Chapter 67: Sometimes Bliss, Sometimes Not
Although the exception and not the rule, some of Stephan’s homecomings were not how I imagined they would be while he was away on recon, scouting possible escape routes. Occasionally, when he returned from his trips late or drunk, Stephan would snarl and scold.
“Why do you keep radioing me? Calling me on a radio so that everyone can hear you angry won’t get me here faster.”
Love had made me far too needy and emotionally co-dependent, but I didn’t give voice to my feelings. I remained quiet until Stephan, deliberately not touching me, fell into a heavy sleep. I would look at him, and I would not see my salvation.
I woke early after one of those nights, a rosy glow filtering in through the window as the dawn was breaking. Absentmindedly, I looked outside at a cluster of small houses with footbridges about three meters off the ground that led to outhouses in the common area behind the houses. Rather than using one of them, a small naked boy, not more than three years old, squatted and did his toilet from atop a few roughhewn planks that made up the footbridge.
A young man dressed only in a short sarong brushed his teeth using water from a rain barrel. Banana trees and bougainvillea flourished, but the exotic vegetation merely distracted the casual observer from the septic environment and the poverty that permeated the country. Cambodia was a cesspool, rotting under relentless heat.
Enough. I stopped staring out the window and put my head down on the pillow, hoping to fall back to sleep. Before I could close my eyes, I felt a warm hand on my back and turned into Stephan’s sleepy embrace. “Morning sunshine,” I murmured, nuzzling his neck and letting his scent fill my senses, warm as a hug and safe as a babe.
Later, alone in the house with only a short-wave radio for company, I could no longer ignore the previous evening. With Stephan spending more time on reconnaissance missions, I was often completely on my own. I needed to do something, anything, before I sank into helplessness. I packed a survival kit—what I thought I might need if I were actually kidnapped by guerrillas rather than held up and scared witless at random roadblocks. I shoved clean drinking water, cigarettes, my 24-karat gold bracelet and a mosquito net into my rucksack. I chuckled. The last survival kit that I’d packed was for the hospital, in anticipation of delivering a baby in the middle of the night.
What kind of survival kit could I prepare to get me through the loss of Stephan? The mission would soon end—I would return to my old life, and he to his. I sat down hard on the bed, my hands covering my mouth to silence the moan that was struggling to fill the room with despair.
When I am with you, we stay up all night.
When you’re not here, I can’t sleep.
Praise God for these two insomnias
and the difference between them!
My focus moved to the looming election. It was time to hunker down and make it happen. The UN’s schedule was overly optimistic for such a complex and comprehensive mission; as we dealt with early rains and the conclusion of contracts, it appeared that we would lose our race against time.
Grabbing anyone we could to help us identify polling sites, Klara and I set off with Mr. Om, our office driver, into the villages nestled deep in the forests. It began to rain steadily, making the dusty dirt roads crisscrossing our district horrendous―squelchy, with foot-deep mud and fallen branches. The Unmos who joined us acted like little boys, challenging the road and the darkening sky, as if they were engaged in a contest. When our Land Rover and their Jeeps got stuck for the umpteenth time, Mr. Om slowly shook his head and said, “No going.”
The men were drenched, swearing in several languages and covered in muck. I looked around and saw a farmer and a young boy sitting atop an oxcart, intently watching them struggle to free the vehicles.
“Soom toh,” I said, pointing to the back of his cart and giving the farmer a solemn head nod and a pleading look.
“Ban,” he replied, smiling a toothless grin and waving Klara and me over to the cart. The boy gave us a boost up, and we began to move toward our destination. The cart smelled of hay and wobbled crazily on the huge wooden wheels, but heck, it was moving. I waved to the men with their hapless Jeeps and Land Rovers.
At our first stop, when I checked with the village chief about security, I learned that, although the local militia had been disarmed, he kept one gun for protection against bandits. The chief was tense, which made me nervous. I would have to set up a polling station, transport staff and supplies and, quite likely, protect the workers and the voters. If the early heavy rains continued, the oxcart tracks would become nothing more than wet rice paddies and mud, inaccessible by either vehicle or cart. And if we couldn’t get there, the people couldn’t vote.