WISHING FOR THE AWESOME POWER OF INVISIBILITY
Good Abby has the job of keeping Bad Abby in place on her first day at a new school. I’m hopeful that Bad Abby will stay in her cage, though at times, keeping her caged is more work than it is worth. It is important, however, and Good Abby knows this more than anyone. This is a chance to start fresh. When the teacher says my name, “Abby Kaiāulu?” I cringe, wishing I could throw that in the cage too. My Hawaiian name doesn’t allow for anonymity and that is a rule of Good Abby: remain anonymous.
“Here,” I say. I’ve chosen a tone that communicates indifference. Not too loud to express exuberance, but not too quiet to raise any flags of social concern. Instead, an even tone to express, maybe, boredom, but without an edge should be neutral enough to be forgettable.
Another rule by Good Abby: Don’t draw attention to yourself.
The teacher looks at me. She’s cute with wire-rimmed glasses perched on the end of an upturned nose. Her white skin is dotted with freckles and auburn hair cut short and fluffy around her face. “Did I pronounce your last name correctly?” She smiles. Classic teacher move: disarm with a smile.
I nod - even though she’s butchered my name - in an effort to steer the center-stage light onto the whatever is waiting for us in US history. While being at a new school is actually a positive thing, Good Abby knows how important it is to make a good first impression. It is imperative to hide the truth of what I did, to keep what happened at my last school from happening here too.
Next rule authored by Good Abby: Stay under the radar.
Freckle-nose teacher says, “Would you say it please?”
I sigh. “Abby Kaw-ee-aaawww-oo-loo."
Teacher makes a note on her clipboard.
I return to doodling waves in the margin of my clean notebook wishing I was in the waves at Makaha with perfect sets of four to six faces rolling in on a clear and calm, sunny day. I imagine the azure water stretching toward the horizon, the kai wrapped around my body like a hug. There is no need to be sitting inside a school room for lessons about US History.
But pixie-teacher isn’t thinking about waves at Makaha Beach like I am when she says, “Such a pretty name, Abby. What is the ethnicity? It’s so unique.”
I blink and force myself not to roll my eyes, keeping Bad Abby in check. Every pair of eyes in the room, at least twenty of them, are now on me at this third, pointed question. I sink a little lower in my desk chair and answer her, “It’s Hawaiian.”
“Hawaiian. Wow!” Her eyes grow to nearly the same circumference as her glasses, and her smile is extra bright. “I want to travel to Hawaii,” she adds. Bad Abby offers the following snide observation: you and a majority of the rest of the world. Good Abby is able to keep Bad Abby’s snarky comment internal, however, and focuses on Tinker Bell teacher’s words. “We’ll study the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom later this year, the imprisonment of the Queen, and the annexation,” she says. Guilt bubbles up a little at Bad Abby’s ill-manners, and I wonder if Perky Teacher will teach that annexation was illegal? If so, then Bad Abby’s chagrin would be justified. “Welcome to Cantos, Abby,” Good Fairy Teacher finishes.
I force a slight smile to acknowledge her comments, but not too flashy. I don’t want to encourage this interrogation any further.
Even though the teacher finally moves on to today’s lesson about using Cornell Notes for the lecture, I can still feel the eyes of the other students in the class boring into me, trying to mine me for secrets. Everyone else has had over two weeks to acclimate to the school year, and for many of them a lifetime of knowing one another. It’s my first day as a junior at Cantos High School. Right now, I’m wishing that CHS stood for Camouflage High School, a place where I can blend into everything around me due to my awesome power of invisibility.
THIS VERSION OF ME
I escape into the first bathroom I find. Water on my face feels good. Don’t cry, Good Abby coaxes. Don’t you dare cry! There’s no reason too. This is a good thing!
I take a breath to send oxygen to my tear ducts, to dry the threatening tears. I imagine sitting atop my surfboard rolling with a swell, the ocean a home of comfort. I miss it even if I don’t deserve it. In my mind’s eye I see Poppa: his dark Hawaiian skin, a deep golden brown, his wet silver-black hair sparkling in the sun. He lays down on the board, hands in the water, paddling as another wave rises behind us. With a look back at me, his gleaming white teeth showing with his smile, he calls, “Come on, Tita!” Then he’s standing on his board, gliding away from me through the water.
Not that memory, Bad Abby scolds. That one’s sure to start the water works.
I haven’t surfed since Poppa died.
A glance in the mirror and I see the ocean in my eyes threatening to fall. I can never go back there. Poppa is gone. I’m ruined.
No one here knows, Good Abby reassures. We’ll keep it that way.
Cantos is my new home like it or not. The new chance.
I stare at my face in the mirror and feel the self-induced insults:
You’re so stupid.
Why did you have to ruin everything?
Everybody at home knows what you did.
While I’m present, standing in this high school bathroom with my reflection staring back at me, my mind travels a million miles away. I’m on a cyber superhighway logged onto a Twitter of my memory. My shame waits there for anyone to search. All anyone has to enter is the right key words, or the correct hashtag to ruin my life here too. Forever waiting.
A gaggle of girls enters the bathroom giggling. They see me and stop. They are blond and beautiful, such an exotic contrast to the monotony of my brownness: skin, hair, eyes - all of me. I look away from them down at the sink and hide the tears that have slipped from my eyes. The group’s conversation resumes though in quieter tones.
Good Abby rule: Avoid eye contact.
I’m successfully ignored. I wipe my eyes. Bad Abby thinks a smart-ass remark wanting them to feel as bad as their dismissal of me does: basic, haole bitches. Good Abby bites her tongue.
Another Good Abby rule: Don’t speak unless spoken to.
I slink out of the room, head down, and run right into somebody walking through the hallway. Ass on the floor and Good Abby can’t contain the bad one any longer: “What the hell!” I snap. “Watch where you’re going!” I look up at the culprit. The anger catches in my throat. I’ve bumped into a boy the size of a wall.
“I could say the same thing about you,” he replies. His voice has the lure of the ocean surf in the distance, a gentle and relaxing rumble. His bright blue eyes are the Hawaii Pacific Ocean, intensely bright set in the golden glow of his bronze skin. His black hair is longish, curly, hanging over his sharp features though his lips are soft and full. He holds out a hand, the sinew of his muscles hinted in the exposure of the brown skin at his wrist.
He helps me up.
Someone in the hall passes and jostles him with a shoulder. The Wall loses his balance and knocks against me as I stand, but I don’t fall a second time. His arm wraps around me and keeps me from falling to the floor again. We’re so close that I smell the clean scent of him like soap and a hint of something spicy. My hand still in his, an arm around his solid and unforgiving shoulders, electricity winds up my arm straight to my heart that flutters with the current.
“Freak,” a passing voice in the hallway says.
I pull away regretting the loss of the connection, but unwilling to go back to the social dump. Been there. Done that. This is me starting over.
Good Abby rule: Selectively choose your friends.
The Wall looks at me. His eyes have narrowed, the color now flinty, and the energy I thought I felt retreats somewhere safe. I notice the knowing look on his face, and it is a knife in my gut. His jaw tightens. He recognizes this current version of me all too well. I identify his awareness because I was him, after all, the one they called names. It may have not been freak, but slut or whore did the same kind of damage. And I knew a version of this new me too, and it makes me feel ashamed.
“Sorry,” he mutters and pulls his black hood over his head as he walks away.
Good Abby coaxes the bad one not to look back, not to watch him walk away. Bad Abby wants more than anything to turn around, say she’s sorry and let him know she’s been there. But she listens to Good Abby and goes to her next class. I walk away wondering which one is good Abby and which one is bad?
A SCHOOL OF FISH
Good Abby rule: Find a school of fish in which to hide.
I might as well be a lone fish beyond the reef alone in the lunchroom. It is only a matter of time before the sharks circle and tear me to shreds. I spot an empty table across the room next to the tall windows. Lots of light. No one to my back. Safety.
“Hey sis,” my brother, Nate, says as he plops down across from me after I’ve taken a seat.
Relief fills me, and I breathe deeply to refill my strength with the comfort of home.
Nate’s a younger, male version of me, and handsome at fourteen. The creamy white of our mother’s ethnicity sharpens his soft Hawaiian edges, kisses his smooth brown skin with a tiny smattering of freckles on his nose and cheeks, and softens his dark hair into brown waves with golden streaks. His eyes are dark brown like our dad, rounded until they droop to points on the outside, turning up with his smile. In that moment, great pride for my brother whirlpools through me, but also such horrific loss of home.
I don’t allow myself to visit with that loss for very long, however. If I thought about what I’ve left behind - my home, the sea, the language, the land, my poppa - I might never be able to catch my breath. I’d also never be able to start over and try to forget the shame I’m trying to hide. Besides, what has home given me but heartache? I’m an explorer now, searching out what’s new, and better, so I can hide, lick my wounds, and heal.
“Where’s Mattie?” I ask scanning the room for the identical twin. They aren’t usually very far apart.
“There,” he says, turns his head, and points with the direction of his look.
I follow his gaze and find Matt across the room holding court with other boys his age. They laugh at something he's said.
I smile, encouraged that my brothers are finding a place. “It looks like he’s made friends already. You too?” I ask.
“You know it, Sis. Who can resist my good looks and charm?”
I give him a playful backhand against his arm.
“It helps to join sports, you know.”
“Yeah. Too bad I only got the surfing genes,” I say. “Good classes?”
“Eh. School." His lip comes up at the edge with distaste, but I know he doesn’t mean it, the smartest of all of us.
As much as I hate to do it, I say, “You better go over there with him.”
“And leave you?”
“Look, Freshman. First of all, it isn’t cool for an upperclassman to hang with an underling. Second, it’s really important to find your pack.”
Nate, the caretaker, just looks at me as he takes a bite of his lunch. He looks around at the empty table, “I see you’re doing a pretty good job of that,” he says around the food in his mouth.
“Not with you here. I’ll be fine. I promise." I pull a book from my backpack and hold it up as proof.
He shakes his head. “Okay. Whatever you say, Ab." He goes because he knows he doesn’t have much of a choice. I always get my way when it comes to my younger brothers.
I watch him walk away and regret that I let him go. It would be safer to have him with me. He joins Matt. I watch the twins speak and Matt looks toward me. I give him a head nod and he nods back.
I look down at the opened book and reread the same line unable to concentrate on the text. My mind wanders, thinking about my brothers, this move to Oregon, my poppa, and my parents. I miss Poppa like a missing limb. My father hasn’t been the same since Poppa died either. Poppa was a binding between us, between a culture lost and which we seem to be floating to find. He used to say, “Tita, don’t look to the world to fill your na’au. The world offers you emptiness, and you’ll only be ʻono for more, like your makuakāne.” I didn’t understand, and still struggle to grasp his meaning, but reflecting on my dad and what’s happening now there’s more to this move than just “starting over.” Logically, I know we didn’t make this move because of the storm I’d been facing at school; my family didn’t know what happened. While the timing was fortuitous for me, there’s more to this mo’olelo than we’ve been told. My parents are seeking tethers. Oregon is one for my mom. They think we don’t notice the strain showing between them.
A sweet, lilting voice breaks my wandering thoughts. I look to my right at a cherub-faced girl smiling at me. Her hair, blond and spiral curly frame her round face. Her cheeks are pink and her eyes blue and I wonder if she’s an anime character come to life.
“I’m Hannah.” She sits down next to me. “We have history together, with Ms. Rowan.”
I don’t remember since I was more consumed with staying out of the spotlight. “Abby.”
“Right. With the Hawaiian name.” She slides over and opens her lunch bag. “Does your name have a special meaning?" She pulls out a tin and sets in on the table in front of her
“It is a name for a gentle trade-wind breeze on the Leeward coast of Oahu,” I tell her and think about adding the famous song about my ʻ home, but realize she wouldn’t understand.
“Oh, I like that. My name is so dull. Fleming.” She opens the tin to reveal a sandwich with seeds all over the bread. “Sounds like that stuff in your throat when you’re sick, phlegm. Means something like ‘from Belgium,’” she uses her hands to make air quotations. “I guess maybe that means my ancestors are from Belgium. I don’t know though. It really seems like my family has been in Cantos since the beginning of time." She stops.
I breathe for her.
“I hope you’re having a good first day.” She continues talking about Cantos High School and the ins and outs.
I listen, since it doesn’t seem that I need to talk, and good Abby likes that. Hannah appears nice, but like a victim with post-traumatic stress disorder, I’m waiting for the mean words or the backhanded insult. Good Abby reminds me that no one here knows. Bad Abby says, yet.
“Oh, I’m sorry. This is my issue - I don’t stop talking. You have to interrupt me, or I’ll just keep going, filling the silence.” She giggles. “Let me introduce you to some of my friends.” She turns to the group who are sitting at the opposite end of the same table and waves them over.
She goes through their names, but I’m not sure that I will remember them later it happens so fast. There are a couple of boys and some girls. One girl, who Hannah includes because she seems to have just been in the vicinity, looks a bit put out by Hannah’s introduction of me. Her name is Sara and though she’s really pretty with her porcelain doll good looks, I’m reminded of the flighty look of a niuhi, a tiger shark. When I notice the eye flickering Morse code between others at the table when Hannah introduces her, I think my instincts might be right. Good and Bad Abby both say: One to stay away from.
At least for now, for today, I’ve found a school of fish. I look at Nate and catch his eye. He smiles at me.
A DIMPLE AND A WALL
Good Abby has done a thorough job of keeping Bad Abby in place during English class and maintains control when it's time to move on to the last period of the day. When I get to the art room, most of the chairs behind tables arranged into the shape of a giant horseshoe are filled. I sit in one that is insulated on either side by an empty chair.
Once I’m seated, a boy entering the room catches my attention. He assesses the scene of the space. His countenance assured and confident; a fist bump with another student near the door confirms he's part of the pack. His gaze connects with mine and a charge buzzes the bottom of my spine, but his look bounces away to talk to the fist-bump guy.
I can’t help but watch him, his demeanor enigmatic but magnetic. He has got this enchanting, dimpled smile that lures me. It is the perfect complement to his otherwise proportional features: his jaw strong, his lips full, but not feminine, and his nose slightly crooked as though it was broken once adding character to his otherwise perfect face. He's lean and lithe; tall. I’m reminded of the surfers at home shaped by the water like hands that shape their surfboards. Locks of wavy, light brown hair with sunny highlights fall effortless against his forehead, relaxed.
I look away when he starts across the room toward me, chagrined to have been caught staring at him, and convinced that he gets stared at a lot. Good Abby isn’t happy with the staring, but then, he appears to be a part of the right crowd which reassures her. Bad Abby, on the other hand, is interested and that is dangerous. We know where that leads.
He takes one of the empty seats next to me, and glances my way, offering that easy smile. His eyes - brown with flecks of gold - twinkle, like he’s got a secret and it bothers me that I can feel that look as concretely as if he touched my skin. I also don’t like that it works, that practiced art of charm. I’m reminded of Kanoa and feel shame reach up with gnarled fingers to squeeze my throat.
With a deep breath, I turn my attention to something innocuous and reach into my backpack for a pencil. I notice that Adorable Dimple leans back against his chair, one leg stretched out, the other knee jutting out to the side. Someone on his left says something. He laughs. Familiarity brushes my consciousness with watercolor strokes. I have the urge to hug him and ask him how he’s been, but check the impulse, horrified. My cheeks heat thinking of how embarrassing that would be. Switching gears, I adjust my bag, straighten in my chair dismissing the strange whim.
The second bell rings just as another student steps into the room. The Wall I bumped into earlier! A glance around the room, I realize that he’ll have to sit next to me since all of the other chairs are taken. I feel a rush of unease. I’d been awful the moment someone had shown him disdain and feel ashamed of myself. But what could I do differently? There was so much riding on this new start. I couldn’t go backward.
He walks around the border of the desk arrangement toward the chair next to me. His lips, the bottom just slightly fuller than the top, nears the edge of a frown but seems to want to communicate apathy. His eyes study the floor as he walks. He swipes a hand over his forehead pushing back his dark hair, the edges of it curling over the olive skin of his hand and removes the hoodie. His hair springs back around his face in dark curls. When he glances up a moment, his look collides with mine and I’m struck again by the depth of his blue eyes, how startling they are in contrast to the weighted countenance of everything else about him.
I look away quickly, hoping he didn’t notice I’ve been watching him. There’s a curious effervescence of movement in my cells. A shiver - not unpleasant - steals across my skin while the chair legs of the seat next to me scrape against the linoleum floor. The Wall sits, crossing his arms over his chest. I steal another glance, but he isn’t looking. His profile is rigid and emanates the suffering artist. I’m so curious and Good Abby says, cut that shit out. Bad Abby says nothing but wants to keep staring at him.
The teacher’s voice catches my attention, but barely. I draw my look away from The Wall and focus on the teacher in the middle of the horseshoe.
“Welcome back arteests,” he says. “Let’s take a bit of time this afternoon to continue getting to know one another. Names again. And this time,” he pauses for effect, “a little-known fact about you. I’ll model: Mr. Mike Andrews. Again, please call me Mr. Mike. Let’s see. Ah. I got it: I play the guitar in a garage band, and I don't mean the video game kind.”
A few in the class laugh. “Mr. Mike. No one plays that game anymore. It’s ancient.”
The teacher grins which makes me smile. “Laugh all you want about my ancient wisdom. One day soon you’ll join me in the non-video game garage band ranks. Let’s start with you, Kara.” He holds a hand out toward the petite girl at the edge of the horseshoe.
One by one, the students share their names and a fact. I can feel my palms sweating, anticipating the moment I have to share something about myself. The words others say are incoherent. Are they speaking English? I’m running through possible things to contribute - something safe. There isn’t anything that I want to divulge. Whatever it is, the fact has to be innocuous, so it isn't memorable. How could I know that one day this "fun fact" wouldn't be used against me?
In the time it has taken my gut to work itself into a writhing coil of sea snakes, the boy to my left is speaking. “I’m still Seth Peters,” he says, “and my fun fact is that I surf.”
“That isn’t ‘little known,’” the fist-bump boy says.
“That’s ‘cause I’m an open book, Ball,” Seth says and smiles. “I’ve got nothing to hide.”
That dimple again.
The Wall makes a noise, a whooshing of air from his mouth as though he were going to say “shit,” but stops himself.
I wonder about it but then zero in on Dimple’s name: Seth. That name adds to the watercolor painting in my mind that his face started. My subconscious analyzes the information for something with which I’m familiar. Seth. Seth. Seth Peters. It begins to coalesce into a tangible, recognizable work. I once knew a Seth Peters. I look at him directly. Could it be the same one? I want to ask him about it, but realize that it is silent, and all eyes are on me, waiting for me to share.
Mr. Mike gives me a cue, “next.”
“Oh. Sorry. Abby Kaiāulu,” I pause embarrassed and flustered and add, “I just moved here from Hawaii." It seems safe enough.
“Nice to meet you, Abby. Thank you,” Mr. Mike says.
I look to my right at the Wall.
A random voice blurts, “Freak,” just loud enough so that the class collectively stifles laughter.
Mr. Mike clears this throat and telegraphs a disheartened gaze around the class. “Mutual respect is a non-negotiable,” he says. “And your fun fact, Gabe?" Mr. Mike encourages him to share.
“I like sports.”
“Boxing especially,” someone mutters clear enough for the rest of the class to hear. Snickers, eye rolling, and elbow jabbing make a wave around the room, all a reaction to the comment.
I glance at Gabe and his jaw tenses. I see the muscle work, bunching up slightly as he presses his teeth together. He removes his hands from the table top, shoves them into the front pocket of his sweatshirt, and then slips a bit further down into his seat.
“Enough,” Mr. Mike says, the ease of his smile and easy-going nature gone. “Any more comments get you sent out of this class and into cleaning the room just through that door,” he points to an open doorway beyond his desk, “where all of our dirty paint brushes, old clay buckets, cutters, palettes among other art supplies are waiting for volunteers to clean them. Is this non-negotiable clear?” Mr. Mike pauses, the look on his face drawn by gravity toward the floor.
I wish I’d had a Mr. Mike last year, and then think about Kumu Ike in whose room I’d often hidden away during free periods. I suppose I had in a different way, but no one had stood up for me like Mr. Mike just did.
Mr. Mike looks at Gabe and says, “Thank you, Gabe. Next.”
I take that moment to look at Gabe again as the name game works its way around the rest of the horseshoe. I’m confused as to why he would cause such a reaction. His exceptional looks and imposing stature should have commanded premier social standing. It didn't make sense. What could he have done to be the social outcast? Though he leans back in his chair, his long legs out in front of him, and his arms crossed over his chest staring straight ahead, I see that he isn’t as indifferent to his classmates’ reactions as he wants to appear. Something we have in common.
In the next instant I realize that I’m staring into his disconcerting eyes. One of his eyebrow’s arches in question of my perusal. Mortified, I look away at my notebook where I can doodle away my shame. It’s then that I see a note has been scrawled in the margin:
Abby? Really from Hawaii?
I write back:
Seth, the boy who I think I know, reaches over my left arm to respond. His warm skin brushes against mine as he writes.
Did you used to come to Cantos during the summertime? Spend time with your Grandma Bev?
A smile blossom grows on my face and tension in my shoulders dissipates like steam. I write:
YES! You're Seth? Grandma Bev’s next-door neighbor, Seth?
I look at him and he smiles, that dimple again. I remember: all those summers spent at Grandma Bev’s before she’d moved to Arizona. Seth, the little boy who’d lived in the house next door. Seth, my first crush!
I smile at him, a real smile. For the first time all day, it’s a smile I don’t feel like I have to measure against one of Abby’s rules.
“I can’t believe it,” he says with a shake of his head when Mr. Mike sets us free to look at art books for inspiration.
“I can’t remember the last time-” I turn the page of a Van Gogh coffee table book. When I look up, Seth is watching me.
“Six summers,” he says.
Something peculiar happens in my stomach when he says it. A sense of déjà vu. A moment that seems to hint that I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be. A feeling that announces to my heart that of everyone I have interacted with today, this person is safe. But how can I know that? I barely know him and the last time I did, I was ten. A lot can change in six years. I should know.
“That’s right,” I say turning the pages of the tome. “Grandma Bev moved to Arizona six years ago.”
Seth looks at an equally large book about Rembrandt. “I was sad when that happened,” he says flipping the page. He keeps his eyes on the book, leaning forward to scrutinize one of the pictures more closely. It’s a painting of a man who’s holding his son down, an angel grasping the man’s arm and a knife falling from the man’s hand. I glance at the title, The Sacrifice of Isaac, and shiver. “Nana Bev was an awesome lady,” Seth says and then sits back up.
I nod and smile thinking about my Nana traipsing around the world and snow birding in Arizona. “She is. She’s the world traveler now,” I tell him and talk about what Nana Bev’s been up to.
Eventually he asks, “Do you surf?” He looks at me then, his smile a little different this time, not so bright and practiced. It’s as if those edges have softened and something less tangible but more real emerges. A slight variation, but I notice it.
“I do; surfing was born in Hawaii you know.” I glance at Gabe who's flipping through a volume about Dali. He looks up at me. His attention darts from me to Seth, and then he looks away back at his art book. He looks bored.
“I love this one,” I say and point at one of the Van Gogh paintings. Seth leans toward me and our shoulders graze. My muscle memory kicks into gear, and my nerve endings spark at our touch.
Don't get caught up, Abby, Good Abby warns. That's how we got into trouble last time.
Seth leans over his book to mine and follows me on my journey through Van Gogh land. We laugh at a skull smoking a cigarette.