Arts & Culture » Fiction

Credit and Agency



In the law school library, harassed by coffee headaches and razor sharp paper edges, Roz would occasionally drift into a remembered scent--frangipani and pineapple rind, some rotting garbage amid the sweet--and every sense in her would mourn the end of her travels. Yet she recoiled when, studying on her boyfriend's leather sofa instead of in her carrel, she received word from that other place. Her elbow jutted out to a point. She held the phone's receiver away from her skin.

"Roz! That number you gave me doesn't work anymore. I had to call your information. This is Ghan, from Thailand!"

The accented voice was unfamiliar. "Ghan?" Her eyes yanked toward the bathroom door. Obviously, she thought, it's one of the Thai boys, but it might not be that particular him. What was that one called? All their names were single syllables spoken too quickly. There was a Hot, a Piv, a Guy, this Ghan..."What a surprise! How are you doing?"

"I haven't been to Thailand one year. For one year I just travel, like you. Some business." Ghan broke into staccato laugher. She remembered how they were all businessmen, really. They were always asking how much would this cost in the United States. And most of them had gotten a good deal from her. Only one of them had reason to worry her now.

A few summers ago she had gone to Italy with a guy and instead of coming back with him seven days later, she'd used credit cards to turn that single European week into nearly a year of solo globe-trotting. Glistening metallic, the cards worked alchemy, and by the time she got to Thailand, she felt so grand and free that instead of letting boys pay for her, she paid for them with cash advances.

"I come to visit your city.

I knew that I would see you again. I told you we would meet again. You didn't believe me?"

"Of course! So you're in Chicago. Where are you staying?" There was the trek guide from Chiang Rai whose English was this good. And didn't the beachside artist from Ko Chang say he had a cousin who lived in Illinois?

"I'm staying with some friends."

She could tell him she was staying with John. They weren't living together, not quite, but Roz had her calls forwarded.

"Thai friends?" The other Thai boys had all been sweet. They had been sticky rice treats soaked in coconut milk. She pushed herself up from her slouch and sat cross-legged, her back to the bathroom door, her front toward the window. "How do you like it?"

"It's America. Everyone know how America is. When can you meet me?"

There was no getting around it; this must be the one who had been with her when the cash flow stopped. She looked out into the slick dark at tops of November trees, clinging desperately in the wind to their last, battered leaves. She imagined the light rain of foliage below. If it isn't one thing, it's a-fucking-nother, she thought.

"Meet you? Well. I'm in school now, you know. I'm studying to be a lawyer. I'm very busy, but, well..." Her thumb crept toward the hang-up switch. She toyed with it, retreated.

"I told you I study to be lawyer one time, right? I didn't finish. In America it's one good job, but for me, some other business is better.

I will tell you when I see you."

"Yeah. Well. OK. How about lunch. Lunch on Wednesday?"

She only owed him a few hundred dollars. If she couldn't get out of paying it back, she could always write him a check and ask John to lend her enough to get through the month.

"I have business during the day. But...I can meet you in evening. Yes. Tomorrow evening would be good." Roz balanced the phone on her shoulder and looked over her back.

"Well, um...OK. Do you have a car? Should I come to pick you up?"

"Remember I pick you up in front of that guest house? Remember that car? I sold that one. If that car was in America it's worth a lot. Antique one, you know? But in Thailand, no one want to pay money for that car."

"Yes. Cars are very expensive here. I'll have to borrow a car from my boyfriend. I don't own one. Where are you staying?"

"One moment." She heard muffled Thai voices and a memory came back, the feeling of being other, awkward, white, stripped. She imagined him saying to a room full of friends, this is that farang I told you about. "929 W. Argyle Street. I told you I would never forget you. You think I forget?"

Roz winced. They had all told her that, and those words had sounded fine wafting up on wet air into the palm fronds. There the phrase rang featherlight, the helium cherry atop mock passion, an easily escapable Oriental joke. In her second year of law school, on her boyfriend's couch, buried under more than $70,000 of obligation always mounting, "never forget" sounded leaden and dire. "Yes. Well. No. Of course not. So. Good to hear from you. I'll pick you up at 7?"

After she hung up the phone the electric hum of city silence descended around her. Again, she scrutinized the living room of her half home--the ample laps and thick surfaces, the sound system, twinkling slyly, that John bought all in a piece, choosing without her. Although her parents approved of him, when he moved from Hyde Park to a loft condo on the north side and asked her to come with him without a diamond, they balked. "Honey, can't you just stay at his place all the time and keep your studio and not tell me?" her mom said. "After all, we're paying your rent." Every month, her father wrote the amount down in a ledger where it sat, accruing interest. Thumbing through John's wallet and checkbook and rifling his desktop, Roz had taken account. He had $8,000 invested in lifestyle. That wouldn't even cover my Citibank debt, she had thought at the time. She knew that this Ghan, or Guy or Hot or Piv or anyone she'd met in Thailand or Bali or Burma, for that matter, would take one look at this condo and think she was rich. The hard corner of Business Law: Principles & Cases pressed against her ribs. They'd think they knew something about her. She had never known much about Ghan.

She first saw him reading an American best-seller outside a Buddhist cave temple near Kanchanaburi, and when he lifted his head and smiled, she imagined he was waiting for her. But she had never understood exactly what he did for money, or how it was he drove a cherry red car in the land of motor scooters. She didn't get the explanation he gave for being temporarily low on funds.

That first day, she had paid for their Coca-Colas. He chose the restaurant; she paid for dinner.

She took him back to her bamboo bungalow at night. She remembered lying on a musty mattress underneath him. His eyes were closed in concentration. Her eyes were open. She had slipped her credit cards, which were in her money belt, beneath the pillow, and they burned a hole right through the lumpy mass. Her intuition flickered. This one might try to steal from me, she had thought as his hand glanced her breast. She watched his body ripple above her like a current of amber and realized she scarcely cared if he did. Her hand reached underneath the pillow, fingered her money belt, even as her hips arched up to meet his. She remembered she had had an orgasm--small, local, and needle sharp.

Two days later, in the antiseptic air-con of a provincial bank, Ghan had stood beside her when her credit cards were rejected. Sweat beaded on her upper lip as she offered up card after card, asking for 10,000 baht, then 5,000 baht, then 1,000 baht on each one, trying to slip under a limit she had just become aware of. Her voice quavered; it mounted and echoed through the hushed lobby. The queue of international-transactions customers snaked behind her, waiting. Ghan's eyes were distant as he translated her disbelief, then distress, to the clerk, and he looked away from her as he translated back the clerk's answers: transaction denied; it is impossible; cannot; no. Aside from her credit cards, which were only objects now, with holograms depicting a flight that mocked her aching feet, she had very little money. They spent hours in phone boxes trying to unravel the mess of her finances, Ghan speaking Thai to the foreign bankers. He began to pay for their meals and accommodations, counting out bills as if they might sully his fingers. When she asked him where he had been staying before he met her, he replied that he had grown up in the area and had just been passing through. "Something tell me to stop at one temple. I don't know why I pick that one. I don't know why. Do you?"

In Hua Hin, the beach town where he first took her, she was at a loss for how to occupy her time. She had no money to shop, and she felt ostracized by other white backpackers, whom previously she had viewed as a source of amusement, like fellow revelers at a sort of a roving sorority party. Sitting with Ghan in restaurants that had two sides opening out onto the street, she'd see her peers troop past. They'd be searching for an English menu, talking about the last full moon party on Ko Phangan. Ghan seemed content to lean back and watch her, as if he were showing her a really good time. "Excuse me while I must make some phone calls," he said to her once each day; he'd come back frowning slightly. Otherwise, for almost three weeks he never left her side.

"Who was that?" John called to her from the bathroom.

"I'll tell you when you get out," she yelled back.

"Huh?" he said. "Who?"

Roz sighed.

"A German girl I met in Thailand. She's in town."

John pushed open the bathroom door and leaned against the door frame, a towel wrapped low on his hips. "Imagine," Roz said, "after all these years." The shower-steamed air poured from behind him; Roz saw it blur his pink edges, accentuate his softness, then roll toward her, dissipating.

He traced the line of his jaw with one finger. "Some girl you met like three, four years ago was calling you here? Just out of the blue?"

"Well, it's the call forwarding, probably." Roz pried her book out from under her torso. Opened it. "The principal will not be permitted to deny that the agent was in fact authorized."

"Is she here for business? What's she do?"

"What?" She turned to a clean page in her notebook, wrote the Argyle Street address again in the margin.

"What's she do over there in Germany?"

"I don't remember. Nursing maybe. Something like that."

"You're not going to see her tonight, are you? Come on, come with me to the dinner. Carver still has that extra ticket."

"You know I have a test tomorrow."

"Ah, you don't need to study. You got those contracts down cold," John said. "Come out and meet the partners." He ducked back into the bathroom.

"At three," Roz said to moist, vacant space in the doorway. "But afterward, can I borrow your car?"

"Sure, I won't be home until late," he called out. She heard water slapping at the bowl of the sink. Later, smelling lemony, he kissed her on the forehead on his way out. Then she went through his dresser looking for extra cash and a credit card that she could use, if she had to, for dinner the next night.

Behind the wheel of John's solid, purring car Roz felt like an impostor and believed it was some voodoo that propelled her up the avenues, rather than any particular action of hers.

The magic left her when she tried to park. Little Chinatown was crowded, the narrow streets congested, and when she wedged her back end into a too-small space and couldn't go any farther, cars piled up behind her, laying on horns. Under her coat, her shirt's armpits dampened. Finally maneuvering out, she ended up paying to park blocks from her destination--the address ripped from her notebook, crumpled in her clammy palm. It's a bad omen, she thought. Her feet kicked through sodden leaves to 929 W. Argyle. When she was buzzed up, she was 20 minutes late.

"Roz!" Ghan stepped out from behind a door, arms raised in exclamation points. From the face of his belt buckle a semi rushed out at her.

They hugged, then looked. They were the same height, but his hair was longer, darker, his cheekbones more chiseled, his hips slimmer, his nostrils more fine. He wore a billowy shirt tucked into faded Levis. The lift of cowboy boot heels molded an arch into his back. Roz felt ungainly, boring. He led her through the door, the odor of old smoke in closed quarters, of burnt oil and fish, pressed upon her.

"You think you never see me again?" he asked, putting his fist under her chin and wiggling. He squinted tight at her, then nudged her chin upward and laughed.

She smiled back falsely. "How are you doing?" The mossy smoke smell sank into her clothes.

He turned and spoke in Thai to three men sitting on a gold sofa covered in plastic. The men smoked and cocked their heads at her, spoke back, ran their eyes up and down. One man shrugged, turned his gaze back toward the soundless TV flickering in the corner, then commented.

"He say you're beautiful,"

Ghan told her.

"Thank you," she said, but no one was listening. She held her purse in front of her with both hands. Like the furniture, she was too big for the room. She noticed the small altar high on the wall, some orange silk flowers swooping from a ceramic vase, and videotapes lined up in a chrome and glass case. As they conversed, she strained to hear familiar words. She sometimes heard Ghan's laughter, but no one else's.

"They want to know how long is your law school," he asked eventually.

"Oh! Three years. Just one more year to go." The Thai conversation continued. Roz registered that it was a Sony stereo, that all three men had on large jade rings, plated gold chains, V-necked white T's under short-sleeved checked shirts.

"They want to know what kind law you study for."

"Business law. But it's kind of hard to explain. Do they speak English?"

"Of course we speak English," the smallest man said without moving his eyes from the TV screen. Ghan laughed. "Come on. Now we go." He got his coat and guided her out to the hall. In the harshly lit corridor she spied a few longish hairs poking out of his chin. She remembered that Asian men didn't shave as often, that they didn't need to, that their skin was as soft all over as the underside of her arm.

"This is my boyfriend's car. I live with my boyfriend. He's a lawyer. This is his car," Roz said when she pushed the button that unlocked the doors. The hulking vehicle sounded a high beep.

Even though she was driving, even though she was in her own city, in her own country, on her own side of the world with John's bed to climb into and a career in front of her so close she could almost smell it, Roz felt waves of the exotic pliancy she had succumbed to the last weeks in Thailand. "Are you hungry?" she asked. "Where do you want to eat?"

He didn't care. She tried to drive with confidence, slouched lower in her seat than usual, passed cars and pushed through lights that she would have halted for alone. She chose Da Nicola, a trattoria with valet parking. As they were led to their table, she imagined a hundred eyes following the clean-cut white girl and the Asian with rock star attitude. She tried to make herself small enough to fold gracefully into the miniature table offered them. She fumbled with her coat, looked for a place to set her boxy purse. Ghan slipped in across from her and watched her movements. Then his eyes scanned the room; he just glanced at the people staring.

This is the States, she told herself. Don't be self-conscious. But she still felt the prickly heat of the worst times in Thailand. After the weekend in the Hua Hin they meandered, at his insistence, through the polyglot towns dotting Thailand's Burmese border. Karen and Burmese and Mon people clustered there, either profiting from smuggling or running from tyranny--she didn't understand the situation, she was never sure which. Many men wore sarongs, some of them walked with buffaloes. Women with dry, creased faces strolled with metal bowls balanced on their heads. Every time Ghan touched her she felt that white people averted their eyes and Asians noticed, clucked, and disapproved. "They ask me if you are with me," he'd tell her, after they had pulled away from a shack that boasted one petrol pump and a cluster of dusty-legged children who gathered round the red car. "Everywhere we go, people are saying where did they meet? Where did I meet you?" Approaching the military checkpoints that dotted the narrow mountain roads, she felt like a whore and a desperate, graceless customer all wrapped into one. "If they ask you, tell them I'm your boyfriend," he'd instruct as the soldiers spread before them like a stain. "They don't care if you are farang." Finally, frightened of depending on another's whim so far from home, Roz begged Ghan to take her back to Kanchanaburi. She swore a dozen times that she'd pay him back the money he spent on her, and then called her parents, for the first time in months, collect and in tears.

"Can I get you anything from the bar?" the waiter asked, holding his hands together near one hip.

"Ghan? Do you want some wine? A beer?"

"Some soda water." Ghan leaned forward on his elbow and circled his hand around an imaginary glass, grinning up at the waiter. "You know, clear soda water. With some lemon, please. That's what I want." He nodded and leaned back.

"The same," said Roz, who actually wanted hers half full of vodka but didn't dare.

They were silent as they studied the menu. Roz scanned the prices and surmised that even without wine this would be a 60-dollar meal. She wondered who would pick up the tab, whether she should offer now to repay the $300 that she'd said she'd send him.

"So tell me again, what have you been doing?" She rested her forearms on the table, which was finally laid and covered with white paper.

He laughed at her, pushed back his chair a little, and put his palms against his flat stomach as if he were a happy fat man, and full. "What have you been doing?" he mocked in a high voice and flat American tones. "Roz!" He smiled. She noticed a gold-and-jade ring on his right hand. She didn't think it had been there before. She noticed his crooked fingers, and remembered that he had told her about soldiering on the border of Cambodia, threading through mined jungles, and how he had gotten his hands smashed by Khmer soldiers who moments later casually greeted the leader of his platoon.

"Is that a new ring?" she asked. "Let me see." He put his hand beside her plate and bent forward. She rubbed the light jade with one finger, pinched the gold between two more. "It's beautiful." Then her vision was clouded by the tent of his hair and she felt his lips press into her forehead. She jerked up in time to see him settling back into his chair, grinning.

"What have you been doing?" he echoed again. "I have many ring like this one. You like this one? I have many. This ring, thing like this is what I have been doing." He looked at her intently. "You understand?"

She did not understand. He talked about goods that you could buy or sell in India, Burma, Switzerland, Germany, Thailand, the USA, Japan. "It's just in buying something here, knowing when, how to get it, how to move it best there." She listened closely, regarded him seriously, because between the empty phrases coming through his plum lips she thought she read the possibility of making big money, fast. "Germany is my main place. Many contact there.

I have apartment. Very good one, in Hamburg. I keep it, even though I'm never there. You go there, you can stay in my apartment. Look." He leaned into one denim buttock and lifted a large wallet from his back pocket, fumbling through its bulges until he found a blue-and-white plastic card, which he set on the table triumphantly. "Look. There."

It could have been a membership to a video rental club. She couldn't read it. She looked straight at him. "So what are you saying, exactly? You buy what? Jewelry, craft stuff, in Asia and sell it to shops in Germany?

Make a big profit?"

"Everything," he said, squinting at her. "Everything. I go all over the world. This is good business." He nodded thoughtfully.

When the food came, he pushed the plate forward and put his elbows on the table, his chin on his hands. He watched her season her pasta primavera. "I want to go home with you tonight," he said as she took her first bite.

Roz had trouble swallowing. "Oh, no, you can't. I live with my boyfriend. I told you on the phone, I live at my boyfriend's apartment now." She tried to keep her face blank and voice light but she felt the frown.

"So you live with your boyfriend?" Ghan picked up his fork and reached across the table into her pasta bowl, twirled the noodles there.


"I don't believe you," he said. He popped the ball of food into his mouth and smiled.

"Why don't you believe me? It's true," Roz's face felt tight. "We've been together for almost two years. His name is John. What?" Her hands, tensed around their utensils, lay on each side of her plate. Ghan used his fork to slip two of her broccoli florets into his spoon, then he ate them.

"Calm down," he said, chewing. "Why get excited? Sure.

I believe you." He grinned again and shrugged, swallowed.

"I told you on the phone."

"No problem. No problem. You have nowhere to take me? No problem. In my country, at that time, I had nowhere to take you. We are friends, right?" His eyes twinkled and his mouth pursed; his full lips were wider than they were long. "Maybe we can go to one hotel."

"I told you, Ghan, I live with my boyfriend. Stop it!" She looked down and used her fork to toss aside the vegetables wrapped up in her pasta.

"Yes. One nice one. One nice American hotel. We pay with Visa card."

"Look, can't we just be friends? I told you on the phone."

"You still have problem with your Visa card? Remember me calling for you about that one? Remember at that bank? You were always crying. You always getting so upset about that! I told you everything would be OK for you."

"Yes. Well, it's all worked out, now. I mean, I'm still paying, but it's all worked out. I guess I owe you some money, huh? I know I forgot to ever send you that money like I said I would. It's just that things were so tight." Roz bent to the floor to pick up her purse. "How much?" she said with her head still below the table. "Three hundred? Should I pay you interest? Four?"

"I don't need money," he waved her away dismissively when she straightened. Blood was in her face, her checkbook was in her hand. He leaned toward her. "I have lot of money. Dollar. Mark. Baht. I have lot of it. Then, not so much, but I paid for you like one friend."

"Let me write you a check."

"Very good girl," he singsonged to her. He pinched her on the chin again. "Good to your boyfriend, now, huh? You marry this one?" Roz twisted away from his hand and slapped at the air. "Calm down. No problem. I'm joking with you."

When the waiter took the plates away, asked if anything was wrong with the untouched food and whether or not Ghan wanted it wrapped, he shook his head no and ordered a coffee.

He sipped noisily. "I don't need money from you," he said, although she had not offered again. "But I do need one receiving agent in America.

One agent I can trust, and lawyer like you would be good."

"Oh, I don't know anything about that," Roz said.

"No need to know anything," said Ghan, picking up the bill and opening it. "One agent would only need to receive some package. Some package from Thailand, India. Maybe Germany. Somewhere like that." He reached into his wallet and pulled out $50, then a blue bill. "Look. Here some German mark. You ever see that? This one worth maybe $30."

Roz took the bill. "Just receive packages?"

"It's nothing. But for money. Yes. You would get some money. Depending. But, let's just say, something like $1,000, $500 for one small package. Just to start."

"What? What are these packages? Some kind of drugs?"

Ghan leaned toward her. "Don't. Be. Ridiculous," he said. "You are lawyer. Of course nothing would be illegal."

"I'm not a lawyer yet. Not until next year. Besides, why does it matter if I am a lawyer if all I do is receive packages?" She narrowed her eyes at him. "What's in the packages? Something that's supposed to stay in the country? Some Thai Buddhas?"

"This is just some business. Some package of item. Maybe later." He shrugged. "You need some money, right? You want to be one agent? Let me see your pen."

"I don't understand," said Roz, slipping the pen from her wallet and giving it to him. "How can this be legal? No. No. I can't do it. No."

"OK, then," said Ghan, clicking the pen tip in and out. "No problem. If you change your mind, you call. We talk some more about this agency, about the money." There was silence for a minute as he scratched on the table's paper surface. Roz craned her neck to read. He ripped out a semicircle of written-on covering, folded it twice, and gave it to her. She put it in her purse.

"Now we go to one hotel, right?" He stood and threw his napkin at her.

"No!" she said. He laughed and started walking toward the door. She followed after him, struggling into her coat, moving her purse from hand to hand. Her nervousness and tinny anger, his beauty and oblique ways, made her feel like a flustered old granny, tripping over rules and written authorizations while he glided seamlessly on, out the doors and to the valet.

She let him drive John's car. When he pulled up to the building on Argyle, she let him draw her to his side of the seat and kiss her. The thin shell of her resistance crushed then, and a relieving stream of desire poured out. For the first time all night she felt like his equal. He smelled like nothing. His lips were dry and pillowy. Perhaps everything could work out more easily than she had hoped. She twined one hand in his hair and remembered how his body's planes suggested the greatest potential energy in the least amount of space, how his belly was turtle hard. His hand burrowed underneath her shirt to the skin on her waist, ran coolly there, up under her bra, to her breast. His mouth fluttered from her neck to her ear. "I remember this one," he whispered, and squeezed.

She pushed away, slid back to the passenger side of the car. "Get out now, Ghan," she said.

"I have to go home."

"Very good girl!" He reached over and squeezed her cheeks till her mouth puckered. "Call me about some business," he said. Then he groped at her covered breast, laughed like a boy when she swatted him, and was gone.

Roz drove off haltingly, and tried to blot him out of her mind with school. "It is essential that the appearance of authority of the agent be caused by acts of the principal, Walker v. Pacific Mobile Homes, 1979." It was the answer to the one question she knew with certainty that she had missed on the test that afternoon.

Braking sharply for far-off lights, never sure whether she had the right of way, Roz drove not to John's place, but home to her own. She hadn't been there in weeks, and the junk mail that couldn't fit into her flimsy mailbox was piled in the entryway underneath a yellow note. Please make arrangements for your mail when you are on a long vacation!! I think that this pile may be illegal!!! Please pick it up! She walked right by it.

The narrow stairway, wallpapered mauve, and the carpeted steps, littered with bits of cat hair and fuzz, embraced her like a terry robe. When she turned on the lights and looked around the studio, her eyes filled with tears. It's mine. This is mine. It's my home, she thought, taking in the spindly shadow puppets, the applique tapestries drooping low on the walls. She sat on the bed and wrapped herself in the Hmong quilt she still owed on. There was a dead plant on the kitchenette windowsill. There were toothy gaps in the bookshelves, and dust had settled there. Roz sat, wrapped and rocking, for a long time. She soothed herself with stories about her global artifacts, remembering the price of each one--mere pennies! When the phone rang once, it startled her.

She listened in horror to the silence that followed. She knew the signal was transferring, that the caller was being bounced to John's home. What if it was Ghan, and John picked up? The phone in her hand hummed out a dial tone. "I'm here," she said to no one.

She didn't even need paper anymore to do her math. She owed $13,000 on three credit cards. She had $50,000 in law school loans, and more to come. Her parents would probably settle for a token. John, she knew, floated her free. Seventy thousand dollars, she thought. Seventy thousand dollars fast, or all in a chunk, and I'll stop accruing interest. I'll be out of debt clean. She wondered, calmly, if Ghan was dealing drugs. What else could it be? Gems? Smuggled antiques? She decided it would be better simply not to care. She pulled her purse to her lap. She was a young American woman, she told herself. She couldn't help it. What did she know?

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Mark Debernardi.

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