We greeted each other, kissed both cheeks in a way that doesn’t feel so awkward anymore. I hadn’t seen Mathilde since last Sunday, and she sat down, a smile and thin arms, ready to catch up.
But I didn’t know what to say. What had I done? Something, things, I remember doing things, walking. But where? It was like trying to recall a very old and dim dream. The week had passed, and I didn’t have much to show for it, other than a vagueness, a tiredness—something like an ache but further away, in a further-away muscle I couldn’t quite name.
Travel can be hard on the body, disrupting our rhythms and throwing us out of whack. But I’m not traveling right now—I’m sitting still, living. Even still, I haven’t had a period since before I left. I’ve been having insomnia. I never have insomnia. I don’t even get jet-lag, in the traditional sleepless sense. But I’ve had nights of laying on the thin worn mattress, staring into the numb dark, waiting, waiting. I wake up thirsty and bleary-eyed, confused about something I can’t quite name.
Another sickness came. It was worse than the last: a searing, lightning-white pain that rose in waves, some earthquake in my gut, cresting out through my limbs. It made me writhe and wince and groan and finally cry out: “Fuuuuck!” After about three hours I finally threw up and staggered back through the fluorescent-haunted apartment, into a ragged sleep.
But on paper, I should be doing fine; by daylight, I feel okay. Good, even. I don’t feel stressed or emotional. I’m taking good care of myself. I’m giving myself down-time and yoga-time and meeting-time. I’m making friends and calling them, not isolating. My project is moving along well—not at a phenomenal lightning speed, but a nice steady clip. I’m learning and asking questions and knocking on doors and writing a lot.
So… what the hell?
I sat reading a book, waiting to meet Rachel for dinner and a ridiculous K-Pop group dance class (yeah, you heard me), to be followed by Cambodia’s only drag show (yeah, again). I was flipping through Lucky Child by Loung Ung. I sipped my coffee and skimmed her descriptions of being a little girl, a child survivor of the Khmer Rouge resettled in the US.
There was a funny feeling inside me. I felt it rumble, the way a stomach rumbles before a sickness comes, sounding like bombs in the distance—a distance inside of you. It wasn’t what she wrote, it was the way she wrote it; it brought up a deep feeling, something like sadness. Something about trying to be little girl and do all your little girl things—cartoons and dolls and minding your manners—amidst a terrible darkness, a thing you were carrying inside you. And being shy and making friends with other little girls and doing all your little girl things, in a darkness that you maybe shared—different shades but the same basic color—though you didn’t know it then, and maybe you don’t even know it now.
But it was 6pm. Time to put the book back and walk down the street, for papaya salad and dancing and drag queens.
It took me hours to fall asleep that night.
I felt hit by a truck when I finally got out of bed. Yoga didn’t help. I didn’t bring my book to the street stall where I drink coffee, just sat staring into the numbness. I went to my meeting. A junkie street kid with bleached hair and dark skin followed me down the street when I left. He touched my arm and when I turned to snatch it back, I looked into his eyes. There was nothing there.
He laughed and screamed, his body shaking as I walked away.
I walked through the city for hours. Where was I going? To find cleaner for hard contact lenses (doesn’t exist in Cambodia, btw), to find an art gallery that’s moved—but where was I really going? I didn’t know. I walked in the heat and shadelessness, dust kicking up and covering my shoes and ankles and swollen red bites freckling my legs.
I felt an old, ancient loneliness. I felt lost, not in Phnom Penh, but in a city inside myself, a landscape I don’t know, without street markers or maybe even names—a layout as foreign to me as to the tuk-tuk drivers that circle this city, searching for familiar landmarks, finding none, lost in a secret map they can’t read and aren’t even sure exists. And I thought of a poem I wrote as a teenager, which wan’t that good but had an ending that proved enigmatically prophetic: “as though I were a tourist / in my own thin body and this own thin body”.
I was just sad. Not for Cambodia or for the past or for the secret past or for the junkies on the street or for my project or any of it. Just fucking sad. And exhausted. There was no contact lens cleaner, and I couldn’t find the gallery again.
In the past, this would have been my cue to Pushed Harder, Work More, Buck Up Solider. But fuck it. Be gentle with yourself, I heard Tracy say.
I went back to my apartment and scrapped together an hour of sleep.