Love on the Installment Plan
Erica X Eisen
There are many reasons why you would choose a mail-order bride. The first of which––loneliness––is one that you would not admit to yourself, or at least not without careful repackaging. You’re just so busy; you don’t have time for dating. And the women in the area don’t understandyou. Maybe that’s why you fear them. Although that, too, you would never admit.
Still, it’s a long time before you go as far as to look at one of the websites, and another long while before you allow yourself to actually sign up. Pages and pages of photos accompany bios in almost-but-not-quite-right grammar. Each site is devoted to a different country: Russia, Ukraine, Thailand. Scrolling through the first one, the faces start to blur together, but the names stick out. They excite you. Then the 6 o’clock news comes on, the sound reaching you from the TV in the next room, and the lead story is about sex slaves in Eastern Europe. Your excitement dies immediately; it is a month before you can bring yourself to log in again.
* * *
This is how you pitch it to yourself: you are a savior. On the websites of various matchmaking agencies, there is much discontent about how the public perceive their services. Why, they ask self-righteously, are foreign adoptions seen as virtuous while foreign marriages are looked down upon? It’s a line of logic that you latch onto, even though certain reservations about its soundness bubble up on the edges of your subconscious. Scanning the faces, you tell yourself firmly that you are not trying to buy these women. You are plucking them out of obscurity, out of poverty, like a lily from the muddy waters of a lake. You are not imaginative enough to entertain the notion that 22-year-old Nadezhda might already have been once married and once widowed, that Boonsri the Jewel of Chiang Mai might in another life have trained to be an electrical engineer. No, this never occurs to you: you picture the women crudely, simply. Without past or present, they sit in a line of chairs along the white walls of an infinitely long corridor, waiting for you to make your selection.
* * *
The Slavic girls unnerve you. There’s something about their eyes: an inner fire. Choose one of them, you think, and they could wind up walking out the door one day with a green card and a boyfriend half your age. With the Thai ones, though, you can picture them being real wives. Staying. Obeying. You imagine small hands, hairless limbs. You cannot pronounce their names. But this is not important.
* * *
At the ROYAL SIAM BRIDAL AGENCY we provide Western Gentlemen with marriage-minded decent Thai Ladies. Let us find you a BEAUTIFUL Thai Bride!!
You scroll past several pictures of happy-looking couples in their wedding day finery, including one which the caption identifies as the company founder and his wife. The men, you notice, are invariably older than the women. This comforts you.
Do you feel like “life has passed you by”? Have you been hurt before by Western women out to “have it all”-- at your expense? The ROYAL SIAM BRIDAL AGENCY offers an alternative to the “feminazi” types you see today!! Our Thai Ladies are clean professional and traditional. And they are eager for a true Western Gentleman!
YES we are a legal service! YES our visa acceptance rate for Thai Brides is 100%! YES we can help you find your Asian Beauty soulmate -- with a money-back guarantee!
* * *
There are 44 consonants and fifteen vowels in the Thai language. This is written in the introduction to the grammar book you’ve bought, and it’s enough to make you put the book down for a couple of minutes just so you can absorb this fact. But there’s more. There are tones. There are diacritics. There’s something called an alveolar trill.
In the back of the book, there’s a list of phrases, and these you focus in on when hacking through the dense thicket of linguistic jargon becomes too much. You hammer these phrases home to yourself, shoehorning them into the rhythms of your own tongue. Slowly, over time, the alien syllables are smoothed down into familiarity like worry beads under the thumb of a Cypriot. Sawatdee, pom rak kun. Hello, I love you.
* * *
One of the first things you learn in Thailand is the company lingo. At your post-arrival debriefing, you are informed more than once that there is no such thing as a “mail-order bride.” The Royal Siam Bridal Agency is an “introduction service.” They make “introductions.”
The agent who conducts the debriefing speaks in bullet points. “DO be chivalrous for your Thai Lady! DO NOT touch or be intimate until after you have made a commitment!” He tries to put you at ease; you have sweated through your silk shirt.
Boonsri the Jewel of Chiang Mai (and Would-be Electrical Engineer) has alarmingly good English, and after half an hour of talking to her you ask the agent to make a new introduction. You tell him you want someone you can teach things, someone with a certain naïveté. What you don’t say––but what, of course, you mean––is that you don’t want someone you suspect is smarter than you.
The next introduction they make is Amorn, whom the website describes as a Blooming Flower of the Mekong River Delta. You meet in the lounge of the introduction service, the agent looking on discreetly from the corner of the room. Amorn is reserved, keeping her arms tight to her body and deflecting your gaze often. She speaks through a translator the agency has provided; several times you go to speak only to have him wave you off, telling you he has not finished. Midway through, the agent butts in and remind you not to touch her. When he says this you see red for a moment, but the sight of Amorn smiling quietly calms you down again.
“Would you like to live in America?” you ask towards the end of the session. “Yes,” she says. “More than anything.” You look at her hands. They are very small. You’re in love.
* * *
In your hotel room that night, you have trouble sleeping. You picture Amorn: her thin arms, her fine hair. Yes, you had wanted to scream at the agent for interrupting your session together, but she had put you right back at ease. Hadn’t even needed to say a word. And that’s what you need. Even 45 years after coming back from Vietnam, still you are prone to sudden firecracker bursts of anger, to formless but profoundly disturbing nightmares that cast a shadow of paranoia over the days that follow. But a woman, you think, would take the edge clean off. That’s all you need, all you need and you’ll be right as rain.
* * *
Five days after you arrived in Thailand, you fly back to the United States. The day before your return is your wedding.
Alone together on the night of the ceremony, you clasp Amorn’s hands and recite a speech you had drafted beforehand on a piece of hotel stationary: “I will take care of you for the rest of your life. I will be your devoted husband. I love you.” She smiles. You say it again more forcefully: “I love you. Pom rak kun.”
* * *
In the weeks leading up to Amorn’s arrival in the United States, you busy yourself about the house: you eat the last of the frozen dinners, throw out what still remains of your second wife’s clothes. You take down the crucifix that hangs above your bed and buy a miniature Buddha statue to place on the nightstand.
Days are spent in deciding between largely similar shades of wallpaper, between the dizzying array of hand soap scents available at your local supermarket. You fix sticky locks, dead light bulbs, leaky faucets––all things that had long languished at the ends of your various to-do lists. But you’re getting to them now. You have someone, at last, to do them for.
* * *
Amorn the Blooming Flower of the Mekong River Delta becomes Amorn the Blooming Flower of Bakersfield, California. She flies out after the visa papers go through (YES our visa acceptance rate for Thai Brides is 100%!). Her arrival comes just as a Santa Ana sweeps in from the south, and she wipes her brow frequently against the high-90s heat. You had somehow never imagined her sweating and are not sure what to think of this.
You take her around your home, a low-slung ranch-style house with pink stucco siding. She seems somewhat bewildered by your front yard, which is entirely covered in rust-colored lava rocks. “No grass here. Very dry,” you say. “Dryyyy.” With your arms you make a gesture meant to convey the concept of low annual rainfall; she hesitates, then nods.
You show her the living room, with its deep pile carpet and faux pine siding. You show her the kitchen and tell her jokingly that she will spend much of her time there (she does not laugh). You show her the bedroom, and here, in a gesture you have choreographed in the months leading to this moment, you put your arm around her waist. The introduction service agent is not there to tell you no.
* * *
Your clean professional and traditional Thai Lady is not a good cook. The first dinner she makes she burns; the smoke alarm screeches, and Amorn runs through the house opening all the windows while you stand on a chair in the kitchen, trying to disable it.
Noises like that are not good for your flashbacks. When finally the smoke alarm stops its caterwauling, you stand at the kitchen counter for several minutes, bracing yourself with both arms and trying to bring down your heart rate. Amorn touches your shoulder tentatively, but you bat her away. She does not know what’s wrong, and right now you cannot deal with explaining it. She stands by you awkwardly for a minute, then goes to the table and sits down to eat what is edible.
* * *
Despite yourself, you begin to notice certain similarities between Amorn and your second wife. Her stance, one hand on her hip and the other arm hanging loose, when deep in thought; the flowery deodorant she uses: all of these links you perceive with a jolt.
Like your second wife, Amorn has asked you several times why you don’t see a doctor. This you brush off, lightly at first but with increasing force the more she brings it up. The night terrors come and go, and you don’t trust shrinks. Might as well throw your money away for all the good they’ll do you. Besides (though this you do not tell her), you do not have health insurance. The VA only gives benefits in cases of honorable discharge.
* * *
Six months after her arrival, Amorn’s English has improved greatly, a development which both pleases and unnerves you. Pleases, because she can no longer pretend not to understand what you tell her. Unnerves, because it has given her an air of independence you had not counted on. At restaurants, she can order for herself, can chat with the waiters. Often, after these outings, you are sullen. She asks you what the matter is, but you do not explain yourself. You can see her slipping away from you, see her walking out on you one day just as you’d always feared.
To combat this, you begin to make great shows of affection for your Thai Lady in public. An arm over her shoulders; a hand on her thigh, her ass. You have noticed the other men as they let their gazes linger over her body. She is mine, you want to tell them. Mine and no one else’s.
Amorn never rebuffs you, but nor does she ever lose the stiff-armed reserve of your first meeting. She does not reciprocate, does not initiate. And as for her, where does her gaze wander to, left to its own devices? It is a question you do not want to contemplate; you pull her close.
* * *
There are mornings when, immediately upon waking, you cannot recall who it is that lies beside you, or where it is you lie. These are the mornings when the reveille dins in your ear, when you feel again the cloying humidity of a Saigon summer. And a dog tag cold against the skin.
Off-duty days in the city. Whores by the truckload, cheap and cheaper. And at camp the hooch maids, pulling them to you, pulling them into the latrines. Those ugly words come back to you in an undifferentiated mass, like a fistful of mud: gookdinkslopezip. And that warzone feeling creeps back in, the rat-tat-tat of a machine gun registering in your bones, your heart seizing. And then Amorn stirs, and the sound of her sleeper’s murmurs or the brush of her foot against your calf is enough to release you, and you are back, and the specter before you vanishes like a mist against the sunlight.
But there are some things that cannot so easily be banished: the ramrod tension in your spine, a tremor in your hands. The color and scent of blood, and what it is like to see it upon your own skin and know that it is not from your body that it came.
* * *
Your Asian Beauty soulmate wants money to send to her family back in Thailand. She wants new clothes, a new haircut. She wants to take classes at night school. This last request comes as you’re eating dinner together at home, and on hearing it you throw your plate against the wall. Food and ceramic shards fly everywhere; Amorn jumps out of her chair and runs into the bedroom, locking the door behind her. She needs to learn where she stands, you say to yourself, sitting alone at the dining table. She needs to learn not to ask things of you when you’ve had a long day at work, when the night terrors have been coming back. You could have gone to school too if you’d qualified for the GI Bill, but things just hadn’t worked out that way. And were you complaining about it? Did she think she was better than you? You are tough, you think, but you are fair. You are justified.
* * *
Amorn the Blooming Flower of Bakersfield, California spends many of her evenings weeping in the bathroom where she thinks you cannot hear her. At meals, she is silent, eyes downcast. She rarely goes outside anymore; when she does, she never goes farther than the lava rock moonscape of your front yard.
This sulking has gone on long enough, you think. You are a tolerant man––a brief period of settling in you could accept. But this, this is too much. The timidity you had when you first worked up the courage to look at the websites has curdled into something else entirely. What right does she have to withhold herself from you? What right does she have to be anything but grateful? Don’t you deserve love just like anybody else? Someone to hold in the night? Something to take the edge off your pain? A dark pall has settled over your vision again. She will learn to love you, you tell yourself, and if she doesn’t, then you will just have to teach her.