Whipped by Alexandra Grunberg


Sonthi and Preeda lived on the thirtieth floor of their apartment building, and large windows offered an extravagant view of Bangkok all around them. Sonthi often wondered how long it would take an object thrown out of the window, such as a human body, to hit the sidewalk beneath. Preeda often told him to stop ruminating on such morbid thoughts and, though he protested that he was not thinking about his own body, he did not protest long because it made Preeda angry.

Preeda did not like to be angry in front of company, and they almost always had company. Even if they were not throwing a party—like they were tonight for Preeda’s client, Hathai—there were always other people in the apartment. There was always an opportunity to embarrass Preeda. The room was full, but Sonthi could still see the view out of the large windows. He did not tell Preeda that he was thinking about the long drop, but even though she lingered at the opposite end of the apartment, she might have been suspicious, so he stopped thinking about it.

Sonthi finished his beer, clutching the empty glass bottle against his chest, and he watched Preeda. She was talking to Hathai, who must have said something funny because Preeda tilted her head back and laughed, splitting her red-painted lips, showing off her straight, white teeth. Her blouse stretched against the snug fit of her belt where it was tucked into her black slacks, and the bits of gold in the fabric glittered in the accent lights that hung in a neat row above the island counter. Her silk scarf, wrapped around her neck in a delicate knot, was the same shimmering gold as the flecks in her blouse—the same as the glow of the hanging lights. Preeda touched Hathai’s shoulder as she whispered something in her ear. She ran her manicured nails through her straight black hair, adjusted a bowl of party snacks on the granite counter, then rested her hand on the slight bump of Hathai’s stomach. Sonthi could see her nails, which were not gold, but five bright spots of red against the creamy beige of Hathai’s maternity dress.

If Sonthi broke the beer bottle—perhaps on the edge of that granite counter—he might shove the broken end into Preeda’s eye.

“Hey, Sonthi!”

Kamon slapped Sonthi’s back. He was not loud, but Preeda’s eyes shot over at the sound of Sonthi’s name. She pulled her hand back from Hathai’s pregnant belly, running her nails through her hair once more. It was not a nervous tick. Nothing about Preeda was nervous, nor could anything she did even be compared to a tick. It was precise, fluid: an effort to strive for perfection. And Preeda was very good at performing perfection.

“Some of the guys were thinking about heading out to the bar when this is done. You think you can come? It’ll be fun,” he said. “Not that this isn’t fun but, you know. The kind of fun that doesn’t involve coasters.”

Sonthi shook his head. Preeda was still chatting with Hathai, but her eyes continued to dart over to where Sonthi stood. He gripped his glass tighter. He wondered if it would break.

“Come on,” said Kamon. “It won’t be for very long. Would it kill you to be social?”

“I can’t,” whispered Sonthi.

“Why not?”

“Preeda won’t let me.”

Kamon was silent for a moment, but Sonthi soon heard a chuckle; one that might’ve died out into a snigger or grown into a full laugh. Sonthi was a large man—too large, as his doctor liked to remind him—and too tall for group pictures, as Preeda liked to remind him. This, while little Preeda was barely a hundred pounds. Little Preeda was almost five feet tall. Little Preeda decorated the apartments of rich widows and wives and mothers with flowers and sculptures and modern art that Sonthi did not understand. But, when Preeda said no, Sonthi listened.

“Grow a backbone, buddy,” said Kamon. “What’s the worst that can happen? She can complain all she wants, but—”

“I’m scared of her.”

Kamon did not chuckle now. It did not look like Preeda was watching them, but Sonthi saw how her eyes did not laugh with her mouth at Hathai’s jokes; how her manicured nails picked at the fabric of her scarf. Her eyes were always dark, but when it got bad…and it was bad now. He had never told anyone before that he was scared of Preeda but doing so now did not lift his worries like a bubble floating into the night, light with the revelation of truth. Instead, a weight had settled on his chest, as heavy as Preeda’s darkened eyes.

“How could Preeda be scary?” asked Kamon.

How could Preeda be scary? She did not look scary, wiping down a circle of condensation from the antique side table and setting the rogue beer bottle on a coaster. How could Sonthi explain to Kamon how terrifying Preeda was? How could he tell the truth without inviting back that chuckle that he despised so much?

“Is she crazy?” prodded Kamon.

What an easy answer: Women being crazy. Empty words that held no relief. No. Sonthi shook his head. He must be crazy, because she was still right there, and she was waiting for him to tell Kamon, and then she would not hide any longer in that little five-foot frame, tied up tight with a lovely gold scarf. She was daring him to tell.

She made Hathai a small plate of appetizers. Hathai ate each delicacy within seconds. Sonthi had only met her a few times before, but she always seemed to be eating, and eating a lot. Or else, Preeda always seemed to be feeding her. Preeda was the perfect hostess. She was very attentive to hunger.

“Is it drugs or something?”

He could say that it was drugs. People often wondered how Preeda kept her energy up, and Sonthi was sure some of the ladies at the party would be relieved to hear that truly, no sober person could achieve so much at such a young age. He could say that she needed to be taken away, or say that he needed help leaving, but those were easy enough lies to disprove. And Preeda knew that. That was why her lips turned up as she adjusted the flowers on the kitchen table, behind people who barely noticed her glide around the quaint apartment she shared with her large Sonthi.

She let an easy smile soften the tight white palate of her face as her fingers caressed long purple and orange petals, mocking him—mocking his cry for help because there was nothing that he could say that anyone would believe. But he already said he was scared. It was more than he had ever said before. Maybe, just maybe, he could say a little more.

“She hurts me,” said Sonthi.

It was barely anything, but it was too much, and Kamon laughed loud enough for the few people lingering near Sonthi’s corner to hear, and they joined in, though they did not know the joke. Enough alcohol made anything a joke, but Sonthi suspected many of the partygoers saw him as a joke waiting to happen. Preeda’s large boyfriend, trapped under her diminutive thumb. What a riot. What a hoot.

“Oh, yeah, I’m sure,” said Kamon. “Those do seem like fists of fury. I think you’ve got enough cushioning to protect you from anything she throws at you.”

She never threw anything at him. She never had to. But Sonthi did not protest Kamon’s gibes. If just the thought of Preeda hurting him was enough to elicit laughter, how could he begin to tell the truth?

Preeda adjusted the lights, dimming them so the flecks of gold in her shirt ceased to sparkle, and everyone knew that her dinner party was over. Preeda made the rules and everyone followed them, but they only made fun of Sonthi for following them. They were under her thumb, too. The whole city was under her thumb.

Kamon slapped Sonthi’s back as he walked towards the door.

“We’ll miss you at the bar,” said Kamon. He assumed a mask of solemn, utter sincerity. “And we’ll hope she doesn’t beat on you too hard. It might hurt, but stay strong, Sonthi.”

Kamon held the door for Hathai, who thanked Preeda for a lovely night. Preeda smiled as she shut the door behind them but, all the while, her eyes were on Sonthi.

He could break the glass on the granite counter. He could stab the sharp edge through Preeda’s eye. But her eyes weighed him down, and he could not move, and he dropped the bottle into the recycling bin because Preeda insisted that they recycle. She opened the large window that looked out onto the city, over their friends leaving the party, and over everyone else who should have been as scared as Sonthi was.

For a moment, Preeda stood, surveying her hunting grounds, deciding on a target. It would be one of the women in the sprawling apartments that Preeda had decorated with such care, with particular attention paid to the nursery. Or else it would be the new inhabitant tucked away in their crib. And, if she could not feed on them, she would come back and take what she needed from Sonthi.