I always wanted a girl. There were places, shops almost, where you could get a girl at any time of the day and they even remembered your name. But I wanted a girl that I didn’t have to pay. I asked a guy about it. Svensen, from work. He looked at me like I was crazy but, Svensen spent too much time up in Ratanakiri before Phnom Penh, and has that squinty eye. When you first talk to him it’s hard to work out whether you’re the crazy one or he is.
“Are you crazy?” he asked me. “You can get a girl anywhere. Thida, Peach, that other girl … in HR …”
“I don’t know her name,” I said.
“… HR girl …” Svensen supplied. “They all want you. You know why?”
I couldn’t even imagine.
“Because you’re a big, white guy and you have money.”
I patted my jeans pockets. “I don’t really have much at all. Back home …”
“Back home you’re some whacko Aussie hippy, a no one, I can tell. But back home you’ve got health care, a car, right? You can rent a flat that doesn’t have rats in it. You can afford this drink here and mine and one for your girl, am I right?”
I nodded. But he was wrong. There was something funny about the girls at the office. They never sat still. They were always going to the toilet or eating something. Or they looked perfectly fine but they’d speak with you after a meeting one day and then hate you by the photocopier the next. How could you have a drink with a girl like that?
“Just take your meds, go to the first Friday party, point your dick and some hot twenty-something will land on it and be your girlfriend,” said Svensen. Happy hour had come and gone and his squinty eye narrowed to nothing.
I went to the first Friday party without him. It wasn’t hard to imagine that Svensen might be an impairment. There were so many girls there, heaps more than boys, and because there was a pool a lot of them were wearing bikinis. They were all talking about the last party, when some local guys in the street outside had been having a good time firing their guns into the air and a bullet had hit a roof, ricocheted into the party, and landed in some girl’s foot. Half of us laughed, the other half looked around for bullet holes. My eyes landed on a girl called Alison. She was wearing a loose see-through shirt thing over her bikini and clutching her feet to protect them from the story. I went and sat by her and touched her face. It was warm. She laughed at me and became my girlfriend. Alison had an accent that she said was “all Minnesota” but everyone thought she was Cambodian because most of her grandparents were Japanese. She was on a scholarship and I got paid plenty as an Australian volunteer so we went around together and had some really nice times.
About three months after I met Alison, the boss of the health project emailed to say that the Siem Reap office needed some help. Siem Reap means ‘kill Thailand’ and I couldn’t wait to get up there. Alison couldn’t come. She had to stay in Phnom Penh to watch some Khmer Rouge court case and she was surprisingly shitty about it.
“Your project isn’t time dependent,” she told me. “Ask them to change it to next week.” I didn’t and she frowned and cried.
The best thing about the trip to Siem Reap was that I could choose how I got there so I went by boat. You can go right up the guts of Cambodia by boat in the wet season and the lake is like an ocean – all horizons and waves. Every now and then a floating village appeared and people stared from the bobbing huts. At the dock at the other end a really happy man was waiting for me. Dara was perhaps the happiest man I’d ever met and when I told him I had a day spare to look around the temples he became even happier.
“The real Cambodia! The great kingdom of Angkor! You’ve made me extremely happy, Mr Luke.” Dara said things like that all the time. After a few days with him, I was happy too and Alison’s unhappy seemed more than six hours away. She sent me some text messages but I was pretty busy looking at all the things Dara was doing up there and after a few days my phone fell silent. My job was to build Dara’s capacity in the area of Accounts Payable for our organisation, which does health promos in schools and factories and places like that. But Dara seemed at capacity, and my specialty back home had been camping store retail, so I just looked at his neat figures and let his happy outbursts flick around me. On the fifth day, Dara took me to see the temples.
“You’ve never seen a wonder of the world until you’ve seen a wonder of the world,” Dara joked, insisting that 5 am was the only time to see Angkor Wat. Svensen’s travel advice had been to go to a beer hall and look for “extra love”, but I stayed in, and was up waiting for Dara outside the hotel in the weird false dawn that glowered on the horizon. He arrived on a motorbike and gave me his helmet to wear. It smelled like scalp. I hugged him from behind, felt the soft paunch above his waistband as he started the bike and we took off. Dara had two jobs. In the day he worked as an accountant for the environmental organisation I was with. At night he helped his brother with his mobile phone business at the night market. A man with a little bit of money. Enough for a drink for him and his girlfriend and a flat without rats. I lifted the helmet visor.
“Do you have a girlfriend?” I shouted.
“A wife!” he yelled back, grinning into the wind. “And four kids.”
He smiled wider and I realised where I’d gone wrong. I’d been talking to Svensen, when I should have been talking to Dara.
“Think I could get a wife and four kids?” I joked but for once Dara nodded seriously.
We pulled up just as it became light enough to see the mist on the moat around the temple. It would have been Arthurian if it wasn’t so Jungle Book. As we passed through the towering stone gates into the complex, Dara told me all about the carved serpents that guarded Angkor Wat. “They are called Naga, the snakes that protect and defend …”
I charged on ahead, springing up the stairs like an apprentice monk. Inside it was cool and I ran my hands over the patterns the ancients had carved into the stones. Angkor Wat was laid out grey and naked, but alive. When I walked out of the gloom and into a courtyard, I saw a girl. She wasn’t alone – she was with friends, but standing a little apart. I lost her behind a pillar and then she was there again, just as the sun came up over the Wat. It caught her and her smile deepened. I walked towards her. I was close. Her friends stood to the side. They smiled and I knew they liked me. I reached out to touch her face. It was cool. Her breasts were amazing.
“Here you are, Mr Luke,” Dara said breathlessly. I started and turned. I’d say his smile was almost cross.
“Dara,” I said, a little bashfully, “this is …” I turned back to ask her name.
“Ah, you’ve found Apsara,” Dara said.
“You know her?”
Dara chuckled. “Everyone knows Apsara.” Dara rolled her ‘r’ and I felt a tug of jealousy.
“Ap-sah-rrah,” I tested.
“They are so beautiful,” he said, walking up and down the line of girls like a casting agent. I was surprised by his familiarity and wondered about his home life. “Dancers,” he told me. I glanced at the girl.
“You’re a dancer?” I asked her. She didn’t respond. “Do you think she understands me, Dara?”
“I think the Apsara understands every man.”
A monk arrived and set up a little mat on the ground and laid out some bits of string and a book on it. Dara went to speak with him. I could see Dara’s mouth almost stretched to his ears with smiling, very polite. After a moment he beckoned me over. I went reluctantly and felt her watching me so I lengthened my gait, lifted my head high.
“He will read your fortune and maybe grant your wishes,” Dara told me, delighted. I looked back at Apsara who laughed silently at me with her friends. It made me laugh too and I plonked down on the mat with the monk. My body felt heavy and light at once, like I’d gone swimming in my shoes. The monk gave me the book, which had a little leadless pencil attached to it by a string. He spoke and Dara told me to put the book on my head, poke the pencil between its pages and think about my greatest desire. Desire. I swam around in it. Her cheeks and her closed-mouth smile. Her hips. Those tits. Apsara. I put the book on my head and plunged the pencil between its pages. The monk took it from me, looked at the writing inside and murmured. Apsara fell into shadow and I couldn’t see her face.
Do not give up on taking the indirect road: do not take the direct one; take the road tracked by your ancestors, Dara translated my fortune.
He wanted to show me the temples with the mammoth trees growing through them, the temples that were barely temples they were so ravaged by time and tourism, the temples even grander than Angkor Wat.
“There are other Apsaras at the next one, even more beautiful than her,” he told me right in front of her. I was shocked at his rudeness. I hurried over and whispered the monk’s prophecy at her.
“What does it mean?” I asked, but she wasn’t speaking to me anymore and just stared ahead with a cold smile. “I’ll be back,” I promised, “I’ll miss you, I …” Things that she had probably heard before from other guys like me stomping all over the national treasure.
When I got back to Phnom Penh, Alison cooked me a great dinner and had sex with me for an hour. It was pretty nice. I thought about Apsara while Alison lay with her head on my chest telling me all her plans for us, and long after she fell asleep. She busted me putting my pants on in the not quite dark of her room. Her voice was sleepy and sexy and made me pause with my fly undone, debating whether or not to hop back into bed, but then she realised I was leaving and her voice woke up. It pushed me out into the hot streets and towards the indirect roads, but I still found it impossible to get lost. I imagined Apsara dancing through the laneways. Running out of a restaurant towards me. Waving from the balcony of an apartment above. I saw the strange pallor of her skin – that cool smoothness – her empty laughing eyes, ready to be filled. I wanted to be brave for her. To wander down the rat-riddled alleys, past boys on motorbikes smoking in the dark, but something self-protective drew me to the well-lit areas, the English-spangled bars. Finally I took the most indirect road I could. I called Svensen.
He was still awake.
“Oi oi oi, you crazy bastard!” he shouted. It was so late on Sunday night it was officially Monday, and Svensen was shitfaced. Somewhere in the “series of experiences” he called his life in Cambodia, he had picked up adequate enough Khmer to direct a motorbike taxi driver over my phone to a bar he was keeping in business over the river. I located Svensen on the sloping verandah that seemed destined to tip foreigners into the wishful waters of the Tonle Sap.
“I know what you need,” Svensen told me after I’d bought us a few beers and a couple of shots and we were slapping contentedly at the mosquitoes that droned up from the mud below. “I know what you need. Money. Money’s what you need.”
“What was that prophecy? Better take that road not that one?”
I laughed. “No it was … direct yourself or you’ll take the indirect … wait … it was take the indirect road like your dad did, something like that.”
“So, now then, what road did your daddy take?” Svensen lit a cigarette and blew the smoke up into his narrowed eye. I shrugged. I hadn’t seen my dad since I was 11, when he drained the bank account, gambled the money and left a note for mum that said, Sorry babe. I told Svensen as much.
“Booyah!” said Svensen.
Svensen insisted on stopping at a few beer halls on the way “for luck”, so by the time we arrived at the casino it was nearing 3 am and we were inebriated to the max. Huge snakes guarded the entrance just like at Angkor Wat, but I touched them on the way in and they were made of fibreglass. Unfortunately Svensen didn’t have any money so I withdrew a large portion of my fortnight’s wage and exchanged it for gambling chips. A surprising amount of people were still gambling at the green tables, their eyes fixed on the next flick of cards. My mum had instilled in me a fear of gambling that outweighed crime, drugs and unprotected sex, and I froze in the middle of the room glancing from one table to the next. Before I could really start to freak out, Svensen commandeered a woman in a lovely traditional skirt and top and lots of makeup. She brought us several shots each, which we downed at the poker table, then the roulette wheel, and then with the last few chips, at blackjack.
When all the chips were gone I remembered that they were money and made it to the toilet just in time to throw up my last meal until payday. It smelled of stomach acid and iodine. I lay with my cheek on the cool floor, staring at a stray pubic hair, grateful that Apsara couldn’t see me. When I staggered out, she was standing by a giant rock near the female toilets. She looked different, filled out I suppose, but I put that down to some good city eating.
“Apsara, you found me,” I said. I smelled of spew, but she didn’t seem to notice and went on smiling as I leaned towards her and gently kissed her lips. Some off-duty bar staff walked past and whispered to each other, laughing.
“Do you know them?” I asked her, wiping the strange lip dust she was wearing off my mouth. The supermarkets in Phnom Penh were as full of whitening powders, paling creams and magic lightening tinctures as they were bronzing creams in Melbourne. I wanted to sponge it all off her. To see her teeth, make her laugh. “So, do you come here often?” I tried my best stud impression, leaning on the rock next to her, but it wasn’t as solid as it looked and crumbled hollowly under my weight. It knocked Apsara over, and I wondered if she was drunk too. As I put her back onto her feet, Svensen came stumbling out of the high-rollers room, sweating profusely.
“Gotta go,” he said urgently and glanced over his shoulder at two well dressed guards in polite pursuit.
“Svensen, I’d like you to meet Apsara,” I said, untangling myself from the rock.
“Hot,” he said and grabbed my arm. He dragged me through the epic doors and into the breeze that carried the smell of swamp and landfill. Tuk-tuk drivers shouted to us, and one of them, to my joy, was Dara. I ran towards him but it turned out he was just another smiling man.
“Do you know Dara?” I asked, panting. The man took his cap off and scratched his head, grinning at the other drivers.
“Show me Dara,” he said finally, and got out a carefully laminated map of Phnom Penh.
“Dara isn’t on any of these roads,” I insisted, “he’s …” The man smiled his big Dara smile. Then I started running. Svensen hooted behind me. I charged back up those stairs and burst through the doors, a messenger returned from the battlefields of Siam. The only guard left had fallen asleep in his chair and didn’t hear me say to Apsara, “I told you I’d come back for you.”
It was pretty much like something out of a movie.
“Is she heavy?” Svensen asked. His blond hair had been flipped into a crest by the wind coming off the river, making him look even crazier. I shook my head: she was perfect. Her skin was warmer than I remembered from the temple. Svensen nodded in wonder, then reached over to give a clinical knock at her knee; who knows what he did with himself in his life before Cambodia. “You stole a statue, dude!” he yelled with admiration. I glanced at Apsara who just smiled benevolently, as though she knew everything, and maybe she did.
“He’s crazy,” I whispered to her and her smile deepened. We dropped Svensen off at The Bar That Never Closes – the hotel he’d been living in for three years. He miraculously pulled some US dollars to pay the driver and wanted us to come in for more drinks but the sun was coming up over the Tonle Sap and the roads were moving with market traffic. The Dara lookalike driver took us on to my apartment. He smiled and offered to carry Apsara up the stairs but I was having none of that and sent him on his way.
When I got her up there, I stood her in the middle of the lounge room and she stared at me for a long time without blinking, so I turned her towards the wall.
This story features in Laura Jean McKay’s debut collection Holiday in Cambodia, to be released by Black Inc in July 2013. laurajeanmckay.com