It’s only a little bit uncomfortable when I see her now, as we pass each other on the way to work. We say hello, I force a big smile and ask about her daughter, she wishes me a good day, we carry on. But our interactions always leave me wistful, remembering how close I used to feel to her. It might be possible to regain that past, but neither of us has tried. She is too ashamed. And I’m busy, distracted, ambivalent. I have women to help, after all.
My desk was unlocked. That was my first mistake. Or was it leaving my room open for forty-five minutes? Maybe it was brushing off other cases of disappearing cash – I must have lost it, it was only $10, if she took it she must be desperate, her mother is dying…
It was $400, after all. And money that wasn’t even intended for me. My parents had left $300 as a gift for a friend here, so that she could take a professional sewing class and eventually start her own tailoring business to support her family. I wish I had a picture of her face when my parents told her they’d like to help her with those classes. Joy and gratitude, and bubbling words of thanks in Khamenglish. When the money was stolen, I didn’t talk to her for a few days. She thought I was upset with her. But I just couldn’t bring myself to tell her that I had lost that gift, which she saw as the key to her future. The other $100 was personal money, $40 that I was especially sad to see go. It had arrived in a package from the U.S., in its own envelope marked “JUST FOR FUN!” from a feminist Catholic community around Boston.
After nearly three days of a hunger strike (I wanted to sneak him food, but wondered if he would feel undermined or unsupported if I did so), my boss confessed that he was getting too weak, and that it was time to try another approach. He had hoped that as the staff saw him deteriorating, whoever had stolen the money would come forward.
Sophy didn’t even want to type the oath up; she said it made her “bpibaak jut,” a difficult or uneasy heart. It was a traditional Khmer oath, which was the only reason I didn’t strongly object; my boss and the old people agreed that this was the Khmer way. The oath essentially said the following: “I did not steal Meghan’s money from her bedroom, and I do not know anything about who did steal it. If I am lying, I wish bad luck and bad health upon myself and my family for generations to come. I even will wish a violent death for myself.”
There was some controversy among the staff about the oath; not that it should be required, but about who it should be sworn in front of. Most of our staff is Buddhist, so as Battambang residents, they needed to swear before the Ta Dombong statue, the symbol of our city. (My boss was very pleased with the picture he took of the statue, which he had blown up to an 8×10 print and framed, for the oath swearing. It’s still in his office now.) The few Catholics on our staff were upset though, because they did not want to swear before Ta Dombong. “My God is bigger than that statue!” So the compromise was that a cross and the picture of the statue would sit together, with each staff member kneeling to swear before whichever symbol she or he chose. The day of the swearing, the staff shuffled around nervously, looking at their print out copies, or reciting parts of the oath together for those who could not read. Kiwee spent the whole morning learning the oath, since the staff had requested she take it as well.
I kept my head down and shuffled back and forth between my office and house, not wanting to go into the village because I knew the rumors were flying. One person had asked me why I had thousands of dollars lying around in my room. I was embarrassed and exposed. I did not want their sympathy, nor their threats of vengeance when they found out who had taken my money. Everyone I met came up, sometimes tearful, to tell me how ashamed they were for their community, their parish, their country, that I was here to help and treated this way. If I find that person, I’ll stab her, I’ll hit him, I’ll drive her out of the community, I’ll make her lose her job, they told me, trying to help me feel better.
When I moved to Battambang six months earlier, in September, she was thrilled to greet me. I’ll confess, I didn’t remember her from the year before. She knew me of course, the only volunteer from the U.S. we had ever had, and with blue eyes to boot. We grew close quickly, since as the new housekeeper she was often in the kitchen, helping prepare meals, when I would come up for a break from the office.
She was horrified that I would do my own laundry for the first weeks there. Every day asking, pestering even, about why I did not bring it for her to do for me. Even your underwear, even your underwear, she said. In your country you have machines, you don’t know how to wash it properly. You’ll get an infection, and then the woman will not trust you to teach about their health. I relented.
Sometimes after I finished work we would exercise together. I would bring up my computer and put on a bootleg yoga or tae-bo DVD, and then the three of us — the cook, the housekeeper, and me, would close the door to the outside and hope that the priests wouldn’t come up as we were stretching or doing crunches. Usually we would end up lying on our backs laughing and laughing. One of their sarongs would fall off as she was trying to go into downward dog, or they would turn a kick-boxing move into a chance to play fight. It was never really a workout, but I loved those late afternoons together.
I was heartbroken when my boss told me that it was our cook who had confessed, just an hour before everyone was due to take the oath. She wanted to save face, at least for one more day, he told me, so she called me from a public phone instead of telling me in my office. I wanted to feel relieved that the whole thing was over. But I was devastated and losing hope, quickly. She was one of my main reasons for wanting to come back here; when I had learned that she worked late nights and early mornings every single day to avoid her abusive husband, I wondered why we did not have a program about domestic violence and started thinking about how I could help start one.
The day after the phone call nothing got handled: my boss was at a funeral the entire day, she came to work as usual, and I had meals with the students, not ready to face her. The day after that was when things got even more dramatic. He confronted her in the morning, asking her if they could discuss the phone call. And then the screaming began, from both of them, for five, eight, fifteen, twenty-two minutes. Louder and louder, him demanding a confession, her denying any involvement.
The staff was called together once again, everyone worried and getting defensive another time. I didn’t want to join the meeting, but I saw them all leave with purpose 20 minutes later, getting on motos two by two. The plan was to go to every public phone in town, figure out where the confession phone call came from, and then ask the people there who had come to use the phone.
When she finally confessed, to stealing the money, to having a key to my room, to framing her friend for the theft, she was hysterical. Choking on sobs and falling at my feet, literally. I tried to stop her, to tell her she was forgiven, to tell her that I still loved her. I was livid, don’t get me wrong. Most especially for what a dramatic ordeal this had become for everyone, for how I did not feel safe in my room at night. But how could any of us blame her? She was working full-time, raising a daughter, dealing with a husband whose alcohol habits were a drain on the family, and bearing the financial and emotional burdens of taking care of her dying mother. They were going to put her in jail she said, because her debts had gone on for too long. I probably would have stolen the money too. And I can’t call that theft a moral failing, or a loss of integrity.
I imagine he was thinking of situations like this when Peter Maurin famously said that “we need to make the kind of society where it is easier for people to be good.”
I never wanted her to lose her job. I figured it was the equivalent of putting her out on the street. If she was in enough debt from her mother’s medical expenses to put her job on the line by stealing from someone she loved, I didn’t want to have to wonder where desperation would lead her next. She got reassigned; she is no longer allowed to work in any of the buildings. She is on the grounds crew now, sweeping the roads, raking the grass, picking up garbage.
When I handwash my underwear now, soaking and scrubbing and rinsing and rinsing again, wringing and hanging, I pray for her, remembering how she took on this most humbling of tasks to make me feel loved in Battambang. In any college ethics class, I would have argued that she did the only thing she could. That theft from the rich for the basic survival of the poor does not represent a moral shortcoming. But let’s be honest, in typical Meg fashion, I would have pushed it even farther: I probably would have argued that it was more ethical for her to steal the money than to abandon her family to jail. And then I would have gotten pissed when people vehemently disagreed, because can’t we all agree that this isn’t about one woman, this isn’t about $400, this isn’t about stealing or not stealing? It’s structural, and deserves a structural response.
But it’s also relational and intensely personal. So why do I have to force the big smile?