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Chapter 62: Tantrums, the Best Strategy

Bruno had held up my request for a holiday as long as he could until, in an unexpected turn-around, he granted my leave. The pace of work had slowed, local staff had been laid off and graciousness cost him nothing. Marilyn agreed to meet me in Bangkok. I was leaving via Phnom Penh for Thailand to meet up with her when, on a whim, I decided to swing by KPCC and say one last goodbye to Stephan.

“I thought you were going to Thailand?” Stephan said—red flushing up his neck and coloring his face when he saw me.

“I wanted to say goodbye,” I replied, scanning his face. I felt a sudden urge to run to him, grab him and hang on tight. Instead, my muscles tightened, holding me in place.

He met my gaze, held it and inhaled deeply; but before he could speak, his staff sergeant walked in and smacked his back.

“Major, huh, gratulacje,Ci deseve promocji,” the big soldier grunted, his face a mask of admiration. Then, staring down at his calf-high khaki green socks and sandals, he muttered in heavily accented English, “We will be missing you.” Nodding in my direction, he exited from the other side of the room.

I watched him walk out, my vision blurring him into slow motion. My thoughts, however, were whirling around like a mental tornado. Missing you? Major? Deserve it? Missing you!

“What’s he talking about?” I finally managed to ask aloud, facing Stephan.

“I, um, only found out an hour ago,” he stammered. “I thought you are already to Phnom Penh. I, ah, I think the radio will not be okay for you to hear.”

“And just when, and how, were you going to tell me?” I demanded, not wanting to hear the answer. I started to tremble, lava hot with rage. Then I realized that I hadn’t asked the right question. I only needed to know the details of his news, not when or how. Before I could get out any more words, Stephan began to explain.

“I’m promoted to major,” he said proudly. “But with that, I must also transfer to Poŭthĭsăt.”

“Poŭthĭsăt is on the other side of the country, and the place is crawling with Khmer Rouge. It’s only a few klics from Palin, Pol Pot’s stronghold.” I said., remembering Leannán, his blue eyes wide and white with fear and rage when he told us of his visits to the provincial strongholds of the Khmer Rouge. But it was Stephan’s orders, more than my fear of the Khmer Rouge that made me desperate. I felt all of my muscles betray me as I strained to maintain any kind of upright composure.

“Chasya Joy,” he said, stretching out the syllables in my name so that it sounded more like a soothing moan. “I can’t decline the promotion because Poŭthĭsăt is far away; besides, I’m a soldier. I have to follow orders,” he stated, like a father reasoning with his teenage daughter.

He was right. His relationships didn’t matter—I didn’t matter. Poŭthĭsăt was a grim little province north of Phnom Penh on the huge dumbbell-shaped inland lake, the Tonlee Sap. Most of it was jungle and inaccessible―except, of course, to the Khmer Rouge and other factional guerrillas.

Time was running out for me to make the ferry crossing before dark. I felt Stephan’s eyes follow me as I stepped up into my truck. Nothing that either of us could say would fix this mess. I left for Phnom Penh in a daze, refusing to acknowledge the future or, more truthfully, the lack of a future. Only the present mattered, and I was tortured by the fear that I was losing what my passion demanded above all reason. I no longer wanted to go to Bangkok, but Marilyn, my dearest friend, had flown half way around the world to meet me. I resented her for coming to Thailand and taking me away from my remaining time with Stephan.

Hopelessness and anger epically battled for control of my emotional state all the way to Phnom Penh. Finally, exhausted and drained from the inner turmoil and urgently needing to act, I drove straight to HQ for the UN’s volunteers.

The UNV staff had absolutely no reason to like me. I had refused my first partner. I had caused chaos among the DESs, practically since the day I arrived in country. Nevertheless, I walked into HQ and found Edele, possibly the only staffer who actually liked me. “I need a transfer from KCP to Poŭthĭsăt, and I need it immediately,” I said, my voice high-pitched and crackling with tension.

“Why?” Edele replied calmly. She was Filipino, a little older than the other staffers, and I had done her a few favors.

“Who cares why? I want a transfer, that’s why,” I shot back incoherently. Waves of nausea swept over me, and my heart pounded like a bass drum against my rib cage.

My internal dialogue raged. Did I just stomp my foot? Yes, I had just stomped my foot. What was the question again? Oh yeah, why? Because I’m in love with a married man and only have a couple of months until he leaves me to return to his family. Shit—focus!

Shamed by my behavior, I changed tack, pleading my case. “I'm bored to death in Skon. Wati doesn't need me, and the district doesn't need two DESs. Edele, there’s nothing more for me to do.”

“CJ, we only transfer into districts where someone has left prematurely. UNVs are finally up to full staffing levels. Has anyone left Poŭthĭsăt?” Edele asked, offsetting my rising hysteria by becoming increasingly more reasonable and calm.

I yelled like a teenager, “How the hell should I know?” That childish outburst brought me back to some semblance of sanity. Come on, head in the game, stop yelling and switch gears. She wants to help you; help make her see that.

“Edele, you can make this happen. Trust me. Wati is so good at what she does that she deserves to run the ship for a while.” My voice dripped with sincerity.

“What about Brielle? Does she want to leave, too?” she asked, caught off guard by my newfound composure.

“No,” I assured her. “We are not having a mass exodus, only me. Brielle is needed in Battheay. Skon no longer needs me.”

“Well,” she sighed, “a transfer would be a lot easier if you were replacing someone. Still, I think we can do it.”

Edele’s agreement was enough to reset my blood pressure and heart rate nearly back to normal. I thanked her and said goodbye like a sensible person, feeling somewhat hopeful for the first time since learning of Stephan’s transfer.

The next morning, shamed by my emotional meltdown and the persistent need for a man in my life, I boarded the plane for Bangkok.

It should have been harder to move between the Third World and the trappings of the First, but I was playing the roles of both loving friend and tourist. Marilyn and I toured the River Kwai and the summer palace of Ayutthaya, shopped Thailand’s ubiquitous jewelry stores, bought custom-tailored silk and linen suits and dined at clean European restaurants while catching up on all that I’d missed in the States.

I did my best to make Marilyn feel that I was glad to see her and somewhat homesick because, according to Marilyn, my entire family thought that I’d been crazy to leave and had sent her as their emissary to check on my mental health. No one, except perhaps Sara, had understood why I’d walked out—their words, not mine—of such a comfortable marriage and then risked my career and possibly my life to go to Cambodia.

Marilyn wrung her hands over my thinner frame and commented frequently on the news reports about the UN’s failure to disarm the guerrilla factions and the delay in the elections. She told me that my birthday card, which arrived a month late, looked like it had traveled from Cambodia tied to a tin can behind a donkey. When it was finally time to say goodbye at the airport, Marilyn put a hand on my shoulder and looked at me in the way that only a best friend of twenty years can. I hadn’t fooled her, but she was too worried about me to say, “I told you so.” As she pulled her suitcase to the passport control booth, she said instead, “If you were so anxious for something to do, why didn’t you take tap dance lessons?”

Dance lessons! Any thoughts of home were swept away by my preoccupation with the transfers—both Stephan’s and mine.

Perhaps some other woman, more in control of her emotions, could have let Stephan go on his own journey and stayed to finish her work. “I’ve requested a transfer to Poŭthĭsăt. Leannán is sure to be assigned here, and you won’t need me,” I told Brielle the minute I saw her again .Her face was a mask. When she didn’t utter a word, I rushed to fill in the silence. “I want to be with Stephan, and the UNV bosses have agreed. If I go, Leannán will get his transfer to Skon. Besides, I’m bored here. Wati can do my job and hers better than I can. I don’t regret leaving,” I concluded, trying to bait Brielle into a response.

After a long pause, she said, “You should go with Stephan and be happy. I don’t want you to stay for me. Anyway, I only desire you to know I love you, and I don’t want that you think Leannán can replace you.” Brielle looked away for a moment and then faced me again, hugging her chest with her arms. “Even less, I don’t want that you think I’m happy that you are going so that he can come.” Walking purposely from the room, she added, “I always thought you were wrong in putting at the same level a friendship and a love.”

Before I could reply, she closed her bedroom door.

With promises of return visits that I couldn’t keep, I made the three little girls pinky swear to help Brielle with Fannett and to practice their English. They were stoic . . . or simply little girls with other things on their minds than me. Telling the staff would be much harder.

I went to the office to give Wati the same news. Her eyes widened, but then her face became unreadable. In typical Wati fashion, she approached the whole situation with quiet reserve.

“Are you really ready to abandon Skon and all we’ve worked to accomplish?” she asked, cocking her head. “The staff loves you, and you love them.”

“And you don’t need a man,” she continued rationally. “Maybe this is more about being without Stephan in Skon than about following him to Poŭthĭsăt.”

“Need, want, crazy, not crazy. I’m going. Stephan is cast in the role of the man I love, and I don’t see any stand-ins for the part.”

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