Have you ever seen poverty before?” my friend Danny said, staring out from the tuk-tuk as we arrived at the familiar hubbub of Boeung Keng Kong market.
Before I could reply he slung a tattooed arm around my shoulder and squeezed my arm.
“I have ,” he said. “On the way to the Killing Fields.” He proceeded to riff on the complicated dynamics of Phnom Penh, where he had spent all of two days.
I’d spent the past week with Danny – or Danoo, as he bizarrely insisted Cambodians call him because he thought it sounded more Khmer – and had now got a hang of his body language: “Don’t speak, babe,” his arm-squeeze said. “Let me continue my pithy commentary. I’m the teacher – you, the student.”
Too tired to start up again, I muttered to myself and slunk back into the musky softness of his Beer Lao T-shirt.
Fortunately, Danoo was impervious to eye-rolls and sarcasm – tools of the trade for an impatient cynic like me – so I could discretely let off steam while the next daft thing popped out of his mouth.
Why was I in a tuk-tuk with this know-it-all backpacker, accepting his shoulder squeezes?
We had met just before I was about to leave my home country to settle here – a classic mutual rebound: much sex and blinkered lust, each caught up with how different the other was to our ex.
We parted on the promise that he would visit me in Cambodia.
Four months later, not only had I agreed to put him up in my home in Phnom Penh, I had tacitly agreed to have sex with him for the duration of his stay – or so I worried in the days before he arrived.
When he finally did turn up at my door, surprisingly light of luggage and brimming with travelling stories, I was filled with a sinking feeling: the attraction had died, on my part at least.
“Hey,” he said casually, and unpacked his bag to fish out a gift. It was a box of organic muesli, minus a bowlful or two.
“I had some this morning,” he explained.
To avoid a one-on-one dinner, that night I organised a group dinner in haste with two male Khmer friends, and an Australian girlfriend. The chance to socialise with local guys sent my guest into overdrive and he spent the evening as Danoo, laughing boisterously with them and turning occasionally to rub my leg and explain what his new buddies were saying, as though we were speaking a different language.
By the end of the night, Danoo told me he’d found his “Cambodian brothers.” I glared at my friends.
As we lay in bed that night a tentative hand that made its way across the sheets. I cringed into the pillow.
“You’re tired,” he explained out loud in the dark, and rolled over to sleep.
Days passed without my guest ever asking me a single question about my life in Cambodia. His disinterest in anything I had to say was so apparent that I took to saying ridiculous things if he did appear to be listening to me.
“Sihanoukville’s an undiscovered gem,” I told him one morning. “You should go there next.”
On what was to be the last of our sexless nights together, I relented and decided to see if there was any spark of passion there.
No, there was not.
“Aren’t you attracted to me?” he asked.
“No, I’m sorry – I’m not and I won’t be again.”
“I knew it,” he said. It occurred to me that all my eye-rolling had not in fact bypassed him but merely confused him. Before he left for the bus to Sihanoukville, he kissed me sadly goodbye and grabbed his muesli from my kitchen.
“I thought that was a gift,” I said.
“Well, I thought you were different,” he replied.