Walking a Mile in a Sex Worker’s ShoesNovember 30, 2013
With Pchum Ben less than a week away I got a call from an unknown number on my cell phone. Usually picking up a mystery call results in my apologizing in Khmer for not speaking enough Khmer, and I eventually get hung up on. This time: “Naomi I miss you so much did you forget about me? It’s Leak!”
I hadn’t forgotten our plans to visit her family for Pchum Ben, but she didn’t have her own cell phone and she warned me not to contact her on Facebook because she was worried her husband would see, so I hadn’t spoken to her since my last visit to Street 104.
She told me that her baby’s birthday was on Sunday and that she was sad that she couldn’t be with her when she turned two.
When she first told me that she left her husband because he had too many other girlfriends I thought I was pleased that she’d stood up for herself. She said her daughter would have a better life with her husband and his family because they were well off and I thought that sounded responsible. But as I heard her crying into the phone I wondered if she might go back to her husband – and if that might be the best thing for her baby – and if that should be her priority as a mother.
We made plans to meet on Thursday in Phnom Penh, and to travel Kampong Cham the following morning. Leak told me she was working Thursday night, so I told her I would find her at the bar when I got in Thursday night. Which I did.
I was greeted warmly by the girls, a round of B-52s and my favorite Busta Rhymes song. They all looked to Leak as she bounded across the bar and then proceeded to kiss me square on the mouth.
When I first moved to Cambodia I was often confused by the friendship rites of Cambodian women. They are sometimes more complimentary than my exes, telling me how beautiful I am and how much they missed me after just one day. Now I know they’re just being sweet. My breasts have been fondled and my pubic hairs have been patted by girls in massage parlors. That I haven’t quite figured out yet.
But the kiss? I was mulling it over during a game of pool when I noticed Makara giving me dagger eyes from across the room. I’d heard from an acquaintance that she was working again, but that her ladybits still looked like ground beef, so I asked how she was doing. She told me that she, herself “had a lesbian once,” and that she had loved her lesbian until the lesbian died and that I should be careful with Leak. She went on to explain that the lesbian used to make her so happy and sometimes so upset – more upset than she was with any of her boyfriends – and if Leak were to become a lesbian then she could not have children to make her happy.
I nodded and told Makara that I understood and so did my boyfriend. We both turned to watch him lose at Jenga, then she sank the eight ball and told Leak that she didn’t want to live with her anymore. Leak told me that Bopha was coming with us to Kampong Cham in the morning and we were all drunk and drowsy by 3am, so myself and my boyfriend and Leak and Bopha all went back to our hotel, ate chicken feet and spooned each other to sleep.
My boyfriend and I brought a hammock, chickens and fruit for Leak’s family, so after clamoring off the bus the four of us piled ourselves and our birds onto two bikes and headed into the forest of rubber trees.
Leak hadn’t been home for two years and I could feel her excitement behind me on the bike as we pulled up at her family’s house. Five minutes after arriving I was inside on the floor cutting up fruits and vegetables with the women and my boyfriend was outside smoking cigarettes in the hammock with the guys.
We feasted on a late lunch of roast chicken and soup and beer then hopped into the family pickup truck for a tour of the area. The plantations were gorgeous, the landscape was surprisingly green and the kids sat on our laps and played with our hair as they started to warm up to us. Leak had warned us that no one would speak English and many of them wouldn’t have seen a barang before, but they were impressed by our broken Khmer – and my iPhone.
That evening we went to a pagoda. I thought we were going to pray and give offerings, but Leak dressed me in a skintight dress and as we pulled up to the pagoda I heard Maroon 5 bumping. Adults and children alike were dancing in a circle to party tunes and people continuously pushed shots of rice wine at my boyfriend and I as we tried to mimic the motions of the traditional circle dances. I’m not a bad dancer but I’ve been trying for almost four years to get those steps down. I was following Bopha’s lead when I made eye contact with a small girl watching the dance from the sidelines. I smiled and she promptly started bawling.
Before I’d finished giggling Leak pulled me towards the truck. Her sister’s water had broken at the pagoda and I hadn’t even noticed she was pregnant. When we got back to the house we all sat down to play the most confusing card game I’ve ever tried to learn. I still hadn’t figured out the game’s intricacies when Leak’s sister walked through the door – walked – with her new daughter.
The baby slept through the night, but we were all kept awake until about 3am by the wails of the jealous older sister. Up with the sun, we had a breakfast of Carabao energy drinks then we took a walk with the kids to a swimming hole on the way to visit Leak’s sick aunt. Both of Leak’s parents have passed away, as have mine, so it was moving to watch her hold her aunt for a few minutes as they sat together in a hammock under her aunt’s one-room treehouse in the forest.
We never did go back to the pagoda to pray, but instead had a raucous dinner dance party back at the family house. I couldn’t believe we went through three cases of beer until I noticed a few of the little girls drinking beer alongside the adults. Dinner got out of hand and when the food was gone we piled into the truck and drove half an hour to the Vietnam border for a premature trip to the casinos.
I have no idea what time we got back but I was more hungover on the ride back than I was on the way there. On this trip, however, I did not have two seats to curl up in while I moaned myself to sleep. Leak booked the tickets for our return to Phnom Penh and she’d gotten them for only $4. When a minivan pulled into Leak’s driveway my boyfriend tried to placate me with soothing whispers that the van was just taking us to the bus stop in town.
The four of us squeezed into three seats in the back, I was handed someone’s baby, and then 25 Cambodians worked some devil magic to squeeze into the seats in front of us. My lanky boyfriend drooled on my shoulder, Leak fell asleep with her head in my lap, and two hours later I realized: there was no other bus.
Upon arriving in Phnom Penh I handed the baby back to his mother, kissed Leak goodbye and – as my boyfriend and I tried to check into our hotel – wondered how I had spent $400 over three days in the Cambodian countryside.
Naomi Collett Ritz