A man may take the turquoise tip of a snapped-shut umbrella to precisely roll away an empty 24-ounce Natty Ice can on the 55 Eastbound route, trundling on a yellow aloha bus along Kamehameha Highway toward Ala Moana.
On the bus, a woman in a peach-colored, sequined bikini may dig into Foodland rotisserie takeout, forking into the clear, plastic shell with big, slow bites. Two seats back, an old man will be meticulously flossing his teeth.
I am en route to a wedding, a wedding not within the Hawaiian Islands but in Cardiff-by-the-Sea, wedged like a resin-buffed chalcedony stone on San Diego’s North County coastal bluffs.
On the bus, I’m carrying a fresh white pillow, banged up Mary Poppins carry-on, and a dyed blue scarf doused in dahlia perfume. An ex-military guy with missing teeth and a snorkel sack tries to chat me up, and at the airport, antsy, I down gringo-style chicken nachos and a soapy-tasting, salt-rimmed margarita.
We land in downtown San Diego just after midnight, and I park on Ivy Street near the airport in my rental car. Carlos and Amelie are hanging out the kitchen window, wrestling with Hortense, their petite, shrilly barking dog. We’re drinking wine, I show them the blue sundress I bought in Haleiwa for the wedding.
“That is not cocktail attire,” Amelie says.
“Definitely not cocktail attire,” Carlos says.
From her closet Amelie fishes out a blue dress, something really nice, with ruffles. She offers me shoes, but my feet are too big. I fall asleep after 4 a.m. on a couch neatly made with cotton sheets.
You seem different, Carlos had said, holding Hortense, switching off the light.
“I do?” I said into the dark.
My alarm goes off two hours later, at 6 a.m. Sleep dumb, I wash my hair in the shower and pull on the blue Haleiwa dress. It’s already hot outside, a late summer that will bloom into a full-scale heat wave the following week, blistered with Santa Ana winds and two wildfires: the Marshes Fire, burning north of the Don Pedro Reservoir and evacuating the Hetch Hetchy Valley; and the Tobin Fire, burning into the Plumas National Forest.
I take the 5 North to Leucadia, but the miniature post office cornering Phoebe Street and Pacific Coast Highway is locked. I’m clutching two useless PO box keys when an old woman sucking on an iced coffee from the French bakery across the way approaches, watches me shake the glass door with more theater than frustration.
“Are you locked out?” she says. “Maybe someone will come along and let you in.”
Someone comes along and lets me in.
At the Pupukea Foodland on the North Shore, I’ve bought pistachios, green juice, bananas, pink wine, peanut butter cups. I stuff these into my backpack, unlock my Costco bike and wait for Adelaide.
She’s been surfing six hours daily, hustling leftover stragglers, whatever the local Brazilian chargers don’t want or let slide between bigger sets. It’s aggressive this week; first winter swell, a 39-year-old man has been charged with attempted murder for holding a 16-year-old kid underwater at Velzyland.
Adelaide has zipped quinoa, lentils and tin cans of tuna into her backpack. There is a bedraggled ragdoll jammed into the pack’s mesh water bottle pocket. It’s always there, and I never ask about it.
Outside the grocery store an overweight white woman approaches, lapping a melting, chocolate-covered ice cream bar on a stick. She has a single, oversize russet potato tucked just beneath her armpit, and she points at an empty shopping cart. We’d just missed a photo shoot, she said. A pretty model sat inside the shopping cart. The photographer had a big camera. Everyone was watching.
Adelaide and I look at each other.
“That’s cool,” Adelaide says. Adelaide is from the Netherlands, she doesn’t fuck around, all she wants to do is surf, already she is looking with a 50/50 blend of dream and irritation past the woman toward the sea.
In San Diego, it’s 6 hours before the wedding and I am getting fingerprinted for a teaching job. I stand in my blue Haleiwa sundress while a kid with a long ponytail carefully rolls each of my fingers across a backlit glass screen. A line of customers forms, but the kid works slowly and methodically. Each sunburned finger takes several tries.
Three black trucks stop for me while I walk in the rain toward Haleiwa. Lately I have been avoiding trucks, especially black trucks, and each time I see a stopped black truck my heart seizes.
“Excuse me,” the man in the first black truck says, rolling down the window near Backyards surf break. “Are you in a hurry?”
I’m not in a hurry, and the man asks me a favor. Can I help him lift his busted motorcycle into the bed of the truck? He reverses the truck and I retrace my steps down the arboreal bike path in my bathing suit, stepping over latte-colored mud puddles and browning plumeria blossoms. He parks in a big, grassy lot near a silver Airstream, then wheels the broken bike through the soggy earth toward the truckbed.
Together we hoist the front tire into the bed of the truck; then the man sets the motorcycle brake and we haul the heavy backend over the bumper, clunking the door closed.
“You’re a writer?” the man says. We’re appraising each other pretty frankly. “Well, maybe you’ll write about this.”
On Ivy Street, it is baking hot and weirdly silent; I’m alone. Amelie has a Saturday job at a swimming pool supply store, the type of swimming pool supply store where customers never come in, she is working on a speech for her undergraduate communications class. Amelie wants to be a nurse.
I buy honey-roasted cashews, green juice, pink wine at the liquor store across the street. I try on my new black high heels, and then I take another shower.
Amelie used to be a hairstylist, and she’s left yellow stickie notes in the linen closet, near her product collection, with specific directions on how she would like me to get set up before she wands my hair for the wedding. My dark hair, I note, has faded from the saltwater and the heavy Hawaiian sun.
The second black truck stops for me just as I’m beginning to get tired of my plan to walk the eight miles from V-land to Haleiwa. I’d stopped at the Waimea Valley for lunch: root beer and sweet potato fries, which I ate among tourist flocks while kicking away fat hens and roosters darting between my feet and the picnic table; flame-blue peacocks skulking among wild red ginger.
The truckbed is filled with construction tools, surfboards.
“Do you need a ride?” the man says.
When I look over, he’s unexpectedly, showstoppingly gorgeous, and I don’t know what to say, I just stand there feeling shy. The rain has dried on my skin, my tank top, my shorts, my bathing suit, my black backpack. Rain-frizzed hair scraped into a ballerina bun. I’m greasy with motorcycle, sunscreen. Humidity steaming my sunglasses.
“Do you need a ride?” he asks again. I shake my head no, feet blistering in my crocheted white sandals, blazing sun pinking my skin, and then he drives away.
Amelie comes home crying, Carlos at her heels. Hortense is barking monotonously, afluff with worry. Amelie got a bad grade on her last speech for speech class, she’s just discovered, and she has to videorecord her next speech that very night. In fact both Carlos and I have been editing her new speech this afternoon; Carlos at the empty pool store with Amelie, me on their laptop on Ivy Street with wet hair wrapped in a towel.
Still teary, Amelie plugs in a curling wand and I pop the pink wine. The wedding is in 1 hour. I’m wearing Amelie’s ruffled blue dress, and somehow I’ve deeply scratched my nose getting ready – a long, fresh gash on my face.
“Fuck that guy,” Carlos says of Amelie’s professor.
“Fuck that guy,” I say.
Amelie is tearfully curling my hair while I hold a tablet, reading the rubric outlining her bad grade. I point out that her biggest point deduction came from not citing sources within the speech; the other stuff was small potatoes. Amelie says she did cite her sources.
Amelie is still examining my head when I summon a Lyft to the wedding.
“Em, what kind of shampoo are you using?” she asks. “You have a little bit of buildup.”
I’m sitting at a hot, unshaded stop in Haleiwa; two high school kids blasting Notorious B.I.G. and halfheartedly kicking at each other while we wait for the bus.
“Does that happen to you a lot?” the man next to me says. I look up from my backpack, where I’d pulled out my phone to check the bus schedule. I’m ready to get back to Velzyland. My feet are welted and sweating; one of my blisters is gummy with blood.
“What?” I say. He points to a black truck pulling away, freakily hyper-lifted with giant tractor tires.
“The dudes in that truck just pulled over and asked if you wanted a ride,” he said.
“They did?” I said.
“Yeah, ok, that must happen to you a lot then,” he says, laughing.
“Maybe they were asking if you wanted a ride,” I joke.
“I would have said yes,” he says. He just moved here. He is stoked. “Saved me two-fifty!”
The Lyft driver driving me to the wedding is from Iraq. We’re talking about work, about politics. He’s of the opinion that a temporary dictatorship in Iraq, one that could maybe bring about stability and order, would be a first step toward a better life for people there.
“A dictatorship?” I say.
“What do I know,” he says, shrugging. “I haven’t lived there in 25 years. When I go there, I’m different. People can tell I don’t fit in anymore.”
We turn onto the street where the wedding will take place, high on a bluff that looks toward the foothills and the desert, hot air balloons and equestrian trails. Pretty, roomy homes with succulent gardens and eucalyptus trees sit far back from the street. There’s a bunch of balloons bobbling in the late afternoon heat, and good-looking party people streaming down an elegantly dipping driveway. I’m glad that I’m not wearing my blue sundress.
“Fancy wedding,” my Lyft driver says. “Ok, when we park, don’t get out. I’ll come out and open the door for you.”
“Please don’t,” I say when he slows down at the end of the street. But he leaps out from the front seat, opens the door with a flourish, and we both crack up. I’m unsteady in my brand new shoes.
“A writing teacher,” he says, smiling at me. “I like that. You’re helping people tell their stories.”
I’m nearly late for the ceremony, hustling through the house, hurtling through the backyard in my blue ruffled dress, and I take a seat in the last row by two guitarists unwinding the processional into the top-of-the-canyon light. The groom comes out and stands beneath a matrimonial arbor draped in coral-colored roses, blue delphinium. But actually, he has mistimed his entrance – excuses himself, scurries off for a few minutes, and then makes a second entrance.
“Take two,” he says.
My friend looks beautiful. I’m wiping tears off my face with both hands.
By the time I get back to Carlos and Amelie’s apartment on Ivy Street, it’s long past midnight. After the wedding, giddy, tipsy, I’d Lyfted to the house of a man I’d met the month prior.
Out on the lawn chairs in the dark of his backyard, stars and flea-like satellites dimmed by a boggy marine layer, he had kissed me good night, had moved his hands beneath the blue dress with marvelous directness. Had asked me to read a poem I’d written in Hawaii. I read the poem from my phone: bus stops, peanut butter cups, wet sandals, the rain.
“I made out with a boy,” I tell Carlos and Amelie, and they cheer and pour me a big glass of red wine. Carlos tears open a bag of salt and vinegar potato chips, and we’re dancing around the living room with the TV as DJ, busting all our moves.
“How did your speech go?” I ask Amelie. She’s lying on the floor in a yogic spinal twist, Hortense is climbing everywhere, and I’m pressing my friend’s shoulders flat and playing with her hair.
“I didn’t do the speech,” she says. “I’m going to do the speech tomorrow.”
When I next look at the clock, it’s 5 a.m. We’re all hammered. My clothes and toiletries are scattered around the living room like the twin hurricanes, Hurricane Lester and Hurricane Madeline, that escorted me into the Hawaiian islands one month earlier.
When my friend Cesar had first picked me up from the airport in his black truck, he’d dropped a fragrant purple lei over my head and said Let’s get out of here, Obama’s here, the roads are nuts.
“So what’s with the black trucks?” This is what my poet friend asks me, fairly. My writing is littered with black trucks. For weeks I think it might just be a breakup thing. In fact two ex-boyfriends have driven black trucks.
Carlos remakes the couch into a bed, and I set five alarms. I can only find one of my flip flops, and my phone charger is nowhere to be found. I need to be at the airport in three hours, at 8 a.m. I need to refill my rental gas tank, and I need to provide a receipt. Otherwise I will have to pay extra.
“People have been refilling the gas tanks with water,” the car rental guy had explained.
My friend Melissa Porter died in her black truck, driving home from the bar we both tended. We routinely got off work around 4 a.m. and that’s when it happened, in the exhausting final push before she was intended to graduate from San Diego State University.
The bar went dark that weekend.
Melissa was half Japanese; I remember lying on the beach at Law Street while her untied hair, at the time an exact color match for the sand, twisted like a big hemp rope across our bright towels. Melissa wanted to work in suicide prevention, because her father, a U.S. Veteran, had taken his own life. That is how I remember it.
The funeral ceremony was Buddhist; we touched Melissa’s ashes and the man leading the ceremony told us, matter-of-factly, that her spirit might linger for seven days and we should not be afraid should Melissa appear with any final messages for us.
In one of my nightmares that week, Melissa’s hair was a deep electric blue. I woke up my boyfriend and asked him to come to the bathroom with me; he stood in the doorway while I sat on the toilet and cried. If you see her, don’t be scared, he said. It will be fine. She loves you.
The night before Melissa’s funeral, my roommate brought home a woman from the bar. Disoriented and maybe still drunk the next morning, the woman climbed naked into bed with my boyfriend and I, snuggling into the pillows with her smooth body and dark hair.
Humorless, panicked, grieving, I began shoving her off the bed.
“It’s fine,” the woman said, amused.
“It’s fine,” my boyfriend said, half asleep, hopeful.
It’s not fine, I screamed, tearing off the sheets and blankets. Nothing is fine!
It’s a 3-hour bus ride from the airport in Honolulu to Velzyland. It rains some of the way; there’s a faint rainbow wedge on the east side of the island. It’s just over 130 stops between the airport and home.
The following day, Adelaide wakes up cranky. While I was in San Diego for the wedding, she has injured her ribcage surfing and broken both her shortboard and her longboard. Who knows when Cesar will get around to fixing them though Adelaide has prepaid him. Her bike chain has fallen off. She has not slept well.
I get back from a morning run and drink some green juice, eat some honey-roasted peanuts, a hunk of Brie. Vacationers next door are always giving us their leftovers on their way back to Honolulu: tiny cans of pineapple juice, an eighth of rum, three unripe avocados, bagels, ice cream bars, expensive cheese, we take it all.
The house smells like canned tuna, and I prop open the living room windows.
I grew up in a big family. There was this Rosemary Wells book we loved, First Tomato: Voyage to the Bunny Planet. The main character bunny, Claire, has a super shitty day. Everything is going wrong. Claire can’t do a cartwheel, she spills her cereal, has to have a baloney sandwich for lunch.
In comes the Bunny Queen whose name is Janet. She gives Claire the perfect cure: a voyage to the bunny planet, where everything is great. When my brothers or sisters were having an especially bad day, we would tease, “Someone needs a trip to the bunny planet!”
It was both comforting and annoying.
“Sounds like you need a trip to the bunny planet,” I teased Adelaide.
“I think we’re living on the bunny planet,” Adelaide said. “I think it’s called Hawaii.”
Adelaide is still clutching her injured ribcage. I’m squeezing Neosporin onto the big gash on my nose. Adelaide spends the day counting all the waves she can’t ride.
The newspaper ran a photo of Melissa’s crashed truck. I don’t know why they did that.
I’m riding my bike to the bus stop. My backpack is loaded with green juice, shredded broccoli, baby wipes, toffee-covered almonds, and a thank-you card for Carlos and Amelie.
In my running group that morning there was a woman from Australia who works for Qantas. She asked me what I was doing in Hawaii, and I said that I was on something of a sabbatical, teaching high school kids how to write.
“It’s serving you well, Hawaii,” she tells me. “You look happy and peaceful. In fact, you’re glowing.”
“I am?” I say.
My hair is in another sweaty bun. My nose still has a hideous pink skid mark. Death is coming for me in a black truck, but everything is fine.
From a block away on the blossom-scattered bike path I can see three high school kids on banged up cruisers, bronzy, shirtless surfer kids. I can also see that two of the kids are nudging the third kid’s bike directly into my flight path. They’re fucking with him, and at the last minute he drives his bike into a hibiscus shrub loaded with cereal bowl sized hot pink blooms, to avoid crashing into me.
I sacrificed myself for yoooouuuuuu, he calls as he pedals away.
I hold my blue bike steady on Kamehameha Highway, looking for a brief safe space between the cars and trucks, the gusting yellow bus. I love an island. Like death, it practices you.
I have changed names to protect the privacy of these individuals. Everything else is true.
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