19 May, 2019
With this new girl, I figure the best way to keep at things is to pretend she is related to me. This is not some implausible scenario. We are Hawaiian-Japanese-Haole, the both of us, with wiry black hair and skin the shade of overturned coral. Plus, I have a magnificent family tree with wide, capacious branches given to shunning all forms of birth control. She could be a distant third cousin, or the other daughter my mother chucked at birth.
She could be all of these things, and still that does not stop me from waking in the middle of the night with my hands in my underwear, groping around my cunt like a physician giving a pelvic exam. There are so many things I don’t know about the interior parts of my body, how certain soft spots make me shudder while others flush me with shame. Sometimes I tug my hands out from under the sheets and cup them against the wall. I press my ear to the wall and listen to her muffled sounds as she pads across the carpet, opens and closes drawers, turns on the air conditioner, locks her door with a soft click.
In the mornings, it’s hard to say whether I’ve done something noble or stayed exactly the same.
This girl is my mother’s latest charity case, a former Kauaʻi resident fleeing the bombs, and she is not very polite. She says fuck a lot and leaves half-eaten bowls of cereal curdling in the sink. She ignores the dog when it claws at her knees, tosses Styrofoam takeout containers in the trash as they pillow over its brim, stands in the shower for half hour, an hour, letting scalding hot water wash over her skin and watching her long strands of hair spiral down the drain. She says, there is no more hot water. She asks my mother to buy Drano, an expensive brand of organic cereal you can only find at Whole Foods. Then, she says thank you as she stares sullenly at her feet. I gnaw on the jagged tips of my fingernails and think, at least she said thank you. At least she talks to us like we are people she may one day grow to like.
She isn’t entirely all bad. None of us are. She loans me her silk blouses that make my breasts look buoyant and inviting, and she doesn’t ask me why I don’t have a boyfriend when everyone else at the Academy is paired off. On the nights I listen to her through the bedroom wall, closing the jalousies and breathing heavily, I am stockpiling evidence of her presence in this house that doesn’t belong to her.
A few weeks into her tenancy, and I’m sitting on the kitchen counter scooping papaya with my fingers and asking my mother why, if the strikes on Kauaʻi will soon be contained, we keep accepting its leftovers into our home?
She doesn’t answer me right away. She wipes down the countertop with a concentrated bleach solution and a new sponge and then she says, “Who says the strikes will be contained?” Sometimes my mother depresses me. She thinks she’s being cryptic and foreboding, when really she is just as confused as the rest of us.
When school starts up again, the girl comes with me. We are in the same homeroom, the
same AP World History class, and at the end of the day we catch the A-7 bus through Kalihi and sit next to each other, not speaking. I glance at her sporadically and only when I’m convinced she’s committed her attention elsewhere. She has a hollow face and sharp cheekbones that arch like inverted parentheses. Her skin is pale for a Hawaiian, her eyes are dark and expressionless.
Sometime in September, I invite her to a party. She’s been with us for a few months now, and I am walloped by a sense of duty to make her feel welcome, however belatedly. In the hallway I collide into her on the way to the bathroom, and with my toothbrush rooting around in my mouth I tell her my sort-of-friend Dennis is having a party in Kahala and I ask if she’d like to come with me. She is wearing a flimsy maroon t-shirt and gray underwear, sleep glazed over her eyes. She shrugs and says, “sure,” and then she pivots around me to the bathroom and I hear the toilet flush right away.
My mother commends my hospitality in the kitchen. She feeds me nonfat vanilla yogurt sprinkled with cinnamon and a glass of passion orange guava. She turns the television down low until it’s barely audible, and we strain very close to the screen to absorb the grim futility of the words scripted for this morning’s anchor, who looks about ready to keel over. Behind his royal blue Hawaiian shirt flashes amateur b-roll of the latest explosions on Kauaʻi, probably shot by an iPhone. The screen flushes black, silent, and then a quick clap of color detonates without warning, and there’s screaming, and wailing, and the censoring of what was likely a handful of fucks. The station loops the same eight-second clip over and over again, and then my mother turns the television off.
The girl is standing behind us in a constricting black ensemble and rubber slippers. She wears thick mascara that clumps her long lashes. The backpack strap looped over her shoulder is worn and fraying—it’s my old Jansport from grade school, the one I’d used before I found the color gray dull and uninspired.
* The news anchors, the pundits, the incensed:
“The U.S. Army and U.S. Navy have both been granted access to the southern boundary of Kauaʻi, to be used as a bombing range and military testing site. All residents within the boundary have been notified of their required evacuation, to take place no later than M–––––.
Hawaiʻi representatives are currently in talks with U.S. leaders to negotiate housing for the displaced, though no formal agreement has been made…”
“Although the strikes originated from the U.S. military and its desperate need for an undisturbed testing site, they’ve certainly taken on the skin of a heinous crime committed against the Hawaiian people. At this time, there are only four designated safe zones on the island of Kauaʻi that haven’t been impacted by the strikes. We’re calling on the American government to intervene before our island’s history and culture crumbles to dust…”
“The strikes are imperative to the advancement of the U.S. military. We are deeply saddened by the situation on Kauaʻi, but find it a necessary sacrifice to the larger goal of training our armed forces to defend the American people, by any means necessary…”
“You snakes wen slither on ‘da memory of our kūpuna and den you ‘gon trow up yo hands an say you neva wen do notin wrong? Shame on you. We give all our aloha to you guys and you still ‘gon screw us ova like snakes…”
“Should the U.S. military decide to pursue its current course of action on Kauaʻi, the Hawaiian people will be forced to retaliate by any means necessary to protect the island community. The U.S. should expect that nothing short of a complete withdrawal from the island will assuage the people of Hawaiʻi…”
And it goes on and on and on.
The party is held in a gated Kahala estate where German engineered cars line the street
and an elaborate koi pond greets us at the entrance. Outside a girl and a guy I don’t recognize have their hands in each other’s back pockets and are kissing. The girl is standing beside me, our elbows touching. Misty sheets of cool rain blow over us. I watch the koi swimming manically in frantic circles, fucking beautiful creatures. The massive koa door to the house opens, slams shut, opens again.
“Dennis has a very wealthy stepmother,” I explain to the girl, but she’s on her phone, not looking at me. We step over the pile of sandals, sneakers, slippers collected on the rubber mat fronting the entryway. I kick off my own rubber slippers; the girl leaves hers on.
Inside the house pulses with a thrilling sort of youthful hysteria that’s enough to get me wet just by standing on the splintered floorboards. Kids I recognize from the Academy swarm the kitchen and living room, necks of cheap beer bottles between their fingers, sweat brimming their foreheads. The whole house is saturated by thick clouds of cigarette smoke, and a salty breeze blows in from the waters off Portlock. I see Dennis standing over a card table propped open in the wide hallway, rubbing his chin, staring at a couple hands of playing cards. This guy in our homeroom waves to both me and the girl. He has coarse black hair and speaks heavy pidgin. He asks if he can get us some beers, and we await his return with our arms crossed.
The girl has her fingers glued to her phone like it’s an extension of her own physical body, and for this I am grateful. It’s so much easier to stare at her when she’s paying me little attention. Her wide eyes are streaked heavy with mint green eye shadow, and her lips are painted plum. The silver and diamond studs lining her left ear’s thin cartilage flicker under the living room’s harsh fluorescents. I’m staring, and the sound system pulses and thud-thuds overhead, and someone slips a beer in my hand, and the girl lifts her head and locks me in her whip snap of a gaze and says, “your mother’s a little crazy, huh?”
I take a big swig from the Heineken bottle and feel the liquid slurp and sizzle down my throat. Someone bumps against my shoulder. I see a slow smile spread across the girl’s face. She isn’t wrong. I say, “yes, I guess.”
“I don’t mean she isn’t nice. But she taped photos of the Nāpali Coast on my bedroom window. She said when I look out the window, she wants me to see my homeland as it was before the explosions. That’s a little kooky. I mean, they’re not even bombing Nāpali, yet.”
I laugh; I can’t help it. The beer feels so good and I rarely drink in front of beautiful people, and Dennis keeps coming over to saddle up next to the girl but she’s only talking to me. He’s not even in her line of sight.
Miffed, he shuffles away as I lean into the doorframe and recount a story I didn’t know I still held room for in my mind, a tale of elementary school me and single mother Gina witnessing the Nāpali Coast for the first time. Neither of us was very athletic, yet my mother was fixated on this strange ambition to hike the Kalalau Trail, an 11-mile uphill voyage through narrow valleys and sharp switchbacks that daunts even the most experienced hikers. I don’t remember how old I was, but I do remember the awkward way I’d jut my feet out sideways and pointing in opposite directions when I’d walk, waddling as if to complement my chunky arms and soft pouch of stomach. A mere half-mile into the hike, and I was already huffing, my lungs pulsing manically in my chest. There was a young haole couple trailing us, and at some point the guy snickered, and my mother just lunged, tearing the unfashionable fanny pack from her hips and walloping him in the head with the loaded pouch. She demanded he apologize to me, and then I gagged a few times before vomiting all over his shoes, the whole thing a rancid, curdled mess.
I don’t know what this story is meant to say about my mother. I finish my beer at this point, and feel something snarl deep in my gut as the girl presses me against the wall, brings her beer bottle to my cheek, watches drops of condensation roll down my face, kisses me hard where the water streaks my skin. I hold my breath. All of my past notions of her unfurl somewhere deep in my cunt, and my legs split open, and she slips right through.
Weeks later, and they are still bombing, and it is still raining, the stillness of our home
punctuated by the plop-plop of raindrops descending on the loose shingles overhead. My mother is in her bedroom, or padding around the kitchen, or out at Whole Foods restocking the girl’s favorite cereal, and the girl is curled up beside me, snoring loudly, dark hair cloaking her face like a mask. I don’t dare touch her. I stare at her smooth forehead and the rings under her eyes and see my own reflection saddled beside me. I dip my nose into the milky soft fabric of her nightgown and wonder how long I might keep her.
We are quiet and still. She slips her hand in my underwear, and I breathe heavily against her face. When she rises, she does so in wide, looping motions. To deceive my mother, she shuffles around on her tiptoes and keeps an extra set of clothes buried under my Academy uniform in the bottom drawer of my closet. We talk about my mother, or we don’t say anything at all.
From the kitchen we eat poached eggs and wheat toast with lilikoi jelly and we watch local reporters relay the most recent casualties of the bombings, now traveling north: a family of four in the Wailua Homesteads, an elderly couple that refused to evacuate Anahola. Toppled horse corpses litter the trail to a private Kōloa stable, their bodies distended, swollen with trapped blood. Egg yolk trickles down her lip, and I have to sit on my hands to keep from swiping at it with my fingers.
The news anchor: “At this point the entire island is under a mandatory evacuation, save for the communities of Hanalei and Princeville. We expect the president to make a statement later this afternoon on what we all hope will be an end to such widespread devastation…”
The girl: “It’s fucking hopeless.”
My mother, turning off the television.
At the Academy, girls stick their fingers down their throats and vomit in the lockers of their enemies. They link arms and whisper either benign secrets or incendiary fantasies in each other’s ear. They walk with a guilty spring in their step, conscious they are on the “saved” island, that they were spared for no justifiable reason. They watch me and the girl walking down the hallway, not touching.
It is a strange thing, to be in love during a cultural crisis.
I would like to talk to the girl in class, in the halls, in the kitchen, in bed, but there isn’t a lot to say, just as there is so much skin to hold on to. We skip homeroom and pass the time in the girls’ bathroom on the second floor; I hold her cheeks in my hands and feel my own face flush bright red. In the dimly lit bathroom stall, she straddles me over the toilet seat and covers my mouth with her palm. Sometimes a nearby stall door creaks open, and another toilet flushes, and girls giggle and coo just outside our stall, but this doesn’t stop her from unbuckling my belt and grinding against my pelvis until I’m shuddering gasps through the slits in her fingers.
When we pass each other in the hall or out in the breezeway, I stare at her shamelessly. It’s impossible for us to be two separate girls, each with a different pair of parents and uniquely wired DNA tightly coiled in our mass.
One afternoon the vice principal summons me to his office to inform me that I’ve missed too many classes. It’s the same afternoon that the paper announces the formation of a Native Hawaiian coalition to reclaim Kauaʻi. He sits high on his perch behind a massive koa desk, and above his balding head is a painting of Kaumualiʻi, the last ruling king of Kauaʻi, the aliʻi after whom the Academy is named. In the portrait he is depicted in the august mahiole and a resplendent red feather ahu ula and he is frowning. The vice principal is also frowning. He places his thick-rimmed glasses on the desk and clicks and unclicks a ballpoint pen. He says, these unexcused absences are unacceptable and you’re an excellent student but you’re making poor choices and I’d hate to see you influenced negatively by your peers and he says all of these things while Kaumualiʻi’s ghost tugs loose from the portrait and hovers overhead. I want to ask him how he manages to separate the daily operations of the Honolulu Academy from the military test bombing on Kauaʻi, how he can place one foot in front of the other as he watches his school’s namesake buckle into the Pacific like soot. I want to ask him if he will be joining the coalition, if he’s taking the girl with him.
I ask him instead to excuse my absences. I promise him cooperation, perfect attendance, a better attitude; I solemnly swear to be the perfect student.
He writes me up anyway. In my bedroom I show the girl my pink detention slip, and she drops to the carpet on all fours, tugging down my underwear with her teeth. I moan and listen for my mother.
The girl is standing in the kitchen, arguing with my mother. I slink through the narrow
hallway and hide behind the splintering China hutch. The television is still on but the sound has been muted. I watch the talking heads open and close their mouths so wide I hear their jaws clicking in the back of my skull.
“You think I’m broken or bad, but I’m fine.” She is leaning against the refrigerator, arms folded across her chest. I watch my mother shake her head, wield a butter knife in the air like a circus baton.
“You’re traumatized,” she says. “I can see it on your face.”
I chew on the pillowy insides of my cheeks until I taste rust-sour blood. I listen to their verbal sparring, tally their points in my mind. I don’t even need to hear the words drip from the girl’s incensed mouth to know they are arguing about the coalition. The girl would like to join. My mother would like the girl to see a therapist. Neither is thrilled by the other and the cacophony of their argument makes me ache everywhere.
“You don’t get a say in how I decide to fight back.” The girl stares my mother down with the same rigid intensity with which she’d pinned me to the wall in Kahala so long ago. I’d folded, but my mother doesn’t.
“You’re staying away from the coalition, and you’re going to this appointment. You need to talk to someone about your family, and clearly you won’t talk to me or my daughter who has been nothing but welcoming to you since the day you got here. You’re going, or you can find yourself a new foster family.”
I turn away.
I listen to the girl’s heavy footfalls as they stomp up the carpeted stairs, down the hall. The door slams, and my mother whimpers and sobs, dropping the butter knife into the sink with a sharp clang.
Upstairs the girl is facedown on the bedspread, wearing nothing but baggy cotton underwear and my old Rainbow Warriors Volleyball t-shirt, the white one with a hole under the left breast. I close the door behind me gently, lock it. She rises to her knees and folds her arms softly over her chest. I climb onto the churning mattress. She rubs slow circles on my thigh with her thumb. I hold a fistful of her curls in my hand, because these are the same curls spun from my head, and I marvel over how I got so lucky, how everything has gone so terribly wrong.
“Are you really joining the coalition? Are you leaving?” I want to saw my own lips off for sounding so desperate.
“If only your mother knew how welcoming her daughter’s really been,” she says with a sly smile and tears flickering in her eyes.
“I’ll talk to her later, when she’s not so upset.”
But the girl is shaking her head back and forth, eyes shut as if she’s meditating. I know so little of this girl who looks like me, whose entire past life has been ushered forward as a sacrifice for an American cause we don’t understand. And anyway, I care so little for America; I only want her hands on my chest.
I stare at her for a long time, neither of us touching the other. She brings a clump of my own dehydrated curls to her mouth, sucks on the stiff tips. I ask her to tell me about her family on Kauaʻi; it’s literally what I ask: “Tell me about your family on Kauaʻi.” But she has other ideas, one of which is to yank me down on the bedspread by my hair, door unlocked, troubles splayed out like our own bodies on this warm bed.
To my knowledge, the strikes do not end. People simply lose interest in talking about
Winter rolls through the islands in quick bursts of torrential rain, manic thunderstorms,
then stillness. The girl and I hide under the banyan tree in Waikīkī until the sun sets, then we amble to the beach in our bikinis and rubber slippers. We sit on the coral wall and point at the shipping containers churning leisurely southward. We dip our heads under the salt water, letting it cleanse us of our sins. Even at night, tourists and locals alike wander the pebbled shoreline, so we save the fucking for her bedroom, once my mother leaves for work.
Her body beside me is a phantasmal thing, and I feel her slinking away as easy as the current tugging loose from the shore.
A few blocks from the banyan tree, we chase each other around an expansive grassy field, our slippers getting caught in the soil’s mottled depressions. We collapse when our legs and lungs give way, the somber shadow of Diamond Head looming over us, wrapping us in its inimitable allure. I stare at the girl. A fester of golden weeds collects just above her head; she looks as though she’s been crowned. I think of all the words that have been used to describe the Kauaʻi coalition, still intent on taking back their land, still murmuring underfoot: Empowered, irrational, organized, embittered, vindictive, dangerous. Then I think of all the words I would use to describe this girl who shares my face, and the words don’t change.
Quietly I assemble the weeds like an art piece, burying some in the loose clusters of her curls. She glances up, laughs. I want to bottle her laugh and send it off to sea, or keep it hidden in one of my dresser drawers, never to be opened.
She holds my hand and stares at the blue sky, the clouds shifting overhead. “I’m leaving,” she says. She won’t look at me, but I can’t stop staring at her, combing her eyes and lips and skin for some sort of genuine truth linked to these two simple words. For a while we say nothing, and she appears to feel nothing, and there are mynah birds screeching in the shower trees above us, and a car alarm ripping through the open field.
I take a shallow breath, and the only word that comes to me is fuck. I say it aloud: “fuck.”
The girl laughs and says, “fuck, indeed.” Then she rolls on top of me, wipes away the clumps of sweat that line my forehead.
“When do you leave?” I ask.
A slow smile spreads across her face. She says, “let’s just do what we do best and not talk about it.”
Days, weeks pass, and we don’t talk about it. We tread water in the sticky basin of Kailua
Beach and eat spam musubis from a truck stop and drink copious amounts of Coca Cola and have lots of sex on the soft queen the girl will soon vacate. We watch the news once my mother falls asleep. We take nude photos with an old Polaroid then rip the prints in half and laugh.
She buys a duffle bag from Ross. It’s plum colored and has an excessive number of pockets, inside which she shoves her unwashed underwear and hair ties and tampons and ballpoint pens and bikini bottoms and passport and coin purse, a frazzled collection of her little life here. I sit cross-legged at the edge of the bed, watching her pack. She is humming a soprano tune I don’t recognize, and then she stops.
“I’m not sure I’ll have need for this back home,” she says, holding up the slinkiest of her silk blouses, the ivory one she’d let me borrow her first week here. There’s a wide slit in the back that starts just below the neckline, and it’s here where the fabric drapes her finger. I take the blouse and hold it close to my face.
“You’re not even looking at where you’re putting things. You’re just relegating them to the first empty pocket you see.”
She balls a t-shirt in front of her chest, doesn’t even look up. “So?”
“So, what if you have to piss really badly and you’re bleeding but you can’t find a tampon fast enough? What are you going to do then?”
She pauses, as if seriously contemplating this scenario. “I’ll use toilet paper, I guess. No big deal.”
“It’s more sanitary than walking around with menstrual blood dripping down my legs,” she says.
I feel the tips of my ears flush red hot. “You’re disgusting. Why can’t you just pack like a normal person?”
And with my hands trembling, and stomach rumbling low, and ears red hot, I am more assured than ever that what I want to say is something different entirely, something nurturing and vulnerable that sounds more like a plea than a shallow criticism. What I want to say is something I’ve rehearsed since I imagined her to be a distant third cousin, or sister separated at birth, since she ran the cool Heineken bottle over my face and slipped her fingers inside of me. I’m rubbing my thighs with the soft pads of my hands. I’m staring at her like I might be able to hold her in place. I have something to say, and so I say nothing.
“If you’re trying to tell me to stay, or that you love me or something, you’re doing a shit job,” she says. She tugs on a zipper to reveal another pocket, and in goes a handful of quarters, a cracked compact mirror.
She goes missing on the day word breaks of a riot at the Hawaii State Capitol building.
Those who fled Kauaʻi can’t afford a plane ticket to D.C., so they settle for a civic battle, marching across the statehouse’s poorly watered grounds chanting Ua Mau ke Ea o ka ʻĀina i ka Pono until someone in a black hoodie plants what’s calculated as a dirty bomb in the central atrium and the bomb squad and SWAT teams rush the scene and the entire building evacuates.
To those on the continent, our cries for reclamation are muffled by the distance the Pacific Ocean has carved out; with no one left to fight, we fight instead with ourselves. And amidst the chaos, I lose her.
When I do notice she’s gone, I’m eating a simple turkey wrap over the kitchen counter, finishing a problem set. I’m thinking about the properties of matrix multiplication and in the living room the news is screening b-roll of picketers storming the capitol steps and when I race upstairs to tell her about the riot, she isn’t there. I flip over the comforter, open the closet door, look in the bathroom, check behind the nightstand, nothing. I sit on the edge of her bed and hold my face in my hands.
I think about how what remains of Kauaʻi is exactly that: scattered debris, swollen carcasses, a smoky residue settled over what had once been the fiercest of the islands, the landmass with resistance settled in its soil. I remember my mother’s bony hands on my shoulders, holding me in place as I stood perilously close to the Nāpali cliff. I marvel over how I am always finding a precipice, always looking for the closest hazard to try my luck. I think about the girl’s hands inside of me, and the soft sounds she made in the bedroom next to mine.
The door creaks slightly, and the girl walks in holding the duffle bag to her chest. A black hoodie dangles from the crook in her elbow like a fish unmoored on dry land. “Now I really gotta go,” she says softly. I see her, and something cracks in the base of my throat, and she rushes forward and holds me for a long time. I don’t know who I will be once this girl slips out from under me, though I suspect it won’t be much longer before I find out.