Let us go deeper, as the day grows long and the clouds begin their familiar drift across the landscape of the sky. The girl, the girl who I run past on my daily runs down by the river, the teenage girl, the teenage girl whose name I can never seem to recall, the teenage girl whose name I can never seem to recall wishes for me to give her money, sixteen dollars, cash, American. Not for drugs or food, no, of this I am certain, but for school.
Outside of my old apartment as I waited for the van from work to pick me up, I would sometimes see her and her friends stroll on by, dressed in white shirts and blue skirts, and I would joke with them in English. To understand humor in a foreign tongue is a simultaneously heady and innocuous ordeal. If one can laugh at another's nonsensical utterances, empathy results. To do so while listening to such words in a language other than one's own, one both alien and unfamiliar, is to allow oneself that random, learned luxury of believing that such a connection may be proof of a common emotional conduit that links human to human. They say that laughter is universal; it may also be primordial.
Such are one's thoughts while conversing with a fourteen, fifteen year girl on what passes for a cool day on those particular Cambodian mornings. Those other days and times were long ago and for now there is the matter of sixteen dollars. There is humor, yes, as always, but laughter not only has its own time limit and place but also its own sense of security. There are difficult locks that need to be massaged before mirth can emerge once again, carefree and fluid.
To be a Cambodian girl by the river selling guidebooks and travel books is proof of either a God or a Devil at work in the world. For no identifiable future exists for such a girl. If she is poor, poor enough to see books on the banks of the Tonle Sap, then she is certainly poor enough to soon become a prostitute. Perhaps not this year, or next year, but there certain limits of time and place in life and this young girl may very well reach hers sometime soon. If she is selling books, daily, she is not able to learn any kind of marketable, manageable skill, and if she is unable to acquire such a skill then it is quite possible, if not certain, that around the age of twenty, if not sooner, uneducated, her future will have been decided for her. This is not certain; there are garment factories and other modules of enhancement that exist in the dusty fringes of this world. But still. One must project. I do not know if a God or a Devil plays a hand in determining fates like this one. I suspect not.
(But what if I am wrong -- how lonely it must be for God and the Devil! To be the perfect embodiment of grace and wisdom is a burden that must make even a perfect God shudder at times. One imagines such an entity longing to embrace his most wicked counterpart, because who else but the Devil himself could conceive of such an awesome responsibility. For the Devil has his own inverted responsbility, lest we forget, one that is no less momentous. To be wicked, continuously. Even the Devil must have days and nights when he no longer wishes to tantalize Cambodian teenagers with the darkening prospect of a live lived in seedy rooms on spunk-stained sheets. At such times, the Devil must reach out, upwards. Would God find within him the strength to embrace the Devil himself? Think what sparks, what energy, novalike in intensity, would ensue from such an encounter! The concept is too large for a mind such as mine to pursue further. It is akin to imagining one's own creation, attempting to isolate within the soul of one's own psyche and memory why this sperm chose that egg. Best to retreat into the safer, familiar confines of the agnostic and atheist. Best to image the lives on these lean and mean streets guided by their own hands, not those of isolated, enclosed lords on either end of our spiritual scale.)
Sixteen dollars, to this we return. What would it do, peform, enable? A month at school. Education is not enforced only within the scholastic confines a too-hot classroom, no, but one does not need to explain this to a fourteen, fifteen year old Cambodian bookseller. She has had enough of the real world. Give me some white shirts and blue skirts once again, her eyes implore, if only for a month. At least for a month.
Oh, the sway and grind of one's own intentions. At a certain point, it is inevitable that benefactors will fall short of their recipients expectations. Such providers will leave for home, or, even worse, here, be diluted of cash. At that point in time the real world will once again reach between the ivory (piss-yellow?) walls of one's scholastic cell and drag her, possibly kicking, certainly screaming, back into the bright and dusty day with a fierceness that would certainly do the Devil proud.
Is it better to learn now and remorse later? One cannot say. A handful of American bills can alter the trajectory of one girl's life, but who is to say that a boomerang is not lurking within the psychic parameters of such an ambitious act? Spiritual decapitation could result for both the girl and the benefactor.
At a specific point in time -- ten, twenty years hence -- a cloud will drift across a bright blue sky, aimless and puffy. A young woman will spot that cloud and for no reason all recall an offer made years before, a loan enacted, a textbook bought, a room brightly lit. Whether that memory, fleeting and sweet, bordering just this side of bitter, is false or true, one cannot say. Not yet. One wonders if God and the Devil -- should they exist, should they emerge -- can balance the future on the widened palms of their outstretched hands the way a tiny, wounded bird ponders flight. And, if so, can we mortals do the same?
Regardless, at a specific point in time -- ten, twenty years hence -- a Cambodian woman will see that cloud, wipe a lock of hair away from her sweat-stained brow, remember an offer, a chance, a gate. The cloud will drift on. The moment and memory will pass. And she will return to whatever the day has left to offer.