On Sandy Beach
We drove the road to Sandy Beach every Saturday. First me and Grandma, and then me, Grandma, and Fetu, after he was introduced to the family and before he decided to leave it. In the morning, when the fog hung, we couldn’t tell what was land and what was ocean. If we could, we would have seen that the road was carved in sea cliffs that rose to the left and on the right fell straight down to the Pacific.
My favorite part of the drive was when it was over, but Fetu loved the last turn. On early mornings we stopped at the lookout and watched the sunrise turn the night-black water purple and gold. Sometimes it didn’t look like water at all. It looked like a road we could run away on.
In early summer, Grandma liked to make lei. She’d invite us over, and we came, laden with the bounty of our gardens. Though he was always welcome, my mother’s brother, Uncle Alema, rarely joined, excusing himself with his work at the police station. But that June he came, and with him he brought Fetu.
As we parked in front of Grandma’s, I got Mom’s first attempt at an explanation.
“Today we’re going to meet your cousin,” she said.
I was five and not sure what she meant. “Who?” I asked.
We stood in front of grandma’s locked wooden gate, nestled between two bay rums. Mom knocked, impatient.
“Uncle Alema has a son,” she told me. “He’s been living with his mother.”
I snatched a handful of the bay rum’s leaves just as Alema answered the gate.
“Mom’s on the deck with her friends,” he said.
The glossy leaves crushed in my fist as I followed Mom in.
I had always disliked my uncle, even before what happened with Fetu. Dad left when I was two, and I wasn’t used to being around men. It didn’t help that everything that came out of Alema’s mouth was double-edged. I never wanted to be alone with him, and though I hadn’t told this to Mom, she knew it. She pulled me in front of her, and I dropped the bruised leaves. The air with their spicy scent as Alema shut the gate behind us.
Grandma’s deck wasn’t actually a deck, but the converted roof of her garage. To get up there, we had to climb a wooden ladder. Worn by years of use, its wooden rungs were smooth. My hands and feet slid, rushed by Mom’s hands on my ankles.
“My favorite girls!” Grandma said when we got to the top. She was already garlanded. “Give me a kiss.”
We did, and Mom complimented Grandma’s mango tree, heavy with humpbacked Haydens that were just beginning to ripen. I dumped our bag of soaked flowers over the toweled table and smoothed the blossoms with my hands. Then, with Mom distracted, I escaped to my corner.
At these lei parties, I sat at the edge of the deck. There, wedged between pots of orchids, I could avoid the questions of Grandma’s friends. But that night, a boy sat in my corner. He saw me just as I saw him.
“I’m Fetu,” he said. He was seven years old then.
He twisted the ribbed scythe of a mango leaf in his hands. At this gesture, I found my own nerves relax.
“Can I sit with you?” I asked.
He pushed the pot beside him so I could fit. A flock of parrots roosted in the tree above us. Our legs swung in time.
“My mom says they’re escaped house pets,” I told him.
“Do you think we would make it if we jumped?” Fetu asked.
I looked down at the mondo grass below. “Definitely not,” I said.
The air of early evening was steamy with summer. Half-lost in the neighbors’ trees, the sun’s compromised light made everything soft. Beads of sweat strung the skin above my upper lip. Fetu held up an immature, green mango.
“Should I throw it?” he asked.
Just then, Alema walked out of the house, wiping his hands on his pants. Fetu pointed at my uncle, and I said no, but he was already cocking his arm back. The mango flew, spiraling through the air, imbalanced. It clocked Alema on the side of the head.
Alema reached up to where the mango had hit him. Behind us, the party quieted. I glanced back to see Grandma in a haku, Mom’s hand frozen mid-pour above Grandma’s wine glass. Alema’s gaze hardened when it landed on us.
“Which one of you threw that?” he asked.
“I did,” Fetu said.
“Down here. Now.” Alema’s voice was clipped with anger.
Fetu walked across the deck, and I stood to watch him. My heart pounded in time with the hollow sound of his feet on the ladder’s rungs. Mom stood beside me, and I leaned in to press my head against her bony hip.
“What the fuck did you think you were doing?” Alema demanded. He picked the mango up and held it in his hand. “Are you an idiot?”
Fetu didn’t answer. It was then, as he stood across from Alema, that I realized it. The long profile of their noses were shaped by the same hand. Alema tapped Fetu on the forehead with the mango. I flinched.
“I said,” Alema tapped him again, harder, “are you an idiot?”
“No,” Fetu said.
I was surprised by the stability of his voice, that he was not crying as I would have. Then Alema slapped Fetu across the face with his empty hand.
Mom gasped. “Alema!” she said.
Alema looked up and dropped the mango. Mom was across the deck, down the ladder; she ran to them. Kneeling in front of Fetu, she held his face in her hands. A red handprint spread its five-petaled stamp on Fetu’s cheek. Behind me, someone whispered.
Mom took Fetu into the house, and I retreated to sit next to Grandma. The gate slammed, and Alema’s truck roared outside. Grandma squeezed my hand.
“Why don’t you start,” she said, and passed me a lei needle.
The party thawed as everyone returned to what they’d been doing. One of Grandma’s friends strummed an ukulele. I threaded the needle like Mom had taught me, licking the tip of the string and passing it through the eye. Grabbing plumeria after plumeria, I repeatedly stabbed blossoms, thinking of the heavy sound of Alema’s hand on Fetu’s face. As the needle filled, I pushed the flowers down to hang loosely on the thread.
By the time Mom and Fetu came back, everyone was singing again.
Mom sat Fetu down beside me. The tips of his hair were wet, and his eyes were red. Mom sat across from us. I handed Fetu my half-strung lei.
“Do you want to finish mine?” I asked. “I don’t like the color.”
He took it. I grabbed another needle.
“Here, I’ll show you,” I said.
Mom watched as the two of us thread lei, sorted through the flowers for the best. We alternated colors. We tore petals. We pricked our fingers every now and then. Our blood mixed with the flowers’ sap. When we finished the lei, we hung them around each other’s necks.
Later, after we’d left Fetu with Grandma, I thought of how scared Fetu must be, having been taken from his mom to live with a strange man.
“I’m proud of you. You did good today,” Mom said.
That was five years before the kiss.
Sandy’s was the type of beach where necks got broken. Most dangerous were the shallows. There, where Fetu and I played, the sea floor inclined without a buffer between the break of the wave and hard-packed sand.
Though there were dozens of safer beaches we could have gone to, Grandma couldn’t boogie board there, or stop by Costco after. She probably shouldn’t have taken us to Sandy’s, and she definitely shouldn’t have left us alone to bodysurf, but she did, and she wasn’t the only grandparent to do it.
I stood on the shore. Goliath waves broke in front of me. I was eleven, and Fetu and I had been going to Sandy’s for six years. Feet from me, he played in the whitewater as a wave built behind him. I wanted to warn him, but didn’t, knowing he’d laugh. When the wave broke, he dove under it.
Whitewash bubbled around my ankles. Sand covered my toes, chunky bits of coral, shell and bone that had been smoothed in the constant rhythm of the ocean. It sucked at my feet, pulling me in.
Fetu’s head floated in the bubbles. “You’re wet.” He splashed me. “Come in.”
He stood, water dripping from him, shining as I wished I could. Every drop of water glistened, catching the sun. It wasn’t just the water I was scared of. Sometimes I was also scared of him. He was fast, forever springing into motion, and with him I often found myself on edge. It’s not that I didn’t trust him, it’s that I was scared of most things then. And part of me was unsure about how I felt, about the weird pull I got in my gut when I thought about him.
The next wave’s foam swirled around my knees. My fair skin burned in the sun. I longed for the relief of water surrounding me, suspending every hair on my body, but could not dive into the ocean like Fetu. I turned to run up the sand berms, to where Grandma had set up our umbrella, but before I could, Fetu was on me. He tackled me into the sand.
When we fell, it was harder than I expected.
At the edge of the shorebreak, we wrestled. Waves shot water up our suits, in our ears and eyes, splaying my hair around my head. Fetu laughed. Out of the ocean, his brown hair was spiky. His lashes were blond-tipped. He pinned me down, rubbing sand into my suit and face, a handful into my hair. At first, I laughed too, but soon the sand became rough. Its grains dug into my scalp, grew hard against my skin. They slipped in my mouth and when I bit down, the grains crunched. I elbowed him, and then suddenly, he was pulled off.
A lifeguard stood over us, face shaded by a red cap.
“You okay?” he asked.
Instead of answering, I glanced at Fetu, who sat five feet from me, behind the lifeguard. His hand clenched around a fistful of sand. A strand of my blonde hair curled between his fingers.
Grandma slipped up the beach, still in her fins. “I’m so sorry,” she apologized.
The lifeguard ignored her, handing me a bottle of water. “Rinse your mouth,” he said.
I took a sip and swished. Fetu leaned forward onto his knees as he watched me, brows pinching with nerves. The freshwater was sweet in my mouth. Spitting, I found no blood or teeth, only saliva and broken fragments of sand. The next wave whisked what I’d spit back to the depths.
“I’m okay,” I said, and Fetu let out a long breath.
“You shouldn’t leave them unsupervised,” the lifeguard said to Grandma. “The beach is busy, and I don’t see everything.”
She was quiet, and he sighed.
“Take care of yourself,” he told me. Then he walked back down the beach to his tower, raising his radio to say something I couldn’t hear as Fetu crawled across the sand to sit back next to me.
“What were you thinking?” Grandma asked Fetu.
He took my hand without saying anything.
“You know what,” Grandma said. “I don’t want to know. We’re leaving.”
Fetu and I held hands as she corralled us over the hot sand, only dropping them to help Grandma pick up the towels. It was earlier than we usually left, but we both knew not to argue. We both knew that with Grandma, like Alema, it was best not to say anything.
Barefoot, we tip-toed across the pokie-filled grass to the beach park showers which even then were rusted and covered in algae. Smooth bars of soap and crusted shampoo bottles were shoved between pipes, left by the unhoused and beach regulars. Grandma squeezed a bit on each of our heads before disappearing into the bathroom.
“I’m sorry about tackling you,” Fetu said.
I massaged the shampoo. It was quiet besides the sound of suds popping.
“It’s okay,” I said.
Fetu took a handful of bubbles from my head and patted it to his face, shaping a beard.
“Let’s play a game,” he said.
I looked to see if Grandma was still in the bathroom.
“What kind of game?” I asked.
“Tag,” he said, and reached for me.
Under my feet, the cement was mossy and slick. I stepped back, and fell before he could touch me. The ground was hard against my bottom. The sting of hurt and shampoo mixed. I began to cry.
“I’m sorry.” Fetu was on his knees.
He wiped the suds from my forehead. If Grandma saw me crying again, she would tell Alema, and we both know what that would mean for Fetu. I let Fetu wash the moss from my elbows and back. He rubbed gently, until I was no longer slimy. Something inside me warmed. I looked up at him.
“It hurts,” I said.
Fetu helped me up and we looked at my elbows. There were no scratches or blood, but a warm flesh had crept to the surface.
“It’s going to bruise,” Fetu told me.
Over our heads, kites flew, dotting the sky in green and red. My chest rose and fell in shallow breaths. Fetu poked my cheek and stuck out his tongue. I laughed. Just then, Grandma came out of the bathroom. Fetu ducked under the shower to wash the bubbles from his cheeks. At the car, we changed into clothes and from across the backseat, I watched as Fetu stripped off his suit. Outside the window, Grandma held up a towel, hiding us from the eyes of the people who passed. Fetu watched me back.
At Costco, I helped Grandma shop. Fetu skated through the aisles, sneaking free samples and playing hide n’ seek with himself. Each item Grandma and I crossed off the grocery list was a little victory, and we barely noticed Fetu was gone until he met us at the exit. Leaving the cool of the warehouse, we unloaded the shopping cart into Grandma’s car, and when we were done, we got in.
From Costco to Grandma’s was another half hour. I was hungry and tired from the sun. Fetu and I leaned against the locked car doors and faced each other. He pressed his feet against mine. Behind him, shower trees passed through the glass of the car window in a kaleidoscope of color. We spent the whole ride like that.
Back at Grandma’s house, we helped bring the food in, the dogs following us as we did. Grandma made us turkey and cheese sandwiches while Fetu and I sat at the kitchen counter. I was more tired than hungry, and after half a sandwich, I was in pain, the overly toasted sourdough cutting the top of my mouth. I set the sandwich down and took a long sip of water.
“Finish your food,” Grandma said.
Fetu was already done and had left me alone at the counter as he played with Grandma’s shells, driving cones across the floor like cars. I forced bites down like pills, swallowing each with a gulp of water. When my plate was finally empty, Grandma took it.
“It’s time for a nap,” she said.
In the bedroom, we changed into pajamas as Grandma set up our mattress. She left, and I lay down, the fresh sheets crisp and cool beneath my sun-warmed skin. Fetu dozed beside me.
Everything in that room was green. In fact, everything in the house was, from the forest of Grandma’ towels to the mint of her walls. Even the light, cracking the blinds, was filtered green through leaves. In all that green, I thought of growing. I thought of the tree outside, the grass, the garden. I thought of how Fetu had looked when I first met him, in the fading summer light. I fell into a shallow state of dreaming.
I woke to the ceiling fan spinning. It felt like I had not slept at all. The mattress moved, rustling the sheets. When I turned, Fetu was so close I could see the sand in his scalp. Under his left eye, I noticed a triangle of freckles I’d never seen before.
“Hey,” he whispered.
His breath smelled of turkey. I began to sweat. Tendrils of breeze tugged at my leg hair. Outside, Grandma talked to the dogs as she fed them. Hard pellets rattled as she poured food into their metal bowls, a shot of water in each so it was soft enough to chew.
My mouth was dry. My lips were chapped. Fetu kissed me, and I let him do it.
His tongue explored me with a certainty I had not anticipated. He tasted sour. When he pulled away, I counted the spins of the fan, tried to make faces out of the cracks in the ceiling. I fell back to sleep with Fetu’s warm hand on my chest, but when I woke he was gone.
A year later Amy entered our lives. She started off as a clerk at the police station where Alema worked, and then before we knew it, she had moved into Alema’s house. She brought with her a host of problems, most noticeably her dislike of me, Fetu, and my mom. But while Mom and I had it easy, had our own apartment we could escape to, Fetu was stuck there, in the house with her. I was too busy growing up then to realize how hard that was on him.
Years passed and Fetu and I went to different schools. We made different friends. I took up volleyball. He became the starting quarterback. As we got older, I retreated into my shyness, and Fetu began practicing manhood the only way he knew how, mimicking his father’s anger and accumulating a string of girlfriends. Because of all this, I barely saw him.
And then, Amy got pregnant. I was sixteen, Fetu seventeen then. We had stopped going to Sandy’s, and only saw each other on holidays, when my mom and I drove over the Pali to Kailua, where Alema, Amy, and Fetu lived. Their house was a single-story. Fetu slept in a room behind the kitchen. The few times I sat on his bed, it didn’t smell like him. It smelled of burnt pasta, dry chicken, the plastic of Lean Cuisine dinners Amy ate, post-pregnancy. He never complained about it.
When Harrison was born, Amy said he’d sleep with her and Alema for the first few months, and after that he’d move to the back room with Fetu. I remember how Fetu looked when Amy said that, how he speared the turkey on his plate, how the hand in his lap clenched.
I wasn’t there a few months after that conversation, when Fetu got arrested. It was just Amy and Harrison. But I’ve heard the story so many times that I can reconstruct it.
It starts in the kitchen. Amy stands, reaching. She is trying to open the microwave oven. Her belly hangs over her skirt, a reminder of the body she had before Harrison. She’ll never have that body again.
Alema is sleeping at a cot in the police station. Fetu is in his room, the door to the kitchen open. In the living room, Harrison cries. Amy leans against the counter and blows on her leftovers.
“Go check on him,” she says.
When Harrison sees Fetu, he stops crying. He smiles with his gums and kicks his chubby legs so hard he rocks the high chair. On the ground lies a bowl of spilt Cheerios.
Amy stands in the doorway.
“Pick them up,” she says.
Fetu sweeps the Cheerios into a dustbin. He thinks he has them all and turns to empty them out. Amy stops him. She points at the corner of the room that has not been swept for months. There is a tangle of human hair, feathers, dust. There is a single Cheerio.
“Sweep it up,” she says.
He sweeps it up.
In the kitchen he empties the dustbin into the trash. He puts the broom and bin away and opens the fridge. Grabbing peanut butter and jelly for a sandwich, he puts them on the counter. The fridge door is left open.
“You’re letting the cold air out,” Amy says.
“It wasn’t open long,” he says.
She stomps over to the fridge and grabs the loaf of bread. “Look,” she says. “Let me show you how easy it is.” She closes the door and puts the bread on the counter, walks back to the fridge and opens it again. “See. Simple. You do it.”
Fetu doesn’t move.
“Do it,” she says.
“I don’t want to,” he says.
“Just fucking do it, Fetu.”
She grabs his shirt. He tries to shrug her off, but her fingers are hooked into his armpit. So he pushes her. He throws her across the room. Hitting the counter, she falls to the floor.
Fetu takes a step towards her, and she flinches. Her right wrist hangs from her arm like a bracelet should. It doesn’t look like part of her.
“I’m sorry,” he says.
She elbows him away with her good arm and stands, cradling her wrist.
“I’m calling your father. I’m calling the cops,” she says.
This is where we come in. This is when Fetu called my mother. She and I were sitting, taking a break from dancing to Frank Sinatra. We had just finished dinner and our sides were in stitches after spinning around the apartment.
“Can you come get me?” he asked over speakerphone.
I turned the music off. He was crying, his voice thick through the static.
“I need your help,” he said.
He tried to explain what had happened. It was a story Amy would retell and contradict.
“I don’t know what to do,” he said.
I grabbed the keys.
“We’re coming,” Mom told him, and then we were driving to him.
The cops were at the house when we got there. Their lights flashed down the quiet dead end. Fetu sat in one of the cop cars, and when he saw us, he raised his hands to the window. He was handcuffed and crying. Amy stood in front of the house, yelling at the police. Mom tried to talk to the officers, but they wouldn’t listen to her. They told her to get Alema to call. They told her to find Fetu’s mother. When the cops drove off, their sirens pierced through the rolled-up car windows, and we sat there and listened, long after they’d left.
We were only there when Fetu got sacked because Mom had promised Fetu we’d go to his game. I was usually playing volleyball, so we rarely got the chance. The game had already started by the time we got there. The bleachers were full, but Grandma had saved us seat beside her in the third row. When she saw us looking for her, she stood and waved, a white hibiscus pinned behind her ear.
By then, Fetu had been living with Grandma for a few months. Amy hadn’t pressed charges, but Alema had kicked Fetu out. From what Fetu told me, life with Grandma was boring but safe. In the mornings they blended smoothies, and Grandma took him to school. She did chores and saw friends until it was time for him to be picked up. Sometimes she’d watch from the parking lot while he played football. They’d go home for dinner, then take the dogs out. Each night ended in the living room, where Fetu did schoolwork and Grandma read.
The only time Fetu said he was happy was when we picked him up to surf. Out on the water, he said he felt free. While Mom and I caught waves, he’d paddle out past the lineup to sit and look at the horizon. Sometimes he’d lie back and stare at the sky. I’d try to imagine what he was feeling, but I felt so far away from him then, like I was somewhere below the ocean while he floated in light.
On the bleachers, Mom and I sat next to Grandma. Fetu stood on the sidelines, looking trapped.
“How’s he playing?” Mom asked.
“It’s been a hard game,” Grandma said. “His left tackle got hurt.”
The opposing team’s offense was on third down. A whistle blew, and the quarterback handed the ball to runningback, who didn’t make the conversion. The ball was punted, and bodies sprinted, pivoted, cleats ripped chunks of grass.
Fetu walked on the field, his offense following him. At the twenty yard line, he and ten other boys huddled. His hands fluttered as he called the play. They disbanded onto the line of scrimmage. A whistle blew again and the center snapped the ball. Fetu chucked it to a tight end.
They were in the red zone when Fetu got hit. He was in the pocket, eyes on his wide receiver. He didn’t see the linebacker running around the right, but I did. I stood. I screamed, trying to warn him.
He threw just as he was hit. The ball spun in the air, wobbly, like the mango all those years before.
I ran down the steps and onto the field, pushing past security and coaches. Kneeling over Fetu, I pulled his helmet off, and found blood covering his forehead. He stirred. “You smell like dirt,” he said.
Mom’s hand knelt beside me. “I know you’re trying to help, but you’ve got to give him space,” she said.
She pulled me up and back, her fingers tight around my elbow as we stood beside Grandma. Trainers knelt in the spot I’d been, velcroing Fetu’s head into a brace. I felt my own throat constricting as they strapped him to a gurney, and we followed them over the field, and down the ramp to the training room.
“What happened?” Fetu asked.
One of the trainers got out a penlight to check Fetu’s eyes.
“The ambulance is ready,” the trainer said.
Fetu tried to sit up. “I don’t need an ambulance.” The plastic brace cut into his neck.
“Don’t move.” I pushed myself in front of the trainer so Fetu could see me. “You’re bleeding.” My own voice rang in my ears as the training room lights washed the color from his face. I took his hand and squeezed, and he stopped struggling. When he was wheeled out to the ambulance, Grandma got in with him. Mom and I followed them in our Acura to the hospital. There, the emergency room doctor said Fetu was severely concussed.
“According to the trainer’s notes, this is his third one this year,” she said. “He needs to take off the rest of the season.”
“It’s my senior year,” he said.
She clicked her pen. “You just suffered a traumatic brain injury, and if you keep playing, it could lead to permanent damage. You won’t be able to move, to speak. You might not even be able to think.”
The waxy paper on the exam table crinkled. I started to cry. His jaw clenched.
He didn’t speak again for the rest of the night. Not at the hospital, or the car ride home. Not as we helped him into the house or put him to bed. When he looked at me, it was like something had locked behind his eyes, like a room had shut on me. It was like the boy I’d grown up with wasn’t even there.
Fetu spent the next week in bed. Mom was working night shifts as a waitress back then, so I was often alone in our apartment. When I didn’t have volleyball practice, I visited Fetu at Grandma’s. I thought I could distract him. I brought him gifts—pretty leaves I found on the hood of my car, candy from my school’s cafeteria, flowers I picked at lunch. We played cards. We attempted to watercolor. We baked, and on the nights Grandma left we snuck out, taking turns around the oleander-lined blocks.
Sometimes Grandma had her friends over, and I’d stay with Fetu in the back room, listening to Grandma’s laughter through the wall. It was on one of those nights that Fetu told me about his mother. We sat in his room—me on a chair, him on the bed. The shoyu chicken Grandma had made was too hot for me, so I’d left it to cool on the dresser. Fetu ate, mouth open to let the heat out as he chewed. I whistled Blackbird to the shama thrush warbling out the window.
“My mom used to sing that song,” Fetu said.
“Do you ever talk to her?” I asked.
He stopped eating. “When I was a kid, I burnt all the skin off my hands,” he said. “I was hungry, and my mom was in the bedroom with her boyfriend. I’d asked her for something to eat, but she told me to take care of it myself, so I went into the kitchen. She’d forgotten she’d left the stove on. It was one of those electric ones that you can’t tell is hot, and I put both my hands on the burner. My skin just melted.”
He turned the steaming rice in his bowl with his fork. The bird chirped the notes I’d sung back.
“She took me to the hospital, and at the hospital they called CPS. Before that, my dad didn’t know he had a son. She was only two months pregnant when they got divorced. Her boyfriend thought I was his,” Fetu said. He looked out the window and I looked with him, but we couldn’t see the bird. “After I burnt my hands, she told them about my dad so I wouldn’t go into the foster system. They called him and he didn’t believe it. He made them do a paternity test.”
I stared at Fetu’s hands, noticing for the first time the scars between his fingers, remembering the leathery feel of his palms when we had walked through the beach park hand-in-hand. He began eating again. On the other side of the wall, in the living room, someone dropped a glass.
That night I woke to moonlight stretching in rectangles across my bedroom wall. Mom was crying. When I walked into the kitchen, I found her sitting on the floor, our landline phone to her ear.
“There must be some way to know where he’s gone,” she said.
“What happened?” I asked. I was still sleep-dazed, everything a little round.
“I have to go.” She stood. “Let me know if you find anything.” She hung up. “Honey, go back to bed.”
I shook my head. “Tell me.”
“What do you mean?”
“Grandma went to check on him, and he wasn’t in bed,” she said.
“Did he leave a note?”
She said no. I was wide awake then.
“We have to go out,” I said. “We have to find him.”
“Honey, it’s two in the morning.”
I sat on a barstool. I picked up my phone, which I’d left on the kitchen counter, but there were no calls, no texts.
“Where would he even go?” I asked her. I wanted to run out onto the street, to scream. “Why wouldn’t he tell me?”
Mom came close. She hugged me, and I slid off the barstool and into her arms, letting her hold me up, just as she had when I was five and had fallen in the playground, skinning my knees.
“I don’t understand,” I said.
But a part of me must have, because I knew what Fetu had been trying to say in the last conversation we’d had. He wasn’t telling a story about his mom. He was telling a story about Alema. A story I should have known, but was too selfish to piece together. Because I had never felt the way he had. Because growing up my mom and I had days where we would not speak, days she grew frustrated with my timidness, days where I shut up like a clam after too much of her prodding. We still have days like that. But I know that she is mine and I am hers and there is no one in the world I love like her. There is no one in the world she loves like me. Fetu never had that.
A week later we found out Fetu had run away to his mom. To Hilo, where she’d moved after Alema got custody. I’ve tried, many times, to picture what Fetu must have done, must have said, to convince his mom to let him come back. Unlike what happened with Amy, this story’s never been told to me.
In the years since Fetu’s left, I’ve thought often of our kiss. Though it only happened once, I’ve wished, many times, that it happened again. I never told anyone about it. Sometimes I wonder if it happened at all, or if it was a dream I had, brought on by the heat of Grandma’s bedroom, by my own longing. When I’m alone I return to it, again and again.
The beach at Sandy’s gets cold around 4 p.m. Then, with the sun blocked by Koko Head, the heat fades and the wind brings sandstorms. The naupaka, once green, turns gray. The waves break in black and white. Everything loses color.
The last time I went to Sandy’s, I went alone. I was home from New York for the holidays. On my first night back, Mom asked me to come to a friend’s dinner party, but I was jetlagged. I wanted to relax, but when I tried I couldn’t. So I left the house. I planned to drive to Makapu`u, to look at the Mokuluas. Instead I stopped at Sandy’s.
The parking lot was a box full of beer cans and sand. It was early evening, and the families had left, their broken boogie boards shoved into trash cans, their sandcastles crumbling in the breeze. In their place, young people sipped beer, smoked weed, laughed.
Sitting on the curb, I ate my sushi, my bottom cold from the cement. The sand was lower than I’d ever seen, tides and storms having stolen the beach. The berms Fetu and I had wrestled on were gone.
I didn’t see Grandma until she walked up. It was a Wednesday, so I didn’t expect her. If I’d checked the parking lot, I might have seen her car. I might have been able to avoid her. Instead I was forced to say hello, something neither of us wanted.
Her hug smelled of sandalwood and sunscreen. She had a white hibiscus pinned in her hair, just like all those years before. I hadn’t spoken to her since I graduated from high school and moved to the East Coast.
I told her about my apartment in Brooklyn, the freelance work I did. Grandma told me about the retirement community she’d moved into and the salsa classes she took. The conversation came to a pause too soon, and I found myself asking about Fetu.
“Not since he left,” she said. “Well, he called once. Asked for his social security card. And his birth certificate. Said he wanted to go to college.”
For a shining moment, I pictured Fetu at university, somewhere far away from Alema and Amy. He was walking across a green lawn, surrounded by people who loved him as I did.
“I don’t think he made it,” Grandma said. “Last thing I heard he’d knocked up his girlfriend.”
And with that, my dream was replaced with a small house in Hilo, with peeling walls and a screaming baby at the foot of the bed.
“Do you have his number?” I asked.
She shook her head.
“I sent a Christmas card, but they sent it back,” Grandma said.
In front of us, waves pummeled the shore. Their crashing mixed with the laughter of the last beachgoers. It filled the space between us. When we said goodbye, it was without hugging. Grandma walked down the beach and climbed up to the parking lot, where I watched her dust off her feet with a towel before getting into her Prius.
I left my food on the curb and walked to the water. Taking off my shirt, I let the foam tickle my feet. The next wave broke and I was running, up to my knees, to my hips, diving beneath. I skimmed the sandy bottom as the water massaged my back and ran through my hair, tugging at my bikini. I let it flatten me out. I let it crush me.
When I got out, my hair was full of sand. I gathered my clothes and walked up the beach. It was even emptier than when I’d arrived—the lifeguard tower closed, just three cars left. Sitting back on the curb, I finished my sushi. Tradewinds dried my skin to goosebumps. Clouds hung on the horizon, the tops of them catching light. Through the rising fog, Moloka`i was barely visible.
Above me, `Iwa birds flew in figure eights. I knew that beyond Moloka`i lay Maui and Lana`i. I knew that past them sat Kaho`olawe. I knew that somewhere, far to the East, miles of ocean away, was the Big Island. I couldn’t see it. I thought of Fetu in Hilo, and wondered if I would ever see him again. The swell died down. The ocean was black. I got up and when I did, I was the last person to leave Sandy Beach.