Cosi, Cambodia by Saba Sams

I still remember everything about the night I met Cosi. I remember the smell of the hostel even: someone was chopping pineapple.

I’d just arrived from dropping Eva at the airport. I rode back into the city on an empty bus through the dark, watching party lights bleed across the wet windows. Ho Chi Minh was filled with party lights. They were tied to the backs of tuk-tuks, crowning the roofs of skyscrapers, blinking, jumping colours. Six weeks earlier, on our first day here, Eva and I had chased them up to a rooftop bar and, completely unaware of the currency, bought two beers for the price of eight proper meals.

In the hostel, I was shown to a dorm where Cosi was spread out across a bottom bunk with his eyes closed, topless, looking tanned and wiry. I unpacked all my clothes onto my bed, folded them smaller, and repacked them again. He opened his eyes to introduce himself, and we talked about where we’d been and where we were going. He was crossing the border into Cambodia in the morning too; he’d bought his bus ticket down the road, leaving early. He said I should check if there were any left. I liked him. His smile took up half his face and his skin looked warm. I went out to find that the bus agency was still open, despite it being well past midnight, but there were only tickets for the hour later than his. I bought one, as well as a carton of corn milk from the tiny fridge. When I got back to the dorm Cosi was sleeping again.

My alarm went off the next morning and worked its way into a dream that I forgot as soon as I opened my eyes and found that Cosi was still in his bed. I went out and bought two dark iced coffees topped with condensed milk. I woke Cosi, gave one, and suggested he try using his ticket on my bus. He did, and the driver waved us on without even noticing. We sat side by side, rushed with caffeine, one of Cosi’s headphones pushing drum and bass into my left ear, the sun like a tangerine through the thin curtains.

It’s funny, how clear that is, those first moments, but then I remember so little of Cambodia. I still know all sorts of words in Vietnamese, Please and Thank you and Vegetarian. I know the names of my favourite Vietnamese dishes, all the different places that we visited across Vietnam, the people Eva and I met along the way. But all I really remember of my time in Cambodia is that Cosi was there. I remember it in a blur, weeks bleeding together like wet magazines, where single details surface so precisely they’re like sharks, him leaning over a boat to trail his hand in the red-brown river, turning to face me in the broad daylight so that his face is just an outline against the sun.

I do remember clearly the big things, like the first night we kissed, which was also the first night we slept together. It must have been Phnom Penh, our first stop. We were in a bar with a few people we’d met at the hostel, drinking vodka and tonics which lit up fluorescent blue in the dark like jellyfish. It was a real tourist bar, with loud pop music and a thick steel pole set up in the middle of the room for people to swing around on if they felt up to it. Cosi disappeared for a while, and when he came back we were dancing, so close in the heat of the crowd that he spilt his drink on me, or the other way around, I can’t remember now, and then we were kissing, not well, not nicely, that sort of drunken, wet kissing, where you aren’t sure how it started.

When we got back to the hostel we had sex, badly and probably quite loudly, in a dorm room full of people, and then left in the morning, hot from sharing a single bed. We drove a moped out into the middle of nowhere, got lost and thirsty and found a hammock strung up between two trees, where we stopped for a while. I’m not sure I’d properly looked at Cosi all day. I might have been embarrassed, a bit sorry, because we’d been getting on so well, going everywhere together for the previous few days without even thinking about it first. But he told me in the hammock about how the night before, when I’d thought he’d disappeared, he’d caught a tuk-tuk back to the hostel to put on some deodorant, and brought it back with him to the bar in his pocket, convinced that he smelt so strongly of B.O. that if I did fancy him, I was bound to change my mind. But, Cosi said, as soon as he walked back into the bar, he’d realised it wasn’t him that smelt at all, but a girl I’ve forgotten the name of who was the most wonderful dancer, cutting up the dance floor and stinking out the whole place. When Cosi told me this story, while he was using his long legs to swing us back and forth in the hammock, while the dirt roads and fields and fields of dry nothing stretched out all around us, I remember laughing and swinging and saying that I don’t even mind the smell of B.O. that much, that earthy sweetness, it’s not bad, sexy even, and knowing that life was something wonderful, something good.

Then there’s the morning we got up in the dark to see Angkor Wat at sunrise, when Cosi drove our moped into a ditch and there was this moment in the clean, fast air when I thought that something terrible was about to happen, but then we landed in the water and swam out again, unscathed apart from my right knee, which stiffened slightly and still clicks when I bend it. Two men stopped in the road to pull the bike out, dragged it and us by tuk-tuk to their roadside cluster of one-room houses, drained it of water, re-filled it with petrol and bent everything back into place while Cosi and I sat on plastic chairs, drinking sweet yellow tea, playing thumb wars with their children and listening to the corrugated iron roofs rattle in the breeze. We left money and Cosi’s football shirt, and reached Angkor Wat while the sun was still small, so that the main temple’s reflection was fixed in the smooth moat, the sky all the colours of a fruit bowl, everything perfectly still, the whole place at rest. I have the paper tickets somewhere even now, ripped and muddy at the creases, our printed photographs blurry, water stained.

For the almost the whole time I was travelling through Asia, I carried a teapot for Ben in the underwear section of my backpack. I’d bought the teapot in Vietnam; it was square and hand-painted in china blue, with a bamboo handle. Every time Cosi and I had to pack to go elsewhere, I’d wrap it up in layers of newspaper and clothing in the hope that it might survive the journey. It had a very fragile-looking spout, and I remember being very nervous about it. Ben and I had been seeing each other for about a year at this point, on and off. I’d put a stop to the whole thing just before flying to Vietnam, tired of not knowing where I stood, and I was genuinely certain that things were over between us. But then I’d bought this teapot for him within the first few weeks of my trip, on a day when I was missing him, and had since convinced myself that, back in England, I’d just give it to someone else. I even told Cosi it was a gift for my sister. Of course, I gave it to Ben a few months after I got home, as soon as we started seeing each other again, for his birthday, with a Wispa Gold inside. He’ll still sometimes get it out in the mornings, it’s just the right size for two generous cups.

Cosi and I spent three weeks in Cambodia before he moved on to Thailand. When he left I went south to the islands for the last week before my flight home. I sat on the beach eating mangosteens, waiting for the sun to set so I could watch the plankton light up when I swam. There was no signal out there so I let my phone die and barely spoke to anyone for days. Cosi and I had left things vaguely, but I’d promised to visit him when we were both back in England. He’d be in Newcastle with his parents until the end of the summer, before moving back to Edinburgh to study. I’m not sure whether I’d considered a future for us, but I do remember sitting on a rock on the beach, the sun hard on the back of my neck, the sea laid out in front of me like a blanket, running through footage of Cosi in my head, like a flipbook of a sunflower, a time lapse of something growing very fast. Him laughing into the buzzing dark, the square of his shoulder in the thick of a crowd, his hand in my hair on the night bus, a grain of rice in the crease of his lips.

It was less than a month later that I went up to Newcastle. I’d never been before, and I’ve not since. I caught the train up from London, and when I got off at the station, nodding to the conductor on the platform, one of his arms raised in the air, holding a whistle in his mouth like a cigarette, I felt filled with adrenaline.

I stayed with Cosi for the weekend. It was lovely seeing him with his tan faded, doing normal things like driving a car, playing pool, eating a sandwich. We walked along the Tyne, ate pasta on stools in a restaurant, drank wine in his bedroom, fell asleep on each other with flushed cheeks, woke up to the glass of his windows steamed over against the cold. I remember we spent an afternoon in the countryside, by a tiny stream. The pebbles were glossy, we walked around holding hands, and Cosi told me things he said he’d never told anyone before. I climbed up onto a tree stump so that our faces were level and stood with my hands on his shoulders, just looking at him, the river rushing behind us, and I saw him surrounded with yellow light, this fine yellow light, so that I understood how much I’d missed him. Of course there’s a chance I didn’t think these things at all at the time, I’m just choosing to remember it like that now.

It was probably about two weeks later when Cosi called me up to say he didn’t want a long-distance girlfriend. We should cut it off, he said, before it started hurting. I was walking back from the cafe where I worked, and the evening September sunlight was creamy, the shadows stretched long. It’s funny how sometimes emotion can overtake sense, or the other way around. I once had a difficult conversation with Ben over dinner in an Indian restaurant, and afterwards when I asked him how his food was, if he’d liked it, he replied with something like, I’ve got no idea, I ate it all but I’ve got no idea what it tasted like. I suppose whatever he was feeling then, anger, panic, whatever, just stamped all over his taste buds. With Cosi, I’m not sure what was said on the phone. Maybe I fought for him, more likely I didn’t. I was distracted; early Autumn was treating me well. I was letting the late sunlight warm the left side of my face, watching the way the lampposts grew up to greet it, Cosi’s voice just a soft hum in my ear. It was days before I cried, sitting on the tube at night, letting the tears come out of me like weather, and then stopping of their own accord, drying into my skin.

It can’t have been long after that that Ben invited me out for a drink. We sat next to each other in a pub garden, the heater blowing out onto our faces, and I was flooded with such overwhelming love for him that I had the idea to knit us one giant jumper, something we could sit in together, and I’m still working on it now. Two years later, I’ve just done the sleeves.

I haven’t seen Cosi since but I do think about it all from time to time, that August in Cambodia. When he first popped into my head out of nowhere I was so surprised that I turned left instead of right, and didn’t realise until I’d walked deep into the park on the opposite end of my street. Now, the memories come along easier, just slipping into the background so that I know they’ve been there all along. Like yesterday, when I went to buy ingredients for Ben’s birthday cake. I was walking along the pavement, leaves scattered like playing cards, trying to remember if it was cinnamon I needed or nutmeg, and a picture came to mind of the pads of his fingers drumming my thigh, a feeling that I could almost hear, while I was slotted behind him on the moped, slightly off balance and totally happy, saying something into his helmet, all around us heaving traffic, the sun running and splitting into a million pieces in everyone’s mirrors until the lights changed and we were gone again, while all the time I was walking I was trying to avoid the cracks between the paving stones.

Saba Sams graduated from the University of Manchester last summer, and is hoping to start an MA in Creative Writing in September. For the last six months, she’s been in living in Brighton, writing, child-minding and working in a Chinese restaurant to save up for a trip to India. She mostly writes fiction, and her work can be found in Chicago Review of Books’ Arcturus, The Manchester Review, The Stockholm Review of Literature and Forge, among other places. She is a member of the Writing Squad, as well as a fiction editor at The Stockholm Review of Literature. This is her first piece of published nonfiction.

Issue Contents

Issue 12

From the Editor

Lost in Reflection

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