Wednesday, 27 August 2008 10:00

When Flower Girls Grow Up (2004)

By Father Joe Maier

This one begins rough. And the middle part is rough, too. And the ending? Well, I guess you swallow hard through the tears and you shut your eyes tight to squeeze out tears so that you can look up and maybe see a rainbow, and then maybe you cry a bit again, because somehow, for so many of us, way deep down deep, we want, we demand, more than a rainbow.

And that isn't how life works.

This one's about two heroines: Miss Gook Gik and Miss Nong Lek. Their scumbag moms were always lurking in the shadows. The money was never enough for their moms, no matter how much their children scored. Mom's rules were blunt: you girls con money from bar bums so we can play cards. The money, of course, was never enough. Money goes fast in a card game.

It's the same here as anywhere else. They let you win the first few hands.

Only in a game of "Let's Pretend" can you find cute, happy heroines. We are taught that proper behavior for seven-year-olds is playing with dolls, hopscotch, jump rope, that they're all whispers and giggles. Not heroine stuff.

Life doesn't work that way, either.

Miss Gook Kik, thin and willowy, her AIDS temporarily in remission, remarked a while ago, "I earned 500 baht each night since I was five and my mom never thanked me once."

Her friend, Miss Nong Lek, was born with a short leg, an accompanying limp, but never got AIDS and earned less money as a child than her sex worker friends. Her mom used to tell her, "You hustle, girl - errands and drugs if you won't do the other stuff." And so she ran errands every night. Growing up, Nong Lek took countless long walks home alone in the early morning hours back to her Klong Toey shack on the nights she hadn't earned her keep. Now, over 15 years later, she still breaks down in tears when she tells you that these walks were agony, but back then she only cried when no one could see or hear her - alone limping home. No one back then really bothered her, just laughed at her occasionally, called her 'gimp.' And she walked a lot because, it's true, she was a hustler, but always brought in less cash than the sex workers. Mom and dad used to take turns beating Nong Lek for her low earnings, but she never gave in. Kook Gik, on the hand - well, that's how she eventually got AIDS.

Now, the girls are young women. Mom visits Miss kook Gik every other day or so in our AIDS Hospice. You might call it a kind-of-sort-of thank-you. But all the visits in the world don't count unless Gook Gik accepts. The forgiveness comes from the offended victim, doesn't it? That's the only way it works - the innocent forgiving the guilty. And that actually seemed to happen this recent Thai New Year when Gook Gik knelt together with good ol'mom to make merit - offering alms to the Monks. The daughter, seeking a traditional blessing on this sacred day, poured blessed temple water over her mother's hands and feet.

Nong Lek, who is Gook Gik's only true, thick-and-thin friend, knelt beside her. Her own mom was busy that day. (One thing you never do is interrupt a card game - not even for a sacred rite.) So Nong Lek came limping alone on Thai New Year to make merit and seek a blessing.

I watched - ashamed for my tears. Slum life here in Klong Toey created these two beautiful young women, and sometimes I see in them and their friendship the heart and soul of Klong Toey.

These two ladies were among the original Pat Pong flower girls, selling red roses - always red roses - first outside the bars, on the street, then inside. That went on for years. Born a few days apart, both their moms fled the hospital, refusing to pay the bills and the accompanying fee for a birth certificate; and without such a document, the girls could not enter school. So they worked for their moms. Gook Gik's mom eventually went to prison for procurement - a highly publicized event - and while she was in prison, Gook Gik and her two sisters went to work in a bar in Phuket while her brother was being pimped in Chiang Mai. Mom had started them on a path.

Meanwhile, Nong Lek stayed in Klong Toey. While her mother gambled and sold drugs, Nong Lek washed dishes in a street side noodle shop, sold garlands on street corners - anything, except what Miss Gook Gik was doing. Nong Lek herself finally went to prison in place of her mom for drug possession/intent to sell.

That's how Nong Lek began her formal education - in the juvenile home. She will complete high school in just a few months and become the first in her family ever to graduate. She says she will be a social worker and help other girls.

Today, two years after an accident in Phuket, Miss Gook Gik can walk, though not too fast or far. She had been bruised up badly when riding side-saddle on a rented 250 cc with a "John". She was spacey on yah bah and her "John" was hammered. He went to heaven that way.

A hospital admitted her into its emergency room after her two sisters, who also work in the same bar, pawned two gold chains for the initial bill. When the hospital wanted to do more tests, the sisters wheel-chaired her out the side door and loaded her onto the next bus back to Bangkok. Bought her two seats and got a friend to shoot her up with a combination of sleeping pills and heroin to make the 12 hour bus trip back to Bangkok a bit more tolerable.

She phoned Nong Lek to meet her at the Southern Bus Terminal.

Her timing was right on.

Just a month to that day, Nong Lek had walked out of the juvenile prison for children, five years reduced to three plus a few days - finally, a free woman.

She had taken the rap for her mom. Sixty-eight pills in full sight when the uniforms walked in. Literally a minute before the cops arrival, mom had spotted the uniforms (her dogs snarled their dog alarm), giving her a few split seconds to stash the rest of the stash and slip out the bedroom window. Nong Lek was sound asleep. As a good daughter, she protected her mom. Said they were her pills. Apparently, the day before the bust, her mom, whose tongue was sharp even on good days, had broken the most basic of Klong Toey codes: Never curse a neighbor, especially another seller, in front of a crowd. Thus, the police were asked to take action.

Five years is pretty much "max" for a juvenile. An adult caught with that amount would do double the time. That's for first time offenders, and Nong Lek's mom is no stranger to police stations. So Nong Lek did time for her mom.

At times, it seemed that Nong Lek's mom's rented shack was a veritable "Chemists Shop" with a full stock of selected brands on hand that the uniforms like to "make disappear." She had just come home from working all night washing noodle bowls in a street-side shop and feeling exhausted, fell right asleep. The uniforms came just moments later. And three years later, Nong Lek got out.

So Nong Lek answered the call at the Southern Bus Terminal and collected her oldest friend. The two of them - Nong Lek still scratching with prison scabies and Gook Gik in a full leg cast - ended up on our doorstep a few days later. That's when Gook Gik first discovered that she had TB and AIDS.

Now two years later, once a month, Gook Gik's mom loads her into a taxi-rent four-wheel mini Daihatsu - the poor man's taxi. Mom laughs every time they get in, reminding Gook Gik how she was born on one of these Daihatsu taxis on the way to the hospital. Mom was in a card game and had a winning hand and also needed money for the taxi ride to the hospital. The pain came, but she had to finish the hand. Mom laughs, Miss Gook Gik winces. Doesn't like to hear the story.

They travel to a nearby hospital for the 30 baht AIDS anti-virals, always using Miss Gook Gik's younger sister's identity card. She doesn't look much like the picture photo of her sister but a couple months ago, when questioned, mom screamed out at the top of her lungs: "AIDS! She has AIDS! Give her the medicine or she'll bite you and infect you, too."

When Gook Gik was two, her dad died in the hold of a rice barge. Something just happened, the cargo shifted, and he was buried in 100 kilogram sacks of rice. At the Police Hospital, they said he died instantly of a broken neck.

Gook Gik's mom asked the "Long Ju"- the manager who looks after affairs for the "Tao Gae" - for her husband's pay on the day of the accident. The Long Ju told her, "sorry, he hadn't worked a full day, and besides," the Long Ju continued, he himself had paid the pick-up driver to take her husband to the hospital. A couple months later, Gook Gik's mom convinced Nong Lek's mom that the two of them should get the Long Ju drunk. Once they got him hammered, they got in several good licks. Twenty-seven stitches in all. (He never reported the incident to the police.)

Nong Lek's dad is twelve years older than her mom and still works heavy manual labor at the port. He's quiet, he doesn't drink, but he has a terrible temper. Though he's been known to beat his wife, he has absolutely nothing of his own. He gives every baht he earns to his wife. It's true, a wrong and a right don't make two rights, but at least, there's something there.

From the very beginning, it's always been about "following the money". When the kids were still young, the moms took their children to con the bar bums. Started them out selling flowers - always red roses. Guess they had cut some kind of deal: drugs and child sex for wholesale prices on roses - stuff, that you really don't want to know about. The kids started selling outside the bars, then inside the bars, and for Gook Gik, eventually inside a hotel with her mom.

At the hotel, there were always two rooms: in one, a customer and one of her children (or for a huge price, two or three of her children and their friends together). In the other room, always pre-paid, sat mom, who was usually watching TV soaps or game shows.

So that's the basic story of Nong Lek and Gook Gik and their moms. For Miss Gook Gik, her final rainbow isn't far away. It will fade at "The Temple by the Bridge." Twenty-three years old now, she will never see twenty-five - the age in Thai custom that decides where the rest of your life will lead. It's called "ben-ja-pate".

Bruised, black and blue and tear-stained heroines, these young women are still no less than heroines - heroines perhaps on the backside of its definition. They have lived for years as wounded fauns; they have toughed it through every pawing stranger; and yet they still remain beautiful and without hate, even to this day.

Gook Gik is the elder of the two, and that's important among Thai friends. But she had her "ben-ja-pate" - her deciding year in life - long ago. Nong Lek probably will live to a ripe old age. She's the survivor.

They were together just yesterday here at Mercy Centre. Nong Lek had just dyed her hair red. Miss Gook Gik had dressed up a bit into something more special than her "just hanging around" clothes. She is in better health these days and out of bed most of the day with only an afternoon nap. And she helps with the other patients when she's in the mood.

On the day of her last visit, Nong Lek had come by to take Gook Gik to the nearby Lotus store. Sitting on a bench at Mercy Center, the two friends whispered and giggled together, just as they had so many times and many years earlier. I sat down and joined in.

One of our nurses warned Gook Gik not to overdo it - that she was still weak. She nodded her understanding and the two continued to whisper and giggle.

When the conversation turned to the future, I asked Nong Lek if she would take Gook Gik's place when her dear friend goes away and be her spirit here - in school and everything else in life. She promised - said that she would graduate for both herself and Gook Gik, and that she would live the years that Gook Gik will never have and that she will be Gook Gik's tomorrow and have children and name her first girl Gook Gik and give her all the love the both of them never had.

And when Gook Gik goes, Nong Lek will take her to Wat Sapan, the Temple by the Bridge here in Klong Toey.

Gook Gik won't be going away quite yet. She's not strong, can't work hard, but she's getting rambunctious and has a boy friend in our AIDS hospice. (He buys her cigarettes.) She feels she will be strong enough in a couple weeks to make the bus trip to Phuket, where she'll stay a while with her sisters, hang around the bar, enjoy a last hurrah.

She will come back to us after a few weeks or months in Phuket and then stay with us a while longer.

There is a certain kind of honor in being cremated in Wat Sapan - the Temple by the Bridge. If I were Buddhist, that's where I would want to go. They say the spirits of this temple are very slum friendly.

Sitting on the bench that day, Miss Gook Gik asked us to spread her ashes in the Chao Phraya River - and we agreed because, really, "Death is a river flowing into an ocean."