this is the last one I’m ever going to smoke on this porch. I’m leaving in a minute. The house has been sold. Going to New Mexico to take care of Mom. She’s alone and she’s 80 and she needs me.”
“You’re going to live with Mom again?” The young one looks at me with horror. “She’ll make you go outside to smoke.”
“Hey, you’re doing it.”
“But what about Thailand?” They’re both looking at me like hurt puppies.
“Not yet. Maybe some day, but maybe never. Hopefully Mom will live a good long time, and we’ll have a chance to mend some fences. I’ll spend the foreseeable future doing her cooking and cleaning and making sure she takes her meds. But don’t feel bad, because if I went back to Thailand it still wouldn’t be you going back. You guys don’t exist anywhere except here.”
I look out at the snow. It might be the last snow I ever see. Of course I’m also looking at a day in July, bright sun, the lawn overgrown. It’s seventeen years since the second time I came home from Thailand. The birch and the oak are gone. Mr. Price died and the people who bought his house tore the rose bushes out of his yard to make it easier to mow. Mrs. Gay died and some teenagers knocked the cherub out of his birdbath. He’s been on the ground for two years.
This house was sold to a man who can’t wait for me to leave so he can rent it to strangers. There’s an old minivan in the driveway and inside is a map to New Mexico. Everything I own, fifty-six years of my life, fits in the back of a Honda Odyssey.
“You want to know the truth?” I smile at them. “I’m a little afraid to go. I love this house now. Truth is, the most important years of my life were spent here, not in Thailand. I raised my kids here. I survived a heart attack, a burst appendix and an angry divorce in this house. Since 1976 I’ve screwed nine different women in this house. I’m just six years from retirement in a cushy government job. There are no jobs waiting for me in New Mexico and I’m too damned old to be looking. Change brings sorrow. I don’t want change any more. Honestly, I’m not even sure I want to go back there. Thailand has changed too.”
I throw my butt into the Hosta beds. The birds still come to collect the cotton for their nests.
I turn to go into the house for the last time. There’s nothing inside. The kids are grown and gone. I sold all the furniture in a garage sale and I’ve been sleeping in a sleeping bag for a week.
As I open the door the one closest to me says, “So what, my dreams don’t come true? I’m doing all this for nothing?” He’s near tears, the selfish prick.
I pause with my hand on the knob and one foot on the sill; all my weight is on the other leg and it makes my knee hurt. “Well, it turns out you didn’t do it for the dream of going back to Thailand after all,” I tell him as gently as I can. “Truth is you did it for better reasons, but the reasons aren’t important. The only important thing, and I mean the ONLY important thing, is that you did it. You stayed here. You didn’t run away. You were the best father the court allowed you to be. You smoked a million cigarettes on this porch and the dream kept you going when you had nothing else. The dream of going back to Thailand kept you here on a lot of very cold, very black nights when you couldn’t sleep and you spent virtually the whole night smoking on this porch and you really, really wanted to run away. It would have been so easy to run away. Your Dad ran away, and so did his Dad. The Rosse men always run away. But not this time. Not this fucking time.”
I’m speaking as much to myself as I am to them. “The Thailand dream did its job. It made you a better man than you would have been without it. But it’s time to let it go now.”
And right on cue the young one says, “What about her? What happened to her?”
The little putz. I almost made it inside. Six months since he’s seen her, eight years since the other one’s seen her, twenty-two years since I saw her last. But he just can’t let her go. I speak without turning around. If I put both feet back on the porch I’ll be there until I run out of cigarettes.
“She’s fine,” I say over my shoulder. “She has a lovely home and a lovely family in England. I’m sure she’s forgotten all about you.”
Without waiting for any more questions I step inside and they’re gone. The porch is empty. I shut the door, lock it and walk to the garage, my steps ringing in the empty rooms.
A minute later I’m gone too.