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Chapter 53: Soiree

Russ, along with several other CivPol and Unmos from Kampong Cham Province, were rotating out of the country. Happy about the excuse to visit Hon and browse Psaa Tuntongpong, the black market, for fake designer jeans, I drove to Phnom Penh to see them off. I treated myself to a stay at the upscale Cambodiana Hotel, where the king-size bed, fluffy pillows and AC made it seem like a real getaway from all the grit and poverty of the surrounding countryside. I soaked in two hot showers and marinated until pink in a bubble bath.

I pushed open the door of Chez Palimer, a cement warehouse of a building trying to look elegant on its corner directly across from the central market. The raucous chatter of conversation drove me backward onto the pavement, almost knocking over a woman carrying a foot-high stack of silk cloth on her head. I let the next wave of the lunch crowd carry me along into the restaurant again. The smell of teakwood and nicotine mixed with the musky perspiration of the men standing by the long bar, in front of an equally long mirror, toasting each other loudly, slapping shoulders, occasionally making a faux salute, and more frequently admiring themselves in the mirror. I headed in their direction.

Russ was standing off to the side of the merry-makers, deep in conversation with one of his mates. Despite our differences, he was a gladiator and, more than once, I had been indebted to his courage. My eyes glistened with affection. It had been awhile since our last major adventure, but we had faced some horrific things together, including great danger and terrible loss. Everyone knew us―KPC head Unmo and the American DES ―and even our bit of mild flirtation had become local gossip.

Russ left his mate and sauntered over to me, pulled me down onto a chair, kissed me lightly on the cheek and handed me an envelope. “I knew you wouldn’t miss the chance to say goodbye. Go on, open your gift. I’m pretty chuffed about it.” It was a photo of him sitting on a motorcycle, dressed in a sleeveless army t-shirt, with a bandanna tied around his head and a Cheshire cat smile spread across his face. “You fancy it, yeah,” he said, turning the smile on me.

Russ’s departure was unsettling. In spite of myself, I enjoyed his teasing me about some libby thing that he’d heard me say over the radio. And if Russ was your mate, he always had your back.

I spent the remainder of the afternoon in Phnom Penh buying counterfeit videos and cheap clothes, so it was early evening by the time I saw Hon. I invited her to join me later at the hotel for dinner in one of its most elegant restaurants, L'Orchidee, which specialized in French-Khmer cuisine.

Flickering candles sparkled and danced over the folds of gilt tapestries, china and crystal, blinding us to the sprays of orchids and peacock feathers. A small string quartet filled the room with Beethoven, which competed with the sound of servers in European-style uniforms bustling around pouring water. A deep scarlet paisley carpet muffled the noisy speech of the multi-lingual clientele and the occasional spilled serving tray.

Hon had brought Dara with her. Unlike his wife, who might be awestruck but would never let on, Dara’s mouth hung open.

Hon ordered by giving the waiter numerous instructions for the chef, smiling at me as if to reassure me that I’d appreciate the outcome. The exotic smells of French-Khmer cuisine reached our table before the waiter had laid down the fabulous food in front of us. It included all of my favorites—crispy fried duck, stuffed eggplant and pumpkin egg custard. Dara and Hon held hands, making me feel as if I’d given them a fantasy wedding dinner. Then Hon excused herself as the waiter cleared the table. Dara’s English was poor at best, so we didn’t even attempt a conversation. We waited patiently for Hon to return. And waited.

Finally I pushed my gilded chair from the table and, in my slowest English, informed Dara that I was off to the bathroom to find his wife. Hon was standing before the ornate mirror in front of the marble sink with its gold-plated faucet and handles, staring at her reflection. She was a long way from the hole above a fetid stream, which had served as her toilet at the home that I’d visited with Brielle. Hon saw my reflection beside hers in the mirror and smiled. It was not a smile of envy, but of wonder. She liked seeing the modern world. “One day,” she said, “this will be mine.”

I arrived back in Skon before noon the next day, pleased with the previous night’s soiree and Hon’s self-assured response to the chic glamor of the restaurant. But at the fringes, my mood was tinged with a vague sadness. I thought about the Unmos and CivPol I worked with, fought with and depended upon who were rotating out of the country, their mission complete. Men who were accustomed to military rotations made saying goodbye seem so effortless, but I feared that these departures would rend a hole in the weave that kept Untac knitted together and functioning. All of the unraveling was unnerving. It had taken me months to develop a working relationship with Russ and the Unmos as well as my district’s CivPol—even the crummy ones—most of whom were rotating home.

Would my relationship with Stephan end this way, with him leaving to go home? Hell, all relationships end in one way or another.

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