Years before buying the plane ticket, I envisioned her hands. When I closed my eyes, I saw they were small. At first glance, they appeared fragile, but when I squeezed my eyes tighter, I saw they were deceptively strong. Her hands alone told the story before I even met her. These small, strong hands were clean and her nails carefully decorated, but I could tell the decoration was only a mask. Over the course of the evening, her hands held a glass of beer and then switched to a pool stick.
When I met her, she seemed friendly enough. She smiled pleasantly, and as the minutes passed she starting to share her story with me. Her words never matched her environment. She spoke of love. She spoke of family. She spoke of her past. She spoke of her future. She spoke of her child. Only when I asked her a direct question did she speak of her present. It was as if she did not want to even acknowledge her current life.
For the purposes of this story, her name is Star.
Her husband was long out of the picture. He had drunk and gambled any money away, leaving her and her son destitute. After their divorce, she moved to Phnom Pehn and started working at a salon, which offered little support for her and her growing child. Star had family near the airport and could at least send her beautiful boy to her sister’s house. There he could have a bed and maybe a few toys to play with. She couldn’t offer him the same, not where she was planning to live. She dreamed of working every day at the salon. She loved styling hair and making people feel beautiful. She’d occasionally sit in the styling chair herself and hope that maybe someone would think she was beautiful as well. But days would pass without any clients, and Star knew that she had to find something that paid more consistent wages…
Consistent wages. It’s an unfortunate reality but nevertheless true. Here, there is no such thing as a middle class. Only the rich or the impoverished.
On this particular street, she could find work. The female manager of the nightclub seemed nice enough. She found a room with ten other women, the youngest was 16. She was 22 when she started. Now, she is 31. As a true mother, she took on the maternal role of these young girls. Each night, as they change their clothes and put on their heels, she offers to fix their hair and help them with their makeup. She helps make them feel beautiful.
How long will she have to work here? Will she ever be able to live again with her son? Could they maybe one day have enough to move away? Perhaps to Thailand or somewhere where she could start over and even own her own salon. Would someone think she was beautiful and offer to marry her, lifting her and her son finally out of this life of poverty? She couldn’t help but wonder. She couldn’t help but still hope.
But the years pass.
Today, she still sleeps in the same room. Some of the girls have left, but she’s seen them elsewhere on that street. Different bar, but always the same job. Recently, she thought she had entered into her fairytale. An American man came up to her one day, and for a while, it was truly bliss. He told her she was beautiful. He told her that he loved her. To him, she was his bright little Star. With all his promises, she started to believe she loved him too. She looked forward to seeing him. She missed him when he left. He said he missed her too.
Then one day, he came back. He walked right up to her as she was perched on the barstool with the pool stick in her hand. He hugged her and once again he whisked her off. Sure he paid the manager for the night, but that was just part of the facade. He truly loved her.
But the night after that she did not see him. At one point she caught his profile, or she thought so, but that man did not come to her. He went to another bar instead and took home a different female. It could not have been him. She waited. She watched. They still spoke on the phone. He said that he missed her. He did not come the next night though, or the night after that. And then one night she was sure she saw him, but he walked right past her. He went up and hugged a younger girl and bought her a drink. It was as if she had been slapped. Her eyes stung and her chest tightened. Maybe just the one night? But the next night was the same.
She felt herself falling back into deep waters. That hope of a different life remained on the surface. She grasped for it, like a rope to save her, but she kept sinking, and that new life slipped away.
On the night that I met her, she spoke a little of her American man. She still loved him, but she knew it was over. She showed me his picture. His fat ugly gut peaked out from under his unkempt shirt. I resisted the urge to spit on his photo. She placed her small hand over the phone. That same small hand that I saw in my dreams. “I still love him,” she said as she pulled her hand covering the phone to her chest.
An then in a moment she set her phone back down. She finished her beer and grabbed a pool stick. “Come on,” she said in her broken English, “you and me a team and we beat those boys.” She was talking of my two companions, Nathaniel and Dean. With unashamed confidence, she took over the table. I was a mere bystander. I watched with admiration as she analyzed the table and carefully measured every shot. The pool table was old, weathered, and uneven, but she had learned all its hidden features. With ease, she drove each ball into her intended pocket. “We should’ve played for money,” I thought.
As the night came to an end, I saw her withdraw back to her barstool. I rounded the pool table and walked toward her. I wasn’t sure how to say goodbye. I didn’t have to decide. She wrapped her arms around me, and then with her small, strong hands, she grasped my waist. She knew I was leaving. I heard her switch on her maternal tone, “watch your passport. Your money. Your rings. Your watches.” She patted my hips and repeated her warning. I hugged her again and left with a broken heart.
What was the point of going to this godforsaken country? I had planned to come here to help rescue women like her. Instead, I was walking away from her, leaving her, on that street…on that barstool. It wasn’t right. I couldn’t even get a decent photo of her…or of her beautiful hands. I’m a photographer, and I failed! All I did was sit there and listen to her and play pool…
…all I did was listen to her…
…all I did was listen.
No. I’m sorry. That’s a nice thought to just listen and retell someone’s story. But it’s not enough. These women can’t be saved with kind words and good wishes. They deserve a life free from imprisonment. They deserve to know true love or at least have a fighting chance to experience it. They deserve to live in the same house as their child.
I can’t save every woman, but I’m going to try and save Star. I have created a link to a GoFundMe site, and 100% of the donations will go to supporting women like Star. If you’d like to help, please visit https://www.gofundme.com/f/fmnhsz-support-daughters-of-cambodia&rcid=r01-156125953162-712635dbdce64d8f&pc=ot_co_campmgmt_w.
1 thought on “I went so that I could tell her story…”
Wow. That’s incredible. God put you in that spot to listen. You never know if she was on the brink of something drastic and you were there. What an incredible story.