Short story by Melissa Gutierrez
I came out at thirteen pounds, six ounces, and they say I was so squishy that I didn’t even hurt. Momma says it hurt a little but was worth it. She raised me good; we lived in a little house on a lakeside where I could run around and look for pinecones until she came home from work. I stayed small height-wise but I kept the baby weight so long it turned into just weight. She’d pinch my cheek at night and say I didn’t need another blanket but put the woolliest one on top of me anyways, kiss my forehead, pat my hair, and pull the thermal curtains together so the moonlight made a laser line that split the room in two.
Several summers in to our lives just the two of us this man Chris she had been seeing invited her to Hawaii for the winter.
“It’s a vacation house,” he said, “one my family’s had for years. Sammy can come too.”
She accepted and we rented out the lakehouse for two months, spent hours cleaning it top-to-bottom spotless in the week before we left. Chris’s vacation house was right up along the beach, wedged between some big hotels along the Kaanapali strip.
In the Pacific Ocean I find it is hard for me to get down underwater. They say fat floats and it is true — it was always easy to bob around the lake without an inner tube back home — but in the saltwater it takes much more work to get beneath. We rent fins and snorkels from a dive shack outside a hotel patio and I am impressed how much they help, how easy it is for me to kick hard and go fast. I wake up sore of course, and waddle through the poi line at the luau.
In the morning I get up early by myself to start the snorkeling again. It is enchanting to me, the different kind of noisy that underwater was, all slosh and breath and bubble. Mom and Chris stay on the porch with newspapers and coffees and I go out with facemasked eyes to look for things below the surf. I am greasy with sunscreen and I feel myself sliding around the shoreline waves, hear my own altered panting in the snorkel as I work to keep direction, but I keep my eyes on the small rocks and caves below, even the edges of my peripherals stretched for a sign of sea life, a tiny flash of fish.
The Hawaii state fish is the humu humu nuku nuku apua’a — like we taught ourselves along with all our Mississippis and our antidisestablishmentarianisms and all the other biggest words of all — the reef triggerfish, the kids’ menus at the restaurants tell me. I learn quickly to identify its Zorro mask and trapezoidal body, the hint of light-blue lipstick and the shimmer-glimmer fins along its back and tail. At the quiet lesser reef outside of Chris’s house they are solitary creatures, not like the butterflyfish that come in small packs here, or the slender silver needlefish that streak imitating light just along the water surface underside. The humu humu nuku nuku apua’a here to me feels like the stray dog of the ocean, coming by to wonder as I fin along in my big purple-plastic human-fins, and then twitch-darting away the minute that I try to meet its fishy eyes. I turn quick to try and follow, but I am too slow every time. I lose several to the surf, tails disappearing out into the vast and blue and clear, and several more to a big confusing maze of reef I cannot fit inside. One, the smallest one I ever see, just as small as half my palm, lets me hover over it for hours. My arms hurt from sculling through the ever-coming tide to stay stable near his humu humu lair, and my facemask squeezes tight and hot the sweating pudge around my eyes. I am convinced he is my fish, that he is asking me to catch him and keep him in a tank with me inside the land, but when I come back with an empty peanut butter jar he is nowhere to be seen.
I swim back up to shore and bury all my plastic with my feet, the grains filling in the jar and flipper footholes and the space between my toes, and wait til Momma comes and asks me what is wrong. It takes a little time to say.
We run to Costco to stock up the vacation house so we don’t have to spend so much on eating out. Chris and Momma let me hang out in the middle, with all the toys and books and Christmas stuff, so they can do the aisles on their own to get the food.
“You want anything in particular?” Chris asks before we split. I shake my head at first. Mom looks at me, arms folded cross her chest.
“Well,” I say, “maybe one of those big tubs of Goldfish crackers.”
He turns his head to look at Mom; she nods.
“Okay,” she says, and tugs her purse tighter up her shoulder. “Let’s do it.”
I float through the entire middle section, turning pages, pushing buttons. I pause around the carpet section, a big crate full of shag carpets all rolled up like giant furry taquitos all standing on their ends, because there is a girl inside.
“Hello,” I say. She pulls further back between the carpets. “What are you doing in there?” I ask.
I can see her eyeing me from the shadows but she still doesn’t respond. I climb up into the wooden crate and get inside the carpets too, and I can hear her shuffle quick to get around away, get further back in there, a slow process given how many carpets there are in such a small space and how big each carpet is compared to us. Their shag is soft and rough at once against my arms and cheeks, squeezing me between them like a chubby mouse under the door. I push and pull the carpets, a motion difficult and minimal at best with their tall and bridled shape, until I’m on the other side, another aisle over, and the girl is standing outside watching me. I climb underneath the crate rail and stand next to her, looking at the carpet crate.
“What were you doing in there?” I ask again.
“I’m cold,” she says.
“Do you live here?” I ask.
“In the carpets?” she asks, and giggles.
“No, in Hawaii.”
“Oh,” she says. “Yeah.”
“How are you cold?” I ask.
“I’m just freezing,” she says. She moves over to the next crate, where there are stacks of sheepskins, and leans against it, rubs her arms between their fur. She has her head sideways against it and she looks at me like she is waiting.
“But it’s so warm here,” I say. “I go to the beach every day and I can be there in the morning and at night.”
“Yeah,” she says, and doesn’t move. She looks sad.
“Where are your parents?” I ask.
She just keeps lying against there, standing, on the sheepskins. I feel like I should do something.
“Can you play?” I ask.
“What?” she says.
“Play,” I say. “Could you come over and play with me?”
She gets up off the sheepskin pile and looks really concerned.
“I don’t know,” she says, frowning and scowling.
“If I tell you where my beach house is, will your parents let you come?”
She grimaces, and doesn’t say anything.
“Come on,” I say, and beckon to her with my hand to follow. Her walk is a shuffle. She slides over the concrete Costco floor but with little timid nervous steps, not ones you do when you are playing, skating or dancing through the store. We find Chris and Momma at the back wall near the meats, holding up packages of ribeye and squinting at the price. They both look worried when I tap Mom on the shoulder. They look at the girl and back at me and ask what’s up.
“Do we have an address?” I ask Chris.
“An address?” he asks.
“At the vacation house,” I say.
He looks at me and frowns. “What’s this about?” he asks.
“I want her to come play.” I thrust my thumb back at the girl. I hope he says okay.
Mom and Chris look at each other and talk adult with their eyes.
“What’s her name?” Mom asks.
I forgot that in the carpets. “What’s your name?” I turn around and say.
“Nalani,” she says. I nod at Mom.
“Where’s your parents?” Mom isn’t looking at me but is looking around everywhere, standing on her tipetoes like it would help her see across the Costco sea.
Nalani shrugs. “Shopping,” she says.
Chris is pulling out a receipt from his wallet and uncapping a pen with his teeth. He writes his address on the back of it and gives it to Nalani. Mom is still looking everywhere about us.
“Here,” he tells Nalani. “That’s our phone number at the house, too, so you can call before you come.”
“Thanks,” Nalani says, and takes the paper from his hand, and turns and shuff-shuff-shuffles down a busy middle aisle.
“That was weird,” Mom says. Chris waves his hand like eh.
“It’ll be good for Sammy to have a buddy,” he says. “If she even calls.”
I go out snorkeling again the next morning but I have to come in quickly because I can’t wait til she calls. I sit on the back steps of the beach house with my toes buried in the sand and stare out at the ocean, watch parasailing boats and catamarans slip left and right across the bottom of the sky. Mom brings me out a paper bowl of Goldfish crackers and I eat a couple, but then crush the rest to crumbs between my hands and mix their orange dust into the sand until I can’t tell food from floor any longer. The phone doesn’t ring at all.
Two days later, Nalani comes to the vacation house.
“Do you have your swimsuit?” I ask her in the hallway. She shakes her head. I can’t believe her. I told her beach house when we met.
“Well,” I say, “do you want to just sit on the beach while I snorkel?” The apples of her cheeks perk up; she nods and smiles. “Okay,” I say, and get my purple fins from the back porch as we head out to the shore. I grab the peanut butter jar, too.
“Hold this,” I say, and hand it to Nalani. I let the flippers fall onto the porch and run back in the bathroom to pull my shirt off and lather up on sunscreen. I put my shirt back on, even though I don’t like how the dry cloth feels, how it presses back against my slick wet skin.
When I come back out onto the porch she has my flippers and my snorkel, too, and offers them to me before we walk.
“Thanks,” I say.
We walk until she picks a spot against a palm tree closer to the path. I do the funny fin walk to the shoreline and I can hear her giggle at the way I’m almost tripping, quick-sand sinking since I’m walking on my heels. I turn around and smile through my snorkel. She can tell because it slides up on my ear, rises up-down like a piston in the spotless tropic air. I get up to my knees in the water before I tear my shirt off quick and ball it up and throw it on the shore. It lands where the sand is still wet but I dive in quick before I have to look at her again.
I am getting used to what it feels like being a seal, strong and thick and blubbery, but fun the whole time through. I power through the tiny break until I’m where the water’s easier and the reef is waiting underneath. It takes me a while to find the spot where the little humu humu was, because the tide carries me downshore farther faster than I think and I have to backtrack back to find the bag of marbles I left tied to a dead arm of the fish’s reef. The peanut butter jar, I think when I see the black mask waiting.
I find a tall spot on the reef where I can stand up in my fins, and squint through the fog on my mask to find Nalani. She’s still against the palm tree, looking down the other stretch of shore. I spit out my mouthpiece and yell and wave until she turns and looks at me. I try to motion jar, try to twist an imaginary lid off with my hands, but she just sits and watches. I count how many palm trees down from her the fish spot where I’m standing is — four — and then swim in.
“Do you have the jar?” I ask her when I get to her part of the shore. I haven’t even taken off my mask. I have to spit the snorkel out and ask again. “The jar,” I say.
She pulls it from the sand beside her and holds it out to me.
“You can put your toes in,” I say. It’s pretty warm outside; I can already feel the salt drying on the backsides of my arms. She holds a flower up, a yellow tropical-looking one she must have gotten from the bushes right behind her. She looks at me. She blinks.
I walk back down instead of swimming because of how nice it feels onshore. I count the trees and feel the sun push through my sunscreen, press down into my shoulderpads of skin. When I get to palm tree four I turn to look at her, and she’s up collecting flowers from the bush. Later, I think, I should show her the bushes at the beach house yard, where there are red and yellow and orange and pink and purple flowers.
I rub the fog out of my mask and get back in the water, set out to find the fish. It takes me longer since the peanut butter jar takes up a hand.
The little humu humu’s there, above his hole, just finning. He looks me in the eye through his baby Zorro mask and he doesn’t move when I put the jar beside him. I sweep it sideways and put my other hand over the top. He doesn’t dash around or hit the walls or anything, just fins, like there’s no clear plastic between him and the real sea.
Coming back to shore without my arms is hard. I switch between the frog kick and the dolphin and the flutter, but even with the fins it gets harder and harder and harder. I keep the jar tucked to my chest with both arms all the way until the water turns to inches, and then I roll onto the shore.
“Nalani,” I say, then yell. I wave her down again. She is only three palm trees down from me and standing up already. She starts walking towards me. I twist the jar into the sand so it stays upright while I take off my fins and snorkel. The fins have made marks around my ankles, so I rub the skin around them, try to push the extra squish back in to cover up the marks like paint or clay or play-dough.
“Look,” I tell her when she gets there, and point down at the jar. She has a handful full of flowers now, hard to hold it seems because they have no stems. She twists her nose, and the apples of her cheeks sink like jowls when she sees the fish. She pulls my balled-up shirt out of her pocket and holds it out to me. Her pocket must be pretty big, I think.
I take my shirt, and she holds her hands down at her sides and waits for me without a word. I grab my fins and snorkel and then I pick the jar up carefully. I feel the plastic edge cutting into the pillows of my fingertips. Maybe she doesn’t have a tank. Maybe she is worried it will spill over in the car. Maybe she wants something she can pet instead.
I drag my feet through the sand the whole way back, leaving two jagged me-sized ditches in my wake. The humu humu jar sloshes a little and I grip it harder to keep it still. Nalani picks up her whole feet carefully and sets them back down each time, like a marching doe, like she wants as few sand grains on them as possible.
At the beach house I set the humu humu on the flat part of the wooden rail and rinse my gear off with the back hose. Nalani goes to wait on the front porch until her parents come to pick her up.
“Where’s Nalani?” my mother asks, leaning in the doorway.
“Out front I think,” I say, and double-rinse the mask.
“You think?” she asks. Her voice is mad.
I turn off the hose and lean the snorkel up against the wall to dry.
“Sammy,” she says, the –ee-ey y all long, and disappears into the house. I pull the screen door open and follow her back up the hall. She walks fast. She throws the front door open.
“Oh,” she says. “Thank God.”
I squeeze between her side and the door frame, feel her bony hip dig right into my squishy side. Nalani and Chris are over at the flowered bushes. He is pointing at a red one half a foot above her head.
I feel mom’s hand set on my shoulder and then run softly up the back of my neck. She scratches gently, firmly with her fingertips and nails in the bottom of my hair. A silver van pulls up and Momma pats me in that same spot twice, then hurries down the steps to greet Nalani’s dad.
I keep the tiny humu on the dresser in my room at the vacation house, but the shimmer-glimmer on its fins gets slower every day. I looked up what it eats — coral — and put a snip of it inside the jar, but its light-blue-lipsticked lips stay shut and tight. Before its even Christmastime, I take it back out to the reef and let it go. It hovers with me for a minute there, and then it darts away.
At the airport terminal Momma and I are sitting with the bags while Chris goes off to buy a soda. He comes back with a halfway-drinken Diet Coke and a big white plastic bag with surfboards printer all across it. He pulls out a fake flower lei and holds it out before my mom.
“For you, my dear,” he says, and smiles. She grins and ducks her head down, comes up inside it with her eyes closed like she’s swimming and she’s just come up for air. It falls on her shoulders and she moves it so it centers ‘round her collar. She grabs his hand and squeezes. He pulls it back and goes into the back again.
“And for you,” he says, and digs around. He pulls out a gray shirt, plain light gray heather on one side at least, and holds it out to me. He turns it around so I can see the front. There are all kinds of fish printed on it, with names and labels like a chart. There are pufferfish and flutterfish and needlefish and sharks. Reef Fish of Hawaii, it says. In the bottom corner is a Zorro fish, a triggerfish. A humu humu nuku nuku a pua’a. Hawaii State Fish, it says italicized and in parentheses beneath, with a little five-point star.
I check the tag. It is a large. I am an extra-large in kids. I pull the shirt I’m wearing off right then and there and put the new shirt on. It’s tight across the shoulders. It tugs under my armpits. It cuts into my neck, too, but I wear it on the plane, and even when we wash it and it shrinks, I wear it almost every day for weeks and weeks and weeks. Underneath my fingertips the star feels like a reef somehow, a tiny pointed reef with crevices and tiny humu humus hiding in there, all protected safely from the other fish and waves, like little girls in the taquito carpet bin, like little caves away from all the weather and the wear and tear.
Melissa Gutierrez is an artist and writer who lives and works in Sacramento, California. You can follow her on Twitter at @mmgutz.