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.


Auditoriums of the Adopted Bourgeoisie

royal ballet

The dancers were done and stood on stage as the house lights were brought up after curtain call and the petals were swept away with large brooms. Some of the troupe went down into the audience to mingle. A few people came up on the stage to talk, gesturing at the golden headdresses, wanting to touch them, but afraid of overstepping proprieties. Sok wandered upstage, avoiding conversation; she could not disrobe from her public persona and greet them in any heartfelt way. She was safe up here on high behind her smile; no need to come down to earth.

Down below, before the stage, earthbound and stuck in the mud, Lily looked on as the aura of the Apsara dancers, the closing event of the school’s cultural festival, slowly dissolved back into the banality of the badly lit high school auditorium. Her mother pushed at her to go up on stage and talk to the dancers, but Lily was rooted as firmly as Sok, and could only look on from a distance, the two of them not able to make a connection, to bridge the gap between heaven and earth.

“So many of them were killed,” Lily’s mom said to her. “They can never take away the dances you have danced, your knowledge; the only thing they can do is kill you, and even then that won’t stop the music.” The daughter grimaced and did not really reply to her mother, she was so . . . there was no need to trample over the emotion shimmering between her and the stage tonight, to try to break into that world, to force herself in where she didn’t belong; it made her angry like it always did, but her mother’s words burned into her mind and were not forgotten. Her mother was not one of them, as Lily was by blood, yet she felt the need to lecture her, but . . . mom herself was an artist, a good musician; she understood dance, and Lily’s life, adopted as an infant, was as American homegrown as the next.

The cloak of unselfconsciousness Lily threw over herself when she watched these dancers, when she waded into the world of music and was freely at home, and particularly whenever she wrote her poems, was now torn off, and an awareness of her own self and her surroundings engulfed her, suffocating her. Her mother could do that, rip her protection off, just like that, like she did just now. Without its sheltering embrace, Lily was stricken with doubt, afraid her work conveyed little of what she felt; in fact, she carried around a poem by a Russian person, Marina Tsvetaeva—Ms. MT, she called her in her mind—torn out of an old copy of Vogue, and read it whenever she felt particularly enabled.

She would read MT’s words:

Foretasting when I’ll fold
Time like a rough draft…
A flash of the eye, the last,
And the world’s not a moment old…

Then she would read her own:

What would you have done, if they had not broken you so young
The weight of obligation curves my spine.
I am not one or the other
My story is not a case of either/or…

‘A flash of an eye, a flick of the wrist. A flash of an eye, a flick of the wrist,’ Lily now repeated over and over as the evening’s disintegration spooled out without resistance. She had prodded herself with this nonsense mantra into a transcendent state; so much so that she seemed to be bouncing back and forth between the stage and where she stood until she was blurred out and was neither at one point or the other, but somewhere in between and everywhere, that she had somehow managed to overcome, just for this infinitesimal second, the weight of race, and distance, and time, and had become universal.

* * *

Sok had danced for Nuon tonight, for some reason she was stubbornly in her head. As though they had just been together yesterday, though she had been told Nuon Sitha probably died that very first day the soldiers marched into Phnom Penh, the last day of the world as they knew it. She hoped so. Sok became aware of the fervent gaze latched upon her as she moved about under the lights, and looked down at the Cambodian girl with the American mom; well the kid was American too, most likely, like Sok herself someday–maybe. Not Nuon, however . . . no. Royal. Eternally so. Khmer spirit, kindred soul. One sister in heaven; one here on earth, standing there in front of the stage, staring as if in a trance. ‘Dance,’ was what she would tell them. ‘Dance, run in your dreams of me. I dream of you. Turn your eyes toward heaven, toward better men; steer your ship into better times. Every movement, every gesture slows our evanesce.’

Last Days Before the End of the World

khmer dancer

The spirits were hard to conjure that April, the link between heaven and earth fractured. The dancers were assembled with their master teachers. The kben was wrapped around the waist, then twisted and pulled through the legs to form the practice leggings. Hands were stretched and arched, expressive with the face serene, but harmony with the gods was not obtained. An unease had settled in and hung tandem with the humidity; these were the last few days before the end of the world.

Fifteen years earlier, the terror now advancing on the city was launched out of deserted boxcars in the railway center of Phnom Penh: the first Party Congress of the Workers Party of Kampuchea held in that empty train in secret. The Khmer Rouge—Angka—would leave the capital and hide in the northeast hills and later battle Lon Nol’s forces in the border sanctuaries and throughout Cambodia before returning victorious but eerily noncelebratory on April 17, 1975 to rid Phnom Penh of every vestige of the Old World, every person and everything to become a victim of the black pajama psychology of ultimate revolution.

The sound of rumbling trucks, of honking horns and motorcycles steadily grew louder and louder that day, pushing through the walls and music until these outside forces could no longer be ignored. The Khmer Rouge had descended upon the city and soldiers were ordering everyone out onto the streets, barking through bullhorns at the confused populace to leave their homes and shops. The Americans were about to drop bombs on Phnom Penh. Staying would be dangerous. No need to take anything; everyone could return in a few days.

The rehearsal hall emptied. Music books and instruments were left behind to be destroyed; headdresses and masks were abandoned and lost. Costumes were snatched up, and hastily hidden in hems and secret pockets, or folded and placed against the small of the back under shirts and blouses to eventually fade, erode into mere fibers, ruined by sweat and dirt and fear and time. The ballets and their movements, never written down but transmitted from teacher to student, now survived as memories in the minds of the palace dancers and their masters as the royal company was flushed out onto the boulevard.

Two of the younger dancers panic and resist; they can’t leave without their families. They are frantic, but a soldier is pushing them along with the butt of his rifle, shoving it first into one dancer’s back, then the other’s. Their teacher runs over to try and calm them and plead their case, but other soldiers come and grab the girls by the arms. They are taken away and hoisted onto one of the trucks in the convoy that has rumbled into the capital. Their teacher is dragged to a nearby tennis court, made to kneel, then shot dead.

It will be a long time before the gods can be summoned again, before harmony between heaven and humanity is restored.