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Darkness at Noon

 Benjamin D. Carson
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 Benjamin D. Carson
Darkness at Noon
by Benjamin D. Carson  FollowFollow
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Benjamin D. Carson reads, writes, and thinks and then likes to talk about what he's read, written, and thought--mostly with his students but...read more also with pretty much anyone who'll listen and engage him. While he calls Massachusetts home, he's a cosmopolitan at heart. His most recent misadventures have been in southeast Asia (Cambodia, in particular), where he's spent much of the fall of 2012.
Darkness at Noon
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IT'S FRIDAY, OCTOBER 5TH, and I've been in Sihanoukville, Cambodia, for about two hours and I'm already depressed. It's a gray, blustery day, and since it's the rainy season, the beaches are empty but for middle-aged foreigners, some fat, all looking washed up, like flotsam and jetsam. I'm sitting in a bar called Crow overlooking the Gulf of Thailand and being besieged by flies and desperately poor women selling seafood, mostly crabs and squid, which they plop in my face and wait interminably while I reject them three, four, five times. There is a kid behind me, he looks fifteen and totally wasted, like he's been huffing glue. I saw a legless guy earlier, who'd wrapped his stumps first in a plastic bag and then rubber to prevent chafing as he drags himself along the sidewalk on sticks. I just saw a guy go by with one leg, who'd wrapped his entire lower body in rubber so he wouldn't chafe his ass as he dragged himself along the ground in a one-legged crabwalk, his hands on flip flops. A little girl just came buy pulling her dad by his hat. He was blind and she was begging for money. While she begged, he'd sing. Nobody gave her a dime.
I'd heard that Sihanoukville in the off-season is depressing because it's basically full of old men trolling for women. And that seems pretty accurate. The bars at 3:30 in the afternoon are occupied by ex-pats, most of whom look like Mickey Rourke in Barfly. They look like America or England or Australia spit them out and Cambodia, with little say in the matter, took them in. The bar next door has been playing classic rock. Right now it's playing Neil Young's "Helpless." Fishing boats dot the horizon and the ones closest to the beach sway in the waves, looking as though they're trying to decide if they should just turn over and head for the bottom. There are two black dogs providing some entertainment. They're very playful, rollicking with passersby and the wait staff. Earlier, they looked like they were going to challenge a couple of dogs that wandered by, but all ended rather peacefully, despite a couple of half-hearted woofs from the little black one. The bigger one, a new mother, looks like a mutt that might have had Doberman grandparents. She's awfully pretty, and her beautiful little side-kick is about the size of a Corgi (without the Corgi body). She's black with a white chest. Both look better cared for than the gourds drinking in this bar. The air smells of salt and brine.
A boy just walked in carrying a large chunk of ice with a mean looking icepick buried in its side. This place is weather-worn, the wood wet and splintered, the floor dusted in sand. It may be the weather, but in full sun this place wouldn't be paradise. It is a place to go to never be seen again, a place where days are measured not in tea spoons but by the tide and Angkor drafts.

My hotel room is more like a shack than anything. It's elevated off the ground, like so many houses in Cambodia, and the floor and walls are 1x6’s, no more. It's $5 a night. I have a large bed and a fan, and a warped and peeling piece of furniture of some sort, sitting next to a brittle wicker shelf. I can see the sky through the ceiling in the bathroom, the walls of which have been wrapped in some kind of hard plastic to protect them from the shower. There is no proper shower stall. You shower in the middle of the bathroom, water pouring on the ground, the sink, the toilet, and hopefully making its way to the drain. This is how it was in my apartment in China, so I showered and then shaved in an inch of water, which then took some four or five hours to recede. It's quite possible the water, if the drain is plugged, will overflow the lip that separates the bathroom from my bedroom, creating a mini-water fall. This just may be the saddest place on earth.

On Saturday morning, I got up reluctantly around 9:00 am, not too eager to start the day. I had no plans, and the previous afternoon in Sihanoukville had already left me exhausted. I could see that the sun was out, though, because it lit my room orange, and a ray of sun cut across the room, a beam of light shining through what looked like a bullet hole. Dust particles passed through the beam like one of the rings of Saturn. A thin film covered my body. I'd tried to rinse off before I'd gone to bed but there was no soap, no shampoo, and no hot water, and the shower head wasn't secured to the hose and kept falling off. I showered under cold water from a four foot garden hose. After a flash rain storm last night, I'd stepped in a deep puddle, soaking my shoes. Hoping they'd dry, I tied my shoes to the fan that was attached to the wall so the air would pass through them all night. The down-side of this was that my room instantly smelled of wet, dirty feet. The smell was sickening. But the thought of having to put my feet back in those shoes in the morning overrode my disgust, and as I watched Discovery Channel, I pulled the bed sheet up over my nose. When I woke Saturday morning I was determined not to care about anything. I'd smell nasty smells, be filthy and hot or wet and just endure it. This is, after all, Cambodia.
After a breakfast of French toast and Nutella, I decided I'd walk the 3k to the center of town. It was a warm day, and it didn't look like it was going to rain any time soon, so I headed out. But I first had to pass through a throng of tuk tuk and moto drivers. I was the boy in Joyce's "Araby": "I imagined that I bore my chalice safely through a throng of foes." If only it were so. I told them, no, thank you, I just wanted to walk. "Where you go?" one driver asked me. I'm just going to the center of town. "Oh, so far! 3 kilometers." That's ok, I just want to walk. Thank you.
There is a vibe in Sihanoukville that is almost menacing. The tuk tuk drivers are incredibly aggressive, one moto driver going so far as to physically grab me and try to pull me onto a moto. He did so playfully, but I suspect he was only half-kidding. The off-season must leave these guys desperate for cash. If the moto ain't movin', they ain't making any money. They hover like flies outside of the hotel, watching your every move. If you look at them, they make a moto-driving gesture. "Moto?" they mouth. Waving these guys off is so second nature now that I don't even know I'm doing it anymore. It's like swatting mosquitoes or scratching an itch. In Sihanoukville, every moto or tuk tuk driver I met offered me weed, and they just didn't want to take no for an answer. "Take some now and you can pay me late. It strong stuff." There was nothing less appealing than getting stoned in my one-roomed shack, turning that little tinder box into an Easy Bake oven. It wasn't going to happen, no matter how much they thought otherwise.
I started down the street, but I got no further than twenty-five yards when a tuk tuk pulled up next to me. Same guy. Weed man. His name was Mr. Da—Da, an orphaned note in an octave. "You want ride? It so far." No, thank you, Mr. Da. I just want to walk. As I walked he just rolled along beside me, turning out more and more reasons why I should get in his tuk tuk. This went on for nearly ten minutes. Me walking and saying no, thank you, he tooling along beside me, an unlikely couple in unrequited love. When he said he'd take me for 6,000 riel I knew he'd worn me down. Six thousand riel is a $1.50, and at that moment I'd have given him $10 to shut the fuck up and leave me alone. So I got in and off we went. We'd gone less than 1k when he asked me again if I wanted some weed, and we hadn't gone 2k before he asked if I wanted "boom boom." No, thank you, Mr. Da. I just want to walk around. "You want pretty lady?" No, thank you. I just want to walk around a bit. "You want pretty girl for boom boom?" No, thank you. And then before I could stop the words from coming out of my mouth I said I wouldn't mind a massage. "A massage? You want massage?" I felt the moto lurch forward, like a mule that'd just heard the dinner bell.
I'd gotten a massage the night before at a place called "You & Me." I'd read about this place online, so I knew it was legit, not a massage parlor with "happy ending," which are ubiquitous in Cambodia. A Thai massage at this place is $8 for one hour, and while it was worth it, I found it painful. There was a moment when the woman pushed her elbow so hard into my back that I thought it would come out my chest. She let off a bit when I groaned. Why at this moment I'd consider another massage escapes me. When in the wheel house of a chariot on its way to Gomorrah it's good to keep one's desires to oneself, no matter how innocuous. Ekareach Street is the main drag in Sihanoukville, a four-lane thoroughfare that cuts Sihanoukville in half. It's lined with businesses selling everything metal I never wanted or hoped to need, and at around 11:00 am, the sun nearing its zenith, the place looked arid, an industrial wasteland. Mr. Da turned off Ekareach and headed down a narrow side-street, passing a grim outdoor market. Pieces of raw meat hung from hooks like water bladders, rivulets of brown soup, gathering garbage, emptied into the street. We turned down an even narrower street, and then down an alley, a tightening of the noose. Over the sputter of Mr. Da's tuk tuk I could hear a woman shouting, "MASSAGE? MASSAGE?" Mr. Da hit the brakes and in a remarkable display of adept driving, whipped a u-turn in a space no wider than a VW bug, throwing me against the handrail. We came to a stop in front of a house. Two children, aged four or five, played in the front room.
A woman greeted us, and as she spoke with Mr. Da, a younger woman emerged from the darkness, blinking sleepily, like she'd just woken up. She looked like a well-weathered twenty-five year old and had a rather unfriendly demeanor. She wore a t-shirt and dirty pajama bottoms. I reluctantly climbed out of the tuk tuk and waited for Mr. Da to explain what we were doing here, though I wasn't sure an explanation was needed.
The older woman invited me inside. I stepped across the threshold, passed the two undoubtedly curious boys, and was led by the younger woman down a dark and dirty hallway to a bedroom. Mr. Da trailed behind me, as if he was doing me a favor by escorting me to this den of iniquity. I turned awkwardly and said to Mr. Da, massage, yes? "Yes, yes. Massage," he said. I said, no boom boom, just massage. He looked puzzled, and then turned to translate to the young woman, whose brow quickly furrowed. They spoke rapidly for a while and I thought for a moment they'd forgotten about me. Mr. Da turned to me finally and said, "you no want boom boom?" I said, no, just massage, grabbed my own shoulders and squeezed, in case my message wasn't clear. Again, more talking. A little faster this time. The young woman looked me up and down, slightly mystified, and for a moment I imagined we both wanted to know what the fuck we were doing here. More fast talking, and then the young woman said, "ok, ok," urged me into the bedroom and shut the door. The room was dark and smelled musty. Clothes littered the floor. I heard the snap of the lock, and there we were. She and I, alone.
She didn't speak a word of English, and what little Khmer I have was no good here. And though I knew that, I still, maybe out of desperation, offered, "I just want a massage, no boom boom," though I might as well have said, "have you read Omar Khayyam?" She said "ok ok" and then something that I interpreted as "take off your clothes." As I undressed she sighed, already bored. I lay down on the bed in my underwear, trying to take up as little space as possible, hoping to be invisible. I stared at the ceiling. A small group of gnats circled above my head, a mini-solar system or a black hole at the center of a universe. Someone had written a phone number on the wall. I imagined calling it and asking whoever picked up how they were, if they were ok, maybe what had happened to them in this room. And then she touched me. She started kneading my feet and ankles, listlessly, and then worked her way up my calves, to my thighs, and then back down. She didn't know what she was doing. It was clear that this wasn't really in her job description, and I empathized. She was no masseuse, and I was no john. She worked each leg clumsily, and then pawed my arms. I'd closed my eyes so I couldn't see her face. Maybe if I played dead she'd go away, I thought. Maybe she'd stop picking at my flesh.
She tapped my arm and said what I imagined was turn over, and I knew this was my chance. I threw my legs over the side of the bed and into my pants, grabbed my shirt and stood up, startling her. She started to protest, as if to say, no, no, I'm not done! But she too seemed to recognize that this was her window of opportunity, that she too now could run, that the misaligned planets or misdirected gravitational pull that brought us to this moment was being undone, and that balance was being restored. I didn't even tie my shoes, which smelled of mold. I threw a $10 bill onto the bed, smiled, said thank you, and walked out of the room. I emerged into the light to find a confused Mr. Da. What am I doing out here so soon? his eyes asked. What's going on? Behind me the young woman explained, though what she said was lost on me, and I didn't care. Mr. Da looked at me as I climbed in his tuk tuk, shrugged his shoulders, and off we went. The hot and humid wind in my face felt like a refreshing spring shower. I exhaled like I'd been holding my breath for the past hour. The sun was high. I looked at my watch. It was noon. I had the rest of the day in front of me, but for some reason, at this moment, I knew it was already over.

1 comments

Discussion

  18 months ago
This was a great story. You capture so well a lot of the experiences I had traveling through the Philippines a decade ago.

This was an amazing line (among many): When in the wheel house of a chariot on its way to Gomorrah it's good to keep one's desires to oneself, no matter how innocuou...read mores.