By the time I got to the house, I was so hungry that it seemed completely normal to make scrambled eggs.
Last month I visited D.C. for a weekend and through a stroke of luck learned that my old roommate in Phnom Penh, Rachel, was in the area, too.
Rachel lived with me in the apartment with the rusty staircase and the wormy cats that lived on the porch; above the family that sold heaps of pungent fruit downstairs; the friend who dolled me up in the clothes from her boutique so we could make posters proclaiming: SALE! The one I accidentally padlocked in our apartment one morning. The one who accidentally padlocked me in, too. The one who rolled fresh sushi in the back of a van WHILE WE WERE DRIVING DOWN A BUMPY MOUNTAIN PATH because we needed a snack.
American, blonde pixie haircut, been living in Phnom Penh since college. Anyway, Rachel.
She was visiting an aunt in Maryland, and I happened to be in DC. I borrowed an old minivan and drove all the way across town — rattling the whole way, straining to hear the weak prim GPS voice above the din. Not so unlike the van we drove down that mountain.
Finally I arrived — Rachel (RACHEL!) was in her aunt’s kitchen making breakfast (and would I like some?) So I set about making eggs right away. Pulled a few from the carton; grabbed a pan from a hook, dropped in shredded cheddar. Makin’ eggs in a stranger’s kitchen.
Seeing Rachel felt like home, too, because she knows what it’s like to go from Here to There and back again.
Next, a long sunny walk to the park, where we passed a carnival just beginning to set up. A washed-out, rusty carnival — the colors reminded me of Phnom Penh’s pastel amusement parks, where you think — if I get on that ride I’ll plummet to my demise, no matter how cute the smile on that bug-faced rollercoaster. I wondered where that carnival had been; and what it’s like to piece everything together, over and over. Do you get sick of tightening the same bolts?
Then we laid in the cool grass under a cherry tree and blew petals off our palms, catching up on all the stupid stuff. Our favorite Hungarian fashion photographer and his dirty mouth. The new cool restaurants; who’s leaving, who’s staying; The Cambodian girls and our wishes for their precarious or bright futures.
We bought bottles of water from a food stand and started to walk home. That’s when we saw the house. Covered in intricate metal scrollwork, a gingerbread house out of metal and more; everything metallic recycled and affixed in ways that suggested grandeur but up close looked like old eggbeaters and fan blades and muffin tins. In a row of normal-looking suburban homes, suddenly this.
Back at Rachel’s, her aunt unearthed framed drawings by Rachel’s great-grandfather for Vogue magazine, then unrolled an intricate beige silk shawl woven and embroidered in the Phillipines. And, oh, Rachel said, yawning, sipping tea — later she had to make a friend’s wedding dress. Because that’s a weekend project. Her entire family and its lineage burst at the seams with creativity and art.
Days later I Googled the crazy metallic house, and found this video of the owner talking about why he does what he does — tricking out his suburban house in elaborate metal sculpture. The point, he says, is just to make things.
It is the point. It is the point.
One of my favorite days in Phnom Penh: the afternoon I learned how to screenprint. It’d been a hot, horrible weekend. One of those days when you’d rather stay in bed, but it’s too hot in bed, so you walk around like a total zombie and hope your knees don’t melt into your shoes.
But then Rachel called and said she needed a hand screenprinting some fabric in her workshop. I parked my clunky aluminum pedal bike downstairs, walked through a tiny concrete tunnel and then up a dark staircase, certain this had to be the wrong place. But then, the workshop: Light-filled, top floor, a balcony overlooking the outskirts of a bustling market. A smiling Khmer woman was already at work, pushing bright ink through a wood-framed screen onto hand-cut fabric pieces that would become skirts.
That day I helped hose off the silk mesh screens; develop new ones over a light box and, eventually, ink them myself. The work was methodical, and just what I needed.
At sunset on the balcony I saw cross-legged amongst screens propped everywhere and drying in the warm breeze. The orange-sherbert light washed through them and over us. The fabric hung over clothes lines, pink and green flags covered in new inked patterns and scrolls.
Every now and then, like once a year, I have a thought that causes me to stop what I’m doing and sit on the floor. Most recently it was this: My parents have always encouraged me to be a writer, which I think — looking back — seems strange, because no one in our family had ever been a writer. We’ve worked in steel plants and hospitals and car factories and on trains and boxing rings and bars. But there are no writers. I used to think they saw my constant scribbling and thought, well kid, get yourself a bestseller so you don’t have to work. Maybe they just didn’t know the economics of the industry and had miscalculated.
But now I wonder if it was something more; consciously or unconsciously. I wonder if they didn’t see that their little oddball would need some help. Some shielding for the journey, armor against the world’s harshness, and that writing would serve that purpose. Art does this for us. When things are very hard or heartbreaking or weird. When you finally realize that you just do not fit and never will. Again and again, I remember the same lesson. Whatever your art is, hold tight to it. The point is just to make things. Especially when you’re hungry. To reach for an egg in a strange kitchen, and without hesitation, crack it.