Bright sunlight streamed into the room through the lonely, slatted window, awakening me from my reverie. I stretched lazily, eyes pinched shut, shielding my drowsy pupils from the light.
“You sweat a lot.”
I opened my eyes and raised my torso unsteadily onto my elbows, squinting through the hazy humidity of the room. My new roommate sat on her bed looking back at me skeptically.
“What?” I mumbled, groggily.
“You. Sweat. A. Lot,” she enunciated, as if my confusion was an issue of linguistics.
I lifted a heavy hand and ran it over my face. It was indeed soaked, like I’d been blasted with a fire hose. My hair clung in greasy strands to my forehead and neck.
Maybe I’d suffered a jet-lag fueled hormonal surge. Then again, it was baking in this tiny cinder block shoe box. The solitary slatted window refused to let in even a single wisp of the light breeze blowing outside. I made a mental note to invest in a few fans.
“Oh… um… sorry,” I stuttered sloppily, sitting up and swiping my face clean with the shoulder of my t-shirt.
My new roommate, Kesa, had a soft, rounded face showcasing graceful features and full lips. Her almond eyes were framed with a thick layer of long, black lashes and crowned with perfectly groomed, half-circle brows. Long, thick ringlets of black hair cascaded abundantly across her shoulders and down her back. Her skin was the warm color of rich cappuccino. At the moment, she was wearing a pair of thin, grey sweatpants and a yellow Montana Grizzlies shirt.
What a weird coincidence! I thought, my mind still groggily befuddled. I didn’t think the Griz were that popular. Maybe this was a good sign that we would have lots of things in common. I had to admit I liked her taste. She even had the same color and style that I … had … packed ….
I did a double take. “Are you wearing my shirt?”
She smiled and swiveled her shoulders coquettishly. “Yeah, I tried it on. Cute huh?”
“Um… yes…?” I stammered, confused.
All of my past training in social interaction was failing me now. What did you say when a person you’d never met before was wearing your clothes? Wait. Where were my underwear?
I riffled through a few possible responses and came up empty. There just might not be a social protocol for this kind of situation. I opted for the path of least resistance and acted as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened. No need to get worked up. Besides, if it didn’t cool off soon, I might give up clothes altogether. Wouldn’t I look silly for getting all riled up over a shirt then?
“Do you want to go get breakfast?” Kesa asked suddenly, bouncing nimbly onto her feet.
“Sure,” I replied. And just like that, we were friends.
Kesa had come from the states, but was originally from Fiji. She was sunshine in human form. The way she spoke in soft, rounded tones sounded like sweet cream made auditory. She stood several inches taller than I and her thick lashes turned into a spray of delight whenever she smiled.
We chatted animatedly as we walked out of our dorm, Hale 5 Pukui (Hale is the Hawaiian word for house). Behind us a tall fence barely restrained a thick green wall of encroaching jungle foliage. We passed two more female-only Hales before entering the main area of campus. The grounds were beautifully manicured and the sidewalks lined with brilliantly colored flowers as big as my face. The sun shone down merrily from overhead as a light breeze blew silkily across my skin. I could smell the ocean.
The walk to the cafeteria was short, easily less than 10 minutes. Kesa had already been on campus for several weeks at this point, so I followed her lead. We showed our IDs, grabbed trays from the stack and stepped into the slowly moving line. Then the line divided and she stepped to the left while I was herded to the right.
I was suddenly ambushed by anxiety. I hadn’t been paying attention at all. I was just following Kesa. She knew what she was doing. I did not. Nervous energy erupted from the pit of my stomach. The cafeteria had transformed into a stage and I didn’t know my lines. Was I supposed to grab a fork before or after the food? What about those napkins over there? Did I step out of line to grab one or wait until the end? Why was there no sign? Were we animals?!??
I left the napkin, deeming it too far away to be socially safe, and grabbed the fork. So far so good. I held the utensil loosely in my hand, coolly even. But now the food was getting closer and I was going to need that particular appendage. I started to sweat again. Apparently this was something I just did now.
I dropped the fork onto my tray and immediately regretted it. Here I was carrying a tray with nothing but a fork in the middle of it. Stupid! The guy behind me didn’t even have a tray. I am an idiot, I thought. Who grabs a fork first?! What am I gonna do, eat right out of the buffet line? Why did I need a fork right this second?? Why didn’t I just wait?!
Everyone was looking at me. I could feel it. I didn’t need to visually verify. I just knew. They could smell my fear.
I continued to follow the line as it crept slowly forward, attempting (and miserably failing) to placate the Chicken Little who had seized control of my internal monologue. I shifted and the fork slid, clattering loudly, to the edge of my tray. My brain exploded. OH MY GOD. I HATE ME. WHY AM I RUINING THIS?!?!
My face felt hot. I contemplated fleeing altogether. Then, employing every ounce of teenage determination I possessed, I gathered my courage. I could fix this. As I held the tray in one hand, I grabbed the rogue fork with the other and stuck it coolly in my back pocket. Just in time. I slid my tray gracefully onto the serving line. I’ve got this. Crisis averted.
My celebration was soon drowned out by the bounty of food before me. The breakfast line contained all my traditional staples – eggs, bacon, biscuits and cereal. It also held vats of rice, sushi rolls, steamed vegetables, some white bouncy things and something green that smelled like fish. Then there was a pan that seemed to be filled with white gel. Even for cafeteria food, it looked suspicious and mildly disturbing.
It was an eclectic menu designed to accommodate the diverse palates of a global student body. There were several items that I didn’t recognize at all, including something that looked like the underside of a tarantula … with cheese. I played it safe and stuck with the old standbys. I didn’t want to spend my first full day in Hawaii rounding second base with the public toilet.
When I finished dishing up I joined Kesa at a nearby table, and promptly sat on my fork.
Living on campus, it didn’t take long to make friends. I spent most of my time with Kesa and our fellow roommates, Emiri from New Zealand and Paige from Idaho. I was also soon spending an increasing amount of time with Cole.
I had liked Cole since the minute I laid eyes on him, which was about two minutes after my plane landed. He was tall, dark haired, laid back and laughed easily. When he looked at me, a volcano of butterflies erupted in my stomach.
One sun soaked afternoon, I joined Cole and his friends for Boogie Boarding at Pounders Beach. I watched everyone grab their boards and bound into the crashing surf. It looked easy enough – like sledding, but on the water. After some brief instruction, I decided to give it a go.
I swam out into the water and waited for the perfect swell. As it expanded behind me, I started frantically paddling. With a burst of unbridled exhilaration I felt the tide rise powerfully beneath my body … and sail past … leaving me floating impotently in the flaccid water.
“Paddle harder!” Cole’s friend, Hudson, yelled from the shore.
The next wave rose up gracefully behind me. I leaned into the board, kicking and paddling as hard as I could. I grunted and strained, willing my appendages to move faster. I was suddenly aware of how ill-equipped my scrawny legs were. It was like trying to row a barge with cocktail umbrellas. I flailed through the water hoping to look athletic or at least like this wasn’t my first experience with water … or my own body.
Suddenly, I felt the wave catch and propel me forward! I was moving! I was actually doing it! The breeze caught a loose strand of my hair and twirled it gracefully around my head like a kite. The sun warmed my back. I breathed in the deep, sweet smell of fresh tropical air as I sailed through it. I suddenly wished that I had left all of my hair down. I would have looked like Aphrodite herself riding in on the waves.
The glorious sensation took an abrupt, downward shift. The board, which had suddenly taken on a will of its own, nosedived south dragging me awkwardly behind it. I plunged face first into the swell and somersaulted through the churning foam until I wished for the stability of vertigo. Water crashed through my nostrils and into my brain. The torrent ravaged my body, inflating every previously un-violated crevasse. I smashed onto the shore tumbling head over heels, spraying salt and sand from every orifice, my swimsuit twisted around me like a tangled rubber band.
“You just got seriously rolled!” Hudson shouted from across the beach, smirking as Cole doubled over in hysterics.
I made a sort of gargling grunt in response.
“Don’t worry” Cole said, wiping away tears of laughter, “That always happens the first few times. It takes a while but you’ll get it.”
Eager to retain some semblance of “cool” I sprang to my feet, laughed (retching a little in the process), rearranged my suit and shot back, “Maybe for you! I’m a quick learner.”
I winked and tossed my hair in what I imagined (and prayed) to be a Baywatch-like fashion. Unfortunately, the overall effect may have been dampened by the fact that I was leaning a little to the left, with one eye swollen half shut and diluted snot pouring out of both nostrils. Scooping up my board (or somebody’s board) I turned and charged back into the frothy surf, salt numbing my brain, sand scratching the insides of my eyelids and the ocean dancing dizzily in my vision.
My next attempt, while it couldn’t be called successful, was not nearly as bad as the first. Several waves later, I started getting the hang of it. Pretty soon I was actually having fun.
I would paddle out into the clear blue swell and wait with my torso resting on my board. Dark, craggy cliffs jutted violently up around me contrasting powerfully with the innocent, powder blue sky above and the shimmering indigo sea below.
When a good wave began to swell behind me, I would turn and swim as hard as I could toward the shore. The ocean would comply, lifting me gently and carrying me swiftly forward before finally lowering me gracefully onto the smooth sand.
After several successful rounds I took a break and lay, floating, just off shore. My muscles ached from exertion. The warmth of the salty sea felt so good. The white sands, blue ocean and green jungle combined to form a breathtaking panorama. The scene before me was so vibrant, I wondered if I had ever truly seen color before. I floated on my back, waving my arms through the water to keep me afloat. Then I rolled forward and grazed my toes along the soft powdery sand below.
There was no seaweed here, not like the marshy lakes of Montana. I hated seaweed. My skin crawled just thinking about the slimy way it wrapped itself around my legs and slithered in between my toes. It was murky, dirty and you never really knew what was lurking down there, either. There was probably at least one sea monster, dead body and rusty coil of barbed wire hiding in every collection of weed infested water on the planet. I contemplated designing a swim suit that came with matching thigh-high waders. There was no need for that here though.
My mind wandered as I reveled in the sultry sensation of my toes tracing luxuriously along the soft sands below. Birds called melodically in the distance. Every now and then I could hear music floating from the open windows of passing cars. The thick jungle trees in front of me, the tall rugged cliffs on either side and the vast expanse of ocean behind all combined to make this scene one of the most beautiful and relaxing panoramas of my life.
Then something shimmered in the sun, catching my eye. Floating there in the water was a collection of the most beautiful blue bubbles. There were big ones and small ones, iridescent rainbows glimmering happily in the sun. These were more distinct than the bubbles produced by the frothy waves and I wondered what caused them to shine like that.
After a few moments of examination, I could just make out faint hints of a cord connecting them all. I realized then that they weren’t bubbles at all, but some kind of gorgeous ocean plant that was floating ashore. How wonderfully miraculous! What a breathtaking discovery! As I admired their beauty, a small wave shifted moving the plant closer. Something brushed tenderly against my leg.
“OH MY GOD!” The pain! The burning pain! Instinctively, I reached down and ripped the offending organism away from my body. The searing pain immediately spread to my hand. I jerked back, inadvertently throwing the thing up into the air where it turned and descended upon me from above.
I flailed, my arms pinwheeling, juggling, trying to force it away from myself as bits of bubble flipped around me like some kind of free-wheeling, sadistic octopus. Burning pain broke out in patches across my body, growing and compounding with each panicked connection. I flailed wildly, attempting to free myself from the grips of this tiny toxic Kracken.
Finally, with every ounce of athleticism I possessed, I succeeded in hurling Satan’s Seaweed back into the ocean. I escaped onto the shore, cursing and mentally willing the vicious little fiend back down to Hell. Out in the waves, my deceitful attacker floated peacefully in the surf, glinting merrily in the sun.
Everyone was waiting for me, barely concealing their amusement.
“What the hell was that?!” I demanded.
“Blue bubbles,” offered Hudson, “It’s a kind of jelly fish. That really looks like it hurts.” He grinned.
Huh. Blue Bubbles. What a creative name. I would have gone with something a little more accurate like “Medusa’s Castrated Hair,” or “Hades Bubble Bath,” or even “Blue (will scorch your F*$%# skin off) Bubbles.”
“They really hurt,” I wailed.
“Yeah,” Hudson replied. “But to be fair, you’re not supposed to keep grabbing them like that.”
Cole failed to contain his laughter while I contemplated wading back into the surf to recruit the jelly fish as my own personal weapon.
When I calmed down we surveyed the damage. Angry red welts covered my leg, arm and both hands, with bonus spots scattered across my back and shoulders. The worst of it was a massive scalded area wrapped all the way around my right knee. It looked like I’d attacked a fire dancer. The welts bubbled out from my skin, emitting heat. They made long, thick lash marks around my body.
Unbelievably, the pain just got worse and worse. I seethed and my eyes burned like hot coals, but I refused to cry. “Shit, shit, shit! What do I do?!?” I demanded.
Hudson smiled, “Well, if you think you can walk back to campus we can see if the Doctor has something. Or you could just wait a couple hours for it to go away.” He paused, “But if you really want to stop the pain … you have to pee on it.”
I cut short my stream of muttered profanity. “What? I’m not going to pee on myself … in the middle of the beach…” I cringed in agony, “And definitely not in front of you!”
Hudson shrugged, “Well, I guess if you want to put your ‘image’ before your physical welfare, that’s up to you.”
I glowered up at him from the sand, “Are you kidding me? I think urinating on one’s self publicly goes beyond an ‘image’ problem. I’m thinking that’s more of a ‘mental stability’ problem or a ‘criminal’ problem. Plus these things are all over me! I can’t pee down my own back!”
“Do you want me to do it?” he offered, grinning devilishly.
“No!” I exclaimed, “I’m covered from head to toe, you’d have to pee on my entire body!”
“True,” he replied soberly. “There’s no way I could cover that much space. Hey Cole, wanna help me out?”
I chucked a flip flop at his head as they both broke out laughing. The pain seemed to be getting worse by the second. It was building and swelling. I imagined the blisters expanding, getting wider and deeper until my skin split open and turned black.
I seriously considered taking him up on that offer. I may even have requested it. They may have refused and been slightly repulsed. It’s all a little hazy now. Pain makes you do crazy things. The details are unimportant.
All that matters is that we did make it back to campus where I retreated to the showers and employed my previously underappreciated God-given ability. It worked.
This is the latest installment in my story. If you haven’t yet read the previous entries, click here to start at the beginning. Then continue to read each post in numerical order.