Chapter 13: A Stranger in a Strange Land
Rather than eating barbeque ribs and watching fireworks American style, I celebrated Independence Day at a noisy and crowded US Embassy celebration, where the greasy odor of charcoal-grilled hamburgers and hotdogs blended with the stink of Cambodian’s favorite fruit, durian—turpentine and onions, garnished with a gym sock—which hung in the hot July air until it soaked into my clothes and skin.
Trying to be social among the diplomats and their cronies was awkward; I was merely a UNV on this mission, and they had no interest in making friends with the help. I retreated to my own little clique on the other side of the hotel courtyard, people who had come for the free food and beer. Like mine, everyone’s fingers were blue from the icing on the big cake because the Cambodians had apparently used ink for coloring. Necessity trumped consequence.
I headed in the direction of a small band playing off in a corner, where a few people were crowded onto the tiny dance floor.
“Proszę, dance with me.” I didn’t recognize the accent, but his English was stiff, unsure. He wore no uniform so I assumed he was another UN volunteer, but given his build, perhaps one of the UN Military Observers, Unmos.
“No,” I protested, “Dancing for me is like speaking a foreign language.” But he took my hands and slowly helped me sway to the seductive beat of “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” “Ah-ah-ah, see you do dance,” he declared.
“Where are you from?” I asked, trying not to stare at his thick head of curly hair.
We didn’t speak another word to each other. I hadn’t danced since the early days of my marriage, when passion and fun were a part of life. Passion, it was there and then it wasn’t. I want it back.
Maybe I wasn’t feeling passion, but I was tingling. Brielle grabbed me by the elbow and tugged. “Come, we speak about assignments.” I let her pull me away and, by the time I looked back at the dance floor, the curly-headed Polska was gone.
Most of the UNVs were clustered around Leannán in a back corner beyond the band. Still swaying a little to the music, I walked over to join them. Everyone was talking about our assignments to the provinces, only two weeks away and they were hoping Leannán, a veteran compared to us, had some answers. “What about mail? Can we get our mail in the provinces? I must have my mail,” demanded a chunky, broad-faced Filipino man who was leaning into Leannán’s face, practically poking out an eye with his finger.
Leannán’s constant gentle smile and lyrical voice softened his ominous reply. “Darlin’, forget mail, forget AC. Where you’re going, there’s no running water, no sanitation.” He paused for effect before adding, “No electricity. You’re isolated, cut off from everything. Ga, when the rainy season comes, you’ll need a rowboat to get around.” Anxiety over the mission was contagious. A few in our original group had already given up and left Cambodia I had the same concerns as everyone else, and I was worried about whom HQ would assign as my partner.
I’d always presumed that the mission would require living in the provinces. But knowing that we were headed there was quite different from appreciating the fact that Cambodian provinces in the countryside were nothing more than expanses of flat brown scrub plains, swamps or forests dotted with small, impoverished villages connected by dirt or sand roads. It seemed impossible to accept the idea of less civilization with fewer phone and mail opportunities. Without mail, I would lose my only tether to the wider world.
The band had quit playing and the beer had stopped flowing. Brielle had already left with Leannán, so it was time to go. The night gave way to dawn as I made my way home. No one was around when I arrived at the guest house and climbed the stairs. Quietly, I turned the handle and pushed open the door to our room. Brielle was not in her bed.
A new enthusiasm, a blush on her pale cheek after a secretive outing, had led me to assume that her relationship with Leannán had blossomed and intensified over the past few weeks. But she had not confided in me; —her absence was her way of letting me know. As I crawled into my own little bed, the words don’t worry, be happy played repeatedly in my head like a scratched record—as did the image of the curly-headed stranger.