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Chapter 70: Interludes

As the days passed, our relationship slipped into a scripted routine. Stephan spent most nights with me when he wasn’t out on recon, sometimes catching a ride over on a ‘Polish taxi’—a truck that delivered water—when he returned to Poŭthĭsăt late in the evening. I resented his frequent absences, railed against the calendar and watched our time together run out like sand through an hourglass as we waited for the mission’s inevitable end. Sometimes, worrying about the end kept me from living in the moment. Wanting to excite him again, I decided to go along for the ride when Stephan was ordered to the capital for another reconnaissance mission.

Without excitement, which we both craved, we would fall into a state of edginess. Our relationship needed challenge like a fire requires oxygen. I was more than willing to accept danger in exchange for love.

“Let’s go the back route to Phnom Penh,” I suggested. “You know, the one that was just resurfaced.”

Frowning, Stephan replied, “That way, it’s a little bit dangerous, no? There are many Khmer Rouge villages along that route.”

“Come on,” I cajoled. “It might be a little dangerous, but the road is a shortcut and we can check out the new evacuation route.” The new road was primitive but it bypassed the familiar and the ferry, so he agreed.

Two hours later, sweaty and dirty from the drive, we tossed our travel bags on the bed in the small room of a hotel across from the central market. We kissed hungrily as Stephan walked us both into the shower, shedding clothes along the path. We emerged clean and satisfied.

"I've been fantasizing all week about making you feel good," I murmured, nuzzling his neck.

“I think this was a good thinking,” he whispered, his eyes glinting with anticipation.

“I’m glad,” I said suggestively as I leaned into him. He responded quickly and pushed me onto the bed gently. Aroused again, his passion pulsated as he fondled me and stripped off my bath towel. His towel tumbled down around him, and soon we were lost in the moment.

I made love to him seductively and wantonly—recapturing, if only for the moment, the intensity of our first months together. Spent, neither of us made any attempt to move. We lay quietly until our ragged breathing calmed into a gentle rhythm. I wanted to stay like that forever, but a sudden gurgle from Stephan’s stomach broke our reverie.

Stephan pulled himself up. “Come, let’s eat. Chez Leek is close by, right across from the Calmette hospital.”

After gorging ourselves on sautéed garlic and frog legs at the small French restaurant, we meandered back to the hotel, taking in the sights and sounds of the market, lost in our own company. Stephan left early the next morning, after one more passionate kiss.

The break from routine, the exhilaration from tempting fate on our unauthorized route to Phnom Penh and the worry-free evening all had the desired effect. I left the room feeling invincible and went to meet Hon to check on her pregnancy, her acne and her marriage. All were doing splendidly, and the baby was due any day.

Her husband had a small jewelry-making shop in the old market, Psaa chaa, and Hon, always the entrepreneur, was planning to open a second small shop there. As her belly grew rounder, her consumer spirit blossomed as well. She confided that she and Dara had earned enough money to leave a cramped apartment close to the central market and buy a small house near Phnom Penh’s airport. I could visit, because they would have an indoor toilet—not a hole over a fetid ravine or a squalid bathroom they shared with other apartment dwellers. Beaming, she repeated her favorite phrase, “CJ, you are my luck in Cambodia.” I looked at my genial friend. Except for the missing toe—made more obvious by her rubber flip-flops—it was difficult to imagine the hell she had survived. With little more than hope, Hon was reclaiming the present as well as her tomorrows. Ach, Cambodia, I thought. Can you do the same?

I suggested French pastry and coffee at the Cambodiana Hotel. Why not? Life was hard, and we deserved a treat now and then. While we sipped lattés and nibbled on mille-feuille and éclairs, Hon bubbled on about the baby’s incessant kicking and occasional hiccups. We talked about a plan for me to spend my last couple of days in Cambodia with her, at the end of Untac’s mission.

“You will be the American grandmother,” she beamed.

The server handed me the check. “Madame,” he said, with a slight nod of his head—taking for granted that I, the Westerner, was the one who belonged at the four-star international hotel.

“No, I will take the check,” Hon insisted, even though the amount was equivalent to a full day’s earnings. Over the course of our friendship, I had made a point of debunking the idea of patronage. For Hon, her insistence meant keeping the friendship mutual and being an equal. Snatching the check from me, she pulled out her purse and shoved a stack of crumpled riels into the server’s hands.

Mildly embarrassed, I realized that my attitude wasn’t much different from the waiter’s, accepting without hesitation the notion that only the Westerner could pay. It was harder to self-identify as a savior when my companion didn’t need saving.

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