Sumiko and Junior dance while she tries to gauge Sean’s mood. “How’s the lesson, hon?” she calls across the clearing. “Remember, there may be a quiz later.” She makes her voice light and buoyant. She even winks.
Sean scoffs. “Me and Tehani here, we got this,” he says, making the girl laugh, but his eyes stay fixed on her and Junior. The other couples, who appear to be travelling together, give up and migrate onto another village.
“Mahalo,” says a man, as they leave.
“No, honey, we’re in Tahiti. It’s maururu,” says a woman, consulting her brochure.
Wearing the smile all the performers perfect—warm and open without being romantically interested—Junior waves goodbye to the group, while he speaks again for only her ears, “Hon?” His voice is another thing entirely. Its roughness and its cadence, even its derisive nickname for her boyfriend, are like nails skating down the skin of her back. That voice sang her a hundred songs, accompanied by ‘uke, at beach parks, in bedrooms, over the phone. “That what you and Seanny Boy call each other?”
Sumiko sputters, “How did you know—”
“You stay dancing around li’ dis”—Junior mimics the women’s Tahitian style, complete with arm movements, all of it strangely graceful despite his batting eyelashes—“pretty hard for miss.” He reaches around her to ruffle the tank top away from her skin, showing how easily the cloth flutters upward and reveals the “SEAN” tattoo on her back. Where his fingers brush, her skin remembers. “Rugged,” he says. “Baby girl is all growns up.”
Her face flushes like he’s flicked a switch in her. To dispel the feeling, she sasses, “So, what, you work here?”
“You tink I hang out in one malo for fun?” he says. “Yeah, I work here. Been working here for da last…six years, ehh, Iosepa?”—Junior looks over to the boy dancer. “How long I been hea?”
“Six years, at least, Kumu. You was hea way before me,” the boy grins.
“Hoa, ‘waaaaaay befoa you,’ is it?” Junior tries to whack the back of the boy’s head. “Brah, you bettah watch yousself, or at next practice I going make you lead us all in nu’utere ne’e.”
“Duck walks? No friggin’ way, Kumu. I sorry, I sorry,” says the boy, mock-bowing to Junior, but both are laughing.
Sumiko has missed bantering like this. New York humor is so dry. She revels, too, in getting the joke: duck walks required a dancer to squat and waddle—a move that would seem awkward, if you didn’t know how much skill it required.
Sean whispers in Tehani’s ear then pulls the park map out of his back pocket. Tehani uses her finger to trace him a path. He needs the bathroom. Or perhaps a drink of water. Or whatever. It doesn’t even matter—when she sees Sean stride away, no hurry to his pace, the tension in her spine goes with him. With the only student in all of Tahiti village taking a break, the pahu player does, too, and so Sumiko and Junior stop dancing when the drums do. But something the boy said has her attention.
“Kumu!” Sumiko hisses. “You’re a kumu now?”
“Baby, you know I always had da moves.”
“Be serious a minute.” She swats his shoulder. “A kumu. I mean, that’s incredible!” How many years had it been since she left? Time flashed fast backward. The Brooklyn apartment she and Sean had painted in tropical hues when they moved in together. First glimpse of Sean, summer, the skin crinkling at his eyes’ corners when he laughed—what had done her in. Sumiko out at clubs, Sumiko at auditions, Sumiko at one temp job after another. Eighteen-year-old Sumiko at JFK with a cartful of suitcases, tossing dead flowers and vine into the trash. Sumiko at Honolulu airport adorned in flower lei and maile garland, friends and family seeing her off—all except one. Sumiko backward and back and back till Sumiko is fifteen and a large arm rests on her thin shoulders and a hip bumps her own to the right to a rhythm she can’t hear but feels. The air is salt and bloom. The sun blinding. The arm heavy and Sumiko wants nothing else. An entire life’s time contained in the simple fact of her leaving and Junior staying.
“So, when did it happen? And how?”
“I was always in halau, Tita, from smallkidtime. You knew that.”
“But don’t make like this isn’t a big deal. It is!”
“I guess.” His toes scribble swirls through the dirt. “I just…stuck with it. Not much more to say. You learn to dance, you get to a certain point, and the next step is to learn to teach. That’s all.”
“Except that some people never reach that point.”
“Except for that, then.” Junior laughs, but his eyes shift from her. The distance between them grows, asserting itself. Junior had once been home to her, but a life with him would have been all scorched grass and things yellowing with age. A smaller arc. A shorter story. Once she had promised herself that they’d outgrow each other. It sucked to be proved right.
Junior clears his throat. Sumiko says nothing. Junior traces patterns in the dirt. Sumiko stands too close. The drummer idly taps a samba rhythm on his pahu. One—andtwoand. One—andtwoand. Her hips want to answer again.
Junior breaks the silence.“For reals, you lookin’ good, kid. Good I got to see you. But why da heck you hea? You so haole now, you gotta hang out at the PCC?” The word, so rounded in some mouths, had edges in his. She reassembles her face, Picasso to portrait, so he can no longer read between the pieces. To be without (‘ole) the breath of life (hā). Him calling her that is what she’s been waiting for. She can go home, and home will cease to mean Hawai‘i. Something unspools inside her. But listen. She must, he is still talking.
“If you like one dose of Polynesia,” Junior winks—he can’t even help himself—“before you head back to da big city, you know who for call.” He holds up his hand as an imaginary phone, checks who’s calling, and lets a smile laze onto his face. It is so like him to be light of heart while she is undone. She should be offended at this come-on, targeted as if for a tourist. She crosses her arms at her chest but can’t help recalling how he looked, naked brown skin against fresh white sheets. Junior said things and she could never tell if he meant them. Not that it matters. She wouldn’t have called.
Just as suddenly, though, he isn’t kidding. “Or go home. Guaranteed Nanakuli going give you some real Hawai‘i, and you no need pay fifty dolla for get insai da door. No moa lock on top da doors, anyways.” He cracks a grin. “I gotta get back to work…but you take care, Tita.” He takes a step toward her. He was going to embrace her. Her arms flutter open and she offers her right cheek, but suddenly her face is between his hands. Holy shit, he was going to kiss her. Her heart quivers, staccato. But the hands are holding her face, just holding, and the eyes are dark and lovely and deep. For the moment, he just holds and looks. Then he closes the remaining distance between them, aligns the slope of his nose against hers, and closes his eyes. He breathes in. Held so close, he is an abstract of pores and lashes. Something about it makes her close her eyes, too.
She inhales sharp, having out of the breath she didn’t know she was holding. The scent of his skin rises, masculine and soapy, Irish Spring maybe, or Zest. Was he single? No woman would want to smell like that soap all the time. There was the tang of salt to him, too. Sea breeze, maybe, or sweat. When he exhales, she feels the warm hum of it. Breath after breath, the knowledge of his lips so close to but not meeting her own unfurls her. Sumiko’s heart pounds out a pattern too irregular to set the pace of a dance. She begins to pull away, but Junior’s arms have snaked from her face to the back of her neck, locking her close by the spine. The way he threads his fingers through her hair is firm but gentle. He is asking something, and in answer her body slackens. Nothing has aligned, but still she is strangely at peace.
Junior keeps his nose to her nose for a few more shared inhales of breath. He has kissed her, in front of everyone, in the most honorable and respectful way—leading her into honi, the Polynesian kiss. For all that others laud the French kiss with its twirl of tongues, or the deliciously slow kiss with its biting of lips and soft sucking, or even the kiss that is mere landmark to pass on the way to fucking, honi is infinitely more intimate. To honi is to love someone so much you want to breathe them in.
Sumiko’s mind clouds with the implications. She’s found Junior again. And he has kissed her in the deepest way he knows. And he still calls her Tita and somehow it’s still okay. Then again, she is here now, sure, but her life is elsewhere. She lives in Brooklyn; she is with Sean; they are tattooed together in indelible ink. They have an apartment, kitchen appliances, a cat. While they trace the island in electric blue, that cat is being sat by a neighbor, and the mail is piling up, and the houseplants will require a healthy dousing. Why then can’t she catch her breath? Why does her heart beat so embarrassingly loud? Why doesn’t she open her eyes even when she feels Junior’s face leave her own? She finally blinks them open when Junior squeezes her shoulder—in parting.
“What’s going on, Sumi?” The note of suspicion is high in Sean’s voice. He sputters more questions at her. But it doesn’t matter because Junior is leaving. He still has that way of walking that sends his hips to the right on a silent downbeat, like a typewriter carriage returning to home. He does not look back, although the drummer and two dancers do, warily, curiously, as they follow.
Sean starts after Junior, but Sumiko holds him firmly in place, her right hand suddenly five points and a full palm of sinewy strength directly over his heart.