Abel’s twin sister had died a modest death, not the spectacular one friends and family feared, or privately expected. An aid worker traveling the world should perish operatically, from the sudden outbreak of civil war or the contraction of a rare deadly virus. Yet Ariel died during a work meeting when she leaned too far back in her chair and fatally struck her head. Abel’s parents phoned him at his own job to deliver the news, and for several long moments he stared out the window, waiting for the words to resolve into meaning. In that period of shock his thoughts drifted in and out of arguments he’d had with Ariel over the years, and it occurred to him that he finally had proof his job ensuring regulatory compliance at Deloitte was indeed the better career. Here were comfortable chairs made to lean back. Here was a floor that could hurt no one, covered as it was with a plush carpet. He thought, miserably, that for once he could have said what she did every time they argued about career choices: “I win.”
It was a year later when Abel arrived in Cambodia. He’d put off the trip in order to receive several vaccinations, including one against Japanese Encephalitis, though it was unlikely he’d contract it, and because he wanted to avoid the rainy season, and because he had always been afraid to fly, and because, most of all, he wasn’t sure if he could do it alone. His bravest moment in life had been accepting an internship in New York City immediately after graduating from the University of North Dakota. It was his first offer and he wasn’t sure he’d get another; He had been terrified to walk the block and a half between his apartment and the office for at least half a year. The internship turned into a job, and since then, his only trips were back home to Grand Forks. He’d never visited Ariel at any of her postings, though she visited him at least annually.
His plane touched down at 9 p.m. and he hired a motodop, as recommended by his travel guide.
“English?” the man asked. “French?”
“English,” Abel said. “Or American.”
“Oh. Comedian. You speak Comedian.”
Abel wished he was the kind of person who could seize the moment and extend his half-hearted joke into a playful exchange. Instead he named his guest house and handed the man a printout of the address written in English and in Khmer. Through the busy city center the man bobbed and weaved, and Abel held him around the waist, as he saw was the custom for men and women alike. The driver’s body was relaxed and safe. He delivered Abel to the right address and Abel clutched his backpack to his chest as he watched him go.
It was hot. The lane was quiet and pockmarked. Vines strained against the tall cement fences. The heavy air smelled of jasmine and garbage and bore the sound of a million tiny wings.
Was it jetlag or something else that woke him at dawn? He wandered out to the porch and saw for the first time what Ariel must have seen every day, early riser that she’d been. A watercolor sky. Thickening haze. Trees and tall grasses wet and bright.
And there at the far end of the porch was Ariel herself, sitting in a wicker chair. She wore shorts and a sleeveless shirt and was pouring cream into a glass of ice coffee. It moved through the liquid like it was alive. Another glass sat on a low table in front of a second chair.
“Coffee?” she said.
Abel wanted to scream in her face. Pour out his tears. Embrace her and never let go. But the setting was so calm, her posture so relaxed, that the impulse evaporated. In its place: a pointless flicker of hope.
Ariel pushed a list across the table. “Can you get me this stuff?”
The curvaceous Khmer script was indecipherable to Abel.
“Ok, but – ”
“Go to Orussey and then go to Tuol Tom Poung.”
“Ariel, can you just – ”
“Hey, want to see something?”
She reached into a backpack. When she turned back she was wearing the wooden mask of a demon. One eye was closed and slashed across the eyelid, the other wide open and bulging. From bright red lips poked two fangs.
“Boo!” she said.
Abel stared at her.
“I’m a ghost!”
Ariel shimmied and wiggled her fingers. “Ooooooo,” she said. Then louder, leaning forward. “OOOOOOO!”
“According to folk tales here, if you shake your bare ass at a ghost, it will get scared and go away. Isn’t that great?”
Abel’s laugh was genuine. “Would that work on you?”
“No.” Ariel took off the mask.
Abel stood at the curb to hail a tuk-tuk and another guest house resident came to stand beside him, a white woman in a white linen dress with a white leather purse and a big floppy straw hat. Abel fidgeted and hoped she would leave him alone.
“It is so, so hot out, isn’t it?” she said. She retrieved a fan from her purse and thworped it open with a flick of the wrist. She held it before her face and waved it with a fussy little motion.
“It’s so nice to see another expat here,” she said. “I’ve been here for a year now, volunteering.”
Abel’s smile was a closed door. He scanned the traffic.
“You’re going to love it,” she said. “It’s so pretty, there’s a ton to do. Oh – there’s an expat party every second Tuesday at Sunny’s, so that’s coming up and everyone goes. You should come!”
“Hm.” No tuk-tuks, no motodops, no taxis.
“Let’s see, what else. We hang out on Street 140. Check out Pontoon Bar. It’s a bar on a pontoon. Buy some lotus seeds and feed the monkeys as soon as you can. It’s so fun. And make sure you get a pair of shoes made. All the expats have some. They make them exactly to your specs.”
Abel did not want to do any of that. He wanted to see what his sister saw in her last days, just a glimpse, maybe understand finally why she kept travelling so far from home. And then he wanted to leave. But suddenly he also wanted something else, some way to dispel the welter of anger he was surprised to feel. He met the woman’s eye after a beat.
“You keep saying ‘expat,’” he said. “What do you mean, exactly?”
“You know, someone who moves here.”
“So, an immigrant?”
The woman looked at him blankly.
“People from El Salvador, then,” he said. “Nigeria.”
The woman cocked her head. Abel pressed on. “You mean white, no?” His voice rose. “White people are so fucking special, so they get the special word.”
“I never really thought about it.”
“You never thought about it,” he said. “Cool.”
“I don’t know what you’re getting so mad at me for. I’m trying to help.”
Abel had never picked a fight with a stranger before, but it wasn’t fair this lady got to be here instead of Ariel, who had made fun of words like “expat” and phrases like “friendly fire.” He reached for the worst thing he could think of and ignored the tightness in his chest. “Well you should try harder.” He willed his voice not to crack. “Because otherwise what good are you.”
Stalls of spices, of vegetables, of freshly butchered meat. A vendor of deep-fried insects and tiny flattened frogs, tossed in oil and salt and eaten one after another like potato chips. A stall of hot peppers whose proprietor wore thick rubber gloves.
Abel wandered towards the back and found a series of food stalls around a big fire pit that filled the space with smoke. He greeted a vendor and pointed to a plate of food someone else was eating. With quick precision she produced another of the same: a wide eggy crepe filled with bean sprouts and leafy greens. It hung over the plate and he took a bite of one edge, as he would have a plain slice. The woman was looking past Abel at the next in line, so he moved on to a communal table and pretended not to understand when a table of English-speaking men asked where he was from. Two of the men had broken off from the others.
“At the beer garden, these girls – ‘Beer Girls’ – they come up and give you a massage, and if you give them more money, they’ll do more,” one in a suit said.
“Oh man, that’s awesome,” the other said and raised his hand to receive a high-five.
The first was distracted by his phone. “Wait – sorry bud,” he said. “I gotta head back. You go on without me.”
“Man, the embassy works you guys so hard.”
Ariel was waiting again in the early morning and Abel handed her the sacks of groceries. He passed her the list, each item ticked off.
“Thanks,” she said. “Now we can get started.”
The food came together like magic, neat cabbage-leaf parcels of minced pork and herbs, tied with a length of lemongrass.
“So on balance, ‘aid worker’ is kind of a misnomer,” she said.
Abel made a face. “What are you talking about?”
“‘Aid worker’ sounds nice, but it’s kind of bullshit.”
“But you worked for the UN,” Abel said. “That’s no joke.”
“It kind of is.”
“You guys went around, giving people money and stuff. That’s good, that gives people security. When you’re secure, you’re happy!”
Ariel’s hands were busy. The cabbage rolls multiplied by the hundreds. “There’s more to it than that.”
Another list. A different market. In the morning he found this one outside the center of town, near the Japanese Embassy. Rougher. Smaller. The tarps covering the outermost stalls were frayed around the edges and whipped the air. A storm was rapidly gathering in a sky that minutes before had been clear. The street emptied.
Abel bought a plate of food and sat on a stool to watch the rain fall in sheets. A tiny girl approached and extended her hand. Six years old? Five? She was dressed in rags and held a baby on one hip. Its arms hung limp and its mouth was open.
“Please,” she said in English. She patted Abel’s arm with a bird’s fluttery staccato. She shifted the baby to her other hip. Abel dug into his pocket and held out a dollar bill, worth many times over the local currency. She hesitated before taking it. “Please,” she said again. Abel thought back to his guide book; he was meant to turn away now to show he would give no more. The girl stood by his side for a long moment. A man from behind the counter glanced at Abel and handed the girl a skewer of meat, the same kind stacked high on Abel’s plate. The man spoke a few words to the girl and for an instant her too-adult countenance transformed as she smiled. Another child appeared and the two took turns eating and holding the baby. Its head lolled back.
An enormous pot simmered on the stove. Noodles gleamed in thick brown sauce. A whole fish was fried and golden, its skin slashed into diamonds. The kitchen smelled of freshwater and wood smoke, of oil and ginger and sweet grasses and history.
“The Khmer Rouge wiped out the country’s whole culinary tradition,” Ariel said. “And now people are trying to remember the old recipes.” She was issuing statements like this, one after another. “Did you know there was a big rock scene here before the KR?” Her face was obscured by steam. “Did you know the country was once a matriarchy?”
She sent Abel out twice more. Two more days of heat and humidity and grit in the folds of his skin. He went to the killing fields and stared at a tower of skulls. Afterwards he heeded his intense desire to stand barefoot in the fine dirt, to physically feel the earth beneath him more intimately than he could with shoes. He ignored the sidelong looks of other tourists.
“Hope you’re hungry,” Ariel said that night. “Dinner’s ready.” There was a long table that stretched forever, laden with endless plates of food. The Cambodian ones came first, followed by those of a dozen other nations, everything beautiful and enticing, valuable in a way Abel could not precisely explain. They sat facing each other and Ariel stretched her arms wide to indicate the bounty. She folded her hands in prayer and closed her eyes. “Dear God,” she said, and frowned. “Actually, what am I saying, it’s just us here.”
When they were young, Ariel would always say “this is what heaven must be like” every time they went to Whitman’s Candy Store in Fargo, and in adulthood, she transferred the ritual to restaurants. When she visited Abel in New York for their 30th birthday, she said it of a fancy uptown hotspot Abel chose in the hopes of pleasing her. But she would have said it of the corner diner. And now, here, in this dreamstate or purgatory or whatever it was, she said it again, and for the first time Abel did not think the phrase was sentimental nonsense. And then the forces at work transported him backwards in time, and he saw himself in the year since Ariel died, checking off his to-do lists, saving his money. He saw himself come straight home from work, night after night after night, double-lock his door, and sob.
In the morning Abel had coffee in the guesthouse café and watched fellow travelers discuss what they would do that day. Shopping figured heavily into their plans. Massages. High tea at the big fancy hotel. The dollar went so far here. They lamented the city’s poverty and promised to make donations. They considered visiting the genocide museum and decided against it. It was, after all, awfully grim for a vacation.
Abel wandered the streets without aim, around a wat where monks in orange robes played Candy Crush on their cell phones. He bought noodles from a food cart, tried to squat low to the ground and eat like the locals, found he could not. The beef and egg and chilies and fresh greens were straightforward and nourishing.
After nightfall Abel walked past a throbbing party and saw it was Sunny’s. Today was the correct Tuesday and the enormous outdoor garden was packed. The party was sweaty, loud, and it stank. He walked on and soon found himself along the Tonle Sap River. Past the Foreign Correspondents Club and its own hectic gathering. Past motodops. Past taxi girls dressed up and waiting. They walked expertly over the gravel in their stilettos. Abel crossed a causeway to the dark silence of the river’s other side. He stood on the shore. Let his eyes adjust. There ahead, the silhouette of a long canoe. The figure within flung a net wide and it slapped the water. He pulled it in. Repeated the motion. The sound was clockwork, a hand measuring time. The boat passed beneath the bridge. Then it was gone.
Whitney Curry Wimbish is an American writer living in Scotland. Her fiction has been published by MIROnline, and has received honorable mention in two Glimmer Train competitions. Her journalism/nonfiction has been published in The Baffler, The Financial Times, and elsewhere, and is forthcoming in North American Review.