IV. Home, I Want To Go Home
My consciousness seems to fade in and out, but I’m winning.
Epol was right, the technique works. Except for the time Mr. Aziz is dealt an Ace and King, I win every round. I am concentrating solely on making it look like I’m not concentrating solely on Epol’s hand gestures. Like it’s life or death. And it actually might be life or death. I can’t really tell how serious this all is, since none of it feels like it is actually real.
Like I’m sitting in limbo in the twilight zone, every round happens the exact same way. Despite what kind of deal it is, Mr. Aziz expresses extreme confidence. “I know I will win” he says when he decides to take another card or not. “I feel very good about my cards” he’d say, slicking his hair back. “You won’t beat me this time” he’d say.
But I always would, I always would. Because I had Uncle Epol’s cheating eyes on my side.
And all I can do is my best to play along with this elaborate ruse I’ve somehow found myself a part of. Each time my eyes meet Epol’s I feel a sense of urgency that overwhelms me and causes me to light up another cigarette. It’s like he’s drilling each passing moment into my head faster and faster. And faster.
Anytime Mr. Aziz asks me a question, I feel stuplified. I have answers in my head, and even the will to express those answers, but it’s like my mouth forgets how to work. Epol answers for me instead. He’s making up all kinds of interesting stories to appease Mr. Aziz’ curiosity about me. I call them interesting, but I wouldn’t necessarily call his stories believable. Once Epol answers however, I find I’m able to speak up, though all I seem to do is back up all his whacko lies. I find myself talking about a father I don’t even have and a family vacation to Northern Thailand I definitely never took. My real dad’s never even been on an airplane–I’m not even sure if he’s still alive. And the only family vacation we ever took was three hours down the Delaware shore.
But I’m grateful my lying skills have kicked in. I guess I was just a late bloomer, because Mr. Aziz doesn’t seem to doubt the veracity of anything Epol or myself communicates. And until this point in my life, I’ve never really had a poker face. I’m the kind of gal that wears her heart on her sleeve, not the crying-on-the-inside type. When I’m happy you know it, when I’m sad, you will know it. Nothing can really conceal the intensity of my emotions, they are all encompassing.
This one time I had a boyfriend who told me that when I was happy it lit up the entire Universe and when I was upset it made all the light go away like it was never gonna come back again. It was the same way with lying, I just couldn’t fake it. Yet here I am now, vomiting apparently convincing-enough lies. Adrenaline does that to you I guess. I mean, I highly, highly doubt I’m giving an Academy Awards performance right now. I feel like all I’m doing is chain-smoking, stuttering, and repeating whatever Uncle Epol says. It’s like he’s reading my mind but in reverse.
I wonder again, how will I ever get out of this?
Mr. Razak Aziz is exactly how Epol has described him to me, good-natured but impulsive, flamboyant but audacious. He tells me his boyfriend is at the hotel and is angry with him for not being there, “but I just couldn’t resist”, he says.
“Epol is always my lucky dealer I thought, but it seems now like I’ve come across some bad luck. Losing $50,000 last night. But I know I can win it back. I can feel it. I’m sorry Ms. Niko, but I’m going to win.”
Win? I just want to make it out of here alive.
I feel queasy and wonder if it’s too late to puke up the spaghetti.
Epol looks like he suddenly got a brilliant idea, “maybe Mie is the lucky charm for Ms. Niko, eh? Did you ever think of that Mr. Razak Aziz?”
“Deal another round Epol.”
At some point I realize that Mr. Razak Aziz has put down $40,000 USD. He has placed stack by stack by stack carefully into a safe that is sitting on the bed behind Epol. And Ms. Niko? I had been credited to a total of over $36,000. I had only ever put forth Epol’s $200, but that hadn’t stopped him from giving me more chips. My ability to play it cool is fading fast, and Epol can tell. I’m shutting down. Mr. Aziz asks me a question but I don’t hear it. My throat burns from cigarette smoke. My eyes water and dry out at the same time. I want to wash my hands. I miss my mom. I want to curl up in fetal position. I want to cry for help. I imagine what feeling safe again might feel like. I pray for the first time in years. I wonder what would actually happen if I just get up and walk out but Mie is hanging onto my arm like I’m a jungle gym. I probably shouldn’t have come here. It’s fine.
Finally, like there’s a God who hasn’t abandoned me, Mr. Razak Aziz announces, “I think this will be the last round because Ms. Niko and her lucky charm Mie are taking all my money.”
It’s like I can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel again (but I had no idea how far away that light still was)
Epol deals the cards. I get a five and a six. It feels promising because my chance of getting a 10 (10, Jack, Queen, or King) is higher than any other number. This is it. I’ll win and we’ll all laugh it off and I’ll leave and I’ll still make it home to California someday. It’s fine.
As if on cue, Mr. Aziz exclaims, “my cards are strong!” He is humming a very familiar tune with no apparent cares in the world. The dude does not seem phased at all by throwing $40,000 away to gamble a clearly rigged game. I wonder how rich a Director at PETRONUS is? A Director of what though? He hadn’t said. Maybe he’s so rich that money literally has no value to him. Maybe he’s too blinded by greed. Maybe it’s all a scam and they are just biding their time before they kill me. I don’t fuggin’ know and I’m starting to really lose my wits.
While Mr. Aziz is humming away in the land of ignorant bliss, Epol gives me the signals to show me that Mr. Aziz is holding 10 in one card and 10 in his other card, or 20. He’s right. 20 is very good. Or maybe I read the signals wrong? Maybe Epol just meant 10 and not 20? I don’t know. I feel like what the phrase “sick and tired” on twenty years of methamphetamine use might feel like. How did I get here?
I try to make eye contact with Epol to alert him that I’m confused, but he’s too busy focusing on Mr. Aziz who is chuckling like a squealing piglet, visibly delighted over his cards. He doesn’t take another card, meaning he has at least 17 right? He must have 20 then. Fuck.
All I can do is throw in more chips and take another card.
I realize the familiar tune he’s singing is Bob Marley.
“Don’t worry about a ting Ms. Niko. Cuz everyting gon toooooooo be alright”. Mr. Aziz is serenading me.
I look at my card. It’s an 10. A 10 of Spades. I don’t even bother hiding my excitement.
That’s 21. I win. He has 20, I have 21. 10-5-6. I win.
“Mr. Aziz please show your cards”, says Epol. He should be celebrating our win too, but his eyes are still stone cold.
“Well, wait just a second here Epol.”
“You invite me to your home to play the game we all love, to play Blackjack. I have done my part and put down $40,000, all in cash. And your friend here, Ms. Niko, has put down just $200. Then I allow her to be credited over $36,000. Now I am a reasonable man, but that does not seem to be fair.”
It was like I could actually hear our house of cards collapsing around me. It sounded like sad butterfly wings.
Mr. Aziz raised a valid point. I don’t know how it progressed so far without him saying anything. “Ms. Niko has just arrived in Phnom Penh and did not know she would be playing tonight,” countered Epol, “did you Ms. Niko?”
I shake my head no. What else can I do?
“As I have told you Mr. Razak Aziz, I have known Ms. Niko’s family for so many years, I can vouch for her.”
“But I do not know her family. When I win how do I know she will pay me?”
“You could get the money tomorrow couldn’t you Ms. Niko?” Epol’s eyes were burning holes into my brain.
“Of course,” I hear myself say.
Suddenly Epol asks to speak to me in the hallway. I watch myself stand up and walk to the hallway. I wonder how my legs are moving without my brain telling them to.
It seems very shady, this hallway meeting, but what else can I do but obey? I watch myself holding my three cards for dear life. My 10-6-5. Out of Mr. Aziz’ sight, I shed my character and start crying.
“Listen! Stop! Shhh, stop crying. Don’t let him hear you. Shhhh! Ms. Niko, listen, we will go to my business partner. He owns a loan shop. We will get the money, no problem. You will pretend it’s your money, like before with my $200. But Mr. Razak Aziz can not know it is mine.”
“I want to leave. I told you I didn’t want to play for money. I don’t have any money. I told you I didn’t understand the rules.” I try to hand him my 10-5-6. I try to start walking down the hallway. Epol blocks both movements.
“Ms. Niko, you can’t quit now. Mr. Razak Aziz will not be pleased if you try to quit now.”
“No” he yells sternly, grabbing me firmly by the shoulders. It jolts me out of something.
“I don’t feel right. I feel sick.”
“Listen, you can’t quit now. I gave you all my family’s savings, $200. Maybe not a lot to American, but it is all my family’s savings, I can’t lose it. My mother is very sick in the hospital.”
“But you said you didn’t care if I lost.”
“But Ms. Niko, we are going to win! You have 21 but Mr. Razak Aziz only has 20.”
I didn’t know if I could trust Epol. He had seemed so trustworthy before we ever entered this room, but now the desperation in his eyes was concerning. He gripped my shoulders as if to shake me back to reality, “just a little longer Ms. Niko, and we’ve won all that money, we split it 50/50. You have perfect 21.”
Oh the games people play. Would this really all be over so easy?
I have no idea how long I’d been in that tiny room staring at cards and hand signals, listening to the boisterous overbearing laugh of Mr. Razak Aziz, flinching each time he reaches his hand into the safe of money and God knows what else. I am officially broken. I have no more energy and just want to do what I’m told so that I can escape unscathed.
“Mie will take you to ATM and you will get out some money for reserve.”
“What? But I don’t have any money. I told you already.” For reserve?
“Well you have some money right? A little?”
“I don’t have $36,000.”
“Ms. Niko it’s just for reserve. You won’t use it because you are going to win, remember? You have 21. Mr. Aziz has only 20. So you will get just a little money out for reserve, just to be safe, you know? For show. Because Mr. Aziz will be so angry if he finds out we are lying to him—we’re dead.”
When Epol finishes that sentence I almost collapse but it doesn’t phase him, as he grips me by the shoulders still. “So how much money can you get Ms. Niko, for reserve?”
“I-I-I could maybe get $1,000 maybe $2,000. But that’s all I have, and I can’t use it. I told you earlier, not all Americans are rich. I live alone, no family, no money.” I hear myself tell him these words but I don’t know if they are actually mine. I hear my voice but I’m not sure it’s coming from my mouth.
“No, no no” Epol chuckles, as if we are having a picnic in a meadow on a peaceful Spring day. “You won’t have to use it. It’s just for reserve, just for show. And I will get all the rest from my business partner. But you must pretend it is your business partner and your money. Like before. And then we show the cards and then we win. Then you go home and we say goodbye.”