Bravery comes with a price. I’ve always thought that entering dark doors is how one drives life into a corner. I doubt, though, that Alex Classic is what Thoreau had in mind. As a creature of habit, I tend to frequent the same places—for lunch, for coffee, for pants, even for beers. There’s something to being a regular. But regularity dulls life’s blade. After a few drinks at Apros Pub, I, on a whim, popped into Alex Classic, a bar I’d walked by a hundred times but always thought was a bit shady and always seemed sufficiently empty that I risked being the only customer, a depressing thought. Images of the boarder in Eugene O’Neill’s “Hughie” passed through my head, as I imagined a tone deaf bartender ignoring my small-talk, the words I wish I didn’t have to say to break the silence that hovered over the peanuts between us. But I didn’t have to worry. The music that punched me in the jaw as I opened the door relieved me of the dread of conversation. No one could talk in this place. It was the inside of a jackhammer, the space between the flame and the fuse. I bellied up to the bar, the only place even close to another person, the only place that wouldn’t have left me feeling more pathetic than I already felt. What was I doing here? Why can’t I hear myself asking myself what I’m doing here? I felt like I’d volunteered for electro-shock therapy, my nerve endings, five seconds in, screaming for vengeance.
I ordered a beer and got a pitcher, the first clue that I was not to be alone, that this wasn’t the plan, that there was a plan but I wasn’t privy to the plan, that plan or no plan, it isn’t your plan, it’s Alex’s plan, Alex Classic, and you, my friend, are going to get the works. No beers here. Beers here are not count nouns. No. Here we deal in amounts. Pitchers are about quantities to be shared, like wine and cheese, shared with your hosts, those women—didn’t you not notice them?—that are standing around looking oh so hostessy. Sure, they’ll bring you your drink, even refill your peanuts, but also, as the bartender, in perfect English told me, will go home with you for a price. And right on cue, one of the girls—she looked about eighteen—began to dance, a slow, rhythmic dance, hips swaying, arms in the air to augment her lithe movements. This wasn’t a pragmatic move, an aesthetically pleasing airing of the pits; no, this was a peacock fanning her feathers, a mating dance, a siren’s call. Her dress, just long enough to cover her ass, said “Love, Joy, Smile.” A subtitle. Nothing lost in translation. She moved closer and closer, and I tried not to look. But at this moment I might as well have been Dennis Hopper sucking oxygen through a mask. There was no looking away. And the gaze means yes, even when it doesn’t.
She walked over to my bar stool, the music so loud that any conversation was, thankfully, impossible, and besides, what could we possibly say to one another? “Come here often?” She filled up her glass at the very moment it came to me what the pitcher was for. Like manna, beer here was to be shared. It was a peace offering, the first gesture of kindness, an olive branch that might end in a return to Eden, the snake here too playing the starring role. She drank from her glass greedily, as though she’d just been rescued from an island or an ark, and then pulled her hand to her mouth as she ran to the garbage can to puke. She was drunk. Totally wasted. A teen siren racing toward oblivion. In the neon light she looked almost dead, the mercury-filled whitening cream on her face leaving her haunted and desperate. Still on her knees, she padded her mouth with a tissue and rose as though she’d won a small victory against gravity, and in her pride she again began to dance. As she writhed I held onto my glass as though it was an emergency brake and waited for the next turn. Again she drank and again she puked, as though the two were part of the same gesture, the same movement, the pitch and the drive toward center field a single motion. Over the technofuzz, the bartender screamed, “she’s easy!” and then smiled as though he’d just given me the key to the kingdom.
I left, walked out, out into the street and into the hot night air, as though I’d surfaced from a deep, deep dive and only barely escaped the bends. A dog lunged at me from behind a steel gate. A tuk tuk driver offered me a ride. I thanked them both, the dog and the driver, for noticing me, for saying, “hey, I see you there.” There are good ways to be wanted, I thought, even needed. Good moments to be wanted, needed, and alive.
The street in front of my apartment floods during flash rainstorms, always torrential during the rainy season in Cambodia, and my fear for some time has been that I’ll have to wade through ankle deep shitwater to get to home. Last night it happened, and it was dark. I was about to enjoy an Angkor beer and veggie fried rice at my usual spot, Samnang’s—where I’m pretty sure the veggies have been bathed in pesticide because they burn my lips, and this morning I woke with a sore throat—when it started raining as though it were the end of the world. Like all the rain had to come down NOW or it’d be too late. The last rain, and I, the last man. I thought Samnang’s would lose its roof. The howling wind pushed the rain inside, under the awning, spritzing my ankles some twenty feet from the street. Considering the severity of the rain, I knew I was in trouble. And sure as hell, the minute I walked out of Samnang’s, once the rain reluctantly subsided, I saw it. Streets flooded everywhere. Motos and tuk tuks cut through the water, leaving waves in their wake that pushed up onto what pass as side-walks like black fingers, the tips of witches’ hats, clawing at my toes, fertile with little worms that will surely nestle in my nail beds, co-mingle and leave their eggs to sprout a new ecology, a squiggling civilization, which in its abundance will unmoor the nail from its chassis and pop it open like the hood of an old Impala.
I hugged businesses as much as possible until I didn’t have a choice but to cross the street. When I finally got to Street 472 it was over. Though only thirty feet away, the distance between my feet and my door might as well have been the breadth of the English Channel. I knew I’d have to wade in. And wading in meant slogging through sewage. I’ve seen these streets; I know what’s on them. Thoughts of rat carcasses and feral turds danced in my head. There’s no proper sewer system in Phnom Penh, and if you’ve ever looked into one of the drains by the side of the road, the last thing in the world you’d want to do was touch what was in there. But alas, I stepped off the curb and into water that was almost up to my knees, and as I walked it splashed on my thighs—water darker than used motor oil. Fecal soup. A bubble tea of human and animal excrement. And now I might as well be bathing in it, Byron up to his neck in the Hellespont. As soon as I got in the front door, I stripped and threw everything into the wash, including my shoes, which fortunately are machine washable or I’d have thrown them away, light them on fire, and cast a spell. Then I scrubbed myself raw in the shower, cursing all varieties of worms—ring, grub, earth—but I’m still pretty sure I’m going to die of something, typhoid maybe, possibly dysentery. Unless Samnang’s veggies get me first.
Benjamin D. Carson is a teacher and writer living in Bridgewater, MA. His most recent creative non-fiction piece “Darkness at Noon” appeared in the February issue of Red Fez.