Some people have trouble returning to their hometowns, or a neighborhood, or a bar, which is too fraught with memories to make it bearable. For me, the whole of Southeast Asia is an emotional landmine.
Since I met my three most serious boyfriends here and then traveled extensively with each of them, it’s sometimes hard to avoid the memories. The park in Hanoi where Johnny and I fought, the whole city of Chiang Mai where he left me, the train north I took with Ari, the rice fields in Bali where I rode motorcycles with Tim.
I've gone back to nearly all of these places on my own. Now that I've been back to Chiang Mai several times, the curb where I sat despondent for hours when my boyfriend told me he was dumping me and promptly left town on our rented motorcycle no longer leaves me with a dark feeling of dread and emptiness. Sometimes, these revisits make me feel positively happy. I guess that’s what I hoped to glean from a visit to Union Tower, the Bangkok apartment building I once lived in with Johnny.
I haven’t returned to the place in six years, though from time to time, driving to or from the airport, I remember to scan the horizon for its boxy shape. It wouldn’t stand out to anyone not looking for it -- a dirty white building in a sea of others of the same description -- but it is by far the most emotionally charged place in my memory.
My last moments in Union Tower involved running down the stairs, stumbling with a box of my things as a fat Canadian man chased me, the word "cunt" echoing off the bare cement walls. On just your average night, there was fighting in Union Tower. Once I woke to a woman dropping plates down into the atrium, methodically holding each one out and then letting go as she looked back in fear and hatred at her boyfriend.
I should mention here that nearly every man in Union Tower was white, while nearly every woman was Thai. The men were retired and living off their pensions, or else taught English at a local chain school which paid them enough to happily maintain their booze and lady habits. It takes no exceptional motivation to get hired at a place called something like Ding Ding’s English Palace for four hours a day. I know because I was also in Thailand to teach English. I had expected to have a far different version of cultural immersion than the one I was experiencing in Union Tower, where I once saw a guy vomit and continue drinking his beer.
It was the expat nightmare, people whose behaviors were left so unchecked by society that they began to mentally and physically crumble. Their stomachs ballooned as their teeth fell out from neglect. These scummy men, with an aversion to women who were not interested in having sex with them or cooking them meals, were a cautionary tale as potent as Kurtz in the jungle -- this is what happens if you eat ice cream for dinner every night, kids. They were often drunk and nasty and made it clear they didn’t want me anywhere near them, witnessing their debauched lives with my emancipated worldview.
This hellhole was just backdrop to my own inner turmoil, the setting of the most miserable portion of my (misery-spackled) 20s. Johnny and I fought often, and he mimicked me when I was upset, which was almost constantly. I worried about my future and what I would do to make money. I suddenly had an overwhelming and clear vision of how tiny I was in this big world. At night I sat on my balcony/kitchen high up above an abandoned highway overpass looking over the orangey evening glow of the city with my feet in the sink. And I would panic, often breaking down into a mess of hyperventilation-style tears.
Now that I'm back in Bangkok, I decided to return to Union Tower. I'm not sure what I expected -- a firey hellscape populated by a mutant race of drunk zombies in wife beaters? Maybe. Or was I just looking to make sense of the misery and confusion of my early 20s?
Standing in the lobby, watching a western guy in a stained work shirt eat noodle soup I felt a stab of insecurity. As I scanned the first floor with its sad computer lab where I watched a girl chat on a webcam with an elderly white guy as her baby crawled on the floor behind her, I got the same old feeling I did back on my balcony, the same hyper-awareness of my own mortality and the feeling that somehow, just by being there, time was running out.
After six years, It seems that the only thing that's different about Union Tower is that I don’t live there anymore.
Otherwise, the lobby of the Bangkok apartment building I once called home is remarkably unchanged. The dingy lighting, long front desk and small restaurant were all there when I was. I didn’t feel better from having gone back. What I did get from my trip down memory lane was car sick in a traffic jam and a nervous feeling in the pit of my stomach that didn’t go away until Union tower was once again a semi-anonymous white building in the distance.
Perhaps there are some places you should just leave alone.