h1

Color Blind

Color Blind

by: Matthew E. Dustin

Fiction

Published in The Crucible, a literary magazine, Fall 2006.

In the darkness of the early morning I emerge from my bed. Hands outstretched, reaching. It always seems darker before seven for some reason. I’m not used to getting up this early. I make my way to the bathroom, hand on the wall. I prop open the window with my old toothbrush and the heavy, humid air creeps in. I take a moment to smell the air. I can hear a few faint rain drops on the roof of my apartment.

“It’s been raining through the night Sattah,” I say to my dog. “We’d better leave early if we’re gonna make it there in time.”

It usually takes me longer to get places after it’s been raining. After my shower I walk back down the hallway towards the bedroom, one hand holding the towel around my waste, the other reaching for the wall. The clothes in my closet are organized by color alphabetically. My maid spent a whole day in here last week arranging my matching slacks and shirts on the same hangers. Blacks, blues, browns, greens, grays, tans, and whites. Left to right, top to bottom. At least that’s what she told me. Today is a blue day.

Over breakfast the maid goes upstairs and picks up my clothes I left in the bathroom. She does the same thing every day. First she says with her broken English, “Hello Sir, you eat breakfuss,” as she places a bowl of cereal in front of me. Next, she picks up the pair of shoes I left by the sofa the night before and then upstairs to the bathroom for my clothes. Sometimes I can hear her from another room talking on the phone to one of her friends. I should just fire her for slacking off on the job but she seems so fragile. I’m sure she needs the money; 1,600 Baht a week — it’s only pennies in real money. I’ve never had a maid before her. I don’t know how this whole thing is ever going to work.

“Sattah, come,” I say as I stand from the table. The dog obediently leaves his cushion on the floor by the window and waits patiently by my side for the next command.

“Get your leash,” I say quietly, testing his listening abilities. I hear his agile footsteps move towards the wall by the front door where his leash is hanging. He can’t reach the hook. I move towards the door, “You can’t do anything on your own.”

The rain has let up a little, but I still use the umbrella as I make my way down the sidewalk to the station. Dr. Browning’s office is too far for walking. The subway is crowded and I can feel someone’s arm touching my back, and someone’s foot touching mine. I can tell people are staring at me, wondering why I brought my dog on the metro. Finally, my stop is announced over the loud speaker and I make my way off the car. Dr. Browning is waiting for me at the top of the stairs. “Good morning Michael,” he says in perfect English. Dr. Browning came highly recommended by my last physician. I have done everything he’s asked me to do since our first session last week. I hope he comes through on his end of the bargain.

“Good morning Dr. Browning,” I say as I reach the top of the stairs.

“How was your trip over?” he says intently as he ushers me in to his office with his hand placed firmly around my elbow.

“Oh, it was all right I guess. This city is so crowded; if one more person runs into me on the subway…”

“Tell me about your week, Michael,” he says, cleverly changing the subject.

“Well,” I pause to remember all the things he’d asked me to do. “I hired a maid to help around the apartment. She organized my closet and keeps the house clean.”

“Yes, go on.”

“I got acquainted with Sattah, that’s the name of the dog the clinic decided to give me. They said we are a good match, whatever that means.”

“And how has that been going? Does it seem to be helpful?”

“Yeah, I can get around easier with him by my side. I guess that’s what they’re good for, right?”

“Great,” he says with a little hesitation. “Now Michael, what about that phone call I asked you to make?

“Phone call?” I hesitate, pretending to not remember he asked.

“Michael,” he says in a resolute tone. “The Learning Curve is a great resource for you. I think it would be advantageous for you to take full part in what they have to offer. Many of my patients attend the weekly meetings they host and find it very helpful.”

“I know, I know,” I say grudgingly, “I’ll call down there next week and see when they meet.”

“OK, good,” he says, finally satisfied. “Now tell me about your work. How has that been going?”

“Well, I’m a fifth year associate for Burdick, Grant & Rothenberg. They told me to take as much time as I need to get back on my feet. I told them I’d be in to work on Monday.”

“How are you planning to adapt to your responsibilities?”

“I had my assistant arrange for a few readers to come in throughout the day to help me sort through my latest cases.”

“Great,” he places an envelope in my hand and says, “Here, have your assistant read over these with you; just some helpful material. I’ll see you next week Michael.”

“That’s it?” I say, wondering if our time is up already.

“That’s it, Sawatdii khrap.”

It’s interesting to hear him speak Thai; he sounds just like he belongs here. He must have picked up the language. I refuse to have anything to do with this culture or its people. They’re all lazy. Just one more year and I’ll be hiring partner, and then I can move back where I belong in New York.
“Good-Bye,” I say as I move towards the door. “Oh,” I pause and turn around. “Where did you go to medical school?”

“Cornell,” he says in a matter-of-fact tone.

“That’s where I went to law school. Imagine that!”

“Hey, imagine that; you and I at the same school,” he says, strangely stressing the word “same”.

“What brought you here?” I say puzzled as to why an M.D. from Cornell would choose Bangkok of all places to live.

“I just feel like I belong here.”

 

Today is a gray day. It’s raining hard again. The maid is doing her morning routine; “Hello Sir, you eat breakfuss.” Shoes, stairs, bathroom clothes. This morning I had her put on Chopin while I was getting ready. His music is so mysterious, beautiful, so soothing. It makes me think of better times. It reminds me of life in New York: Broadway concerts, sophisticated people, good conversations, blonde hair. It’s been so long since I’ve seen blonde hair. It’s been so long since I’ve seen anything at all.

“Here your pills,” the maid says, placing them in the palm of my hand. I don’t know why I even try. I’ve lost all hope. Work is a waste of time. My new assistant can’t even read the briefs without stumbling over every other word. When he transcribes my notes and contract drafts on to the computer he can’t get through a single sentence without asking “How you spell?” I shouldn’t have to go through this here.

 

Today is a tan day. I can’t believe I am sitting here at the Learning Curve. This is the last place I want to be after what happened at work today. I was forced to fire my assistant. He just couldn’t keep up with my pace. He told me “he need money, really really!” I told him “I need perfection, really really.” Hopefully the next one will work better, probably not.

I can hear all kinds of people talking around the air conditioner. Don’t they know it’s rude to talk in another language in front of me? Besides, they’re blocking all the cool air.

“OK everyone, let’s get started–Raw ja ruem kanbrachume laew” a middle aged woman says with authority. I hope she isn’t going to translate every word tonight.

“My name is Brapaiwan–Chan chuu Brapaiwan,” she continues. ‘This is going to take forever,’ I think to myself.

“We have a new member with us tonight–Raw mii khon mai yuu gap raw khuen nii. Michael, would you like to introduce yourself?”

“Hello, I’m Michael. It’s nice to see all of you,” I say, trying to be funny. Nobody laughs. Brapaiwan translates what I’ve said, still nobody laughs. The rest of the night is very predictable. People share stories about their dogs, about how they lost their sight or were born blind; all of which I avoid. I start to wonder why Dr. Browning would want me here. What could these people teach me? One old gentleman asked me in his broken English “What your dog name?”

“Sattah,” I told him.

“What?”

“Sattah,” I said again, this time more drawn out.

“Oh, Sattah,” he said, hanging on to the “ah” sound longer. “It mean ‘faith’ in English.”

“Faith,” I said, puzzled by his vocabulary knowledge. Could it really mean faith?

“Yes, you know, like believing but you not see yet.”

“See,” I said, baffled that a blind man would use the word ‘see.’

“Yes,” he quickly replied, “see like you know for sure.” His answer seemed truthful for some reason, full of wisdom. His name is Somchai. He has been blind his whole life.

 

Today is a brown day. Sattah and I are on our way to work. I caught the maid on the phone again with one of her friends this morning. I yelled at her and told her to get back to work. I don’t think she understands a word I say. She is just like that assistant I had to fire last month, always falling short of my expectations. That’s the way things are in the world though. I’m blind; she’s inept to my standard of life. There is no changing life.

“Michael,” an old man’s voice sounded from the back of the car. I didn’t answer; surely there was another Michael on the subway. The passengers around me all got quiet and moved back a few steps. “Michael, it’s me Somchai.” I didn’t respond. It seems like every man I meet here has a name that begins with Som: Somchai, Somsuk, Somboon, Somjai. Combine ‘Som’ with another syllable and you’re Thai.

“Who,” I asked.

“Somchai, from the Learning Curve. We miss you at meetings.”

“Oh yeah, I’ve been really busy lately,” I say hoping my stop comes soon.

“We miss your Sattah.”

“He’s fine,” I said. I can’t believe he’s asking about the dog. I pause in realization over what had just happened. “I thought you said you were blind Somchai,” I asked him.

“Yes,” he stumbles to find the words, “I blind from birth.”

“If you’re blind, then how did you know I was on the subway with you?” Somchai contemplates his answer carefully. My stop is announced overhead and I grab Sattah’s collar.

His only reply, “Like I say, I see like I know.” I say nothing more as I make my way off the car and into the hot haze, feeling perplexed and lost.

 

Today is a green day. It’s been almost a year since the accident and I have seen little progress in my life. I make my way down the stairs in my apartment towards the kitchen. The maid called and said she is running late today; she’s not here yet. I start to pour my own bowl of cereal but then realize that I’m out of milk. “Where’s that stupid maid?” I say. “What does a man have to do to get some breakfuss around here?” I decide to turn on Chopin for a little while, sit in my chair and calm down. The maid finally arrives, half an hour late, and with no milk.

“Market has no milk today,” she says sheepishly. “So sorry.” I pretend I didn’t hear her apology. I know she’s looking at me, waiting for a response but I give her none. “You will eat some khai jiaw?”

“Sure,” I say disgruntled. I hate all the rice they use in every single meal; even rice for breakfast. A few minutes later I hear a plate fall from the counter and shatter on the tile floor. Sattah scurries over to investigate the mess. “Ratdree,” I call her by name and raise my voice, “what is the matter with you?” I can hear her start to cry as she cleans up the broken plate. I think I’ve reached my limit with her, this is the last straw. After a few minutes, she enters the living room where I’m sitting and places her hand on my shoulder.

“I work here no more. I quit working for Sir,” she says as she fights through the tears. The sounds of her footsteps softly disappear into the kitchen and out the back door. She’s gone.

“She had it coming,” I divulge my true feelings to Sattah.

Today is a blue day. I didn’t feel like taking the subway this morning so I walked here with Sattah through the rain. I don’t care if I get wet. My life is starting to fall apart, a little rain wont hurt. At least I can count on Dr. Browning; he’s always been there for me.

“Michael, Dr. Browning will see you now,” the voice behind the counter says. I amble into the office and take my usual place on the leather lounge chair.
“Can you put in Chopin this time while we talk?” I ask. “I can’t stand that Esan crap you have on in the waiting room.”

“Fair enough,” he says. I can tell he is preoccupied with the stereo in the corner of the room. He should just have his little assistant behind the counter do it.

“Hey, you should get one with voice command. That’s what I have and it works great.”

“Alright, now Michael, tell me about your week,” he says in a very serious tone; getting down to business, just like back home. Just like the law. That’s what I like about this guy; none of this fluffy melodrama. Just plain old straight talk, one American to another American.

“Ah, let’s see. I’ve just been made hiring partner at my firm, so I’m headed back home to New York next month.”

“Are you going to miss our beautiful Thailand?” he asks, surely with a sarcastic smile that I cannot see.

“Are you kidding me? These have been the worst years of my life.”

“Oh, why’s that?”

“Thai people are just”- The phone on the desk lights up and beeps, followed by Dr. Browning’s assistant’s voice on intercom.

“Maaw Browning khaa, phanraiyaa phueng tho maa jag roongphaiyaabaan luug chai khong phii good ubathiihead khaa,” she says with urgency. Dr. Browning leans toward the phone and says tranquilly, while holding down the talk button,

“Raw sak yiisib nathii dai mai khrap?”

She replies, “Raw mai dai leuy kha!”

“I’m sorry Michael,” he says to me, “I have to run to the hospital. My son has been in an accident. Can you find your way out please?” Dr. Browning grabs my elbow and guides me to the door like he used to do.

“Wait, what about our session?”

“We’ll have to reschedule.” The assistant is talking to him in Thai from behind the counter. She sounds distressed and worried.

“Can you understand a word she’s saying?” I ask in confusion. “Do you speak Thai?”

“Yes Michael, of course I do,” he says as if I already knew. “Thai is my native language.”

“What? I thought you went to Cornell.” I begin to sift back through all my memories of Dr. Browning’s words. I had always assumed that English was his first language.

“I did, and my wife went to Harvard. What has that got to do with it?” The image of what Dr. Browning looked like started to change in my mind.

“Wait a minute, are you Thai?” His hand was still placed firmly around my elbow as we moved through the doorway and into the lobby near the exit. I could tell he’d had enough of my questions. The elevator door closed between us.

 

Today is a white day. Life is different here. New York is not how I remembered it. I can’t see the sunsets or the tall buildings or the shows. I can’t see the blonde hair. People still crowd into the subway, touching me. My maid is loud and obnoxious, and a terrible cook. Breakfuss just isn’t as good anymore. New York is usually so beautiful in the fall, with the leaves changing color and the fowl in the park. Not this fall. Not this fall. Not this fall.

 

Today is a black day. My Sattah has died. My faith is dead.

One comment

  1. […] Color Blind […]



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