Crimson Tundra

Amy Benson is a writer, wanderer and woodworker. She lives in Brooklyn.

Juxtaposed: Discreet Stories, Old & New

The paragraphs of life that have gone well for me have always been fleeting and I wonder now if there will come a moment that will divide my life, forever after which I’ll have been cracked open, will have come to know that the struggle has been for nothing, that all the strivings of my lifetime won’t add up to something whole in the end, but rather remain islands of prosperity or of defeat, many of which I won’t be able to recall after a time. In fact, I believe this to be the only viable scenario. This discreet knowledge is the reason I’ve never been able to get married. Or to go home.

This is a paragraph I wrote while in Botswana sometime during this hemisphere’s winter – June, July, August, I don’t remember. I do remember that I was hungover when I wrote it and, unless I’m in Brooklyn in the wintertime, eating Mexican food and drinking Bloody Mary’s with Laura, I’m always depressed when I’m hungover.

Hangovers are not a new thing for me. When I was 24 years old, I moved to Brooklyn where I shared a room with an alcoholic boyfriend and an apartment with a batch of roommates whom, amongst the often rotating cast, held the following jobs: bartender, actor, theater producer, brewery distributor, waiter and musician.

We drank.

This was South 3rd Street in Williamsburg, back when S. 3rd was a Puerto Rican hold-out amidst the spread of the young, white professional, a place you could and did still see home cooked murals of the dead teenagers go up overnight on the sides of bodegas, where the survivors would light a nightly vigil inside of halved cardboard boxes and others would plot revenge; where muggy Saturday mornings were filled with the sounds from the island pouring out of tricked out Cadillacs; and where grandmothers perched faded pillows inside of window sills so as not to bruise their elbows throughout their daily surveillance. Where kids still skipped, playful and insidious, through pried-open fire hydrants.

South 3rd Street was a proper noun in the lexicon of our lives. The individual words had no meaning when you spoke them: souththirdstreet. It wasn’t a nicety of geography, or an address, but an event, a frame of mind, a shared hallucination. When we say it in retrospect, which we rarely do these days, we’re talking about a time in our history, one for which, among our group of friends, we have as much reverence and loathing as some do 1960s America. “When we were on South Third Street,” as if on a drug, as if everything in the years since has been a form of rehab given to very liberal ground privileges.

We drank a lot.

I recall a friend asking me during this period if I wanted to go hiking upstate on a weekend and that my response, after a moment’s consideration, was that I was not capable of hiking on a Saturday because I would, of course, have a hangover from the night before.

Alcoholics and addicts endure heartbreaks, we know this and we waver between pity and blame. They break things that can’t be fixed, their creative lives are squandered rather than enhanced, which was surely the goal. People die from this. But my demons have been a slow burn, always. I’ve woken up in hotel rooms with no memory of having checked into them, had sex with people I wished I hadn’t, been lucky to drive a car or even a motorcycle home without incident and missed a little work, but overall my stories are, mostly, tame. I, again mostly, keep it together. It is the insidious slow burn that I am speaking of here, the ways in which daily life is less crisp, in which my food doesn’t taste as good, in which my body swells, in which my depressive tendencies nudge through my defenses, in which my thinking feels a beat slower when I’m drinking.

Not drinking, as an activity or a lifestyle, is not something I’ve done much of over the past 12 years and spending the last 14 months living alone in the desert has brought this fact into a focus I can’t seem to get a proper handle on. It’s brought me to the beginning and the beginning, there doesn’t seem to be any arguing about, has to be Cindy.

There was a period in my life, which spanned from the age of 15 to that of 18, which was defined by a family neighbor named Cindy and that I have been trying to understand. But every time I tell myself the story, every time I write it down – a thing I have done again and again these solitary months – I have written it for effect. I’ve used the experiences I’ve gathered into myself through booze and drugs and splashed them across a page, in anything but plain English, for an effect I haven’t earned.

I started writing about these neglected memories in an attempt to explain (mostly to myself) how I ended up in New York. But it morphed into a revelation of what underpinned that move and perhaps every one since. I have been afflicted with a restlessness all my life, with a forgotten dream I want desperately to remember, with a seeking that has no answer. After all, I found Cindy. She wasn’t the one who came looking for me.

Things I know happened during those three years, in no order at all: I repeatedly sat in the middle of my bed late at night with the barrel of my father’s loaded handgun pressed up against the roof of my mouth. I repeatedly slept with Cindy’s 40-something doctor boyfriend when she was out of town and she knew of and encouraged this behavior for the sake of the “expansion of my sexual horizons.” When Cindy’s business began to falter, we used my connections to procure large amounts of cocaine, which we then sold in smaller quantities for profit. I stopped attending high school regularly and manufactured a lie about a rape in order to prevent myself being expelled from the expensive, private, all-female Catholic school. I called the San Antonio Police Department in a paranoid frenzy to “turn myself in” and was, bewilderingly, rejected and sent home. I drove a burnt orange 1969 Chevy Blazer into the Gulf of Mexico and left it there.


Cindy had no business in Windcrest, the south Texas suburb where my family established itself in the closing years of my father’s 30-year Navy run – a place where so many retired military families and couples settle that it isn’t unknown for neighbors to refer to one another by rank, rather than name. At 40 she was the youngest person on our block by ten years. Her feet were forever propped up into pumps, her dyed auburn hair fluffed up into a frenzy, her cigarette stained fingernails masked with red paint, her jeans a size too small. Her car, a leased black Lexus with a perpetual wax job, Joan Jett’s voice creeping out of its windows, was not the sensible grey Camry or Cadillac (this distinction dependent on rank) that you typically saw.

Her presence was odd and this was not the kind of place where odd was something a person could particularly be. She would come and go within three years on a block and in a neighborhood where people tended to settle in. Our own house had been inherited from my mother’s parents, my grandfather (army) had bricked over the tiny yard and constructed a latticework canopy, my father had planted citrus trees and grapevines.

At 15 my restlessness began to manifest into the understanding that to earn my own money was to know freedom and after failing as a dish busser at a motel diner three miles from our house (I could walk it), I created a flyer for myself and my varied services (lawn waterer, carpet vacuumer, etc) and gave them to all of our neighbors, including her.

Cindy lived alone with two shaggy white maltese dogs who had been trained to piss and shit on stacks of old newspaper, which laid on top of a plastic tarp in a corner of her bedroom, and so to work for her was to gather these newspapers up twice a day and to lay out fresh ones. It was to empty glass ashtrays, to vacuum the pool, to prune the bushes, to polish her glass shelving, to scrub the dog piss from the carpet, to wax the Lexus, to transform, after Halloween, the entire sun room into a Christmas display of wooden train tracks and elf figurines and to scatter fake snow. The older of the two maltese fell into the pool one morning and drowned and Cindy attempted to resuscitate it with mouth to mouth and on that day to work for her was to fold the corpse up into a towel and to drive it to the vet, a thing which she could not face.

For a long while, I was a child and she was an adult and I would walk back across the street on my lunch breaks and eat bowls of dry Fruit Loops with my fingers and sit on a stool and watch the interior design channel on the kitchen television with my mother. And over time I must have stopped doing this because I know I began taking my lunches with Cindy, which meant driving to the Starbucks on Broadway (there was one closer but this was the more fashionable of the two) and ordering frappuccinos (my first experience with coffee) and drinking them in the car on the way back to Windcrest. She never ate solid foods during the day and very often dinner was a fistful of cherry twizzlers and some form of vodka (lemon drop martinis were a favorite), which she kept in the freezer. I – a swimmer, a runner – would hold my breath and roll down my window when she lit her post-frap cigarette.

We would detour every once in a while to a second hand clothing store in a better part of town where she would force me to remove my baggy t-shirt and jean shorts and dress me up in couture, liking the way the fabrics stuck to my small, 16-year-old by now, frame. She had an adult child, a daughter somewhere in her early 20s back in West Texas, but she was chubby and Cindy resented it and for a series of other reasons, that one included somewhere, they no longer spoke. She bought me Armani and Perry Ellis and Gucci and Versace and Chanel and a woven thong bikini, which I kept hidden in a drawer for months until I was emboldened, surely by drugs, to wear it to a late-night pool party we threw. I kept it for years, hauled it around with me to Austin and the Bronx and Syracuse and Brooklyn, but that was the only time I ever wore it.

And throughout all of this, I was mostly silent. A thing I have never been able to untie myself from, even in adulthood, is that I am shy and withholding for quite a long while with people who come into my life and that making friends is, in general, an agonizing and prolonged process, which requires undue persistence on the part of the other person. And so, necessarily, she revealed herself to me. She revealed herself to me on the drives to Starbucks and from her bed when I would come to clean the toilets and she was too depressed to get up and to work, still swirling from a recent divorce. From the desk in her home office, in between the many phone calls she would take from the headset she tucked in around the auburn hairs. Her voice was thick and she was almost always smoking (Virginia Slims) and tapping ashes into glass ashtrays. She revealed herself to me also in drawers. I began staying over to watch the dogs (singular ‘dog’ after the drowning) when she went away on business and I went through everything and her life as presented to me in drawers consisted of: sex (condoms); smoking (Virginia Slims); opulence (forgotten wads of cash); solitude (divorce papers); nostalgia (faded pictures of Cindy holding trays of cocktails at the Playboy Club with a white puff strapped to her ass 20 years prior); and cherry twizzlers (cherry twizzlers).

And so because I am bad at making friends and was even worse in childhood, and because we had moved to San Antonio only a couple of years prior, Cindy became my friend, more and more my only friend, and I stopped being a child and she stopped being an adult and we knotted ourselves together somewhere in the middle.

We slipped into a sort of cultic devotion to one another – her, post-divorce, me, post-nomad. We were each the one the other truly trusted, the rest of the world a sort of series of apparitions, which we endured and humored, but we were ourselves, living inside of our best, most vibrant moments, when it was just the two of us. I would liken it now to those first weeks of love with someone new, but this was a different kind of madness and it lingered between us for two years. She was in every way the counterpoint to my mother and I think I detected, when they were in one another’s company (rarely), a triumphant air about Cindy, the knowledge that my loyalties had shifted, that all the hard-wired truths of my childhood were coming unglued, that I’d found in her a refuge from the military precision I’d forever found chafing, that she was now in command of my further education and molding.

And, for a while, she was.

Cindy ran a chancy business from her home office, from the headset, and my duties around the house expanded, over time, to include filing, taking messages, faxing (you still faxed things in 1998) and looking through hotel and resort brochures to compile enormous databases of information about their sizes, their locations, whether or not they had a spa. She planned and executed conferences and meetings for medium-sized businesses, and sometimes the clients poured in, she was flush, and sometimes the whole thing seemed cursed, her single employee would quit (again), she’d begin sleeping with a client (again), she’d fracture a vertebrae in her neck jet skiing in the Caribbean and amass an enormous hospital bill.

Meanwhile, I had begun, in the only portion of my life I kept separate from Cindy, cutting straws into thirds, buying razor blades in ten packs and snorting cocaine. Before I’d ever had a drink, before I’d ever taken a drag off a joint, before I’d ever had a fuck, I had snorted quite a lot of cocaine. And for this, Cindy cannot be blamed. One of the happy things that has happened to me as I’ve aged is that I have begun to imagine the future, when I let it turn over in my mind, in terms of how it will feel, rather than look. There has been a shift in my perception and the future, in my imaginings, has become a sensual place where I may or may not experience the world in given ways, but back then the future was a visual thing, a movie reel, and I imagined myself in various roles. I wanted to embody all of them, to live 100 different story lines at once, harbored zero regard for my well being or even particularly for my personhood.

The main thing was to nail the role and this I did pretty well. I have a particular talent for actualizing things I begin spreading rumors about (even if they’re just to myself), have always known that the best way to get something done is to say out loud that you’re going to do it, believe strongly in self-fulfilling prophecies. To whisper something out loud is to roll up a tiny snowball and then, if you’re inclined to go stand at the top of a hill, it’s out of your hands, the thing has a life of its own. I mentioned casually a couple of years ago that I was thinking about the Peace Corps and, because of this remark, for the past 15 months, have been trapped in southern Africa, having done little more than roll up a tiny ball and stand at the top of a steep hill.

And so the idea settled over my mind that my next great role should be young American drug addict and I bustled around setting up props. I had saved up my money and bought a small, round glass bedside table, the kind of wrought iron thing that you could lift the piece of glass from and I set the glass on my bedroom desk and loaded an enormous pile of sugar onto it (I didn’t know then that actual coke was generally dealt with in smaller piles) and I would stare at this mound and shrug and delight in the newness of it the way another child might delight in a new pair of shoes and I left it there for weeks and in this way rolled up my tiny ball.

Cocaine is everywhere. It’s as ubiquitous as a pack of cigarettes if you just simply ask and so I asked my brother’s pot dealer and I held onto the miniature baggie she sold me for a week, would massage it between my fingers, the little rock hard and sterile smelling and not at all the loose sugar I’d expected. I didn’t tell anyone – not even my brother – was alone in my bedroom the night I finally tried it, sat with crossed legs on the furry carpet that my mother had installed a few years prior and did like the dealer had told me: I chipped at the rock, pounded with my palm at what came off of it under my plastic learner’s permit license and scraped and chopped at it with the permit’s edge until I’d formed a short thin white line on the round glass. I hadn’t yet acquired a pretension about the denomination of the bill I used so I rolled up a $1, made a tight cyclone out of it and sniffed at the powder with my right nostril. It took a couple of tries to get it in there, to overcome the timidity of my nose, the revulsion to the foreign thing – I’d never even smoked a cigarette. But as I sat hugging my knees waiting for something to happen, I smiled and bounced my legs up and down a little, giddy and free and expecting to like it.

And like it I did.

I liked it so much that I began doing it every day. A little sniff in the mornings. Then more. I rapidly moved beyond the capacity of my brother’s pot dealer to supply me and she introduced me to the two Mexican nationals who supplied her – I don’t remember their names but they lived in an apartment adjacent to a trailer park a convenient ten minute drive from our house – San Antonio is one of those cities in which neighborhoods can flip on a dime – and I began spending evenings inside that apartment, a dark four walls. Newspaper had been plastered over the windows and I was always there among two other young girls – probably not as young as I was – who the Mexicans called “our ho’s” and one of them was always chain smoking clove cigarettes. Stains on the one love seat made me shy to sit on it at first, I’d pull up a paint bucket and turn it on its end to sit down, but soon enough I didn’t care and we’d spend hours inside that apartment, just waiting, always waiting, for some delivery, the clove cigarettes permeating everything. Every once in while we’d go for a drive, in one of their trucks and I’d be squashed in the middle of the bucket seat and one of them would scold the other with regard to his speeding, “Not while we’re carrying, man. Not while we’re carrying.”

I didn’t learn to smoke myself until I confessed the whole business to Cindy – it would be first her Virginia Slims then I’d move on to menthols, convinced they kept me high longer. Had I not told Cindy, the whole thing might have ended sooner. I wouldn’t have had enough money to keep it up, though this I guarded against. In addition to working for her, I had picked up a weekend job as a receptionist at a gym and after that a gig at the Jiffy Lube on Austin Highway – I labored under the cars, in the “pit,” with my hands overhead all day long, tightening and untightening screws and hollering things up to the ground floor and building for myself enormously grotesque biceps, which looked strange on my shrinking frame. I remember a period when I would knock on the doors of people I’d met – one of the Mexicans’ ho’s, Reggie, the manager of the gym where I’d worked, people I knew could potentially get me high after the Mexicans disappeared (I never found out what happened to them, they were simply not there one day and then were never there again) and they wouldn’t have seen me for a while and they would gasp. I was small to begin with and had lost 10 or 15 pounds to my habit.

But I did tell Cindy. I stumbled over it, let the words come out of my mouth, early on enough that it wasn’t yet totally obvious. I expected a stunned response, to be shunned, to be hospitalized, to be arrested, to have crossed a line that was farther to the right than anything we’d broached before. But Cindy was not that kind of woman. Cindy was the kind of woman who asked if I could get her some. “I don’t think anyone who has ever had a coke habit could have a line placed in front of them and not want it, not inevitably do it.” I know this now to be untrue, but this is how she felt and one night, probably that night, I got Cindy high and this night, whenever it occurred, I don’t remember it, divided our lives. From then on, coke was our focus, coke was our bond, coke was what we talked about and the reason we worked. And for the entire time, I was never older than 17.

From beginning to end, Cindy and I’s run, in its new incarnation, was almost exactly a year. I became a parlor trick after that, after I started doing it at school in the bathrooms – a few of the girls discovered me and they’d take me to their houses and gather a group in a circle around me and have me snort a giant earthworm of a line and they would yelp and gasp and be delightfully horrified at my tolerance. My mother kept an envelope in her closet, money my father would give her for Christmas or for her birthday and she had been saving it for years, for what I’m not sure. My parents have the money to go to Europe to buy expensive jewelry to purchase beach and lake houses, but they never, ever do. They are frugal and unpretentious and I imagine that this money was treasured and its eventual use meant to be thoughtful and wrought with a minor amount of guilt and I began taking it, a little bit at a time, until eventually it was all gone, all gone up my nose. I pawned their things. Small things, I’m not sure they ever knew. Cindy drove me to a strip club once, convinced we could support our habit if I took my clothes off and she waited in the car while the manager asked me, alone in his office, to give him a lap dance and while his back was turned for a moment I ran out, back to the car, humiliated and exhilarated and confused by the combination. I stopped pretending to go to high school and started going to San Diego, Memphis, LA and New York on “business” with Cindy and we hid our baggies of cocaine in our underwear on the planes.

We could snort an eight ball between the two of us in a night and I became convinced that the veins in my arms were collapsing.

Once, after leaving Cindy’s late to make the ten second walk back across the street to our house, I crawled right back out of my bedroom window with my sleeping brother’s stolen car keys. I drove for hours in the dark, my reality melting into a horror of paranoid delusion that left me convinced I was being followed – at a distance – by a pack of cop cars. Finally, unable to sustain the hours of anxiety that had unfurled out onto the highway, where I’d come to complete stops and exit my car to scream desperately in the direction of my phantoms, I called 911. To my pulsing mind, it seemed my only recourse. I couldn’t lead them home. I couldn’t be busted for evading arrest. I called 911, gave them my location, left my car on with the door swung open and let my cell phone drop to the middle of the street while I busied myself with facing a bit of shrubbery, my hands raised high in surrender.

One patrol car pulled up and soon another. The officers exited their vehicles with a crouched confusion, looking toward the shrubs that appeared to be menacing me. “What the…fuck?” the older one inquired, looking directly into my eyeballs, ascertaining that the only immediate threat posed in the ludicrous situation we now shared was from the insane girl before him. Immediately my mind exploded with clarity, the real cops pulling me back into reality, and I realized what I’d done. It dawned on me that I was still holding my arms up. I mumbled something about being sorry for the confusion and wanting to go home and the two of them stared, dumfounded, exchanging uncertain looks before the older one took a step forward, gazed at me as if to say “I hope you realize what a break you’re getting right now, young lady,” and told me to go straight home.

Other things happened this year. I learned to smoke crank, learned that it eased the comedown, learned to drive a motorcycle because the enforced concentration of driving one was the only thing that could give me a moment’s peace. It required so much concentration to ensure that I wasn’t going to die, that it was the only time I didn’t think about cocaine.

What I recall most acutely from this period, this period that as I turned 32 in October became 15 years removed from my daily life, is that I was an addict. This may seem an obvious enough jump, but to be an addict is to be something different from the person who runs, full of adrenaline, from a strip club to a parked car laughing; it is, for me, to be someone who, late at night, alone in her room, crawls on her hands and knees and is fully desperate and out of her mind and wants to find a morsel of white powder that maybe she, at some earlier moment, dropped and now needs to find, needs to suck on. Someone who, if she can’t find it, sits on a bed and holds a handgun, thinking she probably won’t use it but needing to hold it, needing to find another focus, something that is not the need in her chest. This is what I remember most. The moments alone at 2 a.m., scratching at my skin, staring for two, three, four hours at the small crack under my closed bedroom door, looking for a shadow to cross, for an intruder who never shows.


The need in my chest has shifted over time but never gone away, never become fully silent. I stopped doing cocaine abruptly a few weeks before turning 18 and have never touched it again, fought with Cindy, watched her drive a U-haul truck off our block and never heard another piece of news about her life, but that was not the end of this thing. It was the beginning.

I can picture my maternal grandfather pouring a glass of wine for the two of us, in his 90s now, explaining to me how he quit drinking two decades prior, slowly zoning in on the idea that “not drinking” to him had something to do with his personal ban on whiskey. I can picture the locked cabinet on my paternal grandmother’s liquor cabinet, a problem even in her 80s and I know that celebration in my family always includes fresh limes, from the citrus trees my father planted, squeezed into glasses full of gin and tonic and Texas-shaped ice and I would not change this. These are our ties, this is how we know we are home and safe, that the circle has been drawn.

But here alone in my concrete house in Botswana, I wonder about being an addict, I wonder why the joy has been drained from a glass of wine when I’m here alone. I fall backward in time and can’t see the lines anymore. It isn’t the first time that my past has become my present, that the lines have blurred.


The man who was the man in my life for five of the last eight years decided he was done with it in what seemed to me a swift instant. I feel certain he would describe it differently, would call to mind a tortured inching away from me and into the protection of his own dignity, but of course that isn’t how it seemed to me. I only got to hear about it after the progression had climaxed and I was in no way equipped to cope with the news.

For a long time, my years with him existed in my being as vast, raw swaths of undigested experience, overwhelming memories that I was not able to dismiss, as my conscious mind wanted to, as sentimental. They remained critical to who I was and where I was going, and yet I could not decipher the transcript. And so I stopped trying to. I did a lot of things when Garrett and I broke up – I took piano lessons, signed up for welding classes, I volunteered at a bakery and I dyed my hair orange – but mainly I drank wine by the magnum and fell back into ancient habits in ways I could get my mind around. Snorting adderall is not, after all, the same thing as snorting cocaine but here we find ourselves awash in semantics and split hairs, and it didn’t take long before I wound up in the hospital with a palpitating heart. When I was 25 a doctor informed me that my heart murmurs inside of my chest, which it isn’t supposed to do, and there isn’t any way to tell if my incessant jumpstarting of it has contributed to the phenomenon or if I was born with a malady, but the reality on the ground is that an amount of adderall someone else might be able to snort or swallow and get away with had me naked from the waist up on a hospital bed at 4am in Bushwick. That night there was an obese man on a bed to the left of mine with gangrenous feet and various nurses continually discovered and disseminated the news that it was from these rotting extremities that the overwhelming smell emanated. A drug deal going on between the men in the beds to my right was fantastically overt and seemed to draw the distress of exactly no one. There was human feces on the ground and there were orderlies who argued about whose job it was to remove it.

After we broke up, for men I mostly sought out strangers and kept them that way (one notable night I left a bar near my office, having gone in when it was sunny and come out when it was black and torrential, and asked an absurdly good looking kid with an umbrella to walk me to the train, during which time I suggested he walk me to his apartment instead. He said he worked as a model, that he was 23, and I was nearly 30 and he probably lived in a box in Brooklyn but was housesitting this night and we had sex in the bay window of the Park Avenue apartment and afterward he began to read me some poetry he had written. I dressed, and I left him naked in the doorway with his notebook in-hand, calling after me to ask my name, which I refused to give.). But I did date a little and one of these men was very smart and very good and I confided in him my fear that I was an alcoholic, an addict and he would, again and again, correct me: a lush. I was a lush, not an alcoholic, although I’m not sure I fully comprehend the difference. I think maybe he meant I am a seeker of pleasure, an ecstasy junkie, a glutton, a misanthrope of moderation.

But here alone there is very little pleasure left in my drinking. When I began writing this account I’d given up booze for three weeks. Since going into the capital to see friends this isn’t true anymore, but I currently don’t have any alcohol in my house and, as long as I’m alone here, I hope to keep it that way.


It seems over the course of these 14 months that I’ve seized a great many answers and then lost them. I suspect that I am never going to plateau, to even out, to know anything all that fully. Knowledge, forgiveness, wisdom if I’m lucky, might flitter into and out of my mind all my life, I’ll grow in spurts and shrink in others, and none of the answers will reveal themselves in the end. In the middle, maybe. But a swift breeze and they’ll be lost again.

And in some of those moments I think, probably, I’ll have a drink.


The Beginning, Examined

About memory, science will call a rational person to be mistrustful. To be wary of the seduction of it, to note the certain difference between an experience and the story of that experience stored in one’s mind.

Indeed, our memories tell us stories. Convincing ones, so compelling in their narratives one fails to recognize the foreign, even perverse, idea that nearly the entirety of one’s life is so unremarkable, so utterly plain, one casts it aside, can’t use it, has to make up stories to fill in the blanks.

Changes, significant moments, endings. These are the only things we get to keep and even these, precarious.

The psychological present lasts three seconds. A life lived in three second increments, the rest blurry, unreliable, made up.

Three seconds. The simple, the every day, are gone in a flash, lost forever, and yet these are the moments that comprise our lives. These are the moments strung together into the novel, the one we’ve all written, so that when they ask us – and they will ask us – we have something coherent to say. This is true even during, perhaps especially during, a trauma. It’s why people can’t remember car accidents. The car steady through the intersection, the next moment crunched into a pretzel with no witnesses to what occurred in between.

And so if I want to tell you a story, I ask myself, am I speaking about something that’s true? And I suppose I am speaking here about the fiction my mind takes as truth.

I look for clues, facts. The evidence unbetrayed by a biased mind. What was it like in the beginning? Those first two months.


I lived with a woman called Eunice.

Eunice was a fertile woman who had born five children, three of whom were still living, the others gone for reasons that were difficult to tease out. She had given these five children to a husband involved in politics in South Africa, for that was where she originated, and, for reasons equally vague but to do with those politics, they’d fled from there a handful of decades past and built a small home on a hill in eastern Botswana. At the foot of that hill, a school was eventually built, a college where the country teaches its teachers, and to their small home on their quarter acre plot they added structures over the years. After her husband died those structures became, according to Eunice, the reasons she had something to eat. She rented them to young girls, 18, 19, all of whom trotted down the hill in the mornings to attend the teacher’s college. She was the kind of woman who, the more you got to know her, the younger she became, was so hard-wired by now for the life she’d been born into that she was transcendent, seemed not to know that 78 was too old to unload a pick-up bed full of firewood and so she would, carrying one log at a time with the arm not assigned to her cain, hobble back and forth between the truck and the storage shed.

Serowe, where she and her husband had spotted their hill, was a village, albeit a big one, and she warned of “town life,” where, it was inferred, a girl could get herself into trouble. Trouble was warded off here by a curfew of sunset, and so she and I and the remaining ghostly son with whom I had a mutual avoidance contract, had our evenings together. The renters kept firmly to themselves, the only hints of their existence a single lit bulb in a window, the odd swoosh of old water tossed into bushes.

She took her meals during the day, I’d find evidence of them all over the house. Plates capped by other plates cradling leftover beans and wheat, rarely meat, for it was expensive and Eunice had little in the way of money. What little she did have seemed to be kept, at all times, either under the cushion of a chair in the living room or in her bra.

Eunice was satisfied with the foods to which she had become accustomed. Once, when her granddaughter came to visit, we took her in the antique pick-up to the market in the morning and she loaded a garbage bag full with greens, spending the rest of the day sprawled with her short legs stuck straight out in a V in front of her on a straw mat in the sun. She picked through them, chopping off the roots and, by way of washing, throwing the remnants into a bucket of water. The next day she cut the whole of it up into tiny pieces, which she boiled in salt, then laid inside of shallow baskets to dry in the sun. She sat posted in a chair, guarding the goods from chickens, and watched as a heavy wind blew by, which took half of the vegetables with it and, in her old croak of a voice, she said, defeated, “my morogo…” and this is still how I hear the Setswana word for vegetables in my head. In that ancient wheeze.

We were able to salvage most of it, which she kept stored in glass jars in a closet next to a foot-crank sewing machine and and she would reconstitute it with water and salt and packets of MSG, and it was this that I would find on her squirreled-away plates, with the beans and the wheat. I would offer her tea in the evenings, making it for myself more to pass the time than for an affinity for bush tea, and she would take a cup from me and pour into it four or five spoonfulls of sugar and it was three weeks before she looked down one night when I got up from my chair and said “tea?” and let a smile spread over her face and, still looking down, confessed that she does not like tea.

These evenings and nights I would pull on the flimsy handle that opened her front door, the same one that came clear off into my hand six weeks in, and find her either spread on her regular perch – a short couch formed to her round shape and laden with old woman paraphernalia – a crochet needle stuck into an amorphous square of yarn, reading glasses, folded fabrics for keeping her warm – or sitting on the floor with her feet stuck out in front of her like a child. Sometimes she was awake, but more often she was in the midst of one of her daily naps, either on her couch or on the floor, the small television encased in wood paneling with a turn dial, almost always blaring, Eunice undisturbed, mostly deaf.

I remember wanting to stare at her. Sometimes the scarf or bandana or beanie that covered her head at all other moments would have been dislodged by sleep and her features would seem entirely changed under her bald head. Her face pudgy but misleading, for she was vulnerable and old if you took her as a whole and even more so with her exposed scalp, but if you looked only at her face, its lack of lines, its enduring creaminess failed to suggest her 78 years. I would think to myself that I loved her in a way, loved her because each morning she got up before I did and when I shuffled into her kitchen from across the quarter acre at 6am, there was water boiling for me there, for the bucket bath I would take. Loved her because she was not inclined toward the farce of affections that seemed to have overtaken so many of the other “mothers.” When we met she did not squeal and lift me from the ground and throw the family cloth around my shoulders, not merely because her right leg would have prevented such theatrics, but because, I would come to know, Eunice would have thought it undignified and, instead, she shook my hand lightly and guided me toward her truck without saying much, content to let a relationship between us grow or not, in time.

That night, and in truth, many of the days that followed are lost to me now. As in a car crash. I recall our meeting, the gentle shake, and then I’m transported somewhere to a day weeks later, one of any anonymous, homogenous days, the endlessness of our training sessions, six days a week, eight, nine hours in an artificially lit room with 60 strangers, days draped in the pulsing tensions of ego, sexuality, insecurity, isolation and unease. I look for facts.

Mine was a separate structure on Eunice’s hill-top plot of land, a concrete house with a small porch attached and burglar bars sloppily welded to the front and only door. The whole of the house was a farce, a movie set. There were sinks and faucets out of which no water ran, a fridge that was not only not plugged in, the cord had been hacked into a splay of wire. The bathtub (a bathtub!) revealed itself not to be attached to, but merely shoved flush with the wall and the first time I stood in it splintery pieces cracked off into the water I’d poured, and so for those two months I bathed in a six inch tall round, red bucket.

I know I did not write these months. I did make some notes.

A close friend gave me a brown leather-bound notebook two nights before I left and branded into the front of that notebook are the words, “I am not the same having seen the moon shine on the other side of the world.” These words are mostly faded now, but I can still read them and I open the book to the beginning.

Sometimes, When Alone

I’m lonely and the loneliness seems to be taking the form of a sort of paralysis. I fuss around all day, roaming into and out of rooms, forgetting what it was I wanted and retreating back into the room I keep dark, a sun-free space, to lie on a mat and to wait. I figure emotions, like anything – like everything – are fleeting things. Surely if I just wait I’ll feel better later. Maybe tomorrow.

I have to eat sometimes and so I wander into the kitchen and open cabinets and peer into baskets and think about beans and how it’s impossible to eat them without first soaking them. So I slice a tomato and put its pieces on a plate and squeeze saracha onto them and eat with my fingers. I haven’t done my dishes in a few, maybe four, days and I have taken to sniffing forks, deeming them perfectly acceptable so long as I don’t catch a whiff of the putrid. The cold does not improve things. It’s late June now, I’m told July will be worse. It’s hard to concentrate on much, difficult to want to move around, the numbing creeping first into the fingers then spreading up the wrists.

Winter has come to this hot, hot place and as a friend who lives 300km up the road pointed out, “I’ve never been this cold with no prospect of getting warm.” In the morning I brave myself out of my sleeping bag and hustle outside to sit on a sun-soaked stone, my whole being turned reptilian with need. I look to the children, who always seem to know, and they stand in metal trash cans and face the rays, creating for themselves personal saunas that must be even more necessary than my stone. I feel certain they have no sleeping bags and as much as my house of cinder blocks holds the cold, their cubes of corrugated steel must be worse. Ladies rustle out of the forested areas unexpectedly. You’d have never known they were there, but here they come, six of them all with enormous piles of dead wood perched overhead, the day’s fuel, the day’s heat. The smallest one, maybe four feet tall, doesn’t carry a load but instead an infant on her back, strapped to her body by a carefully knotted yellow towel. Some of the others are in bathrobes, having gone to the forest in the same casual way that I would go into my kitchen to collect a match.

I sit on my stone and wonder if I smell like fire the way they do. At least in the crippling heat I could become clean. Had found a haven in water. Now I’m lucky to remember to pull my pants down at night and swat at my crotch with a handful of suds. For weeks, I’ve taken my long johns off only in spurts small enough to wash and to change underwear, grabbing at them afterward like a starving man after bread. Back on they go. Socks. I washed them once, resigned to sweat pants as they dried in the sun. The clothes I left on the line overnight were frozen when I woke.

Jake wants me to send pictures, provocative ones. I look at myself in the cheap distorted mirror that hangs from a little hook in my bathroom. It’s only big enough to hold my face and I wonder if my body is still enticing. I have seen it so rarely these weeks, have kept it hidden under my long johns. I am able to summon the courage to wash my hair perhaps once every two weeks. I always feel sick afterward, shaky from cold, have to use a towel to squeeze every bit of water I can from my head before rushing outside to find a slice of sunshine. I blow my nose and my forehead crushes inward with its constant winter pain. I stand on my tip toes and try to look down into the mirror, past the matted hair, dry and broken at the ends. My nails, typically bright with color, bare, my face announcing my age with new, sun-induced wrinkles, lips cracked from the dry air, my sandy long johns.

Sexy pictures?

The request is confounding, would be humorous if it didn’t depress me. A request from a life I wanted to leave behind, if only for a little while. I don’t want to stand on my tip toes and wonder about the state of my freezing, tomato-sustained body. Not here. I may not fully comprehend my reasons for being in Botswana, but I know that this is the opposite of whatever they are.

I wake up the next morning and I feel the same. That heaviness in my chest. It’s familiar, I’m afraid of it, had forgotten about it but my body knows. Ten hours sleep. I see no reason to get up. I lie awake with my eyes closed, trying to think nothing, trying to get the song that spontaneously creeped into my mind when I woke to go away. I try to tell myself, “just sit with your own existence. Just to sit with it, let that be enough.”

Later this morning, I face the dish pile. I will my fingers into the act of washing them, hoping this will help. Once finished I pull sneakers onto my feet, I tell myself I don’t have to run, I’ll just go for a walk. It’s Saturday and, at 2pm, the village isn’t yet at full force. They’ll come out later, to dance.

I pass a woman wearing a sweatshirt that reads, “Ohio State University.” A group of toddlers waddles by, each child evidently responsible for a pudgy chicken, big feathery masses held tightly to their chests and I say, “You have chickens!” and smile and they say “You have chickens!” and as I walk farther past them I hear them behind me, deconstructing the sentence. “You, you, you… have… have chickens, have chickens.” Other children, as ever, call out my name:

“Lorato, Lorato, Lorato.”

Always in a repetitive way that I’ve never understood. My favorite child, favored for her boldness, her eagerness to look me in the face and make herself known. So unlike the others. She’s three feet tall and calls out her standard greeting, the one that hurts my heart, that I know already I will one day miss. I can hold its exact sound in my head, each inflection, the sweetness of the little voice box.

“Hello, my friend!”

I hope she doesn’t outgrow the urge to do this until after I’m gone. I break into a slight jog, my shoes creating little valleys in the sand and I know that, for now, this is the beginning of it getting better.

On Leaving

When one joins the Peace Corps, she is allowed to bring with her two bags, weighing no more than 50 pounds each. Into mine I tucked clothes I would not have worn in what I, at the time, still thought of as “my real life.” My daily uniform had, for the last year, been an old t-shirt and ripped jean shorts during the summer, counterbalanced by a hoodie and black jeans during the winter. Clothes I’d wear to drive my little Genuine Buddy scooter across the Brooklyn Queens Expressway or, when I started staying over at Jake’s in the East Village every night, over the Brooklyn Bridge, to my wood shop in Red Hook. For this two-year outing, however, I’d spent a rushed afternoon hesitantly spending money on four modest, printed dresses, two long skirts, two long-sleeve blouses, three plain t-shirts, a soft green scarf, sand colored flat dress shoes, three pairs of quick dry socks, ten pairs of sexless quick dry underwear and a rain coat. I’d also placed into my bags two framed photographs – one of me clutching my best friend during the wedding she’d had six weeks prior and another of Jake and I taken at my going away party. In the photograph, he is looking calmly, squarely at the camera, while I am twisted into a drunken and admiring revelry, eyes squinted, my glance focused upward toward the side of his face.

There had been only one afternoon for this obligatory shopping because the weeks leading up to my departure were, in retrospect, probably somewhat misguided. Jake, who at this point I’d only really known for five months and who I had recently moved in with, suggested we get on a plane, fly to Milan, rent a BMW motorcycle and circle Switzerland as a way to commemorate the frenzied love affair that we’d decided, sadly, had an expiration date. We had met briefly three years prior, at a bar, through a mutual friend, and when I say “met” I mean after three hours and seven beers I took him home to the hovel of a room I was renting in Bed Stuy and we had sex, immediately after which I pointed out where his shoes could be found and suggested he find them. We hadn’t seen each other since and when we ran into one another again, years later, we loved this story, thought it was romantic. We told everyone this story and we told each other we would both still be single when I got home, that we would be together again then, but I think we knew that when things are over they usually stay that way, which is perhaps why three days after I left, via email, we changed our minds. Jake has a self portrait tattoo covering the entirety of his back in which his legs have been replaced by the bottom half of a motorcycle and his hands are thrust into the air, one holding a stack of $100 bills. This is entirely irrelevant to the story, just a fun fact. You’re welcome.

Anyway, so three weeks before I’m supposed to leave for Botswana, we go on this trip but the thing is that exactly 24 hours before the trip I realized I had a urinary tract infection, which if you’ve never had one (most men haven’t), feels a bit like someone dragging a razor blade across your genitals. So I go to one of these walk-in clinics that they have, I guess everywhere, but somewhat ubiquitously in New York likely because a fair number of its residents don’t, as I didn’t, have health insurance (a point I repeatedly, as a 30 year old woman, lied to my parents about – parents are obsessed with health insurance). So I’m in this clinic and I have, according to the non-doctor who works there, an exceptionally bad UTI and he explains that I should not, for the next ten days, expose myself to excessive sunlight, drink alcohol, do anything to aggravate my crotch area or have sex. And I’m about to go on a ten day motorcycle trip in a Mediterranean climate through wine country with my boyfriend. And this is the situation.

Naturally, of course, I do all four of these things to excessive extents and within a few days of returning home I am sicker than I have ever been. I am sicker than I have ever been and I still have my boss’ new website to finish, a media cabinet to build for Jake out of reclaimed lumber for our new apartment (we began moving into this new apartment not five hours after our plane hit the runway at JFK – also known as two weeks before Botswana), all the stuff I didn’t sell or give away from my old apartment to pack up and move out to my friend Katie’s basement on Long Island, to pack for Botswana, to groom myself for a photo shoot with Jake’s motorcycle as a present for the 40th birthday I was just missing, to have a going away party and to host my very recently divorced brother who was flying in for said party.

And so here I am, in bed one night, thinking how I don’t have time to be in bed but that I also can’t get out of it and Jake is out running an inaugural film festival that he’d founded that year so I’m alone in the apartment and it’s about 11 p.m. And the way in which I’m sick is so vague and foreign and difficult to pin down that I think perhaps I can simply snap out of it, so I get up and attempt to “snap out of it” and about halfway to the kitchen I become aware that I cannot walk and I fall to the ground and I’m naked and I realize that I am having a very difficult time remaining conscious, not because I’m tired (I’ve been in bed all day) but because there is something very, very wrong. And, at this point in my life, I believe that one of the surest signs of maturity is the ability to die or to have a panic attack with composure so I am attempting to text Jake in a relaxed manner, explaining that things have not exactly improved and he is responding kindly, but also in a way that one might when he is at an after party with exciting guests and drinks and the intoxication of an event that’s gone extraordinarily well.

And so things progress rapidly. I go from chill girlfriend who does not want to interrupt a good party to calling 911 and also Jake, asking him to hurry home so that he can perhaps put pants on me before the, what will surely be male, paramedics arrive.

As a bit of background on the lovely apartment we (technically, Jake) were now renting, our landlord was an Italian drug dealer who owned a bakery on the ground floor that had been in his family for four generations and he only rented to friends of friends, keeping rents down in exchange for tenants who got it. Tenants who wouldn’t cause scenes, who looked the other way if and when streams of pot heads or junkies filed in and out, who wouldn’t draw attention to the place, who just generally got it. And we did and we had a sweet, sweet deal in a neighborhood where there haven’t been any sweet deals since 1992.

Frankie (yes, seriously, Frankie) had recently put a man in the hospital for “working him over with a baseball bat” because he “got out of line.” And so we feel very lucky to have this apartment and we love it and we have been painting it and one afternoon I spent four hours scrubbing scum off of the kitchen cabinets. Above all, we are trying not to piss off Frankie, to illustrate that we are “cool.” And two days after we moved in, I am sitting in a windowsill in the kitchen and Jake is smoking over my shoulder out the window and I lean back to give him some space and the vase that I had stupidly placed there falls, goes directly through the awning of the bakery and smashes into the sidewalk in front of Frankie’s building. There is a bar next door and people had been outside smoking and their attention is now focused squarely on the building and the awning is ruined and a piece of the glass has smashed into the windshield of Frankie’s truck, cracking it, and we, 30 and 39 years old, respectively, are now hiding in our apartment. But it’s clearly us and Frankie calls and it’s awful but we are eventually forgiven and less than 48 hours later I have literally called the authorities to the building. And so illustrating that we are “cool” is not going well.

When Jake gets home, he is drunk and adorably trying to take things seriously and to “get it together” but really he is just circling me like a well-meaning shark and it takes the both of us, him drunk and confused, me ever closer to unconsciousness, to locate pants and a tank top which he sort of succeeds in outfitting me in and we begin to hear sirens and Jake scoops me up, carries me down five flights of stairs and three quarters of the way down the block to meet the paramedics – both of us aware, without having to say it, that this is necessary for vague, Frankie-related reasons. And they put me in the back of the ambulance and I lie about my name and social security number, and I spend the next two days in the hospital hooked up to an antibiotic drip, which is meant to eradicate an aggressive kidney infection.

I’m eventually released and I walk the 30 blocks home feeling thoroughly flushed out and realizing how very much I am going to miss New York. And I shower for the first time in three days and begin to understand that I have quite a lot of things to do and so instead of doing them I go out to dinner with Jake. And about a week later he drives me to Philadelphia and we hug and cry and eat a $100 cheesesteak and I go to Botswana.


The village of Sese sits swollen on the ancient plains that are the Kalahari Desert’s cruel sands and stabbing scrub brush. Like so many villages peppered across the Texas-sized slot of earth called Botswana, it would be thought an anomaly by anyone studying up on the quite literally unparalleled awesomeness of this country’s development since Britain bowed out half a century ago. From not one road to liberate its people from the single-minded procession of dirt and boulder, to an economy eclipsed on this continent by that only of South Africa, Botswana is a celebrated nation among what the world prefers to think of a sea of dark grief.

This, however, would not be the first thing a traveler to Sese would note. Here is a lonesome triangle of earth where children play nude in overturned hunks of rust that were once cars and vie for the feral right to scoop fistfuls of discarded beans out of heaping metal bowls. Grandmothers recline atop the sand on worn pieces of cloth placed alongside diminutive shacks of corrugated steel, and no matter the weather – be it the churning midday heat of October or the hysteria of February’s cold winds – their serene stoicism offers the impression that they have been sitting there since the beginning of time.

Men and women in blue jump suits preside over squares of sand, their ownership asserted by fences of narrow tree branch and flimsy wire. Iron and steel have, mostly, supplanted the mud and thatch one would have been witness to decades ago, and homes are dinky one-room metal affairs that roast in summer, freeze in winter and flood when the rains come. Their residents, numbering 2,000 or so, speak in cavernous, guttural tones that emit from the backs of their throats and throw into sharp contrast an outsider’s voice, inevitably anemic and nasal.

One reaches Sese by turning, depending on where you’re coming from, either left or right from a paved road onto a brown slot through the brush. There is a new green sign a few meters before the turn-off that reads, “SESE” in white letters. Four kilometers over a stretch of sand and gravel flanked by hibernating corn fields that blur off into the horizon, past a sharp dip where there is a minor salt pan and into the realm of unnamed roads and anonymous paths. Just before the dip, a lone homesteader’s piece of the earth hosts a smattering of dogs and donkeys, his two kilometer separation from the huddle of his 2,000 neighbors suggestive of an outlaw’s wisdom, or a gentrifier’s vision or maybe simply that he was there before Sese was and there he is still. He’s never visible from the road, never outrightly visible, occasionally one might perceive a rustle or a moving shadow through the weaved branches of his outdoor kitchen.

Donkey carts hug the perimeter of this path, flat, wooden, ancient beds supported by enormous birch wheels carrying drums of water, sacks of maize, tires, spinach, people, everything, nothing. Boys or men spank packs of two or four donkeys with leather whips that crack louder than you’d think. Cars and trucks own the middle, flying by, mocking the carts, sometimes seemingly as ancient, sometimes new or at least not old BMWs or Mercedes, for this too is Sese. Sese is a three hour walk or a twenty minute drive from the world’s most profitable crater, a hole in the earth from which men and machines haul diamonds. And though the BMWs and the Mercedes stop in, their owners are mere tourists, would never think to live here, are dropping off workers, and along with them the wisdom of civilization’s prized Things, the wisdom that inspires the high heels a few teachers wear to walk through the sand, the phones young girls barter their bodies for, the chronic question: “When will you take me to America?”

It is not plain who was here before the digging began and who came after. To be sure, this was settled land. There are those who reminisce about plowing and harvesting and fashioning sandals out of leather, but those are few and they speak quietly and the great majority of the men and women who live here weren’t born here. They came mostly from other places in Botswana, but also from Zimbabwe and Zambia, their lives surely complicated but their reasons for coming to Sese simple. The mine, a 20-year-old funnel, employs thousands and many of them pack daily into the cramped, shockless vans that serve as shared taxis between Sese’s sand roads and the mine – little moving microcosms of Botswana life filled with loud music and gossip and contradictions. Riding in these vans it is possible to see, within the same blink, both a man in a business suit and a woman in worn out rags, her breasts heaved up over her collar ready to feed the small child she has absentmindedly handed you.

The population of Sese grows nearly daily but it was two years ago that the most devastating migration occurred. The government of Botswana evacuated and destroyed the slums nearer the mine where workers and their children slept and ate. They came en masse and flooded the small village’s single school, its solitary clinic. Also its bars. A single stretch of V-shaped gravel would serve as Sese’s main street, if it had one, with homes webbing out haphazardly for a few kilometers on either side. Aside from the school and clinic, on this road one finds one general store where bread, tomatoes, onions, sacks of beans, small candies, cigarettes and warm, treated milk can be bought. One also finds five bars. Cramped, mostly electricity-less, concrete “shabeens” where day and night, milk carton-like containers formerly filled with home brew scatter around in the wind.

The mine has recently announced plans for an expansion and surely it will require more labor, continually pushing Sese along into critical mass, a new crop of pioneer nomads ready to nudge the boundaries of what one resident calls “this condemned place,” ever further into the brush.

Here, one might be convinced she has, at last, found the final horizon on earth.

The Clinic

On a Monday, in the dead of the Kalahari Desert summer, I had a 2 p.m. meeting scheduled with the village doctor, a man from the Zambia border region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, who accepted the Botswana government’s offer because, unlike his own, this is a peaceful country. There have been no bloody revolutions here, no fissures between races.

I had been to the clinic several times before. I stop by simply because my new life consists largely of seeking out hives of human activity that are not bars so that I don’t have to be alone all the time. Between this and spending nearly 30 percent of my waking hours immersed in cool bath water to stave off heat stroke, I am very busy. Anyway, there are few such places in Sese and, though I work with the school, helping out at a clinic stupidly seems like the kind of thing someone who has just arrived to volunteer in Africa should be doing, even if that person has no medical background whatsoever. So they know me there, and the nurses have given me little nicknames and want desperately to braid my hair. They often take great joy in weighing me and and if I happen to weigh a few ounces more than the last day, they are thrilled to be able to inform me that I am “getting fatter and fatter!” A great compliment in Botswana culture.

I usually sit next to Cecilia, a 27-year-old nurse who claims she is older than me because she has two children and I have none. I do her job for her, which is to count out pills from really big bottles and put them into smaller ones. She lets me do this both so that she doesn’t have to and so that she can methodically convince me to take her to America as my maid (both the school principal and vice principal – two educated, intelligent women – have made the same request). As I count, she strings together passing and loud commentary about the patients who present themselves at the window in front of us. This one is insane. This one is HIV positive. This one smokes too much marijuana. This one’s smokey blue eye hasn’t worked since the 90s when someone threw a rock at it. If they understand English, they make no sign that they are aggrieved by this betrayal of their privacy. Sometimes she interrupts her flow to attend to a tuberculosis patient in a breezy room to the right, where the windows are always left open to prevent the nurses catching it.

Occasionally, I do a pointless little lap around the clinic, unable to communicate with anyone, pretending to be “getting to know the community.” I take on this task by picking up people’s babies and patting children on the head if they don’t squeal and run away from me before I can get to them. Sometimes I go back into Cecilia’s room (there might be an official name for that room, but this is what I call it) and guiltily use hand sanitizer after these laps. I hope I stop doing that.

But anyway, I had a meeting on this particular day and when I made my entrance into the clinic, I was greeted by the aftermath of the apocalypse. There was not a single soul inside the clinic. Nobody to guard equipment or medications or to attend to patients, though there were none. I checked in Cecilia’s room and the doctor’s office and rolling chairs were cast to the sides of rooms everywhere, looking as though their previous occupants had stood up from them aggressively. Whirling fans were the only sign of civilization and, without patients and nurses hustling about, I was free to realize how loud and knocking they are. They continually threatened to fall from their perches and decapitate me. I had just walked 30 minutes in the mid-day heat to get there and was looking for somewhere to sit down when I realized that the benches I always see sardined with patients are missing most of the boards that are supposed to act as seats and that those that remain are either crooked or splintered. I sat on the floor and surveyed what else sat on the floor – a few bricks, empty bags of chips that read “monkey gland flavored!” being tossed about by the fans, crumpled papers, pill bottles and string left by a mop that had once, presumably long ago, been used to clean the floor. I saw a broom in the corner and noted the little piles of beetles that the sweeper had created in several places, somehow paying no attention to the trash. Flies were ever-present. I read a sign informing patients that “pregnant people and prisoners” do not have to wait in line.

As I sat, I noted that without the human pulse to distract me, this is what the clinic looks like. I also realized, after looking again at the time, that absolutely nothing was wrong. Everyone was simply on tea break.

The First Moments We Were Alone

If you know me you know, and if you don’t I am informing you, that I very recently became a member of a U.S. government-sponsored organization called the Peace Corps. What this means most immediately for me is that two months ago I moved out of my apartment in New York City and in with a 78-year-old African woman called Eunice.

Four days ago I hugged Eunice, repacked the two duffel bags that constitute everything I own, climbed into a stranger’s pick-up truck and drove nine hours to what will be my home for a further two years. It’s a sparsely populated village in Sub Saharan Africa called Sese. You can’t find it on a map but you can find a speck of a town called Jwaneng, Botswana and imagine me 20 kilometers south of it. That one they documented because of the diamonds they haul out of a crater there. I wrote the following the day after the pick-up truck drove away and I was finally alone.


I wanted to begin writing in this state to document it. I know that my memory of this will smear when I adapt and normalize, and that the truth of these first moments will be lost.


The land changed on the drive from Serowe. It became lush and then it became bolderous and then it became raised swaths of earth, capped by enormous plateaus. Mountains that never peak. Then it became sand and we were there. We drove farther into the sand, snaked around tin shacks and plots of land, ownership asserted by fences of tree branch and wire. In the dark, I collected a stove and lifted it into the truck, surprised by my ability to lift it. I saw great holes in the ground surrounded by mounds and wondered what lives inside of them.

We pulled up alongside a woman and inquired as to where the teacher whose name I knew lived. The teacher who knew where my house was. We were told to count six houses ahead and hers would be that one. I knocked on the door alone and was grateful for the recognition in the woman’s face when I said my greeting and my name in Setswana. She was enormous on top and small on the bottom and holding a four month old baby, whom she handed to me so that she could collect keys. I worried that she was too old to gracefully get into the truck’s high cab but she was practiced and limber and directed us to the house as I held her daughter’s child.

The house is much, much nicer than the shacks around it. The floor is tiled, the door is wooden, there is a ceiling, there are walls of concrete and they are painted light blue and the rooms are large. There are two tables, three chairs, a chest with drawers terminally off their tracks and a bed. I’d been told to expect nothing.

The truck pulls away and I am left using the light from my Nokia to locate candles. I light six of them, in different rooms. In a cabinet I find an ancient candle holder that delights me and I enjoy carrying it from room to room. I remove my mattress from the front bedroom and drag it to the back where there is a curtain, being careful to avoid the candles on the ground. The sky burns intermittently with lightning. I have purchased tomatoes and crackers on the drive and I sit in the corner of the room watching the lightning through the windows, eating off the one tin plate I purchased in anticipation of this moment. I’m unable to wash the tomatoes because the little water I was able to get from the tap I’m afraid not to save for drinking. I don’t know when there will be more. I walk the perimeter of the house in the lightning storm and look for a standpipe with the light from my Nokia, but am unable to locate one. I collapse, still thirsty, onto the mattress and sleep for 9 hours.

My alarm at 6 a.m. confuses me. I wake up and pace. I’ve given myself 30 minutes to prepare to leave for the school. I hope I remember the way through the sand. I need more sleep.

I scrounge through a pile of semi-dirty clothes that I haven’t yet been able to unpack. The least wrinkled item, something that covers my tattoos. I’m able to get an inch or so of water out of the tap and into a bucket to wash my face and teeth.

I trudge through the sand, unable to keep my normal pace, clumsy strides and working calves. I meet my neighbor for the first time. She exits her 6 by 6 tin enclosure wearing a blue jumpsuit and we meet at the fence. I stare into the desert that exists beyond her plot. She asks me if Saturday I will pay her to clean mine. My Setswana is terrible so at first I think she’s thanking me for cleaning the yard but then I concentrate harder and her real aim becomes clear. I look around me not able to comprehend what about my plot is not clean, as the abandoned one next to mine is full of empty beer bottles and dumped, dead brush. I tell her no thank you, I will do it.

I follow the children, dressed also in blue trousers and shirts. They – both the children and the clothes – are stained red in parts from the sand. We squint, they scare me. I try to remember they are just children. I think they want something from me. I decide I don’t know what I’m doing. That I have no skills, no incisive questions. Children walk around me and near me and close behind me, gawking. Asking for money. Not being able to hold my gaze. Looking at me with just as much amazement at my existence as I have at theirs.

The school head and I speak for an hour. The HIV rate is high because of the diamond mine nearby. A shiftless existence, workers coming, going. Men and women away from their families. Everyone drinking too much. I’m told they ignore their children.

A student of about eight years is marched in front of me and it takes me a moment to register the gash on the left side of his bald head that’s actively leaking blood in a trickle down his cheek and off his chin into the sand. I squint at him and at the boy who has evidently caused it. A thrown rock. I’m told this is what happens because the parents aren’t parenting. I’m told that when the kids stop coming to school – kids no older than 12 – it’s often because the mother is sick, dying of AIDS and the child must run the home. I stare at the bloodied child, not fully able to focus on him. His eyes won’t meet anybody’s and he stifles small sobs that are evident only in his hiccuping chest and streaming tears. His eyes register nothing. I want to feel something for this boy, but I don’t. I think only that I will write something down about it and I wonder if I’ll have the capacity to feel anything for anyone while I’m here and if that will matter. I don’t know exactly why I’m here but I know I hoped to feel something. One of many self-involved reasons for coming.

The school head says I must meet the chief so that he can tell the villagers that they have a visitor and that I must be left alone. I must be taken to the clinic, I must be taken to the homes of the children who no longer come. It can be done tomorrow. She tells me to go home, to rest.

I’m home, staring now out of my window watching donkey carts go by commanded by men in blue jump suits. Almost everyone I saw this morning was wearing a blue jumpsuit – men and women both. Men and women from the mines.

I pace, not knowing what to do. My brain will not normalize to this. Not yet. I sit on the porch, I eat a banana. Then cashews. Then an orange. I keep my mouth and hands busy so that I won’t have to be alone with my brain. Two years here. Can I be here for two years? I can feel the heat of the day coming, bursting into the slight kindness of the breezy morning and the absolute nothingness of my view. One of the men steering a donkey cart, he’s gone by twice now and I have confirmed it, is wearing a Santa hat. It’s October.

Notes on Coming Home Again

Identifying the exact moment in time when my mind no longer belonged to the self-loathing and lapsed space that chiefly defined my depression is not a thing I’ve been able to do with any success whatsoever. Still now, a year and a half after the fact, the start of the thing is the only part I feel any lucidity about. These were the days, and eventually months, that followed my return home from half a year in Asia. I came back to my apartment in Brooklyn on a day in December, and it is this time and place that you and I will agree to refer to as the beginning.

I flew into Newark after paying $800 I didn’t have for a new ticket so that I could stay in Thailand for four extra days. My original flight left Bangkok on December 14 at 9:10pm. I was 950 kilometers away from the airport at the time.

I had been traveling for nearly four months with a man I loved, but after too much time on the road together no longer liked, and, finally, I found myself without him on a small island in Southern Thailand. There was an Italian man who was nine years older than I was and the second day I knew him, I climbed barefoot onto the back of his motorbike so we could find the southern tip of the island where he was sure “his beach” was. When we found it, we ate glass noodle salad on the sand next to free-roaming elephants and watched the sun set over the Andaman Sea. I was dressed in only a bathing suit and sarong and he drove me back with one hand while rubbing my legs warm with the other.

On our third morning – what was to be my last – I woke on the hardwood floor of the damp bungalow we’d come to share to a mess of melted candle wax and limbs, and pages from his Australia Lonely Planet book and our quiet talk about making our way together. There was no mention of the airport and when the time for my bus came and went we wandered outside to the beach and laid down in the sand where Pablo wrapped me in a sheet and called me his American girl with strawberry hair.

I would have stayed longer had I not promised my mother I would be home for Christmas.

When I finally did go home, it was to my old loft in Bushwick. The ride from the airport was cold but I opened the windows to the cab and let the air burn my face, not wanting to miss what I had anticipated would be an impactful moment. I’d invented a cocktail of two ambien and some unknown quantity of Jim Beam on the plane in a futile attempt at sleep, though, so whatever moment may have occurred was lost on my sleepless, boozy brain and instead I rolled into my neighborhood without a cogent thought in my head and hauled my backpack up three flights of stairs to an apartment where the paint peeled back from the walls, the ceilings poured rain and the floors sloped to one side. Mice skirted around the exposed wiring in the fuse box.

I had turned 29 during the trip, a fact that presented itself unsolicited to my consciousness as I stared stupidly at my bed, the legs of which sat in dishes of five-month old cooking oil and were surrounded by a powdered poison – souvenirs from a bout of bed bugs before I’d left. It was there that I made another attempt at sleep, trying to unthink the facts of my present existence, namely that I had no job, a mountain of bills and the knowledge that I wasn’t capable of going back to the work that had sustained me through my 20s.

Some time later – twenty minutes or seven hours – I woke to the sound of the boyfriend I’d parted ways with in Bangkok pounding on my door. After we had both discerned that I was in fact alive, he left me in a puddle of tears on the poison powder-encircled bed and I slept in fits of sweat and Jim Beam and jet lag for two days.

In the weeks that followed, thinking of myself as a writer and grasping for some way to define my newly rootless self, I would daily trudge to my local coffee shop and attempt to write. The depression growing inside of me seemed inexplicable and made even this small event a problem for my ego. There was no way to reconcile the hopes I’d had for this period with the smallness of how I felt, and I tried to teach people to unsee me by avoiding eye contact and wearing giant sweatshirts that robbed me of any hints of sexuality I might have otherwise possessed.

The first in a string of odd jobs was a bartending gig at a drag queen cabaret in the East Village. Two of the specialties here were a Paulina’s Pink Pussy and a Jessabel’s Poo Tang, neither of which I could competently make and, though this period of underemployment could wholeheartedly be categorized as a disaster, I did, as a small bright point, receive makeup and general beauty advice from the queens I was working the bar with, some of which I still employ.

I can only assume that the breakdown that occurred six months or so after my return happened then because logistical necessities were sorted enough that they could no longer shield me from the central fact that I was failing at reintegrating into my life. Post-trip blues exploded into the quiet withdrawal of basic abilities. I remember telling a friend that I was scared, but not being able to name the fear. I only knew that things like hygiene, nutrition, lucidity, speaking weren’t the reflexive components of life they once were and that the foreign nature of the brain I was now working with was more terrifying to me than anything tangible I could imagine then or now.

The symptom I was most aware of for some reason was that seasons genuinely surprised me. The rest of the world seemed to be able to predict their comings and goings with ease, whereas I’d walk into a 90 degree day in June with a coat across my shoulders without being able to comprehend who had alerted all of the other pedestrians to the passage of time. I was still dealing with February. Wasn’t February enough to deal with? How had people found the mental space to acquire shorts? Where had I been?

I don’t know what the breakdown looked like from the outside. I have a close friend who recently told me that I was “learning to have fun again.” I imagine this means the lack of joy in my life was clear, but I’m not sure in what ways. I know that to live it was to live with two basic notions, namely that my friends’ reactions to my lame attempts at describing what was happening (when I finally realized that there was an ‘it’ and, secondarily realized that it was necessary to discuss it) made clear the fact that they had not experienced the kind of abstract dread I was trying to describe. A thing that is its own brand of loneliness piled on top of loneliness. The second was the withdrawal of my basic belief in the dignity and value of my existence.

My mind would snap to the moment I was conscious, reminding me of all the ways in which I had failed it and making waking up in the middle of the night to pee a ridiculous exercise in meditation. Trying to quiet my mind enough so that I could go back to sleep. This is when I decided that peeing in a bucket next to my bed was perfectly acceptable behavior. The less time my mind had to gallop into the loops, the easier it was for me to fall back asleep.

The trip was intended to be a new beginning for me but the end of the trip was the real critical event in this case.

This would have been a very peculiar idea to me two years ago.

Some of the Soldiers, They Were Naughty

[Also featured on The Matador Network]

It took me a long time and five continents to learn what I know about the men you can trust and the ones you can’t, and my gut told me I could trust this man. Still. He was a man and I barely knew him so I fingered the six-inch gurkha knife I had tucked into my pants before I climbed onto the back of his motorbike. “The restaurant is not in town,” is all he would reveal.

John*, who had just returned to Burma following a more than two-decade exile, was excited. When we arrived at the stilted teak pier and shack that constituted the restaurant, I realized there was an air about him – one that hadn’t been there earlier in the day – of just barely suppressed intensity, like a person who had recently eaten a chili pepper. Time, I had discovered during the previous two weeks, was an extraordinarily flexible concept in Burma, yet he had arrived at my guesthouse precisely at 7 p.m. as we had discussed, wearing ironed blue jeans and a white blazer. I wondered if he thought we were on a date.

Earlier as we exited the gate from Nyaung Shwe, a substantial fishing village southeast of Mandalay, he drove clumsily and pointed to an unimpressive pagoda. “That’s where they changed my life,” he had said. Twenty-four years earlier, he had been the leader of the uprising that both brought Aung San Suu Kyi forth as a national icon and led to the public slaughtering of thousands of Burmese civilians.

I’d spent the afternoon watching him do business. He plucked me from a wrongheaded walk through the countryside outside of Nyaung Shwe and spoke to me in an English that, though fluent, was spiced with isms I didn’t recognize. He said things like, “up the spout” and “no good, lah?”

Having been on bicycle, he disembarked so that we could talk and, wheeling it between us, led the way to a small village. He was more carefully groomed than most Burmese I had encountered: His teeth were white and straight and his clothes were western, a polo shirt tucked into belted cargo shorts. He spoke of visiting Malaysia, Singapore, and Japan, even the States.

His frankness was unusual. In my experience, most Burmese were reserved around foreigners, while John freely offered up the fact that he was in the country “unofficially,” that he thought the recent change in government had a 50/50 shot at working, that it was all dependent on which of Burma’s current leaders lived and which died.

The business of the day, as it turned out, was something John called cut rice. A mixture of two kinds that are soaked, ground, cut into strips, dried and fried. John was in the village to negotiate a deal to buy wholesale and secure the exclusive rights to sell bags of these things one town over. He insisted that I sit on a log and drink tea while he made his case to the shirtless proprietor. The business meeting involved all present, including the 7-year-old kid who had showed us the way to the correct hut after demanding both money and candy and me (on my log), munching on cut rice and sitting in a semi-circle in a field around the proprietor’s sizable wife, who was actively frying in an enormous wok over an open flame. Cut rice had been this family’s business for three generations and I left clutching an enormous bag of it, a gift.

During dinner, John became more animated and excitable with each sip of beer. His giddiness was childlike and he picked up previously absent traits like running his hands back through his hair and laughing at his own jokes. Having become mildly alarmed at his newly manic behavior, I barely spoke except to steer his story telling from time to time. I sipped my beer slowly and tried and failed to formulate a plan for making sure he drank enough to keep talking, but not so much that he couldn’t drive me back. The night was black and still and empty and I didn’t know where we were.

Years before, when John was 16, his family had drained its savings and commissioned a forged passport that enabled his relocation to Malaysia. He had been wanted and hunted by the military junta that levied its brutal wrath against the people of Burma for nearly 50 years.

This was 1988. If December 2010 could be called the beginning of the Arab Spring, March of ’88 was the beginning of Burma’s. There had been a transfer of power within the military-run government that resulted in the devaluing of currency notes, a blow of particular significance to students, and to John and his brother specifically, because it wiped out the funds their family had been saving for tuition. Years of diligence and hopeful study were nullified instantly and something snapped within the country’s collective psyche. Normally obedient citizens protested. Riots followed. It was in response to these events that Aung San Suu Kyi took a microphone and a stage. Years later, after she’d missed her husband’s death and her children’s childhoods, she would ask of the rest of the world, “use your liberty to promote ours.”

In 1988, John lived in the same village where we met that afternoon and it was here that the unrest that had mounted since March of that year peaked and crashed. John and his brother had been the ones to open a parcel shipped to their local college from student protestors at the University of Rangoon. Its contents were women’s underwear – specifically, bras – and a note asking not politely if their decision not to protest was perhaps a result of latent female tendencies. In essence, they were calling them pussies and a flood of bravado ensued. They marched – John and his brother the de facto leaders – and the military reacted by clubbing many of them to death and raping others. Some of those who were captured were forced at gunpoint to walk arm in arm through minefields until someone set one off.

John admitted to his terror: “I wanted to be brave but I wasn’t, I ran.”

That night two military officers approached his home to inform his father that his sons were marked. Risking their own lives, the soldiers had come to warn the family. His father had been well respected in the village, his sons well liked. In John’s words, “some of the soldiers, they were naughty.” If they weren’t gone in 12 hours, they would be back to shoot. He and his brother hid in a field where they slept and ate and pissed in shifts while the necessary bribes were made to secure passports.

When he arrived in Malaysia, there was an arrangement through an immigrant service – he slept on the floor of a couple’s block apartment and was given a demolition job. He didn’t know how to handle an axe but each day he was charged with tunneling through the walls of condemned buildings. In Burma he had been an educated boy from a good family, a college student, a young man with prospects. His second week there, as he used the apartment’s wash bin to bathe, he discovered the woman’s wedding ring and returned it. In gratitude, the couple, who as yet had barely spoken to him, took John to dinner where he confessed how he came to be in Malaysia. Immediately they went to the night market and bought for him clothes, a mattress, sheets. He remained living with the couple for a further two years.

Having eventually installed himself in his own apartment and having saved all of his wages for this purpose, in 1992 he began sending for them. They came one at a time. He sent the money to his father – cash hidden in parcels of packaged food – and passports were arranged. Cousins, nephews, neighbors were sent. Each spent half a year living on his floor, finding jobs, learning English. They dispersed.

John says that he doesn’t know of any that returned to Burma. He estimates that over the course of ten years he and his father were responsible for the illegal transplanting of 17 young Burmese citizens. Many they never heard from again but rumors would surface that they’d ended up in places like Singapore, Hong Kong, and Thailand.

When his father died, John didn’t receive word of it for over a year. Finally, a letter. He crossed overland from northern Thailand by foot. He wore a longyi – the folded sheet of cloth that almost all Burmese men wear instead of pants – and carried the cash that would be necessary for bribes if he were caught. He went to his father’s burial site and saw his mother for the first time in more than 20 years.

When we finally left the restaurant – more than three hours after we had arrived – John asked if I wanted to drive. Perhaps he sensed my apprehensions or perhaps he was just drunk. As he directed me back into town I felt a tinge of shame about the knife in my pants. I could feel it pressing against my leg and in that moment I knew it had been unnecessary.

As we passed the pagoda where, as a child, he confronted the soldiers, I asked him what he thought his life would be like if none of it had happened. He replied that he would probably be a very rich man but that he wouldn’t have as much knowledge.

*Note: Name has been changed.

Choosing Your Cambodia

There is an island off the coast of Cambodia called Koh Rong. This is a place where miles of white sand meet turquoise waters dotted with virgin coral and saturated with snorkel-worthy schools of tropical fish. It is a place where a few intrepid entrepreneurs have built modern bungalows scattered amid the lush jungle that sits behind the sands. Guide books use phrases like “sheer brilliance” and “quintessential paradise” to describe the island’s collection of untouched beaches.

I have never been to Koh Rong.

I spent nearly a month in Cambodia doing what I thought of as earning that island.

I collapsed into Phnom Penh after a 40-hour, non-stop journey from a city called Bagan in central Burma, the last place I’d slept since two days prior being the moth-ridden floor of a temple in Yangoon where I fell asleep with a nail-studded stick in my hand because it was 3 a.m. and the pack of feral dogs circling the pagoda did not seem fond of me. In Phnom Penh I shared a bed with a stranger I’d met at the airport. We took a cab to the hostel she’d booked. I, of course, had no booking and they had no rooms. She had a double, which we took to mean a room with two beds. When we saw just the one, we were both too tired to argue and spent the night huddled firmly on our respective sides.

I bussed it halfway to Laos and ambled through the apocalyptic streets of Kratie. I boarded a packed mini-van that was headed further north that was somehow, astonishingly, never full according to the driver. Five minutes after the other two foreigners in the van and I exchanged looks that said, “surely, surely that is the last person we can possibly stop to pick up” the driver welcomed onto our laps a family of four and the two bamboo baskets stuffed with live chickens that comprised their luggage. He stopped a couple more times after that.

In Ban Lung, a town in the far northeast corner of Cambodia, I studied a map of the country and decided that in no way was I to be confined to this idea that one has to backtrack south by bus to transfer to another bus that goes to Siem Reap – the tourist trap of a town that you have no choice but to house yourself in if you want to see the temples of Angkor. And, by the way, you do want to see the temples of Angkor.

This notion might require a bit of explaining about my family. My brother and I spent the majority of our childhood being bounced from one overseas military base to another, while my father pursued his naval career. This upbringing, for better or worse, bestowed upon us a powerful sense of entitlement and independence. By the time we settled back down in the states it was too late for us – we didn’t belong anywhere and certainly didn’t have to play by the same rules as everyone else. This, coupled with my father’s philosophy that with the correct set of words and corresponding number of American greenbacks anything is possible, prompted me to do what I always do when I need to find someone to do something stupid with me: I put on a skirt and went to the bar. Within fifteen minutes I had a Khmer co-conspirator and the next day we were set to drive his motorcycle directly across Cambodia’s northern territories. His explanation, “I think there’s a dirt road now, if not, I know my way through the jungle,” was good enough for me.

For the entirety of the trip, he held my backpack between his knees and reached around it to grip the handle bars. I didn’t quite fit on the remaining portion of the seat so half of my ass hung off the back of the bike as we careened across the country. When we stopped for gas on the way out of Ban Lung, the woman who poured it didn’t believe that we were going to Siem Reap. She laughed and gave a backward flip of her hand as if to say, “whatever.” The guide book I carried describes the province where we spent our second night, Preah Vihear, as “extremely remote” and “genuine Cambodian outback.” It’s stunningly beautiful.

When we got to Siem Reap, I walked into a guest house and the owners stopped what they were doing and spoke a single english word: “wow.” I was covered in dust and mud. My hair and face were orange and what had once been a white shirt was now brown.

In Siem Reap I did, indeed, visit the temples of Angkor. I also came down with heat exhaustion. I decided that the best thing to do the day after recovering from heat exhaustion was to board an open-air boat that would take me eight hours south to a colonial town near the Thai border. I had not considered that it would be hot or that I would need much water. Five hours in I stared stupefied at the river, not enjoying a single aspect of the trip, begrudging the driver for driving slowly so that people could take pictures, and thinking that my misfortune was not my fault in any way, it had been completely unavoidable, an act of fate. I lamely and, incomprehensibly to me now, stole water from a fellow passenger who had gone to the back of the boat for a change of scenery. Wouldn’t he have just given it to me if I had asked? That night I trembled in my bed and considered going to the hospital. The next morning I was okay.

When I arrived at the coast a few days later after a 13-hour bus ride, in my opinion, I had goddamn well earned that island. I’d stay a few days on Otres Beach on the mainland and then go.

I found an Italian-run guest house and rented a bungalow right on the beach. For two days I drank good wine, I ate lobster ravioli. I booked my passage to Koh Rong.

On the third day I took a walk down the beach. I think I walked two or three miles and just before I came to a channel I couldn’t cross – it was too deep to wade through and I had a camera with me so I could not swim – I came to a collection of huts constructed of nothing more than a few boards that served as platforms and tipi-shaped roofs made of bundles of thick, dried weeds. Soon I was consumed with watching Khmer children play amid the huts. A toddler stumbled around, trying out his newly-discovered legs, falling often and harmlessly in the soft sand. I’d find out later that his name is Johnny.

I had the best hut in the place. Do doubt about it. I was perhaps 15 feet from where the water laps at high tide – the only one that near – and my hut was the only one with its own, exclusive hammock. Ox, the owner, winked when he handed me the padlock for hut six and said that he was giving it to me because I was alone. This, by the way, is a great and unthinkable tragedy in the eyes of Cambodian men. When they find out that you are also 30 and unmarried, they are so thoroughly horrified that they react physically to the news. They wince and shake their heads and either selflessly offer up their services or soberly inform you that they hope you find a husband soon.

There were six of us. That first night I sat at the bar drinking with Ox and watching two young Austrian guys playing cards. Ox lit the place up with candles and if you walked toward the water you could look left and then right and not see a thing apart from palm trees and stars. A British traveler had taken over music duties and American blues from the 40s was softly echoing out of two unnecessarily large speakers. Dinner was fish and rice. We all ate together – Ox, his family and the six of us. Heaping plates for each of fish that had been barbecued whole with the eyes and scales still in place. If you asked what kind it was you were told “from the sea.” Ox had caught it earlier that day.

In the morning I picked ants out of my toothbrush and stood near the water brushing my teeth and watching Johnny’s mother, Ox’s wife, swing the tiny boy in a hammock.

Otres is a fine beach. There is sand, there is water, there is sunshine, hammocks are freely available. There are also flies and a little bit of garbage that wades in and cows roaming around doing what cows do. I was supposed to leave for the paradise that is Koh Rong later that afternoon. For the briefest of moments I considered that I would just stay one more night with Ox and his family. I’d go to Koh Rong tomorrow.

It’s seven days later now. Ox has told me all about how he made the money to build his huts. No matter what time of day he encounters me he greets me with an exuberant, “good evening!” There are still ants in my toothbrush every morning.