Angkor Thom, once a majestic walled city enclosing nearly four square miles of the Cambodian jungle, is now a complex of stunning ruins. Lively markets and inexpensive resort hotels surround the site, so tourists (like me) crowd in close. Angkor Thom’s monuments, terraces, and temples were erected around the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries by King Jayavarman VII, the Khmer Empire’s mightiest leader, who, my guidebook says, was known as the groom to this magnificent bride city. She is made of laterite, useful for building because it is both malleable and firm. The groom apparently was made of power and profound Buddhist spirituality. He showed sympathy for his subjects, though his peasant builders likely resented the decades of hard labor. Angkor Thom’s central feature is the Bayon Temple, where my own King J. perches with enviable balance and I perch with caution and thinning patience. I slip the guidebook into my shoulder bag.
He is sweating. His favorite jeans cling to whatever they can find of his skinny, hairy legs. His navy T-shirt, pinned by his pack, sticks to the center of his back. His hair looks crafted of burnt yarn as it always does when wet. He runs ahead, leaping with long legs onto a short pillar so he can survey the weathered ruins and decide how to avoid other tourists on the climb to the temple’s highest level. I wonder how he can cut through this early evening humidity.
I wait for him to tell me what to do next. The bags—shoulder, camera, and tote—press my bra straps into my sunned and sensitive shoulders. A tourist nearby ignores a cell phone call, the pop song clanging against the silent temple walls. I think, how stupid to choose such a song for incoming calls, how obnoxious to let the phone ring. But I chastise myself for being so negative here in this quiet place, as if my sourness rings aloud.
He makes his decision, mentally highlighting a route as if it were an Everest ascent, and hops back down from the pillar to retrieve the camera. “Let’s go!” He smiles, leans forward, rubs his hands together, turns on his heel, and trots to the base of the chosen staircase. I am familiar with this way of his. I have seen it on every trip we’ve taken since we started dating ten years ago.
I follow him, again, always. He is quicker than I am at running up stairs, but much slower when taking steps forward. We travel like that. I compel him to change his mind. But he resists mental movement while jumping all around like a child or flea, climbing and jumping. He always moves, always has something to do. His bony knees bounce up and down, even without music. And just when he is ready to rest, I dash ahead. We are a halting couple, one of us perpetually waiting for the other, one of us inevitably dragging behind, never in sync. Our legs are such different lengths anyway, our footsteps terribly mismatched.
He scrambles up the stairs, which are not really stairs but more like the sides of a mountain. They almost seem inverted. One theory holds that the civilization responsible for Angkor Thom believed the harder to get to a temple’s apex, the better. Only the worthy few had the nerve and leg strength to climb. Now the Bayon is worn and rounded. Hundreds of thousands of tourists scale it each year. He climbs now, like a giant spider, right in front of me for a moment, then looking down at me from the top, arms up, fists clenched in victory pose.
Awkwardly I climb. My lips are pressed into an “o” but I don’t exhale. The skin behind my knees prickles with new hives. Reports on my anxiety churn out like a mental stock ticker: steps I have taken, steps I have to take, years I have waited, times I have almost left, seconds until I will sit on one stair, stuck, and see that he is ahead of me but behind me too, still monkeying around.
I make it, despite the panic. I hope my tears are indistinguishable from sweat droplets. He embraces me and says I did great, I’m a champion, I climbed all the way up here. “Good work, sweetie.” It is what we always say to each other. I press my cheek against his damp chest and feel comfort.
It is difficult to make out the real shape of the Bayon. The towers look like rock formations and the narrow courtyards offer the moodiness of a fantasy castle, especially in the approaching dusk. Each tower bears four jumbo faces, all the same, mouths turned up just enough to look serene rather than stern. The faces are, perhaps, of the Buddhist being Avalokitesvara, or perhaps of King Jayavarman, the royal smile carved repeatedly into the bride. Such devotion on both sides.
He has disappeared, undoubtedly to take photographs, his long body splayed on the floor, angling to shoot straight up, or at a particular slant through the columns. I imagine him tearing up a little as the amber light of sunset warms the cold gray stone. He often talks of traveling with his family, of traveling through history, of being a child. He wishes he could go back there, could tumble down the stairs to his youth. I am exhausted by the climb and terrified of falling.
He retrieves me. I follow him through an archway, over a pile of large square stones. We are inside the temple’s top floor. I trust him but feel lost because I am not leading. When I go first, I talk so much he always knows where we are headed, but when he leads, the trail lit up only by the adventure in his eyes and the reflection from his glasses, I worry at every step that I will pitch forward into a pit and despair for centuries with the bone dust of Khmer builders.
We step more carefully through the darkness that has become cooler now that the sun is retreating from the Buddhist Bayon.
“Do you smell that?” he asks, and I do, a faint scent of incense, so common to Cambodia, but not common here within these old dead walls. Somewhere incense is burning and once he knows it, he must find it.
I imagine men and women gliding through these passageways, thinking of sacred text, of their next meal of rice and fowl and gingered vegetables, of staying out of trouble, of marrying into power and having babies to marry off into more power. I am thinking some of the same things. Of marriage. Of putting our decade together, our labor of love, into historical context, not just into history.
The incense smell is stronger now. Its floral layer rides a wave of musk that draws tears from my eyes. We become aware of a red glow. Ahead in a corridor, a bit higher, there is light. I expect it is a red beating heart, the heart of the king, still alive and preserved within Angkor Thom’s walls. I want my own heart to be preserved, to stop moving around, to stop aching, to just sit and pulse. I want my mouth to look serene.
He leads me into a spherical cavern, what might have been the summit of the thirteenth-century Buddhist universe. In the center of the room, there is an old monk in yellow robes, nodding and swaying on his knees. While he, smiling, peers down at the monk, I peer upwards toward a tiny white dot of light at the top, a seemingly pin-sized hole that attracts and funnels the incense smoke now filling the little room. The white dot blinks several times. There are bats up there, flying back and forth across the hole, resettling on better perches, sensing the strangers who have just arrived.
He squats, looks up into my eyes. We turn to the monk who beckons us to sit down, no, kneel down, and we do. Next to the monk is a flaking golden Buddha covered in lotus flowers and bat droppings.
For the first time all day we put down our burdens, laying the cases and backpacks behind us. My knees are sweaty and itchy, but I am joyful that we are next to each other with no bags, and that neither of us in leading. I take his hand, hoping that mine feels both malleable and firm.
The monk chants, hovering around one note, close to the E below middle C, I think, just sharp enough to live between the E and the F, a precarious crack in music. The monk’s voice is clear; he must be inhaling and exhaling in circles. The incense carries the song up through the white hole, up over Angkor, up into the heavens now dotted with stars. And there, in front of the once-radiant Buddha and the aged monk singing, we kneel together with nothing else to do or think about but the proximity of our thighs and shoulders.
The monk’s voice stops abruptly as he leans forward. I think he is going to tip, to pass out, but he leans deep at the waist, bowing, his bald head kissing the floor in silence. When the monk returns to an upright kneel, he gazes at us with peace and completion.
We turn to each other. For a moment I believe we have been married within the bride city. We had the leg strength and the nerve. We just needed to be still.
Under the monk’s gaze, he gets up first, gathers his gear, places riel notes in a tray at the foot of the Buddha, and quietly slips out of the room. I linger, breathing the incense and lotus, in and out. I look around. He is already gone. I find the way out on my own.
BIO: Suzanne Farrell Smith’s work explores education, parenthood, memory, trauma, and health and has been published in numerous literary and academic journals. Recent pieces appear in Crack the Spine, Santa Fe Literary Review, ink&coda, and Copper Nickel. Essays have been listed as Special Mention by Pushcart and Notable in Best American. Previously an elementary school teacher, Suzanne earned an MA from The New School and an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts; she now teaches writing and education courses at Manhattanville College. She loves to travel and has been all over the world, while making her home with her husband and three sons in a wooded valley in Connecticut.