Authors: J. J. Knight
Tags: #New Adult Contemporary Romance, #MMA, #boxing, #fighting
“Much better to be sitting up in a hearse than lying down,” he says.
My mother settles in the front next to Zandalee. She’s wearing a flowing cotton dress and an enormous straw hat.
It’s the first time I’ve gone anywhere other than the neighborhood or the gym. Oahu is one of the bigger islands, forty miles wide and thirty across. But compared to California, it’s tiny.
We drive on a highway along the water’s edge. Hawaii is so different from the postcards, at least this part. The water is beautiful, and the trees are unique and elegant with multiple trunks twisting together. But the highway is old and uneven, with a low concrete barrier between the opposing lanes. I am used to the endless construction on the highways of California, black-topped and fresh.
We stop at a concrete pavilion right on the water. A dozen people are milling about, cooking over an open barbecue pit, talking with wild hand gestures. Suddenly I’m nervous. Is this what my mother calls a “few” people? And all of them want to meet me. To know their long-lost member.
Colt reaches across the basket to squeeze my hand. “This will be fun,” he says.
But what if they find out about the charges against me? Has my past been in the news here? My mother hasn’t brought it up. But of course they would not recognize my name without knowing my stepmother. Panic consumes me. What if I don’t fit in? What if they wonder why my mother brought me here?
Zandalee kills the engine and turns around. “Time to meet the mad, mad relatives!” she says and picks up a large basket of flowers sitting next to her.
I envy her easy friendliness. The only new friend I made in the past two months ended up hiring people to try to kill me, although after numerous reports from The Cure on the case, the original contract was just to hurt us enough to get us off the fighting circuit. The gunman acted of his own accord when he realized the four of them couldn’t actually beat us.
I open the door. Colt insists on carrying the basket. I’m glad he is better and can do ordinary things without pain.
My mother leads us over to the barbecue pit. I’m half expecting a whole pig with an apple in its mouth, but the grill is covered with chicken parts and vegetables.
I spot a gray-haired woman watching me intently from one of the concrete picnic tables. Her hands are so tightly clasped that her knuckles are white. She looks like she will cry any moment.
A very large, very wide man in a crazy straw hat with a brim that looks like it has come unraveled waves a pair of metal tongs in my direction. “This must be our long-lost Joanna!” he says in a booming voice.
I feel my mother’s hand on my shoulder. “She goes by Jo, Dad.”
So, this is my grandfather.
He sets the tongs on an ice cooler and surrounds me with a smothering hug. “Such a tiny little thing, just like our Marianna.”
He smells of barbecue smoke and salty ocean air. I immediately think of my father, the only other person to ever hug me this way. When he pulls back, I see his eyes are watery as well. “We are so glad to have you here with us.”
He gestures to the petite woman on the bench. “Come, Tutu, meet your granddaughter.”
She slides from beneath the concrete table with easy grace. She wears a long cotton dress that reaches her ankles, a pale turquoise that almost matches her eyes. Her gray hair is thick and cut to just below her ears. She is beautiful, the lines on her face only adding to the kind, patient expression.
She takes both of my hands in hers. “Baby Jo,” she says. “We have found you at last.” She gives up holding back then. Tears roll down her face like rain on glass.
My grandfather wraps an arm around her shoulders. “We’re all here now,” he says. “We’ve got them all.”
We stay at the pavilion until long after sunset. One of my uncles, the one everyone calls Skinny Lenny, plays a ukulele. Now it feels like Hawaii.
The ocean flows up on the sand. A couple of children, the youngest cousins, splash around in it.
One last car pulls up. I know who it will be. My mother told me Hudson had to work at the docks today and would not arrive until late. My grandfather sees him and begins unwrapping some chicken he’s kept in foil on the grill just for him.
Colt and I sit on one of the benches, tucked tightly together. Hudson gets out of his car, and his lanky teen body makes me smile. I recognize the knobby knees and bony elbows.
“You two are dead ringers,” Colt says. “Look at him.”
“Did you save me some of Tutu’s special poi?” Hudson asks.
“Of course, sweet boy. I would not forget you.” My grandmother enfolds Hudson in a hug.
He spots me then. I can tell this meeting is awkward for him too. He’s never had a sibling. It’s unfamiliar to both of us.
Hudson sits down on the opposite of the table. “Did you try the poi?” he asks, as if we need no introduction and this is one of a million conversations we’ve had in our lifetime.
“I made her try it,” my mother says, scooting in next to him.
“What was the verdict?” Hudson leans back as a plate of chicken and a small bowl are set in front of him.
“Foul,” Colt says, and everyone laughs.
“Lenny gave her the fermented one,” my grandmother says. “We haven’t convinced her to try another kind.”
My face grows hot as they discuss me as though my presence is normal, as if I’ve been here all along. But they are right about the poi. It’s apparently a very common Hawaiian dish made from taro roots that are boiled and crushed until it becomes a thick paste.
And it’s disgusting. Swallowing after gamely trying this family dish was harder than getting up after a roundhouse kick to the gut.
Hudson pushes the bowl toward me. “Here, try this one. It’s Tutu’s, a special one she always makes for me.”
I glance down at it doubtfully. It looks the same as the other.
“It’s sweet poi,” my grandmother says. “Fresh made today and mixed with a little sugar.”
I glance around for a spoon.
“You eat it with your fingers,” Hudson says. “It’s a two-finger poi.”
Colt’s smile is so big, his white teeth gleam from the light of the tiki torches. Everyone is watching me. My mother, grandparents, a brother.
I dip two fingers into the pale paste and scoop up a smallish bit. Recalling the rancid sauerkraut-like taste of the other poi, I brace myself.
But this one is different. It’s closer to oatmeal and is just lightly sweet. I dip my fingers in and take another bite.
Everyone erupts into laughter. “She’s going to eat all your poi!” Uncle Lenny says. His two kids hang on to his legs, watching to see if I will make a funny face.
“It’s all yours,” Hudson says.
The rest of the family drift away. He digs into a chicken breast. “So, you live in LA?” he asks.
“Yes,” I say. “I work at a gym as a trainer.”
“She’s a fighter,” Colt interjects. “With a perfect win-loss record.” He sticks his fingers in the poi and licks them. “Hey, that’s not bad.”
“I’ve only had two fights,” I say. “Barely started.” I don’t mention that I may not fight again. That I don’t think I can.
“I wanted to do boxing, but my school doesn’t have a coach,” Hudson says.
“We can get you one,” Colt says. “We’ve got a whole team here who could help you.”
“Really?” Hudson says. “I’m off tomorrow.”
“We’re at the Imperial Gym,” Colt says. “You should come by.”
I sit back, watching the two of them as they go on about boxing matches. When Hudson realizes Colt’s father is The Cure, I think he’s going to fall off the bench.
Looks like there might be another fighter in the family.
The uncle with the ukulele begins to play something softer, more mournful. All the talk ceases, like it’s some special tune we all should know.
Zandalee walks around with her basket of flowers. I realize now they are not loose, but linked into leis. She hands one to all the aunts and uncles and children and my mother and grandparents. She does not give one to either Colt or me. I assume it is some tradition for islanders only.
,” my grandmother says. “And
.” She smiles. “Your sweetheart.”
Colt and I get up from the bench and walk over to her.
“The lei represents our welcoming you to our family.” She lifts a fragrant ring of white flowers over my head and settles it on my shoulders so that it falls evenly on my chest and my back. Then she kisses my cheek.
My grandfather comes next, adding a garland of pale blue flowers. “Welcome, little Jo,” he says and also kisses me.
Hudson is not embarrassed by this tradition, which must be very familiar to him. He adds a yellow lei to the pile, now as high as my chin, and kisses my cheek.
As the uncles and aunts and children come forward, some give a lei to Colt, and others to me. Zandalee stands close by, adjusting the garlands on my shoulders so they lie more flat and do not cover my face.
The last one to arrive is my mother. She holds an intricate lei made not only of flowers, but also shells and leaves. “My daughter,” she says. “You have found your way to me.” Her voice breaks on the last word. She places the lei over my head and kisses my cheek.
Zandalee hands me a lei much like the one my mother has placed on me. The petals are soft, and the shells clink gently together as I hold it for a moment in my hands. Looking at her is like seeing her photographs again, only brought to life. I can remember feeling both sad and excited as a little girl, sorting through the images my grandma kept in a flower box. This woman didn’t seem real, like she could be anyone I would ever actually know.
But she’s here.
I lift the lei. The air is heavy with moisture from the sea, and a breeze tosses the loose parts of her hair. My uncle still plays the ukulele, and the wavering light of the tiki torches casts shadows on all our faces.
I don’t know any Hawaiian, but I do know from television that
means many things, all good. So, I say, “
, Mama,” and place the lei on her shoulders. I lean in to kiss her cheek, soft and warm and slightly salty.
She takes my hands. I’m not sure I have forgiven her for leaving me, for not even taking the chance that she would adjust. For not protecting me. For not knowing I needed her. But she’s here now. And all of us have to live for the next moment, not the last.
We have two more weeks of bliss before trouble comes knocking on our door again. Hudson becomes a fixture at the gym. He finds it amusing that he is expected to spar with a girl, until I sweep his legs and take him to the mat.
He doesn’t have the hurricane quality I once knew, but he’s tricky in the ring. You’ll think he isn’t paying attention, that you’ve tired him out or caught him off guard. And he’ll attack you in the one way you didn’t realize you had forgotten to defend.
He has talent.
When The Cure appears in the doorway to the gym, I think Hudson is going to fall over with excitement. I hope Colt’s father doesn’t do anything to break my brother’s heart. Hudson wants to be just like him.
I’m hoping he’s better.
“Colt, Jo,” The Cure says, “I’m afraid we’re going to have to pack up immediately and head back to LA.”
Colt peels off his gloves. He’s been doing a Tabata speed drill, so he’s completely out of breath. “What’s going on?”
“Jo has to go before a judge tomorrow.” The Cure spots Hudson and frowns. “We can discuss it on the plane.”
I snatch my towel off the floor and wipe the back of my neck. My stomach quivers with anxiety.
Hudson stands back, not sure what to do in the presence of his hero.
Colt waves him over. “Pop, this is Hudson, Jo’s brother. He wants to box.”
This makes The Cure stand a little straighter. “You might make a good featherweight,” he says. “How old are you?”
The Cure glances around. “Who here is working with you?”
One of the trainers steps forward. “I have been.”
“Well, then you work out a schedule with the boy after we’re gone. Keep him on. Send your plans to me.”
Hudson is bouncing now, unable to contain himself. “Thank you, thank you.”
“If you’re half as decent as your sister, you’ll do well out here.”
I almost drop the towel. Did The Cure just compliment me?
Colt turns back to us with a grin. “He’s gone mad,” he says.
“I heard that,” The Cure says. “And if I’m mad, you drove me to it.” He claps his hands together. “Now what are you waiting for? We have to lift off within two hours to make it.”
“You’re leaving?” Hudson turns back to me. “For real?”
“I’ll come back,” I say. “You know I will.”
For a moment, his face is so crushed that I want to hug him. I take a step forward and slug him on the arm instead. “I expect you to last at least thirty seconds with me when I get back.”
“Will you have time to say bye to Mom?”
“She’s at the house, helping us pack,” The Cure says. “We really have to move.”
Colt shakes Hudson’s hand and thanks the Hawaiian trainers and staff. We go along, bowing and receiving kisses.
The car ride back to the rented house is short and silent. “It will be good to be home,” Colt says. “Zero will be so happy to see you.”
That is true. I’ve missed him. But here, I have family. I have all the things I never knew existed for me. As the trees and flowers blur past the windows, I know I will miss this. But Colt’s right. It’s time to go home.
Inside the house, my mother is frantically tucking clothes into suitcases. “I’m going to leave you two to this,” she says. “I need to finish preparing you all something to eat for the flight.”
She’s rushing around, barely looking at me. I know this might be hard for her, letting me go again.
Colt and I frantically shove our belongings into bags. The leis from the night I met my family have all dried into rings of fragile petals. I want to save one, but most of them disintegrate as soon as I touch them.
The one Zandalee made from my mother, however, has lasted. The flower petals fall away, but the leaves are tightly woven into a band with the shells. It looks different from the night she gave it to me, but it is still beautiful. I wrap it carefully inside a hoodie and set it in a suitcase.