CommentaryExpat LifePhnom Penh

I Wanted to Be Alone: Part 2

So there I was; sitting there, savoring the delights of the failing hostess bar – bad hip hop music, warm two dollar beers, and so forth; the only other customers being a pair of aging hopefuls with booze-laden breath, florid faces and bulging tummies tucked into inappropriate trousers. One was chain-smoking and furiously sticking vodka and cokes down his throat, and the other was studiously ignoring the tiny, bird-like Khmer girl giving him a robust, impromptu backrub. Yet I was content to breathe the same stale air as these two male representatives of the awful, desiccated ranks of the not-quite-dead and it felt good because I was happy that night to be the heroic admiral of my own solitude.

The economic downturn has made things a little tinglier, a little more fraught in hostess bars. Yet her extraordinarily seductive voice disarmed me and I told her how much I admired her recently acquired language skills. She seemed careful, diligent and conscientious in her duties, just as she had been two years before when waiting tables in a now-closed restaurant. She looked me meaningfully in the eye as if the night was set on an unalterable course. I felt wrong footed.

At this point my phone rang. I fished it out of my pocket and looked at the screen. It was a miscall. A number I didn’t recognize. I asked her politely if she would please excuse me for just for one moment and I slid out of the bar, not to return any call but to think carefully about what I was getting myself into.

Outside the bar, I looked upwards for a few seconds. The clouds had cleared and I could see stars in their infinite distance. I was looking directly into limitless outer space. The thought stayed with me as I unbuckled my trousers and deliberately peed onto the bumper of ridiculously large Hummer parked next to a similarly oversized Chevrolet Escalade. How long ‘til this flaunting of newly acquired and mostly ill-gotten affluence results in vulgar nouveaux riche Khmers driving around in matt black cement trucks?

My thoughts returned to the girl and in contrast with my ‘look-I-really-don’t-need-this-right-now’ attitude of earlier in the evening, I began to that there was something peculiarly satisfying about being the centre of attention, especially that of a pretty girl. And then another voice in my head whispered I was being influenced against my better judgment and reminded me that it was all a big con and bargirls are similar to cocaine in that they can make you think you are amazingly interesting, no matter how catastrophically useless and dull you really are. I recalled also that intimacy with bargirls is one of the factors that ultimately unhinge Western expats, as almost inevitably expat/bargirl relationships involve taking a hike up a stubby but exhilarating ladder followed, not too long afterwards, by a fall down a very long snake indeed.

Bedded down again, semi-recumbent in the bar, we quaffed drinks, nibbled peanuts and chatted. Her innovative talking therapy began to work its magic on me once more and things were looking up. She still seemed full of zest and genuine curiosity.

Two hours passed and perhaps I was dreaming. I looked dazedly around the room and saw that there were just three girls and myself left. The bar seemed like the empty chassis of a car and by now, after umpteen beers, I was drunk enough to feel the white floor tiles sucking at my calves and ankles. The room began to lurch.

Did I want the night to end with the dispiriting coda of a lonely drive through the dilapidated French quarter, followed by burst of gas down Norodom, a cut across the wide, dull part of Sihanouk Boulevard and then an anticlimactic, lonely limp to bed? Or should I cross the Rubicon? My mind was telling me, ‘’Bring it on. All of it.’’

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