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Finding Houdini

by Paola Ferrante

edited by Kathryn Mockler

Whatever Jeremy would say, the snakes were always a problem. I know if Jeremy told our story he would say he never saw the snake, but ask anyone in the part of Bangkok near the house that was going to be ours and they will say it belongs to the snakes, to king cobras that grow up to six metres in length, or to Burmese pythons which have been known to attack humans, sometimes the occasional alligator. Even the airport itself is built on what used to be known as Cobra Swamp. If it was Jeremy telling you our story, he would say I was the problem; he would never go out of his way to find the snake to kill it. With Jeremy, seeing was believing.

I met him in Seoul where I lived in a box, one bed, one desk, fully furnished according to the school that employed me. The blinds never opened all the way. They said it was a room that looked out on the mountain, really just a hill, and I wanted a view; everyone said I would see things differently here, that I should experience as much as I could away from home and what used to be classic pepperoni pizza or mac and cheese Thursday date nights, away from what used to be my shared bed and the first time I saw women's underwear that was not my own. In my first month, I got two days off; I went to try dak galbi with cheese to Instagram the experience, a classic Korean family-style dish everyone at work told me they would cook right at your table. The restaurant was empty as I sat down, except for a couple at the next table. I watched them for a while, the way he left the larger pieces of meat for her, the way she fed him the thick, fat noodle with her chopsticks. They never looked over at me. When the server finally came by, he asked me if I was waiting for someone.

“No. For one,” I said, but he shook his head.

“No,” he said, “our pots are this big,” and he showed me with his hands, “it's too much food for just one.” He told me if I wanted to, he could ask if I could join the couple; he told me next time I had to bring a friend. 

“Can't you make it just for me?”

He said it was for two or more only. It was hard to eat single in Korea. As I left the restaurant, I could see in the reflection of the glass door that no one looked up when the bell dinged.

After that, when I came home from work, I would search online for pictures of the Northern Palace or the Bukchon Hanok Village. I made sure they were slightly out of focus, as though I had moved just a little when taking them myself. I would order a small pizza from North American chains like Dominoes or Pizza Hut and work on my dating profile, at least one close-up, one full body shot, one shot photoshopped next to the North Seoul Tower as a conversation starter. In pictures I was conscious of the best angle for my cheekbones. I ate facing the window, but I could not see DoDakSan Hill.         

After I met Jeremy, Seoul changed. Jeremy also taught English. His profile said “I'll try anything once; just don't ask me to do it again.” When we got off work, we would stop at the soju tent, then at the supermarket to buy beer; we would sometimes climb DoDakSan, stopping at the crest of the hill for dong dong ju, then stumbling back down. I took a selfie once, while we were at the top, but Jeremy told me to delete it. 

“It's a conservative culture,” he said. “We don't want to look bad, drinking every afternoon.” If you looked closely, you would have seen my hand in the back pocket of his jeans. 

Sometimes Jeremy wanted to sit outside at one of the tables and talk about the time he accidentally found himself on board a Peruvian drug boat; sometimes he wanted to talk about when he toured the ruins of Chernobyl. I believed him. There were pictures of him inside ruined hospitals and schools, pictures, he told me, that he wasn't even allowed to take. He may even have been arrested, but Jeremy told me he could open any lock. He'd spent an entire summer practising using Houdini's Handcuff Secrets when he was ten years old. 

“Did you know,” he'd say, ordering us another beer, “most of the time Houdini had a skeleton key hidden in the palm of his hand or sleeve. No one ever noticed.”

“Maybe they just weren't watching closely enough,” I said, drinking from his beer. I told Jeremy it was things like this that made it look like we were together. He never said we weren't. There was no proof otherwise. “Didn't Houdini also do the vanishing elephant trick?” I asked.

“Another classic case of manipulating the perspective of the viewer. With that one it was a really big cupboard. The elephant never left the room.”

“Or maybe,” I leaned in closer, “we all just want to believe in magic.” 

“Argumentum ad populum,” Jeremy would wink at me, swaying slightly, “we're not most people.”

Then we would go to the wa-bar for more beers, maybe more soju. Then sometimes Jeremy would come back to my apartment, sometimes I would go to his. When I was with Jeremy, we would order pizza to the rooftop of the apartment, the kind made by a local Korean place, adventurous with figs or snails or butterscotch sauce, the kind with the taste of sugar underneath the cheese. I told Jeremy that just like him, it had been my dream to go to magic camp as a kid. The closest I ever got was one of my university roommates from Malaysia. He'd claimed he could teach me how to charm his pet rat snake.  

“And were you charming enough?” Jeremy asked.

“I was terrified,” I lied, “I couldn't even touch it.” Before I met Jeremy, my dating profile included my love of reptiles and arachnids, my goal to eventually run with bulls in Paloma. No one had messaged me. I told him if I had a choice, the superpower I would never want would be to become invisible.

“That's why I like Houdini,” Jeremy told me, “to an eleven-year-old, that man defied all fear.” The way I remember it, Jeremy must have kissed me; we could almost see the stars through the lights of the city.

Whether we were at his apartment or at mine, Jeremy never went for dak galbi with me. He would always give me the bed. But sometimes I would find him in the bed in the middle of the night. I would feel him against me, but I didn't say anything, even after sex. The first night it happened, I wanted to make him a real Western style omelet; I woke up early to take the train to the Homeplus Express near Gangnam-gu station where I knew they had English extra mature cheddar cheese but had to settle for the no name brand instead. 

“I'm sorry,” Jeremy said when he saw his breakfast. I had made the omelet into a heart, wondered if my mother would have said we were seeing each other, if Instagram could tell the difference, “but this is not what you think it is.” 

“I'm know the cheese is just the cheap American shit,” I said, “I had to go to Costco instead of the market.” Finding good cheese was always our biggest problem in Korea, no matter what Jeremy would say. 

No matter what Jeremy would say, we were seeing each other in Korea, even if we never ate dak galbi, even if sometimes I didn't see him after work. I knew we were together, even when he told me he was never ordering Korean pizza with me again.

“This coming from the man who told me that this is a cultural experience because nowhere else do they put raisins in the crust.”

“Jess, my visa's set to expire here. I'm moving to Thailand,” is what he told me, so I opened us each a bottle of soju, poured myself another beer. The way I remember it, Jeremy said in Bangkok, splitting a house was even cheaper than our two apartments. He knew of a place a friend of his had found with a view of some famous landmark called the elephant tower. 

“Why do they call it that?”

“It looks like an elephant,” he said, and I told him something about being ready to do my own vanishing elephant trick; I said I had always wanted to go to Thailand.

“Easy there, Houdini,” and I know he must have finished the rest of my beer. I know Jeremy must have told me he loved me. The picture he probably deleted later that night was of his Canadian flag boxers intertwined with my bathrobe on my bedroom floor. When I woke up in the morning Jeremy was already gone, but he left me an omelet in the microwave. Later, I thought, he will tell our friends this story, maybe my mother. When Jeremy tells the story, we will be in our house together in Bangkok, and he will have made the early morning trip to buy cheese from the Gourmet Market in Siam Paragon. When he tells the story to my mother, the cheese will cost as much as 250 baht. 

When I got to Bangkok a month later, I messaged Jeremy; it was going to be a surprise. I had checked his Facebook location, scrolling past pictures of other friends' engagement rings and ideas for wedding centrepieces, their announcements of relationship statuses changing to “engaged.” I took a tuk tuk instead of a taxi because the driver said he knew the way to the JJ Green Market, the area close to where Jeremy lived. When I ended up at a gemstone store, a man who called himself The Prince convinced me to buy a ring shaped like an elephant for Jeremy. “Real rubies,” he said, talking about the eyes, “best deal you'll ever find. You're stupid if you don't buy it.” He said it would be like nothing Jeremy had ever seen before.

I thought when I got to Bangkok we would go to the temples, the river, the limestone mountain that everyone said looked like the surface of the moon, but Jeremy said he would just meet me at the market. I bought us both cheese toasties; I waited thirty minutes, then forty-five, wandering the area behind the Bangkok Bank where you could buy turtles, even the occasional small alligator. Behind the salt water aquariums, I saw a father and his young son looking at the snakes.           

A cobra can sometimes look like a rat snake. It has the same brown body, the same black bands that thicken towards the tail. The variations in colouring are so slight, the patterns so similar that, the vendor told us, it was sometimes hard to tell the difference. “This guy here is not dangerous at all,” the vendor said, pointing to one of the brown-bodied snakes, “but this other one is the king cobra. It can kill an elephant in a few hours with his bite.” He paused, waiting for us to be impressed, as though we had never seen anything like it before. 

“How do you tell them apart?” the boy asked in English, but his father told him he didn't need to. When the boy and I leaned over the glass for a closer look the father pulled his son away, and I understood the words “don't”; I understood “crazy foreigner.” He must have told his son what I had heard before. Everyone in Thailand knows to stay away from a snake.

When Jeremy finally met me, far away from the king cobra's tank, I gave him the ring. I said the elephant had reminded me of all of our talks about magic. I said now that we were in Bangkok together we should go and see the famous elephant tower, but he wanted to go straight to the love hotel. Afterwards, I asked if we were staying the night. 

“Can't,” he said, pulling on his pants. “I've got an early class tomorrow. You can stay though, unless you've got another hotel booked.” 

I told him I didn't want to stay at a hotel; I wanted to stay at our house, together.

“Look, I've got roommates,” he said, but I noticed he still hadn't put the ring on, “they're leaving at the end of the month, but right now there's no room.” 

I lied. I said believed him. I said I had to go to the bathroom. That was when I saw the snake, a shadow curved into the corner of the sink. 

I tried to tell him that I couldn't stay at the hotel without him. I tried to tell him I wanted to go with him, out to dinner, maybe dancing. I wanted to go to our house. “You're seeing things,” and I knew Jeremy would just say I was seeing what I wanted to see, “there is no snake.”

I said he shouldn't have left the seat up now that we were in Bangkok and things were crawling around in the drains; I said he would have seen the snake if he had cared enough to open the door when he heard me scream.

“It was locked.”

“I thought you could pick any lock.” I didn't look at his face, or the elephant ring on the nightstand. I wanted to think he remembered Houdini.  

He told me he had never said that.

He didn't come back to the hotel the next morning, even though I waited for him. So I went back to the market to buy one of those brown-bodied snakes; I needed Jeremy to see things the way I did. He didn't come the next evening, so I messaged that I had followed him downstairs to see the cab he got into, that when the driver returned, I paid him for the address of our house. He didn't come so I danced with the snake instead, borrowing a broom from the cleaning cart so I could hook its body around the handle, making sure I was slow, not fast as I dropped it into the drawstring bag, put the bag inside a carrier. Boundaries are important. Too much confidence when handling a snake can be deadly. Jeremy didn't come back the evening after that or the evening after that so I messaged that I would meet him at our house in Bangkok. When all the cabs refused me because of my luggage, I rented a car. I needed Jeremy to see me. 

When I got to our house, a woman answered the door. She said her name was Katie. She said Jeremy had told her his drinking buddy from Seoul was in town; she asked “are you visiting Bangkok for long?” 

“That depends on Jeremy,” I answered. 

“Well, he won't be home for another hour or so, but you can wait if you want,” she began awkwardly. “Were you planning to stay the night?” I noticed she was eyeing my baggage, even though I had left some of it in the car.

“Yes,” I told her. 

“Oh. Okay. It's just that Jeremy just never told me.”

“Don't worry about me,” I told her, “I'll just go to my room, and it will be like I'm not even here.” 

Katie led me past the kitchen, a stack of empty pizza boxes piled right next to the downstairs bathroom. “Sorry about the mess. Jeremy keeps telling me that no true ex-pat eats pizza for a week, but we always end up ordering in,” she explained.

“He used to say the same thing in Korea,” I said, following her upstairs to the two bedrooms; she led me to the only one that was not in use. 

I told her I would finish taking my luggage in myself. “Can I use your bathroom?” I asked.

“Sure. Just go to the one downstairs,” she said, “I keep telling him we're in Bangkok and you never know what's in the drains, but Jeremy always leaves the seat up on the toilet up here.”

I waited for her to leave, then I went into the other bedroom. Even lying on the unmade bed, I could see this was a room with a view, although from this close the white cinderblocks of the famous tower only vaguely resembled an elephant. When I looked outside, I saw Katie calling Jeremy from the front lawn where she thought I couldn't hear. On the bedside table, I noticed a framed picture of the two of them, Katie and Jeremy, on top of the limestone mountain Doi Pa Pheung. I wondered if he had let her post it. I wondered if anyone back home believed that where they were living, together, was really like being on the moon.

I wondered how Jeremy would explain the broken glass to Katie, the remnants of their picture frame lying on the bedroom floor.

Afterwards, I went downstairs quickly to get the rest of my luggage, returning to the upstairs bathroom. There I messaged Jeremy. I saw our house today. I saw Katie. I know if Jeremy could tell you this story, he would say I would never touch a snake; I was too scared to even look at one. But I needed him to know what I saw. I needed him to see.

On my way out of the bathroom, I gathered up what remained of my luggage, told Katie I had decided not to stay after all. “I just came to give Jeremy something he forgot,” I told her, laying the elephant ring on the table.

She looked puzzled, unsure of her reaction. It must have been because the slight variations in colour, in pattern, made it look like something you would get in a tuk tuk gemstone scam, something Jeremy would never wear. I knew this now. “Um, did you want me to let him know you were here?” Katie asked, as though she hadn't already. 

I told her it wouldn't make a difference. An elephant can sometimes look like a closet; a cobra can sometimes look like a rat snake. Jeremy wasn't the first to get bitten in a bathroom in Bangkok by what was invisible, waiting for him.