Sometimes, when P and I walk holding hands in Bangkok, I will notice someone’s confused gaze. “Just ignore it.” I can’t. “You know it’s not like in America, in the South. Here they’re staring because they don’t understand. It’s not hate.” (Figure I) I glare at the observer, but they don’t look away.
• Members of P’s family have expressed their bewilderment.
• Aunts and cousins have asked:
• Why didn’t she marry someone like her, Thai-Chinese?
• Why, after spending over ten years in America, hadn’t she chosen a white man instead?
• With P already possessing coveted light eyes and hair, P’s relatives believe her half-Caucasian children would have been beautiful. P’s hypothetical offspring could have grown up to become Thai soap opera stars.
• When I asked P how she felt about these comments, she offered me the same dismissive shrug I imagine she gives her inquisitive kin. On one occasion, P’s indifferent gesticulation was mistaken for doubt, and a concerned cousin told P not to worry. The cousin said she understood—one can’t help whom they fall in love with. She praised P’s bravery. And, if P decided to have children, her cousin could procure supplements and traditional remedies to ensure the baby would not look black like its father.
• P can repeat her cousin’s words with a smile. “She means well. Try not to take it too personally.”
• I wonder how many other well-meaning people view my appearance as something in need of a remedy.
The observer’s eyes read over P and me, scanning for evidence to an omitted piece of data—the reason we came together. P has very fair skin and I am black, and this makes our union harder for the observer to understand.
If P had a tan complexion, the observer might find it easier to contextualize our association. They could assume we met in a go-go bar or a massage parlor. The observer would feel confident deducing P’s origins from one of the impoverished provinces like Isan, where people are less inclined to carry umbrellas on cloudless days to avoid getting darker. With more melanin, P could fit into the popular Thai caricature of a poor brown woman eager to please a foreign man who can offer an alternative to a life of scarcity.
“Why do you care so much what people think? It doesn’t matter.”
But it does matter to me. (Figures II, III, and IV) The observer has defined most of my romantic relationships.
• My sophomore year as an undergrad in South Carolina, I started dating J. For nine months she spent most nights in my dorm room. She’d sneak over late and wake early to creep back to her own apartment.
• For my birthday she bought me a five-inch retractable pocketknife, because she knew I often felt unsafe at the redneck roadhouses where she liked to sing karaoke renditions of her favorite Reba McEntire songs. We always made sure not to touch at these bars. We didn’t want to incite the observer. In fact, J and I never showed any affection in public. We stayed mindful at all times of the proximity between us, so no one would have reason to suspect we dated.
• J begged me to swear to secrecy. J feared her father might kill or disown her if he ever discovered her with a black boy.
• Eventually, I started to resent her.
• I began to provoke and test her.
• I cheated on her with her friends.
• J would scream about my behavior, but she never stopped tiptoeing to my bed each night.
• At the end of the school year, my father came to visit me on campus. He brought my stepmother and my two half-sisters. I introduced them all to J. My father liked her. He appeared pleasantly surprised by J’s appearance. He smiled broadly, chuckling at the idea of his African-American son catching a white girl.
• I never had a chance to meet anyone in J’s family. We never had a talk about ending our relationship. I suppose we both knew I’d be unable to see or contact her over the summer while she stayed with her parents. We reconnected a few times the following fall, calling or texting each other whenever one of us felt lonely. We’d meet after dark in secluded locations. I’d drive to abandoned properties, quiet construction sites, empty playgrounds, and farm roads.
• When I met P years later and we had a conversation about past partners, I didn’t know if I should mention J. Like the conundrum of a tree falling in an uninhabited forest, if no one witnessed my time with J, did it ever really exist?
• After J, I became enamored of K.
• We met in an Etymology class.
• K introduced me to several of her coworkers and family.
• We never dated officially.
• She had a white boyfriend, but she said she was conflicted.
• I wanted to be with K, but my feelings changed when I heard the ringtone she assigned to my number in her cellphone. Every time I called, her mobile erupted with the nasally refrain from The All-American Rejects’ “Dirty Little Secret.”
• I started a long-distance relationship with M my senior year of college. We met for the first time when I went home to Maryland for Christmas.
• M didn’t express any internal conflicts about my race. She said she only dated black and brown men because she believed they all possessed larger penises and a better appreciation for her derrière. I told her these were stereotypes. “The good kind,” she replied.
• M felt the need to tell me whenever I did or said anything she considered white, because it made me less attractive to her.
• I loathed most things M enjoyed and we had little in common.
• A few weeks before we stopped speaking, M visited me in South Carolina. Unaccustomed to eliciting so many stares and furrowed brows, the attention excited her.
• During her short stay, I took M to a popular shopping complex. While strolling aimlessly past the retail spaces, M pinched my sides to alert me whenever she perceived a disapproving glance. After the fifth sharp squeeze on my midsection, I asked M to consider the possibility the glares we received were in response to her penchant for public displays of affection, not my skin color. M shook her head. She explained to me how people still weren’t fully ready to accept a relationship like ours—not everyone was as progressive as she was. M was certain no one would have scowled at us groping each other in front of a maternity clothes window display if we both were white. I didn’t bother to argue with her. Her eyes narrowed mischievously. M leaned in to whisper in my ear. She said we should give the observer a better reason to scowl. We had sex in a handicapped stall in the women’s restroom adjacent to the food court.
• Contrary to her frequent and adamant condemnation of the observer, M never kissed me so hard as when she noticed someone watching.
• I didn’t care why M wanted me. I enjoyed feeling desired.
The observer changes the nature of the subject; it is widely known one cannot measure the behavior of a system without affecting the system. The observer’s curiosity prompts me to question my relationship with P. And this doesn’t change with the observer’s nationality or disposition. American or Thai, openly prejudiced or meaning well, the query behind their hypothesis remains the same: why would P choose a dark-skinned partner?
Every time I become aware of the observer, it compels me to search the relationship between P and me for missing variables to justify motivations. (Figure V) I sort through my own accounts for an explanation.
• The night of our wedding, P confessed to me how, at eleven or twelve years old, her mother took her to a fortuneteller. The soothsayer told P she would die in a plane crash, but not before marrying a large dark-skinned man who spoke a different language.
• In middle school, the quirks I’d have as an adult became more apparent. My mother would joke about how I was destined to wed someone from another race. She’d say a black girl wouldn’t have the patience to deal with me.
How does what we are told influence whom we find attractive? “You think too much.” Maybe. “Don’t do what you usually do and start asking me questions about why I like you.” Like? Not love? “I don’t know what I need to say to prove it to you.” There’s no need to say anything. I have evidence. Living in Bangkok, I now have an even better appreciation of the concessions P was willing to make to stay with me. (Figure VI) “Then if you know how I really feel, shouldn’t that be enough?”
• Years earlier, in South Carolina, P’s phone chimes between batches of thunder. I rise from the bed and slink through the dark. Lighting breaks through the slits of the venetian blinds and for a few seconds I can see P stirring under a pile of comforters. I move across the room towards her cellphone perched on the corner of the dresser. When the light fades the neon fluorescent glow of the dial pad burns through the black. I grab the phone and retreat back to bed.
• P rises onto her elbows with a groan. I tap a key to accept and hand her the phone. She coughs to clear her throat. She answers in Thai. Her salutation sounds apprehensive.
• She worries one day she will receive a call that will ask her to find money we don’t have and travel to the other end of the Earth for a family emergency.
• I worry about this too.
• I lie down next to P and press my hand firmly against her back. I ready myself to pull her into a hug if the call relays tragedy. I wait, listening for inflections of sadness, and tapping my foot impatiently against nothing.
• After a few minutes, she pulls the phone from her ear and her face vanishes into the darkness. She sighs and tells me her family is okay and her father is planning to retire.
• I exhale, unaware that I had been holding my breath.
• She nestles into my arms, and I ask why she chose me when it means living so far away from her home and everyone she loves. She grunts, “Whatever, Donald.”
• And although P can’t offer me a definitive answer, in her tone and in her actions I sense that even when The Call comes P won’t regret having decided on me.
• Despite the storm roaring outside, I return soundly to sleep.
“Figures” is an excerpt from Donald Quist’s forthcoming collection of essays, Harbors (Awst Press), and is available for pre-order HERE.