by Chris DeBolt
My wife and I were lounging in a private, heated plunge pool just outside our Four Seasons suite in northern Thailand: silk bedspreads, teak wood, spotlighted antiques, all of which only accentuated our foul moods. I had wrenched my back lifting a piece of luggage out of the cab when we arrived; she had bruised her ankle, trying to show off with a handstand in shallow water, then falling backwards onto the ceramic-tiled edge. At the airport we'd fought to the brink of ending the second honeymoon before it even started: another argument about children, the fact we had none after five years of marriage, that my wife's shoulders were calloused from balancing upside down, waiting for my slow--if not unconscious--sperm to swim higher.
But our plunge pool was always a comfortable 75 degrees. It looked out, with an infinity edge, over bamboo, poi ponds and large Asian jars filled with birds of paradise. Just beyond the landscaping the hotel had incorporated "as an integral part of the resort experience, a working rice farm that brought to your back door an unobstructed view of local life." Rice terraces, filled with stagnant, dark green water, stepped off in a distant rhythm. Only twenty feet away from our patio oxen lumbered freely, thick bells resonating with each hoofstep. Farmers, dressed in baggy peasant shirts and bamboo hats, kept their heads down and picked and spaded at the swampy soil. They were either too busy to look up, or embarrassed we were paying such an obscene amount of money to watch them work.
I pretended it was the former and followed the brochure's instructions, integrating this local activity into my resort experience. I watched it all--after a sandalwood massage--from my secluded pool, arms crossed at my chest and leaning over the edge, a little waterfall cascading all around me, splashing onto smooth, black rocks below. It would have been real nice if not for my inflamed back muscles, pain shooting up my spine everytime I raised my beer to take a sip. I considered calling the in-house doctor; since we were in the Golden Triangle I expected first-class pharmaceuticals, and after selling my last screenplay for six figures, I deserved them.
It was late afternoon when, through the palm trees to my left, I spotted a Japanese man, another hotel guest, walking down a slight, grassy slope. He had a wheelchair under his control, a small boy inside. The boy--I assumed his son--had bone-skinny legs wrapped around each other like pretzels. His neck was skewed. His mouth gnarled. Cerebral Palsy, I decided, or Multiple Sclerosis. Some awful 'osis' for sure. As if answering my thought the kid turned in his chair and glanced in my direction. He was only fifty feet away, close enough for me to see his eyes were alive. Communicative. He tried to point, say something, call attention to my presence, but it ended up as a moan and a twitch. Oblivious, his father kept pushing until he reached the lip of a steeper section of grass falling toward the rice terraces. He tilted his head to gauge the degree of slope, leaned in to whisper something to his son, then pushed him downhill. The chair bounced wildly as they gained speed and the father laughed and the son mewed and tried to slap his hands together. When they reached the base the father slowed the wheelchair to a stop. He leaned in again, talking excitedly, making sure his son had enjoyed it as much as he had.
The father noticed the boy had slipped a bit in his chair so he unstrapped him, picked up his fragile body without effort, and sat him straight again, seat belt tight. They continued on, the father still unaware of my presence, though by now I was only twenty feet away. Strange, I thought, until I realized only my head was extended above the water line, my shoulders, my hands--and my beer--now totally underwater. I must have reflexively ducked when they got close. A spy not wanting to get caught. A voyeur.
I felt self-conscious and looked around to see if anyone else was watching. Only my wife was nearby, lying on a teak deck chair. That shouldn't have bothered me, since this trip was all about forgetting Los Angeles, relaxation ... romance, but watching her read, purposefully paying no attention, did bother me.
Yes, I'd had an affair. I admitted it over a year ago, ended it, suggested we start over, start a family. My wife said she forgave me; she said she also wanted a child. But now each day without conception rang like an alarm. My wife wondered if my guilt was the problem. I wondered if it was her anger.
I said nothing and turned back around.
The father was now at the edge of the rice paddies with his son. Beyond them Thailand's northern mountains were blue and blood orange in the late afternoon light. The father inhaled the view for a moment, pointed for his son to enjoy it with him, then turned the wheelchair so the boy faced him. He stepped back and pulled a camera from his pocket. The father framed his son within the lush background, shook his head as if it wasn't quite right, then moved back a few steps and kneeled down on the ground. I think he said one, two, three in Japanese and I think the boy tried to smile, though both were only guesses. The father took the photo.
Satisfied, he started to push his son back up the hill, but stopped. Something must have told him one photograph just wasn't enough, so he put the brakes on the chair and looked at his son from a new vantage point. The boy twisted his face in an attempt to smile. The father grinned anyway, took out the camera again and looked through the lens. But just before he released the shutter a leaf from a nearby palm tree fell and landed on top of his son's head. It covered his black hair like a paper hat, the kind folded to resemble a boat. The father looked up from the camera and laughed and pointed and his son grunted and tried to clap his hands but missed. Dad moved forward and removed the leaf from the boy's head, tousled his hair, and kissed him on the forehead.
By this time I had forgotten who I was, where I was. I could have been on the couch watching TV at home, a seat at the movies, an out-of-body experience at a yoga retreat. Whatever. I was so focused I didn't realize I was now leaning forward on my elbows, totally out of the water, my head, shoulders and chest exposed. A large white object hard to miss.
The father quickly turned to retake the picture and spotted me. Caught.
I had an urge to hide underwater but couldn't; I was immobilized with embarrassment. I waited for him to frown or blush or yell at me to quit staring at them, at a father and son enjoying a private moment. Instead he looked at me without expression a good long while, then, slowly, he raised his hand and waved, a slight, purposeful wave, the kind where the wrist bends side to side. I lifted the hand that wasn't holding my beer and returned it. The father finally broke eye contact and looked again at his son. The boy was now slumped over sideways in his chair, moaning. The Japanese man looked back at me, hesitated, then put the camera back in his pocket. He moved around the wheelchair and continued pushing his son up the hill, toward another part of the landscaped grounds. I kept waving to their backs as they left.
Behind me my wife stirred on the lounge chair.
I turned. The pool water splashed loudly. "Should we keep trying?" I asked. She put her book down, sighed and said, "Excuse me?"
* * *
We decided to check out the next day and call our vacation short. We were exhausted, neither sleeping much after the yelling, the fighting, but we still couldn't wait for the bellman: our large suite was suffocating. My wife and I carried our own bags to the lobby, through the lush resort grounds, past the laughter (mocking? I wondered) of the peasant rice farmers. At the front desk I was in shock, one of those moments when you realize a desperate, impulsive decision, "let's get as far away from home as possible, let's go for it ... let's do it for us," was the dumbest thing you've ever done in your life. Flight, hotel, food, taxi. Money equaling multiple car payments down the tubes. Or a mortgage. Or a small country's GDP. I was busy looking at the hotel bill for an accounting mistake--please God, any mistake--when my wife nudged me. "Look at that," she said, pointing at the handicapped boy in the wheelchair.
He was in the lobby, eyes closed, still. His parents were nearby at the front desk, also checking out of the hotel. The father signed the bill, turned and motioned for his wife to look at their son. She put her hands to her mouth, whispered something, then quietly moved over the boy, hovering. If it wasn't for his parents' beaming faces or the bit of drool on his shoulder, I would have worried the boy was dead. No, just asleep. After a moment of appraisal--a look that can only be described as pride--the father leaned in, only inches from his son's ear, and began humming a tune. Slowly, quietly, a Japanese melody was released. It took form and floated around the lobby, lithe as a harp. The music, the father's song, even stopped the hotel staff, luggage and fruit baskets balanced precariously on their shoulders while they listened.
Then a slight twitch of the lips. The boy's eyelids slowly parted, and the father let his music trail off into the humid air. The boy blinked, noticed his parents over him and smiled a crooked smile. His mother cooed and stroked his hair. His father stepped back with his camera and took another picture.
I still had the invoice in my hand, still at the front desk, when I realized my wife was standing next to me. She had her arms crossed. Though I couldn't hear anything but the melody replaying in my ears, I swore I could make out her foot tapping impatiently on the marble floor. She pointed her chin at the bill and asked, "So what's the damage?"