“Too white to be brown and too brown to be white” eighteen year old Leila Folger has always felt like an outsider growing up with her father’s family in Washington D.C. When she comes to Samoa wanting to learn more about her mother’s heritage, she’s hoping to find a home, a place to belong. Instead, she finds mystery, the awakening of an ancient spirituality – and romance.
In this first book in the Telesa Series, Leila attends the local high school, Samoa College and tries to adjust to life as a teenager in Samoa, but she is slowly pulled into a supernatural world by a sisterhood of Telesa with elemental powers.
A thrilling love story inspired by Pacific mythology – featuring a sinister sisterhood of beautiful women with an environmental agenda and a fiery yet vulnerable young woman who must master her gifts – before they destroy her and all those she cares about.
“No … please … how to stop it? How can I stop it?” I burst into useless tears. Tears that fizzed and hissed in a heartbeat of heat. No amount of crying would help now. I wrung my hands, no way out of it. It was hopeless. In a few minutes I would be a mass murderer. A killer. In my mind’s eye, I could see it now. People on fire running in circles, frantically beating at the hungry flames. The smell of flesh scorching, peeling off ashy bone. Screams. Pleas for help. I sank to my knees, drained dry of strength. Unwilling to watch the carnage but unable to take my eyes away. I was drowning in a sea of fiery despair. Suffocating in a red night of terror.
A clear, calm voice spoke from beside me.
“Leila. Call it back. You can do it. Call it back NOW.”
I looked up, eyes glistening with molten tears. He stood as close to me as he dared, shielding his face from the heat with his hands, the edges of his clothes singed and charred.
“I can’t.” Abject despair in my voice. “I don’t know how.”
“Yes you can. You have the power. You spoke to it before. It listens to you. Call it back now before it’s too late. Please.”
It was the ‘please’ that did it. That snapped me out of the depths. He wanted me to call the fire. He believed that I could. And I wanted him to believe in me. Slowly, I raised myself from the ground, closed my eyes and willed that fiery beast to come home. To listen to me – its mistress. To return and feed instead on my molten core. I trembled at the very thought of the blaze finding its way back. How could I possibly summon it all when it had grown so exponentially as it fed? But this was my fault. I had to find the strength from somewhere. I opened my eyes and shuddered at the majesty of the sight before me.
Directly ahead of me was a massive wall of fire. It had stopped advancing across the field and now it stood waiting; the beast waited for my command. Now – it asked – what would you have me do? Opening my arms, every ounce of my being quivering with fear, I summoned it home.
I burned. Inside and out. I burned. There was indescribable pain and the knife edge of pleasure. It was ecstasy and hell all at once. Then, as swiftly as it had begun, it stopped. I was empty. A dried husk scorched beyond belief. Withered and dead. I fell. The steaming darkness claimed me.
What was I doing? On a plane thousands of miles away from everything familiar, going to a land I had never seen? Well, a land I didn’t remember seeing, I corrected. Clenching my palms tightly, I pressed my head against the window, staring blindly out at the motionless clouds. The engines of the 747 were a dull roar and the flight attendant a vapid chatter behind me as I tried to block out the images that threatened to bring tears to my eyes. Flashes.
Dad. Weakly trying to clasp me close as he lay on his hospital bed. Trying to push aside the oxygen mask so he could whisper in my ear. “Leila – very important – I love you – whatever you do, don’t go back there, don’t let them send for you. Stay here. Please don’t go back.”
Numb and washed out with hours of crying, I stood by the gravesite. Watching them shovel dirt on top of the glossy black coffin. My grandmother firmly nudging my shoulder, a hoarse aggravated whisper, “Throw in your flowers you difficult child. Everyone’s waiting for you. Put in your ridiculous flowers NOW.” Turning away from the last I would ever see of my dad, pushing past the straight-backed figure in black Chanel, pushing past the disapproving crowd of reserved elegance and running through the cemetery until my lungs were filled to bursting and I could run no longer. Collapsing in a huddle on the grass to cry some more. Until my uncles found me, bundling me into the waiting limousine with annoyed sighs and mutterings.
“Excuse me, here are your arrival forms to fill in. Do you need any help, Miss?” The flight attendant was a slender woman with hair swept up in an effortless swirl. Her eyes were concerned as she looked at my tear-stained cheeks.
Cringing under her gaze – and resenting the assumption that I, a world-weary eighteen-year–old, would need help filling in a simple form – my reply was abrupt.
“No. I certainly do not need any help from you.”
I regretted the belligerent words as soon as they were out of my mouth, but it was too late. The woman pursed her lips and walked away up the aisle stiffly.
Great. Just great Leila. Way to go. What are you gonna do? Yell at everyone who’s nice to you? I turned back to the window with a mental sigh of resignation. Hoping for a glimpse of my destination and yet wishing I was a million miles away. Back home. In D.C. With Dad. In my own room with its tropical print bedspread, walls covered with Dad’s black and white portfolio photos, shelves strewn carelessly with shells and coral from one of our trips to the beach. French doors open onto the balcony that was filled to overflowing with my plants. Some gently dug from the rich earth of the forest reserve at the end of our street. Others, exotic greens brought back from my father’s many trips to Africa and the Middle East. Each one nurtured and cared for with innate skill. Each one a friend. And now each one probably dumped in a landfill somewhere as the new house owners cleared out the leftovers of my life. Oh, I had tried to take my plants with me to grandmother’s house. But of course the old lady would have none of it.
“Don’t be ridiculous child. We have no space for your sticks and leaves. Besides, we have a beautiful conservatory where you can have more than your fill of plants. They are all very expensive and rare, mind you, so I won’t have you fumbling around in there damaging things. I shall speak to Manuel and see if there is some small task you can be entrusted with – perhaps watering?” The last was added on with a gracious nod of her perfectly coiffed silver head as Elizabeth Folger bestowed what she viewed as a comfort upon her far from satisfactory granddaughter.
“Forget it. I’m not interested in that ridiculous collection of hothouse plants” I muttered under my breath.
“What was that child?!” an imperious tone as my grandmother displayed her uncanny knack for perfect hearing exactly when you didn’t want her to.
“Nothing grandmother. Never mind.” How I wished the old lady would stop calling me a child. I was eighteen for heaven’s sake. And she needed to look in a thesaurus and find a new word to replace ‘ridiculous’ because when it came to talking about me, she couldn’t seem to escape it.
“The captain has turned on the fasten seat-belt sign. We are approaching Faleolo Airport and will be landing in a few minutes.” The announcement crackled over the headphones, breaking into my thoughts. A few minutes. That’s all that separated me from the rest of my life. I turned away from the window. Away from where I had come. Must look ahead. Need to be ready for this. A leap into the unknown.
Samoa. The one place my father had not wanted me to come. The place he had pleaded with his dying breath for me to stay away from. And now six months later, here I was. A traitor to the last wishes of the only person who mattered to me. I closed my eyes as I took the final step off the plane, sending him a silent plea for forgiveness – wherever he was.
The sweltering heat embraced me, smothering me in its heavy wrap as I walked out. Sweat already trickling down my back; I slowly made my way across the tarmac and into the arrival building. People jostled and shoved trying to get in line for immigration check-in. For the first time, I took a good look at the people around me.
Lumbering ladies in floral print dresses sweated beside me in the line, shopping bags stuffed with chocolates, plastic flower wreaths and shiny keys that said ‘Happy 21st!’ There was an ancient Elvis look-alike to my left, resplendent in flared pants and a half-buttoned shirt. Clutching a duty-free bag chock-a-block full of bottles of vodka that was making almost as much noise as his layers of gold chains. A little old lady in a sequined red dress stood beside him. I was feeling seriously under-dressed in my white cotton tee and favorite faded denim jeans, with only a backpack for hand luggage. As the seasoned traveler, Dad had always emphasized to me the importance of traveling light – and dressing for the climate of your destination. The one time he took me on assignment with him to Nigeria we had squabbled for days over what items in my suitcase were actually deemed ‘vital necessities.’ My shampoo, face wash, and iPod had all lost the battle for inclusion. The shampoo and face wash because according to Dad’s philosophy on personal hygiene – a bar of soap would do for everything. And I had a sneaking suspicion the iPod had lost out because Dad wanted there to be no excuse for me not to listen to him. It had been an amazing trip – the last we had taken together.
An explosion of gangsta-style swearing startled my thoughts. Three hulking boys wearing baggy jeans that dragged on the ground and huge t-shirts that would fit a whole extra person were complaining angrily at the back of the line about the long wait. I shook my head, with a shiver of disgust at their rudeness. The immigration official at the desk contemplated them with a sardonic expression and then returned to lazily stamping passports.
It was a long wait for them to check my passport and an even longer one for the bags to appear through the conveyance belt. That gave me time to study my surroundings even further. I had been to several countries one could only classify as VERY hot but this sauna-like heat was different. It was wet and heavy. I struggled to find pockets of oxygen to fill my gasping lungs. Only a half hour landed and I was longing for a cold shower, wishing I could peel away these sweat-soaked clothes. A floral shirted band played for our listening pleasure – four men with a ukulele, guitar, wooden drum, and another unknown string instrument. My mood lifted at their song – a cheerful melody of Samoan words. It was the first time I had heard the language of my mother being spoken and I was fascinated. The words flowed and rippled in a rhythmic flow that tried to tug me along with it. I was almost sorry when my one suitcase appeared and it was my turn to pass through the security detector.
I emerged into the waiting area tense again with suspense. I had written to my aunt, Matile, and her husband Tuala, using an address I had found in one of my dad’s old fragmenting notebooks. Remnants from his time as a US Peace Corp volunteer in Samoa. Unsure how reliable the Samoan postal service was, I had followed up my letter with a phone call, leaving a message with the young girl on the line about the date and time of my arrival. Apparently, both my aunt and uncle had been at church. I was nervous. What if they didn’t show up? What if they did show up – and I walked right past them? I had no clue what they looked like – and for sure they wouldn’t know me from a bar of soap.
Passengers jostled past me, anxious to greet their waiting relatives. Families. Loved ones. A small child in pink rompers called out “Mama!” and ran on unsteady feet to hug the old lady in the red sequins. Elvis was met by a crowd of people – as if an entire village had come to welcome his return. Even the unsavory gangsters transformed to sheepish, smiling teenage boys as aunties and uncles swept them in a warm embrace. Not for the first time, I felt my ‘alone-ness’ keenly emphasized. No parents, no brothers or sisters. A distant grandmother. Kind but distracted uncles. Several cousins way older than I and already busy with raising families. That was about the full sum of my family. I hardly dared hope – even in the darkest recess where I admitted my deepest secrets – that this alone-ness would change, that my desire for a family to belong to had been my real motivation for coming a thousand miles to this unknown land. I bit my lip as I scanned the waiting crowd anxiously. Would they show up? Someone spoke from behind me.
I turned eagerly and was stopped short by the sight of a slight woman dressed in navy, gray thinning hair drawn into a tight bun. Her eyes were deep-set pools that stared at me unblinkingly, her mouth set in a frown. Behind her hovered an equally stern-looking, heavy-set man formally dressed in a long-sleeved shirt and black lavalava skirt.
“You are Leila.” It was a statement of fact, not a question. “I am Matile. This is your Uncle Tuala.” The old lady did not smile in answer to my hesitant greeting. Indeed, if anything, her face darkened even further. She did not move to hug me or even offer her hand. It seemed to my tired brain that she took several steps backward, as if loathe to get too close to me.
I tried to break through the awkward painful silence. “Umm hi. Thanks for having me.”
My aunt only shook her head slowly. Then she spoke six words that dashed to pieces my hopes for a family, for welcome – and set the tone for my homecoming.
“You should never have come here.”
With that brisk announcement, she swung on her heels and began striding towards the car park. I was so stunned that if Uncle Tuala hadn’t picked up my suitcase and set off after her – I would have stood and watched them walk away from me. He looked over his shoulder and motioned impatiently for me to catch up. I hovered for a moment, looking back at the refueling 747. Surely I could buy a ticket out of here with my precious credit card and be winging my back to D.C., back to what? My grandmother who would be exultant with her ‘I told you so’? The summer school program she had chosen for me with the vain hopes that I could get enough makeup credits so a decent college would want me? No. There was nowhere else for me to go – but forward.
The drive from the airport was painful. Uncle Tuala silently loaded my bags into the boot of the double-cab Toyota pick-up while I climbed into the back seat, Aunty Matile ignoring me from the front. The silence continued through the long bumpy drive to the main township, which I knew from my internet tourist reading was called Apia. The road wound its way along the coast, villages on one side and diamond blue sea on the other. I was aghast at how slowly the traffic moved. Uncle Tuala never went over 30 miles an hour – and the rest of the traffic was no exception. How on earth did people stand driving so slow? I knew Apia was about twenty miles from the airport and had imagined it would take us only a few minutes. I was dying to get out of the oppressive unfriendliness of being trapped in a car with two people who had made no secret of their dislike for me. Stifling my impatience, I uneasily studied the villages as we passed through.
My sightseeing was interrupted by Aunty Matile’s heated exchange of words with Uncle Tuala. The unfamiliar words rose and fell in the car. I didn’t need a translator to figure out that they were surely arguing about me. Being the cause of conflict had me squirming and so, never one to shy away from confrontation, I jumped in headfirst, adopting a fake cheery tone.
“I want to thank you both for letting me come visit. I’ve always wanted to see my mother’s home and meet her family.” They both halted their tirades at my words. I hastened to reassure them that I wasn’t here forever and certainly wasn’t going to be a financial burden. “I’m hoping to visit here for three months. I have a return ticket for the end of August. I have my own money and would be happy to pay for my room and board.”
There was a horrified look on Aunty Matile’s face as she turned to answer me roughly.
“Don’t be foolish girl! You are our aiga, our family, and we would never expect you to pay us!”
I hated to remind her that she was the one who had made it clear that a loving welcoming family they were not. Uncle Tuala spoke.
“What your aunty is trying to say is that while she doesn’t think it’s a good idea for you to be here, we of course are happy to meet you, and, of course, you will stay with us as our daughter until August.” Such a long speech seemed to go against the grain with him as Aunty Matile threw him a sharp glance. Or was she reacting to his use of the word ‘happy’? However, they both seemed to find comfort in the thought of this being only a temporary visit, grasping hold of the promise of my departure in August with relief. Matile spoke now with weary resignation.
“Yes, as your uncle says, you will be our daughter while you are here. We do have plenty of room and of course you must go to school. We are both working and I don’t want you home alone idle for so long.”
School?! I had not contemplated that possibility. I was no stranger to the angst associated with starting at a new school mid-year – I had done it before and I definitely didn’t want to even attempt trying my hand at a Samoan high school. No way. When I had walked out of the National Cathedral after graduation it was with the firm resolve that I was DONE with high school. I had come here to find out about my mother and her family (however unsavory they may be, I thought darkly), and I wasn’t going to waste any time with school, thank you very much. Before I could point all this out reasonably and politely, Uncle Tuala spoke pre-emptively.
“We know that children in America are raised differently from here. We are sure that our ways may seem a bit strange at first to you. But we must make it clear that while you stay, you will be our daughter, and so you will have to behave a certain way. We have seen those types of young people that come here from America with their styles and their language and their disrespect. We hope you will not be like that.” He spoke firmly from the front seat, his gaze never wavering from the winding road and I had the sneaking suspicion that he was trying to be nice by warning me that what I probably took for granted as ‘regular’ behavior would be considered horrifying by Aunty Matile. I almost felt like, in him, I just might have an ally against the indomitable Matile who continued to sit straight backed, shoulders rigid.
I thought back to the teenagers on the flight from L.A.X. and cringed inwardly. Well, if that was what they were comparing me with, then I would have to allay their fears ASAP. I thought about Grandmother Folger and her strict expectations and how well she would probably get along with my Aunty Matile, and I hid a grimace. A deep breath.
“Please don’t worry, Uncle. I want so much to learn about my mother’s culture and her family. I’m certainly not here to cause trouble or to bring any disrespectful attitudes from America.” My tone was earnest. I wanted to find a place here. And I certainly didn’t need any conflicts with the two people who – let’s face it – were being very generous allowing me to stay with them – even though they didn’t have the slightest clue about me. If that meant enduring a new school in some third-world education system, then so be it. There was a slight relaxing of the tension in the front seat at my words. Feeling better about the next three months, I settled back in my seat to enjoy the sightseeing ride. Samoa was unlike anywhere I had ever been. Nigeria had been beautiful – in a stark, dry kind of way. Rolling hills and red earth. But the tired desperation of so many of the people we had met had gone a long way to obscure the land’s promise. It had been difficult too, to accept the appalling poverty of so many – contrasted with the sleek high-rise wealth of the cities.
But here, while many of the houses were humble, there was an unabashed cheerfulness about the scenery. There was green everywhere. Every house surrounded with multi-colored bushes and flowering trees. We passed a pool of fresh water, encircled with rocks where half-naked children splashed and waved at us as we passed by. Further along the road, a group of women swept cut grass into piles with long-handled brooms – scattering chickens and shooing gamboling dogs. People walked alongside the road as if they owned it – not the cars that frequently slowed to let them cross, or swerved to avoid clusters of youngsters sitting on the tar-seal. I was starting to realize why Samoa needed such a slow speed limit. Grateful for the cool escape of the air conditioning, I closed my eyes, allowing the tiredness of eighteen hours of non-stop travel to lull over me.
I awoke with a start at the sound of the car door slamming shut. We had arrived. Uncle Tuala was struggling with my suitcase at the back of the pick-up while Aunty Matile was shooing an enthusiastic canine. It had to be the ugliest dog I had ever seen. Splotchy black and brown fur, missing half his tail and one ear ripped to shreds but his coat was sleek and shiny and he was far too fat to be a stray. I watched fascinated as Aunty Matile bent to embrace him, ruffling his fur and hushing him with half-muttered endearments. Aha she can’t be that bad if she loves such a hideous beast I thought to myself with some triumph.
I alighted from the truck, stiff muscles aching for a stretch, and examined my new temporary home. It was a solid brick box house with faded orange paint and a green tin roof. A steel rail encircled a verandah overflowing with pot plants. Exuberant bougainvillea trailed from hanging pots, vivid orange and flame red. A row of tiger orchids danced in the afternoon breeze. The garden was a riot of color and texture, so many different plants that even I couldn’t identify them all. Gracing the front yard was a sweeping frangipani tree thick with fragrant white blossoms. I took a few steps closer to its hanging branches and was assailed by the sweet scent of my dad’s favorite. I wasn’t prepared for the wave of emotion that swept over me and I fought the tears that threatened to spill. Struggling for control of my emotions, I hastily turned my back on Uncle as he took my bags to the front door. This was the land of my mother. This was the home of her sister. This was the place where my dad fell in love with the woman who would captivate him long after her premature death. I took a deep breath and reached with trembling fingers to pick a single white frangipani from the boughs above me. Aunty’s stern tones startled my reverie.
“Frangipani, we call it pua in Samoan. You like plants.” It was a statement, not a question.
I nodded, unwilling to trust my voice. As if sensing my fragility, Aunty’s voice softened.
“You have come a long way. To be with people you know nothing about. That, at least, took courage.”
I was taken aback by her compliment. Kindness would only loosen my hold on the floodgates though, so I simply shrugged, not trusting myself to respond.
“Come inside. You must be tired. And thirsty.”
Aunty Matile beckoned for me to follow her, snapping sternly at the dog as he made a cheerful lunge for me as I walked past.
“Terminator! Halu! Get away.”
I loved dogs. Even ugly ones. We could never have one since Margaret our long-suffering housekeeper had been allergic to them. It was a thrill to kneel beside Terminator and hug his wriggling body.
“Hey boy, you’re so beautiful, you gorgeous thing, you wanna be friends? Huh?”
He licked my face, his pungent fishy breath wrinkling my nose. “Eww .”
For the first time, a smile cracked the rock expression on Matile’s face. “He’s a very naughty dog. Don’t give him too much attention or he’ll expect you to adore him all the time.”
Uncle Tuala’s guffaw held disbelief. “Ha! As if he isn’t spoiled enough as it is by you, Matile.”
She only pursed her lips and marched into the house, Uncle following with a gleam of satisfaction in his eye. I, too, hid a smile as I walked in slowly behind them. Clearly, Aunty wasn’t such a dragon and she did have her soft spots. My steps lightened.
The front room was a spartan affair. A sofa set, the obligatory television, a woven mat on the floor. It was the pictures lining the walls that stood out. Christ looked down at me from every angle – all the sober, suffering pictures of Him. Dying on the cross, praying in the garden, breaking bread with his disciples. Clearly in this house, Jesus was a serious matter. Past the living room,
through the kitchen and down a bare hallway was my room. Four walls. A bed draped with a mosquito net. Drawers. Another woven mat. A mirror. Windows overlooking the backyard where chickens roamed and a cluster of baby pigs snuffled happily under a breadfruit tree. Thankfully, I noted the ceiling fan as Aunty pointed further down the hall.
“The bathroom is down here. It’s best to shower early because the water usually goes off in the evening. We have a water tank but the pressure isn’t strong enough for a shower. You’ll have to use a bucket and bowl if you bath late. Once you get settled come and have something to eat in the kitchen.”
With that invitation, she left me to unpack. I sat gingerly on the bed, looking around my surroundings. Funny, the room didn’t look lived in. The sheets crackled with newness and the mat was pristine. There wasn’t a cobweb or speck of dust anywhere. Some effort had gone into preparing for my arrival and I was touched by the thought. It lessened somewhat the awfulness of my airport welcome. My travel weariness faded – replaced with an eagerness to explore.
I showered, gratefully replacing sweaty sticky clothes with knee-length shorts and a cotton tee, pulling my long hair up into a ponytail. I paused for a moment in front of the mirror, tilting my head to one side at my reflection. I was a ramshackle collection of ‘too.’ Too tall. Too broad. Hair too bushy, untamable dirt brown hair that only redeemed itself slightly by having gold highlights in the sun. Too wild, Brooke Shields eyebrows to match. Dark eyes set too deep into a forehead too wide. Lips too thick – lips that my dad called “luscious,” but who was he kidding? Legs too skinny and gangly that loved to run but didn’t do too well in high heels. Too brown to be white but too white to be brown. Ugh. I rolled my eyes at myself, wondering why I even bothered with mirrors. It’s not like I was going to look any different the more I looked! With a parting wrinkle of my nose, I went out to the kitchen.
Uncle Tuala sat reading a newspaper while Matile bustled around with dishes and serving spoons. They both looked up at my hesitant entrance.
“Ah Leila, come have something to eat. Your aunty was cooking all morning. She wasn’t sure what American children like to eat. Sit.”
I pulled up a chair as Aunty Matile put a plate in front of me, overflowing with food. Steam rose in tantalizing swirls and the aroma had my mouth watering. I had only nibbled on the cardboard airplane meals, and I realized I was famished. Picking up my fork, I dug into the most recognizable item on the plate – fried rice – and took a huge mouthful, burning my mouth in the process. Aunty smiled at my enthusiasm.
“You are too skinny, Leila. So skinny. Oka! Does nobody cook good food for you in America? Your grandmother – what does she cook for you?”
I choked on a piece of chicken at her words and paused to take several gulps of ice water. No-one had ever called me too skinny. And the idea of my elegant, Vogue magazine, grandmother actually cooking anything was enough to make anyone who knew her hysterical.
“Umm, no. My grandmother doesn’t cook. But she has a very nice lady – Maria – who made our meals.”
“So why are you so thin, then? While you’re here, we need to make sure you eat good food and put on some weight. Need to get healthy. Here, try some of my chop suey.”
Aunty scooped a pile of noodles onto my plate. I started on the other unfamiliar foods – chunks of grey potato-like stuff covered in a thick white sauce. Gingerly, I took a small bite and was surprised by the rich creaminess.
“This is good.” I exclaimed, and was answered with a beaming smile from Aunty.
“That’s kalo, taro. In coconut cream. Makes our Manu Samoa rugby boys big and tough.” Uncle Tuala offered helpfully.
I smiled with a mouthful of rugby player food as I made a mental note NOT to eat too much taro – I certainly didn’t need to grow any more. Aunty handed me a steaming mug of thick black liquid that I regarded with some mistrust. It looked like engine oil, thick enough to harbor state secrets. But the aroma of roasted chocolate made me bold. The first sip confirmed for me what I had always suspected. White people drank dirty water. Brown people? Now they KNEW how to make cocoa.
“This is amazing stuff, Aunty. I’ve never tasted anything like it back home.”
“Kokosamoa. Made from the roasted coco bean. I make it myself from our tree out back.” Aunty spoke with pleasure, as if unused to receiving compliments on her cooking. “Plenty of sugar to make it sweet. I put five spoons in your cup. Is that enough?” She looked worried.
I spluttered on my mouthful of koko. FIVE spoons of sugar!? HELLO – this stuff was diabetes waiting to happen.
Uncle Tuala spoke. “Your grandmother would like you to call her. To let her know that you have arrived safely and are settled.”
Only a tremble of my hand betrayed my shock at this unexpected news. I took a deep breath to steady myself before answering, ennunciating each word carefully to emphasize my calmness.
“My grandmother? You spoke to my grandmother?”
Uncle sounded surprised. “Yes, of course. She called us, a few days before your arrival. While we have never met, we were in complete agreement about the foolishness of this visit of yours. However, she seemed resigned to the fact that young people will do what they want to. Especially one as strong willed as you appear to be.” A slight smile softened his words somewhat, but I was still reeling at finding out that, far from being an independent force taking on the big wide world on my own, I was, in actual fact, on a journey that had been somewhat ‘sanctioned’ by Grandmother Folger. How deflating. Thinking of the old woman sitting in her Potomac mansion, reaching out with money-driven tentacles to control me, even now. Even here, thousands of miles away in Samoa. I began to seethe.
Aunty chimed in. “Your grandmother and I agreed there must be some rules for your stay with us. Rules that will ensure your safety.”
My dad would have seen my exceptionally polite tone for what it was. An indicator of my raging inner storm of anger. “Really? Rules. Rules you discussed with my grandmother. And what might these rules be?”
Aunty was pleased with my apparent acquiescence. “Well, both Tuala and I work all day at the church offices so you will need to be responsible and trustworthy. My cousin Falute comes every day to help with the house and the cooking so you will not be alone here. Also, Tuala has a nephew, Kolio, who works in the yard. It’s not decent for a young woman to go around unsupervised in this country. You will take the bus to school and back. But you will not venture anywhere else. School and home. Oh, and church on Sunday, of course.”
“Of course.” I reiterated dryly, clenching my palms tightly under cover of the table.
“You can enroll at school under our last name – Sinapati – it will make the process easier. We would rather keep your visit here as low key as possible. Oh and please, you will refrain from discussing your parents with anyone outside this house.”
“Excuse me?!” The first few rules I had expected, but this? This was insane.
Uncle shifted his feet awkwardly and stared out the window as Aunty Matile continued.
“Leila, you must try to understand. There are things you don’t know. About life here. And it would not be a good thing for your presence here to become common knowledge. It could be awkward.” Matile halted, as if unsure how to proceed. “Oh – I wish you would reconsider staying here. This can’t end well. It won’t end well. This place is too small. Oh, how can we possibly keep this quiet?” Her voice rose one hysterical notch and for one awful moment, it looked as if she were about to cry. Uncle took over, placing a comforting hand on hers.
“Leila, what your aunty means is that you are here in a strange place that you know nothing about. There are different customs and … and expectations here that may seem strange to you. We are responsible for your safety. And your behavior will be a reflection on us – your aiga. We wish to ensure that your stay here is as uneventful and peaceful as possible. That means working hard at school, going to church on Sunday like a good girl, and not roaming about like some manner-less child with no parents.”
I winced at his phrase. A child with no parents. My rage seeped away, my body wilting in the late afternoon heat as I mulled over those words. What else had Grandmother Folger told him? About my fighting at school? My nightmare-filled nights? The psychiatrist the school had insisted I go to after my dad’s death? The medication I had refused to take? The long days filled with crying? The failing out of most of my classes? I thought I would escape all that, here in this tropical paradise. But who was I trying to fool? Even here, I was Leila Pele Folger. A child with no real family. No friends. An anger management problem.
I refused to cry in front of these strangers. Quietly I pushed my chair away from the table and rose to my feet. “Uncle I totally understand. And I promise you both I will be no trouble. If you don’t mind, I’m very tired. Can I call my grandmother later, after I’ve had a rest?”
Aunty rushed to reassure me. “Of course. You go have a good sleep. That’s what you need after your long trip. We can talk again later. Tomorrow we will go to town to get your uniforms for school on Monday. And any other supplies you might need.”
Great. A uniform. Just what I always wanted.
My steps were unsteady as I made my way back to the little room, turning on the fan before tumbling face down onto the bed. The threatening tears, however, did not come. But blessed sleep did instead.
I woke the next morning unsure of my surroundings. The fan whirred overhead and traffic rattled and roared past on the road out front. I must have been asleep for at least ten hours, but instead of feeling refreshed, I only felt sluggish and hot. Ugh. Gathering my things, I slipped down the hall to the bathroom where a cold shower went a long way towards waking me up and lifting my mood somewhat.
Once clean and dressed, I ventured out to find my ‘family.’ The kitchen was empty, but, on the table was a still-hot kettle of kokosamoa, and underneath a netted dome covering was a platter piled high with little round pancakes. Breakfast. I sampled them hesitantly but needn’t have worried. They were delicious. Crunchy on the outside and sweet with ripe banana on the inside. And perfect when dunked in sugary sweet koko. However prickly and unpleasant staying with these people would be, the food, at least, would never be a disappointment. When I was done washing up my dishes, I knew I couldn’t put off the call home to Grandmother Folger any longer. I took a deep breath, before hitting speed dial on the pink iPhone she had given me as a farewell gift before I left. The one loaded with limitless credit “so you can keep me updated via email and direct calls every day on where you are and what you are doing. I want daily reports Leila, do you hear me?! If you do not agree to this condition Leila Folger, then I will have my lawyers make your trip to Samoa VERY difficult. I can put a freeze on all your accounts. And you don’t even want to know what good lawyers and a disgusting amount of money can do to your trust fund if you take this too far young woman! Don’t you dare push me Leila, I can’t stop you from going, but I can make sure you have no money when you’re there.”
Yes, Elizabeth Folger had been scrambling for ammo when I announced my decision to come to Samoa. It was driving her crazy that, as of my birthday a few months ago, I was legally an ‘adult.’ And she was going double as crazy that my dad’s life insurance policy had given me a substantial amount of money immediately that was separate from the Folger trust fund I would inherit when I turned twenty-one. As the executor of the trust, she had been counting on the fund to control me and had been most displeased that the death money gave me the freedom to fly halfway round the world. Away from her. Elizabeth Folger wasn’t used to people defying her. Especially not her own family. But a month after my father’s death, she’d had a mini-stroke and her health was now a barrier to enforcing the kind of control she liked to have over everyone and everything. I had never seen her so frail as the morning I had said goodbye, and it was that frailty more than her threats that had made me agree to accept the phone and now, to use it.
As the line rang, I was rehearsing my replies for all the possible questions and attacks she would have ready for me. So much so, that when she did answer, I was taken off guard.
“Oh, Grandmother Folger, is that you?”
“Well of course it’s me, you foolish child. Who else would be answering my personal line? Leila? I’ve been expecting your call, you were supposed to call yesterday. Where are you? What is it like? Where are you staying? Is it safe and secure? Do you have privacy?”
I tried not to let my exasperation show in my voice as I replied. “Hello Grandmother Folger. Yes, it’s me, Leila. And yes, everything’s ok here, I mean, alright here. I’m sorry I didn’t call last night but I was really tired from the trip. Aunty Matile and Uncle Tuala met me at the airport and they’ve given me a lovely room in their home to stay in. It’s very clean, very safe. The property is fenced. Nobody else lives with them. Aunty Matile is a wonderful cook and made tons of food to welcome me. We’ve already discussed the rules and guidelines for my stay with them – including the fact that I’m just to go three places while I’m here. Home, school, and church.” I could totally imagine the satisfaction that last bit would give her.
“School in a third-world country harrumph. What an incredible waste of time. When you could be working on getting valuable credits at the private summer academy I went to great lengths to arrange for you. Honestly! Your stubbornness serves you no good at all when it is so misdirected. When are you going to shake off this ridiculous mood you’ve got yourself in and start facing up to your responsibilities? Your commitments here at home? The longer you delay college, the more difficult it will be and dallying about in some wretched little island in the middle of nowhere will do nothing for you – not to mention … blah, blah, blah.”
I automatically zoned out as she continued on a much-worn path of brisk recriminations, knowing that she wouldn’t take a breath until she was done with having her say. She was starting to wind down though, just as I saw Tuala’s pick-up pull up at the front of the house. Quickly, I interrupted her.
“Grandmother Folger, I have to go now. Matile is taking me to town to get uniforms for school on Monday and I can’t keep her waiting. It was lovely to talk to you. I’ll call you again tomorrow – or maybe just send you an email. Bye!” I hung up before she could protest, and put the ringer on silent before going to help Matile carry in plastic bags of shopping. She nodded appreciatively.
“Thank you. Tuala and I went out early to do some shopping at the market. We didn’t want to wake you but I left you some breakfast – did you eat?”
“Yes thank you. And those were the best pancakes I’ve ever tasted Aunty.”
A stiff smile was my reward as Matile moved about the kitchen putting her groceries away. “Was that your grandmother you were speaking to on the phone earlier? Is everything alright?”
“Yes. I checked in with her, let her know I’ve arrived. I told her I would be enrolling in school on Monday.” As if a lecture from thousands of miles away wasn’t enough, Matile then proceeded to speak to me sternly.
“Good. It’s important that you keep in contact with your grandmother. I know you haven’t had much exposure to your Samoan culture, but here in Samoa, a young woman would never disobey her elders and travel around the world by herself this way. We are very sorry for your grandmother. She must be so worried about you and frustrated about your trip. I hope that while you’re here, you can learn many more useful customs and traditions, about what it means to be a tamaitai Samoa, a Samoan woman. Now come, let’s get you to Carruthers store in town for those uniforms.”
I took a deep breath and followed her out the door to the car, reminding myself stay calm Leila, be polite, you’re a guest here, she’s your aunty, be patient, nod and smile and agree with everything.
Thankfully, Aunt Matile’s lectures were substantially shorter than Grandmother Folger’s and the ride to town was punctuated only by Tuala’s attempts to be a helpful tour guide as he pointed out places he deemed to be of interest along the route. Places like the church headquarters on the main Beach Road where he and Matile worked. The Police Station. The Mulivai Cathedral. The weary courthouse where a sniper had shot a protesting Mau leader. The government building of offices on a stretch of reclaimed waterfront land. I looked around with great interest. Apia was small. Dusty. Hot. And colorful. I loved the abundance of flowers everywhere and the view out to the golden blue harbor was breathtaking. We stopped first at an ATM so I could withdraw some cash, the Samoan tala notes feeling strange in my hands. At the clothing supplier, buying the uniforms was painless as the first one I tried on, fit perfectly. It was the colors that had me reeling – bright orange pinafores and sunburst-yellow blouses.
“Ugh Aunty, this uniform is hideous. Who dreamed up this color combination?”
She only pursed her lips at me as she took our purchases to the counter. “Samoa College is the oldest and finest high school in the country. Young people are proud to wear these colors. And they try their best not to disgrace them.”
O-kaaaay. I repeated what was fast becoming my Samoa mantra. Leila, breathe. Be polite. You’re a guest. Be nice. Be patient. Be quiet!
I tried hard to sound meek. “Yes Aunty Matile. I will try very hard not to disgrace the uniform or you and Uncle Tuala.” She looked at me suspiciously as if she could read the falseness hidden in my words and I struggled to keep a straight face that spoke only of reticence and humility.
“Harrumph, well then. Let’s get going. Tuala will be wanting to get back to the house in time for the rugby game that’s coming on this afternoon. Come along, I think we have everything.”
Laden with uniforms we made our way back to the car and the short drive home. Passing a cemetery where frangipani trees dropped their petals on moss-covered graves had me thinking, and, back at the house, once the shopping was all safely stowed away and Matile was preparing dinner, I took the moment to ask her for directions. To my mother’s grave.
The silence was ominous. Both Tuala and Matile froze and looked at each other. My gaze went to first one and then the other, waiting for the answer. Uncle Tuala spoke first.
“Your mother is a sensitive topic in this house. Your aunty Matile does not like to speak of her.”
“Oh. I see.” But I didn’t. The woman was my mother, surely I of all people had every right to ask where her grave was? I persisted. “I’m sorry if it’s painful for you, Aunty. If you could just tell me where I can find her grave, I can get myself there?”
Aunty Matile turned her back on me and vigorously stirred the pot on the stove, throwing her answer over her shoulder. “Your mother is not buried in town. Now let us talk of something else.”
I took a deep breath. “The main reason I came to Samoa is so that I could learn as much as possible about my mother. My dad didn’t tell me a lot about her. I’ve never even seen a photo of her.” I quickened with excitement. “Do you have some pictures of her I could look at, please? It would mean so much to me to be able to know what she looked like!”
Matile dropped the pot she was holding. It fell with a crash, splattering boiled taro everywhere and bringing Tuala abruptly to his feet.
“Matile! Are you alright?”
Matile was trembling as she shook her fist at me. “Leila, no more questions about that woman. No more!”
My confusion made me ignore the warnings. “Why not? I don’t understand? What’s wrong with talking about my mother?”
“That woman is – was – none of your business.” was her taut reply.
“How can you say that?! I’m her daughter, she was my mother. How dare you tell me she’s none of my business?”
“You are too Westernized, too palagi to understand. You are too palagi to show respect to us, your elders? To us who have taken you in when your own palagi grandmother cannot handle you anymore?! Tapuni lou gutu. Shut your mouth now.” Aunty Matile’s tirade abruptly halted as Tuala moved to place a warning hand on her shoulder. He squeezed her arm gently before turning to me.
“Leila – as long as you are staying here in our home, you WILL speak with respect to your aunt. You WILL show fa’aaloalo to us, your family. And you will accept that there are some things we do not speak of. Ever. This is a God-fearing house. This land does not belong to the spirits and myths of the past. We are Christians and we will not have anything to do with such beliefs here.”
I turned and fled to my room, unwilling for anyone to see me dissolve in a tearful emotional mess. All the while though, questions screamed in my mind.
I don’t get it. I want to know about my mother – what does that have to do with his stupid spirits and myths? What the hell is he going on about? I came to this awful place to find my family, to find out about my mother and instead I’m stuck in a house where they won’t even allow me to talk about her?
For the first time, I considered the dreadful possibility that coming to Samoa had been a huge mistake. Exhausted from the emotional rollercoaster ride of only my first day in my new home, I fell asleep clutching a picture of my dad. The one person who had loved me. Laughed with me. And left me. I had never felt so alone in my life.
The rest of the weekend passed in subdued politeness. Matile and Tuala said no more about the confrontation in the kitchen and I followed their lead, maintaining a distant civility as they took me to church with them, introducing me to people as their niece, “here for a very short visit from America.” Church was followed by a sumptuous lunch expansive enough for at least ten more people, and I did the dishes before going to my room to surf the net, sending a silent prayer of thanks for Grandmother Folger’s forced gift. I shuddered to think how I was going to survive my stay in this house without a lifeline to the outside world. And so it was with unusual niceness that I drafted an email to Grandmother, telling her about my Samoan experience so far. I left out the part about my disagreement with my new relatives though. Grandmother had never tried to hide her distaste for my Samoan mother and I had a feeling she would be right on the same page as Aunty Matile and Uncle Tuala.
As I lay in bed late on Sunday, I could see the southern sky splayed in all its majestic diamond glory from my window but my heart was a million miles away. In Potomac. Where my dad was buried. Not for the first time in the past eight months, I cried myself to sleep. Would I ever stop hurting this much for my dad?
Monday morning dawned fresh and clear with a light sprinkle of hot rain. I lay for a while in bed just listening to the sounds of life outside my window. Dogs barked, growling at passersby on the dusty front road. Birds – so many birds chattered in the lush richness of the backyard. A cat yowled in protest as someone threw a splash of water from the cook house in the neighbor’s back yard. A bus roared past, gears grinding, wooden seats rattling. Children laughed as they walked by the roadside on their way to school.
School. I sat bolt upright. That’s right. It was my first day at school in Samoa. I grimaced with disgust at the school uniform hanging next to the bed. Ugh. Could it get any more outrageous? Oh well. I didn’t want to be late on my first day so I had to swallow my revolt and dress quickly. School started early in this country. I had to be there at 7:30 for assembly – or so Aunty Matile had informed me.
Breakfast was the usual. Hunks of hot bread with slabs of butter melting onto the plate. A pot of thick, sweet kokosamoa that burned the tongue. Licking the butter drips off my fingers, I mused – no wonder Samoans were overweight and built like football players. If they ate carbs like this every day. Hmm … I would have to do something about making changes to the household diet if I wanted to stay the same size. Because this hot bread and koko thing was way too tempting to refuse every morning. Grabbing another piece of bread to savor in the car, I made sure to thank Aunty Matile for breakfast and wish her a ‘lovely day’ – and was rewarded by a fleeting smile from the usually sour-faced old woman.
Uncle Tuala was giving me a ride to school – at least until I figured out the bus routes myself. I didn’t know how I was going to be able to do that since apparently there was no regular bus schedule … or any printed timetables … or even proper bus stops.
“So, how do people catch the bus to school on time?” I asked, thoroughly puzzled.
“Oh, you just look out for the right bus on the road and when you see it coming you wave at it and it stops. Then when the bus goes past where you want to go, you pull the wire and it stops.”
“Umm … and how can I be sure it will go where I want it to?”
“Because. Everyone knows the way the bus goes. There’s not many different roads you know, Leila.”
Okay. So catching buses would be one thing to add to my list of ‘what to learn if you want to live in this country.’ In the meantime, I would be suitably grateful to Uncle Tuala for taking me to school. Unbidden, a memory flashed of my car at home. The thoroughly-unlike-me, red Mazda Miata that Dad had bought for my last birthday. Completely shocking me. And terrifying me. How was I supposed to hold my head up high driving such an obviously wannabe preppy car? But he had insisted. Taking me for driving lessons on deserted roads so I could get used to it. Blasting the stereo with his country songs and deliberately embarrassing me by singing along to the music. Especially whenever we had pulled up next to cars with boys in them and Randy Travis soulful voice warbled through the trees.
“Oh Dad, puh-leeeze stop that. You’re killing me here! You really don’t want me to have a social life at all do you? You want everyone at school to think I’m totally ridiculous … with a country singing dad singing off key AND driving a pukey cheerleader car.”
I’d hated that car. But oh how I had sobbed when I sold it. Stood at the car lot and sobbed as if my heart would break. Sobbed so hard the dealer looked worried and offered me more money in an attempt to console me.
“Here little lady, you want a better offer for it? Don’t cry, I can go up a little if you want.”
His awkward attempts to comfort only adding to my grief. “No thank you, I don’t want more money. I want …” I wanted my dad to come back. I wanted him alive so badly that it hurt to think about him. To whisper his name.
My sigh was so heartfelt that Uncle Tuala looked over at me with concern. “So umm you look nice in your uniform. I’m sure you will like this school. It’s the best one in Samoa.” Forced cheerfulness was nothing new to me. Heck, I wrote the book on it.
“I’m sure it will be great, Uncle. Thanks. I’m only here for a short while anyways. Only until I get what I came for. Until I find out about my umm, about my heritage, you know? That kind of stuff is important for a young woman to discover.”
Uncle Tuala ignored the almost-reference to matters better left unspoken and focused on swerving to avoid a three-legged dog strolling in the middle of the road. I felt an insane urge to giggle. It reminded me of Harry Potter and He-Who-Must-Not-be-Named – this whole forbidden topic of my mother. It was ridiculous.
No. Standing at the front entrance of my new school I realized ‘ridiculous’ was the absolute contrast of Samoa College with Washington Girls – my old school back home. Was it possible to find a more different place of learning in the world no, make that in this solar system?! I stood and tried not to gape at the crowds of teenagers walking through the front gate, resplendent in their blaring sunrise colors. Even the huge cement walls lining the entrance were painted orange and yellow. Just in case you missed the turn-off in the dark, perhaps? A sloping driveway lined with coconut palms led to the main building – a double-storey block of classrooms. On the right of the drive was a traditional Samoan fale with groups of students leaning on its wooden posts. There was so much color it hurt my eyes. Scarlet hibiscus bushes dotted the campus. Clumps of yellow leaves swayed in the morning breeze. Boys with no shirts on chased a rugby ball on the green fields to the left, sweat glistening already on brown skin and lean muscle.
Boys. There was something else you didn’t see at my old school back home. Half-naked boys. Hot, sweaty boys with dark eyes and loud shouts of laughter. I smiled against my will as I imagined what my uptight grandmother would make of that! I almost laughed out loud as I then thought of the reaction of girls back home if they could see this. A private all-girls school in the heart of D.C that catered for the daughters of the rich and richer – certainly didn’t get many shirtless Polynesian males running around the campus. Shaking my head at the thought, I gripped my backpack a bit tighter and made my way through the front gates. I reminded myself that having to endure boys in the same classroom would probably be the least of my worries as I tried to adjust to a new school in an alien place.
Uncle’s directions to the office were easy to follow. Seeing as how there were only three buildings in the entire school and one of them said OFFICE. Finding the office was one thing. Getting someone to help me with a class schedule was a totally different story. A frazzled-looking woman with hair pulled back so tight she probably gave herself headaches told me to “sit there and wait for the Principal. He’s busy right now.”
Nobody paid the slightest attention to me as I perched on a bench outside the staffroom. I looked around, interested in finding clues about this, the supposed ‘number one school in Samoa.’ It certainly didn’t look like much. Paint peeled from the corridor walls. There were no window panes – just chain link wire all along the length of the hall. Better for catching the breeze in this humidity I guessed. But not so great at keeping out the rain I thought, noting the slick puddles of water from the morning showers. The staffroom doors were wide open. A set of shabby tables dominated the room with an odd assortment of broken chairs arranged around them. Open shelves overflowed with textbooks and planners, here and there a chipped coffee mug.
The raucous clang of the bell halted my inspection. Great, now I would be late to my first class, wherever it was, and stick out even more. Where was the Principal? And wasn’t there anyone else in this place who could give me a timetable for goodness sake? I stood and walked to the window hoping to catch a glimpse of someone, anyone who looked vaguely Principal-like.
The entire student body seemed to be gathering for an assembly at the head of the long driveway. I had to admit the sea of orange and yellow wasn’t that bad. It was kind of eye catching and complemented well the fiery colors of a sunny morning in ‘paradise.’ I observed with interest that select senior students rather than teachers seemed to be in charge of the assembly. Staff stood in a row in front of the school and waited until everyone was settled and quiet. A short stocky girl with thick braids down her back, led the school in a hymn. The singing was beautiful – unlike anything I had heard back home. A prayer followed the song and then the girl relinquished her spot to a boy who strode forward with confident ease. I was puzzled – surely he couldn’t be a student? He was tall and broad, built like some kind of body builder – his yellow shirt doing little to disguise his finely toned physique. With his back to me though, I couldn’t make out his features. He spoke at length to the school – I caught fragments on the morning breeze “reminder about school code of conduct…a reputation to uphold” He had everyone’s rapt attention – it was obvious he held a position of some authority. Even from this distance I was impressed by his assurance and poise with speaking to such a large crowd of his peers. There was no hesitation or nervousness in his demeanor. Hmm, definitely not your average loopy teenage boy.
At the end of his address, the school dispersed and the staff began making their way back to the staffroom. Yes! Surely now I would get some help.
Help arrived in the form of the Principal, Mr. Raymond. He hadn’t heard of me, and of course had no records of my educational existence. None of that seemed to faze him – as if he was used to total strangers showing up at his school every day, expecting to get admitted. He was a broadly built man with a smiley face and a dented nose that looked suspiciously like it had been broken several times, almost like a teddy bear that had been beat up one time too many – I thought absent mindedly as he explained my schedule. It seemed straightforward enough. They didn’t need to see any of my grades since I was from an overseas school (the assumption being, that guaranteed I could at least read and write with some degree of skill) There was no vocab or maths skills testing because there was only one level of English and math class to go to. I had to choose an option for my subjects – and that was easy since there were only eight to choose from, three of them compulsory. English, maths and Samoan language. I wasn’t too happy about the Samoan language but Mr. Raymond assured me that I would be “put together with the other palagi kids who don’t know any Samoan and the teacher will go easy on you.” The entire exercise took all of five minutes. Mr. Raymond spent more time reciting the school rules to me. Some of them were routine – no alcohol, drugs, smoking or profanity. Others had me raising a mental eyebrow. Things like – no iPods, no makeup, no jewelry, no strange hairstyles and only yellow jandals allowed. What the color of one’s jandals had to do with one’s learning I had no idea but again the mantra breathe, smile, nod, agree, you are a visitor here. Once done, Mr. Raymond summoned a passing student, a tall skinny boy with velvet black hair, to take me to my first-period class.
My tour guide regarded me with frank interest. Mr. Raymond introduced him as Simon – from my new form class – but as soon as we were out of the Principal’s range, ‘he’ hastened to set the introduction straight, with an airy wave of his hand.
“What-everrr! I’m Si-mone.” He said the name like how I imagined a French supermodel would pronounce it. “You’re in our form class and Ms. Sivani is our form teacher. Come on, she hates latecomers.”
I quickly realized that Simone was what my uncle termed a ‘fa’afafine.’ On our shopping trip to town for my school uniforms, we had stopped to buy bread and the cashier had been a man in a tight red tank top and floral mini skirt. Pink fingernails and expertly applied makeup had completed the ensemble. I guess I hadn’t expected full drag queen attire in a Samoan dairy on a Saturday morning. Reading my mind, Uncle Tuala had waited until we were back in the car and then gave me a one-word explanation.
“A fa’a – what?” I had asked, completely befuddled.
“You know – a boy who wants to be a girl? A boy who acts like a girl? Fa’afafine translated loosely means umm, like a girl, in the ways of a girl.”
Aunty Matile put a stop to the conversation in her usual abrupt manner.
“In Samoa we have three different genders if you will – men and women and fa’afafine. It’s tradition. Don’t stare. Don’t be rude. They don’t like it.”
Fa’afafine – another new concept to put on my list of things to understand. Very conscious of Aunty Matile’s directive about not staring and not being rude, I walked beside my tour guide with my head down, hesitant about what to say. However, Simone didn’t seem too fussed about Ms. Sivani’s abhorrence for latecomers as he strutted along the corridor with all the studied ease of a runway model, stopping often to greet passersby.
“Daahling, how was your weekend? No way! Was he there? Ohmigosh, you’re kidding, I hate you! Tell me all about it at lunch. Oh, girlfriend wait up, how was Friday night? I heard about the V-Bar hmm, you wicked girl! I know, I was busy at home with our fa’alavelave and doing all the chores, going crazy I couldn’t get out. See you later! Yoohoo daaahling! ”
Like the Queen of England acknowledging her humble courtiers, I thought ungenerously, with a mental groan as I realized there was no way I would avoid a late entrance to class on my first day. Indeed, I had a sneaking suspicion that my tour guide welcomed a late entrance – the more dramatic the better. I studied Simone out of the corner of my eye as he preened next to me. Almost as tall as me, skinny, beautiful liquid black eyes (was that a hint of forbidden eye liner?), glossy hair combed in an Elvis style bouffant and carrying a shiny red handbag on one perfectly bent arm. (Don’t ask me how he fit any text books in that tiny thing.) Noticing my scrutiny, he stopped mid-wave to look me up and down, one hand on his hip, Kate Moss style.
“So where you from?”
“D.C. – I mean, the States. My mom was Samoan, but this is my first time here.”
“Oh, I see. What did you do?”
“Huh? What do you mean, what did I do? What did I do where?” I was confused.
“You know, how did you screw up? You U.S. Samoan kids get sent here all the time when your aiga, your family, can’t handle you over there. We get lots of juvenile delinquents here, so what did you do?” Simone seemed bored with my inability to answer his question.
“I didn’t do anything. I mean, I’m just here for three months, summer vacation, visiting my mom’s family and they thought I would enjoy a Samoan school.”
Simone raised an eyebrow in disbelief and pursed his perfect lips. (I’m sure that was lip liner – no boy could have such a perfectly defined cupids bow.) He sniffed and waved his hand airily.
“Fine. Don’t tell me the truth. I can handle it. Now, come on. We’re late.”
I stumbled along after him with a pained half smile, hoping I hadn’t just made enemy number one at my new school. Great, maybe I should have invented a litany of felonies and misdemeanors just to make him happy.
We came to an abrupt halt outside a particularly shabby classroom. Through missing window panes I could see the teacher at the board, who stopped her reading of the novel in her hands to confront our late entrance. She was a petite woman wearing a rich purple and gold sari draped gracefully around her slender frame.
“Simon, you are late. Do you have a late pass?” Her tone left no room for argument. Simone, however, was clearly unimpressed.
“Ms. Sivani, the Principal asked me to bring this newcomer to our class. She’s transferred here from the States. Her name is Leila.”
The room was crammed full with students, orange and yellow sardines in a can. Over thirty curious faces peered at me in all my newcomer glory, looking even more unpolished and unglamorous beside supermodel Simone. I gave Ms. Sivani a perfunctory polite smile and resumed staring out the window, wondering where on earth I would find a spare desk to sit at in this mob. His duty complete, Simone abandoned me to my fate, sauntering to find his seat beside another suspiciously beautiful boy.
“Oh. I see. Welcome to our class, Leila is it? We were just starting our reading of Macbeth ,we had better find you a seat.”
A broadly built boy with a ducktail haircut, leapt to his feet, a huge smile on his face.
“She can have my desk Ms. Sivan. I’m happy to go looking for more furniture.” His tone was hopeful and I was suspicious that the search for furniture in this school would not be an easy or speedy errand. Ms. Sivani must have harbored similar suspicions because she shook her head and pointed to her desk at the front.
“That’s very kind of you Maleko. But I wouldn’t dream of making you miss our reading of Macbeth this morning. You can sit at my desk and at first break you can acquire some extra furniture for our new student.”
Maleko scowled with disappointment, the hopes of a chance to escape from English class dashed. Great, another potential enemy I thought, taking the seat he vacated. Ms. Sivani handed me a tattered copy of Shakespeare’s Macbeth and resumed her reading.
Macbeth had been the topic of my final English essay three years ago in Freshman year so I was sure it wouldn’t hold any surprises, but I dutifully turned the pages so I could follow with the class. Vaguely aware that the entire class was finding the arrival of a new girl more captivating than Shakespeare’s masterpiece, I hunched my shoulders even more than usual and slunk down in my seat, aiming for invisibility. I hadn’t been the new kid twice in two years without picking up a few tips about the best way to deal with curiosity and zoo animal watchers. Be as boring and non-descript as possible and the fascination usually dies. Stare at the ground, keep to yourself, don’t speak up too much in class. Stay away from the class ‘elite’ and don’t rock any boats. I had only ever been trapped in girl’s schools but heck, I was sure a co-ed one wouldn’t be much different.
My first morning passed swiftly, the only real struggle being the oppressive heat. There were no fans in any of the rooms and while the coconut palms outside constantly rustled in a tropical breeze, little air found its way into the square blocks, crammed as they were with students. By second period my orange blouse was sticky with sweat and I felt like I had spent two hours in a sauna. It amazed me that anyone could live in this heat – let alone work or study in it. Ugh. Remembering Tuala’s gruff advice about avoiding dehydration, I kept taking furtive sips from my water bottle.
It was a relief to find that every lesson was conducted in perfect English. Several of the teachers were Indian and so I had to listen carefully to get accustomed to their accented nuances. But all the teenagers around me spoke with faultless grammar. It was a little unnerving that English in Samoa was more English than in America. A throwback maybe to the colonial days? And of course, the absence of slang and profanity made for more ‘civilized’ conversation. I had been dreading the possibility of cliques openly talking about me in rapid-fire Samoan, but thankfully, the ‘No Samoan speaking’ rule put those fears to rest.
English was followed by Math. The only surprise being how far ahead I actually was. Another cause for celebration because Math was not my strong point. I could do the day’s worksheet in my sleep so that meant one less subject I would actually have to study for. In Biology, the class was sitting a test that the teacher, Mr. Matau, graciously exempted me from. Instead, I got a ragged textbook to read through at the back of the room, giving me a golden opportunity to study my classmates. Real, live Samoan teenagers. How did they stack up compared with American ones? It didn’t take rocket science to figure out that Samoan teens functioned in a classroom according to a markedly different code from those in the States. Here, the teacher’s word was law and the students addressed them with deferential respect, even the ‘naughty’ ones like the burly boy, Maleko. Students raised their hands when they had questions and nobody argued with the teacher. Another difference was their dress. Back home it had almost been a sign of one’s status to be as sloppy and disheveled as possible. Here, there were no extreme haircuts, no makeup, and definitely no jewelry. Girls wore their hair in neat braids. All the boys except Maleko had hair cut above the collar and Mr. Matau sternly reminded two of them to tuck their shirts into their lavalava.
The bell ringing for lunch was a huge relief, dying as I was to get out of the oppressive confines of the classroom and into the fresh air. Everyone else seemed impervious to the glory of the green and gold day, the way the wind ruffled the coconut palms overhead. Washington Girls had been stately grey and regimented cobblestones. Samoa College was a haven of color and light. I studied everything, but all while trying hard not to stare. Boys played rugby again on the expanse of field. A cluster of girls were shooting hoops on a grass court – netball – Simone explained airily at my puzzled glance. There was another sport I would have to Google, especially since there didn’t seem to be any nets involved anywhere? Other students grouped on the wooden benches lining the driveway as they ate their lunch. I had no idea where the lonesome newcomers were supposed to go but, again, Simone came to my rescue, calling to me impatiently as he walked past me,
“Well, come on Leila, what are you waiting for? Let’s go get some lunch.”
Awkwardly, I tripped after him as he continued calling out with the same graceful ease to all and sundry. At the canteen (which only seemed to sell carbs and more carbs, all drowning in generous amounts of oil), I refused a burger. Simone then proceeded to lead me to sit underneath a tamaligi tree beside the rugby field and subject me to the third degree.
“So, whereabouts in the States are you from? Any brothers and sisters? Do you drive? Do you smoke? Do you party? Do you wear makeup to school back home? Why are you here? How long will you be here? Are those highlights natural? Why do you bite your nails so bad? When was the last time you trimmed your hair – your split ends are shocking. Did you have a boyfriend back home? Why not? Have you had sex? Have you kissed anyone? Have you … ” it went on and on. I was painfully relieved when the bell rang for class. Not only was I not used to answering such personal questions, I was especially uncomfortable with the fact that it was a BOY asking them. Even if he was the most graceful and feminine boy I had ever seen. I sighed as I followed Simone to our next class. I had tons of questions I wanted answering but I would have to put them aside for another day.
The rest of the school day passed in a sweaty haze and I was grateful to see Uncle Tuala’s car pull up at the gate when the last bell rang. I was tired, hot and thirsty. But I was also mildly triumphant. I had done it. Survived my first day at school in Samoa. Nobody hated me – I think. I didn’t hate anybody. The work had been manageable. The people vaguely likeable. I even kind of had a ‘friend.’ A boy who was for all intents and purposes – a girl. Already this school was scoring higher than home. Yup. Fingers crossed it kept on this way. My good mood continued enough that I was even able to speak politely to Grandmother Folger when she called to check on me that night. Yes, I was fine. No, I didn’t need any money. No, there hadn’t been any trouble at school that day. Yes, I was fine. Asleep almost as soon as my head hit the pillow, my final drifting thought was – I’m fine. I could almost believe that.
Day two at Samoa College started the same as the first. Morning assembly, only this time it was led by the stocky girl with thick braids. Simone whispered – that’s Manuia the Head Girl. The prefects lead assembly every morning. As the first two periods slid into each other, I fast realized the value of having Simone as my self-appointed tour guide. He shook his head with pursed lips when I went to sit down at the back of the class in Math.
“No. Mr. Michaels hates people who sit in the back. He picks on them extra hard. Sit in front and he’ll ignore you most of the time.”
In Biology, he rolled his eyes when I took out a text book as Mr. Matau told us to use the hour for study.
“You’re kidding right? I know that you’ve done this stuff already, don’t tell me you think you need to study the circulatory system? Here, let’s swap iPods. What music you got?”
The last thing I wanted was trouble on my first week, but Simone was difficult to brush off. As discreetly as possible I dug out my forbidden iPod and handed it over. Looking around furtively, I then realized half the class had earphones on. At the front of the class, Mr. Matau took out his iPod and promptly went to sleep. Okaaaaay. I shrugged and scrolled through Simone’s playlist. We spent the rest of the period comparing the merits of Coldplay versus Bob Marley. It was thoroughly relaxing and I was buzzed to be moving on to English with Ms. Sivani. At the door of her room though, everyone stopped short because we were combining with another sixth form class.
Ms. Sivani spoke in her short clipped tones over the chatter of the class. “Today we will combine with 6M for an impromptu debate” a collective groan from the class “and there will be no sounds of angst, thank you very much!”
The class moved quickly in spite of their complaining to make room for the others and there was an undercurrent of excitement as everyone seemed to relish the idea of a change to the usual routine. We had to cram even closer in the already crowded classroom and I was busy trying to squeeze myself into a gap between Simone and a girl called Sinalei when he walked in.
The boy from the assembly yesterday morning. He paused in the doorway for a moment as he surveyed the room searching for an empty seat. Against my will his beauty took my breath away. He was tall enough that I was sure even my six foot plus height would have to crane up to look in his startling emerald green eyes. Red and gold in the morning sunlight with thick raven brows, one of them flecked with a slight scar, his tousled burnished red-brown hair another startling contrast in a school full of brunettes. He was broad but lean, like a rippling basketball player, the orange lavalava tied loosely to tapering hips. But it was the tattoo adorning the length of his right arm that caught and held my gaze captive. I had never seen anything like it before – it curved down his shoulder, peering from where his sleeve ended. Intricate patterns of black stamped down to his forearm. I was so intent on studying his tattoo that I failed to realize he was staring straight at me, a crooked smile on his face as if he found my fascination amusing. Our eyes met and in that fleeting moment, it was as if all the air had fled the room and the madness of fifty students crammed into a room meant for twenty faded to a distant blur. Try as I might, I couldn’t tear my eyes away from his, even as my radar screamed a warning, Leila stop it. This meathead is way used to girls staring at him gaga eyed – stop it! Thankfully, the ever-timely Maleko broke our locked gaze with a whoop.
“Daniel! Sole man, are you ready to have your butt debate kicked by 6T?”
As quickly as it had begun, the moment was ended. The demi-god called Daniel turned to Maleko with a huge grin, shaking his head as he replied,
“Aww you know nobody here has what it takes to take me and my mouth down.”
The two continued their teasing as they made their way to seats on the opposite side of the room. I bent my head to hide my flush of embarrassment, but not before noticing that Daniel and Maleko had no problem finding space in the gaggle of giggling girls. Like the parting of the Red Sea, I thought derisively, and made a conscious mental note to ignore the overly beefy and overly adulated Head Boy. Obviously he was the Samoan counterpart to the American high school quarterback, the preening point guard, the freakishly good-looking jerk who would break hearts left, right and center and then graduate to a life of mediocrity. Or maybe crime, I thought with a brief smirk of satisfaction. I resisted the temptation to ask Simone for details on him and instead christened him ‘Chunk Hunk’ in my mind.
My thoughts were interrupted by Ms. Sivani’s call for quiet. Once again I was impressed by the respect Samoan teenagers had for authority. Ms. Sivani was slight, her voice a thin reed in a forest of battering oak – but one call for silence and you could have heard a pin drop.
“Alright thank you sixth formers. You’ve all been working very hard on your drama projects, so I thought we could come together for a little break. A debate break. You know the drill, two teams, only one person speaks at a time. When they sit, anyone can stand and take the floor. They get to keep the floor until they have nothing useful to say, so make sure you remember that particular instruction, Maleko!” Ms. Sivani smiled to soften her words as the boys in the corner laughed uproariously and thumped a grinning Maleko on the back. She turned to write the debate topic on the board. There was a collective groan as she wrote the last word with a flourish.
FOREIGN AID IS GOOD FOR SAMOA.
Ms. Sivani divided the class in half with a expansive gesture.“Your half is negative and this half with the new student Leila – you’re affirmative.”
Hearing my name, I instinctively cringed and slouched in my seat. Did she have to draw attention to me? “Thanks a lot, lady,” I muttered, but not before noticing from the corner of my downcast eyes that the Chunk Hunk had turned to regard me with open interest.
Ms. Sivani continued. “The debate may begin. Remember, please keep it civil, MALEKO.”
Another hoot of laughter from the crowd of boys around the Chunk Hunk. Laughter that had Maleko jumping to his feet and giving a grandiose bow to the class before launching into his negative attack.
The relaxed atmosphere in the room wasn’t something I was used to. I was fast realizing that having boys in a class added another dimension that was quite foreign to me. Boys were loud. Boisterous. And occupied so much physical space. They pushed and shoved. And laughed. Joked continually. They were impossible to ignore. Especially when they were obnoxious. As I zoned out Maleko’s speech which had everyone around me in hysterics, I wondered idly – were all boys like this? Or was this just because these were Samoan boys? Hmm, food for thought. I gave myself a mental shake to pay attention as Maleko finished his diatribe and a short, stocky girl from our side jumped to her feet to replace him on the debate floor. I zoned out most of her argument, however, as I was fighting the insane urge to stare at the Chunk Hunk.
When she sat down, our team clapped while the other side of the room began chanting. Daniel … Daniel! Our team began booing as Maleko roughly nudged the Chunk Hunk with his shoulder, “Come on man, your adoring fans are calling for you.”
The jeering died away as the Chunk Hunk lazily stood. Like a tiger unfurling from its treetop perch, he moved with relaxed grace, seemingly unaware of the impact he had on his surroundings. The afternoon sun glinted off his messy hair, catching on red fire as he turned to smile at his team before addressing the rest of us. I tried hard to remain unaffected. To view him with disinterest. But I was fighting a losing battle. There was something about this boy that had every particle of my being on edge. I tensed with exasperation, did this arrogant idiot have to be so beautiful? Don’t worry Leila, I comforted myself, just wait for him to open his mouth and once you hear how brainless he really is, this stupid fascination will evaporate in a puff of smoky reality.
I was wrong. He spoke with calm assurance. Reason and logic flowed from him with the rich sweetness of coconut milk, and the entire room was swept away by it.
“My fellow orators, our ever stunning and wise judge, Ms. Sivani, ours is a society plagued by a relentless array of social ills. Drug abuse. Unemployment. Youth crime and delinquency. Not to mention a vast array of non-communicable diseases like diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure, kidney disease. And who do we have to thank for these? Our Western neighbors. Those who come here bearing gifts but they are gifts we should never have accepted. Why, from the very first Western visitors who came here seeking to pillage our land of its natural resources to those countries who give us money – just so that we will support them during international proceedings – we have been fighting a losing battle with our Western neighbors. There can be no doubt that foreign aid is a plague on our beautiful island nation. ”
“There’s a saying – there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Well, Samoa has been well and truly overeating on supposed ‘free’ lunches, breakfasts, and dinners for too long.”
His team erupted in cheers and he smiled, holding up a hand for silence so he could continue. “Let’s take an example, one of these supposed aid organizations – the US Peace Corp. They come here to volunteer, but really, aren’t they here to disseminate their foreign ideas and values? To convince us of their supremacy in all things?”
At his mention of the Peace Corp, I sat upright and my eyes narrowed. Where was this boy headed with this? He continued, pointing out flaws in other volunteer groups from Japan and Australia before sidetracking to criticize the impact of “intermarriage” on the “purity of our Samoan culture.” He assumed a sorrowful façade as he discussed the decay of traditional values due to the country’s increased “infiltration” of foreign influence via aid. His closing statement had everyone in the class laughing, “Where is the pride and purity of our Samoa? Take a look around these days, we’re surrounded by mixed-up mongrels!”
What the hell?! I was furious, my anger burning so wildly that I could hardly breathe and my heartbeat was reverberating in my head like a caged creature. I hadn’t planned on taking part in this debate exercise, but I couldn’t contain my rage. I thought of my dad. My wonderful dad who had given up his law scholarship at Harvard University to serve in the Peace Corps, driving the first immovable wedge into his relationship with his family. I thought of the years of taunts and snide remarks I had endured about my mixed race and heritage and I was shocked to think that here in Samoa, I might be subjected to the same sort of measurement and be found wanting. In that moment, I hated that gloriously beautiful boy with every fiber of my being. As soon as he sat down, I was on my feet, my chair a harsh grate against the cement floor. I couldn’t see myself, but I felt murderous and I knew I looked it. The room went quiet with a hush as I launched into attack mode, completely forgetting all debate decorum.
“What absolute rubbish you’re spouting. Not only do your remarks reek of flawed logic, but they also border on outright racism. How dare you pass judgment on volunteers and organizations that dedicate their lives to serving others? Just who in hell do you think you are?”
Ms. Sivani started at my expression and tried to interject but my tidal wave of words was unstoppable. “I am totally offended by your reference to people like me being ‘mixed up mongrels!’ I hate racist bigots like you. People of mixed ethnic backgrounds have the opportunity to build bridges between communities, families and nations. It’s people like you, people who think the same way you do, who carve chasms of hatred and ignite conflict wherever they are. You disgust me!”
The silence was expectant as I came to an abrupt halt, my hands trembling. I had barely sat down before the Chunk Hunk was on his feet. I steeled myself for his attack. Which didn’t come. At least not in the manner I had supposed. He stood with that same lazy, casual ease, running a hand through his tousled hair. I gritted my teeth – not the red gold hair again. This boy was driving me insane with his posturing! He spread his arms expansively and again it was impossible not to be in awe of his toned strength. He smiled. A delighted smile filled with splendor that had all the females – and, as I heard Simone sigh, some of the males – in the room melting. Everyone except for me. It set my teeth on edge, my irritation with him so huge it was physically painful.
“She wounds me!” One rugged arm placed on his heart. A sorrowful expression on his face. Betrayed by laughing eyes. “My esteemed and lovely opponent rushes to attack my character, my intellect, my person yet neglects to address the essence of today’s topic. Perhaps because she is new to our shores, therefore she does not yet have a full appreciation of the uniqueness of our culture. The importance of preserving our traditions and standing strong against assault – whether it comes in the form of money with an expectation. Or in the form of foreigners who come to steal the hearts of our beautiful Samoan women!”
Ms. Sivani interjected dryly, “I think that will be quite enough on the subject of intermarriage thank you very much. Let’s all try to remember what the topic is today and stay on track!”
The Chunk Hunk bowed his head slightly and flashed his brilliant smile at the English teacher, “Your wish is my command Ms. Sivani. I’m sorry I went astray but this young woman’s unprovoked aggression really cut my Samoan identity and pride to the core.”
He sat down, but not without another grand bow to his audience. There were ripples of laughter through the room. Like everyone was in on a delightful sweet joke that only I was unaware of. I wanted to stamp my feet and throw a full-fledged tantrum.
Another boy from my team took to the floor when he was done. Then a tall Amazonian girl from the Chunk Hunk’s team went on the defensive. Back and forth the debate went with lots of hoots and jeers while I sat and fumed. And clenched my fists. Wanting desperately to smash something. Or someone. Someone with dancing forest eyes.
When the bell rang, there was a cheer from the Chunk Hunk’s team – as if they already knew they had won. Ms. Sivani, held her hand up for silence and again the class went still immediately.
“Now, thank you – that will be enough of that riot. You all did very well today and I was pleased to see a good range of points covered. Apart from a few small digressions, you all stayed on topic quite well.”
“But Miss – tell us who won!” Of course it was the exuberant Maleko again who alone had the impetuosity to interrupt the unshakeable Ms. Sivani. But instead of frowning she only gave him a patient smile.
“Alright, alright Maleko, of course there has to be a winning team, so I have to concede the affirmative team takes the win today.”
The last words were barely out of her mouth before they erupted into whooping cheers and those sitting around me groaned collectively. I stood to throw my bag over my shoulder, dying to get out of the room and breathe before I imploded. But the teams seemed in no rush to vacate the room, gathering instead in clusters to laugh and discuss the highlights of the morning’s debate. With my head down, I was pushing my way through the stifling pack of orange when there was a voice behind me.
“Hey wait up. Leila is it? Wait.”
It was the last person I wanted to talk to right now – the Chunk Hunk. I pretended I couldn’t hear him and redoubled my efforts to break free of the crowd. But he didn’t let up. I felt a hand grab hold of my backpack.
“Leila, hang on a minute, please.”
With a sigh, I turned, making sure to compose my features into the blandest expression possible.
“Yes?” my voice was clipped but my emotions were a swirling mass at the sight of him. I was angry. I hated him. But did he have to be so superb to look at?
He stood behind me, with Maleko at his side. Both smiling. Maleko spoke first, as usual.
“Great debate, ay Leila? I bet you don’t get such smooth talkers back where you come from ay?” A puzzled frown had him furrow his brow. “Hey, where DO you come from anyway?”
I didn’t want the Chunk Hunk to know anything about me, but it was impossible to be rude to Maleko – his eager smile and barely restrained enthusiasm for everything almost puppy like. I directed my reply to him.
“The States. Washington D.C.. Well Maryland really.” I self-corrected. And for some unknown reason, I continued, unwilling for them to assume, like Simone had, that I was some teenage delinquent sent here for straightening out. “I’m here for the summer holidays to visit my aunt and uncle.”
The Chunk Hunk smiled warmly at me, an easy smile that flecked his green eyes with gold highlights in the sun. “Great, well welcome to SamCo. I just wanted to say, nice debating. And I hope you didn’t take any of it personally. Are we ok?”
His mention of the debate had a wall of coldness crashing down, slicing off any desire I may have had for a conversation with them. “No. We aren’t. You know SOME of us are products of exactly that exploitative union you referred to. We aren’t all pure Samoans steeped in cultural richness and we happen to be proud of that mixed heritage. I don’t care if this was just a FUN debate, you shouldn’t go around saying stuff like that which can be so derogatory and offensive. Especially for those of us who have mixed parents.” My voice rose several octaves as I neared the end of my spiel and several students around us turned to listen. I didn’t realize I was trembling until I finished and I felt a huge weariness wash over me. What was I doing? Why was I wasting my time and effort arguing with this idiot? What did his opinion matter anyway? “Oh just forget it, you don’t have a clue what I’m talking about. You’re just another pure Samoan steeped in high and mighty cultural richness.”
The Chunk Hunk looked confused and Maleko let out a surprised whoop as I turned away from them and pushed my way through the crowd and out the classroom door. I could hear people laughing as I half ran down the corridor, errant tears threatening to spill. I didn’t stop my rush until I was in the safety of the girls’ bathroom, where I threw cold water on my face. I felt like a fool, a marked woman and all I wanted to do was go home.
Back in the hall and under control of my emotions, I gripped my bag , resolving not to let anyone else get under my skin. You’ve handled worse, Leila I reminded myself. You can do this. So intent on my own private mental pep talk I almost bumped into the graceful Simone preening in the hall. He was alone. Waiting for someone. For me?
“Leila, there you are.”
I was in no mood to be gracious.“What?”
“What was that all about back there?”
“What was what?” deliberately obtuse.
Simone pursed his lips and shook his head at me, one manicured hand on his hip.
“Back there. That debate. Your attack on Daniel.”
I was so used to calling him the Chunk Hunk that I only looked confused.
“You know – Daniel – the Head Boy? Tall, GQ model beautiful?”
I grimaced and shrugged my shoulders, unwilling to concede I made the connection. Simone continued.
“You got kind of upset back there, don’t you think you were taking things a bit too personal? Don’t you have debates back home?” He looked impatient with my seeming ignorance. “I don’t know why you got so psycho at Daniel for.”
I stared out the window. Boys were on the field chasing a rugby ball. Girls stood laughing under a palm tree. It was all so alien to me. I was very much the foreigner here. And I felt it. A wave of homesickness swept through me. I shrugged at Simone, wishing he would just leave me alone.
“I guess so. I just didn’t like what he said about Westerners coming here to exploit people you know? I mean, I get so much crap from people back home about being mixed that hearing it here was just – I don’t know – I couldn’t handle it.”
Simone considered me thoughtfully before answering. “Maybe you should know something. The reason why we were all laughing when Daniel was going on about that was because he was talking about himself there. HE’S mixed like you. Like a lot of us. It’s no big deal here. We make fun of ourselves all the time. Daniel’s dad was palagi, white. And his mom wasn’t even full Samoan, she was mixed Tongan, so I guess that makes him even less of a pure cultural product than you.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. The cold dread of realization washed over me as Simone continued.
“Maybe it’s different back where you come from, but here we’re all afakasi, mixed and it’s no big deal. Daniel gets teased about it all the time, especially since he’s part Tongan and historically Samoans and Tongans hate each other. Today, back there, he was talking about himself, which is why everybody was laughing.”
“Oh no.” I groaned, putting my head in my hands as it hit me that, once again, I had jumped in to attack mode on the pure assumption that I was being picked on. Humiliated? How many times had my dad warned me about this? How many times could I have avoided a conflict if I would just listen, take a breath and get my facts straight before I rushed to kill people?! I had wanted to reinvent myself, yet not even a week in this new school and already I had committed the same fatal error that was a classic Leila move. Glumly, I sighed.
“Thanks Simone for clearing that up. I appreciate it. I thought something else entirely was going on in the classroom back there and I kinda jumped too quickly. Everyone must think I’m a total freak now. Ugh. What an idiot.” With slumped shoulders I sat on a hall bench. Suddenly it occurred to me.
“Hey what do you care anyway? Why are you explaining this to me? What’s it to you?” My tone was suspicious and my eyes narrowed. What was this boy-girl’s agenda anyway?
Simone raised a perfect eyebrow at my burgeoning hostility.
“It’s not about you, trust me. I just don’t like to see anyone go off at Daniel like that. He doesn’t deserve it. So consider this a heads up or a warning, whatever way you want to take it. Next time you want to get aggressive, take it out on some other boy. Goodness knows there’s tons of others who are stupid enough to deserve it.” A sigh as Simone paused and continued, this time without any of his usual exaggerated mannerisms. “Leila, I’ve known Daniel since primary school and he’s different from a lot of the others. I know. I used to get picked on, you know, for being so ‘unique’,” a smile, “and Daniel looked out for me. Thanks to him, I made it through primary school in one piece. So, go easy on him okay.”
With that quizzical remark, Simone turned and flounced away. My audience with royalty was at its end. I shrugged, clutching my backpack close as I made my way down to the open courtyard for what was left of lunch period, hoping I hadn’t just lost the only friend I had made so far in this place. I thought about what Simone had revealed about the Chunk Hunk – Daniel – I amended in my mind. Somehow, after being mean to him when he hadn’t deserved it, made it wrong to keep calling him a brainless lout. Oh well, I conceded, it didn’t really matter what I called him because, after today, I was sure that I wouldn’t have to worry about ever speaking to him again. For a reason that I couldn’t name, that thought made me, regretful?
The rest of the day was uneventful. There was some whispering and laughter when I walked into History class, but I steeled myself against it with the reminder that people had far more exciting things to talk about than me and it was doubtful that I would be the source of their animated conversations. Last period was Library, which meant lots of time to sit and think, or – in Maleko’s case – lots of time to throw paper at the girls in the front row and fluster the fresh-faced young librarian with his generous smiles. If nothing else, having boys like Maleko in the class meant an hour of library was never boring.
When the final bell rang, I was in a rush to get to the front bus stop, unwilling to run into any more people who wanted to remind me about the morning’s fracas. Standing at the main gate, a cluster of girls called out goodbye as I got on the first bus to arrive. Surprised, I surveyed them with a hint of suspicion but there was nothing but friendliness in their faces as they waved.
“See you tomorrow, Leila.”
Sitting on the bus, I could see the rugby team at practice. The now familiar shape of my debate nemesis clearly obvious as the bus pulled away from the school. Slumped back in my seat, I had mixed feelings about my emotion-saturated day. So I had embarrassed myself by attacking the school’s beloved demi-god Head Boy. An attack that had been somewhat unwarranted. But nobody seemed to be holding it against me. After all, Simone had said – most of the students were ‘just like me’, mixed-up teenagers. More than anything else, that gave me a shot of positivity. Maybe there would be a place for me at this school. Maybe, this place wouldn’t be so bad after all.
The next day I was resolved to be nice. Positive. Open minded. Heck, I was even willing to try smiling. Or not. Maybe that was pushing it a bit. The morning classes passed uneventfully. An ever-jolly and somewhat annoying girl called Sinalei shadowed me from class to class, filling my personal space with her chatter. Apparently she had decided that we should be friends. In another world, I would have sent her packing with a snarl, but I had promised. To be good. Nice. So, quite unlike me, I kept a smile that became more and more plastic as the day went on and the temperature began to soar. By lunch, I was ready to send myself to solitary confinement – just to escape her, but it was the heat more than anything that contributed to my building discomfort.
It had been getting hotter each day but today was unbearably humid. Uncle Tuala had warned it meant there would be a storm later on, but that offered me little comfort now as I sucked in the wet, steaming air, trying to find a pocket of coolness. I groaned when I checked the schedule and saw my first PE class would be after lunch. How could anyone stand to exercise in this weather?
Dragging my feet, I changed into the requisite uniform with the rest of the girls, and then slouched along behind them down to the far field, clutching my water bottle. I had already finished two liters of water but it didn’t seem to be doing me much good. Just walking to the field had my yellow shirt sweat soaked and sticking uncomfortably to my back. I was too hot to even stress about the stupid PE uniform, which should have been outlawed by any and all fashion police. A yellow cotton tee and an orange skirt over skimpy shorts. It was the shortest thing I’d ever worn and I still couldn’t reconcile such a revealing outfit with the strict Samoan dress codes. I was painfully aware that my legs were even skinnier in all their non-tanned glory, especially when standing beside the other girls.
Mr. Otele the PE teacher was an ex-national hurdler. Or so Sinalei whispered. Which meant half the girls were simpering at his instructions. It also meant that he was an enthusiastic teacher who believed in getting involved in the day’s sports. Meaning I couldn’t hide behind a tree and go sit in the shade until the class was over. Nope. This teacher meant business.
“Right, let’s start with five laps around the field.” A collective groan. “Then bring it together and I’ll put you into teams for a game of touch.”
Touch? Okay, that sounded vaguely indecent. These people and their contradictory standards had me confused. Shaking my head, I joined the rest of the class as they started their lap around the field. I noticed that Simone was nowhere to be seen. Clearly, PE was not something that he did. Running in the blazing sun was a first for me but I resisted the urge to quit and slow to a stop like the others. The memory of my dad and I running our last 5k kept me pushing as, one by one, the others slowed to a stroll. Into the third lap, and the only people still running were me and a pocket of boys led by Mr. Otele. There was an admiring glance from Maleko as I increased my tempo and easily overtook him on the last curve. He called out after me with a whoop.
“Hey Leila! You’re not supposed to overtake the running man. Hey!”
I could hear him gasping and puffing behind me as I accelerated at the last fifty meters. I threw him a smile over my shoulder as I sprinted to the finish of my last lap. Slowing to a walk, I was exultant as the adrenaline coursed through me. It had been months since I had last run. And it felt amazing. Even while wearing a ridiculous orange skirt. Mr. Otele called us all in and several of the boys complimented me as we gathered under the mango tree.
“Nice run there Leila.”
“Yeah good to see a girl outrun Maleko the running man!”
The class erupted into good-natured laughter as Maleko took a bow. He took a swipe at a teasing boy standing behind me before turning to flash me his smile.
“Awww, I was just going easy on you Leila, you know, being nice to the new girl. Don’t want you to get scared off us Samoan boys ay!?”
Mr. Otele gave out directions for our game of touch rugby but I wasn’t listening. I was exulting in this new sensation. Is this what belonging felt like? Is this how it felt to fit in somewhere? I wasn’t sure. I had never been just one of the crowd. No different from my peers. People teasing each other. Laughing. I had spent so many years looking at life from outside the window that it felt strange to actually be in the room with everyone else. Mr. Otele’s call for the touch game to begin forced me to put my thoughts aside.
The touch game was fun. It seemed to consist of throwing the ball around and then running like crazy whenever it came to you, trying not to get touched by the opposition. It also involved a lot of screaming from the girls whenever one of the boys pretended to tackle them. And, of course, the requisite showing-off theatrics from Maleko. I was fast realizing that not only was he the class clown, he was also the life of the group, his energy and enthusiasm infectious.
I was sorry when the bell went. Tired, sweaty and hot, but wishing we could play on. Back in the changing rooms Sinalei’s prattle wasn’t as annoying as it had been and I even fielded questions about Washington D.C. from some of the others. I had dreaded curiosity about my background, but it proved to be easier than I had thought it would be. No, I wasn’t here for good. Yes, I liked it here. No, I didn’t have any brothers and sisters (that seemed to generate some disbelief – solo childness being an oddity I supposed). No, I didn’t miss my school back home and yes it was VERY different from SamCo! I deftly deflected questions about parents and, once I emerged from the girls’ room, it was with no small sense of achievement. I felt like I’d passed through an inquisition and come out okay. And walking to last period with Maleko and a tall quiet girl called Leone was nice. Except for the ongoing trash talk from Maleko about my running skills. He wanted another chance to prove he could outrun me and was determined not to let up until I set a time. My ease came to earth with a splat when I got to my next class. Geography. With Mrs. Jasmine, another Indian teacher. And sitting in the back row was Daniel.
Suddenly I was painfully aware of how little attention I had paid to my hair. My face. My rumpled uniform. I felt like an ungainly, sweaty beast. And that annoyed me because it felt like it was HIS fault that my looks were coming up short. There was an automatic scowl on my face as I took my seat at the opposite end of the room, hoping he wouldn’t notice me. But Maleko ruined that possibility with his loud blow-by-blow account to the entire room of our ‘race.’ It had now assumed mythic proportions and involved us sprinting to a photo finish with Olympic glamour – and he, deciding at the last instant to pull back and ‘let me take the hairs-breadth lead.’ Since I was a girl. And new. And he was being an honorable gentleman.
I groaned, hiding my face behind a textbook and sending up a prayer of relief as Mrs. Jasmine walked in to the room, putting an end to the clamor. The next forty minutes were devoted to the monsoon rains of India, which suited me just fine. Attention, even the positive kind, made me squirm, and I hoped that Maleko would have moved onto his next hare-brained idea by the end of school. It was not to be, because as soon as the bell rang, he was at my desk. With Daniel right behind him.
“So, Leila when do you want to have our race ay? Daniel here can be the ref. I was thinking that it should be something short distance you know? Like say 100 meters, that way it won’t be too draining for you. I’m sure it must be waaay hot here for you and I wouldn’t want you to get heatstroke or anything. How about we go race now? It’ll be over in a few seconds. For me anyway!” His face was eager but I had to laugh at his proposal. I well knew that my strength and his weakness, was endurance. I was fitter than this bubbly wired boy but there was no way I could take him on in a speed event. I shook my head at him as I stood.
“Nope. Sorry Maleko. This isn’t a good day for me. And there’s no way I would race 100 meters with you. I will take you on in a 5k any day though.”
Maleko looked questioningly at Daniel who’s eyes had widened slightly at my reply.
“5k? How far is that?”
Daniel spoke before I could. “About twelve laps of the track.”
Maleko’s expression was comical. His face fell and his shoulders slumped. I had to smile; he was so transparent. He knew he was beat.
“Oh.” He looked thoughtful and then wrinkled his nose. “Girl, I don’t want to run that far. Are you sure we can’t try something a little shorter? I know, how about we throw a few rugby tackles into the challenge? I’m sure I can take you on those!”
Even I had to laugh at that one. Walking to the hall with the two of them felt like the natural thing to do, Daniel leaning forward to open the door for me, “Go ahead.”
Once in the hall, Maleko took off after a lithe girl with a braid that fell to her hips. “Hey – Malia! I need help with the math homework, Malia!”
Without quite knowing how, I was walking down the emptying hall with the Chunk Hunk. With Daniel. Without knowing why, I was almost paralyzed with trepidation. What should I say? What does one say to a Chunk Hunk? One that you wanted to obliterate from the planet the day before? And now? Now, walking beside me, deliberately shortening his stride to keep pace with me, I felt nothing but breathlessness, my mind aswirl with rapid-fire conversation possibilities. Should I apologize for the debate? Or pretend like it had never happened? Should I talk about the Geography homework? Ask his opinion of the monsoon rains on the delta plains? That had me rolling my eyes. Oh, get a hold of yourself, Leila. So he’s handsome. Well, make that magnificent. So what. Big deal. I took a deep breath to plunge in to a question but he beat me to it.
“So, you’re a runner?” His tone was light. Casual. I strove to match him.
“I run a bit. Nothing too awe inspiring. I don’t think you should take Maleko’s version of events too literally. I may be the new girl, but I think I wouldn’t be far wrong to say that he tends to exaggerate things a little.”
Daniel laughed. “A little? I think you mean a lot. As in, Maleko is the master of exaggeration! We NEVER take anything he says literally.”
Our eyes met in perfect agreement, which had me flushed again. So much so that I almost walked straight into the willowy girl standing at the head of the stairs.
“Oh sorry!” My apology was relaxed but the hardness of the answering look in her eyes instantly had me on the defensive. What was wrong with this girl? I remembered seeing her in my Biology class. A stunning brunette who fit all the brochure pictures of tropical island beauties, she moved with a practiced grace. The same grace that was clearly evident as she put one hand on Daniel’s arm, a half pout on her face.
“Danny, I’ve been looking all over for you guys. My dad is waiting for us… ” her voice trailed away suggestively as she half inclined her head towards him, a deliberate attempt to shut me out?
Daniel groaned and rapped his fist on his forehead. “Agh that’s right. Sorry Mele, I’m coming.” He looked around over his shoulder. “Maleko was just here. ”
Nimbly, I quickstepped past them both and dashed down the stairs, throwing a hasty goodbye over my shoulder. I didn’t wait to see whether the Chunk Hunk had heard me. I didn’t need to. I didn’t need any antagonism from possessive girlfriends either, I told myself as I walked down the palm-lined driveway towards the bus stop.
I was almost to the gate when a rush of heat brought me to a standstill. The light turned a hazy red and a wave of dizziness descended on me like a blanket. I swayed. What was happening? I was hot. So hot that there wasn’t enough air to breathe and I felt like I was drowning in the wet humidity. Panic clawed its way up through my constricting chest as I struggled to stay upright. Before I met the ground face first, a hand steadied me and a voice was asking.
“Leila, are you okay?”
I grabbed the hand with relief, trying to steady myself. It was Sinalei at my side, concern on her face.
“Not really. I’m so hot. I think maybe the heat today and PE just got too much for me. I just need to sit down.”
Cautiously I walked to the grass and sat down. Sinalei kneeling beside me was rifling through her bag.
“Here.” She was triumphant as she handed me a bottle of water. “I knew I had another bottle here somewhere. Go on, you’re probably dehydrated. Too much running at PE.”
Eagerly, I gulped down the water, taking deep breaths in between each mouthful trying to slow my racing pulse and attain calm. There were a few curious glances as the school continued to stream out of class and down to the bus stop but, after only a few minutes in the shade, I felt better enough to stand.
“I think I’m okay now. Thanks Sinalei, I guess I’m still adjusting to the weather here.” A rueful grin. “And I should take it easy in PE. I won’t be in such a rush to humiliate Maleko next time.”
She laughed with me and pretended mock horror. “No way – are you kidding? That was the best PE ever, watching that show-off get outrun by a girl was classic timeless memories stuff. You have to keep doing that.”
She accompanied me to the gate to wait for the bus. I laughed off the whole heat flush incident but secretly I was worried. Where had that come from? Once back at the house, I took a cold shower, standing under the deluge until my fingers were wrinkly and my face was numb from the spray. Only then could I shake off the heat wave from earlier. I soothed away my worries. It was nothing, just a little too much running in PE. It would be an early night for me. A quick dinner, another cold shower and then I tumbled into bed with the ceiling fan on full blast.
That night, the dreams began.
She stood in a forest – lush, living, breathing rainforest. A canopy of green, hung with vines and trailing with white orchids. It was night. A flying fox screeched nearby, startling her. She wore a woven cloth wrapped around her like a bath towel. So finely made and so worn with time that it fell in soft folds around her knees and caressed her skin softer than silk. A band of brown feathers fluttered at its hem. Her feet were bare on the moist earth. Her skin glistened with coconut oil, catching the fire of the moonlight as she raised her hands to feel the necklace made of pointed boar’s tusks at her throat. Where was she? Why was she dressed like this? She could hear water rushing nearby. A waterfall? The sound made her acutely aware of the burning thirst in her throat. She had an overwhelming urge to submerge her body in the rushing falls. Drink deeply of its cool freshness. Lie in the liquid moonlight, awash in its swirling embrace.
Turning towards the sound she started making her way cautiously through the trees. Bushes scratched at her legs. Ferns tugged at the hem of her dress. Leaves entangled in her hair. Her raging thirst grew, the closer she got to the falls. With relief, she parted the leaves and there it was. A small waterfall splashed from a rocky rise in the land, falling gracefully into a circular pool, edged with smooth rocks and trailing ferns. The water sparkled like black diamonds at the base of the falls. She walked forward to the edge of the pool and hesitated. She hated to wet the fine mat but she had nothing on underneath. Oh well, it was only her in the night. Flushing with embarrassment, she quickly shrugged out of the woven cloth and slipped into the welcome concealment of the water.
cold was a shock. A jolt of refreshing coolness that had her shivering in the warm wet night. She slowly swam towards the waterfall and was pleased to find that she could stand at its base. Cupping her hands to the silver froth, she drank deeply, glorying in the clean sweet taste. She drank again and again, like a water-starved nomad in a desert. Finally satiated, she leaned forward to let the rushing waters sweep over her hair and down the length of her oiled body. Then she felt it. A chill down her spine that had nothing to do with the night air. A prickling of unease. She was not alone.
Slowly, she turned. A woman stood at the end of the pool. She was hauntingly beautiful and yet terrifying at the same time. She was tall, with a length of sandy brown hair that fell to below her waist. At her throat was a boar’s tusk necklace identical to that which Leila wore. She was half naked, her woven dress clinging to her hips, feathered hem skirting her ankles, full breasts covered by her thick hair adorned with vivid red flowers. She held a long carved knife in one hand, the blade glinting in the darkness as she raised both arms to the night sky. A dreadful smile lit her face as she exulted,
“Yes! Pele, my beloved daughter, finally you return to me.”
I woke with a startled gasp, sheets a tangled mess around me, my shirt soaked through with sweat. Pulse racing, I tried to calm my ragged breathing but the room was so stifling I needed to get out. Hoping Aunt Matile hadn’t woken with the sounds of my nightmare, I slipped silently through the sleeping house and out into the garden. Sitting on an upturned plastic bucket under the fragrant branches of the frangipani tree, I breathed deeply in the night air.
What did it mean? Where had that dream come from? Was I losing my mind? Was all the pressure of being in this alien land, searching for information about a mother that no-one wanted to talk about finally getting to me? Fluffy chickens roosting in the breadfruit trees rustled and clucked close by and Terminator strolled over to snuffle hopefully against my fingers. It was just a dream, I kept repeating to myself as I quietly crept back to my room. But sleep was a long time coming.
The rest of the week was uneventful. I was slipping into a routine with Matile and Tuala. I didn’t ask any more questions about my mother. They were kind and careful. I was polite and helpful. I washed dishes. Matile smiled with startled surprise. I helped Tuala sweep up the cut grass. He brought me an ice cold Diet Coke back from the corner store. I gave Terminator a much-needed bath. Which he hated me for. And which made Matile laugh. I had not given up on my search for information about my mother though. I risked Matile’s wrath and asked Kolio about her when he came to weed the banana patch at the back. He must have been warned by Tuala and Matile not to say anything though – because he only looked uneasy and shook his head, “I don’t know anything. I don’t know anyone like that.” Falute was the same. I went outside to help her hang up the laundry, and in-between pegging up lemon-fresh sheets, I asked,
“So, did you know my mother?”
At first she acted dumb. “Who? I don’t know anything about that subject. No, I know nothing.”
“But you’re part of the family, you’re Matile’s cousin, surely you must have known her? You must have at least heard something about her?”
She only shook her head vehemently. “No. I don’t want to talk about her.” She turned to walk away and then stopped to look back and consider my crestfallen expression. She sighed, looked around to make sure we were alone and then leaned forward to whisper, “Your mother was a bad woman. It was good your father took you away from here. It is better you don’t ask about her. Better you don’t know about her. I’m sorry, that’s all I can say.”
And with that she bustled back into the house carrying an empty laundry basket on her hip. I stood there in the yard in disbelief. Your mother was a bad woman. I felt cold in the tropical sun because I could no longer ignore what was glaringly obvious. Matile and everybody else weren’t being cagey about my mother because she was too sad or emotional a subject for them to handle. It was because the topic of my mother was too unpleasant. Heck, Falute even looked afraid just to speak of her. But why?
School in Samoa was satisfying. I was attentive and studious. I smiled at all the right times. And tried hard not be rude with Sinalei when she insisted on keeping me company every interval. I had never had friends before, so wasn’t used to how they occupied one’s space and time. Even when you didn’t want them to. But I was learning. Simone was still gracing me with his presence and I had to admit that I found myself more relaxed with him than with anyone else. He seemed to have bestowed his approval upon me and regularly called me to sit with him and his group of girl-boys. Flawlessly beautiful, graceful supermodels all of them. I laughed to think what my dad would say about my new ‘clique’ of friends. In fact, everything seemed to be going fine in this new place. I kept my distance from the Chunk Hunk. Every time I saw him, I did an abrupt about turn and went in the opposite direction. He always stood out, so that wasn’t difficult. We only had one class together so it was easy to ignore him. It wasn’t as easy to stop thinking about the green eyes and the tattooed arm. But I persevered. I reminded myself he was in a different stratosphere from me. And I wasn’t here to get to know the opposite sex. Or to explore this new-found edge that one in particular inspired in me. No. I was here for three months to find out what I could about my mother. And to get to know my Samoan family. And to have a break from my palagi family. The slight unease Daniel inspired in me was the only complaint I really had about my new school. Samoa College wasn’t bad. If it weren’t for the nights, I would have been almost content.
Yes, if it weren’t for the nights, Samoa would have been more than bearable. Because every night was the same thing. I slept. I had the same nightmare. I woke up burning hot and couldn’t stop the shaking. The gasping for air. The dream was the same every night. But the heat seemed to be getting worse. I slept with a fan. I slept in the bare minimum. I drank copious amounts of ice water. No improvement. I was trying my best to keep it hidden from Matile and Tuala because I was terrified that I had some sort of disease and it would give them an excuse to send me back to America. I bought a cheap thermometer from the pharmacy. Every night before I went to bed I would take my temperature. 36.5 degrees. Completely normal and textbook perfect. By midnight I would be burning up with some kind of fever. 42 degrees. I took illegal amounts of painkillers. Nothing. According to the textbooks, I should be practically comatose. I stopped taking my temperature. It only increased my agitation.
The weeks passed. I had been in Samoa for four weeks and my nights were taking their toll on my days. At school I was exhausted. I found it hard to concentrate. Ms. Sivani was giving me her stern eyes. The ones she reserved for Maleko on his worst days. I was finding it harder to be patient with Sinalei – looking for more and more excuses to spend my lunch break in the library. Where I would pore through science textbooks and Google unexplained fevers. I ignored Maleko’s teasing invitations to run in PE class, choosing instead to cut class and risk detention rather than an overheating episode in front of everyone. The Principal shook his head tiredly at me in detention as he reminded me that “we are not a school for teenage delinquents from America you know.”
By the fifth week, I was afraid to go to sleep. When I woke up with strange singe marks on my sheets like burnt holes, I sobbed silently into my pillow. That’s it, I had to get out of there. I left the house in the dead of night, slipping through the broken fence at the back of the house and into the green trees. Stars hung heavily in a black velvet night. The cool air was bliss against my skin and I walked almost blindly through the bush. I should have been afraid. Of the dark, the strange surroundings, the possibility of danger. But I wasn’t. I felt oddly at ease. Like something outside, out there had been missing from inside me. I walked and, as I walked, I started to cool down. The dizziness eased. The rising tide of fever burn slowed. And then suddenly, there it was. I took several steps and stopped. It was a pool of silver water that tumbled over a low rocky drop into another larger oval pool below. Ringed with glistening black rock and olive green ferns. Just like in my dream. Only, unlike my dream, there was no darkly beautiful woman waiting there for me.
I breathed a sigh of relief. And ignored the rational voice inside my head that demanded to know how I could possibly have dreamed of this place before I ever visited it? Without even stopping to think, I stripped off my shirt and shorts and slipped into the water. I caught my breath with happiness at the coldness, the relief it gave me from the heat that had plagued me for so many nights. It was as if this exact water had been waiting for me, calling to me. Again and again I ducked my head under the water, cooling every particle of my being. Every feverish fiber. I stayed there as long as I dared before heading back home to my still room, grateful that Matile and Tuala were heavy sleepers. And, for the first time in weeks, I slept without dreaming. And woke without a fever.
I went three wonderful nights without a heat attack, enjoying the luxury of a full night’s sleep. At school I was almost myself again. Just when I thought maybe I had imagined the heat flushes, they started again, waking me with their fire. Again I went to the pool, praying Terminator wouldn’t tell on me and wake Matile with his howling at the moon. And again, the water was exactly the antidote I needed.
As the nights improved – so did the days. I stopped spacing out in class, falling asleep in Math to the drone of Mr. William’s voice. I still didn’t think it safe enough to try doing sports again so I kept cutting PE. Which landed me in detention. Again.
Detention in Samoa was a universe of difference from America. Like the stark contrast between maximum security and a ‘retreat facility’ for white collar criminals. Here, you got detention for coming late to school three times. Or late to class one time too many. Wearing sunglasses. The wrong color jandals. Speaking Samoan anywhere but in Samoan class. Or daring to put on lipstick. (It was tribute to Simone’s skilful application of ‘natural-looking’ makeup that he never got busted. Or maybe it was because he seemed to be best friends with all the girl prefects.)
Here, instead of sitting in a room doing homework or extra assignments, detention was picking up trash. Weeding the garden. Cleaning the bathrooms. Which were disgusting – before and after clean-up. Sweeping every classroom with coconut frond brooms and washing windows. If you got three detentions then you went on Hard Labor. I kid you not – that’s what they called it. This was my fourth time skipping PE class. My fourth detention. So my name was called out for hard labor .
Sinalei gave me her saddest look of commiseration. Tinged with puzzlement. She couldn’t understand why I – a girl who could outrun Maleko the running man – would want to cut PE and go on detention. I shrugged as I gathered my stuff and headed to the staffroom to meet with the duty prefects.
I was the only girl on hard labor. Most females here didn’t do anything bad enough to merit the extreme punishment. Three other students were waiting under the tree beside the staffroom. Two were juniors. Fresh-faced boys with pimples who were chewing gum and throwing rocks at the stray three-legged dog that liked to visit and forage for lunch scraps. My other fellow inmate looked considerably more threatening. He was a large, broadset sixth former who (according to the E-Channel, Sinalei) was repeating for the third time. Which made him about twenty years old. Or more. I had no trouble believing that. He had a snake tattoo on his neck, arms like tree trunks and an angry expression to match. She also said he’d been in jail for beating a man to death, but I didn’t take that seriously. Still, I chose to sit beside the irritating third formers. No point testing the borders or anything.
It was with a sinking feeling of dread that I saw the duty prefect of the day walk towards us carrying the detention clipboard. It was the Chunk Hunk. Daniel – I mentally corrected. I wanted to shrivel up and die. Just what I needed. To spend an hour doing whatever hard laborers did under the watchful eye of the demi-god. Was there no mercy in this world? I turned my head away, wishing I could make a break for it, skipping over my options. I could plead sickness and ask to be excused? Have my detention moved to another day where some other prefect could tell me what to do? But the thought of having to appeal to this know-it-all, annoyingly perfect freak made my pride rankle. Casting myself on his mercy would mean that I would have to talk to him. Nicely. Humbly. Beseechingly. And then if he excused me, I would be beholden to him. And have to say thank you. And be nice again when I saw him next. No. I was stuck. And my feeling of constriction was only intensified when he turned bemused eyes on me.
“Hey Leila. Hard labor? What have you been doing to deserve the worst SamCo has to offer?”
I shrugged and tried to emulate his light-hearted tone. “Nothing.” I lied. “Just a few too many late arrivals.”
“Really? It says here, you’ve been cutting class umm, PE class?” there was disbelief in his eyes this time. “Why? I thought you were supposed to be Maleko’s running nemesis?”
I gritted my teeth at the third degree. I was certain that other people didn’t have to endure extra scrutiny for their skipping shortcomings. I gave Daniel a dark scowl and turned my head to regard the green field, hazy in the afternoon heat.
The two juniors had been listening to our exchange with interest, glad someone else was distracting the Head Boy from their own misdemeanors. The other senior, however, looked bored. Like he had better things to do. Like getting more tattoos. Or looking for people to smash. Just because he wanted to.
Giving up on getting any other answers from me, Daniel half sighed and turned brisk and businesslike. “Right people, let’s get started so we can go home. Mr. Raymond wanted the grass around the tennis courts cut.” There was a groan from the juniors. “There’s some bush knives here but Leila, maybe you could weed instead?”
I prickled immediately at the assumption. “Excuse me? Why can’t I cut the grass too? Why should I do something different?”
The group of boys had turned and were already beginning to walk towards the tennis courts. They stopped to look back at me with raised eyebrows. The juniors in particular looked flabbergasted.
Daniel looked like he was struggling to find the right words.“Umm, it’s just that usually the boys do the grass cutting. You know they have to use the machetes?”
One hand on my hip, I bristled defiantly.“Yeah, so? Why can’t I do that too?”
“It’s a bit dangerous, especially if you’re not used to using a machete?”
“Of course I know how to use a machete.” The lies came thick and fast. “I’m sure it’s none of your concern anyway. This is supposed to be hard labor and all of us are in it, so why don’t you let me worry about my machete-wielding skills?”
Daniel’s easy shrug and crooked smile had me momentarily dazed. He was just so gloriously beautiful, even when he was supposed to be my temporary jailor, that it took my breath away.
“Hey no problem. ” he raised both hands in supplication. “You want to cut grass with them, then you go right ahead. I’m just here to supervise and make sure you serve your detention, that’s all.”
“Fine.” my retort was sharp. I walked over to the pile of machetes and picked up the first one in the pile. “So where do we start?”
Daniel took up a spot under the mango tree behind us. I ignored him. There were muffled sniggers from the juniors as they came and selected their machetes, shaking their heads at me. I strode over to the nearest clump of tall grass that hugged the tennis court. Once I got there though I halted as I considered the black blade of the knife in my hands. Great. Now what the heck was I supposed to do with this? I snuck a sideways glance at the three boys spread out along the length of the court. They had stripped down to shorts only in the wet heat and I was envious of their relaxed gear. I hadn’t even started cutting grass yet and already I was sweating. I prayed a silent prayer to whatever gods might be listening. Please don’t let me heat panic attack, please don’t let me get too hot.
I stood and studied the others as they swung their blades rhythmically back and forth, felling swathes of grass with each horizontal wave. It looked easy I thought. You had to half bend your knees and bend at the waist to reach the grass, sweeping the blade along the top of it. Cut too low and your blade would meet the earth. Or some rocks. Which is what happened on my first swing.
“Yow!” The startled yelp was out before I could stop it as my blade cut into rock and there was a flinty sound of protest. The three boys paused mid swing to grin at me. Even the senior mafia killer. I debated giving them all the finger but decided instead to settle for a haughty smile. Like I was having the time of my life. And I cut grass with machetes all the time. Back in Washington D.C.. Where people were civilized. I muttered under my breath as I took another swing. This time I swung too high. The knife slid along the grass with lightning speed unimpeded, and almost came to rest on the side of my leg.
“Dammit!” Because I had nearly sliced through my own leg, I was even madder. I took a deep breath and braced myself for another attempt. But a voice from behind me stopped the swing.
“Hey, hey. You’re going to hurt yourself there. Why don’t you let me show you how to do it?”
Daniel stood beside me, with a slight frown.
“I said I didn’t need any help and I meant it. Thank you but I’m fine.” Exquisite politeness.
“No come on, at least allow me to show you how to hold the blade properly? Just a little help before you chop your leg off. Or somebody else’s.” A wide gesture to the boys alongside me.
They hooted at that. The mafia gangster straightened from his cutting to speak. Loud and authoritative. “Don’t be such a fiapoto knowitall, girl. He’s right. You don’t know what you’re doing. Listen to him.”
I was outnumbered. And in danger of chopping my leg off. I held the knife out to Daniel. “Alright, fine. Go ahead. Show me.”
His fingers brushed mine as he took the blade, sending a chill through me. I moved several steps away in case he noticed.
“Right. The important thing to remember with the machete is a firm grip and a relaxed stance. Bend at the knees and lean forward a little. Then let your arm swing loosely. You want to just start off lightly until you learn to gauge the proper distance. Too far down and you’ll hit the ground. Too far up and you won’t cut the grass.”
He leaned to expertly cut the still-untouched section of grass with several easy strokes. Even with his shirt on, I could clearly make out the tense and release of his muscled arms as he hacked at the grass with graceful ease. I swallowed and tried to find something else to look at. The birds in the tree maybe?
“Leila!” his tone was irritated. “You’re supposed to be watching so you can figure out how to do this, now come here. Your turn. You try.”
Suddenly I was tensed with shyness. All four males were watching. Waiting to see what I could do next to make their afternoon interesting. They would probably love it if I cut myself, I thought darkly, give them something to talk about tomorrow. I gritted my teeth and tried to copy the stance Daniel had shown me. I leant forward to take my first swing but again his command stopped me.
“Wait – not like that, like this.” He moved closer to my right side, angling his body to stand beside me, so our arms were in alignment. I tried to ignore his nearness. But it was difficult. I could feel the heat of his arm, the brush of his shoulder against mine. His voice spoke too close to my ear for my liking. I caught a flush of his breath on my cheek as he spoke.
“Bend your knees slightly, lean forward a bit, and let your body follow the swing of the blade. It’s not meant to be full force every time, every swing, you’ll tire yourself out too fast that way.”
His hand was on mine as he swung our arms gently in an arc, mimicking a cutting swing. I could smell his nearness; green grass, sweat and sunshine. It was sending my heat levels spiraling dangerously high. So, of course, the threat made me brusque and rude. Well, more than usual.
“I got it, I got it!” I stepped away from him, but carefully tried to follow his instructions. Painfully aware of his scrutiny beside me, it was a relief when he nodded approvingly after several tries.
“Hey, that’s good Leila, I think you’ve got it. Just pace yourself and remember to focus so you don’t cut your leg off.”
I wanted to poke my tongue at him or toss him a well chosen curse word, but I thought I better not stop concentrating on the grass. The rest of the half hour passed swiftly in a rhythmic swaying and scything. Dimly I was aware of Daniel, taking off his shirt and joining us in the line along the tennis court perimeter with a knife, making our group five. I hated to lose my rhythm so I fought the desire to sneak a peek at his half nakedness. Instead I gave myself up to the pleasurable burn of exertion, my whole body at work, cutting long green grass on a golden afternoon.
It was a shock when Daniel called for everyone to stop their work. Time already? I halted mid swing with the others and straightened my back with a groan. Ugh, I knew I would really be feeling it tonight. My back muscles were protesting as I shook my shoulders to loosen them, walking back to the shade where I had left my bag. Daniel was dismissing us all. Again I envied the boys their freedom as the slight breeze danced over their bare skin and they threw water over themselves at the gushing tap. I felt like a sweat-stained oil rag and knew I looked it too. I wanted nothing more than to get the heck out of there and home to a cold shower. Daniel’s voice beside me, startled my thoughts of Aunty Matile’s freshly made sweet lemonade pouring over chinking ice.
“So I bet you’re glad that’s over.” He stood too close to me. Still only in black Nike shorts, a shirt slung over one shoulder. There were beads of sweat on his arm, the curve of his hip tensed as he bent to pick up his schoolbag. When he shook his head slightly, a faint scatter of water came my way. “Oops sorry.” His smile was too genuine, too open to go unanswered.
There was a smile in my voice as I replied, “That’s alright, thanks. For your help today. I probably owe you my still-intact leg.”
He laughed. It was a warm, rich sound. “Actually all the boys are relieved they still have their legs to walk home on too, they were a bit worried when you started swinging that thing around.”
Beside him, the hulking senior heard him and agreed. “Ay Daniel, I thought this girl was going to cut us all in pieces. Should never let a girl loose with a bush knife ay?”
They both broke into laughter. Which had me on auto attack immediately. I hated being laughed at. And I hated walking beside these boys when I was a smelly, disheveled mess. Especially not beside Daniel’s perfection. I tensed and shut my face down with a frown.
“I don’t know why you thought I wouldn’t be able to handle it – I may not have ever used a machete before but there’s no reason why I couldn’t figure out if given the opportunity. There’s no reason to be such sexist jerks.” The words came out colder than I’d planned, but they were already knifing through the afternoon before I could reclaim them.
The senior whistled long and low. “Sole Daniel, I don’t think this girl likes our jokes eh?”
I had quickened my pace to get away from them and Daniel had to place a hand on my arm to get me to look at him. My scowl was armed and ready, where he only looked exasperated.
“What is with you? We’re just kidding, don’t you ever relax and just chill? I mean, first I’m a racist pig and now I’m a sexist jerk? Can’t you ever stop expecting the worst of people? You don’t even know me.”
His eyes were jade stones of accusation, his face stormy. I shook off his hand, jutting my chin defiantly as I replied. “No. I don’t know you. And you can be sure that I have no desire to. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to get home.”
I turned and strode away, rigid with anger as I headed down to the bus stop. Ha. Boys. Even beautiful ones, who needed them? I missed my old school. At least I knew where I stood with girls. At least my annoyance with them didn’t war with an unwilling attraction to the glory of perfectly defined arms and a crooked smile.
At home, a cold shower didn’t do much to cool the heat of my afternoon grass-cutting session. With a sinking feeling, I realized I would need to visit the pool tonight if I wanted to pre-empt a heat attack. All through dinner with Matile and Tuala, I could feel the heat gathering, making it difficult to breathe in a kitchen drowning in the sweetness of Matile’s pineapple coconut pie. As soon as it was polite enough, I excused myself to go to my room. Another shower would be required before bed for sure. I tried to focus on homework while I waited for the sounds of evening to subside. Matile and Tuala were watching television and it seemed an eternity before they finally went to bed. By then I was breathing in huge gasps, the steam rising like a pressure cooker in my chest as I fought the waves of hot panic. Stay calm, just breathe, you’re going to be alright, it’s okay. Stay calm, breathe, come on take deep breaths.
It was midnight when I slipped from the house, armed with a greasy mutton bone from dinner for Terminator. He was a wriggling bundle of glee at my gift and I whispered my pleas for quiet as I climbed over the back fence and ran lightly through the forest. I knew the path so well now that I could have found my way there blindfolded. It was a relief when I broke from the trees and into the clearing. Quickly, I stripped down to the basics, leaving my clothes hanging on a branch with my towel and walked into the water, accepting its wet embrace with pleasure. For a short while at least, I would keep the heat at bay.
It was always a surprise how quickly the water worked on me. A few minutes submerged, floating in the murky night, and I would be me again. Leila. Not the girl who felt like she tiptoed on the edges of an incendiary explosion all the time. Just me. There was calm solitude in the pool. There was reflection. Here, there was safety. Sometimes, there would be tears as I sat in the pool and cried for my dad. Awash in the midnight, I would talk to the stars overhead. I liked to think that somewhere, somehow, my dad was listening.
Tonight was different. Tonight, my thoughts were filled with green eyes and skin that glistened with sweat, a tattooed arm, the laughter of a boy who towered over me in annoying splendor. I wondered what my dad would say if I told him about the Chunk Hunk and how he alternately irritated and fascinated me.
“Leila, you’re too hard on people, too quick to condemn them. You need to give people a chance, try to understand where they’re coming from,” was his advice after a particularly excruciating visit with Grandmother Folger. “But Dad, she’s so rude to you. And to me. I don’t know why she even bothers inviting us over for dinner when all she does is tell us how horribly inadequate we are.” His laugh, the way he would yank at my thick braid and toss an arm around my shoulders. “Leila, how could we possibly be inadequate? Look at us, who could find a more perfect pair? You – the friendliest, cheeriest, perkiest cheerleader I know – and me – the dream dad who’s never home, who in a year earns, oh, probably as much my brothers do in a week! We’re perfect, what could your Grandmother Folger possibly have to complain about with us?!”
I stood in the pool and walked carefully over the rocks, deeper towards the splashing waterfall. I was so caught up in my thoughts that I never heard the stranger come into the clearing.
“What are you doing here?” the voice was harsh, stridently breaking into my peaceful reverie. I was so startled that I missed my footing on the smooth rocks below and slipped backwards, my head going underwater. Spluttering with a mouth and nose full of water, I surfaced with a choking gasp, terrified by my momentary blindness.
“Who is it? Who’s there? Get away from me!” the last was a shriek as I felt a hand grab my arm.
“Get off of me! I said get off! I know kung fu, I mean karate. And I have a weapon. I do. Get away.” My threats were interrupted as, in an attempt to push the hand away, I again slipped and went under. Strong hands reached under my shoulders and heaved me up, dragging me kicking and splashing to the poolside.
A coughing tangled mess, I pushed myself over to confront my attacker head on. Only to be brought up short by the sounds of someone laughing.
“So which is it? Karate or kung fu? Either way, I’m reeeeeeally scared.” The familiar voice had a rich deep timbre and his laugh rang out through the forest night.
Wiping the clods of sodden hair out of my eyes, I looked up with my angriest expression. The one my father called the “I’m gonna eat u alive and spit out the pieces and make u wish u had never been born” face. Apparently, I had mastered it from the tender age of three. I turned it on full blast and looked straight at Daniel.
He towered over me, amusement crinkling his eyes, a half smile on his face as he surveyed my disheveled state. He wore only a ripped pair of shorts that sat precariously low on his hips. Moonlight played on the tattoo snaking its way over his left shoulder as he put his hands on his hips and shook his head.
“And so this weapon of yours? Umm, just where exactly would you be concealing that?” His eyes speculatively surveyed the length of my wet body clothed only in its skimpy black cotton underwear and bra top.
Furious and horribly self-conscious, I grabbed my towel from the rocks and hastily covered myself before turning to confront this arrogant IDIOT with the full measure of my rage.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing? Creeping around in the dark, sneaking up on people like that and then scaring them? And how dare you put your hands on me! You – you – horrible creep.”
His smile was quickly replaced with a cold hard look as he folded his arms, his entire body tensed at my tirade. “Excuse me? Oh I get it, we’re going for a three count – racist, sexist and now I’m a potential rapist. Great. Is there nothing you won’t accuse me of? Last time I checked, this pool didn’t belong to you. And when a clumsy female falls over in the water and looks like she’s drowning in only two feet of water – it’s considered gentlemanly behavior to pull her out. In fact, MOST girls would then say, thank you for helping them.” His voice was low but full of venom as he spoke, slowly emphasizing each word.
I withered slightly at his response. “Oh.” I scrambled for defense. “Well, you shouldn’t have scared me like that. THAT wasn’t polite. I mean, it’s the middle of the night out here in the middle of nowhere for goodness sake so of course I was gonna think you were attacking me … or something.”
He arched one eyebrow questioningly. “I don’t know what you were thinking being out here alone. Are you crazy? Yes, this is Samoa and we don’t have the same amount of psycho killers running around like you do back in the States but still, it’s just stupid for a girl to be out swimming in her underwear by herself. What were you thinking?” His tone was derisive.
From outraged offensive, I found myself struggling in defensive mode. “Umm, I know, I mean – I really didn’t think anybody would be out here so late. And I’ve come here a few times now and never seen anyone around. And I didn’t think I was trespassing, so I didn’t know it would cause any trouble, and back home you wouldn’t catch me out by myself in a forest in a million years, but this place is different and it’s just so hot and I can’t sleep and nobody cares what happens to me anyways, oh why am I telling you anything?” I came to an abrupt halt as tears pricked my eyes and threatened to spill over in my voice. I felt an awful hollowness in my chest as I realized the truth of my words. Nobody did care. I could get abducted by aliens, hacked to pieces by an axe murderer and my aunt and uncle would probably be relieved to be rid of my pestering presence. My grandmother would pay for the funeral, and shower my grave with lots of ridiculous flowers. But tears and actual loss? I doubted it. And there was definitely something wrong with me and it was getting worse every day and I didn’t know how much longer I could handle it by myself. I was sick. Frightened. And tired. In that moment, a wave of self-pity threatened to drown me. I turned my back on him and took a deep breath to steady myself, steeling for further attack.
There was a heavy pause, then his words in the dusty velvet night surprised me. “Hey, look, I’m sorry, okay? I come here a lot and I was kinda surprised to find anybody else here. And I didn’t mean to scare you.” His voice was gentle and soothing like someone trying to hush a skittery colt.
I hated myself for falling apart in front of him. Willing myself to be calm, I shifted into my artificial cheerfulness. Turning to face him again, I smiled brightly and waved a hand casually.
“Oh, don’t even worry about it. I over reacted. It happens. Look, I’ll get out of your way. Thanks for your help in the water. Have a nice swim.” I grabbed my clothes from the ground and started backing away, ignoring his confused expression. Just smile, I thought to myself. Just smile. Go home and cry like a baby there where nobody can see you. Just keep it together a few minutes longer.
My plan would have worked too. If I hadn’t tripped over a clump of ferns behind me, falling down hard on my overly bright and cheerful backside.
“Owwww!” Once again my outraged shriek pierced the night. Sitting in a bruised cluster of bushes, my feet covered in mud, wet hair plastered to sticky sweaty skin, I (not for the first time) cursed my stupidity at coming to this island. I was painfully homesick. Which didn’t make sense because I didn’t have a home. I didn’t belong here. But then, I didn’t belong in D.C either. I was a half-caste disappointment to my grandmother. A disturbing reminder to my aunt of a woman it seemed everyone would rather forget. Face it Leila – you’re an in-between nothing and nobody wants you around. Head down on my knees, I gave in to the crushing sobs within. I didn’t care if this stupid boy laughed at me, yelled at me. Or even if he ran a mile. I cried the huge bone-shattering kind of cry that shook to the very core.
“Hey, it’s okay. You’re gonna be okay.” Daniel knelt beside me and then after a hesitant moment, huge arms swept me up out of the mud, carrying me the few steps back to the pool. Too upset to stop, even with the shock of being carried, I just kept sobbing and hiccupping, dimly aware of being set down on a smooth rock and of him sitting beside me.
Side by side, shoulders touching, we sat by the glistening waters as I cried. Several months worth of anguish rocked my body as I sat hugging my knees. He didn’t try to make me stop or even try to talk me out of it. He just sat there beside me and let me cry. I don’t know how long the storm of emotion ravaged me, but it felt like hours. Finally, the tears slowed and the sobs receded. He handed me something to wipe my tear ravaged face. It was my dirty t-shirt. I looked at him questioningly.
He gestured to his ripped shorts with a wry smile. “Sorry, I didn’t come equipped to comfort a damsel in distress.”
In that moment, with eyes swollen beyond belief, scratched muddy legs and arms, and with a sodden towel draped around my thin frame – I had never felt closer to another human being. The night sky stretched overhead, swallowing us in its velvet vastness; the forest breathed us in. The tension within slowly seeped away, replaced by a liquid calmness. Looking into smiling eyes, I felt for the first time in a long time – at peace. Home. The moment seemed to last an eternity as we gazed at each other. His smile faded, replaced with a look of quiet regard. His eyes studied me intently, as if trying to stare into my soul. If it had been anywhere else, any other time, I would have flushed red with embarrassment and looked away. But out here, with the rainforest breathing all around us, it seemed perfectly normal to sit and stare into a strange boy’s eyes, feeling the warmth of his tattooed shoulder next to my skin.
As the moment stretched, I became acutely aware of his breathing. The rise and fall of his perfectly contoured chest. The rip of his muscled arms looped casually around his knees. The curve of his hip resting comfortably beside my own. My calmness faded, replaced with something else. A rising flush of heat that started deep within. A rise that boiled and surged, threatening to overwhelm my calm exterior. I had an insane urge to reach out with trembling fingers and trace the pattern of his tattoo, wanting to feel for myself the patterned cut in his skin. How badly had it hurt, I wondered? Had there been much blood? Why had he done it? At the thought of his pain, I felt a twinge. Bemused, I realized why – it hurt to think of him hurting. This stranger. This painfully handsome boy, striding strong through the school with confidence and yet, sitting here beside me trying to give me comfort.
As if sensing the shift in my thoughts, he smiled. This time, it sent a jolt of pure electricity through me. The smile crinkled his green eyes and revealed a dimple in his left cheek. He reached tentatively, as if unwilling to break the moment, and brushed a strand of wet hair away from my eyes. His fingers were surprisingly cool on my hot face. I had to bite my lip to stop an answering smile from overwhelming me – trying to downplay the swirling heat of emotions. I was terrified he would sense I was struggling with a serious attack of physical attraction to him. His earlier words echoed in my mind. Of course, that’s how he thought of me. I was a ‘stupid’ girl who did weird things like go swimming in my underwear by myself in the middle of the night, scream at people who surprised me and then cry all over them at the drop of a hat. I took a deep breath and smiled weakly, breaking our locked gaze to look at the forest around us.
“Boy, you must think I’m such an idiot, crying like that. Whew, I’m sorry.”
“Sorry for what?” his eyes were puzzled.
“I didn’t mean to fall apart like that. Thanks for being so cool about it.”
He shrugged his shoulders, moonlight dancing on his bicep muscles as he reached toward me again, this time to casually brush an ant off my leg. This time his touch burned and I had to struggle for control so as not to gasp at his closeness.
“Hey, don’t worry about it. I’ve been there.” This time, he didn’t meet my gaze, staring instead into the depths of the pool.
I was curious. I sneaked a look at his chiseled profile and tried to envision him coming to this pool to be alone. To seek solace. To cry? What could do that to him? I had been wrapped up for so long in my own pain, that it had not occurred to me that possibly others could experience such despair. For a brief instant, out of nowhere, an image of my grandmother flashed into my mind. Ramrod straight and still at the graveside, silent tears streaming down her lined cheeks. Her shocked face at my announcement that I was leaving for Samoa.
“I’m your grandmother’s biggest disappointment Leila, not you.” My dad would say cheerfully, every time we psyched ourselves to go for our ritual weekly visit to her Potomac mansion, and I would complain about grandmother’s endless criticisms. The way I dressed, my grades, my vocabulary, my untamable hair – and my lack of interest in doing anything to tame it. How I hated those visits. The stilted conversations. The unsmiling welcomes and farewells. But always, Dad would joke and laugh. And tease a smile from somewhere out of the old lady. He would regale her with tales of his latest travels, deliberately excluding all the dangerous and grimy bits of his job that she loathed. And grandmother would shake her head. And purse her lips. But her eyes would soften at his touch. And surely that would be the hint of tenderness when she hugged him? Dad was the youngest in a family of corporate lawyers, company directors and a brain surgeon thrown in for good measure. Born in the autumn of his parent’s years and then raised by his mother when his father died of a heart attack shortly after. The golden favorite last child who then decided to go against the Folger grain – refusing to join the family business when he finished at Harvard Law, choosing instead to join the Peace Corps, and then adding insult to injury, bringing home a brown baby for a grandchild! Upon his return to the States with me, my dad had pursued a career that combined his love of photography with his passion for travel and exploring native cultures. He had taken me with him to many of his destinations when I was younger, but then once I reached high school, Grandmother Folger had convinced him of the need for me to ‘be more settled,’ to focus on school so I could get into a college befitting of a Folger. Meaning I had to endure long periods without him. With a housekeeper and a coldly formal grandmother watching over me. Dad, I miss you.
The chitter of a flying fox brought me back to the present. Daniel was staring at me with that same intense regard as if trying to pierce my thoughts.
“Where were you just now?”
“Umm nowhere. I mean here. Right here. With you.” My words faded to a soft breath as once again he turned the full majesty of that amazing smile on me.
“You were not. You were a thousand miles away. Come on, you can’t possibly think of keeping any secrets from me now.” He gestured at the two of us in our muddy state of companionship.
I felt a laugh ripple forth against my will. “Okay, you’re right. I mean, what could the girl who has weapons galore concealed in her underwear possibly have to hide from you?” I joked.
His laugh rang out through the forest night. It was a rich golden sound, resonant of sunny, sandy days. It felt glorious to laugh together. Almost as good as staring into his eyes.
“You’re right, I don’t know if I’m brave enough to find out.” he teased, eyes dancing with laughter.
My only reply was to poke my tongue out mischievously, wrinkling my nose – a favorite tactic when being teased by Dad. Abruptly, my laughter halted at the reminder. It stunned me to realize that this was the first time in months that I had laughed together like this with another person. And that the last time I had poked out my tongue like this had been at my dad. Oh how I had missed it.
He was so in tune with me now that he pounced on my shift of mood. “See there. You’re doing it again. You’re miles away. Something sad has got you wrapped up so tight it won’t let you go!” his tone was triumphant as he leaned forward in his eagerness. He smelled delicious. Earthy, clean, with a hint of coconut and pineapple. “What is it?” He wouldn’t take no for an answer this time.
“Alright. I was thinking of my dad. He died. Eight months ago. He was on assignment in Afghanistan. He had a headache and collapsed. They rushed him home but it was no use. Doctors said he had a brain tumor. Inoperable. He only regained consciousness once before. Before.” I took a deep breath, willing myself to say the words without hurting. “Before he died.” The last words were a rush as I waited for the pain to hit with that gut-kicking blow that would knock the breath out of me. It came. But funnily enough, with Daniel sitting beside me in the night, it didn’t hit as hard as usual. I didn’t realize how tightly my fists were clenched though, how taut my body had gone, until he placed an arm around my shoulders. I felt myself wilting into him.
“Hey. I’m here. Breathe. There you go. Just breathe.” He was calm and assured, eyes soft with concern. I could see an errant eyelash quivering on his cheek as I breathed deeply. His closeness was so distracting that I dropped my eyes from his, only to be confronted by the sight of his lean hard chest tapering into clearly defined abs.
Oops. Definitely not helpful. I gulped, shutting my eyes to avert the flood of fire that threatened again to overwhelm me. What the heck is wrong with me? One minute I’m crying – the next I’m hyperventilating over this boy’s naked chest? I bit my lip to stifle the hysterical giggle that was bubbling to explode. Mistaking my silence for sorrow, he placed a hand under my chin, raising my face to his.
I could scarcely breathe. Our faces were so close, I could almost taste his breath. There was nothing but concern in his eyes.
“Are you ok? I’m sorry I made you talk about it. I didn’t mean to hurt you.”
Mutely, I shook my head. “It’s okay. I haven’t talked about it to anyone. It’s hard. But I want to talk about him as well too – even though it hurts so bad, you know what I mean?” My voice pleaded for understanding.
“Yes. I do.” The confidence in his voice threw me. It was my turn to be puzzled.
“My mother died when I was very young. I never knew her really, so it’s different for me. Talking to family about her makes her come alive for me somehow but still it’s tough because it reminds me how much I miss having her.”
I felt a surge of relief at his words. “Exactly. Nobody loved my dad the way I do, nobody loved me the way he did, so I feel so alone in the way I miss him. I wrap it all up inside – and it’s like choking me, killing me. Tonight, crying like that, it felt awful, but really a relief at the same time.” I halted, afraid that once again I had revealed too much.
“How about your mom? Can’t you talk to her about it?”
“My mother died when I was a baby. I never knew her. That’s one reason I came to Samoa. So I could get to know her family and maybe know her. Some stupid idea that’s turned out to be.” My tone was harsher than I had planned as I thought bitterly about my aunt’s welcome reception at the airport several weeks ago.
He swatted away a buzzing mosquito before replying.“So Samoa isn’t exactly turning out to be what you planned. And your family here? Who are they?”
I smiled. Only on an island with a population less than two hundred thousand people would someone ask such a question and have every intention of knowing who the heck I was talking about when I answered.“My aunty Matile and uncle Tuala – they’re the Sinapati family. We live just round the corner from the stadium, Apia Park.”
He nodded, confirming suspicions. “So, do you have tons of random cousins living with you? Our extended family living must be kind of a shock for a spoilt only child like you.” His teasing grin softened his jibe.
“Hey watch it, I can still take you on you know. Spoilt only children are infamous for their tempers. Actually, they don’t have any children of their own and nobody stays with them but me. There’s always cousins coming over though from next door, round about meal time. Aunty Matile is a major grouch but she’s an amazing cook. Especially when you’re used to living on fast food. Me and Dad, we weren’t much for cooking. But we had the Chinese takeout number on speed dial.”
This time he laughed with me, the sound quickening my heartbeat, giving my pulse a hop, skip, and jump. Did this boy even know how gorgeous he was when he laughed?
“Glad to hear that at least the food is to your liking. And how are you finding SamCo?”
I wrinkled my nose as I tried to sum up the contradictory experiences of the first month at Samoa College. “It’s okay. I thought I would hate it but it hasn’t been too bad. I went to a girls’ school back home and so having boys around has been an adjustment. I can honestly say though that this school has been the least painful to be the new kid in. Teenagers here are so respectful compared with back home. Everyone is polite and listens to the teachers – it’s a little freaky – but it does make life a bit easier when you’re new midyear.” I shuddered, remembering some of my long-ago horrible first weeks at Washington Girls. “It’s nice not to be the only Samoan in a school. Back home, I got a lot of crap because of my mixed parentage.” I paused and took a huge breath before continuing. “Which is why I was a little sensitive about the whole ‘pure’ Samoan thing in the debate and maybe kind of overreacted to your comments a little bit.” I said the last part cautiously and he smiled hugely in return.
“If I didn’t know better, I would say that almost sounded like an apology. Damn, that fall into the pool must really have shook you up because I NEVER thought the most hostile girl in school would ever say anything remotely nice to me. Maybe I should throw you back in – when I pull you out again I might even get an apology for the sexist attack in detention today.”
I grinned ruefully. “Okay, okay, you got me. I was kind of a little rough on you that first day in English. ”
He interrupted incredulously. “You think? And today? How about today? Come on, don’t stop now. Let’s keep this confession ball rolling. You were unnecessarily mean to me today, especially considering I was only trying to be helpful. Admit it, I was right, you had never used a bush knife before. Come on, say it.”
Shaking my head and laughing at his eagerness to catch me out, I conceded. “Alright, so you were right. I had never used a machete before, but that didn’t give you know-it-all BOYS the right to laugh at me, or to assume that I couldn’t learn to use one.”
“The only reason we were laughing at you, silly GIRL, is because you were so stubborn trying to FAKE that you knew what you were doing when you had no clue and then to take that stubbornness to the point where you were willing to risk chopping your own leg off just to prove your point, argh! Leila, you’re lucky I took pity on your beautiful legs and stepped in to give you a grass-cutting lesson, IN SPITE of your meanness.”
His reference to my legs had me tucking them in further underneath my wet towel but he seemed oblivious to my self-consciousness.
“But I’m willing to forgive you, as long as you promise never to pick up a bush knife in my vicinity again. Oh, and the next interclass debate we have, I want to be on your team. There’s no way I want to face you on the debate battlefield again.”
Again, we laughed together in the forest night and I had to shake my head at the ridiculousness of it all. Here I was sitting in the mud in the dead of night with the Head Boy, Chunk Hunk from school, wearing nothing but my underwear. And a wet towel, I amended. Yup. Definitely heart attack material for my grandmother if she could see me now. I smiled to myself and was rewarded by an answering grin.
“I like that.” He said quietly.
“When you smile.” His face was serious now.
His words set my pulse racing again. Suddenly, the humidity seemed overpowering, the air so thick that I couldn’t find enough air to fill my lungs. I looked away, tugging my towel closer and sitting up a bit straighter.
“I haven’t had a lot to smile about lately, so I’m a little rusty.”
As if sensing my need to create space between us, he stood and walked a few steps into the water to bend and wash water onto his forearms before turning to throw me another dazzling smile.
“So, Samoa isn’t exactly making you feel the love ay?”
“Oh it’s alright. I’ve dreamed about coming here for years and the reality is a little different from the fantasy you know?”
“What are you finding the hardest to deal with?”
“Where shall I start? My family here isn’t exactly thrilled to have me. Then, there’s definitely the heat. I thought I could handle it, but lately, I don’t know, I feel like I’m constantly running a fever or something.” I shook my head thinking again of the panicked heat attack that had driven me to this pool in the first place.
“That would explain the midnight swim then?”
“Yeah I come here every night now, once I’m sure the house is asleep.” I sat bolt upright as I realized that I had to have been gone for well over several hours now. Standing hurriedly, I gathered up my shoes and clothing. “I better get back. My aunt will really deport me if she finds out I’m roaming around in the bushes like this and having a rugby chunkh – I mean, a boy in the area won’t help.” I stumbled over the words as my first inclination had been to call him what I’d been calling him ever since the first day I’d seen him at school.
He didn’t seem to notice my slip up. Rather he had a speculative look on his face as he stood in the pool, water midway up his thighs. “So, I guess I’ll see you at school then, Leila.” He smiled one more time, before turning to dive into the water, the diamond splash leaving me feeling a little deflated.
That was it? I watched him lazily stroke his way towards the falls and then turned away to stumble through the forest back to the house. My excitement faded, replaced by a hollow disappointment. We talk, we share stuff. What was that anyway? I cry all over him. He comforts me. We seem to connect and then a casual goodbye? Shaking my head, I crept into the bedroom, thankful that Aunty was a deep sleeper. I was sure I wouldn’t be able to sleep after the night’s events, but once changed into dry clothes, I was out as soon as my head touched the pillow. And thankfully, it was a sleep unplagued by strange dreams.