I pretend that I’m deaf. Like I can’t hear the names and giggles from the stuck-ups as I walk by. Fat-girl and Froggy. They’re just words. Meaningless words.
Leslie, my one and only true friend, tells me that I’m curvy, not fat, and so what my voice is a little a gravelly.
I'm sixteen, size twelve, brown eyes, okay face, and brown hair that's long enough to sit on. I like loud music, not country, but almost anything else. Swim team, water polo, and high dive are my best sports. No dad and no siblings. Just Gloria, who is my mom, and me. My mother named me Rainie as if she knew that I would love water; any kind of water, whether it's an ocean, a river, or a raindrop.
Going to French Polynesia was Aunt Carol’s idea. Bora Bora is about halfway around the world from Washington State where we’d left winter behind. The air here felt hot and wet like the bathroom after a hot shower.
Aunt Carol dropped the suitcases right on the sand, she threw her pale arms straight up, waving like she was trying to catch a bus.
“Oh, Rainie. Look at this place. We are so lucky.”
Lucky? Maybe you are.
I checked my phone for messages. No service.
Aunt Carol had changed into shorts and sandals at the airport. But in my humble opinion, she should have brought long pants since we were both sickly white and she had those purply veins on her legs. Her straw hat --what a pain -- had to be carried so it wouldn't get smushed in the luggage. It lasted on her head for about five seconds before the wind blew it into some big-leaf bushes where chickens ran around, clucking and pecking at the ground. Chickens? I'd never seen real chickens before; funny-looking things making clucking noises just like on TV. We headed into the hotel.
Dark-skinned women wearing flower wreaths on their heads; guitars and ukuleles and drums with bare-chested men in grass skirts, and doll-like women that could have been on a car's dashboard with shells covering their boobs; all dancing and drumming in the lobby. I hugged myself while I watched, feeling totally out of place. One of the men danced over to me on the balls of his bare feet, smiling, eyebrows up like he was asking me to join him. No way. I refused, knowing everyone would laugh at me if I tried.
After the check-in, an island dude piled our things on a wooden cart with big bicycle wheels. He led us along a boardwalk passing thatch-roofed bungalows on stilts over aqua-blue water. Over on the shoreline, chairs and tables and red umbrellas sat on white sand; like a travel poster in the hall on my way to the dentist’s office. I felt like I’d walked right into the picture. I wish Mom was here.
The same scenes kept running through my mind. The fight over a stupid tattoo, which Leslie had talked me into. I figured I might get in trouble, but it was a goddess of compassion, Kwan Yin. I thought Mom would dig it since she had a Buddha statue in the garden and went for stuff like that.
She walked in while I was changing and threw a hissy-fit, all red in the face and the veins in her neck popping out.
"You know better than this, Rainie," she'd yelled. My punishment, no phone. Leslie--off-limits.
God, I hated those words, “off-limits”.
“First you’re drinking beer, then smoking pot, and now this. You need to get your head on straight. What's next Rainie? Theft? Get your act together before you end up in jail." She kept pacing back and forth with her hands on her head. "Now go to your room and think about it. And stay there. Till tomorrow.” Then she locked the door.
I screamed back at her, ”You have no right! I’ll report you to the police.”
"You say you're sorry young lady," she shouted through the door. I didn't though. Instead, I kicked the door, "I hate you!"
The next morning, the key rattled in the lock before she left for work. It was like no time had passed and we were both still mad.
She kept her mouth tight. But she looked super-pale and her eyes were sunk in. “You are not to do anything outside of school with Leslie. She’s nothing but trouble.”
“I hate you, Gloria. You’re no kind of mother; a poor excuse that’s what you are. (swim-coach talk) I wish Aunt Carol was my mother, she loves me, not like you, fat girl.” Mom was actually thin, but it was the worst thing I could think of to call someone.
Later that day, I had been at my locker griping to Leslie about Gloria, who I refused to call 'Mom', which was another way to piss her off like Leslie did with her mother. I didn't know what I'd do without Leslie. Anyway, the hallway was insanely noisy and all of a sudden this giant hand took hold of my arm.
Mr. Johnson, the principal said, "Rainie. Come with me."
Shit, maybe Gloria found my pipe. Fuck. I rolled my eyes at Leslie. Over the noise, some singsong voice, "Haha, that girl, fat girl, there she goes in trouble."
Mr. Johnson kept his hand on my arm the whole way into his glass-walled office. The secretary, a gray-haired lady that everyone liked, turned from her file cabinet, made a little nod, and tromped behind us to the inner sanctum where no one could see in. Mr. Johnson just leaned against the wall while she did the talking.
“Rainie, sit down.”
They were so serious. And so quiet. I expected Gloria to rush in any minute.
“There’s been an accident. It’s your mother.”
“She was on her way to work and lost control of the car. The patrolman said she was going at a high speed around a curve."
"Rainie, I'm so sorry. Your mother is dead.”
They were just words. They didn't mean anything. What if I’m deaf and don’t hear them. Then it can’t be true. Sounds in the air. Meaningless, untrue sounds.
Outside of the hut, a set of steps went from glass doors to a small wooden deck with more steps into the lagoon. Ocean sounds were far away, out beyond the last bungalow. A small kitchen and a king-sized bed off the living room; a bamboo framed sofa with multi-colored flowery cushions sat along one wall. And in front of it was the most amazing thing, a glass coffee table that sat over a giant opening in the floor. I looked right through it, down to the water, to the lagoon with its white sand and neon-colored fish of different sizes and shapes, some with fins on the sides and back, others just on the tail; some were crimson, ebony and white, others were as yellow as a canary.
"Mom, come here, you gotta see--," I called out. That's when it started sinking in. She's not here and never will be.
After the funeral with all the relatives, all the friends and Mom's co-workers, all the flowers and food, my phone dinged with a text from Leslie.
Hey girl! Let's head downtown for the protest. Anything to escape all that hugging and crying. I texted back, Sure.
Downtown, some guy handed signs to Leslie and me and ordered us to carry them. Big cardboard pieces demanding justice. Hey hey, ho-ho, that asshole dumbo has to go. I melted into the crowd, glad to have a purpose. But things changed after dark. Marchers started throwing stuff, bashing cars and light posts. I picked up a concrete block and heaved it through a store window where designer bags were scooped up by others. I climbed in too but only to haul out that block. I dragged it next door, swung it back and forth and let it go making an insane crash; shards of lethal weapons. Man-o-man it felt good to break that glass.
At the police station, some lady made me sit in a little room for hours, asking a million questions. No, I didn’t have a father on the scene. No, I didn’t want to talk to a therapist. No, I wasn’t mad at my mother. No, I wasn’t mad at God. Sure, I wanted to protest the unfairness toward people of color, toward people without a place to sleep, and people without food. And no, I didn’t know anyone like that.
Finally, Aunt Carol showed up. I refused to go back to the house. She dropped me at a hotel and said she’d be back in the morning.
Money from the 'estate' as it was called, went to me. I'd been in a fog since my last day at school. The judge made Aunt Carol my guardian and asked if that was okay with me. Everyone was looking at me. Then someone told me, "Just say 'yes' and so, I said, "yes."
Aunt C said, “Great, now I get to take care of a juvenile delinquent.”
Mom never would have said that.
Aunt Carol had decided the best place for Mom's ashes would be paradise. So there we were. Aunt Carol had already made a new friend and went out for dinner.
Low lights attached to the posts outside along the walkway gave it a peaceful feel. Below the bungalows was the aqua-colored water with an aura that seemed to come from underwater lights. I stood up and drifted into the bedroom, then to the bathroom where I flicked on the light over this shower.
In the mirror, I checked the tattoo. My Goddess Kwan Yin, so wise and serene. If it wasn't for you Kwan Yin, Mom would still be alive. The tears started. Can you scoop up my troubles and wash them away? Back up the tape and erase my words? Bring her back?
My makeup kit fell to the floor and made me jump about a foot high. It must have been teetering on the edge. Mascara and lip gloss, hair ties and barrettes, make-up brush, and eyebrow pencil all scattered across the tile floor as if dropped from the sky. I knelt on the cool stone collecting the pieces without much thought until I saw her pill box. I shook it and found her blood pressure pills in Wed and Th. The accident was on a Thursday.
A folded Post-it note had been tucked in a side pocket. Mom’s writing: Rainie, I am only trying to love you, keep you safe, and help you find your place in the world. And a second note stuck to it said, if you really want to live with Aunt Carol, I won't stand in your way. I read them three or four times then tucked them back in the case.
Raindrops began, hitting the wooden planks, nearly silent without any metal or foliage to bounce against. I sat there in the dark feeling like I was the only one alive in the whole world and didn't want to be.
A glow had begun in the water below the glass table. I leaned over trying for a better look and the top moved under my hands. I took it off and peered inside. Something was there, a woman but not really, more like a shape made of water and light. I’m not the best at describing things, but there was a sound, like a little kid playing with a harp or something, singing off-key. The figure's light grew stronger and dimmed along with the sound. I couldn't look away.
A scent of coconut and citrus came with the light. I watched until I couldn’t stand it anymore, shed my clothes, went outside onto the deck, and dropped into the warm water. She was there, younger like a girlfriend. Kwan Yin? Mom?
“Rainie? Aren’t you going to bed tonight? What are you doing out here?” Aunt Carol stood over me, hands on her hips, smelling like weed.
The glass lid had been replaced; the light and music were gone. My hair had been tied up, now it hung free down my back. Wet. Nothing made sense anymore.
“I was dreaming,” I said and dragged myself to bed.
The next day, Aunt Carol had set herself up in a white macrame hammock with a small table to the side, a pitcher of pink mixed adult beverage (as she called it). Her reggae tunes vibrated from inside the hut. I dragged a raft from the deck into the water, climbed onto it and lay down in the sun, pushed against the piling at the deck’s corner, and floated into the middle of the lagoon.
Maybe I killed her, maybe she forgot her medicine because of me, maybe I made her drive like crazy. I should never have said that about Aunt Carol, who really is a poor excuse for a mother.
Aunt Carol had gone inside and returned with a refilled pitcher of the pink liquid with fruit on top. She had a second glass in the other hand.
She sang out, “Rainie, when you feel like coming in, I have a cool refreshment for you-oo-oo.” She’d had too much. Her singing gave her away.
I’d only had alcohol once and it was a bottle of 3.2 beer which Billy Kressel gave me behind the scoreboard one Friday night, which I did not like the taste of. I rolled off the raft into the warm blue water and made my way to the steps onto the deck.
“Sure, why not. I’ll try some,” I said and took the tall narrow glass in my hand.
“Ut ut,” Aunt C said. “Just a minute. We have to toast. Let’s toast to Gloria, to her generosity, to her life, her beauty, and to you, her beautiful wonderful daughter. To my sister, for giving Rainie life and love and happiness. You left too soon my dear sister. But we will carry you with us. Forever.”
“Forever,” I said, "to Mom," and we tapped glasses. I took a sip of the tropical drink.
Three drinks later, my words came out slurred. It took that many drinks to say out loud what I’d done to my mother.
“Uh, Aunt C. I wanna tell you something.”
Aunt Carol made a little hrmmp sound, smiling, and said, “Mm-kay. Go ahead. I’m listening.”
I couldn’t do it. Aunt Carol wasn’t the one who needed to hear it. Instead, I said, ‘Um, I just wanna say, I’m really drunk.”
She threw each leg to the sides and stumbled from the hammock, making it bang against the frame.
"Here, here, hang on. You need some food. Of course. Here, crackers, this will help. And water. I was too busy pretending that you were Gloria.”
She began crying then. She cried, I cried. I drank the clear cool water and had some crackers. We both fell asleep.
I woke up in the dark still out there on the deck, with the surf sounds far away, palm fronds clicked, the air never stopped moving. Aunt C was gone again. Over the side railing, the water glimmered like a swimming pool. was smooth. Then the flicker started a twitch of light underwater. And that smell from the night before. A sweet coconut scent mixed with citrus. When I was little, after Mom had a bath, I’d wait until she left, then sneak in and close the bathroom door and just sit on the edge of the tub breathing in that scent.
I drifted to the glass table. In the water below was a shimmer of rainbow, just a hint at first, then brighter, more intensely colored. I removed the heavy glass, slid it to the floor.
The sounds became clearer till I could make out words. As if a voiceless person tried to communicate, I heard the words repeated slowly, Sorry, sorry, sorry. Sorry, sorry, sorry. The sound kept on that way. I pushed the top back in place. The sound lowered but the muffled tones kept going. True or not, it seemed like Kwan Yin was telling me to say, "sorry", the word Mom had asked for. It had been the hardest thing for me. And the more she wanted to hear it, the more I couldn't say it.
The air moved gently, the water quieted and the sounds faded away. Far away, from the shore, a rooster crowed. I found my phone plugged in where I’d left it. The screen blinked on with a text.
Sorry, sorry, sorry.
I dropped the phone and stepped back, hands to my face.
“Sorry,” I cried. “Sorry. Do you hear? I’m sorry. For everything. Mom. I love you so much. Please come back." I fell onto the bed crying, "Please come back."
Outside were the familiar sounds of water and breeze through thatched roofs. The light from below the glass table remained a shimmer. I pulled the lid back partway. Mom's voice. Yes, it was her voice. She said, “I hear you, Rainie. Kwan Yin is compassionate, but dear Rainie, she cannot bring me back. I love you, baby. You are enough just the way you are. Never forget that." And the light disappeared.