It was the first time I didn’t get that rush, that tingle at the tangibility of travel plans—didn’t jump up and do a hop-skip happy dance across my bedroom floor. This is because, I realized, I’m scared shitless.
I figured as much, as I’d been balking on buying the tickets for no discernible reason. I couldn’t really tell you what it was. Yes, it’s gonna be one of the longer trips I’ve been on, just over three months, and it’ll be on a continent I’ve never been to, where my chances of muddling through the local language are next to nil. It’ll be humid as hell and the buses will suck and the roads will be shitty and the mosquitoes will buzz and I won’t be able to drink the water and I’ll have to negotiate the fabled squat toilet again and most likely I’ll get one of the gnarly stomach flus that turns me into a gasping, pale, dehydrated, crusty-lipped caricature of myself.
But I can tell you right away that that wasn’t all that made my stomach clench like a white-knuckled fist.
It’s gonna be a different kind of trip for me, more of a personal journey, a pilgrimage, in the Phil Cousineau sense of the term. It’s a trip I’ve wanted to do for a long time; ever since I started traveling, I knew I wanted to go to Cambodia. My childhood best friend’s parents had escaped and I’d always heard about it—this place and this person, Pol Pot—a presence I felt but didn’t understand. We didn’t learn about Cambodia in school, I didn’t hear about it on TV or in books, and Pol Pot became just another person around her house, like a dead uncle no one dared talk about, except in passing.
I couldn’t tell you exactly why I wanted to go, though, just that I felt this draw, this pull—the difference between a trip you want to take and a trip you need to take. The closest I could come was to say that I wanted to actually see this place I’d felt, to experience it for what it was—a place that, to me, was kind of like Jacob in Jacob’s Room: this big howling empty in the middle of the everything, that everything circled around but no one ever got close to, in to, inside of—like flies around a lightbulb.
“Can I write about it?” I asked Lynda. I was scared then too.
“My life is an open book,” she told me. “You can write about anything.”
“Can we get together and talk sometime, about what you remember?”
She sighed. “Yeah, of course, but to be honest, there’s so much I don’t remember. There’s a lot of blank spaces, you know.”
And it was like a little click. Blank spaces: the things we darken and blur and don’t let ourselves look at—that we push down, down, so far down, but still carry with us, the stories murmuring in our blood. Because I do that too, in my own way, in the way I think we all do—black out the things we can’t bear. But goddamnit if it isn’t all still in there, always; goddamnit if we don’t spend our lives circling around it, crashing our heads into the glowing glass of it.
I never cried when Lynda’s parents died, ten years ago. I realized this just after I’d bought my plane tickets. I was tired and irritated and, like a two year old, had decided to put myself down for a nap. But I didn’t really sleep, just laid there floating in the numb in-between space, a vagrant twitch here and there.
And I thought about the reality of going there, being there, a place that had become tragically mythic in my own mind, but also blurry, unreal—the face of that dead uncle you never met, but reconstructed, from photographs and passing stories, in your own mind. And it wasn’t like I’d finally be looking at that face, seeing it in real life, because it was gone and buried—but, I don’t know, like digging up the bones of what was left? No, that isn’t quite right either.
I had this dim notion that, to me, traveling to Cambodia was akin to traveling into some place inside myself, a blank place where there was nothing but a thick silence, a deathly silence; where everything was white, or maybe black, but in any case obscure; a place that looked empty, but really was full, pregnant with some sort of strange energy I didn’t understand but was somehow scared of.
That place wasn’t necessarily Cambodia, or really Cambodia at all, but a place inside myself. And I was fucking terrified of what I’d find.
I didn’t cry then, not exactly, but I teared up. Which is the closest I’ve come to letting myself really feel any of it—to looking at it and letting it become real.