We didn’t split up from one battle, but we cooled on each other. It was
better not to talk so often, so we went longer without calling. We expected less from one another, came down from our earlier enthusiasms.
We weren’t always at our best in public either. Nadia said, “I liked you
better before.” I snapped at Nadia too. And when it did seem that we
were done for as a couple, once and for all, we had a sudden intense revival of interest, a hot reunion. This happened more than once.
We were back and forth for a couple of years in that way. “It’s embarrassing,” Rachel said when we were on good terms, meaning we were
really too old for this sort of thing. The truth was, we liked each other,
usually. People always said that, didn’t they: maybe we should’ve been
just friends. As if longing could be put away.
She stood me up when I wanted to take her to a picnic in Prospect
Park with my old union cronies. She had to go somewhere with Nadia;
she forgot to let me know. And then I wanted to be alone when she needed
me to come to some dinner for her brother. I said I’d come and I didn’t.
But that wasn’t why I left New York. We were over by then. I left New
York because I lost my job. Not just me, the whole outfit went under; its
funding petered out. The board had been holding it together, begging for
government grants, cajoling private donors—they were giving up now.
At the meeting where they broke the news, we all made cracks about the
relief of not visiting any more clients in those smelly city shelters. We
weren’t relieved at all.
Above my desk in the office was a photo of me on a motorcycle on a
road with thickly forested mountains on both sides, in Laos, outside Luang Prabang. People were always impressed when I uttered place names
in Asian languages, but I knew nothing. Nothing! Random tidbits. What
do tourists ever know? I started looking at job listings overseas.
There were expats working all over Southeast Asia, but the place that
had the most NGOs was Cambodia. Other countries had reasons to
limit what foreigners could do (Laos and Vietnam were technically still
communist), but Cambodia needed all the help it could get. It was still
gutted from the last generation’s genocidal war, with one in five Cambodians living below the world poverty line.
Form-letter rejections flooded my email—was I too old, was that it?
Okay, I was old. But after a much longer spell than I expected, I got
Skype-interviewed by an outfit in Phnom Penh that worked with local