FIRST WORLD SOLUTIONS • by Benjamin A. Friedman

Lydia chose Thailand because that’s where her four closest friends from Barnard told her she simply must.  “The jungle! The spices! The color! The culture!” Their time in Bangkok and its surrounding villages was all they could even talk about after they returned from teaching children rudimentary English.  They raved about the exotic cuisine, the spectacular wildlife, and the cheap, cheap alcohol. And while Lydia heard little about actual Thai children, she was never really listening when her friends raised that subject.

She was too distracted by the ineffable sense that somehow, they had changed.

In truth, Lydia felt left out. She could have easily joined them on the Great Adventure; instead, she spent 2013 dating a wealthy Manhattan lawyer she was sure she should marry, traveling far less than expected, (only once to Paris, twice to LA to meet his parents), before deciding she really needed to start living her life before she turned 24 and it was too late. The lawyer, who had been cheating on her, took the rejection gracefully.

Now that she was planning her own Great Adventure, it mattered little that Lydia hated muggy climates, had a terrific fear of insects, and had the tolerance for spicy food of a toddler; she was going to experience the land her dear friends loved so much, even if it killed her. And for her first few days there, she was halfway convinced that Thailand would kill her...

That is to say, her bug spray did not work nearly as well as advertised, she anguished over every strange flavor burning its way down her esophagus, and she particularly resented the nasally twang of the Thai accent. The lower percentage of English speakers than anticipated was yet another outrage (especially since her friends came here to teach the damn language!). Tip-toing through the crowded streets of Bangkok, she was too upset to even ask for directions. And so, with a heavy heart, she began to make plans for an early return to America.

Then, on day four, The Miracle happened.

After finishing a modest Continental breakfast in her room, Lydia wandered out of her hotel lobby onto a tour van, white and red with blue stripes. It drove her clear out of the city to a nearby village. There, it deposited her group by a small, dusty park. Looking around with a grimace, Lydia suddenly saw something that would change everything. There in the middle of the park stood a baby elephant before an easel and blank white canvas. In its trunk danced a small black paintbrush. Lydia could not believe her eyes; the elephant was painting!  Taking shape on the canvas was an image of a baby elephant lifting a flower to the sky. And it wasn’t just a crude image — it was actually good!

Lydia felt a deep, impassioned swelling in her breast as the little gray elephant before her stared intently at the canvas before it, marking out each brush stroke with exacting yet trembling finesse of trunk. Lydia marveled. She herself could not paint so well.

Finally, the crowd of wealthy Westerners erupted in applause as the little elephant took a solemn bow, its stern-faced trainer by its side, an attendant lifting the easel in the air to move the finished work to the sales booth. Lydia’s sense of awe and wonder restored, she spent fifteen American dollars for an identical image painted earlier — signed “Suda” — then returned to Bangkok and her air-conditioned hotel room feeling she had found exactly what she was looking for. Lydia cut her trip short the next day, was back in the airport the next night, and upgraded her return flight to America to first-class.

***

And it was, as Lydia flew over the Pacific, that the little elephant Suda lay awake in her tight metal cage behind the village park, her right ear itching its phantom itches — on the same spot where her trainer tugged it when she failed to follow the correct choreography. Suda knew deep down that she could paint much better without the fear of painful tugging; but she also knew it would continue. The Trainer would not risk letting her paint on her own before those strange white faces. Suda remembered well the beatings from her youth whenever she made a mistake.

An elephant never forgets.

That night, Suda again wondered about the baby elephant she knew so well by heart, the one in the picture she painted each day, holding its pretty flower up to the sky. Suda knew one thing for sure — that this happy elephant in the image was not Suda.  Suda was not even sure such a happy elephant existed anywhere in the world anymore, or ever would again. She herself had not felt such happiness since she was four years old… before they ripped her away from her mother… before the paintbrush…

***

And on her first-class plane ride back to America, Lydia sipped her champagne and savored the memory.

What a marvelous story she would soon be sharing with her friends!

What a transformative adventure this was!

What a well-earned treat!

And she reclined in her seat with a sigh, and she slipped off once again, to sleep.


Benjamin A. Friedman is from Northern New Jersey, the child of a Tai Chi-loving biophysicist and a Conservative Rabbi’s daughter. His personal religion as a child was dinosaurs and space aliens. He received his BA in English and Cinema Studies from the University of Pennsylvania in 2007, and his major interests include philosophy, social justice, the history of civilization… and of course paleontology and astrobiology.


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 average 3.7 stars • 3 reader(s) rated this

Every Day Fiction

  • Justin

    I just watched a documentary about the treatment of elephants in captivity and how they are made to do tricks: “An Apology to Elephants.” It is absolutely heartbreaking and there should be more awareness about it. Very nice story!

  • Justin

    I just watched a documentary about the treatment of elephants in captivity and how they are made to do tricks: “An Apology to Elephants.” It is absolutely heartbreaking and there should be more awareness about it. Very nice story!

  • Interesting story, and well-written enough. I just don’t get the point. What was her revelation? She hated the place until she saw the painting elephant, then suddenly she’s a changed woman? I think I missed something, Thanks for sharing.

    • S Conroy

      I think the point is she’s desperate to be a changed person, to ‘get’ Thailand, its culture and people in the way her friends seem to. Her spiritual experience comes when she sees this cute little elephant painting a flower. She doesn’t realise or consider that her revelation -her proof that she’s ‘got’ Thailand- is a trick involving extreme cruelty to elelphants, a packaged bit of spirituality for the first world tourist market.

      • OK, I can see that. It makes sense. I think perhaps another read is in order with a little different perspective. Thanks for the explanation.

  • Interesting story, and well-written enough. I just don’t get the point. What was her revelation? She hated the place until she saw the painting elephant, then suddenly she’s a changed woman? I think I missed something, Thanks for sharing.

    • S Conroy

      I think the point is she’s desperate to be a changed person, to ‘get’ Thailand, its culture and people in the way her friends seem to. Her spiritual experience comes when she sees this cute little elephant painting a flower. She doesn’t realise or consider that her revelation -her proof that she’s ‘got’ Thailand- is a trick involving extreme cruelty to elelphants, a packaged bit of spirituality for the first world tourist market.

      • OK, I can see that. It makes sense. I think perhaps another read is in order with a little different perspective. Thanks for the explanation.

  • Paul A. Freeman

    A bit disjointed for me.

  • Paul A. Freeman

    A bit disjointed, I felt.

  • MPmcgurty

    Nice writing. Not a bad fiction piece told to skewer first-worlders and highlight the controversy surrounding the painting elephants in Thailand. I think Scott Harker’s point is important to note. This piece often felt like it wasn’t sure what it was supposed to be. It had all the marks of an indictment of first-world views of third world offerings, but it deviated in places. (The detour of ill-fated romance wasn’t sharp enough to be included.) Although I personally admired the snarkiness and lampooning of westerners delivered in the first third, it seemed heavy handed in light of the sorrowful Suda passage (actually heartwrenching in this animal lover’s view). Does such a poignant passage belong in a satire? Good satire should make someone squirm; so should the Suda passage. But together? Satire is meant to have angles and edges, but sometimes some buffing can make it deceptively sharp.

    Not bad at all. Points for bringing an issue to light for people who might not know it exists.

  • MPmcgurty

    Nice writing. Not a bad fiction piece told to skewer first-worlders and highlight the controversy surrounding the painting elephants in Thailand. I think Scott Harker’s point is important to note. This piece often felt like it wasn’t sure what it was supposed to be. It had all the marks of an indictment of first-world views of third world offerings, but it deviated in places. (The detour of ill-fated romance wasn’t sharp enough to be included.) Although I personally admired the snarkiness and lampooning of westerners delivered in the first third, it seemed heavy handed in light of the sorrowful Suda passage (actually heartwrenching in this animal lover’s view). Does such a poignant passage belong in a satire? Good satire should make someone squirm; so should the Suda passage. But together? Satire is meant to have angles and edges, but sometimes some buffing can make it deceptively sharp.

    Not bad at all. Points for bringing an issue to light for people who might not know it exists.

  • S Conroy

    Nice satire on the first world tourist. Very cleverly done.

  • S Conroy

    Nice satire on the first world tourist. Very cleverly done.

  • I think this is quite ambitious, especially for a piece of 1000 words. Considering that limitation, a lot was crammed – gracefully – into it. Though it didn’t go quite in the direction I thought it was going to, the direction it did go is quite profound. Nice job!

  • I think this is quite ambitious, especially for a piece of 1000 words. Considering that limitation, a lot was crammed – gracefully – into it. Though it didn’t go quite in the direction I thought it was going to, the direction it did go is quite profound. Nice job!

  • veena gupta

    I enjoyed the portrait of Lydia in this story. And the contrast between her world and the world she visits. The story of the elephant adds drama. Interesting!

  • veena gupta

    I enjoyed the portrait of Lydia in this story. And the contrast between her world and the world she visits. The story of the elephant adds drama. Interesting!

  • Eli

    I like that she falls BACK to sleep, well done.

  • Eli

    I like that she falls BACK to sleep, well done.

  • Jonah Kruvant

    What a fantastic story! I want to read more from this author!

  • Jonah Kruvant

    What a fantastic story! I want to read more from this author!

  • KK

    I love this story. Heart breaking, I find in that the young tourist probably can’t empathize or imagine another perspective save for her own self interest.

  • KK

    I love this story. Heart breaking, I find in that the young tourist probably can’t empathize or imagine another perspective save for her own self interest.

  • Netty net

    When you mention wild life I picture different animals, fear of bugs and I like it.

  • Netty net

    When you mention wild life I picture different animals, fear of bugs and I like it.