by Father Joe Maier, C.Ss.R.
A woman who grew up experiencing the worst of urban life still held to a fantasy of one day having a 'proper' wedding and despite staggering odds against her she found out that there is always room for hope.
Published August 5, 2012, Bangkok Post, Sunday Spectrum
Ever since she was 11 and on the streets, Noi had always dreamed she would get married in the proper style, with a dowry, a ring and a bridesmaid. Her husband would have a real job and talk nice and love her. After she met the right man she promised herself that she would make it happen, and she wanted it even more after her two children were born. Her husband Somchai, also street-raised, always had the same response when she told him of her matrimonial dreams: "Why not?" But that was as far as it went.
So it became yesterday's dream. Somchai was a good husband and a good father nonetheless and they were all pretty happy living in their Pattaya home.
But several weeks ago she showed up at our door, her daughter clinging to her, crying, and her son, barefoot, sniffling, nose running, with hiccups from crying so hard. Noi had whomped his bottom back at the bus station where he left his flip-flops, saying: "Five years old is too old to forget your flip-flops."
Noi came to us when she was still a teenager. We'd only seen her and Somchai a couple times since she came here pregnant with her first child. Our cook spotted her first, hugged her tight and wouldn't let go, saying "Little Noi, my little girl, you're so beautiful. Welcome home! Let's go to the kitchen and get you and your kids something to eat."
Somchai and Noi have been together seven years now and have two lovely children. She said Somchai was working long hours as a hotel waiter and leaving her and the kids in their rented room, so she came back back home to the centre "for some tender loving care". But the real story was more complicated.
Somchai didn't know she'd bolted and brought the children to Bangkok, here to us in Klong Toey.
Her old house mum, still hugging Noi, asked if anything was wrong. As tears streamed down Noi's face the house mum guessed what she wanted.
"Maybe the children can stay with us for a while while you get things straightened out?"
And so life goes bumpity-bump. Noi left the kids and walked out in tears, them crying too and screaming "mummy, mummy", and went back to Pattaya to try to straighten out whatever it was.
This was about 9am. She was back by 6pm that same day.
She'd hocked the watch Somchai had just bought her for her 23rd birthday, for the bus fare back to Bangkok, a bite to eat, a teddy bear for her daughter and a nice pair of flip flops for her son. She'd save the husband problem for later.
She told her old house mum she'd had a horrible daytime nightmare as she curled up in the backseat of the bus on the way back to Pattaya that morning and woke up screaming. It was a flashback from some major trauma when she was 11, when her dad, a local roustabout and gunman, had stepped over that invisible line.
Someone shot him in front of her and her mum. Mum grabbed her and said "Run!" But Noi heard the shots, saw her dad fall and saw the blood. Later, at the funeral outside the church, she heard a woman talking to her mum.
"Go borrow some money," said the woman. "Put your house and land up for collateral. Do whatever you have to do. Leave town. You've got three days."
Noi's dad had left some problems behind for mum to solve (or run away from). A couple of days later, mum was gone - left in an early morning taxi. Noi stopped going to school. There was no money and her teacher didn't really care. Just an ordinary 11-year-old student - no loss to the reputation of the school. Teddy bear by her side, Noi survived alone on the street a while, eating out of garbage bins and sleeping under a bridge. A neighbourhood policeman found her and took her home to his wife, fed her, cleaned her up, bought her some clothes, and then took her to a children's foundation in Pattaya.
In five years, she had one single visitor, the wife of the neighbourhood policeman, who came to tell her that her mum had sent a message: "Tell my daughter that she will have a better future without me."
Growing up, she had met Somchai a few times. They liked each other, but it certainly was not "love at first sight". By age 16, Noi had a job at a mini-mart and Somchai at 19 was working as a waiter in a reasonably respectable hotel. Noi and a girlfriend from the children's home had rented a room with a toilet down the hall. Somchai shared a room at the same place with an old buddy from the streets. They met occasionally, passing each other in the hallway.
One day Somchai asked Noi to "team up", but she refused.
"Absolutely no, not now," she replied, and told him that he had to keep his job for three years before she could trust him.
Three years later, she agreed. That was seven years and two children ago. They were happy, but she still dreamed of being a bride in a proper ceremony. But on the bus ride back to Bangkok that day, she had no such sweet wedding dreams. She just wanted to come straight back to get her kids.
This time she told her old house mum the whole story. She had promised Somchai and their baby son that she would never play cards again. (It was difficult, because she usually won, but she felt she owed him that much for a loving marriage and family.)
She'd always kept her promise. Never even touched a deck of cards, until the day a girl friend called up: "Noi! Just one game. A couple new girls want to play. They've got thick accents. Can't talk Bangkok Thai very good."
It sounded like easy money, but this time Noi lost. In fact she lost 1,500 baht _ all that she had till the end of the month. Plus more.
Noi and Somchai were already low on money that month because the children had colds and had to go to the doctor, plus their boy needed school uniforms and books. They had just about enough left to make it till the end of the month.
So she borrowed money from this guy with slicked-down hair who spoke broken Thai and was living illegally here. He came every day for a 150 baht payment on the loan. When she couldn't pay, the guy with the slicked-down hair began to get nasty. Trash-talking and threatening her.
She couldn't tell Somchai, because she new he would settle the debt problem "street style".
Noi didn't want to start down that slippery slope, so she panicked, grabbed her kids and ran.
Somchai is gentle and faithful - even more so than a slaughterhouse puppy dog - but don't be mistaken. He's street. Real street. And Noi knows his nightmares too. When he sobs and shudders in his sleep, she has to hold him till the orcs and trolls of the night go away. So she came to us. There was nowhere else, and we are family.
She asked if we would go back to Pattaya with her and the children and pay the debt. Make that go away quietly and not tell Somchai? Then the dream resurfaced and she went for broke: And since his birthday is coming up and since this month will be the eighth year of their marriage, wouldn't it be an auspicious time to have a proper wedding? Their son would be the ring bearer, beside the best man, and their daughter the flower girl.
And because we are family, we do what we can, without blinking.
So we all went together to Pattaya. Somchai didn't know, and we'd already replaced the watch she hocked. We didn't need to tell him anything except, "Surprise!! All is cool!"
It was the wedding of the year. Noi already had a small gold wedding ring. Somchai didn't know. Their children were totally excited.
Noi's dowry was four new 50 baht notes - plus her ring. The blushing bride wore a crown of flowers in her hair, dressed in her best street jeans, a nice T-shirt and classy high heels that she'd never worn before, keeping them secret for her wedding day.
Her bridesmaid was a long-time friend, just out after 30 days in prison, who wore sports shoes, a heavily beaded necklace, a well-worn T-shirt, and patched grubby jeans. She'd beat up a pimp and was quite the prison heroine. She'd had her nails done plus a nice-smelling delousing shampoo to say goodbye to all the tiny itchy-scratchy unwanted friends hanging out in her long black hair.
The groom wore his hotel waiter's shirt and tie. His best man was Lek. They'd grown up together on the streets and roomed together early on. Lek had kicked booze and drugs three years ago, and he was a worthy best man.
It was pretty much an ex-street kid's wedding made in, or close to, the gates of heaven. No more than a stone's throw away. They'd beaten all the odds.
What of tomorrow? None of us really knows, but they stopped by a bit ago, and the children whispered a secret. "Daddy doesn't have nightmares any more."
I guess that's a good beginning, isn't it?