I wake up sad.
We go to a café that would not be out of place on the roster of brunch places in Portland. It’s the second day in a row we’ve been here. The waitress offers us a friendly smile, and we order eggs benedict with homemade English muffins, and banana pancakes drizzled with salted caramel.
The ceiling fans spin lazily above us as we watch the proprietor’s toddler girl run back and forth between the five tables. She sits down and jumps off the high concrete ledge that marks the entrance to the café and then she climbs back up. The café’s dog, Bonnie, lies in the shade under one of the tables.
I could live here, I think.
The thought is hazy, at first, but it quickly begins to sharpen. It’s the first time I’ve thought this since we left Portland. I can picture the small apartment we’d rent. We’d buy motorbikes, of course. We’d spend many brunches here in this café, as well as the one just down the road with the best pancakes we’ve had in Southeast Asia.
The proprietor, an Australian man with fiery red hair, picks up his daughter with one arm and bounces her gently. I am chatting with friends from back home online on my phone. I want to show them this place. I want them to feel the sun on their shoulders as they walk here. I want them to pet Bonnie. I picture showing them our apartment. I picture sitting at the riverfront, watching the sunset with them.
But I don’t talk about any of that. We talk about trivialities back home. I know that they will probably never visit me here.
We retreat to the hotel room for the hottest part of the day. We spend a few hours working online. It’s become our ritual to head to the riverfront for the sunset. We claim seats facing the river and order fries. It takes half an hour to get them, but they’re crispy and golden when we do.
The sunsets in Kampot are so beautiful. The sun dances a kaleidoscope of colors as it sinks below a mountain. The river throws the colors back at the sky. Motorbikes drive by with three, four, or even five people piled on them. Toddlers stand and grip the handlebars, while babies are nestled safely between mother and father. A man across the street dozes in the back of his tuk-tuk. I wonder how everyone doesn’t stop what they’re doing to gape at this natural marvel unfolding in front of us.
Today’s sunset seems tinged with sadness. It feels like an ending. I sigh. “It’s just so beautiful,” I say.
“That makes you sad?” Kelly pops a fry in her mouth.
It’s the kind of sadness where everything feels so good, I know it can never be this good again. It’s nonsense, but it’s there.
We stroll down the wide riverfront sidewalk. I step onto a boat and climb up rickety steps to an observation deck. Sandals off, legs crossed, I take pictures as the colors in the sky begin to darken. Kelly sits next to me with a beer cracked open.
The boat’s engine rumbles to life and we begin to head down the river. We pass under the old bridge, then the new bridge. The light is gone now. Trees on either side of the river are barely distinguishable.
There is a gasp from the passengers on the right side of the boat. There in the trees is a cluster of fireflies. The captain begins to slow the boat and then cuts the engine. The trees around us light up with fireflies. They pulse together like a heartbeat.
Out here, far from the city’s lights, the stars are brilliant. The stars vie for attention with the fireflies. Directly above me is Orion’s belt, the only constellation I can reliably pick out of the night sky. It reminds me that even down a river in the south of Cambodia surrounded by fireflies, I am still sitting under the same sky. I feel like I’m so far away from my life in Oregon, but here a piece of it is looking back at me. The sun is probably just starting to rise in Portland. Soon the people I left behind will rise out of their beds and begin their day.
I am looking at a moon on the other side of the world. Some days I don’t know how to be okay with this. I know that life continues on without me there. It is not paused in motion from the moment the plane left the tarmac like it is in my memories. The space that I left there will continue to get smaller. I wonder if by the time I come back it will still be big enough for me.
I comfort myself tonight with the fact that I’m looking at the same stars. I am still here even if I am not there.
I am still here.