LETTER TO A STRANGER: CHIANG MAI, THAILAND
BY ARIELLE ANGEL
I wasn’t actually looking at you. I’d been looking at your friend.
He was looking, too. And when I asked for a light, he jumped to offer us seats at your table: spilling out of the farang jazz bar, just inside the fortress walls of the old city of Chiang Mai.
J and I had placed bets on where the two of you came from. I said Argentina. She said Italy. But you were Basque.
You said, “I like to know the places in the day and in the night.” And, in your limited English, you struggled to express that if you don’t see both of a city’s faces, you don’t feel that you’ve actually been there. You said, “I do not love the places that are not alive in the night.”
You said it to keep the evening going; the bar was closing. J and I recognized this and began to flirt. We asked your ages. Mid-thirties. You asked ours. We giggled and made you guess.
“I don’t know exactly,” you said, “but I know you have crossed the…como se dice…frontera.”
J gasped, my eyes got wide. Frontera: border, frontier. Then we both began to laugh. We left you and your friend on a street corner near the bar, even though we all had some curiosity. No one seemed able to muster the effort.
It was weeks before my thirtieth birthday; J’s had passed some months before. We’d both been living with heartache—hers fresh and acute, mine dull but stubborn, hanging on for a very long time. I’d come to see her in Chiang Mai as a show of solidarity, and to deliver the message that the way things are now is not the way they’ll always be. In delivering this message, I hoped I’d believe it myself.
I wandered the streets while she was at work. I ate different street foods every day, as if that were enough to justify being in a different place. I talked to strangers, mostly other travelers. I liked the feeling of possibility, even though I didn’t particularly enjoy the people or the conversations.
On her days off, J and I took trips to places we could reach by motorbike. We slipped on the “sticky waterfalls,” even though they were supposed to be sticky. “Is it because we’re old?” we asked. We watched a naked toddler with a funny foot-slapping walk play in the water. Her parents were much younger than us. J took their family portrait, then we took pictures of one another leaning against the breast-like arcs of the limestone rock, letting our chests puff out so we felt like 50s pinups. “We are las reinas de la frontera,” I said to J, recalling your words in the bar. We began saying this a lot, always with laughter as full as it was melancholy. On a visit to a nature preserve, we paid for a ride on the back of a motorbike instead of finishing the trek. “Is it because we’re old?” we asked.
In a club that bypassed the military curfew with bribes, I allowed myself to be kissed by a 23-year-old Australian.
“I’m old enough to be your mother,” I said.
“I’m not trying to marry you,” he said.
This was all during the festival of Loi Krathong; after dark the sky filled with the amber lights of paper lanterns in slow ascent, more and more each night since I’d arrived. The lanterns are the krathong—the people’s troubles, their bad luck, floating away from them.
On Friday night, the last of the holiday, J and I bought a lantern in the courtyard of a wat while a parade passed on the street. I held up the tube-like lantern while she lit the inside. We watched the fire spread around the tinder ring and the lantern grow full with heat, thinking to ourselves the things we’d like to attach to it. The conventional timeline. The fear of being alone, and of la frontera. And then we released it. When its rose glow was too small to see, we looked at each other, faces tight with happiness. “Let’s go get a drink,” J said.
I looked for you at the parade, and in the bars. I wanted to tell you that we had crowned ourselves queens of that border which had only become real when you named it—and then perhaps take you home, to show you what gets better with age.
Instead, we drank too much at a bar on the river while everything turned to chaos. The lanterns got tangled in trees and power lines as they rose, causing fires, and more than once the bars went dark. From the Iron Bridge people set off fireworks that exploded too close, and everyone was too drunk to care. J and I bought another lantern, but this one didn’t tug upwards: there was a tear on the top. We released it anyway and it floated away from us, low to the ground, threatening to set anything it landed on ablaze. “Don’t look at it,” someone told us, but we did, as others swooped in to prevent disaster. They stamped out the flames, then kicked our lantern into the river.
“It’s okay,” I said to J. “It doesn’t mean anything.”
The next morning, my last, J took me for a massage. Blind women raked our bodies over their knees, knelt on our thighs, cracked our necks and spines and digits. It hurt. I breathed, and thought about being changed, being healed.
As we were leaving, J began to cry.
“I miss him,” she said.
“It’s going to be okay,” I said.
“We don’t know what it’s going to be, across the frontera.” She was crying, but she smiled through her tears.
“Come on,” I said. “We let that go.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Arielle Angel has criss-crossed the country for artist residencies at Hub-Bub in Spartanburg, SC; Woodstock Byrdcliffe Artists Guild in Woodstock, NY; Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts in Nebraska City, NB; Brush Creek Foundation for the Arts in Saratoga, WY; Tent in Amherst, MA; and Jentel in Banner, WY. She holds an MFA in Fiction from Columbia University and a BS in Studio Art from NYU. She lives in Brooklyn, and is at work on a new novel.