Two days into backpacking across Southeast Asia, Boyfriend Unit was clubbed over the head by a thief on a motorbike. When he came to, his wallet was gone. Two days after that, we registered for a tour package called Pearls of the East: Cambodia by Bus.
“It’s for your protection,” Boyfriend Unit said, rubbing the welt on his head as evidence. I nodded. We both knew this wasn’t the real reason. But if I kept my eyes on the glossy itinerary brochure in my hand, I wouldn’t have to make eye contact and acknowledge that we both knew this.
“It’s safer this way,” I agreed.
“It’ll take all the stress out of planning,” Boyfriend Unit continued. “It’s not exactly what we imagined, but now we’ll have more time to focus on each other. That’s what this trip is all about, right?”
“Exactly,” I affirmed again. Maybe that’s what love was–finding someone equally willing to go along with the lies you tell yourself.
The irony was that our families had offered to buy us one of those all-inclusive deals as a wedding present. We had politely said no, that it wasn’t quite what we had in mind. “Something a little more off the beaten track,” we had told them. As our tour guide herded us back onto our bus, neither of us were willing admit the disappointment and–dare I say–relief at how orderly things had ended up.
“Bye-bye! See you when I’m looking at your face!” called out the souvenir shop owner as we pulled out of the parking lot.
Our tour bus was by far the sleekest, most modern vehicle on the road. One of those noiseless oversized affairs. “Hybrid bus,” observed Boyfriend Unit with a nod. This put him in a good mood since he liked saving the environment. I stared out the window, watching the dilapidated local buses and tuk-tuks painted a motley palette of vibrants. They were altogether less concerned with driving at the slow and sensible speed of our driver, swerving around us along the potholed dirt roads in ecstatic clatter until they were no more than dust smudging at the horizon.
The couple in front of us turned around to strike up a conversation. I forgot their names the moment I heard them, so Tamera America and Bland Mark were the names I assigned them in my mind. They both shouted out cries of elation upon discovering that Boyfriend Unit and I were on our honeymoon, as if we were all victors of an exceptionally rare and profound accomplishment. Tamera America asked to see my ring, which didn’t exist because I never wore jewelry. She gave me an odd look and I could tell I had let her down in some unspoken code of sisterhood. She quickly lost interest in talking to me.
“So what was up with that temple thing?” Bland Mark asked with a conspiratorial nudge to Boyfriend Unit, as if the two guys were in on a joke together. He wore dad sneakers and had a haircut that reminded me of bank tellers. “I mean, it’s supposed to be beer o’clock at the pool, not a friggin’ field trip.”
Boyfriend Unit squeezed my hand–our silent agreement to incorporate “beer o’clock” into as many conversations as possible for the rest of the trip.
They raved about our resort, Tamera America and Bland Mark did. A good place to make a baby or two, they cajoled with a wink. I turned my attention back to the window.
Cambodian roads were encoded with the same route-markers over and over again in varying sequence: rice paddy, lean-to hut, palm trees, palm trees, palm trees, lean-to hut. We drove through a village, indistinguishable from the last village save for a group of children playing in a pile of garbage along the roadside. The children were naked and happy. Everyone on that side of the bus reached for their phones and began snapping photos.
“That’s what this country is all about,” said one elderly woman wistfully, “the people.”
Boyfriend Unit screwed his mouth up into a little ball, which was what he did whenever he disagreed about something. I remember him doing that years ago, when we were just co-workers. I had told him that the colour of his eyes was dishwater gray, but not in a gross way. His mouth had made that little crumple of dissatisfaction. We became friends after that.
He had been dating Kimberly at the time, which always made me think of the Patti Smith song. The line about little sisters and falling skies. I would sing it in my head whenever she was brought up in conversation. Just that one line over and over. I never met Kimberly in person but had thought about her enough to make a meeting seem irrelevant. My version of Kimberly wore oversized men’s blazers and ran into a different best friend wherever she went. Her mouth was an insinuating mouth with lips that curled to smile at a secret for every occasion. She danced without reservation at house parties. She reverberated with a quiet, scrunched-up kind of wildness that made everyone around her broken with longing. I was convinced that’s who Kimberly was. I didn’t want to meet her. I wasn’t sure what scared me more–the prospect that she wouldn’t live up to my idea of her, or having her live up to it to a devastating degree.
When Boyfriend Unit announced to me at a coworker’s party that he and Kimberly had broken up, I didn’t know what to say.
And when he kissed me, as if the Kimberly Break-up Announcement was all an orchestrated preface leading up to that moment–I was dumbfounded.
It was the night Boyfriend Unit became Boyfriend Unit.
I dated Boyfriend Unit for a year and a half. Eight days ago I married him. I supposed that meant Boyfriend Unit wasn’t Boyfriend Unit anymore. But Husband Unit didn’t have nearly the same panache.
The bus excreted us out into another parking lot and, following our guide, we skirted a pathway through a patch of dull arid brush and entered a system of caves on the edge of a jungle. As we descended, there grew a cool mineral tang to the air. The narrow stone corridor opened into an immense yawning cavern–cliffs above us, and a turquoise pool below. The rock of the cave was golden and shafts of sunlight sieved downward in perfect parallel with misting falls and tumbled yellow vines. The formations were all backlit with spotlights in shades of green, amber, and cyan. Boyfriend Unit said it felt like being on a theme park ride. But to me, the ribbons of rock were more like cascading curtains at an opera house. Boyfriend Unit liked this.
Tamera America wanted a picture of the four of us standing at the precipice of the cliff. We put our arms around each other awkwardly.
“The trip of a lifetime,” Bland Mark said through the teeth of his smile.
The tour guide told us that if we were wearing our bathing suits, we could jump down into the pool. Except, he called it a water well. I immediately imagined the cave as a black gouged-out eye socket, the pool below as tears and crusting pus and infection. Welling up.
We jumped, one by one. Boyfriend Unit let out a whoop, wild-west style. Even Tamera America jumped, plugging her nose the whole way down. I went next, embarrassed to find my reflexes scrambling wildly in the air, pawing for something where there was nothing. I hit the pool. The water was unexpectedly warm.
At the bottom, Boyfriend Unit and I swam to a small pocket away from the others. For a moment, I could pretend it was just the two of us, backpacking unbeaten paths the way we had intended. I wrapped my arms and legs around him and murmured in his ear how much I wished we were alone so we could fuck. We kissed and then the others noticed and made cooing noises because we were newlyweds. I was self-conscious of our audience, not knowing if I should let go of Boyfriend Unit or stay straddled.
Everyone decided to jump a second time.
“Go ahead, I’m going to stay in the water,” I told Boyfriend Unit.
“You sure?” he asked.
Boyfriend Unit splashed me and crawled out of the pool along with Tamera America and Bland Mark. They disappeared behind the rock face, climbing back to the top. Boyfriend Unit was always more boisterous about those kind of things than I was, but seeing Tamera America and Bland Mark eager to jump again was a surprise. I felt suddenly lame in comparison, treading water at the bottom alone.
The same dread washed over me that had been happening every time I was alone since the trip began. There was movement in the pool beside me and I felt a coldness in my stomach. I swam to the edge and gripped the wet rock face, knowing what came next. And just as I’d expected, Kimberly appeared, treading water next to me.
Kimberly–she had been with me in quiet moments on the hotel beach, in the resort buffet queue, in the honeymoon suite when Boyfriend Unit was showering in the next room. I didn’t understand why. Boyfriend Unit never mentioned her anymore.
The swimmer version of Kimberly had long dark hair that stuck in wet tangled strands to her neck. Black string bikini, tattoos. Legs covered in scrapes– each one a relic of some past adventure. She was falling apart to an annoyingly exquisite degree. I realized that I resented her–Kimberly, like a child who had died, and I, the one who had outgrown her simply by surviving. My marriage with Boyfriend Unit would succeed or perhaps not succeed, but Kimberly got to stay the same age, beautifully suspended in memory, a star, a ghost of a person. An unbeaten path.
I could feel Kimberly’s manic energy electric in the water. She gently took my hand. “Like sisters,” I thought. Kimberly told me with her eyes that I needed to get out of there. I knew she said this because sisters could read each other’s minds. I didn’t actually have a sister, but I was pretty sure this was one of the things sisters could do.
We drifted to a stone ledge where the backlights had gone magenta. Kimberly took the small of my back. The tiny hairs on my skin were erect under her fingers. She kissed me, and her mouth was warm and tart like blackberries in the sun. Her tongue, metallic. Infinite minerals were feeding into my tongue from hers.
I pulled away, struck with a jolt of nausea. My stomach was its own well. A gulch of black bile.
Back in college, I began sneaking out of parties without saying goodbye. It wasn’t as if I disliked parties. I guess I just had a limited threshold for them. I had fun until I wasn’t having fun anymore. And the moment it wasn’t fun anymore, it became incredibly important for me to leave instantly. Sometimes, I would run all the way home.
Boyfriend Unit thought this was crazy when I told him.
“I love you but sometimes you make no sense at all,” he had told me.
Boyfriend Unit, Tamera America and Bland Mark were still out of sight, climbing up behind the cavern walls. I looked back to see if Kimberly thought I was crazy too, but she was gone.
I got out of the water and toweled off. At the entrance to the cave I retrieved my sundress, sandals and daypack from metal storage lockers bolted ludicrously into the cave walls. I slipped out the way we came in. I didn’t tell anyone.
A wall of deafening heat hit me as I crossed the parking lot. I passed the bus, the gift shops, and a noodle cart. “Hellomadamwhereyoufrombuysomething,” the vendors called out to me in one long flat breath.
The light was a late afternoon ochre. The air smelled of diesel, cinders, and sunbaked earth. Beyond the parking lot lay a mangled expanse of jungle– endless but for a clay brown path funneling deep into the foliage. I checked my daypack–phone, wallet, an unused Khmer phrasebook, and a half-eaten bag of banana chips.
I began walking, I must have continued fifteen minutes or longer. The jungle path eventually opened out onto a clearing, similar to so many I had seen from the noiseless hybrid bus. All about me, a dry red earth so fine it was almost sand, and long brown grasses parched from the sunlight. I kept along the path into the sunlight. The trail led to a large ornate gate, its stone broken and falling apart. Though in ruin, the gate would still command the attention of anyone who came upon it. And yet, the grand villa to which it must have once led was nowhere in sight. Where an estate would have stood, there was nothing more than bramble, yellowed fronds, and more dry red earth. Or maybe it was the gate that was lost, not the villa, wandered off into parts unknown. I didn’t know whether to feel sad about it or not.
There was movement in the wilderness behind the gate. I steeled myself for Kimberly.
But it wasn’t Kimberly.
A Khmer woman moved into the middle of the path. Dressed in woven indigo resplendence and adorned with hoops and beads and flowers, she moved with simplicity, as elegantly as a shoot of bamboo. She should have been beheld and adored by thousands. But she wasn’t. She was as solitary as me. I stopped moving, not knowing where to look.
As a matter of deference, I kept my eyes downcast, trained on my chest as if to catch my heart thumping. I slipped off the path to pass around her. The Khmer woman also stepped off the path, blocking my way. I could feel her eyes boring into me, even without looking at her. I moved to the other side. She blocked me again.
From the folds of her skirt, I caught sight of a long piece of lumber that she was holding. Brandishing. Was I imagining it?
She yanked my left arm. Her hand was cold. Bony. Strong. She swung with the lumber and there was a bludgeoning thwomp across the back of my head. I fell to my knees and touched the back of my head. A sticky crust surrounded warm wetness.
The woman grabbed me again. Her breath was rank, like mothballs and tooth decay. For all the leanness of her face–the gaunt eye sockets and hollowed-out cheeks–her eyes were surprisingly soft and malleable, and I realized that she was younger than I had first thought. Her ears were pierced and I found myself wondering who had pierced them for her. Standing in front of me, holding the ragged plank, she looked scared.
We were both scared.
There was movement in the brush again. The Khmer woman looked at me for another second longer with cold, careless indifference. Bizarrely, I felt hurt that she didn’t acknowledge the way we were connected, standing together in a clearing in the jungle. It was probably a stupid thing to feel hurt about.
And then she was gone.
I touched my head again, but couldn’t find the sticky wetness again. A twig snapped. Boyfriend Unit.
“HI?” he said. The most obvious question in the world. “Hi,” I said.
He was with one of the shop vendors. I recognized her because she was wearing a faded Pink Floyd t-shirt.
“This is Chenda, she helped me find you when I realized you were gone,” Boyfriend Unit explained, with an unmistakable whiff of accusation.
“You okay?” Chenda asked, “your husband very worried.” “I’m fine,” I said.
“It’s been half an hour, where were you?” Boyfriend Unit asked. His eyes had an edge to them, and I could tell he was even angrier than would let on, because Chenda was with us.
“I just went down the path to look for a place to pee.”
Boyfriend Unit’s arm flew back behind him, a berserk marionette. “There’s restrooms in the parking lot. We used them earlier.”
“Yeah, I know,” I replied feebly.
He didn’t wait for further explanation, which was for the best because I had none. He simply rubbed his brow, which was what he did when he was annoyed, and he sighed.
“Where you from?” asked Chenda. “We’re from Canada.”
Chenda nodded. “The capital of Canada is Ottawa. They speak English and French.
They use the dollar and they eat maple syrup.”
Boyfriend Unit nodded back, mirroring Chenda. “That is all accurate information.”
Chenda nodded again. “You come back to my store. Good price.” “Sounds like a plan, Chenda.”
I took Boyfriend Unit’s arm, relieved that he didn’t immediately jerk it away. “Let’s just sit here. Five more minutes.”
He rubbed his brow again. “I think everyone’s eating noodles so I guess we’re not keeping anyone waiting.”
I shook my head. “It doesn’t matter. Five more minutes.” Boyfriend Unit softened. “Okay,” he said.
We found a mound of grass to sit on. The clearing, which I had thought so silent, was actually full of sound. We listened to the dried palm fronds as they roused in the breeze, and to the whir and tick of beetles in the tall grasses. Boyfriend Unit wordlessly handed me his bottle of water and I realized that I was thirsty. I knew I was forgiven, or, at any rate, that I was understood.
He sighed. “It must be getting close to beer o’clock.” He gestured to stand.
“Yes. Let’s go.”
I took my husband’s hand. We started walking.
The Khmer woman, Kimberly, and me.
Kate Millar’s work has appeared in Litro, Paper Darts, Masque & Spectacle, Event, Imminent Quarterly and The Danforth Review. She is a past recipient of Canada’s Western Magazine Award (fiction category). A native of Atlantic Canada, she currently lives in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.