By Sophia V. Schweitzer
On a patch of worn carpet in the children’s clothing section sits Angeline’s four-year-old, Darren. He throws a handful of Lego blocks at a baby in fat diapers, firmly planted right across from him. With a toothless, gaping mouth, the baby stares in stunned admiration at the impossibility of the assault. Darren glares.
Angeline loves her son, loves him not, as if her feelings for her child are as insubstantial as the plumes of a dandelion. She used to pull the fuzzy tufts off their stems when she was younger, when she still believed in boys.
Darren had been excited when he woke up and his daddy told him he would be going into Honolulu with his mother. He had been a good kid, quiet and sweet during the ride and holding her hand tightly like he was supposed to when they walked through the busy shopping mall. But when they entered the department store for a teether and diapers for Reve—all kinds of things that babies need—his ugly, furious pout settled in.
Angeline understands her son perfectly well. Ever since the births of his siblings, Patricia and Reve, Darren has been neglected at best. A hungry boy’s belly, bruises and falls, other kids shoving him, a bewildering world, and no one to say, “I love you, I care.” Angeline lives on the precipice of exhaustion, yet she has refused to live defeat. Darren’s daddy, Jerome, just doesn’t have the skills. A good guy otherwise, right? Right.
Angeline had married Jerome five weeks after her graduation from Wahiawā High. She and five other girls were married that summer. The grooms had joked that they could wear their tuxes for Halloween all over again and some of them did, in the Community Hall. The girls stayed home with swollen legs and bellies, while the guys decked themselves out with bitter-sweet smiles. The babies saved the girls from their boredom. The weddings saved them from their search.
The grooms, you couldn’t deny it, had given their new responsibilities their best shot. One of them landed a job as a car mechanic for the local service station. Another boy began commuting to Waikiki to train as a cook and was now a pantry chef. Jerome mowed a few lawns for doctors and lawyers living in fancy estates uphill. He came home with dog bites on his wrist, chaff caught in the black hair on his legs, his face twitching. “The reverberations of the engine,” he said. But Angeline knew it was also the drugs.
Thirteen months after Darren, Patricia had come along. Five months ago, Reve. Such a pretty name, Reve, a French word that Angeline had heard on television. Dream. It should have been a warning sign. Three babies, she had thought, and she was still young enough. But young enough for what? Her own dream had no name and no chance.
Before she knew it, her period had been late again. She hadn’t told Jerome. Instead, she called the clinic in Honolulu. Her appointment had been scheduled for today, in a small building at the far end of the shopping mall. Last night, a sudden bleeding had awakened her, drenched the sheets. Jerome saying, “What’s wrong?” and she crying for no reason at all, no relief, no sorrow, just blank amid the cramps.
Bleary-eyed and angry that she had kept him awake he said, “Don’t you tell me one of our babies just washed down the toilet, Ange.” He knew she would be going to Honolulu today and said, “Don’t you go into the city today with all the bleeding going on. We don’t need nothing and I am too tired to take care of the kids.
How close Jerome had been to the truth with his worried torrent of words. The baby was gone. She had already canceled at the clinic. But Angeline still had to go into the city because she needed everything—things without names. She had pulled her husband into a compromise and taken off with Darren in tow. She needed to shop for the children, she told Jerome, and the bleeding was now a heavy period so the walking would do her good. She craved to be away from home.
Right now, with Darren glaring and throwing blocks at the baby, she loves her son not. She abandons the shelves with baby stuff and quickly walks up to him.
A man passes Angeline and crosses the children’s section where it merges with the men’s shoes. His ears stand out like small pink jugs, just like Darren’s. The man isn’t handsome. His round face is pocked with the scars of teenage acne, but there’s something about the way he keeps his shoulders straight, some inner pride. He selects a suede boot the color of a fox, probably costing a hundred bucks and some. With one raised leg, he nearly topples over as he tries it on. In his effort to recover, he glances around and meets Angeline’s eyes. Angeline immediately bends over to fuss over Darren. Darren slaps her face. God, she feels embarrassed,her own kid slapping her!
She needs to let Darren be alone and step away from him, but she certainly doesn’t want to return to the baby shelves, a slave to her children’s needs. There are the women’s high heels nearby. She could look at them. And never mind Reve’s name—it is okay to dream. Isn’t it? She sits down on a stool and places her hands on her calves. She feels her own soft skin and wonders if she might ever have the courage to paint her toes again. An eager sales girl her own age approaches Angeline. Her presence makes it clear that Angeline will not just dream but buy a pair of shoes. “I came from Wahiawā,” Angeline says. “With the bus. Wahiawā, you know what that word means?” She speeds up her words, raises her voice and suddenly can’t bear the thought of losing the girl’s attention. She wants heels with a hunger that astonishes her.
The girl only shakes her head.
“My husband says, it’s named for the noise of the ocean. We drown in that noise, it terrifies me.” Angeline giggles. God, she feels so bad.
Silently, the girl measures Angeline’s feet and brings her boxes full of heels. Angeline tries them all. Heels like doorstops, platform heels, spikes. Red leather, black suede, white plastic. Heels as tall as flower stems and flushed with the pink-yellow glow of the rose apples that grow in the mountains. It’s the sense of drowning that grips Angeline’s life, like an endless set of engulfing waves. She wants so much.
“I could be an actress,” she says to the sales girl, nodding approvingly as she rotates each of her ankles to get a good view of her rose-apple shoes. She is dreaming.
Clients of Jerome’s, a couple specializing in divorce law, have recently obtained a restraining order against him. The woman found Jerome rifling through her medicine cabinet, his garden boots tracking mud from the back door.
The sales girl waits for Angeline to decide. “They look lovely on you,” she says.
“Are you married?” Angeline asks. She fixes the girl with her eyes, can’t stand the girl’s blonde, straight hair all ironed flat against her perfect little face. Angeline is trembling and the girl’s answer matters to her. It matters more than anything. The girl waves her left hand with unconcealed pride. No ring. Angeline feels her want rise like dark smoke, her stomach a smoldering pit. “I’ll take these shoes,” she says. “I’ll wear them out of here.”
At the register, she is shocked by the price and pays with a credit card. She should tell Jerome. But why? Jerome must have sensed what had happened with the bleeding, but he doesn’t know about her bottomless wanting, and what is going to happen to them now, anyways?
She teeters into the fray of the shopping mall. People rush by with faceless bodies, washed-out colors, a murmuring of voices. Purple sunbeams filter through hazy skylights overhead. You can drown in the city like in Wahiawā. But it’s different here. Back home you drown in the ocean’s terror, your body sucked into an ink-black depth without form. In the city you drown in the anonymous call of strangers so that you recognize who you are.
The man with the jug ears passes her on his way out of the store, nods at Angeline, a familiarity already gained, a friend. No new boots for him. She follows him a few steps until a woman with a crying child in a stroller and bags stuffed with purchases mounted on top of the handles pushes Angeline to the side. She is in her mid-thirties and her jaw is set set in a determined scowl. Angeline recognizes the scowl. It’s the feeling you have when you must get your tasks done come hell or howling child. You have to keep on pushing. You push despite the fatigue, the dirty dishes, the television blaring, the advertisements screaming, the sleepless nights, the diapers, and the sex that you no longer want. She has kept on pushing since she began pushing Darren out of her body and she hasn’t stopped yet.
Angeline hesitates. Damn Darren with his Lego blocks. It had felt almost alright to totter away from him. The city is anonymous. It is indifferent and can swallow you. She can just keep on going. But then she runs run back to the store. The carpet patch lies deserted. The Lego blocks have been swept in a tidy pile underneath a chair. She stumbles and feels her new heels crack as she runs back out of the store, panic seizing her. Still she keeps on running.
She finds her child behind a potted plastic orchid plant, his nose pressed flat against the window of a gelato shop not far from the shoe store. Calm like a turtle. Entranced by the colors in the bins, the promise of flavor. Indigo blackberry gelato, dark-red cherry, canary-yellow saffron, pure white lemon. Utterly content.
Angeline, in contrast, is shaking. Her relief in finding him doesn’t shatter an overwhelming grief that she could have abandoned him, that her hunger is vaster than this child. She grabs Darren by his chubby upper arms, angry at herself. He bursts into tears and, too wise for his few years, thwarts an unspoken accusation. “You left without me. I had to go outside, Mom!” And such is the pleading in his large, seal-like eyes that she wants to crush him with her love, the see-saw of her emotions alarming her. “It’s all right, honey. You are here. I am here. We are safe. Let’s buy you an ice cream. Let’s get out of here.”
Afterward, while Angeline cleans Darren’s face smudged with chocolate and dried tears, a violent cramp seizes her belly and she clutches it. Her son pulls back in horrified fear and asks, “Mommy! Are you hurting?” He has forgotten the pleasure of licking his ice-cream. Terror has taken its place. His emotions as fleeting as hers. “Mommy is fine,” Angeline says. “Thank you for asking, sweetie.” Darren is not convinced and again begins to cry. Angeline knows it’s the rush of the ice cream’s sugar that makes things worse. It’s what hasn’t been voiced between them and never will. The bus ride was long, besides. She shouldn’t have taken Darren along, should have left him with his daddy, let Jerome pull his share of work. She knows so much about little children. She is one herself.
Angeline drifts in and out of stores. She finds her teether, her diapers, a little dress for Patricia, shorts for Darren, new dish towels. For Jerome she buys a dress shirt that’s on sale for just twelve dollars. She tells herself that he will need it when he solicits for new jobs but knows he will never wear it. Not in Wahiawā.
Darren trots along happily and he loves his shorts. They are baggy and have dozens of loops and bits of Velcro. They enter a Macy’s Store and ride the escalators to the third floor. From a space beyond bath linens and kitchen appliances comes the din of cutlery and voices, the smell of freshly baked bread and deep-fried bacon. Angeline remembers that she has eaten nothing more all day than a banana and a left-over piece of bagel. She is starving.
They ask for a table for two, a high chair for Darren. It’s well after the rush of lunch hour. Two men are sitting by themselves, also with toddlers. Angeline makes a mental note to tell Jerome. “Imagine,” she’ll say. “They sat down for lunch with their kids.” But she’ll never say this, of course. He’ll think she’s accusing him of something and she’ll think of her own guilt. It makes things worse.
She chooses a mahi-mahi sandwich with aioli and micro-greens, although she is not sure what micro-greens are. For Darren she orders a grilled cheese sandwich, but he points at the bakery display where glazed blueberries sidle up to each other in flaky-crusted tartlets. “I want those,” Darren says. To Angeline’s surprise, when she shakes her head, he accepts his fate. He says again, “Mommy, are you hurting?”
Angeline kisses the top of his head, feels the soft down of his blonde, thin hair against her lips. When her son knows something is wrong, a tape in his head gets stuck. Regardless of how often Angeline will repeat that she is fine, Darren will remind her that something is irrevocably wrong.
She leans away and takes a sip of water. She looks around. She sees the man with the jug ears reading a book at a table near a window, his back toward them. She feels a question rising inside her, where the cramps reside. She must find a way to talk with the man.
Angeline watches Darren as he dozes off, his cheeks flushed pink with exhaustion, his eyelashes shivering like the evanescent light of falling stars, his open mouth breathing the pollen of flowers. Her child. So loved and so fragile. She shakes herself out of a dreamy sadness that begins to invade her.
But now what? What do people do when they are alone waiting for their food in a restaurant? Angeline fidgets and checks the contents of her purse. She opens and closes her strawberry-flavored lip balm. She checks her phone for messages and studies her shoe receipt: $89.95. What had she been thinking? And now this lunch on top of it. She retrieves a small notebook, a pen, items she keeps on hand to remind herself of things to pick up for the kids. Stuff for their snotty noses and scraped knees, groceries, medicine and shampoo and toilet paper, beer for Jerome, tampons for herself.. She studies the tip of her pen, begins to write, stops after one word. Angeline’s grief rides in again. How do you reconcile hunger and devotion?
The wait-staff flow in and out of the kitchen door with trays of food balanced on their shoulders. Most are younger than Angeline. Angeline herself works the cash register at a small supermarket in Wahiawā, scanning bar codes and swiping credit cards. A waitress delivers what looks like a hamburger to the man near the window. Angeline watches him close his book and shake out his napkin. Before digging in, he straightens his shoulders, looks at the other diners, meets her eyes. He grins sheepishly, and that he recognizes her at all shocks Angeline. She waves. She feels her hunger like a panic. She glances at Darren, still sleeping, and she walks to the man’s table. She is a fool.
“—of course. Sit down.” He glances at her rose-apple shoes, says, “Nice shoes,” although he must see that the heels have already cracked. He tells her his name—Ernest—and bites into his burger. She fiddles with the corner of the tablecloth and says, “Angeline. I mean, that’s my name.” She laughs shrilly. “I saw you leave the store, after the shoes, the boots.” God, she is so nervous.
“Yeah, I didn’t find anything. I go in there more for fun anyways. Once in a while I like to browse the mall to see what the world of commerce is doing.” He eats slowly, so unlike her family. She wants to hug him for talking to her so normally, not wanting anything. In Wahiawā, she knows everyone. Nothing interesting happens much unless you count the occasional theft, a drug bust, broken water pipes, high school graduations and pregnancies, always pregnancies. She wants the man to keep on talking because she herself has nothing to say. But Ernest says, “What about you? You were on a mission?”
She blushes. She can’t imagine shoes being a mission, not after years with her kids, but then, they had become sort of a mission, for endless minutes they had mattered more than anything. “Yeah, I suppose.” Her words sound hollow. She adds, “But not really. I needed to get some things for my family and got sidetracked. That’s what it was. Sidetracked.” It’s not the truth but she is not lying. Ernest laughs and takes another, slow, large mouthful of food. He chews. He is, she thinks, a man happy with himself, happy with life. That’s all she needed to find out.
Angeline glances over her shoulder. She should run back and obliterate her hunger. Literally and in any other way she should aim for its annihilation. This is clear to her now. Her family doesn’t have a clue about the real danger they are in. “Did you see my son?” she asks the man. She gestures at Darren. “He just turned four.”
Ernest looks at her child and nods. He looks at Angeline and has stopped chewing. He holds his fork in front of his throat.
“Not long ago, I was lying on the grass with him. You know, looking at the clouds, whatever,” Angeline says. She holds the man’s gaze tight. She cannot afford to lose his eyes while her words run away from them. “A rose bush was in bloom. Suddenly we saw this enormous black bumble bee plummet toward one of its blossoms. Really, it crashed right into it. An explosion of petals and then nothing left. The bee takes off, the flower gone. The bee crashed with not a care in the world, destroying all this beauty. But what does the bee know about beauty? I nearly abandoned my son this morning and here I am telling you a stupid story.” She pushes her chair back. Her face is wet, but she doesn’t know if it’s tears or sweat.
With barely an apology, she rushes back to Darren. She was a fool to leave him sitting there. People are wondering, she can tell by some of the lunchers’ stares. When she reaches her child, she feels blood seeping through her tampon and staining her panties. She notices that their food has arrived.
Darren is wide awake. He pries the cheese off his sandwich, content. With unspeakable relief that that she has managed to return, Angeline hugs him tight. He shakes her off with trembling irritation and says, “You are hurting me, Mommy!” As if needing to explain his impatience, he adds: “I need to eat. I am hungry.” Angeline lets go and eats her mahi-mahi. She decides that she likes micro-greens.
On his way out of the restaurant, Ernest gives Angeline a card with his email address and invites her to stay in touch. They both know this will not happen. Afterward, in the ladies’ room and while Darren takes a pee, Angeline changes her panties and replaces her broken heels with her worn, comfy sneakers. Luckily, she didn’t break her neck, trying to run on those things. That would have been another way of abandoning a child. She tosses the new shoes in the garbage bin.
She leans against a cool, white-tiled wall to wait for her son. Across from her five porcelain sinks with rims full of strands of hair amid sudsy grime. Short, long, straight, kinky, coarse, gleaming hairs. Broken hair. Hair with split ends. Hairs from dozens of women with lives Angeline knows nothing about and yet senses are like her own. There’s a freedom in letting go of bits and pieces that were once yours and assembled so carefully, isn’t there? A natural tearing and breaking. Like the free flow of your blood. Angeline takes Darren back into the restaurant and orders two blueberry tartlets to go, then adds three more for Reve, Patricia, and Jerome. She’ll have to purée Reve’s.
When Angeline and Darren come home, Jerome opens the door for them. He plops back onto the couch to watch the six o’clock news. He has managed to bathe Patricia and has given her clean pajamas. Reve lies on her back in her crib, asleep. She has thrust one chubby arm upward, the other across her eyes. Angeline kisses her daughters. In the living room, Darren says to his daddy, “Mommy is hurting.”
Jerome’s eyes remain on the television screen. “Huh?”
“I was hungry,” Angeline says, seating herself next to Darren. “And I nearly lost our son.” No lies.
Jerome nods, rips into a bag of potato chips and when Angeline hands him a blueberry tartlet, he rips into that as well. “I told you so,” he says. “I told you, ‘Don’t go.’” In bed, he falls asleep before she does. His skin smells like nutmeg. She never sees the man with ears like Darren’s again, but she sees Darren every day and long after she leaves Wahiawā.
Sophia is a writer based in North Kohala, Hawai’i. Her fiction and non-fiction can be found in publications such as Buddhadharma, Pacific Standard, American Forests, Mobius, and Written River. She is the author of the award-winning Kohala ‘Āina, a History of North Kohala, and Big Island Journey. www.sophiavschweitzer.com