A few years ago, I discovered Natalie Appleton’s work while scrounging the New York Times’ Modern Love archives for essays on love. Her true story—about leaving her Canadian hometown, lost and full of doubt, for Thailand in search of her real self—didn’t just strike a chord. It roiled the marrow of my bones. So, when I discovered this story was part of a soon-to-be-released memoir, I Have Something to Tell You, I was excited. The months-long wait for it to hit the bookstores? Worth it.
The memoir starts with young Appleton living a comfortable life with a straightforward, tobacco-chewing guy. In a bungalow with fusty shag carpeting. In Medicine Hat, the hometown she had always planned on leaving. It wasn’t a bad life, but rather a life unfulfilled. In a string of gorgeous sentences, the author captures the feeling small-towners often experience about where they grew up:
“Hometowns, how they tug at us. With memories of hide-and-seek in scorched coulees, and kissing in dusty trucks after dark. With streets and faces as familiar as a mother’s breath. But it’s not the place we leave or long for. It’s how a town makes us feel. Like a child, loved. Like an old woman, rocking over boredom and regrets.”
Never too poetic, too flowery, her style doesn’t detract from the story. Instead, her use of punctuation and sentence structure creates a rhythm much like the ebb and flow of her emotions.
After a brief but powerful encounter with an old classmate (a.k.a. an old nemesis, a one-night adventure), Appleton becomes convinced she must leave her hometown. Her partner. Her cat. Her home on the wrong side of the tracks. She doesn’t want to get married to a man or a way of life that she’ll come to regret. This revelation and the weeks to follow are hard. The intimate, raw emotions of a twenty-something Natalie fill the first part of the memoir. Her turmoil and guilty are palpable—you’re along with her for the ride.
Eventually, she trades in her 15-year old car for a one-way plane ticket to Bangkok. There, she plans to teach English for a year. Naive about her new surroundings and without any teaching experience, the uncertainty of making it in this foreign country trails her every move:
“How is it we can lunge over a hump nearly the length of earth itself, and then stagger on a strip of sidewalk? Shouldn’t we be fearless after crossing oceans and continents and cultures? Maybe it’s the streets—the higher probability of stumbling, even on a small scale, often—that daunt us, halt us. And I guess it never is a lunge so much as a series of moments in the air, off solid ground.”
Here and there, Appleton throws in an anecdote or bits of the land’s history, that makes her storytelling richer. Gives us a taste of what it’s like to live in Thailand. She deftly uses imagery and symbolism to weave together stories, from different continents and timelines, into a larger, focused narrative about finding oneself and finding love.
I won’t go into detail of how she starts to feel at home in this strange place. But there’s a delicate, quiet transformation with each new milestone. When she befriends the neighborhood family who serves her spicy shrimp soup without shrimp in their restaurant. When she learns Thai thanks to lessons from a well-off student. When she fearlessly hitches rides with motorcycle taxi drivers. All that, and much more, you should read and discover on your own. Preferably while sipping a glass of French Merlot.
I Have Something to Tell You was published on January 22, 2018 by Ravenscrag Press.