The horns shriek and the engines whine and a cellphone shop blares a high-pitched voice. The night is a streak of headlights and neon, smudged under the billowing smoke of a thousand street stalls, cooking meat under the hum of a thousand generator-powered lamps.
“Welcome to Different,” I say to the Angelo who isn’t there.
My ankles are swollen from the flight, so a walk had sounded good, even though I know this city is shit to walk in. And the traffic is mad, like it’s always mad, but the funny thing is that it feels familiar—more familiar than it should. I step in thin soles over busted-up pavement, around piles of trash in plastic bags, little handles tied in knots; I’m in the street and I’m between cars moving between push carts moving between motorbikes, parked at crooked angles.
I pause on the corner of Monivong, a rush of headlights and wind. There’s a light at this intersection, and that light is red and that amounts to a whole lot of nothing—bikes making left turns from right lanes, into on-coming traffic and down the wrong side of the road.
“You gotta do like this,” I say to the Angelo who isn’t there. I step out to cross, demonstrating. “Slow and steady, no sudden movements.” Headlights swerve around me. “The motorbikes will move around you,” I tell him, “but the cars won’t—they’ll flash their lights and speed up.”
I imagine his hand on my shoulder as we weave across the road.
On the other side, the sidewalk is still and dark. A stray dog pauses, sniffs, passes. When he’s gone, it’s just one long shadow stretching in the streetlight—mine.
“See,” I say, softly mouthing the words. “Easy.”
I’ve been back in Phnom Penh less than hour—enough time to get an overpriced taxi at the airport and crawl from the dusty outskirts to the less-dusty center, windows rolled up against the exhaust and noise and life. Enough time to arrive at Fairyland Hotel, a white hotel in a dingy part of town where I’d stayed the last time I’d arrived in Phnom Penh, nine months ago. Enough time to plop my bags down and not look in the mirror and not change out of the clothes I’ve been wearing for two days; enough time to for a vague, uneasy feeling to rise out of my jet-lagged haze— that I’ve come full circle, back to where I started—and enough time to duck out of the room and onto the street, before the feeling can get any bigger.
On the other side of Monivong, the road is narrow and black and pitted as scarred skin. Security guards with razor eyes and rubber sandals sit in plastic chairs; cats with chopped-short tails slink in the shadows.
At the next corner there’s a makeshift stall—bottles of water and packs of cigarettes and a strip of cell phone cards twisting in the breeze. They’ve got a clump of green coconuts, sitting in front of a big orange cooler, and I point to one. A lean woman in a pajama suit opens the cooler, grabs a machete and starts hacking.
“Better than the Vita Coco,” I whisper to the Angelo who isn’t there.
A man sleeps in a lawn chair, and a big-bellied toddler sticks his fingers in his mouth and stares at me. The woman smiles, points at me: “Hello,” she tells her son to say.
“Hello,” I smile.
He hides his face.
We laugh and the man in the chair stirs and I pay for the coconut and say thank you, raise the straw to my lips and suck. I offer it to the Angelo who isn’t there—he takes a long suck, nods and says, “Better than the Vita.”
We walk down the pitted road.
The Angelo who isn’t there has been with me for over a month now. He was with me at the midnight terminal at JFK, surrounded by families wearing neck pillows, buzzing with pre-vacation excitement. He followed me to Italy, walked beside me down those black Roman streets, gleaming like wet eyes; he woke up in the soft mornings beside me, a curtain waving sadly in the window.
He sat beside me on trains, at airports, on Albanian minibuses—his sneakers next to mine as we crunched up the rubble remains of bombed-out houses. He ate greasy byrek from paper bags and walked me home late at night, those neon lights in the new pedestrian walkway casting our faces in funny, alien hues.
He sat beside me on the Teleferik that last day, when the little car wobbled on the cable wires and the city sank away and we rose up, up—over mountains splashed in burnt orange and bruised-lip purple. Every other car that passed was full of families and couples; I took out my iPod and put on Elliott Smith and turned to the Angelo who wasn’t there and said, “Did I tell you about the time in Barcelona?” And he said no, and I told him, quietly mouthing the words, and started to cry.
He was with me in Cairo when I walked the streets, windy and restless and wondering why I’d come. We shared headphones at the Pyramids, blaring Electric Wizard to drown out the touts and the hustlers and the children begging—beggars. And we stood in front of the great pile of stone and raised our heads up; I felt the expanse of city behind me and the expanse of time behind me, and I felt small and lost, until the Angelo who wasn’t there reached out his hand and held mine. I blinked dust from my eyes, water welled around contacts, but those tears didn’t count cause they weren’t real.
Five weeks, four continents—a haphazard route to this city, my new home—and the Angelo who isn’t there has been my best friend, my constant companion. He’s quiet and thoughtful; he’s excited and adventurous; he laughs at my snarky jokes—he’s whatever I need him to be, flat as a canvas, or a kind of glass I can put it all behind.
I suck the coconut dry.
I go into a U-Care—the automatic doors sigh open and three shopgirls in green uniforms press their hands together in unison and bow.
“Hello, Bong, what you like?”
One of them follows me down the aisles, hovers as I pick up bug spray and tampons. She takes them from my hands, holds them for me, carries them back to the register. When I pay, the girls put their hands together and bow.
I glide through the doors back onto the heat of the sidewalk. “See what I mean?” I whisper—“Different.”
I keep walking, we keep walking, and come across a row of food stalls. I pick the most crowded one, people squatted on little plastic stools.
The woman cooking gives a high-pitched holler, and a younger version of her appears, with a timid smile and a careful, “Yes, I help you?”
I point to a bowl of soup. She says the name in Khmer and I nod.
“You’re gonna OD on the street food here,” I say to the Angelo who isn’t there, and think how I’d explain the food culture to the real Angelo, if he ever came to visit.
I slurp my rice noodles. The sky is swollen, and strands of lightning twitch across it, white and thunderless. I’m sweating, and I can feel the dirt and hair on my legs begin to stick to the dirt and smoke in my jeans. It itches.
I remember I’m near a sticky rice stall I like, so I take him there. We stand in front of the tubs of milky goo, hunks of pumpkin and banana half-submerged, and wonder what each thing is. We point to one; the woman ladles the thick white into a plastic dish, and we eat it with a small metal spoon.
Teenagers perched on motorbikes look at me. The boys have faces as sharp and fragile as glass; they wear bedazzled trucker hats, perched atop their heads Abe-Lincoln style. The girls have long hair and t-shirts that say, “I Love My Boyfriend’; they stare at me, then look away, cover their mouths and giggle.
A Smile convenience store is a few blocks down, and I stop there to stock up on Nescafe and soda water and chips for my hotel room. The blast of air-conditioning cuts against my cheeks and I imagine the real Angelo in shorts and sweating, saying, “Yo let’s post in here awhile.”
I graze the florescent aisles. I stop beside all the packages of dried shrimp—chips and crackers with little pictures of smiling crustaceans. I picture the real Angelo, at St. Mark’s Market, 3am and buzzed and grazing the florescent aisles.
The real Angelo is in New York. The real Angelo is young, broke, working 10-hour days and living on dollar pizza. That’s the way it is in New York, which sometimes feels like a very large, very furious snow globe—with all the sirens and cigarette butts and howls of subway cars whipping around you, so that you don’t have time to stop and notice it’s glass you’re under.
The real Angelo lives on a computer screen, a Facebook feed—photos of late-night food and art installations and rooftop sunsets and nothing else. He’s a little green dot that constantly says he’s online, when really he’s not. He’s long misspelled messages that arrive sporadically, at odd hours, in the middle of the night his time—that I try to wait to write back to, but never can.
When the teenage clerk gives me my change, he presses his palms together and bows—only I can tell by the way he avoids my eyes that it embarrasses him, and so it embarrasses me too.
Once I’m outside I turn to the Angelo who isn’t there and say, “They make them do that.”
At Christmas the same clerk will be forced to wear a Santa hat and I’ll feel bad for him, so I’ll smile at him and give a thumbs-up. He’ll shrug and look down, away.
In three weeks, when I’m settled in my own apartment on the other side of town, I’ll finally catch up with the real Angelo for a Skype date. I’ll open the terrace doors and sit on the pillowed bench in my kimono and ask him about New York, about the gallery, about late-night adventures and how cold it’s getting.
The video will be down, so I’ll listen to him—talking about work and art and the new girl he’s dating—and it’ll feel far away, like the 9000 miles it is. There’ll be a small sink in my heart when he talks about the girl, and I’ll feel our worlds diverging, pulling further apart.
I’ll cradle my laptop in my lap, with my hand under it, and when he talks, I’ll feel his voice vibrate in my palm—and it’ll be the way his voice would feel if I laid my head on his chest. And there’ll be a strange, electric moment when the Angelo who isn’t there seems to touch the real Angelo—I’ll feel a sharp jolt in my fingers and I’ll wince, and suck in air, and he’ll say, “What?” and I’ll say, “Nothing, my computer shocked me.”
The markets are winding down by the time I reach Fairyland Hotel again. I get the key from reception and take the elevator up to my white room.
“Yo check this out,” I say to the Angelo who isn’t there. I point to the laminated “Hotel Rules” sheet on the wall—check out is at noon; 24-hour reception is available; firearms and weapons are prohibited; prostitution is prohibited; and please don’t bring unregistered children into your room.
He shakes his head. “Welcome to Different,” I say.