His parents had known that he’d be fine, and they had both gone off to work.
Srim listened to the silence after they had left. He wondered if his mother might show back up and tell him that she had changed her mind. That she would sit with him and make him soup. Maybe read to him like she used to do. But the apartment was quiet and stayed almost completely still.
There was Clove, their pet cat, padding back and forth through the rooms. There was a gentle early summer breeze flowing through the windows his father had left open. And there were soft water noises splashing from the little fountain in the living room that his mother insisted on always running to cut through the constant din of cars and busses moving below their apartment.
Srim was weak and sweaty. He stayed in his bed for most of the morning and then stumbled silently to the bathroom an hour before noon.
He peed and brushed his teeth with eyes almost closed. He made his way across to the kitchen and fixed himself a cup of tea. He leaned across the counter and stared into a small mirror. His eyes were sunken. And his black hair matted and shiny with grease. His sparse black mustache was growing. In two weeks he would shave his jaw and upper lip for the first time in his life.
Srim took his steaming mug of tea, walked slowly to the couch, and lowered himself carefully down. He touched the hot liquid to his lips and tongue. He blinked, and set his tea down on the glass table. He pulled a blanket over his body and sank sideways until his head clicked softly onto the armrest. His socked feet curled up onto the couch underneath the blanket.
Srim didn’t feel good, but he marveled at the sense of adulthood that was filling his belly and chest. He was on his own. He was solo. He imagined the kids at that moment sitting in their desks at his school. His desk empty. He was missing something kind of important, maybe. He saw his math teacher talking at the front of class, but couldn’t hear the words. It was the middle of May and the school year would end in two weeks. Srim knew his classes didn’t matter. He imagined his parents as they rushed off to work. He tried to imagine what they might be doing at that moment… helping with a surgery, or in a meeting with other doctors… perhaps they were having lunch together in the hospital cafeteria. Srim closed his eyes and slipped into a peaceful sleep.
His dreams were vivid. One took place on a mountain covered in thick, dark bamboo. It was a misty peak above, and he was climbing with gloves on. He watched his hands work. Somehow he knew that he was trying to summit this towering mountain, and he had just begun. He was pulling himself up through the lowest hills, on a skinny ridge that was taking him higher and higher. There was barb wire to deal with, and even with gloves on he had to be careful with his hands. He wondered if he might be deep in Viet Nam.
Srim opened his eyes back in his living room. The cat was sitting on him, purring. Staring at him.
Srim grunted and rocked his shoulder and Clove hopped down and padded quietly away.
Srim closed his eyes, but this time he didn’t sleep.
His breath rocked back and forth gently through his nose, and he observed. There were images sliding past his closed eyes that seemed like another dream. ‘It’s like part of my brain thinks that it’s still dream time…’, he thought. Srim observed fascinated, half awake, as the bizarre story unfolded. It looked like something from his dad’s old photo album… sepia and grainy, quiet at first, but then came some audio.
Srim could hear whispers. Quiet talking. Some distant chatter. It was alien at first. A different language. But then he understood. He recognized his cousin’s voice. Amma. The word for mother. And he recognized the word kitchery and then the whispers clicked, he understood the hushed voices, and he glanced over and made eye contact with Des. His cousin smiled and went silent.
They were sitting on the floor, a group of boys, maybe a dozen of them. Srim looked around at the funny outfits. The bare feet. Brown skin like his. And he looked down at his own hands and his own strange white pants.
His bare feet and his hands took his attention. The fingernails were thicker. He turned his palms up and stared at the dark leather and callouses. And then the smell of the room came to him, and it was old sweat and incense and sweet curry. And the breeze was hot from the open window.
And Srim got carefully to his feet. Bare feet on the cool smooth floor and he stepped over to the window. He noticed that the room had fallen very silent. He could feel the curious glances of the other students watching him as his fingers touched the window sill, no glass, and he poked his head out through the window and looked left and right and across the dusty street. Old model cars kicking up dry clouds of dust. People walking with baskets. A bright glare from the mid-day sun. Srim was tempted to climb from the window and go look around in this strange city.
But the noise of someone entering the room, clearing his throat, pulled Srim’s attention back into the dark classroom.
Srim looked over his shoulder. The whole class was watching him. And their teacher was straightening his woven mat and sitting down on the floor at the front of the class. He raised a curious eyebrow at Srim and motioned for him to take his spot.
Srim felt a little foolish for being at the window. And he stepped obediently back to his place, and lowered himself back down. Crossing his legs like the others. Sitting up tall and straight, settling in for his lessons. He blinked his eyes.
And he was back in his clean, bright home in New Jersey. His clothes and blanket soaked in sweat. The gentle breeze making a tapestry on the wall flutter and tap. And the living room fountain, tinny and false.