Broken Dreams in Phnom Penh

The cars pass by in a blur of light.  Everything is fuzzy.  The warmth envelopes my body.  I see the foreigners walk past and they stare at me with pity.  A pity I cannot understand.  Why pity me?

I am still aware of him standing by me.  He is watching, watching them all walk past.  Waiting to catch their eye, waiting for the person he wants.  Or the person that wants him.

The dust of the street makes me cough.  I keep coughing recently, I don’t know what is wrong.  But what can I do?  Nothing.  Maybe it’ll kill me.  Maybe it won’t.  What does it matter?  Surely if I die it’ll better than here.

I think back to my village.  The village I grew up in.  The place I miss the most.  The people that I miss the most.  As a kid, every day we would walk back from school past the buffalo in the fields, the people working.  Stopping under the trees to hide from the sun.

These are the days that I miss the most.  The days of innocence.  The days when I would arrive home from school and my mother would feed us with rice.  Her big smile greeting us as we walked in to our small house.

She couldn’t read or write but she would tell us stories.  My mother had seen a lot.  She had survived the Khmer Rouge, but she didn’t tell us those stories.  She told us happy ones.  I would sit in her lap listening and watching her face.  I never wanted the stories to stop.

Each morning we would walk to the school.  There was only one teacher but she tried her best to teach us.  To look after us.  She taught me to read and to write.  As I learned I would dream.  Dream of leaving this village and being a doctor in the big city.  I would make money and bring it back home.  I would build my mother and father a big house.

As I got older people told me there was no need for school.  I had to go out and work in the fields.  We had to bring in food for the house.  My dream of being a doctor was over.  How could a poor girl from the village ever be a doctor?

Then one day he came.  He gave money to my mother.  He said he would take me to the city where I could make lots of money.  I could come back to see my family whenever I wanted.  He said I could bring back money so that my family could eat well.

I didn’t trust his dark eyes.  I didn’t trust his smile, but I had to go.  I had to help my mother and father.  Maybe in the city I could start school again.  Maybe one day I could really be a doctor.  So we left and took the bus to the city.

There were people everywhere.  Cars and tuk tuks.  There were men sitting on the side of the street.  Some had no legs, some had no arms.  They always and a small cup in front of them where people would place money.

I didn’t like the city.  I wanted to go back to the countryside.  I was scared.  I wanted to go back and sit on my mother’s lap as she told me stories.  I wanted to see her big smile as she made rice for us.  I wanted to sit under the trees escaping from the sun while dreaming of being a doctor.

He took me to a house where there were 4 other girls.  All of them ignored me.  Their eyes were dead.  They didn’t speak to each other.  Their souls had left them.  They did everything he asked.  They did not question.

I jump as he touches me on my shoulder and points me to the man next to him.  I am to go with him.  I take one last, long pull of the cracked glass pipe next to me.  The numbness hits me.  I will go with the man as I always do.  If I don’t I can’t be numb.  My dreams have been shattered.  My only dream now is that it all goes away.  It will be soon, we never last that long.

About 5 years ago I was in Phnom Penh.  As I was looking for something to eat one night I came across a girl who was probably in her late teens sitting under a lamppost smoking crystal meth.  There was a guy next to her.  As someone who had access to free treatment and support when recovering from addiction, the image of this girl has always stayed with me.  She was never going to have access to that support or any kind of treatment.  I wrote this short story as her.

My book of short stories ‘The Unwashed’ is available on Amazon Kindle and paperback here.

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