The Veteran

Bangkok is not the kind of place you want to spend any time trying to relax or heal. I found myself wandering down the more ancient, narrow streets where stray dogs roam the alleys and (I never understood this) caged birds hang from the streetlamps. Walking in the dark alone felt dangerous, only if you consider what you might step on. Coming out of surgery, it just didn’t seem like the best place for recovery.

I took the night train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai. The ride is how I imagine a Russian party on the Trans-Siberian Railway, replete with hard-faced alcoholics and stumbling men. In the chaos, think Darjeeling Limited. I was the only woman in the bar car, but for, the Swedish girl who timidly ran in and out wielding bottles of Chang to share with her boyfriend. The bathroom has a door that only answers to a determined hip-forced slam and a heavy-handed turn of the lock. The toilet itself is merely a hole in the floor: I watch the train sail over the tracks, my entire body bumping around the stall, while I try to avoid the piss puddles at maximum speed. Most riders are in sleepers: the seats pulling down into beds where everyone kind of climbs in at the same time. This takes some organization (putting hundreds of drunks—who are like children—to bed at once) so you can expect that the staff, are not always very kind.

I close the curtain and put my pillow over my purse and my laptop, recognizing that, once asleep, I am an unconscious and easy victim. The sleeper is too short, and I spend the night, my legs and body bent into an oddly angled “Z.” In the morning, my back cracks, as we halt to our destination. I step off the train, feeling like a character in a 1940’s film, the surroundings unknown, but familiar, like black and white. The crowds swarm. I feel that perhaps I should be waving a handkerchief or kissing a soldier. The needed crisp air fills my lungs as I pull my heavy bags from the platform and towards the street, where I hail a cab and collapse into the backseat.

Chiang Mai is cosmopolitan, like Bangkok, but within close reach from the moat and over the bridge from the heart of the city, there is a nature preserve, a small enclave resort. The hostel operates like a hotel and is laid out like an old Veteran’s hospital; a structure that seems intended bring some kind of peace after injury or during wartime. It has long hallways with evenly spaced rooms. There are large gardens labeled with the species of trees, plants and flowers. Long walks can be taken around the premises, through the sprawling gardens lead towards the largest swimming pool I have ever seen in Asia. The buildings, and rooms, are clean to the point of being sterile, except for the leftover deposits of nature—the debris of dead leaves and the varying native bug species that appear on tables or in the shower. There are lizards hunting the smallest bugs beneath the lights that drape from stucco walls.

After checking in and finding my room, I am looking for somewhere to eat. Maybe there is a nurse on staff, I think, then, pause to remember where I am. I pass a man sitting under the shade by the pool, his arm tied in a sling and his leg, wrapped in bandages and propped on a chair. He is bouncing a ping pong ball against the wall, having the look of being simultaneously amused and strained by misery. When I ask for directions to the restaurant, he startles and looks up. Despite the toll of his injuries, he looks youthful, with full, blonde surfer hair, uncommon for a man in his late thirties. His blue eyes are penetrating, carrying the burden of stories held in silence. In this hospital like setting, I was convinced, weighing the stoicism in his eyes and the conspicuousness of his debilitating injuries, that he was a veteran.

“You missed it girl, you passed it,” he says plainly. He strains and points in the direction opposite the wall. He is either Canadian or American, it is hard to tell.

I thank him and turn away, finding the arched wooden entry hidden by vines and find a seat at the restaurant. Immediately, I start digging in my bag to find a notebook, a novel, a pen, something to occupy my breakfast solitude. Within minutes, I see the Veteran hobbling through the restaurant, the heaviness of his left leg carrying his right, stepping unevenly, but carefully, to avoid knocking into the chairs and tables. I am the only one in the room and he sits down across from me. As if the conversation needed no introduction, the invitation to share a table unspoken, and without the socially conditioned goading of small talk, I bluntly ask him, “So what happened?”

“Hit by a truck,” he says casually as he sweeps the long hair from his face and behind his ear, with a swift motion that seemed hardened by habit.

“You know in Canada, we drive on the right and here they drive on the left. Even though I have been living here for about five years, man, it was just, like one instant and the second I stepped out I realized I fucked up, but it was too late, I looked up and, bam! A fuckin truck. It blew me out of my flip flops. I woke up in the ER tied down to a bed. Four days in the ICU, surgery, broken shoulder, and this fuckin shit.” He gestures to his leg with an open palm, then, pulls up his swim trunks and unwraps the bandage to reveal a thick wound that covered most his inner thigh. It was a rainbow of dead to dying flesh—greens, reds, pinks, yellows framed by blackened sinking edges.

“Dude. I think it is infected,” I said. “You really should get that cleaned out.”

“Nah, it just looks bad. It’s been like this for a while.”

“What happened to the driver?”

“He just took off. That’s what they do here. It’s not like he’s going to wait around. And the locals won’t report him. Paying off something like that, he would lose his house. I don’t care, man, fuck it, it’s Thailand. The whole thing only costs about 2500 dollars, and that’s without insurance.”

I only had my stiches removed the day before and I am swollen from carrying all my bags, a feat that I was directly told to avoid: “Don’t lift heavy objects.” Since we are sharing battle wounds, I ask him to examine my incisions. With the precision of a doctor, he looks closely and says, “Dude, that’s fucked up.” I can tell from the look on his face that my own healing process may have been stifled.

Our similarities were circumstantial, but we clung to them: we both speak English as a first language, we both like afternoon drinking, and far more bonding, we were in recovery (though my condition, he constantly reminded me, was voluntary). Fair enough. In any case, the entire encounter starts to feel like a scene from an Ernest Hemingway novel.

It takes only a couple days of what we called convalescence (poolside, beer delivery and various concoctions of prescription medications) to learn that this is not the type to settle down, even though he is turning 40 this year.

He even talks like a war vet. Over the course of weeks, his stories unravel. Among them are the following:

1) He singlehandedly took on eight Canadians who he believed were giving his country a bad rap. They were wanted for a series of random and vicious assaults throughout Thailand. Despite his efforts, he again, woke up in the hospital after being hit over the head with a broken bottle.

2) There is a warrant for his arrest in the United States having something to do with a misdemeanor drug charge and an escalated felony charge for fleeing. He won’t be able to reenter the U.S., even though he tells me, “Fuck it, I’m not even scared of jail, man. I like it. Sit around, watch T.V., talk to awesome dudes. I’ll go back if I have to.”

3) In Korea, he and a buddy decided they should steal the ATM out of a convenient store. When the cashier is in the back, they roll in with a dolly, unplug the ATM and roll it out to a truck.

WB: How much did you get?
V: Not sure, maybe a couple thousand bucks.
WB: Did you ever get caught?
V: Nah, but it was all over the news.
WB: Where is ATM now?
V: Don’t know, probably still in our backyard where we dumped it.

4) The Veteran was an actor in L.A. and a runner up to play Edward Norton’s character in American History X. As part of what he calls “getting pumped” for his screen test (including shaving his head), he walks into a bar, goes up to the first black guy he sees, gets up in his face and calls him a nigger. He gets punched out, and, from the floor, the black man picks him up and says, “You okay man?” The Veteran apologizes and says, “I’m not racist. Sorry about that.” He then explains, “I was just getting into character.” Graciously, the black guy says, “It’s cool dude,” and buys him a drink.

5) After some urging from his family and friends, he agreed to, not only attend, but host an AA meeting. He made a confessional, heartfelt speech, bonded with fellow addicts, and sent around the basket for donations. When the money came back, he sealed it in an envelope and put it in his pocket: “I just kept thinking, I should do this AA shit more often! I partied all night for free!”

One night, we go to a club where, upon entry, everyone knows him. The bartender tells me that the last time the Veteran was here they had to kick him out because he tried to climb from the roof and scale the walls of the next building.

I sense that with the truck collision, came the smack of mortality. This is the kind of person who has probably never thought about his own death or the consequences of his actions. Now, he is bound up wandering the halls with his leg leaking pus, borderline gangrene, his good arm rendered useless, not to mention the internal, more hidden ailments. In between stories of his reckless past, his rhetoric starts to shift. He starts making serious life plans—maybe he could open bar in Italy or build a home back in Canada. At some point he considers the possibility of children: “I could have a baby. I love babies, man, it’s like having little drunk people running around.”

One night, he asks me to marry him, offering the ring of a peanut shell. I know he is kidding, but there is something that makes me think he wouldn’t be, if it meant finality to his injury and recovery, momentum or change and some stability in his otherwise raucous life.

“Come on man, I’ll get money. I got money. I inherited a crypt back in Italy.” I like that he calls me “man.” Also, who owns a crypt? I ask him to explain. He comes from a deeply rooted, old school Italian family, many of whom still live near Sicily and he actually inherited a crypt, near his father’s hometown. He is supposed to be buried there. How symbolic, I think, that he wants to sell it: he still thinks he is immortal.

Every day I find out about another injury:

“Oh, you didn’t know my liver was lacerated?”

“Didn’t I tell you about the broken ribs?”

One day, while poolside, I notice that his nipple looks misplaced. I make a face and point this out. Irritated, he sharply answers, “Yeah, man because it got fuckin ripped off. This whole side of my chest. I got hit by a fuckin truck. That’s what happens when you get hit by a fuckin truck.”

When he drinks too much, he forgets he is injured and starts dancing, pumping his arm like he is at a Rage Against the Machine concert. He is moody and sometimes I worry he suffers from some confluence of a TBI, PTSD and alcoholism. Every day we have to go back to the emergency room to reset the bandages. Recovery is not on course.

What seems like two years is really less than a few weeks. We are both becoming restless and increasingly irritated with each other, like an old couple trapped in a nursing home, or, in sticking with a metaphor, like veterans stuck in a hospital, though I have now taken on the role of counselor and nurse. One afternoon, to combat our agitation, we decide to take a tour through Chiang Rai and the Golden Triangle (the Mekong River in Northern Thailand that meets the border of Laos and Burma).

On the slow boat, he stands in front of 45 tourists and sings a song we made up about riding in a tuk-tuk. It is terrible and goes something like, “I took a tuk-tuk, I took a tuk- tuk, from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai. I took a tuk-tuk! He took a tuk-tuk! She took a tuk- tuk! We took a tuk-tuk!” There were other, longer, verses I have now forgotten, but, anyway, everyone cheers and asks for another round.

In addition to a protracted adolescence punctuated by criminal acts, the Veteran has also spent years volunteering at a Burmese refugee camp. He teaches English to children in Thailand. He makes jokes with the Laos border patrol officers. At his core, it is evident, that he loves people and, though he sticks out, the locals seem to embrace his audacity. There is nothing hidden or contrived about this man. Once when talking about education, he says to me fiercely, “Ph.D’s, M.Ds., J.D.s, MBAs, DDS, ABC, whatever, who needs letters. I have a Ph.D. in MAN.” In his world, the one I have been absorbed into, I smile, because, he is right.

While the tourists are making Visa runs to Burma and buying cheap clothes in the market, we wander down to a bar that looks over the river on the border. We are literally sitting under the border patrol where children are playing in the river they cannot cross.

He orders us two beers and steadily pours into each tilted cup he balances with his sling arm (he has mastered this technique over the course of his recovery). After taking a robust swig, he wanders over to the refrigerator, signals to the waitress that he is helping himself and grabs a Coke. There is a small boy waiting at the riverside looking up and smiling. He shows the little boy the Coke can and pretends to throw it so the boy can prepare. After the kid assumes a diving position, the Veteran tosses the can overhand, it arches and lands with a splash. The water is not so deep, so when the boy comes up, he sees the can floating above the surface. He grabs it and waves thumbs up.

Within seconds, there are two more boys down by the river, stripping down to their underwear, ready to dive in. The Veteran walks over to the fridge and grabs a sling full of Coke, Sprite, Orange Crush and starts tossing them into the water. It is a feeding frenzy, and one after the other, the cans are flying while the group of boys are diving in. He is running back to the fridge as fast as he can throw them and the kids are stacking up the cans like treasure on the riverbank, yelling up to us, “One mo, one mo.” The Veteran is laughing and giving commands in their native language I do not understand, but, like everyone else in the restaurant, we are watching this game, as if it were simply a backyard pool party. Even their parents lined up on the bridge to watch. By the end, there are nearly twenty kids diving and he has spent about thirty U.S. dollars on Coke.

It was good we got out of our little hospital. I was leaving in only two days and it brought a kind of peace, if only that I knew he was going to be okay.  He is immortal, after all.  Although, I learned that his leg was, in fact, infected, and he will have to return to Canada for some good old western medicine.

It’s not everyday you meet a man who survives getting hit by a truck, but more interesting,  is watching him come back to life.

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