by Donald Quist
Lalita Rattapong’s New Microwave
I’m having trouble with Lalita Rattapong’s new microwave, issues with distance. Like, can the neighbors feel the universe fold in on itself whenever she reheats leftover panang? Do they hear time collide, past in present, echoes from a world older than the one they thought they knew, screeching in their ears like twisting metal? Can they hear the ding of the microwave’s tiny bell, snapping Lalita Rattapong back to now, her cup of noodles waiting hot and ready, her bare feet caked with fresh mud from the sixteenth century, the wet earth of an early Portuguese settlement staining the checkerboard tiles of her kitchen floor?
Is this the point of entry, a proper start to a story about a lonely woman and her microwave time machine? And what next? Will Lalita Rattapong share her discovery with Asami and Robert, two of her fellow copyeditors at the Bangkok Post? Aren’t they both well educated and better traveled? Will she explain to them how the microwave appeared to her in the labyrinths of the Jatujak Market beneath an ALL PURCHASES FINAL sign, how the microwave seemed to her a perfect blend of vintage design, atomic but ornamental style, art deco, with curving sides that plume at the top like an old-timey radio and thin white lines that reminded her of South Beach and spring break and studying in America? Does she tell them how the microwave brings the whole kitchen together, the warmth of its pastel ocean-water blue adding some much needed color against her exposed cinderblock wall without overshadowing the intention of her industrial aesthetic? Does Lalita tell them about the vendor: a small, wrinkled woman with no teeth and only a pinky and a thumb for a right hand? Does she mention how, when asked about the microwave, the vendor seemed not to recognize it? What about the old woman selling the appliance for just 900 baht without haggling? What about while carrying the microwave up three flights of stairs to her condo, Lalita found the words “Made in” embossed on its back panel with no country of manufacturing? Were these early indications?
What do Lalita Rattapong’s friends say then? Do they help her speculate on the origins of the microwave? Will Asami point out that it isn’t uncommon for manufacturers to unload faulty merchandise on developing countries, and will this prompt Robert to add a joke about how at that very moment some kids in Mexico could be kicking around a dinosaur egg that their mother discovered while warming empanadas?
After they fail to offer Lalita any suggestions for a good repairman, do Asami and Robert move into a dialogue about the apparent death of skilled labor? Does it sound something like this?
Why don’t we know anyone who can fix a microwave? Does anyone really use his or her hands anymore?
Do you ever think we might see the end of trade careers?
Who is to say it’s not possible? How many kids these days want to grow up to work on appliances?
Will craftsmen have a place in a knowledge-based economy?
You have a point, but wouldn’t some form of craftsmen endure?
Care to give an example?
What about the writers?
Are you suggesting there is a natural comparison between the craftsman and the creative artist?
We aren’t talking about metaphorical craftsmen, are we? Aren’t writers the only people who generally view what they do as using craft? We’re talking about people who actually build things, right? People who toil?
Don’t they build worlds? Don’t they toil to craft new narratives?
But do they know anything about hard labor?
What about labors of love?
And does this discussion, riddled with the type of sweeping generalizations and pseudo-intellectual pontification common among cynical expatriates and people of a certain socio-economic class, provide Lalita Rattapong an opportunity for reflection? While Asami and Robert debate whether their terminal degrees allow them to better identify with blue-collar workers and trade union activists, will Lalita reconsider her buyer’s remorse? Is this conversation indicative of the problem with Lalita Rattapong’s life, shallow but giving the appearance of depth, a series of provocative questions that lead to insignificant conclusions like those used on the cover of general interest magazines or to title a dissertation?
Hadn’t she wished for something to disrupt the banality of her existence, something to make her life as exciting as the world reporters whose work came across her desk day after day? Is the microwave the conflict or the catalyst? Had she ever felt more connected to the world, more purposeful, than when tiptoeing through random points in history? How far away and unimportant had her problems felt, sneaking around Bangkok during foreign occupation, dodging Japanese soldiers and resistance movements, trying not to reshape the past? When was the last time she worried about having left Greg after six years without serious talk of engagement? Wasn’t it true that since discovering the microwave she had given little thought to the fear of sleeping alone forever? Is it because forever didn’t seem so long anymore?
Later, when Lalita Rattapong says goodbye to Asami and Robert for the evening and heads home, will she get off at an earlier stop on the skytrain to purchase some frozen calamari rings from a Western-style supermarket? Will she rush to her condo and straight to the kitchen?
Can I skim here, past the seemingly insignificant moments that define a life, Lalita throwing her laptop bag on her Scandinavian modern-style couch, Lalita reaching for a French paring knife, cutting into the packaging, the cold block of squid slapping hard against a plate? Can I leap forward in time until finally she is shutting the small door to the microwave, thinking carefully about the correlation between the timer and the time spent in the past?
When is the longest she’s been gone? Twenty minutes? Thirty minutes? Was she defrosting tilapia or popping popcorn? Does the process depend on the item being cooked? Accepting that she has no way of calculating this anomaly, will Lalita Rattapong twist the microwave’s chrome dial back to ten? Does she surrender to the now familiar sensation, something like a hand reaching in past her navel, grabbing the base of her spine and pulling forward as if trying to turn her inside out?
And then where is she? How long does it take her mind to get oriented after being yanked through the space-time continuum, for Lalita’s brain to register that she is standing alone, minutes before dawn, in a damp meadow with large trails cutting through the acres of matted grass like number signs? When she looks up at the sky, does it reveal some clue? Can she remember a time when the stars have ever been so close? Does she recognize the smell of elephant shit from trips to the zoo as a child, and watching live reenactments of wars fought on the backs of pachyderms? Is this the site of a battle she studied in grade school, Yuddhahatthi or the Battle of Nong Sarai?
Are those dark mounds people, peeking out from the tall, thin leaves?
When the wind turns will she smell blood?
When Lalita considers the hundreds of soldiers who must have trampled through the clearing, soldiers who might still be in the area ready to rape and kill her, does she decide to head to the forest and wait in the trees until she is returned to the future? Are her flat-soled canvas shoes soaked through to her feet? When she takes her first steps, do they make a loud squishing sound, arousing the attention of a wounded man just a few yards away? When he starts to call out—his Thai is old, formal—does Lalita drop to the ground, startled? How long will she stay crouched down, one knee pressed into the soft soil, cursing to herself, debating her options? Should she make a run for the forest or wait where she is in hopes of going undiscovered? How long will Lalita stay hidden, swatting mosquitoes away from her face, listening to the man groan in pain? How many times does he plead for death before she decides to abandon her rule about never getting involved, rise to both feet, and walk toward the sound of his voice?
Standing over him, his body outlined by the grass, does his dark skin fade into the shadows? In the silence that follows, does Lalita imagine how strange she must look to him, her jeans and blouse, her short bobbed hair haloed by the fading moon? Can she hear, in his silence, his disappointment in being discovered by a woman?
When he asks What are you?, does she reply A traveler?
Is that enough for him?
Does the wounded warrior grunt knowingly?
Does Lalita notice his breath quicken and then become shallow? Can she hear him dying over the sound of her own heart beating in her ears? Does she agree to stay with him, only as long as she can, although he never asked her to?
With the night receding and the sun peeking over the canopy of trees, will Lalita Rattapong see for the first time that the man is a boy not much older than sixteen? Does the boy remind her of her little brother, if she hadn’t been an only child, or the son she might have had if her life had been different? Can she assume that he has been trampled by an elephant, his sunken chest sloping down to a crushed pelvis, his ravaged legs and torso bridged by a pulp of skin and bone? Before the kid warrior dies, will he motion for Lalita to bend down? Does he swallow hard and ask Am I remembered?
What more can she do but stand there in a meadow littered with pieces of cloth and armor, shattered weapons, broken swords, and splintered spears, the bitter aroma of dried blood like rust hugging her skin as she switches her gaze back and forth between the sunrise and the boy, his body broken, like her relationships, like her microwave? Is there a connection? Is all that is broken in her universe the result of a principle of relevance? Narrative structure? Intelligent design?
Waiting for me to bring her back to her present, aren’t we both, Lalita Rattapong and I, left to consider the significance of this event, what it all means, the greater implications? Is everything a matter of fate? Do these questions linger long after she is returned to her kitchen, the novelty of her time-machine microwave fading like the smell of burnt calamari?
The story first appeared in Metazen in the spring of 2014.
Donald Quist is author of two essay collections, Harbors, a Foreword INDIES Bronze Winner and International Book Awards Finalist, and To Those Bounded. He has a linked story collection, For Other Ghosts. His writing has appeared in AGNI, North American Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, Poets & Writers, The Rumpus, and was Notable in Best American Essays 2018. He is creator of the online nonfiction series Past Ten. Donald has received fellowships from Sundress Academy for the Arts and Kimbilio Fiction. He has served as a Gus T. Ridgel fellow for the English PhD program at University of Missouri, and Director of the MFA in Writing at Vermont College of Fine Arts.