“Okay.” I turned around and walked back down the aisle. Lakhena slid the book she was reading into the pocket in front of her and tucked the stack of books under the empty seat. She called me ‘oun’ because she thinks I’m younger than she is. That’s all. Age is always a factor in what we call each other in Khmer. Still, the tenderness associated with that simple word made me wonder. My cheeks felt warm as I sat next to her.
“So, about that empty seat,” Lakhena exhaled deeply, “it wasn’t supposed to be empty.”
“I gathered that by the way you reacted. I’m sorry–”
“No, it’s okay.” Lakhena paused a moment, looking like she was trying to decide whether or not to say something. “Funny thing about traveling– people seem to open up more. I’ve found out all kinds of personal things from people I sat next to on a plane or train or bus. Something about being in transit. Reality is suspended, I guess? Or maybe people are just trying to pass the time. Or I’ve just sat next to a lot of really open people.”
“I think I know what you mean.” What is she going to tell me? I barreled onward, nervous for some reason. “It’s really cool how well you speak Khmer. My grandma was really impressed. I hope I can practice some more there. Doubt I’ll ever be as good as you, though.”
She smiled at that. “I wasn’t born in the US. My parents came later, when I was six. So I got to learn a lot of Khmer. I learned some English in Cambodia, too.”
“Oh, cool. I don’t know many people our age who weren’t born here.” I said “here” even though I knew that we were very, very far from “here,” far from California, far from land, far from everyone.
Lakhena was quiet, letting the line of conversation I’d started in a fit of nervousness fade off. “I was supposed to be going to Cambodia with my dad.” Though she had remarked on how easy it seemed for people to open up while in transit, it didn’t seem to be that way.
The plane was hushed since the meal had passed. My grandmother slept. Lakhena and I spoke in low voices. We had to lean close to hear each other. I knew that the answer to the question could be nothing good, but I asked anyway. “What happened?”
“We had a fight. A really bad fight.” She closed her eyes, the corners crinkling faintly as she frowned. Perhaps we were not the same age after all, I realized. “I got tickets for this trip as a present to him, and he wouldn’t come.”
“When did this happen? You couldn’t give the ticket to someone else?”
“Just a few days before we were supposed to leave. I didn’t know who else to bring. My mom definitely wasn’t going to come anyway. So I came by myself.” Lakhena took another deep breath.
“I’m sorry that I brought it up. I guess you’re trying to take your mind off of it with all these books.”
“I’m glad I met your grandmother. She reminded me to actually talk to people, not just bury myself in books all the time.” Lakhena looked down at her hands. “My grandmother passed away last year.”
“I’m so sorry.” The thought of my grandmother and how much or little time I had left with her brought a lump to my throat.
“She was my dad’s mother. She lived in Srok Khmer, and I spent at least a month with her every other year when I was grade school. Another reason I speak Khmer well. My dad wasn’t able to be there when she was sick, and he wasn’t able to go to the funeral. I wanted to take him to where she was buried.”
“Wow, you were able to visit so much.” My head reeled at the thought of anyone traveling back and forth to Cambodia that often. It occurred to me that Lakhena and I were both Khmer, but that our worlds were very different. “Mind if I ask what the fight was about?”
Lakhena loosed a strange laugh. Not bitter, not humorous. “He found out about someone I was dating. It wasn’t anything serious. But he couldn’t stand the thought of sitting on this plane with me.”
“Not a Khmer boy?” I asked tentatively.
“No,” she said, looking up at me. I became aware once again of how close our faces were to each other. “Not even close.”