Experience First Pages

When I walked off the tarmac into luggage claim, Tanielu was waiting in old sandals and a flower-print shirt that hung like a bell over his lavalava. He threw leis around my neck. Though we only recognized each other from emailed pictures, we hugged. On the drive along the only road of the island, he spoke about plans for the school as I watched the waves stumble over the distant reef and glide into the coral shore. I would enjoy the kids, he told me. And the builders had almost finished constructing the new schoolhouse where I would be teaching. His speech bore markers I’d soon recognize as Samoan, but were exaggerated in him: unhurried, self-assured, and unwilling to speak more than necessary.

His house sat on the same property as the old school building, a thatched-roof room with three open walls. The new schoolhouse, a two-story concrete-block construction, towered next to it. The whole lot was on a graveyard of coral: porous, lightweight, and abrasive. Under my feet it grated, with a slight harmonic tone. But the view astonished me most. Thirty yards offshore, still in the shallows, just before the reef, a massive rock spurted up into the sky. On its top grew smatterings of shrubs and grass.

“Fatu Ma Futi,” Tanielu said.

“If I ever get lost, I can just look for that,” I joked.

“You can’t get lost here,” he said. “You either follow the road left or right.”
Over the next week, I prepared for the subjects of Math (or Maths, as Tanielu said), English, and Bible. My mother’s rigorous homeschooling had prepared me for all three, and in my recent college studies, I’d majored in the third. Since this was ministry, I’d only be paid in room and board, but my true reward was elsewhere. Sina, Tanielu’s wife, always shooed me out of the kitchen and prepared moist tuna sandwiches—“Samoan Tuna,” she bragged—adding hefty amounts of mayonnaise to the already oil-saturated fish. Though she was much shorter than her husband, she carried nearly as much weight. Sometimes she delighted me and other times intimidated me—she could switch from dimpled sweet to good-natured scolding with a mother’s adroitness, even though she was not a mother. Tanielu and Sina were just past childbearing age, but childless, and I guessed they found comfort in spending time with the children at the school.

Amy spoke to her husband in numbers. Sometimes she waited until he prompted her: “How many?” He did not say the word, as though if he refused to embody it in words it could not haunt the body of his son. She kept a daily tally so the doctors could adjust Aiden’s dosages, making scratches in series of five on their chalkboard. She didn’t tell Derrick when she might have miscounted. They had a contract—he would slave away at oil safety so they could afford the high insurance premiums and drugs shipped from Canada, and she would care for Aiden. Most of the time she felt wholly inept at her part of the deal.

She cooked dinner as Aiden showed his father the elbow scratch he’d received from falling during one of his episodes, and Derrick played lion with him in the living room, blowing against his stomach and tickling his armpits. At the dinner table she struggled to get Aiden to finish all his vegetables and pudding. The pills were in the pudding, which she thought sounded like the ominous cousin of a common saying. Their pill collection grew monthly, the orange canisters of varying heights studding the kitchen counter like organ pipes. During dinner, Derrick asked her to refill his water glass twice, and she did it even though while she was gone Aiden spilled his bowl. When Derrick asked her about Aiden’s day, Amy spelled out the negative words to shield them from her child.

At bedtime she heard Derrick reading Punch the Frog to Aiden. Aiden loved that book, which Amy had found at an estate sale in South Pasadena and would have thrown away after the first reading except Aiden begged to hear it every night. It was too strange for a children’s book.

On the night Will felt the floating sensation, he attended a performance of the Ugandan Boys Choir. The boys were trash scavengers, rescued by a Good Samaritan and taught to harmonize, who performed every night across California to raise donations and recruit volunteers for the Kampala orphanage. Will attended by himself, since Regina was at the baby shower for a college friend’s third child. This was the friend who’d called Regina, offhandedly and without malice, a ringless fiancé, by which she meant a woman certain to marry but lacking the diamond. Regina had grieved over the term for weeks.

The Ugandan Boys sang in the church for two hours. Terraced upon metallic risers, they elongated their jaws. On one song, the boys left the stage to pass donation baskets, and the volume and balance fluidly shifted as the voices swung close and away. The music seized Will. It offered odd time signatures, syncopated rhythms, contrapuntal notes. Despite his usual formality inside sacred walls, he found himself tapping his foot and nodding in tempo. Instead of his normal instinct to pin down feelings with philosophical thoughts, he wanted to run through fields and not grow weary. He wanted to swim and not grow tired. He wanted this soundtrack to animate his life.

Will closed his eyes. The melodies became flags, waving in tempo. The notes danced and died and regenerated. Then his chair seemed to exhale him, and the floor released his feet. The pressure on his buttocks eased. He hovered, feeling weightless as a bubble. His skin felt permeable, with no membrane between air and flesh. The sensation continued until the precise moment when—as if synchronized—the last note terminated. Then his body settled, tethered again. Applause erupted around him. He gripped the chair, breath drumming in his ears. He felt like he’d been attacked. He turned to the woman behind him and asked her if she saw it. “Yes, they’re great,” the woman said, nodding towards the choir, still clapping. Everyone stood in an ovation. No one paid him any attention. As the audience flooded the front to talk to the boys, he fled through the double doors, feeling pursued.


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