Michael Marano, 129 TESS
I asked a question that’s only ever been answered in my favor by liars, “Is this going to hurt?”
“Yes,” the Peace Corps nurse replied, holding a long, thick needle containing the typhoid vaccination, a shot that afforded me a trip to Bangkok, scheduled on that morning to buy me an invite to the Close of Service Ceremony for the volunteers in my group.
I appreciated her honesty but feared the smile on her face as she said it. Metal entered skin, she had told the truth, something I wish could be said for the dentist who filled my cavity without novacane two months earlier.
“That didn’t hurt at all,” I lied, taking a mental note to examine the joy I received from impressing medical officials.
“Now is a sharp pain that only lasts a few minutes but the soreness will come and last longer,” she said. The sympathy in her tone led me to believe that she was talking less about the shot and more about the emotions of the days and months ahead.
I walked the few steps between the medical unit and the Peace Corps office, stopping to stare at all of the shoes waiting outside of the front door, removed for the last time by Peace Corps Volunteers. Over the next few days they would be boarding flights home, stepping on gum in foreign lands, hopping on motorcycles without repercussion for breaking the rules they had just shed. I took off my boots, noticing the fabric separating from the inside, and prayed they would make it another year, unlike their peers, their Peace Corps journey wasn’t over yet. I paused before ringing the buzzer, preparing myself for how many times I was going to have to say goodbye.
I opened the door and saw Alex striding out of the finance office, a serious expression on her face until she looked up at me. Our hands found their way home before we even said hello, drawn together since we first met in the San Francisco airport 27 months earlier. The ease of our friendship required 27 years but some things have always been, two souls waved into existence with the same crooked wand. She was working on her final checklist, darting between departments seeking signatures for returned books and exit interviews, her last act as a volunteer before the ceremony started in a few minutes. My interactions with her weren’t stained with the premature nostalgia the rest would be, knowing that she had decided to spend her last three days in Thailand returning to my village to say goodbye, a local celebrity who had made homemade tortillas and tacos on her first visit, busting my long standing myth that foreigners could only cook hard boiled eggs. She had risen the bar for me again, keeping me on my toes, making me a better person. We separated, our hands not losing contact until the tips of our middle fingers slid past each other. She was off to turn in another receipt, I headed toward the pizza and papaya salad.
After we ate, the traditional Thai blessing ceremony, Bai Sri, started. Peace Corps staff went around the circle wishing us happiness and prosperity while tying white strings, hung on an ornament of sculpted banana leaves, around our wrists. During a lull, I looked at Theresa, our auras playing together above our heads in the shape of Bart Simpson holding a slingshot, as she whispered a joke to me. We both turned away at the first sign of a chuckle, aware of how weak the floorboards were. One giggle often tumbled into that feral, silent laughter that produces cramps in the cheeks and aches in the stomach, the growing pains of the soul, and ended with dirt underneath our fingernails and scrapes on our knees. We spent the next 48 hours making each other laugh in this way, gasping for breath like cousins during a Sunday morning sermon, until our tears slipped across that thin line from happiness to sadness, saying our goodbyes over coffee and pancakes in the middle of a shopping mall. In that moment, though, the weight of the event and beauty of the ceremony helped us keep our composure. We accepted our blessings with the stinging of another form of tears in our eyes, holding on to the words, letting them breakthrough whatever barriers we had constructed out of fear and shame, strengthened by two years of unrestrained laughter.
As the ceremony proceeded, I looked across the circle at Tiffany and had a 30-minute conversation in the split second it took our facial expressions to mirror the same sentiment. In the chaos of the day we had been separated, a rare occurrence in the form of a metaphor from the universe. I could have used without it. I repositioned myself to be able to catch all of her thoughts, those that I had learned to read in the movement of her eyes, a twitch in her mouth revealing the corner of a dimple. I remember red wine kissed lips accusing us of lacking vulnerability, unaware that we had spent the night before falling to the ground outside of hotel rooms laughing without reservation at our own mistakes, open books if you paid attention long enough to learn the language. She stood up to give her final words to a fellow volunteer, chosen at random, and declared herself “more of a yes, no, maybe so type of person,” something Theresa and I would spend the rest of the weekend quoting, feeling fortunate to know her as anything but. Even with her so close, it was lonely without her by my side, an absence that will defy its own meaning, hanging ever-present my final year of service.
It was my turn to stand up and say something about the volunteer whose card I held. Except I wasn’t holding a card. Being the last person I was tasked, on the spot, to close out the ceremony. A joke drifted into my mind and I pointed at a face that knew the ins and outs of my service better than anybody else, “I kept telling Abbey ‘I can’t believe you’re leaving, I can’t believe you’re leaving’ and finally she said, ‘I can’t believe you’re staying.’” Her face brightened into a smile that had become a prominent feature in almost all of my Peace Corps experiences, her presence etched deeper than the red, betel nut stained lines surrounding my Yai’s mouth. Cuddled closely together on beach towels near the ocean, in tents high up in the mountains, on tuuk tuuks racing through the city, her blonde hair always tangled in the stubble on my chin, perfect moments until I ruined them causing her to either laugh or say my name in exacerbation, usually both. Her constant thread, the foundation of my service, left a crack at my feet as it floated toward the sky on its journey to become a string of memories, just out of reach until we were together again.
After the speech, I watched all of the volunteers ring the gong three times officially ending their service. I am forever changed by their impact on my life, some over hours of conversation, others by the thoughtfulness of one sentence. I looked at my friend, also staying a third year and moving to my province, with gratitude, as he took photos we’ll laugh and reminisce about when this final year feels empty. Knowing we’d still be together with unfinished business in Thailand made this a lot easier. Everybody loitered around the office, lips curling up and down in silence, using movement to say things they could never open and verbalize with words that would mean enough. We all slowly scattered, lines jutting out from the center of a broken kaleidoscope, tinged with bits of each other but going on our own colorful journeys, reconnecting when possible, and always remembering where our adventure together began. As I watched them each leave, I whispered to myself, a phrase so often used by my students, “see you again on the next time.”
Read Michael Marano’s other articles Falling in Love in the Peace Corps, A Big Gay Peace Corps Spiritual Journey, One More Time, River Rise, Not Taking It On, Love, The Mystery of the Tooth in the Sock, and An Island Curse.