Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Fiction #77: Jonathan R. Rose

A Nameless Night in Cambodia

The room was dark except for a series of constantly flashing red and purple lights. There was a mix of 70s disco and 80s pop music blasting out of large speakers, and despite the muggy air outside the air inside the room was cold, as air conditioners were positioned in every corner of the ceiling. I knew something was strange as soon as I walked in. There were only three men inside: a pair of much older men seated at a nearby table, and a guy beside me, leaning over the metal railing just as I was. Everybody else in the room was a young, attractive woman dressed in a tight skirt and halter top. All of the women were dancing with each other, but not touching each other. They were huddled close, but not too close, making it easy for anybody staring at them to see each one individually.

I looked over at the guy beside me and he told me to just walk up and pick a woman on the dance floor.

"What do you mean just walk up and pick one?" I said.

"You can have any one of them," he replied. "All you have to do is walk over, grab her arm, and she'll be yours."

I wanted to look back at him with disgust because I thought that was how I was supposed to feel, but instead I asked him to elaborate.

He told me each of the women cost ten dollars for the entire night.

"That's it?" I said. "But that's nothing."

"It's Cambodia," he replied, "ten dollars is a lot of money here."

The women on the dance floor started smiling at both me and the guy beside me. He returned the favor, before turning to me and saying, "I must have had half of them already. They really know what they're doing. I heard they just watch porn all day, learning how to please guys like us."

I wanted to call him a pig, a pimp, a piece of shit. I wanted to burn down the whole bar and rescue every single one of the young women on the dance floor. I wanted to take them somewhere safe, a place where they wouldn't have to sell themselves. I wanted to be a hero, but all I did was smile back at them.

"This place is paradise," the guy beside me said. "I'm from Los Angeles, but I keep coming back here. I'm going to build a house here, a big one, with four bedrooms and two bathrooms, and do you know how much it's going to cost me?"

"How much?" I asked, unable to restrain my own curiosity.

"Thirty grand, total, and that's having it built exactly the way I want it. Where else in the world can you have a big house built the way you want for a price like that?"

I was in awe, thinking about how I already had nearly half that amount in my own bank account. I wondered if that meant I could build half the house he planned to build right then and there. Two bedrooms and one bathroom, built the way I wanted, all to myself, that didn't seem bad at all.

As we continued talking, the guy beside me continued telling me about his plans, and about the experiences he had in Cambodia, particularly in the capital, Phnom Penh. At first I thought he was gloating, but the more he spoke, the more I realized he wasn't gloating at all. He was telling the truth. It just sounded surreal.

I looked back at the dancing women and noticed one in particular staring at me, but she did not approach me. It was as if there was a barricade keeping her and the rest of the young women on the dance floor, an invisible barrier they were forbidden to cross.

"They won't come to you," the guy beside me said.

I turned to him just as he handed me a beer I didn't even ask for.

"What are you talking about?" I asked, after thanking him for the beer.

"None of them will come to you," he replied. "They can't. So that one over there, the one staring at you, you have to go to her, so there is no mix up."

"Mix up?"

"This is a poor country," he said, "so nothing is free, especially sex. And if they come to you that would give you the excuse to think whatever may happen is happening because they like you, which would then give you the excuse to not pay them. But if you go to them, there is no confusion."

I stared back at what I believed was the most attractive woman in that room full of women doing all they could to be attractive. I didn't know what to feel, and I certainly didn't know what to do. But the more I looked at that attractive young woman, the more I felt drawn to her.

Crossing that invisible wall onto the dance floor was easier than I thought after it became clear it was only one sided, and when I reached the young woman, she appeared even more beautiful. I turned to the guy leaning on the railing. He smiled at me. I turned back to the young woman. All I had to do was touch her arm, and from what I understood that would be it, just a slight movement of my arm and I would possess a person. It was a disturbing thought made all the more unsettling by its clarity as a result of my crippling sobriety. I started to feel shame crawling over me. It started weighing me down. My legs started to buckle.

The young woman, perhaps sensing what I was feeling, came even closer to me. I could feel her breath and smell her scent. It was intoxicating. My urge to touch her arm became overwhelming. I looked at her face. She smiled wide. I looked back at the guy leaning on the railing. He raised his beer, congratulating me on something he seemed to know I was going to do before I did.

The young woman came even closer, so close that despite the darkness and the flashing lights I could make out the faint creases in her lips. Under any other circumstance I would have already been kissing her, but on that floor, in that bar, the thought made me shiver. I took a step back and looked at the other dancing women. I noticed an expression of exhaustion on many of their faces. I started to wonder how long they have been dancing. I wondered if that's all they did, hour after hour, night after night, like those dance contests in the fifties where the last person standing won a price, except in this bar, the prize was sexually satisfying a man for ten dollars. I then started to wonder how much of the ten dollars those women would actually get. There was no way each one was representing themselves and was allowed to pocket everything they made. I didn't know much, but I definitely knew that much.

I took another step back, followed by another and another, until I was back at the railing. I looked up at the guy leaning over it.

"What's wrong?" he said.

"Nothing," I replied. "I'm going to get something to eat on the other side of the bar. What are you going to do?"

He smiled, gestured toward the dance floor with his beer, and said, "I think I'm going to explore the other half."

* * *

Sitting at a table on an outdoor patio on the other side of the enormous bar, staring at a giant screen playing an old Spielberg movie, I still couldn't believe the meal I was awaiting cost only three dollars.

I looked behind me and saw several pool tables lined up beside each other. Nearly each one was occupied by a young man, about as old as me, and usually as white as me, along with at least two young Cambodian women who were dressed the same as the women on the dance floor in the other room. I could hear laughter from the pool tables, mostly from the men, but I also heard, and saw, the skill from which each and every young Cambodian woman played the game. The sound of their breaks had that unique crack you only get to hear in the corners of smoky pool halls where the pros play.

Still waiting for my food, I looked at another area of the bar where there were several velvet couches, and occupying almost every single one was an old, fat, white man. And with those old, fat, white men were a pair of young Cambodian women huddled near them, touching and groping them, while the men fondled them in return. I noticed braces on the teeth of one of the women, which was a word I was feeling less and less confident using, as these were not women at all, but girls doing all they could to masquerade themselves as women.

I glanced back at the Spielberg movie playing on the screen. It was showing one of those inspiring, hopeful scenes that usually come near the end of most of his films, but I couldn't watch it. I had to turn away. I looked back at the old, fat, white men on the couches.

I wanted to get up and punch those men, and I wanted to help the girls tasked with tending to their perverted needs. I wasn't exactly sure how I could help those girls, but the yearning to help them nonetheless made me feel proud. The yearning started to grow, so much so that I actually started to get up from seat, but then my food arrived.

The steam rising from the plate struck my face and immediately made it sweat. I took my first bite. The food was delicious. I took my second and third, but was prevented from taking a fourth bite when I looked up and saw a familiar face sitting in the vacant chair across from me.

"Hello."

It was the same girl I could have possessed on the dance floor just by touching her arm.

I did not want to talk with my mouth full, so I chewed and swallowed my food quickly. Afterwards, I took a sip from the bottle of beer that accompanied my meal, and said hello back.

"How are you?" she said.

"I'm good," I replied.

She leaned back in her chair and smiled.

I looked at my plate of food, and despite the heat in the air, I knew it was getting cold, so I took another bite, followed by another. I looked up and noticed the woman not looking, but gazing at the food.

"Are you hungry?" I asked.

"Yes."

Her answer was unabashed, so I slid the plate over to the other side of the small table.

"Would you like a different fork?" I asked.

She laughed, and considering the nature of the bar, it didn't take me long to understand why.

The young woman ate ravenously.

As I watched her eat, I started to realize that I was actually in the kind of place I read about in books and have seen on documentaries. But instead of doing what I always thought I would do if I was ever in a place like that I did nothing but nearly succumb to its temptations and get a meal.

After she took the final bite the young woman thanked me so genuinely it made me feel like I had saved the world.

She told me she was from Siem Reap, and had many sisters, a mother, a father, and grandparents who depended on her. She said she was offered a job as a waitress in Phnom Penh and it paid well, better than anything available in Siem Reap. She took the job, but as soon as she arrived she was met by two men who put her to work in the bar that same night and every night since.

"How long ago was that?" I asked.

She shrugged her shoulders and said, "I don't remember."

I leaned back in my chair.

She told me she made enough money to send back to her family, and that was all that mattered. 

"How much do you make a night?" I asked.

"About ten dollars," she replied. "It's a lot."

I pulled out my wallet, handed her ten dollars, and said, "Now you're paid for the night."

She smiled, got up, and sat on my lap.

"I'm all yours," she said. "Do you have a room? I can do many things I know men like."

The thought was alluring, but the taste was bitter. I shook my head in an attempt to get the images of what I could do with her out of my mind.

"No, no," I said. "Tonight, you don't have to do that. I actually just want to hang out with you and talk."

She started looking around with an expression of confusion and surprise that made me question if what I was doing had ever happened to her before, or if it happened often and she was just doing what she had practiced in order to make me think it had never happened before.

She got up from my lap and sat back on her chair.

"Are you still hungry?" I asked.

She pursed her lips and nodded.

I looked at the menu and asked her what she would like, and considering the most expensive item was no more than five dollars, I did not care what she picked.

She chose a chicken dish and told me it was her favorite, so I ordered the same for myself.

When the food arrived she started eating like the meal I gave her earlier had never existed, and in between bites, we continued talking. She told me about her family, and how needy they were. She told me about the bar, and how girls constantly came and went, and how she didn't know where they came from, or where they ended up after they left.

I told her a bar like this should be closed. I said it was wrong, horrible, disgusting. I said what she was going through, what many of the young women were going through, was slavery. I told her the chains needed to be broken. I felt better as the words grew more intense, but that feeling disappeared when I saw what looked like pain on her face, as if I were driving a knife deeper and deeper into her gut.

"Why would you say that?" she said. "Without this bar, girls like me would have no way to feed our families."

"But you shouldn't have to feed your family," I replied. "You shouldn't have to worry about that. You're so young. You should only have to worry about enjoying your life."

I was about to ask her how old she actually was, but feared the answer too much to do so.

She just smiled.

I turned to the velvet couches where a different old, fat, white man sat, and two different young Cambodian girls in virtually no clothing sat on each one of his obese legs, rubbing his protruding belly like he was a perverted genie withholding their wish. He had both of his hands around their waists, squeezing them, exploring as much of their upper bodies as he could with his fingers. I shook my head and turned back to the young woman seated across from me.

"Look at that," I said. "I want to go over there and punch that guy in the face. He is disgusting."

"They will hit you," she replied.

"I don't care," I said. "That will just give me more reason to keep punching him."

She took another bite of her chicken, chewed it, and replied, "Not him, the two girls, they will hit you."

"Why would they hit me?" I said. "I would have stopped him from groping them."

"No," she replied in between yet another bite of her second dinner, "you would have stopped him from paying them money they would have sent back to their families."

After we both finished our meals, she smiled at me and said, "I want to take you somewhere."

"You don't have to do that with me," I replied, feeling good about the words and even better after I realized I genuinely believed them.

"No," she said, "it's somewhere fun, a party. Do you want to come with me?"

I agreed, but only after repeating she did not have to worry about satisfying me in any anyway, which made me feel even better.

The bill came. I looked at it and shook my head. Two full dinners for what I made in less than twenty minutes at my job back home. I paid, and made sure to leave a tip that I thought was big based on the percentage it covered, but couldn't help but feel was small based on the amount itself.

We left the large bar and took a taxi ride that lasted about ten minutes, and cost less than two dollars.

We walked into a bar that was much smaller than the one we had just left, and as soon as I walked in the young woman darted off into the crowd. I lost sight of her after just a few seconds.

Standing alone, I gazed at what looked like at least forty, maybe fifty young women who were all dressed like the one who had brought me there. They were all dancing, but not in a way that was intended for display. Instead, many of them were hugging each other, laughing with each other, and talking to each other in their own language as they danced. They looked like they were having a great time.

There were few men in the bar, and of those few men, even fewer were foreign. I counted only two, and one of them was me. The other one was talking to a young woman who had distanced herself from the dancing group. I took a few steps to get closer, curious about what they were talking about.

When I got close enough to hear the foreign man and young Cambodian woman, I was surprised to hear them both speaking Khmer. The man spoke so fluently that I believed he was either born there, or had learned the language after what had to be at least a few years living there. Either way, he was not as foreign as he seemed.

I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned, and the young woman I came with held up a big bottle of beer.

"I bought this for you," she said.

"You didn't have to do that," I said. "I could have bought it."

I immediately regretted what I said after seeing an expression of regret appear on her face after I said it.

"But you were so nice to me," she replied, "so I wanted to get it for you. Plus, it's a party, and a party is always more fun with beer."

The night was hot and humid, and the beer was cold and refreshing, and went down like glacial water.

The young woman and I danced, talked and laughed the night away. She introduced me to other young women who worked in the same bar as her, or bars just like it, and it quickly became clear that the bar she had taken me to was where young women like her went to unwind after work. I was flattered she had taken me there, and did my best to not make her look bad for doing so.

By the end of the night my legs were achy. Meanwhile, the young woman started yawning constantly.

"Where do you live?" I asked.

"Very far," she replied in the middle of yet another yawn.

"How far?" I asked.

"About an hour outside of the city," she said.

"You look tired," I said.

She nodded.

"Why don't you come back with me to my hostel? It's closer, and the bed is big and actually very comfortable. You can get some sleep."

She smiled.

"And don't worry," I said. "You don't have to do anything when we get there."

I wasn't sure if I said that to reassure her or myself, but she agreed. We caught a taxi, and in about ten minutes we reached the hostel where I was staying. I wasn't sure if I was even allowed to bring people into my room, especially prostitutes, so we walked in quietly and quickly passed by the sleeping security guard.

As soon as we entered my room, the tiredness from the long night set in. We both kicked off our shoes, I took off my shirt, and we fell on the bed. I turned on the air conditioning, and she fell asleep almost immediately. I was astounded at how deep her sleep was. It was the kind of sleep a person has after walking a hundred miles because they had no other choice.

I turned toward her. Slightly inebriated, but by no means drunk, I nonetheless felt the kind of pleasant warmth those who drink know all too well, and in spite of the young woman's dancing and subsequent sweating she still smelled great. I inched a little closer to her. And just like in the first bar, on the dance floor, I knew all I had to do was touch her arm, and she would be mine.

I wondered what it would feel like kissing her, touching her, and having her. I could feel myself getting aroused, but then shame crawled back over me. I knew if I did what a part of me wanted to do it would undo everything I had done up to that point. So I turned away from her and faded away into sleep, but not before questioning if I was a good man for resisting the urges I had or a bad man for having them in the first place.

Hours later, we both woke up. She turned toward me and smiled.

"Thank you," she said.

"For what?" I replied.

"For last night," she said, "and for letting me sleep. I was so tired."

"I had an amazing time with you last night," I replied, "so thank you."

She got out of bed. The room was still dark, so she looked just like she looked throughout the previous night. It wasn't until we both stepped out of the room and made our way out of the hostel that I finally got to see her, really see her, under the light of the burgeoning sun. She looked much different. Her skin looked rougher compared to how smooth it appeared in the darkness of the bar. And despite the deep sleep she just had, she still looked tired, so unbelievably tired.

"Thanks again," she said.

"You're welcome," I replied.

She turned and walked away.

Still tired, but knowing I would never be as tired as her, I returned to my room and thought about her. I thought about all she had told me, about all she had taught me. I thought about the beer she bought for me out of the money I gave her. I wasn't sure if she had played me for a chump, and I honestly didn't care. All I knew was that I gave a young woman at least one night where she didn't have to sexually satisfy a man who deemed her body worth no more than ten dollars, and that made me feel good.

Hours later, I woke up, and the first thing I tried to do was recall the young woman's name, but I couldn't do it. Days later, when I left Cambodia and entered Thailand, where I enjoyed the beautiful beaches of the country's southern islands, her face faded from memory as well. And on the long flight home, when the young woman was no more than a story, I started to question if she meant as much to me as I originally thought, or if she only meant as much as the ten dollars I gave her that night in the bar.

*

Jonathan R. Rose was born and raised in Scarborough, Ontario. He has lived in Mexico City, Mexico for five years and is currently living in Buenos Aires, Argentina. He published his first novel, Carrion in 2015 with Montag Press, and has also published several short stories. "A Nameless Night in Cambodia," was based on an actual night in Phnom Penh that has stuck with him for many years and that's what compelled him to write about it, and he would like to thank The Danforth Review for helping him share it.

https://www.facebook.com/JonathanRRose/ 

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