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Chapter 63: Whose Rules?

Despite losing at least pounds to a reoccurring case of rampant diarrhea, I was required to attend an electoral training session in Phnom Penh. Washed out and dehydrated, I was in no mood for the usual screw-ups at UNV headquarters, this time by a delay in the arrival of training materials. Even my usual shopping trips to the central market and visits with Hon took too much energy, and I stayed close to the toilet in the UN guest house.

But I could only hide out for so long, motivated more by my obsession to follow Stephan than to stay within a few steps of a working toilet, so I climbed out of bed and went to check on my transfer paperwork.

“Hasn’t Bruno told you yet? Your transfer has been denied,” a female staffer said, taking a few steps back as she spoke.

Acid poured up from my stomach, and my adrenalin pulsed through me as though I were a manic adolescent who had lost her car privileges. Everyone within earshot heard me threaten to quit the mission and return to the States.

I stormed from the staffer’s office and found the guy in charge. “I haven’t had enough caffeine today to deal with Bruno and his crap. What will it take to get this transfer approved?”

“We are short-handed in some districts, so we simply can’t be moving people around on a whim,” he said, not even trying to pacify me.

“Bull, this isn’t a whim, and it doesn’t change your numbers. I’m still here, merely in a different district,” I said, trying to keep the whine out of my voice. He stood silently, stone-faced and clearly enjoying my distress. I tried counting backwards from one hundred, hoping he would relent. He didn’t break a sweat. I didn’t make it to seventy-three.

“How ‘bout I don’t take my home leave next month?” I said quietly, acknowledging his power over me. He grudgingly conceded; my transfer was signed. As I stood at the door, paperwork in hand, he said, “You know, staying in Kampong Cham might have been the wiser choice. I hear that Bruno is being transferred soon.”

Stephan was in Phnom Penh by mid-week. He obstinately refused to let me recount the blow-by-blow version of my transfer. He simply wanted to know the results.

Unhappy about my giving up my home leave, he sighed. “I’m so sorry I’m responsible for you not going home to family.”

“It’s okay,” I said, trying to make light of the cancelled trip while hiding the fact that I was relieved not to have to leave him, even for a visit home. “I’ll be stationed in Bakane District.”

“That’s a forty-minute drive from Poŭthĭsăt town and the Polish camp,” Stephan grumbled.

“Hell,” I replied. “I’ve been driving that far to visit you for months.”

Returning to Kampong Cham City for a round of goodbyes, I felt a small pang of loss as I passed by the Unmos’ villa. On the exterior balcony, where we had celebrated the Miracle of Lights, paper Hanukkah decorations still fluttered gaily in the warm tropical breeze. Téphanes had helped me make latkes from ingredients that we pillaged from MREs. The Unmos had stumbled over the Hebrew prayer for lighting the candles, but their discomfort was quickly forgotten when a champagne cork erupted from a bottle of bubbly. The Unmo entertained everyone by popping the cork using only his knife.

These people had been my friends for the first stage of my adventure, but I knew they would ultimately become nameless faces in a photo album—footnotes to my year of living dangerously. It would be hardest to leave my electoral staff in Skon, especially Nhean and Kimsore, and I’d miss them the most. Untac personnel cycled through the mission, but the Cambodians were in it for the long haul. I was leaving them to follow a married man.

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