Locals New Years Eve, Honolulu. What I didn’t know then but what I’d find out in Brazil is that many warm countries shoot off fireworks on New Years Eve. It’s not an official display sync’d to a radio station. The common people do it.
In Honolulu they don’t wait until midnight. They begin when it gets dark and they are enthusiastic. Parts of the expressway are coated in fog from the fireworks in the neighborhoods. It was a smoky gray fog, sticking around stubbornly in spite of the winter tradewinds.
My roommate at the time was a local guy, a high school Japanese teacher. He was gay. He was in the closet but it was the type of closet that only exists for the self. He didn’t censor his intonation or behavior. He had some gay flamboyance, so everyone could tell. But he knew that we knew. I knew because he had a friend visit from Japan and when they came from the airport they went straight to his bedroom and turned the music way up. He’d never played loud music before. I left the apartment, as much to give them privacy as to escape the bad pop music, so I missed the confirmation, the post-coital glow, though talking to the friend later, in his limited English, he had the mannerisms I expected. How stereotypes do have us navigate the world. My roommate’s students knew he was gay. They gave him gifts of Armani Exchange at Christmas and at the end of the year. His public school was in a rather well off area. I met some of them when he brought them home. And as I’d find out New Years Eve, his family knew too. But not the one of us talked about it. It was plain he didn’t want to. So all of us around him carried on.
Lou, my roommate, invited me to his family’s for New Years Eve. I in turn invited a couple of the Frenchies. Arnaud had a car, a shitty red hatchback, manual drive, with the kind of doors you had to slam to get them shut, and one of the seatbelts didn’t work. In other words it was a typical Hawaiian car. I had verbal directions to Lou’s family’s place. It was either in the Nuuanu-Punchbowl or Liliha-Kapalama neighborhood, I can’t remember. But it was on the mountain side of the expressway, where the locals live.
It was already dark when we left. Getting there meant looking for landmarks, “You should see a Jack in the Box on your left.” Lou was supposed to come out of the house and wait for us by the street so we’d know. We got our wires crossed and drove past the house. The neighborhood street had a row of parallel parkers on each side, and our car going down the middle, hatchback though it was, was not enough to allow another car coming toward us to go past without one of us moving over. Arnaud pulled the wheel of the car to left and right, driving slow and stopping quick. This wasn’t for other cars, though, because we were the only ones driving. Everyone else was in their backyards celebrating. Or they were in the street. A lot of kids and adults were letting off fireworks in the street, tubes on plastic stands standing up pumping booms like cannon fire. Firework smog made it impossible to read the house numbers, the street signs. Everything was seen in flashes of white, exploding all around. Loud bang to this side, and now behind us. We craned our necks inside the car to look up and see the colored ones go off. And the kids and adults in the streets craned their necks at us. They stopped momentarily and stared. Our sort wasn’t common there. I felt like an interrupter. Although we just wanted to watch the fireworks like everyone else, I was aware that it felt like a tourist enterprise, a safari. No one shot bottle rockets at our car, but I was relieved when I saw Lou.
He directed us to pull into the driveway. It was dirt and the car bobbed in the ruts. We crawled behind his walking pace. The driveway ended at a compound of three or four houses near one another sitting in a U. It wasn’t visible from the road. Lou told us his family owned all of them and lived there together. Grandma and her kids. I got the feeling it wasn’t one married family per house, that it was more crowded than that. The middle of the perimeter of houses was dirt, with patches of grass resistant to the sun and non-chalant about the rain. There was a tree and a couple picnic tables.
No grand introduction came from Lou. Local men talking quietly to themselves, standing around with longneck beers, kept on doing so. Kids ran around wrapped up in their kid things. One of Lou’s aunts offered us food. They had a buffet of a few hot dishes, pulled pork, deep friend wings. But also they had poi. I’d never had poi. It’s a root vegetable turned into a pudding. It’s unquestionably purple. I took the big spoon sitting in it and put a dollop on my plate. “How is it?” she asked. “It’s good,” I said with the frozen smile on my face that is not a smile at all. My emotions felt worse than the taste. There was no way I could eat it. I had to let it go to waste, and if no one saw me throw it out without touching it again, it was still rude.
Lou introduced me to Grandma. “I’m his roommate,” I told her, shaking her hand. “Oh,” she said. “Oh!” She got the warmest smile on her face. She was wearing tinted eyeglasses and she wouldn’t let go of my hand. We stood there holding hands. I smiled. It was weird but I felt good in her warmth, even as she continued to hold onto my hand much longer than she should. Then Lou looked away. “Tch,” he said, looking disgusted. Is he embarrassed of her? I thought. Then I realized why. She was holding my hand because to her, I was a member of the family. I was Lou’s roommate, which meant I was his boyfriend.
What could I do, I couldn’t disillusion Grandma, so I let it go when he pulled us apart with a “That’s enough, Grandma.” But later when I approached a couple of the guys standing around drinking, relatives of Lou’s, the first thing I said was, “I invited my girlfriend but she had to work tonight.” “Where does she work?” one of them asked. He was smiling. I told him the coffee chain and which hotel it was in. All the guys were smiling. They didn’t believe me. At the time I was the type of breeder who was accepting enough to live with a gay guy but not accepting enough to be thought of one myself. I pointed out my friends Arnaud and Aline to the guys. “They’re from France,” I said. The guys were interested. I called my friends over, thus changing the subject.
The kids were setting off small fireworks in the dirt. But most of what we did was look up at the bursts in jade and red going off over the rooftops, sounding close and far away. I asked the guys for a beer. This would have been rude where I’m from. The guys hadn’t offered one, and maybe that meant they didn’t want to share, but it was Hawaii and aloha, and we were the guests, so I felt comfortable to ask for me and Arnaud. Aline was off talking somewhere else. They gave them to us. We said thanks. We stood there with them, beside one of the houses, standing guys, occasionally lifting our bottles for a swallow. France as a subject dwindled in a minute. No one felt the need to keep a conversation going so it was mostly silence. It was homelike.
Then it was time. The family motioned to us. The kids were running on the driveway up ahead, their arms full of fireworks. They started setting them on the street, open mouths facing up. The adults arrived and set theirs up. I couldn’t see the pavement for the covering. Then they blew the whole street up. There was so much white light flashing in my eyes. The dark inverse of that was pulsing on my retinas. They fought each other in my eyes.
Bus confrontation on the bus. It was sunny and hot. The sky was blue but it was so bright it was like a ski-slope white out, with the light reflecting off concrete stairs, facades, chrome, and everything. Low Pacific clouds were fat and lazy, gathering over the mountains behind the city and way out at sea, like the ringed crater atop Diamondhead, and the sunlight poured down on us. It was hot and I was sweating. It was so hot the air was almost scratchy. Just standing in the sun gave me an itchy feeling on my forearms, on the back of my neck. My face was hot yet clammy, with dense layers of sweat on my derma, the outermost of which had hardened and congealed under the oven light, as sweat continued to run out of my pores, forming a liquid middle, like a pudding pie. Wiping it left brown streaks on my face. How uncomfortable it was.
The poor like me have to walk around outside. But I didn’t have the melanin-saturated skin, the advantage that regulated my temperature, to help. I should have stayed up north near the ice where my blue eyes would have been a bonus in the 20-hour black of winter, and my skin could pull the vitamins from that weak light, instead of where I was, on the Pacific island of Oahu, where all was bright and white and blinding me, making me helpless, a target for predators.
I was waiting for the bus. Near the central library, it was a common stop for a dozen different routes. There were a couple benches under an enclosure, made of what we used to call smoking glass, that is, stained brown, three sides, an abbreviated roof, and an open front. Or perhaps the enclosure was acrylic. Regardless, there were four times as many people as could fit into the shade, which wasn’t much from the angle of the sun. There was a gnarled tree nearby with more bark than leaves, growing spindly like veins at wind-blown angles, that another three people found comfort under. I, being in the prime of my life, and an obvious outsider, wanting to make up for history, so to speak, left the best spots for the elderly. Unlike some others I observed.
My bus arrived. It was an articulated bus. These buses are like the lengths of two normal buses, front to back, with a joint in the middle, that lets them execute right-angle turns. There are two benches of facing seats on the joint itself, incidentally, and the way it pivots on sharp turns makes sitting there fun, like a carnival, or it would, if your knees weren’t so close to the knees of the people facing you, making you a bottleneck for people passing to the back of the bus.
So we lined up to get on. I had my wallet out and open to my student ID with its semester bus-pass sticker clearly visible. I had rules for my behavior. One was to walk up slowly to the door when the bus arrived, giving women and the elderly space to line up first. What a shining example of the good-hearted ha’ole I made. I wasn’t like the businessmen who overthrew your queen and destroyed your kingdom, I said to the locals with every friendly nod.
I was lifting my leg to the bottom step of the bus when a man cut in front of me. He did it quick and without care, walking fast into my personal space and jostling me. He was short and thickly muscled. His black hair went past his shoulders. His brow was set in a combination of concentration and anger and his eyes it seemed were closed. He pushed past a lady on the stairs, squeezing her against the short stairwell of the bus. She didn’t protest or make a sound. In the wake of his air I caught the scent. He was drunk. He’d struck my shoulder with his and boy was I indignant.
The two people ahead of me showed the driver their passes and went around him as he leaned on the money machine, talking or perhaps grunting at the driver to let him on. At the top of the stairs I couldn’t help myself. I was determined. I body-checked him against the rail, like he’d done me. It wasn’t full speed hockey-style, but it was enough to make him move. It was like a rap on the knuckles from my jeweled cane as I held a scented hanky to my face.
I found a seat in the back of the bus, past the articulated joint, a two-seater facing the front with both seats open. I had another rule: when I sat in an open two-seater, I always took the seat by the window. I wasn’t one of those who sat on the aisle, leaving the window seat free, ignoring everyone getting on board, daring them to sit beside me. Oh no. I was a paragon of virtue in this foreign land, respectful, courteous, and kind. A real boy scout, no oppressor, no rich land-grabber I. I wouldn’t even put my backpack on the empty aisle seat like everybody else did with their packages. It went right between my legs on the floor. See how open this aisle seat is? I seemed to say. Clearly I am good and not like the others. Pray sit yourself down beside me.
The stewing in my head was settling. I’d gotten him back. I took my hat off, wiped my brow. I began the wait for the time it took sitting still for a person to cool down from the heat. Then I noticed: here he came. Nearly falling forward, grabbing the backs of seat and catching himself on the poles, not from the bus now in motion, but from his inebriation. I couldn’t believe it when he fell into the open seat beside me.
I turned away. I wasn’t going to move. This was my seat. I had my earbuds in and turned them up. He was saying something. I couldn’t hear him. Then he hit me. He hit me with his leg against my leg. I whirled on him with a loathsome look. He was breaking all the rules! “Are you gonna talk to me now?” he said. I spit out a sigh and stood up to move. But he wouldn’t move his legs. He locked them, knees against the seat back in front of him. I hesitated, and then stepped over him. He lifted his knees to make the stepping over harder. I walked down the aisle, just past the pivot joint, where I sat on a bench seat parallel to the bus side, facing the windows opposite.
I was down only a moment when he reappeared. The bench seats were three-seaters, mine and the one across and facing me. He didn’t sit beside me. This time he plopped down in the middle open seat between two older women opposite me. He was following me around the bus! I was equally scared and disgusted. I didn’t know what to do. Why didn’t the driver do something? The drunk was slurring something at me. I couldn’t hear him for my headphones. But he wasn’t going to make me move again. I was a full-grown primate. This was my spot.
The tension broke when he suddenly passed out. His chin drooped, his head hung forward, and he slumped. It swung back and forth in time with the bus. The women beside him leapt up and moved. The looks on their faces surprised me. They were directed at me! As though I were the cause of this! It wasn’t my fault there was a violent stalker on the bus. It was the driver’s fault! I didn’t remember in the moment that I had caused this, by body-checking him back, trying to restore my rule-bound honor, sir, instead of doing what the other passengers did, just letting it go.
I did the same as the women. I immediately jumped up and moved seats too. I returned to the back of the bus and took another seat facing the front. The ride continued.
Then, just as suddenly as he had passed out, he woke up. He looked around. I wasn’t there. No one was there. Everyone around had changed seats away from him. He was alone. In desperation he got to his feet. He moved to a new seat too. He took the open aisle seat beside someone in the front section. He must have felt some pre-Cambrian embarrassment because even from the back of the bus I could see him smiling, turning on the charm, making nice with his seatmate. His seatmate responded conversationally. I watched him gesturing. He turned his head in profile and smiled. Maybe the seatmate didn’t know what had gone on behind him because he hadn’t seen it. Or maybe he knew more than I did.
When the drunk passed out again, head lolling back against the seat handle, his seatmate didn’t move. The air of danger was diffused. No one moved again.
This is our one-year anniversary issue. We are 1! The Brasilia Review launched July of last year, we published six bi-monthly issues of prose and poetry, and now we’re beaming to present issue 7, which will carry us into our second year. Please feel welcome to submit to issue 8 and join us.
Here in Brasilia, a better breeze has pushed the heat away. The World Cup has only one week more. Neymar suffered a UFC injury in the last match and while Brazil has made it to the final four, they will likely go no further. Sports are very interesting, said The Onion once. For us here it marks the end of fireworks in the day.
In this issue, Steve Brockbank puts new eyes to a couple common moments and refreshes them. R.A. Casilao has the resolved sigh that growing apart means. Shane Kowalski takes a concept and gets it exactly right. Colin James Torre tells a story within a story of a haunting film that does not exist. And in an excerpt from her colonial adventure book, Sevvina X traces young Maria, leader of orphans, bane of shopkeeps, and boxing champ of boys.
Lukas Isenhart’s mind outruns the plane he flies in. David Jibson has the vision of the end of an era, before such things were measured. And Russ Paladin, making his second appearance in the review, sees his daughter grow a certain way because of chance.
Designer Nayrb Wasylycia knows that when you look out the door and see ice, your sky will be a field of grain in sun.
At the time 48 million gallons of raw sewage spilled into the Ala Wai canal, I was living in a Korean section of the Ala Moana-Kakaako neighborhood in Honolulu. My apartment there was unaffected by the spill but I spent time in Waikiki, which was.
It was March and Honolulu, as far as easing out of winter goes, was on Hawaiian time. There were days of hundred-percent cloud cover, which produced rain but forbid the rainbows. The tradewinds still whipped up strong to January levels. At these times stepping outside in the middle of the city surrounded and shadowed by buildings, cranes, and fences, is like taking a wind bath. I’d feel cleansed in a New Age yet somehow tangible way. I kept the slats on the louvers open and let the rain blow into my room. It wasn’t cold but merely cool, a bit more than the water from the cold water tap, which on Oahu was never very.
The Ala Wai canal sits a half mile from the ocean and runs parallel to it. It separates the working class McCully-Moili’ili neighborhood from the weed-dealing hookers, the tourist paradise, of Waikiki. A golf course alongside the canal provides a further buffer. The canal was built early last century to divert potable water from the southern wetlands. The land dried, the rice fields were no more. For people who see dollar signs everywhere, it took not even a glance to know the land was now primed. And if this land was sunnier, received less rain, and had calmer ocean waves than other parts of the island, let’s shrug it off. Our corporate friends have our best interests at heart.
Boston transplants and friends of mine Justin and Alaine had an apartment in Waikiki that faced the canal. It was a high rise, about 10 stories up, and offered a view of the dark green mountains behind the city. Nearer was the golf course, its fairways bright and so coarse, unnatural. Its yellow-tinted sand traps didn’t match the grains of any natural beach. In front of that was the Ala Wai canal. From their balcony we watched the crew teams rowing, sync’d up like a high school clique, going with the current for speed or against it to build strength. There were cyclists and joggers on the path beside, and people sitting on park benches, looking at the water, or contemplating golf.
But when the sewage spilled that stopped. Some were as oblivious as a golfer, but the rowers, the joggers, the park bench ponderers, those were gone. The crew teams were forbidden to go on the water. The rest were driven away by the smell. And Justin and Alaine, whose stove was on their balcony, hated going outside to cook. They kept the sliding glass door closed.
Signs went up along the canal and all over Waikiki: Don’t go in — it is so dangerous. Whole beaches closed. The canal drained into the ocean, and the high-tide waves flicked sewage way up on the sand. Beaches are a litter box normally, bacterial Edens surpassed only by the seats at the movies. Not that we should care. Mythbusters said every toothbrush in the bathroom has particles of poo in the bristles, from the air, so let’s not get crazy and keep our toothbrushes in the top dresser drawer. But raw sewage, well. Best head to Walmart where it’s cool.
In the middle of the night, while the sewage flowed and touched the open air, a man named Oliver was drinking. He got into a fight. Someone he knew pummeled open cuts into his face. Then either he fell into the boat harbor, or was pushed, right where the canal meets the sea. He climbed out like Andy Dufresne and stumbled home. The next day he woke up and salved his hangover with more drinking. He went about his day. It was around that evening when he began feeling ill. He went to the hospital. They treated him for the injuries he got in the fight and they discharged him.
Two days later he went back. His leg was swollen and discolored. He was having pain. Tests showed he was in deep shit. Bacteria from the sewage had bored right through his open wounds. They amputated his leg. This did nothing for him. The bacteria Zerg-rushed his organs. A few days later he was dead.
They closed the beaches for ten days. While the city repaired the busted main, the sewage went on flowing. From my friends’ apartment I could see floaties in the canal, diapers, wads of toilet paper. But I didn’t visit them but once during those days. For me it was the time when I discovered TCM. I was growing to appreciate old movies. I needed something to latch onto, and they did for me what they did for people who were my age when they made them. I needed something to distract me from environmental catastrophe, and they did that too. As I age they don’t quite work that way anymore.
People who lived on their boats in the harbor where Oliver fell checked into hotels. There were surfers, though, who ignored the signs. These were the guys who went into the ocean there at Ft. DeRussy every day. They weren’t the sort who’d let a little poo change the path that they were on. These guys didn’t wear surfguards. Their chests were immune to board rash. When they got out of the water, their only concession to the signs was the bar of soap they used under the public showers.
SA Szary over at The Inner Condition kindly asked me to contribute. My first column is here. What I write there is and will be different from my blog. The Inner Condition is a fine publication with lots of good writing so I recommend following it if you don’t already.
Btw I’m also grateful that many of you are enjoying my Hawaiian memoir. That’ll probably keep going on my regular blog here for a while.
This is about the time I went on an illegal hike on Oahu. Arnaud had friends visiting from France and wanted to show them something special. So one morning a group of us drove two cars up Kamehameha Hwy to the northeast of the island.
Sacred Falls is a waterfall in a state forest reserve. It falls skinny off a mountain and collects in a natural pool. It was closed to the public and had been for some years. Some hikers had gone swimming there when suddenly, an avalanche. Rocks hurtled down and killed them. Locals said it was because the falls were holy, and foreigners were getting their foreignness into the water, so the gods were angry and bludgeoned them with a beer pong kill-shot. So the state closed Sacred Falls without saying if the reason was god or erosion.
Our group was as multinational as any in Hawaii. There were the Frenchies including Arnaud and Aline, Kesh from Singapore, Pedro from Puerto Rico, and a couple Americans including Ryan and myself. Only Ryan had been to Sacred Falls before, sneaky camping with his then girlfriend there one night.
The drive up the windward coast was long, the highway a two-lane road as windy as the coast, slowed further by tourists in their rental cars. We bypassed the kayaking hub of Kailua-Lanikai and continued up past the macadamia nut farm and the creepy campus of BYUH, where the girls had curfews and couldn’t swear or wear skirts. Spotting some chickens pecking dumbly on the shoulder of the road, I yelled out, “Stop! Lunch!” Pedro laughed. We did stop at the big hand-painted billboard calling for Hawaiian sovereignty from the US. I asked the guys to take a picture of me under it. Pedro got upset, said no. “Why not? It’s here,” I said. I thought it was another landmark, a site like any mountain lookout on the island. And something in me wanted to show the group I was not intimidated by it. But Pedro ignored me. Looking at it quietly, all he said was, “That’s awesome.”
We parked the cars on a residential street and walked under the eyes of bros on a lanai toward the woods. We wore backpacks with dry clothes, towels, and food. Kesh brought his acoustic guitar, worn on his back in a soft case with shoulder straps. This being Hawaii, Arnaud and a couple others thought slippers (flip-flops) were sufficient for a hike.
Because the falls had been closed some years, the old trail was overgrown. There were no signs, no obvious entrance. We wandered half an hour or more. I got frustrated and bored. Finally Ryan found the rudiments of a trail. “I think this is it,” he said. We followed. On the way he stopped and crouched. “Have you seen this plant?” he asked. He flicked these small green leaves growing on a stem. The leaves closed in on themselves, like a venus fly-trap taking a bite. I was impressed more than the others. “How did you know about that?” I asked. “From when I came here with my ex,” he softly said.
The trail ended at something surprising: a dirt road. It had been cut through a field. Wild grass grew tall on either side. It was well maintained. “We have to be quiet now,” Ryan said. “This is a forest service road. They have trucks driving on it. We don’t want to get caught. If a truck comes, run into the trees.” Nervous now we walked down the road. With no canopy the sun was like a fever prying through my skin. After some tense minutes Ryan found the continuation of the old trail. We were back into the trees.
"Watch out for wild boars," Pedro said. "If you see one, pick a tree and climb it, fast." "Wild boars?" I laughed. "They have tusks," Pedro said. "Tusks?" I laughed. "They’ll mess you up," Pedro said. "They will," everyone joined in. "They’re pigs right? How big are they?" I asked. But the group had no time for my ignorance. "Man I ain’t climbing no tree," I said to no one.
The hike took about two hours. The terrain was uneven but relatively flat as we were passing through a valley. Then, in the distance, a faint rush. The trees were thinning out, the trail becoming rocks. One more bend and we could see it, Sacred Falls.
The valley terminated in a chain of sheer black cliffs. They’d been split by millennia of water. The horseshoe walls enclosed us on three sides. Approaching the pool was like stepping in a giant’s diorama, the blue sky for a lid. The cliffs were mean, at 89 degrees, and though it was early afternoon they had us in shadow. Despite the clinging vines, there could be no climbing these cliffs, not without a pickax, not without pro gear.
The water fell in white, the way it does when it thinks it isn’t being seen. It was not so wide. It would be a single strand of hair on Iguacu. It was tall though, crane-your-neck tall. The natural pool looked black, from the dark volcanic rock that embowled it. The water fell cleanly in without making mist.
We set down our stuff. The boys stripped down to our trunks. My shoes off, I walked like a toddler and cut my foot on the rocks. “Is it safe for me to get in?” I asked. “This water is the cleanest in Hawaii,” Pedro said. “The rocks are porous,” Arnaud said. “They filter everything.” “Not if something died in it,” I thought. I made the mistake of dipping in my toes. That water was cold, mountain cold, the iceberg chunk at the museum display of the Titanic -cold. Some guys were getting out when I finally worked up the nerve to jump in.
I started swimming, swimming for my life. My skin was in shock. I moved as fast as I could to get warm. I whooped and they did too. Our voices echoed, amplified and tossed toward the ocean by the cliffs. As with meditation my thoughts began to drop away. But this was from the cold. I focused, kept it in my mind: make it to the falls. I swam. My chest was feeling tight as though my heart muscle objected. But I made it. The falls hit my shoulders like a Turkish spa attendant. They washed the hair right off my scalp. I wasn’t under very long. Now my chest was really tight. I swam back and carefully climbed the rocks out.
The girls waited until all us guys were out to get in. We ate and Kesh took out the guitar. I teased him for lugging it through the jungle. The others’ silence let me know how I should behave. Pedro wasn’t impressed with my Beatles covers. He played something salsa. Kesh knew some songs in French that went over best.
As we were hiking out a helicopter, small and black, appeared overhead. I checked the guys, ready to run. But they figured it was a tour over the island. It had no governmental markings, and since the falls were closed that was ostensibly the only way to see them.
On the hike back Arnaud broke the front latch on one of his slippers. He was struggling, barefoot was not an option. The trail was coated in broken bits of twigs that seemed to all stand up. Arnaud found one like a wishbone. He pushed the broken toe peg through the sole and held it in place on the bottom with the twig. It held a while and then popped out. It was slower going, but we made it free.
The world we knew was there to oppress us. Cars went by fast in either way. We heard distant music, other voices, buses, and machines. We didn’t want it to be over. The ocean was across the road. It was not a proper beach, just some rocks and ground where the high tide brought it almost to the cars. I went in to my shoulders and we all jumped.
Occasionally I rode the bus out of Kalihi, the Filipino neighborhood in Honolulu where I lived. One day I was waiting at the stop. It must have been mid-morning. It was a cloudy day, the tradewinds skiing down the mountain, hitting moguls, blowing my hair around. I had all my weight on one leg from the slant of the ground. Paying attention was not what I was doing. I had my earbuds in.
A young woman appeared on my right. She began to talk to me. She wore light grey sweatpants and a grey hoodie. I seem to recall she had another sweatshirt, in a dirty white, on top of the hoodie, as her clothes were kind of puffy. She was late teens, early 20s, and she had a baby in her arms, who was bundled in a blanket. I took my earbuds out.
"Are you looking for a girlfriend?" she asked.
Surprised, I laughed for a second. But I realized there was something in her voice. It was the way she said the words. It was like a tape played at half-speed but without lowering the pitch. She was a little slow.
"Oh um I have one," I said.
"I’m looking for a boyfriend."
I couldn’t think of what to say to fill the pause.
"I have one but I don’t like him anymore. He doesn’t treat us right."
She proffered the baby to me. I looked over the bunched omega bordering its little sleeping face. I saw. It was a little slow too.
"I have a two year old," she said. "That one isn’t his. Both of them are home right now." She gestured toward her house. "He doesn’t help out. A lot of times I don’t know when he’s coming home."
"Oh I’m sorry to hear that." I said this truthfully, but I consciously left out the lilt that would convey sympathy too strongly and invite a conversation.
"Are you sure you’re not looking? I’m a good girlfriend. I can do everything."
Those last words of hers put me at maximum embarrassment. This poured concrete on top of their heart-breakingness.
"No thank you," I said gratefully, but quickly added a perfunctory, "I’m good."
"Well if you do, my name is _________."
Instead of telling her mine, I checked for the bus. It wasn’t there.
She said something more and took her baby home. I didn’t follow with my eyes. I walked back and forth thinking about what happened. What was her emotion during the whole thing? Except for some annoyance in her voice about her boyfriend, I detected none. But it didn’t feel like she suppressed it. Was I the new guy she saw in the neighborhood? Did her instinct to improve her lot make her so direct?
In fact I had ended a problematic relationship a month or two before. I boarded the bus as though it were an escalator. Somebody wanted me.
Kalihi is a Filipino neighborhood. It runs up a mountainside on the west end of Honolulu. I lived there for a time, when the real estate was bouncing me around. It favors landlords there.
By now I had a bicycle, but relied on the bus as well. A reason was my roommate’s house, far up on the mountain. It was steep, a ride of one and one-half miles. Leaving the house in the morning, in the mauka air, I’d ride to Manoa, the other side of the city, where the university is. I’d fly down the mountain on my bike, to Nuuanu and Beretania St, where the lights on the working girls were yellow, not red. The long stretch of Beretania is relatively flat, until University Ave, which is uphill, to greet me like a leaning father after I was just about worn out. It was a 10-mile ride, dodging cars, and people clustered by the bus, with books on my back, in the oceanic heat, so that by the time I reached the school I’d be drenched in sweat. I’d go straight into the coldest building in Hawaii: the university library. There in a one-man bathroom I’d lock the door and change my T-shirt. I always brought a dry one in my pack. But before I could put it on, there was my sopping form. I looked like I’d just been rolled in the break at Sandy Beach. So it was handsful of paper towels for me. I’d pull them down one after the other, the roller sounding like a clockwork factory machine. And I’d soak towel after towel. I arrived an hour before class to take care of this. Then I’d go to the rare books part of the library and sit there with some old tome until I stopped sweating, because even in the frigid air the sweat continued. These books were hard-backed and oversized like an atlas, last opened when Francis of Assisi was talking to the squirrels, and the binding cracked and flaked as I tiredly carefully let the pages fall. After I put them back, I swept the flakes into my hand and dropped them in the trash.
The return home was difficult. My roommate’s house I remind you was up the mountainside. I’d bike across town to the base and wait there for the bus. It was not a busy route, and buses came once every half an hour, dwindling to every hour until they stopped, at 9:30 pm. 9:30 was in effect my curfew. Waiting could be disappointing. The bike racks on the bus’s front only fit two bikes. If two bike riders were on the bus, and it was the last bus, I was out of luck. Then I’d have to kill myself pedaling, standing up in first gear, slower than I walk, for that distance, that 19th round-trip mile of the day, up. And my street, a side street off the main street — no chance. It was just too steep. I never once rode my bike up the street I lived on. It had to be more than 45 degrees. But it happened to me, being shit out of luck, waiting for the last bus only to see that its bike rack was full. After getting burned a couple times, I caught on. I traded safety for convenience and rode past my stop to a sketchy stop at the beginning of the bus’s route. It meant putting on my city face while I waited, holding non-chalantly to a mode of transportation people loved to steal. But nothing ever happened to me there. At that stop I’d be the first cyclist on, and the longer bus ride along the unscenic dilipidated scenic route was the trade-off.
I should mention that Kalihi isn’t safe. It’s no favela, but it doesn’t attract the landed gentry either. I found this out first-hand once when I decided to walk to the grocery store at the bottom of the mountain. It was light out when I left. I walked downhill quickly without problem. I requested a brown paper bag at the checkout, stacking among my other goods the soy milk and ice cream. Such contradictions make us human. Then I started trudging back. By then it had gotten dark. Nobody was around. Every set of headlights shining on me was surprised at the haole walking after dark. I passed a dirty storefront. The guys hanging out across the street got quiet. I kept my eyes focused straight ahead. A minute later there was a car coming up beside me. It was slowing down. I thought the worst thing I could do was run. Not that I’d get very far, carrying groceries uphill and still halfway to go. I gripped the bag lumps tighter. Then I caught a break. A second car was coming up behind. The first car accelerated for it, going on ahead, and I wanted to sigh. But it was dark and I was tense. A couple minutes passed. I came around a bend and there it was. The car — it had to be the same one, though I hadn’t looked at it to be sure — was in the opposite lane now. It was completely stopped ahead. It faced me with its headlights on. There was nothing I could do. I couldn’t turn around and walk back down the mountain. That would tell them toy with me longer. I didn’t think about the bus and didn’t know when it would come. So I lifted the bag of groceries up to sit on my left shoulder. This blocked my face from them. My horse’s blinders gave me just the confidence it took to go. I walked steadily. I could see the light from the headlights on the blacktop. It was getting brighter. Beyond that there only was the sidewalk straight ahead, and whatever monsters dancing on my right. I was just about to hear the doors. I was hoping for another car to come and make it move again. I was about to be rushed and beaten for my wallet. Then the abrasions in the street relaxed in their night shadow. I was by them. They didn’t even yell at me or honk the horn.
I got home full of lightning and on edge. I yelled to my roommate what had taken place. He dismissed it. I was stunned.
There is no better way to learn the culture of a foreign place than to ride its bus. The metro will not work. Everyone down there had to pay. You must be outside in the air where anything can happen, with street noise and pedestrians, with garbage trucks and suicidal cyclists, and the homeless taking up the whole bus stop bench while your fellows stand away from the enclosure in the insistent sun.
There is no subway in Honolulu. There used to be streetcars, but these were all removed. There is only TheBus.
I moved to Honolulu to get re-educated. I’d found my school, and my first apartment, and began learning the routes, the lines, all the letters and the numbers, of the bus. It was necessary. I’d never own a car there, nor a scooter, and wouldn’t buy a bike until like one year into my stay, so I rode the bus, a lot.
The bus stop that took me to school was on Beretania St, the one-way multi-lane that runs into the central business district. This stop was placed strategically before an old folks home. It had a rectangle of grass along the sidewalk. This is rare in central Honolulu, which is a lot of low buildings and heat-reflecting concrete. Rarer still is that this grass was indigenous Hawaiian. It feels spongy underfoot and is endangered there. Some try to preserve it. Other grasses are invasive species. They cover most of the island, like kudzu does the American South. I once saw at this stop an old man in that rectangle of grass. He wore dress slacks and a button-down patternless shirt. He was on his hands and knees. He probably lived in the old folks home. He was pulling up patches of invasive grass by the roots and throwing it away. I asked him about it, and he told me the preceding.
The bus stop was a few blocks from my apartment. I walked the long way around exactly twice before I figured out I could cut through the Korean church’s parking lot. The lot was fenced by a thin-linked chain strung between two knee-high yellow poles, the kind with smooth sides and broken concrete tops. The chain dipped in the middle in a friendly Jesus smile. It was stepped over with ease. One time I’d see the church pastor in the lot. It must have been a Sunday. He was good-bying the congregants. He wore a bright blue Hawaiian shirt. Hawaiian shirts are professional dress in Hawaii. Bankers wear them in the CBD. I was dressed the opposite. I tried to catch his eye, to smile about my trespassing. He ignored me. I wasn’t in their community. It wasn’t hostile. I was invisible.
Back to another glorious time. Imagine my excitement. The first day of school, again! A fresh start in a new place! A new direction in life! I made the walk from my apartment, crossing the busy King St (Beretania’s twin, headed the opposite way), reaching the stop too early. My backpack was full and heavy with the thick hardback textbooks for the whole day’s classes. This backpack would wear out in one semester, as the stitching from the straps unravelled gradually.
The bus arrived. I was not the only one, nor the only seeming student. There were nurses, given away by their unbranded white sneakers, and professional women in business dress, as Hawaiian shirts were only for the men. It was taking a while to get on the bus. I looked over. The big sepia windows showed people shoulder to shoulder in the aisles. The bus was packed. But I had class. I had it timed out. I had to get on.
I did. I made it up the steps but could not reach the “Do not stand in front of this line” line. I was beside the coin machine, by the driver.
I was embarrassed. My pack was too big for the space. I knew it was bothering people. The bus lurched and we all lurched.
"Ow! Dammit, brah!"
A man beside me yelled. I realized, more embarrassed, that he was yelling at me. He was a local. He was dressed casual like me, a dark blue T-shirt, shorts past his knees, and slippers, though I wore socks and branded sneakers. He had black hair to his delts and a thick mustache. He wore sunglasses. He was muscular, hard, like a laborer. He said some more things angrily.
I looked down. It was my water bottle, on the bus floor. I’d stuck it in the mesh pouch on the side of my backpack before I left. I crouched to pick it up, trying to find room to do so, trying to keep my balance on the moving bus, whose driver’s goal was seemingly to beat the record time between two stops. I looked in the yeller’s face and forced an affable smile.
"It popped out," I said.
"Yeah, on my foot!"
It was a challenge. He was tense. The only thing I could think to do, to diffuse it, was to laugh. So I forced a laugh, out loud, and turned away, holding the handrail a little harder. He complained some more, but the edge was gone from his voice, and with more people squeezing on at every stop we were separated.
The swimming hopes and expectations for this day, for this new life, drowned inside my head. I was trying to see between people out the window, although I didn’t know how I’d recognize my stop. Somebody else dinged it. I saw the students getting off and followed them. I had made it, among the skyscrapers, the mountains not so far off at my back, and Chinatown between me and the ocean, broken-hearted by reality.
I got a new cover here, Get Back in Line by The Kinks from their excellent album Lola vs Powerman. The yellow press has it that Ray and Dave were dicks for most of their lives, but some years ago when Ray was already an old man he chased down a couple muggers in the French Quarter, which was more than I ever did when I lived there. I worked at the Virgin Megastore and it was shoplifted frequently. A guy came in with a shopping bag and went straight to the listening station. The station had stacks of the #1 CD at the time (I don’t remember which but claiming Mystikal wouldn’t be far off) shelved below it. The guy slid all the CDs into the bag and tore ass out of the store. An LP ran after him, out onto Decatur St, and into the Quarter. Future policy would deem this a no-no. He chased the shoplifter a long time until the guy stopped, dropped the bag, turned, and pulled a gun. LP’s hands went up, with cartoon dust at his skidding feet. Both then walked away in different directions, the shoplifter strolling off Disney-like, and the LP back to the store. Ray’s bravado carried him a bit too far during his Quarter baptismal, and one of the muggers shot him in the leg. Closest I came to being mugged in the Quarter was a sunny morning. It was 7:30, I remember, a guarantee the streets would be empty. I walked out of the drugstore and was struck by a bolt of demented hatred from a man staring at me from across the way. I turned down a side street heading home. The sun was at my back and as it was early the shadows it cast were long. I could feel him coming at me from behind. I had that strange prickle on my skin. But for some reason I told myself to keep walking normally. Then, from the corner of my eye, a shadow appeared beside my feet. It was the top of a head. In the instant his visible shadow went from his hair to his forehead, I took off in a dead sprint. I didn’t look back. My mind was white, unthinking. As I got to the corner the thought came to me, please don’t have a gun. But I turned it, and ran another block before I stopped. He wasn’t behind me. My sudden sprint may have startled him. If he reacted I didn’t see it. Bad things happen and what can we do, keep on standing in the street? We walk on home.
The Sex Lives of Cannibals: Adrift in the Equitorial Pacific
This book by J. Maarten Troost is what happens when a Dutch American moves as far away as one can: to the remote island of Kiribati in the middle of the ocean. I had some affinity for his journey and experiences from the years I spent on Oahu, Hawaii. While the two islands are drastically different — Oahu has modern conveniences, and Kiribati has almost none — Hawaii was not the US state I expected it to be before I arrived. Pacific islanders have a culture, a way of doing things, that is their own. And as Troost discovered, they don’t resist outside influences so much as lazily ignore them, without ill-intent, until the one with the suggestion gives up on his own.
An admirable thing about this book is its point of view. While Troost makes it clear that he respects the Kiribatians, learning some of their language, seeking out the tales of their mythology, he’s not afraid to call them out when they could do better. On an island without much landmass, and thus without a landfill, everyone throws his trash onto the reef. From car parts to dirty diapers, everything makes up the fish tank ornaments of this turquoise ecosystem. Often modern works on otherness are full up with hedges and apologies: the author’s culture’s just as bad, she reminds us once per page, or else all moral inequities go unaddressed with hand-wringing equivocations. To the reader who can hold disparate ideas in her head simultaneously, it makes for tiresome reading. Troost employs a superior tack, humor. It is most palatable.
Early on Troost goes swimming in the lagoon, the still water near the shore protected from the ocean swells. He is freshly arrived. He contemplates the moment, slurping up the peace and happiness. But he glances to shore. He sees some islanders, children and adults, defecating in the water. Their leavings float his way.
My one experience with public defecation in Hawaii was no different than one in NYC. A homeless man familiar to me dropped trou on a sunny afternoon in the middle of the sidewalk by the busy Ala Moana Bvd. He was in my way, I could not turn around. I quickened my pace and looked away much longer than I needed. Strangely I never saw him after that. Whether he regained his sanity or my minor PTSD blocked out his gnarly dreadlocked face from those others of the streets, I do not know.
But as for Kiribati, a place without a sewage system, that is what the locals do when they have to go. You don’t see it as directly in Hawaii but it’s basically the same. I worked for the Water Resources Research Center at UH-Manoa and got the straight scoop, so to speak. Engineers built underwater a sewage exit pipe. Its opening, its butt if you will, terminates in a very strong undersea current. All that’s expelled is carried away. Seeing the shocked look on my face, my scientist boss assured me they monitor the pipe and have found no adverse effects. No mutants are evolving in the wake of the iron sphincter, as it were. “Where does it all go?” I asked. “We don’t know,” he said, with more a smile than a chagrin. As with so much of our planet paradise, the horrid implication bothered me: it is the way it is. So think of the million people of Honolulu, and the million tourists more, and the thousand other islands, all pooping in the sea.
My cover of Tenho Sede by Gilberto Gil, the Brazilian musical giant whom I’ve written about before. The lyrics are simple and beautiful, comparing a thirst for water to a thirst for someone’s love. Listen to the original here. And then keep that good feelin goin with Expresso 2222, the song I wanted to do that was too difficult for me to play.
Fredo was plumbing an old Cisco router and, as he watched the Top command refresh itself, in his mind he was hastily creating stoppers. These were phrases ranging from non-committal to hostile that would stop a conversation dead. Like, “I figured you’d say that,” or “I already explained that to Rajananthram.” He hated talking to people, and if there was no getting out of it, he’d cut it short.
There was an airplane neck pillow under his chin that he hid with a beard kept to the length of his largest clip setting. He had eczema on his elbows. His right foot was missing half his second toe, lost one night in college when he passed out trying to throw up a pitcher of rum and Coke on the quad, to frostbite, in the snow. Campus security found him toward dawn and ambulanced him. Stepdad wasn’t happy at the cost. Fredo fantasized of mailing him the toe taped to a credit card.
The future belongs to the mains, he thought. We are the ones who have the knowledge. We’re the car mechanics of today. People need us. We’ll always be employed. No one knows what a router is, but 90% of everybody has one. The supply is increasing along with the demand. You want to see the graphs I have saved on my TI-84? he asked his fictional antagonist, who followed him around. They be destroying your belief. No it isn’t powerful. Something’s powerful when it can outsmart me. All that’s needed for you is a TI-84.
Fredo was certified to troubleshoot fiber-optic cable. He was protective of it in the underground. When they had to dig to reach it for repair, oftentimes the ditch diggers would find homeless children sleeping by the cable. The e-m field messes with the folate in their bloodstream. It gets them high and keeps them warm to boot. But the situation of discovery was bad. Homeless children monetarily reduced what Fredo could expect to earn. The law said whoever discovered homeless children became responsible for them. They were automatically added to the finder’s taxes owed. The only way around it was to leave the country, or finesse a darknet hitman as the discovery law did not apply to the corpse of homeless children. While he felt discouraged when it happened, Fredo paid up, and the homeless children had some few days of schooling until their malformed natures sent them creeping to the hardware store for glue. Recently the problem has decreased — not that the world has gotten kinder — but since gauges came to detect the body warmth of children getting high on fiber-optic cables underground. The most popular gauges are worn like masks, Predator style.
Fredo fantasized of burning down his stepdad’s house, a pre-fab with aluminum siding in cream with periwhinkle trim. It had some reckless Dupont plastic fencing, not to mention PVC. He’d do it too, Fredo would, but his dog was there, and it was his dog. Stepdad kept it. Still it would only take a bit of care in planning. He’d merely set the fire more in the portion of the house where his stepdad passed out every night, the breakfast nook, and make sure it burned itself out before it reached Rufus, in the bay window. In each room there was fuel to be accounted for: cushions, curtains, mattresses. Although in both Stepdad and dog there was barking, only the man bit and attacked stupidly. In having life both had the potential for trust, but a connection — that could only occur if there was empathy. Only Rufus had that. Perhaps a nozzle hose to spray foam around the window, so that it’s flammable, Fredo dreamed up.
The part of the fiber-optic cable he was working on was free of homeless children. If only the city had listened to him and budgeted enough funds to sprinkle the whole line in speakers playing modern country hits, instead of just this part, then the homeless children’d stay away. But at least he wouldn’t be paying out of pocket for model airplane glue today. In that the testing of the cable incurred only the aesthetic cost, the cutting down of the 100 year old elm in the way and the tractor-led uprooting of its stump. But they’d brought in a tree farm to plant a sapling in its place, once the cable was reburied, indicating this was different than the past, when Fredo could run around outside during a snowfall, two deep into the boxes of a muck-like Cabernet.
That evening feeling flush on his full salary (no homeless children he needed to deduct from it), he saved his game of Civ and logged out even though the Dutch were getting fidgety. In only the second search string he found a list of materials that would not leave the tell-tale sign of arson and that could ignite remotely. Some recommended lubrication. His reptile brain said nothing easy, no. Everything else he followed attentively. It was only late that night when his ringtone startled Rufus and he whimpered in his neckbeard and so woke him up that it hit Fredo what he’d done. He prepared himself to best sound shocked and grieved.
It is late Autumn in Brasilia, when the climate has gone from rainy to desert and the sky becomes a ceaseless blue. The living grass gives up, the public lands of green go red. The clay soil is unmasked again. Water vapor in the air dries up, and humidifiers are brought down from off the shelf. Blue-eyed people cannot be outside without protective eyewear.
Andrew Dyer’s unique prose might have just launched the nouveau Oulipo. Kelly DuMar, caring for two, has an epiphany. Adinda Annisa, in her charming English, defends with praise her people.
Michael G. Cornelius finds symbols in anatomy, C.J. Lightbourn has a side of himself he can only show in whispers, Derek Pecolatto wrenches himself and another empty, and Andrew Wells echoes prettily a bit of William Blake.
On our cover, Nayrb Wasylycia shows that in our crowded world you can still chance on music lying in the road.