January 27, 2023
Excerpt - This Jade World - Winner of the CWA 2022 Book of the Year Award for Traditional Non-Fiction
By Ira Sukrungruang
Excerpted from This Jade World by Ira Sukrungruang by permission of the University of Nebraska Press. ©2021 by the Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska.
I Am Sad
It’s six in the morning, and the doves are cooing the world awake, the parakeets in my uncle’s birdcage squeak and squawk in chaotic melody, a fountain trickles over stone, a fan points at my legs, keeping mosquitoes away. For the past ten years, I have found myself here, at my mother’s home in Chiang Mai, Thailand, at my favorite spot, at my favorite table, in my favorite plastic chair, during my favorite time of day. Since my mother and Aunty Sue moved back to Thailand in 2004, having retired as nurses in Chicago after thirty-six years, I’ve come to make sure they are safe and taken care of, to spend a few weeks with them before returning to the States.
I’m not a stranger here, in this panhandle country where my blood runs like rivers of the earth. I first came as a boy of three, annoying the house dogs into barking frenzies. As an ornery teenager, modeling American fashions for my young cousins. As a young adult, obsessed with fast computers and faster women. I’ve come for weddings and funerals, cried over stray dogs and cats, feeling helpless in their homelessness. Thirteen years ago, I was married in the shadow of a looming Buddha, leaning against my midwestern bride, Katie, a white string lacing through our hands, believing, despite the heat and humidity that dampened our backs, that this would be forever.
Now, I return divorced, and the year between visits seems a deep hole I’m emerging out of.
Above me, the sun peeks through the emerald leaves of a champac tree. Green clings to everything, a wild green that climbs and laces through bamboo fences and around telephone poles. Wherever there is a crack—in the earth, in cement, in tar—green finds a way to sprout. My father used to say the green in Thailand was the jewel of the world, that everywhere you turned you were able to find unimaginable riches. He’d point to rubber trees and terraced rice fields and say this was mine, every bit of it. It didn’t matter that I was a boy born in Chicago, a place grayer than green. “Home,” he would insist, “is here.”
I’ve come to see Thailand the way my father sees it. Each time I return, however, it’s like someone has changed the locations of all the light switches. It takes time to adjust. To figure things out. Language trickles out of my mouth. I will stumble with my Thai for the next few days, and when I return to America in four weeks, I will stumble with my English. Still, there is a comfort here I have not experienced in any other place. A comfort that is both chaotic and enigmatic.
Everything in Thailand is chaotic and enigmatic.
At the moment, the country is without a government and under mil- itary rule, divided by colors like Chicago gangs of days past—the reds and yellows. For months Bangkok was rocked with demonstrations, violence escalating and escalating until the military took control. Now the country is quiet, the green time before a storm. Life continues. With soldiers carrying semiautomatics while patrolling public areas. With stern stares at any citizen wearing red or yellow. With whispers in small corners of markets. James Baldwin spoke of this pent-up silence in his essay “Notes of a Native Son” during the 1943 race riot in Harlem: “All of Harlem, indeed, seemed to be infected by waiting. I had never known it to be so violently still.”
My mother brings me a cup of instant coffee and two hard-boiled eggs. She sits next to me. I know she wants to ask about my year away, about my life after the divorce. She wants to know whether I’m happy. She wants to hear my story because she worries. I know this, know she has stayed up late at night wondering where I am when I don’t answer her calls, and when I do, why I’m quick to say everything is fine. She wonders, I’m sure, about how heartbroken I have been, and what it was like to be apart from the woman I married thirteen years ago, what it was like to start another phase of my life the way she had when my father left. She wonders, I am sure, about Katie, a woman she has learned to love, a woman she has given her son to with the expectation that she would care for him as she had. My mother knows I feel too much. She tells me all the time. “Yah kliat mak.” Don’t stress. But she knows that is impossible. Worry clings to me like cockleburs in a dog’s coat, digging deep into the skin.
Beside me, an orange hibiscus blooms like a new sun. We sit and watch it. It nods slightly in the whispering breeze. Geckos scamper along cement walls. Sparrows grab day-old bread crumbs in the driveway. The day begins with the small sounds of the living.
In the early evening, on the television, Iran faces off against Argentina in the 2014 World Cup. Aunty Sue cooks outside, egg-drop soup with sliced scallions and cucumbers. She’s stir-fried squash with large cloves of garlic, perfuming the house. If there is a heaven, this is what I wish it to smell like—my aunt’s cooking, a reminder of my childhood in Illinois, a taste of Thailand in the urban sprawl of Chicago. My aunt is a culinary wizard, a woman who is not related by blood but one I consider my second mother. She met my mother in 1968 as they were starting new jobs in an inner-city hospital, eight thousand miles from home. They have been inseparable ever since.
My mother goes about the kitchen, arranging and rearranging mugs and plates. She scrubs the sink, and it makes a sound like a baying hound. The kitchen in her Chiang Mai home resembles the kitchen of our Chicago home before she moved. My mother shipped over the cream- colored refrigerator, though it is at least twenty years old; the dining room table with my eighth-grade scrawl underneath, Ira was here; the black leather couches that occupy the adjacent living room, purchased before 1976, the cushions held together with electric tape. On the refrigerator are the same magnets. A cardinal, her favorite bird. Dopey, one of Snow White’s seven dwarfs. And the various states my mother and aunt have traveled to—Maine, Alaska, Ohio, New York, and more. There are pictures of me all over it, in various phases of my life. I ask my mother why she brought all of these with her, why she insisted on keeping the old silverware and cutting board and blunted kitchen knives. There are refrigerators and couches in Thailand, I say; it is more expensive to ship these things than to buy new ones. She shrugs. “Memory,” she says. “I keep them for good memories.”
My mother dries her hands on a washcloth. “Tell me the truth,” she says in Thai, “do you still love her?”
“Katie’s my best friend.”
“Americans,” she says. “Friends after a breakup. So strange.”
It is not Americans who are strange. It is my relationship with Katie that is.
“In Thailand, sometimes women cut off the man’s pee-pee after a breakup.” My mother makes a snipping gesture with her fingers and laughs. “You know what a pee-pee is, right?”
I roll my eyes.
“Just making sure your Thai is still sharp.”
Earlier in the afternoon I gave my mother and Aunty Sue a letter from Katie. I never read it. Whatever was communicated would be between them and them alone. When my mother finished reading, she first com- mented on Katie’s use of font. “Big letters. She knows she’s writing to old women.” Then she said, “Such a good girl. Like Thai.” Then she said, “I am sad.”
Sadness exists in all breakups. Not just for the couple. It was like this for our friends in the States, too. One of them, this wonderful specimen of a boy Katie and I nicknamed Baby Beluga, said he felt like his parents were breaking up. Another kept apologizing, and I reassured her it was okay. One said, “Well, shit, you two have really fucked it up for the rest of us.” Despite this, Katie and I agreed to remain amicable, to be in each other’s lives, no matter what paths we found ourselves on.
What my mother knows of breakups is heartache and betrayal and infidelity. What she knows is long days and nights with a sense of loss so deep it has never healed, a scab constantly picked at. Even now, over twenty years after the split, when I speak of my father, she tightens, her back hunches as if she’s a cat about to attack.
Aunty Sue brings in the soup. Sweat bleeds through her thin T-shirt and drips down the flat of her nose. The three of us sit around the table for an early dinner. Jet lag tugs at my eyes. I yawn and eat. The soup slides down my throat, warms my belly.
“Things begin and end,” Aunty Sue says. She says things like this, little fortunes. She said this when she read the letter, too.
“It’s still sad,” says my mother. “How many years?”
“Twelve of marriage,” I say. “Fifteen since we first met."
”So sad.” My mother stares at a picture of Katie and me on the refrigerator, when we were young and living in southern Illinois, our golden retrievers giving us wet kisses.
“I’m okay,” I say. “Katie’s okay.”
"And you have a new friend.” My mother pats her forehead with a handkerchief. The thermometer on the wall reads thirty-five degrees Celsius. She says my new love’s name, Deedra, but mispronounces it. I tell her she needs to add an r.
“American names,” she says. “So hard.”
“Thai names,” I say. “So long.”
“Is she a nice girl?”
“Does she cook for you?” Aunty Sue says. “You were going to die from all of Katie’s grilled cheeses.”
“Deedra is a good cook,” I tell her.
“Do you think she is the one?” my mother asks.
I don’t know how to answer this. I’ve heard “the one” endlessly in the past year. You can now find the one. Maybe there’s one out there looking for you. Do you think she’s the one? I’ve fallen for Deedra, despite my fears. She was the constant reminder that I didn’t have to go this world alone. Part of me believes she is the one—whatever that means—but the other part knows that it has been a year since Katie, and though that year was long and arduous, how smart is it to fall so hard and so soon?
Aunty Sue spoons stir-fry onto my plate. “You’ve inherited your mother’s curse,” she says.
“All our curses,” my mother says. She speaks of her sisters’ marriages, all failed save for one, all disillusioned by men and love.
I spent most of the year in a state of disillusionment. This disillusion- ment led to sleepless nights and poor choices. I did not want to wake up. And when I did, everything seemed too bright, so much so that I took to wearing sunglasses everywhere I went, even indoors. I found myself at bars and drank until I was dizzy. Sometimes, I could not make it into the house. Sometimes I found myself in someone else’s bed next to the alien warmth of a foreign body.
I don’t tell my mother and aunt any of this. I give them the family friendly version. I say I’m in a good place. Katie is in a good place. We have found the things we needed apart from each other, at least for the time being.
Garlic spreads in my mouth, and the subtle taste of palm sugar and soy lingers on the tongue.
On the Tv, Argentina scores a goal.
My mother misses it; she misses most things. “What happened?”
“Goal,” I say.
Aunty Sue squints at the TV. Shrugs. “Everything these days moves too fast.”
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