There are many things we don’t understand about others. The face and body are there, but we can’t see the invisible footsteps left behind, the old heartbeats that have made them alive, soft and warm, troubled and happy, and we seldom have the time to spend solving the mystery of who they are.
I’d taken a temporary job in the US to help settle Vietnamese boat people. Normally I didn’t work in the US, but I’d made an exception. My case load was about forty people. Some were couples, frail and slow moving; there were families with young children; and then there were a handful of single people.
My job was to get them placed in housing, set up bank accounts, enroll them in English classes, find them work, etc. They’d all received small sums of money from the US government and private charities to make a start. The boat people totaled about 800,000 and they’d set sail in the late 1970s and kept coming until the early 1990s. There were holding camps spread out across Southeast Asia. The lucky ones were accepted as refugees by America and Europe.
There was one young woman, maybe 25 years of age, who was always fading in and out of her own personal state of shock. Her name was Hoa. Some days she was fine, but on others she fell apart. All of her family had been killed by Thai pirates. They’d raped her and left her for dead on a tiny island, but a fishing boat found her and took her to the Thai mainland. Fortunately for her, there was a medical clinic where the boat landed and a Thai doctor saved her life.
She was typical of most Vietnamese women. Straight, silky black hair, fluid in her movements, a healthy plant of the earth, but with skin cut from fine white silk and eyes that were shiny holes in the night. She was about 5 feet 3 inches and her feet were small as if she’d never grown out of the tiny flip flops her mother had given her when she was 6 years-old. Her legs were straight and inviting. Like two straws in a malt. She’d cry in her English class because she was always late. I’d go over to collect her and take her for a cup of tea. I’d tell her about my time along the Vietnamese border, swimming in the Mekong, helping the Hmong who made it out of Laos, and how difficult Bangkok was. She’d tell me about her family and the horrors of her trip. How she wanted to go to LA and be in the movies. She laughed at that. She spoke Thai, so along with her English, we made due. She wanted me to show her how the buses worked, so we went on a bus trip across town and then to her apartment. I wrote down all the bus connections and she started getting to class on time.
I had a six-month contract and towards the end, my Cambodian boss called me into her office. She said we had a problem. What, I asked. Well, Hoa says she’s in love with you.
My heart sank and I explained that Hoa was a deeply depressed and mentally injured person who had no idea what she was saying. There is nothing between you two? Of course, not. I never, never, never mess around with refugees.
When I left that afternoon, Hoa was waiting in the parking lot. She ran up and hugged me. She wanted a ride home, but I told her that wasn’t a good idea and she began to cry hysterically and I felt like I was looking down from high above, maybe in a hot air balloon. I had magic binoculars that could see inside hearts and minds and the lenses of the glasses could traverse the trails Hoa had covered. I could count the beats of Hoa’s heart against my chest. I could count her tears. I could see her family, there in the small boat floating in the sea. I watched as the Thai pirates murdered her father and mother, her two brothers and sister and then raped Hoa. I could read her thoughts as she lay on the little island, half dead thinking about how each breath was going to be her last, how she was going to become a movie star.
My skin was hot with the feeling of Hoa and then a few days later, I cut my contract short and caught a flight to LA to catch up with some actor friends. One had just finishing a movie as Jesus, it was a small role. The others were working odd jobs, going to acting classes, and auditioning. I tried to imagine Hoa fitting in with these people. I couldn’t see it. She’d be eaten alive.
After a couple of arguments and unfortunate sex with a girl on a soap opera, I decided to go to Central America.
I bought a ticket to Honduras. I got there on Halloween night and after checking into my rundown hotel, I found myself in a seedy bar, drinking with the piano player and a prostitute from Nicaragua. She had a room near my hotel. I ended up spending the night with her and we didn’t do anything but talk about what the war was like and how I could get a job in La Mosquitia. She knew some people, she said, and my mind began to settle down and a plan emerged that didn’t include Hoa and her tragic mental injury grown from the last chance sea.
Last chance seas. Over the coming years I began to understand more and more about those last chance seas.