The driver unloaded my things onto the sidewalk and lit a cigarette as he waited for me to get out and pay him. It was then I realized I’d forgotten to convert my dollars to baht at the airport, but thankfully he accepted American money. The first thing I noticed when I emerged from the cab was the scent in the air. A wild combination of cumin, ginger, and hibiscus, infused with diesel fumes from the motorbikes and tuk-tuks whizzing by on the busy cross streets.
“Thank you,” I said to him, and heard the front door of the house open behind me. A woman nicely dressed in white Capri pants and sandals came running out. Her grayish-brown hair was in a pixie cut, and her smile made me relax for the first time in two days.
“You must be Jessica,” she said.
“Yes, hello. Mrs. Knight?” I extended my hand.
“Lovely to meet you. Now, bring your things inside, and I will show you to your room and introduce you to my husband,” she said, and walked back into the house.
Soon after I’d lost my job in Indiana, I signed up for a teacher exchange program that matches qualified educators with needy schools around the world. Once I was accepted, I’d been paired up with Mr. and Mrs. Knight through Tall Trees Academy. Certain families—Thai, British, and American—took part in the program and offered rooms for rent to people like me. The Knights were a retired American couple in their early seventies who split their time between Phuket and their native city of Houston, Texas. That was all I knew about them at that point.
The house was very nice-looking from the outside, and I was pleased with the neighborhood as well. Many of the houses in Phuket are stilt houses, built elevated back in the day to prevent flooding and keep out unwanted animals. With most of the stilt houses, the terrace is the largest part of the home, and there is often no indoor plumbing. Luckily for me, I was able to find residence in a more modernized area of the city only about twenty minutes by bicycle, my only means of transport, from the school. Bottom line, it was a far cry from the farm I grew up on.
Once inside, I placed all of my bags in the front foyer and nearly fell asleep waiting for Mrs. Knight to return. My body was reeling from culture shock, jet lag, sleep deprivation, and living my dream.
“In here, dear!”
I followed her voice to a small family room with a covered terrace. Her husband was outside reading a book and struggled to get out of his chair. He was a heavyset man with wire-rimmed glasses who smiled and waved enthusiastically when I rounded the corner.
“Why, hello there,” he said. “Aren’t you a lovely young thing?”
I hurried to him. “Thank you, I’m such a mess. I’m Jessica Gregory. It’s wonderful to meet you. I really appreciate you both so much for having me.”
“Bob Knight. Please have a seat.” He gestured to one of the chairs.
“I’ll fetch us some tea,” Mrs. Knight said.
Bob slowly sat back down and glanced at the red stain on my shirt. “So, Jessica, tell me about yourself. Agnes mentioned you’re from Indiana.”
I thought of my life up until that moment and struggled to come up with what to say. The most interesting thing I’d ever done in my twenty-eight years was getting on that plane to Phuket. I folded my hands in my lap.
“Yes, I’m from Wolcottville. It’s about an hour east of South Bend. I went to college near there and graduated with a degree in education, and then I moved back home, where I worked as a second grade teacher,” I told him. But what I wanted to say was, “Despite the fact that I’m from a zero-stoplight town, covered in dried tomato juice, forgot to convert my money at the airport, and can’t see straight because I couldn’t sleep on a plane—having never flown on one before—I promise I’m not a complete fool!”
“Is this your first time in Thailand?”
“And your parents, are they still in Indiana?”
“My mom passed away a couple months ago, but yes, my father and some of my siblings are still there.” I paused and thought how little I spoke to any of them besides Caroline. My entire family could be standing at a bus stop together and would have almost nothing to say except for pleasantries.
“I’m sorry to hear that about your mother. Was she ill?”
I shook my head. “She had a heart attack.”
He made a tsk sound. “Well, isn’t that a terrible thing? I’m very sorry.”
“Thank you,” I said. I’d talked to people more about my mother in the past two months than I had in my lifetime. As the youngest of nine kids, I suffered the greatest distance from my mom, both in years and in emotional attachment. She was a strict, unemotional woman, a firm disciplinarian and a stringent Catholic who kept a ruler within reach at all times. She’d had too much sex to be a nun, so she ruled our home like a monastery instead. I glanced down at my hands and thought how much she would’ve hated the bright blue nail polish I was wearing.
Mrs. Knight brought in a tray of tea.
“Thank you so much,” I said as she filled our cups.
“You have such a lovely yard. I see you’ve started some tomato plants out back. Do you garden?” She looked out the window behind her husband. “Not so much anymore,” she said.
“I used to grow vegetables at home, so I’d be happy to help if you like.”
Mrs. Knight smiled at me. “I would like that very much.”
Her husband took a sip. “So what made you decide to leave your job in … where did you say?”
I laughed. “Wolcottville. I was let go. I was one of the younger teachers on staff, and they had to make some budget cuts. My principal was actually the person who gave me the idea of teaching abroad. He’d done it himself many years ago.” I smiled when I recalled the conversation.
Nothing had ever given me such clarity as talking with him about uprooting my entire existence to teach kids on the other side of the world. “Anyway, the schools in Phuket, as I’m sure you know, were so profoundly affected by the tsunami that this is one of the areas that still needs the most help. Even after all these years.”
“Well, it’s a good thing you’re doing.”
“Perhaps you’d like to see your room. You must be tired,” Mrs. Knight added.
I sighed gratefully. “Thank you. I would love to unpack and lie down.”
My room was toward the back of the house, just behind the kitchen. The walls were painted a pale coral color, and there was a woven pink and green throw rug in the center of the wood floor. There was no closet, only a removable bookshelf-like feature and chest of drawers. It was simple yet cheerful.
“There’s a red Schwinn out back that is yours to use as long as you’re here. We don’t allow our guests to use the washer and dryer in the house, but there is a coin laundry up the road, and you may borrow the car once a week to go there. I would, however, be happy to wash your shirt for you if you’d like.”
I looked down. “That’s very nice of you but not necessary. I’ve sort of accepted defeat on this one.”
“When you’re ready, I’ll show you the space in the refrigerator and pantry that you may use. We ask that you be respectful of our things and our space and use only what is yours. You are expected to buy your own food and household items.”
“Yes, ma’am, of course. Thank you.”
She smiled, and we stared at each other for a moment. “It’s lovely to meet you, Jessica. We always enjoy having company,” she said, and closed the door behind her.
Once I was alone, I opened my computer and found the Knights’ Wi-Fi signal. I made a mental note to set up password protection for them, and then sent a quick e-mail to Caroline as promised:
I made it! The plane ride was not as bad as I thought it would be, but I was awake for most of it. Thank you for the snacks. They were a lifesaver. My hosts, Mr. and Mrs. Knight, seem like wonderful people and made me feel very welcome. I have my own little room in the back of the house, and it overlooks a beautiful little garden. I have so much to do and will admit to being a little nervous about finding my way around here, but I’m mostly excited. Once I get some rest, I’ll have a better handle on things.
Lastly, I’m sorry about how we left things. You don’t have to come to terms with anything. I’ve come to realize that despite your years of best efforts, there was never anything you could’ve done to make Mom proud of me. We never had anything in common and never would. But you are the kindest, most selfless person in our family, and we’d all be lost without you. My whole life you were my biggest cheerleader and support system, and it’s because of you that I was able to find the courage to leave. Maybe one day you’ll understand why I needed to get out of Indiana, and maybe you won’t. Either way, I love you more than anything, and I know you love me too. I’ll write again soon.
I could hardly grasp my own reality. There I was, lying on the floor with my head on a duffel bag miles from where I grew up, in a country where I couldn’t speak the language or hang an article of clothing, but I was home.
This was my home now.
I couldn’t help but wonder whether I’d made the right decision. Even with weeks of planning and anticipation, nothing could prepare me for closing the door to that coral room and lying there alone. A wave of fear rippled though me, like the one you experience when you step onto a roller coaster for the first time—or an airplane. Your heart beats a little faster, and your head is spinning from trying to calculate the safest amount of risk. I closed my eyes, but my nerves had got the best of me. I was afraid, yes, but in the best possible way. Afraid of what my life would’ve become had I not taken a leap of faith. Thanks to the time difference, I awoke, wide-eyed and full of energy, at three o’clock in the morning. I was hesitant to traipse around the house at that hour, so I turned the light on and unpacked some of my things.
At the first crack of dawn, I opened my door and walked out. The house was quiet, and the streets were empty and calm. I tiptoed outside to the backyard and surveyed the neglected garden. While the veggies were not so impressive, the flowers were spectacular. I was unfamiliar with the different types, but they were everywhere, showing off their vibrant colors, almost daring me not to marvel at them.
There was a small shed near a rear fence, where I found some hand tools. Mrs. Knight had done a decent job of getting the tomato plants to where they needed to be in the ground, but I could tell they were too crowded and not planted deep enough. An hour later I’d replanted them, drenched them with water, and swept the back patio. After a quick shower, I rummaged through my backpack, looking for the letters. Before I left, I’d asked some of my old students back in Indiana to write notes to the kids in Phuket and promised to start a pen pal program. I sat on the floor of my room and read through some of them. Their desire to share their favorite foods and colors and video games and questions like “Do you have McDonald’s in Tie Land?” made me miss them more than I already did.
“Is everything all right, dear?”
I heard Mrs. Knight’s voice from the door to my bedroom. I looked up at her and hadn’t even realized I was crying.
(1) Kindle Paperwhite and signed prints of: KAT FIGHT, ONE PINK LINE, FINDING BLISS, and THE UNIMAGINABLE (US)