It’s the Sauce That Ties the Whole Thing Together
I was eating fried eggs over rice with Mae Ploy sauce this morning, when my son Andy called to complain about his Mom. It took me two months to find a store out here in the Chihuahua desert that sells Mae Ploy sauce, but it was worth looking, because the sauce ties the whole thing together.
It was Andy’s Mom who introduced me to fried eggs over rice twenty-two years ago. In those days I spoke only Thai to her; she spoke only English to me. In the past seven years we have only spoken two times: once in English at Andy’s Eagle Scout ceremony, and once in Thai at our daughter Amanda’s high school graduation.
Somehow this week she got Andy to come back to Iowa from Oregon, where he’s working on a marijuana plantation, to celebrate his twentieth birthday in her home. He’s been there less than twenty-four hours and he’s already desperate enough to actually make an old fashioned phone call, something he hates to do.
I have not been in Mem’s home since I called her a giant lizard in front of the kids on Christmas Eve, 2007. I also called her a “cunt,” but it was the “eeeeee mahn hia!” that got her angry enough to call the sheriff. She put a restraining order on me and I couldn’t come within 100 feet of her for a year. It made picking up the kids for my weekends problematic; I would have to park a block down the street, and they would have to carry their backpacks and pillows and stuffed animals down the snowy sidewalk to my car. They were nine and eleven years old. Dad lost his temper for a brief moment, and they had to pay for it with a walk of shame past the houses of all their school friends every other weekend through a winter, a spring, a summer and a fall.
“Mom said I could take her car to Minneapolis to see my friend Becca, who just got out of rehab. I have hotel reservations and everything. Now she says I can’t have the car. I’m gonna lose a ton of money, and not get to see Becca, if I don’t get up to Minneapolis tonight.”
It’s a five-hour drive due north to Minneapolis, and the first blizzard of the season is barreling south out of Canada. It will drop 12 inches of snow on every mile of highway between Iowa and Minneapolis by midnight tonight. I don’t know Becca but Andy has a court date coming up because he never delivered a clean urine test to his probation officer, and the last thing he needs right now is a couple nights in a hotel room with a girl who just got out of rehab. I don’t want him to go to Minneapolis and I’m glad Mem’s not giving him her car, but I’d never say so.
“That’s too bad, Buddy,” I say. “Believe me, I know how hard that woman is to live with.”
What I don’t say is this: “Ten years of marriage and I got exactly two blow jobs from that woman. But when we went to court she swore in an affidavit that I brought her to America to be my sex slave.”
Yeah, I don’t say that. She’s his Mom.
“There’s nothing in the fridge but this weird healthy crap,” he says to me from his mother’s kitchen in Iowa. “She’s working at the New Pioneer Co-Op now and she brings home all this free range, organically grown, tofu based stuff I don’t recognize. I can’t eat any of it.”
“Yuck,” I say, taking another bite of fried egg on rice with Mae Ploy sauce. Some people say Mae Ploy and Mae Pranom are the same thing, but I can taste a difference. Like Coke and Pepsi. I’m eating with a soup spoon. Eighteen years since we left Thailand but I’m still eating rice with a spoon. “I remember her food fetishes,” I tell him. “When we first came to Iowa she wanted to eat only Iowa foods, pork and sweet corn night after night.”
Macrobiotics were in fashion in our house for a while, and Atkins and whatever diet was working for Oprah that week. She has obsessions. Like the hoarding. She still has magazines in bins in her garage from 1997. And junk mail. And shoes. And baby clothes.
Her divorce lawyer represented her for free. I paid my lawyer 22,000 dollars; Mem’s free lawyer kicked my expensive lawyer’s ass up and down the courthouse steps. She got half of my salary from 2002 to 2014. The State of Iowa has paid half her rent since the divorce, and all of her medical care, because the college-educated former hotel public relations officer represented herself to the social workers as a poor immigrant lady who no speakee Engritch so good. And a sex slave. She was the best public relations executive on the island of Phuket when I met her; hell, she’s got a bachelor’s degree from Ramkhamhaeng University in manipulating public perceptions. The judge wept for her.
But in return for that largesse the State requires a home inspection once a year. And so in the spring every year she kept the kids out of school for a week to clean the house for her, since growing up in a house full of servants she never learned how to clean anything herself. She’d buy a stack of new plastic bins and the kids would gather the mounds of junk mail, the heaps of old magazines, the bags and bags and bags of crap she’d bring home from garage sales or the Goodwill, and they’d hide it all in the basement or the garage and finally under tarps in the back yard. They would do endless loads of laundry. They did this once a year from the time they were five or six until they graduated from high school. Every year it took them a week to get it done. She has never been able to park her car in her garage. Her basement is solid with plastic bins full of trash, hundreds of them, wall to wall, floor to ceiling.
Then she’d pay a professional cleaning company to come into her home and clean the stove, the oven, the fridge, and the bathrooms. These things were cleaned just once a year, but they were cleaned professionally and always just before the nice lady from Human Services came to hold her nose and tsk-tsk-tsk but reluctantly sign the form because that poor Thai lady had suffered so much at the hands of her unbelievably cruel husband. Have you heard the stories? It’s a wonder she survived the abuse.
“Hey, Bud,” I ask my son, “have you seen Mandy since you’ve been home?” I’m an only child, so it’s important to me that my son and daughter love each other.
“Nah, it’s finals week; she’s busy at school. We don’t have much to say to each other anyway.”
“I put two hundred dollars into her account for you. Happy birthday.”
When I want to give my son money I have to put it in his sister’s account. If I put it in his mother’s account he’ll never see it, and his own account was frozen because he maxed out his credit card and never made a single payment on it. He’s got my shoulders and his mother’s budgeting skills. Mandy is a freshman at the University of Iowa. She graduated from high school with honors and with money in the bank. She’s never been overdrawn and I’ll bet she never will be. She’s probably the smartest, and definitely the most responsible member of the family. Unfortunately she also went out into the world with her mother’s obsessions and her father’s anxieties.
“So Mom’s home now, I’m gonna go try to talk her into letting me have the car.”
I guess I’ve talked him down off the ledge, so I’m being dismissed. I tell him, “Good luck with that.” I’ve known the woman for twenty-five years, and I’ve never been able to talk her into anything. Once she talked me into eating fried eggs on rice with a spoon, and I’m still doing it.
She also taught me about somtam with sticky rice and fried chicken. There was a woman on a sam law who used to park down the road from our house and sell the best fried chicken on Phuket. Mem would stop there on the way home from work and come home with plastic bags tied up with rubber bands. She’d get the chicken lady to fill a bag with fried garlic. I’d pull the sheet of crispy fried skin off a thigh and wrap it around a wad of sticky rice and a whole bunch of fried garlic. Dip it in the Mae Ploy sauce. The sauce is what ties the whole thing together. It was heaven.
“Listen, Buddy,” I say, before he hangs up and I won’t get another chance for God knows how long to speak to my son. Our son. The son we somehow created together, while we were hating each other and not having sex and calling the sheriff.
“Listen, Buddy,” I say, “When you see Mandy, don’t just grab the money and run, okay? Take her to lunch. Ask her about school. She hasn’t been sleeping well. She’s having migraines again. Talk to her, okay? Remember, once I’m gone, Mandy will be the only person in the world who will ever understand what it was like to grow up in that woman’s house.”
“I hear you, Dad. I will. Promise. Gotta go. Love you.”
“Love you too, Bud.”
And then it’s just silence. I’m alone with my fried eggs on rice with Mae Ploy sauce. It’s the sauce that ties the whole thing together.
That’s all that remains of our biracial, international, cross-cultural marriage. We share two kids, I eat rice with a spoon, and Mem can tell you the name of the third-string placekicker on the University of Iowa football team. Hawkeyes football is another of her weird obsessions.
Nothing in this world could have saved our marriage. There was no way we were ever going to do anything else but spend two-and-a-half decades hurting each other. Not because she’s from Ranong and I’m from Iowa City. Not because she’s brown and I’m white. Not because she’s a Buddhist and I’m a Jew. Not because I grew up middle class in a democracy and she grew up wealthy in a police state. Not because of the fifteen years between our ages. The fault lies not in our stars, but in ourselves.
Our marriage was doomed because we never loved each other. We got married for a dozen good reasons, most of them having to do with her desire for a husband who would let her keep her career and my desire for a permanent residence visa. We got married because we both worked in public relations, we already had all the same friends, and we looked good together. That’s important when there are always photographers around. She picked me because I was not farang khee gai; I picked her because she was not a bar girl.
We had a dozen good reasons, but being in love was not one of them, so we were doomed to fail. You can use all kinds of different recipes to make a marriage, but love is the sauce that ties it all together.
Looked at one way, Mem and I destroyed each other. Neither of us will ever trust anybody again and we’re both going to die alone. But looked at the right way, what we did together was the only noble, decent, positive thing either of us was ever going to do in this life. When we met we were already two damaged, selfish, ego-driven narcissists. But somehow, together, we created two human beings who are, I am certain, slightly better than we are.
Andy is charming and brilliant and gorgeous. He’s a rugged outdoorsman who at the age of 13, half-Asian and thus the smallest kid in the troop, carried a 60-pound pack 4,000 feet up the side of a mountain, cracking jokes the whole way. When he gets his shit together he’s going to change the world. Mandy is charming and brilliant and gorgeous, and she’s also driven and ambitious. She was a better writer by the age of 13 than I will ever be. She’s got a list of things she wants to change in the world, and she’s never failed to complete a to-do list.
Somehow two of the most selfish, most angry, most insecure people on Earth created two of the best hopes for the future of mankind. Somehow, when we were both laying in bed awake at 3 in the morning, in houses four blocks apart, plotting our revenge on each other, imagining each other’s bloody deaths, we managed to spend a moment considering which art-related summer camp would be best for Mandy, which soccer team would be best for Andy. Somehow, when we could only express hatred for each other and for the world at large, we managed to let these kids know they were loved.
Yeah, I’m glad I married Mem. Someday, maybe, if I get up the guts, I’m going to call and tell her that. After I let her get over the shock of hearing my voice, and after I reassure her that I’m not calling to accuse her of anything or demand anything from her, I’m going to apologize for calling her a giant lizard on Christmas Eve in 2007, and thank her for introducing me to fried eggs on rice with Mae Ploy sauce in 1992. It’s the sauce that ties the whole thing together.