by Donald Quist
The glass surface of the round banquet table buzzed. Outside, antigovernment demonstrations jammed the streets of Bangkok. Plastic whistle blasts and the call and response of a hundred megaphones echoed through the humid capital. Sounds of contention burrowed upwards through levels of concrete. The protests hummed between Nahm’s ears.
Nahm sat with Jason’s family in a private dining room on the fourth floor of the Iron Wok Chef. The entrance to the secluded dining area featured a tall red archway ornamented by carvings of spiraling dragons. A wall of windows opened out to a small balcony. Behind a short karaoke stage decorated with blinking Christmas lights, panels of full-length mirrors attempted to give a greater sense of space. But the mirrors reflected the opposite wall and a mural of a foggy Lushan mountain range, trapping dinner guests between dark summits and stirring Nahm’s anxiety.
To calm herself, Nahm narrowed her concentration on specific parts of the meal. She tried to identify the various flavors in the shark fin soup. She attempted to calculate the cost of each ingredient passing between her lips. Nahm had developed habits like this selling mango and sticky rice with her mother in front of the headquarters of Kaidee Inter Auto Parts Co., Ltd. During those long hours she would stare down at one of the cracks in the grimy sidewalk and count the number of expensive shoes that passed over, or she’d look up at the tangled thicket of telephone wires running above her head and imagine where each line finished and began.
Every year Jason had pleaded for Nahm to attend the family’s Chinese New Year dinner, and she always declined, saying she didn’t want to go anywhere she wasn’t welcome. But tonight she had finally conceded, and Jason hoped to make the evening enjoyable if possible.
Jason leaned over to whisper, “This is not as nice a restaurant as the one we had last year, but it is okay.”
The rotating tray at the center of the tabletop squeaked, some of the silverware had soap spots, Jason’s chair had one shorter leg, and the karaoke machine only played folk songs. Thankfully, the deep-fried soft-shell crab flippers served with plum sauce were delicious, and Nahm said she liked the lychee fruit salad.
Jason’s father enjoyed the glass noodles with baked shrimp and ordered a second plate for the table. Jason didn’t ask where his father had been for the last three months. No one ever asked.
Tonight, like most family occasions, Jason’s parents avoided looking across the table and into the face of their spouse. With a fork and spoon Jason’s mother moved the food on her plate in circles. She ate very little and hardly spoke except to discuss her favorite television drama with Jason’s aunt. They fumed about the villain of the series: an ungrateful son betraying the mother who sacrificed so much for him. Jason caught the sisters glancing at Nahm as they discussed the character.
Nahm ran her fingers across the bottom hem of her dress and brushed something invisible off her lap. She had to take a little from her savings to buy the outfit, but she liked the way the garment’s lines appeared to evenly distribute the weight she had gained from the pregnancy.
Jason’s aunt didn’t ask about the baby.
Neither did Jason’s grinning uncle.
During a break between courses, away from the table in the short hall leading to the bathrooms, Jason pulled his smartphone from his shirt pocket. He showed pictures from the hospital to his cousin and her black husband. The husband gave Jason a congratulatory clap on the back the same way Westerners do in movies. He called Jason lucky.
In the women’s restroom, Jason’s cousin told Nahm the newborn—underweight and the color of vanilla milk—resembled baby pictures of Jason’s younger sister, Ivy. Nahm mentioned that Ivy had promised to visit the hospital but no one had seen her since a week before the delivery. Nahm filled Ivy’s absence at the dinner table between Jason and the family accountant.
Outside, the protesters started to chant: No to vote. No to vote. No to vote.
Returning to the banquet table, Jason imagined one of the voices belonged to his sister. Beyond the walls of the Iron Wok Chef, Ivy stood alongside thousands shouting for the establishment of a People’s Council and the end of party elections. She had invited Jason to join the cause. When he admitted he didn’t fully understand the fight, Ivy smiled and said, “Good people have an obligation to stand against the tyranny of the majority.” Jason didn’t ask Ivy how she distinguished bad people from the good. He didn’t tell her how tired he was of feeling obligated to beliefs that were not his own.
The public dissonance rose above the white noise of the restaurant air conditioners. Only Jason’s cousin and her husband turned their heads to the balcony. Twice, a loud pop and boom slapped the windows of the building like thunder. Each time, after a few static seconds, the family continued eating, quieter than before.
As servers brought toothpicks to the table, the family accountant downed his third glass of scotch, stood, and waddled to the apron of the small karaoke stage. He sang “Ai Piah Cia Eh Yia” two times, stopping often to raise the volume of the speakers over the exclamations of demonstrators.
Jason remembered how his grandmother used to sing the same song while working around the house. Her dry feet resembled crinkled paper and made soft scratches against the bare floors. The gentle shuffling joined her chorus, “Life is like the tide of the sea / We rise and fall by turn.”
Jason wondered what family gatherings might be like if his grandmother were still living. Would she approve of his cousin’s African-American husband? Would his grandmother try to look past Nahm’s race and economic status to find likenesses?
The accountant’s song reminded Nahm of stories Jason told about his grandparents migrating from China to escape the famine. Nahm wondered what Jason’s grandparents had envisioned for their descendants in Thailand. Wasn’t assimilation with the Siamese a part of their dream? Couldn’t they have predicted their children’s children blending and mixing with other nationalities, cultures, and classes?
Outside, the chants condensed: No to Vote. No Vote. No Vote.
Jason and Nahm had been together for more than five years. Ivy had introduced them, inadvertently. At least four times a week Ivy stopped at Nahm’s cart to buy mango and sticky rice before entering Kaidee Inter Auto Parts. Ivy always spoke to Nahm and eventually the pair became friends. Sometimes, Ivy would come outside of her family’s office building just to talk or rant about the government, the lack of accountability, and failing democracy. Nahm didn’t have an interest in politics. No matter who stood in charge it never seemed to improve the quality of life for her parents. Nahm would listen, annoyed but appreciative of Ivy’s sincerity.
One late afternoon, Ivy called the family’s office at Kaidee. Sick in bed, she asked Jason to bring her mango from the canopied cart downstairs from his office.
Outside the building near the revolving doors, Nahm seemed preoccupied with the telephone wires above. She bagged the rice, fruit slices, sugar and chili powder, and bound them with a rubber band without looking down from the nests of thick black cables. Jason asked what she saw and she replied openly, “I’m thinking about the messages going over my head. I’m trying to imagine the senders and receivers.” Then she looked Jason in the eyes and held out her hand, “Thirty baht.”
Although Jason passed her every day to enter work at his parents’ company, he would later admit he never noticed Nahm until he visited the cart for Ivy. Jason abhorred sweet foods, but he began stopping to buy mango regularly. Eventually Nahm started to notice how often he visited her cart, and how long he stayed to chat. She confronted him. She asked if he would ever court someone whose family made little money.
“If I like them,” he said, “yes.”
She asked him why.
Jason squinted, thinking. He remembered a Chinese New Year dinner with his family when he was younger. He recalled the way his mother never let her gaze linger past the center of the tabletop and how she didn’t allow herself to stare at the empty place setting where her husband should be.
“I don’t ever want to settle with someone I can’t look in the eyes,” he said.
She frowned, and he asked if he could meet her when she wasn’t working.
Nahm said yes, but added, “I’m not interested in becoming a mistress.”
No Vote. No Vote. No Vote. No Vote.
Nahm was a mother now, and she had hoped to finally receive acceptance from Jason’s mother and father, not because she needed their validation but because she wanted her daughter to know two sets of grandparents. Nahm had hoped things might be different if the child did not have a dark complexion. She had found traditional approaches online that assured her baby would be born fair-skinned. Everyday for nine weeks she boiled saffron strands in milk and added a little sugar. She stained the corners of her mouth orange eating a hundred carrots and pomegranates. Even Nahm’s father had recommended a chemical supplement he overheard two passengers debating in the back of his tuk-tuk.
Jason’s parents still hadn’t visited their grandchild in the hospital.
They never spoke of the baby.
No Vote. No Vote.
The family accountant finished. He returned to the table and everyone clapped politely. Jason and Nahm rose from their seats.
Jason apologized for having to leave early but did not offer a reason for departing. Later, he would call his cousin to explain—Nahm had to return to the hospital for the baby’s feeding. On the phone, Jason would invite his cousin and his uncle—her father—to come see the baby.
They would come because they wanted to.
Nahm and Jason glimpsed themselves in the mirrors behind the karaoke platform. They looked bigger. Standing, their reflection became a part of the mountain mural; their heads among the painted peaks seemed to rise from grey crags.
Nahm pressed her palms together. She gave seven small bows, one for each person still seated at the table. Then it was Jason’s turn to bend in reverence, but he didn’t. Jason’s aunt glared disapprovingly. The family accountant fiddled nervously with the band on his wristwatch.
No Vote. No Vote. No Vote. No.
Before telling his parents about his relationship with Nahm, Jason had asked his uncle how he thought they might react.
“My sister will not be pleased and neither will your father,” his uncle said. “Maybe if this girl was at least half Chinese or high-society Thai.”
His uncle asked what they shared in common.
Jason explained that he and Nahm both wanted the same thing: a life in which the only responsibilities are to those they serve willingly.
“We both want a choice in what governs us.”
Jason reached for Nahm’s hand.
Nahm clasped her fingers with his.
Jason nodded in the direction of his uncle and cousin, and they nodded back in recognition. His cousin’s husband waved farewell.
Jason and Nahm strode away from the table. Before disappearing beyond the crimson archway, Nahm smiled at the fake snarling dragons scowling down at her.
Outside, in the heat, Ivy and the sweating crowds raised their voices louder.
Jason’s father and mother ignored the growing discord. They pretended to be too interested in the remains on their plates to notice the cries for more and their son saying goodbye.
Donald Quist is a writer and editor living in Bangkok, Thailand. His work appears or is forthcoming in Hunger Mountain, Pithead Chapel, Knee-Jerk, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, Adroit Journal, Apeiron Review, Numéro Cinq, Slag Glass City, Awst Press, Publishers Weekly, J Journal, The Rumpus, and North American Review. He serves as Fiction Editor for Atlas and Alice. He earned his MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Find him online at iamdonaldquist.com.
Image credit: Fabrizio on Flickr