I nod. “I was just out there for a few months earlier this year. And now I’m headed back.”
“Ah. So,” leans in, a hushed voice, “did you meet someone?”
I feel my neck snap and eyes pinch. “What?”
A knowing smile: “What’s his name?”
I pause, furl my brow in that way I know is giving me wrinkles. Move to the other side of the world for a dude? It was a motivation that hadn’t even occurred to me.
I shake my head and finally say, “Phnom Penh. His name is Phnom Penh.”
Buenos Aires was thin and hip and beat-up. He had that early-sobriety look—a flush coming back to his checks but still a kind of dirtiness you couldn’t wash away.
It was 2005 and he’d been pretty well ravaged and you could totally still see that—his walls were covered with graffiti, his storefronts boarded, his arms bore the scars of old track marks we both tried to pretend weren’t there.
I met Buenos Aires at an art opening—you know, one of those underground galleries with lots of piss and broken glass on the sidewalk out front. He had this weird rattail-ish haircut that seemed like it might be hip, in some other context I wasn’t familiar with. He had emo jeans and a kind of dark, grinning sullenness about him—when he smiled his eyes snapped and his laugh was like a crack of lightning.
I liked him immediately. I mean, I was enamored. What can I say?—I was young and out there in the world for the first time and here comes this dude with crumbling facades and an addict’s swagger and that barely-buried desperation I’ve always found irresistible. I was in love.
I was in love the way a teenager is in love—I fell and fell hard and didn’t think there was a goddamn world outside of Buenos Aires. We only spent 10 days together: smoking on cold sidewalks, riding the metro when all the sudden he’d bust out in this crazy guerilla-style performance art shit that I couldn’t understand because he’d talk too fast and, besides, Argentinian Spanish doesn’t make any sense to me anyway. But I’d laugh and duck out the doors at the station with him, all wrapped up in the excitement of it, even though I didn’t know what “it” was.
He was beautiful, you know, and vibrant and alive, but you knew he was troubled too. I met his mom once—saw her, really, across a busy street, in the Plaza de Mayo, a short woman wearing a blue scarf, walking briskly into a wind that knocked around the newspapers and the trash and everything it touched.
He had nightmares too—he told me once, things he couldn’t quite remember: men with no faces but lots of hands, who would come through the shadows and take people, he thought, but he wasn’t sure, couldn’t ever be sure, because no one ever talked about it. The silence, he said, was worse than the men, in those dreams.
And we sat real still for a moment—drinking espresso the way he’d taught me, with a shot of sparkling water and a little cookie, always, in a way I loved him for, and that will always remind me of him—sat real quiet and then that smile quaked across his face and we were off again, running to some other party on some other street, a beat-up old run-down building, cause we were flat broke and young and running.
I left after 10 days, but I just kept thinking about him. He was like a kind of promise I made to myself—Buenos Aires, someday I’ll make it back to you.
I wrote him long letters, always late at night, when I felt stuck or lonely or sick of my life, felt a different version of that same desperation welling up inside of me—the cheesy restaurant where I wore support hose; the depressed boyfriend who could never say he loved me; the degree I wasn’t using and the poetry I wasn’t writing. Sometimes I’d look at flights and try to figure out what all it would take to go back to him, to make it work.
I kept tabs on him, you know, and it always seemed like he was doing better—stayed sober, got a decent job—not great and amazingly stable and healthy, but better.
I don’t know what happened, but I guess it just kinda fizzled—you know how these things do, how you swear when you’re young that they won’t, that this is some real shit and no one else understands—but they do understand, just in a way you can’t quite imagine yet.
So I let go of the Buenos Aires fantasy. I can’t say I let go of him cause I never really had him. I let go slowly, so slowly I barely even felt it. Barely.
But you know what the real kicker is, the punch line of it all? All that fantasy, all that pinning and longing and letter writing and flight checking, and you know what I finally realized one day, long after it had all died away?
Buenos Aires had never even written me back.
I gotta say, I wasn’t really that hyped on meeting Rome. I felt like it was one of those things I had to do—everyone just going on and on about how fucking great he was, in this way that makes you feel like you don’t really know what life is all about, what history and culture and the fucking human condition is all about, until you’ve met him and hung out and strolled around those goddamn gleaming black stone streets with him—you in sneakers and him in some kinda slick brand you can’t pronounce, and all the women in 3-inch heels and looking glamorous as hell and you just wondering how they don’t break their ankles every third step.
My dad, actually, was the one that was most hyped on me meeting him, and you can kinda understand why: Rome is so fucking sauve, so debonair, so cultured and shit, and in a lot of ways he’s the kind of guy that any dad would want to see their daughter with.
Except that I was traveling with a boyfriend, the depressed one. It was a miserable trip, one of those 6-week European power tours young Americans are apt to do. We bled Euros and lived on falafel and slept in moldy hostels and at the end of the trip, in Barcelona, I got the news that Dory had died, just to top things off, and I cried the whole flight back, across the Atlantic, listening to Elliot Smith—perfect, right? The boyfriend and I broke up like a month after we got back. Maybe my dad had seen it coming.
But we met up with Rome for a few days, in the middle of all that, before “all that” imploded–and I was kinda surprised. You know, you always hear about how smoking hot he is and how much of a player he is, but I didn’t really get that. He seemed tired. He had salt-and-pepper hair that he’d slicked back, and when he smiled he had those few deep, distinct wrinkles that weren’t attractive to me then, but are now—an older guy kinda thing.
Of course, the boyfriend was sullen and miserable and just kept talking about how he wanted to go back to Amsterdam—her bicycles and broad legs and blond hair. But it’s funny cause Rome and I kinda vibed, even though we don’t have a lot in common. I mean, we had to have been a funny fucking pair—I’d leave the boyfriend at the hostel and just cruise around with Rome, walking the streets: me in a ratty old band shirt, short hair and tattoos; him all tailored and tasteful, with that big, broad chest that rises up, those fucking Roman features that look straight off of some ancient coin you’d see in a museum, and those shoes, those shoes.
I ended up leaving Rome, with the boyfriend—wrote my dad an email, saying, Yeah, Rome’s cool, something noncommittal like that—and didn’t really have any plans of ever seeing him again. Didn’t think about him ever, except sometimes in passing.
But he’s such a big deal, you know, and he’s so goddamn central, that a couple years later I ended up passing through town and thought, you know, why not?
So we hung out again and this time, I feel like I got behind him, under him—not like that, you perv—just that the conversation rambled and we rode chattering street cars filled with immigrants and I discovered that we actually did have some things in common—he was really into street art, for instance, and had weird anarchist books hidden in the corner of his bookshelf—but they were all things he kept covered, hidden, like that big broad uplit monumental mass of him was just a façade, a very old façade, and that somewhere inside that there was a person just trying to live, you know, inside the shadow cast by greatness. I guess that’s what we had in common—not the greatness, of course, but the shit we keep hidden.
And as it turns out, I’m gonna be meeting up with Rome again soon—just lunch or whatever, and probably at some ungodly expensive place, filled with tourists who want to fawn over him, who will keep interrupting and coming up to the table and saying dumb shit about how great he is.
But I’m kinda okay with that, I’ve learned what to expect with Rome, and how to navigate him, and I think he’ll be someone I always kinda stay in touch with—one of those people you never expected to have stay in your life, but who, years later, is still there.
I met Tirana at a party, a bad-ass basement party where the floors shook and the walls crawled with smoke, so much smoke I couldn’t wash it out of my hair for like 3 days—not that I had enough water pressure to wash my hair anyway.
Tirana took me by surprise—hadn’t heard much about him, never knew anyone who’d met him, and he even had kinda a bad reputation, at least with the overweight hotel manager in Montenegro, who clutched his heart and gasped when I told him where I was going: “Is better you go back to America!” Which made me intrigued, had the opposite effect: If some greasy old guy wants to keep me away, I definitely need to meet this dude.
Had no idea what to expect, but holy shit—it’s like Tirana was the guy I’d been waiting to meet my whole life. He was a drummer in a kinda cheesy hard rock band, but they knew they were cheesy and they had fun with it, and he screamed along into a broken mic and cracked a drumstick all in one set, the night I met him, and I guess that’s when I decided, I like this dude.
You know, you hear all those Motown songs your whole life, and at first you’re waiting to meet someone like that, someone who’s just made for you, that heaven must have sent from above. And then you get let down, have fantasies shattered, and you get jaded. And then you forget about all it. And then there comes Tirana, barreling outta nowhere—karaoking to Black Sabbath, knocking on your door when you’re not even outta bed yet, a greasy bag of byrek he picked up for you for breakfast, when you’ve been out dancing all night together, and you think, Well holy shit.
He was fun and he liked to do all the cheap shit I like to do, and we spent 5 days pretty much just walking around and partying all night. I smoked too many cigarettes and let him order me Coke, which I normally never drink, and eventually on like the third night, he leans over real serious and says:
“You don’t drink.”
“No,” I say.
“But you smoke.”
“Yeah, I guess. But only sometimes.”
A thoughtful pause: “What religion is that?”
And I let out a laugh: “The religion of me!”
I didn’t mind his gypsies or his busted sidewalks or the smell of vegetables rotting in his alleyways, and the murals painted on his Soviet-style block buildings really did a lot to brighten him up, like a fresh shave beside shaggy hair you know he hasn’t had cut in years.
I didn’t want to leave him—he invited me to drive up to Shkoder with him and some friends, to an abandoned bunker that a buddy tattooed out of, and we were gonna get matching tattoos of the Albanian flag: a double-headed eagle, metal as shit. But I had a flight to catch and he just shrugged, though I could tell he was kinda bummed. He hopped into the back of that rattle-y old van and waved through the crack in the sidewindow, and then he was gone.
But the funny thing is, unlike Buenos Aires, Tirana totally wrote back. Like, a lot. I guess you could chalk it up to the social media era, but still—there’s a lot of folks who fall through the cracks, even with Facebook, so I still think it’s saying something. We wrote on each other’s walls on our birthdays, liked hella statuses, IMed a few times even, and now I’m headed back to see him—not for as long as I’d have liked, only a couple weeks—but he said he was stoked to hang out again and might even have a couch for me to crash on. Which is a helluva lot more than you can say for some people.
Of course, the thing is, I don’t really know Tirana. Which I guess is why I’m not running off with him—not that the thought didn’t cross my mind. I mean, there was that gnarly fight he got into after I left, with his parents—broke a couple teeth, I think, and looked like it was gonna be outright revolution, and he was scared, in a way I couldn’t really understand—brought back a lot of childhood memories, he told me, though I wasn’t sure what that meant. But it kinda blew over, I guess, cause I didn’t hear any more about it.
And I gotta ask myself: How much do you know this dude? Which is it you’re attracted to—the fantasy and excitement and escape, or the reality? And do you even know that the fuck that is?
I don’t have an answer, and I guess that’s the point.
Phnom Penh’s got bad teeth and acne scars and razor-sharp cheeks, and isn’t anyone I thought I’d ever fall in love with.
And for the record, I don’t think I love him—not in the enamored, all-consuming, swept-off-your-feet way I think people mean when they ask, “So did you totally fall in love with Phnom Penh?” It’s something much quieter than that—which is funny, cause with all those damn motorbikes buzzing around his veins, you’d think something quiet would be impossible.
He’s scrappy, never really outgrew that childhood malnutrition. He’s got night sweats and panic attacks and I know there’s a whole world of trauma he carries with him—from the cross of the karaoke girls’ legs to the 10-year-olds huffing on the sidewalk. But I love to watch him wake up early, the way he walks really briskly down the median of Sihanouk, swinging his arms and breathing deeply. It’s pretty fucking adorable.
We went up to the top of that shopping mall once—you know, the one that would be chintzy and ghetto anywhere else, but there is like the one act in town, the big classy deal. We got overpriced frozen yogurt and rode the stuttering escalators up to the top, where there was a view of the gray building tops and the asthmatic skyline.
There was a cement skating rink behind a chain link fence, and he put on some roller blades and started gliding around the ramps. I busted out laughing, “Where did you take me—1992?” He laughed but he didn’t care, just kept blading, and I watched the way his limbs moved and it was goddamn beautiful.
There was something close to innocence in how he moved and smiled—but I knew it wasn’t, couldn’t be; he’s seen far too much to have any innocence left. “You know how tourists always say, ‘Ah, Cambodians, they’re so happy, always smiling’?” he asked me once. I nodded and he spat out an angry clot of smoke. “They’re not. They’re not happy. They’re scared.”
And I thought of that as I watched him blade. And that’s when I noticed an old dude sitting on a bench—not even in the corner, right out in the middle, all greasy and balding and red-faced. And he was staring real pervy like and it pissed me off, made me want to run out there and grab Phnom Penh off the rink. But I knew it wouldn’t do any good—every street was a rink and there were a thousand dudes–not just greasy old Western ones but Cambodian ones too, men in shiny SUVs, who slipped like shadows behind plated glass–just waiting, watching. So what could I do but wait and watch also, in my own way?
We spent almost 2 months together. Which was longer than I’ve ever spent with a city. And don’t get me wrong—there’s shit that really drives me nuts about Phnom Penh—how I can’t go outside without getting crap in my contacts or hounded by his tuk-tuk drivers. But, fuck, there’s moments, when you’re in one of those tuk-tuks at night, when the streets are empty and the breeze comes off the river, and I look over at him, all quiet and still and it’s kinda magical, I’m not gonna lie.
And then he looks back over at me, and fuck—it feels like he sees me, with his winking streetlights and neon sighs. And then he takes my hand and there’s something about that that makes me feel solid, underneath all the insanity, in a way I’ve never quite felt before.
And then we both kind of nod and you know, we just know—“we’re in it.”
And neither one of us may be entirely clear on what “it” is, but we do know we’re in it.