Memoirs of a Grizzled Expat: The Sound of Pennies Dropping (The Penultimate Part)November 12, 2012
I’d established in my mind that my girlfriend was a wonderful girl who constantly made me deliriously happy all the time we were together, but that severe tensions were growing on account of her dysfunctional family – none of whom I’d ever met, and with the daily reports of their problems related to me, I was less and less inclined to.
Here are further excerpts of my account at the time:
Alas, a degree of compassion fatigue has set in and I’m left contemplating the relentless nature of this family’s woes and I just don’t want to be involved anymore.
A fuller picture emerged in the morning; it seems this sister has a long history of suicidal depression, which manifests itself in suicide attempts two to three times every month. Evidently the husband had been very patient and caring for some years but it had ground him down.
The younger brother also has a mental illness and I might just add that my girl’s capacity to cave in when the pressure gets too much is somewhat akin to anorexia (I’d tentatively suggest that she’s not anorexic since the psychological causes are not the same as in the West, but the outcomes are similar).
Thus we have a seriously screwed-up family and again, I’m increasingly seeing how common this is in Cambodia: yet another hidden outcome of the previous generation’s genocidal nightmare. I don’t want to be involved anymore; their relentless traumas interfere with my life to an extent I can barely endure, and I never have two pennies to rub together because of these insurmountable problems.
And yet, none of this is her fault; I just can’t be that much of a cold bastard. Let’s face it, after what she’d been through, sharing all these grievances I’ve written here with her could be construed as a tad churlish; nah, I’ll simply tie up the purse strings, resist the temptation to buy yet another phone, trust that her inevitable disappearances are for understandable reasons, cease taking things personally and just carry on. I’m not going to change Cambodia overnight, nor am I going to change her and her wretched family so perhaps I’d best focus on calming down and practising that tolerance thing – again.
The morning after I penned those reflections, a weird thing happened that couldn’t be pinned on the family. I was burgled.
I awoke from a sound sleep about 9 am to find her sitting on the living room floor looking crestfallen. The French windows were open and the room ransacked. She’d apparently disturbed a burglar who’d fled with cash and my camera, but thankfully dropped my laptop on the floor before making his escape.
I was so relieved that her action had saved the laptop – everything else was non-critical. The landlady on the ground floor was sceptical that someone could evade detection passing through a narrow passage and up three flights, but otherwise she seemed unconcerned.
I didn’t think too much about that incident since over the next few weeks she stayed at home and had few occasions when she did her disappearing acts. I thought that maybe we’d finally cracked it; but then Valentine’s Day arrived.
I’d bought her a nice necklace, and I was rather taken aback when her first response of seeing the gift was, ‘How much did you pay for it?’, but, I told myself, that’s just her little way. The next day she informed me that her mother had contacted her needing money for heart pills. I asked her if she given her mother money and she’d said she hadn’t; then I asked her where the necklace I’d bought her for Valentine was and she insisted she’d taken it to be cleaned – on the way to meeting her mother who’d called demanding money.
You don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes, do you? What hurts is that every single item I’ve ever bought her – phones, watch, jewellery have lasted precisely one week and have then disappeared owing to either violent episodes within the family or flogging the item to give cash to them. It’s how it is in the folk economy; when you have cash use it all to buy stuff immediately and when you don’t have the money you need flog everything.
What gets me is the resort to lies and deception, and the fact that her mother could so easily force her into these old patterns – I mean she could have discussed with me first instead of immediately hocking my gift and lying about it.
Anyone here I mention this to reacts with a ‘You must be five cans short of a six-pack’ attitude; i.e. I must be a complete mug to believe these stories. It’s true that they bear an uncanny resemblance to the clichéd stories lying taxi-girl girlfriends and their families try on to fleece doting barang boyfriends and husbands, and it’s true that every guy insists, ‘Yes, but my girl’s different’ and I’ve tortured both myself and her over these suspicions enough, but in my heart of hearts I still believed she was being truthful concerning the big picture, even if the minor details didn’t always add up.
And then …….
……..and then it really did go wrong. When you love somebody you want to believe them, don’t you? As I’ve related, from the very beginning there have been a series of near-tragedies, always involving her family, always averted by my hard-earned cash.
Every time my initial reaction was to be suspicious, but every time I relented and gave her the benefit of the doubt. After all, in every other aspect of the relationship she couldn’t be more wonderful. Or so I thought. After far too long, there was an incident that caused me to seriously re-evaluate everything that had happened over the last few months.
I had told her there was no need to change her phone number so that her family couldn’t contact her and I was sloppy (or trusting) enough to fail to bank my monthly salary immediately and kept a stash of $100 bills in a drawer.
I should have read the signs: she was being bombarded with calls from her mother, brother and sister. She insisted that she never answered them and on the couple of occasions that she did they were merely enquiring after her health. Then there was that strange Sunday when she made three long excursions to the market on urgent missions to repair a set of curling tongs she never uses and buy make-up she never applies, a day which culminated in her feeling ill and blood-letting – scraping her skin with a spoon.
It was the exact illness that she succumbs to under stress brought on by family crises – I missed it. It was four days later when I happened to open the drawer, check my wallet and notice two or three hundred-dollar bills were missing. I turned the house upside-down; I wracked my brains to seek a forgotten memory of spending such a large sum of money or even of taking it out the drawer – anything to avoid the only explicable conclusion. I didn’t accuse her or even hint at any suspicion; in turn she gave me the innocent-but-concerned act.
Two days later she called me during my last class of the evening to inform me that her nephew had had an accident and that she was accompanying her sister to a hospital out in the sticks. I returned to an empty house; I checked the wallet where I had left the remaining two $100 bills. I’d explained that they were for the rent and that it was all the money I had; even under the circumstances of the disappearance of the other bill(s) I couldn’t conceive of the possibility that she’d take the remaining ones – but she had.
She had also switched off her phone so that I couldn’t contact her. I was in utter despair; I took the dubious decision of endeavouring to discover something of the truth from this chronic liar whom I loved. I rummaged through her belongings, not having any idea what I was looking for. I turned up, clandestinely embedded in the pockets of clothes buried under deep piles, two wallets. One was empty save for a note in Khmer dated December 2005 and a mention of $3600; the other contained a man’s driving licence and various papers including a receipt dated January 2006 – one month ago.
I awaited her return so that we could have a calm discussion but she played her usual ploy of promising to return at such-and-such a time then turning off her phone, knowing she would not keep her word. I didn’t want to sit alone in my apartment for an indefinite period, so I chose to go out for a bite to eat then hit the bar where she’d previously worked.
There I blurted out my despair to our mutual friends, and there I learned the truth that had evaded me for so long. Did she have a secret lover or husband? No. It seems all her colleagues knew about her activities in the casino where she’d lose $50 or $100 a throw but no one had the heart to tell me. The mamasan had tried but I hadn’t believed her and chose to accept my girl’s version that she was merely visiting a friend who worked there. I still didn’t know how many of her financially themed stories were lies and how big the lies were, but it was clear I’d been massively and systematically duped.
She had a gambling habit and hadn’t succeeded in avoiding the casino. She was in fact regularly slipping out as soon as I’d go to work and hit the place, winning and losing significant amounts but doing well enough to fund herself for a time. A local man had cheated her out of some $18 and she’d taken his wallet as collateral but not actually stolen any money herself. Her family were evidently ignorant and innocent in all this but they were indeed calling to plead for money for a series of ailments affecting indeterminate members. She had refused them and hadn’t resorted to any subterfuge except to increase her visits to the casino in an unsuccessful effort to acquire funds for them.
Now here’s where you might raise that part of your eyebrow that isn’t yet on the ceiling: when she finally returned home I immediately challenged her and she confessed. She told me that she didn’t know I had cash stashed in the drawer until I raised the issue of the missing bills. It appears that I’d miscalculated and none had disappeared at that point. My belief that money was missing had depressed me, not because of the money itself, but because I thought she must have taken it, and she sensed my dejection.
She’d asked me what she could do and I’d retorted – without implying any suspicion – something along the lines of she could ensure the money reappears. That’s why, the next day, she made up a story of her nephew’s accident and took the remaining $200; she thought she would win the equivalent of the missing money. With a typical gambling addict’s mind, in the face of all previous experience she really believed that this time luck would be on her side.
She was actually $100 up with half an hour but like a typical addict couldn’t quit while ahead and gradually the money dissipated and she descended into despair. When the money ran out she pawned my phone – and that blessed Valentine necklace again; naturally the casino were extremely generous in the price they offered for the items, confident that they’d soon have it all back again – and so they did.
She spent two days and nights in the casino, not eating or sleeping and not daring to return until after some reasonable people pleaded with her not to commit suicide and return home to tell her husband the truth, she was politely ejected.
I should have decisively ended it there and then, shouldn’t I?
However, I told myself that now the truth is finally out and she can’t lie to me anymore, we can talk this through and she can kick her addiction. Together, we can do this. But – she needs something positive to motivate her – some hope, something to work towards – and I had the perfect solution. I enrolled her in English classes in my workplace, knowing that she’d sail through the classes, get a massive boost to her confidence and enable her to apply for respectable jobs.
Couldn’t fail, could it? The worst was yet to come, and will be revealed in the final installment next week.