When I first moved here, I rented an apartment overlooking a rundown market. It was the first time I’d lived on my own.
The smell of fruit wafted up to my window every morning and the smell of food scraps and garbage did the same every night. My rear balcony was walled in from floor to ceiling, leaving the kitchen and bathroom in absolute darkness.
Behind my bed frame were stickers of Tigger and Mickey Mouse on the wall from a previous tenancy. I couldn’t peel them off. When I looked at them I pictured a young Cambodian family squashed together in my shoebox room.
One night I lay awake, wondering if it was a pedophile living in this space instead.
I never bothered to decorate or even get a cleaner. It felt obscene to adorn my living space with fancy things when I was living amongst such poverty, and I felt really uncomfortable paying someone 20 bucks a month to be my mother.
I used to think that aesthetics govern the social order, and not the other way around. It was a convenient excuse for the gradual lapse in my appearance.
I stopped dressing fancily for work. Protruding nasal hairs were not tweezered out. Shaving was optional. Clothes were washed, rarely, in cold water under the kitchen tap, and eventually my chest broke out in a heat rash.
I wondered once why strangers would be willing to go home with someone who didn't bother making even a cursory attempt to be attractive to other people, and what they thought when they came back to a filthy, dust-coated flat with Disney characters peering down at them.
For a while I thought there was truth in that tedious refrain – there aren't any decent men in Phnom Penh – and against all the odds I had happened to be less repulsive than others by default. When I decided that wasn't the case, I had to come to terms with realizing I was mostly attracting people who didn't care that I didn't care for myself.
The brief thing I had with the Peace Corps girl arrested my slide into apathy, for a while. One night, a couple of days after we’d first started seeing each other without getting raucously drunk in the process, she started scolding me because I admitted I hadn't washed my bed sheets in more than a month.
It escalated into a heated indictment of my living conditions, we started arguing, and sometime after midnight I turned on the lights and asked her to leave.
If you truly believe that aesthetics determine everything else, then it follows that bleak surroundings make for bleak people. I stopped thinking that the next morning, when I noticed that everybody else on my street seemed happy enough.
I called to apologize, did some laundry and shaved off the straggly, matted beard that had sprouted at the beginning of the year. She and I were over in a week or two, but I have to thank her for the realization.
As fleeting and fraught as our time together was, and as confusing as she is to me now, I wonder why she decided to care on my behalf.
Still, I’m grateful that she did.