The Estrangement Effect
  Stories by Rebecca Andem
  1  They Were Strangers
2  The Forgetting Bone
3  Inside the Lines
4  Adults Made the Rules
5  Sheltering
  About the Author  |  |  Summer 2020 Fiction Issue

They Were Strangers

Elephants topped her list for soulful eyes. Elise didn’t understand how anyone could look into the eye of an elephant and not see intelligence and feeling. It was the same with dolphins, the awareness in their gazes. Or wolves. She loved the calculation in their icy blue stares. And the big cats. One of her favorite photos portrayed a lioness walking away but glancing back over her shoulder. She must have paused at some sound from the photographer, and in that second the camera captured an entire relationship in her face. There was a recognition in her amber eyes, perhaps a desire to trust, but also a wariness. Elise could imagine the patience that earned that gaze.

“I think in another life I would have been a wildlife photographer,” she said.

“Why not this one?” Yuri asked.

They were waiting for the show to start. Young elephants were lined up behind a split rail fence. A few were sleepy and unenthused, but most of them were fidgety, their trunks greedy and groping for treats. The tourists were lined up on the other side of the fence. It looked like a mating dance, the way the tourists stepped in and out of reach, teasing like young girls who are scared of what they want. Elise accepted a banana from Yuri and held it up for the elephant she was stroking. She wished she had thought to bring a camera.

“I’m not the artistic one.” She glanced down the line at Sam. He was standing at the end, several feet back from the fence, lobbing bananas for two competing calves to catch. Already he was moving more easily. Young people healed so quickly. Only a week ago he’d stepped off the plane with the hood of his sweatshirt pulled up over a baseball cap worn low. Hiding. From the other end of the arrivals hall, Elise had sensed the pain in the careful way he carried himself. He’d walked towards her with his head down and his shoulders curled, no trace of his usual cocky stride. At a loss, she’d teased him, but he didn’t volley back. Black-eyed and swollen, he’d squinted at her.

Yuri slipped his hand under her hair. “Does he draw animals?”

“He draws anything.” Elise gave the elephant one last banana and stepped away.

“Any of you?”

Elise flinched against the lewdness in his tone, but the more she resisted, the worse it got. In the presence of her son, her boyfriend had somehow morphed into a letch. He was staking his territory. Elise knew that. The constant petting and private glances, the show of paying for everything – Yuri was letting Sam know that he had a place in Elise’s life. She should have been flattered. It was almost sweet, his vulnerability, but it was also annoying. He pulled her under his arm and kissed her cheek. If they had been alone, she would have been melting into him, but she knew his caresses weren’t for her. When his grip tightened, Elise didn’t have to look up to know Sam was standing beside them.

“Your mother told me you like to draw elephants?”

“She did?”

Yuri nuzzled Elise’s hair, and Sam pressed his lips together. Elise shook her head in warning. She didn’t want to hear the comment he was biting back. Luckily, a garbled voice over the loudspeaker announced the beginning of the show.

“Shall we?” Yuri asked.

“We shall,” Sam answered.

Elise glared at him.

The park wasn’t what she expected. After almost a year teaching English in Thailand, she still hadn’t done the tourist beat, but if the park was any indication of the rest, she had no regrets. It looked like it had been flung together out of scraps. The tourists piled onto rough wooden benches lined up under a thatched roof. Behind another rail fence, the wrangler announced the first act, and the benches creaked as everyone leaned forward to see the line of young elephants plodding into the arena. It was nothing but a stretch of bare dirt. Small patches of grass hinted at a former field, but Elise guessed the constant weight of the elephants had crushed the earth into cement. Dusty cement. She pulled her scarf up over her mouth, and Sam rubbed his face against his sleeve. After the long ride on her moped,they were both gritty and greasy, especially next to Yuri who still looked like he’d just stepped out of the air-conditioned taxi he always insisted on.

“Don’t you ever sweat?” Elise asked.

Yuri smiled and stroked her leg.

The elephants danced and dueled. They climbed heavily onto sawn-off tree stumps and sat down, stood up, turned around. One showed off its artistic skill with a paintbrush clasped in its trunk, and when the wrangler announced the work of art would be available for sale after the show, Sam snickered.

“Maybe I should learn to paint with my teeth.”

“It might not be a bad idea.” Yuri leaned forward. “You’re laughing, but the art world is constantly changing. You never know what will be popular. There’s a woman from Ukraine who paints with sand. It’s brilliant, a combination of visual art and music and choreography. She paints as a dance. Perhaps you could do something like that?”

“Something that’s already been done?”

“An example. You might try to combine the art forms. You could paint with your teeth, and, I don’t know, dance like a caveman. It’s performance art. You can do anything you want as long as you package it well.” Yuri shrugged. “Maybe not a caveman, although women love that primal stuff.”

“They do? That’s good to know. So maybe I should wear a loin cloth or something?”

“Give them what they like.” Yuri grinned and winked. He grasped Elise’s thigh like a prize.

Sam sucked in his lips. “You know what else women like?”

“Ice cream.” Elise jumped up. “This woman likes ice cream.”

“You hate ice cream,” Sam said.

“You do?” Yuri asked.

Elise dug her nails into Sam’s shoulder. “We all change,” she said, but the innuendo fell between them, unacknowledged like everything else they hadn’t said.

None of them had enough sense to put an end to the day. They filed back past the young elephants groping for peanuts and the older ones kneeling to accept tourists on their backs. Their original plans included rafting, so that’s what they would do. They lined up and waited their turn on an exposed wooden dock. The forest at the edge of the river had been cleared, mostly with the help of the elephants. The guide explained that logging was their original purpose, and no one argued. Sam pulled his hat lower and squinted at the water.

“What are you thinking?” Elise asked.

“It looks like they shoveled all the elephant shit in there.”

“The silt gathers here because of the bend in the river. The flow decreases.”

Sam studied Yuri. “What do you do again?”

“I teach English. Or rather I teach people to teach English.”

“But you’re Russian.”

“And you’re American.” Yuri didn’t back down from Sam’s gaze. “I’m glad we sorted that out.”

“Half Russian, actually.” Sam snickered. “Apparently, Mom has a thing for Russians.”

“I believe your father was from Estonia.”

Sam turned his scowl back to the river.

The rafts were nothing more than bamboo poles lashed together, level with the water and only two people wide. Wooden stools, no higher than a squat, had been constructed to keep the passengers dry, but it looked improbable. The staff helped to guide the tourists onto the lightweight frames, but it was a slow process. Yuri rubbed Elise’s back. When they finally reached the front of the line, he pulled her aside.

“This day could use a breather. Why don’t I meet you at the end?”

Grateful for the suggestion, Elise offered to touch his cheek, but he caught her fingers, kissing her palm. She was about to squirm her hand free when she saw his eyebrows arch.

“I assume you’ll tell me in detail everything I’ve done wrong?”

Laughing, relieved to glimpse the man she knew, she hugged him. “Thank you.”

Once the rafts rounded the bend, the water did clear, but only after they passed a herd of elephants transporting the more enthusiastic tourists. With white-knuckled grips on the harnesses, the riders hooted and hollered their daring from the necks of the submerged animals, rocking back and forth on a gait that stirred the river into sludge. They passed within a few feet, and the elephants eyed the rafts. Elise imagined a moment of communication as she stared into those steady, long-lashed gazes. She wanted to apologize.

Beyond the activity, once the water settled, its color deepened from a muddy brown into tourmaline, and although they couldn’t see the bottom, it felt cleaner, pure. The river flowed like a solid thought. It lulled them. The channel narrowed, and the forest closed around them. The air cooled into a silent green. Now and then the guides steered with their poles. Lazy, Elise dragged her hand in the water. She flicked it at Sam.

“Hey. Watch the injuries. I’m not supposed to get wet.” He grinned. Even with the makeshift stools, their clothes were wet already.

“At least you don’t look like a boxer anymore.”

“After a losing fight.” Sam touched his nose self-consciously.

“Don’t worry. You’ll be gorgeous again in no time.”

“Yeah, and then I can dance in a loincloth.”

Elise tensed.

“What? Your boyfriend said it’s art. I could make a fortune.”

“How much did you make?”

The question startled them both.

Behind them the pole dipped into the water. They surged forward, but it was the only movement. It was that time of day when the afternoon had been heated into a stupor. Only the tourists chattered, their voices on nearby rafts loud but indistinct. Sam turned away. He lowered his cap and squinted at the dense tangle of trees along the shore. He let his hand drag in the water.

“Your aunt found a video on your phone,” Elise explained, “in the hospital. She was looking for a friend to call.” She paused. “I guessed your password.”

The muscle in his jaw flinched, but there was no attack, no sarcasm. The silence was new and unnerving.

The guide steered them around a small eddy. Elise wondered how much he could understand. She waited. Sam pulled his hand out of the water, but then he seemed at a loss for what to do with it. His posture sagged.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” Elise asked.

“So you could tell me how proud you are?” He was speaking to his feet.

Elise leaned forward. She peeked under his cap. “I’m not judging. Okay? I’m just curious. And I’m scared. I don’t understand what happened, or why someone attacked you. I don’t understand how you got there. How did you go from cramming for exams to….” She was at a loss.

“A sequined thong?”

She held up her hand. “Please. I don’t need a visual.”

“Star-spangled, gold, camouflage.”

“You’re enjoying this.”

“No. Trust me. I’m not.” He rubbed his hand on his shorts. “It just happened.” After a minute, he met her gaze. “I’m good at it.”

“But what about art? And school? Not everyone gets into RISD. Sam, you have a gift. I wish I could do what you can do with just a pencil. I don’t know if I’d ever speak again. I’d just draw everything. To have that language, to have a way to say all the things you imagine and feel without being strangled by words? I am so jealous. I’m sorry, but I don’t understand how gyrating your hips for screaming women remotely compares.”

“It’s more thrusting than gyrating.”



It was their old refrain, but his voice had a warning in it. Don’t go there. Above them there was unexpected movement in the trees. A wave of reaction traveled up the river, and the guide craned his neck. After a second he pointed. A gibbon. It was on the move, swinging from one branch to the next. On a raft behind them, a woman squealed. Sam shot Elise an ironic smile.

“Are you going back to it? When you go back to school?”

“I’m not going back.” Feigning nonchalance, he scratched at his neck and stretched. His breath caught when the stretch reached his cracked ribs, but he ignored it. Raising his eyebrows, he sucked in his lips and glanced at her. What’re you gonna do with that?

“To school? To stripping?” Her voice fell off on the last word, and she flickered a glance at the guide.

Sam snorted. “What do you care what he thinks? He probably doesn’t even speak English.”

“You used to be a sweet kid.”

“I think we can agree I’m officially not a kid anymore.”

“The problem is I don’t know who you are now. And you’re not talking.”

Ahead of them the general chatter rose in volume. They rounded a bend, and the river spread out. The forest canopy retreated, taking with it that hushed green intimacy. They could see the dock in the distance, another bare wooden block, the earth around it beaten down. Elise grabbed Sam’s shorts and patted his leg.

He jumped back. “What are you doing?”

Ignoring him, she reached over his lap and pulled at his other leg, groping until she found the phone in his pocket. She only hesitated a second before typing in the password.

“Where’s the stopwatch on this thing?”


“I’m serious. One minute.” She held up the phone. “Just tell me. All of it. I won’t say a word. I promise.”

“We’re almost there.”

Elise turned to the guide. “Poot pa sa ang grit dai mai.” When he shrugged and shook his head, Elise wanted to scream. Even her simplest questions failed without the proper tones. “Do you speak English?”

Sam piped in. “If you have to ask that question, I’m guessing the answer is no.”

“English,” the guide echoed. “A little.”

“Could you slow down please? Char char dai mai?” She pointed toward the opposite bank. “Khor jawt.”

The guide gestured at the water and answered in Thai.

“I don’t think he can slow the river down,” Sam said.

“Then talk fast.”

Other rafts were crowding around them. Elise pointed at the opposite bank again, her face begging. Without language, she’d become more dramatic, but it didn’t matter. Sam was wrong. She didn’t care what people thought of her. She didn’t have that luxury, not when she needed them to understand her, literally. And somehow the guide did. He poled the raft out of the flow of traffic and eased it toward a large rock that would hold them. The other tourists stared as they passed. One overheated American drawled his concern.

“Everything okay over there?”

Elise ignored them. “Everything is not okay.” She held the phone up to Sam. “Go.” But her voice had lost its force. The moment cracked. “Please.”

He looked at her. He started to shake his head, but Elise grabbed his hand.

“Just say it.”

“This is stupid.”

“Sam, I’m not ashamed of you. I can’t be. It’s impossible.”

“You wanna bet?” He yanked his hand away. “What if I told you that I flunked out of school? Would that do it? If I told you that I choked? That I wasn’t good enough? Even if my mommy thinks I’m brilliant. Do you get that?” He shoved his face into hers, his voice a low, hot stream of disgust. “The only thing I am good at is taking my clothes off. Do you wanna know how much I liked it? Or do you want me to tell you how I can’t go out there anymore, that I can’t pretend to hump some fat cow’s face without a bump?”

“A bump?”

“Coke. Cocaine.” His eyes burned. “How are you feeling now, Mom? You proud?”

She swallowed. “Who beat you up?”

“How the hell should I know? Some sadistic prick who was paying my roommate for sex. I got in the way. Anything else you wanna know?”

They stared at each other, neither one of them willing to cry. Elise shook her head. The guide said something in Thai, and without looking at him, she nodded. Whatever he wanted, it didn’t matter. Silently, she handed the phone back to Sam. The guide planted his pole into the riverbed, and bending deep into the effort, he pushed them backwards. In one fluid movement, they lifted off the rock. The current picked them up again.

When they reached the dock, Yuri was waiting. Most of the tourists had dispersed, and he was standing alone, his hands on his hips. Elise remembered him that first day at the front of the classroom, checking in on the dynamic, ready to take control.

“Is everything okay?” he asked.

The guide handed them off the raft, Elise first. She turned to watch Sam shrug off the help and leap onto the dock. He pushed past them.

“What happened?” Yuri asked. “Why did you stop?”

Elise dug into her purse for a tip. ”Kop khun ka,” was the most she could manage. Shaking her head, she pushed past Yuri and headed to the parking lot. She could feel him behind her, his confusion and the irritation that grew out of that, but she didn’t have any words. Her mind was circling. It would glance off an image, some bright flash of sequins or skin, and shy away. Yuri grabbed her hand when they reached the parking lot.

“Elise. Are you okay?”

Sam was sitting on the moped. He was beautiful, the kind of man that women notice, the kind they follow. She would have when she was younger. She would have arrested on those long legs stretched out, the broad shoulders curled over a muscled torso, the powerful arms, that distant, untouchable gaze. And back then she did. For the first time, Elise saw his father in him, and the recognition stunned her. What if Sam became the type of man who never knew he had a son?

“Did something happen between you?” Yuri asked.

“What do you think makes people who they are?”

Her non-sequiturs no longer alarmed him. Yuri answered smoothly. “Experience.” But when she didn’t respond, he touched the small of her back. “Wrong answer?”

Crossing her arms, Elise stepped away. They were strangers. Yuri had surprised her with his behavior, and Sam... She had no idea how to know anyone. All her life she’d been reading between the lines of people’s words and expressions and habits, but even there all she found was her own perception. She knew that most people made do with far less, and they were probably happier. Any of the women passing through that parking lot might look over and see Sam sitting there, and all they would think was gorgeous, or simply man. They would be content, thrilled. But Elise would see alone and aloof, maybe damaged. She would wonder why. She would imagine a story. And if she approached him, if she followed the need to know, she would carry that imagined story into their meeting. She would add everything he said into it, and she would never know him.

Sam squinted in their direction but not directly at them, hiding behind his cool, or at least that was Elise’s interpretation. How much did she need him to be cool? She drifted over and squatted in front of him, studied him. She waited for him to meet her gaze.

“You made a killing, didn’t you?”

Caught off guard, Sam faltered, but only for a second. Curiosity and caution pulled his expression back together, and when he met her gaze, he nodded.

“What are you going to do with the money?”

He shrugged, and his gaze traveled past her. “I don’t know. I thought maybe I could stay here for a while.”

“Because you love it so much.”

“The elephants are kind of cool.”

Elise nodded. “I love their eyes.”

“You would.”

She stood up and claimed a space beside him on the moped, wincing. After an afternoon in the sun, the seat burned through her cotton pants. Along the edges of the parking lot, a light breeze fluttered through the trees, and instinctively, they leaned toward it. Yuri stepped into the pause in their conversation.

“It’s late. I’m going to catch a taxi.” He held out his hand. “Sam, it was good to meet you.”


Yuri’s hand froze. But then Sam started to laugh, the silent locked-down giggle that shook his shoulders the way it always had. After a second Yuri grinned in response, and when his laughter erupted, it was with the familiar burst that threw back his head and lifted his chest. Their laughs, that much she knew. Again, Yuri extended his hand, and when Sam reached out to take it, he stood to show his respect for the older man — just like his mother taught him to do.


  © Rebecca Andem, 2020

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