In my dreams, I wake up in my childhood bed. I make my way through the house that is no longer my own and find my mother sitting in the kitchen, staring out the window. The sky is a sheet of gray, a blank face. I cannot even see Diamond Head. My mother cradles a black and white portrait of an old woman in her lap. I do not recognize the old woman.
I say, “Who is that?”
My mother says, “She doesn’t want you to leave.” Her eyes fixed on the photograph. The blank face of the sky.
I say, “Why?”
She repeats, “She doesn’t want you to leave.”
I ask, “Am I dreaming?”
My mother says, “You can’t leave. She says she doesn’t want you to leave. You can’t—”
In my dreams, I cannot escape my mother’s love.
My sister is two years younger than me, but she’s a better driver, so I sit in the passenger seat as she takes us through Waikiki. We are at a red light, trying to turn right onto Kuhio Avenue. But then a Honda blocks the intersection, and then a lifted Tacoma truck cuts us off, and then a tour bus speeds in front of us, and then, just before my sister makes the turn, a gaggle of tourists steps into the crosswalk.
My sister stares at the tourists in their swim trunks and sunglasses. She watches them walk past and, with a straight face, whispers, “I’ll kill you.”
“Jesus Christ,” I say, but I’m laughing.
“I will,” she says. “I’ll literally run them over.”
And suddenly we are both yelling through the windshield, yelling, “Move! Move! Hurry up!” yelling, “I will literally run you over!” Both of us glad our parents took a different car, both of us knowing we will always have to stop for tourists.
Why do you want to go so far away? There’s a good college down the hill. You want to get out of here that badly? What are you going to study? Oh. But what are you going to do with an English degree? The East Coast is so far away, how will we even see you? There’s no reason you can’t just stay here. Who will take care of your mom and dad? Airplane tickets are expensive when you go to the East Coast. Are you sure you want to go so far away? Just wait for the winter, and you’ll want to come right home. And—oh, the food’s good.
The mountain shrugs its mossy shoulders to the sky. We walk between the two peaks, ants crawling up the spine of a sleeping giant. Gravel crunches beneath our feet. We would have thought it sounded like snow, if we had known what snow sounded like, but so far all we’ve seen is endless summer. We drink sunlight like nectar.
Here the wind is sharp as sea glass, and goosebumps prickle my skin. Josh finds an extra flannel in his car, and I wrap it around my shoulders, and for a moment I wish I were a baby again, swaddled. “We’re like penguins,” Josh says, “huddling for warmth.” At least here the air is fresh, sweet, and bright as lilikoi.
We make our way to the cliff of the Pali. It is a steep drop, with bushes and trees littering the rocks. There is a rock barrier guarding the cliffside, and I peer over it, the stones against my ribs. Near the lookout, a beehive lies crushed on the ground like a corpse. Dozens of bees hum from the brush, invisible static, as they search for their hive.
Three hundred years ago, blood ran in silky ribbons down the mountainside. The O‘ahu warriors were cornered here, the enemy before them, the cliff behind. They had the choice to surrender or die. They leapt over the edge. I imagine them now, tumbling through the rocks and brush, like loose change spilling from a careless pocket. They kissed the ground, blossoming on the rocks like roses. Now, at night, they circle the island, a line of spirits marching from the mountain to the ocean. They carry torches, scar the night sky with the smoke. I turn to Josh and ask him what it would feel like to fall.
Outside my dreams, I find my mom in the kitchen. She stirs a pot of chicken noodle soup with a wooden spoon. I sit at the counter across from her. “I probably won’t even get in,” I say. “Like, there’s no way I would get in.”
“But you have to apply,” my mom says.
“I mean, yeah, I’m going to apply,” I respond. “I’m just saying, I’m not going to get in. So don’t worry about it.”
My mom looks at me. On the stove, steam swirls from the pot of soup. “You really want to get in.” Not a question, but a statement.
My eyes prickle with tears. I don’t even know why. “Yeah.”
“Then you’ll get in,” she says. “And you’ll go.” She doesn’t say it, but I know what she means: You’ll go, but only for four years. You’ll go, and then you’ll come back.
My mom is right. I do go, and it is everything I thought it would be. It is the clock tower, its face a glowing, yellow moon. It is the blizzard that washes the world in white, the snowballs we chuck at the stop signs. It is the sunset from the edge of the city. It is a football game that we already know we will lose. It is karaoke until 2 a.m. in the morning. It is sitting on the train with a book open in my lap, watching the world in its yellow leaf. It is us, huddled beneath the tentacles of the pipe organ, falling asleep on each other’s shoulders.
I want to melt down every moment, keep them in a heart-shaped locket around my neck. But time is like water between my fingers. The scene always ends, and a new one arrives, burning just as brightly.
I fly home for Christmas. My mom asks about my friends, and I tell her I love them, and it’s true. She asks if I enjoyed myself, and I tell her it was the happiest I’d ever been, and that’s true, too. “But I’m happy to be home,” I say, “where I don’t need to wear slippers in the shower.” She laughs at that.
I do not say that everything at home feels so much smaller now. The mainland had bricks crammed together to form a sidewalk, cars shuffling bumper to bumper past the overflowing bookstore, buildings so close together that you couldn’t tell where one started and the other ended.
Now I am walking down the street, past my house, and I cannot shake the feeling that none of it is real. The plumeria trees, the stray cat lounging under the mailbox, the surfboard standing in my neighbor’s garage—it all feels like a movie set now, two-dimensional, plexiglass, and styrofoam. I stop in the middle of the road to look at the parrots, half a dozen of them, strung along the telephone wire like the beads of a necklace. A car rushes past, swerving around me. I returned to the island, and I realized I had outgrown it like the womb. I came home, and I realized I had become the tourist.