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At Mrs. Balbir’s

Jillian Dunham traveled thousands of miles from home to get away from her grief. It found her anyway, in a stranger’s Bangkok apartment.

Jillian Dunham | Longreads | January 2020 | 12 minutes (3,036 words)

I sat on the edge of the bed in my hotel room in Bangkok and dialed. Below me, longboats and water taxis bounced across the Chao Phraya like motorized toys. As much as I wanted for someone to answer the phone, for something to happen, I also hoped that it would go on ringing forever. I was nervous about contact.

The voice that answered startled me with its warmth. “This is Mrs. Balbir,” she answered. I explained that my aunt and I were interested in the Thai cooking classes she taught, listed in my Lonely Planet. “I teach out of my home,” she explained, and proceeded to give me directions. “Tell the taxi to go towards the end of Sukhumvit Soi 15,” she explained. She described the courtyard in which she lived and the tiny sign outside that identified her building. “Come a little early, we’ll have tea and talk,” she said, her voice sweet but a little unnerving, like a blurry bird’s. It was as if we were already acquainted. I didn’t wait for her to hang up first.

***

I had been on the road for six weeks and was not ready for my trip to end. It was something we’d planned a year earlier, while my mother was dying at home. Supplicated by morphine that she usually resisted, my mother fell asleep for a spell in the late afternoons, and my uncle Dave would pour a glass of wine for me and for his wife, Carole. It was definitely too early to drink, but we would push aside the boxes of alcohol swabs and subcutaneous needles and pour anyway.

I had been on the road for six weeks and was not ready for my trip to end. It was something we’d planned a year earlier, while my mother was dying at home.

Hospice feels like you’ve climbed somewhere very high, where the oxygen is thin and the clouds are at eye level. Time is distorted and it is hard to think clearly, to remember where you are. On the afternoon we were to meet with the hospice director, to sign the papers that would allow us to get all of the morphine and fentanyl we needed — as long as we needed it — I became so disassociated that I went for a five-minute drive to clear my head and forgot entirely about the appointment, tooling around with the windows down on an abnormally warm spring day, until I realized where I was meant to be and tore home half-an-hour late, to find Carole looking at me with a scold in her eyes.

Escape was a necessity of being present in those days, two states existing almost concurrently in my mind, one unbearable without the other. I could not handle the fact of my mother’s dying, but also, I could not fathom being anywhere else. My body wanted to bolt, but I knew that I never could or would. I had to keep a door open, although it could never be used.

In the meantime, Carole and I planned our travel. When she turned 50, my aunt had declared that she wanted to go to a country for every year of her life. (My uncle gamely agreed, so long as he still got his two fishing trips each spring and fall.) She had long surpassed that number, but every year, she came up with new ideas, and every year, they took their travel coffee maker, their thermoses, their REI hats and packable coats and went somewhere very far. I had joined them once, when they went to India. Whenever they were going, I wanted to join them.

While Dave filled and refilled my glass, Carole and I decided to go to Tibet and Bhutan. This was probably motivated by the desperate reading I had been doing while my mother died, Pema Chodron and The Tibetan Book of the Dead, looking for something, anything, to prepare me for what it seemed I could never survive. For Carole, it was simply on her list. She also wanted to visit Kathmandu, because while they had seen it when they hiked to Everest Base Camp, she hadn’t felt she had enough time in the city and wanted to go back.

***

My mother died in late May, 2004. My grandmother had died five months earlier, and I was an only child, so I spent the summer packing up their belongings and closing their bank accounts. In the fall, my aunt sent me a packet on the trip we’d talked about that spring, prospective dates circled and specific sites highlighted. I booked my flight.

I had returned to my old life, but my familiar world had become prohibitively small. I was always bumping up against death and loss. Cold callers dialed my New York apartment asking for my father, who had died 10 years earlier. Letters for my mother and grandmother filled my tiny mailbox. In the evening, I dressed to meet friends, hoping to take my mind off things. Inevitably, I would open one of two closet drawers looking for a belt or a purse, and find instead the two boxes holding my parents’ ashes. Other nights, I made dinner and ate quietly with my boyfriend, who felt paralyzed, unable to help me feel something other than grief. Before bed, one or both of us walked my mother’s dog.

I left early, planning an extra few days in Beijing, where I’d never been. Pope John Paul had died, and on the hotel room television, it was nonstop coverage of the papal conclave. In my room, I watched the gray and black smoke rise from the Vatican. Outside, smog drifted in and out of the low plain, while Chinese media buried all mention of the conclave. It felt right, that things could be hidden. Already, I had landed in a place removed.

We took tiny, exhilarating planes from Beijing to Lhasa and from Lhasa to Paro and from Paro to Kathmandu. Landing at Paro Airport in Bhutan, the pilot told us we should be unconcerned. “You will feel the plane diving like a roller coaster but do not worry, this is normal operating procedure.” Everyone laughed nervously, in on the same joke, but I didn’t. I looked forward instead to the experience of yet another thing I didn’t know or understand.

No one in Beijing or Punakha knew me as a person reeling from grief. No one else knew my personal tragedies but Dave and Carole, who were disinclined to mention them. There was no palpable expectation of me, an outsider, other than a mild hope that I would appreciate things that weren’t mine. I could manage that. I did not need any doors. Outside a stall selling shiny windbreakers and kites in Beijing, in the dark, smoky temple stairwells of the Potala, on streets clogged with traffic following a Bhutanese monarch’s motorcade, during a clear, crisp night devoid of motion but for a few freckled lights on a Himalayan hillside, I was able to make contact with people outside the hovering, dark anxiety of loss. I did so as if such a cloud had never existed for me. It was a wonderful, sweet lie, one I wanted to never leave.

It was in Bangkok that I began to realize that I would have to, eventually.

***

Crammed into a water taxi en route to Wat Pho, shoulder to shoulder with mothers and infants, tourists and monks, dread entered me. My stomach sank further as the taxi weaved down the correct Sukhumvit Soi, as we entered Mrs. Balbir’s apartment, taking off our shoes in the entry and surveying the boxy chambers of a stranger. The table in the dining area was piled with scales, measuring spoons, garlic, pineapples and pomegranates, stalks of pandan leaves, huge claws of ginger. Mrs. Balbir ushered us in, a warm hand on my arm encouraging me to come along.


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There were two others who would be joining us, British women who knew the city and Mrs. Balbir well. While we waited for them, Mrs. Balbir brought us tea and coffee in small flowered cups and began. “I’m an orphan,” she declared. It stung. I was almost offended. How could she talk about this? I eyed my uncle, who had been a salesman all his life and would jump in if he had a story he thought would connect with the company. But he was silent. Mrs. Balbir was talking. In 1967, she explained, her parents had been killed during the riots in Kuala Lumpur. Mrs. Balbir had been with them. She arrived in a hospital with shrapnel from an M16 in her left hip, unidentified for days, until her grandfather read a newspaper dispatch and went to the hospital, nervously hopeful. He brought her home.

Telling her story, Mrs. Balbir was cheerful. I wondered how that was possible. She was a motherless child, too. Today, she said, we would make a curry, a salad, and a fried dish. She gave us tasks and explained the tools we would employ. She was an orphan, and I peeled ginger silently. I would not share anything with her.

When my mother died, one of her friends called another and got the daughter instead. A childhood friend of mine, the daughter couldn’t help herself — “Jill’s an orphan!” she screamed when she heard the news. My mother’s friend was annoyed by the declaration. I wanted to be too, but it seemed hypocritical to be. All I could think about was how I had become an orphan, even if I didn’t want to say it to anyone, or for anyone to say it to me.

Carole and I planned our travel. When she turned 50, my aunt had declared that she wanted to go to a country for every year of her life.

I continued my share of kitchen prep while Mrs. Balbir talked some more. She was educated at a convent, and then sent to live with a cluster of aunts living in Bangkok’s expatriate Indian community. They showed her around, tried to find her a husband. She was 16. Now, at her table covered with a clean cotton tablecloth, she was a little bit like my mother, correcting Dave’s technique, making cracks about the nuns’ enthusiastic punishments. I needed her to be different. Her husband wandered through the dining room in an undershirt and a turban, half-asleep and so quiet as to seem grumpy, like my father awakened by my friends and I watching Saturday morning cartoons. “Don’t mind him,” Mrs. Balbir giggled.

She met her husband then, she said. When she was so young. She had been so vulnerable, she said, but he had not seen her that way. He saw her as capable and strong, someone who would be even stronger with a home of her own, a partner and a purpose, with the tools one uses in life. He wanted to help her into the future. I told myself I couldn’t possibly be like her. I was too privileged. At 29, I thought I was too old. I did not need a husband. I did not need new tools. Most of all, I did not want to need anyone.

The other ladies chatted about traffic patterns and drivers and compared vegetable markets, declaring Mrs. Balbir’s choice superior. I studied the pomegranates as if they might tell me something. The British ladies inquired about us, our strange family troupe, assuming I was a daughter, not a niece. I glanced quickly at Dave, but he resisted. I kept to my pile of fruit while he explained that we were not really related, not by blood. My widowed grandmother had married his widowed father. We all liked to travel, mostly. There was nothing extraordinary about our being together.

Mrs. Balbir showed us how to prepare our ingredients. She took a wide, waxy pandan leaf and braided it around a piece of chicken. She did it again, so we could follow, with our own leaves and our own knobs of chicken. The leaves were stalky and straight and it seemed unlikely they would stay wrapped around the chicken, but Mrs. Balbir dismissed these concerns. We would see. Mrs. Balbir was like my mother, as all cooks are alike in their singular devotion to a method. But Mrs. Balbir’s method was not my mother’s. She was carefree and forgiving, generous with the measuring spoons. My mother was precise and elegant. She craved information. For my mother, the chemistry of pineapples with pomegranates, coconut milk with Thai chilies — these things resulted in flavor. These things were beautiful in their mathematical relationships with each other. Magic in cooking appealed to her only if the trick worked, and then she had to know how it was done. She would never leave those things up to chance, the way Mrs. Balbir did. Carole had cooked often with my mother. Their methods were similar, and as I watched her wield the pandan leaves, looking skeptically at Mrs. Balbir, it was not hard to imagine my mother’s blunt frustration. Carole wanted more information as well. She wanted to see where she was going, as I did, as my mother had.

Then, Mrs. Balbir brought out a stack of tarot cards and asked us each to take one. This was definitely not part of the method. Mrs. Balbir described her belief that a person’s cooking reflects whatever they feel at the time, that those who eat the cooking will feel the emotions of the cook. The tarot cards represented emotional interpersonal concepts: affection, confidence. She believed that aspects of our characters reflected in the tarot would make up the flavor of the meal. She asked us to look at our cards and remember them during the lesson. I wondered — maybe I shouldn’t be cooking at all. I didn’t want anyone else to have a dose of what lay within me. My card didn’t make sense, anyway. It represented confidence. Everyone else had the cards I wanted: love, compassion, protection.

There was a large window in Mrs. Balbir’s kitchen, and the stove was below it. Steam rose from several pots, one with a curry, another full of oil for frying the chicken. I stood over the iron wok with a strainer, and everyone dropped their knobs of chicken and pandan leaves in, thinking or not thinking about their tarot cards. I was thinking about my mother, and about Carole. Dave was talking about wines from Argentina, the glories of a good Malbec. I tried to shut away my hot shame about the tarot cards and the prospect of sharing anything. I focused on the little green braids of chicken bobbing in the oil. They bounced off each other in a lake of fat. Outside the city made foreign noises: strange sirens and horns from cars, strange songs on strange radio stations, strange words shouted between a mother and a child.

Mrs. Balbir described her belief that a person’s cooking reflects whatever they feel at the time, that those who eat the cooking will feel the emotions of the cook.

Mrs. Balbir stood behind me and warned about the oil. It seemed fine. I cooked at home and knew how to predict the behavior of oil. I kept stirring, pulling the braids out and laying them on a plate. “Remember your tarot cards, everyone?” she asked, her thistle’s voice rising above the bubbling pots and clattering dishes in the sink. We were playing her favorite game, the most wonderful game, cooking. I was afraid of her — afraid of her happiness, afraid her buoyant mood would never reside in me, or if it did, that I would be unable to protect myself from the inevitable crash. The British ladies opened one of the braids and marveled at how the chicken was cooked. I shuddered at how it might taste in the event my essential self were somehow transmitted to the food. No one shared my concern. They were marveling at the dishes. The oil splattered unexpectedly, and suddenly my eyes were on fire.

I put the strainer down and backed away from the stove. My eyes welled fast and I strode to the bathroom, where I closed the door. I wondered if anyone had seen the oil splatter, had seen me leave, had seen my eyes full of tears. I hoped not. I was relieved to be in the bathroom alone, with a door to shut. Sitting on the toilet with a washcloth to my eyes, I was safe. But my eyes felt as if they were festering. I stood up and looked in the mirror. My face was raw and dotted with pinpricks of red, my eyes glassy and puffy. I looked like a stranger, a woman full of pain, and I began to cry. I wondered whether anyone outside knew how much I needed help. I wondered if they could possibly be helpful. I wanted my mother.

There was a knock on the door, and I came out. Carole looked at me with concern. Mrs. Balbir pushed past her. “All you alright, dear?” she asked. She reached in front of me and took toothpaste from the medicine cabinet, placing it in my hand. “You have welts around your eyes,” she said, reaching for my face. “Put this on and you will feel better.” I did, spreading it in thin layers so no one could see. Everyone asked if I was okay. All I could do was nod. They remarked on the vicious nature of hot oil and left me alone. We brought plates to the table, and bowls filled with curry. My uncle walked around, filling everyone’s glasses with late afternoon wine, and we sat and ate.

I did not taste compassion, because I do not know what it tastes like. I did not taste confidence, or protection. I tasted the buttery sweetness of coconut milk, the cooperative tartness of pineapple and pomegranate. I tasted the inexplicable smoothness of an equation that works out in a satisfying way. In these things there is a door, a way out. In a dish served halfway across the world, or the story of someone you do not know, there is a door. You do not need to take it, but to know it is there. I tasted and swallowed, and with my food went a little of the sharpness in my throat. A person in pain is a small world, one in which necessary resources seem to be in dangerously short supply. It can seem like a dark, deep trap made of wet branches and leaves, seemingly impossible to escape from, and sometimes, it is. I was still filled with dread at the thought of returning to that place. But for a moment in Mrs. Balbir’s apartment, I thought only about taste.

* * *

Jillian Dunham s a writer and editor in New York.

Editor: Sari Botton