Chapter 35: Purple Math
We sat in the darkening light of twilight, sharing the silence. It was hot, and the motionless air was heavy with the scent of jasmine and bamboo. Too lazy to get out the kerosene lantern, Brielle and I sprawled out on the wicker chaise; a bottle of vodka and a pack of cigarettes lay on the table.
I tried to let go of my frustrations over Bruno’s becoming our permanent boss in Kampong Cham, but without success. He had followed up his earlier dictate about using an X on the ballot with a string of similarly obtuse orders and lack of any tangible support to meet our equipment needs. “Brielle, have you thought about the hundreds of tiny villages we still have to visit in your district and mine? They are hidden deep in the jungles and the swamps beyond the rice paddies. Nhean told me that some are reachable only by boat in the rainy season.”
“You can get there by oxcart during the dry season, but you have to know which way to point the ox,” Brielle replied, with a faint twitch to her mouth.
“I’m trying to be serious. It’s not merely another Tuesday in November. This is not just their first election; it’s the first election in the fourteen hundred-year history of Cambodia. The main political parties, FUNCIPEC and PCC, appear in public with machine guns and rocket launchers, planting landmines on the side of the road as they go from one political rally to another.”
Furiously fluttering her hands in front of her open shirt, Brielle sighed. “It’s too hot to be serious.”
“Hon was forced into a child work camp, lost her whole family because of the Khmer Rouge. Be serious for her,” I scolded.
Hardly able to see, I forced myself up to light the lantern. It cast a soft glow on our small sitting room, but the smell of kerosene mixed unpleasantly with the jasmine-perfumed air. Outside, crickets chirped loudly, joined by a chorus of peepers. I usually enjoyed the night music, but tonight I had an awful feeling—something between frustration and despair.
Trying again to engage Brielle in a conversation, I sounded more like a lecturer in a social science class. “I feel like I’m sitting in the middle of a giant jigsaw puzzle without enough pieces put together to get a clear vision of the whole picture. Everything I experience comes in tsunamis of unprocessed data. In the States, clichés such as “no vote, no voice” are thrown around like they have meaning. But at the end of the day, people skip going to the polls ‘cause it’s raining. Thanks to the twenty-four-hour news cycle, there’s enough polling data to predict the outcome of nearly every election even before the polls close.”
I was quiet for a minute or two, pissed at Brielle’s lack of input. I thought about Cambodia, where three quarters of the population was illiterate and so many of its literate citizens either lay in the rubble of the Killing Fields or had fled the country. Their sole precedent for leadership was set in war, so Cambodians only had Untac to give them hope for better governance.
Brielle interrupted my thoughts; apparently her mind, too, was obsessed with our earlier briefing. “Oui, we must do more than get the X off the ballot. Registration has not commencé, and already the bureaucratique— they start making voting impossible for the people.” Brielle stood up, stretched and massaged her neck. I could barely see her in the weak glow of the lantern and hoped she couldn’t see the smile on my face. I liked it when we were in sync. She lit a cigarette and asked, “Now that we are in this hell, do you think to quit and return to the US?”
“That’s funny. I left hell in the US. But anyway, I’m not here for me any longer. Did Nhean tell you about his family’s tragic escape from Pol Pot—the death of Keang’s twin sister, Kesor?”
Brielle sighed deeply. “All the Cambodians we’ve met since arriving in this country have un conte de la tragédie, of fear and suffering. I stay for them, too.”
My mood shifted from contemplation to agitation. “Beneath the fragrant scents of champaca blossoms is disease. The last Untac medical alert warned us about malaria, anthrax and cholera epidemics. Didn’t we just bury Aiden? His autopsy confirmed cerebral malaria.”
I kissed Brielle on both cheeks as she went off to bed. Lighting a candle to see the way to my bedroom, I capped the half-empty bottle of vodka and turned off the lantern. I used the red plastic pee pail in my room. A DES had been bitten by a cobra the previous week, so I wouldn’t ever use the outside toilet.
The next morning, Brielle awoke ill from dengue fever. I stood watching from our balcony, clutching the little ivory Buddha hanging from my neck, as a Battheay CivPol drove her away to Phnom Penh and the German field hospital.