The front page of the local papers always upset me so much that I avoided looking at it when I walked past the newsstands. It was something about Cambodia I could never understand, this obsession with violence. Obviously, it had much to do with the nation's recent past, a past that would leave any country scrambling to heal its lacerated sense of self and identity. But why did the front page always have to be so gruesome?
Often, the full sized picture that adorned the front page was faked. If nothing gory had happened, the editors made something up. The picture of a man eating a fried baby wasn't real, a friend versed in photo touch ups reassured me. It didn't help my revulsion however, or prevent the nausea and nightmares. The picture of the decapitated and de-limbed body was debatable and the staff at my favorite local restaurant laughed when I turned pale upon showing it to me.
A lot of the pictures were real, however. I lived near the telephone booth that was blown to smithereens along with four bodies by a grenade, so I could attest that the picture of the aftermath was authentic. A friend of mine was riding a motorbike behind the pregnant woman who was run over by a truck, causing her to give premature birth on the dirty dusty street in Siem Riep. Hence, we knew that that photo was also real.
Even after 18 months of living in the country I couldn’t understand the fascination with death and violence. Snuff pictures of the sort featured on the front pages would never be published in the papers back home and for this I am thankful. I abhor violence. I didn't sleep for weeks after reading American Psycho and I never rent horror flicks. My mind is too delicate and I prefer not to fill my memory bank with images of gore for fear that they might haunt me in the night. Often I conjure them up myself anyway.
The most horrific picture was one that I saw only days before my departure from the country. I could not avoid looking at it, nor can I now suppress it from memory. In comparison to the others, it was benign and lacking in obvious violence. It will live not only in my mind until the end of my days, troubling me with bad dreams, but in my heart also, where I have made it a special place. A place of honor.
I first met Carl in a hidden, dirty guest house in Bangkok, when we had a hearty laugh over another guest, a hairy man, who spent the early afternoon prancing about the halls in nothing but a thong. It had been a bonding moment, but shortly afterwards we parted ways only to meet several months later at the apartment of a mutual friend in Phnom Penh, where had both had decided to settle down. We were instant and fast friends
Carl was a rare gem. He was a beautiful person, the kind you feel lucky and grateful to know and have in your life. He moved into my life, filled in the empty spaces and gave me laughter. What I remember most is the laughter. The laughter that took hostage of our bodies, seemed to last hours, but was always missing from his eyes.
I didn't spend a lot of time with Carl, but he knew me better than most. He was the only one who could pull me away from a group, in a moment of reverie, peek underneath my smile and ask, "What's wrong?" He healed my hurts. He nursed my wounds with soft words and cradled me when I needed it.
But his own suffering was deeper than I could conceive.
Carl was an alcoholic in the truest, fullest sense of the word. He wasn't a college kid on a month long bender, but a man on this side of complete abandon. He drank locally made moonshine, the kind of liquid that can burn a hole in your insides if you are not careful. He often passed out at parties and needed to be helped home. He occasionally lost his possessions. Sometimes even his shoes.
Despite his self-destructive behaviour and self-deprecating manner which tried to always tell you the opposite, Carl was brilliantly intelligent. Except during times of complete inebriation, he was eloquent, well spoken and could debate you into surrender on any topic. He was also one of the few ex-patriates I knew who attempted to learn how to read the local script. A daunting task.
Carl was generous to the point of stupidity. Besides meeting his own basic needs, he gave away the majority of his paycheck to his friends and neighbors. He felt it unjust that he should earn as much as he did as an English teacher, while the locals he befriended lived in abject poverty. To some he was a hero, to others he was an object of abuse and was taken advantage of on many occasions.
He was robbed several times by his young lovers. They even took his clothes, his bag, his white board markers. He always went back to them. He was so desperate for love, to be loved. There was one thing they could never take from him. Optimism. Even in a nation so openly homophobic, he thought that he could find love and acceptance.
The first I heard of Carl taking his self abuse one step further I was in the riverside village of Kampot in the south, during my farewell tour. I hadn't seen him in a few weeks and was shocked when his Khmer friend told me that Carl had started to use needles. We were outside the market and my heart sank. I knew I had to see him, because even though he had never shared his pain with me, not wanting to expose me to that side of him, I wanted to try to reach him. I wanted him to know that despite our on and off friendship that in times of need I would be there, that he didn't need to protect me from the badness.
I would always be there for him.
On the Monday morning after my return from the country side, I found myself lazily walking along the riverside. I was beginning my farewells, memorizing the cityscape that had been such a part of my life. It was a hot day, as always, and I called a friend on a public use mobile phone to make arrangements for our daily coffee. I was going to propose that we visit Carl together.
The voice on the other end was calm as it gave me the news.
"Carl killed himself last night."
I felt blank. I had a moment of denial and then I knew what we had to do. I knew that we had to go to where he was and bring him back to life. Like in the movies. Like in the books I read. Carl hadn't been dead that long and I was certain that there was some way to make him live again. It was all a mistake and I, we, were going to have to correct it. I pictured his body, still warm, waiting for some princess or prince to bring him back to us, to me.
I wonder if everyone thinks this way when they lose someone.
It wasn't until a few hours later when I met with some mutual friends that I admitted to myself that he was gone. Red eyes and muffled voices greeted me. No one knew what to do, how to arrange a funeral in a foreign country, who to contact. My friends went to the hospital where his body had been taken, but I could not join them. I was afraid to be close to his body, knowing that I was powerless to wake him up. I didn't want my own incompetence to be obvious to everyone else.
I had to hide it.
I hid in the corners of my apartment. I stared at walls. I journeyed through memories. I yelled at myself for not preventing his suicide. Why hadn't I seen him in so long? What had been so much more important than visiting a friend? Why didn't I know?
The next morning found me again wandering along the riverside, this time with Carl by my side. I was visiting all the places we had been together, all the places that were part of our collective memory.
As I reached Vieyo Tonle, a regular hang out and the starting point for many adventures, I was greeted by the excited and beaming faces of the waitresses. They motioned me to come over and chat, as always excited to see me. There was something amiss, however, there was something else in their eyes.
"Your friend. Dead."
"He come here before?"
"This is your friend."
Yes. That is my friend. Dead. My dead friend. Yes. Suicide. Yes. On the front cover. Dead.
The color picture on the front page showed a Khmer man standing next to a prone body. Carl lay on the dirty floor of the hospital. He had one hand on his chest, as if he had kept it there to feel his heart slowly fail, slowly grind to a halt and take him away from whatever on this Earth was harming him. Away from us. The other hand was held by the wrist by the man, who looked into the camera, proudly. He was confirming the death. He must have been a doctor.
All around the photograph were beautiful and elegant Khmer words. The alphabet that we had tried so hard to master together, Carl and I. His body was now entombed by foreign words, by an alphabet that he had tried to make a part of his life. I couldn't focus enough to read any of them. So much beauty, so much ugliness, all swirling into one before my eyes. I stood paralyzed, unable to answer any of the questions buzzing about my head and demanding my attention. For the first time, I didn't avert my gaze from the front page.
I stared at it, into it as hard as I could.
I walked away from the restaurant without saying a word. I knew the girls were upset to cause my reaction, but I didn’t care enough to return and assure them. I walked, the photograph flashing before my eyes. I imagined Carl, laying in the gutters of the dirty streets throughout the city. I could see him spread all over the country as illiterate farmers bored their eyes into his body. I thought of him wrapped around countless cuts of meat and fish in the markets.
I thought about the image, embedded forever in my memory.
This is a true story. All of it.