The Apartment on 6th Avenue

The shadows thrown by the setting sun passed across the building, consuming the warmth of its ocher bricks. Pigeons flew in from overhead, roosting in the soffits of the structure, evidence of their occupation splattered on the pavement below. Traffic lights shimmered red and green like baubles on holiday trees. Sok approached the building and entered the lobby, taking the old elevator up to apartment #817. She carried a tub of bai cha and a plastic bag containing laundry detergent and aspirin.

They met at Hun Kru’s apartment on Tuesdays and Sundays in the evening at suppertime, each bringing a little something for the teacher’s meals. Sometimes only three students showed up, sometimes as many as seven. The dance master also saw girls during the day if she could arrange it, but that was difficult. There were always enthusiasts at first, homesick for their homeland, free from parental disapproval, free of the need for permission. A good number peeled away, though, discouraged by the required discipline, frustrated by the rigidity of expression.

Sok greeted everyone and turned over her contribution to Hun Kru’s living wages, donation for the knowledge passed on. The group stretched before they began, the teacher bending back a hand, pulling back a shoulder, straightening the spine. Then they danced.

When she danced, Sok thought of Nuon. The rest of her day, her mind was occupied with practical matters or taken up with romantic notions or ambitious thoughts for herself. But dancing always brought her back to Nuon. Best friends, almost sisters, separated that day in April years ago, never to see each other again. Sometimes as she danced, sometimes when she satisfied Hun Kru with a particular gesture, the correct bend of the elbow, Sok would think, ‘For you, Nuon.’

There were many such thoughts circulating in that room, hovering in the ether over the dancers. ‘We are assembled here to try to retrieve what is lost. This is a remembrance ceremony; a retrieval system; a fight for existence far removed from home. We are not home, and the gulf between there and here endures, even though a package has just arrived from Phnom Penh with costumes—some of the first sent abroad. Wearing the newly sewn cloth, sliding the copper patrum and beaded kong ngor bangles over our wrists, up here in this sky apartment, widens the rift, like a shoe separated from its sole, a tree from its roots. The space grows like a cavity in a tooth. We dance and each movement is a transmittal sent from a foreign land I occupy back to myself. I am neither one or the other; I am not either/or.’

* * *

As Sok’s teacher got ready for bed that night, she thought particularly of one of her dancers, the one who danced with an aura. Her presence did not distract from her precision of movement; her presence arose from within the precision. When Hun Kru lay down, and the movie reel of never completely past horror started flickering against her closed eyelids, she slowly, steadily stanched it; remembering a section of a ballet from beginning to end; finding safety, solace in the repertoire; slowly, elegantly stretching and bending her hands in the dark as she did at night back in the labor camp, when the Party believed her ruse of being a witless peasant, with no comprehension of who she really was.

Finally, after more than two years, Hun Kru had her nine dancers, and a troupe was formed—a diaspora troupe, not a home-grown one, but still, a link between heaven and earth.

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