Posted on January 15, 2013 by Samara
Kathleen Crisci received an MFA in writing from Sarah Lawrence College in 2008. Her story, "Windows," was anthologized in DIRT: The Quirks, Habits, and Passions of Keeping House, published by Seal Press in 2009. She has also been published in Many Mountains Moving and Mr. Beller's Neighborhood. Kathleen is a co-founder of and workshop leader at Uptown Writers, a venue for writers of all stripes in northern Manhattan. Two of her short stories are featured in the January 2013, issue of Eleven Eleven online journal. She is currently working on a novel.
All the Way to Aloha
When my husband announced he wanted a divorce, it cut deep. Then it became strangely freeing. As our ties began to slowly unravel, I pondered who I once had been before I became half of a couple. I started looking up former friends on Facebook. What happened to the people I’d known in the two decades before my twenty-five year marriage? Might acquaintances from the distant past provide clues to the person I was before I became a wife and mother? I also pored through boxes of relics I’d saved—photos, letters and writings—mostly from my teen years in the Bronx. In discovering the trajectories of the lives of those I’d known in days gone by, perhaps I could discover some truths about my own life that could help me move forward.
In one of the boxes I found pictures of and poems by the first boy I’d loved, Charlie. His Facebook profile said he lived in Hawaii. The pictures he’d posted were not of him, but mainly photographs he’d taken and digitally altered of wild, lush things in vivid colors. I wondered who he’d become. His profile gave few clues. After much consideration I sent him a friend request and a message: What the hell are you doing in Hawaii? He friended me and sent a speedy reply: Aloha.
That first night we chatted on Facebook for close to an hour, immediately clearing up one question: Are you married? He was the one who asked. He’d been married and divorced four times, something I took note of. And then I asked him the most important question: Do you remember me? My heart sank in my chest when he wrote back: Actually, no.
Charlie and I met in an ice cream parlor in the Bronx in 1962. He was seventeen then, two years older than me. He gave me his senior ring and we went steady. He wrote poetry. The poem I
found in my box of relics—the one he’d given me for Valentine’s day—started out: The grave/Afraid… and ended: Go therefore with willingness/ Die. I allowed Charlie to go further with me than I had allowed anyone else, which wasn’t very far but far enough. Maybe not for him, though. After one month he asked for his ring back. For a long time after we broke up I wondered if we might have lasted longer if I’d let him do more.
Among my old photos is a picture of me standing next to Charlie at my Sweet 16 party. I’m wearing a hat made from the ribbons of all the presents I got, the sweater Charlie’s mother had picked out for me, and a wistful smile as I looked up at Charlie. Charlie looked bored. That was, I believe, the last time I saw him.
After Charlie and I split, I pined for him. We attended different schools, but every day at three o’clock I took a bus to the ice cream parlor where I’d met him, always hoping that today—today—he’d go there too, looking for me. By the time I graduated high school and was enrolled in the same college as Charlie, he’d joined the navy. Although the image of Charlie in blues excited me, it was then I knew we were over. He was travelling the world; even after graduating college I stayed in New York to teach in the city school system.
I’m devastated, I typed back.
Me, too, he wrote.
We fell into the habit of chatting with each other several times a week. Soon the chats evolved into phone calls. I lay with my back on the sofa and my legs up the wall, flirting with Charlie more boldly than the schoolgirl of decades ago ever did. Charlie told me that, after getting out of the navy, he’d become a hairdresser. He worked in New York at a major salon before starting his own salon on Oahu, where he’d lived for decades. Then he moved to Maui, and upon retirement, found his paradise in Pahoa, a small town with hippie roots on the Hilo side of the Big Island where he was now an artist, producing his wild floral images on silk banners and metal plates.
After a few weeks of phone conversations he said: Why don’t you come to Hawaii? Had the sixteen-year-old me only been allowed a glimpse into the future, I thought, so much misery could have been avoided. I scheduled the trip far enough in advance so that I’d have months to plan what I wanted to do in Hawaii and dream about the person I’d be doing some of those things with.
Although Charlie invited me to stay at his house, I declined. What if things turned out weird? He suggested a B & B nearby, run by his friend. Charlie would show me around the island, but if and when I wanted to go off on my own, I could borrow his car, his moped, or his bicycle. This was perfect. By this time I’d noticed that Charlie seemed to drink a bit and that he seemed to favor conversations that centered on him. No matter—I had never been to Hawaii before. And I didn’t mind talking about him.
On the flight to L.A. I remained calm—almost detached—only allowing my mind to wander when I looked up to see George Clooney gleaming on the sea of mini-screens all around. On the flight to Hilo, I kept running to the bathroom to brush my teeth and re-apply eyeliner. I found myself singing songs from the jukebox of the old ice cream parlor in the Bronx: The closer you are/The brighter the stars in the sky…. Who was my Hawaiian Charlie going to be? Sometimes I pictured George Clooney; other times I’d pictured the ice-cream-parlor Charlie. By now I’d seen pictures—he looked like the grandfather of the boy I’d loved.
He was late. I scanned every face that went by outside the tiny Hilo airport, wondering what I would do if he didn’t show up. Finally, a man that could only be Charlie— smiling eyes,
weather-beaten face, slight swagger—approached. When he reached me he didn’t stop but opened his arms. I fell into them. For a second or two I became fifteen again. In one hand he held a gardenia he’d picked. For you, he said. There was a papaya in the car he’d also picked. For me. It didn’t take long to register he was three sheets to the wind.
“Would you like me to drive?” I asked, trying to heed the advice I’d given my daughters again and again. He thought that was funny and besides, he said, we were going to a restaurant nearby. I felt better until we were seated and he ordered a bottle of wine.
In the restaurant he gazed at me, the gardenia on the table between us.
“You’re better looking than your pictures,” he said. I didn’t know how to take that.
“Except for one thing…” he continued. “…Your hair! Those bangs have to go!” Without thinking, I ran my fingers through my hair, causing my bangs to disappear. Charlie nodded in approval.
On the way to the B&B, I was on red alert—ready to take the wheel if Charlie seemed too intoxicated; I was amazed that he seemed to be in perfect control. It also helped that there were no other cars on the road and he drove very slowly. The air smelled like flowers.
The B&B was actually a small cottage. Here, too, the fragrance of the flowers wafted all about. I filled a glass with water for my gardenia while Charlie opened another bottle of wine. We talked further, making plans for the days ahead. He said he’d pick me up at nine the following day. I wondered if he’d remember as I watched him stagger out to the car. Next morning he arrived on the dot.
We drove around all day. He pointed out mynah birds and jungle fowl on the side of the road and alerted me to a foraging wild pig. We swam at a black sand beach. He counseled me on my divorce and took me to meet his son’s family. I let him cut my hair.
The non-drinking Charlie was funny, involved and possessed a certain amount of humility. What struck me about him from the first day was how the seventeen-year-old Charlie kept coming through the senior-citizen Charles. I knew how I could be in love with him five decades ago. He still loved beauty and poetry. He was smart. I sensed a vulnerability that kept trying to emerge. When it started to appear, it was time for him to start his day’s drinking. He didn’t drink when I dated him at fifteen. But he kept his vulnerability in check by moving on when fooling around started turning to love. Not that he ever loved me. But he wasn’t about to give it a chance.
I’m not changing, he said, that first day, out of nowhere. That puzzled me. I wasn’t in Hawaii to change him. I was there to find out who I had been a half-century ago.
I slept with him the second night. He brought me to his place before dinner. I was that fifteen year old about to be seduced and every part of me said yes. I suggested that he not open a bottle of wine but he insisted. Soon he was covering me in pinot noir kisses. He got up on the bed and danced wildly, inviting me to join him. I’ve never been a dancer and, besides, now I have knee issues. In the end we were physically satisfied but I ached all over. I vowed to avoid sex with him in the future unless he was sober.
In the days that followed, we told each other stories of the past—our separate versions of life in the Bronx in the sixties. The more we talked, the more I realized how little our lives had actually intersected. Our best conversations took place early in the day, before he uncorked the first bottle of wine. Charlie was generous to the extreme, offering everything he had for my use. He never let me pay for a meal. On days he had something to do, he insisted I take his car. I saw he was a loner and sensed he was still dealing with issues from back in the Bronx. I didn’t foresee a future with him, and that was okay. We were two very different people who couldn’t have lasted as a couple, then or now. But now I could love him in a different way and be perfectly happy about it.
The day before I left, Charlie drove me around Pahoa, pointing out houses for sale. Affordable houses. Foreclosures.
“You should come here and live,” he said. “When you get tired of it—which you won’t—you can sell. Make some money from real estate.”
I told him I’d think about it.
And I am. The idea of living a nomadic existence appeals to me. Life without commitment. Finally breaking loose.
Since I’ve been back from my trip I continue to talk with Charlie. I returned with some of his art, which constantly reminds me of him, present and past. I still see that fifteen-year-old who regretted not going all the way with her boyfriend, thinking in those days she might have been able to hold on to him if she had. Now I know how smart that girl was; the consequences could have been disastrous. It was good she waited until she was older, able to benefit more fully from what he really had to offer.