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Theodore Ross

The Abandoned Brothel


I am an election observer and I am in Cambodia and it is the weekend before the vote and I am left to my devices. I desert my colleagues in the UN training course and steal away to visit Keith, a friend from my freelancer days in Ho Chi Minh City. It takes four hours on a rented 250cc dirt bike to cover the one hundred miles southwest from Phnom Penh to Kampot. Thirty minutes into the journey, I lose sight of all power and telephone lines, something I find disconcerting. It lends a hallucinatory quality to the countryside silence. I catch the rich, slightly chocolaty smell of wet mud as I drive. The coconut trees and palms lining the road sway in the humid wind. Children and old women cease milling about at a roadside jackfruit and pomelo stand to stare at me when I pull over to check my tires and drink some water. No airplanes pass overhead. No birds perch on wires. No phone lines bend and twist their way through small brutally impoverished villages. The loudest sound I hear is the tolling of a bell at a large wat squatting gold and royal blue on a granite hilltop, calling the monks to their noontime meal.

Kampot is as advertised: a slow and lazy backwater. At the town center, a tangled network of unpaved streets wind crookedly away from a broad traffic circle, whose centerpiece is a dilapidated statue of an Angkor king straddling a dragon. Just off the circle a silt-choked river cuts the town from the shimmering green expanse of rice fields leading to the sea. It is fiercely hot. There are flies and baked dirt and crumbling French buildings of the colonial era and wary dogs and naked toddlers chasing underfed oxen and leather-faced women with dusty khramas wrapped around their heads to ward off the sun and old men in sarongs carrying sun umbrellas. In the market the meat is gone and the vendors sleep on top of their wooden stalls. The town is so still and quiet I can pretend I am alone in it, the director surveying his empty movie set.

Just before dark Keith and I take a table at a restaurant built over the river. The fading sun disappears behind the palm groves at the horizon and the night settles in inky and deep. We order river snapper steamed in ginger and rice wine and green peppercorns, rice porridge dotted with strands of chicken breast and scallions and chili and sesame oil, and crabs fried in tamarind paste and spring onions that we work at with nutcrackers and wear as much as we eat. We drink Angkor beer served over ice and Keith smokes French cigarettes whenever there is a lag in the food. We put away half a bottle of Johnny Walker Black.

Afterwards, we find our motorbikes and take the bridge over the river, diving into the dense forest at the edge of town. The paved road soon ends and we turn onto a dirt path. I can barely keep pace with Keith as he flies along the trail. Choking on his dust, I ask myself why I haven't begged off and returned to my guesthouse. I could have spent the night writing a letter to my wife. I could have described what I'd eaten or the rancid-sweet smell of Kampot's market or the hand-painted billboards lining the road into town that exhort the Khmer abandon their weapons, reject drugs and prostitution, and embrace traditional Khmer culture. I could have gone to the small store across from my guesthouse and bought a tube of Pringles and a pint of Crown Royal and spent the night gorging and drinking and writing bad love poetry. I could have slept and sweated and woke before dawn and stumbled onto the balcony of my room to gulp down breath after breath of steaming hot air. I could have caught the scent of mango trees and let myself ache with homesickness. I look up as I ride and in the moonlight I see bats hanging from the acacia trees along the path, and beyond, the slow-moving river and the winking lights of the town.

The path ends at a rusted front gate behind which stands an equally run-down looking cement building the size of a small-town sports arena. Gnarled steel-grey banyan trees dominate the front yard, burdened with screeching crickets. Mosquitoes buzz around the Christmas lights hung over the windows and doors to the building. Keith pulls the gate wide enough to allow our bikes to pass, and we park beneath the trees.

"The Vietnamese built this place during the occupation. For when their boys needed a beer and a cheap shag," Keith says. "Your basic 2000-square meter brothel and dance hall. Pulled straight from the collective consciousness of Graham Greene, wouldn't you agree?"

A group of Khmer women exit the front door and stand quietly in the winking glow of the Christmas lights. They are young; girls really, dressed in short skirts, baggy t-shirts and flip-flops. They know Keith. He walks inside with them, pausing only to turn and gesture for me to follow. We enter a mammoth abandoned dance hall. Its crumbling cement floor is covered with a thick film of dust, and nearly all the fluorescent lights on the walls have burnt out; the remaining ones cast a sour and dull half-glow that hurts my head. A small bandstand sits in the corner, complete with a drum kit, microphones, and music stands, all covered in dust. I try to imagine the hall filled with Vietnamese soldiers, dress uniforms wrinkled with sweat and spilled beer, green jungle hats lying forgotten on the floor as they dance to Vietnamese pop tunes with Khmer hookers. My mind balks at the image, at the utter incongruity of this place. Keith goes behind the bandstand and retrieves a small cassette player. He plugs it into an electrical outlet and plays the tape inside: a bootleg version of Bob Dylan's To Be Alone With You. The girls immediately begin to dance, smiling nervously. They watch Keith watching them, anxious for his approval. He has done this before.

"I found that the first time I was here. None of the girls know where it came from."

"Must have been some tourist who left it."

"I've always thought it belonged to a Vietnamese, a soldier from Vung Tao or Long Binh or Bien Hoa, one of those towns the Americans used for bases; his uncle or older brother swiped it off a Yank GI, or took it as a kill-trophy, then passed it to the soldier-kid. Like an heirloom. The kid brings the tape and a picture of his mother and nothing else to this fucked-up place. He gives it a play when the band is on a break from butchering Elvis Presley or Mick Jagger. He wanders outside and gets whacked by some KR holdout smuggling horse and AK-47's from Sihanoukville to Angola." Keith smiles, pleased with this scenario. "This tape is a cultural artifact."

"If you say so."

Keith stops the music and we walk outside to a wooden deck built over the river. We take one of fifty empty tables. Two girls accompany us. A heavy-set teenager with a gratingly loud laugh and heavily rouged eyes sits by Keith. A quieter girl dressed in an ankle-length denim skirt and a stained Bruce Springsteen Born In The USA t-shirt, a relic from some long-past UNICEF program, joins me. She keeps her face out of the glare of the floodlights hanging from the deck's corrugated plastic roof, making it is impossible to gauge her age. A sullen Khmer pimp appears bearing quarts of Angkor beer, glasses, and a bucket of ice, packs of American cigarettes and chewing gum, boiled peanuts, a platter of sliced pineapple and mango, salt and chili for the fruit, and a bottle of Thai whiskey. Keith's girl lights his cigarette and he smokes it like a man accustomed to having cigarettes lit for him. Keith, an English teacher at small language center in town, probably makes ten thousand dollars a year and owns only two pairs of shoes. The girls help themselves to the fruit and peanuts.

"I don't want a girl, Keith. It makes me uncomfortable."

"No one says you have to touch her. But if you send her away the Mama will be angry and it won't be good."

"The Mama?"

"You think these girls are here by themselves? There's always a Mama."

"Where is she?"

"Doesn't come here much. Place runs itself. Only seen her once myself. As you would expect—all fat and menace. She lives in a village not far from here. They say she has satellite television in her hut." Keith finds this funny for some reason.

I light my first cigarette in five years and blow smoke rings and sip at my beer. The tobacco makes my head spin. I feel a growing urge to see the face of the girl sitting next to me. I want to see her and feel sympathy for her. I want her to be human and sad and shy and understanding. I want her to be repulsively ugly so I can tell my wife about her and laugh about everything that happened this night. I know that isn't going to happen but I still want it. Keith's girl has abandoned her chair for a perch on his lap. He plays a hand up and down her side and strokes her arms and the sides of her belly. She laughs and smacks him lightly on the nose, calls him a "Naughty Boy" in an English so off it is nearly unrecognizable. Keith keeps a wary eye on me.

"I thought you would understand this place."

"I do."

"No, I mean, what makes it so interesting to me. It's not the girls."


"You know, I have friends in Phnom Penh, good friends, and they have Khmer girlfriends."

"That sounds reasonable to me."

"Well, you know, they met the girls in places like this, brothels and bars and the like."

"Why not?"

"You don't understand. A lot of these girls have AIDS."

"I know."

"No, you don't know. My friends, they know the girls have it…and they stay with them anyway."

Keith stares out over the river.

"I could never do that," he says.

We finish our beers and most of the whiskey, eat the peanuts and toss the shells in the river. My girl disappears for a moment and returns with a tray loaded with more beer and a plate of stir-fried rice noodles with bok choy and wood mushrooms, and a few packets of pickled Chinese sausage wrapped in banana leaves. She covers the noodles with soy sauce and unwraps two sausages and I fall in on the food with unexpected hunger. I down a whole beer at a go and then I have to pee. I stagger toward the dance floor, drunker than I had imagined. My girl follows, ignoring my attempts to tell her to sit. She pulls me toward a dark corridor off the deck.

"Toilet," I mutter, but I don't think she understands.

The hallway is unlit and smells of must, rotten beer, and dirty mop water. There are six open doorways on either side of it, harsh white light spilling from each of them. The girl pushes me gently forward, and I when I pass the first open door, I notice a karaoke machine and a bed inside. I stop and try to turn around, but the girl won't let me. She pushes me again, insistent. I want to explain to her that I have a real life back home; that my wife's name is Jacqueline; that we have a dog, Frankie, and a mortgage; I want to thank her and kindly say no, I'm not interested in this sort of thing anymore. But I can't see her face, and for some reason this keeps me silent.

We reach a closed door at the end of the hallway. I catch the smell of urine and bleach—the bathroom. When I return to the deck, Keith is gone and his girl presents me with the bill. I pay and leave for town, pushing my motorcycle past speeds I can safely handle. At one point, I nearly lose my head to a low-hanging tree branch and I skid to a stop. I remove my helmet and draw a long series of deep breaths. The night is black and the moon has set. A water buffalo groans somewhere beyond the trees. The wild garlic growing in the weeds by the river casts its scent on the air. To no one but myself, I say, "I am alone on a dark path in the countryside in Cambodia. I am thirty years old." There will be no looking back now.

The next day, Keith and I are supposed to visit the ruins of a casino on a mountaintop outside of town. I read about it in my guidebook. The view should be excellent, and it is guaranteed to be empty because the locals think the casino, which shut its doors nearly ten years earlier after the mysterious death of its owner, is haunted. I wake at five-thirty, spend a few moments watching the heavy sun burn a hole in the gray damp, then leave for Phnom Penh. I don't say good-bye.

Theodore Ross is an editor of Harper's Magazine. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Harper's, The Believer, McSweeney's, Pindeldyboz, the Southern California Anthology, and elsewhere. He lives in Brooklyn.

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