Koh Chang. Elephant Island. I looked up from my feet, clear beneath the warm water, and back to the golden shore. The water was up to my waist, and my hands rested on the surface of the sea as though it were a table. This would be our last family vacation before moving back to “the States,” as we called America. The imminent, quickly approaching end to an era of my life—childhood—did not seem real. I felt excited about starting 10th grade somewhere new and the social attention I might garner as the new girl, but vaguely conscious of the great loss of the only home I had known and aware of the possibility that life might be harder, not easier, in the future.
We had heard about Koh Chang from other missionary friends, and indeed it was as stunning and perfect and cheap and un-touristy as so many of the other islands and beaches we had visited over the fifteen years living in Thailand. This one journey would be our first and last trip. Usually we took vacations with other family friends or visiting relatives, but this time it was just our tight five person unit, feeling strangely close in our unspoken but shared sense of mourning. One more day of idyllic nothingness and then we would head back to bustling Bangkok to pack up house and home for good.
Across the sparkling ripples, my mother sunbathed, my sister, back from a year of college in the States was reading another enormous novel as she periodically flipped over to make sure her back and front were equally tanned, and my father hid his freckly Michigan skin in a hammock slung between two coconut trees. Bennett, my brother, sat in the foam, adjusting his snorkeling gear. I dove under the water. Maybe I should catch him before he swam out and go snorkeling too. It didn’t make me as nervous to encounter sea slugs or urchins or to have the rocks and coral feel close to my body with someone else. I resurfaced, my hair long and sleek on my back behind me.
Two other families had arrived at our resort, if you could call the cluster of bungalows and open air restaurant a resort, the day before, and I could see them approaching the beach from their huts. It was an interesting group. There were two men, two women, a few small children, and two teenagers my age, maybe older. They must have been European because none of the women wore the tops to their bikinis. After all the years of being disgusted and then fascinated by the foreign nudity in contrast to our Evangelical modesty, I had settled on being shamefully envious. I knew it was wrong, but it looked wonderful. Moreover, it seemed less complicated and much more natural. What would it be like to not worry about your nipples showing through? Or to regularly see your mom’s breasts? I remembered the last time I had seen my mom nude, when I was three-years-old and accidentally walked into the bathroom, to her horror, while she was showering. I looked down at my own swimsuit, a solid bright blue unflattering swath of material that came high up on my chest and nice and low on my hips, just as it should be. It was simple and modest, unlike the two pieces I secretly borrowed when I went to the pool with my best friend, whose parents were not missionaries or even Christians. I felt, albeit guiltily, that it was a waste to hide my body, aware that it was in its teenage prime—the best it would ever be.
My mom peered up from her magazine and over at the new families, also curious but nervous about them. The parents were laughing and yelling as the children galloped splashing into the calm water. Bennett glanced over and looked right back down at his goggles. I wondered what it was like for a boy to see boobs out in the open like that, not some big, recently pregnant woman nursing her baby under her T-shirt, but attractive women of all sizes and ages frolicking in the bright light. I would like to ask him. The teenagers were particularly fascinating. They were heading deep into the water, diving under and coming up together. Holding hands. I felt awkward watching, so I headed to shore. “Rebecca!” Bennett called, mask and snorkel in hand, walking with giant steps to avoid falling over huge fins. “Do you want to come with me? I saw a sting ray yesterday.”
“Yeah, I’ll come.” I looked back over at the boy and girl and they were now kissing, arms around each other, naked chests pressed together, in water up to their shoulders. What did their parents think? Nearby, they were still talking loudly to one another and helping the little ones. They didn’t seem to care or even notice.
Later on, after lunch, we decided to ride out to the waterfall in the middle of the island. There was only one motorcycle to rent, so Dad would have to give us rides, one at a time. It wasn’t supposed to be far, and he was excited to have something to do that did not have to do with the beach. “Sun, sand, and salt,” he always said. “Three things I hate.”
I was the last to go, so I waited by myself under the coconut trees while he took my sister. I tried to read my book—a Beatles biography embarrassingly called “The Love You Make,” which I made a point to explain to anyone who would listen was based on the last line to the last song they ever recorded—but it couldn’t keep me interested. The parts about peeing on the nuns and trying drugs for the first time with Bob Dylan (or was it Bob Marley?) and John exploring homosexuality had been interesting, but I had a hard time staying focused on cold, grey England and Cynthia Lennon wanting to get divorced. Even Yoko Ono was annoying and boring.
The French families—my sister, the French speaker among us, had identified the language—were passing me on their way to the restaurant for lunch, T-shirts and loose dresses thrown over their minimal swim suits. I tried to slip further into the hammock where I was lying. I wondered if they even noticed me. The girl my age turned and said something with a smirk to one of the older women and then kept her eyes locked on the path while she walked by. She was gorgeous. Perfect, in the exotic, foreign-girl-at-the-beach-way, like a model in a bikini spread in Seventeen. It felt like she was intentionally ignoring me, but in a moment like that you never know. Maybe I was invisible, all alone in my boring old blue bathing suit and plain brown hair. The parents ignored me, the small children too, but the boy my age, behind them all, glanced over. I tried to focus on my page as he walked by, but at the last second I had to take a glance at his face from close up. And he peeked at mine too. But he didn’t smile or acknowledge me. It felt as though he was embarrassed he didn’t have the discipline to keep himself from rubbernecking at the ugly American splayed on the hammock.
“Rebecca!” My dad called from the road too loudly. “You ready?”
I gathered my book and woven, hill tribe shoulder bag and ran to hop on the back of the motorcycle. When we were kids he used a motorcycle to scoot around Bangkok—ostensibly to avoid the traffic though we all knew he just loved the thrill. Along with all the other sputtering mopeds, he would dart between standing lines of huge trucks, smoke-spewing buses, and Mercedes Benzes. But after he fell one time and landed with the searing motorcycle exhaust pipe pressed into his thigh, requiring a skin graft from his other leg, my mother demanded that we sell the vehicle.
Beyond the coconut trees of the beach, the island cleared to scrub, and without the cooler air from off the water, the beating sun felt garish and the wind hot instead of refreshing. I wished I were the French girl on the back of the motorcycle with the French boy, instead of my dad. I wished I were 20, one of the crazy tourists with dreadlocks and a big backpack, who looked like her life was something out of one of the movies they played at the resort bar after dark. The road was red dirt, and I watched it puff up behind us and rest, waiting, undisturbed before us. A small bright green snake appeared on the path. The scooter barely missed the serpent as it slowly made its way in an S shape to the grasses on the far side of the road. It looked like one of the vipers that the gardener had found in the courtyard at our apartment one time. The image of the fluorescent green, glossy ribbon on the dusty red earth was imprinted in my mind and would be for years to come.
The waterfall was a wonder in the middle of the dry island. With cold, clear water dumping off a ledge of rock into a pool surrounded by lush jungle palms and gnarled, veiny, monstrous trees, it felt like a miracle.
My dad and I made our way to an outcropping that reached into the middle of the pool. My mom and sister, Melanie, had arranged towels to sit on and pulled out snacks: rice cakes, Pringles, and sugared, dried tamarind. My brother was snorkeling in the murky deep waters near the waterfall’s ledge, something I would never dream of doing nor admit that I was afraid of. I watched him with envy—not for the act itself, but for how little he thought about it. It was easy for him to be brave. I sat next to my sister, who looked to be in the last quarter of her book. I studied her, waiting for her to notice. The Idiot. It looked far more boring than my Beatles biography.
I leaned back and sat with my brown legs stretched before me, feet crossed, elbows resting behind. My mother left to snorkel with my brother—those two were cut from the same cloth—and my dad napped meters away from us, shaded.
“What do those French people talk about?” I asked, after waiting without success for her to acknowledge my presence.
Her eyes moved faster over the words. I wasn’t sure she heard me as she flipped a page. When the wait had been long enough that I had almost gotten up the nerve to snorkel in the deep pool with Bennett and my mom, she held out her finger, telling me to wait. At last, she looked up, book still open. “They might be Belgian,” she said, shading her eyes with her hand as she looked towards me.
“Okay. But what do they talk about?”
“I can’t really tell. It’s hard to listen in on conversations that aren’t in your first language. I think the guy and girl are boyfriend and girlfriend, and the two families are friends.”
Really helpful information. “Uh huh,” I said, watching as some pale, blonde Westerners with painful looking red lines of raw sunburn crisscrossing their backs climbed the slippery stone face with their hands and feet to get to the top of the waterfall. “Can you imagine kissing your boyfriend in front of your mom?” I asked.
“No,” she laughed. “Definitely not. Especially in our family. Were they kissing?” I wondered what she could possibly be reading that would keep her from noticing their half-nude public displays of affection. I pulled out a rice cake with a swirl of crispy caramel on top and took a crunchy bite.
“Yes, they were. In front of everyone. With hardly any clothes on.” We sat quietly for a moment, as I munched and swallowed and hoped she would not lift up her book again. “How bad do you think that is?” I asked, glancing at her face.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, how sinful is that? Could a Christian do something like that?” She smiled, almost shyly, and looked at me.
“I don’t know. Don’t we believe that once you are saved, you’re always saved? I guess the question is, would a real Christian do something like that?”
“Umm, I don’t know?” Her brain moved too fast for me.
She pulled out a rice cake of her own. “Think about it like this. Thai people think we’re inappropriate for showing our legs. They don’t care about bare boobs, but bare legs—all the way up the thigh—that is totally inappropriate. Are they wrong or are we wrong?” Melanie watched me process.
“Of course that’s different. They just have different ideas of what’s appropriate,” I said.
“No.” She pushed her point. “They probably think we’re sinning or doing the equivalent of sin in Buddhism.”
“Well, it doesn’t matter, because that’s not true.” I shrugged my shoulders.
Melanie smiled another small smile. “So you’re the authority on truth?” Her eyebrows went up and down, and she sighed, tapping her rice cake on the towel under her. “I know what you’re saying. But what if we aren’t right?”
“What?” I recoiled.
“What if what we believe is just as right as what Thai people or French people believe? Who knows?”
I was dumbfounded, not by the idea itself, but by the fact that she was saying something so wrong. “Melanie, we know that God is the truth and that what the Bible says is right, and that’s what we follow. That’s why Mom and Dad do what they do. That’s why we live here.” I felt a fluttering in my belly. I was afraid, afraid for her. “How could you say that?”
“Whatever. Don’t get so upset.” She was annoyed, not sympathetic with my confusion. “I just, kind of, stopped believing in God one day last semester. I was out on the quad reading for my philosophy class, and suddenly, I stopped believing. My faith was gone.”
My stomach lurched. I felt it bottoming out. But before I could respond or vomit or do anything else, she continued, oblivious to my physical pain. She looked at me, lost in the remembering of her experience. “It was sad and lonely, really, really empty and scary, that place I was in. But then I started believing again. Just like that. A couple hours later, at bed time. But I realized in that moment, or those moments, that I can’t ever really know.”
I felt like I didn’t know her any more. Who was this person who was supposed to be my sister? She seemed like a stranger, a fellow foreigner on an overnight bus to Chiang Mai, not part of the family, not a chosen one. I could not think of one thing to say. “That makes me really sad,” I whispered.
“It’s okay,” she said, looking as concerned as she ever did, which was not very. “I believed again, didn’t I?”
“I guess so.” I took a deep breath. “That just really doesn’t seem like a wise thing to do. It scares me.”
“Well, I found comfort in that passage that says, ‘Knock and the door will be opened. Seek and you shall find.’ If we seek answers, God is supposed to provide them.” This felt to me like a stretch or abuse of the Bible, but I thought I would let it go.
That night we returned to the hotel’s own little beachside restaurant for dinner. I ordered prawn tempura—a slightly pricier menu item, and the plate they brought to me could not have fit another giant, pale yellow, delicately crispy prawn on it. There were so many, and each one was enormous.
The Belgian families were coming in to be seated and they too observed my mountain of delicious, gently fried seafood being served. For the first time they seemed to notice our existence, or at least our food’s existence, and they oohed over the grandeur of the platter. I sat behind the pile of shrimp, and blushed beneath my sunburn, avoiding eye contact. One of the fathers leaned over when he was seated and asked my dad, behind him, to point to the dish on his paper menu as the whole group of them laughed.
It was a rare moment of connection with people outside our own family circle. It almost felt like we could be friends with them if we spoke the same language. I watched the same father trying to ask a member of the Thai waitstaff a question in broken English. The server was a fit young man bent forward with his ordering notepad behind him as he nodded and smiled kindly. “It only a little spicy. I think you like it,” he said, as the father nodded, his brow furrowed with the effort of communicating with someone in a language not native to either of you.
Minutes later the server brought out an aluminum Coca Cola platter covered with icy Singha beer bottles. He placed them on the table and they were passed around, even to the teenagers. The girl, wearing a white strapless dress, reached for one, and her delicate, olive-toned shoulders gleamed as her boyfriend, next to her, whispered something in her ear. I could almost feel his hot breath tickling my cheek through the loose hair around my own face.
But the feeling of community and elusive hope that perhaps we—practically alone in the spacious restaurant save for the heavy drinkers up at the bar—could all stay up late into the night talking and laughing as one big group was lost. Not only were the parents drinking, their children were even allowed to partake. I saw my dad notice, sigh, and shake his head in disappointment, the way he did when we watched a rare movie that included the d word, the s word, or, heaven forbid, the f word. I had only learned of the existence of that last one pretty recently. Up until then I had thought it was for farts, or stinkers, as we more politely called them. I remembered my dad spitting out a venomous “farthead” as he had dealt with a rude Bangkok driver recklessly cutting him off on a busy street only weeks ago. It had stunned me into silence at the time. I didn’t know he could get so angry, and he had apologized for using the crude word letter. I took a swig of my own frosted bottle of Green Spot, a Thai version of orange soda, and felt thankful that my parents had let us each order one.
Not long after, we quietly returned to our bungalow. I could hear the families’ voices getting louder and the laughter more frequent as the food and drinks continued to float around the table. I looked back at them, their faces lit and grinning as they leaned in towards each other beneath the high brush ceiling while the small children played in the sand just beyond the restaurant floors. Then I looked towards the beach and the expanse of ocean beyond, a trail of white leading across the mirror of black water to the moon where it was rising in the dark sky. The beauty, even then, was aching. I knew that nothing else in the future would compare. We often joked to friends and family in the States that beaches or even swimming anywhere else in the world was spoiled after living in Thailand. My longing almost burst through my chest, but there was nothing to do but head back to our cozy one room and eat frosted sugar cookies my mom had made and brought with us from home in a huge plastic-lidded tangerine-colored Tupperware bowl. I took mine to the front porch and climbed into the hammock. My brother came out and scooted around until he fit in next to me. We listened to the quiet lull of the ocean lapping the shore. “Bennett. Do you think we could ever be friends with people like that?” I whispered.
With Bennett, you could see the wheels spinning and whirring in his head while he thought. And I loved that he knew exactly who I was talking about. “I guess so.” The hesitation of his answer barely put it across the line into the yes category. “The problem is that they’re going to hell, so if we’re going to be friends with them, we can’t let that happen without doing something.”
I chewed the inside of my mouth in silence. He was right. How could you relax and have fun with people if you knew you were just letting them make sinful choices? “But what if you ignored that part and trusted that God would take care of it?” I asked him cautiously, just needing to hear the true, safe answer without being judged for wondering. I hadn’t had time to process the earlier conversation with my sister yet.
“You can’t. It would be wrong. If you have the truth, you have to share it. So you can be nice and friendly, but I don’t think you can really be friends.”
I knew his response was purely philosophical since one of his best friends, Kazu, was Japanese Buddhist–definitely not a Christian, but I knew that he also truly meant what he was saying. I knew that he was saying what our parents had taught us to believe and that if they were right, it was true. I knew also that there was something missing, a piece that for me didn’t fit or maybe would never fit. I wanted to ask him if he still couldn’t sleep at night due to his nightmares about all the people going to hell, but I knew that was a secret I wasn’t supposed to know about.
The heaviness and fear I felt about the loss of that place of beauty, beauty which I knew surpassed anything else I had seen in my life so far and probably ever would see, was mirrored by the fear I felt about my faith, which had been the foundation of my life—even leading my parents to raise us on the opposite side of the planet without grandparents and cousins. After my brother went to bed, I stayed up with my book in the hammock, hungry for something else. Not long ago, the oldest sister in the family of some friends of ours had been visited by an angel while she was praying one night on the porch of a bungalow at a beach resort very similar to this one. I didn’t expect to be visited by an angel because I didn’t have the discipline to put down my book and pray instead of read. But maybe God would know I needed answers to ease my troubled mind, reeling from the revolutionary ideas that invaded earlier.
I knew I was waiting for something, and after my family had all gone to sleep, the Belgian boy and girl returned to the beach, very close to our bungalow. They were putting on snorkeling gear when they noticed our light on, and the boy suddenly called to me, waving. Shocked, I pretended that I did not notice and fixed my eyes on the pages of my book. Moments later I could hear the soft crunch of sand and he appeared, resting his hands on the thick bamboo railing of our porch. His smile was huge under is long disheveled hair as he spoke in a lovely accent, “Hey, you want to come snorkeling with me and my girlfriend?” I looked out at the water’s edge, and she lifted her arm in greeting.
“Okay,” I answered, then shifted my weight out of the hammock. “I’ll be right back.”
“Great! We wait for you,” he said with an even bigger grin.
Sneaking into the large open room of our bungalow, I felt my body overcome with waves of elation and terror. My mother, a very light sleeper, rustled in bed. I found another bathing suit, a slightly more interesting tankini, and slipped into the bathroom. I stood before the mirror and pulled my shirt over my head and studied my face peeking out below it, warm and flushed, excited and scared. I knew that I should just stay and never go back out there, but I couldn’t. I imagined myself lying in bed for hours, imagining what I was missing. After pulling up the bottoms to the bathing suit and the shirt-like top over my head and down until it covered my belly, I looked once more into my eyes in the mirror, imploring. What was I getting myself into?
I walked down to the beach and felt the wet sand warm from the water under my feet. The moon was high now, and its light reflected on the small waves. The boy and the girl were out in the water up to their hips, and he called to me in a loud whisper which bounced off the ocean’s surface. “Over here!” I pulled my mask down over my eyes and nose and walked out to them, uncertain now in the dark water, much more aware of the shells poking my feet on the ocean floor.
When I reached them, their masks and snorkels were also in place. “Let’s go. Follow me!” he said, and I put my face in the water and swam along behind them. It was pitch black beneath the waves, and there was nothing to see. I felt something slide up next to me, and I instinctively pulled myself away and stood up. Again, something tugged at my fingers and at last, I realized it was his hand. Beneath the water now I could see light, and holding his hand, I put my face back in. They both had turned on flashlights, an accessory I had never even thought about. He released my hand, gave me a thumbs-up sign, pointed in the direction we were to go, and then he grabbed my fingers again to my thrilled bewilderment.
We swam, holding hands, with his girlfriend in front of us. I felt ecstatic and confused, overwhelmed to find myself in such an impossible situation. Fish and rays darted in and out of our misty line of vision, illuminated only by the flashlights and the few dim rays of the moon that penetrated the water. We explored the coral and eels along the rocky outer peninsula of our bay, something I had been scared to do even with my parents. When at last we swam back to shore and our feet found their hold in the sand below us, they both turned off their flashlights and he released my hand. I wondered if she had even noticed. But with the flashlights on we had not seen the arrival of millions of bioluminescent plankton that glowed around us in the water as we splashed to shore. We sat in the gentle surf, running our hands through the water, disturbing and illuminating the invisible creatures, foam tickling our legs.