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Monday, February 19, 2007


He walks toward the table, the sheen of aluminum and plastic in the beaming sunlight blinding him. He doesn't so much sit as he falls into the chair, in such a way that the word exhaustion feels like an understatement. He orders a cup of coffee, emphasizing the black; the Cambodians put a thick syrupy white goo in the bottom of the cup that they call cream; he knows this, and he orders with delicate English to the slow-nodding waitress.

The coffee arrives, the disinterested waitress placing the cup unceremoniously on the table, just enough force to cause a few brown drops to dribble over the edge and collect in the saucer. A small spoon, a petit cup, warm brown foam swirling lazily, he begins to stir. That foam, so impermanent, so temporary, like the foamy water crashing around the helm of the boats down the Mekong. Big smiles on poor people, living and working on boats their whole lives, tourists taking snapshots like they’re attractions in a zoo. The sun shone on the river that day, blinding and warm, and an old woman tossed melons overboard to a waiting boat laden with golden flowers.

He lifts the glass high, eyes closed, inhaling deeply, a faint smile blossoming on his lips. That fresh smell of Asian coffee, slow-drip semi-sweet robusta, like the brown mud-sloppy fields outside of Can Tho, the green smell of dirt and growing in the Cambodian countryside, in the rice fields, even … the Killing Fields. Madness, insanity, words that you know the meaning of, words that were spawned to describe indescribable places like S-21 and Pol Pot and the revolution; words that can explain them only emptily, hollow phrases that provide no understanding or resolution, so much death, they killed everyone, how can they do that to, purges and torture, they even executed infants …

He shudders imperceptibly, the thoughts falling away like so many other incomprehensible ideas, how much was this coffee, one dollar so that’s four thousand riel? Aiya, that was her name, the high school girl with the excellent English, selling postcards and Lonely Planet bootlegs outside Angkor Thom. Her tuition is sixty thousand riel a month, what is that, fifteen dollars? He asked her why she wasn’t in school, she can’t afford it, she has to work, fifteen dollars a month on something as frivolous as education, even if she is gifted. Children too young to know what they’re saying, aping the others, “ok you buy from me” they say barefoot in dirty rags, and your heart gets crushed at just how impossible life is for them, and that extra dollar you pay for those postcards doesn’t matter, because it’s a cup of coffee to you and a future for them.

He opens his eyes, looking into the mirrored surface of the coffee. The world is better now, at least. Tell that to the high school girls in Iraq, the women selling melons there. No justice, but no war, not here at least, no more killing; what healing may come, it’s beginning, both in Vietnam and in Cambodia; half a lifetime ago they were bloody battlefields, and now you can travel, as a tourist and a witness, to see their history, the heart-stopping awe of Angkor Wat, the soul-crushing sadness of landmine victims and Viet Cong Punji sticks, the peaceful life of families and children along the Mekong and people that still smile.

He raises the glass again, bowing his head to an unspoken toast, and drinks.

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