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Chapter 65: Settling In

My head wouldn’t unscrew, and I couldn’t simply stuff it in a drawer. So, despite thinking constantly about my lover and obsessing about our relationship, I had things to do. One of the Poŭthĭsăt DESs had suddenly taken ill and returned to Japan—leaving her house in Poŭthĭsăt town available for rent.

Inside a small, walled compound, the structure was two stories high with a lovely little wooden three-room house on top, complete with an indoor Western-style toilet and shower. Garlands of pink and white bougainvillea hung from the balcony, and several tall banana trees reached the second floor. Almost as good as the indoor toilet was the former tenant’s housekeeper, Veata, who stayed to work for me.

She was dark, slender, somber and probably in her late twenties. Her very traditional Cambodian features reminded me how close I was to the ancient center of Cambodia’s great empire, Angkor Wat, and to the desperation of those residents still left in the Khmer Rouge stronghold. I would be living in the shadow of the soldiers who created the shelves upon shelves of skulls.

Veata, like me, was linguistically challenged. I tried to explain what I needed and what kind of food I liked. I sat down at the kitchen table and sketched pigs, mangos, chickens and eggs, waiting for any sign of recognition. Nada. Veata dutifully examined my drawings, lifted up her head and pointed to my stomach, “Khium chochet?” I knew that this meant, “Did I like?” We were in business!

Before leaving to get Stephan from his camp, a courier from HQ arrived with a letter. I recognized Brielle’s slanted, illegible handwriting. As eager as I was to share my first night in the house with Stephan, I sat down at the little table by the side window, gently pried open the envelope and slipped out a piece of pretty yellow notepaper. I read her letter aloud, although no one was around—except for perhaps a mouse and a gecko.

Dearest CJ,

It’s very hard to realize that I will not hear anymore the boom-boom of your steps on the floor. I don’t think you realize how much your leaving was hurting me, and I felt really vexed when you told me that you didn’t have any regret to quit Skon.

I will always miss you here, because you bring me something that my love doesn’t bring me, as happy as Leannán makes me feel. I know you would have missed Stephan terribly because I can certainly not replace the love of a man.

Once I realized that we will never be again all together, I created a big scandal in a restaurant when I started to cry, cry, cry!

Whatever! In a way, I like the turn of our destiny. This funny and quick change of two women who met and lived together since the first day and joined at the same time their respective loves some months later. No goodbyes, after all we are living in the same country. I wait for you here.

That’s it. I just wanted to tell you how much I love you. That I can finally write this letter,. I’ll try to send you a note as often as possible. I’ll wait for answers.

I leave this letter with an enormous kiss, another one from Fannett who misses you.

Bisou, bisou,


P.S. Take it easy and be a good girl in good form, and be careful with bandits and drive at 60 km/h, the idiot CivPol are arresting us.

I read the letter again. I pressed the paper to my lips. I wanted to be happy that Brielle had written to me. I didn’t want to feel the guilt triggered by her words. Brie was my constant in Cambodia, she had become home, but home was farther away than ever. I folded the letter and slipped it back into its envelope, holding it a long time before moving to my bedroom and tucking the envelope between random pages of my journal and, with it, my thoughts of what had been.

Then I drove the short distance to the logistics camp to pick up Stephan, who was pacing outside the big double gates as I pulled up. I had hardly put the Land Rover in park before he was sitting next to me, flushed, a Cheshire grin spreading across his face. We drove back to the house in silent anticipation. Could life be any more perfect?

“You need to move in,” I said as we climbed into bed. “Picking you up and getting you back to your camp before reveille every morning will get old fast.”

“Think CJ, what rumors this will make.”

“It’s too late,” I retorted. “That horse is out of the barn. The entire country is talking about us.”

“You didn’t come to Poŭthĭsăt for the landscape,” he murmured. “You came for me, and I want to be with you, give you security and comfort.”

I felt a twinge of alarm. He wanted to be my protector? Was I reliving an old familiar pattern and reading from the same old scripts, only with a different leading man?

Stephan’s warm breath on the back of my neck silenced the voice in my head. I turned, allowing his arms to pull me in closer, until I was lost in my desire for him.

The Bakane District sprawled over a large area, which was split into two parts. Mine, Bakane 1, included dense forest and the western shore of the huge interior lake, the Tonlee Sap, as well as the flood plain that was home to remote floating villages. I happily discovered that my predecessor had hired good local staff and left the records in good order.

I also lucked out because a big-boned German woman named Klara was running the Bakane 2 office, which shared office space with us. We became easy confederates and worked well together, except that she refused to use the my car’s air conditioner—a refusal that seemed to be less about saving the environment and more about resisting my American sense of privilege.

I did much the same work in Bakane as I’d done in Skon, only Klara was my partner instead of Wati and a giant gecko replaced Brielle as my roommate. Its nightly cawing sounded a lot like someone yelling, “Fuck you.”

While I fell into a familiar work routine with Klara and my local staff, Untac kept changing its planned escape route locations, forcing the Polish logistics company—in the person of Stephan—to leave Poŭthĭsăt frequently to scout sites for possible staging areas for evacuations out of the country.

As often as Untac changed plans, I would hear about increasing military activity in the province as well as attacks on villages by the Khmer Rouge. Sometimes the stories were rumors spread by armed local police, who were trying to become more vital to the UN. Details were sketchy, but one day my staff insisted that guerrillas had planted new landmines in a village near two of our designated polling sites.

Thirty ethnic Vietnamese had been killed in a fishing village along the shoreline of the Tonlee Sap. Hearing this news, I scheduled a helicopter to take me out to the floating villages in order to establish polling stations and assess firsthand the threat to the election. I was creating my own job description, flying by the seat of my pants.

When Stephan was in town, I’d radio him as I left the Bakane district for my house in Poŭthĭsăt town. “Echo Charley Bravo 1 to Uniform Lima 35 Bravo, come in,” I’d say, drumming my fingers on the steering wheel of my Land Cruiser.

“Uniform Lima 35 Bravo, over.”

Practically singing, I’d reply, “Tanya is pregnant” —our code for “I’m on the way home.”

Then, with his distinctive Polish accent, he’d speak the words I loved to hear, “The blue goose is dead.” He would meet me there.

Pressing my foot down on the gas pedal, I’d hope that no CivPol were around to write speeding tickets.

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