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Chapter 11: A priceless Gift from Someone Who Has Nothing

Each time I found myself meandering through the glittering market stalls of 18-karat gold jewelry and gemstones, trying and failing to discern good stones from bad, I sought out Hon.

On one such shopping trip—an escape from school—she invited Brielle and me to her home. Brielle and I squeezed onto the back of a taxi-moto as we followed Hon’s scooter through the narrow back streets leading out of the city. As the wind blew diesel fumes and greasy street smells into my face, I inhaled Phnom Penh. Her village, at the outer edge of the city, was like hundreds of others in that ravaged country—a collection of small, impoverished shanties. They were nothing more than huts, with newspapers patching the holes in the walls and roof. Hon’s shack perched on stilts over a large ravine; a rickety bridge stretched from the front porch to the road.

The dwelling, basically one room with an attached shed used for cooking, was bare of furniture except for a slatted wooden bed, adorned only with a grimy yellow throw pillow. A few old family photographs hung precariously on the wall, along with a dilapidated teak wood spirit house—a relic from pre-Buddhist Cambodia.

I hadn’t been in the midst of such poverty since my days as a college student sharing a dilapidated apartment with six close strangers. Brielle and I fidgeted in our bleak surroundings while Hon fussed about, preparing a plate of Cambodia’s ubiquitous fresh fruit, gathered from outside her front door.

She returned with the fruit, smiling as if she were the mistress of a French mansion that used to line the broad King Norodom Sihanouk Avenue leading up to the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh, before the Khmer Rouge devastated the city. She left the plate on the slatted wooden bench and knelt down, reached underneath and pulled out a small cigar box. Inside was an odd assortment of bits and pieces—some worthless paper money from the Lon Nol regime, a small curved knife, a tiger’s tooth, a few tattered photos and a pair broken glasses. I wondered if these items had belonged to her parents. Hon had previously told me that the Khmer Rouge first came after people speaking French or wearing glasses, because they were presumed to be intellectuals.

Hon shoved things around and then, finding what she sought, presented each of us with a small Buddha figurine. Mine was aged, carved ivory; Brielle’s was made of time-worn wood. “These are my most-best things,” she told us. “The Buddha will keep you safe from Pol Pot’s bullets, malaria and tigers while you’re out in the provinces.”

Brielle looked at her with a mixture of pleasure and curiosity. “Is there anything else they will do for us?”

Cha, they will bring you calm.” Hon said in her matter-of-fact way, nodding at me and smiling.

How did she know I craved feeling calm…as much as I craved feeling alive?

As we left, I pressed Hon’s hand in mine, hoping to touch her strength and marveling at how someone so poor could give so freely. There was a round of cheek kissing, aw kuhns, thank yous, and head bows before we made our way out and over the rickety foot bridge to the street.

During our brief visit to Hon’s home, my perspective had changed. Instead of seeing a jumble of shacks lining a crowded, dirt-paved street, I saw the homes of people who strove to make a life after surviving painful pasts―like Hon, like the guide at the Killing Fields. They were no longer exotic strangers; they were the people I had committed to serve.

Brielle and I returned to the guest house, hoping to make it in time for a courtyard barbecue. As we rode along watching the sky above Phnom Penh turn smoky topaz, I questioned my ability to pull off the mission. I fingered the tiny Buddha that I’d put in my pocket, tracing the etched outline of the seated figure. For me, it implied a down-payment on something Hon believed I was going to accomplish for Cambodia. By accepting it, had I also accepted an obligation to her?

By the time we reached the guest house, people were drifting out of the courtyard either to go drinking or to bed. Since the barbeque was almost over, Brielle and I decided to try one of the new restaurants that were popping up like an explosion of dandelions―thanks not to spring showers but to the hordes of Untac personnel descending on the city, bringing with them money and appetites to embolden Cambodia’s budding entrepreneurs.

At dinner, I pushed my food around my plate and studied the stained tablecloth as if it were a piece of rare tapestry.

“CJ, what is so difficult that you don’t smile or talk?” Brielle asked.

“Stuff. You know what I said the other day after our briefing about Cambodia being my fix?”

Oui. Okay. So tell me, why did you need to come to this place?”

“My husband and I were alone together, if that makes any sense. I became deeply sad waking up next to the man I had spent more than half my life with. Not knowing him, not caring about him. Work filled my time; inertia was the glue that kept us together. I could sleep all day or go to work, because it all felt the same: meaningless, with no beginning or end—simply the slow passage of time. But nothing—except a bottle of Xanax—would dull the fear of really being on my own.”

Brielle smiled sympathetically. I continued, eager to have her as my confidant.

“Maybe you were right. Maybe coming to Cambodia wasn’t a brilliant plan for my recovery, but I couldn’t stay where I was. I thought I had my life planned out. But I didn’t plan my failed marriage and, when it happened, stealthily and inevitably grinding to a halt, I wasn’t capable of doing much of anything until necessity forced me back into the game. My husband met his desires for passion with the occasional needy barmaid and steadily increasing amounts of alcohol. After my daughter left home and my own academic career took flight, we lost our ‘us,’ but I never seemed able to find my ‘me’.”

I waved over a waiter. “Som toh. Kyome chochet, emm, Johnny Walker Black.” I pointed to the bottle in a makeshift cabinet behind the cash register. Brielle asked for some water, lit a cigarette and sat back in her chair.

“Can I have one of those?” Why not? I was self-medicating the panic I felt over being alone. I might as well go back to all of my old bad habits. I hadn’t had a cigarette since my twenties, when I quit smoking to have a baby. Brielle shoved the pack of cigarettes across the table and held the lighter for me.

“I don’t understand. You are a professor, you have a successful carrière.” It sounded stupid when she said it, but I didn’t know how to explain that I was unable to credit myself with my success, always attributing it to the three fates—my husband, luck and fraud.

Taking a drag, I said, “I ignored the signs for years…until one night. I returned early from a trip out of town to an empty house. I got angry and worried when he didn’t turn up by midnight. I called his office, but there was no answer. I changed into my nightgown, climbed into our old four-poster bed and was about to turn off the bedside lamp when I heard a woman’s giggle. Then I heard his voice, high and shrill, asking if she’d like another beer. Lights went on in the living room.

“I marched downstairs, probably looking ridiculous in my long white cotton nightgown, my face purple with suppressed rage. The woman mumbled a hurried goodbye to my husband. Left alone with him, I said, ‘It’s me, or beer. Which one do you choose?’

“‘Beer,’ he said, ‘I’ll take the beer.’”

Stifling a yawn, Brielle leaned in and patted my hand. If she knew there was more to the story, she didn’t press me. Instead she stood, asked if I’d be okay on my own and, without waiting for the answer, left me sitting alone at the table. I finished the last of my Scotch whisky, stuck my finger in the glass and played with the ice. I would surely have a bout of diarrhea in the morning from the ice cubes. Damn it, I always forgot that they were made from the local water.

An unexpected calm washed over me as I walked home. I wasn’t angry. I still wasn’t certain about managing as a single woman, a likely divorcee at that, but my husband had become a story told to a friend over dinner.

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