On this beautiful day in Hawai’i nei, as the saying goes, Sumiko and Sean are tracing the island in an electric-blue convertible. The car is a rental because they don’t live here, and she is driving because he doesn’t have a license. The top is down, of course, and the sun, approaching high noon, has been streaming in, dappling as they pass under canopy and darkening when they enter the tunnel. As they come out the Kane’ohe side of the Pali, Sumiko glances in her rearview mirror. The tunnel has gone to black, a strange cavity in the mountain. It’s like they’ve been shot out of a cannon, straight from Brooklyn to here. Ever since she left Hawai’i, returning has felt like this. Like landing at Honolulu Airport to the sounds of ‘ukuleles piped over the intercom is a strange dream. Like the whole townside of the island doesn’t count. Honolulu is as different from what she calls “home”—in that quaint way by which one means one’s childhood home—as is New York. Once they are through the tunnel, Sumiko’s eyes reach for the furthest curve of horizon, each bend dangling before her another point on which to fix.
“Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore.” Wonder lilts Sean’s tone.
And it is nice out here. The velvet-green heights of the closer Ko‘olaus, the purpled distance of the rest of the range, the myriad of blues from shore to horizon, the cumulus thickly knitted into the sky. She misses color in New York. Out here is nothing like town, and certainly nothing like New York, but even this wasn’t home. Home was a backyard of scorched grass where the rain never fell, a plastic chair yellowing in the shade thrown by a thirsty mango tree, an ‘ukulele whose finish was dull and scratched. Home wasn’t paradise, it was Nanakuli.
The trades are lifting the little hairs from the back of her neck where they’ve stuck, hot and damp. Their speed becomes a tangible, breathing thing, into which she trails her left arm, out the window, her hand surfing the wind, testing its resistance. Sean twists behind them, she hears rummaging, and then he whips out the video camera. Her eyes remain on the road because she knows him well enough to translate even the peripheral movements of his body. He is looking back to the tunnel, now he‘s panning to the mountains and down to the sea, next he will turn the camera on her. “Soooo…Sumiko,” says Sean. “How does it feel to be back?” The camera zooms in on her face. “Like a prodigal daughter, home after, what is it, five years?” At the question mark, Sean sticks an invisible microphone into her field of vision.
“Something like that.” She offers less than a smile to this rude reporter. It has indeed been five years and would have been more had it been up to her. There was nothing here but her childhood. Running barefoot across a glass-sharded parking lot and hot sand, flexing her toes into the cool ocean, drinking beer with Junior in the back of a parked pickup with only the moon and stars for light. But Sean insisted on seeing her “roots,” and so here they are. On vacation, of all things. In Hawai‘i. It pains her. Almost as much as it pains her to pay hotel rates, to be doing the Waikiki thing these past few days, drinking at tiki bars, wading into reef-protected waters where Sean catches wimpy waves. On touching down in Honolulu, she had twiddled the seatbelt with one hand—that twitchy New Yorker’s desire to be the first off the plane—and held Sean’s hand with her other, and where her mind went, as she stared out at her childhood, was to Junior.
Sumiko drives with one knee while her hands coax her hair into a bun. But as soon as she’s secured the knot with a claw-like clip, hairs escape again. It’s a losing battle with the top down. She leans into the steering wheel, as if to spur the car along, and registers the pale tone of her arms’ skin. Who will she run into this time? Who will comment how changed she is and make it sound like a tragedy? She fusses with the back of her tank top, where it damply clings to her skin. “Oh, fuck this,” she says, sheds the shirt, and coasts the highway in a bikini and khaki shorts next to her tattooed haole man. In a neon convertible. So people were going to look. Let them.
When the view becomes highway flanked by housing complexes, Sean puts the camera down. Sumiko drives onward to where Kamehameha Highway narrows into barely two lanes at He’eia and continues to wind north through Kahalu‘u, Ka‘a‘awa, and Punalu‘u, all quiet little towns stitched through with breadfruit and mango trees, the sea so close in some places that the waves nearly lick the road. The traffic slows through here, what with people crossing the road at their own damn pace. The queue piles up each time some wiseguy ahead makes an overshow of patience toward someone turning on or off the main drag. There is just beach park, gas station, surf shop, beach park, beach park, Safeways, beach park, beach park—other than that, all homes. A familiar impatience rises at the lazy, loping pace of this life. The same impatience that rose whenever she got lulled into thinking she could move back. But how can she? New York has changed her DNA. Right now she wants only to fly these bends in this country road with her eyes closed. Intuiting her way. Like tracing Braille. Like feeling in the dark for a lover’s dear body.
Sean draws a hand up to stroke his big, bold, bald head. “Where to, Captain?” he asks.
“Next up on the Circle Island tour, sir, is the Polynesian Cultural Center,” she says, enunciating the clipped precision of her proper English, sharp fingers saluting her brow. Her heart throbs, and she worries Sean will wonder why her neck’s veins leap. She will not answer that the last time she was at the PCC was thirteen years ago. They’d taken the Circle Island bus out to La’ie since Junior didn’t have a car yet. He wove plumerias into a coconut-frond tiara for her. She kept that thing till it went to dust. The petals brown and filmy. She will not mention that she heard Junior works at the PCC and that she is worrying that tidbit like teeth do a hangnail. She will not say his name aloud. She breathes in and out, as slow and silent as she can.
But Sean is not monitoring the veins in her neck. “Wow, would you look at those waves!” He near leans out his window toward the beaches on the right.
“Gnarly, dude.” She tilts her head to look at him. His skin has easily taken on a golden cast, and even his forearm’s hairs have begun bleaching blonde. The peacock sleeve of his skin seems brighter here than it does in New York. He is why they are going to the PCC, anyway. She had long since quit counting the time between Junior sightings, can’t conjure up more than Picassoan portrait of him, really. Large brown eyes fringed with lashes a woman would envy. Those big flat lu’au feet. That way of walking that sent his hips to the right on a silent downbeat, like a typewriter carriage returning to home.
It is all for Sean, who wants to lap up every last thing about Hawai‘i. Sean, whose leg she reaches for, across the parking break, resting her hand high on his thigh and concluding, “You’ll love the PCC. It’s like a tropical Disneyland!”
He snorts a laugh. “I’m trying to figure out what the hell a tropical Disneyland looks like. Will there be rides?”
“Double-hulled canoe rides,” she promises.
“Will there be…overpriced spectacle?”
“Yep—the Horizons Lu’au…Slow-roasting a pig, a cheesy emcee, fire and knife dancing, Tongan spear parring. Nose flutes. The whole shebang.”
“Do they have…costumed characters?”
“Mormons dressed up as natives.”
“Get outta here.”
“The whole thing is staffed by Brigham Young students.”
“You have got to be kidding.”
“Well,” she says. “You’ll see.”
The sign they pass reads “Welcome to Lai’e.” Sumiko can already see the huge brown tikis down the road. She is excited, despite herself, the same way that in New York she bemoans taking visitors to the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty, or on the Circle Line cruise with its harbor views of the city—when in fact, she loves that kind of stuff. She feels the same way about the PCC: embarrassed to be going in but once in so happy about the immersion.
With Sean still hanging out the window, panting at the sea, Sumiko turns into the parking lot. They had made no sense together, she knew now. Friends had said so, but Sumiko can’t learn from anyone’s mistakes but her own. As she drives past parked tour buses, she wonders: What had been so special about Junior, anyway? After turning down dates from boys she considered too “country,” she had caved to practically the king of country. But was “king” even the word to describe Junior? He was country all right, a Hawaiian homegrown in Nanakuli with his whole ‘ohana under one roof—grandparents, a bachelor uncle, an older sister and her three kids. But “king” put the wrong flavor in the mouth. There wasn’t a single commanding thing about him, or regal, or driven. Nothing pointed or sharp. He was the smell of salt baked into a beach towel. He got to you the way the gritty sand of the West Shore did: no matter how many times you washed your hair, your body, your clothes, that shit would linger.
But that was then, and now Sumiko is a worldly twenty-eight. The PCC parking lot has grown more spaces and more coconut trees. And she is here with Sean, her Sean, the man with whom she lives in Brooklyn, whose name is tattooed in thick and curly script right above her ass. His hand in hers had not been enough. She put his name on her body, bold and red, because this is how he makes her feel: like flying high their flag. Flaunting it, even. He matched her design with a thicker number in black cursive, just above his left hip, where the muscled lines that cut his torso disappeared into his pants. Adonis wings, those lines were called. Or Apollo’s belt. Lines to cut a god. She liked the implied demarcation of territory: his and hers, staked on skin. Ownership was necessary when they were out at a downtown club, their firm and gleaming bodies sliced by strobe lights, as much as when they were stripped down to sun themselves in Prospect Park. She wanted Sean’s jealous hand on her bikini-clad ass in answer to the eyes of the park on her, just as at the clubs she wore midriff-baring shirts to display his name as she ground her body to his.
Sumiko parks in the shade of a few coconut trees and pulls her tank top back on. Sean stretches ecstatically into the sunshine the moment the car stops, then he has her by the hand, and she lets his long-legged stride hurry her. This is Sean, impulsive and wide open, rushing near headlong at the big ticket-buying hale. It’s impossible not to be carried along by his excitement—until they are cornered by the beautiful ‘ehu-haired women at the entrance, the brown-red bushyness of hair and darkness of skin more signs that she is getting closer to home. Sumiko had hoped to be downlow about it, but she gets lei’d too. Getting lumped in with the blatant tourists in their palm tree–printed shirts sucks. She should have worn her Hawaiian bracelets today, gotten a darker tan before coming, practiced her rusty pidgin. Something.
Sean stretches his limbs, eyes the women, perches his aviators on top of his head. Now he is sniffing at the quick-wilting plumeria garland around his neck, and now unfolding his park map. “Where do you want to go first, Babe? In Hawai‘i village, you can make a lei. And in Samoa village, you can crack open a coconut. Oh, and there are dance performances on a canoe in the lagoon.” Now Sean is taking off his shirt.
“Put your shirt back on, Sean.” What was he doing—trying to blend in with the bare-chested “natives”? If given the opportunity, no doubt he’d drop his shorts and instead don her flowery pareu, bedeck himself in shark’s teeth and leafy kupe’e at his ankles, and greet her with a toothy smile.
“Huh?” he says, still in ADD mode—eyeing, sniffing, refolding, exclaiming. “Why?”
“It’s the rules.” Has she made a mistake? This wasn’t quite the lighthearted lark she had imagined. But Sean puts his shirt back on and they grasp hands and make for Samoa, and it seems to work, her funk dissipating like a low-pressure system, all bluster and no show. She can lose herself in this. She opens a coconut in Samoa village and makes a palm-frond headband in the Marquesas, plaiting in plumeria and crowning herself. She rolls her eyes at Sean as he copies the wide eyes, high brows, and aggressive tongues of the Maori male dancers doing the haka in Aotearoa, slapping down his hands before he can mimic the dance, too.
In a wide clearing in Tahiti village, Sumiko undulates her hips in the island’s famous style, while Sean learns the male’s partnering. A teenage boy in a loincloth and shell lei and a girl in a grass skirt and coconut bra teach Sean and two couples to dance. The novices all seem to be having equal trouble, the women with the hips and the men with the knees. “This is tu’e,” says the boy, kicking his feet forward while making a jogging motion with his fisted arms. It is a remarkably undignified move, but somehow when the boy does it, it comes off as masculine. When Sean does it, it’s all flailing. The girl works with the women on loosening their bodies, hitting imaginary targets on either side of their hips on the drum’s downbeats. The girl looks barely old enough to have hips, but she rolls hers like they’re attached differently than the other women’s.
“Pa’oti to’ere,” calls the boy.
“This isn’t fair,” says Sean over the drumming, “my partner is making me look bad.” He pouts, scissoring his knees to the insistent beat. Sumiko looks at Sean, at his dear and yet so young self (for he’s just twenty-five), and feels something complicated. The sexual attraction, of course, that comes first, that’s easy. But there’s something else, something more maternal in its feather-smoothing, under-wing-gathering intention.
The otea player shifts the tempo. Sean has better luck with pa’oti pahu, the slow cousin of the original dance step—especially once the lovely girl shimmies her way over to him, having done what she could with the thick-middled tourist women. The girl is slender beneath her pompom-adorned grass skirt, and her hair is dark and smooth, like the slow flow of pahoehoe. The girl inclines her head toward Sumiko, questioning, and Sumiko nods, willing to share.
And so off they go, the girl stalking Sean, urging him backward with her steady steps and delicate arm motions. Sean is half doing the moves and half smiling like an idiot. And while Sumiko doesn’t need a partner, she also doesn’t want to show off, so she stops dancing. Anyway, she has proven her point about having at least once been a local. She’ll just watch Sean and the girl for the rest of the lesson. But the drums switch again and Sumiko’s hips answer. Afata. She draws a box in the air with her hips. Varu. Her hips trace figure-eights, speeding and slowing as the drum player demands. She closes her eyes and lets the sound move her, and for a moment, everything just…aligns. She is not weighing the always reasons why she should and cannot possibly move home. She is at peace.
“You still got it, Tita.” The words are just for her, whispered near her ear. The sound is smooth, low, warm—but how it grates. She’s not sure the voice isn’t just in her head, but it is Junior circling her, doing pa’oti to’ere. He is a thicker version of himself. Muscles thrive on what was once a tall, lean frame. Tita, he had called her. Sister-girl-loudmouth. Only he ever got away with calling her that. She isn’t sure he should get away with it anymore.
What surprises Sumiko is how her body keeps dancing—as if detached. Her hips move faster in otamu, a double bump of the hip to each side, emphatically hitting the downbeats, and her arm movements strengthen with a certainty that flows from her marrow. She just keeps dancing. “What are you doing here?” A stupid question. The man was wearing a loincloth and grass anklets.
“Me? Oh, you know. Life in the fast lane, it just gets so hectic. Sometimes I have to just escape—breathe the sweet country air, put on a loincloth, speak in tongues, that kind of thing.” He articulates each proper syllable. Was he making fun of her? He sticks his tongue at her in a distinctly Maori way—strong, grotesque, erotic. How easy it is to be with him again surprises her. She’d imagined different drafts of this moment but hadn’t thought they’d find their old ease, as if they’d slipped on the skins of their previous selves.
“I see they’ve trained you to be Tahitian and Maori.”
“Nahnahnah. Mostly Tahitian. Time to time, I stand in for Maori or Samoan.”
“I am having the worst case of déjà vu.”
He pairs a slow, wide set of ‘amis to her tinier hip circles. “Me too, Tita,” he says, arching one bushy eyebrow. His eyelashes are even thicker than she had remembered.
“Oh, shut up,” she says and stops dancing.
His movements trickle off as well. “Temper, temper! I tink you bettah put one smile on top dat pretty face, bumbai Loverboy ovah dere going come charging.”
Sumiko glances over. Sean is dancing still but staring at Junior. He refuses to meet her eyes. For what, though? What exactly is she guilty of this time? He was always getting his hackles up over nothing. It’s my Dominican side, babe, he will tell her later, after a good, long, manly sulk. We don’t share our women, and I saw how he was looking at you. She’ll remind him, You’re only, like, one-sixteenth Dominican. She’ll want to say, It’s your bullheaded stupidity but instead she will splay her arms around his neck and kiss him with a suddenness that cuts off his words.