It was true it was Christmas. It was my first day in Phnom Penh. My boyfriend bought our tickets for Cheong Ek, a genocide memorial site. Yes, perhaps I was an artist when I agreed. My boyfriend adjusted the headphones, his best friend took a Klonopin.
The tour began with facts. A curator’s voice told us that in four years, an estimated 1.5 million Cambodians died under Pol Pot’s regime, many of them in “killing fields.” I listened to this section twice. My stomach tensed up as if a ball were being thrown at me, again and again.
Tourists gravitated toward a monkey pod tree (the “Killing Tree”), which executioners used to beat children to death in front of their mothers. The sun suspended from its pendulum rod. The air was a taut sheet. Before we left for Cambodia, my boyfriend suggested we unpack the Christmas tree. What for? I asked.
Beneath the Killing Tree, fragments of bone and red cloth had surfaced on the dirt paths. In another killing field 100 miles south of Phnom Penh, local villagers have raided bones looking for gold jewelry to sell for food. Days later, we won’t think twice when ordering Tomb Raider cocktails in Siem Reap. A mediocre drink made of Cointreau, lime juice and tonic water, it was invented for Angelina Jolie, a refreshment after a long day on set raiding the tombs of Angkor Wat. We slurp them down and buy Christmas gifts in the open-air market of Psar Chaa: embroidered flats, earrings, and sundry baubles.
The truth is, I heard my boyfriend and his friend laugh about the red fabric materializing on the path’s surface. He mentioned how his mother used to plant red fabric in the chimney flue to simulate Santa’s tattered ass. I always thought she got the fabric from JoAnn’s, he said. I told them to shut up and finished the audio tour on my own, falling purposely behind. My boyfriend’s best friend said to me, laughing, I’ve been here too many times.
The tour led me to another monkey pod tree known as the Magic Tree. It was used to hang a loudspeaker. Khmer Rouge had blasted music from the speaker to drown out the sounds of victims being executed at night. The pock-marked fields behind the Magic Tree were mass graves. There were signs telling us how many victims were buried without heads, that many were naked. I was asked how I felt by another woman tourist. The graves were surrounded by wooden fences with friendship bracelets knotted to them. From the bushes, a boy asked me for money, his feet resting on a lower rung of the fence that guarded the mass graves. I did.
As I stood at these landmarks, I no longer wanted to go out for Christmas. Still, we ate lemongrass curry with rice noodles and Angkor beer at a Cambodian restaurant in a French colonial building. We visited a bar where the DJ, who had an impressive record collection, agreed to play our obvious request: “Holiday in Cambodia” by the Dead Kennedys. We took a picture next to a Santa mannequin. At another bar, we were meant to lose games of Connect Four to bar hostesses. And we did. Every time we lost, we owed a “ladies drink” to our competitor. Turns out, they pocketed a dollar off the top. I had no idea what I was doing there. When we arrived back at our hotel bar, they played different versions of “Jingle Bells” on repeat. I wanted to hear “o’er the fields we go” without the “ha-ha-ha.”
In the memorial stupa, there were 9,000 skulls stacked one on top of the other. Signs told us which heads were injured by which tool: hoe, axe, hook knife. Red and blue stickers told us male or female, under twenty years old. The tour ended with a roomful of portraits. The Khmer Rouge took a photograph of each prisoner both alive and dead. There was an image of a woman prisoner with her baby. I wanted to have something to say when I met my boyfriend and his best friend outside. Something smart, careful. It could have been any one of us, and yet I knew that wasn’t true. The faces from the photographs were once the faces on those skulls. Instead, I said nothing. It was just me and the pendulum sun, finding a slight way to disappear, a way back to the hotel.