Exes And Expats

When in doubt, run away. That’s what I’ve been doing since I graduated. After the fleeting paradise of university, where my only job was to read interesting books and write interesting things, I found myself unemployed, undertaking a futile job search, living with my senile grandmother in Los Angeles, commuting up and down the coast of California in an effort to maintain a deteriorating college relationship, and generally trapped in the purgatorial condition that seems to be something of an epidemic among my generation.

As I watched my meager savings disappear into the maintenance of my increasingly claustrophobic situation, I knew that something had to change, and fast. My girlfriend begged me to get an apartment with her in the Bay Area, but the prospect was piled with encumbrances: a continued job search in an even worse market, the complete drainage of my bank account, the accumulation of debt, and a commitment to someone whose urge to settle down was contrary to my every instinct. I needed to get out, completely, and the further away out was, the better.

Evacuation: a lovely word, its final syllable like the rush of wind, or motion. I did my research and settled on Cambodia, with its plentiful teaching jobs, dirt cheap cost of living, and gritty capital, Phnom Penh, the “Pearl of Asia” before civil war devastated the country. Most importantly, it was something new, somewhere far, far away.

I bought a one-way ticket and broke the news. My family was supportive; various relatives lauded my “brave” and “adventurous” spirit. Still, I couldn’t help but think that not leaving, that staying and trying to salvage my life in the States would require another kind of bravery altogether, a sort I evidently lacked.

Understandably, my girlfriend was shattered. I was, after all, abandoning her to face the post-grad wasteland alone. Selfish? Doubtlessly, but I lay the blame at the foot of my instinct of self-preservation, that much-adorned idol of all variety of deserters. Saying goodbye to her was the most difficult part of leaving—perhaps the only difficult part—but I think now that it was our relationship that I was fleeing more than anything else. Some people in my place might have simply broken up and moved on; I ran off to Asia. I made one final trip up north, said my goodbyes, and left the country. I never expected that over the course of the following year, it was my life that would be defined by the departures of others.

After the initial bumps and bruises that accompany any major transition, Cambodia soon gave me everything I had been craving: a bizarre, vibrant environment, a well-paid and enjoyable job teaching at a university, and a series of friendships that would become some of the most intense, and briefest, that I’ve ever had.

While searching for an apartment I met Unai, a Basque Spaniard, and Valentin, a German, both in their mid-twenties and volunteering at NGOs. Together we rented a spacious three-bedroom flat with a gorgeous rooftop terrace, and the two of them quickly became my best friends. Outside of work, we did everything, went everywhere together. Valentin bought a motorbike, and he became our official transport. Three young white men packed on a little bike swerving through Phnom Penh’s gleefully mad traffic. Storming the dance floor of Heart of Darkness, taking the stage and having ridiculous dance-offs, cheered on by a horde of innumerable prostitutes. Waking up in the afternoon with Cambodia’s special brand of painless, surreal hangover and riding around the city, careening through a dreamlike haze of near-fatal accidents shrugged off with a smile.

“Remember when there was that war here?” I asked as we sweated our way through a packed, steamy market, sipping fresh mango smoothies.

“A war?” said Valentin. “In Cambodia?”

“Impossible,” said Unai.

Unai was the first to go. His NGO’s funding was unexpectedly slashed: they could no longer afford to provide hearing-aids to children with AIDS, and Unai’s expertise was no longer needed. For several weeks Valentin and I lived alone together, meeting prospective flatmates who all seemed hideously dull compared to our lost Basque. It was my first experience of what would become a regular feeling during my time in Cambodia: being left behind while the wide world swallowed up the people I’d come to love. The immediate result was that Valentin and I spent even more time together in an effort to make up for Unai’s absence, making our bond even tighter. Finally he got an e-mail from a German girl named Karlyn who was arriving to intern at the UN Khmer Rouge Tribunal. Having never met her, I was hesitant at first, but Valentin seemed convinced. We went to the airport to pick her up. I’d never seen a photo of her, and when that beautiful face emerged from the gate and swept the crowd, settling on us and smiling, I was stunned. She’d brought cheese and other treats from Italy, where she had been living with her boyfriend, and we had a welcome feast on our rooftop with a bottle of wine. I was enchanted by her smile, the way her face scrunched up as a prelude to her uninhibited laughter. After she’d passed out from exhaustion and jetlag, I kept congratulating Valentin on his decision, repeating “She’s amazing, isn’t she? We really got lucky,” until Valentin gave me a funny look.

Karlyn not only filled the void, but brought a fiery new feminine energy to the dynamic of the flat. And she was a fierce partier. Whereas before I had to work at keeping the group out after three, she led us with a charge into the early hours and kept going until the crowds dispersed with the dawn, sometimes right on into the heat of midday. Every weekend we’d load up at home, dancing across the rooftop swigging cheap cane “whiskey,” then head to Pontoon, a floating club on the Mekong, where we’d dance until they closed at four.

After that Valentin usually went home, and Karlyn and I vaulted into the blurry morning, surrounded by the pulse of Phnom Penh and all its chaotic beauty. One of our favorite ways to end a night out was to go for a walk by the river, which sparkled like a current of pure white light as the sun broke over the horizon. We bought matching purple Ray Ban rip-offs and danced on the riverside with the groups of early-risers doing their morning aerobics. We borrowed toy chickens from children while giggling hysterically. We made fools of ourselves in a great many 24-hour marts, dashing around the aisles playing ridiculous games, laughing at everything we saw.

Times were good. Valentin, Karlyn and I went to concerts, clubs, islands, jungles, temples, took Khmer language classes, explored colonial ruins, smoked a joint on the rooftop of King Sihanouk’s abandoned coastal villa. Meanwhile, Karlyn brought several of her coworkers from the Tribunal into our circle, and I met a group of French aid workers who became my closest friends outside of the flat. An old friend of mine came to visit from the States; one of Karlyn’s Berlin buddies showed up and decided to stay for a month; an Austrian friend of Valentin’s crashed on our futon for a few weeks. There were few moments I had to myself, and, uniquely for someone who had thereto always required at least a few hours alone here and there, I loved every minute of it.

Then they began to leave. First the visitors from abroad, then a French Red Cross worker, then another, until finally Valentin was up next. I tried to prepare myself for his departure, but it did no good. Admirably, he had no going away party; I’d already become numb to such things after the regular tri-weekly UN farewell galas I no longer bothered attending. We managed to pretend nothing was different about his last night so well that he almost missed his bus, and we had to chase it down in the street. Karlyn and I went out with some friends afterward, and she fed me tequila shots until I was capable of action other than staring into space. We met up with a bartender from an elite hotel, who snuck us in at five in the morning to swim and drink in the pool, then we went home and hooked up the speakers and drank pastis as we waltzed around the dawn-brightened kitchen, until eventually we collapsed on my bed, music still playing, and cuddled each other to sleep.

Thus began the next stage of my relationship with Karlyn. Just as Unai’s departure had brought Valentin and I closer together, so did Valentine’s make Karlyn and I that much more inseparable. We began sleeping together after our nights out, then during the week—platonically, of course. Her Italian boyfriend of four years was coming to visit in less than two months, in order to travel Southeast Asia with her before whisking her away to Europe. At the time I erected a border in my mind, on the other side of which she was kept safely as a sister to me. I wonder now if this border ever really existed. She was everything an ideal girlfriend should be—a partner, a best friend—simply without the sex. We read together, shared secrets we’d never told anyone else, bicycled around the city, drank, danced, and laughed. When I wasn’t with her and I saw something bizarre or beautiful, my first thought would be of how much I looked forward to telling Karlyn about it when I got home from work in the evening.

Meanwhile, a Frenchman named Martin moved in to replace Valentin. Martin was in the process of completing his masters at a top university in Paris, and doing a six-month stint at the French Embassy as charge d’affaires, the vague title given to him so as to avoid the inglorious designation of “intern.” He came from a pseudo-aristocratic background, spoke English with an impeccable upper-class British accent, and had an appearance that Karlyn likened to a Ken doll: blonde, blue-eyed, well-dressed without a hint of creativity. I didn’t think much of him until I realized he was a complete and utter mess, tormented by indecision and doubt, torn between his traditional upbringing and the desire to break away from it. He soon became my closest male friend. Our relationship had a distinctly discursive quality to it; if Karlyn appealed to my more visceral side, Martin reawakened in me the pleasures of the intellect. We had long, animated discussions about morality, politics, women, literature and everything in between. We inaugurated a poetry night, for which we were required to commit to memory a new poem every week. Martin brought Kipling, Keats, Beckett, Apollinaire; I shared Whitman, Eliot, Yeats and Bukowski (“That is not poetry,” remarked Martin of the latter). There was an air of competition to the challenge; when Martin memorized The Highwayman, an eight-minute poem by Alfred Noyes, I responded with The Raven. Always in attendance was Karlyn, whose wildly enthusiastic applause and cheers of “That was amazing!” brought such deep satisfaction as I had hardly known was possible.

Life felt more complete, more joyful than I could ever remember, until one Sunday evening I was hit by the looming truth I had been trying to ignore: Karlyn’s boyfriend was due to arrive in a month, and soon after she would vanish completely from my world. I shut myself in my room and lay down. Karlyn must have picked up on my sudden gloom because within a few minutes she knocked on my door as she opened it, asking me what was wrong.

“Nothing’s wrong,” I said. “Just a bit down.”

She remained standing there in the doorway for a while, biting her lower lip, then came to sit on the bed beside me. “Is it because of me?” she asked.

“I think you’re probably part of it.”

“Are you—are you okay with us? I mean, with what we are?”

“I am very okay with what we are,” I said and squeezed her hand.

She dragged me up to the rooftop, where Martin was listening to Vivaldi and drinking from a bottle of Jamaican rum. The three of us were uncharacteristically melancholy, but as we passed around the bottle I began to feel better. I made a resolution: whatever pain Karlyn’s departure would bring would be a price worth paying, and I would in no way allow my anticipation of this pain to affect the time we had remaining together. After Martin went to bed, Karlyn and I stayed up finishing off the bottle. I don’t remember who initiated the first kiss, but then we were on my bed grasping at each other, tearing off clothing, struggling for breath around each other’s lips. Finally I pulled back and looked at her: the chaos of her red hair spread across the pillow, the heaving of her bare breasts, the amused smile forming slowly on her lips. “Hi there, flatmate,” she said. I hesitated, even though there was at that moment nothing I desired more in the world. I saw the arc of the future trace itself clearly before me, saw the unavoidable suffering that was to come. Then, slower this time, we continued undressing each other. After we finished and lay sweating in each other’s arms, she nestled her cheek up against my shoulder. “We really should have done this sooner,” she said. I agreed.

Karlyn’s final month passed like a gorgeous hallucination. Everything was perfect, except for the fact that it was all about to end. As each passing day brought the inevitable closer, I fell deeper in love with her. I dropped an evening class so we could spend more time together; if I could have stopped sleeping (and if waking up beside her were not so delicious a sensation), I would have done that too. A few days before her boyfriend was due to arrive, we woke up from a frenzied night out into the luscious hangover haze of a gently raining afternoon. We ordered in pizza and beer, then got back into bed and listened to our favorite music. After a while the sun surfaced through the clouds, and we went out onto my balcony. It was still raining, the droplets falling through the sunlight like sheets of diamonds. A rainbow was perched precariously somewhere between us and the horizon. It was almost obscenely romantic. “This is a bit over the top,” I told her, and she kissed me and pulled me back to bed.

He turned out to be a terribly friendly person. His English was not good, but he made an effort. She refused to speak Italian with him when anyone else was present. “How else are you going to learn English?” she said. She still paid more attention to me, almost ignoring him at times, while he waited patiently on the sidelines. I felt sorry for him, and a little angry at Karlyn for putting us both through this, but such trifles hardly mattered at that point. He could have been a saint or a serial killer; I was in agony. Martin, my amused but always loyal compatriot, suggested an evacuation to Rabbit Island for the weekend, and I readily agreed. We decided to take his motorbike the 350km to the coast, and everything went smoothly until I offered to drive. I am congenitally incapable of handling a motorbike properly, and as I roared out of the petrol station in first gear, I hit a pothole, lost control and crashed within ten seconds of setting off.

I pushed myself shakily from the pavement with my bloody palms, shouting to Martin, asking him if he was all right. Aside from a few scratches on his arm, he was fine. He began inspecting the bike, to which the damage was also minimal. Then he pointed at my foot, and I looked down. My left sandal was overflowing with blood. A young man on a motorbike pulled up and whisked me off to the nearest medical facility, a dust-coated shack on the side of the road, where they began patching me up. Before they wrapped it in a bandage, I caught a glimpse of the top of my foot. Amid countless smaller wounds, there was a gaping hole of fat and blood a bit larger than a silver dollar. Not knowing what else to do, I made a call. “Hi, Karlyn,” I said, lying on my back, wincing as they doused me in alcohol and iodine. “We had a little accident.” She begged me to come home, but all I could say was, “I don’t think I should.”

Soon Martin pulled up outside; the minor damage to the bike had been easily repaired. We sat outside in the hot sun pondering a possible course of action. As he was quick to point out, common sense dictated that we head back to Phnom Penh, where I could receive proper medical attention. “However,” he added, “one cannot be a slave to common sense.” So we continued our journey, roaring toward the coast, my foot exploding in agony every time we hit a bump, which was often. We made it to the landing and hired a boat to the nearby Rabbit Island, which we then had to walk clear across to get to the beach. I managed to hop half the way with the aid of a tree branch, and rode on Martin’s shoulders for the other half. That night after the generators shut off and Martin was asleep, I sat by the ocean sipping from a bottle of rum—the same brand that Karlyn and I had finished off together a month before—feeling my foot swell like a balloon inflating with my pulse, and listening to the waves pull at the sand.

The next day I took the bus back to Phnom Penh and went directly to a clinic. It was raining heavily; thunder rumbled outside as they anaesthetized and cleaned my already infected foot. Karlyn burst into the room in the middle of the gruesome process, blinked, kissed my cheek, and averted her eyes. After I was bandaged and forced to purchase a pair of mismatched crutches, she hailed a tuk-tuk and we headed home. As we bumped and splashed our way down the street, she told me of her own ordeal: how when she met him at the airport and he wrapped her up in a loving embrace, she had felt absolutely nothing. “I have no idea what I’m doing,” she said, taking my hand. “I’m just really, really sad.” We were already nearing the flat, and I let go of her hand after just a few blocks.

They went to Thailand; I became intimately acquainted with the nuances of my ceiling, which I stared at for the endless, leaden hours that followed her departure. Eventually I forced myself out of bed and began to pick up the pieces of my pre-Karlyn existence. I started writing again for the first time in months. I read more, and took a new kind of solace in our poetry nights. (“Other friends have flown before/On the morrow he will leave me, as my hopes have flown before/Then the bird said….”) I began to dread Karlyn’s return. There would be no chance for anything of substance to pass between us; she was just going to reappear long enough to rip open my wounds, and then be gone forever.

I was right about the wounds. When she came back, all the emotional reconstruction I’d worked so hard at for the past weeks instantly collapsed, melted and dissolved. I finally admitted to myself the obvious truth: I was deeply, inescapably in love with this woman whom I could not have. It was a Saturday, and that night we went out. Her boyfriend faded into the background; for one last time there was only Karlyn and I, dancing with a frantic energy through the legions of prostitutes (myself on crutches), singing along with our favorite songs, hurtling toward the inexorable dawn. After the club closed at five, we went across the street to get fries at a fast food stall. Karlyn sent her boyfriend off to give a ride home to one of our French friends, leaving us alone at the table.

“Karlyn,” I said, “this is almost ridiculously painful.”

“It hurts for me too, you know. Thailand was hell. This is hell.”

“Stay then. You can get a job teaching. Or we can travel, explore the world, read books, have great sex. We could do anything, anything we wanted. Just stay. Please, stay.”

“I can’t, Eli, I just can’t. This is the man I thought I’d marry. Our parents are close friends, he’s like part of our family. I wish I could but I can’t.”

“I know,” I said, “I know. I had to ask, though.”

The fries remained untouched between us.

Her eternally understanding boyfriend must have sensed something, because when we got home he immediately retired, leaving Karlyn in my room so we could have some “flatmate time.” We drank pastis together as the sun rose, cuddling, kissing, trying not to cry. I read her a poem I’d written about us while she was in Thailand. Eventually she sat up. “I have to go,” she said. I begged her for five more minutes, and she stayed another half hour. Then she left, and the next day she was gone.

Another intern at the Tribunal, a British girl named Gabi, took her room. I could hardly eat for two weeks; complete devastation would not be hyperbole. My closest friend outside of the flat was next to go; when he saw me at his going away party he said I looked like I’d lost five kilos. I didn’t tell him it was more than that. Karlyn’s generation of UN interns soon disappeared entirely, replaced by a fresh flock who had no knowledge of those that came before them. I recovered slowly, thrusting myself into my teaching and writing. The weeks passed; I became capable of smiling again, and recovered the use of my left foot. I was still in love with Phnom Penh, but it had lost some vital part of its color and I didn’t think it would ever fully return. It had truly become a city of ghosts, not of the dead, but the dearly departed nonetheless. I decided I had to leave, settling on La Paz, Bolivia, as my next destination. I don’t know why. It was something new, somewhere far away. I began feeling better the instant I made the decision.

I remained in Phnom Penh for a few more months. Gabi turned out to be a wonderfully quirky addition to our little family. Martin and I continued our poetry nights. I wrote a book. Eventually Martin left, followed shortly by the rest of my friends. Each departure and its attendant sense of loss felt in some way deserved, as though I were receiving a karmic punishment for my own flight: that of being continually left. Soon only Gabi remained. She was the only one to whom when I said goodbye, it was me who was leaving.

As I conclude this story I look out the window at the thousands of lights covering the cliffsides of La Paz, and I wonder what will happen here, what friendships will be formed, what heartbreaks will be had, knowing full well that time will play its sweet dirty tricks and all that is to come will soon pass into memory. The brilliant moments will imbed themselves eternally within me, and I will call upon them during the far more common times like this one, where I sit alone, looking out the window at a place I hardly know, imagining what the future may hold. TC mark

College life doesn’t last forever. Get prepared for what comes next. Stories from the front lines here.

TC Site

image – Shutterstock

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