Skip navigation

Monthly Archives: August 2008

i saw a tree in bangkok, on one of my early morning, just-breaking-of-a-new-day walks– when the world is just coming alive, the cacophony of clanking pots and pans being rinsed and prepared for the noodles and the soup of the day, pushcarts being placed in their exact spot to sell the durians and the mangoes and the prickly red thingies i can never recall the names of, the sweep-sweep-sweeping of straw brooms against cement cleaning up the fallen leaves and the discarded cigarette butts and the banana peels, all aglow in the haze of an orange rising sun drenched in humidity—and this tree was huge, old, its branches hovering over this one still-quiet lane, multiple branches dipping low, then shooting straight up, twisting around themselves, many many limbs intertwined and making it’s own natural sculpture, resembling a nest made of fusili pasta or something. this big massive twisted net of branches and nature and enormous green leaves that provided a haven underneath. the light was filtering through this tangle in places, but mostly it was creating a shadowy, cool shelter underneath its form. a respite, of sorts.

and in the quiet of this gorgeous street, lined with prominent houses of ambassadors with their stately gates securing their expansive gardens and flower pots of purple orchids and carports sheltering land rovers and mercedes, i thought a lot about that tree, and kept looking back at it as i walked in the silence.

i thought about how until recently, my life, my world was so intertwined with that of tony’s. that my branches were fully meshed with his, how my past and my present and my future, all of my dreams and wishes and hopes and glories became part of his, and his, mine. and how i felt like this tree, our tree, was so solid, and so, well, forever and ever, and how i imagined that our tree would be like this one here in bangkok, it would grow old and mature and sprout new amazing beautiful leaves and provide a haven underneath for an ever-expanding brood of people and children–our children– and nieces and nephews and a sister and brothers and moms that we were combining and going to combine and add or at least i was wanting to combine and add and collect. and put them all under that tree, our tree, and keep them there, invite them there and hold them all as ours together and provide safety and filter the hot light for these people, for our people. for us. 

and how now, that feels like someone else’s story, someone else’s world. how i feel like i’m looking into someone else’s life, someone else’s past, like a movie on tv, examining it from a distance.

was this mine? ever? or was this some fragmented dream, one that i woke up from and remember in pieces, in fits and starts, going through the rest of my day and recalling another tidbit and wanting to jot it down so i don’t forget? was i really ever married? 

and i cry over this. i walked down this road, with the tree behind me, walking away from this glorious tree, never to see it again, and i felt my eyes well up, and spill over onto my already-hot-at-6AM cheeks. i realized that this tree that i had built in my heart, these branches that were inside of me and wrapping themselves around and around in my insides–and what i thought were in tony’s insides, too– were never ever truly connecting with his at all. i had been mistaken, fooled into believing that this was my life, that it was mine ever to own and take ownership of. his branches were an illusion, and his connection to me was never really there. the branches were all mine. there was no intermingling, there was no wrapping and tying and separating for an instant and coming back together and twisting around each other again. there was no safe haven. i fell through all the cracks and holes of these illusionary branches i believed he had planted to connect with mine. it was like his branches were spider webs, thin wisps of silk that couldn’t hold up a past, a present or a future, a life together. they could only hold up a tiny little weight. not a forever. not that. and i fell through the web. and my branches crashed onto the sidewalk and split into millions and zillions of shards and kindling and splinters. and all the things underneath this so-called, so-believed-in haven, the dreams of the kids–gee, will they have tony’s deep and gorgeous brown luscious peanut m&m eyes or mine?– and the house in vermont and the nieces and nephews and my beautiful mom and sister and brothers and the plans and the hopes and the cheerily wrapped christmas presents and the feeling of safety i felt when i woke up at 3AM and saw his chest rise and fall in his deep sleep, he was there, he was mine, he was alive, i was alive in this bed with him… all damaged by this crashing, this falling, this boom-boom-boom thud-thud-thud of the lightning hitting my branches, my tree, my illusionary, delusional tree. 

and through my tears on that steamy early morning thailand walk, i thought, how the hell do i put this tree back together ever? how can i rebuild this disaster, pick up all these twigs and start over again? why is it perceived that fixing yourself is any easier than rebuilding a house after a hurricane has hit it? don’t you look at those pictures after hurricane katrina and see the mess, the fucking stinky, horrible wreck and think, “god, i would just want to run away and leave that heaping mess of wood and mildewy furniture and tangled clothes and broken china and go live in a cave forever!” and we know that the place is still a disaster after all these years. the hurricane is still there, creating havoc. it kinda won’t ever leave.

i am exhausted by this, this concept, the mere thought. there are so many times when i just want to crawl under this mess and lie there and hide and hope moss grows over the tangle and i can just stay there and not ever come out. 

maybe i am running from my hurricane and trying to plant a new tree here in cambodia. is it bad to run? why shouldn’t i? are there any real reasons i shouldn’t?

so i am trying to plant a little sapling here in cambodia. i am trying to crawl out from this pile of broken branches, and brushing off the moss. i am trying to grow something of my own, something that won’t fall apart and won’t burn down and won’t, with luck, let me fall too hard. 

i want the people i love to help me water this and nurture it and help me help it grow and strengthen and steel itself from any unseen storms.

i need the strength of a regal oak, or a the endurance of a redwood. or the beauty and depth and spirit of the bodhi trees. here in cambodia.

i went to bangkok this weekend, with dine, in pursuit of things, interesting, unique, not “same same but different” things for our store. things we can’t make or couldn’t make for the prices we can buy them for. so we went. for business.

but it was something much, much more.

i realized on the way to the airport that this weekend was going to be subtitled “the first”. i told dine, “this is about firsts, so we have to do all new things this weekend. for you!” and he smiled, excitedly.

it was going to be 72 hours of awakenings, of coming alive, of experiencing newness, of being reborn into something completely foreign. and totally fucking new.

dine has never been on an airplane before.

people in cambodia travel everywhere by bus. there’s no rail system here, and few people own cars, and hertz and thrifty and zipcar are non existent. there is no such thing as renting a car. you hire a car and driver to take you somewhere, and pile as many people as you can to jam themselves into the available space. but mostly, you go by bus. and being that there are no highways in cambodia, buses tend to drive slooooooooooooooowly, as they weave in and out of the madness of the 2 lane pot hole ridden roads. 

i remember asking awhile ago–stupidly, i admit, naively and moronically–if he had ever been on a plane. he told me he had, when he was very little, and they sat on the floor and it was very loud and noisy. and they flew to phnom penh. it occurred to me that he was talking about a military plane, most likely a government-owned, russian-built retro, old fashioned cargo plane, taking people away from the khmer rouge strongholds in the countryside up north. 

i felt so dumb, so ashamed. so idiotic. so so so so everything.

in the interest of time, we flew to bangkok. a bus ride takes 12 hours. and you need to switch buses at the border, after waiting in line for 2 hours to show your passport. and since the roads are so, well, unmaintained, they only drive in the daytime. 

no.

so we arrived at siem reap airport. i could tell, i knew it, he was nervous. and overwhelmed. i was, too. i tried to play it cool, no big deal, you’re so savvy, dine, you don’t need me to explain all this crazy, phony, it’s-just-for-show security details…or do you?

“eliz, why do we have to put these things in a plastic ziplock bag?”

my heart swelled and shrank and swelled again. shrank again, because there is no logical answer. so i shrugged. “i don’t really know.”

we boarded, in that old fashioned cary-grant-in-hitchcock-movies kind of way; we walked across the tarmac, in the deafening, they-could-sweep-you-off-your-feet wind gusts provided by the whirring propellers, and up a narrow stairway and into the air-conditioned coolness of this single aisled jet. of course, the window seat was his. of course. and we took off, and he turned to me and said, “when i was little, i used to dream i could sit on clouds. and now i am.” his nose pressed against the glass. him intently listening to the stewardess explain the usage of the seatbelt–and him checking his to make sure it looked like the one she was holding up–the whole monotonous, canned dialogue us seasoned fliers ignore every time. his marvel at the food service provided. his silence as we hovered over the billowy, cotton candy clouds. me showing him how to pop his ears and trying to harness a faded memory of mr birnbaum’s 4th grade science lesson on why we have to pop our ears. him holding onto his stomach as we started to descend. him staring at his watch, realizing it was only 45 minutes from siem reap to bangkok. 

firsts.

trying a peach at this insanely beautiful, incredibly chic international supermarket, ensconced in a 7 floor shopping mall of stores like balenciaga and prada and chloe. asking me if he could try sushi at the food court, as he’s seen it on TV and it looks so good, “so interesting”. him smiling at the taste and sensation of salmon sashimi, and wondering if he could order another piece and him speaking japanese to the chef. admiring an a/x armani tee shirt in a store window and wanting to go in and have a look. eating a strawberry floating in a glass of champagne. flipping out when we went into the “largest aquarium in southeast asia” in the basement of said 7 floor shopping/eating/imax theaters/random aquarium complex, and marveling at the intensity and enormity of the fish and the sealife and saying “i never, ever” over and over again.

at midnight last night, after a day of pushing and shoving and haggling and negotiating and sweating out of orifices i didn’t realize even had sweat glands and dragging the ever-present plastic shopping bags at multitudes of local markets, we went for a swim in the rooftop pool of our tiny little hotel snug in a residential neighborhood, surrounded by palms and bouganville and humid breezes passing through the trees. i came up for air, after handstanding in the calmness of the blue, and dine said, “look at the moon, eliz!”

and there was a huge huge yellow chunk of a moon, hanging high in the sky, cleared from the damp, soggy rain clouds from the early evening summertime showers. a few little stars twinkled, sparkled and winked around it. i floated on my back and said, “dine, i never, ever thought i’d be swimming in a pool in bangkok, looking at the full moon.”

to which he replied, “eliz, this is a ‘FIRST’ for you, too!”

i had my own first. and i loved it. and felt alive, alive, so very very alive.

he wrote me a letter. it was sealed in an envelope addressed to “my lovely elizabeth”. 

in it, he said he was lonely. scared and alone, feeling the need to connect with someone on a truer, deeper level. he has no family to speak of. his dad has remarried since the death of his mother, and from what i can puzzle together, dad is likely an alcoholic. when he calls his dad, which is rare and unusual and difficult and expensive, his dad hangs up on him. he needed some money for medicine. the click of the phone gave him his answer.

this is about my student, my student of english, whom i teach every day along with 10 other boys from 12noon-1pm. this is about vanny. vanny is a monk.

vanny told me about his mom and how he dreams of her. she tells him in his dreams to keep up his studying, to listen to buddha. he wistfully told me how he would hug her and she would smother him with kisses. how safe he felt near her. how empty his life feels without her presence. he knew he could rely on her. when he would visit home, way far away from his pagoda in siem reap, in the countryside near the vietnam border, he would share her hammock. 

i figured out–i think– his mom died of cancer. he pointed to his stomach and said she was in pain, and it didn’t go away and something was “eating her inside”. cancer, maybe. we pantomimed the symptoms. i said, “like this?” and laid on the floor, holding my stomach. i drew angry faced cells invading a body on the white board in his room. yes, nodding, yes, ba ba ba, he said.

his letter, quietly presented to me yesterday on the threshold of the classroom at the pagoda, which we are now using as the class size increases everyday–“eliza is here!” i overhear when i pedal into the grounds and i see monks and young guys start running into the hot dark room–was simple. written in perfect penmanship, i could see the effort that went into this letter. him sweating in his tiny little room, with his rotary fan pushing the hot breeze onto his shaved head. his monk boy, whom i have nicknamed mr rugby, since he wears the same tattered striped polo shirt every day, there to serve him a glass of water.

there was a headline written across the top of the lined stationary:

A REQUEST FOR YOU

in the lengthy note, full of sadness and fear, hope and pleading, love and more more more love, one sentence was repeated multiple times:

WILL YOU BE MY MOTHER?

i sat on the cool tile floors, later, in the silence of my mind, of my room, of my life here in cambodia. and i read this request, this sentence, over and over again.

WILL YOU BE MY MOTHER?

i thought about my mom. my beautiful, gorgeous, over-the-top-blue-eyed mom. about her sacrifices, her willingness, her courage. her ability to get us through the darkest, most difficult and trying times of our lives. her weaknesses. her tears, the bones jutting out of her body at her skinniest, scariest time, after dad left. her fears, her tragedies. her ability to make me believe i could do anything, because SHE did everything and could do ANYTHING, even though she was wracked with insecurities. her making peach pies in our kitchen, using bruised and unwanted fruit donated by rippe’s farm and selling them, in order to pay for new school clothes for us, or the electricity bill. her sewing doll clothes and making doll furniture from cans. selling that, paying someone back with that money. making grape jelly from the malloy’s grapevines, and me hating the smell of boiling grapes. how did she know how to make grape jelly? who makes grape jelly in the confines of one of the richest suburbs in the united states? well, someone who understands sacrifice and acknowledges the power of love and commitment. someone who wanted her kids to stay in the fucking richest town in the universe even though she couldn’t afford it. and renting out rooms to perfect strangers in our house to pay the mortgage. i remember a russian guy who drove his car onto the front lawn. and chris, our favorite tenant, who had just come out after years of marriage and children. and meeting his boyfriend and having a crush on him and performing school recital songs for them. and how catholic mom never judged and loved chris, too. 

how can i live up to this? my mom is everything. was, is. will always be. how can i possibly be this kind of mom to vanny? i wonder if this is why i am 43 and childless. the fear of never being good enough, never living up to the expectations of needy kids, who want you and need you to make grape jelly to sell in order to get a new skirt for the first day of school. what if my jelly sucks and no one buys it? won’t i be a disappointment to everyone? if i’m alone, the only person i can let down is myself. right? how can i bear the failure of my attempts and disappointing people who deserve only the best and the greatest? i am traumatized by this. i look down at my aging body and see the skin that has never been stretched to its limits by a baby. i see the wrinkles under my eyes and know that they’re not there due to lack of sleep or 3 AM feedings or “there there”s in the moonlight, calming someone from a nightmare, rocking them back to sweetness and silence. 

i have failed on many levels. i have let down my body, my heritage, my lineage, my future, my past, my sex. i have been emptied of this experience out of fear. not selfishness, really, i swear to god/buddha/allah/whomever, it was a decision made out of selflessness.i would never want to fail someone else. myself? that i can do. 

i don’t want to fail vanny. i want to be my mom to vanny. i want to copy her, say cornball southern cliches to make my point (“like bringing coals to newcastle”), to make peach pies and homemade manicotti and know how to sew buttons back on without swearing and be fearless, or at least have the ability to HIDE the fears, to find someway to make the sun shine after the monsoon. to grab the moon and all the stars and hand them to him. to give give give and be happy with nothing in return.

my mom set the bar high. i want to reach it. i just don’t know how. 

how?

i want her to be proud of me, and know i heard all her words, absorbed her actions, learned and learned and learned from her. saw her. saw her. really truly saw it all. saw her inside. 

i want to do this for vanny. but i want to do it for my mom mostly.

but i am scared.

today was the day, we had an appointment, a serious appointment, made weeks in advance, for dine to apply for his visa to come with me, to come experience my life, to give him back the experience he has given me, here. 

oh, how i dreamed at night. of all we would do, and not do. sit on the couch, and i would introduce him to all the 900 channels of cable, 898 of which i never watch; to take him through the east village and show him immigration and how it works and eat mexican food, and show him tamales and red beans and rice and avocados; to show him what “loosies” are at the bodegas; to do all the tourist things, most of which i have never done, and experience new york through his eyes, his heart, see it as a newcomer, try cheese, try pizza, try bagels fresh from the oven, maybe even take in a cheesy broadway show for the hell of it; he wanted to see a zoo, and i told him long winded stories about central park and it’s enormity and it’s beauty and it’s magnitude, how it holds a zoo that has polar bears and penguins but it’s warm and it’s in the middle of the biggest metropolis of the western world (or one of them); to just walk and talk and see and discover. so many plans, so many many ideas and thoughts and dreams and people to meet and him saying “i want to meet your mom and visit her a few times” and my heart pounding and breaking and swelling all at the same time.

so today, here we go, our appointment planned weeks in advance, nervous, dressed perfectly, driving in a tuk-tuk over to the embassy in silence, holding hands out of fear and excitement; this is going to happen, it is and we will be in new york and laughing with daniel and sean and amy and oh-my-god-we-will-live-out-loud and everyone wants to meet you and see us and be a part of this, this newness, this dawning of so many many things.

all the sheaths of paperwork finished, complete, done.

i am not allowed to participate, the embassy guard tells me. you must wait on the grass over there, in the median of the road.

fear struck, we looked at each other, hugged, and he disappeared behind the glass doors, and i waved, i waved and said prayers and more prayers. and more.

oh my god, i whispered to myself, let him make it, come to new york, see, live, experience. see, live, experience. 

2 hours passed. i was panicked. i was like a dad in the old days waiting for his expectant wife giving birth to their child, pacing. if i had had a cigar, i would’ve smoked it. i walked the length of the grass so many times, i dug a path. 

3 hours. nothing.

i was beside myself. i tried to meditate. i couldn’t focus. i was shifting on the grass, uncomfortable, unsure, scared. what if what if what if. why why why. there’s no reason to say no no no.

i opened my laptop, which i brought in case in case, all the files and papers and applications and fucking blood samples and bank account information and the deepest, most extensive information about mr dine tuy was secured on my desktop of this laptop. i was insecure.

i opened it out of boredom and worry, trying to find myself going somewhere else, to avoid the incessant tick-tock of my watch, but there’s no internet on the median in the middle of the road. so i fiddled with my screen saver, just to do something. anything. anything other than look at my watch and sweat. more.

this laptop usage brought the police. they were most likely freaked out by this girl sitting across from the embassy for hours and hours, and saw my laptop as a threat. when they saw i was only deciding between “beach scenes” and “black and white abstracts” for this moronic desktop, they got bored and left.

4 hours. nothing.

i put my head in my lap.

he came out. showed me the rejection letter, stating some bullshit about how he didn’t prove he wasn’t going to the States to escape cambodia and become an illegal immigrant, sapping all of our tax dollars into paying his welfare.

i could see that his eyes were red.

mine were.

he told me about all the tears and wailing and sobs coming from the multiples of people in the interview room. all were denied. grandmas that were denied the ability to see their first born grandchildren who were living in the US. others who had sick relatives who were dying in LA, or Long Beach, actually, who they were not given access or a visa to go see. for the last time. 

and i got fucking pissed. i got angry. this rage grew  inside of me. i imagined NOT going to the empire state building, or watching TNT reruns of “law and order”, or visiting mom, with dine. a solid, smart, amazing person. one who has a life, a nice life in cambodia. and has no fucking desire to “flee” to the states. for god’s sake, i am fleeing the states. he is coming back here. he loves his country. he’s got a family here, a life, a future. i am merely trying to help him create a more stable one. that’s it. here in cambodia. here.

denied.

our government has allowed jihadists, terrorists, “friends” of the US into our country, no questions asked. then they lose sight of them after their visas expire. whatever.

and yet grandmas with US born grandchildren, people that have fucking lived through a GENOCIDE–encouraged and funded by the US, i may add– in this country and want to visit–merely fucking VISIT–their “cambodian boat people” refugee families in southern california, dine tuy, the most innocent, loving, generous person on earth are DENIED ACCESS. no no no, you can’t go. no. we are going to put you through hell for this cockamamie interview process, collect your scrapped together $150 that you begged, borrowed and stole for, and deny you. oh, and by the way, you don’t get your money back. you can try to apply again. but dont forget your $150, and we only accept cash. bye bye! see ya! 

i am angry. embarrassed for our country. depressed. encouraged, because we are applying again, and again and again and again if that’s what it takes, and dine tuy will come to nyc with me, even if it means we pitch a tent in tompkins square park and buy loosies and share a slice of pizza from two boots. i don’t care. i will make this happen.

i will not give up. will not, cannot, wont wont wont. sorry, government officials, i will bombard you with paperwork and emails and faxes and letters of recommendation and DNA tests and blood samples and cash payoffs and whatever the fuck i need to do, i will do it.

i am ready to fight.

just a few random things that made me laugh/smirk/scratch my head/wish someone was there to witness with me:

1. the vision of a man driving a motorbike, with his wife on the back, who was holding her IV drip–yes, it was attached to her, on the pole and the bottle was properly upside down, administering her medicine.

2. the buddhist monks to whom i am teaching english, asked me if they could listen to my IPod, specifically any hip-hop that i had downloaded. 

3. the same group of monks asked me the difference between the words “sheet” and “shit” since they sound the same and don’t know what either means. (there was a lot of “uhh”s, “well..”s and “hmm..”s coming from me at this moment, while they all looked at me earnestly.)

4. in another attempt at meditation, i folded myself into position again, and could not get comfortable. i kept trying to lose myself, but the waterfall of sweat that was rushing down my spine, puddling into the gap of my now-too-big topshop jeans, and the constant drip-drip-drip of sweat that was falling off the end of my nose then splat-splat-splatting onto the mat was unnerving me. refocusing, crunching my eyes closed, chanting to  myself, “forget the sweat…forget the sweat…”, all i could conjure up in my brain was the visual of a frosty can of diet coke, and the taste of this sweet nectar of the gods/buddha pouring down my throat. i cracked my eyes (to hopefully release the sweat-induced sting out of them), and lo and behold, a glass of coke had been placed in front of me, quietly, without my even noticing. then all i could think about as i thrust this glass into my hand was “santa claus is coming to town….”

5. halfway down road number 6, which passes as a “highway” in cambodia (although it’s technically only a kinda large street), in route to an orphanage way, way out in the middle of the gorgeous, so-green-it-makes-ireland-look-brown rice paddies, it started to pour rain. being that we were in a tuk-tuk (“we” being dine, and his friend, a buddhist monk), we were left to attempt to dodge huge sprays of mud that were coming our way from the trucks that were passing us at 90 miles an hour. we hit a long stretch of road that was in serious disrepair, full of enormous potholes, detours, miles of just dirt–or actually dirty deep puddles/small lakes–and after about 5 minutes, we looked as if we had been in a mud wrestling contest. we were drenched in dirt. we kept yelling over the noise of the tuk-tuk engine and the horns and the rushes of filth that were spraying all of us over and over again: “we’re on a mission and nothing can stop us!” (the mission was to deliver my nieces old clothes–about 98 of the exact same abercrombie and fitch polo shirts in a plethora of colors–to the kids). at about mile 10 of this muddy, mental madness, there was a sign by the road that read: “DANGER: ROAD UNDER CONSTRUCTION”. in unison, we all yelled, “really?” as the tuk-tuk driver looked back at us, gave us the thumbs-up and smiled and had dollops of mud on his teeth.

6. at most locally owned restaurants, there is a girl assigned to each table to stand there with a bucket filled with ice, and when she notices the ice in your glass has melted even the slightest bit, she’s right there to plunk another chunk into your drink. this is her job. 

7. as my dearest danny and i have discussed and laughed about numerous times, why is it okay to throw the remnants of your movietime pig-out onto the floor of the theater? (he does an amazingly hilarious impersonation of his mother saying, “just throw it on the floor!”) it defies logic, as this is the only place i know that it’s ever been acceptable to go somewhere and pitch your junk onto the ground without feeling the slightest bit mortified. until i came to cambodia. at restaurants, in lieu of a cotton twill napkin, or a hefty paper one, there are tissue boxes in the middle of the table. and those are your napkins, and they’re not double ply deluxe charmin brand. they’re just thin pieces of tiny tissue, about 2″ by 2″ squares. so you use about 20 in the course of a meal. and it’s acceptable to throw your used, balled up, grease covered tissues under the table, so there are piles of white balls everywhere in the restaurants, and it’s someone’s job to sweep up after you leave. i even saw this happen at dine’s house when he and his family threw an outdoor party. i had to sit on my hands to keep myself from scampering about under all the tables to pick up all this crap! off dine’s front lawn!