Independence Day

A lost wife could lead to a lost life as a man struggles to find his place in the world without her.


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[WARNING: This story contains scenes of suicidal ideation.]

The first time T. Sawan saw his wife was 14 years earlier at an outdoor noodle shop in Phitsanulok, Thailand, near the Wat Phra Si Rittana. The café was one of those places where you sat on a teak wood floor with your legs dangling into an under-table pit or off the elevated perimeter, but only if you were lucky enough to find a seat facing outside. T. Sawan was lucky enough that day, and he had sat along the back of the café hoping to catch a breeze in the daytime heat. His bare feet hung over the edge, and he had a clear view of coconut trees and shanties nearby, the Nan River’s brown water churning by him and curving out of sight behind a motorbike shop. A kilometer away was the dead-end street that bore him.

That day had been one of the hottest ever in central Thailand. Dry weather had been on for some time, but humidity had returned, and the heat was so intense that towering, bruise-colored clouds shadowed the city. Afternoon thunderstorms were inevitable, and the wind was already tugging at napkins and slapping the fronds of nearby banana trees.

T. Sawan eyed the cloud tops and recalled how an hour earlier, under clearer skies and before another respected carpenter, he was turned down for a woodworking apprenticeship. This wasn’t a question of skill. He could build almost anything out of wood. He loved the measurement, the deliberation, and the smooth surface of freshly sanded wood beneath his fingers. He had spent years developing his ability with tools discarded from others, but he didn’t have any relatives in the construction business, and few friends to help him find a job.

He was puzzling over his prospects and finishing his noodles when he noticed a woman outside the kitchen. She was kneeling on a dirt path, cleaning plates with a hose. He couldn’t see her face. Instead, he saw her hands and admired the grace of her fingertips caressing the grooves of the plates, ensuring cleanliness. Then he settled on her arms. He couldn’t help but notice those dark, slender arms bright with moisture in the dimming light of a Thai afternoon. This is what he remembers.

* * *

T. Sawan rests his head against the window of the city bus, which roars and lurches along Pico Boulevard like a mechanical parade tiger. He looks outside and sees the kosher restaurants, a candy store, and a lighting shop — all part of decaying storefronts that should have been demolished and rebuilt decades earlier. Dry rot infests L.A. like a virus, but unlike in Thailand, where everything rots from the rain and humidity, this destruction is from neglect.

The bus steadies and glides east along the southern edge of Beverly Hills, headed deep into L.A. All the seats are taken, and some of the men are wearing black or beige pants and white undershirts. Other passengers have sauce stains on their clothes, the scent of garlic and rosemary about them, and a few riders grip their dollar-store bags stuffed with a change of clothes they didn’t have time to make, still wearing housekeeping vests or aprons.

After T. Sawan arrived with his wife in the U.S., they hit the road. She was excited to see San Diego, and he remembers the shock in her eyes when she dipped her feet into the cool Pacific water on this side of the world. Among all the trips she had taken, she felt most at home amid the desolation of Joshua Tree and its desert trails.

She was speechless during the hikes and stopped often to take photos of birds or gently touch desert flowers. She hated the hot, dry weather and scratched her elbows raw, but she connected with the landscape in a way he didn’t understand; it belonged to her.

She moved into his apartment in L.A., and he built all the furniture for her using imported teak wood from Thailand, hoping this would help her be more comfortable. But she hardly seemed to notice anything in the apartment, and at times she wandered around the rooms with vacant, pale eyes, like an astronaut doomed to roam an alien planet. There were never enough Thais in L.A., or enough Thai food. And the weather — there was so little moisture, it was always dry and warm. She complained about the lack of smell in the air. He guessed the humidity was missing, and the smell of fecund clay that went with it. There’s nothing like the air that hits you in Bangkok after you deplane from some place dry and far away; that wall of heat, the dense air thick with moisture, the smell of growth, the promise of something unique, something new.

They were together for a while. He went to work. She stayed home for months but eventually found a part-time job in a Thai market. Together, they did most of the shopping and cooking, and on Tuesdays, his one day off, they would clean the apartment. They’d go for walks and rarely eat out, and the stretches of silence between them were sometimes vast. This never bothered T. Sawan. He wasn’t much of a talker, and he accepted her as she was.

Then one day, she was gone.

He’d called the police. They came and searched through her things. They even asked questions that made him feel like he had done some terrible thing. What night did she leave? Did she leave a note? A text? Did they fight often? Did he ever assault her? Had she ever talked to anyone else, like friends, or other men? Was she sleeping with someone else?

The police didn’t have much to go on. She never used credit cards, and she relied on cash. She didn’t like carrying a cellphone and left that behind too. The police suggested that they’d investigate, but there would be no looking into anything. If her body turned up, they’d start investigating T. Sawan, and if it didn’t, she’d go on record as a missing person. Another unsolved immigrant case.

On some days, he thought he saw her on his bus route home. In the crush of rush hour, he’d see splashes of black hair or brown, slender arms holding the overhead railings. On other days at the most random times, like taking out the garbage or grocery shopping, he would have dark thoughts about what might have happened to her. These moments would freeze him, and he’d stand about glued to a trash can lid or a gallon of milk, but he suspected that wherever she went she had made the decision herself. The reason was that her small, black cat totem, the one he had carved for her, had also disappeared the night she left. After he gave it to her, it remained on the nightstand near where she slept until the night she went missing.

Readying for his stop, he stands and moves near the back exit of the bus. He can’t remember the last time he and his wife hugged but recalls the night his parents died. Over 7,000 miles away in Bangkok, a reckless driver swerved into their car and forced them into an oncoming truck. At what he thinks must have been the same moment in L.A., he was parking a car at work and was suddenly distracted. Like time had stopped but the car did not. He can’t remember what he had been thinking or why he looked away from the rearview mirror as he backed the car into a tight spot, but a jarring crackle of fiberglass shook him from the trance. He reported the damage, and the hotel covered it for the owner. He wasn’t in any trouble either; the accident was his first mishap and the hotel assured him it was okay, but he worried that something had broken in him. He was a great driver. A craftsman. He could wheel any vehicle into any spot like a hand into a glove. Was he losing his touch? Worse, was it his mind?

Later that night, he went home, and his wife was in the kitchen making tea. She had received the call but couldn’t reach him at work because of his own accident and all the follow-up. So, she had waited. She told him what happened, and then she held him. Hugging her felt like swimming deep into warm water at night like he had done years earlier in the Andaman, exploring the sea, the light from the rented scuba gear poking into the abyss, the fear of not knowing what would come from the darkness, but feeling safe all the same.

* * *

T. Sawan exits the bus on the corner of Robertson and Pico and heads north a few blocks for something to eat before heading home. He’d like to see Apinya one last time before he goes back to his apartment.

On the way, he sees many of his neighbors on the street — the men are dressed in black, wearing yarmulkes or black top hats, and the women wear dark skirts stretching below the knees. The few children he sees have an aimless gait and blank faces; their features chiseled into stone. No one speaks. They all walk with the hunch of people towing some kind of weight. He does not know much about them other than they’re headed to Temple. T. Sawan had forgotten today is Friday.

* * *

“Seewadee kraup,” T. Sawan says when he enters the restaurant. Apinya shrugs and leads him to a table but doesn’t say anything. She gives him a menu, retreats to the bar, and pours a drink for a middle-aged farang man whom T. Sawan has seen before, one of a handful of customers trying to flirt with the owner, Anong. Apinya doesn’t return. She watches him eat larb gai from the other side of the restaurant. This isn’t what he was hoping for.

“Check bin kraup,” he says to Anong as she rushes past with three plates. She delivers them and then sits across from T. Sawan.

“Maybe don’t come in here anymore. Last time, okay? Meal is free tonight.”

Anong’s gone before he can say anything. Apinya is nowhere to be found. He decides to wait a bit longer, but nothing changes. Then he moves to the bar and sits one stool away from the farang. The man nods to T. Sawan.

“What can I get for you?” Apinya says from behind.

“Beer Chang,” he says. She grabs a bottle from a small fridge, pops the cap, and hands him the beer. In his hand, the bottle feels different somehow, like something he’s never touched before.

Apinya flits away again and returns. T. Sawan sits for a while, waiting for the farang to leave, which he finally does before closing, giving up on Anong for tonight.

T, Sawan doesn’t drink much of the beer, and later, when Apinya returns to clean, he figures now is as good a time as any.

“555 is a clever name,” he says.

“Well, it’s the address. Ha-Ha-Ha,” she says, not looking at him. “Anong will miss you.”

“She’s helping me on opening night. Aren’t you coming?”

For the first time that evening, Apinya slows her roll and puts down the pint glass she’s been drying. She sets herself into a slight hunch over the bar, right across from T. Sawan. Her hair has been cut short; the ends are sharp but alluring, angling off into some future with confidence and promising answers to questions he’s been meaning to ask. She’s also wearing a startling perfume, a scent he can’t even place, like some rare fruit you’ve cut open and smelled for the first time.

“You helped with everything in there,” she says. “The flooring, the trim, the crown moldings — ”

“You did the hard work.”

“No, I chose the décor. The walls and what to put on them. The archway.

The fixtures. The colors. Thais are natural designers, didn’t you know?” She holds up her hand, as if something precious is about to land on her palm any second.

“I didn’t know,” he says.

“Thais can see what many can’t — the materials of the world and how to organize them, and I guess that applies to food too,” she says, smiling. She’s staring into him and seeing everything there is. He expects her to find nothing at all. Yet, she’s still looking.

“Today, I parked B—’s motorcycle. He came to the salon for a visit. I sneaked him in and out through a side door to spare him the paparazzi. He spoke well of Thailand, our people, and tipped me two hundred dollars. I tried to refuse, but he insisted.”

“You meet famous people all the time,” she says.

The lights flicker on and off. Anong is cleaning the switch plate and parts of the wall. The rest of the crew are finishing up; the kitchen team heads out the back door, and the other waitress is cleaning the floor, looking for errant food scraps or streaks in the wood.

“I better go.”

“You can come back anytime. Anong is being protective.” “Who’s protecting her?” he asks, smirking.

“She doesn’t need anyone,” Apinya says, staring into his core again. “But not everyone is like her.”

“You take care,” he says, standing.

“I’ll be at Ha Ha Ha early tomorrow. You’re off, right? Come by at eight. I’ll have some coffee ready.”

She watches him go and he knows this because he looks back as he reaches the door. She steps from behind the bar, letting him see her fully for the first time. From this distance, he sees her snug, dark pants and her red top cut with angles that reveal the luminescence of her neck glowing under the restaurant’s recessed lighting. She is so radiant, he can somehow see her tomorrow and all her days after that; he smiles, and then leaves into the night.

* * *

Walking home to his apartment, he remembers coming back to the Phitsanulok noodle shop many times after he saw the woman with dark, slender arms. He went daily until he found the courage to ask her out. She seemed startled, and he was surprised she agreed. She was quiet throughout the date. They went to the night market first, had dinner at MK in Big C Market, and then went to Central and walked around. She had an unknowable depth, maybe even an abyss within her, and the difference then was he thought he might be able to fill it with his love and the life he could promise her.

Ghosts had followed her to L.A. He now thought maybe she was a ghost herself. When he asked about her family, she said she didn’t know them. His parents were concerned that no one from her family had been invited to the wedding, but he was compelled to be with her. He couldn’t help himself. He had not chosen her. Nor had she chosen him. They were drawn together, like planets caught in the same gravitational tug. He had married her within a year of meeting her, and not long after, he was notified by the U.S. Embassy in Chiang Mai on his 24th  birthday that his green card lottery application had been accepted.

* * *

T. Sawan enters the shadows of his street-lit, four-story apartment building and notices most of the windows are dark or flickering with candlelight. He keys his way into the building and rides the elevator to the third floor. He walks the long corridor toward his apartment and is startled by his neighbor’s door swinging open.

“Please, please,” the old woman says. Wherever she is from T. Sawan does not know, but she and her husband do not speak English, other than please or thank you. She motions for him to enter.

T. Sawan imagines his gun resting in the top drawer of the desk in his apartment. He will take that gun in a few minutes and climb the interior stairwell of the building. He will stand on the rooftop and catch a glimpse of the city in all directions: Hollywood to the east, Culver City south, Cheviot Hills west, and Beverly Hills north. Fully centered in his universe. The orange glow of L.A. will be set below the marine layer, and the city will be incoherent and endless, like the memories of his wife; thousands of incongruent slivers of her slapdashed together around him, no way to escape or overcome them, no way to climb out. He will press the barrel against his temple and pull the trigger. He wonders if these people will hear the shot. Will this woman, pleading with him now to come into her apartment, hear him drop?

He enters and sees the woman’s husband, probably near 80 or older, sleeping in a recliner, his body contorted and askew, drool slipping from the corner of his mouth.

The old woman tugs his arm and ushers him into the kitchen. He sees that three of the four gas burners on the stove are lit. The sun had set, and the dials could not be touched. Shabbat.

T. Sawan turns the burners off. She leads him to the bathroom, and once there he turns on the lights. Last, she takes him to a small, dark room off the hall, where an iron blazes on a table. He unplugs the iron and carefully positions it toward an open window, where it will cool faster.

In the hall, the others find him. Across four more apartments, he turns lights on and off, sets coffee makers to brew, turns off ovens and TVs, and helps a dozen people settle in for the night, as he does every Friday night. Doors close one by one and finally, he’s done.

* * *

T. Sawan retreats to his apartment and after a drink of water in the kitchen, settles onto his couch holding the gun.

He is tired of the nights in this apartment. In bed, he measured time by looking out the windows and tracking the moon buried deep in the L.A. marine layer like a flashlight in a wool sock. He’d listen to the tick of the clock above his desk or the intermittent clanging of the elevator that was adjacent to his bedroom wall. And the drum of his heart, how had it not stopped? How many nights had he lived with her? How many times had he touched her? And trying to count those nights he’d shift his focus from the moon to the ceiling. The cracks and dry rot. And then the windows, and the termite droppings nested in the corners of the frames. The occasional car outside. The groan of the engine and the muted splash of tires on damp asphalt.

T. Sawan studies the gun in his hand for a moment, startled at how easy it was to buy. He tossed a few questions to an overnight security guard at work, and then took a short, late-night drive east down Pico. He parked near an alley between K’town and downtown, not far from UPS and the 110. He walked into the alley under a cloud deck that was lit orange, yellow, and purple, like the atmosphere of another planet descending. There were two men standing near the open trunk of an old Chevy. A flash of gray and black and no way to know if the gun even worked.

T. Sawan paid and left, his jacket’s right pocket suddenly weighted, and with each step a pound added until the gun was too heavy to carry, his body leaning sideways. How had he reached his car?

Buying the gun made sense because everything had stopped after his wife disappeared. The world was moving in time, but he wasn’t. There was no wonder in anything he could touch, see, or hear. Not when he took his favorite late evening walks or watched shows he used to enjoy or ate his favorite foods. Nothing mattered. At random times, he’d think of Apinya, and the work he’d done for her and all of that would swirl into him like some kind of knot — there was wonder around her — but he couldn’t find his way to her. He couldn’t remember what excitement felt like and was filled with a blandness he didn’t know how to remove. He was too aware of his own life and wanted to turn the channel but could not. This next step made sense because being with his wife was what had mattered. How many times had he heard her keys in the door lock since she disappeared? Dozens. But she never came home. Those weren’t her keys, and she wasn’t out there. She was never coming back.

Part of him can’t believe he has come this far. He would prefer to disappear, like his wife had, but he doesn’t know how. Leaving and going somewhere else in the world is not disappearing. Instead, he meant disappear, as in cease to exist. But there is no way to do this. You can’t merge yourself into the wind.

T. Sawan stands in his apartment. There is no point in putting it off any further. He’d tried waiting one more day, but he knew the truth. That tomorrow will be the same as today and the day before that. Time for him stopped twice; the moment his parents had died, but temporarily, and then for good after his wife disappeared. He can’t unstick it now. He has no children, no family to speak of, no real responsibility except his job, which anyone could do well. Maybe worst of all, he’s done so little with wood. He never figured out how to use his gift to build much of anything, and he’s helped so few people. He’s certain he will not be missed.

* * *

T. Sawan stands on the roof of the apartment building. The wind is stiff and cool, but the skies are clear. There are no clouds in sight, and he can spot a constellation or two. He is surprised at how far he can see. The city glows like an immense halogen beacon tucked beneath a blanket of dim stars. Where is this place, and how did he get here?

His gun drawn, he levels the barrel to his temple. Another immigrant found dead in L.A. No one will care much, although his neighbors will need to find someone else to help them on Friday nights. He feels badly about setting them adrift, but they’ll figure it out. He hopes they’ll take the furniture he made for his wife and use it for their apartments.

His finger on the trigger, he’s startled by a flashing thunder, and then a bright, kaleidoscopic explosion of colors. The fireworks from Cheviot Hills. Then another explosion to the north and then the south, over Culver City. He can even see toward Hollywood and past the City of Dreams, to Dodger Stadium — fireworks everywhere you look. All for Independence Day, the great American holiday. He’d forgotten all about it.

He flips the safety on and slides the gun into his jacket pocket when he hears the rusty hinges of the roof door wail open. Then he sees all the Jews in the building spill out onto the rooftop, arms up in the air, welcoming him. Smiles, warm embraces, and clear views of freedom in every direction.

T. Sawan suddenly feels unsteady and light, like he’s somehow ascending out onto the edge of the universe itself, every thought a new star, and thousands of them born by the second.

He realizes he is no longer Thai, and not quite American. His wife was only ever Thai, and never American. Sometimes he imagines that she went back to Thailand and after her first breath off the plane, she disappeared into her homeland. What of Apinya, though? She’s somehow Thai American, and he wishes he could have figured out how to do that. He knew there was no going back home to Thailand.

He wonders whether he can help Apinya with 555. There is a small room in the back of the restaurant, and maybe he could start building a few things there. He’d start with furniture, and maybe chairs first. He’d always favored making furniture, with a goal of supporting people and creating comfort for them, starting with Apinya’s guests. Would she let him use that room as a workshop? And even if she did, would he ever really know whether she wanted him there or not? Is there ever any knowing of these things, or is there always a shadow nearby, with part of you and someone you care about lost inside it, a place forever unknowable?

He’s so close to grasping something critical, but can’t quite hang on, and instead wonders what Apinya’s hands might feel like, and her arms, pale and thin; could she ever hold him tight enough to stay in this world, and prevent him from falling into another? Why would she bother? But then he wonders, why does anyone?

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