Short story selected for the 2011 New Asian Writing Short Story Anthology
He noticed he could look at people and form a story about each of them, without ever really having a clue what or who they were. He started doing it as a teenager and kept at it for his whole life. He was now middle aged; he felt it was strange he had never really kept a diary or log of these stories. He guessed that it wasn’t that surprising as he did this with strangers, people he never met, never intended to meet. They were just small moments he picked when he was people watching and his eye turned toward someone who caught his story telling fancy. The stories in his head were quite elaborate and he always felt he was just kind of doing this very specific kind of day dreaming. It wasn’t really fantasizing and he didn’t make a habit of adding sexual overtones to it. Sometimes he would think that that man just saw his mistress or some sort of sordid detail, but generally he was just telling himself about the lives of these strangers and relating it to his experiences and how they may have differed.
One day when he was working at the school he taught at, a subject of one of his musings, who was a mother of a child he didn’t teach but who he had seen around the building a few times, took it upon herself to say hello and introduce herself. It had caught him off guard because he never had that actually happen to him before. She was a nice looking woman and she spoke English very well. He realized, of course, as soon as she said her name was Fah Si, he would be comparing his mental narrative against the true facts of her life and questioning his version in a way that hadn’t occurred to him before. She told him she wanted to introduce herself because she had seen his profile on another woman’s Facebook page, who also had a child at the school. So apparently, they had this mutual Facebook friend in common and she had checked out his profile and was impressed by all the pictures of his and his students’ works.
She told him she was very interested in his paintings, she said she used to dabble in painting before she was married and she thought his work was suwai mak mak. He always got a weird kind of feeling when a Thai person said this to him. He smiled and gave a little laugh. She asked how long he had been painting and where he had studied. He told a bit about his background, growing up in a place called Buffalo; Thai’s often would laugh when he told them that because calling a person a buffalo in Thai was considered an insult but she didn’t laugh. He explained he lived in New York City after that and spent a year and a half in Korea before coming to Thailand on vacation. He explained when he arrived and walked out of the airport into the sultry warm February night, he felt somehow he was destined to stay here. She laughed at that and asked if he was a Buddhist, explaining that feeling destiny having that strong of a pull on one, fits quite well with the beliefs of most of the souls who considered themselves Khun Thai.
They talked a bit more as he was on his break between two classes and he had some time to kill; he asked about her son whom he had noticed but didn’t know anything about. Suddenly she asked him if she could be quite forward and ask something of him. He said, “Sure.” She then said, “I want you to teach me how to paint, do you think you could do that?” He didn’t have to really think about it much as the school was not paying the art teacher enough money so he agreed. She then said, “Great, we will have to get together and figure out the details, can you meet me for coffee at a café near my house this Tuesday?”
It was arranged and they met; she explained that she thought she had some talent for drawing but couldn’t use color well. She wanted to use a room in her house as her studio and have him come by two times a week for an hour or two. He would make one thousand baht an hour and teach her how to paint and “come to terms with this need she had to remake herself into an artist.” He gave her a list of supplies and she promised to pick them up. They scheduled to meet at 5 o’clock on Tuesdays and Thursdays. They started the lessons and she progressed very quickly. She was an excellent student and grasped every lesson he taught almost immediately. They had this ajarn-student relationship for eight months and she worked diligently and he felt found a voice of her own as an artist. They also became friends sharing moments and pieces of their lives.
It was just as his little mental story wrote it, he knew from the beginning it would be. He found it hard to believe as it happened. He had never considered that these stories he made up to himself had had any correlation to his life before.
ajarn: respectful title for school teachers or university lecturers
baht: Thai currency
khun: respectful title for men or women
suwai mak mak: “very beautiful” in Thai language.
Illustration by Alan Van Every
Alan Van Every is an American artist, sometimes writer and occasional educator who has been living and working in Bangkok since 2006. His art has been shown in many venues all over the globe. This is his first published short story. See more of his work on his website.
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