I caught up with my girlfriend in Thailand, and we made our way to Cambodia via tuk-tuk, bus, truck and minivan. She had been in Southeast Asia for months already, so we had a lot to talk about. One of those things was sex.
We'd agreed to have an open relationship while she was away, rather than fuck other people and lie about it. We were inching along a pitted dirt road just inside the Cambodian border when she decided it was a perfect time to come clean about her tryst. She'd fucked some German guy. It had happened more than once over the course of a few days. Despite our agreement, I was stupefied. Tricked. Trapped. Crushed. I pictured the vigorous first time, the relaxed and explorative second time, the lazy AM third time. My inclination was to open the door of the minivan and push her out, but we were going very slowly and she would only have tumbled unharmed into a rice-paddy. I held her close instead. I resolved to forgive her.
In Phnom Penn that night I could not make love to her. I cried. We cried. Things were better the next day, and our amorous rites soon resumed. We spent several days in the capital, and traveled north to Siem Reap, the city adjacent to Cambodia's national treasure, Angkor Wat. The hotel was a breezy, deteriorating villa in the French style; soaring ceilings and tiny balconies. Our one-gloved moped driver, who tagged himself with the moniker "Michael Jackson," sold us a pile of brown weed for seven US dollars. We journeyed into the massive temple city at sundown. It was Christmas eve.
At the barren top of a ruined ziggurat we watched the sun melt into the horizon. The chorus of jungle insects was deafening, the breeze hot, and I was slowed by the unmistakable weight of apprehension. My girlfriend approached me from behind. She was standing with a tall man with very short hair. He was smoking a cigarette. She introduced him as the person she'd met a month before, the man she'd fucked. I said hello. I shook his hand. I walked away fast.
Aflame, I rushed down the crumbling temple steps. My eyes were searing and I felt they would boil forth from their sockets. My heart beat a deafening, liquescent death-march in my ears. I could not swallow. I spoke aloud to the elements, and looked frantically for support from nature. Would that tree understand my grief? Did the ancient soil feel as I felt, ripped apart, shamed, undone? I stood straight, raising both hands to the sky, a human glyph of primal grief. I came down at once, slamming both fists into the rocky ground with as much force as I could summon. My left hand was fine. My right hand was not.
By the time we got to the field clinic in Siem Reap my right hand was swollen to twice its normal size. The clinic was a simple, one-story structure with hard-packed dirt floors. The clinicians spoke a patois of Cambodian and French—very little English. The hulking, battleship gray x-ray machine clearly read "US Military" and appeared to be from the era of our wars there. I pictured tiny tumors popping up and multiplying, cells inflating and reduplicating, mitochondrial popcorn. I pictured Henry Kissinger apologizing for his illegal carpeting bombing campaigns, and by way of consolation, presenting field clinics the country over with used x-ray machines. The film showed my skeletal hand. The doctor repeatedly said, "Entorse." I would ask, "Broken?" and he would shake his head, "Entorse." I later found that roughly translates as "Contused." I felt extreme relief, and ate a lot of ibuprofen.
We continued to explore Angkor Wat and other destinations in Cambodia, and traveled on to an island in Thailand. My hand was bound up in a now-blackened wrap, my right pinky supported by a crude metal splint. I was in near-constant pain. I could not grip or support myself with the right. I was shaving, writing and drawing with the left. Three weeks after the initial impact, I thought it might be wise to seek a second opinion. I went to the Seventh-Day Adventist hospital in Bangkok with my girlfriend, my hand, and my x-ray film. It was infant-health day, and the whole place was teeming with tiny Thai babies. They squirmed more than cried. Without too much ado I sat down in the orthopedist's office. He placed my film on his lightbox and flipped a switch, the fluorescent bulb sputtering to life. His heavily accented bass croak was succinct: "Is broken. Require surgery."
I stood. I sat. I fought hot tears and lost. I ranted, denying this was possible, screaming I couldn't afford it, crying I would never draw again. The orthopedist sat immobile and waited for it to pass. It passed.