It is a truth universally acknowledged that most expat romances begin at four in the morning on Street 51, and go steadily downhill from there. After a surreal encounter earlier in the evening with a Cambodian woman, I was ready for a more traditional courtship.
I was on my knees, bent over myself and gasping for breath. As I got my strength back, still wheezing, I propped myself up on the stool and, with a lot of effort, I shifted my weight onto the bar. Someone had turned the music off; the eight or so stragglers had stopped talking and were now staring at me. In the mirror behind the liquor bottles, I could see red marks around my windpipe and the tinge of purple on my cheeks.
“Why did you do that?” I gasped. She sat back down and sipped on her straw.
She told me that a couple of years ago, she was beaten up in a notorious riverside club by some nouveau riche douchebag on too many drugs, after she’d made disapproving eyes at him in the unisex bathrooms. She seemed quite blasé about the whole thing now, and told me she was well versed in self-defence.
When I asked her how she defended herself in those situations, she gave me an interactive demonstration by grabbing my neck and squeezing. I tried to do the same, but she was a lot stronger than I was. After a few seconds, I collapsed on the ground.
Our encounter had begun in a similar style. She had overheard something I said to a friend at Top Banana and started yelling at us, mocking us for our arrogance. In a way, her antagonism was still flirtatious, as if she considered courtship to be an elaborate process of undermining and teasing before going in for the kill.
Normally, I would be a bit too precious to keep in the company of someone who considered it beyond them to placate my ego.
In this instance, morbid curiosity kept me indulging her in the face of some pretty ominous signs – like when she said The Fountainhead had changed her life – but whatever usual caution I would exercise in these situations had evaporated with the heat and throb of the early hours of the morning, so we continued down the rabbit hole.
There’s a lot of unlikely expat pairings in this city, for a few reasons. There’s slimmer pickings than your typical Western city. People are more likely to hang out in bars for half the week in a town where the alternative is never meeting anyone. And with so many people coming and going, people can fool themselves into believing that when it comes to affairs of the heart (or the loins), they can behave with impunity and without consequence.
Some of these trysts evolve into relationships that sustain themselves for years, despite generous age gaps and a complete lack of shared values, respect or courtesy.
Alcohol is a wonderful catalyst for both initiating these partnerships and sustaining them long beyond their shelf life. In my case, such a casual proclivity for violence perhaps should have been warning enough. Instead, she called me in the afternoon and we met again the next night.