You were living in Taiwan, eating potstickers and shrimp fried rice and mapo dofu, taking classes in a random sort of way, washing your clothes in a big sink –did you know it’s very hard to get laundry soap out of jeans by hand? It is– wandering the streets of Taipei, sometimes getting on a random bus and riding it as far as it went in order to see the sights, knowing that eventually the bus would circle back and you could get off where you got on.
(But did you know that not all buses eventually circle back? Some buses rumble along for hours until they’re far, far away, and then the bus driver parks and turns off the bus and motions you to get out, that this is the end of the line.)
You were living in Taipei in an apartment where your roommates taught you that you didn’t need to bathe and wash your waist-length hair every day, “taught” being, in this case, a synonym for “made you pay the water bill yourself because what kind of person other than a crazy American girl washes their hair every day?”
Potstickers, a penny apiece. Watermelon shakes, sesame ice cream, also cheap. Rent, cheap. The bus, cheap. Clothes, cheap. Everything was cheap except apples, which were absurdly expensive and came individually packaged in little foam and gilt-wrapped boxes.
For money, you taught English and sold your blood. You did everything on the cheap, which is how you and your two friends came to take the pig-and-vegetable boat to Orchid Island, off the southern tip of Taiwan. You had heard that there was nothing there but ocean and sand and the Tao people who had always lived there.
“You’re going to Orchid Island?” one of your Chinese roommates said. “Hey, bring me back a monkey, will you?”
Were there monkeys on Orchid Island? You had no idea. It seemed possible. Anything seemed possible, back then in Taiwan.
“Sure,” you said. “I’ll bring you back a monkey.”
You and your two friends could have taken another, faster boat, but it was more expensive. You could have taken a plane, which was also more expensive. The pig-and-vegetable boat was cheap, which is how you came to stand in a line on an industrial dock, waiting to board.
The only other passengers, and there were many of them, were green-uniformed Taiwanese soldiers. As you boarded the boat, you were handed a plastic bag.
“What’s this for?” you asked one of the soldiers standing next to you.
“Don’t know,” he said, and shrugged.
You both found out once you left shore. The pig-and-vegetable boat pitched and tossed in the big waves, under the blue sky, and the sun beat down as you and the soldiers began barfing into the plastic bags, which quickly filled and left you with nowhere to turn but the ocean itself, where the wind blew both spray and barf back at you.
Before long you were lying on the filthy floor, tossed beneath the metal deck benches with each swell, covered with vomit, not caring if in your sickened state you rolled up against a soldier, because you were all in the same boat, literally, and you knew you would die if this kept on much longer.
Which could probably have happened, but didn’t. By the time you docked at Orchid Island, four hours or four months later, you and your two friends were so weak and worn out that when a man on a motorbike sped up to one and motioned her to get on, she got on.
Off she zoomed, clinging to the man, and up a hill they disappeared. Who was he? Where was he taking her? Another man on another motorbike appeared and your second friend got on and zipped away down the road.
You waited your turn and it came. Here is a man, here is a motorbike. Sure, why not? Off you went, assuming that he would take you someplace and that when that someplace appeared, you would see your friends again.
And so it happened. The three of you reunited at an abandoned half-built hotel. Who were the men on the motorbikes? You never found out. They didn’t want anything, not even money. They disappeared, their motorbikes whining like mosquitoes as they rounded a distant hill.
Was there any place to stay on Orchid Island? No. How you ended up staying in the kindergarten room of a two-room school, you have no idea. Tiny chairs, tiny tables, a floor to sleep on, and on it you slept.
Besides dried fish and a strange fruit whose name you don’t know, you don’t remember what you ate. You don’t remember talking to anyone but your two friends. There were the Tao people, the Orchid Islanders, but they didn’t speak Mandarin.They wore few clothes and lived, it seemed, on dried fish and that nameless fruit.
Next morning you woke before dawn, like always. Your two friends were sound asleep on the floor of the kindergarten. You walked down the road to the beach –Orchid Island was all beach– and sat down on the sand to watch the sun come up.
Clouds on the far horizon lit themselves from beneath with pink and orange and the sky began to turn gold. You were wearing your pink skirt, that same pink skirt you wore almost every day when you lived in Taiwan, and the sand under your bare feet was cool and soft and white. You pulled your knees up and wrapped your arms around them and watched the world take form.
The South China Sea was calm that morning, with a gentle surf. Far across the sand you saw something coming toward you. It looked to be an enormous animal of some kind. You don’t remember being afraid. There was something un-scary about it.
The sky grew lighter and the animal turned into a prone man, elbowing his way across the sand. His thighs tapered to stubs just below the narrow band of cloth tied around his butt. He finned his way up to you, sitting there on the sand, and laughed and gestured with one arm toward the water.
What was he asking you? To go swimming? You shook your head and smiled back at him. He kept talking, laughing. You shook your head and lifted your shoulders and tilted your head. You tried a few words in Mandarin, but he didn’t understand it, and you didn’t understand his language.
Then he was off, finning his laborious way across that vast expanse of sand to the water. He looked back as if to make sure you were still there. You were. You waved.
He reached the water and turned into a fish. He was no longer a man, he was a creature of the ocean, a beautiful man-fish in that beautiful water. Flipping and diving and surfacing and diving again. You have never seen anyone so effortless in the water before or since.
The sun was up by the time he returned, clutching something between his teeth, those powerful shoulders of his propelling him back across the sand. You met him halfway and he plucked the something from his mouth: a piece of coral, orange-pink like the sunrise you had just watched. An intricate whorled pattern.
He laughed again and dropped it into your hand, closed your fingers around it. A gift. That was all the sea-man wanted, to give you a gift. He waited until you smiled, until he was sure you liked the coral, and then he was off, looking back at you and smiling, making his way back across the sand to the sea that made him whole.
Your friends were still sleeping on the cement floor of the kindergarten when you returned. You stayed on the island for two more days, eating dried fish, digging your toes into the white sand, wandering up and down the road and the hills. You didn’t see the ocean man again.
When you left you didn’t take the pig-and-vegetable boat. You flew back to Taiwan in a tiny plane that held the pilot and the three of you, sitting on a vinyl bench seat that had been ripped out of a school bus and shoved haphazardly into the space behind the pilot. There was nothing between you and the sky but the thin skin of the tiny, droning plane.
When you got back to the apartment you showed the coral to your Chinese roommate and tried to explain the ocean man to her, what it had been like sitting on the beach while the sun came up, watching him fin his way across the sand to you. She was mildly interested.
“Nice,” she said, examining the coral. “But where’s my monkey?”
For years you carried that coral with you. It sat on every desk you had, in each apartment, from state to state.
You don’t know how or where you lost it, in which move to which apartment or house, but you did.
* * *
. . .And in one of the chapters I was blinded by love
And in another, anger made us sick like swallowed glass
& I lay in my bunk and slept for so long,
I forgot about the ocean,
Which all the time was going by, right there, outside my cabin window.
And the sides of the ship were green as money,
and the water made a sound like memory when we sailed.
Then it was summer. Under the constellation of the swan,
under the constellation of the horse.
At night we consoled ourselves
By discussing the meaning of homesickness.
But there was no home to go home to.
There was no getting around the ocean.
We had to go on finding out the story
by pushing into it —
(from Voyage, a poem by Tony Hoagland)