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Someone to watch over me

The second-most touristy thing I did when I went to Siem Reap, Cambodia, in early 2014 was go on a mini-cruise down Tonie Sap Lake. The most touristy thing I did of course was visit Angkor Wat.

On the drive back from the lake, we passed by the homes that were straddling the roadside. They were modest, shotgun-style houses. Because of the year-round heat and humidity, they were built so that the entire front of the house was wide open and exposed to the street.

With night having fallen, the view we had of these houses on this return journey was much different from what we’d had before. The lights were on inside those houses that were occupied. Framed by the darkness, we caught momentary glimpses of tableaux of ordinary Cambodian life.

Mostly people were just lounging about. Some sat on the floor, others on chairs, a couch. Some families were eating. Some watched television. Some relaxed outside. There were hammocks strung across the length of the room in some. Coloured lights. There was clutter, odd, mismatched furniture. The detritus of life.

I was sitting with a young American couple; a guy who had the peaches and cream colouring of a friend of mine, and his wife, who was Chinese. I spoke more to the guy, who turned out to be a lapsed Morman. On the boat he’d told me some of the circumstances that led to his post-Morman state in the way that one shares intimate details with someone they meet while travelling, whom they will never see again. As we drove past these houses, we struck up a conversation about the notion of privacy, and how this experience was teaching us that people in other cultures probably have different ideas about privacy from us western folk.

These were people who were living what we considered their personal lives out in public, by dint of climate and architecture. No doubt, we thought, one would adapt to this living situation and it would shape their views on what they consider private business.

But really, when we thought more about it, these mundane activities – eating, chilling, enjoying some form of entertainment, being in the company of loved ones – are common to us all. By that measure, weren’t we the ones who had the wrong view of it all? Aren’t our notions of privacy strange?

We were each dropped off by the van at our respective hotels and hostels. We said goodbye, parted ways, and later returned to our regular lives. Our lives of divulging every trivial detail about ourselves on our social media pages. Of being modest in our homes when walking past street-facing windows.

***

In the first episode of Californication, writer Hank Moody, played by David Duchovny, has sex with someone who turns out to be his former spouse’s fiance’s sixteen year old daughter. She knew all along that she was entrapping him, and she takes pleasure out of exploiting Hank in return for keeping the indiscretion a secret.

Hank goes to his former spouse’s house one day, only to find the girl doing laps in the pool. The girl abandons her swimming and pulls herself out. She walks casually to where she’s left her towel and makes a half-hearted attempt to cover her bikini-ed self up while she’s dripping pool water. Hank and she exchange words. She says ‘statutory rape’ with glee.

Her father walks into the backyard, sees Hank, sees his daughter there. He makes a face. ‘Honey, put your clothes on, okay, we have company.’

‘Well I’m sure it’s nothing he hasn’t seen before,’ his daughter responds. But she turns and walks away all the same.

***

Outside Supabarn at the Canberra Centre are several rows of tables and chairs. They’re small tables, and the formations that involve two of these tables parked side by side can seat four.

The loose function of this area is to service the Asian bakery, which is to the left of the tables if you’re facing Supabarn, and the few takeaway places that sit as islands down the central corridor of the building.

I was at one of these tables one day, filling my backpack with the items I’d just purchased from Supabarn. I was in no hurry, and took in the scene around me as I loaded up.

At a table for one, a couple were sitting in chairs aligned side by side instead of opposite one another. The woman had a couple of shopping bags on the ground next to her, including a pink one made of stiff card from an expensive clothing store I stopped frequenting since I moved to Canberra.

At a table further away were two men who were clearly sleeping rough. One wore a bright orange beanie. The other man, seated opposite him, was eating Campbell soup straight out of the tin, cold.

I’d never seen anyone do that before. He was scooping the contents using a plastic spoon; not ideally suited to the task. Then again, the circumference and depth of the tin is such that it doesn’t really encourage people to eat out of it either.

The woman and her partner gathered up their things and left, and I turned my attention instead to a boy of about late high school, early university age, and a woman at the other end of the table who looked to be his mother. His arm was stretched across the table towards her. One of her hands clutched his. The other hand was at her forehead, to which she held her thumb and forefinger, half-shielding her face.

Her head was down and her eyes were downcast but not closed. She looked disconsolate, her expression in stark contrast to the chunky aqua watch that wrapped around one wrist.

They seemed like they’d been there a while. The boy wore an appropriately sombre look on his face and leant in to his mother now and then to say a few words. Each time, she didn’t respond.

He disentangled from his mother to reach into the backpack that’s on the floor. He emerges with a tissue, which he hands to her. They’re surprisingly well prepared for this moment.

After offering her the tissue, he takes her hand again. The boy glances around, not in an attempt to see who is observing them but just seeking distraction. His free hand goes to his chin, strokes it absently.

I’m watching casually, all the while typing into my phone. To an observer, I’d look like I’m IMing a friend, but I’m actually taking notes on all that I’m seeing. I think that it will make for an interesting blog post someday.

***

It’s a sunny morning and I’m driving to work. A podcast that I’m listening to ends and I hit play on the player before it can transition into the next episode, which I don’t feel like listening to. Between home and the carpark my journey is only 7 minutes long, but I want to spend those final few moments listening to my Wildest Dreams mix CD.

I hit the ‘on’ button my stereo. I must have ejected a CD the last time I drove, because the sound of the radio streams through. This is barely an annoyance because I only need to press another button to switch the mode back to ‘CD’ whereupon the stacker will arrange itself to play the next CD in queue.

But I don’t press the button. In the time that it takes me to pull up to the traffic lights, where I can stop and take my eyes off the road, I’ve listened to enough of the song on the radio for it to register. And this never happens, but the tenor of the song resonated with the frequency of my mood and I no longer felt the need to change it to the other thing that I had been in the mood for.

This song and what I would have played were as different as night and day. What I would have played I would have sang along to, danced along to, there in the front seat, belted in. The song that played on the radio was a tad mournful, one I’d never listened to from start to finish. But so it played, as I turned down the familiar roads, changed lanes. I let it play out its final seconds after I arrived at my destination, and had stilled my car. It seemed only right.

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