Memoirs of a Grizzled Expat: Waking Up (The End)December 7, 2012
So about three months into our relationship the increasingly frequent and bizarre episodes that would befall my beloved, all of which required remuneration to resolve, suddenly made sense. She had been concealing a sickness from me – an addiction. Having ‘rescued’ her from a hostess bar, I had been so focussed on the notion that a ‘good girl’ was one with no dark secrets of a sexual or drug nature, that a different kind of addiction had not occurred to me even with all the signs, until she openly confessed it.
She of course assured me that she was doing her best to kick it but needed my help. Now her delicate physical and mental condition made sense too; now I knew the truth she couldn’t take advantage of me again; furthermore, now I had a plan to save her.
At this point I was working as an English teacher in the largest English-teaching institution in the region and a new term was about to begin. I persuaded her to enrol in a beginners-level class. Her spoken English was excellent, but she’d had no formal education and therefore had zero confidence. I could see how she’d fly to the top of the class, gain confidence and position herself to apply for a respectable job in no time. Her classroom was just down the corridor – I’d deliver her or pick her up, give her lots of encouragement and extra tuition: win-win, failsafe – I felt very pleased with myself for plotting such a clever outcome.
For the first couple of months she was getting the top marks in the unit tests and the younger students were relying on her to assist them. She was very happy with herself. Then, even though I was seeing her to her classroom door, her attendance rate was seemingly slipping. By the end of that first term I was picking up gossip directed at me – what kind of a bastard boyfriend was I that his sweet girlfriend was having to beg to borrow 10 or 20k riel from her classmates for rice? She failed to complete the end of term assessment.
At home the scene was nearly always blissful with the pair of us constantly playing and laughing. I was careful to keep all my cash in the bank although any time $10 was left in a pocket it did seem to disappear. I could also dimly detect an increasingly spaced-out look in her eyes and restless movement starting about a month into the term and increasing by the day; a tension that she was desperately trying to keep buried. She needed to keep busy and found the resolution in cooking. She made a real effort to prepare delicious meals and in the course of doing so hit my sweet spot: she discovered an unbelievable technique to make ice cream with minimal equipment. Given that I’d get home and scoff two litres, pretty soon she was taking the best part of a day to make what I’d gobble up in 30 minutes. But man, it was exquisite.
At the end of term I was informed that I was to be ‘promoted’ from teaching English to being a part of the academic faculty and I was given a couple of tasty courses to prepare. However, there were no adequate resources, so the initiative lay with me to acquire them. I’d have to go to Bangkok to buy some proper books. It would have been lovely to take my girl with me but it turned out that not only did she not have a passport; her ID card was in someone’s safekeeping – I really should have paid more attention but it just seemed fine that she’d see her family for a few days and I’d check out a few gogo bars before they became a buried memory.
I had a terrific break and bought the necessary books. I returned to the apartment to find my girlfriend in a very sorry state. She had an awful tale to relate. Apparently she’d arrived at her mother’s to find the latter in a very weak state due to the lack of heart pills. She insisted the daughter take her on the back of the moto through the rainswept night to the pharmacy.
On the way back in the atrocious conditions, as they rode slowly through a village, a kid ran out and was hit by the bike. The family and neighbours rushed out and insisted on $250 compensation for medical treatment.
The police soon arrived on the scene and the community arranged for the police to hold my girl’s mother in a cell until the daughter produced the cash which, with the police bonus was now $300. I was incommunicado in Thailand (she’d recently sold her phone to pay a debt so I’d lent her mine while I was away and that was sold for the return taxi fare to Phnom Penh) and she had to act quickly. She took the taxi from Prey Veng through the night back to Phnom Penh and first thing in the morning she grabbed the only asset that would do the job – my laptop.
She pawned the laptop for $400 and rode back to liberate her hapless mother.
What was I to make of all that? First of all I was relieved to see that I just about had $400 in the bank, which I withdrew and hot-footed it with her to the shop she’d sold the computer to, so at least I retrieved it.
But the story? I knew the police were corrupt and so on, but was it credible? I suppose I could have escorted her to the alleged police station to spring her mum, but I lacked the language skills and feared more money would be demanded if it were true and a white face showed up. Like so many of her well-constructed stories, it seemed a heap of bull, but there was just enough doubt to make me feel that I’d be a monster for kicking her out if she were truthful.
I had a chance to think things through after a good sleep. The next morning I gently confronted her with a bluff – I had a work colleague who is a lawyer to senators in the National Assembly: he could contact the police to retrieve their cut. What was the name of the village?
Suddenly she was tongue-tied. She didn’t know the name of the village. Very well, what’s the name of the village where her mother lives – we can work it out from the map. She was silent; her eyes glazed over, she went into reptilian-brain mode. As I asked her directly if she’d seen her mother at all or whether she’d visited the casino, zombified, she went up to the roof to take in the washing. I was worried – I followed. She walked at a slow steady pace to the washing line – and beyond. Without stopping, changing her pace or her blanked-out expression she kept walking – off the ledge. I rushed over and looked down – she’d fallen about three metres onto the balcony below and was physically unharmed. So now I had a crazy, suicidal, emotionally blackmailing girlfriend. Great.
It was that incident rather than the stolen laptop that was the belated turning point for me; I was now determined to find an exit strategy, but now I was tied to a suicidal Khmer woman. I’d have to be patient.
She promised to reform, of course. Over the next fortnight I managed to finish classes 15 minutes early on three evenings and each time I got home a little early, I found myself locked out. The landlady dolefully informed me that my girl routinely went out minutes after I left for work and returned minutes before I was scheduled to return. A week later when she seemed mentally stronger I tried to evict her after another theft, whereupon she tore off all her clothes and hid under the bed. I had to call in the landlady and her mother to try to get her out of the apartment. That situation was resolved by me moving into a guesthouse for a week.
After I returned I did manage to trick her by waiting until she went to the market and putting all her belongings on the balcony with some cash. She left quietly but a week later I came home from work to find her emaciated figure asleep on the concrete passage. Was she just going to fade away rather than jump?
I fed her up then persuaded her to leave again a week later. A couple of days after that I returned from work to find my double-padlocked door open. As I entered I found her lying naked on the settee holding a knife, with a very scary crazed look on her face, and repeatedly mumbling, “Kill me now, kill me now”.
She’d tricked the landlady into giving her a key and picked the second lock. I removed the knife and checked if she’d harmed herself but she hadn’t; that was to be my job.
Remaining totally calm and rational I said, “You’ve stolen my computer again, haven’t you?” She had, this time pawning it for $400.
I asked her where the money was and she told me she’d lost it all. I knew that it was not possible to lose so much money so quickly in a small casino but it appears she’d gone to an illegal place in an attempt to win all the money she’d stolen quickly, erroneously reasoning that if she returned all the money she’d stolen I’d take her back. It was too late to retrieve the computer that night so I kept her with me, wherein she slept long and deeply.
The next morning I got up at six and piled through a huge backlog of marking, my mind quite clear of any distress. At twelve I woke her up and staved off the constant desperate importunate pleas for one last chance.
I got my computer back but I’d lost $900 in a fortnight; up to $3000 in all and despite working insane hours there was nothing to show for any of it (unless in some instances her family really had benefited) and what’s more, she was still, even under these desperate circumstances, denying any theft or instances of gambling other than the two she confessed to – i.e. she just could not quit the chronic lying.
In her desperation to salvage the relationship she was faced with a clear choice – to be honest with me or to break and enter my apartment and steal my computer again; her decision and the thinking behind it confirmed to me that as much as I wanted to help her I simply could not. Over lunch I explained to her very firmly and matter-of-factly that I didn’t love her anymore and never ever wanted to see her again. I gave her some cash and sent her on her way, for good.
For a month.I was missing her. Despite learning how much the neighbourhood pitied me; how everyone knew except me, how everything she’d ever told me was a lie. Yes, everything. It seems her family was very upset with me – a rich barang who never gave a penny to help them through their many mini-crises. In fact, unknown to them, every penny that I gave her or she took to help her family went on gambling. And yet I couldn’t stop thinking about her giggles, her hair, her uniquely delicious ice cream that she’d always found time to make even through her ever-worsening addiction. Most of all, I worried about her. Every day with no contact I wondered if she was dead or dying. So when she finally reappeared – looking close to death – I was so relieved. I took her back with strict conditions. None were met. Apart from the ice cream.
The whole relationship was trapped in the vicious cycle of a Groundhog Day. I’d throw her out and bury myself in work or the orphanage I was sponsoring, but the emptiness ached so much and when she’d invariably return I’d give her another last chance.I even found her a job as a live-in maid to a wealthy NGO French couple, but she was fired after two weeks – for stealing.
This pattern dragged on for about four months until she took it to another level. I’d thrown her out after catching her attempting to steal and sell my passport. She was walking the streets and met a lady who persuaded her that she could get her a good job in Poipet – for a fee. My girl somehow tricked the landlady into yet again giving her the keys, whereupon she stole my laptop for a third time and used the cash to get to Poipet (that’s what she told me some time later). Evidently once they arrived the lady took all the cash and disappeared. Or not – who really knows?
I heard nothing for two months (which also means the laptop with all the data was gone for good). After weeks of aching hollowness, and an absence of ice cream, I was starting to feel fine without her and, what’s more, had just been contacted by a girl who’d shown strong interest in me a year previously. Thus it was that when I got a phone call from a lady in Poipet informing me that my girlfriend had been the victim of a serious hit-and-run and needed urgent emergency treatment (i.e. send/bring a copious amount of money), I was unmoved.
A few hours later this lady’s niece – who spoke excellent English – called to verify the incident and explained that my ‘ex’ had a serious head injury. As much as she tried to disguise it, I found the voice to be very familiar. She admitted it and apologised for the theft of the laptop – and asked to come home. No.
She didn’t actually return to Phnom Penh to stalk me; rather, she sent daily emails. She began to insist that her father was extremely ill. I was bored with the tall tales. That one turned out to be true and he did die, causing the potless family considerable grief over his funeral arrangements – in which I had no involvement since I had neither believed nor responded to her. I told her I was moving and that I was leaving a suitcase of her clothes with the landlady. She said she was too ashamed to face the landlady. I didn’t care. I did move apartment. I started a new relationship, which rapidly felt right and led to marriage within about eight months.
Early on I told her how much I missed my ex’s ice cream and she asked everyone if anybody could teach her how to make ice cream the way I like it. No one knew. She came to help me pack up and move apartment; she opened a kitchen cupboard – and found it stuffed with empty ice cream cartons from Lucky Supermarket.
Oh. There was one final episode. I hadn’t yet vacated the apartment and the new relationship had barely gotten off the ground. She showed up and insisted I had an obligation to give her a final settlement of $200 to start a salon business with her sister. On the assurance that it really was final, I gave it to her. Two days later she showed up again demanding another $200 because the last lot had been used to pay a gambling debt. This time I thought up a ruse. I arranged to hand over the cash in a restaurant. When she showed up I introduced her to my lawyer (actually my Khmer teacher) and a pair of high-ranking police officers (low ranking ones whom I paid $5 to borrow some fancy ribbon).
I’d drawn up a ‘legal contract’ to the effect that on receipt of $200 she’d be subject to arrest if she ever made contact with me again. I thought it was a bit of a shoddy bluff that a consummate deceiver would immediately see thorough – but it worked perfectly. If only I’d thought of it a few months earlier. She was gone. It had taken a year and a half, but she was really gone.
So, she never did kill herself, or die. She still stalked me by phone and other media for months and did everything she could to sabotage my new relationship. She got a job in a garment factory; eventually she went to Malaysia to be a maid. A year later she returned to stalk me again. She now calls me twice a year to try to gauge if my marriage is on the rocks. In the early days I attempted to engage her in civil conversation but that always quickly descended into tears and desperation so now I just hang up.
I don’t know if she’s in a relationship or if she kicked the addiction. I’m curious to know but I daren’t ask. To this day there is so much that I don’t know – some things must have been true, but what? What was her real history or background? What was she doing when I was at work – not gambling all the time, surely?
In the end, there were only three things I could say with certainty. Firstly, her issues were nothing to do with Cambodia per se; she had a very serious and uncontrollable addiction, and all her thoughts, words and actions were slaves to it. Secondly, she loved me. She really did deeply love me and struggled desperately in a Manichean battle to keep me – her obsession for me was locked in a cosmic war against her gambling obsession. Losing me tore her apart and I can’t express how sorry I felt for her. And thirdly, she made the most delicious ice cream in the world. Well I was certain. Okay, one was wrong. But the other two are right, right?