I do my laundry early in the morning while it's still cool. I arrive at the open-air laundromat before the sun has scorched the crispness from the air. My clothes are usually in the dryer before the other expats, young mothers, and maids from the area B&Bs show up with their motor scooter baskets overflowing with bed linens. It's a Thursday, and the sun is slowly warming the day over the low rooftops of Chiang Mai.
I've been divorced for two years and living in Thailand for one. At fifty-six, I'm rarely noticed. I could've bought a washing machine, but I like walking the two blocks from my second floor flat to the laundry. The machines cost only a few baht, and I get a relaxing pleasure from waiting for my clothes to wash and dry. I wash two loads a week on Thursdays like clockwork, a simple comfort. I bring a book each week and read silently. No one makes eye contact. No one starts conversations. No men flirt. I'm the invisible woman over fifty in post-divorce anonymity.
This morning I sat very still and stared. A German backpacker lugged two pillowcases stuffed with socks, underwear, and t-shirts; the annoyed, impatient man, tried to balance four green plastic laundry baskets teeming with towels; and two young Thai women on bicycles, had their strapped-on plastic laundry bags ripped by the wind. Into the middle parking space a man pulled up in a truck. What was left of his balding hair was pulled into a ponytail. I'd seen him before, always with a young girl. He was British, late fifties or maybe early sixties, an expat with a decade of Thai sunburns stretched over his pink and brown forehead. Stepping out, he reached into the truck bed to retrieve two clothes baskets. From the passenger's side a woman got out, one long arm wrapped around a yellow bundle. She wore a sun dress and a green, floppy hat, the cheap kind tourists buy. She kept touching the brim with her free hand and singing a lullaby to the bundle, sometimes shrugging her shoulders as if to say, 'Am I not the cutest?'
Her driver, the British man, dropped the baskets on the table next to me and began peeling baht from a wad of bills. The woman lovingly hugged the yellow bundle against her cheek, and I could see now that it was a towel. "You are the sweetest thing," she cooed, and then flipped the bundle hard onto the tabletop. It bounced with a thud, and I instinctively flung my hands toward what I was sure was an injured baby. The woman screeched with laughter and then covered her mouth with the back of her hand. The man glanced over his shoulder, grinned, and continued feeding bills into the change machine. Taking a closer look at the woman's face, I could see she was a kathoey, and the yellow towel had been wrapped around a bottle of fabric softener.
The British man was never alone when I saw him. I'd paid little attention to his companions except to notice they changed every few weeks, always young, fleshy, and wide-eyed. Some of them may have been kathoeys as well, but I'd never noticed. Each one had the same dual expression: one face when she looked at the man and a different face when she looked away. I watched the kathoey fold the towel she had cradled. Her face needed a shave, and I could now see that her hands were large and clumsy. Her hair, which I'd assumed was tucked underneath her sun hat, was cut short, too short for a convincing kathoey. She kept reaching to the nape of her neck to smooth the strands down with her fingers, as if willing it to grow longer. She wore enormous flip flops on her man-sized feet. She noticed my staring and reflexively pulled her feet underneath her bench. I crossed my legs, showing off my chunky, cork-soled, size 9 German sandals and raised my eyebrows at her.
She sneaked a glance at her companion who had by now filled three washers and was headed across the street to the 7-Eleven. Five minutes remained on my dryer, so I dropped another coin into the slot, adding seven more minutes.
The kathoey didn't move away when I sat across from her. She just pulled her hands closer to her body. "Nice hat," I said.
She fingered the brim and gave a half smile. "Thanks," she said in a voice too low. She glanced nervously across the street after her companion.
"I'm Randy," I said.
"Oh. I'm Lena." This time her voice was slightly higher, and she spoke with a slightly Thai accented English.
"You two just meet?" I asked.
"The guy over there." I gestured toward the quick shop.
"Oh, um. Yeah." The hand went back to the back of her neck once more. Her face changed slightly, an almost imperceptible hardening. "You know him?"
"I’ve seen him around."
"Ah." She settled back a bit more and her eyes went to the floor. Inside the 7-Eleven, the man waited at the end of the line. I could just make out his profile along the chip aisle. "I'm sorry if I scared you," said Lena. She flicked her eyes at the bottle of fabric softener. "I was just playing, you know. Reggie had been saying what a good mother I'd make. We'd been joking around. You have children?"
"No, no children. No husband either. Not anymore."
"Oh." Lena's face suddenly turned serious, and then she whispered, "Did he die?"
"No. I told him I'd had an affair, and he divorced me."
"An affair!" She leaned closer, eager for details. "You had an affair?"
"No, I never had an affair. I'd never so much as looked at another man the thirty years we were married, but he got in his head that I was seeing someone else, and for months he would slip in all these snide remarks. 'So, you got your hair done up all fancy and it's not even the weekend,' or, 'I drove down the bypass today and saw a Mazda just like yours in front of the Motel 6,' and my favorite, 'Why does a woman your age need so much lipstick? You planning on doing a lot of kissing?' Finally, I decided I'd had enough. One night I stood right in front of the TV blocking out Sean Hannity's entire face and I said, 'Glen, I've been seeing the night watchman from work. We're in love and I'm running away with him.' He packed up a suitcase that very night and walked out on me. It's funny. That was the best night's sleep I had had in months."
Lena's mouth fell open and she let out a little sound of mild disgust and amazement. "Why you do that? Why not just have the affair, since you say you did?"
I gripped the table's edge and thought for a few seconds before speaking. "It would have been so much trouble... To find somebody, you know? It was easier to just say I'd done it."
"And he still think you have the affair?" She reached behind her head and smoothed her too short hair once more in a gesture that now seemed like a nervous habit.
"I guess so."
"You should find a man here," Lena stretched her fingers out on the table toward me. It was an intimate gesture, and I was touched by its sweetness. "Find yourself a foreign man." She lowered her voice to a whisper. "They have money; Thai men have no money." The fingers fluttered upward and made a dismissive gesture.
The last thing I wanted was a man. Since coming to Thailand, I could sleep as late as I wanted on the weekends. No one turned the TV on at all hours. I could eat when I wanted, what I wanted. I could lie in bed at night and listen to the insects outside the window screen. I could walk to work in flip flops. And I could buy as many lipsticks as I wanted with no one to remind me of how old I am. Even the thought of having another man in my life made me tired. Men my own age looked right through me. They wanted girls, and sometimes boys, in their twenties, sometimes younger. I am the woman who sits in coffee shops, wanders through bookstores, or peruses fruit stands looking for mangoes like some gray-haired ghost and no one gives me a second look. I breathed heavily and suddenly began laughing, and I realized how much I liked my life.
"Are you okay?" Lena asked.
"Yes, I'm fine," I said.
Across the street Lena's companion, Reggie, waited for a car to pass.
"Is he good to you?" I asked, my eyes still on Lena's man.
Her mouth fell open in mild surprise, and she took a long look at Reggie. Carrying a plastic bag with drinks and snacks, he squinted into the sun as he waited for a clear crossing. When the last of the cars finally passed, he took a step into the street.
"We just met," she said and shrugged her shoulders. "He's..." but she didn’t finish. Looking back at me, her face had that same fleeting, unsure, lost expression I'd seen on some of Reggie’s other young companions. But in a second, it fell away. She gave me a big gushing smile, stood up from the bench, and jogged out to meet him. When she stepped off the sidewalk her flip flop caught on the curb and she stumbled, losing her shoe in the street. She giggled with the same voice she had used when she tossed the fabric softener on the table, and she hurried to retrieve her upside down shoe.
"We’re going to have to get you bigger shoes," said Reggie, laughing. "Damn, how big are those feet?" He took a soft drink from the bag and handed it to her as she hopped back, flipping the hem of her sundress as she went.
"She needs lipstick, too," I said, but the man wasn't listening. I spoke louder and he finally noticed me. "Buy her all the lipstick she wants." He furrowed his brow, puzzled, but then turned his attention back to Lena.
I filled my basket with my dry clothes without bothering to fold them. Hoisting the basket onto my hip, I gave Lena a little wave and headed up the street for home.