I wrote this story a few years ago out of an interest in how people project onto another place when they travel. It originally appeared in Gravel Magazine, and when I was thinking of greener grass, this came to mind.
Writing, short story
His hair was gold and he had a shamrock tattooed on his ribs. "It hurts more if you get it on a bone," Denver said. Denver said a lot of things that Molly ignored. She ignored a lot about Denver too.
His name for example. Denver was, in fact, in Cambodia by way of Colorado. Boulder if she was being specific, which she was. She ignored that he always said "the sea" instead of "the ocean." She ignored that his parents were paying for their private room in the hostel.
But there were things about Denver she couldn't ignore. The Old Spice body wash that leaked from his elephant pants in the morning when he started sweating. His long blond hair–flow–that got greasy by two. The shamrock tattoo she traced at night.
Some would say she met Denver by chance, but she'd say they met by accident. She wasn't supposed to be in Cambodia or to have met somebody like Denver. Molly was a social media specialist at a small college in New Jersey. The only reason she'd gotten the job was that she was under forty and had an iPhone, and her boss soon learned that she didn't know how to use social media to “advance the College.”
After she'd been fired, she returned to her apartment and thought of calling someone but realized she had no one. Her sister Pembroke was a farmer in Minnesota. She sowed corn and children with a man with doughy features. Her mother had left for the far corners of the globe. A scientist by trade, she had a fantasy about an Australian animal show host, Crush Jones. Molly and Pembroke grew up on Crush Jones. They watched him wrangle snakes and cozy up to koalas. He called everything nice and stroked each animal as if it were a finicky cat, a disdain he couldn’t shake even though he tangled with wild animals. “Nice koala. Nice koala.”
When Crush died in a snake accident, her mother fell into crisis. No longer could she tolerate the strains of academia or child rearing or middle New Jersey. She left them with an aunt and disappeared into savannahs and lagoons. She called when she needed money and would send postcards once she was done with a place. Her father died in a war. Out of a job and out of people, Molly set out for her mother.
"You need a drink."
Molly looked up from her book, a yellowed British novel she'd grabbed from the hostel. She'd been reading it under the wooden bar and had an empty plate in front of her. She smiled. The boy had long blond hair in a bun, much like hers, and he wore a low tank top that exposed light chest hair.
"I guess you're right," Molly said.
"What can I get you? Sex on the beach?"
"Whiskey. Straight," she said.
He ordered and then looked at her for a minute. There were wrinkles in his forehead. Maybe from the sun or maybe from aging. He was younger than her, younger by a lot. She didn’t care for him but also didn’t care for how she hadn’t really talked to anyone since she’d arrived. "What are you reading?"
"Nothing good." She set the book down on the bar and slid it to him.
"How long are you here on spring break?" She was at a bar for backpackers. It was her third night in Siem Reap. She'd spent the first two peeling layers of sticky clothes off and washing them in the hostel sink before sliding onto her mattress, her thighs gluing themselves to musty bed sheets. She looked at the ceiling and stroked bugs off of her legs. “Nice roach. Nice roach.”
"I'm not here on break. Well, I'm here on a break," he said.
"Girlfriend trouble?" He was either just out of college or taking a break from somewhere expensive where he was taught economics. Molly knew this because she knew the students at her school. They were mediocre and their parents would tolerate their “rebellions” and “semesters off.”
"A break from school," he said. "Couldn't stand the place anymore. I've been here a month."
"Doing what?" The kids at Molly’s school were wealthy and mediocre. They’d go on spring break trips to Cancun and get summer internships in banking in New York through a parent’s connections. Part of why she couldn’t ever advance the school on social media was that she didn’t like anything it stood for. At night she always returned home and looked at her computer, trying to find a new passion but instead reading articles and blog posts about passion or seventeen indoor plants to liven up your living space.
"I'm doing a course to become a yoga instructor," he said. "I'm Denver."
"Molly." She raised her glass of whiskey and knocked it against his beer before taking a gulp.
"What brings you here?"
"My mother," she said. Her mother had continued to send postcards over the years. After she moved out of her aunt's house and Pembroke moved west, her mother somehow had kept track of Molly's address. The night she was fired, Molly dug out all the postcards and spread them out in order on her kitchen table. Pyramids of Egypt, Machu Picchu, a stint in Macau. In a notebook she outlined her mother's path and traced it in an atlas in green pen, imagining the boats and planes and cars she'd taken from country to country. In the end, she found no pattern. Her words were no more illuminating. "I'm leaving Cape Town. Too hot." "I'm leaving Lima. The work is boring." She'd given up science and started finding jobs where she could. Waitressing, farming, surrogate mothering, bartending.
Her last postcards were from Luang Prabang, Hanoi, and Bangkok, and Molly figured that Cambodia was as close as she could get. She found college students to sublet her apartment for a month and had her mail forwarded to her aunt. She asked her to email her if she got any more postcards.
"Does she live here?"
"Maybe." Molly downed her whiskey and tapped the bar for another. "Thanks for the drink, Denver. But I'm too old for you."
In the bar were others like him. Young, white waifs. Their hair bleached from lemons and sun and their skin too tan. They wore tank tops and harem pants and Birkenstocks and smelled of grease and patchouli and sex. They were in her hostel and on the streets and in yoga poses for photos at Angkor Wat. She would search through social media feeds of Angkor Wat and find that these people knew how to get more likes than all of her content for the college. Maybe she should've used hashtags like genuine, wanderlust, rootless, and discovery. Maybe she needed to be a young and beautiful Australian or British girl.
"Listen, Molly," he said. "I've been here a while. I've been with people like me. I need something different. I can't take this all anymore and I’m not leaving soon. Would you just, I don't know, talk to me?"
"What do you study?"
"Where are you from?"
She laughed. "You're kidding." He put back the rest of his beer and smirked. "And is your last name Colorado?"
"Would you talk to me if I said it is?" He asked.
So they went for a walk together, down streets where women sold food out of baskets and tourists sang, arms slung over shoulders whose owners they'd just met or known for years, Molly couldn't tell. They got fried ice cream rolls from a street vendor. It dripped into wrinkles that Molly hadn’t known her hands contained. She thought better of lapping it up with her tongue. She stuck her hands onto Denver’s arms and wiped and gripped, feeling for something solid. “Nice boy. Nice boy.”
The next morning, they woke up to visit Angkor Wat. Denver was writing poems based on it. Denver knew a tuktuk driver named Sovong, and he shuttled them to the temples. Molly had already been to see the famous sunrise at Angkor Wat. Jetlagged, she went on her second day in Cambodia when she wasn’t looking for her mother. When she was looking for her mother, she brought a wallet-sized headshot, the one from her mother’s university ID card. She showed it to people in shops and on the streets and asked if they’d seen her.
“Where was she last seen?” an Australian woman asked, sitting in the back of a tuktuk and waiting for her driver at the gas station. The woman wore silver rings that snagged her red hair as she tied it on top of her head.
“Hanoi, I think. I think she’s in Cambodia.”
“When was she last seen?” The woman took the photograph from Molly and squinted at it. “This photo is ancient.”
Molly knew her mother must’ve changed but she didn't know how. Maybe she had tattoos and new piercings. Maybe she had purple hair. Maybe she’d grown dreadlocks and didn’t know what was wrong with that. Maybe she was bald.
But the Australian woman was nice and told Molly to ask tuktuk drivers. They saw a lot of the tourists who came through. They might know. Molly showed the Australian’s driver when he returned from a pharmacy with water for her. He returned the picture to her after a moment’s glance. “Nice lady.”
Next to Denver in the tuktuk, Molly listened to stories about his friends and she let the buzz of bugs and tuktuks on dirt roads turn his volume down. They pulled in front of Angkor Wat. Other tuktuk drivers slept in hammocks rigged between the poles of their carts. Sovong told them where to meet once they were done.
Inside the temple, Molly watched people looking for things. Tourists in a group looked for places to stage their photo shoots. Walkways for kings became backgrounds for dramatic Instagram posts. A Chinese man took a picture of a young Buddhist monk while the boy next to him searched something on his iPhone.
Together, Molly and Denver climbed a set of stairs to reach the upper levels. The stairs were steep like a ladder, and she climbed behind him. Patches of sweat clung to his white tank top. Once she got too close to his butt and thought he farted, a robust scent from all the root vegetables he was eating at night in the hostel. He’d take a bite of one while scrolling through his phone. Once he scratched his shamrock tattoo with the end of a carrot.
They got to the top and walked next to each other. He pointed things out without speaking, and she acknowledged them with nods. From a portico, she watched hot air balloons rise in the distance over tourists who moved slow and thick like lymph draining from the jungle’s capillaries.
“It’s tied to a rope,” Denver said. “It just goes up and down. Otherwise it could land anywhere.”
He set his hand on top of hers. The dirt from his palms covered her pores, and she squirmed. “How I’d like that. To go up and land anywhere,” he said.
Molly felt sick by all the people looking in Cambodia. French explorers looking for treasure, foreign nations looking to preserve the pieces with their money and their ideas, locals looking for tourists to sell to, Denver looking for meaning. She left Denver up above and returned down the stairs. An old American couple got in front of her on the stairs. She couldn’t climb beyond their pasty, wrinkled arms. They emitted dismayed grunts with each step. She tried to imagine them climbing these stairs in the first place but couldn’t and was then on the ground again. She ran outside. She ignored the faces until she reached the parking lot where kids tried to sell her whistles and postcards. She couldn’t find Sovong’s tuktuk and she spun in circles. Another driver started waving at her. When she followed him, Sovong perked up from his hammock and slid out. He waved to her as he stowed it away.
“It’s really okay,” Molly said. “You can sleep.”
“Where’s Denver?” he asked.
“I wasn’t feeling well. I just left.”
Sovong returned the seat to its position and procured a bottle of water from the cooler behind the motorbike. “Please, drink,” he said. “You can sit here.”
She sat in the backseat and drank down gulps and gulps of the water. Black specks, like smushed bugs or forgotten dirt, were pressed into the bottle’s lips and she wondered if it was clean but then she cracked open another bottle and drank that too. She imagined the specks as remnants from other women looking in Siem Reap, pressed into albums like leaves or butterflies. Sovong sat down across from her and smiled. “Are you okay?”
Molly reached into her bag and pulled out the photo of her mother. A fold was turning the middle of it white, an equator artificially driven into her left shoulder. “Have you ever seen this woman?”
Sovong took the picture in his hands. He rubbed the crease with his index fingers and muttered into his hands, words in Khmer that Molly would never know. He looked at its back before returning it to her. “Who is she?”
“My mother.” Molly held the picture up. Angkor Wat was somewhere in the background, not quite visible for her to superimpose the image of her mother over it, but her mother wasn’t quite visible either, so she could imagine the woman walking the dirt paths looking for something that Molly didn’t know. Or maybe she was in there now, looking for Molly, carrying a picture from her aunt and asking everyone if they’d seen her.
Molly cradled her knees to her chest. She smoothed dirt off of her shins and into her palms. “There are many people who come here,” Sovong said. “Maybe I have met her once.”
They watched tourists walking back from the palace. Parched, sweaty, and red. What if she were a tuktuk driver, waiting for people, catching sleep in the time it took people to have a photo shoot in a thousand-year old decaying palace? What if she bought dubious bottles of water for those tourists?
“How many people do you remember?” Molly said. “You must have so many customers a week.” Molly’s stay would last a month. Denver was staying longer. Molly wanted Sovong to remember her. If her mother came through, he’d know that he’d met the daughter. She was different from the others, the tourists who used the place and spat it out once they were done, spitting it out in souvenirs on their shelves, art prints hung on office walls, photos in albums that collected dust and water damage.
Sovong smiled. “I sometimes see fifty people a week. Nobody keeps in touch.”
Denver wouldn’t either. He’d go back and tell stories of finding himself in Cambodia, where people were connected to what matters. He transcended barriers and connected with locals. People like Sovong. He traded sightseeing for human connection. Just like he’d trade the act for a job in investment banking in three years.
Denver returned from the temple, his man bun darkened with grease and sweat. “What happened? Are you feeling okay?”
“Nausea,” Molly said. “It’ll pass.”
Molly got an email from her aunt. “Call me when you can.” After fiddling with the hostel’s wifi connection, she sent Denver out for takeout and made the call. A body had been found in Kenya. The local police identified her from an expired driving license and old university ID card. The only phone number written in her wallet was her sister’s, and they called her about getting the body out.
They couldn’t be sure what got her. She was thin, thinner than she should’ve been, and she wore signs of dehydration, tracks on her arms from needles and razor blades, bruises on her neck from unknown hands belonging to unknown places.
When Denver came back, he found Molly huddled under the covers, sweating. He pulled her close, and she found his tattoo. “Nice woman. Nice woman.”