Chapter 77: The Fiction of Winning
Throwing my luggage on the bed of my Phnom Penh hotel room, I hurried off to the central market in search of Hon. A stranger stood behind her usual booth, ignoring me as she chatted to a few other sellers standing around waiting for customers, who seemed to be particularly scarce. I saw one face I recognized.
“Where is Hon?” I asked, hoping that she spoke English.
She eyed me suspiciously for a moment. Then, as recognition dawned, she pointed toward some imaginary place and said, “The old market with her husband. She open second shop there.” I caught a cyclo-cab and, as I settled in for a bumpy ride, I realized that I didn’t need to fight for one. The drivers were all lined up, waiting; several were sleeping in their carriages. There was a conspicuous lack of people, but there were still a lot of military uniforms as well as tanks and the ubiquitous white UN trucks.
Unceremoniously, the cyclo-cab dumped me out on the corner of the old market, where I scanned the row of small jewelry repair and money-changing shops. Dara was not at work, and no one stood behind the locked glass cabinet where Hon kept money and gemstones. Missing work was not an option for most Cambodians, but maybe the baby was sick. The shop was empty and I needed to find them. I stood looking down at my feet, not knowing what to do, when one of the neighboring sellers spoke. “You need money change?”
“No, sorry. I am looking for Hon. Do you know where she is?”
“Her baby, is she okay?”
“No, baby not hurt. Hon hurt, hurt bad. Rockets hit their house.”
“Which hospital? Where is she?”
I knew that hospital. It was across the road from Stephan’s favorite restaurant in Phnom Penh.
I tried to make sense out of that news. Were Hon’s injuries critical? Who was taking care of her? Where were Dara and their baby, Mai?
I climbed on the back of a taxi-moto, hoping to move through Phnom Penh’s terrible traffic quickly, but we were suddenly engulfed in a sea of chaotic cars, overloaded wagons and huge, lumbering trucks all trying to squeeze through each intersection at the same time. I clung for dear life to the bare waist of the driver while we headed toward the old, yellowed, stucco French hospital. As we weaved through traffic, I thought about Hon—sweet, gentle Hon, whose young life had already known more than its share of hardship and tragedy.
At the hospital, I found her lying on a gurney in a crowded hall just outside the waiting area. I took her hand in mine. Dara lay on another makeshift bed where a small baby, only weeks old, slept peacefully at the bottom. A French woman in a nurse’s uniform was the only medical person in sight. I called her over. She explained that Hon had shrapnel in her neck, the remnants of a rocket that had hit her house when the Khmer Rouge attacked the airport.
A doctor stopped by to suggest that I massage her back to relax her without touching her neck, as the shrapnel could slip and slice her spinal cord. He moved on to Dara, changed the bandages on his more obvious wounds and finally spoke privately to the nurse. I saw her slip a vial of medicine, probably morphine, into her pocket and nod to the doctor in agreement. I was stunned and empty of feelings. My mind was shutting down, while my body operated on autopilot.
“Are you her patron?” the nurse asked me in a mix of French and English.
“No, I’m her friend—their friend. Have any relatives been to see them?” Questions began to whirl again. Who was going to take care of the baby? Would they survive their injuries?
I was screwing up the courage to ask her when Hon’s limp hand squeezed mine weakly. I bent over to hear her. “You are my luck in Cambodia. Don’t leave me,” she begged.
Clasping her hand, I said, “Oun sra-lun bong na. I love you, too. I’ll be back soon, you’ll see. Be brave.”
Hon lay back on the gurney. Her husband was unconscious. The baby, round and pink with a shock of fine black hair, continued to sleep. I secured the nurse’s attention with a stare. I needed to know what to expect. Rather than speaking, she picked up the baby and handed her to me. Mai lay quietly, cradled in my arms, unaware of the horror around her.
“They will not survive the night. You must take the child. No one has come to claim her, and if she goes to an orphanage . . . well, it will be tragique.”
The rundown, over-extended and corrupt orphanage system was despicable; children were sold for adoption, or worse, sold into domestic or sexual slavery. Without a family or a community, there was no good future for little Mai.
I was on my own. I looked back at the pale, still faces of Hon and Dara, hiked the baby up on my hip, grabbed a plastic bag with bottles and a few pieces of clothing and fled the hospital. I had to get to the US consulate.
The consulate was in a state of high alert, with men in military uniforms patrolling every corridor. Although no one was particularly helpful in the chaos of activity, an American woman holding a Cambodian infant was an odd enough sight to attract official attention.
“Are they dead? No other family?” asked the consular officer as he rifled through the papers on his desk.
I cradled Mai gently on my knee as I answered his questions—dying, not dead—and tried to disguise my fear and frustration. The more he turned pages, the angrier I became over his lack of urgency. Finally, pushing back his glasses and swiveling slightly in his chair, he said, “Come back tomorrow. We might be able to get emergency asylum for the baby and sort everything out once you are stateside. Emm, assuming that the parents are indeed dead.”
And no longer your problem, I thought as I got up to leave. Still, there was something I could do. I wondered if I could carry the baby on the plane or if I would need an additional ticket.
Returning to the hospital to check on Hon and Dara, I collided with a CivPol who had worked with me in Skon. “Hi, CJ. I see you finally got someone to leave you her baby?” he joked, tickling Mai under her chubby chin. He had been around the previous fall when the village woman had brought in the foundling.
“Hell, I wish it were so simple. Her parents got caught in the rocket attack two nights ago and their wounds are likely to be fatal. No family. No one has come to claim the baby. I’m trying to arrange asylum so I can take her home to the States.”
The big CivPol scratched his head. He looked from Mai to me and said quietly, “Phnom Penh is dangerous. I don’t know how long you plan to be in the city, but you should get yourself a gun. There’s a thriving black market for small caliber weapons from Eastern Europe not far from the pizza restaurant on Mao Tse Tung Blvd. You’ll find it; one pizza place and one arms market. A piece of cake. Good luck.”
I walked slowly through the hospital doors, imagining that Hon would sit up smiling and reach for her baby. But the gurneys were empty. I saw the French nurse down the hall and started towards her. Her hand shot up like a school crossing guard making a stop sign. She shook her head slowly and motioned for me to leave. I turned and, with Mai tucked under an arm, hurried back to the exit doors.
I reached Brielle by phone from my hotel. “She’s dead, Brie. Hon’s dead.” I choked on the words but continued speaking, tears leaving hot tracks on my face. “Dara is dead, too. They died of injuries from the attack on the airport. I’m taking the baby, Hon’s baby, to America.” I couldn’t stop crying, and it was difficult to breathe.
Brielle was aghast. “Have you lost your senses? What will you do with this baby?” There was a lot of static on the phone line, but her consternation and shock were obvious.
“She’s dead, Brie. Hon’s dead,” I repeated, my words trickling out between sobs. There are no relatives to take Mai—only a friggin’ orphanage. An orphanage,” I stuttered. “You know what they’re like. She’ll wind up sold to a brothel.”
“Ou la la! You have to leave, you have to go. Cambodia is not safe for Hon’s baby. You’ll figure it out.” Brielle tried to reassure me by staying on the phone until my sobs became shudders and my shudders turned to sighs.
“Come to Phnom Penh,” I begged.
“It is still chaos here and my nerves are wrecked. I think having to say goodbye to you will destroy me for sure. But I try,” she said softly.
We made kisses into the phone before disconnecting. I picked up Mai from the bed and cradled her in my arms. Breathing in her sweet smell cleared my head.
The gun was a Slovakian .22 semi-automatic revolver. The papers from the consulate would allow me to take Mai to the States. I had finally found a flight that didn’t make a million stops, and the airline said the baby could sit on my lap. We would leave in two days.
I had just rocked Mai to sleep when the phone in my hotel room rang. Lifting the receiver, I heard, “Hi sweetie” spoken in an unmistakable Polish accent. In seconds, Stephan was at my door. Wordlessly he pulled me into his chest. I stood there for a long time, inhaling his familiar smell and enjoying the warmth and strength of his arms around me. In that moment there was no leaving Cambodia, no dead Hon and no baby to rescue. There was only my lover holding me. Time was suspended and reality along with it.
“Shouldn’t you be somewhere else?” I asked, after regaining some of the composure that I’d lost in his surprise appearance.
“I only have a few hours, and I want to spend them with you,” he replied.
Stephan and I gave up clutching at straws and ignoring our inevitable end. All of the obligations, guilt and tension lifted. The room felt larger and cooler as we talked, made love, talked and made love some more.
Eventually Stephan rolled away from me, stood up and looked around for his clothes. “I have to go,” he said sadly.
“Will you come to the airport tomorrow?” I asked
“No, I cannot stay in Phnom Penh until you leave. I only came today to wish you luck,” he replied, speaking slowly and staring into my eyes. “I called to say goodbye, but you had left already Poŭthĭsăt. Bruno told me where you are staying.” He inclined his head and eyed the the sleeping baby in the small bassinette thoughtfully. “But you have this baby. You won’t miss me.” Looking back up at me, he put his hand over his heart. “You will always be here, safe.”
That time I didn’t roll my eyes, because his words offered me solace. I was disappointed, but I wasn’t devastated. During my time in Cambodia, I had found a new independence and an undeniable self-reliance. My year of living dangerously had come to an end. Indeed, my adventure had followed no script. Stephan was not my future. Mai would be.