Author: Rachel Vaughn
Neighborhood: Paradise Hills
Occupation: Website Content Editor/Freelance writer
I salvaged a Lonely Planet Thai language phrase book years ago, a souvenir of my father’s long-ago Navy travels in Southeast Asia. Practical and illuminating, it highlights the primary concerns of visitors to that sultry locale — so it’s no surprise that a great deal of textual space is dedicated to food, hospitals, and sex.
Dì-chan ben pà-yâht translates to “I have intestinal worms.”
His name is Khem. He is a retired store owner from Nakhon Pathom. I am new to the building and look like a Japanese princess. He tells me this by way of introduction. I should call him Khem because his full name, he insists, is too difficult for anyone to pronounce, and he is tired of hearing it loused up. I consider this while he presents me with a plate of chicken and beef satay, perching it atop my bag of groceries. I am not Japanese. And I suppose it hardly needs to be clarified that I am also definitely not a member of any country’s ruling or defunct monarchy. At best I might be descended from a line of minor tropical jungle chieftains or damp, consumptive potato farmers.
I don’t mention any of this to him. It would seem rude, contrary. I was new to the apartment complex, and the man had just given me a plate of skewered meat. Instead I thanked him and promised to return his plate the next day. The satay was followed over time with a noodle dish, coupons for Fresh & Easy, a small pot of pink azaleas, sticky rice, a single energy-efficient lightbulb, the admonishment to get married and have children as soon as possible, then more satay. I haven’t known Khem long, but in the months since meeting him I have learned two things about my new neighbor: he is a fine cook, and he may be a porn fiend.
Row mâi ben kon fâ-rang-sèt. We’re not French. Kà-nom bang tam dôo-ay bâang kôw sãh-lee têe mâi dâi ow ram òrk. Whole-wheat bread. I can imagine this isn’t asked for that often.
His wife, a Filipina, died years ago. They met in Bangkok, where she worked as a maid in some rich widow’s house. They ran the store here together, and even after widowhood set in he stuck around the neighborhood, probably plying each new tenant with his charcoal-fired version of a welcome basket.
Late some nights — after even the gangsta rap from downstairs has subsided and you can finally hear crickets on the slope outside — the sounds from next door are so faint that it’s hard to figure out at first. Then you realize: synth. Flopping. The ohyeahohyeahohyeah of old-fashioned, low-budget cinematic boning. I have trouble looking him in the eye after these nights. Not because of the porn, or mostly not because of the porn, but the sheer loneliness. The quiet of his apartment each morning.
“Why don’t you travel some?” I ask. “You could get out of here for a while, maybe visit Thailand. Don’t you miss it?”
“Ah, no.” He waves his hand. “Too old, too old. I’m already here so long. This is my home now.”
It’s hard not to feel bad about that. The name “Paradise Hills” in addition to being half a misnomer (there is nothing paradisal about it — though hilly, certainly, but not exceptionally so), is also better for what lies in proximity rather than what it offers within its own borders. That being: everything else considered by the people who live here as Paradise Hills, sometimes down to and including National City, the South and North Bay Terraces and, on occasion, Bonita. Its citizens are an expansive and imperialistic people, largely working- to lower-middle class, natives in the sense that any long-rooted military community is native, “a diverse population,” according to Wikipedia, “consisting primarily of people of Filipino and Latino descent.”
This makes Khem something of an anomaly in the area. As a lover of most things anomalous, I’ve begun to treasure him recently. His too-large trousers (you can’t call them anything else) cinched up nearly to his chest. The neon-green fly swatter whapping when he’s out smoking on his porch. Once I tried to give him some pizza from Mike’s Giant on Reo Drive. I don’t cook. He was kind enough to never mention it again.
Dì-chãn chôrp nãng bóh gàp don-dree bèe pâht. I like erotic movies with bamboo xylophone music. Khem might, too, but I’ve never enquired.
“What’s that book? You are always reading. You should be dating instead — find a nice boy who will read to you.”
That book was Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food. I bought it at Costco while sample grazing and working out the math of a family pack of pot stickers for a single girl with few hobbies. I wondered if this was where the author pictured his work ending up. And before such an indifferent audience! Eat fewer processed foods, sure. More greens, no slick packaging. Meanwhile, we can buy cocktail shrimp by the truckload and chocolate by the crate.
“It’s about food,” I reply. “Our relationship to it, and how trends have affected the way we view the things we eat. It’s kind of interesting.”
And it was, insofar as finding that the founder of the Kellogg’s breakfast-cereal behemoth did so because of a rectally fixated paranoia is interesting and enlightening. That is to say, a searing masterwork. From what I remember, Kellogg believed that excessive consumption of meat created toxic chemical deposits in the small intestine that were responsible for compulsive masturbation. To combat this protein-borne perversion, he jockeyed for more carbs on the breakfast table and frequent yogurt enemas. His cereal empire survives in our supermarket aisles, but it’s Kellogg’s intuitive powers that most impress me. Empirical science of the modern age has since told us what he already knew: steak is really just a gateway meat to more depraved sexual acts.
I hate to think what Khem might be doing in the confines of his two bedrooms if he were to eat more of his own incredible barbecue. If rather than cooking fish half the week he began to substitute carne asada or pork chops. And what about me? I only just figured out my ovulation cycle by my level of desire to get all up ons with Liam Neeson, which intensifies toward the middle of the month and subsides into a more manageable budding appreciation for Delta blues music the rest of the time. I would assume that low self-esteem or a cough syrup addiction would be to blame, but maybe it will be a medium-done chateaubriand that eventually causes me to hulk out into a raging slut one day. I have meat at almost every meal, and if Kellogg was right, I’m not sure there’s enough Valtrex in the world for me to enjoy satay for breakfast anymore.
Khem pooh-poohs this and straightens out of his plastic lawn chair.
“Why do you have to care about that? What food is good to eat. If you like it, it’s good. That’s how to enjoy life.”