Prima, when you called me, the trees were lit up with Christmas lights in the town where I lived, and the air was cold and smelled sour along the black river. I had happened earlier down the empty streets, my footsteps ringing out—that rapid, low-heeled sound of a woman walking alone. I stopped twice in coffee shops, holding the mugs between both palms for warmth. But by the time the phone rang, I was tired, weighted down with three blankets and your voice on the line was lonely, for a moment not so different than the wind moving through the pines outside. I didn’t recognize the sound of it at first, something I think you must have sensed, but didn’t mention. But as you spoke my name a few times, making it a question, a memory surfaced from years before when I was six and you were eight, sitting on our grandfather’s steps. We’d just had our ears pierced and angry at something I said, you reached over, grabbed me on each side of my head and yanked out the small, gold earrings. And I did the same to you. We were still red-faced and hollering and reaching for each other when our mothers leaned down, lifted, and bore us away.
“Hannah?” you said again into the phone.
“Laurena,” I answered.
You talked fast, the words tripping over themselves. I was more a sister than a cousin, you said. Your oldest friend. You said you wanted to be married, that finally you and Joe were going to do it, and all the girls would wear sky blue dresses with full skirts, and the honeymoon would be in Hawaii or Japan or there wouldn’t be a honeymoon, because that part didn’t really matter. You said you wanted to be married, but not without me. “Never without you,” you said.
“Of course. Sure,” I remember saying, but I was sleepy and might have mumbled a little. “Sure, but listen, it’s late here. Can I call you? I’ll call you tomorrow.”
But the next morning, the hedges in the backyard, the rusty beach chairs, the cracked bird feeder, they were all drifted over with snow. My coffee was black and bitter. The glass in the windows rippled like water. The music spilled lovingly from the old kitchen radio. My slippered feet made no noise moving over the wood floors.
Laurena, you can see how your phone call had lost its urgency.
That was a long time ago. Before I saw you again, for the first time in ten years. I doubt you even remember that phone call. I’m in the same town, which has grown bigger, on a continent you’ll likely never see. I teach a couple of classes, mostly literature and writing, to kids more interested in business and science. Most of them have never heard of the Northern Mariana Islands; they’re surprised to know you speak the same language. I’ve put a dot on the map in the classroom to show them where it is. Right there, I tell them, stabbing my finger on the page. And they laugh and joke that there is nothing there.
When I thought of you then, on that morning after you called, it was of you as a child. When my mother used to bring me to the island to visit her family, it was your face I looked for among the bewildering number of other faces, all leaning too close to mine, amused and pitying. Remember that I had a transient’s life. A life spent on water, with only my parents: an intimate existence, and fragile. Even their rages were isolated, muffled by the oceans that surrounded us. When we sailed, dolphin would move in packs, following us for days, weeks at a time, and flying fish would leap silver at night onto the deck of the boat and lie there drying in the moonlight.
Can you see now, when I came for these visits, how alien and horrifying the number of bodies around me was. How disconcerting the noises: clucking tongues, dry hands clapping, feet shuffling in sandals and clackety-clacking down steps. And where all of you would bow your heads to the elders with such grace, your bodies bending lithe as dancers, I was awkward and fumbling, my attempts embarrassed, greeted with laughter. In the middle of this, you took me in with some sort of overzealous ownership: I was yours to abuse, yours to protect.
The decision to go with my mother when she left my father did have something to do with you. I thought, At least Laurena is there. So it was that to your house we came with nothing. To your gentle mother—large, pale, and passive—while my own mother was small and dark. To your father, his violence spent by then, who sat with his shirt unbuttoned on a plastic chair outside, smoking marijuana fresh from the back garden. To your restless brothers, your quiet sister already pregnant and remote. And finally to you, thirteen and fiercely hopeful, so gorgeous and full of energy that rooms changed somehow when you walked into them—they adjusted to fit you.
The house in which we all lived was not so different than many of the other houses on the island: cement walls and shabby carpet, waterlogged ceilings falling in. Outside, the green denseness of bamboo, ragged chickens, limping dogs, and star fruit rotting on the ground. Not so different than other houses, but to me the way the noise of the nearby ocean was muted by the thick canopy, and the way our elders gathered to talk to the dead, to shake fingers at us if we disrespected the taotaomonas, spirit trees, it felt as though I were somewhere inescapably lost and forgotten.
You were just starting high school the year we came, glossy, black hair tied back with ribbon and a uniform of pressed white shirts and pink, pleated skirts. The boys were starting to come around. They were all thin, trying for mustaches, with gold crosses that swung on fine chains under the thin, starched cotton of their shirts. They drove cars dropped low to the ground that we could hear from a distance rattling down the long dirt roads to the house. I liked sitting on the futon made up to be my bed in the living room, pretending to read, but really watching them coax you, “Ah, come on, Ren, let’s go out.” This was about the time you changed your name to Lorraine and made all the boys call you Rain.
You went to church on Sundays in red silk. Your chest and neck bloomed with hickeys. Boys wrote their names on your breasts, biting and sucking until the skin broke and bled beneath the surface. It was an adolescence frightening in its velocity and violence. I clung to childhood, cowered by the shelves of old Encyclopedia Britannicas, and refused to wear a bra. When you got pregnant, I was alarmed by the way your fourteen-year-old body swelled. You were always so skinny. But then your arms and legs began to out like sticks from a bloated middle. I think everyone was afraid for you then. How will she survive this? It will break her in half, they said shaking their heads. Still, you carried it with a characteristic insouciance, even pride.
It was the hormones that made you do it, I’m sure. It was late, close to midnight, and you were screaming on the porch at your parents. I think you were holding a knife, a small one, from the kitchen. I was sitting at the kitchen table, killing the big red ants that crawled across the plastic tablecloth, smushing each one in my palm. I shudder now to think how casually I could grind those specks of life. I listened to you scream until your voice broke, and then finally realized it was us you were talking about, my mother and me. You demanded why your parents could shelter us like this, when you had so little. Get rid of them, you were saying. A small pile of ants in my palm. When my mother’s arms went around me later that night and she said you were sorry, I can’t remember if I believed it. But I remember I was too embarrassed to answer.
It wasn’t only because of you that I left. The island was too small, too hot. The girls at school were nothing like me and my mother worried when I refused to go for weeks at a time. The boarding school in Hawaii was in the mountains and a constant mist fell. It was beautiful and did not pretend to be a home to anyone.
You should know that I live near the beach now, but the ocean here is different. There is no reef, so it breaks right on the shore and the sand is coarser. A handful of the stuff in your hand would only look like so many broken shells. Where you are the water stays shallow for a mile and the seaweed stinks in the sun; here the water drops off fast. You couldn’t walk ten steps before it was over your head. We never see the sun go down on the water here; it sets on the other side of the country. But if you wake up early in the morning, you can catch it coming up.
I didn’t say, three years after the night you called, that I was coming home because I knew you’d heard it from my mother. I wanted the whole thing to be quiet. When a person is gone from a place for ten years, she just wants to come back and sneak in when the family is at supper. Have people laugh and say, like it was a magic trick, How did you do that? I worried a little when I heard you’d made plans for us, taking a whole week off work. I just wanted everything to be quiet, not a big deal. My mother had told me you were excited to see me. It was unexpected to hear, but nice.
The plane ride out there went on and on, and I thought about you more than I had in a long while. I liked the idea of revisiting, of measuring how far we’d come. On the last leg, the flight from Tokyo to Saipan, I pressed my face to the cold double pane of the plane window and waited until I could see, when we listed a little in the sky, the island beneath us. I could pick out the trees on the cliffs, blackened and scarred from the salt winds. And could tell the sudden depth of water, where it goes black over the Marianas Trench. From up there, the whole island seemed so lost and small in all that ocean, and I remembered that you never learned to swim. How distrustful you were of the water holding you up. You mocked me, your little American cousin, for daring to wear a bathing suit when you would only brave a big t-shirt and shorts.
The first night, I found myself in my mother’s one room apartment over the office with the thick shag carpeting that used to be deep green but had yellowed as leaves yellow in the fall until it was the color of mustard. Up against one wall, the mattress was pushed, a little thinner, and the middle of it sunken in. The old wood dresser stood on the other side of the room, with a small television on it and a chipped crucifix over it. There were pictures of our grandfather, dead now and buried in the graveyard by the beach, where the white vincas grow thickly from his grave. My mother came in carrying a plate of red rice and chicken kelaguen. I ate sitting cross-legged on the floor, while she watched me. It was strange being there with her, she’d been to see me in all the places I’ve lived since I left, but I could tell she was never comfortable. The air conditioning unit rattled loudly in the window.
“I thought you would like it cold,” she said, smiling. “It’s been a long time since I’ve used it.”
“You make it comfortable for yourself,” I told her.
She shrugged. “It’s nice for a change.”
We slept together on the bed, she playing with my hair. The next morning you called, but this time I knew when the old beige phone rang, before my mother handed it to me, that it was you.
“I saw you last night,” you told me. There was something of bravado in your tone—all forced laughter and defiance. I was confused by what you were saying and laughed back at you.
“What do you mean?” I said.
“I drove by your mother’s house. I could see your shadow on the wall upstairs, unpacking. I think you were unpacking.”
I remembered putting clothes on a shelf by the window. Hanging up shirts wrinkled from the luggage. I didn’t know what to say, so I asked why in the world you didn’t come up. We could have had a beer downstairs, smoked a couple of cigarettes. You said you’d just been going to see a friend, but circled a couple of times in front of the building, driving slow enough to see me through the blinds. Later, when you passed again, sometime after midnight, our lights were out and we were sleeping. I chastised you, but you just laughed again, a high pretty sound, because it was so funny that you had already seen me, before anyone else.
The next day, my mother took me to your place. We drove down Middle Road, eating King’s Hawaiian sweet bread from the bakery. I saw how many of the roads were paved now, traffic lights here and there, how the flame trees lined the way.
The apartment above the mechanic’s shop was lopsided and the whole building looked like it could, at any moment, slide down the hill. The paint outside was the color of mint leaves and peeled damply off the walls. On the ground floor, the garage doors were up and there were car parts strewn about on oil-slicked cement. Big hunks of twisted metal. Teenage boys with their jeans rolled up, already drinking beer from long, sweaty bottles.
I watched my mother drive away, before walking up the sagging steps round the side of the building. There was a small commotion when I knocked, Ben and Bella calling out in their children’s voices, “She’s here, she’s here!” You greeted me at the door, half-dressed, and said, “Oh, hi” like you were surprised. You had changed a little after all; where you had once been narrow there was a roundness to your form. And where your hair had once been a slippery black so hard to pin up, it was a now reddish brown, coarse at the ends, dry as grass.
“You’re our Auntie,” your son told me. He looked nothing like you. When I sat down on the couch and looked around, I saw the apartment was just two rooms and there were toys scattered on the floor and dishes piled up in the sink. Fruit flies swarmed over a bowl of mangoes and guava.
They knew all about me, your children. They asked questions about where I’d been, but they already knew the answers.
“Can we come visit you?” they asked, jumping up and down.
I said something like, “Sure.”
“Is it true you have a pool?”
I looked over at you then, surprised.
You shrugged, no big deal, and said, “I told them you had a pool.”
“I have a pool,” I told them and out of the corner of my eye, catching your wink.
“Would we go on a plane to see you?” the girl asked.
I said yes, that was the only way to go about it, and they screamed “On a plane, on a plane!” until you yelled for quiet. When you said, “You’re not going anywhere” their faces became sullen, but you only looked at me and gestured toward your still unbuttoned blouse.
“See, what these kids have done to me?” you asked looking down at the breasts, testing their weight in your palms. “And they’re making me fat too,” you gripped your stomach and shook it at me.
Your daughter thought this was funny and she grinned at me so big I could see where she was missing some teeth.
“Have you had many boyfriends, Hannah?” You sounded wistful enough to make me smile.
“A few,” I said.
But you wanted more, and you made me talk about them for at least an hour, until you nodded, “This is just how we used to talk.”
But I didn’t think so, not quite.
The people here, in my American town, do not believe in ghosts, not in the way we do in the islands. The saints stay in the churches, they do not follow you home after mass on Sundays. There are no spirit children walking around the house at night lonely and dissatisfied. No jealous grownup spirits who would snatch away babies if they weren’t heavily perfumed. Maybe we build too much for them, and they are sick of loitering around dirty alleys, tired of slanting in bank lobbies. Maybe offended by how quickly everyone walks, how preoccupied we all are, they have taken to hanging out in rural countryside, or in the mountains. I imagine them drifting bitterly down moist trails.
Listen, I’m sorry for laughing when you listed your new superstitions to me. Only pulling out every other cigarette from the pack. Not lighting them yourself. Only opening doors that pulled out and didn’t push in. Closing the car door three times, before starting the car. At first, yes, it was funny to me, all these things. But then I was annoyed at their inconsistency. Sometimes you forgot how many times you were supposed to shut the door. I spoke angrily to my mother about it: “You don’t just create OCD. It can’t be summoned like that, like an incantation.” But when you didn’t fight back, didn’t lay claim to the power of these rituals, I stopped, seeing as clearly as you how empty and useless they were.
Forgive me, too, for not seeking you out more after the first day we spent together. But, you have to admit, it was sad to find there was little to talk about. You were angry I didn’t remember the songs you played for me. “That was our favorite song,” you would insist. I tried to talk about new music, new movies, but you just waved a thin hand in the air and said, “This is the only music I care about. This is the music of my life, everything else doesn’t matter.”
I have deluded myself into thinking that we spent more time together than we did, but looking back more closely, I see how you hung on the periphery of things. When we went to the fair, and our whole family came along, you were next to me for a time, but after we stopped to watch Tahitian girls dance on the small platform, I noticed you had gone. Your two children were holding my hands, everyone else we’d come with was there around us, but you had vanished. I waited for a while, thinking you had maybe gone to buy some candy, but as the time passed, I went looking. I left the kids and walked in circles around the fair. It took a long time to find you, and while I never got close, I’m sure it was you, sitting on the hood of your car in the parking lot, smoking a cigarette, knees to chest. I didn’t go up to you. Did you feel me standing there. Did you feel me turning away.
The day I left, I knew what a mistake that was. The talk we had, sitting on a log under the banyan tree, just a few hours before my evening flight, should have come much earlier. The early afternoon heat was strong and over your upper lip, a thin sheen of sweat had formed. Under me, the rough bark was working red ridges into my thighs. Your shoulder against mine was warm and smooth. Behind us, Bella made a game out of creeping up and hiding behind the ropey tree roots. I would turn my head to catch her and she would laugh and then clap a hand over her mouth. Every now and then, you would scream without turning, “Go away!” You couldn’t see her face, but she wasn’t afraid; she only tiptoed exaggeratedly and put a finger to her lips, “Sssshh.”
We were there for so long that sweat ran down my back. At some point, you started talking but the white light of the sun and the softness of your voice lulled me and I didn’t listen closely. So, it was no wonder I didn’t understand you at first, when you said, “I don’t want these children.” I looked back for Bella, but couldn’t see her. The closest tree trunk was only a few feet away. I opened my mouth to speak, but you said looking straight ahead, “I read something about a woman who drove her children into a lake, and I understood, Hannah, why she would do that. I understood.”
I remember nodding, but I was looking at your bare feet, the way your toes were digging little holes in the ground. Oh, I knew it was bad what you were saying.
You went on, still without looking at me, “The doctor has given me something for having these thoughts.”
If I hadn’t broken in to echo dumbly, “Given you something?” I don’t think you would have told me it was lithium. My head was empty for a moment; I was feeling so young. I asked if there was something you wanted to do, but couldn’t because you had to take care of the children, but it was like you didn’t hear me.
“I could leave them, I could,” you kept repeating.
There was a rustling of leaves behind us and in one fluid motion you picked up a branch, turned and hurled it to where Bella’s skirt peeked out from behind a tree. She gave a little yelp and went running toward the house.
I should have said something, but the words hung just out of reach. The silence stretched and hung between us; it became solid.
Later, when I said goodbye to everyone on the broken cement lanai of your parents’ house, you hung back and I thought, dismayed, that maybe you wouldn’t come forward. But at the very last, you came up to me, at a run, stumbling a little. Your arms wrapped so tightly around my neck that hours later, on the plane, I could still feel them.
I wanted to tell you, Laurena, about the frogs. There was a day during the time I lived in your house with you, that I went to Grace Christian Academy and the missionary teachers announced we were going to dissect frogs. They called us outside, and we gathered around these tables. I still remember how the wood of these tables was gray and splintered. The boys were excited, they whooped a little at the thought of what was coming. The sun was high in the sky.
The teachers came out, carrying the dead frogs in plastic tubs. We were each given a plywood board, a few nails, a hammer, a scalpel. We nailed the frogs to the boards, pale, bloated bellies up. One of the teachers held up a limp frog and showed us the first incision, not doing it himself, but pointing to where it should be. They counted it off, we small and cruel doctors poised with our instruments. On three, we cut from just under the chin, down to middle of the belly. Then we cut the chest crosswise. Then we pulled the skin and muscle back. There was a second of nothing while we looked down at the animals. And then the lungs of the frogs labored out of the cuts, like small white balloons, with delicate blue veins. With every dying breath, the lungs expanded and went limp. A teacher said softly, “Oh no.” Another said, “Oh God.”
The frogs became more fully conscious and they struggled on the boards, and a few struggled so hard that they came loose of the nails and went hopping away, trailing their insides behind them. Oh no. Oh god.
This was right before you gave birth, right before I left Saipan for good, and I cried under the hot sun with the other children, for the frogs, but also because I was afraid for you and because you were so brave.
After I came home from that last visit on Saipan, I talked to my mother about you. I told her you needed help, that things were not okay. I told her about the lithium, but I never repeated everything you had said under the banyan tree. She wasn’t very alarmed, maybe because she hadn’t been there that day and heard you, and maybe because there are so many girls on that island who say the same things as you. But she promised to keep an eye on you, anyway. And then the next day she called back, relieved and excited.
“It’s all okay,” she told me. “It’s nothing about Laurena. She just came by here and told me to tell you that she was pregnant. Pregnant, can you believe it? She said to tell you she wasn’t just gaining weight after all. And all that talk, scaring you, it must have been the hormones. All girls act crazy when they’re pregnant.”
I lit a cigarette, inhaling sharply.
“What’s that noise? Are you smoking?” my mother asked. “And anyway, isn’t that great about Laurena?”
“No, yes. It’s great.”
The name of the river is the Cape Fear. They make movies here, some of them we’ve seen together. My mother was right. It was just the hormones. That is one story.
But prima, here is another: I still walk up to the wall between us and I put my hand on it and I lean my head against it. I wonder do you feel me standing there. Do you feel me turning away.