The clouds beneath the sunrise look like shiny, orange hands lifting up the rest of the sky. “Tell the doctor we saw the scorpion on the floor,” Natasha says as we weave through traffic and bullet through the morning glow in our taxi. “Don’t tell him it was in my pants.”
Natasha is my travel companion/former girlfriend. Honestly, I’m not sure what she is to me at this point. Our relationship has devolved into buddy territory recently, but there was a time when we dated quite seriously. Now she’s wearing a linen hotel bathrobe, and pressing a wet washcloth against her swollen left thigh. I’ve paid the cab driver a gross amount of money to speed to the nearest hospital in Bangkok that speaks proficient English.
“The doctor’s not going to care where the scorpion was,” I say. In fact, the scorpion was hunkering right in the crotch of Natasha’s jeans when she slipped them on early this morning. I teach a composition class back home in the United States, so I can’t help but think about the scorpion in her pants metaphorically. But I keep the thought to myself.
“It’s just a little bite,” I say. “You’ll be OK.”
“It’s a sting,” she says. “Not a bite.”
At the emergency room, we meet a Thai doctor who studied at UCLA. His English is comforting, as are his repeated assurances that a snakebite would have been much worse. He gives Natasha an antihistamine injection and wraps her thigh in gauze.
Neither of us is hungry after the trip to the hospital, but somehow eating seems like the right thing to do, so we go to a noodle shop. It’s raining hard. A steady stream of cloudy water surges from a hole in the corner of the restaurant’s gutter.
“Worst trip ever?” she asks me, dancing her chopsticks around a mushroom lump in her bowl. Natasha works for a healthcare company that has sent her traveling all over the world. Brazil. Switzerland. Germany. Siberia—Siberia!
In terms of my own international travel, I’ve been to Canada. And now Thailand.
“No, of course it’s not the worst trip ever,” I say. “My brother once got detained in Mexico because he shot a turkey. Mexican prison is probably worse than a little bad luck with a scorpion and shitty weather.”
Natasha only voices a small sound, Hmm, and stirs her noodles with her chopsticks.
I cheated on Natasha last winter. It feels strange to think about it now. I was working part-time transcribing the audio from conference calls for a public relations company on Lexington Avenue in New York. I met a girl named Lourdes who worked in the same building, different company. After a few weeks, Lourdes and I realized that we tended to work the same slog of a schedule. We grabbed beers together one night when the weather was cold and gray, and one night we got burgers and ate in Madison Square Park, and then one night we got drunk at a bar by her apartment and slept together. It all felt peculiar, like I had become someone else, someone beyond my previous self, but Lourdes and I slept together another seven times in the next two months.
During my cheating, I never told Lourdes that I already had a girlfriend. It was as if I had slipped into the skin of a new identity, and I felt like mentioning Natasha would ruin the entire performance.
Of course, it would have ruined things, but somehow I was able to ignore this. My cheating identity seemed to have shockingly little conscience, and, worse, Natasha and I had grown somewhat bored with one another after two and a half years of dating.
Natasha and I had planned the five-day vacation to Thailand—and, more pertinently, bought the plane tickets—long before she ever found out about my cheating. When the truth came out, after she read an email from Lourdes that I stupidly hadn’t deleted, I felt terrible and senseless. The feeling seemed to run like a stake through my body. I loved Natasha, so why had I cheated on her? I couldn’t even answer that simple question.
Neither of us makes a lot of money, so we decided to keep the plane tickets to Thailand and somehow wring out the bad feelings and retain a vacation. Or at least that was the hope.
Prior to the trip, my desire to travel had waned to zero. But, given that the whole mess was my fault, I wanted to be as good of a boyfriend or companion or whatever I was now as I could be. In Thailand, as budget-conscious travelers, we’ve rented a single room with a single bed. It feels agonizingly small. At night we curl into separate shapes on opposite ends of the bed and wordlessly keep a generous space between us. I can smell Natasha’s shampoo when she flips her hair over her pillow.
“How’s your leg? The sting?” I ask. We’re lying in bed in our hotel room, full from a dinner of leftover Pad Thai noodles. It has rained all day, and it’s still raining. The lights in our room are out, although a glow from lights across the street is leaking in through the window curtain.
“Throbbing a little,” Natasha says.
“Do you want me to get some ice?”
“Naw,” she says. “I’ll be able to fall asleep. I’ll see how it feels in the morning.”
Somewhere deep in my imagination, I think of this trip somehow redeeming us or, even more miraculously, erasing the past. I imagine Natasha rolling over to my side of the bed and wrapping her legs around me. I imagine her kissing me on the lips, climbing on top of me, removing her shirt in one elegant lifting motion. I apologize for cheating on her. She forgives me.
Of course, that doesn’t happen. We stay on our opposite sides of the bed and fall asleep. In the morning, we sit at the desk by the window and plan our itinerary. I want to find a Muay Thai kickboxing match, but Natasha scoffs at this, at the idea of watching men wallop each other into a bloody pulp. “It’s like human cockfighting,” she says.
Instead of kickboxing, we go to an outdoor market of Natasha’s choosing, where every vending stall seems to be selling shoes or fruit. Natasha fills up her bag with knickknacks for her friends back in Brooklyn. We eat corn on the cob on wooden sticks.
That night, we go to a Bangkok McDonald’s solely so we can compare it to American McDonald’s, although I can’t remember the last time Natasha and I ate fast food together in America. She talks about a neighbor at her new apartment back in New York, an elderly hermit who refuses to get out of bed and who has to always use an oxygen tank. The lady’s life sounds wretched.
Our last day in Thailand is soggy and largely uneventful. We buy one last meal and eat while watching the rain from the cover of a restaurant tent.
That night, back at the hotel, I take the desk chair out to our deck and try to write. I think of Paul Bowles, smoking and basking in words while living abroad, but I can’t focus enough to churn anything out. I open a Thai beer that I’ve been keeping in the side of my backpack, realizing that it’d get confiscated at the carry-on line at the airport tomorrow. I drink the warm beer on the deck while Natasha packs her suitcase. Then she comes outside to join me.
“I’m sorry,” I say.
I pass my beer to Natasha. She takes a sip and winces at the warmth.
“I don’t know.” I want to say something significant, but can only think of, “the rain.”
“Yeah, we kinda picked the wrong season,” she says.
“We didn’t even score any exotic weed,” I say. Prior to our trip, and prior to the cheating mess, Natasha and I had joked about getting high and going to the Bangkok Butterfly Garden.
“Oh well. We can always just get exotic weed in Brooklyn,” she says. She hands the beer back to me and leans against the corrugated wall. Our hotel is quiet, relatively speaking. There’s a breeze blowing across our deck that smells like car exhaust.
I can hear the indifference in her voice. Our days of getting high together, of going to parties and book signings together, are over. She’ll meet someone else, travel with him, get high with him, have phenomenal sex with him.
“Weed just makes me tired nowadays,” she says.
Back in New York, the city smells like summer. My composition class starts at 7:00 pm, finishes at 9:30. I teach my students about characterization. I tell all of them to write 500 words from the point of view of someone they admire, and then 500 from the point of view of someone they despise. It’s harder than it sounds, I tell them.
I take the train home and arrive at my studio apartment. I check my phone and see that I missed a call from Lourdes. I’ve entered some gray area of human connection; I’m reluctant to talk to Lourdes, but know, irrevocably, that Natasha and I are done.
My apartment feels foreign and lonely these days, and I often find myself scrolling through my email and phone just to find the name of anyone I might be able to talk to. I call Lourdes.
The next week, I hear of a kickboxing event taking place the basement of a gym on the Upper West Side. $40 for ringside seats. I call Natasha and tell her that we should go. “Just for the hell of it,” I say. “We didn’t go to one in Thailand.”
I want to buy Natasha dinner and buy her popcorn and see her smile. Eventually, she agrees. I tell her it won’t be as violent as she thinks. There’s strategy and finesse to kickboxing, I tell her. At one point, I say something about it being akin to physical chess.
We meet up at Columbus Circle and grab a bite before the match.
“Can they punch each other?” Natasha asks? She’s eating radish salad. Her dark hair is twisted up in a style I’ve never seen on her before. She looks tan and healthy, somehow completely different from the person I’d been in a relationship with.
“Yes,” I say, “punching and kicking are both legal moves.”
“Can I ask a stupid question?” she says. “How does someone win?”
“There are rounds, and judges score the fighters at the end of each round.”
“Or they can just do a knock-out,” she says, and makes an exaggerated punching motion over the table.
“Right,” I say.
At the event, we spend most of the time peering around the people seated in front of us. In the main match, a little jumpy fighter gets his nose broken by a swooping kick to the face. “I still just don’t see the point,” Natasha says when the match is over. She touches her hand to her own nose. “But I guess I’m not really the target audience.”
Later that night, I lock myself out of my apartment. I’m not used to the door in my stairwell yet, with its automatic latches.
I call Natasha because she only lives four blocks away. “I feel like an idiot, but can I come hang out until my landlord comes with the extra key?”
“Are you asking if you can mooch a free cold beer and have some quality playtime with Bruce Hornsby?” Bruce Hornsby is her four-year-old terrier.
We sit on her couch, in her new apartment, and drink beer. I’d expected it to be fine, but it feels like I’m in the home of someone I’ve read about but never met. She’s bought a new chair and rearranged her books in their shelves. I want to ask if she’s gone out with any other guys, but that can never come across as a neutral question.
Bruce Hornsby lies down by my feet. He remembers my scent. I reach down and scratch him behind the ears.
We drink more beer, and I ask if she has any whiskey.
I don’t know how much time has passed when we hear sirens in the distance and red and blue light begins to spills through Natasha’s windows. There’s a loud knock at Natasha’s door, and we open it to see two paramedics analyzing the stairwell. They greet us swiftly and without introduction, and ask if we can help clear the hallway of its bicycles and janitorial supplies. Another paramedic, with red bags of equipment, jogs up the stairs and into Natasha’s neighbor’s apartment, the bed-ridden oxygen lady, as the lights still flood the stairwell. We scramble to clear a path in the cluttered hallway, bike locks and bleach buckets and heartbeats thumping and jangling like street drums. It takes the two of us to lift a discarded chair blocking a large patch of hallway. We move it to the edge of the hallway right as the paramedics come down the stairs with the neighbor. She’s motionless on a metallic stretcher, her skin and eyes sunken and colorless.
Natasha doesn’t say anything, but reaches for my hand as we watch the lady and the paramedics go by.
I want to think of her hand holding mine as the start of something new. My heart beats harder and catches in my throat, but I know what it really means. We’re now just acquaintances, two people who can touch hands without the gesture meaning anything.
I can’t think of anything to say—it doesn’t feel right to fill the space with unnecessary words—so I peer down the stairwell as the paramedics descend. I don’t know what else to do, and I hate the thought of this woman’s pain—likely her death, it seems—becoming spectacle. But I just stand, and watch.
We’ve just settled back in, still wordless, when my landlord calls. I down what’s left of my whiskey, and we both get up. Natasha and I stand in her doorway, saying our goodbyes, and I want to forget what we’ve seen, and I lean in to kiss her.
I can feel Natasha’s breathing in our closeness before she pulls away. “I’m sorry,” I say, taking a step backward. “Sorry. Goodnight.”
When I get home, the wind has blown over my single flowerpot. I’m sweeping up the potting soil when Natasha calls, her voice soft in the receiver. “What was that kiss all about?” she asks.
“I don’t know. I’m sorry,” I say.
“Let’s just chalk it up to a crazy night,” she says, “So, no worries.”
Late into the night, I sit on my futon, clicking through TV channels, that urban hypnosis. There’s a profile of an old man who weaves merino wool socks by hand in New Zealand. There are close-ups of his tan fingers tugging at the fibers and, when the camera pans out, the man holds up a perfectly curved sock. Someone will buy these socks and wear holes into them and eventually just throw them out someday, I think. And this man’s content with that.
I put down the remote and sink into the futon cushions. There was a time when I’d know exactly what Natasha was doing right now—eating or reading or walking Bruce Hornsby around the block. Now I have no idea. I have no idea what Natasha’s doing and I have no idea what Lourdes is doing, and my eyelids grow heavy as all of these thoughts settle in my mind like dust on a puddle, and I fall deeply asleep in this new, unacquainted space.