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Chapter 61: Return

Civic education kept me utterly engaged most days. Nights, however, saw my focus shifting to the chaos that was my personal life. I had created a constant mental drama, worried that I would return home unchanged.

What had Marilyn said the day I was packing to leave home? “Wherever you go, there you are”? And now she was coming to Thailand to visit me. What if I proved her and her t-shirt right? When I wasn’t dwelling on her visit, I was full of fear that Stephan would not return to me when he returned to Cambodia.

I slept poorly. My mind, in a state of constant mayhem, spawned crazy dreams. Kosal is shielding a baby from the Khmer Rouge. The baby is a little girl, Keang; no, maybe it’s her twin sister, Kesor, who was left behind in the jungle. More frequently I dreamed of shelves upon shelves of skulls.

Wati returned from her visit to Indonesia with two traditional wayang, buffalo-leather shadow puppets that she said had my personality. They were Hindu hero gods―a female, Sinta; and a male, Rama. He was green and mustached, with an enormous headdress. She was more diminutive and mostly golden in color, but they were equally fearsome. Wati’s perception of me puffed me up, but then I remembered that I was still allowing a man to devour my selfhood. I deflated like a punctured balloon.

Turning Sinta around in my hand, I held her up to the light. Imagining that she was me, I made her arms move, as if she were battling demons, and tried to imagine her victorious. I couldn’t. I laid her down on the table and ripped a cuticle, watching the expanding red blossom as my nail bled.

The radio crackled and I heard Stephan’s voice. He was talking to someone at the Indian battalion. My heart jumped.

When I didn’t radio him or go to the Polish camp, Stephan sent a three-word note, “I am back,” via the Polish drivers who delivered our purified water. I got in my truck and headed for KPCC—seething resentment replaced by eagerness as I neared the outskirts of the city.

“I was too depressed to radio you. I thought you would come by the camp,” Stephan offered in his defense when I arrived.

“It’s okay,” I said, rubbing his hand. I liked the feel of his thick fingers and warm skin, and I enjoyed the physical connection that touching sparked. Just as I was ready to forgive him, he blurted, “I think I will be transferred from this province.” Sucker-punched, I gripped his arm, trying to maintain my equilibrium as the color rose in my cheeks. Dispassionately, Stephan said, “I’m a soldier. I must go where I’m ordered.”

His pending transfer would be somewhere near the Khmer Rouge strongholds along the Thai border, to the west of Kampong Cham. Exactly where he would go, and when, was frustratingly unclear. As angry as Stephan was at the bureaucratic indecision, he had resigned himself to reassignment.

The entire time that Stephan spoke, my thoughts screamed JERK! JERK! JERK! Behaving like a love-struck teenager, I was letting his potential transfer―him―take over my life. I turned off the volume setting in my recalcitrant brain, grinned like an ignoramus and went home.

I had a hard-wired phobia that I’d return from somewhere and find Stephan transferred—gone. Unrestrained by anything close to good sense, I went to the Polish camp as often as I could. My most egregious lack of impulse control occurred at a celebration at the camp where, after drinking too much rice vodka, I woke up in Stephan’s bed sometime before dawn, undressed except for my socks. My eyes couldn’t adjust to the dark and I couldn’t read the dial of my fancy world-time watch, but I still possessed enough sober brain cells to remember that I needed to get out of there before reveille at 6:00 a.m. or risk being discovered.

Stephan was dead asleep. I rallied my courage. I let my feet touch the floor, using my toes to search for my shoes and any clothes that might be down there. I felt a shoe—a shirt, another shoe—until I finally had enough clothes to cover my body. Silently, I slipped them on, crept past the bulky shape of a bunkmate in a bed near the door and tiptoed out of the trailer.

Sneaking through the labyrinth of small buildings, I headed to the camp gate as dawn was breaking. The duty officer posted for night watch looked straight at me. I gasped for breath as I shrunk to my smallest possible self. The soldier merely shrugged. Hot from shame and embarrassment, I crept through the gates to my land cruiser.

I turned the key and cringed at the engine’s roar. As I pulled out of the compound, I could only think that a really emancipated woman would not have run away. She would have awakened with the sun and demanded a cigarette.

Stephan decided that Skon was a better place to spend time together than his barracks, but he didn’t have a clue what he was in for. “You are crazy to live so rustic and primitive,” he told me when he discovered that there was no electricity and therefore no air conditioning. He was even afraid to bathe in our little bathhouse at night.

The little girls were more adventurous. “Momma, we have aping for you,” Keang said. The three of them stood at our door with a plate piled high with jungle spiders. Stephan, a Polish foodie, recoiled from the sight. Black, barbequed skinny legs stuck out everywhere. The girls couldn’t stop giggling. I swallowed my alarm and, looking at Stephan, choked back my own laughter.

“Momma, try,” Stephan teased—much like he did on the radio, when he overheard me complaining to a French speaker that I didn’t speak French or understand it. “You try. You’re the eel eater,” I retorted.

Moam-Moam pulled off a leg from a fat little round body and handed it to me. At the same time, Hoay and Keang pulled off legs and popped them into their mouths. “La aw, la aw na,” they said, telling me that it was good, very good. A bit of leg stuck out of Hoay’s mouth, like the tail of a field mouse. I closed my eyes and bit off a piece. String, it tasted like fried string!

The girls’ attention turned to Stephan. He shook his big head ‘no’. They didn’t care. They’d come to see him—this man staying at Momma’s house. Still giggling, they sang the Khmae version of “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” and skipped out, holding hands and taking their exotic treat with them.

“Here, take one of these.” I handed Stephan one of my precious supply of Xanax before popping one myself. My upper lip twitched involuntarily, and the vein under my left eye was pulsing. I only got these ticks in a heightened state of anxiety. We felt awkward. The weekend had seemed less like having an affair and more like playing house, which made us both nervous.

Huddled together on the wicker sofa, I relaxed as Stephan stroked me. He smiled when I smiled. This relationship wouldn’t end in my abandonment, except in the fantasy of my own invention. But Stephan was not yet my prince charming, and I was still craving that elusive sense of security.

No Xanax, no smiles could subdue my mania about his transfer which, like the temperature, began to climb. I was suffocating. I had fallen in love with Stephan. There was absolutely no future in that.

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