I had a strange dream. Sleeping on airplane flights, on long train rides, long bus rides always seemed to give me strange dreams. I supposed that they were brought on by the stress of travel. Or perhaps it was that time in transition between worlds emphasized everything else that might go through someone’s mind. Traveling over the Pacific Ocean, I felt the weight of all that I was leaving behind in California, and all that I was moving toward in Cambodia.
I dreamt about Kelly, of course. We had been seeing each other for a year. I had expected it to be just a few dates, but it continued on. That was a familiar story. We fought a lot in the last few weeks before I was scheduled to leave for Cambodia.
In the dream I saw her in a nondescript classroom. It could have been anywhere. Our old high school. One of the college classrooms. I wasn’t sure. She sat in the front of the room, as usual. As I remembered her. I watched the back of her head from the back of the room. She was paying close attention to the front of the room. There was no teacher there. Just a screen, swirling with images of jungles and oceans. As was typical of my dreams, I couldn’t figure out who exactly I was. Whether I was myself or someone else. I felt the same, though. I wanted her to turn around and look at me but she didn’t. It seemed that she knew I was there. She was avoiding me. I had something I needed to tell her. Whoever I was. I couldn’t.
I was awakened by the jostling of one of the flight attendants passing with the beverage cart. The lights had been turned a little bit higher. There were a very few points of light around the cabin. People who perhaps hadn’t slept at all. Four hours of the flight had gone by. They were beginning to serve breakfast.
I realized that my grandmother was not beside me. How had she gotten past me without my knowing? I must have slept heavily. I didn’t realize how tired I must have been. I turned toward the back of the plane to the rest rooms and saw that she was slowly making her way back to our seats. The beverage cart would be in her way. I got up to show her that I was there, but I couldn’t get to her anyway because of the cart. The attendant politely asked her move backward. Why did they design the carts to take up the entire aisle? I thought, annoyed. I got up and walked toward my grandmother and the flight attendant, ready to translate if needed. My grandmother understood the request and stepped backward, making her way toward the restroom again.
Her head turned toward a woman’s voice calling her to an empty aisle seat. In Khmer. It was rare for there to be an empty seat in the economy section of these international flights. My grandmother sat. I couldn’t see the person who had called her. I waited for the refreshments cart to move past her and moved down the aisle to help her walk back to our seats.
I came upon my grandmother talking to a young woman, around my age, who had invited her to sit. She was politely asking my grandmother in what sounded to me like perfect Khmer about her travel plans.
Again, self-consciously, I said, “Ah-kun daiy cheuy yey kngom.” Thanks for helping my grandmother.
“Oh, no problem,” she smiled. I hadn’t expected her to speak perfect English because she spoke Khmer so well.
“Oh,” I laughed. “Thanks again.”
“She speaks Khmer really well, doesn’t she?” My grandmother said. “You should practice more!”
I blushed. “Chah, yey. Cham kngom kahm neuw srok Khmer.” Yes, grandmother. I’ll try in Cambodia.
“Chow chmouh ey?” What’s your name, granddaughter? my grandmother asked the woman.
One of the things that threw me off about Khmer was that everyone addressed one another, though strangers, with family nouns. Someone might be aunt, uncle, grandmother, grandfather, grandchild, niece, nephew, depending on their age relative to yours. No wonder I spent my younger years thinking that everyone was related to me. In the grand scheme of things, I suppose that was what helped the community feel so small and close-knit.
“Lakhena,” she answered, accenting her name in the Khmer way rather than the American accent. She turned to me, “What’s your name?”
“Sophie,” I said. Do you want to go back to your seat? I asked my grandmother. The beverage cart was waiting for us to go back so that they could continue distributing drinks.
Okay, let’s go. Travel safe, okay, grandchild? Thank you. My grandmother took my arm.
“Chah, sok sa bai, lok yey,” Lakhena addressed my grandmother, Yes, be well, grandmother. She nodded and smiled again. She had a broad smile. I liked it, I decided. “See you later. Many hours to go.”
“Yeah,” I agreed, smiling myself.
My grandmother and I walked back to our seats, one of her hands braced on my arm, the other touching the backs of seats. The beverage cart was behind us, patient though we were likely throwing them off schedule. The attendants for the aisle on the other side were nearly done. After I helped my grandmother get back into her seat and buckled in, I turned toward the rear of the plane again, to where Lakhena was sitting.
I was surprised to catch her eye since I hadn’t been able to see her from my seat before. She had kind eyes, and I could tell she was smiling. Despite myself, I flushed. She’s just being friendly, of course. I raised my hand and gave a small wave before settling back into my seat. I couldn’t decide how I felt about having to walk past her every time I had to use the restroom for the ten hours still left on the flight. There was a mixture of excitement and anxiety. I tried to talk myself out of it, but I was curious.
I had never met another Khmer lesbian. I was the only one I knew. Not that I knew many Khmers at all at that point. There certainly wasn’t anyone gay in my family that I knew of, either. I was pretty sure of that. No, she’s just being friendly. Khmers are always really friendly. I’m really friendly.
When the flight attendant reached us, my grandmother had me ask for hot water. I suddenly considered getting myself something with alcohol in it, but thought better of it. Being twenty-one didn’t mean that I was any less a child in my grandmother’s eyes, and a female one, at that. I ordered cranberry juice and wished for vodka as I sipped the too-sweet cocktail beverage. Why am I craving liquor all of a sudden?
It was no big deal that I was of legal drinking age since I had indulged in alcohol since my junior year of high school. It wasn’t at a party or anything. Just me and my book nerd friends, sitting around with one of those huge jugs of cheap sangria someone bought with her older sister’s ID, passing around a couple of cigarettes someone snuck out of her dad’s pack. We were talking about Holden Caulfield from Catcher in the Rye, calling him a whiny asshole and wondering what the big deal about JD Salinger was. Exceedingly pretentious in that very special way teenage bookworms have. We thought we were so clever and grown-up and we tried very hard to make sure it seemed like we were nonchalant about it.
Before I went home, I would chew several sticks of gum and practically drench myself in someone’s green apple-scented body spray to make sure my parents didn’t notice anything strange when I got home from study group, though they surely would have suspected something from the flush I got in my cheeks if I hadn’t rushed into my room as soon as I got home. It also helped that they were so tired from work that we didn’t talk much beyond the usual question of whether I was hungry. I’d answer no, put my backpack down in my room, and jump in the shower. If they ever suspected anything, they never indicated as much to me.
Lakhena was fairer-skinned than I was. Her hair was dark, thick, and wavy, I had noticed, and she had wide, full lips. She looked more Khmer than I did, I thought with some sadness, and she spoke Khmer better, too. There’s no chance…
I thought of Kelly. How upset she had been that I was leaving on this trip, even though it would only be three weeks. She was finally on break from school and wanted to spend time together. Her parents had offered to get me a ticket to go Paris with them. At first I had agreed to go, but then the trip with my grandmother came up and overlapped our plans. It had always been a rare occasion for me to choose a family affair over spending time with her, so she could not understand why I decided to be the one to go.
“You’re not even that close to your family!” She’d said, half pouting, half yelling at me. She was right, in a way, and completely wrong, too.
I sighed heavily. “It’s not about that. I just have to go.” I hoped that somewhere deep down she understood, and that she was just sad that we would have to be apart. Then there was a part of me that had doubts. They crept up every once in a while. Is this because she’s white? “You know my grandma’s getting really old. Too old to travel alone. Everyone else has to work.”
“So you’re putting your life on hold to babysit her on this trip?” I had never heard her be so venomous. And I couldn’t understand how she couldn’t understand.
“Babe, it’s only three weeks. You’ll have another month of break when I get back. We’ll have so much fun.”
She softened slightly. “I just really was looking forward to this trip with you. And my parents have been wanting to get to know you better, too.”
Anything involving her parents made me anxious even though they’d never been anything but warm toward me. Another way that our worlds were different. I loved that they were so open with me.
Kelly had never even met my parents. I always visited them on my own, briefly, for the holidays, before making up some excuse about work or school and going to be with Kelly and her family.
I kissed her goodbye two nights before I left to stay with my parents so that I could help finish packing. She didn’t yell any more, but she was sad and distant. As I drove away from her house, I knew that three weeks apart could end up being a very long time.