Americans Dancing in the Heart of Darkness
It’s the Water Festival, the city is a crowd. My skin full of sun
like so many country people who have come to Phnom Penh.
The Americans hate me and I hate them,
but they’re the only students with me and maybe I’m American too.
When I return to my windowless room at the Golden Gate Hotel,
I order fresh young coconut, a club sandwich, and French fries.
A woman with a bruised face and a silver tray walks up seven floors,
knocks on my door. The exchange students order room service too,
and the same woman walks the flights of stairs nine more times.
Fireworks crackle and I think, I’ll be back to this same festival with my family.
In the morning, thirty missed calls. There has been a human stampede
on the bridge to Koh Pich. 347 reported dead. 755 injured.
Shoes litter the river. The exchange program advises us to stay away
from Diamond Island. The prime minister’s remarks: This is the worst thing
to happen since the Khmer Rouge. The Americans agree.
I grow quiet in my windowless room. I step outside for air.
The city, a crowd disappearing. The crowd, evacuated to the provinces.
Cambodia, a perpetual stampede.
School canceled at the university––a funerary ceremony instead.
Do the Americans understand the program director when she tells us
her neighbor’s son has died? Most likely not. Later that evening
they still don’t understand, but I go with them anyway
to the Heart of Darkness, the nightclub empty but open.
We dance with Khmer boys. Strobe lights pull us on the floor. This way.
That. Our feet grope the shiny, black tiles reflecting the bar
where old expats sit with Khmer women making money. Yeah, yeah.
It isn’t expensive to get here or get back. We tuk-a-tuk-tuk and we dance. They laugh.
Meanwhile my mother calls me. My father calls me. My auntie calls me
from Prek Eng. My uncle down the street from the hotel.
My uncle in Kandal. My cousin’s uncle in Siem Reap.
May We All Be Happy
I don’t know the boy’s name so I ask everyone.
No one knows.
No one can get him to say his own name.
The boy walks all over the room, circling windows,
he steps on construction paper on the floor
where the other children sit, coloring
together. They draw snakes
and a house, a sunflower as big as the sun.
None of these children know the boy’s name,
the boy who has no interest in coloring. He runs out
of the playroom into the hallway into the kitchen,
opening windows without screens.
I don’t want him to tumble down
the roof, I don’t want to imagine
what his parents might say, so I watch the boy
carefully, now hiding under the dining room table.
He pretends he cannot be seen.
I pretend I cannot find him.
Now he locks the door to the hallway
and bursts through another door,
closed for a reason: a meeting among adults,
about sons, brothers, husbands, fathers
named Hay Hov, Koeun Hem,
Rouen Pich, Tith Prak… men whose families
have come to fight against deportation,
to mobilize for the rally
in San Francisco. An elderly woman speaks up
for her son. She wrings her hands, asking for help.
The woman says she has lost other children
in the war before this war, before I can ask the boy,
Whose son are you?
On March 9, 2019 at the Center for Empowering Refugees and Immigrants
Photograph of Monica Sok by Nicholas Nichols.