W e reach Siem Reap as night is falling and retreat from the bus to a burrito dinner at an expat-run Irish pub where the prices more closely resemble the Santa Clara TGI Friday’s than the third-world. I declare the expense to be a justifiable inclusion in our budget on account of my jubilant and nostalgic reunion with sour cream during the meal.
Dessert comes in the form of a respite from Siem Reap’s plastic ambiance by visiting the Internet café across the street. Unable to raise the motivation to compose any replies to long unanswered e-mails, I distract myself by checking our financial situation: No fraudulent charges yet by either of the two shady merchants I surrendered my Mastercard to on our first day in Bangkok with so much priceless trust on my face. More surprisingly, our mutual fund investments have surged almost 20% in the past six weeks! Not a very substantial gain with an initial investment of only $1,500, but enough to justify a supply of bottled water rather than fiddling with our convoluted REI filter and chlorine purification system.
Ashamed of such an unfair judgment, I lower my gaze a bit and notice the woman’s mouth and free hand, both open towards me…
Feeling financially self-assured, I wrap up my online session prematurely and leave Johanna to finish contacting every time zone between Tokyo and New York via mass e-mail.
I wander a couple of blocks to gather myself and take in a little bit of Cambodia’s most tourist-laden city before choosing a street vendor to make my water purchase. By some miracle, the vendor is able to change my five-dollar bill, Lincoln’s ancient face being preferable to the recently abdicated King found on riel notes.
Turning from the vendor to head back to Jo, I dumbly count my change in front of my face, my wallet loosely tucked in my palm. These moments after a purchase are always the most vulnerable for me, a sort of awkward dance I have yet to master that involves a kind of sad juggling of change, open wallet and newly acquired merchandise between only two hands. As I perform my spectacle on the side of a busy Siem Reap thoroughfare, I am doubly awkward given the additional tasks included in my Cambodian performance, namely converting riel to dollars and avoiding speeding motorbikes.
Eventually my brain confirms the correct conversion rate, freeing up a few neurons to perform the necessary physiological calculus to account for the weight of the water bottles under my right arm while fostering enough competent motor control to shove the bills into my wallet, still precariously wedged between my left thumb and palm.
Just before the crucial moment when the last synapse is about to fire and seal the deal, I’m paralyzed by a muffled voice that sounds more like a whimper.
It’s all over.
The extra stimulus overloads my delicate system. A hammer has been thrown through the window of my concentration.
Looking at the wad of bills still hovering just above my wallet, I realize I don’t have the will to pick up the shards of my shattered effort. With a sigh, I surrender and look up, expecting the worst. Somehow, the tiny Cambodian woman standing in front of me manages to exceed my expectations. Through wrinkled brows she squints up at me as if she were blinded by the near total darkness enveloping this increasingly uncomfortable street corner.
After my first glance into her eyes, I’m overwhelmed by two distinct and overbearing features of her face that have become a black hole for my attention: The first is the large bandage taped to the woman’s forehead. From the center of the translucent gauze, dark crimson spreads out radially nearly half an inch from the even darker nucleus. The blood is soaked through all but the outermost layer of the material. The second is the small child draped over her right shoulder with only a naked bottom facing me. I can’t decide if it is dead or asleep, just that it appears to have given up for the evening. It crosses my mind that the consequences of that decision depend on how dire tonight’s situation is.
Suddenly I’m conscious of how my feet ache in the Tevas I bought on sale six months earlier for $54.99 in Anchorage. The Velcro strap is beginning to chafe my skin. I decide not to make the appropriate adjustments because I’m sure the sound of tearing Velcro at this moment would make all three of us deaf. It seems likely that the woman before me might already be deaf, perhaps mute as well.
Ashamed of such an unfair judgment, I lower my gaze a bit and notice the woman’s mouth and free hand, both open towards me, the tip of her index finger just inches from a stain still visible on my Gap button-down, residue from a toothpaste spitting accident over two months and three visits to the Laundromat ago. The position of her outstretched hand and open mouth are contorted and pained.
I think again about the raw, red marks on my ankles.
Lowering my gaze further to the wallet and bills still drifting in front of my body, a synapse returns from a hiatus and fires, sending an indiscriminate amount of bills of unknown denomination into the woman’s hand.
Returning my wallet to its zippered pocket and grasping a five-dollar bottle of water in my right hand, I hurry past the mound of tiny dark buttocks perched on the woman’s shoulder. I resist the urge to look back and examine the child’s upper half.
As I make my way back to the café to compose overdue e-mails, I envision mother and child sharing a plate of burritos, with a heaping side of sour cream.