Child of War, Woman of Peace - Le Ly Hayslip, James Hayslip, Jenny Wurts (1993)
PART THREE. Taking the Long Road Back (1987-92)
9. Circle of Vengeance
MOVING ACROSS TOWN involves a thousand details. Moving across an ocean involves a million. My friends told me I couldn’t do everything at once, but that didn’t stop me from trying.
My first challenge was economic. Dan was doing well but I didn’t want to depend on him—or any man—for my security. I called my friend Annie, a bright and sensitive woman who worked in real estate, and asked for an appointment with her company’s property manager. I had three houses to rent and I couldn’t keep track of tenants and repairs and all of that from Honolulu.
Annie’s associate, Thomas, was good-looking and happy-go-lucky. Frankly, I wondered if he was tough enough to look after my assets with his easygoing manner. I was American, yes; but still Oriental enough to picture landlords as scowling mandarins.
We made a grand tour of my “empire”—from Temecula through Escondido to San Diego. I told Thomas like a stern mother what I expected from each house.
“The Escondido house should rent for two thousand a month,” I said. “The San Diego house now goes for twelve hundred but I think we could get more. The one in Temecula is nine hundred and there’s not much you can do with that since I still have an agreement with the Hollylinh to house their staff for a fixed amount. The main thing is that I need every penny and then some to service all the mortgages, so make sure you replace any tenant who moves out as soon as possible. Do you think you can handle it?”
“Hey,” Thomas chuckled, “you’re talking to the King of Collections. That’s how I make my living. No sweat.”
“So how much will it cost to keep me from sweating?” I asked.
“For three houses? Six percent of gross receipts.”
“And Annie will be around to help you?” I was not sure I wanted to leave everything up to Thomas.
“Of course!” Thomas winked. “Couldn’t get along without her!”
Six weeks later, everything was either packed or put into storage and we were camping in the shell of the Escondido house. At first, the boys had been cool to the idea of leaving their friends, even for the prospect of bikinis on tropical beaches, but Dan was a clever salesman. Although his promised check for our moving expenses never came due to one reason or another, he sent a continuous stream of clippings and information—from food prices and weather forecasts to movie, sports, and entertainment listings so the boys would know they weren’t going to fall off the edge of the earth. He even sent Jimmy an application to the University of Hawaii, but Jimmy was halfway through his program at UCSD and decided to finish there. I would miss having him near, but I was now accustomed to thinking of him as his own man. Sometimes we can only keep those things which we are willing to let go.
I also got a pleasant letter from Dan’s wife, Tuyet, which surprised me. She confirmed Dan’s story that their decision to split was mutual. She said she bore him no ill will and realized he had been in love with me for a long time. She said that, since we were both Vietnamese “sisters” we should cooperate to make the transition as easy as possible, considering Dan’s “problems.” I had no idea what she meant, except that she seemed to think he couldn’t be trusted and hadn’t provided for his family very well. It seemed like spurned woman’s talk and I discounted it. It made me feel that it was more important than ever for me to be by Dan’s side. By the time our things were packed, everyone was more than ready to go.
Thomas came by regularly to show prospective tenants the house. They were all impressed but balked at the high rent I was asking. I had almost decided to drop it to seventeen or eighteen hundred, when Thomas showed the house to the Parrys, a nice couple moving in from Oklahoma. The man, Cliff, was tall and powerfully built, like a cowboy or oil worker, and his wife, Nancy, was well-dressed and very quiet. They had four kids. Their inspection was so meticulous that they seemed less like renters than buyers, which was what they apparently had in mind.
“Our house in Tulsa just went on the market,” Cliff Parry said politely. “Would you consider selling the property?”
“Not right now,” I said, wondering why Thomas had not made all this clear at the beginning. “I would like to hold on to it a while longer.”
“Very wise,” Mr. Parry said with a wink. “California housing prices are going straight through the roof. You’ve made a very wise investment.”
They said their household goods were on the way from Oklahoma and, although they had a few more places to see, they liked the house very much and would make their decision soon. As they went to their big, late-model American luxury car, I told Thomas to do all he could to snag this couple. They seemed not only qualified to pay a high rent but thought like homeowners and would be sure to take care of the property.
My instincts were well founded. Three hours later, Thomas called to say the Parrys had decided to take the house effective the first of the month. They also had one additional request: Would the boys and I be willing to move out a little early so their things could be moved in right away? Mr. Parry, who apparently liked doing things in a big oilman’s way, offered to put us up in the hotel of our choice, all expenses paid, between now and our departure for Hawaii. As an added incentive, he threw in free tickets to a big sporting event that the boys had talked about, so my sons lobbied hard on his behalf. They didn’t have to. I was tired of camping out at home, and the prospect of a week or so in a nice hotel with maid service and room service and a swimming pool—a vacation before our vacation—seemed too good to pass up. I accepted Mr. Parry’s offer with gratitude.
On the flight to Honolulu, I recalled the other passages I had made between Hawaii and the mainland, under vastly different circumstances. For once I wasn’t running away but moving toward something positive. My motive was no longer mere survival, but renewal and growth. I thought again about the horoscope I had commissioned when I returned from Washington with Dan’s proposal. It said, “Loc den, tai duyen, dung nghiep”—which meant that in the Year of the Dog (this year) I would be promoted to a “higher salary,” gain wealth, and begin to realize my dreams, including my dream of a loving marriage. A few clouds would darken my horizon, the astrologer said, but those would quickly dissipate and show me a new dawn. So far, at least, it could not have fit my reality better. I couldn’t imagine anything so bad that I couldn’t handle it easily with Dan and my children by my side.
“Colonel Daddy” met us at the airport with flowered leis and a big grin. After my hug and a handshake for the boys, Dan talked to them man to man—not like a parent, but a friendly coach. Dan said he realized both boys were giving up a lot to come and live with him, and promised their sacrifice would be rewarded—with love and opportunities they had never dreamed about. Even in such small matters, my shining knight was a marvelous leader to “his troops.”
He helped carry our luggage to a dusty, rusty used car, which surprised me. Maybe I expected him to drive a government staff car—I always remembered him in a jeep! But for some reason, the beat-up old car struck me as a bad omen: like a dog barking at midnight or a bird turning away from its flock.
“I’ve got to return my son’s car this afternoon,” Dan said as soon as the smoky engine coughed to life. “I couldn’t very well borrow Tuyet’s Toyota, so I’ve reserved a rental car for you up the street. It’ll only take a minute. I thought you guys deserved a treat!”
He pulled into the loading zone and told me to go into the office and “pick up the paperwork” while he stayed with the jalopy.
Inside, the clerk had no record of a rental for DeParma. Instead he had one reserved under my name. I signed for the vehicle and started to go, but the clerk called me back.
“Sorry, Mrs. Hayslip,” he said. “I have to run an impression of your credit card. It’s the rules.”
Back on the curb, wondering if this sort of Dutch treat was what Dan had in mind for our marriage, I waited for the agent to bring the car around.
“Hey, great!” Dan said as the clean little car squealed to a stop. “Now you and the boys can follow me to your hotel.”
“Hotel?” I asked. “I thought we were going to your house?”
Dan blushed. “That was the plan, but Tuyet hasn’t moved out yet. But don’t worry—the hotel’s not far away. You’ll be very comfortable.”
My heart sank when I saw the kind of neighborhood Dan thought would make us comfortable. The motel was in Aiea near the army post with lots of porno theaters, sex shops, and sailors’ bars. I was not only a little miffed at Dan for these unexpected “surprises,” I was disappointed. I wanted to sleep with my man, to begin our new life together right away, and not shiver alone in some cheap hotel bed while he continued to live with his ex-wife.
“Go ahead and pick up your key,” Dan pointed to the office and began unloading the trunk.
Inside, the sleazy desk clerk told me the ridiculously high rate I’d have to pay—cash or charge, no personal checks—with the first night in advance. As I signed the register, the butterflies in my stomach turned to crows with long claws. This was not how things were supposed to bel I wasn’t so much worried about paying my own way (although I couldn’t do that indefinitely) as I was about Dan’s not mentioning any of this before—about Tuyet’s uncooperativeness, the transportation problem, the necessity of a hotel, sleazy or not. Still, we were souls in transition. What are a few nights in a crummy hotel compared to the things we had been through already—and the promise the future held?
We spent the next few hours sightseeing but came back early because we were tired and Dan had to return his son’s car. He left us with some convenience-store groceries to tide us over.
I could see Tommy and Alan were as surprised by all of this as I was, so we had a brief “family meeting” to assess what I had gotten them into. We agreed to give things more time, that the “pot at the end of the rainbow” was worth a few sacrifices along the way. We just had to keep the faith.
The next morning, Dan gave the boys some bus fare and lunch money and suggested they “explore the island on their own.” He drove me off in my rental car in the direction of Fort Shafter, where he worked. As we drove, he said, “Ly, I had a long talk with Tuyet last night. It’s going to be a while until she moves out, so I think it’s best if you took an apartment. I’ve already found a nice one just outside the gate. It’s not too expensive and I think you’ll be happy there until we get things squared away.”
The apartment was located, as he said, at the army’s “back door” —where people put out the trash. The place was a dump, and worth about half of the $875 the landlord was asking in Honolulu’s inflated rental market. The local area reminded me of Danang: the dirty markets, vagrants, street-corner hookers and drug dealers. Just to get out of there, I wrote a check for the deposit on the spot, but silently promised myself not to move in until a lot of questions about Dan and this whole bizzare episode were answered.
We picked up the boys and on our way to dinner at the Officers’ Club, drove by Dan’s house. Tuyet was home, so he didn’t feel right about inviting us in (what happened to Tuyet’s “sisters sticking together”?). The place looked worse than the apartment: a ramshackle wood-frame house with peeling paint, rotting steps, and an unkept lawn overgrown with weeds.
“A colonel lives here?” Tommy asked after Dan ducked inside to tell Tuyet where we were going.
“I guess so. Housing is very expensive in Hawaii.” I didn’t know what to say. It would be hard enough to show the boys the dank apartment they had traded for their big Escondido house, let alone to tell them that, if they were very lucky, here was where they would live for the next few years.
“I guess colonels don’t make much money,” Alan added.
“Money doesn’t matter,” I lied, realizing now how much we all had come to relish our comfortable California lifestyle. “What matters is that we’ll be together. Tinh thuong quan cung nhu nha, nha tranh co nghia hon toa ngoi xay—With love, a shed is as good as a house; a cottage with love is better than a mansion without it.” Still, I realized I was no longer a love-drunk little country girl willing to put up with anything to be with her man. If middle age does one thing, it makes you appreciate a dry roof and clean bed.
After dinner, we dropped the boys at a movie and drove into the hills, to a romantic spot overlooking the city.
After some halfhearted small talk, I said, “You know, Dan, things don’t look so good for you here. Maybe if you explained what’s going on, I might be able to help.”
He squeezed the steering wheel until his knuckles were white and said, “The problem is Tuyet. She’s been sick and has arranged to get all my paychecks. Hell—I’m still paying my parents back for the loan they made me in 1976 when I got remarried! I’m up to my eyeballs in debt to the credit union. My two adopted boys have gone to work to help out a little, but I’m just about bankrupt. She’s taken me to the cleaners and after the divorce is final, she’ll only get more.”
The more Dan talked, the sicker I felt—not because of his problems or the fact that he didn’t have money; I could relate to that very well. What terrified me most was how much he sounded like Dennis.
“What can I do to help you?” I asked, rubbing the sudden fire in my tummy.
“I need you to support us until I can retire and accept that civilian job. If I stay in the military, Tuyet gets everything and I’ll never get back on my feet. I’ll never be able to give you and the boys the things you deserve and help you with the humanitarian work that means so much to you.”
“You know, you never told me about that big, important job. Don’t you think you should now? What is it? Who is your employer? What do they want you to do for so much money?”
Dan stared out the window, biting his lip. The less he wanted to tell me about it, the more I felt I had to know.
“Well, this is confidential—just between you and me, okay? The government has rules about the kinds of jobs you can take after you’ve had a career like mine, and this one is pretty sensitive. But trust me—it will allow you to do everything you want: write your book, help your village, everything.”
“Dan—what is this job?”
“I don’t understand—?”
“You know, selling weapons.”
“What? You’re joking!”
“No. What do you think I’ve been doing for the last twenty-five years? What do you think a military adviser does? I go into countries the U.S. is helping and teach them how to use the American-made weapons our corporations sell them.”
“I can’t believe it! You’ve been doing that for twenty-five years?”
“More or less. But as a civilian, I’ll make money on the weapons themselves instead of just a crummy GI paycheck. That’s why the government is very careful about letting senior officers take jobs with major contractors right after they retire. They don’t want the officers to use their inside information to help one company against another, or to use their friendships with people still in the service to make sweetheart deals.”
“Forget about the sweethearts—” I was dumbfounded. “I want to know if you sell guns to governments so they can go blow up women and children!”
Dan shrugged. “Now Ly, don’t get on your high horse. It isn’t that simple. That’s why I didn’t want to tell you. I knew you wouldn’t understand.”
“I understand war as well as anybody, Dan! Remember who you’re talking to!”
“Then you know that if we didn’t sell arms to these people, somebody else would—maybe the Communists. How would that make any of us better off?”
Guns and Communists! Is that all anybody in America thinks about? A wet sob caught in my throat. “But Dan, how can you sell weapons knowing they will harm innocent people?”
He shrugged again—a soldier’s fatalistic shrug, the way veterans respond when you ask about their chances of being killed. “It’s my life, Ly. It’s all I know how to do. At least I’ll get paid more for doing it—almost two hundred thousand a year with my retirement pay. Doesn’t that make you happy?”
“Make me happy? Haven’t you listened to anything I’ve ever told you?”
“You mean all that spiritual stuff?” He made a face and stared out the window.
“Not just that—but about my family, about my life! We’re strangers, Dan. We don’t know anything about each other!” We were silent a moment, and then I said, “Besides, you lied to me in Washington.”
“I knew you wouldn’t come out here otherwise. It was just a white lie, a little fib to get you to do the right thing. I knew once you were here, we would be happy.”
I was so furious now I couldn’t see straight. “Take me home, Dan,” was all I could say, although I knew that home could never be on this island.
The next morning, while the boys slept in, I had a cup of coffee in the tropical sun outside our room and tried to sort things out. My mind was crawling with a thousand thoughts—none of them good.
My biggest disappointment was that Dan had lied to me: not just about his personal and financial troubles, but his whole way of life; and not just in Washington, but from the first time we met. I knew he was a professional soldier—with all the good and bad that goes with it. I never had (and still didn’t have) any moral problems with soldiers. There are good soldiers and bad soldiers, just as there are good and bad monks or schoolteachers or hookers or politicians. At best, men in uniform are strong and self-disciplined and committed to doing what they think is right. At worst, they can be soulless killers who mock true patriots by using their uniform to mask their crimes. I thought Dan earned his pay by teaching allied soldiers to fight: to stay alive and serve their country with honor. Now, he appears to have been one link in the unsavory chain that turns human misery into cash—for arms dealers, weapons makers, and ambitious politicians—the whole reason I quit my job at NSC. I didn’t want to be part of that terrible cycle of death-dealing then, and still didn’t.
But I had even more personal reasons for mistrusting and fearing Dan. Even if I could forgive him for his deceit and the way he spent his life, I’m not sure I could ever recover from hearing Dennis’s voice come from his mouth. Somehow, his “Vietnamese wife” was always plotting to ruin his life. I knew divorces could be terrible and that spouses of any race could be made a little crazy because of them, but how long would we be married before my differences with Dan became “subversive plots” to destroy him? Of course, his rejection of any spiritualism in his life prevented him from seeing that his own bad karma was contributing to his problems. Even Dennis realized this toward the end, although he couldn’t do much about it. More than the sorrow of a lover slipping away, I felt the pain a mother must feel when she sees her young man-child dying without ever really knowing life.
After Dan got off work, he came by the motel to pick me up. We took a long walk on the pretty beach beside the fort and I told him what was in my heart.
“Dan, I don’t think it’s such a good idea that we get married. I just could not live on blood money that came from selling death to others. But even if I could accept what you would be doing in your new job, how would it look to the people I will depend upon for my humanitarian work? How can I ask people to donate money and equipment and their own sweat and blood to heal the wounds of war while you are out making new ones?”
“It’s the way the world works, Ly,” he said. “I can’t change it, and wouldn’t if I could. But forgetting all that for the moment—think about everything we’ve been through. Doesn’t that mean anything?”
“Of course. It means a lot. You are the only man I’ve ever loved. You are one of the best friends I’ll ever have. But I see now we are too different inside to be true soulmates. There was a time when I might have overlooked all that—when I did overlook such things—but it always led to bad mistakes. I will not make such mistakes again.”
“So what are you saying, that you moved halfway across the Pacific just to be friends? To be my neighbor? I don’t understand.”
“No. I moved to Hawaii on the strength of a promise and my own wishful thinking. Now that the promise and those thoughts have proved false, I will make other plans.”
“I see. You’re pissed because I didn’t send the money for your move. You’re mad because you have to pay for your own car and hotel. You don’t have to play games. Be honest.”
I sighed. “You don’t understand at all. It’s true, I don’t have much cash—everything I have is tied up in something else. The money from one asset is used to pay for another. It’s stupid; a terrible way to live. I’ve had to dip into my life savings to come here—but that’s all right. Either things would have worked out, or I would have learned the truth. Either way, I’ve stopped myself from stepping back into the circle of bad soul debt—from making more mistakes. You should be grateful, too. If we don’t marry, you will be spared all the heartbreak Ed and Dennis went through. If I’ve learned one thing, it’s that there’s no such thing as one happy person in a marriage. If one is miserable, both are miserable. That’s the way life works. But we still have a lot to be happy about. A lifetime ago, you were my one true love. You helped save my family and send us back to America, and for that I can only be grateful. It is a debt I can never repay. How could I betray that debt by knowingly making you unhappy?”
We stopped and turned back toward the army post. “So what does this mean?” Dan asked. “That you’ll be going back to the mainland?”
“Perhaps. Or maybe we’ll try to make a new life here. The boys are registered for school and I have no place to go. I own three houses but they’re all lived in by somebody else! Don’t worry about us. We’ll get along fine. Worry about putting your own life in order. If I can help you do that without marrying you, I’m certainly willing to try. Right now, though, I’m in complete control of my own life. That’s something I can never give up.”
Dan glanced at me wistfully, “You sure are dien cai dau—one crazy lady—aren’t you?”
He said it like a compliment, but I wasn’t sure. Being independent and captain of your soul was one thing. Being alone in the world was something else.
As the days went by, Dan and I felt more secure in our decision to call the wedding off. Maybe he felt guilty for the way he tricked me into coming to Hawaii, I didn’t know, but he acted like a gentleman and didn’t badger me. The similarity to my relationship with Dennis amazed me: the closer I got to both men, the worse our lives became, full of deceit and jealousy and betrayal. As soon as we chose to separate, even in principle, honesty and consideration became no problem. Amazing!
I gladly forfeited my deposit on the hovel Dan wanted us to rent and found a more appropriate place in a nicer neighborhood (Hawaii Kai) for not much more money. We had a seventh-floor apartment in a twin-tower high-rise with a view of the ocean on the left and jungly green mountains on our right—the first time in my life I ever lived anywhere with something to see out my window besides automobiles or neighbors! When my trusty old Toyota finally arrived from the mainland, I felt my life was nearly back on track.
While the boys went to school, I began planning my Vietnam relief project in earnest. I realized there was little I could do as an individual; only by organizing a not-for-profit foundation could I gain the resources and exert the kind of influence I would need to open doors, hearts, and checkbooks to the people left behind by the war.
My first impulse was to name the foundation after my father, Phung Trong, but I felt somehow I would need his permission. In life he was not the kind of man to toot his own horn, and the idea of putting his name on something another person had made just didn’t seem to be something he’d want. When he failed to materialize in any of my Honolulu dreams, I dropped the idea. On the other hand, staring out my window at blue water to the east and the rugged green hills to the west, another idea struck me. Although my goal was to help people stricken by the war, wounded bodies and souls could be found on both sides of the ocean—Vietnam had no monopoly on people who needed help. What I really wanted to do was bind my old country to my new one—to sponsor a healing handshake across time and space. Thus, East Meets West—Dong Tay Hoi Ngo, the daughter of my soul—was born, at least in spirit.
After a month or so, the boys got “island fever.” They became homesick for their friends and all the places they missed in Southern California. I, too, felt a little cut off. Letters from my friends on the mainland never came often enough and my money was running low. I would either have to get a job in Hawaii, where I didn’t know anyone, or go back to San Diego. Either way, I would have to sell one of my houses to get cash. Fortunately, I already knew one tenant who was ready to buy.
After quick phone calls to Cliff Parry and Thomas, I caught a flight to the mainland to put my Escondido house into escrow.
Cliff picked me up and drove me to the hotel where he had arranged for my complimentary weekend stay.
“I appreciate your doing this for me, Cliff,” I said. “I’m running short on money and every little bit helps. Still, I think you’re getting a good price on the house.”
“Oh, don’t worry about that,” Cliff said with a big Okie smile. “I’m just sorry that things fell through with Colonel DeParma. Annie says you and he went back a long way.”
“Yes, to Vietnam. We met just before the war ended. But it’s all for the best. My goal is to help the peasants recover from the war. With Dan’s business interests, it just wouldn’t have worked out.”
“You know, I was stationed in ’Nam,” Cliff said.
That was the first I’d heard he was a veteran. Maybe that explained his unusual kindness toward me and my boys.
“Oh really?” I asked. “Where?”
“In the South—in the highlands. I was in Special Forces.”
“Oh, a Green Beret! I came from Danang. That’s where my foundation will begin its work—back in my home village of Ky La.”
“How do you plan to start?”
“Well, first I hope to publish my book, which is the story of my life and what we peasants went through in the war. All the other books about Vietnam have been written by generals or soldiers or politicians or scholars—nobody has told Americans what the war was like for ordinary people, villagers and farmers. That will be my job. I’m sure that once they understand what we went through, their hearts will open to my people.”
Cliff was quiet a moment, then said, “Well, put me down as your first contributor, Ly. I went through quite a bit there myself and I’d like to help. Maybe we can talk about it before you go.”
Maybe we can talk about it? I won’t let you forget! I had run into several veterans who wanted to go back to Vietnam or do something to help the people they had harmed—but most of them had only big hearts, not big pocketbooks. Cliff was one of the few vets I had met who had both the desire and means to put his good intentions to work.
The next day, we signed all the papers, including a special letter Cliff prepared for my signature giving him the right to handle questions or take care of any problems with the house during escrow.
“It’s just a formality,” Cliff said, “a convenience for us both. As my own tenant, so to speak, there’s no reason to keep Thomas in the loop and with you three thousand miles away, I’d just as soon keep things rolling so that you can have your money and I can have my house as soon as possible. Is that okay with you?”
I said, “Sure, of course. Why not?”
After our paperwork was done, Cliff took me to lunch.
“What do the Vietnamese-Americans think about your going back to the homeland?” he asked.
“It depends on who you talk to. The very old and the very young seem to think it’s a good idea. The old want to honor our customs and the young are curious about a land they’ve never seen or can’t remember. Only the people who remember the war and the suffering—they’re the ones who object the most. They’re like kids who have lost their parents. If they can’t have a mom and dad, they don’t want other kids to have parents, either. Consequently, they’ll let their own relatives suffer and die if it hastens the downfall of the Hanoi government. They don’t see those deaths as needless the way I do. That’s why I want to get my relief work started right away. If you have any suggestions about organizing a small foundation, I would love to hear them.”
Cliff grinned. “You will, Ly, you will!”
I returned to Hawaii but no matter what I did, I just seemed to spin my wheels—principally with my book. I concluded that I would probably need an experienced writer, a native English-speaker, to express my story effectively to American readers, and so went shopping for a collaborator. Although I corresponded with and interviewed several people, my efforts seemed to go nowhere.
Dan and I spoke only occasionally during this period and the boys seemed to prefer moping, instead of surfing, as an after-school activity. I couldn’t fault them: more than anyone, I knew what homesickness was like. Still, my household goods were here, not San Diego, and even if I wanted to move back, I could not stand the cost of relocating until we closed escrow on the Escondido house.
Fortunately, good-natured Thomas came to my rescue.
“Ly,” he said on long distance one evening, “bad news! Your San Diego tenant gave notice and I’m having a hard time replacing him. It looks like you’re going to have a vacant unit for a while. Sorry—there’s just nothing more I can do.”
“What!” I squealed with delight. “That’s great!”
“Don’t worry about finding a tenant. I’ll move in myself. That’s just the break I’ve been waiting for!”
“Well, if losing money makes you happy—hey, I’ll double my fee and kick out your other tenants!”
I called the boys into the room and told them the good news: We’re going home! Despite the troubles we’d had, Tommy and Alan had fond memories of our San Diego house and most of their childhood buddies still lived in the neighborhood. As for me, five years had passed since I felt my neighbors’ cold eyes on my back. I was a new person, a woman with some accomplishments of her own and a mission in life. I could hold my head high next to anyone.
I called Cliff Parry and told him of our plans. He was surprisingly enthusiastic.
“Now we’ll have a chance to work together on your foundation,” he said.
The boys and I arrived at Lindbergh Field late on a Tuesday afternoon. After claiming our luggage, I stepped out on the curb to hail a cab. Before I could, a uniformed man stepped up with a cardboard sign reading HAYSLIP FAMILY.
“Excuse me,” the young chauffeur said, “are you Le Ly Hayslip?”
How many other Vietnamese women with teenage Amerasian boys could be deplaning? “Yes, but I think you want somebody else. I didn’t reserve a car.”
“That’s all right.” He smiled. “Mr. Parry did. Will you please follow me?”
He led us to a white stretch limousine and opened the rear double doors. From inside, he pulled out a dozen red roses and offered them to me with a flourish. “From Mr. Parry,” he said, “wishing you a happy return!”
An instant later we were speeding east on the freeway.
“Excuse me.” I tapped the glass behind the driver. “Where are you taking us?”
The inside window glided down. “Mr. Parry has reserved a suite for you at the Radisson Hotel in Mission Valley—as his guests, of course, until your house is available. He hopes that meets with your approval.”
Of course it did, although it left me speechless. The boys cheered and gave each other high fives and got ready to live high on the hog. But I wasn’t so sure. Why would this nice man do all this for us? He had a financial interest in keeping me happy, of course, at least until our escrow closed. But this was way too much. I decided to call him as soon as we arrived at the hotel.
As it turned out, that wasn’t necessary. As soon as we entered our room—a magnificent suite overlooking one of San Diego’s posh new bedroom communities—the telephone rang.
“Cliff, is that you?” I recognized his chuckle.
“I hope you’re feeling warm and welcome!” he said with a laugh.
“Of course, but this is all too much, really!”
“Just relax and enjoy yourself. You’ve earned it. I’ll be by in the morning. We’ll talk.”
He hung up—but I did not perceive it as rudeness. He was just a “take charge” kind of man. Although this appealed to my feminine instincts, especially after my bad experience with Dan, it raised other flags of warning. I had enough cash to cover our hotel expenses if I had to, and the boys were already fighting over which cable channel to watch. I could afford to wait at least one more day to see just how charming this prince really was.
Cliff picked me up in a big car and presented me with the keys—our rented transportation until my Toyota arrived from Hawaii. Lunching at a beachside restaurant, I asked him again, “Cliff, why are you doing this? Be honest now—what’s going on?”
He broke off his glance and fingered his silverware like a little boy, “I said I wanted to help you. This is my way of doing it. Finish your lunch. There’s something else I want you and the boys to see.”
We drove to Mount Helix in the secluded suburb of La Mesa, the “Beverly Hills” of San Diego. We stopped in the driveway of a magnificent house—half hotel, half castle—just incredible!
“Let’s take a look inside, what do you say?” Cliff led me and the boys to the huge front door and introduced me to the occupant, a friendly man named Al, and his girlfriend, who took us on a tour of the palatial estate. Its seventy thousand square feet encompassed five bedrooms (each with its own fireplace), a completely furnished gymnasium and sauna, and a third-floor loft that was laid out as an office, with telephones and computers and desks and filing cabinets. Surrounding the second story was a terrace with a breathtaking view in all directions—from the saddle hills of El Cajon to the port of San Diego to downtown skyscrapers. It could have contained every house I had lived in to that point in my life under its broad roof, with room to spare.
“How do you like it?” Cliff asked as I gripped the terrace handrail, dizzy with excitement.
“It’s wonderful! Who lives here?” I asked.
“Why, you do!” Cliff beamed.
“I don’t understand …!”
Cliff leaned against the railing. “I’ll make a confession to you, Ly. Ever since I met you, something’s happened to me inside. You’re a very special person. You’re very independent and smart, of course—I mean, look at where you came from and how far you’ve come. But you’re also very compassionate. It’s as much a part of your nature as the way you walk or talk or sing those old Vietnamese songs. The point is, I’m in a position to do something few people in this world ever get a chance of doing. I have a chance to help bring something good into this world and pay back a little something to someone who has suffered way too much in her life. What I’m saying, Ly, is that I want you and your boys to live here. Move in and write your book. Use the facilities for fund-raising parties or whatever you have to do to make your dream of helping others a reality. I’ll bankroll the whole affair, you don’t have to worry about a thing.”
“But this is such a big house! It’s like living at the Radisson as the only guest!”
“Forget about that. You see, if you expect to raise money from rich people, you’ve got be just like them. If you come on too poor—like Mother Teresa—they’ll get suspicious. They’ll think you’re trying to snow them—or worse, that you don’t know what you’re doing. With a place like this, they’ll feel at home. They’ll think you’re one of them. Believe me, Ly, I know what I’m talking about.”
I believed that he did—but still!
“Anyway,” Cliff continued, “after your book is written and your foundation is up and running and you fall in love with me, I’ll move in here and you and I will get married. What could be better than that?”
“What? Cliff, what are you talking about? You’re a married man!”
“No. No, I’m not. Nancy is not my wife. She’s a widow, just like you. Her husband was a policeman who was killed in the line of duty. We met in Tulsa and I took her and her family under my wing because I felt sorry for her. She wanted to move to California and start a new life, so I made it happen for her.”
“But you live with her as her husband!”
Cliff shrugged. “I admit it, I get lonely like anybody else.”
“I know what you mean,” I said. Still, I felt like I had been drugged. This couldn’t be happening! “This is all too good to be true. Something about it just can’t be right.”
But Cliff was prepared for everything. He gave me another business card.
“Here’s my CPA—a well-respected fellow. Call him whenever you like. He’ll explain everything.”
“I don’t know what to say, Cliff—” I literally was speechless. On the one hand, I felt I should run from the house and not look back. On the other, dan-ba nhu hat mua sa, hat roi gac tia, hat ra ngoi dong—Women are like raindrops; some fall down on palaces, others on rice paddies. Why shouldn’t I complete my stormy life’s circle at the end of a big, beautiful rainbow?
“I hope you’ll give me a few days to think all this over,” I said, still breathless.
“Of course. We’ve got a lot to talk about, and now isn’t the time to do it. Al and I have an appointment at the bank to sign the purchase agreement. Why don’t you take the car back to the hotel and talk things over with your boys. Take as much time as you want.”
The first thing I did at the hotel was call Thomas.
“This is very important,” I said, still lightheaded, out of breath. “Please read to me the names on the lease of the Escondido house.”
“Sure,” Thomas said. After a minute, he returned. “Clifford Parry and Nancy Mills. Who did you think?”
“What does their financial statement say?”
After another short silence, Thomas said, “He’s the original Mister Gotrocks. Parry has his own business in San Bernardino. He sent me lots of financial statements, tax returns—why? What’s going on?”
“Nothing—and everything! Thank you, Thomas! I’ll call you later!”
Early that evening, I dialed the number of the big house we had visited. When a male voice answered, I said, “Hello—is this AI?”
“Yes it is.”
“My name is Le Ly—we met this afternoon?”
“Right—with Mr. Parry. How are you?”
“I’m fine. Listen, I want to ask you a couple of questions, okay? When did you first meet Mr. Parry?”
“Oh, about three months ago. He looked at the house and said he was moving in from Oklahoma. Nice fella, but he didn’t seem too interested—until last week. Then he called back and asked if the house was still on the market. I said it was. You know, not everybody can afford a place like this. Anyway, he said he was ready to deal and to have my realtor draw up the papers.”
“So what happened? Did you open escrow?”
“Oh yes. He put you down as the owner of record. The deal calls for a half million cash and an assumed loan of seven hundred thousand. He wanted all the furniture thrown in, too. He says it’s an early wedding present. What a guy, eh?”
“Yes, some guy. Okay, Al, thanks for everything. See you soon.”
I hung up, muttering to myself. I would have to slow things down; to proceed with due care. I was still on the rebound from Dan. I still hurt too much to be cured all at once. Still, as the Christians liked to say, God works in mysterious ways …
I moved into the La Mesa mansion in November 1986. It set into motion a chain of events that still amazes me to this day.
To begin with, once I became Cliff’s dependent, I saw him less than ever. He traveled constantly and most of my contact regarding either the Escondido or La Mesa houses came through Nancy and Al. On weekends, when Tommy was home from school, he would remark on all the remodeling going on at the old house: a new patio and new porch and new landscaping (including a waterfall!) that replaced my tropical garden in the back.
Naturally, I had mixed feelings about this. Escrow hadn’t closed yet, so technically the house was still mine—although I couldn’t really complain since I was living like a queen on the buyer’s generosity.
On the rare occasions that he was in town, Cliff would come by the mansion and take me and Alan and Tommy out to dinner and a show or to some sporting event for which Cliff always seemed to have front-row seats.
Shortly before Christmas, 1986, Cliff came to the mansion for a “heart to heart” talk.
“How’s everything coming,” he asked, “the book—the foundation?”
“How could they not be coming along fine!” I answered. I had finally found an agent and we were talking to several good writers about preparing a first-class proposal for major publishers. I’d been learning all about how to set up and manage a nonprofit foundation in California.
Cliff smiled—satisfied, indulgent, big daddy. “Good,” he said, “that’s great.” Then his mood changed. “We need to talk about a couple of things, Ly—things that are very important to me. First, I want you to know that I’m going to be staying with Nancy a little longer than I planned. She’s not getting established in her new life as fast as I hoped. But don’t worry, we’ll be together soon. If you and your soothsayer agree, I’d like to set our wedding date for March seventh. We’ll throw the biggest Tet New Year’s and engagement party this town has ever seen! You can invite all your friends. After that, we will begin our romance—the first day of the rest of our lives. How does that sound?”
“Don’t worry about me, Cliff,” I said, relieved that he would not be moving in soon, despite all the extra space. I could only envision a reprise of my life with Ed and Dennis and I was not anxious to take that risk. Fantasy and wishful thinking felt much better. “I’m getting along fine, although that house is so big—it’s like living in my own hotel. What else is troubling you?”
He was silent a moment, then said, “I want to tell you about my experiences in Vietnam. I’ve wanted to tell you a long time now, but frankly, I didn’t have the guts.”
“What guts does it take to tell me?” I put my hand on his arm. “I went through the war too, just like you. Many other GIs have told me about their experiences, and most of them feel better after they do it. Don’t make yourself wait any longer. You’d be surprised what I can take.”
His eyes moistened as he began. “I enlisted in the army in 1965 when I was a kid of twenty-one. After boot camp and ranger school, I went to ’Nam and was assigned to Operation Phoenix. Do you know what that was?”
“I’ve been told it was an American program where U.S. advisers, Republican agents, and village police assassinated local Viet Cong and VC sympathizers.”
“Exactly. After the government agents gathered a list of names for a certain area, I would be called in to kill the leaders.”
He paused a minute, as if debating whether or not to continue.
“Go on—please,” I said and took his hand.
“So, as you can guess, I wound up killing a lot of people, Ly. A lot of people. Sometimes three or four a night, and occasionally as many as twenty. Mostly we used knives, because we didn’t want to make noise. We’d slit their throats like chickens and leave them to die in the jungle. But that wasn’t the worst of it. Sometimes we’d torture the target first—not to get information, but just because we hated those bastards so much. We’d cut off their ears or gouge out their eyes and take them back as evidence of the hit. If a guy really pissed us off, we’d cut off his dick and shove it in his mouth before we killed him. Our local agents always blamed these killings on the VC but I don’t think many villagers believed it. We didn’t care.”
Cliff’s voice quivered and he broke into tears. “I hated those motherfuckers—not just for being Commies and killing my buddies, but for making me do this to them! It was all their fault! It had to be their fault or I would’ve gone nuts! Maybe I went nuts anyway!”
His chest was heaving so hard now he couldn’t talk. Tears streamed down his face and I held him in my arms—this big, confident, millionaire who wanted to take care of everyone and make the world perfect was now as helpless as a baby.
Cliff fished out his handkerchief and blew his nose. When he was more composed, he said, “Anyway, I got so good at my job, I was reassigned to the CIA. Their hits were more selective—big fish like Cho Lon, a rich Chinese guy who they thought was financing a local VC unit. Some of the people I hit, though, were eliminated just because they refused to go along with the program. The CIA was into a lot of bad shit in those days—drugs, gun-running, white slavery, you name it. Hell, one time another agent waxed the Vietnamese girl I was shacked up with. We were supposed to avoid close contact with any Vietnamese nationals outside channels, so they killed her—slashed her pretty little throat from ear to ear, can you believe it? I was really pissed—really angry. Of course, I took it out on my job. When I got a target, I didn’t just take out the target; I included the poor bastard’s wife and kids and housekeeper and gardener and anybody else unlucky enough to be around. I was in hell, Ly, pure hell. But I didn’t know how to get out. All I knew was to keep on killing and the more I killed, the better I got at it and the more targets they gave me. Do you know what it’s like being in a business like that? It’s like being eaten inside out.”
He wept for several minutes and I just held him. I couldn’t think of anything to say or do. What could anyone say to salve this poor man’s tortured soul? He was, in one person, the whole war—the whole experience: killer and victim.
“What’s going to happen to me, Ly?” he sobbed. “I’m so afraid!”
I patted his back like a mother. “I don’t know, Cliff. You are a Christian. You and Nancy go to church every Sunday. Maybe you can confess and find forgiveness with your God. As a Buddhist, I only know the laws of cause and effect: Soi giay oan cuu, nghiep chuong nang me. You have made very bad karma and your soul debt will come due, if not in this life, then another.”
“Yes—you see!” He looked up and wiped his cheeks. “Now you know what all this has been about—the big house, the fancy car, helping Nancy and her family, helping you. It’s the only way I know to put things right—big favors to right big wrongs.”
I hugged him again and spoke like a different sort of mother. “Cliff, I understand, but I think you have it wrong. If you want to help me—help me finish my book and start a relief foundation—that’s fine. But my mission doesn’t need to be housed in a mansion. It doesn’t need a big car to get around. Its house is the world—thatch roofs as well as tile. Its vehicles are the hearts and minds of people. Do you understand?”
“I’m trying to, Ly. I’m really trying.” Cliff composed himself and washed his face. The phone rang and it was for Cliff, which was quite unusual at the La Mesa mansion. When he returned he said, “I have to go. Something unexpected has come up and it may be a while before I get back. I’m really glad we had this talk Ly. Thank you. We’ll talk again.”
I had learned by now not to ask questions when Cliff left.
On December 30, 1986, we had a Christmas and engagement party for about a hundred people. All my girlfriends came and we laughed and cried like the little kids we were before the war. I was Cinderella at the ball but had forgotten what happens after midnight.
A few days later, Cliff called. I answered the phone cheerily but he sounded terrible.
“I’m sorry, princess,” he wheezed, “things got out of control.”
“What are you talking about?” My breath caught in my throat. “Where are you?”
“I can’t tell you. All I can say is that I’m in a hospital. I was beaten by a couple of guys.”
“What? What happened? Did you get mugged? Does Nancy know?”
“God no! And she must never find out—about this, about Vietnam, about anything. She’s not as strong as you are, Ly.”
“I can’t tell you now. Maybe later. I just wanted you to know I was okay—to hear your voice again. I love you.”
He hung up.
My mind raced with all the horrible possibilities I had carefully suppressed in the preceding weeks. Was Cliff somehow still connected with the CIA? Even worse, was he involved with his ex-partners who went freelance after the war, smuggling guns and drugs and killing people for profit around the world? That would certainly account for all the cash and his long, unexplained absences from home. It would also explain why people would beat him up and why he would have to lie low. No matter how hard I tried, I could not think of an innocent or even simple explanation for the behavior of this strange and complex man.
What was worse—for my sons and my own karma—by becoming Cliff’s dependent, I had put myself and the future of my mission more and more in his power and my ability to fairly and clearly see my own situation was clouded by that dependence. I needed guidance and I needed it quick. I could not go to the police or the FBI—I had proof of nothing but my own bad judgment and wishful thinking. I decided that the best place to start would be my monk.
I phoned the temple and asked my su to visit. I knew he might have trouble swallowing my unbelievable story, and the huge, empty—and now evil-seeming—mansion would be eloquent testimony to this whole bizarre episode.
After a quick tour of each elegant and sterile room we adjourned to my loft, where my desk and typewriter and shrine were located—the room where I not only worked and read, but now often slept and took my meals. We prayed awhile and meditated, then I told him everything I knew about Cliff.
“Master,” I concluded, “what will happen to his soul? I am very worried. His bad karma seems to be catching up with him. I feel I am only making things worse for him and for me.”
“First, phat tu, you must make peace with your own troubled spirit. We have talked about this before, but perhaps only now do you see its truth. Hate and violence—rape and murder—are as much a part of the natural universe as birth and charity. Each is both a lesson in itself and an object for future lessons. A man who kills will suffer murder himself until he learns the lesson of nonviolence. Consequently, we should never hate thieves and killers, but offer them our compassion and a chance to learn about growth and giving.”
As was so often the case, the monk’s advice was undoubtedly true but short on solutions. I decided to call Annie, who had known Cliff from the beginning.
After hearing my story, she was almost as alarmed as I.
“He’s definitely involved in something illegal,” she said. “You should talk to my fiancé. He’s a private detective and will know just what to do.”
Unfortunately, Annie’s fiancé, Jack, only poured gasoline on my smoldering fears. He checked the house with electronic equipment for “bugs” (it was clean) and even called over a bodyguard, a man as big as a tow truck with two automatic rifles!
This was too much.
“That’s enough,” I cried. “All of you—get out!”
Coincidentally, as soon as Jack and his goon left, Cliff called “just to check on us” but offered no information about where he was or what he was doing. I told him I couldn’t live like this anymore and that I didn’t want to see him again until he was ready to tell me what was going on. I then called Al and told him that I would probably be moving out. He sounded disappointed, but admitted that Cliff had some “unusual” ways of handling his business affairs. Still, Al wanted the sale to go through (the big La Mesa house was nearing the end of escrow) and reminded me of how well Cliff had treated me and my boys.
“I think you should give him a chance before you do anything rash,” he said.
At two in the morning, the telephone rang. It was Cliff.
“Ly.” His once strong, confident voice sounded chewed up and defeated. “I’m calling to say goodbye. This is the last time you’ll ever hear from me. I hope you and the boys have a happy life. I hope all your dreams come true. Mine haven’t. It’s time to say goodbye.”
The phone went dead. I had no idea where Cliff was calling from or if his fatalistic “goodbye call” meant he was about to be murdered or was going to leave the states in a hurry or what. But I did know someone who might know where he was or what was going on—a person who, at Cliff’s request, had been left “out of the picture” too long. Still, I had to be careful.
I phoned an old friend in Escondido where Tommy was staying. Tommy was out, but I told his host I thought there might be problems at our old house—would he mind checking on Nancy and calling me back?
An hour later, he did.
“Ly,” he said, “you were right. There’s been a lot of trouble down there. I just talked to Pastor Sam, who’s with the family. It seems Mr. Parry is in the hospital. He just tried to commit suicide.”
I thanked him and hung up. Although the crisis seemed to be over, the mystery had only deepened. I hated to trouble Nancy, but I needed answers. I decided to see her the following afternoon and get to the bottom of things once and for all.
The next morning, though, a banging on the front door woke us up. It was Al.
“Where the hell is Cliff!” he demanded.
“He’s in the hospital. Why?”
“It’s nothing that concerns you, at least for the moment,” he said brusquely. I had never seen Al so upset, let alone with Cliff. “Why is he in the hospital?”
“Apparently he tried to kill himself. Maybe you should tell me what’s going on, Al. Please—come in and have some coffee. Calm down and let’s see if we can work this out together.”
Al’s story was short but far from sweet. “Well, Ly, the deal for this house is dead. Everything’s back in my name, including title to your old house in Escondido.”
“What? Cliff and I haven’t closed on that house! It still belongs to me! Even if something has happened with Cliff to make you change your mind about this deal, the Escondido house has nothing to do with it!”
“I’m afraid it does. Cliff’s check bounced higher than a kite. I’ve got losses and claims—expenses to recover. I’ve put a lien against Cliff’s assets. According to the county clerk, one of those assets is your house.”
As soon as Al left, I called the escrow company.
“Yes,” the officer said, “Mr. Parry was here with a notarized copy of your bank’s deposit record for his down payment on the Escondido house—some twenty-five thousand dollars. We closed escrow on December nineteenth. Remember, you signed a form giving him permission to act on your behalf. Why—is anything wrong?”
Numb with disbelief, I called Pastor Sam, which was just as well, because he had been trying to contact me ever since Cliff’s attempted suicide. In addition to being a clergyman, Sam was a Vietnam vet and marriage counselor who always struck me as a pretty straight shooter. We met at his home in Escondido.
“We have a lot to talk about, Ly,” he said as he ushered me into his modest house. “About Cliff and what he’s done to you and your family—and why.”
“I know what he’s done!” I said, not bothering to hide my anger. “He lied to everyone and stole my property!”
“Yes, and he regrets it deeply. More than you think. You know, this is his second attempted suicide. The first was a few weeks ago.”
That explained his strange call from the hospital!
“The point is,” Sam continued, “he’s too ashamed of what he’s done to explain things to you in person. He’s asked me to do it for him in the hope that you’ll forgive him.”
“Go ahead, Sam, let me know the whole story.”
It seems Cliff Parry was a professional swindler—a pathological liar and con man—with a long list of aliases. He had lawsuits filed against him by physicians, landscaping companies, three banks, a security company, and the owner of the big house in La Mesa—and that was just in California. He paid for his high-rolling lifestyle by covering the costs of one deal with the assets of the one before it. When it all finally caught up with him, he tried to take his own life. It was an old story, as old as war and money and corruption, and I couldn’t believe I had walked right into it—this time as a victim. Sam answered all of my questions except one, which for me was perhaps the most important.
“Tell me, Sam, was Cliff ever in Vietnam?”
The clergyman shrugged. “Who knows? He’s a very accomplished liar.”
I felt myself uncoil inside. Cliff, or whatever his real name was, might have a lot to regret in his life, but slaughtering my people may not have been one of them. I could only hope and pray that his war stories, too, were a lie—but who could be sure?
I left Sam’s house and went straight to my temple. I told my monk everything that had happened since our last meeting.
“So, phat tu,” he asked, “how do you feel?”
“I feel good that Cliff may not be a murderer. But I also feel stupid. I fell for a line of sugar-talk I would only have laughed at in Danang. Cliff saw all my weaknesses and knew just how to play them. Take a poor farm girl and give her a mansion—no questions asked. Take a crusader who wants to save the world and give her a sad war story with the promise to turn her dreams into reality. Take a mother who’s worried about her fatherless sons and give them companionship and tickets to sporting events. I was a fool, master, ignoring every lesson I had learned in life. The only question I have now is why? Why did it happen to me and why did I go along with it?”
The monk did not chide me like a schoolmaster, but spoke softly the way a nurse comforts the sick. “Perhaps you had soul debt to repay in this area, my child. Perhaps you were a swindler in a past life. What’s important now, though, is where all this has left you. Look into your heart. Has any man ever come into your life who did not have a lesson to teach: soldiers in your youth? Your husbands? Dan? Have any of these lessons been so bitter that you have not thanked these men later for helping to free you from soi day oan nghiep—your karmic soul debt?”
I left the temple and drove to the beach at Del Mar. The sun was setting and the beach was almost deserted. The sea wind was brisk, sending up horsetails of sand and salt spray along the horizon.
As the monk suggested, I thought about all the men in my life and the lesson they taught me. Yin and Yang, love and hate, woman and man—one needs the other to have meaning, to be complete. All my life to this point had been a search for that balance, that completeness.
As a child, I was taught to venerate my elders and subordinate myself to a husband. I would care for his family and he would care for me. That was not the life I found. After having been raped at fourteen, I could forget about ever having a man or a family of my own. Of dire necessity, I learned the ways of men myself—to survive and provide. But to be independent, I also learned, was not to forswear companionship. Even a lone wolf has a mate, and I never gave up hope of finding mine.
I also had bad karma to contend with. Even if I had not been a soldier or torturer or rapist or cheater in past lives, each man that I met with those marks had, in some way, prevented me from going on to something worse. The Republican and Viet Cong soldiers abused me, but they put me on a path away from war. Anh took advantage of me, but he put me on a path that led toward Ed and to America. Because I knew family love as a girl, I felt its loss in this alien land even more acutely and let that pain obscure the lessons I had learned. Dan rescued me from my mistake with Ed and taught me womanly love, but, had we stayed together, his own bad karma would have taken me a step backward toward war. Dennis, despite our trouble, kept me from Dan, and I can only thank Dennis for that. Is Cliff, who taught me a final lesson about trust and charity, any less worthy of gratitude?
Everyone searches for something to make his or her life complete. I thought I needed a man to fill the void created by the loss of my native land, my family, my innocence. What I discovered, though, was the nature of my own true higher self: that it is my karma to love mankind better than any one particular man. This revelation did not turn the men of my life into saints, but it made me realize they were not devils. Who am I to ignore my father’s voice and his example? Who am I to betray my teachers?
I drove home and gathered the boys for a family meeting.
“The police say we weren’t the only people Cliff took advantage of,” I told them. “They want to know if I’m going to press charges. You are all young men now. What do you think I should do?”
Jimmy, the oldest at twenty, spoke first. “I don’t think it’s worth it. Cliff has no money left and even if you win a lawsuit, what will you have gained? We’re pretty well off compared to his family. We still have two houses and a car and enough to eat. Remember how you felt when you got back from Vietnam?”
Jimmy’s views fit mine perfectly, but I wanted to hear from my other boys, too.
His handsome face darkened, “I think we should slash his tires and break his windows. I hate the Parrys! I think we should really pay them back for what they did!”
I let Tommy speak his mind and did not interrupt. His Phung warrior blood is strong and passion is the province of youth. When he was finished, I turned to twelve-year-old Alan.
He looked up, sad-eyed, like a little old man and said, “I don’t know, Mom. Don’t we have enough troubles now? I don’t think we should make any more.”
Tears filled my eyes—tears of hope and love and gratitude. How many eons of needless karmic suffering had Dennis and Cliff saved little Alan? I began to suspect that the body of my youngest son harbored a very old soul.
“Then I think we have decided,” I said, wiping my eyes. “If we go after Cliff, we will only be keeping past hurt alive. We would be wiser to bury our pain and start over. Each time we have done so in the past, we’ve been better off, isn’t that right?”
The boys agreed, even Tommy.
Al evicted us from the big fortress at La Mesa just as he had evicted Nancy and her children from my old home in Escondido. I gave him title to the house just to escape its liens and debts, including the biggest of all: Cliff’s soul debt, soi day oan nghiep. The Parrys moved in with Pastor Sam and lived off the charity of their neighbors. Cliff soon faced civil and criminal consequences for his acts. All his victims and creditors, except one, pressed him unmercifully for retribution, took what little he had, and put him in jail for a long time.
The one exception was me.
I sold my San Diego house and bought a smaller home in the hills of Escondido. It was not too far from my old neighborhood, but with a view that expanded my horizons. It was also close to an old Indian burial ground, and its great spiritual energy gave my tired soul new strength and inspiration.
Cinderella had turned back into a pumpkin. But for an old Danang farm girl, it really wasn’t so bad.