Ghosts in the City of Angels
Excerpted from Tone Deaf in Bangkok: And Other Places, available from ThingsAsian Press.
Eddy's sister, Usa, is as sophisticated as she is miniscule. Well under ninety pounds, and less than sixty inches tall, even when wearing the three-inch, designer-knock-off heels that are her trademark, she is well-traveled, dresses like the world's shortest supermodel, and is capable of being dazzlingly caustic in two languages. She can cut through bureaucratic snarls at any Thai ministry you might care to name with the same charm that clears a path for her at a crowded Bangkok nightclub. Usa is smart and gorgeous, measuring at least 8.6 on the Richter scale, and she doesn't just think that there are ghosts in the world-she knows there are.
She's not alone. Ghosts are such an integral part of Bangkok that I'm sure they're included in the city's population count, and may well be the reason for that number's fluctuation. Eight million? Ten million? Who can be sure, when new ghosts enter the city with every house fire and traffic accident?
A generous portion of my bloodline is Irish, so of course I believe in ghosts, but they never became a fixture in my life until I moved to Bangkok. My introduction to the world of the spirits was benign, when I noticed a department store mannequin, a figure of a small boy, dressed in a shirt and short pants and standing at the edge of a lake. I was new in town and full of questions, and the answer to this little mystery was unsatisfying---"The motorcycle taxi drivers found a doll and they dressed it up."
My experience with motorcycle taxi drivers was limited at that point, but I'd watched them smoking, swigging Red Bull, and playing checkers with Coke bottle caps, and they didn't seem like the kind of guys who would dress up dolls for fun. It wasn't until Halloween that I was given the answer in an issue of Bangkok Metro magazine. A woman and her son had died when their car plunged into the lake, and the little boy was seen at night standing beside the scene of the fatality, beckoning drivers toward the water, to keep him company. The mannequin was placed there to soothe the dead child's spirit, and to hold the gifts that were left for him.
I never made an offering to the ghost of the lonely boy, but I would silently greet him as I drove by. The idea of his spirit yearning for friends was a poignant one, and the day that I passed his statue and saw that it had been surrounded by soccer balls, I felt like crying. He had become real to me, and lived in my imagination, so I suppose, on a very low level, I had become haunted.
My adult students, each of them with at least one university degree, had their own personal ghost stories. Some were more than willing to tell them; others looked troubled and said, "I don't want to talk about it." This was clearly not the stuff that campfire entertainment was made of, as I learned when we moved into a site for our school, a vacant house that had a resident.
I never saw anything, but Usa and her friends didn't want to be there after dark, when water was heard running in the empty bathroom, and one of them saw a woman's legs passing by upstairs. Jessia, our housekeeper who feared nothing that drew breath, was quite vocal in her insistence that the ghost wanted us to leave. Our employer dismissed these stories, and one of the other teachers, who had lived in Bangkok for a while, issued a demand that none of this be talked about outside of our ranks. "It's all nonsense, of course," he said, "but if people think we're haunted, it will kill the business."
Then one day he brought his daughter, a bright little four-year-old girl, to work with him, because she wasn't feeling well. Sometime after lunch, Jem looked up at the empty staircase, and asked, "Daddy, who's that lady?"
"What lady, Jem? There's nobody there."
"Yes there is, that lady on the stairs. You know, the one who's smiling at me."
Jem was taken home, never to return, and the ban of silence was stricter than ever. Usa came to work one morning to find a pack of snapshots in the office that hadn't been there the night before, and we pored over them. They were from the sixties and the predominant figure in all of them was a woman, well-dressed in Jackie Kennedy fashion, with bouffant hair and an insouciant look about her. We couldn't ask about her in the neighborhood because we were forbidden to discuss any of this, and the photographs soon disappeared. Not long after that, everything went rapidly awry. The owner of the house broke the lease, claiming she needed it to turn into a restaurant, a business that never came to pass, and we found another spot for the school that had no supernatural undertones.
This is when I decided I wanted to move closer to work, and Eddy said he would help me find a place to live. We went to a building that had really nice apartments that were brand-new and, what with first and last month's rents plus a deposit, were almost out of my price range. I was juggling funds in my head, trying to decide how I could afford one of those delightful little one-bedrooms, when out of the blue, the owner of the building called Eddy and told him there was one apartment that was substantially less expensive than the others.
We went to look at it. Except for a few scuffs and scrapes, it was identical to the perfect ones that we'd seen earlier, and I closed the deal. There were a couple of days before I could move in that were paid for, so Eddy, a vacationing German friend of his, and Usa stayed there until I took possession.
We had a small housewarming gathering on my first night of occupancy, and Usa came to me looking worried.
"I think you shouldn't live here alone," she told me. "Maybe Lin and I should move in with you. There is a ghost here." Her reasoning was less than convincing, having to do with repeated knocks on the door late at night, with nobody visible when the door was opened.
"Someone was playing a joke on the new farang," I told her. "Don't be silly. This building hasn't been here long enough to have a ghost."
One morning I was in my bedroom getting dressed when I heard footsteps in my apartment and the closing of the bathroom door. This was a fairly normal occurrence because Eddy was a nocturnal animal who frequently danced until dawn in those accommodating clubs that refused to acknowledge the 2 a.m. closing time. My apartment was a convenient way station for a shower and a change of clothes before he went to work, so I'd given him a key, and often woke up to find him sleeping on my sofa.
I'll make some coffee; he probably needs it, I decided, and opened my bedroom door to find an empty bathroom with its door wide open, and a living room where I was the only person in it. Peculiar, I thought, chalked the whole thing up to some auditory version of a trick of the light, and forgot about it.
Then came the nights when I was awakened by the feeling that something was staring at me. This was a sensation that I was more than familiar with. Both of my children used to stand silently at my bed and look at me when they were small, because they knew it would wake me out of the soundest of sleeps, and my maternal instinct became so finely tuned to that feeling that I can be (and often have been) awakened by the gaze of a cat.
Perhaps this is why, when I would awake to see a form standing near me in the dark which made no demands for food or comfort or arbitration in some sibling skirmish, it was easy for me to roll over and go back to sleep. In the morning it seemed like some variant of a weird dream, and I always convinced myself that it was.
There was a shape that I almost saw clearly one Christmas night, when I woke to a sound so definite that I went into the living room, turned on the light, and saw an impressionistic outline of a body dissolve into my apartment door. This came at the end of a day when I'd been desperately homesick, had struggled not to cry when talking to members of my family in expensive trans-global phone conversations, and had met the girlfriend of the man with whom I was still in love. There were far too many things for me to feel as I struggled to sleep, and any supernatural visitor was simply an unwelcome intrusion. If I had any emotion to spare that night for what I was almost certain that I saw, it would have been expressed in an annoyed sputter of "How rude."
Several months later, Eddy, Usa, and their mother came over one evening. We were all happily relaxed and drinking beer when suddenly Eddy's mother stopped laughing, put down her beer, told Eddy that she had to leave, and said that we should all come with her because there was a ghost in my apartment. Eddy and I continued to drink our Heinekens, Usa obediently stood up to leave, and their mother took my hand in hers and peered earnestly into my face.
"Are you happy here, Janet?" she asked me, and when I assured her I was, she squeezed my hand, wished me good luck, and left.
"My mother is usually right about this kind of thing," Eddy told me, "Has anything bothered you? Have you been afraid?"
I told him about the vague hints of a presence that had made itself felt at random moments, and was surprised to see my usually skeptical friend look concerned.
"If it is a ghost, it's friendly," I assured him. "It's never frightened me or made me feel uneasy. There must be friendly ghosts, right? Look at Casper."
"Casper is not a real ghost," Eddy replied. "Don't forget they gave you a discount for this place. Be careful."
Then came the night that Wit came to visit with some Thai weed. I'd learned early on that smoking dope was, for me, not a good idea. The people I knew would empty the tobacco from Marlborough cigarettes and replace it with what they brought back from their slum runs. It was easy for me to smoke too much, when I held the familiar form of a cigarette and the illusory safety of a filter, and I never realized it until my mouth dried and I felt the drug hit my body with the force of an electric current.
But that night I was with somebody I loved and trusted, and everything was fine until I got up to get water for my suddenly parched mouth. My legs felt strangely light, almost floating, and something, somewhere, was calling me out onto the balcony. I had to grab the railing when I stepped out there, since my body lost all knowledge of gravity, and I knew I could float right over the edge.
Something, somewhere, was doing its best to tell me that I was okay, that all I had to do was to let go and fly. I tried hard not to listen, while wondering if I could let go of the railing long enough to go back into the security of four walls, and was grateful to feel Wit's hand on my shoulder.
He led me back inside and held me so I wouldn't float away. "Don't leave me," I said, "There's something here. There's something wrong." He stayed with me as the body weight drained back into my legs and whatever it was that had been calling me had gone away.
Was it a bad case of reefer madness, or a suicidal spirit yearning for company? The one person I told, Usa, was sure that it was someone who died there who wanted me to die too. I have no idea. I only know that in the six following months, until I moved into a house that looked haunted but wasn't, nothing stared me awake, I heard no noises, my balcony was a safe place once more, and I never again asked my classes to tell me their ghost stories.
To read more excerpts from Tone Deaf in Bangkok, click here.
To read more of Janet's reflections on Thailand, click here.
Published on 2/7/09