FEED OUR FISH YOUR DEAD
Siem Reap, 2014
All through the flood-bright afternoon a wiry acrobat with a red mohawk and a clown nose puts up and takes down his small show. A metal rack for drying clothes he studs with upturned knives, then adds a few flaming torches. He tosses himself over it. First one direction, then the other. Goes around with the hat. Takes it all apart, moves one block down, and starts again.
This time he hasn't even bothered to swallow the torches. He just blows them out, then comes around with the red velvet hat. He's nothing but bone, muscle, and ink. His eyes are torches. I reckon it has been some years now since he has been entirely mad. No doubt about it. He's a real artist.
On the walls of Happy Special Pizza, paintings of Bayon's stone Buddhas are interspersed with giant faded photographs of drunken tourists stoned on pizza. Amid the the serenely crumbling Buddhas tables of tourists are ecstatic -- or else very, very nervous.
Ten minutes earlier, I would have made it to the sauna. Ten minutes later, I could have turned around and sat beside the pool with a glass of wine. As it is, I have been standing here beneath the tin awning at the laundry for an hour watching the roundabout fill up with rain until any moto that attempts the middle of the street sputters and drowns. My gut is tight with wanting otherwise, the gusts make me feel mad and it is good just to stand here, experiencing the extent to which I am in charge.
The lanky Scandinavian tourists in tank tops with elephants offer their armpits to everything. To say that they are arrogant would imply they have some doubt as to whom the world belongs, that they might feel some small need to assert or defend. No so -- they wander sleepily and happily, as though in their own home. They have a precious and delicate new doll, named phone, and they are showing it Cambodia.
Noon burns holes in the village, which has hastily become a city because so many people showed up expecting to be fed, great bright holes the light, like larvae, chews up, holes which by late afternoon are stitched up into something like a city where, more often than not, a shack serving curry and dollar gin and tonic is assembled on the seam.
How is it possible, I ask my pal Amazement, that the dollar gin and tonics are so very strong? (The wisdom of Amazement would be more widely credited if she were not also a preposterously pretty girl.) Nothing miraculous about it, Amazement coolly explains. "Hello? The gin is cheaper than the tonic."
Kosan, the tuk tuk man with one glass eye, looks like a scholar of Sanskrit, though I suspect it is retrovirals, not libraries, that have sunken his cheeks. Every day we have a small chat. Perched in his tuk tuk outside The Sun, he appears cheerful with no visible cause. Every day I apologize for walking, but Kosan does not mind. Kosan understands that he has become important to me. I must learn what he knows. This waiting which is not even waiting, and which does not give way to despair.
At the Triangle Bar the tables and chairs are suspended from the ceiling by black cables. Perched on your seat, you swing as you drink. I reckon this could be a delicate swaying, akin to a sea travel. Unfortunately the Australians buying pitchers have decided they must swing as high and fast as possible, so that Amazement and I must clutch our beers desperately, as our table crashes repeatedly into the next, like boats in a hurricane at a crowded marina. We are rescued at last by the waiter, who grabs onto the cables and looks at us sternly.
Swinging chairs and swinging tables, suspended from the ceiling. An innovation that means it is no longer necessary to drink a great deal before becoming nauseated. You can be nauseated immediately.
With great relief Amazement and I leap from our chairs and arrive again on land. Although it is true that success in the business of tourism means providing ever-fresh novelties, there seem to be a number of sensible and valid reasons this type of bar has failed to catch on.
Sex is something I have done. That's how it seems to me. Don't be too impressed. It has taken me nearly 30 years, if you count from the time that I brought, to games of Truth or Dare, a militant fundamentalist level of zeal. Anyone can explain to you -- I just didn't have that much else to do. (Also, I read some books.) I was a Creative Writing major, remember. I was predominantly an ornamental type of person. Not that I was ever particularly good-looking. But, just like Grandma, life has its knick-knacks.
The days are full of incidents of perfect kindness, faultlessly executed. At the new sauna on the other side of Highway 6, I sit to put on my plastic leg brace, my special shoes. The Khmers in the locker room watch silently, as if I am performing a stunt requiring my full concentration.
Ten steps down the dark dirt road, a moto stops beside me. "Ride home," says the young man. "But there are two of you already." "One more no problem", he says. I ride in the middle. Because that is my dream of life. The young man in front rubs against me a little. Not for his own pleasure of course, but because he understands it means the world to me.
The only table left at The Sun is round and immense, and when I ask, “It is OK for me to sit here, only one?” the voice that comes out is infinitesimal. The waitress tells me of course it is fine. Just the same, I add, “If other people come you can move me somewhere else, it’s OK.” Then, because I am failing at appearing sane, I hide myself behind the folding menu as if behind a screen. When the waitress comes back she speaks to me tenderly, as if to a kindergartener, “Your writing is so neat and small!” and just barely refrains from patting me on the shoulder.
For years I was in the charge of what no one else wanted to see. How did I get that job? I guess I married into it. I was a sort of nurse attendant for what nobody else wanted to deal with. Now I have gone away. It doesn’t matter. The invisibility of disquieting things has long since rubbed off on me. The invisible nurse needs no health insurance. There is no room for me in the palace of positive thinking. Smile and be nice! Smile, be nice, and avert your eyes.
Conan keeps showing up at my door. When I first came here I was here with well-to-do Tokyo friends, with my husband from whom I am estranged. We stayed at a fancy gay hotel. Conan was the guard, pool boy and tuk tuk driver of the hotel. His name is Conan because he is so strong. He could walk around on his hands all day. He can do a backflip any time he feels like it, just like that. One step backward, he throws his head at space and lands on his feet. He has the innocence of a child soldier. Conan only likes women, but he pretends he likes men, that’s his job. He gave us all a hard-on at one point or another. When my friends left they tipped him two hundred dollars. Two hundred dollars!
Now Conan keeps showing up. His eyes are gutted and he smells like a bus station toilet. He’s been on a bender obviously. He better watch out or he’ll lose his job. Over and over he shows me, on his phone, the video of his patrons, waving goodbye at the airport. Every time they wave, he waves back at them. He tugs at one item after another and calls out its price: necklace, ten dollars! pants, twenty dollars! underwear, five dollars! Conan darts a kiss on my lips, the same way you might pick up a cockroach with toilet paper. He puts his arm around me, rubs up against me, entices. I have no money! he wails. I have no money!
I could make a project out of not hating other tourists. It could be my little hobby. Something to work on every moment of the day.
This one here for example, blonde American male, waving the breakfast menu at the waiter, voice directing traffic. "Is it one per person or can we have as many as we want?"
Cradling a frozen margarita at Viva, Siem Reap's best place for TexMex -- excuse me, Mexibodian -- I overhear a lady at the next table explaining that, actually, the Taj Mahal was discovered by the British.
"It was all overgrown and dilapidated! They hardly knew it was there! The British fixed it up and just look at it now!"
I should admit that, despite being a tremendously spiritual person, my psychic powers remain very limited. Basically, I know who is an alcoholic and I know who is well-hung. That’s the extent of my magical abilities.
Thus I was unable to turn myself into an enormous blazing human fireball at that moment, despite screwing up my face and wishing very hard.
The old sauna is dead this afternoon. In fact it appears to have been abandoned several years previous. In front of the ruin a man takes cash and hands out towels. We abandon the world as we abandon ourselves and go on living in it, with everything languishing and despised.
Who is here? This tattoo'd robotic Frenchman must have been a star as recently as a few years ago. It appears that drugs have wreaked havoc with his electrical system. Then there is this man with a giant gut, plodding obediently after his masseur. Of course there is also a tall blonde European with bleached hair and a permanently appalled expression.
I am looking, looking at them. No one is looking back. Arrogant frozen fucks. Then again, I am probably wearing my insatiable secretarial look. Ravenous and taking dictation. That's hardly inviting.
We are grotesque and our behavior is appalling. Just the same, I forgive us everything because I understand how much it hurts.
If anyone manages to live a day without giving way to madness or venom it is a miracle and, as is well-known, miracles are not for everyone. Even to make a wish is so rare that, when some bald child manages it, the papers are full of the news.
Cumulus of bougeanvilla, dark red frangipani. A lean, muscled shoulder, gleaming with sweat. Bitter melon curry over jasmine rice.
One thing I must remember is that, nine times out of ten, getting what I do not deserve totally works in my favor.
When at last he understands he spends all afternoon running about, cancelling his previous prayers. In the temple he waves his hands at the Buddha. Never mind! In the cathedral he blows out lines of candles.
"All these years I have yearned for nothing so often as for an over-sized Brazilian security guard to call my own. Never mind! I shall continue to yearn. It does no harm."
He has traded in all of his previous prayers. Now all he prays is that everyone gets their hook removed. His or her hook. That unspeakable ache that makes ordinary life so out of the question. Just to be rid of that. With care and precision to extract, from anguished flesh, the barbed and poisonous hook.
What else would be necessary?
Evidently there was a decision to eschew flowers. Here flowers are not so easy to avoid. Around the pool are only ornamental banana trees and potted palms. Each lounge chair displays a white man between the ages of 40 to 55. Contrary to what you may have heard, these men have not come to South East Asia because they are undesirable. In fact, each man is exquisitely groomed, lean and muscled. Not one merits an adjective less laudatory than handsome.
At sunset these men hold diligently their cocktails, which now and then they exchange for their phones. They are guests at the hotel attached to the new sauna "Men's Resort", which bills itself as a paradise of iniquity in a modern setting. The men all make great show of ignoring each other.
After dark the Khmers arrive. Most of them go into the steam room and only come out occasionally to breathe, rinse off, and then head back in again. Inevitably some of the well-to-do Europeans hook up with the young Khmers. Such a perfect evening: the guests have had workout, had a cocktail, and checked their messages. Now, with a young man on their arm, gleaming from the steam, they have gained some semblance of life.
Aquariums on the edge of the street. On the side of the tank, the words: FEED OUR FISH YOUR DEAD. I was startled until I realized the tuk tuk man sitting on the edge in the shade was blocking a last word with his feet.
As lost as if I were alone in the ocean. If I considered my situation reasonably, from a practical point of view, I'd drown at once. Even to call for help would be a lethal distraction.
So I do my best to keep quiet and calm. I even pretend that this is where I belong, out here with nowhere to stand and no visible landmarks. Relying on letting go, on buoyant salt.