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Chapter 12: The Curse of Monoglottism

School was coming to an end, Untac was anxious to get the first wave of UNVs out to the provinces and I was still hopelessly unilingual. “CJ, you must study more. The test is in three days.” Brielle was already dressed. Her brows were knitted together; she held a cigarette in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other.

“Then I’ll fail,” I said, pulling the pillow over my head and trying not to raise my voice.

“That’s what you said about the driving test.”

“Uh, god, this is different. Why can’t you get that?” I said, turning my back to her and yanking the sheet under my chin. “Just please bring me some coffee. That would be helpful.” Then, trying to make amends, I said, “You go on to school. I’m going to stay here and study, okay?”

Brielle smiled, grabbed her backpack and turned to leave.

“Uh, coffee, por favor, please?” I asked.

“Say soom toh in Khmae, not please in Portuguese,” she growled. Letting the pack slip from her shoulders, she gave me a look of feigned disgust and headed to the bathroom where we kept our little coffee maker.

Aut panyaha, no problem,” I snapped. I got that little phrase down after the first week in Cambodia.

Brielle was shaking my shoulder, yelling at me in French. “Il faut que tu te leves.”

“No.” I squeezed my eyes tight against her attempts to wake me. “Wake up, wake up, give god the glory . . .” I couldn’t put off getting up any longer, not with gospel songs running through my head. I opened my eyes, made an unkind gesture towards Brie and sat up.

The van arrived to take me to my execution. As the teachers handed out the exam, I saw that the questions looked surprisingly like the study guides I used to make for Sara when she was in elementary school—lots of multiple choice and matching. Head lowered with pencil in hand, I started to work.

“Finished with part one?” Mr. Tong asked jovially a few minutes later.

“Part one?” My heart sank. I had a chance with the first part. What was coming next? I resisted the urge to smell my armpits . . . as I could feel the clammy drops of water trickling down my sides.

“I’ll say a short sentence and you write down its meaning in English please,” he told the class, proceeding to dictate Khmae sentences.

Brielle was writing like mad. I battled the urge to look over at her. I would fail honorably. The words still all sounded like gibberish. Mr. Tong finally stopped dictating and collected our papers.

Until our grades were announced on the last day of school, I was consigned to the outer rings of purgatory to await my sentence.

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