Tuesday, December 2, 2014

The Yellow Skirt (Part 1)

Harriet’s Mama sat on a stool next to the gurney, holding her daughter’s hand. This was the first time Harriet had been to the clinic for anything serious, and Mama didn’t know how her daughter felt, or what she should say to her, if anything.
The two used to be best friends. As a child, Harriet always listened to her Mama. If Mama said, “Stay close to shore,” Harriet listened. If Mama said, “Dat Cabanting girl, she pilau,” Harriet listened. When she became a teenager, however, things changed. She became unpredictably moody, stubborn, and defiant. Mama accommodated these changes in her daughter by allowing her more freedom as a young adult. The result was as might have been expected. Mama sighed as the nurse entered the room and shut the door.
The nurse was an amiable, bulgy older woman with black shoulder-length curls, a round face, and a slight mustache. Smiling, she asked the young patient a few preliminary questions about her health and medical history, made some notes, and prepared her for the purpose of her visit. “Okay Harriet, now juss relax and breed slow. Dis going feel chilly one secon.”
Harriet did as the nurse said. The jelly felt cold against her skin and the shock made it momentarily difficult for her to breathe. She looked nervously askance at her boyfriend slouching against the white wall across the room, his hands impotently in the pockets of his board shorts.
The device probed her brown belly, giving her an unfamiliar tickle. The nurse was experienced in reading this type of image, and quickly told her what it was she wanted to know, what Harriet had already known for some time.
“You see here, dis da heart.” The nurse pointed to a white blip that resembled a wisp of cloud burning across the sky. A wave of hot discomfort originating in Harriet’s stomach vibrated with the pulse on the screen, making her fingertips and her ears tingle, and her forehead perspire.
“How far you tink?” inquired Mama earnestly.
“Look like eight weeks. Thass right on schedule. We get you set up with da docta, and you can come regla visits until da end, ya.” The nurse put her hand on Harriet’s arm. “Congratulations, you gonna be one mama!” As she turned to Mama, her broad, genuine smile lost its conviction. “Congratulations, Mrs. Ena.” She hesitated, and slowly began again. “Dis routine, but considah Harriet’s age, we going keep special watch. Can get complications, you know.”
Mama had also been very young when she became hapai, so she understood what “complications” meant. She had barely remained conscious during labor and had it not been for the care of competent clinical staff and her parents, she wouldn’t have survived convalescence. The infant Harriet was on life support, which fortunately the family didn’t have to cover. By some miracle, her daughter had survived and even grew healthy. Now, it was happening again. Harriet never knew this so she was excited, but anxious about motherhood and what changes it would bring for her.
The drive home up the highway was quiet. Clouds hurried over the pali and a mauka drizzle filled the air with a white noise. Papu, the boyfriend, was especially grateful for the aural distraction as he pretended to be busy staring out at the choppy sea. Mama switched the wipers on, streaking dust and moisture back and forth over the cracked windshield. Harriet picked at her dirty nails out of habit.
The truck entered the rusted chain link fence enclosure of the family’s bungalow onto the dun, balding lawn. Women’s laundry blew on the clothesline, nearly dry from the morning. Against the house, Harriet’s father had planted a melia tree, several heliconia, and a pikake bush. He had once seen the white flowers in a garden in the city and fell in love with their peculiar fragrance. He nestled the pikake beneath the kitchen jalousies, so he could enjoy its scent as he breakfasted. The trio sat at the kitchen table, and the odor reminded Mama of her absent husband.
An old television sounded indistinctly in the living room while the trade winds breathed through the darkened home, rustling the musty curtains. Papu traced circles in the red dust that had settled on the counter with his fingers. Harriet took a sip from her juice can. “Mama, me an Papu been tinking.”
“Been tinking what, Harriet?”
“Been tinking—we going marry.” Harriet tried to give her declaration the impression of resolve and finality, although she was a little afraid of how Mama might react. “We do not want notting giant, juss like have one small ceremony, small party. Me an Papu been see dis white dress in town I wanna wear. I—I juss wanna stay nani dat day, mama. I wanna have one nice wedding, den start tings wit Papu an keiki. Thass my dream.” She placed her palm over the soft folds of her belly. Papu steadied his focus on the red dust.
“I see,” said mama after a long pause. “How much dis dress going coss?” Harriet reached into her baggy shorts and retrieved a crumpled piece of paper, torn from a magazine. Flattening it on the speckled formica table, she slid it to Mama. The dress was worth the cost of her truck. Mama shifted her eyes from the dress to her daughter several times, finally knitting her brow in consternation. Then, she had an idea.
“You know Harriet, when fadda an I get marry, we young, we broke. But you tutu get one friend. Juss wait, I get someting fo show you.” She stood up, the screech of her aluminum chair on the linoleum echoing throughout the old kitchen, her bare feet thumping down the hall. She returned with a tattered cardboard box. She set it down on the center of the table, pushed her thick, graying hair back from her forehead and adjusted her faded blouse over her round stomach. Carefully removing the tape, which had lost its adhesiveness with age, Mama lifted an old picture album from the box with her plump fingers.
“Dis my wedding wit your fadda.” She placed her palm enthusiastically on the front of the book.
As they leafed through the yellowed pages, Mama was careful to identify Harriet’s grandmother, grandfather, and Mrs. Itoh, a tall thin woman with a square jaw, bold eyebrows, and a wide, sincere grin. “She wen make this.” Mama pulled from the box an opaque plastic bag large enough to fill her arms. With Papu’s help, she unrolled the bag and revealed a long skirt. The skirt was deep, bright yellow and was unusually heavy, which suggested it was of a fine quality. At a touch, it was difficult to tell the material; it was durable as wool, smooth as silk, and gentle as cotton. A simple geometric pattern was expertly woven in red and black at the hem of the skirt, recalling a feeling distant and almost divine. It was the skirt mama wore in her wedding pictures many years ago, although the pictures didn’t convey the beauty of the skirt’s physical presence.
“Harriet, we can get one place for your wedding, I can make plenny fo eat, all kine stuffs. We can get all da ohana togedda afta. But you know what, I wish you wear my yellow skirt instead dis kine white dress.”
Harriet pinched the skirt between her finger and thumb and frowned.
“Well, honey girl?” asked Mama, softly seeking her daughter’s manao.
“Ey, I tink so you getting makule!” Harriet bellowed. “It look like—like carpet or someting. You mento if you tink I wear dat ol ting! I wanna look pretty, not like one hotel pahforma!” Her cheeks grew hot with frustration, her voice cracking. “Mama, don’t worry! Papu and I—”
“Harriet, try listen. Your white dress stay beautiful, but da skirt, Mrs. Itoh tell she wen make um lucky. Honey girl, try listen. Try, even if just fo make me happy.”
“Mama, listen you! Me an Papu been see dat dress plenny times. We know thass what we want. We wen save up. I know it’s a lot, but—“
“How? You no can save dat, even in one year.”
“I wen save some. Papu, he wen get da ress.” Papu’s cell phone rang in his pocket. “Sorry,” he mumbled. He stepped outside and closed the door of his truck before he answered. Mama watched him closely for a moment, the back of his head like the shell of a fuzzy coconut. She figured she knew about Papu and felt a paroxysm of despair for her daughter.
“You no need Papu’s money,” she slapped the table. “I know you two going marry, but you no need him fo always take care you.” Regaining her composure, she tried being reasonable. “Look, dis my idea. I going help you plan da wedding. If we work hard, can get tings ready by da time your keiki born. You wear da skirt, you no need spend money on dat kine ting. Save your money fo take care your own keiki. Trust Mama, I like you stay happy.”
“Why you so press about me wear your junk skirt? Dat ting so old, nobody wearing dat stay alive still!”
Mama’s temperature rose. Her frustration with her daughter’s stubborn short-sightedness and youthful blindness to life’s impending difficulties lay seething beneath the surface for many months—since Harriet and Papu began seeing each other—until finally stirred to movement, resonating with a sour note in the youth’s thoughtless insult, ready to erupt.
I stay alive! But no can forevah. But if I stay alive, thass because, I—I—I tell da dress is lucky!” She sputtered like an unsteady tongue of flame. “Why you tink so you one only child eh? I wen see da docta like hunna times, wen get tests but no can have anodda sista or bradda. I even have that Chinee stuffs, have everyting. But you know what, da night I wear this skirt, thass da night I come hapai, and you da best ting I evah do. In fact, you da only ting I do, thass true! If your fadda—” she stopped and turned toward the window. The Ena women smoldered in silence.
The door creaked and Papu swaggered through the kitchen. “Sorry,” he said curtly. “Frienna mine wen call me. I going fo see what he need.”

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