My best friend Jackie and I were chatting with Cathy and Amy, two Asian-Americans we had just met at the bamboo hut by our hostel porch. It was our last day in Cambodia, and I wanted to just lounge around until our flight.
“Those guys will take us to the Angkor night market later,” said Cathy, the taller of the two. She pointed at two handsome blondes from our hostel. They rushed off on their rental bikes, reminding me that I wasn’t in my 20s anymore.
I remember how I used to be like Cathy and Amy, traveling the world to explore and meet new people. I was in Siem Reap for a different reason—to fulfill a dream my beloved AO and I had. He died last year.
AO and I enjoyed traveling. My family and friends—Jackie included—were so relieved that I, the perennially single and carefree girl, finally found her match. Two years into our relationship, we promised ourselves that we’d visit at least one new country a year. Cambodia was next on our list. We heard a rumor that Angkor Wat was going to shut down for a few years for restoration, so we had to see it before it closed.
“Let’s just rest today, okay?” I told Jackie after lunch. Our flight back to Manila wasn’t until 10 p.m., but my calves felt sore from three days of trekking the temples of Siem Reap.
Meang, the hostel owner, entered the hut. I zoned out of the conversation to upload photos on Instagram. “Here’s looking at ya, kid,” I typed under my photo of Ta Prohm’s silk cotton tree. I checked my older photos. My top view of East Mebon got 18 likes. “Go to the temples to heal,” my caption said.
“Would you like to join us for a picnic?” Meang asked me. I paused and looked at my watch. It was past 3 in the afternoon. “Where? Our flight’s at 10 p.m.,” I replied.
“Only 45 minutes from here. Don’t worry, we’ll be back by 7 p.m. and you’ll make it to the airport.”
I looked at Jackie and she nodded in approval. It’s funny how our roles have reversed. When we were younger, I was the crazy, adventurous one who’s always pushing Jackie to do something spontaneous. Now I’m the one who needed nudging.
“As long as we make it to our flight,” I said. Meang called his three cousins who, in the past few days, alternated as our front desk managers, plumbers, and cooks. They organized our rides. Jackie joined the two girls, while Meang’s 7-year-old nephew sat in his tuk-tuk. Jackie motioned for me to join her group when one of the cousins asked, “Want to ride?” He patted the seat of his scooter and offered me his helmet.
I broke into a grin. I remember Jackie and I talking about how he’s the cutest Cambodian we’ve seen in this trip.
“No, thanks, I’ll ride a scooter!” I told Jackie. She raised an eyebrow and smiled back. I put on the helmet and mounted behind him. At 5’5”, I felt like an Amazon woman compared to his skinny 5’2” frame. I placed my hands around his tiny waist. “See, no fat!” he said as he proudly tapped his tummy.
Two tuk-tuks and two scooters convoyed to the picnic place. The Cambodian boy and I drove past Jackie’s tuk-tuk and I waved. I coughed as we rode through the dusty roads of Siem Reap.
I touched the dog tag hanging from my sling bag. “Hi, AO,” I whispered to the face engraved on the silver plate. His mother gave it to me a few months ago. “I’m having fun and living life, like everyone told me to.”
“We’ll take a shortcut,” my Cambodian boy said. “We’ll be there before them.” I realized I forgot his name. He swerved and we nearly hit a bus in front of us. I screamed. “Don’t worry,” he laughed. “I’m a good driver.”
He asked me how old I am. I cringed and told him my age. “You look maybe 22,” he said. I felt flattered, but cringed again when he told me he’s 18.
The road got wider and we sped past tuk-tuks, bikes, and locals going about their day. “How cute!” I pointed at a small fluffy dog sitting on a scooter with its owner. “Cute?” he said. “I would call a girl cute, but not a dog.” I remembered how AO used to tease me about being too obsessed with rescuing dogs.
The sun was starting to set when we arrived at Road 60, the picnic place. My Cambodian boy took me to the amusement park next to the road of food stalls. He stopped at the bump cars and asked me if I wanted to ride.
“Oh,” I said, surprised. Was I supposed to go on the ride alone while he watched? Should we squeeze in the same bump car while sharing a cotton candy? Who’s paying? Why was I nervous and over-analyzing everything? Why does it feel like I’m cheating on AO?
I blurted an excuse for not wanting to ride, and we left the amusement park to find our group browsing the food stalls. My Cambodian boy drove off while talking on his mobile phone.
“So, where’d your boyfriend go?” the girls teased.
“It’s a complicated relationship,” I joked back.
Meang treated us to bowls of noodle soup. Jackie and the girls bought fruits, while I bought an iced drink made from a freshly chopped sugar cane. We sat to eat on the woven mats laid on the ground. It was getting dark.
“This is fun,” I told Jackie. “I wasn’t expecting our last day to be like this.”
I added, “AO would’ve loved this.”
Jackie replied, “Oh, Katie. I know.”
AO and I were planning to get married, but our future shattered one October morning when his cousin called me to break the news of AO’s untimely death. I will never forget how I fell to my knees and felt like a truck had ran over my heart. In that moment, I felt like I died, too.
It had been 9 months since that day, and there I was in Cambodia, only this time with my other best friend.
I teased Jackie when I saw her ordering stir-fry noodles, the same thing she ate for lunch and dinner the other day. She laughed. “But it’s so good! I’ll eat this before our flight.”
I looked at my watch. I told Meang it was already 6 p.m. He called his cousins on his mobile phone and a few minutes later, my “boyfriend” arrived. He offered his helmet, but I said I’d ride with the girls this time.
The trip back seemed faster. Jackie and I didn’t talk much. We just gazed at the sights until we arrived back at the hostel. As the girls settled in the hut to eat the food they bought at the picnic place, I went to the 18-year-old to thank him for the ride.
I told him my name was Kate. His turned out to be Map.
“Like the map of the world,” I said.
“Can I keep you?” he asked after some silence.
I tried not to laugh. I could imagine AO, who had a penchant for cheesy movie quotes, making fun of this boy’s line borrowed from Casper, if he were even born when this teen flick was filmed.
I smiled and said no. He made a sad, puppy face, and then smiled back. He went inside the hostel and I headed back to the hut to help Jackie finish her noodles. I tapped the dog tag hanging from my sling bag to make sure I didn’t lose it.