Authors: David Shafer
It was from a similar shade-lounging posse that Leila had chosen Aung-Hla, months ago, when she’d started traveling out of Mandalay on Helping Hand business. For the first of their many trips together, he had kept some distance from her. He answered her questions briefly and mostly declined when she asked would he like a Coke or a sandwich when they stopped for food, preferring to spend his time checking the fluids under the hood of his white Toyota. Or he would wipe down the worn-soft vinyl upholstery and whisk-broom the carpets. She had never ridden in a car so well cared for. Aung-Hla’s car was similar to the one that Leila’s mom and dad had driven when she was a girl. But theirs had been beige and ragged and sticky with melted things. Was it a Tercel? In the back of Aung-Hla’s taxi, she was put in mind of her girlhood ride, the slope of the shoulders of the bucket seats ahead of her, the nearness of the central hump, the frequency of the vinyl piping, and that smell of—what? Tracked-in sand? Low-voltage electrical current? Thin carpet on hot metal?
After they’d taken about ten trips together, Aung-Hla opened up a bit. Nothing much, but he laughed at a joke she tried to make; he introduced her to another taximan he stopped to talk to; he pulled off the road to show her a magnificent view. Then Leila snapped a good photo of his taxi, shot in that three-quarter-angle way she knew was flattering to vehicles; she showed Aung-Hla the photo on her laptop screen, and he just about keeled over. He had no e-mail address to mail the photo to, so Leila printed him a copy from the color printer behind the desk at a hotel in Yangon. He rubber-banded the photo to the visor of the car that was its subject. Soon he was telling her names of things—of trees; of his three daughters, photos of whom were also rubber-banded to the visor; of the characters in the Theravada scenes painted thickly on the plaster facades of dinky roadside shrines.
Then he must have seen her face fall when, breaking a long drive to the northern city of Tamu in the kind of petrol-station-cum-lean-to café that art directors are always mocking up for jeans ads, Leila had once again tried to order the delicious chicken-broth-and-rice-starch-cube soup she could find easily in Mandalay and had once again received what appeared to be the culinary result of someone taking a phone book to a plucked chicken. She was so hungry that day that tears sprang to her eyes when a plastic bowl of oily chicken slurry was put before her. After that, Aung-Hla ordered for her, and he watched as the cook prepared her food. She could see him reject the contents of certain plastic vats and approve the use of others. It embarrassed her that she had caved on this. She knew that she should order her own food and place her own phone calls and generally navigate strange places without giving the men around her the satisfaction of seeing a woman ask for help. But Leila could also recognize when the solution to a problem required more skills or resources than she had. Like the chicken situation, for instance.
Soon, Aung-Hla was sitting with her at the same table beneath the thatch-and-canvas shade beside the sun-blanched road. She taught him a card game. He told her about Uposatha, a sort of Sabbath in Theravada Buddhism. He also turned out to have more English than he had let on: very spotty or halting grammar but a fair range of nouns. In fact, Aung-Hla was a quick study, like Leila, and she taught him how to form the future tense for the verb
. He had several perfectly practiced idioms that he deployed slightly incongruously or that he overused. He said, “Hold, please,” and “Ready, set, go,” and “I won’t allow it.”
But Aung-Hla was not at the taxi queue, and Leila rode back to Mandalay with a driver she did not know, in silence. An accident on the so-called highway from the airport clogged what little traffic there was, and Leila averted her eyes when they finally passed the wailing and mangled mopedist whose day and probably whole life was going a lot worse than hers.
She tried to will herself into a better attitude. This was a setback, no more. She’d overcome worse. Part of her wanted to be all
You have no idea who you’re fucking with
. But she couldn’t summon enough of that moxie; they apparently knew exactly with whom they were fucking: a lone white girl whose organization lacked the pull, the will, or the cash to get fourteen short tons of medical equipment out of lockup. In fact, it was
who didn’t know who was fucking with
I think they do not want you here no way.
The guy had looked scared when he’d said it. A pronoun without a referent. Always troubling. And if bird people were involved, things were way more complicated than she had figured. What could the man have meant?
She went back to her office—two rooms above a grocery store beside an important traffic circle on a wide, dirty avenue downtown. She changed out of her stupid shirt and shoes. She made motions at her desk like she was doing work. But it was an act, and soon she remembered that she was without an audience. So she left her office with her laptop in a plastic shopping bag and started walking toward her favorite tea shop. She would order mint tea and those digestive biscuits they had there called Number Nines. She liked the bustle of the street. If she was moving quickly, not speaking, and wearing something reasonable, Leila could blend in here. She could blend in in lots of places; one advantage to being Persian.
But blending in was a kind of hiding, right? She was too alone here, she thought. The aloneness had been the point when she accepted the job. A year in the hot far-away. After the Rich breakup, she wanted out of New York; she wanted to go back in the field. Leila had no social deficits; she existed in the happy and crowded range of the spectrum. The rules did not escape her, nor did ways to bend them. But she thought that maybe she didn’t like all that many people.
How many people are you supposed to like?
Below what number are you
She liked colleagues in a drinks-after-work kind of way. But in general, they were net-unhelpful during the workday, and often annoying, with their egg salad sandwiches and their bike helmets perched on their monitors.
But in this situation, Leila could have used some help. Besides Aung-Hla, her only friend here was Dah Alice, a precise-English-speaking, crane-like woman, the director of a local orphanage and charity. Dah Alice had been kind to Leila since her arrival and had seriously helped Leila with the find-nursing-students part of her assignment, by introducing her to faculty at the nursing school. But Leila was reluctant to admit to the older woman how much trouble she was having in her work; she didn’t want to be the clueless complainer.
Especially since Leila had discovered this about Dah Alice: Though the orphanage was her main thing, her charity had a wider social-services role—some public-health outreach, some adult-literacy programs. The more capable and effective she was, the more threatening the generals found her, so they kept their shifty eyes on her; she had to do her work
keep her head down. Asking Dah Alice for help with the denied shipment—that would be a bridge too far; it would put her on the spot. People living under tyranny ask fewer favors of one another.
Leila’s favorite tea shop was down a street that had no outlet and no Anglicization of its name on the metal enamel street sign affixed to the pocked pink two-story building on the corner. The Burmese script looked to Leila like a loopy cuneiform or like the schoolgirl doodles that once crowded the margins of her notebooks: it was a series of horseshoes and bubbly
s that apparently contained, for the twenty million readers of the language, useful information. If Leila couldn’t decipher a particular written Burmese word, she tried to notice and remember what the symbols looked like to her. A moon over three tennis balls, smiley face, backward
fucked-up @ sign: that was the name of the street of her tea shop.
Even ten yards down this narrow street, the heat was cut by shade and leavened with streams of cooler air that trickled from low doorways. People wandered in and out of the buildings down the length of the street. A nonsense-named dead-end street in a second city in a kleptocratic East Asian punch line, thought Leila. But it’s busy!
A man in shades and a crisp white shirt had followed Leila a few steps down the street from the avenue—a too-eager money changer hoping she’d been inviting his trade, she thought. He saw that she was intent on something else, so he stopped at a T-shirt-and-teapot stall and heartily greeted the vendor.
Leaning on the wall or squatting on the sidewalk, men sold soap and batteries and barrettes that were spread on rugs more valuable than any of those things. An old woman folded lace on a stoop. An older woman was making and selling whisk brooms. A decidedly antique little man was polishing shoes, his hands black and nimble. Two monks mumbled at each other. Leila remembered not to smile too keenly, to just keep her face open and make soft eye contact with anyone who wished to do the same. A few did. She had been coming down this street twice a day for a couple of months now. The lace-folding lady gave her a little chin-raise, and a child in a Hard Rock Cafe T-shirt beamed and waved.
In the tea shop, Leila sat with her back to the wall. It annoyed her when aid workers acted like Army Rangers, but one eight-month stint in Afghanistan had drilled a few cautious habits into her. The waiter, who may have had a little crush on Leila, raced over to take her order, though by now he probably could have guessed: mint tea and a plate of Number Nines.
What was that smell? Was it cumin? Burlap? Chinese dish soap? Whatever, it was delicious, and it soothed her. That’s what she’d miss when she left this place: the smells. Leila smelled whatever came near her; not just food, but book pages and faces and phones. Her sniffing technique was discreet but effective. Certainly she never had to pass anything under her nose, sommelier-like, as her little brother, Dylan, had to do to match her skills. That’s what the Majnoun kids did on slow Saturdays back in the day: they played smelling games. Roxana might hide a Starburst candy behind her toes and wave her foot in the air in front of her siblings, who then had to guess the flavor. Leila could tell you who had been sitting in the red corduroy chair an hour ago. Dylan did not dare steal Leila’s stuff because once she had claimed she could smell his hands on her library books. Bluffing or no, she’d been right.
Leila’s particular sensitivities seemed to cycle between the wafty, closer smells—mainly food and human—that draped over a moment, and the dusty, distant smells that could be carried by coat sleeve or breeze. In the former category was the knapsack that still smelled of curry, the hairbrush left too near the stove, and the human hangover behind the counter at Kinko’s. In the latter category was the subway-tunnel vent mixed with newspaper that had snaked around her corner in Bushwick, and the tang of handrails, and the seep of wet gravel, but it also included the thinner smells that came from paper and paint and industrially produced hard surfaces. This cycling was in some way related to her mood. Only very rarely did her nose prove too powerful. She was usually able to shut it down or tune out the worst, as when a pair of dirty underpants sat down next to her on a bus. So it annoyed her when pregnant women went on and on about their powers of smell, about how they just had to leave the room because someone was eating a banana or whatever.
Her tea arrived, the little cup and pot and plate of biscuits arranged just so on the dinged aluminum tray. Her waiter practically bowed as he retreated.
No, she couldn’t ask Dah Alice for help. And she doubted Aung-Hla could help in this situation. He knew how to bribe traffic cops but this was probably out of his league. Though maybe he would know what bird people were. Then there was one American in Mandalay she’d spoken with a few times. Fred. Was it Fred? He was some sort of visiting fellow at the university, fluent in Burmese and Kachin and Shan. Maybe he knew something about how to get around crooked customs officials; he said he’d been in Mandalay for a few years. But despite his exotic multilingualism, he didn’t strike Leila as all that bright. Besides, she thought with a cringe, when they last spoke, she may have been a little snooty to him. He had asked would she like a tour of Mandalay Palace. But she’d just arrived and thought she had a lot to do, and she’d seen about a thousand palaces anyway and Fred didn’t look like someone she wanted to hear talk about fenestration or crenellation or whatever.
Leila stayed in that tea shop until three in the afternoon—more or less the end of the Burmese workday. For most of that time, she drafted an e-mail to Dylan. He had a correspondence-return rate of about one in three, but you really have to stay on kid brothers and she wanted to know about this girlfriend and was Mom drinking too much and who was Roxana’s fancy new employer.
Then she called Aung-Hla on her disposable Burmese phone. Comms were kind of a hot mess on this job. Though in fairness, that wasn’t due to Helping Hand; that was more due to working in a failed socialist-military autarky. Leila had a smartphone that could receive some but not all calls from abroad, plus the office landline she was legally required to keep, plus the satellite phone that Helping Hand was very proud of, plus her local cell. Foreigners were’t allowed to sign contracts, though, even for a cell phone, so Leila’s local cell was always a prepaid burner bought on the street. Eighty minutes for ten bucks. But she got a different number each time she bought a new phone. (Which was actually a
phone. Take that, first-world recyclers!) The constantly changing number meant that it was pretty much just an outgoing-calls device, as though she were carrying a little phone booth with her at all times.
She needed to reconfirm tomorrow’s trip with Aung-Hla. When she’d told him the destination—a town in Kachin State called Myo Thit, five hundred kilometers north—he had looked apprehensive. Leila knew that things got a bit extra-repressive up there, because of the separatists, but Myo Thit wasn’t the deep north, she thought, and it was right on the main highway. If they started early and turned around quick, maybe they could do it in one day.