Post 11:À l’ombre de jeunes filles en fleurs

Day 9, breakfast
Walking into town, I stop for a gorgeous if forgettable bowl of noodles and vegetable medley. The cook had another pot, though, that looked spicy, so tomorrow I’ll try that. Plus her son was very friendly; he leads guides of the temples in German, but we didn’t succeed in speaking that language together very well, nor did English go any better. Oh well.
Still far behind on this chronicle (and on my column intro for Kasia, plus needing to get back to Lucinda about a change she wanted to make to my book intro), I wanted to do some serious work, so I brought Fudgie and looked for a decent place to have a coffee. Unlike Saigon, Siem Reap doesn’t seem to have much of a café culture, at least for locals. So I end up having to take a seat at a very swanky colonial hotel open air bar, where my white ass suddenly realizes it’s sitting on cushions not plastic, my pate notices the fan overhead, I eventually go to a loo that’s walled in exquisite fabric and smells of lavender (with a functional flush toilet), and I think, so this is what it’s like. Again, with my haircut I couldn’t look more like an imperialist, so all I need now is my linen and silk 3-piece suit that I wore to Amanda’s wedding and I’d be set. Coolies bringing me ice and whiskies and dinner at the ambassador’s and the trade, the mine, the banana plantation and lord knows how these people live in such climes…
I have no idea what my coffee will cost, and I was honestly surprised: only two bucks (one anywhere else is 50 cents). That, given the service, the view, and the two hours work I got done, is money well spent. I might go back even today.

Day 9, lunch -- momentous

I haven’t yet described how just off the central market is a seedy parking lot market of much less tourist-friendly cooked-food stalls. That’s where I got yesterday’s river fish (4 for 75 cents) and the snake (50 cents) and where I’ve concluded I’m going to get pretty much everything. So leaving my colonist’s privilege, I flip to the other side of imperialism and order a plate of truly exquisite looking tripe . The woman selling it had four or five pots of stuff, but this looked so incredibly good, I thought that the standard offal pun was worth risking. Plus I love Lao tripe salad (called laab, similar to the thai larp, though they use other meats), and I thought this could be related (the woman was cutting lettuce). One note about laab, as my brother knows, I prefer it cooked to raw (thus another of our policies: if ordering an unknown meat, and asked if you if you want it raw or cooked, better start with cooked. And, for the record, raw tripe strips taste _very_ transgressive, if you know what I mean). This, though, was more like a curry or a stew, and the tripe was shockingly pleasant, with none of the funkiness, rubberiness or unpleasantness it often has. Delicious.
As usual, I exchange a few words with the people at my table; one guy seems upset that I’m not taking a spoon (I realize eventually that that’s the utensil for your left hand, and perhaps the left hand is not to be eaten with, as in India, for obvious reasons). Not taking a spoon might well have said, I have a flush toilet – or it might have said worse, considerably worse. But then…
Oh my. Let me pause, reader, and quote the note in my journal, written before she started speaking, “Utter bomb sits down next to me, also eating tripe.” I am undone (and clearly my journal will one day rival Pepys’…)
Of course I try to hide myself in the aroma of my rice, but eventually she asks if I’d like to try the side dish she’s eating, which she calls Cambodian cheese (it’s the shu mei filling-like stuff in the pic – very strong and intense, so much so I’m not even sure I liked it). Her English is quite good. Her name is Machai; she comes from a village north of here; she would invite me but there is no road. She borrowed her sister’s moto, as she works here one day a week selling magazines. She tells me that the tripe dish we’re having is called cha. She says she wants to study law but probably can’t pay for it. She’s yet to start university. She’s 19. “I’m 40,” I say. “An old man.” “Not so old,” she says, “and still handsome.”
Something inside me falls, like a marble rolling off a table. She is delicately, intricately beautiful. Her lips are full and her skin impeccable; I imagine how light the down must be on her belly, how smooth her legs. She speaks in a light, shy voice, so tender-seeming I don’t even feel predatory, merely appreciative. I bumblingly say that if she wants to practice her English later (of course I don’t say see me later), we could have dinner. She doesn’t quite agree or disagree to this, but she writes down her name and number, and I tell her the name of my guest house and that she should call there and leave a message if she wants to meet up. But somehow this seems to confuse or scare her, and there’s awkwardness. I get up and leave, somewhat hastening to get away from whatever the possibilities are of the situation. Some part of me doesn’t want to know, to let myself really desire her, to think her real and thus unsheathe the blade.
She said she gets off work at 5, but I mis-time my arrival at the market and, when 5 strikes, I’ve already eaten the lemongrass and tamarind stew you see above. I could haunt the market for another half hour, but the beggars have discovered me and, again, I’m afraid of disappointment, equally probable whether she would show up or not.
This is not the first of my encounters with women here; I have been noticing a lot of smiles since I arrived in Cambodia. In Saigon, every now and then a woman would flash me a look. In a residential back alleyway, there was a young mother of transcendent proportions in a black wife-beater who gazed up from her shrimp-grilling and melted me. A younger girl in Cholon followed me with her eyes half a block before I noticed (so said Martin); our eyes locked for 100 yards, and, when I turned half a block past her, she was still entreating. But here such looks are more common, and they’re often from quite young girls. I think the difference in age really doesn’t matter to them, or at least they become mothers here so seemingly young, that a girl of 16 can give me very adult glances. It’s disturbing in the way some of Sally Mann’s photos are disturbing (and why I can easily understand her persecution): you don’t want to be vulnerable, but you can’t help yourself, and then you feel the truth: the creakiness of your knees, your crow’s feet, your difference, the inability, and you think how strange that mere desire can be so crafty as to pass itself off as real longing, that one can drink so deep from the cup of naivete as to momentarily imagine not just physical contact with the girl but life. And then with the bitter tinge of the touch never comes (nor even a kiss, which in itself would transport), you somehow feel as though one of your lives flashed from a doorway and was lost. It’s not true; that life would have had no more substance than the phantom that it was, yet still part of you thinks it real and mourns. Perhaps if we could see desire for what it is, then we would never lose sight of life as it is too: my happiness at home, my fulfillment, the fact that I wouldn’t exchange it and Sarah and you my friends and my brother and the New York I love for anything at all. I know I am not a man to cheat, for even when I covet, I soon wake from the reverie and all my sugarplum projections. But odd, no, how quickly at hand and seemingly real those sugarplums can momentarily be?

So now I’m back in the colonial splendor, insulated by the unlikeliness that Machai would ever walk down this block. Instead I can gaze on the white college girls and their panty lines, the elegant draping ladies emerging from the rooms upstairs, the beautiful wait staff and their wet-chestnut colored skin, and the business skirts passing on motos. It’s good that the drinks here are so expensive or I might start having Pernods -- and that could lead this often sad and sort of young and sort of old man to weeping. It’s very hard to be with others; it’s very hard to be alone.