I realized this would most likely be the last decision we’d ever make together.
“What do you say?” he asked, shifting his backpack and turning towards me. “We take a taxi to my hotel to kill time until your friend gets back to her house?” I felt stuck. It was only three in the afternoon, two hours before my friend would get home, and I was standing at the northern Bangkok bus terminal on the brink of a downpour with my now-ex boyfriend, who I was thoroughly fed up with.
Had we been closer to the city center and not in the face of an imminent rainstorm, I would have preferred lugging my bag around the city’s congested streets to anymore intimate, coldly silent, time with him. Unfortunately, splitting a taxi made the most sense.
“Fine, that’s probably the best idea,” I agreed, and we hightailed it toward the taxi queue. Minutes later, the first rain drops hit the roof of the cab as we began to slosh through the quickly flooding roads, riding south to Sukhumvit.
It had taken six months of dating, and well over 14 more of talking back and forth as I sat with too much time to myself as a Peace Corps volunteer in Madagascar while he meandered around the United States by bike, and later India as a tour guide, to get us to this moment. More importantly, it took a phone conversation where I suggested we meet in Europe.
“Why Europe?” he asked. “What about Asia?”
I had chosen Europe arbitrarily; mostly I just craved the sensation of feeling like “a real person” that comes with setting foot in a developed, post-industrial city, as opposed to the piss-scented grittiness and overt poverty prevalent in Madagascar’s capital, Antananarivo.
We had wanted our relationship to work despite the distance, and seeing each other before the end of my two-year service felt crucial. Destination didn’t matter. “Well, there are direct flights from Madagascar to Bangkok. What do you think of Thailand?”
“Let’s do it.”
Months later, I exited the Bangkok metro system, jetlag and backpack weighing on my shoulders, into a September sunrise. After the cold of a Madagascar winter — waking up to frost on the ground, exercising simply because I was cold and had no central heating — the sticky, humid air felt rejuvenating on my skin. It made me optimistic.
When he finally showed up at the hostel off the 11am flight from New Delhi, I was stunned. Seeing him standing there, the same tall, lanky Indian man but with a new haircut and a shave, carried a mixed sense of familiarity and strangeness. As I stood on my toes to kiss him hello, the words of a hipster hairdresser I’d crossed paths with in Portland soon after I’d last seen him rang in my ears. She had been crying as she said it, mourning the death of her own failed attempt at a long-distance relationship that led her to flee Boulder, Colorado to the Northwest.
After so much time, you’ll have to fall in love all over again.
From the backseat of the taxi, where I sat alone with the bags, I stared out into the water-logged, car-clogged streets. At certain points, the rain turned the roads into a muddy river rising above the tires. Under overpasses, Thais clutched umbrellas as they crowded onto a traffic island, waiting out the rain. Men on mopeds stopped to lean against the inside of a tunnel. Children excitedly splashed in the filthy puddles and sewage runoff.
Inside the taxi, everything was still; I was detached from these scenes outside the window. Air-conditioning kept us from feeling the heavy air outside, while the pelting rain muted the sounds of pedestrians shouting, cars running, and any life beyond the storm. After 20 minutes stuck in gradually slowing traffic, I couldn’t stand the isolation, stillness, and loneliness of it all.
The cab driver must have felt bored, too. Shattering the silence, he switched on a Thai talk radio show to fill the car with conversation. I filled my head with thoughts.
The first few days in Bangkok were a blur of exhilaration. He and I giggled as we tried to order our first meal of street food, not knowing a lick of Thai but both fluent in the internationality of pointing and scribbling numbers on paper. We embraced open-container laws and drank on the streets with a couple of new friends. He slipped his hand on my knee under the table as we waited for food. We hid out in a mall during a rainstorm, geeking out on all the things we’d been missing in Madagascar and India but that Bangkok had in abundance (Starbucks, McFlurries, technology). He gave me a forgotten and rediscovered letter he’d written but never mailed me. We kissed, we laughed.
But by the time we boarded the overnight train to Chiang Mai, the initial thrill of seeing each other again and experiencing this place began to wear off. He seemed wary of holding my hand. Making conversation took more effort than I remembered.
It all came crumbling down on our third beer, in the food car with the windows open. The night air flooded in as we drank. A heavy-set British couple dined in silence to our right, while a single Thai man solemnly stared into space sipping whisky from a half-empty bottle. At another table, a group of young Thais laughed and chatted happily. Like them, I had to shout to be heard over the rumble of train against tracks, cheesy country music, and clamor of dishes in the back of the car.
“I think we should just travel as friends,” he shouted. It felt like we were broadcasting our personal problems to the beat of clattering metal.
I grew immediately (and irrationally) angry at the comment. I demanded explanation, and we sorted through an onslaught of sticky emotions. I had always doubted I’d ever end up with him. He had trouble committing and didn’t see himself with anyone. I thought he was selfish.
“Fine, so we’ll travel as friends,” I begrudgingly said. “But can we at least still make out?”
It was the last plea of a Peace Corps volunteer who had absolutely no love life or opportunity for a love life in rural Africa; the last plea of an ex-girlfriend who didn’t know how to “just be friends” and felt uncomfortable at the prospect.
He looked at me and his mouth began to move: The sum of his response was “no.” I was livid, drunk, sexually frustrated, tired. I had nothing left to do but fight back angry tears.
“Oh my god, I HAVE TO PEE!” I finally said, adding my own soundtrack to that of the radio. He gave a half-hearted laugh. “Me too. Like, really badly.”
I paused for a moment and pulled out my water bottle. “Want some water?” I asked, swishing it in front of his face, purposely aiming to annoy.
“Jessi-eee! Stop!” he said teasingly. “I really have to go! Oh my god, when are we going to get there? The meter is already at 85 baht!”
“Want to bet on how high it gets? Loser has to pay the fare?” I suggested.
“Sure, I say no more than 115 baht.”
“I say 120 baht.”
“Deal. There’s no way it’s going to get that high,” he insisted.
I laughed. For the first time since the train ride to Chiang Mai ten days before, I felt totally at ease talking to him. I had no desire to be mean anymore, no energy left to hold a grudge. The prospect of making out with anyone had dissolved into a hopeless pipe dream, and I was over it. Our only concerns were the fullness of our bladders and the boredom of getting caught in stop-and-go traffic. The situation instilled an unexpected giddiness between us, forced on us the friendship we had been trying for.
Something about knowing as soon as this taxi ride was over we’d be free of each other took us back to where it all began: the meaningless bar banter of two people with nothing to gain or lose from each other, the careless conversation of finding yourself bored and waiting in line next to an attractive stranger.
“I wonder how much farther it is,” he said, turning to the driver and attempting to get his question across, bastardizing Thai phrases from the back of a Lonely Planet while both the driver and I broke into uncontrollable laughter that threatened to make me pee my pants.
Half an hour after our bet, we both groaned when we realized we’d only driven a block and the meter was pushing 200 baht.
“I think that’s a BTS station up there, should we just get out? I bet your friend is home by now,” he suggested.
The rain had slowed to a trickle, and the seedy overpasses and traffic tunnels had given way to a row of kebab shops and stores whose names were written in the wistful loops of Arabic script rather than bubbly, geometric-looking Thai. Across the street stood a mosque, and Muslim men in full garb loitered the streets in anticipation of the Friday prayer.
“Yeah, I’m tired of sitting in traffic,” I agreed.
We handed our driver the money and bailed, walking about a block together to the main road where he would have to turn right, me left.
“Well, I guess I’ll see you later,” one of us dumbly said when we reached the corner amidst the throngs of cars and pedestrians pushing their way home through rush hour and bad weather. The remark was followed by a brief pause where I felt a hug should have been, something, anything more intimate than awkwardly staring at the person with whom I’d shared so much.
“Yeah, I should get going,” the other replied. I turned my back on him to walk the slippery sidewalk to the train station — finally alone.
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Originally from Washington DC, Jessie Beck lived in Malta, Costa Rica, and Seattle before finally ending up as a Peace Corps volunteer in Madagascar. She currently teaches English outside the chilly highlands town of Antsirabe while blogging about it at beatnomad.com.