When Dida arrived at Hilo, a small airport, intimate and open to the warm Big Island Hawaiian breeze, she spotted her mom waiting for her by the single baggage claim area. Her mom hadn’t yet seen Dida. Her arms were folded, a worried look on her face. She was wearing a kelly green tank top, a pink floral skirt and plain black flip flops. Her toenails were painted pale baby blue in contrast to her chocolate skin. Her hair was wild, a large uncombed fro, and her face was bare of makeup except clear lip gloss. She was the type of woman who was proud to be natural. Dida knew her mom would probably say something about the glitter eyeliner, mascara and blush Dida was wearing. She knew her mom would also comment on how low Dida had cut her thrift store army tank top and how too tightly fitting were her cigarette jeans.
She knew she would continue to compare it to “her day” when she was fourteen and how ninth graders weren’t yet in high school, like Dida, but still in “junior high” and not middle school like what Dida just graduated, and furthermore, how in “her day” they knew they were still only kids and showed adults “respect.”
A woman standing near Dida’s mom said something, and her mom brightened as if she were a toddler on Santa Claus’s lap. The woman looked like she could be related to Dida’s dad, who is white, sandy-haired and blue-eyed, while Dida didn’t really look like something in between her black mom and white dad. Dida is like some kind of tall and strange alien—a beautiful one who could model, if everyone who tells her so is right—but she is an alien all the same, not like her dad, and certainly not like her mom.
And Dida doesn’t feel beautiful. She feels like a creature whose nerve endings are like tentacles or more like the suction cups on an octopus’s arms, all on the outside. It would be better to be without feeling, Dida thinks, entirely numb.
Dida’s mom and the woman who looked like Dida’s dad stood closer together and exchanged even more words. They were now talking, lively and engrossed; they both laughed as if they had been friends forever. Dida pulled her bag with some exaggeration hoping the sound of her wheels would be familiar to her mother but knew that was impossible since the bag was new.
“Oh, here’s my kid,” her mom said to the woman, before greeting Dida. She said this as if Dida were always late. She hugged Dida, but it was a half hug, and Dida knew it was her own fault since she didn’t let go of her bag. Her mom took the handle from her, and they walked without words. The woman caught up with them, and offered her mom a chocolate chip cookie.
This is typical, how her mother attracts token gifts from people she doesn’t know. She smiled at the woman who looked like Dida’s dad—as if the woman were an angel—and this was despite the fact that the woman looked like Dida’s dad. Dida’s mom and dad hate each other. The tone of her mom’s thank you would be more appropriate for someone who had just saved her life. She bit right in and made a face to express how delicious it was. The woman gestured the box of cookies toward Dida and even commented upon how pretty Dida was, but Dida refused it. She wasn’t like her mother, and she never would be.
As they walked, Dida thought about how open and loving with people her mom still was, but ever since the custody case, her mom treated Dida like something stranger than a stranger. Her mother would give a real hug to a stranger; Dida had seen that happen on occasion, and the circumstances were never all that peculiar. Since the custody case, Dida couldn’t recall any affection other than this half hug that occurred a moment ago. Maybe there was one hug after Thanksgiving at her grandparents, and it’s not like her grandparents were that warm to her anymore either. Dida didn’t really want a real hug from her mom just then at the airport—she got those from friends and even her therapist. But she wanted her mother to at least try when they got to the car.
Dida’s mom was swift about getting the bag in the trunk. Her mom was like a man that way, facile with weight, comfortable with physical tasks like hammering or climbing ladders. She opened the car door for Dida but not without looking Dida over with some disapproval, and then she closed her in.
Once she was behind the wheel, Dida’s mom switched songs on the CD and turned it way up. Her mom was like a kid that way, loving loud music, getting into it, singing and air-piano-ing. As they made their way out of the airport lot, Dida was amazed at the Big Island landscape, as stark and white as the moon. The plants jutted out of the hard ground as if insisting they had the right to be there. They seemed stubborn, clearly out of place. This was nothing like the postcards or movies one sees of Hawaii, the endless blue ocean and the tropical trees—at least not at first. This strange landscape stretched for miles before civilization.
This strange landscape caused by the volcano, this entire island formed by volcanic lava and ash, was like something far from any earthly dimension.
Dida’s mom was singing with the next song, unaffected by the view and the fact that they were driving across the moon. Dida wondered how long her mom could go without questions about the flight. Then as if her mom heard her thoughts she finally asked how it was, and Dida only said, Fine.
A neighborhood of modest houses and farms were now in view, horses and chickens by the road, and Dida became content looking out of the window. Things appeared more normal now. Her mom mentioned the drive would be about forty five minutes to her house, and that they would definitely stop for lunch. Her mom talked about her husband and what they’d been up to, but Dida wasn’t listening. She wanted to put her iPod in but knew it would hurt her mom’s feelings so she sang her own favorite song in her head. Then she put the iPod on anyway.
“How are Chewy and Dewy?” her mom asked loudly, turning down the stereo.
“Fine,” Dida said, pulling one earphone out, peering through the window at cows, who were chewing and staring blankly like life was pointless even in Hawaii.
“Have you been running with them?”
“No, Dad does. Chewy’s a little much for me to run with, though I could handle Dewy. Chewy’s still aggressive with other dogs, ‘specially if they’re on-leash. But then Chewy gets jealous if I only run with her. But Dad’s been taking them to doggie daycare a lot these days.”
“Oh did he get a job?” Dida’s mom asked, looking at Dida instead of the road.
“He’s been doing things here and there.”
“I don’t know, mom, I don’t get up in his business.”
Dida continued to look out the window, hoping her mom would change the subject. It doesn’t matter if Dida’s dad found a job, he always has money, and he’s had even more since his mother died. The only thing that matters is that he doesn’t take another drink and that he stays in AA.
“How’s your friend?”
“What’s his name.”
“Oh, him. As if I’m ‘sposed to know.”
“You know who I’m talking about. The one you wanted to bring along here with you.”
“Do you care how he is?”
“Don’t get smart with me, I’m still your mother. Even if you tried to divorce me too, I’ll always be your mother.”
Her mom pulled into a parking lot a little too fast as if emphasizing how pissed she could get.
Dida’s best friend, Joey, is a white boy who lives three blocks from her in the valley. They went to middle school together but now he goes to another high school two freeways away. He is the one she feels most herself with. He says things like, “My garden is verdant and fecund,” just to make her laugh. They share drawings, guitar picks and poetic blog entries. His mother is a teacher who was laid off because “California is broke;” his father is a linguist professor in Massachusetts, where Joey hates to go. Dida never expected to be in the same situation as Joey—living with one parent in one state, while the other lived in another—but here they are, their lives in parallelograms.
“Dad let me take Joey to Mexico.”
“Oh, you don’t have to remind me of that,” Dida’s mom said getting out of the car, then shutting the door just a little too hard. “And I’m not your dad, so it just wasn’t happening. I didn’t have a boyfriend until I was eighteen years old. Why you should be allowed to travel with a boyfriend at thirteen is beyond me.”
“I’m fourteen, mom.”
“That trip was before your fourteenth birthday.”
“Weeks before. And he’s not my boyfriend, mom.”
“So you say.”
“So you say,” Dida mimicked. She swallowed, dread stuck in her chest. Dida followed her mom to the restaurant door, the pink and white flowers on her mom’s skirt came alive as she walked. “Joey is gay, mom.”
“So you say.”
The waitress smiled warmly at Dida’s mom, like people always do, and Dida’s mom smiled back even more warmly, like Dida’s mom always does. Dida’s mom picked a table by the window and sat down, a faraway look in her eyes like she wanted to be somewhere else. Dida wished everything difficult could really be as easy as saying Joey is gay.
“Are you hungry?” Dida’s mom asked, clasping her fingers. She looked Dida dead in the eyes, which made Dida uncomfortable. Her mother had a way of looking too deeply into eyes when she wanted to.
The sun was blaring through the window, and this was annoying to Dida, but her mom always had to be in the sun. She loved her Vitamin D, as she would say, but it was more like she loved the spotlight. Dida is not a sun lover; she prefers clouds and fog. She imagines herself on the east coast rather than the west, where she feels stuck, even though she adores her dad. Maybe if she told him how much she loved the east they could move there and she could start all over.
“So are you hungry?” Dida’s mom repeated, squinting at the menu as if it were telling her something she didn’t believe. She looked up at Dida over the menu. She was a bit playful, as if Dida were a kid she was peekaboo-ing with. But then she got a serious and worried expression.
“I ate on the plane, mom, but I could eat.”
“Are you still on the meds?”
“Yes. And that’s all I want to say about it.”
“You were supposed to be stepping down while you were on vacation.”
“Well I’m not, I decided I don’t want to, and there’s nothing you can do about it. I didn’t have to even tell you whether I am or am not still on them, and I didn’t have to come here.”
“Don’t take that tone with me,” Dida’s mom said, scrunching her eyes meanly. This was exactly what Dida had to get away from—the way her mom snapped at her at the slightest thing.
“Do you realize how rude what you just said was? Huh? Do you know how it feels? It’s like I’m taking a bullet.”
Dida looked at the table. She could feel her mom’s stare burning through her, but when she finally looked up, her mom was looking out the window again like she was cursed to be alive.
Dida’s parents were long divorced. And though Dida had been splitting the week between her mom’s and her dad’s since she was five, once her mom announced she was getting married last year, her dad took her mom to court for full custody. This seemed to be a good idea at the time since her mom was so strict and easily pissed off and her impending stepdad old and boring. Dida had just turned thirteen and her dad fully understood that a kid that age needed to be free. Her dad is easygoing and good-natured—except when he is drunk, then he is a little too good-natured, like a doormat, really. But she didn’t expect to feel torn during their court battle. She’d never seen her dad so mean toward her mom; she didn’t know where this strange kind of determination came from. After the second lawyer and the third psychotherapist, it got to the point that she believed the lies she had to tell about her mother.
Dida knew she was of age to decide, as far as the court was concerned, and her dad needed her since she was the one who found the beer bottles in the bushes, under the car seat and inside the armrest. She was the one who found him passed out the night before Thanksgiving. His girlfriend at that time told Dida she had saved her dad’s life. She knew life would be good once he was out of rehab, and it has been just that—considering how much the daily dose of Lexapro helps. It just pretty well shocked her when her mom up and moved from L.A. to Hawaii, after she lost custody. It was like she was done. It was like she never cared about Dida at all. It was like Dida had been disowned, renounced as family. Here she was, her first visit since her mom’s big move, and her mom already looking at Dida like she was some kind of mistake she made a long time ago. Her mom only proved time and time again that she never needed Dida. It was as though she never needed anyone.
The waitress came and went with their order and back with their food. They ate most of the meal in silence. It was some kind of fish Dida didn’t care for too much, though the potatoes were pretty good. Dida’s mom brightened as the waitress took their plates away, having said something amiable, cheerful and meaningless like waiters always say just before getting their tip. Dida’s mom opened her purse, taking out her clear lip gloss that smelled like candied strawberries and she applied it while staring out blankly the way cows do. Dida looked the direction her mom was looking and realized for the first time that the water was in view. The restaurant was on the hillier side of the street, and down below was a sparkling beach. She looked back at her mother and smiled. Her mother was beautiful then, managing to smile back at her.
“I know of a great surfing school. You know I only tried it once and never made it off my knees, but it definitely wasn’t the teacher’s fault. This was in Maui, but there is a place we can drive to here on the Big Island that isn’t bad, I hear. I don’t think I want to know how to surf, though. That’s all I need, to get into something I have no business getting into at my age.”
“Can’t believe you said that. That’s not like you.”
“I’m just being realistic.”
“You know there are surfers much older than you out there.”
Dida’s mom laughed heartily for the first time today. She laughed again, raucous and loud.
“Really, mom. What’s gotten into you? You’d have never said something like that before you married George.”
“I’m only kidding. I just mean, I’m terrified of the ocean really. What do I need to conquer it for with a surfboard? No one does that. They take their lives in their hands every time. Why I’d let you surf is beyond me, but you should go for it. You’d be great at it.”
Dida smiled again. She knew she was smiling in that way that people said looked like her mother, the kind of smile her mother gave strangers, as big and warm as possible, the breeze getting to her teeth. Dida couldn’t help it. She did have that smile in her; she guessed it was in her genes.
The ride from the restaurant to her mom’s town, Pahoa, felt more and more familiar, as if she’d seen it in a dream. Her mom’s driveway took her by surprise though. There was nothing to mark it in that dense Hawaiian jungle lining both sides of the road with banana trees, banyans and firebird flowers, as Dida’s mom always called them, pretending to forget their proper name. There was nothing to mark the driveway at all except for a large copper-colored bell, greening with moss, patina as her mother would call it, hanging from a tree branch, easy to miss.
Several hens came running out of nowhere and Dida was amazed to see them. Her mother never mentioned them, and she wasn’t really the type to have hens; she wasn’t a country girl, and Dida could hardly recognize her as she got out of the car. The chickens bobbed their heads forward as her mom laughed with her head back. Dida’s mom grabbed her bag and told her to follow her inside, which Dida did to great surprise.
There was a large aquarium with a snake. Dida took her phone out, took a picture of the python, the snake named Susie, and posted it for all of her friends to comment on. The snake was near the center of the living room, which was decorated not unlike a Thai restaurant, lots of gold and Buddhas; Dida’s mom’s husband came out and pointed out items that came from places like China, Nepal and Tibet. Dida’s mom’s husband George is more than ten years older than her mom, and his hearing is bad, which makes him seem older, and he talks incessantly about places he’s traveled, and not in an interesting way but rather in the way that professors talk to their students in college. But he wears the kind of jewelry that interests her, some of it she would even wear herself. Today he had small, cool earrings in both ears that she found unusual—these tiny horns the color of bone that echoed the shell shape of his ears.
Dida’s mom took out Susie the snake and put her in Dida’s arms, letting her crawl around and wrap her thick long python body around her. Dida asked her mom to take her photo so she could post that too. The snake didn’t feel creepy, like she thought it might feel. It actually felt like Susie was some kind of magical creature with the power to transport you somewhere else in time. She slid around Dida’s arms, shoulders, neck, the tongue slithering in and out while her mom explained it was her feeler. Dida tried to stare into Susie’s eye but then stopped when she thought she might be freaking Susie out the way Dida’s mom freaked her out when she did that.
Dida’s mom showed her to her room and gave her time to text Joey, and Adele and Missy. Missy and Adele are two of Dida’s friends at school, both are biracial like her. The three of them share lockers and makeup and hang out at lunch. People are always calling them by the wrong name and mixing them up. Though Missy is freckled with short hair, Adele is plump with long braids and Dida is the tallest and prettiest, most students and teachers can’t tell them apart.
Dida is at times mistaken for any number of races, depending upon where she is and with whom. When she lets her hair stay in ringlets out of the shower, this is when people ask most what she is. This in particular she hates. When she blows her hair straight, people sometimes speak to her in Spanish, or Tagalog, and during this short visit so far on the Big Island, a couple people on the plane assumed she was Hawaiian. When she flicks her curls out, sleeps on them, letting them frizz and nap like a fro, people refer to her as the light-skinned black girl. But she is none of these things—neither black nor white nor brown—and people don’t seem to care or understand if she corrects them, so she doesn’t. Missy and Adele understand that. But Joey is still her best friend, since friendship isn’t so much about being exactly alike as it is about how much you can appreciate one another, how much you can really share your deepest secrets.
Dida laid back on the bed that looked appropriate for a tropical island—bamboo headboard, lotus- flower comforter—and she put her iPod on. She felt far away and young and small, and she could remember being five when her parents broke up. Her dad took her to a park and, while pushing her on the swing, he told her he was moving out. They both cried. On her days with him in his then-new apartment, she found beer bottles everywhere, and he never brushed his teeth. Her mom, meanwhile, was perfectly fine and had already moved in her boyfriend. At first her mom tried to be friends with her dad, which worked for a while, but then she’d hear them yelling. Her mother could never be out-talked, always had to have the last word. Every issue bothering her she could grind into powder on the ground.
Dida went to sleep with her iPod on, the delicate skin around her eyes sticky dry from tears.
The next day after breakfast, Dida’s mom took her to the beach for her surf lesson. The drive was almost as long as it had been from the airport. The sand was as black as her rented wetsuit. Dida’s teacher was cute the way that straight girls would go on about but not Dida. She can’t get all worked up over a boy, and she was tired of pretending.
Still Dida pretended to listen to the teacher’s instructions. She had taken surf lessons before; in fact she had gone to a surf camp back home last summer just before going to Mexico with her dad. As she was putting the leash around her ankle, lifting the board to follow her teacher in, fear thudded her throat. But she let the feeling of the sun melt across her face and she warmed up, letting courage and challenge light her from the inside like a fire.
She lay on the board, imagining her stomach and chest melding smooth with its fiberglass. She paddled in toward the wave, her teacher not far from her. It was at this point that she wanted to look back at her mom, but that would have been impossible. She had to meet the wave, she had to jump up to her knees on the board, and then she had to make her way to her feet at the right moment. Like riding a horse she couldn’t predict, the wave would be like an infinite animal, rising to challenge her to be swallowed or at one with it. Her body chose the latter because before she could even record the moment within herself, she was on her feet, on the board, riding the wave. She felt invincible and a part of everything ever created. And then she fell off, as she would have to fall off, but it was—as her dad would say—a really damn good ride.
As she picked up her board from the undertow, her teacher near her applauded, patting her hard on her back. She saw her mother standing, her hands clasped at her chest, her mouth open, gasping, her eyes narrow and surely wet with pride. Dida’s mom clapped like she was at the best concert she’d ever seen. Her mom was good at pride; her mom was good at touchy-feely, when it came down to it. And though this always embarrassed Dida about her mom, today it felt right.
The teacher was full of chitchat on their way back into the powerful ocean the second time, and she answered his questions without thinking about it. She may have even contradicted herself. Still she made it to her knees easily a second time but not as easily on the third. It took a fourth wave before she was up again on her feet, feeling like she might be a part of what some people call God’s creation, as intelligent and lithe and natural in the water as a dolphin.
During lunch at a neighborhood restaurant, her ears still soggy, her nose running, her hair dangling heavy and wet with ringlets, Dida’s mom looked at her lovingly until Dida had to look away. She broke the bread and buttered it, sniffling and soaking in the warm air.
“Why did your teacher tell me you’ve surfed before?”
“Because I have.”
“You didn’t tell me that.”
“Yes, I did, you just don’t remember.”
“Diedre, we only talked about surfing yesterday for the first time,” her mom said, scrunching her eyes and top lip.
“You just don’t remember.”
“I’m not crazy.”
Dida sat back in the uncomfortable chair of small imitation logs. She didn’t know why she said any of that. She knew she lied yesterday about never having taken surf lessons. Besides the surf camp, which she wasn’t able to finish before Mexico, she had taken three, one at Santa Monica Beach, one at Temescal Canyon and another in San Diego when they were visiting Dida’s dad’s sister. But she wanted her mother to feel like she was doing something for her that was new and freeing for a change. She wanted to encourage her mom to feel like she’d thought of something different.
“What did you say to me yesterday?”
“Just drop it mom, I don’t want to talk about it.”
“This is just like the case.”
“Please, drop it now, or I’ll get up and walk to the airport.”
“You told them I didn’t feed you. You told them I have no rules in the house—”
“Mom, I’m going to get up.”
“You said I bit your forehead!”
“You grabbed my face—”
“I took your chin in one hand, between my thumb and index finger, and I said, Don’t you take that tone of voice with me.”
“You yelled at me.”
“Yelling is very very different from biting, and it’s especially different to a judge in court, and you know that!”
“Well the way you yell it’s like you’re biting everyone’s head off! And I wasn’t in court, anyway, how did I know what they were going to say?”
“I never stopped crying after what you did, Diedre.”
“I hate when you call me that.”
“You hate when I call you anything! You hate when I call you! I always get this dead boring voice. Just full of bored attitude. It’s like you’re in the middle of a text to someone else. I can’t stand it.”
“You can’t stand me.”
“You told them I bit your forehead, you said I pulled your hair, you said I didn’t feed you, you painted this nightmare of a mother from a horror movie, and why I should even like you is beyond me.”
Dida’s mom was looking over her head, her nostrils flared, her eyes welling up.
“Of course I love you, but how could I like you after what you did to me?” Dida’s mom whispered. She looked like she would really start crying too.
“What about what you did to me?!”
“What did I do to you, Dida?”
“What about what you did to dad?”
“Dida, your father is an alcoholic. You can’t take care of him, and it’s not your job. And it wasn’t my job to stay married to him either.”
“You’re so cold,” Dida said, sniffling with snot, not caring people were looking at them. Her mother waved over the waiter for the check.
“Dida, you can call your dad right now and have him arrange a ticket to send you back home early.”
Dida got up. Her mom threw her the car keys and Dida caught them like an athletic pro. She walked out, opened up the car, got her phone, and called her dad.
Dida’s dad never asks many questions when Dida makes a request. He understands it’s important not to make her feel uncomfortable. Dida thinks about the fact that she never tells her dad how much she loves him. She doesn’t spend as much time with him as she could. She sees him in the car, and in passing in the hallway at home, and on the occasions they watch TV together or go to the movies. Lately she would rather be in her messy room.
If she could tell anyone besides Joey how she feels about Samantha, the girl she kissed before leaving for Hawaii, the scene she keeps playing over and over in her head, it would be her dad. But that is really none of his business. He has enough to keep up with, enough steps to stay on to make it to his first AA birthday again.
It just about killed her dad when he found out she was feeling suicidal during the court battle, and he was swift to get her help and get her on the meds. Dida’s mom makes a big deal of how wrong she thinks it is for anyone under eighteen to be on antidepressants, but then she would never understand pain. Lexapro has a way of slowing the pain, stopping it in its tracks like a stun gun. She likes it for that reason, like the few times she has gotten high—though there are times she wishes she could feel more alive. The way Dida’s mom gets up and gets on with things, she can’t really be human.
Dida looked out of the airplane window at the clouds the wide silver body cut through. This plane was like her mom, solid, hard and intent on where it had to go. But Dida and Dida’s dad were like the clouds, soft and easily dissipated. And though Joey may not see the world as darkly as Dida does—or any of the bullied gay teens who killed themselves—he just may be a cross between a plane and a cloud. She wasn’t ready to be out like Joey. That’s too strong and courageous a thing to do. She just wasn’t ready.