Category C: Highly Commended (2021) Monash Short Story Writing Competition
Author: James D'Cruze
Are you okay? she asked.
Yeah, I lied.
My first film had just ended, but I would need to watch at least three more to get through the 12-hour flight. But instead of choosing another from the list, I was sitting, eyes glazed over, facing the airplane seat in front of me, focusing on nothing in particular.
You sure? she asked again.
Yeah, really. Don’t worry about me.
Nine more hours until Bangkok. Three more hours from Bangkok to the hotel. 144 more hours after that before we could turn around and finally go home.
Sophie convinced me to go, and how could I argue with her? She was right, after all. I needed to go. It was the right thing to do. Especially after mum got too sick to go and dad had to stay home for work. She was my grandmother after all, how hard was it to go to one funeral. Never mind that I hadn’t met her. Never mind that I never wanted to go to Thailand in my life. It was the right thing to do.
I reconciled it in my mind by telling myself that I was mum’s representative. That I was there because she needed me to be. Not for myself. It was only six days.
Sophie squeezed my hand before turning her attention back to her own screen. Her sandy blonde hair was neatly tucked behind her ears, her skin tanned by the sun, and her entire body covered in freckles. I had tried many times to count all of her freckles. She would laugh and tell me that I’d never be able to. I was happy to spend the rest of my life trying.
She looked and sounded as stereotypically Australian as someone could. I didn’t need a therapist to tell me that that simple fact was why I was so attracted to her. It wasn’t why I fell in love with her, but it provided that initial spark. I knew it, and I think she probably knew it too. But neither of us said anything about it.
After another ten minutes, she paused her movie and turned to face me again.
Zack, she began, you promise you’re not mad at me?
Why would I be mad at you? I asked.
I was mad at her because she had convinced me to get on this plane.
I don’t know, she said, even though she knew.
I’m not mad. I’m sorry.
It’s okay, babe, she said.
Though something in her eyes told me that it wasn’t. I think.
We danced together. We danced, making sure to never step on the point. It was the closest we ever came to arguing.
My parents had done the same. At the dinner table, we sat and ate, and they waltzed in perfect harmony around the point. It was their way. A passive form of confrontation which drew whatever issue they were avoiding out for days and days. I always thought if only they just talked like normal people, then we wouldn’t have to do this. Now, I was 26 years old, and where my parents waltzed, Sophie and I box stepped. We box stepped and tangoed around the issue. Now that I’m here, I don’t know what to do about it. The box step comes naturally. We break into it whenever we hear music, and once we’re dancing, we don’t know how to stop. I never learned how to stop.
By the time we arrived in Bangkok, Sophie had begun to feel travel sick. But we still had to get to the hotel, so she rested her head on my shoulder and slept for as much of the three-hour taxi ride as she could manage.
Is she ok? The taxi driver asked.
Yeah, just travel sickness, I replied.
From the moment we arrived in Thailand, everyone spoke English to me. Despite the fact that my mother was Thai and born in Thailand, nobody even tried to speak Thai to me. It was for the best. After all, I didn’t speak Thai. Not a single word. Neither did mum for that matter. She had forgotten it all, having immigrated to Australia as a baby. My aunt had taught me how to say hello once, but I had lost the pronunciation amongst my other memories.
Before we left Melbourne, Sophie had wondered if anyone would try to speak Thai to me when I was there. Nobody had. Nobody would for the whole time we were there. I think she was a little disappointed. When she noted that everyone spoke English to us, I said that I wasn’t surprised. That the locals could tell I didn’t belong. That I wasn’t one of them. I didn’t tell her that some part of me wanted someone to try. For at least one person to see me as a local. But it never happened. And I wasn’t surprised, even though a small part of me was. After all, I was Australian. Why would an Australian know Thai? I was born in Clayton, I owned an apartment in Caulfield, I was a St Kilda Football Club member, I caught the tram to the city to watch games, I drank beer with my friends, and I was weary of tall grass because of snakes. Why on earth would I speak Thai? Despite everyone back home thinking I looked like I could, the locals glanced at me and knew intrinsically that I couldn’t. That was just how it was. When someone on the field at the local footy told me to go back where I came from, I would keep asking them why I needed to go back to Clayton. Besides, where I came from didn’t want me.
The hotel was atop a large hill. The road did not snake up the hill, rather it was one steep, straight road. The road was paved, but still, I thought that the taxi driver was going to stall twice on the way up. His old manual bunny-hopped more than I would have expected, which did nothing to help Sophie’s headache.
The hotel room was small, only one double bed and a bathroom, but it was clean and pleasant. Plus, it had a spectacular view. Being so high up, I could see the whole landscape around me. It was beautiful country. Mum’s relatives were only about a fifteen-minute drive away. They offered Sophie and I a place to stay, but I declined. I didn’t want to impose, and besides, I liked having my own space. Plus, I imagined that it would be pretty awkward since I had never met any of my cousins, uncles, or aunts that lived in Thailand. I didn’t want to simultaneously be imposing by having them vacate a room for us, whilst also forcing them into awkward conversations and uncomfortable silences.
It’s not like I’m uncomfortable around all of my family. I’m very close to my parents and still have dinner with them once every week or two. I’m also close to my aunts and uncles that are in Australia. I just never really had any connection back to Thailand. I had enough family. I didn’t need to go chasing any more across the Indian Ocean. I didn’t tell that to Sophie though. It seemed ungrateful. She grew up without a mum, and her dad was estranged from his siblings. I think she knew their names, and had maybe met an uncle once, but there was never any meaningful connection there for her. I was sure that part of the reason why she pushed so hard for me to come to Thailand was because of her own family. Because if she knew where to find them, she would go.
Even though we weren’t staying with my relatives, we still met with them and had dinner at one of their houses four of the days we were there. In all honestly, the conversation wasn’t as awkward as I initially thought. Most of them were nice enough, and those who spoke English were fluent and translated well for those that didn’t. I struggled with the food, I had never liked Thai food, but I managed it for the week. But still, every night when I went to bed, I wished I were back home, in my own apartment, in my own bed.
The day of the funeral came and went. It was the first time I had worn a suit since a job interview three years prior. I thought I cleaned up nicely. Sophie thought so too. The mass and speeches at the funeral were all in Thai, but I felt like I could follow along well enough. Then, the strangest thing happened. At the end of the funeral, a slideshow of photos played on the projector. Photos of my grandmother throughout the years. She never visited Australia. When mum immigrated, she went with her uncle and aunt and their family. The photos started from black and white and moved through until the present day. As the slideshow played on the old church projector, a song I had never heard before playing in the background, my eyes began to well up. I was crying. Tears streamed down my face as I bent forward and held my head in my hands. I cried. And I made no sound. Sophie put her arm around me. I buried my face in her dress.
I’m prone to earaches. I wish I were prone to something, anything, else. Stomach aches, fevers, eczema, I’d take any of them over the sharp, relentless pain of an earache. I firmly believe that it is the most physical pain you can feel. It’s like someone is holding your head in a sink, drowning you, while someone else slowly pushes a hot knife into your eardrum. They say most people outgrow them. I never did.
But, whenever I have an earache, and I’m sitting up in bed, with half my head throbbing, I always have the same thought. It keeps me going. Stops me from falling too far into self-pity. Very soon, this will be over. You will look at the clock, do you best to remember the pain, and be thankful that right now, your ears feel fine. I stop, and make sure I remember. Because when you’re sick, you only want to get better. So, why not make sure that you actually notice that you’re well again.
It’s not just earaches though. I employ this little tactic whenever I need it. In traffic, when a workday just won’t end, when I’ve upset Sophie and she gives me the silent treatment for a few hours. And also, when I’m in Thailand, away from home, where I don’t belong. So, lying here in this hotel bed, wishing I were back in my little apartment, I remind myself – very soon, this will be over. When I get back, I’ll make sure I take the time. Take the time to be thankful.