Written By: Briana McDonald
In the back of the night market, there were rows of seats where white men reclined and had their shoulders rubbed down by the Cambodian masseuses. I found it odd that they were lined up, right there at the back of the rows of bags, scarves, and shirts, the first break in a maze of tiny shops and racks. At the back wall stood a stage, and men dressed in burlesque costumes danced and lip synched, off pace, to American pop music. A fair-skinned Asian man slowed to a stop, watching the men writhe and shake their pointed hips on stage, until his wife shouted at him in their native language and waved him to look away and move on.
I didn’t think much of it until a tuk-tuk ride the following morning. The graduate volunteer group was headed to a small rural village to install water filters. Eric sat across from me with his long, knobby knees spread and poking forward. Bobby was beside me, tucked into the farthest corner of his seat as though afraid to take up more than his share of space. The cart we sat in bobbed over the bumps in the street and wind danced through our hair, threatening to steal our sunhats. Our driver honked the horn of his moped, alerting the other drivers as we took a turn onto a side street. The side of the cart nearly knocked over a mobile sliced-pineapple stand.
“Those massage parlors aren’t actually for massages, so you have to be careful,” Eric said, looking at me through his wiry glasses. “I learned that the hard way.”
“The hard way?” I repeated. Bobby curled farther into his corner, diverting his small, birdlike eyes.
“I mean, I figured what it meant, considering.” Eric’s eyes swept down the street, toward storefronts and passing tourists. “It was afternoon and the place was pretty dead, so I let them give me a leg massage—to help their business, you know? I got to talking with them, and they have some pretty interesting stories, those women.”
“I’m sure they do,” I said. I’d read about it briefly before traveling, read about young girls who beaded bracelets to support themselves outside the sex trade.
“It’s not something we should be afraid to talk about,” Eric said. His eyes pierced Bobby, who huddled into himself beside me.
I thought of the women in the night market, standing in heels as they dug their thumbs into the thick shoulders of local men and tourists alike. I imagined Eric swinging his leg over the headrest, his thighs spread, waiting for the women to rub him down.
“I agree,” I said, and Eric smiled.
Beneath the shade of the houses, we rinsed gravel and sand beside the shells of the water filters. Eric and I lifted a giant barrel, spilling the excess water down the path. It spun through patches of grass and caught between the feet of chickens.
“We’re going to need more water,” I called over my shoulder.
I expected one of the volunteers to move to the well. Instead, a middle-aged Cambodian woman dunked two buckets in and carried them back, attached by a rod, over her shoulders. Earlier that morning, I had seen Eric struggle under the weight of one of them.
“Aw kohn,” I said as she placed them at our feet. We rinsed the sand one last time before loading it in to the filter.
After it was fully installed, we posed for a picture with the family. They did not smile.
I sat by the pool that night, too tired to adventure out to Pub Street. Eric had tried to persuade me, but after installing half a dozen filters, I was wiped.
Bobby stumbled through the hotel’s back door. He wavered on his feet for a moment before plopping down to join me.
“You been enjoying those $1 beers in the lobby?” I asked, smiling. It was a silly question; he grasped one in his hand. But I didn’t know how to talk to Bobby, the quiet, awkward one of the group. So I stated the obvious.
“I’ve been thinking,” he said, nodding his head to each of his words.
“Yeah? About what?”
“What Eric said. About the women.”
My chest tightened. “I have, too,” I admitted.
Bobby’s head hung back as he turned to me, as though he couldn’t hold it up straight. I made eye contact with his chin. “Did you know I’m a virgin?”
“It hasn’t come up,” I said, unsure of how else to reply.
“I’m twenty-seven, and a virgin,” he said. “What do you think of that?”
I shifted to the side, forging a gap between our bodies. “It’s your choice, Bobby.”
“It’s not my choice,” he said, jabbing his thumb to his chest. His fogged eyes stared at me through his circular glasses. “I’ve tried, but no one wants me.”
“I’m sure you’ll meet the right girl,” I said, “but not tonight. I think you should head to bed.”
“Women here, they can’t reject me like women at home,” he said.
My feet, still dangled in the water, suddenly felt cold. “What are you saying?”
“I’ve passed those parlors,” he said. “I can afford it.”
I stared into the clear water. The hotel lights flickered on its surface. “I don’t think it’s right, Bobby,” I said. “You shouldn’t be with someone who doesn’t have a choice in the matter.”
“It’s their job,” he said. “Just like Eric said, about the legs. It’s how they put food on the table.”
He began burping after that, and I led him to the bathroom, where he got sick. Within half an hour, we were both in our rooms, asleep.
That night, I dreamed of the children I’d met in the village earlier that day. I dreamt of the little girls who passed on the street, the ones who didn’t wear school uniforms because they had to be at home to work. I imagined their parents sending them off, selling them into the trade for the family’s sake. I imagined Bobby building a water filter in exchange for their daughter.
The entire crew went out for dinner and drinks the next night, and Eric arrived with a young Cambodian woman. She spoke no English and they communicated in small phrases he’d learned, over his past two visits, from tourist handbooks.
“Suorsdey left her village and came to Siem Reap to support herself,” Eric said. “It’s really remarkable. I’ve been trying to help her out, bit by bit, like this dinner.” He turned to her, saying, “Order whatever you want.” I couldn’t tell if she understood the words, but she giggled and nodded nonetheless.
The other volunteers sat around us at separate tables, shooting sideways glances only I seemed to notice. Bobby rocked back and forth in his seat, looking sick. He wouldn’t make eye contact with me.
“So you’re helping her acquire food?” I asked. “So groceries, too?”
Eric laughed, so the girl did, too.
“Not necessarily,” he said, “but I just bought her some new shoes. They’re flats—easier to walk in than the spiked heels she wore when I met her. Those weren’t even the right size. One of the other girls must have lent them to her.” He passed his translation guide across the table at me.
“Tell her you like her new shoes.”
I pushed it back. “I can’t even see them.”
“Look beneath the table,” he said, pressing the book back toward me.
“I’m not going to gawk at her from beneath the table.” I picked up the book and dropped it onto his empty appetizer plate.
“Suit yourself,” he said, placing the guide back in his lap. “It would have been a nice thing to say, that’s all.”
We were silent until our food arrived. About halfway through a plate of chicken and rice I asked, “Where will she go tonight?” Eric’s eyes flashed up to me, and I added, “We’re going out for drinks, right? Is she going to come along?”
“I don’t think we’ll be joining,” he said. “I’m still trying to help her out, while we’re here.”
When we left dinner that night, he walked with his hand low on her back, and she giggled. She wore a pair of flats I’d seen at the night market. Eric probably bartered them down to $5.
The cocktails on Pub Street were inexpensive, two for the price of one back home. By 11 p.m., I stood on top of a circular platform on the dance floor, bumping my hips to Rihanna’s “S&M” as Australian tourists bounced and pumped their fists on the floor below me, singing along.
After the song ended, I stumbled out onto the street. Old men and small children alike break-danced in the street as tourists formed a drunken circle around them. The lights from the bars streamed out into the dark night, and the music flowed from each venue, colliding in the streets in a cacophony of sound.
I plopped onto one of the bar’s front steps, the world swaying before me. Pressing my head between my knees, I began to sob.
Two Cambodian workers swarmed me, lifting me from my feet and carrying me away from the stairs, to an outdoor seat I’d missed. “I’m not drunk!” I cried. “I’m not drunk.” They placed me down and walked away without looking at me. “I just forgot how to pronounce her name,” I said, my voice rising before vanishing in the music. “I forgot her name!”
The next morning, I joined the other volunteers for a final group breakfast before our flight back to America. We met at a restaurant called the Butterfly Café, about five hundred feet from our hotel. Inside the tented restaurant, butterflies fluttered overhead, floating through the tall plants and over the koi ponds. White children leaned over the edge of the ponds, pointing at the fish that huddled, still, at the bottom of the murky water.
“How was your night?” Eric asked me, pouring sweet milk into his coffee.
“It was insane,” I said, figuring that’s how most people would reply. I was silent for a beat.
“It was great,” he said. The corner of his mouth rose. “I feel like we did a lot of good on this trip, you know?”
I nodded, and we were silent for a while, listening to the conversation of the other volunteers. Occasionally, Bobby would eye Eric with a look of curiosity, mixed with something else. Envy, or resentment. I couldn’t tell, and didn’t dare to guess.
I glanced over my shoulder. The children who had leaned over the koi pond sat with their parents. The father pointed overhead and beamed at the colorful insects as they fluttered, sideways, around him.
Briana McDonald’s fiction has appeared in Marathon Literary Review and Rozyln: Short Fiction by Women Writers. She is currently an MFA candidate in Creative Writing at Fairleigh Dickinson University, where she received the Mitch and Lynn Baumeister Global MFA Scholarship in Creative Writing.
In the past her writing has been awarded the Adrian Tinsley Summer Research Grant from Bridgewater State University. She served as editor-in-chief of The Bridge Fine Arts Journal, literature editor of Aegir Magazine, and is currently associate online editor, reader, and fiction reviewer for The Literary Review. You can find more about her at www.brianarosemcdonald.com