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Chapter 4: Taking Flight

The needle marks from mandatory inoculations dotted both of my arms and butt, where doctors had injected me with every protection against bad tropical bugs known to modern science. And tucked into my pocket, I had fifteen or so Khmae words written on little scraps of yellow sticky notes—learned from an AC repairman at my university office.

I had felt this kind of euphoria before, this manic clash of excitement and terror. It was twenty-two years ago in the delivery room as I watched, almost disembodied, while Sara slipped from my womb into the waiting hands of the doctor. My cheeks cramped, my skin burned while cold sweat trickled in a constant stream down my back. There was no turning back—not then, not now.

Before I knew it, I was handing over my boarding pass and entering the monstrous plane that would take me to Tokyo—my first stop on the way to Cambodia, as well as my first step toward the razor’s edge.

It was eighteen hours later, with one more flight to go. “Fifty-five minutes from Bangkok to Phnom Penh, and we expect an on-time arrival,” the captain assured the passengers as I settled into my seat and pulled out my notebook, hoping to lose myself in a trip journal to kill the time and calm my increasing anxieties. But the pages were still blank when the plane made a sudden turn and steep descent.

My heart pulsed as, out the window, Cambodia stretched before me. At first, I could see only dry, barren earth dotted with palms. However, as the plane continued downward, small wooden stick houses with bright orange tile roofs came into focus. I saw slowly ambling white humpbacked cows grazing by the side of the road and glimpses of mountains in the far distance.

The jet hit the runway in a cloud of dust and taxied past a few small aircraft and helicopters before stopping in front of a small hanger-type building housing Immigration and Customs. I began to shake despite the tropical heat—disoriented for the moment and utterly on my own.

Blinking into the blinding Cambodian sun, I joined five Indian men in a white UN transport van driven by an elderly Japanese man. Feeling nervous over the UN’s stunning failure to provide any directions or orientation, I struck up a conversation with the driver.

“Yama, how long have you been here?” I asked, noting the name on his badge.

“Two days,” he said proudly.

“Really, and you know the city well enough to drive?”

“Oh, not so well, but city small. My problem driving on right of road, left side in Japan.”

I was ready to bolt, but where would I go? I scooted back further in my seat and turned my attention out the window.

Through the haze of jet lag, I saw the dilapidated city of Phnom Penh, teeming with hordes of whining motor scooters that puffed black smoke and packs of skinny nut-brown children who chased our van until it got up to speed. We drove past a few modern, although dingy, cement block buildings and several that were built in the French architectural style of the colonial period. The broad streets, full of trucks and white UN vehicles, had more potholes than asphalt. The occasional white humpbacked cow meandered down the road, avoiding the motor bikes and competing with our van for space. Phnom Penh was dirty, with a layer of garbage covering the ground and plastic bags clinging to the trees like ugly fruit.

The van stopped at a plain, three-story cement block UN guest house with a large paved courtyard and parking lot. With little fanfare, an American volunteer—acting as a greeter for the UN’s volunteer unit—announced in a cracking, occasionally squeaking voice that betrayed his youth, “New arrivals keep coming, so there is no schedule in place. Please, find something to do.” As there was no more information forthcoming, a female staffer led me to my room.

“You have a roommate, Brielle Carré,” she said. Conspiratorially, she added, “Brielle’s from Belgium and, between you and me, she’s a bit difficult. I hope you will manage.”

Tired and more apprehensive—teenage boys in HQ and a bit difficult Belgian—I stepped into a white-washed cement room bereft of personality, the two twin beds taking up most of its space. On the single bureau, a small silver-framed photo of an elderly man and a plum-colored glass bottle of perfume were the only signs of Brielle’s occupancy. Two large windows opened onto a balcony that overlooked the courtyard and a three-story, bombed-out office building across the way, with many of its walls missing or partially destroyed. An open door beyond the beds revealed a Western-style bathroom. As I was considering a shower and a nap, my roommate came through the door, pushing my luggage out of her way.

Unsmiling, a young, slightly built woman stared at me from intense brown eyes set in an olive complexion, her skin so pale it looked as if it rarely saw the sun. Short, softly curled auburn hair framed her narrow, serious face. “Bonjour,” she said, her voice a flat monotone. Not even a hint of welcome accompanied the greeting.

Parlez-vous English?” I asked hopefully.

Oui,” she replied, her dark eyes holding my gaze. “My mother was an American, but I prefer to speak French.”

“A bit difficult” might have been an understatement, and the last thing I needed was a humorless Francophile for my roommate. “Emm, I don’t really speak or understand much French. I studied Russian in college.” And that was a lifetime ago.

“I’m Brielle,” she stated, without acknowledging anything I had said.

Just who was I? It took a moment of reflection through my mental fog and fatigue before I could answer. Besides, I was unwilling to disclose much about myself to this surly woman. “Sorry. I’m CJ, short for Chasya Joy.”

Brielle looked at me blankly.

“Chasya means shelter in both Yiddish and Hebrew. My last name, Havra, is the Turkish word for synagogue. Maybe my parents gave me the middle name Joy so that I wouldn’t end up needing shelter in a Jewish temple. I kept my family name when I married. Kinda silly, giving up one man’s name for another’s.”

“I hope you’re not as peculiar as your name,” Brielle said bluntly. The conversation stopped. The staffer’s warning had definitely been an understatement. I went to pee, because it was a reassuring thing to do.

Then I began to unpack my smaller travel bag containing toiletries, jewelry and a pair of extra panties. Rummaging around some more, I found a photo of Sara and looked for a place to put it. Brielle pointed to the top of the small bureau that we would share.

“You can set the picture there,” she said, looking wistfully at the photo that I’d noticed when I entered the room. Without explaining its subject she said, “I live a little south of Brussels with my father and sister. I spend hours filling up CVs; stupide, a waste of time. There are no good jobs in Belgium or France at the moment, so I take this one even if the pay is poor.”

She gave me the impression of someone with no sense of adventure. Had McDonald’s in Brussels been hiring the same day, she’d have found herself there instead of in Phnom Penh.

Although I wanted to close the space between us, what should I tell Brielle?

Needing a time-out from marriage and my career, a do-over, I had volunteered for the United Nations mission. Actually, it wasn’t a new idea. In the heady days of my youth, I had been accepted to the Peace Corps after college and assigned to go to Afghanistan but chose, instead, to marry my boyfriend to keep him out of the Vietnam War draft. Chickened out, not chose, I corrected myself. Everyone who came back from Afghanistan in the late 1960s had Giardia, the almost incurable, wicked kind of intestinal parasites that colonize and reproduce in the small intestines. Why commit gastro-suicide? And with an undergraduate degree in Soviet government, there wasn’t a wide choice of jobs. I didn’t have the thighs to be a cocktail waitress and my math skills were so bad that I couldn’t even get a job as a drive-thru bank teller. Besides, getting married was what you did back then. You didn’t need to be a hero; that’s what husbands were for.

Well, I certainly wasn’t going to tell Brielle all that, or even that I had spent six years in suburbia before returning to graduate school. Instead, trying for some kind of rapport, I gave her the Reader’s Digest condensed version. “My daughter is grown and I’m struggling with the end of my twenty-year marriage, so I decided to chop off my long hair, add highlights to camouflage any hint of gray and run away from home for a year.” If I was hoping for a reaction, it didn’t materialize.

Brielle did pick up my daughter’s photo, which I had put on the bureau. “Ta fille?”

“Yes, married, Sara. She lives in New York City and is studying finance at NYU.” I didn’t add that she was so busy playing wife and building a career that she had little time for me—or children. My own mothering skills had been less than stellar, what with grad school and building my own career, so perhaps I’d earned her detachment. “No grandchildren,” I continued, anticipating the next logical question as an unexpected wave of sorrow washed over me. I’ll do a better job mothering them when they do arrive.

Showing no apparent interest in knowing more details of either my family or professional life, Brielle rubbed her temples with her slim hands. “I must to go to the market. Please CJ, no more English in the morning. The sound hurts my head.” Without another word, she left the room.

I gave in to the fatigue and unrelenting heat. I’d flown for twenty hours, with long layovers and little rest, and my internal clock couldn’t tell whether it was day or night. Lying down on my small single bed, I felt like Alice on the croquet grounds with the mad Red Queen. I didn’t know the rules of the game or of the country. I was thrust together with a woman who seemed intent on redefining unfriendly. I had left a decaying marriage and a successful academic career, albeit one that no longer held much challenge, hoping to accomplish some personal renewal. But at the moment, Cambodia did not seem like the right place to achieve it in any way whatsoever. Feeling very alone and far away from everything familiar, I lay in a patina of perspiration—too hot to move, too wired to sleep.

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