Sometimes I think about the little dog at the furniture factory. I lived off a narrow dirt road in Phnom Penh, about the width of an alley but lined with open-air shops and shacks. One was a furniture workshop, where young men worked all day with paper masks over their mouths. They shaped beautiful glossy, red-brown headboards, chests and tables of tropical wood, every piece heavy as marble. When I walked by they looked up from their lathes and stared over their red-tinged paper masks.
The little dog maybe used to be white or cream or tan but now it was a streaky orange, tinted the same as the furniture. Mostly it slept or just looked bored, but sometimes its puff-tail wagged when people passed.
Walking down that narrow road felt intrusive, like stepping through backyards and bedrooms. People stopped talking. Bloody meat and fly-covered fish in the market stalls seemed too close. Half-dressed itty-bitty kids shouted “HELLO!” and followed until it became a mini-parade. I couldn’t reconcile “Hi, let’s be neighbors” with “Sorry for being a space alien, can I just get home?”
It was especially bad because that’s why you go new places, right? To meet people and become part of a new fabric? Guilt-guilt-guilt.
But sometimes after a long, hot, awkward walk I’d turn around and find that little puff-dog at my heel, wagging its puff-tail.
Back at home now, months later, I think of that alley, and the furniture factory and the little dog. I wonder if it is ok being wood-stained or if it misses being white or cream or tan. And I think about how happiness sometimes sneaks up that way. A hot day. A long walk. But when you get to the main road, you see that some weirdo scrappy guardian has been at your heel the whole time, disguised as a freakin’ end table.