By Amira Shea
Sweet winds come to me much as before. They bear salt for my lips, caress the nape of my neck. Icterine sun splashes malachite leaves rises to entwine falling drops, each into the other until the union bears a rainbow. Black lava and red clay bind and balance me much as before. Much, but not everything, is as it was. Now there is piss on the breeze. Ray-cut shadows harbor rot and rain wrenches rust forth without consent. The land is more coral than sand, and I, too, am not as I was before. My heart beats less, weighs more.
We stood in cool darkness outside the community center. Patches of wispy clouds drifted past a waxing moon, fading to backlit grey against dull stars. The meticulous landscaping included strategically placed plumeria trees, and their heady perfume, the signature scent of these islands, enveloped and overpowered the smoke from our cigarettes. Night-blooming jasmine growing in one of the fenced yards coyly joined the bouquet, slipstreaming intermittently. We extinguished our smokes in silence and headed slowly back to the waning graduation festivities. It had been a pleasant evening spent among the family and friends of our daughter’s boyfriend, and we were in no particular hurry. From a few steps behind, my husband asked without preface, “Do you think you’ll ever leave Hawaii?”
Tightening the grip on my purse strap, I stopped and inhaled deeply. Wispy flora wound down my throat, looping my lungs, down to coil in the pit of my gut. “Ropes now,” they whispered, “No, never. You could never…” I took hold of the slippery vines overrunning my psyche and tugged, hand over hand. I unwound them from my lungs, and pushed them back they way they came. Exhaling into the night, I turned to face him. “Yes, actually. I’ve been thinking about it recently. How about you?” My voice was low, hesitant.
“Yeah, me too,” he answered. “I don’t see how we can continue to live here.” He bridged the feet between us, and we fell in step, walking silently and slower than before.
Inside the banquet hall, the blue and white colors of Kamehameha Schools draped tables, chairs, streamers and balloons. 250 people, Kupuna to Keiki, Cousins, Aunties and Uncles laughed along with the comedian and gasped at the hypnotist. Balloon animals squeaked and bulged in one corner, a photo-booth with cheery props was put to constant use. On the back lanai, guests piled plates from a generous buffet of local foods, the graduate’s favorites: Teri Chicken, Sushi Rolls, Lomi Salmon, Ahi Poke, Beef Stew. Lei strung from money, ribbons, yarn, and flowers hung from his neck and the necks of his mother and father. They were good people. The young man treated our daughter well, and his parents welcomed her as one of their own. I’m so glad they are together, I thought first, then immediately, I’ll miss them. This last part a strange pebble tumbling through my mind. Once unimaginable to me, the idea of leaving Hawaii was now viable, tangible, loosed from the silt of solitary musings and wonderings and presenting itself to the real world. It could no longer be ignored.
Back at home, we settled into the remainder of that Saturday night: pajamas and movies for our youngest kids; phones and games for the older ones; my husband and me out on the back porch, smoking and throwing darts. Instead of the usual trash talk between turns, we spoke about leaving.
His reasons were mainly financial, and the numbers didn’t lie. A family of four earning less than $93,000 per year was defined as being low-income, according to then-current (2018) U.S. Housing and Urban Development guidelines. We, however, are raising six children, and supporting a brother-in-law who suffers from a chronic failure to launch – this – in a market where home prices quadrupled in 20 years and milk sells for $10 per gallon. Hard work, sacrifice, and having extended family on the island have sustained us, but even when our combined income topped $200K, we were never more than poverty-adjacent. It was increasingly unlikely that our children would be so lucky. For the past two decades, we had been frogs in a pot, paddling to keep our heads above water as the temperature rose. I paddled the most furiously, staunchly defending the price of paradise. Gradually, though, almost imperceptibly, our skin blistered and our flesh cooked.
“Look around,” I was fond of saying, “You won’t get this anywhere else. Sure, we could buy a compound in Nebraska for the price of a year’s groceries, but then we’d be in fucking Nebraska!” Then a small, decrepit house in a historically undesirable part of town slid across my feed one day. It was listed for $1 million dollars, and became my proverbial straw. I admitted defeat, if only to myself at the time.
“When the pediatrician’s office called to schedule her annual physical, I was caught off guard. My eyes misted and my tongue grew thick.”
Squaring up to the regulation distance line duct-taped to the concrete slab, I fanned and flared the plastic flights on my custom titanium darts, squeezing the fins between four fingers and twisting slightly to ensure a firm attachment to the shaft. I cocked my right arm and closed my left eye, zeroing in on the bullseye, and let fly. Thup. Thup. Thwack. My shots echoed through the pitch black of our grassy common area, bouncing off the surrounding aged, wooden dwellings. The stale musk of crushed jacaranda blossoms drifted over from the road. I collected my darts under the glare of our focused trouble light, recorded my points on the chalk scoreboard and retreated to the patio table. Lighting another cigarette, I agreed things were getting too damned expensive.
“There’s more to it though,” I began, “everything is changing.” I rattled off a list of the ways and was surprised to realize it had been 10 or 15 years since some occurred. A favorite after-hours haunt, the kind that only really got going at 3am was one. Its viscera of shabby barstools, well-worn go-go cages, clouded drinkware, and chipped shelving were unceremoniously dragged onto the sidewalk for bidding vultures. Now million-dollar glass-and-steel condos stand on its grave.
The sea has reclaimed so much sand from Waikiki beach that most of the current grains are imported from other beaches or from miles offshore. Astroturf-like sod sits demurely a block from the strip, where an armada of flagship stores – Valentino, Hermes, and Tiffany’s among them – are tastefully broken up by Cheesecake Factory and Cheeseburger in Paradise franchises. One block over you can rent a Maserati, if you’re not in the market to purchase one, and escape the hustle and bustle.
Farmland has yielded to sprawling suburbs, replete with gated communities. The roads and related infrastructure, dormant for decades, now scrambles rabidly to catch up. 24/7 construction guarantees Oahu an annual spot in the nationwide ranking of worst traffic. We left our house in the country to rent closer to work because the 16-mile commute had ballooned to two-hours, one way. 597 square miles has never seemed tighter or more congested.
Our family was changing too. Our eldest daughter had left home two years earlier, and was doing well in the military, attending the same training and working the same mission as my husband and me had before her. When the pediatrician’s office called to schedule her annual physical, I was caught off guard. My eyes misted and my tongue grew thick. Swallowing hard, I managed to eek out, “Umm, she’s in the Air Force now, she’s an adult…so yeah, she, uh, won’t be coming in this year.”
“Oh, ok, I see. I’ll take her off the reminder list then,” the receptionist replied crisply, in a hurry to escape the awkward space I’d created. Just like that, I thought, there’s one less thing to remember. One less. Our next in line graduated this year, and along with her boyfriend, started college in the fall. One day, I realized that since she’s living on campus, I wouldn’t need to pick up her favorite fruit roll-ups. This led to another round of tears and drew a few uncomfortable stares in the produce section. Another thing less. We are far from empty nesters; however, this new, leaner lineup of A Tribe Called Shea is taking some getting used to.
But children leave home, landscapes change, and places go out of business in most places. The rich eat the poor and crap jacked-up commercial consumerism most days. If it bothers you enough, you leave; if it doesn’t, you stay. I knew these factors played a part, but taken alone didn’t account for the paradigm shift I was experiencing.
The truth was, my existence in the only place I had ever called home now felt like a divorce. Not the white-hot flash paper, scandal-ridden, tearing asunder of poorly planned and hastily built homes. The kind I had in my early 20’s. No, this was slower, gentler, and profoundly more painful. This was looking up from coffee on an otherwise unremarkable morning, to realize that you felt no longer bound to the table beneath you, the person across from you, the life surrounding you. This was not anger, nor betrayal nor the desire to meet new people or do new things. Not a midlife chasing of young flesh and elective surgery and fast cars. This wanting to leave Hawaii was simply the expiration of a forgotten lease, signed decades prior, and covering a specific time of life. It felt as simple and as cruel as turning in the keys and driving away with only the clothes on your back. Somewhere along the way – I may never be able to pinpoint where, exactly – I went from being from here to just here.
“I feel like I don’t belong here anymore,” I started when it was my turn to speak, “I can’t explain it. We go the same places, we do the same things, and it’s like we’re just going through the motions. January: we go to the park for Martin Luther King day, March: spring break, June: the start of hurricane season and summer vacation, October: pumpkin patch – if it’s not too crowded – and then comes the whirlwind of ThanksgivingChristmasHonoluluCitylightsNewYearsEve and boom! The sound of illegal aerials dies down, the smoke clears and January 1st marks the reboot of our own personal Groundhog Day.” I offer this cobbled together explanation slowly, quietly. I’m afraid to hear my thoughts out loud, breathe life into them with my speech.
“I mean, it’s been 20 years,” I continued. “This is all our kids know and I feel like we’ve failed them in a way. I never imagined raising root-bound children. There’s a whole big world out there, and they’ve grown up on a rock. Beautiful and lovely but a rock all the same. Fucking 20 years. Now the rock is expensive, and everything smells like piss to me – I mean, I smell it everywhere, and there’s nothing new or fun, at least not enough to lure us out of our rut, and it sucks. Doesn’t help that all of our friends have moved away either.” I paused.
My words felt like a betrayal, but I knew this place no longer cared for me. I wondered if it ever did to begin with. My love for this land was tethered in the rosy memories of youth. Maybe Hawaii had merely been a soft landing after a nomadic childhood, and I’d forgotten that the respite was supposed to be short lived.
“It’s been 20 fucking years, and there’s nothing holding us here,” I continued, “20 years and it’s time to go.” I slumped in my seat—spent, nervous, and at once excited at the possibilities.
My husband nodded and shrugged in agreement before leaning forward in his patio chair. Gardenia-saturated puffs swept at wayward ashes on the table. Geckos cried out for mates. Stars winked their approval as he called his phone to life. “Siri, find me jobs in London.”
Amira Shea is a graduate of The Mountainview Low Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction.