“Jen, where are you?” She pushes her voice through the phone, trying to wrap it around me. I feel bad for making her worry.
“I don’t know, Toni. I don’t…hang on.” I turn to the nearest nurse, praying she speaks enough English to understand me and hoping my adrenaline-soaked voice won’t make my words unintelligible. “Where am I?” It sounds stupid…childish, but the nurse rattles off the name of the city and hospital, and I repeat it mechanically into the phone.
“I’ll be there as soon as I can. Keep your phone close.”
“Ok, ok.” I nod, forgetting she can’t see me, and hang up.
The middle-aged man who had fished my phone from my backpack for me looks on, concerned. “Everything ok now?”
I nod, trying to hold back tears. “Yes, ok.”
“What happen?” he asks, pointing at my foot.
In the moment, I can’t be sure. Later, I would realize I was going too fast. The wheels on my motorbike were spinning too quickly to have any hope of gaining traction on the gravel-filled, gas station entrance. I’d been paranoid that I would run out of gas before finding another station, had turned too quickly, had felt the wheels and seat fall out from under me, had rolled over and tried not to vomit.
After regaining an awareness of up and down, I do the checks: wiggle toes, wiggle fingers, move neck, check for blood…shit. A small red puddle is forming beneath my left foot, expanding like strawberry ice cream on a hot sidewalk. I lean back on my elbows, forcing the bile back down.
Someone is taking off my helmet, another my backpack, another my shoe. Where did they all come from? They’re gentle. Careful. Sure. Strangers come together, working as a team for another stranger, someone even stranger than them, white face, green eyes, poor sense of balance.
The sun is hot on my face, my arms, my shins, my exposed foot. The Thai words floating around are like friction, heating everything more, making it all feel too fast. They’re probably asking questions. I don’t know how to answer. I just nod, hoping they’ll understand.
A car pulls up, a small siren on top. No, I want to say, but words don’t come out. I just want to go home...Where is home? I think of the two-story house in Illinois, riding my skateboard in the street, falling, scraping my knee…
I’m scooted onto a stretcher and pushed into the back of the hearse-like vehicle. Am I already dead?
I have no way of knowing how far from Chiang Mai I am. I’d been driving for four or five hours, right? That left two or three more. The solo road trip had seemed like a good idea.
It now seemed unforgivably reckless.
I call my mom at the worst time—while they’re taking the X-ray. The call breaks up and then drops, leaving her convinced that I’ve been drugged and kidnapped and scrambling to figure out how to call the Thai police. I send her a text, and she calms down. A visit to the hospital doesn’t seem so bad now.
I wish she was there, that any familiar face was there, but especially hers.
The middle-aged man has stepped in as interim parent figure. His name is Mr. John, likely a nickname he adopted in his English classes of long ago—no one has an English name here. I glance over as he hovers around his daughter’s bed. She appears to have a broken arm and is definitely in worse shape than I am, but he moves back and forth between us, checking on us both. His presence feels like a gift from the universe, a gift I likely don’t deserve after being silly enough to drive 14 hours round-trip on a motorbike in the middle of the Thai summer.
I had gone to Sukhothai, the first capital of Siam, to stand in awe of temple ruins spread over the landscape like crumbs on a tablecloth, enormous Buddha statues, and palaces halted mid-crumble.
“Good news. Not broken,” the doctor says, pointing at my left ankle, which has been carefully cleaned of gravel and wrapped. “Can you try stand?”
Mr. John looks on as I swing my legs off and try to put my weight on my feet. “Nope,” I say, grimacing and sitting back down on the bed.
“Ok, probably bad sprain. We get a wheelchair. Someone coming?”
Within minutes, I’m packed into a wheelchair and rolled outside, onto a patio in front of the hospital—they need the beds for other incoming patients.
Mr. John comes outside. “You like green tea?” I nod. “Ok, I come back.”
I sit and watch the light traffic rolling along the street in front of the hospital, sluggish like the summer air. The store fronts are run-down, their paint peeling away like a birch tree’s bark. I miss Chiang Mai, want to be home. The store fronts there are similarly aged, but I’ve learned that it’s impossible to know the beauty of Chiang Mai without entering them. It’s the opposite of stores in the US, those beautifully built exteriors containing little substance.
I had once entered such a building—flaky pink paint, mold stains, rusting metal gate—to find myself in a quaint courtyard covered in stone bricks, a waterfall tucked into the corner, fresh, homemade bread rolls being sold in a small store, and a restaurant full of chatting customers nearby. It had become a favorite restaurant, visited now nearly every month.
Mr. John comes back holding a bottle of green tea, complete with a straw. I choose not to mention the waste of plastic that all Thais seem to consider absolutely necessary.
“Your daughter?” I ask, lifting my chin toward the hospital door.
“Fell off motorbike, like you. But she’ll be ok. They taking care of her now.” His nonchalance is the opposite of the panic my mom had entered. It doesn’t surprise me. Such attitudes are the norm here—non-reactivity one could say. Things are what they are—worrying or fretting will change nothing.
“Why did you come to Thailand?” Typical question, but his grammar is good—after teaching English for half a year in Thailand, I’m impressed.
I look out at the street. To get away from my dependent family. To try to be different. To understand who I am outside the Midwest bubble. “I wanted to travel after university.” It’s true, but barely scratches the surface of two years’ worth of inner debate.
Mr. John stays with me until his daughter is released. He puts his number in my phone. “If you need something, you call me. And if you ever come back, you can come see me. It will be nice.”
I never see him again.
With a handshake, he’s gone, and I’m left hoping Toni’s car will be the next to join the halfhearted conga line of traffic in front of the hospital.
That night, I wash down the pain pills with a few drags on a joint, relaxing into Toni’s sofa as I listen to my friends converse around me. If my mom knew I was smoking… Well, what could she do?
For the first time, I feel free, and I realize that’s why I came to Thailand.
I snap a picture as I rub my feet into the sand. My mom’s in the ocean, alone, submerged up to her shoulders, looking out at the never-ending denim sheets of water before her as she’s rocked with the current. She had insisted on a private resort, and perhaps this is why—solitude.
The picture brings back a memory—me, four years old, tiptoeing down the hall to the living room where she’s watching TV. I stand at the edge of the room, watching her watching the screen, its glow illuminating half her face, the mask taken off for just a moment. Her chair rocks her back and forth. She’s neither happy nor sad, just…alone. Until she turns, sees me, smiles, and invites me into her arms to be rocked back to sleep.
She doesn’t understand Thailand, why I love it so much. I had brought her to my favorite restaurant with its courtyard and waterfall, but the only thing that had really interested her was the lack of “normal” food.
We have trouble communicating. She’s uncomfortable in my tiny, one-room apartment, packed with a stiff bed, desk, closet, refrigerator, and vanity. She doesn’t understand why she has to go onto the balcony to get to the bathroom. She’s never been to Asia, and it’s all a little too much.
I’ve changed. She’s trying to understand how, but it had seemed easier through the distance of our weekly video chats. Now, I see she’s trying to change something in herself to fit me, but it’s a lot to ask.
In four more years, I’ll wish she would be the one to stop changing, that her hands would stop shaking, that she would be able to form sentences without stumbling over them, that she would remember that she already told me that story yesterday.
The Parkinson’s may already be there when she’s in Thailand. I notice she’s more lethargic than usual, that her face seems less emotive. But the shaking hasn’t started, so we can chalk it up to the depression meds. I can pressure her to go see a counselor, to get to the gym more, convinced that it’ll help in the long-run.
There’s no help in the long-run now. There’s only a steady decline. If I had known, maybe I would’ve done things differently. That’s what we should try to convince ourselves of, isn’t it?
We’re in Phuket, a famous beach town in the south of Thailand. Everyone told me I had to visit, but I’m not impressed. I prefer Chiang Mai with its forest-covered mountains, relaxed energy, and not-yet overwhelming tourism. Phuket feels constructed, fake, like my mom’s face when she wants to hide how she’s feeling.
The Thai’s faces are nearly always like this—blank, slight smile, controlled. Even when they convey emotion through words—“My friend died last week. Yes, I’m sad”—their faces refuse to show it. They’ve been trained, through culture, to “save face,” not show too much emotion, keep it to themselves to avoid losing the respect of others.
My mom was trained through family. A schizophrenic father scared her away from strong emotion. A critical mother punished her for it.
We take a walk on the beach that evening. She smiles as the warm air brushes salt on our cheeks. She looks peaceful, even happy.
We go to the resort’s restaurant. I suggest the pad Thai, one of my favorite dishes. She orders it, doesn’t like it.
We lay in bed that night, the waves rolling in thirty feet from the bungalow’s patio door, clawing at the sand. I turn over and hide the fact that I’m upset when she tells me she wants to go back early to help my younger sister through her marital drama.
I talked to her yesterday through video chat, a safe distance between us. She can’t hold the phone steady, so I only see a fourth of her face for most of the conversation. She’s changed, and I’m trying to understand how, but it’s all a little too much.
I stay with Toni during the month before I’m scheduled to fly back to the US. It’s punctuated with a trip to Indonesia, where I watch as states begin to turn red and blue as I fill buckets with water, helping a small English school that’s been flooded by a nasty rain storm. The TV is tiny, but it’s crackly screen still manages to tell us that Trump’s victory is all but certain. I sit alongside the other volunteers, feet ankle-deep in water, and let some tears mix with the floodwaters.
“Something big is coming, Jen. I feel it,” Toni says as we sit in her living room, her head in my lap. “This is a lesson. Things have to change.”
I’m suddenly less excited to return to the US—it doesn’t feel like the place I left. Everyone said I would change and everything else back home would stay the same. I feel betrayed.
When I arrive, my mom has laid a new pair of fleece pajamas on my bed, something to help me feel comfortable as I try to readjust to the cold weather. It doesn’t work. They’ve sold the house I grew up in—they’re in a new, smaller house in a different city. Instead of feeling like I’ve arrived home, I feel like a visitor, commenting on the nice-sized yard and nodding as they tell me their plans for a kitchen remodel.
I drive past the old house one day. The new owners have painted it an obnoxious yellow, but the jungle gym is still in the backyard, the same tree is still blocking my old bedroom window, and the street still holds every memory.
My memories of Thailand start to fade behind even older memories.
I look outside and don’t see palm trees. I lay in bed and don’t hear motorbikes kicking up rocks in the parking lot. I go to the store and blend in with rows of white faces. I meet a friend and don’t bow.
It’s all the same…I’m not.
No one seems interested in talking about Thailand—they don’t know what to ask, how to respond. It begins to feel far away, like a past life, as if I’m looking at it through a pile of glass bricks that are obscuring it, distorting it, making it nearly impossible to reach.
To cut through the barrier for moments at a time, I trace the small tattoo on my inner ankle, swirly Thai script placed near the deep, circular scar on top of my left foot. “Keep going” could be the English translation. That’s what I do.
My mom seems happier now that I’m home. She shows me the other new house they want to buy, the second-story attic space that could be my bedroom. She knows I’m not done traveling, that I’m leaving for Chile in four months to try out life in South America, but she believes me when I say I’ll return, that I intend to go back to school, live with them in the meantime.
It never happens. I meet Felipe in Chile. We date, buy land, build a house, make a life. It’s been almost four years.
I’m sitting at my desk, a small ceramic globe my mom gave me sitting near the edge. When I was young, I would play with it, spin the colorful orb and stop it with a finger, looking where it landed, saying that’s the place I’d live someday. It’s been turned so that I can see the US. I move a finger over the surface, slowing spinning it until I see Thailand, and remember.
Jennifer Roberts is a freelance writer and editor with a passion for exploration, which she satisfies through both writing and travel. After obtaining her Bachelor’s in English language and literature, she left her small hometown in Illinois to live in Thailand for a year. She then traveled to southern Chile, where she now lives with her partner. She has published several non-fiction stories and articles, and is the co-editor of Fearless Footsteps, an anthology of travel stories from around the world.