i’ve been doing a lot of thinking about beginnings and endings and all the things, all the matters, all the incidents and changes and philosophies and maneuvers that happen in between the bookends of our lives.
i have been fortunate enough to have a new staff member at the shop, a girl named heng, a smart and beautiful and shiny individual who has charmed me into her universe. there’s something radiant about heng; she glows in her skin, her lively eyes glimmer and glitter and her smile is like a 500 watt bulb, lighting up the night sky; but i think it’s something on the inside that gives her this light, that illuminates her from the inside out.
one evening, we lost power in the store, in the whole neighborhood. these things happen with some relative frequency in cambodia, and while it admittedly unnerved me 9 months ago, today i know that it will last no more than an hour, and i can virtually set my watch to it and countdown to the second when the POW POW POW of the lights turn back on and set us in motion again. but that night was heng’s first experience in the shop with an outage, and i heard some fear in her voice. “miss eliz! can you come downstairs?” she cried. so down the rickety, crickety stairs i went, candle in hand, flashlight in back pocket and relieved heng of her fear. she held my hand.
without a chance of making a sale, we decided to sit outside on our little bamboo chairs and watch the street come alive with kids twirling around with flashlights and restauranteurs quickly lighting votives and the neighbors congregating and surely grumbling about the lack of electricity–ba ba ba! again!–and the lack of fans and cash registers and internet and television. but heng and i just hung back and let this parade swirl around us and talked. i asked her about her husband, whom she had casually mentioned before. her wedding was in february.
“miss eliz, i am afraid to tell you,” she said. dumbfounded and not quite sure why, i pressed on. “heng, you don’t have to tell me, but you have to know you can. i am not going to judge you.” “but miss eliz, it’s not good.” okay, heng, it’s cool, it’s okay, whatever it is, i promise, it’s okay. so she told me she was separated from him, and was living with her mom again, away from his teenaged behavior, his inability to be a supporter, a partner, a, well, husband.
“he doesn’t dream about the future, like i do, ” she explained. “he do not care about it. my dream is to live abroad and to save money to do this. he only cares about drinking and being with his friends.”
the thought bubble over my head was mathematic equations, simple addition tables. wait! they got married in fucking february, and it’s june. that’s four months. four. and divorce in cambodia is a relatively new concept. women marry young, most likely to guys their parents and his parents have forced the other upon. they live with their parents, almost always the brides parents, and that’s the way it is. the guys work and then go out with the ‘boys’ at night, drinking at the beer gardens and stumble home around midnight, while the girls stay home and cook and clean and look after the kids and the grandparents and everyone else who happens to live there–cousins, aunts, uncles, whomever. this is their fate, their destiny.
without showing any alarm, after recounting the months again–maybe she meant february last year?— i continued the conversation, the comforting, the hand-holding, the understanding. i admitted to heng that i, too, was divorced, and i had a dream and my dream was cambodia, and i could achieve this because i did get freed. liberated and freed in some roundabout back-door, long, torturous, lesson-learning way. and she was making my dream come true, and i would, in turn, help her make hers come to life, too. somehow. i would open a fucking store in timbuktu, wherever, just so i could place her there.
i tried to imagine what happened between the lavish khmer wedding–a 3 day long affair where the bride changes 7 times into various traditional costumes and every neighbor, shopkeeper, tuk-tuk driver you’ve ever met is invited to drink warm beer, toast “chol moy!” a thousand times to the newlyweds and dance around a table in circles, moving their hands ever so slightly–to this moment, in the candlelit darkness of our little alleyway. what the hell went on?
who knows? does it matter? the bookends were set, she put them there, they were placed, plunked down–klunk!– and being held between them were some clearly tumultuous times– pain, lost hopes, dashed dreams.
i admired heng that night. i saw in her a drive, a strength, a vision and passion for herself that moved beyond the expectations that society, her family, her culture placed upon her. she had nerve, moxie, balls, for god’s sake. she wanted more and felt she deserved more. she saw herself living a life that most cambodian women can’t even conjure up, because they haven’t been given a chance, an opportunity, a beginning. she worked at the airport and saw planes take off, taking tourists and travelers to places she had never heard of or landing with strange passports from countries she couldn’t pronounce. she heard accents and saw outfits and makeup and magazines and couples holding hands and shrieks of hellos and goodbyes hourly, daily. she visualized herself there. here. there. anywhere. everywhere.
heng was afraid of the dark, but not not not afraid of the light.
it was a very very bright night.