Love in Southeast Asia: Meeting Heather on the Halong Bay

“I can’t stop looking at her.”

Parker reminds me that there are only 10 other people on this boat, so I should try to control myself.

We’re out for our first excursion aboard the Paradise Four. It’s nine billion degrees on the Halong Bay, but it feels like Heaven. The view is majestic in every direction.

I’m captivated by a short-haired woman in her early sixties. She’s wearing a purple tank top and her hair is dyed a deep violet-red. It’s clear she spent her pre-gray years as a vibrant red head. She’s traveling with her husband who appears quiet and loyal. She radiates with a huge smile and palpable enthusiasm.

I can’t stop looking at her.

“I know you think this is just more of my hippie-voodoo, but check it out.”

I scroll through my Iphone camera roll to a picture from a year ago. I pass the phone to Parker. Heather’s beautiful, freckled face fills me with joy and heartbreak. I watch his eyes soften into a silent apology for doubting me.

“That must be weird for you.”

I don’t feel weird about it, but if I keep this up, she might.

Just after sunset, Parker and I join the grown-ups on the top deck for cocktails. We sit in a haphazard circle of beach chairs and relax in the eighty-five-degree darkness. I inch my chair as close to her as possible, observing a boundary line for the personal space of a complete stranger. My boundary lines have always been a little fuzzy.

She speaks with a rich australian accent. Her vivaciousness and effusive language make her unique intonation even more dramatic.

I want her to tell me every detail of her life.

She and her husband raised their two boys in four different countries. A year in Sri Lanka, 3 in California. Some time in London, and of course, Australia. The boys are grown now, but they still travel as a family. She and her husband share a strong partnership, a love for exotic destinations and a taste for good wine. They love their kids deeply but live full, independent lives. I can tell just by listening, their family is something special.

I want to squeeze her so tight I can feel her bones. I want to tell her I love her. I want to reveal that we are soul sisters, and share about my loss. I want to cry in her arms and feel Heather’s spirit comfort me. I don’t want to get off the boat because I can’t say goodbye again.

At dinner I watch her and her husband invite new friends over to share their table.

“That’s so Redford.”

Later, I see her disappear into the cabin deck and emerge with a buffet of stomach medication. She thrusts them in the lap of a total stranger and tells him to take what ever he needs.  She says, “I won’t humiliate you with questions about your symptoms. I know it can get crazy down there around these parts,”

She would.

The next morning I drag myself to Sunrise Tai Chi. I meet my friend and her husband, the only two people brave enough to sweat it out at 6:30 a.m.

At 7:30, I find a seat next to her in the dining room and fill up her coffee.

We talk until Parker, and breakfast, emerge.

For over an hour, we chat and laugh and connect. We joke about the traffic in Southern California and share ski-weekend memories from Northstar at Tahoe. Her love surrounds me, just like the first time we met.

It felt like sharing moments with Heather that could have been. The conversations we would have had, the milestones in her boys’ life she might have witnessed. Her patient, sweet husband. Their beautiful life.

I wanted to cry but didn’t want to have to muster an explanation. I drank up the light in her eyes.

When we got off the boat, I whispered: I miss you my dear friend. I’ll see you again soon.

Of course, I should have known.

Heather’s soul is transcendent.

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