Two days at the temple and all I’ve done is count shit. The dots on the ceiling. How long it takes for a stick of incense to crumble into ashes. The number of steps to the kitchen, where the grandmas are always talking smack about everyone, even about each other to their own faces. What goes down at the temple was supposed to be more spiritual, and eye-opening, and informative, like how preachers in the movies holler out prayers, how they push people to see themselves differently. Instead, I count the white stitches on my orange robes, then the stitches on the robes of the monks praying next to me.
My boys would bust my balls if they found out my temple life consists of counting, and if they found out I sleep in a tiny, funky-smelling room. Not a bad funky, but more like a couple-banged-in-a-pile-of-ash funky. We told you the temple is fake as fuck, my boys would say. And Maly, she’d be pissed. She didn’t want me to shave my head for the bun, told me I looked like an aborted alien fetus after it happened. Then she refused to have sex with me. “Come back when your scalp stops feeling like a giant dick,” she said before kicking me off her bed. “I can’t believe you’re wasting a week on that sick-fuck you called a dad,” she also said.
After dad’s funeral was the last time I got off. Just a quickie with Maly, but I still appreciated it. Nothing since then, not even a good bate session. Counting relaxes me though. It’s something to pass the time. If I could, I would count how many hours I’ve been alive, or seconds, or how much longer I have until being shipped off to basic combat training, but I don’t have the patience for all that. I’m not a whiz kid. I’m not living a Cambodian version of Stand and Deliver. I fucked up my classes, and none of my teachers cared enough to warn me. They were too busy putting on Stand and Deliver so they wouldn’t have to teach us anything.
Maybe if I score a calculator from the Cha’s office, I can take my counting to the next level. But he would just tell me to chill. He’d rant about how the universe is like this and how karma is like that, and before I know it, I’d be scrubbing off the silly string that’s been stuck to the pavement since last Cambodian New Year. It’s all for that nirvana, he’d say, laughing his ass off from the porch. Boy, you better build up your karma before going off to war, he’d say.
Pushups, 45 (5 more than Pou does in the morning)
Situps, 60 (10 more than Pou does in the morning)
Times I thought about Maly’s body, lost count, maybe the whole time?
The other day, when I first got here, the Cha handed me a notepad. We stood in the center of the big prayer room, and the giant, fake-gold Buddha stared us down from the stage. I swear the stage has been overdue for a collapse since before I was in middle school. Khmer music played softly in the background. Being there without a crowd of kneeling grandparents, I felt weird, naked. I imagined a sea of old Cambos around us, their wrinkly heads bobbing up and down to pray. “Am I supposed to write Buddhist stuff in here?” I asked.
“You write your feelings down, Rithy,” the Cha said, roughly, like my question was the dumbest thing he’d heard all day, which it probably was because there weren’t many people around. His white polo drowned him in shirt. I could tell the polo was a knockoff because the horse logo was twice the size it should’ve been and placed exactly where a guy’s nipples go. “I saw it on TV,” the Cha said. “This talk show lady interviewed a woman who wrote every day for a year. It helped her forget her dead husband.”
“You mean it helped her forget her sadness?” I asked, staring at his shirt-logo-shaped nipple. I couldn’t figure out if the shirt material was just lumpy or if the Cha had nipples that poked through shirts weirdly.
“You know what I mean,” the Cha said, waving his hand back and forth because he was fed up. “Just take it and write.” He placed his hands over mine and pushed the notebook closer to me.
“Alright, I get it. Anything else I should know or do?”
“Tomorrow you’ll start doing chores. We all earn our keep here. I left some robes in your room. Don’t mess them up, we’re not made of money.” He pointed at the hallway to the left of him. “It’s the second door on your right. Don’t be an idiot and get lost.”
I started to ask him if there was a schedule of monk things for the day, or a list of Buddhist objectives I’m supposed to meet for my dad’s bun, but the Cha interrupted me.
“Tell your uncle I said hi, and that I’m gonna whip his ass on poker night,” he said, like my week here had already ended. Then he flew across the worn-out prayer mats, straight into his office.
In my room, I turned the notepad over and saw the words SPEEDY TRANSMISSIONS MANUFACTURER printed in bold bubble letters, next to a cartoon car with big round eyes. The Cha doesn’t realize that hundreds of these grease-strained notepads occupy Pou’s house, and since I live with my uncle, the Cha’s gift felt empty, like someone re-gifting you a gift you’d already re-gifted to them.
For the rest of the afternoon, I waited in my room for a monk to get me, or the Cha, whose job is to be a mediator between the monks and normal people, but no one did. When I finally came out to look for food, the monks seemed surprised to see me. They had already forgotten I was there. Now I’m at the temple for five more days, and not much has happened since the Cha gave me the notebook. I don’t have many feelings worth writing down, so I jot down lists of what I count. When the Cha sees me writing, he doesn’t ask me to do random stuff for the monks. He thinks I’m processing my feelings and leaves me alone. I wouldn’t mind doing things for the monks if those things mattered, if they helped dad’s spirit, but the Cha makes it seem like they’re just chores, which they are.
Sometimes when I’m writing, I think about my uncle, how he’s probably doing his same-old self at the house. Every night Pou comes back from fixing cars and he counts how much money he made. He adds up his paychecks, bills, and expenses—along with how many morning pushups he does—all in his notepads. When I try to throw his old notepads out, Pou hurls empty beer cans at my head. I guess breathing in those stacked up notepads is another way for him to keep track of how much he’s gained.
Steps from my room:
to the prayer room, where I keep falling asleep while praying, 25
to the kitchen, where the grandmas slip me extra food, 58
to the fountain, which is pretty peaceful, 115
It’s not that I don’t like the monks. Some are chill. Two of them split cigs with me in the mornings, after our prayer sessions and before our chores. I call them Monk B and Monk C because we don’t talk or share things about ourselves, like our names. We smoke out by the fountain, away from all the statues of Buddha in the garden. I think the monks are trying to hide their smoking habits from all those Buddhas.
But Monk A doesn’t like me. He’s always yelling at me for sweeping wrong or messing up the incense trays. He thinks I’m a fuck-up for enlisting, according to the Cha. I probably am, so I don’t blame him or anything. What did the Cha say? Oh yeah, he said, “War’s not the best conversation starter these days, for any of us.” I should keep that in mind from now on.
Here is what I know about the monks: Monk A is skinny and Monk C is not, which I don’t get because there’s not much food here, unless there’s a funeral or a wedding or it’s Cambodian New Year. Monk B, on the other hand, is jacked, with black tattoos that wrap around his arms. The other day I asked Monk B how he got so jacked, if he did some monk training regimen. He shrugged and continued smoking in response. Then he offered me another cig. He must do pushups, maybe even pull-ups. Maybe his room has ceiling pipes he can hang from. I should’ve brushed up on Khmer before coming here. I would’ve been able to communicate better with the monks, at least thank them for the cigs without sounding like a jackass.
There’s also a new monk, Monk D. He’s my age, roughly my height and size, and speaks better English than the other monks. He doesn’t smoke out by the fountain though. He spends most of his time following Monk A around because he’s in monk training. I bet he still feels awkward. Monk B and C are nice to me, but that’s because I’m a guest, not an actual monk. They also probably feel sorry for me. No one really expected me to follow tradition and come live here for a week. Even Pou was surprised. “No one needs you to do this,” he said. “Everyone knows your dad was a dipshit.” I told him I feel like someone should do something right by my dad. He had no one at the end of it all.
I know Monk D’s real name. No one calls him it, so I’m not sure if it’s still his name. I wonder if the older monks say their old names in their heads. Do they think of themselves as anything other than monks? Maybe when I leave for the army that will happen to me. I’ll stop thinking of myself as one thing, and as part of another. I wonder if that will make me a better or worse person.
Last night I couldn’t sleep so I went outside to jog laps around the backyard. Monk D was sitting on the ground, facing one of the Buddhas in the garden. He barely looked at me when I sat down next to him. We said hi to each other. I mentioned how it seemed like we both couldn’t sleep on those temple mats, but he only nodded in response. He didn’t look like he wanted to talk, but I wasn’t gonna be the guy that ends the conversation. He was still a monk, and you’re not supposed to be rude to monks.
“You see how this one is different?” Monk D asked me. I glanced at the other Buddhas in the garden. It was true, this Buddha was different from the rest. The colored paint was chipping and faded and the guy who made it gave Buddha a bunch of muscles that bulged out of his robes. I guess the statue maker was tired of Buddha being a fat guy people laugh at while shopping for chopsticks. I gave the Buddha a closer look and realized he was cross-eyed. He looked like a dumb jock, flexing until his eyes went all fucked up.
“Why is that?” I asked. I didn’t expect Monk D to know why, or to continue speaking, but he told me about the Buddha. According to what Monk A told Monk D, the statue was gifted to the temple by this guy who donates money every year. Monk A didn’t want to offend the guy because of his donations, so he put the Buddha in the garden, with the other statues that are imported directly from Cambodia. The guy used to be a legit statue maker. Then he lost a couple of fingers, an eye, and most of his family in the genocide. Now he works as a janitor for a school. He still makes statues but they always come out looking weird.
Looking at the Buddha, I thought about how the statue maker doesn’t have a family to distract him from the talent he lost. Some little kids he supported and could use as an excuse for not making statues.
“Do you have a girlfriend?” Monk D asked me, breaking our silence. I told him I did have a girlfriend. “Why you staying here if you have a girlfriend?” he responded. I was surprised he didn’t know my dad died, that I was here for a week to ensure his spirit passed peacefully.
“Because I’m supposed to be here,” I said. “Isn’t that why you’re here?”
“No,” he said, shaking his head. “I’m here because I want to be here.” He got up and brushed the dirt off his robes. Then he went back inside the temple.
I jogged around the backyard after he left. I used the cross-eyed Buddha as a marker to count my laps. It was probably jogging that tired me out, but every time I counted a lap, I swore making eye contact with the Buddha drained my energy. Like it was haunted and a ghost sapped the life from me. It would’ve been better if the statue guy had made another fat Buddha.
Times Pou calls my dad a shit, around 5 a day
Times Pou talks about mom, hardly ever but sometimes
Times Pou calls my dad a shit while drinking low calorie beer, too many to count
Times I agree with Pou, usually I think
When I woke up, the Cha told me to meet him in his office after lunch. I found myself rushing through my chores, quickly brushing the broom back and forth, and I think I swept even more dust into the prayer room. I didn’t know why the Cha wanted to see me, but I hoped he would tell me about some ritual I needed to complete. Something that would help dad’s soul not be restless. Something to get him a peaceful new life, anything better than the shit show that was his last one.
The Cha’s office was smaller than I’d expected, the size of a small supply closet. I couldn’t imagine how the Cha got his desk through the door and inside the room. Monk A and the Cha sat on the other side of the desk, on mismatched folding chairs. They crammed against each other so tightly their arms touched. There was no chair for me—I think Monk A had taken the chair that was supposed to be on my side of the desk. I stood there in front of them. I felt exposed.
“Rithy, how are you were doing?” the Cha asked and Monk A nodded.
“I’m fine,” I said. For a second I thought about squatting down to their level. I didn’t know if looking down at a monk was considered disrespectful.
“We wanted to check up on you,” the Cha said. He started shuffling through a stack of papers. On his desk were several of Pou’s car transmission notebooks. “Make sure you’re doing well.” This time Monk A didn’t nod along to the Cha’s words.
“That’s it?” I blurted out and Monk A glared at me, still silent.
“Boy, you better watch your tone,” the Cha said, looking up from his papers. “You have something you wanna say?” he asked, his eyebrows arched.
“It’s just that . . . I’ve been here for three days and all I’ve done is eat, sleep, some chores, smoke cigarettes, and work out.”
“Isn’t there anything more . . . important I need to do for my dad?”
“Just being here is fine. Don’t worry about it.”
“But aren’t I supposed to be worrying? Isn’t that the point, to worry about my dad’s spirit?” My voice rose and I stressed my words by waving my arms around. I couldn’t help it. It just happened.
Monk A scolded me in Khmer. He told me to “calm down” in a forceful, intimidating way, but I was already on a roll.
“There has to be something for me to do,” I said, my voice louder. “Why am I here if there’s nothing that could directly help my dad? How is just being at the temple helping anyone, except you guys, who get to do a few less chores every day?” My hands pointed in the direction of Monk A, and this made him mad. He started yelling at me in Khmer, louder than I’d ever heard him speak. Louder than when he’s speaking to an audience at weddings and funerals. He was speaking so quickly I couldn’t catch his words. They blurred together and my head hurt because I couldn’t translate them quickly enough.
“Please,” I said, interrupting Monk A. “I need some air.” Without waiting for a response, I left the Cha’s office and went outside, knowing I’d come across as rude. I paced back and forth. I was tired of the Cha and Monk A acting like they were helping me, and I was tired of feeling fuzzy about everything I did.
The other monks looked at me from across the courtyard, smoking in silence. It was like they hadn’t moved since the last time I saw them. Like they did nothing except slowly kill themselves with cigs.
Rooms I’ve swept at the temple so far, 5
Total pushups I’ve done at the temple so far, at least 200
Hours I work a week, 50
Total cigs I’ve smoked with the monks so far, at least a whole pack
Little cousins I drive to and pickup from school, 4
How much I owe people outside the temple, too much to think about
The Cha ended up telling my uncle about our interaction. He called me into his office again and it reminded me of that time I was sent to the vice principal’s office in high school. I’d missed too much class and some other dumb shit. The vice principal labeled me truant in the school records. He didn’t know I skipped class to make money and help Pou pay his medical bills. That was a rough time, when Pou’s back got fucked from fixing cars ten hours a day.
Monk A wasn’t in the room—only the Cha—but the spare chair remained on the Cha’s side of the desk. I couldn’t figure out if that was intentional on the Cha’s part. The empty chair taunted me, or maybe my legs were sore from doing squats in my room.
The Cha handed me the phone without saying anything. Leaning forward, I took the phone and Pou screaming—“What kind of crap are you pulling?”—blasted into my ear.
“Jesus,” I said, then felt weird for saying “Jesus” in the temple. “Pou, why are you so mad right now? You don’t even care about this bun.”
Pou scoffed. “I don’t give a damn about your father’s bun.”
I looked at the Cha’s blank expression. I wondered if he also didn’t give a damn.
“But you wanted to stay in the temple, so you better do it right. Don’t make me look bad. If a monk wants to lecture you—hell, if he wants to slap the shit out of you—you better stay and take it.”
“I am trying to do the temple right. All I wanted was some guidance on what to do.”
“Look, traditions aren’t supposed to make sense,” Pou said, now sounding more exhausted than mad. “What do you expect?” he continued. “A lot of time and distance and lives have been lost. We aren’t home anymore. Now stop doing all this thinking, will ya. Just do what you’re told.”
I wanted to ask how I could do what I’m told when there was no one telling me anything, but before I could, Pou said, “Remember, you have to help fix the roof when you get back.” That was the last thing he said before hanging up.
Monk A assigned me double the amount of chores the next morning. So I would learn a lesson, which is not to ignore a yelling monk I guess. I thought about leaving the temple, calling Maly to pick me up, but I didn’t think I could face Pou without patching up my relationship with Monk A and the Cha.
Later, Monk D approached me while I swept the courtyard. He put his hand on my shoulder. For a second it seemed like he was going to hug me. But all he did was point his finger up at the speakers. “The song,” he said. “You hear it?”
“Yeah, it’s some song the monks pray to.”
“Listen more closely,” he said, raising his finger a little higher. I closed my eyes to hear the music better. I listened for a bit, following the melody of the song. Then it hit me.
“It’s a cover of Hey Jude,” I said before laughing. Monk D smiled at me, nodded, and then walked away.
Doing the rest of my chores, I thought about what Pou said about us not being home. If I had to choose, anywhere Maly is living would be my home. Though we’re probably going to break up when I leave. She’s not the type who would wait around for someone, and I don’t want her to be. I’m not enlisting because I want more pressure. That’s the opposite of what I want. Funny, I have lived in this town my entire life and I have never felt that any specific place was home.
Years Maly and I have been together, since we were 14, so 6
Times Maly broke up with me, 4
Times I broke up with Maly, 2
How often Maly goes down on me, usually but never after I workout
How often I go down on Maly, sometimes but maybe not enough
How long our sex lasts, an entire episode of The Simpsons, so 22 minutes
How often we have sex while high, we never have sex not high
Sleep didn’t come to me that night, even though I was exhausted from all the chores. I found the joint I hid in my room and twirled it in my fingers. For a good hour I thought about lighting up on my temple mat.
I had tucked the joint in my shoe before coming here. It’s what I used to do in high school so I could smoke with Maly during third period, behind the girl’s locker room. It’s pretty gross to smoke something that has touched my feet, but it gets the job done. Smoking weed would’ve put me right to sleep. It’s just that I’m trying to kick the habit. Can’t depend on weed to sleep in the future. Plus, I’m saving the joint for my last night here.
I figured coming to stay at the temple would help me get away from weed, at least for a bit. My crew didn’t understand. They think that since I’m planning to leave, I should take advantage of things like weed. They think I’m enlisting to bring myself unhappiness. They don’t understand why someone would ever want to get away from weed. “Shit isn’t addictive, what’s the problem?” they always say.
For a while the only time I saw my dad was when he bought weed from me. We usually met at Happy Donuts, the donut place not owned by a Cambodian person, the one on the other side of town. He’d try to make the whole deal seem like a normal meal, buy me coffee and whatnot, make a point of remembering that I like apple fritters. He asked me questions about my life. We never talked about his. I knew it wasn’t something either of us wanted to hash out sitting in Happy Donuts.
I half think he wasn’t that into weed, that he only wanted to feel normal for twenty minutes. He wanted to sit with his son and talk about normal things and eat donuts. And then the only way he could get himself to do this was when he smoked himself numb afterwards. If his normal hadn’t been unbearable, why else did he end up the way he did?
Every time he contacted me to set up a deal, he called me from a different number. I never told anyone about these meetings. Pou would flip his shit if he knew, even now that dad is dead. Pou had always sworn he would kick my dad’s ass for leaving after mom died. But you have to give him this: dad remembered my phone number through all those years.
Once I almost brought Maly to meet him. Dad had mentioned something about wanting to meet her. Make sure she wasn’t a woman who carried a basket with holes in it, as the old Cambos say. I was about to text Maly about it and everything. I wanted him to see me with a girlfriend, because he would really understand that. It wouldn’t register as nothing like everything else I told him. But then I started to think about how Maly might try to defend me, start yelling at him for not being around. I didn’t want that. He’d been through so much with all the fucked up shit that happened, I still feel like I owe him. The guy endured genocide to get me here. He deserved a break, even from being my dad.
Things I will miss when I’m shipped off:
Having sex with Maly
Maly, in general
Smoking weed with the crew
Watching kung fu movies
Being able to decide things for myself
Monk D and I ate dinner together today and then, when it got dark and the other monks went to bed, we walked out into the field surrounding the temple, where Cambodian New Year takes place and a whole carnival of homemade food and bootleg karaoke springs up for a week. Trash littered the dead yellow grass, even though last New Year’s was in April and winter had come already. Empty Coke cans and plastic bags used to sell green mangos crinkled under our steps.
“You know,” I said, stopping in the middle of the field. “I used to think it was cool that the temple was outside the city, that this made us Cambos more gangster or something.” I lit a cig from a pack Monk B gave me. “But now I think it’s just sad. It’s like the city decided there’s no space for the temple.”
“Everything’s sad. That’s how it goes,” Monk D said. He put a cig in his mouth, but then the lighter didn’t work because of the wind. He stepped closer to me and signaled for me to help. Our faces leaned into each other and our cigs touched and lit up.
“That’s messed up,” I said, stepping back and looking around. The last time I stood in the middle of the field, I talked to an army recruiter. It wasn’t the first time army recruiters tabled at Cambodian New Year, but it was the first time I saw an Asian guy doing it, some Hmong dude who’d been a few years ahead of me in school. He was smiling in his uniform and ignoring the mean-mugging looks from the older Cambos. We started talking and he asked me how life had been since graduating from high school. I didn’t want to tell him I was working two shit jobs, that I had dropped out of my first semester of community college. I shrugged, then said, “Eh.” He told me he “got it” and handed me a pamphlet. I didn’t read the pamphlet until a week later, but I remember liking how organized the different headings and subheadings and bullet points were. It looked like it could exactly account for the possibilities of my life.
“Do you have a picture of your girlfriend?” Monk D asked me suddenly.
“I don’t just keep pictures of my girlfriend in my monk robes,” I answered.
“Explain her to me then,” Monk D said. “Your girlfriend, I want to hear.”
“Lemme finish this smoke.” I looked back at the temple. All the lights were turned off, so it looked like a giant black blob. It seemed weird that people went there looking for answers, peace, or anything really. I thought about Maly’s body. My hands cupping her breasts as she got on top of me, the way she always did. Feeling my body inside of hers, her body surrounding mine. How warm that made me feel. Breathing in her smell afterwards. I could feel a hard-on growing under my robes. I didn’t feel embarrassed though. It was dark out. And I felt comfortable around Monk D, like he wouldn’t mind. Being around him was almost freeing.
I finished my cig and threw the butt into a patch of dirt. I described Maly to him. Basic stuff. How tall she was, the color of her hair. Monk D told me to stop. “No, no, explain her, how she is in the world,” he said, waving his hand around so that his cig made spirals in the dark air.
I started explaining Maly, which parts stick out to me, the things I will never understand about her yet will always appreciate. His eyes were closed and his cig started to burn out. He looked happy. It felt good that I had something to do with this.
How I explain Maly:
Knows exactly how to say something to make it funny
Walks around like she knows exactly where she’s going all the time
Laughs a lot, like she sees something you don’t see, not in a mean way, more like she wants you to be in on it too
Super protective over people she loves, like her cousins
Sounds smart and like she’s from around here at the same time
My second to last day at the temple started off pretty normal, like the previous five days. I woke up and did pushups, then finished my chores. I don’t know why, but I was turned on all day, almost hard. Definitely had a chub the entire time I polished the relics in the prayer room.
I was going to find a place to bate in the afternoon, but at the end of lunch, the Cha told everyone to gather in the garden. By the biggest statue of Buddha, the one lying on the ground like he’s chilling in bed and listening to music. We chugged the rest of our cold porridge and walked outside. Monk A was already there, standing by the Buddha’s giant feet. He had lit some incense and stuck the little sticks straight into the ground. There was smoke floating all around him. It made him look pretty cool to be honest, badass, like a superhuman.
When everyone crowded around Monk A, he called me up to stand next to him, then told the other monks something in Khmer. The monks sat down right in the dirt. They went into their prayer positions, where you tuck your legs under your ass and it feels like doing a core strength exercise. Like planking for an hour straight, until your body starts shaking. Monk A started chanting a prayer and the other monks joined. I stood there like a dope with nothing to do. I looked at Monk D and he smirked at me. It made me feel better that someone recognized how out of place I felt.
When Monk A finished chanting he turned to face me. He placed his hands on both sides of my shoulders. The other monks all looked at me too. Monk A started speaking to me, about how my time here has almost ended and how my dad would be proud to see me staying here and honoring his life. Then his attention moved from me to the Buddha. He touched the statue’s feet with his hand and gave this whole speech on the original temple the Buddha is based on. People in Cambodia used to climb up a mountain to visit this temple. Washing the great Buddha’s feet was supposed to bring you good luck, peace. To center you in a correct place.
Before I knew it the Cha was handing me a bowl of water and telling me to wash the feet in front of me. “Come on, do it,” he said, “This is what you’ve asked for.” When I didn’t budge, he grabbed me by the shoulders and moved me closer to the statue, down to the ground. He pointed at the wet rag inside the bowl, then at the feet. I started to make dark wet circles on the stone. I looked behind me and the monks’ heads were bowed down. They chanted another prayer. I had an audience cheering me on, but I was still just doing chores.
Things I won’t miss:
Doing the dishes and Pou’s laundry
Pou talking at me about the future
Pou talking at me about the past
Thinking about my dad, seeing him around town
Interacting with Monk A
Getting random texts from fools I don’t know looking for weed
Being forced to decide things for myself
After the monks had gone to sleep, I went outside again. I wanted to get high. I walked back to the giant Buddha and stared at his feet while I smoked my joint. Right then, I half expected the feet would become something more than what they were. I waited for a weed-induced vision to come to me. I’d cleaned the Buddha’s feet to the chants of a bunch of monks, and now the feet were supposed to become my spiritual guides, unlock the secrets of the world for me, tell me about myself and my dad, give me some religious, outer body experience. Lead me someplace better, anywhere. But the feet stayed the same, and I did too. Just a big old rock and me, a regular dope getting high.
Monk D came up to my side. He took the joint out of my hand and started smoking it. “You’ve been holding out on me,” he said. “Anything else you’re keeping from me?”
I thought about asking him about the feet washing ritual, but then I realized Monk A had already explained it. “Let’s go to my room, it’s getting cold,” I said instead. I continued to stare at the Buddha’s feet as I waited for Monk D to smoke the rest of the joint. I remember thinking that the feet’s true power might be unleashed if a real monk was high. But still, nothing happened.
In my room I showed Monk D a photo of Maly, which had been in the jeans I’d worn coming to the temple. It was printed on regular computer paper. Nothing special or anything. The photo showed Maly smiling and sitting on the beach in a bikini, the happiest I’d seen her. Probably because it was the only time we got out of town together. Monk D was in awe of the photo. We sat on my sleeping mat, high as fuck, our backs against the wall, and Monk D held the photo close to his face. “Stop hogging my girlfriend,” I said, laughing. I pushed his hands back so we could both get a good view of Maly. I left my hand on top of his. I felt comfortable feeling his touch.
It was a damn good photo of Maly. Seeing its effect on Monk D reminded me of that, made me feel content about myself, like I’d accomplished something real in having Maly as a girlfriend. My hand had made its way to Monk D’s upper thigh. His hand rested on my knee, still holding the photo. Our eyes both stared at Maly, but I think we saw each other too, and ourselves. My other hand reached under my robes, started stroking. He did the same. Neither of us were rushing. Getting to the end didn’t seem like the point.
“We shouldn’t make a mess,” I said. “I don’t think the Mas would appreciate cleaning stains off our robes.” Monk D’s head nodded in agreement, moving up and down at the same pace as his wrist. I looked around the room and there was nothing except the sleeping mat, my normal clothes, and another buddha statue.
“We could do it on him,” I joked, pointing at the statue. Both of us started to crack up.
“You gonna get me kicked out.”
“Do monks ever get fired from their jobs?”
“I’m not trying to find out right now.” Monk D slowed down his stroking to give himself more time.
“I guess this is the best place to do it,” I said, pointing at the photo.
“Are you sure?” he asked.
I thought about what it would mean if we came onto a photo of Maly, if it meant I was disrespecting her. Then I thought about whether I was spending too much time worrying about a piece of paper. I got up on my knees and grabbed the photo from him. “Let’s do it on the backside,” I said, turning the photo over. He got up and faced me in the same position, like we were each other’s reflection. He grabbed my shoulder with his other arm for balance. He unloaded himself. I let go of myself. I felt transported.
Things I’m looking forward to:
Not sure yet but I’m sure something will come up
something has before
By the time Pou came to pick me up it was already dark. The winter days are short, his shifts are long. I spent most of the day with Monk D. We did our chores, ate lunch in the field, said bye. We didn’t talk about the previous night though. Talking about what happened seemed pointless. We shared something between us, and that felt good, like how I used to feel when I’d get donuts with dad.
“I’ll see you again,” Monk D said when it was time for me to go. He punched my side.
“At some wedding when you get back, I’ll be doing the blessing, and you’ll have to serve me food.”
“Yeah, for sure,” I said, punching him back.
In Pou’s truck I watched the temple shrink in the side mirror. It was a black blob again, a shadow of itself. You couldn’t see the temple’s details, none of the monks walking around. None of the fake gold lamps. Not the peeling orange, yellow, and blue paint. The rusty old parking signs in Khmer, darkness had completely swallowed them. The way you could tell it was the temple was by its outline. I wonder if that’s all you can know about someone, their outline. I wonder what will end up as mine.
We turned left and the temple disappeared from my sight. “The Cha is pretty obsessed with Khmer covers of the Beatles,” I said.
Pou started to laugh. “Well, Khmer folk played the songs better.” He kept his eyes on the road. “It’s cause America stole sounds from us in the first place. They stole our sounds and they bombed us and now you wanna go fight for them, you stupid shit.”
He grabbed my shoulder and gave me a nudge. “I’m just kidding,” Pou added. “Look, I know the Cha has been giving you a hard time for enlisting,” he continued. “He’s only joking around. I was looking it up, and there are a lot of benefits you get from enlisting. You can go to college. You’ll always have a job. I get worried about you, that you’ll become like your shit-head dad. But this is a smart move. Logical.” He kept talking about the reasons it made sense for me to join the army. He counted off all the financial benefits I would have. I nodded, and kept nodding.
The streets outside slowly became more city-like as we got further from the temple. Fewer abandoned barns and more empty parking lots. More buses and less dirt. As Pou continued to talk, I realized I never asked Monk D why he came to the temple. I could see his reasons though, a shitload of them. I could see the expectations crowding his old life, both his own and the ones hurled at him, how they probably stopped running together right, how adding them up to total one person, it’d result in a Frankenstein-looking thing. Its proportions all fucked up, it’d limp around, yell out noises that weren’t words, and try to be understood. And I could see that in becoming a monk, he could shed these expectations, replace them with something else. Something bigger than him, with a clear outline. But if I told Monk D this, I bet he’d blow smoke into my face and laugh, pass me his cig and tell me to relax. Some things can’t be explained to death, he’d say. I guess they don’t need to be, I’d say. That’s how shit goes, we’d say.