landing

(continued from flight, 6, written during November 2013)

Phnom Penh

I stepped out of the plane, holding my grandmother’s elbow tightly as we descended the stairs onto the tarmac. The warm, dusty air pressed close immediately. I wonder what they did when planes landed during the rainy season.

I had searched for Lakhena during the layover in Taipei. From the corner of my eye. I didn’t want to be obvious about looking for her. I didn’t want to seem too eager to connect. But I was. I wished that I had asked her for contact information. I wished I hadn’t asked about when her family left the country. Phnom Penh was not large city by any means. If I didn’t see her again here in the airport, surely there were places we would be likely to meet again.

Shaking my head slightly, I turned to my grandmother. After so many years away, what did she feel?

familiar scene

An outdoor patio. Whiskey, Cigarettes. The same scene again, ten years later. More gray hairs, some baby crows feet.

Alone this time. No boisterous exchanges. Just quiet. Watching the crowd. Observing the new crop of faces, with that same vulnerable look that they don’t realize lingers on the soft edges of their young faces. Desiring attention, desiring desire, desiring. Daring. Ready to take a chance, looking for a chance to take. Dousing themselves in alcohol for courage.

Older now, the alcohol served the purpose of flavor more than courage for anything. Comfort, too, perhaps.

Watching the crowd. A sea of unfamiliar faces. Eyes met and turned away from.

One set of eyes flickered with recognition. Still returning to this place, after all this time. Unexpected sightings.

The flood of body memory. Lips, illicit and irresistible, loveless and impossible. And unforgettable.

Whiskey consumed. Cigarette crushed out.

Those lips. Illicit. Irresistible. Indelibly imprinted upon memory. Suddenly present. With eyes flickering with recognition. Waiting. Questioning.

History could repeat. Perhaps history was meant to repeat. Perhaps there would be a different ending this time. Perhaps there would not be an ending.

flight, 6

2002
Pacific Ocean

I returned to my seat and found my grandmother rummaging through her slah and mahlu kit.

“Yey pbanh samrahn klah thdei?” I asked. Were you able to sleep at all?

“Luh thda ndik thdei, chauw,” she answered. Slept just a little bit, grandchild. 

She placed her betel nut bundle in her mouth.

“We will be in Taiwan soon,” I said in broken Khmer.

Pink juice stained the corners of her mouth as she chewed. “And then how much long do we have to wait until the next plane?” She asked.

Only one hour,” I replied.

I felt so responsible for her. I reached under my seat for my bag and pulled out my notebook. Our itinerary was folded between the pages. Los Angeles to Taipei. Taipei to Phnom Penh. One month later, Phnom Penh to Taipei. Taipei to Los Angeles. One month did not seem like such a long time at home. Though we were still on the plane, on just beginning the journey, it seemed as though much time had already passed, that we were already so far away and would be only father. Traveling seemed to do that, to stretch things out and also to condense them again. I knew that when the time came to step back on the plane, to return home, I would again feel like I had only just arrived.

Not knowing what would happen in that stretch of time made me anxious. The photos I had seen of Cambodia were either postcard photos of the temples of Angkor or small black and white prints my family had managed to hold onto through the ordeal of A Pot. I know that my parents sent my school portraits to Cambodia. I remember the envelopes they used, the airmail envelopes with the red and blue stripes around the edges. My relatives’ letters would arrive from Cambodia slightly wrinkled, the Khmer script curling on thin graph paper. The words were indecipherable to me. I never learned a character. I couldn’t write my own name. These were things I realized worried me about my imminent stay in Cambodia.

The pilot’s voice came on and I discerned from his garbled speech that we would be landing soon in Taipei. A short layover, and then another four hours to Phnom Penh.

flight, 5

2002
Pacific Ocean

“Oh,” I said dumbly, “that sucks.” Did that mean she was dating a woman? I was not sure whether this might be an opportunity to disclose about myself. That I had dated a woman before, and that my dad had found out. I had never met another Khmer girl who liked girls. This could just be wishful thinking. I found her attractive, and that was a strange feeling, too.

“Yeah,” Lakhena said, with a croak of a laugh. There was a pause. She looked down. Her lashes made shadows on her cheeks in the soft airplane light. She moved on. Maybe I didn’t have to say anything at all. Maybe she knew. But how could she? “So I’m here, going by myself. I doubt he’s talked to any of our relatives about it, but I feel like the stay might be really awkward.”

“Are you staying with relatives?” I asked, though I assumed the answer would be yes.

“They’re going to come get me at the airport. I guess I’ll stay with them,” she said, then sighed. “At least, I’ll stay with them for as long as I can until it gets too uncomfortable. They’re going to ask me if I have a sahngsah yet, like they always do.”

“Some relatives have asked me that, too,” I said, “and I know they mean boyfriend.”

“And what do you tell them?” Lakhena asked.

“I tell them I don’t have a boyfriend.” I said, feeling a little courage rise up in me.

Lakhena raised an eyebrow. “Do you say anything else?”

“Do you?”

We shared a knowing look. A look that said that we understood each other. That we had had familiar, similar conversations. That we had used the same strategies to divert attention from subjects that were uncomfortable.

“How long are you supposed to be in Cambodia?” I asked.

“A month,” she answered.

“Me, too. Are you going to stay in Phnom Penh?

“For a while. My relatives might take me to Siem Reap to see Nakor Wat. A lot has been restored lately. Or I might leave early. Where will you be?”

I shrugged. “Wherever my grandmother wants to go. We’re supposed to go see a wat she raises money for. She hasn’t been back since a Pot.”

“Wow,” she said, “that’s such a long time.”

“Your family got out before everything happened, didn’t they?”

A clouded look came over her face before she said, “It’s a long story.”

And with that, she seemed to shut down again. Something closed in her face. Again, I found myself uncomfortable.

“I should get back to my grandma,” I said.

“Okay.”