Skyscraping

Brodie Gress

 

Lonely, older, in their fifties or sixties, all white, all expatriates: men like this were gathered at the aluminum table adjacent to mine. They were slapping their knees, laughing about some of the local women they’d encountered last night. One of them, a British man with graying hair and a large belly, maybe glasses, had just finished a story defending an older Cambodian woman he’d had (in her thirties). She knew how to smile at him, giggle at his jokes, sit on his lap, rake her fingers on him gently, kiss him, kiss that. The others knocked the Brit off, more assured about the twenty-something, maybe younger, girls they were used to. The skin-tight skirts, flat-ironed hair, Prismacolor lips. The svelte figures, the molded smiles hiding the distant eyes. Checking off every cosmetic seduction on the list.

We were in the downtown of Phnom Penh at an open-air restaurant. A mural of fish smiled down on us from a nearby wall, over a stall selling bootlegged movies. Tuk tuk drivers and motorists parked on the curb, yelling “Tuk tuk?” and “Moto?” to every passerby, swarming the white-skinned ones. Stores bordered us on either side, and their wares flooded out from the storefront onto the sidewalks, with pedestrians navigating the labyrinths of guitars, mattresses, washing basins. Some stopped to haggle with the owners. Everywhere in the city construction was going on, new skyscrapers being erected, Phnom Penh hoping to match the glory of nearby Bangkok or Saigon.

Across the street sat Heart of Darkness, a nightclub that may or may not have catered to gay people, with its occasional drag shows and frequent same-sex couplings, yet never bearing a rainbow flag anywhere. The club looked more innocent at dusk, with its Chinese lanterns and red pillars fronting the entrance. We Peace Corps volunteers frequented the clubs and bars in the cities of Cambodia about once a month to let off steam as isolated Americans living in rural villages full of ever-watchful Cambodians. A small mob, dressed in Chacos imported from home and elephant-graphic polos and pants we’d bought in the local markets, we crowded inside these clubs to wave our arms, gyrate our hips, and soak ourselves in shots of vodka, tequila cocktails, the hardest liquor we could afford between our $150-a-month Peace Corps salaries and money sent from home.

Most of us were wearier, less idealistic than when we began service. Now we felt less guilty about indulging in vices, considering the long weeks, sometimes months, we spent in our villages. I’d already been to Heart of Darkness several times on my own, looking for other lonely men, whether they were travelers, expatriates, NGO workers, whoever. I was trying to forget the first fling I’d had in Cambodia, become someone I wasn’t.

§

It was the last week of Peace Corps training before we would become official volunteers. Rick and I were sharing a hotel room at Smiley’s, the hotel Peace Corps used. It had a smiley face logo above its entrance, the words “Merry Christmas” displayed beneath it throughout the year.

We lay on two twin hotel beds jammed together (“Super bed,” he called it). Swedish rap, or something alt-genre like that, played from his phone. We tried to sleep next to each other, but the crack in the middle divided us. His arm lay under my head, my hand grazing his hairy chest. We lay sort-of together.

We’d decided to room together at the hotel after we started hooking up. The prior two months, about thirty or so Peace Corps Cambodia English educator trainees—comprised of mostly college grads but also married couples, a news columnist, a PR agency founder—had endured pre-service training together in the small town S’Aang. For two months, we drilled down the Khmer language for hellos and goodbyes, salutations for younger peers (b’ohng), elder peers (bawng), and teachers (lohk), alongside phrases like “No, I’m not rich, sorry,” or “I will throw up in this bus.” We learned about the U.S. carpet bombing that bled in from the Vietnam War, which helped beget the Khmer Rouge genocide. We learned the importance of respecting age and status, indirect communication, the gender roles of men and women, the reverence toward white skin and repugnance toward black. For two months, we digested eras of the country’s history and culture like fast food, and outside of our classes we dined on the resulting reality: the two-person motos groaning under the weight of six-member families; the rice, rice, rice; the “nguh” noises of our training-wheel host families, with whom we gestured conversation or butchered toddler Khmer words. Peace Corps protocol penned us in, and Cambodia befuddled us. We were feeling “infantilized,” as our training director put it.

This world was strange, the kind of land no textbooks or videos could ready us for. Few of us had ever been to Asia; some of us had hardly ever left the U.S. And so, after class every night, we all started getting beers together, bunching together aluminum tables, or biking to the rice fields to escape local priers. We made up inside jokes, called our favorite friends before bed, anything to tighten our bonds. Those bonds would evolve and devolve over time.

Rick was the tallest member of our group, with a stretched face, like someone had grabbed it by the chin and crown and then pulled. He was a New Yorker, a former club volleyball player with a bad knee to prove it, a politics graduate from NYU: he was many details still emblazoned on my memory. While lounging on the rope hammock swaying outside my host mother’s small wooden house, in the leather-bound Barnes & Noble journal my college friends had bought me to record my Cambodian experience, I started scribbling down Rick’s name dozens of times, ranting, complaining. I thought I might, via pencil lead, extinguish my growing crush on this straight man, something I felt embarrassed about. His friendly way of talking made me flinch, and during group photos his arm on my back singed the hairs there.

“I had a dream that they said I’d be placed in Greece for service,” he told me once. We were biking to class, talking about where Peace Corps might put us for our two-year tours.

“That’s funny,” I said.

“Well, wherever we end up,” he said. “I hope I’m placed right next to you!”

This is stupid, I kept writing in my journal. He’s probably gonna hook up with that blond girl in our cohort, doesn’t matter, I didn’t come to Cambodia for high school bullshit, so why can’t I get him out of my head. I kept writing and writing until, sick of writing, I blurted out my feelings to Rick one morning, when he’d stopped by to visit my host family’s house. The next morning, he told me he was bisexual. Interested in exploring that.

The morning after, we’d just finished doing yoga with friends, and he asked to shower at my place, close to the school where we studied Khmer. We were both changing in my room, a small place where at night the barks of dogs and the revs of auto engines slipped through the wooden wall slats. A blue cot with a mosquito net overhanging it crowded half the room. My training host mother was squatting outside, pruning vegetables that strangers delivered to her every day in large farm bags. In my room, Rick and I were standing inches from each other. I realized I could recognize his musk.

“You smell good,” I said. He put an arm around my waist.

This being the first crush in my life to result in physical intimacy, my imagination immediately seized me, told me the sex Rick and I were having was something special, much more so than the flings I’d had the summer before I came to Cambodia. Rick would bike early in the morning and late at night to my host mother’s house to spend time with us, chat with my family in Khmer so well he irritated me, until he followed me into my room. He said that maybe we could travel together during service, that he could help fund my trips; his parents made money, I learned quickly, much more than mine did. And so after a few mornings like that, I dreamed of New York City skyscrapers for us together after Peace Corps. Skyscrapers taller than the burgeoning ones in Phnom Penh, than the palm trees in the rural fields where we would teach English. We’d co-inhabit some apartment where I’d pursue the writing dream and he’d do something that made money. Boyfriend, I kept thinking. I’d never had a boyfriend before.

To a gay boy who’d grown up in Catholic Indiana, even after a liberal arts college education, I still felt this undercurrent impulse that gay boyfriends weren’t real. In the higher parts of my head, in its noble garrets and sophisticated penthouses where “Modern Family” played on TVs, I knew I could, would, have a boyfriend one day. But my subconscious, resentful while huddling down in alleyways, said gay boys just fooled around while watching other romances unfold. Gay boys were grateful to have endured their middle school peers’ jokes about concentration camps for gays, politically incorrect distortions of what those peers learned at home. With Rick, I was on an elevator going up.

But if my mind was an edifice, my imagination was the hot fire of creation, difficult to tend. Back in that bed in Phnom Penh, the final week of our training, I wanted to know how long Rick and I would stay with each other. But I didn’t want to tell him about skyscrapers yet, trying to mask myself with the same air of nonchalance he possessed.

“How often do you want to see each other the next two years?” I asked instead.

“Jesus, Brodie.” He rolled over, not answering the question. “Maybe we should just sleep.”

“Well, I don’t want that,” I pleaded.

He was seeing someone else a month later.

§

Almost half a year and several pseudo-recuperative one-night stands after that, I was sitting near the gaggle of expats. My fellow volunteer Luis and I occupied our own table, drinking hot tea and eating Turkish kebabs we’d bought on the street. Luis, from Puerto Rico, was a hipster who’d kept his dreamy mien as other volunteers adapted to village life. He liked to play his guitar for kids at his village, more than he liked to teach English from a decades-old textbook, student copies of which bore frayed, yellowed edges and Khmer translations penned in blue ink all over the pages. Luis and I were rooming together for our in-service training in the capital city. He’d been flirting back and forth for a while now with my best friend in Peace Corps: Anna, a Filipino-American from California, with a smile and laugh as large as California. Anna and I bonded over our romantic inclinations, how we wished we could just shove all that distraction aside and focus on building high school libraries or organizing educational camps.

Luis and I decided to take a bike ride around Phnom Penh for our Sunday off, visiting the Central Market, Wat Phnom. As dusk came down we settled across from Heart of Darkness for a bite. While resting, we heard the other table’s laughter, saw the men tracing curvy legs in the air. “They’re so much easier here, nicer, not so stuck up,” they murmured. A callback to the glory days.

I’m not a woman. I don’t get stared at in public, whistled after, catcalled, not unless I’m in a gay bar. I can’t even understand the urge to catcall. Maybe the men who do don’t either. But nearly all of my Peace Corps friends were women, and so many of my best friends from college and high school were women. I’d been schooled in feminism my entire life. Peace Corps itself had propagated Camp GLOWS everywhere, Cambodia being the first country Michelle Obama visited for her Let Girls Learn initiative. So as the conversation’s details dawned on me, I felt the blood rush to my face, the quandary striking mental chords. These men were villains.

“You’re off, bloke,” one of the guys said to the other. “You’ve got to get them young. When they’re all rouged up, wearing those slim dresses, that’s when they’re best.” It wasn’t her, it was them. Like the men didn’t think they were interacting with individuals who had thriving personalities and lives, but a group throbbing for pleasure. The conversation was peppered with quotes like these. Luis and I sat there, drinking our teas, eating our kebabs, uncomfortably absorbing their conversation. Do I say something? I should say something. My superego raged, scrounging for every scrap of courage it could find to surmount the fear of confrontation.

“Do you hear what they’re saying?” I asked Luis, using him as a vessel to address the problem. He smiled, one corner smirking more than the other, shrugging his embarrassment. I wanted to do the same, but I could hear my women friends—I had so many, most gay men do—yelling at me, furious caricatures of their friendly selves. Then one of the expats began sharing an anecdote: a caress on the shoulders, fingers strumming the hips, a fist going up and down.

Cambodia is a poor country, or it wouldn’t host Peace Corps. For some expatriates, the country is a way to shake up their lives. For others, it’s a call to serve, to stare the problems of the world in the face. And for those lonely first-worlders, it’s an easy retirement, a way to recover from whatever missteps they made in the prime of their lives, whatever injustices brutal economies and politics, bad marriages and broken families had slung at them. The corrupt of Cambodia lap up their 401Ks while the more downtrodden shoulder the system. Pretty women, and pretty boys, too, play the role of sexual livestock. Some expats perhaps find new love, a committed relationship, with a local through their financial resources. Or at least convince themselves they have.

These men hadn’t.

A waitress with a few folds under her eyes came by. Glasses-man volleyed flirts at her, and she returned them graciously, served him and his friends more fifty-cent pints of beer. She hovered around the group as they threw out American bills for her to collect. When she left, “Her, just like her, older, not so pliable, she’s gotta know her way around the sheets.”

“What are you talking about?” I asked the men during a lull in the chorus of laughter that followed. Not even asked; whispered. When they didn’t hear me, I spoke up. A little bemused that someone had interrupted them, they were quiet until Glasses-man elected himself spokesman.

“Just talking about fun things to do here at night,” he said.

“Yeah?”

“Oh yeah. Loads to do in a different country, especially when the pound’s this strong here.”

“I’m sure.”

Glasses-man turned back to his friends, and they huddled away from Luis and me. The waitress checked in on them again, and the flirtation continued. The confrontation was over; I didn’t dare make a scene, simply letting the encounter etch itself onto my memory. Luis and I left our tables, jumped on our bikes, navigating Preah Norodom Boulevard back to our hotel. Tuk tuks and cars fought with us for room on the Phnom Penh road, the traffic of three New York City streets crammed into one.

“I should’ve spoken up more,” I told Luis.

“Did the best you could, man,” Luis comforted me. Months later, he and Anna would seal the deal. Then he’d switch her out for a local Cambodian girl he’d meet and fall in love with. His friendship with Anna would halt. I would continue to frequent Heart of Darkness whenever I visited the city, throwing myself onto the beds of men I didn’t know, for reasons I thought I did.

§

“I think we’re all just scared, lonely,” Rick told me, the last time we slept together in my first host mother’s house. “It’ll pass once we settle into site. Bond with our communities, neighboring volunteers, and such.” He’d already mentioned a past unfaithful girlfriend, said he was burnt out on relationships, called himself “Aloof, you know … like a lone wolf or something.” Maybe he’d picked up on our unequal attractions, was trying to put out the sparks before someone got hurt. We’d just found out Peace Corps had placed us hundreds of kilometers away from each other for service. One of us was more upset than the other.

“Yeah, you’re probably right,” I said, trying to snuff out my fantasies. As much as we extol our imaginations, as much as they drive us to be ambitious, take crazy adventures such as joining Peace Corps, they can turn on us, too. They smear our rationality, and we walk around mostly in our own world, until the real one hits us like a truck. The truck hit me a couple of months after Rick and I last slept with each other, after the newly inducted volunteers had all scattered across Cambodia, to the villages where we’d spend the next two years.

Nearly all of us were by ourselves now. I lived in a concrete school, my room sporting its own bathroom with running water and a shower, affirming my privileged circumstances in a third-world country. Anna and I phoned each other constantly, sharing ridiculous stories about Cambodian neighbors poking fun at our Khmer, teasing us for not knowing how to hand wash laundry, her village constantly mistaking her for a fellow Cambodian, until one night she told me Rick was seeing another volunteer now, had been for a few weeks.

I convinced her I was fine, totally fine. I’d figured those two would, anyway; they were neighbors now, hundreds of kilometers away from me. They’d already made out in the room I shared with Rick after I passed out, the final night of that week’s unrestrained debauchery. After we finished our call, I lay still. I went outside, under the midnight sky, watching semis drive by on the dirt national highway, their headlights lighting up the dust cloud that remained. I went back inside, wrote poetry, read. As the morning approached, in my new, spacious room, near the room of a new, permanent host mother with whom I didn’t talk like I did my training one, I lay awake, struck with insomnia. That Rick had some new, sort-of boyfriend, and I didn’t even get to sleep now, made it all blow up.

The next morning, during yoga, I collapsed from child’s pose into a pathetic ball. The morning after, while evaluating English teachers at my new school, I buried my head into my shoulders, disguising misery as exhaustion from the heat. At last, late one of those nights, I called Rick with a wild rebuke, losing control of my inner world, now spreading out of me like wildfire.

Over the following few months, I did what brokenhearted people do. I slept with a French traveler who couldn’t speak English. I slept with an American graduate student, pinching his pacifier-sized nipples to make him orgasm. I slept with—and later regretted giving my number to—a British animal rights enthusiast with hair dyed the color of corn (“Animals have feelings just like people do!” he belched Disneyesque wisdom into my ear at the club where we met.) The first Phnom Penh weekend getaway, where I saw Rick for the first time since I’d called him, I slept alone in a hotel bed, my sex drive diminished by the ingestion of “happy” pizza and smoothies I’d had earlier. I passed out, prompting the not-Rick Peace Corps volunteer blowing me at the time to give up.

All the volunteers had agreed early on that the Cambodian culture vilified sex too much, particularly women having sex. “Women are like white cloth,” one local proverb said, “dropped on the ground once and they’re soiled forever.” Out of the pushback against that sprang some subconscious devil convincing me of the opposite extreme: every visit to cities was wasted if there was no sex involved. Periods of abstinence became ticking timers that, if they ticked too long, would wreak havoc on my mental health or social standing, risks that somehow outweighed STDs or spending my third-world salary on first-world dates in the cities. None of these men got repeat visits. They were all strangers, without a recognizable musk or the looming promise of skyscrapers. Sex, I discovered, came in millions of different shades, tints, and hues, and for a long time I only found ones I didn’t like.

My friendship with Rick never really recovered, especially not when I half-drunkenly crashed his Tinder date on Valentine’s Day, but not even when he texted me one night from our villages, asking how I was, or when we and a couple of friends spent the day at a waterpark. It crumbled away even as I realized Rick was more a trigger than the source of my pain. The pain had little to do with him not wanting me anymore, nor with how many men and women in Cambodia slept with him after my turn ended. The pain was those New York City skyscrapers, now fallen around me, their wreckage mocking me. The ruins of an embarrassing, ungrounded, wistful fantasy kept smoking inside me. Its acrid smell pestered me on my bike rides to school and back home, from the bottoms of beer glasses I emptied in bars, in the arms of other men in their dark bedrooms, alongside the myriad basketball courts and libraries I dreamed of building for the school where I worked.

There was no real antidote, just the eventual subsiding to a dull ache of self-criticism. From the tallest building to the slimmest alley, anywhere in Cambodia, I kept punishing myself. You idiot, I wrote in my journal, if you hadn’t been so deluded, we might’ve stayed friends, could’ve at least kept some self-respect, wouldn’t be this sap who took a fling too seriously. You’ve got more important work now, you’ve only got a couple years here, get to work, get it out of your head! These thoughts didn’t stop until right before I left Cambodia.

§

When I was back in America, one day wandering Wal-Mart aisles in a daze, a Phnom Penh native I’d befriended online texted me. He told me of his own failed relationship with an American expatriate living there. He was grasping for his own self-worth, and we commiserated. I tried to convince him he was better than this failed affair, even as I recognized the imagined adventures and romances in his words, the intoxicating towers smoldering between his lines, and knew this was something he had to get over on his own. I wished I had spent one weekend in Phnom Penh grabbing coffee with him instead of chasing sexual escapades. He spoke English fantastically, had dreams of traveling the world, rather than the world constantly barging in and out of his country.

The expatriates might also have been nursing hurt egos underneath their machismo. Whoever was, we were lucky to be motivated by nothing but the need to pacify our anger, manicure our solitude. These men and I were lonely. Others there couldn’t afford delusions about where they stood with people, in a city ever building itself further up.

 

Brodie_Gress