Scratching the Surface
The shiver pricked along my arms as we touched down at the Honolulu International Airport in the middle of one those almost-too-sunny June days that comes just after a thunderstorm. The kind of day where everything feels fresh, new; at least, I’d heard they were supposed to feel like that. There was this mist hanging around that the sun shone through and made rainbows in over the wings of the plane. While we were circling the island, prepping to land, Molly pressed her pointed, little nose against the window and looked out at the patchwork of darker and lighter blues made by the reef. Every once in a while a wave would cut across the quilt, leaving a long white scar wherever it broke.
“It’s a whole other world,” she said, and I just felt stiff.
“I’m not going in the ocean,” I’d told my parents before we even left home. “You know I don’t do that.”
“It was a whole other ocean,” Dad said, trying very unsuccessfully to “help.”
“Mark, that’s not going to change his mind,” Mom cut in as she folded a t-shirt around the camera in her suitcase. “Chris, you’re going to be eighteen this summer, so you can figure out some things to do by yourself while we all go to the beach.”
“Fine. I can’t believe you’re letting Molly swim in the ocean.”
“Darling, Molly’s almost thirteen now.”
“Exactly,” I said. “She’s not even thirteen.”
“Your father and I will both be with her the whole time and there are lifeguards all over. Everything will be fine.”
“It was an accident that happened a long time ago, bud. You can’t let it paralyze you forever,” Dad said with his palms opened toward me.
After what happened to Kasey, I couldn’t believe they would trust the ocean. It was, whatever; I could find plenty to do on my own. I’d just downloaded some new bird game to my iPhone, so I figured I’d be pretty busy with that anyway. But as soon as we walked out of our terminal, past the tiles that formed giant pineapples and down the escalator, those plans were thwarted. Next to some hula dancers in coconuts, and this guy holding a bunch of lizards in a tank that read “TRANSFORMATIONS,” there was this local girl, a little older than me, with dark brown skin and a mass of black waves trapped under a bandana. She was waiting by the baggage claim with a cardboard sign that said “Personal Guide: $50/day.”
The girl greeted us with a cheesy smile and “Aloha, likelike lani ke mana au pua Kehau. My name is Kehau. Welcome to my home. We are so happy to have you here.” Of course, my parents loved it and hired her on the spot.
She said, “Mahalo,” helped us with our luggage, and hailed a mini-van with a tiny, yellow “The Cab” sign on its roof. That girl had some serious patience on the ride to the hotel. My parents and Molly kept pelting her with questions, asking her stuff like “What’s it like to live in paradise?” and “Is it just the hotels that have the internet, or can you get Wi-Fi when you’re at home?” She was pretty quick, though; after twenty minutes of interrogation, she sort of bulldozed my Mom and asked, “So what brings you to the beautiful Aloha state?”
“Just family vacation, you know. Chris here is heading off to college in a few months and his father and I figured we should make this last vacation together a special one.”
“Yeah,” I said. “By taking me to the one place I didn’t want to go.”
Kehau laughed. “Wow, I’ve never heard of anyone resisting a Hawaiian vacation.”
“It’s not Hawaii,” Molly said. “He’s afraid of the ocean.”
“Molly,” my father warned. “We just haven’t been this far away from home in a while.”
He left it at that, seizing the opportunity to demand a comprehensive list of cheap restaurants and snack bars, in an attempt to arm himself with safe houses for the next two weeks. My mom followed up by asking where she could find some “authentic Hawaiian jewelry” and “authentic Hawaiian clothing,” etc., etc. It’s probably the only time I’ve been thankful for their jabbering, since I probably would have had to gag Molly to get her to shut up otherwise.
Once she got us to the hotel, Kehau, basically, didn’t leave my family’s side, except at night to go home and sleep.
The first day, I asked her how often she scammed families like this.
She laughed and said, “What makes you think I’m scamming you?”
“I googled the gibberish you spewed to us at the airport. The words are for real, but you like, said the name of a highway, “heaven,” “flower,” and then your name.”
She stared at me, and then winked. “Alright, you’re in on my secret. Gotta pay for college somehow, right?”
I couldn’t argue with that, so I promised to keep my mouth shut. And afterwards, she dropped the island princess act with me. It was cool, I was actually getting to know what Hawaii was really like while my parents shelled out a bunch of cash for fake tourist stuff and Molly buried herself in some book about Hawaiian mysticism that my parents bought for her from the weird guy at the airport.
About the third day, Kehau and I were in the lobby of the hotel, sitting and doing nothing, when she said, “Eh, haole, you ever go outside or what?”
“What kind of question is that?” I said.
She didn’t even answer, just got up and started walking out of the lobby toward the doors. As they slid open, she stopped and looked over her shoulder.
“Get up,” she said, and kept walking.
I followed her, of course, and caught up with her at a crosswalk right next to a guy painted silver who caught me staring at him. As I was wiping the sweat out of my eyes, he rubbed his nose, and when he took his hand away, the paint was gone. I frowned, and felt the skin between my eyebrows crack. Kehau looked at me to make sure I had followed her, and laughed.
We walked for about ten minutes and were almost out of the touristy area of downtown when I asked her where we were going. She told me to shut up, and then crossed the street to the sand, dodging cars. I tried to wait until it seemed safe to cross, then gave up and just booked it and prayed the people here didn’t want to kill a tourist kid. I got across, with nothing worse than somebody honking and flipping me off.
I was breathing pretty heavy after running on the sand to catch up with Kehau. She was walking near the edge of the tide, tripping sideways when the water came up too high, not wanting to get anything above her ankles wet. She kept walking without saying anything, her eyes on the ground. I didn’t get what was so mesmerizing, so I asked her what she was even staring at.
She slowed, trailing her toes in the wet sand, and looked at me, frowning sideways.
“The sand, stupid.”
“What’s so interesting about sand?”
I said that and she stopped completely, turning her back toward me and her face toward the ocean. Spreading her arms upward, she said, “Ever read Heart of Darkness?”
“Who’s it by again?” I said, as though I’d just forgotten.
“You haven’t. It’s Joseph Conrad; we read it in English. There are these two women in the story who hold their arms out like this when they’re upset about Kurtz – about losing him. He’s like, their whole lives, and he’s a crazy ass.”
“So, that’s why you like sand?”
“No. Kurtz is crazy because he tries too hard to be a god to these savages, or whatever, and gets so caught up in his act that he dies of being crazy.” She starts giggling at this, turns around, and looks at me, smiling with her whole face.
“But these women, they still love him, right? Both of them, because they’re the same, and this big river they sail on leaks out into the ocean, right? So these women, they’re both connected, because the river and the ocean are connected, and me too, because right here, where the waves touch the sand, I’m standing. And all the other people that ever stood here, or on that big river, or on some other beach where the waves touch the sand, I’m connected to them, too, because the ocean never forgets a story.”
The whole time she was saying all that, I couldn’t stop watching her move, shifting her weight, shaking her hair, waving her hands. And now, she just looked at me, perfectly still.
“You know it’s just a book, right?” I said, and she smacked me in the gut and walked away.
After I got over the fact that she had slapped me, I walked behind her for a little while, until she stopped at one of those big mounds of stones piled up to form a short pier. This couple was getting married out on the end of it, with one bridesmaid-groomsman pair, and these three old people.
“Why isn’t the guy wearing a tux?” I asked.
“He’s wearing an Aloha shirt and nice pants. It’s just as good,” she said.
“I thought only the girl was supposed to wear white,” I said.
“That’s because you’re haole. Now shut up, I’m trying to hear.”
The wind kept most of the words from coming back to us, but it was a wedding, so it wasn’t too hard to follow. Still, every time I tried to ask a question, she shushed me and slapped me lightly on the arm. At one point, they threw one of those flower necklaces – lei’s – in the water, and Kehau told me it was probably for the missing parent.
After the bride and groom kissed, they jumped into the water holding hands. The skin on my forearms suddenly got itchy, and when I scratched at it, it looked crackly, like the shell of a hard-boiled egg after you roll it on the counter.
“You done?” I said.
Smiling, she stared at the couple climbing out of the water. “They get it. Even if people do, the ocean never forgets.”
“So, you’re done?”
“You’ve got no soul, you know. Just take things in. Stop.”
“Just stop. Breathe. Relax,” she said, and laughed.
“What’s so funny?”
She laughed harder and shouted “You.”
In response, she just made some kind of growling sound in the back of her throat and said we should go eat.
We went to this place Kehau really liked called “Loco Moco” a few blocks away from the tourist area. When we got out, it was starting to get dark so we walked back to the hotel along the sand, watching the sun tint the sky red with slashes of orange. We got back to the hotel and Kehau dropped me off at my room, where my parents were waiting so we could all go to the “Family Luau” the hotel was putting on. Kehau winked, and walked away laughing softly.
Over the next few days, we went to the zoo and the aquarium, and Kehau knew somebody who let us swim in the big tank with the sharks and stingrays for a discount, so my dad was happy. She showed us all the best places for surfing lessons and Hawaii™ merchandise, and took us to Hawaiian restaurants. She was great with Molly, even though the kid wouldn’t stop asking questions, and of course, my parents loved her for it, even though she was getting them to spend a ton of money on stuff that wouldn’t even fit in their suitcases on the way home. And she spent a bunch of time talking to all of them about the ocean, and the beach, and the sun and all that crap, but she never once said anything about Heart of Darkness, so it was alright.
On Saturday, my Mom asked Kehau if there were any good churches in the area, and she started listing off the big churches we’d already seen online.
“We’re really looking for something a tad smaller,” my Mom cut in. “We really want to get a sense of what the people are really like here.”
Kehau smiled at that and started listing some smaller churches that she said were in the area.
“Oh, but won’t those be full of tourists?” my Mom asked.
“Sure, but they’re close and it’ll be plenty easier for you. And, they always have good speakers and most visitors are pretty happy with the services.”
“Oh, darling I don’t care about easy. I want to see the kinds of places where locals like you worship. I can go home and have easy anytime.”
Kehau was almost shaking now – trying not to laugh, I think.
“Kay, what kind of church are you looking for? I might know one that’d be good for you.”
My Mom’s eyes widened as she grinned at me. Looking back at Kehau, she said, “I have a great idea. What if we just go to your church? That way, we’ll already know someone and you can still earn a full day’s wage.”
Kehau opened her mouth and just let it hang for a few seconds before answering “sure” in a tight voice.
So, the next morning, Kehau showed up at the hotel in a mini-van, and we all piled in. Mom and Dad made me sit up in front with Kehau, of course, thinking they were subtle. We drove about an hour in silence – it was early, so nobody had much to say anyway, but it was still awkward, with my mom kicking my seat, and wiggling her eyebrows in the rearview, and Dad snoring next to her.
Kehau’s church was in the middle of a bunch of houses, half of which seemed newly renovated, and half of which seemed like they’d been in the same broken down shape for years. The church itself was a little white building, only about as big as the houses surrounding it, except for this little white steeple with a bell that stuck up like a beacon. In contrast to the stark white paint of the building, it had an ugly, brown yard where a bunch of little kids were rolling around and running over each other.
“Aren’t their parents worried they’re gonna get dirty?” I asked.
“Did you listen to your parents when you were that small?”
The skin on the back of my neck started to prickle, so I stretched it and answered, “No.”
“Besides, it’s a baptism Sunday, so most of them will probably get washed off, anyway. It’s a pretty good symbol, huh?” she asked, grinning.
I smiled, and said “Sure,” trying to rub the prickling out of my neck.
The church was weird – everybody was hugging, and talking really loud, and when Kehau tried to introduce us to the pastor, who happened to be her dad, and the rest of her family, they all hugged us.
“Why are you always hugging?” I asked her later.
She laughed a little at that, and told me it was just the way they did things. And then she asked how else you even could say hi to people. When I told her we shook hands, she groaned and mumbled “Haoles” under her breath.
“It’s just how we do things,” I said, and she smirked and walked inside.
I don’t remember much about the service, except that the worship was really different, active. There was lots of clapping, a ukulele as well as a guitar, and the worship team sort of danced, or at least moved, in unison. Half the time they sang in Hawaiian or some other language I didn’t understand. But there were a few times when I heard Kehau singing above or below the other voices, and I think I got the gist of the songs.
After the sermon and worship and offering and stuff was all over, the pastor prayed and announced that the whole congregation and any visitors were welcome to join him and a few of the families for water baptism. Then, he walked down between the pews and everybody got up to follow him.
Kehau turned to us and said, “I’m getting baptized today, but if you want, I can have somebody drive you back.”
While Dad opened his mouth to accept, Mom said, “Oh no, we’d love to stay.” So, Dad just smiled and nodded.
We followed the crowd walking out the doors of the stuffy, little building, expecting there to be an outdoor baptismal pool around back, or something like that, but the pastor just kept walking. Between the houses, into a little fire lane with a big yellow sign that said “18C,” and down to the sand we were led. I hadn’t realized the rushing sound had been waves, and not wind.
“What are we doing here?” I asked Kehau.
“Baptism,” she said, and walked down to where her father stood with the other baptiz-ees. Seeing her in the middle of all of them, I noticed for the first time that her dress was real simple – all white, and it hung straight down, just like all the others’, even the guys. And they were all barefoot. In fact, everyone was barefoot.
Kehau was going last, so we got to watch all the others get purified while we waited. They started with the little kids, and it was the same every time. Kehau’s Dad and some other older-looking guy would put their hands on the person’s shoulders, ask a bunch of questions, and then walk into the ocean up to their waists. Then they’d say the whole “In the name of the Father, etc.” thing, and the person being baptized would sort of fall backward in the pastors’ arms until they were completely submerged. When they came up, everyone would clap and shout shrilly, and the family would come down and hug them, sopping wet, in their dresses and button-downs and everything.
Kehau’s turn came, and I was squinting though the glare, trying to watch her face through the whole ordeal. She was smiling all over, but it looked like she’d been crying. Then her Dad wiped her face with his thumb, and smiled even bigger, while the other old guy stood a little further back from them. Kehau walked a few steps ahead of them when they walked into the water and turned around to face them as they came up next to her. She was still crying as she closed her eyes, tilted her head way back, mumbled something, and let herself fall.
When she came up, she shook her hair back over her shoulders and turned to hug her father. The guy was massive, and maybe he was just sinking into the sand, or bending his knees or something, but he looked sort of small and dull all wrapped up in Kehau’s arms with her wet hair clinging to everything and her white robe and the water shining in the sun. And as soon as she’d gotten her arms up around her dad’s neck, the whole church cheered, and so did my family, and me, too.
Once she got up on the sand, everybody else who was still wearing their white robes pulled them off and they all had bathing suits on underneath, so they ran into the water together. One kid even did a flip. Kehau was pulling her robe off more slowly when Molly walked up to her, and started asking questions.
“Molly,” I called. “Leave her alone.”
Kehau just shook her head without looking at me and kept talking to Molly. Then Molly started crying, and Kehau hugged her. My shoulders started itching like crazy, and wouldn’t stop for basically the whole day, so I wasn’t saying much during the conversation on the way back to the hotel, just kind of phasing in and out. I did step in, though when Molly started opening her big mouth again.
“We usually go to a lake for vacation,” she was saying.
“So, it’s not all water he’s afraid of, just the ocean?” Kehau asked.
“Yeah, we had a sister when we were little; I think she kind of had hair like yours. Anyway, we went to Florida for vacation. Something happened and – “
“Molly,” I said, kicking her seat. “You can’t even remember, so don’t tell the story.”
“Mom was still pregnant with me,” she said to Kehau.
“Oh. My cousin’s pregnant, you know,” Kehau said, and I could feel her eyes on me through the rearview.
After that, I stopped listening. Mom and Dad jumped in at one point, making plans for the week. I heard something about going to some shore the next day, and some fair the next evening. So, that was our Monday and Tuesday.
Wednesday I had free, so Kehau took me hiking. We were climbing down this slippery, muddy trail that was only about three feet wide with all kinds of roots and branches sticking up everywhere, and a huge drop-off into a bunch of trees. I had to grab her arm a bunch of times to keep from falling to my death, and she started making fun of me.
“You wouldn’t make fun of me if you knew all the statistics about people dying on dangerous hiking trails.”
“Actually, I would,” she said, laughing.
“Well, then you’d be a bitch,” I said. I don’t know why. She wasn’t falling at all, and here I was, squeaking like a little girl every time my foot touched the ground.
She stopped, peeled my hand off her shoulder, held it away from her, and looked at me.
“No, I wouldn’t,” she said. “I would be making the best of my life.”
“Why are you so serious?” I asked.
She dropped my hand and said, “My grandma was hiking this trail with me last year. It was crazy raining, she fell, and got sick. She didn’t ever get better, and we lost her a little longer than a month ago. We had a family funeral a few weeks ago, but plenty people loved her. We’re having an open memorial tomorrow.”
“Oh,” I said. “Sorry.”
She brushed it off, and we kept walking. I kept slipping, and she kept grabbing my arm to steady me. After a while, she just put my hand back on her shoulder.
“We’ll never make it out of here, otherwise,” she said, smirking at me.
The trail wound its way down into the depths of a valley where all the trees seemed to be connected, like arteries and veins leading back to a literal heart of the valley. I could almost hear it beating. When we got down to the bottom of the trail, there was this big, maybe ten-foot drop down to a rushing river that was all dark from the mud, and a waterfall. She made me sit on a couple of rocks near the edge of the trail, and jumped.
I freaked out, thinking she’d just tried to kill herself, with me, this tourist kid, a witness who didn’t know how to find his way out of the woods.
But her head popped up, and she grinned at me. “Jump, haole.”
“No way,” I called down, and started to walk away.
I waited a few minutes, just within the tree line, and watched her climb up over the edge to the rocks where I’d been sitting. Then she met my eyes, and said, “You’re terrible at hiding.”
We got back to the hotel, and she asked me to let my parents know they wouldn’t have to pay her for the next day.
“I’ll just go with you,” I said. “That way, you’ll get paid.”
“You guys gotta stop worrying about that. I don’t need your fifty bucks every single day.”
“Who said that’s what I’m worried about?”
“What, you want to go to some old lady’s funeral?”
“Well, she was your grandmother. And I should probably pay my respects after this morning.”
She laughed and agreed to let me tag along as long as I didn’t ask any stupid questions, which I figured meant no questions at all.
“I guess I’ll let you come. You’re kid sister’s coming, anyway.”
“Yeah, she asked me on Sunday. Well, she asked me why I was crying, so I explained, we talked, and then she asked if she could come to the funeral.”
“You don’t have to let her come, you know.”
“I know. She’s a nice kid, though, and I think it’ll be good for her.”
“She’s just a kid, she won’t get it anyway.”
“Kids get more than you’d think.”
I was skeptical.
“Did you get this kind of stuff when you were her age?” she asked.
“Younger,” I said without thinking long enough to stop myself.
So the next day, we all drove back to her little church. A ton of people showed up to pay their respects to this lady. It made sense; if she was anything like Kehau, anyway. After everyone was gathered, we all walked to the beach again. A couple people carried surfboards; others carried canoes. Once we got there, everybody but the little kids started getting in the water. I stayed behind, and at first Molly held my hand. Her hair kept brushing my forearm, though, so I let go. We watched them open this jar and spread some ashes, and throw all kinds of lei’s and flowers in the water. Then they prayed and sang, and after that they all sat for a bit.
After a good half-hour in the water, they came back in, and we all went back to the church to eat. Everybody was laughing and talking, and Molly was being fawned over, and I couldn’t get my skin to stop prickling and itching. I looked at my arms and hands, and they looked all crackly again. I went to the bathroom to look in the mirror, and my face was cracking, too. I was so uncomfortable, I just ran out, back to the beach where I thought nobody would see me. Kehau followed me with Molly behind her.
“What’s wrong, haole?” she said.
“What’s that gibberish even supposed to mean?” I asked, kicking the sand.
“It means without breath.” She frowned at me. “At least, that’s what it meant at first. Then it meant foreigner, and now it just means dumb white kid who can’t pull his head out of his own ass.”
“Classy,” I said. “Shouldn’t you be getting back to all those people who love your family so much?”
“What’s wrong with you? You wanted to come and now you just run out? What the hell?”
“Nothing,” I said.
“He doesn’t really know,” Molly said. He’s just not happy and he doesn’t know how to feel different.”
“Shut up, Molly.” I thought she was such a dumb kid. What could she know?
“Chris, why wouldn’t you get in the water?” she asked me.
I glared at her. Kehau looked at Molly, who asked if she could talk to me.
“You sure?” she said, like they were sharing some secret.
Molly nodded, so Kehau walked back toward the church, letting her hand rest on Molly’s shoulder as she passed.
“Well, why not?” Molly demanded, sounding the way she does when she chews out the girls who flip their hair and snicker at her in school.
“It’s not safe,” I said. “It’s too dangerous.”
“It doesn’t have to be. It’s strong, but it doesn’t have to be scary.”
“You don’t get it.”
She thought otherwise, and I started to lose it.
“You just – you can’t get it, Molly,” I said.
I sat down and scratched at my shoulders and legs. Then, Molly came over and took off my shoes.
“Please, Chris,” she said, and pulled at my hand until I stood up. She led me down to the water, and as soon as the waves hit my toes, I dropped. I couldn’t stand it anymore.
I kneeled at the edge of the water, and as the waves rushed higher, the prickling got worse. Then Molly knelt next to me, took a handful of sand, and rubbed it on my arms. The prickling subsided as a thin, leathery shell peeled off my arms and slid into the water. My cheeks burned as salt water splashed my face and met salt tears. Molly rubbed her thumbs across my cheeks and these scaly patches fell into the waves, and the breeze cooled me. Then her arms were around my shoulders, and I could feel her tears dropping onto the base of my neck, breaking the surface tension of whatever droplets of water had gathered there after the last tidal splash.
“At least you knew her,” she said. “You miss her ’cause she was there for you to miss.”
I brushed my fingers through the ends of her hair wrapped my free arm around her.
“Okay, Molls. I’m sorry.” My throat got tight and tears mixed with seawater. “Let’s go home.”