A Midsummer Tale ~ Third Place
Jane Shade floated on a turtle-shaped raft in her mother’s pool. The California sun attacked her pearl skin. She slipped her foot under the raft and flipped it over, sank to the bottom, sat cross-legged, and screamed.
Forty-eight hours earlier:
Jane woke up to the sounds of roosters hollering their dominance. She heard their wings flapping and feet shuffling right outside her window. The rooster’s crow was interrupted by the morning puja of her Hindu neighbors that rolled their tongues in a high-pitched “yay, yay, yay” chanting. Then, the morning call to prayer from the nearby mosque, the Imam took awhile to clear his throat on the microphone before serenading with an elongated “Allah Akbar”. The once-jarring sounds when she had first moved to Bangladesh had morphed over a year-and-a-half into the alarm clock of an adventurer.
Jane’s back wasn’t sore anymore from the wooden slab of a bed with a thin padding. She wasn’t surprised when the fan didn’t turn on, she knew electricity was a thing to savor, not expect. She waved at the two kids staring through the window at her, the strange-looking blonde and blue-eyed foreigner. The children screamed after they realized they had been caught and pushed hard at each other trying to be the first to run away. She put on her shalwar kameez, a dress, scarf, and cotton baggy pants outfit, which felt as normal as a T-shirt and jeans once had.
She walked to her middle school to teach English. Each class was filled with fifty students and it was a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants atmosphere, the books were incorrect and by the time she quieted down the back of the classroom, the front was up in arms. It was like a seesaw she balanced for an hour, and then moved on to the next class. The students would leave notes on her desk thanking her, and hugged her often. At night she taught a college class she had developed on women’s topics, a way for women to discuss current events. She often left the class feeling guilty that she was taking more from the experience than her students.
After eating a Bengali meal with her neighbors that lavished her with kindness, she would fall asleep reading a book by candlelight. Every night she would wake up with a sudden jolt to blow out the candle.
This was life. This was normal. This was now over.
Her cell phone rang as she ate her Cornflakes.
“Hello?” she questioned, since Craig had never called her before.
“Jane, you need to grab a paper and pen.”
“What do you mean? Why?” She was shaken by the forcefulness of his voice.
“Just do it.”
She moved obediently.
“Got it. What’s going on?”
“Write this down. Due to safety and security measures…” Then he paused waiting for her squiggles of writing to stop.
“Yeah, go ahead.”
“…Peace Corps is evacuating the country.”
She wrote it down and it wasn’t real until she saw the words reflected back at her. “Wait. What? We are leaving? When? We have eight months of service left. Was someone hurt? Is everyone all right?”
“Jane, I don’t know anything and I don’t have time to help you process. We have eight hours to pack and go to the capital. You are my second phone call; I have to get ready to leave, and then you have two more phone calls to make.”
She made her two phone calls and was equally as cold and rushed, the reality kept setting in as it hit the others. She thought to herself, I have to pack, I have to say goodbye, what the hell am I going to do in the U.S. I don’t have any money. The eight-month cushion had given her enough time to push away the decisions she had been avoiding since she joined the Peace Corps. She had to actually figure out what to do with her life.
She went through her apartment and rapidly started making piles and filling the one bag she was allowed to bring. She stopped as her eyes rested on a postcard from her brother she had on the table—he was backpacking before starting college in the fall.
He wrote, “Hey Sis, Europe is awesome. Loving being away from Mom. She is not doing well with both of us being gone. Total empty nest syndrome. I had to get out of that house. Anyway, I am on a train to Germany now, Munich first, then off to Berlin. I promise not to get too drunk. Stay safe! Bill.”
“I’m going to the States.” She whispered as images of home flashed before her eyes. There was some excitement bubbling up about the luxuries of the U.S., the food, the comfort, the normalcy. She had pushed away thoughts of America for so long to stay strong. Endorphins began to spread and pulsed through her body, which powered her through the next eight hours of packing, sorting, phone calls, and crying farewells. She went on autopilot and everything started to blur together in a spinning motion.
In the capital. On a plane. Debrief presentations. Apologies for the lack of information they could give about the evacuation. A readjustment allowance check would be sent “soon” with the $250.00 per month earned for every month served. Hugs and tears with the other volunteers. Medical tests. Signatures on stacks of papers.
Nine-month application process. Eighteen months of service. Forty-eight hours and life had flopped on its head. Now she was staring at her childhood home in Southern California, noticing that the air tasted light with just a pinch of pollution. She was an alien life form dealing with a new atmosphere.
In that moment, she kept blinking her eyes wondering why the house she had always taken for granted seemed to have grown and swelled to its current size, covered in opulence. She felt like the house would swallow her up and wipe clean her experiences for the last couple of years.
“Aren’t you coming in? I have lunch all ready.” Cynthia, her mother said as she gathered Jane’s things and carried them into the house, her feminine muscles extending on her tall frame.
Jane didn’t rush to lift a finger.
She remembered a conversation with her mother, where she said “Mommy, I am a big girl, I can wipe my own bummy now.”
She took the toilet paper from her mom and pushed her out of the bathroom with all the force her six-year-old hands could muster.
Being a single parent for most of her life, Cynthia was used to doing everything. She was financially taken care of by her husband’s inheritance after he died. Without the need to work, her focus had always been her children.
Jane wanted to be in open spaces, she wished she could stay in a tent in the front yard.
Cynthia opened the door again. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah.. Here I come.” She shook her hands trying to force out the anxiety, it didn’t work, and the cog in her neck twisted to the right and pulled in her shoulder tendons even more.
When she entered the house, her senses were in hyperdrive; her eyes darted around focusing in on the details. The doors fit perfectly into their frames. She was taken aback by the level of cleanliness in a house that had insulation and screens on the windows. In Bangladesh, you basically had to carry a broom everywhere you went. Without dirt, it felt so sterile, like a hospital.
The wooden floors were hypnotic; they caught the light in different places as she moved, and seemed to cater their form to her feet. Jane was used to cement that was cool and firm. She wondered if they had a butler, maids, and white chocolate fondue fountains that she had forgotten about.
“Did you remodel at all, while I was gone?”
“What are you talking about?” her mother said, and felt Jane’s forehead instinctively.
Jane moved around carefully inspecting the furniture and the walls like she was in a museum. She kept touching things. She was not sure where to sit.
Jane’s eyes widened the second she saw the dining table. It was covered in food: cheeseburgers, macaroni and cheese, meatloaf, salad, broccoli covered in cheese, cheesecake, every favorite food she had ever had while growing up.
“This cannot be normal American portion sizes!” she yelled. She didn’t trust her memory anymore.
“What? I didn’t know what to make you, so I made everything I know you like.”
Her nose not processing the feast in the room disturbed Jane; open sewers in the streets, burning trash, and sweaty pre-teens that hadn’t had the deodorant talk yet had dulled her sense of smell.
Jane wasn’t hungry but she felt the pressure to eat. Feeling her mother’s deep need for approval, she said, “This looks amazing, very thoughtful of you, thank you.”
Three days passed in a haze of eating, sleeping, and watching really bad television. When she woke up on the fourth day, boredom set in. She gave herself a once over and imagined her body bulging at her thighs, hips, belly, and upper arms. She could hear the forklift beeping as it lifted her up off the couch. “I have got to get out of this place.”
She decided it was time to call her best friend, Nia Lascaux. Nia was the kind of friend that made sure boys always asked Jane to dance at parties, used her social capital to squash rumors before they spread in high school, and drove seven hours across California to help her decorate her dorm room. She was also the only one to follow through with their promises of sending care packages to her with all sorts of American treasures.
Jane had wanted to call her sooner, but she didn’t want to hear, “What are you going to do now?”
Jane rested on her bed and let her eyes scan her walls. She had ribbons and awards from all her accomplishments laughing at her. Now she was a couch potato, no idea of the next step. Her work was her identity; now she was a lump in her mother’s house at twenty-three years old, already a failure.
Nia answered on the second ring.
“Hi. So happy to hear from you! How are you adjusting? What are your plans? Are you staying in California?” Nia’s high-spirited tone grated on Jane’s nerves.
“I don’t know. I feel like the rug has been pulled out on my life. It was so hard carving a routine there, I had just figured it out,” she said, as she hunched over.
On the following Saturday morning, Nia came over, her silky black hair running down her cute top and her green eyes glowing as she entered the living room and saw Jane in her sweatpants engulfed by the couch.
“Ok. It is time to get out of here, let’s get dressed.”
Nia pushed her out the door and they went to their favorite Japanese restaurant. As they drove, Jane stared out the window and had this sensation of a ghost town. It looked like humans had dominated every square inch of land with concrete and asphalt, only occasionally allowing a plastic-looking palm tree to grow and highlight the parking of the sea of mini-malls. Bangladesh is one of the most populated countries in the world. It was like a cushion of people at all times, rotating conversations, people huddled in circles, everyone waving and using their hands to communicate. Here in Fullerton, California it felt so desolate and lonely. A town sprouted in the shadow of nearby Disneyland. People walked by each other on the streets and were ignored. There was no sense of community. They looked afraid of each other, taking special attention to not cross paths or make eye contact. It was hard to believe they were so close to the happiest place on Earth.
“I can’t believe I missed your wedding. Where did you guys go for your honeymoon? I remember you saying something about Hawaii.” It hurt Jane to miss the wedding; she couldn’t believe Nia was getting married so young, but kept that opinion to herself.
“I wanted to go, but Dean hates traveling, we went to Santa Barbara for the weekend.”
“How is married life treating you?”
“It is great. Dean and I are so happy. Everything is getting comfortable now, that first year was rough as we learned to live together and compromise about everything. What about you? What happened to that guy you were seeing?”
Jane hated that this was where the conversation had gone so quickly.
“It didn’t work out. We weren’t serious or anything. It was too exhausting having to be so careful about being alone with a man in my apartment. I didn’t want it to be a scandal.”
“We need to get you dating.”
A pin-like pain erupted in Jane’s side. Like she was saying they needed to get her a new arm, a body part was missing from her because she didn’t have a boyfriend. She hesitated for fear of conflict with Nia, and then pushed herself. “Why do you think I need a boyfriend?”
“Not a boyfriend, dating, it will get you back in the game. It is a muscle, you need to work out your dating skills.”
“I need to find a job. It has been two weeks, I am just wasting my time.”
“Are you thinking about teaching here?”
“I can’t. I don’t have any official certifications. I don’t even know that what I did there counts for anything here.”
“You need to get settled, want me to help you set up a profile online? We can do it now on my phone.”
No, Jane thought. That is the last thing she wanted to deal with. She looked at her friend and said, “Sure. What picture should I use?”
Nia set up five dates for her over the next couple of weeks. It gave her something to do. She pushed for coffee dates, much easier to get away from in case it didn’t work out and cheap.
Her first date was at the café in downtown. She texted that she was there and saw a hand go up. He was a fair-looking, slightly pudgy man with glasses and gelled up hair. He was wearing a crisp superman blue-and-red shirt with jeans. Nothing, not a spark, Jane thought. She was relieved so she could be more comfortable talking with him without worrying about impressing him.
“Hi. I’m Topher. Nice to meet you.”
Jane noticed Topher had a comfort in himself, strong eye contact, firm handshake, and he sat up straight.
Topher had always lived in Southern California and was working the same job he had had since high school as a grocery shop cashier.
“The pay is so good with the unions. I don’t want to leave.”
“Do you like it?” Jane heard the judgment in her voice and winced.
He looked perplexed by the question as if that was something that had nothing to do with making a living. “I guess. It pays the bills.” He laughed and shrugged; there was lightness to his manner.
“Do you think you will be a lifer there?”
“I don’t know. Should I really have that figured out right now? I am only twenty-three. I got my degree in Communications, so it is open for me to do something else. I’m young, life is short, and the present is good.”
Topher started to let his gaze drift around the café, and sat further back in his chair. Jane noticed and didn’t care. Everyone had grilled her. Let someone else share in her turmoil over the future. His lack of worry was pissing her off. Why was he exempt from the pressures of the world?
There was a silence hanging loudly between them. Jane had to break it. “It kills me that I don’t know what my path is.”
“What are you doing now?” Topher asked, half-interested.
“I just came back from teaching English as a volunteer in Bangladesh.”
Topher looked like he had been shot with a stun gun, as if she had said she had studied to be an astronaut in Texas or single-handedly created a vaccine for some unknown disease.
Eventually he cleared his throat and said, “What was that like?” He seemed impressed and annoyed at the same time.
She stared at him blankly with images of starving children, people yellowed with jaundice, rice paddy fields, and bamboo huts flashing in her mind. This was the first time she had spoken with someone who hadn’t read her email tirades for the last two years. She wished she had a book written on her experience, so she could slam it on the table: “It’s better if you just read the book.”
“It was amazing. It was hard. It is a traditional Muslim country and that brought a lot of challenges. The pace of life was so much slower. I have never been so aware of what it means to be a woman.” She looked up to his completely glazed-over eyes. This was one of the few things Peace Corps had warned them about coming home, the inability for others to stay interested in listening about their travels. The people back home tended to squirm in their chairs like kindergartners. She fought the urge to slap their wrists with rulers and yell, “Pay attention!”
After several awkward pauses one longer than the next, Topher looked at his watch and said, “Well, hey, I have a friend I need to meet up with, it was nice meeting you.” He gave her a couple pats on the back as he left.
Jane sat at the café for two more hours, staring out the window ruminating in her thoughts. She hadn’t gotten good blank, gadget-free thinking time since being home. It felt marvelous.
Two weeks later, Jane was sitting and fighting with her interview clothes that she bought in a thrift store. She felt the impulse to stretch her sleeves, like her suit was condensing a size with every breath she took. Although the Muslim costume seemed inhibiting, you had to hand it over to them for figuring out comfort. She missed the light fabric. She felt like an imposter in a suit.
She chose to apply to this job because it was closest to the beach. The beach was an hour’s drive from her mother’s house and the one thing Jane loved about Southern California. Huntington Beach had waves perfect for body surfing, an ocean floor that didn’t have rocks or muddy spots, and a coast large enough that you could find a solitary spot easily. She did a geographical search and applied to every entry-level job she could find. Let the universe choose her path by whoever called her back.
She waited to speak with the Investment Sales Representative about the secretary position.
Jane was lost in a daydream of herself filing papers in a zen-like fashion when her interviewer entered and filled the room with his personality. This was the man that talked you into investing everything you had. Tristan Mackenzie, Esquire had slicked black hair, an expensive fitted suit and shiny cufflinks.
Jane was thinking of her last interview for a volunteer position in San Francisco.
She was so shaken and awkward the interviewer interrupted her mid-sentence, put her hand on her shoulder and said, “You are doing great, honey.”
She felt the difference her time in Asia had imprinted on her. She could handle the interview for a mindless job near the beach. That power had been earned.
Tristan asked questions with general introductions and she robotically answered, verifying and expanding on her experience. While she looked around his office of various monetary trinkets, expensive furniture, pictures on his desk of yachts and cars, Jane thought to herself, I could have his job. But did she want it? She sat up straighter and felt the power surge from her spine.
“Tell me how you handled a difficult situation.”
“While living with my host family I visited a leprosy hospital in the village and had dinner with some foreigners. I came home after dark and my whole host family was livid, my host sisters red-faced from tears. They screamed at me that the Taliban was in that village. It took me two weeks to mend the relations with them. A couple weeks later I moved out because of the pressure they gave me on knowing where I was at all times, but I still kept a good relationship with them because those connections are what keep you safe. When I was out past dark after that I used a rickshaw driver I knew, and made friends at checkpoints along the road and made sure everyone could see me say ‘hello’ each time I passed. They were my guardian angels. I never felt safe, but I knew how to appear safe and adapt to life there.”
Tristan just looked at her with his mouth open and seemed impressed for the rest of the interview.
Cynthia Shade was waiting outside. Jane felt her erect posture wilt as she greeted her mom.
The next day, she got a phone call from Tristan letting her know she got the job. The excitement was followed by a hollow pit of dread in Jane’s belly. She was already mourning the loss of her couch time. That was the crappy thing about jobs, you had to actually work.
Job, near the beach, that was the aim. Her first couple days on the job were exciting with being trained and learning the ropes. The fourth day she had everything down and stared at the clock for eight hours. Time hadn’t moved that slow since the power would go out and she would watch bugs fly in the puddles of sweat her body formed. She would will those fans to come back on focusing her attention on the blades, she would say, “You will move”.
After enduring a long bus ride home from work, she sat down at the computer to check her email. She still admired the lighting speed of the Internet connection in the U.S. She opened the email browser to a new email and a surge of fireworks began at her toes and exploded in her ears. With her heart pumping she clicked on the email with the subject line: Teaching Job in Bangkok.
She realized she could keep molding back into the American cookie-cutter life or jump out of the oven before her body hardened. She was going through the motions and had a strong sense of wasting time. She didn’t know what direction to choose, but living in California felt like a derailment.
Six weeks of turmoil and in three seconds she knew the next step.
The following morning Nia and Jane had plans to spend the day together. Jane decided to tell Nia first, to practice for the discussion with her mom.
Jane and Nia were sitting by the pool with their feet dangling at the surface. It was all Jane could think about, so she just blurted it out. “I’m going to take a teaching job in Thailand.”
“What? When did this happen?”
“I got the email last night. One of my friends from Peace Corps is teaching there and they are looking for another teacher.”
“So you don’t even have the job yet.” Nia’s shoulders moved closer to her ears as she spoke.
“If I don’t get that job, I will get another job there. It turns out there are a lot of job opportunities in Bangkok. I was up all night doing research.”
“Why don’t you go back to Bangladesh, then.”
“The political situation is all messed up, that is why we were evacuated in the first place. When I joined the Peace Corps, I was hoping they would send me to Thailand.”
Nia crinkled her forehead and said, “You don’t have the money for that. You just got home and I know it is difficult for you, but even when you come back from Thailand you will have to adjust back to life in the U.S. then, too.” You could see the anger in Nia’s face rise up like a thermometer. “How are you going to settle down with a guy if you are moving all over the place. We planned to have kids together.”
This set off a fire in Jane. “In the fifth grade we talked about that. I don’t even know if I want kids at all, what is with you. I’m not like you. You are tied down by your marriage, I don’t want to compromise, I want to do whatever I want, whenever I want.” She felt empowered and light from finally being honest with her friend.
Nia moved backward as if she had been hit. “I am free to do whatever I want.”
“Why don’t you travel?” Jane blurted out without thinking.
“That is the normal childhood dream, as an adult I feel like I need to have responsibilities. You are just running away because you don’t know what you want to do with your life. I can’t just throw money away like you do.” Nia started kicking the water in frustration.
“I feel it in my bones. I need to go to Thailand.”
They heard a slam on the table behind them; they turned around and saw Cynthia with a platter of snacks spread out across the table and her eyes ablaze.
Nia and Jane both jumped up away from the pool.
“Running to Thailand?” Cynthia said this through clamped-down teeth, like her jaw had been wired shut.
“Mom, why don’t you sit down.”
“Are you leaving me again? You are finally safe now. You had to leave the country because people wanted to hurt the volunteers.” Her voice cracked as she spoke.
“Mom, you know this isn’t working out for me. I am unhappy. I am not done living abroad yet.”
“I have done nothing but take care of you for the last couple of weeks, I gave you whatever you wanted. This is how you repay me?”
“I didn’t ask for all of this. A random political group was throwing around threats, my volunteer program closed, and I was just thrown here.”
Her mom starts wailing. “I’m sorry that I make you so miserable.”
Jane could see what was happening, her mother was trying to be her puppet master and Jane was ready to cut the strings.
“I love you both, but I need to be me and make myself happy.” She left the two of them staring at the pool and went for a walk around the park, her victory lap.
After two weeks of silent treatment and awkward conversations with Nia and her mom, Jane’s readjustment allowance arrived in the mail, two-thousand-and-five-hundred beautiful pieces of freedom. She got the job in Thailand and sent all of her immigration paperwork into the consulate. She bought her ticket for Bangkok that day.
Jane purchased an open-ended ticket for Nia and put it in an envelope and shoved it under her best friend’s door. Hopefully, she would come visit Bangkok in the next year. She wanted Nia to realize her lack of traveling was not a financial issue, but her fear of the unknown.
Jane also grabbed a class catalog from the local community college and highlighted some classes for her mother to consider in the fall. The Post-it note on the front read, “You are an excellent caretaker, I think you could really help people, use your time now to go back to school like you have always dreamed of. I know you will make a phenomenal nurse. Thank you for everything. I love you so much.” She put all of the completed registration forms inside the catalog.
She took her luggage and left without saying goodbye. She didn’t want to help other people deal with her leaving, that was for them to figure out.
Twelve hours later, her plane touched the beautiful land of Siam. The nuns from the Catholic school were waiting for her at the airport. They were two tiny elderly women dressed in all-white. They were shy and kept smiling. They bowed and greeted her with a “Sawat dee ka.”
Jane bowed back and said, “Sawat dee ka.” The first Thai words out of her mouth tasted good.
On the drive to the private condo, they passed massive Buddhist temples covered in gold, red, and green tiles. Jane couldn’t stop taking pictures. She knew the tourist feeling would wear off quickly.
When they arrived at her apartment, Jane face was already sore from smiling. The nuns showed her to her room. They had filled her fridge with groceries and showed her how to use the cable TV. It was a small studio apartment and she did three circles with her arms spread out and her feet kicking behind her. It was her space.
Another foreign teacher came in to introduce herself. She had just arrived a month ago from Nebraska.
“Do you know how long you are going to stay here?” Omaha-girl said as she moved to the window to check out Jane’s view of the lake.
Jane spread herself out over her new bed and flayed out her arms and legs as if she were trying to make an angel in snow.
“No idea,” she said, and then laughed. Everything felt open and possible.
“I haven’t done much teaching before. I think I want to be a teacher when I go back to Nebraska. What about you, is education your career?”
“Maybe.” And for the first time, not knowing felt like freedom and not a prison.
Susan Shiney is a writer, painter, and teacher living outside of Bordeaux, France. She received her Masters in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages from Teachers College, Columbia University. She is originally from California and frequently misses the incredible weather. She has taught English in Bangladesh, Thailand, New York City, and now France. She loves learning languages, but hates having to speak them. Email: susanshiney[at]gmail.com