Back home, on my way to work I rode in a carriage packed with 300 people. In my city, as in many others, leaning your genitals up against someone’s waist while on public transport is less of a faux pas than politely asking someone to inch back a little.
We would all stand, crammed together like cattle in utter silence, close enough to smell the breakfast on each other’s breaths.
A large part of the reason I came to Phnom Penh was how stultifying this sort of immense silence amidst a mass of people became. It was a pleasure to come here and rediscover the means of talking to people who shared very little in common and with whom I didn’t share years of experience and in-jokes.
As a normally shy person, it was liberating to feel this kind of gregariousness come to me in an effortless way.
For a few weeks not long after I got into town, I was involved with someone very different to myself. She was teaching at a couple of the better schools and our shared tastes began and ended at late night drinking and overenthusiastic dancing to David Bowie.
While I had been wasting my youth smoking unseemly amounts of pot and working dead-end bar jobs, she had been doing a long stint in the military to pay for her education.
Soon we were going to each other’s houses and disrobing. Part of that openness I felt in my first few weeks here was the fluid, unencumbered way I started to talk about myself with her.
By the end of the couple of weeks that she and I meandered along together, we knew the detailed trajectory of each other’s life stories. One afternoon we were eating a late breakfast on Sisowath, wearing sunglasses and sipping Bloody Marys and looking seedier than most of our human surroundings.
For a while we laughed over the things slowly coming back from last night, the routine of outrageous dancing and even more outrageous drinking. Then we had nothing to say to each other. We were ill at ease and felt the same yearning need to fill the silence.
It occurred to me then that what we knew about each other was virtually nothing, even though we’d both talked about our lives with a forthrightness that we wouldn’t dare back home. We knew the grand foundations of each other’s life stories without any insight into what sort of people we were when moving through the tedium and monotony of everyday life.
We never stood in line together, or sat in a restaurant eating peanuts while waiting for our friends to rock up, or given ourselves enough time to be halfway comfortable in each other’s company. Somewhere along the way, we’d skipped a few steps and had no way to fill in the gaps.
Sitting there, for the first time in Phnom Penh I felt as alone as the last time a stranger’s penis prodded me on the morning train.