A few nights ago, I took a journey to Tha Phae Gate. I was heading to Art Cafe, a restaurant I frequent.
I grabbed one of the many red pickup truck taxis, songtaos, on Kaewnawarat. Some nights, when traffic is heavy along this main street by my school, I have troubled flagging down a ride. Tonight though I was lucky. Not only did I find a songtao in a few minutes but when I climbed into the back cabin I found the two cushioned benches empty.
I crave emptiness sometimes, especially after a long day of school filled with vibrant, crazy energetic faces. I love my job but as a private introvert the wild and manic voices of my students drain me. They have a habit of draining away the reservoirs of sociability I store up during private and silent hours spent at home.
I was happy to be alone in the back of that truck. There were no matayom (high school) students getting a ride home or to a private tutoring session, no tourists from China, America or Europe heading back to their hotels from the New Arcade bus station.
As the bus went over a bridge spanning the waters of Ping River, my eyes went to the brown waters, bleached black in some parts by the night and orange in other parts by street lamps. My thoughts drifted with the river. I thought about how eager I was for a bottle of beer and a club sandwich. I thought about how much I was looking forward to my parents visit, Thanksgiving and my Christmas break in Cambodia. I even tried to brainstorm about a group of space monks I was developing for a sci-fi story.
The thoughts kept flowing as the taxi turned towards a large market. Flowers, bright and vibrant in the street light, were a pleasant sight. And then the driver hit the brakes. We stopped in front of stall and a thin Thai man with a rose in a bouquet made of recycled paper approached the driver.
My river of thoughts stopped flowing as if they had come up against a dam.
The man climbed into the back with me. He sat down on the bench opposite me, his rose still clutched in his hand. He had a wide smile on his face. His long, slightly crooked slightly yellowed teeth seemed so bright in the evening darkness.
I tried to dive back into myself as the car moved again. I wanted to be submerged in thought again. That was impossible now though. The man chuckled to himself like a small boy and starting talking to me, asking me where I was from.
I answered but very briefly. I wasn't in a mood to talk and I hoped if he would stopped asking questions. Yet more questions followed.
As I've done many times before, I tried my hardest to answer and be polite, even though speaking every new word forced me to squeeze out another precious drop from my nearly drained reservoir.
In my mind, I bristled: 'Can't you see I'd rather not talk?' I asked him hoping my thoughts would reach out and touch his mind. 'Why can't you stay to yourself, druggy?'
That thought made me turn away in shame. True, the man was razor thin and dressed in dirty worn out clothes with tons of holes in them. Yes, his veins popped out from his forearms and his mannerisms and the odd way he spoke conveyed that part of him was lost and somewhere else. Yet, I knew nothing about him. I didn't even no his name. I had no true basis for such a judgment. And even is he did take drugs, who was I, someone who sometimes drinks too much for his own good, to be so condescending?
I can't stand hasty and unfounded judgments about individuals or groups of people. I of all people should have known better. But I am a human, and it's human to judge unfairly and sometimes out of anger and irritation.
I said to myself: 'That was a very nasty and unfair thing to think but at least I recognize it. At least I can try and amend it.'
So, despite my shy nature, despite the urge to withdraw I started asking questions:
'What's your name?'
'Where are you going?'
'I'm going to see my mother.'
'Is the flower for her?'
'No, it was a gift from the lady at the flower market.'
(By now, the songtao was coming to a halt near my stop.)
'That's great, it was nice to meet you have a great night.'
I shook his hand, he smiled and I climbed out and paid my fare to the driver. I stood by the side of the road as the songtao drove away, standing still as tourists strolled by looking for a place to eat or a souvenir to buy. I was sad now to see Pang go. I was still a bit ashamed of myself for thinking so judgmentally. Mostly, though I wondered about how many other people I might have written off over the years because of shyness and unfair judgments based on appearance. I wondered how many new friends or great relationships I could have made if I pushed myself to be a little more talkative during times when I wanted to just slip away. I wondered how I could have forgotten that everyone in the world has a unique and special story that makes them who they are. Finally, I wondered about how the emptiness and privacy I so treasured could also be detrimental to me at times.
Being alone is essential at times, but sometimes the best emptiness is the one that is filled.