Authors: David Shafer
When she got Aung-Hla on his phone—he shared it with another taximan—he said yes, he would meet her in the morning, but he said no way they could make it there and back in one day. He actually said, “No way this can be done.”
“We will find a hotel, then,” said Leila, “a place to stay in Myo Thit.” She could hear his hesitation over the line. Was he embarrassed? Should she not have said
Or was it a question of his time, his fee? “I will pay you more. Double the usual rate.” She immediately regretted that. It probably seemed to Aung-Hla that money was a lever she could pull whenever she wanted to. She would like to explain to him about her student loans.
“The same rate,” he said, and she winced. “But the hotel. I think it will not be salubrious.”
She and Aung-Hla would find somewhere to stay, she told herself later that night. It was an important trip. There was a woman in Myo Thit she needed to meet.
The nursing students that Leila had so far identified as strong scholarship candidates were all from relatively prosperous Burmese households. These were women able to put themselves forward, and they were fine applicants. But Leila also wanted to find the women who usually missed these opportunities. Probably because of her sister, Roxana, because there had been someone who’d intervened in Roxana’s case when she was young, someone who had said to the Majnouns, Your daughter is disabled, but she is also a genius.
The woman in Myo Thit was called Ma Thiri. She was a twenty-eight-year-old nurse with a below-the-knee prosthetic who had single-handedly opened a medical clinic in a small village in a poor and dangerous region in a destitute and benighted country. The prenatal care that the clinic provided had demonstrably reduced infant mortality in the population. To Leila, this sounded like a woman who might seriously benefit from three years at an American nursing school.
Jeez, it was hot. Implausibly hot for midnight, Leila thought. Her upper arms stuck sweatily to the skin of her rib cage, except where her T-shirt blotted their meeting. There was a ceiling fan in her two-room flat; it was on now. But it whorled and kerchonked around at such an unstable and idiotic rate that what it gave in breeze it took back in worry. When she’d first arrived, the bed had been centered beneath the fan, but she couldn’t sleep a single night with that seizing squid above her, so she’d moved the bed, a steel beast, to the window, ten feet away. Even so, Leila found the clatter of the fan anathema to sleep, so she had developed a bedtime routine that involved shutting off all the lights, taking a cold, drippy shower, and then, last, killing the fan.
The water from the plastic showerhead spit and dribbled, pooled in Leila’s clavicles, then ran down between her breasts, sluicing before it the film of sweat and yellow dust that coated her daily. For a moment, in the dark shower, she was a completely solved problem, happy as a beetle on a leaf. She thought of California, her motherland, or mother-in-law-land, really. She was on a Huffy bike, pedaling hard, her little brother standing tall on the pegs of her back axle. She was walking the Redondo Beach boardwalk in a beloved yellow windbreaker, her whittled big sister roller-skating beside her.
Then, leaving the shower and ghosting naked across the dark room, Leila killed the fan and sparrowed into her sagging netted bed. The sheet reached her ribs and lay on her like moonlight. Worries began to circle her. But she listened to the breath that she borrowed from the air and she lay still. She let the worries circle. You can’t move a muscle if you’re trying to fall asleep in Mandalay in April.
Aung-Hla was outside her place at six in the morning, and they made good time until they came to a lineup of cars waiting at an unexplained roadblock. There was no traffic coming the other way. Leila watched Aung-Hla. Was he concerned? No. So she tried to sit patiently. After half an hour, two big SUVs came roaring down from the other direction, and when the SUVs had passed, the checkpointists reopened the road. Leila and Aung-Hla didn’t make Myo Thit until one o’clock, and, from the moment of their arrival, the town struck Leila as a menacing place. The dogs flinched at unthrown rocks. Doors shut ahead of her as she walked down the street. The man who sold her a Coke wouldn’t meet her eyes. And at the teahouse in the dismal main square, she saw Aung-Hla being given grief, presumably for driving a foreign girl.
When Leila found the small clinic, she had to wait an hour before Ma Thiri had time to sit down with her. This annoyed her, but she tried to get over it; the woman was clearly busy with patients. Surely, that was more important than talking to some rich foreign girl who would be gone tomorrow. Isn’t that how Leila would have seen it if they’d swapped places? Because Leila knew well that that’s what she was here, that was how she
as rich. This question, in all its forms, vexed and pestered her: How much did money matter? Clearly, a lot. Being so poor hurt. This clinic was pretty dirty. Obligingly, a patchy cat skittered through the little waiting room. Yeah, rich/poor still meant everything. Did that make her a Marxist?
But then sometimes Leila saw that there was
about living closer to the ground and nearer to need, something that bestowed grace on a soul. Or was she just romanticizing poverty? That was super-annoying, when people did that. This ineffable thing she was admiring in the downtrodden Burmese—she didn’t want it enough to give away any of what she had.
They spoke in Ma Thiri’s small examination room. The walls were covered with exhortations to wash your hands and some junta-required agitprop about working together to overcome adversity and negative elements. But also some medical-anatomical and pictographic self-diagnostic posters that would probably get a school nurse in Kansas run out of town.
Leila’s Burmese was about as good as Ma Thiri’s English, so when they spoke, that rare thing happened: they shared languages; they shared all that work and risk. In all her previous interviews, Leila had found it difficult to avoid the women’s desperation, the plain truth that they would do anything to get what she was dangling before them. So it took her ten minutes to even understand that maybe Ma Thiri didn’t want her scholarship. Once Leila understood that ambivalence, she heard herself become incredulous.
“Why not seize this?” she asked. “You can return here with more knowledge and more skills.”
“But and what because if I do not return here?”
It was a jumble of words, but there was Ma Thiri’s sad smile at the end of it, and its meaning was clear to Leila. Just as Leila had been doing moments before, Ma Thiri was wondering at the puzzle of rich and poor, and she was saying that she was afraid that the West would ruin her for the tougher life that was hers to live.
“You must resolve to return, then” was what Leila said to her (or, actually,
You must extra-decide to return, then,
as she didn’t know the Burmese for
But there was this amazing thing that Ma Thiri had already accomplished—the clinic—and that was mostly what they talked about. She said she’d done it for her mother, who had died from—a word that Leila didn’t understand but didn’t want to ask her to repeat because she got the important part: that it was preventable, and that Ma Thiri was still mad about that.
There was some money from a Christian charity, and perhaps more coming; there was another nurse who might begin work soon. Ma Thiri sighed. Then she smiled. “You will give me a man, also, at this hospital school?” She mentioned the dreamy doctor from a years-old TV show, and Leila laughed.
No. There were too many who needed her here, Ma Thiri decided, right there in front of Leila. And because Ma Thiri was speaking in this stripped-down way, she did not disguise the brag inside her reasoning. “I am too important here,” she said. “No one else can do this.” And it turned out that there was a sister and brother to think about as well, and an ailing father.
“Yeah, I have those too,” said Leila. But it wasn’t like Dylan or Roxana had ever kept her anyplace, or held her back; it wasn’t like her dad was sick.
By the time they were done, Leila had gotten Ma Thiri to say she would give the idea more thought. But Leila knew that this woman’s mind was made up and that this concession was a politeness. Leaving the clinic, she felt like a confused Ed McMahon walking back to the van with his enormous cardboard check.
That night in Myo Thit, Leila was the only one in her hotel. Not just the only guest—the only human soul. The man she’d assumed was the proprietor left the building, and the lady who had been washing sheets on the roof left the building. Leila lay beneath a mosquito net on a dank foam mattress in a giant room with five other beds, each one shrouded in netting so that it was extra-easy to imagine behind their scrims ghosts or rapists or murderers with machetes or ghost rapist-murderers with machetes. From the bathroom came the blink and buzz of a fluorescent tube and the plang of a dripping valve. A wet brown moth probed her net’s perimeter. Every hour a generator chugged flatulently outside. She wished she had objected more fiercely when Aung-Hla insisted on staying in some taximan dormitory down the street. How much cheaper could that place be than this one?
In the eventual morning, Aung-Hla came to collect her. She told him about spending the night with no one in the building, which she shouldn’t have, because it made him ashamed for having left her there. He yelled at the proprietor, using a kind of Burmese Leila couldn’t even catch scraps of.
“Let’s blow this Popsicle stand, Aung-Hla,” Leila said to her driver in English when they pulled away. He laughed, probably figuring that she had just said something clever.
But at a checkpoint ten kilometers outside of town, two young soldiers decided to scrutinize Leila’s foreign-visitor terrestrial-passage permission form. They made her sit in a white plastic lawn chair in their stifling wooden shack beside their bent, barber-pole-striped, concrete-counterweighted road barrier while they wrote down every number she had on paper that she could attach to herself, including the digits from an expired membership card to the YMCA pool in Oakland, California. They made Aung-Hla sit in his taxi.
After half an hour, Leila saw that Aung-Hla was standing just outside the door to the shack. He motioned to her—silently, pantomimically—that they should go. She stood up. He came in and started speaking to the young soldiers quickly and with force, cutting them off when they tried to answer back, the way you need to speak if you have any hope of bluffing armed teenagers. He gathered up the contents of Leila’s travel wallet from the soldiers’ laminate desk and sort of reverse-shepherded her out of there, then retreated with Leila to the taxi outside, the soldiers close behind. He saw Leila into the backseat, and, still talking sternly to the soldiers, Aung-Hla himself lifted the barrier across the road. This was too much for one of the soldiers; he unholstered his dull brown pistol and started yelling. Aung-Hla pointed directly down the road and said something ferocious-sounding to the gun-holding boy soldier. It must have been ferocious, because it quieted him, and Aung-Hla took a moment before he turned his key and pulled away from the checkpoint at a dignified speed. Leila fought the urge to sink low in her seat as she had seen people on TV do to duck bullets.
Once he had them out of range, Aung-Hla drove at an increasingly less dignified speed. Leila could see the fear in the back of his neck as they rounded the rutted roads. Those soldiers were drunk, or maybe high, Leila came to understand via Aung-Hla’s explanatory charades from the front seat. He made the drink-from-an-upturned-bottle-the-neck-of-which-is-your-thumb gesture. He made the drawing-on-a-joint-pinched-between-thumb-and-index-finger gesture. Then he raised an index finger before him and ticktocked it back and forth, like a metronome on ninety beats per minute, to indicate
no, negative, not to be done, nope, don’t, dangerous
. He did it well, this manual negation, keeping his hand still beneath his tocking finger, keeping eye contact with Leila in the rearview.
Aung-Hla left the main road and turned up a wide gravel one that ribboned up a clear-cut hillside into the forest. Leila noted that she was now trusting her driver way past the point of soup. Aung-Hla was trying to explain to her where they were going. Here is what she got: “The drunk soldiers’ bosses work up here. If I complain about the drunk soldiers before they report a gate-jumping taximan carrying a white girl, we will be fine. No trouble.”
Maybe Aung-Hla knew someone up here. His brother-in-law. Or nephew. Or great-grandfather. Kinship words in Burmese were a bitch.
When another checkpoint hove into sight, Aung-Hla tossed into the backseat a sort of cotton sarong and told Leila to cover up. She wrapped the sheetish thing around herself and cowled the top part into a hood. Aung-Hla pulled to the side of the road in front of the checkpoint, cut the engine, and told her to stay in the car. In perfect English: “Stay in the car,” he said. He left the taxi and strode up to the checkpoint house, which was a more impressive affair than the last: it was made from a modified shipping container and raised off the ground; a sweaty air conditioner was bolted to its back, and a telescoping mast lifted a mean-looking and satellite-laden antenna twenty feet into the air. The antivehicle device was not a crappy lift gate but a metal deck with those retractable one-way teeth that you just knew would rip the shit out of your tires. Leila saw Aung-Hla greet one of the checkpoint men with body language that was hearty but submissive. He was led inside the container office by the man he greeted, but he managed to give Leila a no-look thumbs-up sign just before the door closed behind him.
Leila sat in the car. It was only ten in the morning, but after a few minutes, the car was so hot she felt like a Pop-Tart. She looked hungrily at the shade beneath a nearby tree. But Aung-Hla had told her to stay put, and she intended to stay put. She drooped the cowl of her sheetish thing over her brow, tried to keep exquisitely still. Heat this hot was conducive to Buddhism, she realized; it encouraged stillness. Her exhalations stirred the cloth near her chin. Her eye found the photo of Aung-Hla’s daughters rubber-banded to the visor. They were seated triangularly against a fake alpine backdrop. They were, at time of snap, what—six, eight, and ten? Then she saw the already-fading printout of the digital photo she’d taken of the car she was sitting in. (In the picture, there was a weeping green tree behind the car, and clean black tarmac beneath its wheels. She had done a good job with the composition.) There was an analog clock Velcroed to the dashboard. The vinyl warmed; the car ticked hotter.