Of Love and Monkeys
According to a recent article in the Bangkok Post, a man was killed by his monkey after the creature hurled a 4 lb. coconut at his head. I don't think it was personal—monkeys are commonly used to pick coconuts from towering palm trees in Thailand—but you never know. I've seen a few monkeys up close and, quite frankly, find them all a bit too clever-looking for creatures that are supposed to be a couple notches below me on the evolutionary chain. Sure, they'll do some cute tricks—swoop down and snatch a Vienna finger cookie from your hand—but you always get that distinct feeling that the moment you turn your back, they're giving you the simian equivalent of the middle finger (which may, in fact, be their middle finger). You can't blame them, really. But you sure can't trust them either.
The physical dangers of living in Thailand are often foremost in my mind. It wouldn't take much effort to banish them from my thoughts, especially since I've lived in U.S. cities far more dangerous than Hat Yai, where I work as an editor at a local university. But who'd want to? The dangers here are just too wildly bizarre, creepy, and fascinating to not want to know everything about them. A centipede bite? Painful, but rarely fatal. Scorpions? Same thing, unless they're the tiny ones, whose venom can fell an ox. Once I even heard about a tourist crushed to death by an elephant during one of the ubiquitous elephant exhibition shows up north. (Note to self: do not raise hand if presenter asks for volunteers to stand under the elephant, no matter how cute it looks.) Then there are the traffic accidents, the floods, the rabid dogs, not to mention the flying coconuts, and you're left with a rich and colorful tapestry of ways to die or be maimed.
I'd lived in Indonesia before and felt prepared for the occasional harsh realities of living in a Southeast Asian jungle, urban or otherwise. My husband, Kevin, and I took the necessary precautions when we came here: Iodine tablets. Rabies shots. Mosquito netting. A Latin Dictionary. (Kevin, a former Classics student, swore it would come in handy.) Complacent in our ignorance, we didn't worry. We were children—brainwashed naïfs fooled into believing the underlying tenant of all romance novels and movies: spending as much time as possible with your significant other is a virtuous thing, the backbone of any strong marriage. So we stocked up on bug repellent and avoided high trees, oblivious to the biggest threat to our survival: each other.
One of the problems is that I have no close friends here. Thailand is a country that has perfected the art of stoic inscrutability—the cultural gap is just too wide to bridge. And as fond as I am of my Thai coworkers, relationships are often friendly, but superficial compared to ones back home. Simply put, complaining about Kevin's annoying habit of using my underwear to clean lizard droppings from the toaster wouldn't go over well with my office mates, so feeling isolated and alone in a country like Thailand, therefore, is not unusual.
What is unusual is having only Kevin to complain to when he's the one I want to complain about. "That Kevin is such an A-hole sometimes!" just doesn't go over so well with him. I know because I've tried. Throw in the daily cultural frustrations—being unable to buy a kilo of fresh rambutan because the Thai fruit vendor misunderstands and instead hands you a giant, spiky Durian, which you are too polite to return, so you lug it all the way back home lest, god forbid, a Thai student spots you hurling it like a shot put down an embankment—it is, after all, the "King of Thai fruit"—so you stumble through the door, hot and sweaty, no rambutan, just a massive, exotic fruit that smells like a dead cat, your husband giving you that look, and you have a potential marital disaster on your hands.
What Kevin and I had not yet come to learn was this: tandem bike rides and kayak trips at sunset are not the crux of healthy marriages—distractions are. Distractions are vital to any healthy relationship. They are like your relationship's own white noise machine, obliterating the awkward silences, tossing cicadas into your morning marriage jungle. The best distractions are, of course, your family and friends, but without them nearby, or within reach of a cheap phone call, we are stuck with only each other. It is other people's lives, their foibles and misfortunes, which distract us from our own shortcomings. My sister's retarded new boyfriend, the latest sexual conquest from Kevin's sleazy old college friend, or a best friend's discovery of her husband's foot fetish, they all serve one purpose—to make Kevin and me feel better about ourselves. Sure we have our problems—our combined income rarely exceeds 14k a year—but we're not that bad. At least we don't fuck shoes.
"Wherever you go, there you are" is one of those pithy sayings that makes you pause a moment before the simplicity of its meaning hits. It must be true, I am who I am, even as I sit here in this bungalow in Phuket and write. But then again, it's also not true, not really, not in the ways that count. I've found you can easily escape from yourself by traveling on your own. Outside drugs and porn, solo travel is the most effective and gratifying form of escapism there is. Feel like a loser after your fiancé dumps you? Unable to resuscitate your dying dreams? No problem. Take up a Peace Corps position in the Congo, or maybe take that teaching job in Abu Dhabi you've always wanted, or how about just fly to Bangkok and pretend you're someone else—someone cool and beautiful and artistic; someone everyone wants to sleep with.
That kind of escapism is forever lost when you travel with your partner. For me, it was wholly unexpected, and I miss it. Before I met Kevin I was cosmopolitan and fearless, and if I was having a good hair day, downright charming. I smoked long, thin cigarettes, quoted Baudelaire, and could command the attention of a room with my Mickey Rourke impression. Now, however, I've had to quit smoking after Kevin complained about my foul breath and fouler lungs, and he knows for a fact I have never read any more than four and half pages of Paris Spleen. Even my Mickey Rourke impression fails to wow him. "Who are you are you supposed to be—Don Knotts?"
Trying to reinvent yourself when you're married is impossible because your spouse is a constant living reminder of who you really are. Kevin knows all my moods and insecurities, my capacity for kindness and cruelty. Traveling with him is not unlike getting on a plane with a full-length mirror and carting it around with me. I can go to the ends of the earth, climb a Javanese Mountain at sunrise, and never once leave behind the fact that I get irritable bowel syndrome if I drink too much Sumatran coffee. And yes, I know he cares about me, and true, maybe I shouldn't smoke a whole pack of clove cigarettes beforeclimbing a four thousand-step temple, but being chastised for your stupidity just isn't very sexy.
That said, there are some benefits to having someone to travel with. If Kevin and I take a flight together, I have someone to play cards with on the plane. He's also very chivalrous, offering himself up as a buffer between me and that annoying talker on the aisle seat, and when we're in airports, he's a fantastic stuff watcher. Sounds trivial, but anyone who travels on their own knows there is nothing more annoying than being loaded down with luggage when you need to use the bathroom. Pre-Kevin travel, I had to tie my belt around the handle of my suitcase, pull it under the stall door, and hold it in my hand in order to have a quick pee.
Kevin is also living proof of all the bizarre and fantastical places I've seen. This is important, especially when you return home and realize everyone—close friends and family most of all—has more interest in the latest Charlie Sheen saga than your digital pictures of you wrestling with that python in the lava of an active volcano. It's not their fault—I do the same. When my younger sister, a social worker, reels off the number of crack babies in Waterbury, Connecticut, my mind wanders to warmer, gentler places. I heard the phenomenon referred to as a form of reverse culture shock, temporary feelings of disassociation as you adjust back to your real life, but I think it's the unavoidable consequence of living far from your homeland: the longer you're gone, the wider the gulf between you and them. Shared experience tethers me to Kevin, and him to me. And sometimes I feel that without each other, all of it—the cicadas and night trains and clove cigarettes—would just slip away.
In March of last year, Kevin and I were invited to spend a few days on Tarutao Island with a group of university students. We'd been asked to teach English for a couple days after which we'd be free to enjoy the last five days on our own. Tarutao is small, but remarkably undeveloped and wild—a sprawling nature preserve and former prison with a colorful history of pirate attacks. I couldn't wait to go.
There is a certain irony, not to mention desperation, about traveling to an isolated island when, as foreigners, we are already somewhat alienated from our adopted country by default of our foreign-ness. In a way, we'd been living on our own cultural island for months now, two stranded survivors held tenuously together by love and a mutual need to talk about Nicholas Cage's baffling film career. Right now, however, I'd like to get off this metaphorical island just to have a moment to myself. Even if it means setting foot on a real one infested with pirates.
"The wildlife's supposed to be okay," I told Kevin, "though no snorkeling because of the sharks this year—so many sharks."
"Yeah, I read the birds there are awesome—great plumage and all. Monkeys too—"
"I hate monkeys!"
"Well, it's mostly birds. Hardly any monkeys. They all died, in fact. I read that somewhere."
In the end, I went to Tarutao alone, while Kevin stayed behind and taught extra classes at the university. He wanted to go, he said, but thought it would be nice to have the added money. "We can use it for a trip to Phuket or something next month," he promised. I assured him the island probably wasn't his kind of place anyway and that Dengue fever was terrible there this time of year. "Besides," I added, "I've always wanted to know what an island penal colony would look like."
We were both relieved. Relieved to have a few days away from one another, but most of all, relieved that we had both resisted that sadistic compulsion to be honest with each other. After all, there is nothing scarier than two married people telling each other the truth. Nothing—not even a coconut-wielding monkey.
About the Author
Heather Corrigan is an essayist and teacher based in Abu Dhabi, UAE. Her essays have been published in North American Review, Connecticut Review, Oyez Review, Full Circle Journal, and Louisville Review. She is currently finishing a collection of essays about death, belonging, and root canals, and can be reached at (http://redroom.com/member/heather-corrigan) or (http://twitter.com/#!/HeatherCorrigan)