My roommate's in Hawaii, and I have the house to myself, plus two large black dogs, for the first time in quite awhile. She asked if I'd ever been there, to Hawaii, and I said "Yes." "Yes, when I was very small."
So small I got forgotten.
I've been forgotten a lot. Left behind, left out, alone. In fifth grade, on a school trip to Vancouver, Canada, I asked to go to the bathroom while we were in the Sears tower, and when I returned five minutes later, the whole class was gone. I went to the ticket office and told the guy I thought we were going on a harbor tour next. He called around until he found a booking for The Catlin Gabel School, then drove me over on his lunch break. I fell asleep on the sofa in the office of the boating tour company. When the teacher walked in, not only did he not notice me on the couch, they had never realized I was missing over the last three hours. There were fewer than forty kids. Even though it was their fault I missed lunch, they wouldn't stop to feed me. I'm sure they felt just terrible, but you'd think they could have gotten me to a sandwich. I had gotten myself across a foreign city to find them, when they should have been finding me, hadn't I?
It's something in my cosmic makeup - could you find it in my astrological chart? Is it some great Karmic payback? And what's up with that Karma thing? I could get behind that more squarely if we could actually recall what we had done wrong last time round.
Anyway, in second grade, my mother consented to a trip for me in Hawaii with my father. I'm sure she arrived at this decision with great trepidation; my father was unreliable, to say the least. Yet off we went, my father and me, to Honolulu for a week. We visited Kauai, we toured tropical gardens, we watched polynesian dances, we bought oysters curbside from a man who knifed them open to see if they revealed a pearl, my birthstone. I tasted sugar cane, I tasted mango, and I tasted poi, from the purple taro root. I thought I'd never taste anything worse.
One morning, we left out hotel room and walked the few blocks to Waikiki Beach. On the sand, in my swimming attire, he said he had to go buy socks, and would return shortly.
Hours went by. I don't remember eating anything; I must have been quite hungry. I do recall walking out into the aquamarine water, but never really swam. I think he told me not to. So I waded, and I dug holes with my feet in the sand, and I tiptoed along the shoreline. And I waited.
An old Hawaiian man was there, weaving those crane-like figures out of something like palm fronds. He kept me company for quite a long while, speaking to me gently, and offered me one of his pretty birds, for free.
I don't know if he stayed with me until dark. The sequence is a little blurry, as things tend to get when they go on too long. It was dusk or worse when my father returned.
I wonder now at the things that could have happened to me alone there in that city, on that shoreline. A girl of seven, and pale as I was, I don't know why I didn't burn.
As we walked back to our hotel, we passed the large glass window of an art gallery. Showcased there was a large oil painting, a jungle garden in greens and purples, and broad painterly strokes. I mentioned liking it, and out came The Wallet. My father was notorious for buying presents when he felt guilty. This is when I realized he was drunk. We argued for maybe ten minutes, as I obstinately refused to allow him to make such a purchase. What kind of child was I? I had this acute sense that if he bought it, it would be dreadfully wrong. "Too expensive, Daddy," I kept telling him. That, and I didn't like the way it made me feel.
I prevailed, and we made it back to the room in time for him to pass out on his bed.
I must have been awfully hungry, but I don't remember it at all.
Then I did what I was told. Mother had given me clear instruction: "If he gets drunk, you call home."
Home. What's the distance between Portland and the middle of the South Pacific? 2600 miles.
The man at the front desk was brisk and officious, in that Disneyfied over-friendly manner. If you've ever been to one of their theme parks you know what I'm talking about, they hurt themselves smiling. Anyway, I might as well have been talking to a government worker; clearly there was no paragraph in the employee handbook that covered what I was telling him. No box to check, no button to push. He was incredulous. I don't think he thought I was making anything up, he just refused to hear me at all.
Why don't you go back upstairs to your parents?
At some point, my father rallied enough to open an eye and notice something missing from the room. He phoned the desk while I was standing there. I believe the man put me on the phone with him. I believe I explained to my father that I could not possibly rejoin him, my mother had forbidden it. I wrested myself from the grip of his morose slur as quickly and as tactfully as I was able. I didn't want to hurt his feelings any more than I had.
Again. Why won't you go back upstairs to your father? He wants you with him.
Was everybody so doused and high in the late seventies that the languid warp of a drunken voice failed to register? This was the point that day when I felt the most abandoned, I think. Abandoned not only by my father, but by reason, by decency, by humanity. Did this man really not get it? I buttressed myself with sheer will, so I could repeat it, one last time. Once more was about all I could bear. The turmoil wasn't solely explosive frustration, it was also fear, shame, loss, and guilt.
My father is drunk. He has a drinking problem. My mom said if this happened, I'm supposed to call home. Will you please call my mother?
I had to be crying at this moment, hadn't I? If I wasn't, or if I hadn't already been, I was nothing like the child I remember. I was so sensitive, so easily hurt, and yet always with this unnatural composure in tough situations. My stoicism did not always include absence of tears, still, I never fussed, I never made a scene. I must have had a mother lode of compressed emotion from my silence and my stillness. It's abnormal for humans not to react when their world goes awry. It's certainly not normal for children. My mother will tell you I was a bit of a whiner when I was very tiny, but I never once threw a temper tantrum, my entire childhood. How can that be? My mother slapped me across the face continuously for sassmouthing when I was only telling the truth. My father was a train wreck by the time I was three and a half. In that same year, my grandmother tried to kill herself while I was in her home. There were sirens and flashing lights, and men in uniforms taking her out of there and to who knows where. My father flew into physical rages at my brother, and his own schizophrenic brother had recently killed himself. When we drove up that steep hill on his property on John Day River, our land with the indian petroglyphs and the antelope, I was terrified because I didn't know about gravity, and I was sure the wagon would fall backwards off the hillside. He wouldn't stop the car, not for me, his littlest one. He was laughing. I might have been sleep walking when I had night visions of a smallish cartoon dragon who followed me around the house. It scared me so badly I would sneak into my parents room, where I was not supposed to sleep, to curl up on the floor at the foot of the bed with my mother's dog, until such time as they found me. I had dreams of the house on fire, and I was afraid of my own heartbeat, because I didn't know that was what I was hearing. I thought there were soldiers marching, and they were coming for me - no doubt it was seeing the end of Vietnam on the tv, while my dad drank bourbon and Coke. For years I slept in closets and under beds. I would clear my toy box out just so I could hide inside. Once, my mother panicked after she couldn't find me or the dog for over an hour. I had crawled up inside a long laundry bag full of dirty clothing and fallen asleep, clutching the poodle. I just wanted to be safe. My mother gave away my pet rabbit before I turned five because, as she put it, I wasn't taking proper care of it. Four-year-olds don't take care of pets, they spill water on the way to the cage and scatter pellets. In later years she would tell me that the bunny had died, and she thought telling me some farmer had it would be greater consolation than knowing it had croaked. It doesn't really matter what happened, all I know is what marked itself indelibly on me: I had lost something I loved because I hadn't loved it enough. All this before I was five.
Then we left.
So I don't know what finally broke the hotel employee down. Maybe I looked just pathetic enough to distract him from his busywork or the fact that I wasn't going away, but it was an epic struggle to get him to dial the eleven lousy numbers they undoubtedly billed to the room.
Next I was staying at the home of my stepfather's childhood friend, for the duration of my holiday. Al Harrington was Det. Ben Kokua on a popular tv show that bridged the end of the sixties into 1980. I watched Jack Lord bust bad guys amid all those bikinis and surfboards and beautiful dark women with keen interest. I didn't love it quite so much as Emergency! and Johnny Gage, but the theme music was thrilling enough to keep you hooked. In some ways my life consistently has this ridiculous and strange twist - just as things have gone all to shit, no sooner than my people have reached their lowest abjection, up pops some remarkable circumstance, in drops a celebrity. Al was very handsome and very large. I don't remember much about the few days I stayed with them, these complete strangers. I must have completely disassociated by this point; on the other side of trauma are people you've never met. They were nice and I was polite, and then I was back on an airplane for home.
The stewardesses were nice and I was polite, and they were probably just relieved the kid was quiet. It was nighttime, and the weather was bad. One of them wrote me these letters in red on a white cocktail napkin I kept for years. She wrote them because I asked.
"Male Kalekemaka." Merry Christmas.