In the last couple of articles I’ve been focussing on the voluntary work I was doing, leaving my ‘love-life’ in abeyance. I guess it’s time to return to that topic now.
I’m about five months into my life in Phnom Penh now, already depressed by the routine cheating and laziness of students, and corruption and ineptitude of education management, but still believing that my voluntary work could at least ‘make a difference’.
In the meantime, I’d vacated the room in the hostess bar, and found accommodation in a busy ‘backpacker factory’.
With my work commitments, I was very rarely dropping into hostess bars by now, resulting in the phone calls and text messages drying up. Through this time I had maintained an interest in two girls: one was a very lovely and respectable girl who worked for just a few weeks in the respectable bar that was my ‘sanctuary’ from the hostess bars until her parents forced her to quit and return to their province to find work closer to home; as a result we were allowed to meet in the presence of a chaperone once every three weeks.
Between rendezvous, it would always be up to me to call to chat on the phone; respectable girls cannot take such initiative. I misinterpreted that as a lack of interest and eventually called time on that sweet and innocent physical contact free relationship (until she defied her family and culture by emailing me a year later resulting shortly thereafter in our marriage, but I’m getting ahead of myself here).
The other girl was the sweet cashier at the hostess bar I had previously been staying at. She was not a hostess and always stayed behind the bar. She’d been sweet-talked by legions of barflies promising her the Earth, promising to wait for her and so on, and she’d seen every one of them soon renege and pick up an easy girl.
So far, despite the myriads of spies in every bar, I’d somehow gotten away with my surreptitious behaviour and passed muster. Conversely, her behaviour all this time had been genuinely ‘pristine’, in that there were no guys she was concealing from me.
Nevertheless, for all that she was ‘different’, she was working in a hostess bar and that ruled her out of contention. I still liked to see her, however, but due to my work commitments, my visits to her bar had become infrequent.
In desperation she broke her golden rule and arranged to see me for a date on her day off. Unfortunately it clashed with one of those chaperoned dates with the other one; I came clean, she got hurt and that’s the last I heard or saw of her for a few weeks (a while later the other ‘relationship’ died away, but I was too ashamed of myself to contact the cashier).
And then one Saturday she contacted me. Her nearly-blind motodop father had had an accident, running over a woman’s foot which resulted in the foot being broken. Cambodian justice works like this: it was decided on the spot that the offender would pay $800. That’s a phenomenal sum here but there’s no recourse to legal aid or any form of arbitration for the poor.
The family rallied round and flogged and pawned what they could to raise the princely sum of $600. In a plaintive text message she mentioned that she hadn’t been back to work for three days and the boss was on the verge of firing her but she was too depressed to show up. Given what she was imagining about my new relationship (which, as I wrote, had ended), it took a heck of a lot for her to contact me and when I called her she was a real mess – physically and emotionally the poor thing had absolutely gone to pieces.
It’s not about the money – well it is; in a society where people have none of course it’s about money. She’d never ever asked me for anything and was always deeply embarrassed to accept help from me but I made her promise to tell me if she ever had a problem. Previously I’d put my hand in my pocket when she needed medicines and dental care but this was a big one and the $200 sum hurt me but I gave her the shortfall; thus she was, in her mind, indebted to me on so many levels.
I’d put myself in a situation that I’d tried so consciously to avoid; as a rich man in a poor country like a colonial patron I’d exerted power over a powerless family and what’s more a girl whom I’d been trying to prevent falling in love with me was now indebted to me both literally and emotionally. I didn’t want this but how could I have avoided it?
We arranged to meet the next day, on the Sunday morning, where I’d hand over the cash. I waited at the pre-arranged time at a riverside café – for four hours. It put my powers of patience to the test and I passed with mellow yellow colours.
It helped that I had nothing to do all Sunday save catch up on my sleep and mark more exam scripts but also I knew she was in a really bad way and the worry had made her physically very sick. I was deeply concerned for her and I couldn’t just switch that off. It was ten at night when she finally mustered enough strength to meet me at my guesthouse restaurant and when I saw her she looked terrible.
This I what I wrote about her that night: twenty-nine, not under any parental control but has taken on board ultra-conservative values possibly as a necessary survival measure given the environment she has to work in – she’s truly a pure lotus rising above a stagnant cesspool. She used to have a very good, well-paid job in a classy hotel for a long time but had to quit in order to care for her father due to a prior moto mishap.
She’d saved a considerable amount of money ($5000) through her hard work and frugality but what didn’t go on his medical expenses was lent to an uncle who never repaid it which is how she found herself penniless and working behind the counter in a brothel where she’s always putting herself out to help the ungrateful bling-obsessed bubblehead hookers.
They really anger me now; when I finally caught up with her she looked skeletal after not eating or sleeping for four days and the reason it was so difficult for me to make contact with her is because she switched off her phone after getting a series of calls from these girls none of whom expressed a momentary concern for her welfare but were asking her to lend them money.
These included girls who’d received between $250-750 in the last fortnight but who had already blown the lot (or their husbands had) on shopping and gambling. They all are of the opinion that because she is single, childless and not extravagant she must have heaps of cash to lend them and if she wasn’t well-off she’d naturally do what the rest of them do and whore herself.
The way they treat her sickens me yet she is endlessly patient with them but at some cost. I’m the only person she trusts to reveal what is behind the façade and what I see is a very pure and precious but desperately fragile heart.
She deserves so much better but am I the one? She preserved her body, heart and soul for Mr. Right and now she thinks she’s found him and as much as I’ve consistently tried not to encourage that, by being consistent I have encouraged that. And then when I found her broken in little pieces I knew the medicine the doctor gave her wasn’t going to cure her because her physical state was merely symptomatic of a heart that had suffered more than it could bear and I was the only person who could put her back together again whatever complications that might cause in the future. What else could I do?