PanAmerican – Interlude – A Letter to Canada

In order to get Amp’s Canadian visa, we had to compile an ungodly amount of information about our bank accounts, recent travels, our relationship (we basically printed the entire Facebook Friendship page with our shared pictures and trips), and had to write a letter formally requesting she be allowed to pass through Canada on the motorcycle trip. That letter was pretty damn dry — I included the phrases “vouch for her character”, “financial solvency”, and “earnestly hopeful”. I somehow doubted that the Canadian embassy staff member would be kind after reading something that boring, so I also wrote the following…

Appendix B

The Much More Interesting Story of How Christian and Amp Met

The attached letter is, necessarily, almost criminally boring. I hope you’ll find this more entertaining.

When Amp and I met, we were both working for Wall Street English, an English school targeting university students and young professionals. Amp was the trainer for the front desk service staff, the “Service Officers” (officers? Really?), while I was a teacher in the Ladphrao center. I was interested in becoming a service manager and as part of the candidate training all of us who were qualified had to go through training for service officers – led by Amp.

Sparks flew quickly between us, but definitely the wrong kind. I was too American, she says, though I think she just didn’t appreciate my eagerness and ability to recall vast amounts of information – it didn’t fit with the Socratic way she tried to teach when I had read the answers from the manual they gave us. For me, I dismissed her after I tried to start up a friendly conversation as we all went to lunch and she issued a curt “it’s none of your business” to me. Granted, I probably shouldn’t have asked my trainer why she had chosen to remain a virgin till 25, but I was young and curious. And, honestly, a bit blind and naïve. (And she says obnoxious, but really? Let’s stick to young and curious. It’s kinder. For the kidner.)

If it weren’t for us going through a training together a few weeks later, I doubt we would have ever said more than a few words to each other at a time. We both went in for management training, and the cool animosity continued. But Amp, if you ever meet her, has a certain amount of gravity about her, a confidence that I found really attractive, even if annoying – the boss asked us each to come up with an ‘icebreaker’ game, and Amp flat out refused to join the one I’d developed. She wasn’t a joiner, but somehow she wasn’t bothered by not joining teams. She seemed to have no need of others’ approval. I couldn’t relate, but I did envy that.

Mid-week I found out she really, really liked brownies from a nearby restaurant, so I bought a pan for the whole class, knowing that there were too many and I could give her extra. The ice broke just a bit. Just barely. At the end of the week we all went for dinner. She and I ended up seated across from one another, and talked throughout the evening. It turned out she was really interesting, a kind of Bangkok hipster, but with less pretention. She liked indie movies and knew cool spots to hang out in the city. It also turned out that she absolutely refused to eat anything green (no vegetables!) and wouldn’t drink any alcohol. But I got her to try a little of each before we all parted ways.

Because I was trying to show leadership, I set up a dinner with the other trainees about a week after that, and that’s when I found out more about Amp’s heart condition. She’d been born with a congenital hole in her heart, only discovering it because of a smart x-ray tech when she got her physical for her Australian visa. But more intriguing, she had me feel her heartbeat, which was pumping out 120 beats per minute while resting, and we had an oddly intimate moment with my hand on her breastbone, trying my best to be conservative in my placement. She swears it was unintentional.

Bangkok was flooding, and none of us knew one day to the next whether we would be working. It was unsettling, but kind of cool. All the trainees went to a party at one trainee’s apartment, and we had to clamber over a four-foot sandbag barrier to get into the parking lot. Amp doesn’t drink, but the party atmosphere had us all more relaxed. She had this habit of pulling her shoulders up (stress from knowing about the heart surgery, I think) and I wanted to see if I could relax the muscles there, so for two hours during the party we sat on the living room floor, me just behind her, and I massaged her neck and shoulders. At the end of the night we decided to meet up for a movie the next day, since neither of us was working with the floods around our areas. (Now, again, I should note here that Amp swears that I actually invited myself along to a movie she was already going to see. That doesn’t fit with what I remember, so we’ve agreed to disagree.)

I arrived early the next day at CentralWorld for our semi-date-like-thing, and chilled at a Starbucks behind a bookshop to write a letter home. It turns out she loved the idea of me loving coffee, books and handwritten letters, but I wouldn’t know that for months. She was a bit recalcitrant when she arrived, a bit closed off. We had coffee and sat on a fantastic leather couch (we later decided we would need one for our house someday, but again, that wasn’t till much, much later), chatted a bit, went up to look at movie times. The next one we both wanted to see was Melancholia in a few hours, so we wandered the mall and chatted. I don’t remember much about what we said, but I remember visiting a few furniture shops and comparing favorites, playing with Lego at the Toys’R’Us, and me pretending I was going to toss her over the railing from a few floors up, which caused her to grab me really tight. (Again, a little difference here – I think this was playful and fun, but she now claims that she didn’t enjoy it, even though I think she really did enjoy somebody breaking through her shell and not being thrown off by her often-cool exterior. Agree to disagree.) In the movie she started crying heavily. I didn’t know what to do, so I put my arm around her. (Not like a first-date let-me-see-if-I-can-do-this type move, but more of a what-the-hell-do-I-do-with-this-crying-woman gesture. It turns out that she cries during nearly every movie she ever watches. Really, even the comedies. Every movie.) Anyway, we had dinner after, and stayed till the mall closed around us. I offered my arm – she took it, and said, “I can see why people like this.” So  small, but I felt like a million bucks.

(I should put in a little side note, here. Amp was a virgin, but more than that, on our first date she told me that she had never even kissed one of her boyfriends (or girlfriends- she’s bi), or held hands, and, furthermore, that if we dated, I shouldn’t expect to see her more than about once a week. I said we’d see how it went. She was okay with that.)

Our next date was two days later, another movie, this time at her favorite theater, a little tiny complex in RCA. Not working for a few days was great – we showed up early and spent the day. We talked at Starbucks, we talked at the little café in the cinema lobby over ice cream, and when we sat down for the movie I put my arm around her and she curled right up to me. “This feels really natural.” It did. Afterward we started talking about places open late, and went to a British pub, The Black Swan. I put my arm around her again, and once, when her eyes were closed for a story I was telling, I kissed her. Then we kissed again. And again. The pub shut down at midnight, so we went to an all-night breakfast restaurant, and kissed some more. We were both exhausted, but we wanted to stay. At 3 a.m., after I’d started to nod off during our conversations, we decided to go. When I put her in the cab and said goodbye, she kissed me one more time, saying “17!”, which was apparently how many times we’d kissed. And how many times she had ever been kissed, in her whole life.

Again, two more days and we were out at the movies. This time was after work – the company couldn’t figure out where the floods were going to be, so they opened and closed school centers pretty much at random – so we met up at a mainstream Cineplex in my area. We sat on a couch in the back of the theater and kissed through the whole movie (no waste, the movie was “In Time” with Justin Timberlake), and kept exploring. She was incredibly passionate. At the end of the movie, though, it was too late to go anywhere. I wanted her to come home with me, she wasn’t sure if she should. She did, but only once I promised we wouldn’t do anything new. That was tough, but fun, that night. Less fun, she left at four a.m.

It took some time before she would spend the night. We weren’t going to sleep together (though eventually she relaxed on that – thank goodness!), but even so, I wanted to spend the whole night together. Every second day we met up for a couple weeks, playing favorite YouTube clips for each other (she likes “Happy Tree Friends”, which I still find a bit odd) and sharing stories and, of course, making out.

A couple weeks later she went to the hospital for exploratory surgery. I bought flowers after work and showed up, but she wouldn’t let me in. I stood outside with the flowers and, just for just a couple of minutes, let myself cry. I was worried, and didn’t feel like I could do anything. Yes, it was too soon in our relationship, but I really needed to be with her, to know she was okay. Instead I got our friends to write her get-well postcards, and dropped off a stack with flowers at her apartment after she got out.

We went away a couple weeks later by bus, when Bangkok was officially shutdown for the floods and all of our friends were fleeing for the beaches. On the way south we talked about dating other people, talked about not dating other people, talked about being past that. On the way south we made out furiously, and it was a lot of fun, even though we had to be really discrete so our friends in the next bench couldn’t see. We were exhausted when we arrived.

We stayed together, finally, really slept together in Krabi. But beyond the usual first-bloom romance, there was an edge – Amp told me how serious her heart condition really was, that elevating her heartrate could cause a heart attack, that the doctor gave her six months to live without surgery. I remember feeling the shock of it, and putting aside any of my questions about the relationship, and deciding my job right then was just to make sure she made it through her surgery okay, no matter what.

The rest of the story, in overview…

In January I was spending my days as a new manager and my nights on the couch in her surgery room. She’d come through well, but I couldn’t shake the image of her coming out of surgery so tiny and frail, the feeling of absolute impotence while she was being operated on. I wanted to protect her, but there was nothing to be done, so I came and stayed while she slept. Something small, all I could do.

She got out quickly, was soon able to walk around again like normal, and travel again. We spent the next months working furiously at our jobs – turns out I wasn’t very good at being a manager – and taking whatever time we could to travel around Bangkok. We spent a weekend at Amphawa, a beautiful example of older Thai culture with canals instead of streets, we spent a weekend at a six-star resort because of an amazing voucher, we spent a weekend away at Ayuthaya, the ancient town, and a weekend at Lopburi, the monkey town… you get the idea.

It was far from perfect. I cooked dinner on Valentine’s Day, a pasta cream sauce with shrimp (Amp’s favourite) and onions (minced super, super finely) only to have her spend 45 minutes picking out all the little onions (it was not only green, but all vegetables, that she refused to eat). She was upset when I had lunch with a female coworker, when I was flirtatious with women in general. Some of that was a clash of cultures; most of it was me not really knowing proper boundaries. (Remember the bit about naivete at the beginning? We’ll just go with that here again. It’s kind.)

And I was stressed. My job wasn’t going well for the first few months, and when I started to learn how to do better, the center air conditioning broke and our students refused to study. I kept getting more and more behind, and my boss asked me to step down, to go back to being a teacher in another center and quit management. I couldn’t do it, so I quit.

Amp and I already had a trip planned to Chongqing, China, and we went anyway – at least this way I didn’t need to take paid time off. It was a great trip, and I was even more excited because I’d decided to work in Beijing for the next year. Amp was going to take advantage of her Australian visa then come join me.

She didn’t.

Rather, she did, but not permanently. After a couple of difficult months apart, she flew from Sydney to Beijing for Christmas, and we spent an amazing month together. We fought, as we always have, but we traveled and had fun and it was great coming back to the apartment and coming home to her. But then she left, and we hoped she could come out in a few months and find work in Beijing so we could be together. Without a native English-speaker’s passport, though, teaching was essentially off the table. Other jobs would be even tougher to get. We fought often over the next few months, fighting for what we both wanted, but always making it through. In June she came out again, and again it was a great month. July and August were tougher, and when we decided that we couldn’t be together in Beijing, we decided to move back to Thailand together at the end of my contract.

Meeting up again in October was amazing, knowing we actually had a chance to be together long term. We were both starting to learn more about the relationship and heal from some of the rough patches of the previous months. I’d read a book by the Friels on relationships, and we started to apply some of the principles. I began to understand where I’d overstepped the boundaries of a respectful relationship with my female friendships, and we began to move past some of our arguments. It’s been a slow process, but it began that fall.

Our early days in Chiang Mai have a sort of Polaroid gloss. We spent the first week looking for an apartment, riding around with the two of us on a little rented scooter stopping methodically into search and every apartment building we saw. When we finally saw our current apartment, we were exhausted at the end of a long day, and the apartment was catching the last rays of sun setting behind Doi Suthep with a gigantic picture window. We’d found our home.

Every day I worked trying to develop online income and Amp applied for local jobs, but every night we explored the city. We went to markets, karaoke, bowling and cheap restaurants. By December we both had work, though it wasn’t too lucrative, and we were making it. I felt like we were in a movie about the early days of success for some company founders. (Sometimes I still feel that way.)

In January I flew my parents out for a Thailand vacation, something Amp and I had been planning for months with money I pulled from my old retirement account. It was their first time to meet, but they knew a lot about each other. We traveled to southern Thailand, back to Amphawa, up to northern Thailand and over to Cambodia. My parents were in awe of everything, and quickly adopted Amp as a daughter.

I bought a motorcycle at the end of our vacation, when we were in Bangkok. The engine froze while we were in traffic, and Amp decided she never wanted to ride together again. I was devastated. But over the next few months she was a little more open to short rides, and we travelled slowly and carefully to a few new places, driving on top of Doi Suthep and to the forests near Chiang Dao. She began to enjoy it.

The next few months we worked hard. In May I went on a motorcycle trip with two good friends, Lee Baker and Johan Pellsater, and when I came back I wanted to ride more. Amp and I spent every weekend of June on a motorcycle visiting resorts around the north. In July I had to return to Colorado for a funeral and a wedding, but in August we started up the traveling again. And we kept it up in September and October – every week when we were in Chiang Mai, we tried to go visit a new place. Sometimes our friends came with us, sometimes it was just the two of us, sometimes it was one night and sometimes it was four; it was always what we needed. We continued to get closer, to build memories.

In November we flew to the US to spend Thanksgiving and the rest of the holidays with my family. It was the first time I’d ever introduced a girlfriend to my extended family, but it went well; aunts, uncles and cousins universally agreed she was a keeper. Since we’ve returned home I think she keeps in closer touch with my family than I do, which to be honest is great, since my communication gaps always led to vague fears that I’d experienced some catastrophe.

We keep up our frequent travels now, and want to continue. This summer is the final countdown to the motorcycle trip we’ve been planning, and we’re both really excited about the days of riding through forests and mountains and the nights spent in our tent. We’re excited about making even more memories that we’ll keep together forever.

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