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Chapter 3 Not This, Not That and Not that, Either

I slapped my empty suitcase onto the bed and looked at my best friend, Marilyn. “What the hell do I pack for a year? Seriously, what have I gotten myself into this time?”

Marilyn frowned, slowly shaking her head. “Couldn’t you take the geographical cure somewhere more civilized?”

The muscles in my face tightened. “Not again, please. Don’t repeat that tired old coffee-mug cliché, ‘Wherever you go, there you are.’”

“It was on a t-shirt, but never mind. I’m only asking whether it will be hard to leave everything behind.”

“No, hard would be staying.”

I turned away from Marilyn and stared into the open doors of the spacious closet in my new apartment. A walk-in closet was a requirement when I left my husband to try living on my own. Never mind that the kitchen barely had room to turn around in, the townhouse was a five-minute drive from campus and only two towns away from him. But even at that distance, it was difficult not to find something for him to fix or to ask his advice—pretenses for a husband fix. After six months of living on my own, I still couldn’t seem to manage my own life.

Since accepting the United Nation’s invitation to join its mission in Cambodia as an electoral supervisor, I’d been like a teenager on steroids, running around as if an electric current was powering me. I was feeling weightless and giddy with the idea of adventures worthy of a Hollywood movie, the fantasy of hobnobbing with the UN elite and the chance to break free from a decaying marriage and a life grown stale. I wanted to wake up welcoming the morning and be sorry to see the night come to an end.

Then thud, I would transform from Superwoman to a whiney wuss. The UN had given me an arrival date in Phnom Penh less than ten days away, but no travel itinerary or ticket—only a confirmation number for an unfamiliar Chinese Airlines flight, a few sketchy instructions and unnerving promises of more information to follow.

I thought I was prepared to meet the challenge, but I found myself more equipped for a Boy Scout outing than an electoral mission in post-civil war Cambodia. Although I had acquired a spectacular Swiss army knife, a half dozen plastic bottles of Avon Skin So Soft—guaranteed, my friends insisted, to protect me from insect bites—and a rather impressive mosquito net, the Casio world-time watch and water filtration system suddenly seemed a bit ridiculous.

Reality had set in. According to The New York Times, two years after the 1990 Paris Peace Accords were signed, the cease fire was tenuous at best; Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge had not been brought to account for killing three million people; and millions of landmines peppered the countryside. The idea of spending a year in Cambodia sent deep pounding drums, staccato strings and stabs thrumming through my body.

Marilyn’s voice snapped me out of my thoughts and back into my bedroom. “CJ! You’re never going to get packed by staring into your closet.”

“Well, let’s see, three hundred seventy pairs of underwear? There might be a few days when I want to wear more than one pair,” I said, turning to face her and hoping that she didn’t see the fear I was suddenly feeling.

“Focus . . . please.” Marilyn chuckled, looked at me and shrugged. “CJ, you can’t pack for a year. Quit stalling and put clothes in the bag.” She tapped the suitcase, walked the length of my bedroom and looked into the closet, which was packed to the ceiling with a queen’s ransom in clothes. “Grab a few suits, some ever-so-useful separates and a few of your favorite casual clothes,” she coaxed, while waving at the hangers and walking over to my dresser. “Then grab a handful of underwear and socks and hose.”

“It’s not that simple,” I protested.

“Yes, it is. I’m sure you’ll do some laundry and shopping.”

“It’s a whole friggin’ year, Marilyn. In a Third World country. I need more than a few suits and some underwear.”

Smiling, she grabbed a black silk dress off a hanger and a box of condoms left over from a Planned Parenthood rally. “You’re right. But no single woman should be without these,” she said as she tossed them into the suitcase.

Marilyn was right. I needed to pack all of my “go to” outfits and wing everything else. I grabbed a variety of pant and skirt suits, a few blouses, more pairs of black pants than a person should own, several pairs of shoes—black patent heels for my chic little black dress, fake rubberized cowboy boots for trekking through the Cambodian jungle—and placed everything into my suitcase and garment bag. The bag was overstuffed, but I could still close the suitcase without Marilyn sitting on top of it.

I took a small gilt frame down off the wall and examined my daughter’s smiling face. Why had I been in such a hurry for her to grow up and leave home? Hoping that she wouldn’t lose herself in the daily grind of being half of a couple, I ripped the paper off the back of the frame, slipped the photo between its two pieces of cardboard backing and tucked it into the suitcase.

Jewelry posed a whole new set of problems. “Do you think I should take my good jewelry?” I asked Marilyn, genuinely perplexed.

“You’ve already filled two bags with expensive designer suits,” she replied dryly.

“I highly doubt that I’ll be held up at gunpoint and asked to strip,” I said, rolling my eyes. “But someone cutting a finger off for a good ring or ripping a chain off my neck seems like a distinct possibility.”

“CJ, you’re running the election in Cambodia, not the opium trade. I think you’ll be okay if you dress like you normally do, including the jewelry.”

I wasn’t quite convinced, so I mixed in a few pieces of costume jewelry as well as a couple of cheaper silver items. By then, I was taking enough accessories to start my own pawnshop. I stared at my overflowing suitcase and contemplated whether I should take my half-full bottles of shampoo, toothpaste and other toiletries or buy them when I arrived. I wanted my own things, so I packed them and added a couple of tiny bottles of perfume, to be on the safe side. Finally, in a moment of panic, I grabbed the familiar brown plastic bottle of Xanax and slipped it into one of the interior side pockets.

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