This afternoon, Karrie rustled me out of bed and away from the TV and sent me down to the nail salon for a little TLC. I was quiet in the massage chair and just tried to feel my feet, my legs, my toes. I tried to feel comfortable. In my skin today but also in the nail salon. I know about body mechanics and always worry about these folks sitting on backless stools, hunched over, inhaling toxic chemicals day after day for not a lot of money. Working on privileged white women, for the most part, like me. I always tell them I do massage, have to so they know why I need my nails short and buffed not polished, but also because I want them to know I work, not like them, but similarly. With my body, for other people. The workers and the owners are often from Vietnam, as they are here, and I am always astonished how quietly they speak, and are heard, across the normally loud rooms. Their words ending in soft bongs that volley back and forth to each other. Occasionally laughter or knowing sighs from everyone in the room, even those certainly out of ear shot, I’d imagined.
Today, it’s just me and the two owners. The woman so tenderly massaging, scrubbing, scrapping and polishing. Laughing gently when my foot pulls away from ticklishness. Confirming the towels are not too hot around my legs, after she has softly tossed them from hand to hand because they are too hot in hers. When she’s done, she speasks to the man working there and tell me to come to his table.
I have seen him before, older than me but with a younger person’s esthetic. A fitted red t-shirt tucked into jeans with a studded belt and white embroidery embelishments, an Abercrombie and Fitch vibe. His hair is perfectly coifed but also looks effortless, a gray splash perfectly placed for sophistication.
I’d rather stay in the massage chair with the woman doing my hands instead. I’d rather sit there because I’ve done my best to be comfortable here, and in my skin, and he feels a little to “bro” for my energy any day, but especially today. I sit, the pandemic clear plastic shield between us and he is watching Titanic 2 on the iPad propped up at his station. He begins to tell me about the plot and how it’s different from the first one and while I genuinely wonder aloud, “There’s a Titanic TWO?”, this relevation, his explanation and even his earnest attempt to draw me into this move he is clearly enjoying, sinks me a little deeper. I want to leave. I don’t want to be her anymore, my hand in his. It’s one of those days. I also almost started crying at the grocery because I couldn’t find the zucchini for close to three whole seconds. It’s your birthday and your sister is away and you died. I don’t want to pretend to care about a second movie about a ship that already sank.
I ask anyway, “Does the main character die?”
He smirks without looking at me, “Only the man again. The girl survives.”
The woman is now cleaning her instruments in the sink behind him and she looks over at me with a wink and chuckle. I reciprocate.
I don’t know how we get there, must be something about the ship, but now he is telling me about crossing the Pacific Ocean in a boat. “Fourteen by eight. 104 people,” he says. Not like it’s everyday but also, not like it’s not. “The Pacific Ocean is big,” he says, filing quickly and careful my short nails even shorter, not looking up. I want to know everything. I want to know this impossible feat of statistically improbable survival.
He was 13 or 14. Remembers every minute. The person piloting this tiny boat worked for the American navy. 103 people saw nothing on the horizon, nothing in the sky, nothing on the wind but he saw a storm coming. “There was nothing,” he said, pressing the cuticles off the half moon of my nail in swift, tiny, expert movements. “We go to Malaysia. He says: ‘We have to stop. Storm is coming’. But we see nothing,” rolling one of my fingers after the other over his hand as he works. “But, next day, we see white on the ocean. The waves, white on top. We would have died but he saved us.”
7 days and 8 nights. I don’t ask about what happened before the boat. I don’t ask what was worse.
“Do you know there are flying fish?,” I nod but wish I had pretended to not. As soon as my head is still, I know he knows far more about flying fish, and survival, then I ever will, “They have a fin on the back. They fly. Fish that fly, maybe 2 feet off the water. Thousands of them.”
“You caught them?” I ask.
“They fly into our boat. It is a miracle. They fly right into our boat. Hundreds of them. We can’t cook them in the boats so we dry them in the sun and then we eat them. That’s how we survive. 104 people when we run out of food.”
“And water?” I as. He uses a sharp tool to clip the tiniest pieces of skin away from the sides of my nails. I don’t even feel it.
“Rain water,” he barely pauses into his next thought but I have enough time to register that he was, in fact, in a storm. More than one to survive a week with no water. I can’t imagine that rain in a tiny boat after fleeing what you are fleeing does not feel like a storm. And also a blessing. And also how you will survive. By opening your mouth and sticking out your tongue to catch some. 104 people crossing a “big” ocean, mouths open, chins up, to the sky.
“That’s how we survived. Flying fish and rain water. When I am in high school, I look in the encyclopedia and I learn that there are flying fish. And I learn all about them. I thought they were a miracle.”
“They were a miracle.” I say, quickly, without thinking.
He laughs and nods and agrees, “They were a miracle.” Like he’s just realizing, as he oils my nail beds, but also like we’re talking about an underdog sports team coming back for the win.
Just because a flying fish seems less mythological after he learned they exist doesn’t make them any less of a miracle. Fish that fly: miraculous. Staying alive because fish flew into your boat: also miraculous. Survival: miraculous.
He ended up in Union City, CA, near Fremont and Hayward he tells me, two towns I have heard of after living in San Francisco for close to a decade over a decade ago. He told me stories of a $300 light yellow Pinto; of cutting school, getting in fights, forging signatures on school documents because his dad and step-mom didn’t speak English; divorce and abandonment left him homeless, alone, and sleeping in that Pinto at 16; Dunkin’ Donuts for $1.20 a dozen and $.50 for bottomless coffee; a $30 monthly gym membership so he could swim and shower; garage beer parties in paper cups in case the police drove by. Friends, white friends, he was the only Asian person, he says, but the memories he shares are only fond. Stories only of shenanigans and comradery. Stories of belonging in this land that must have been only slightly less foreign than nothing but ocean for days. The hardship and heartbreak, the trauma and loss, must have been intense. But he shares with me the highlights, what got him through, his joy.
I want to ask 1000 questions. What happened between high school and now, California and Oregon. How did you get from $3.15/hour at McDonald’s to owning your own business with your family. Who is your family now?
We walk to the check out together. I want to blurt out, “Today is my son’s birthday and he died.” I want to say this has nothing to do with anything you have told me. These events are utterly unrelated. Mine feels small now, still signifigant, but it has some perspective now, some scale. That will change, but not right now. Now I see where I fit. My ocean is big, too, but only metaphorical and metaphorically so. I want to say “You and I have been through some shit.” Not even close to the same. But shit. Instead, he tells me the total. Back tracks to break down what each service costs. I add a big tip and they both they thank me. “Thank you for telling me your story,” I say. He laughs and says some kind of pleasantry that we are supposed to say in his second language but, for maybe the second time this whole time, he looks me in the eye and I see his whole face and he sees mine. Despite our masks.
Humans are amazing, Harvey. We survive and we don’t and we find ourselves in the same place at the same time and we share our stories and we don’t and we are less alone. We are less sad. You will always be gone and he will never forget how big the ocean is and how there are fish that fly. And, for as long as we live, it will be in astonishment.
Happy birthday, son. I love and miss you so much that we don’t even have words for it. I love and miss you “big.”