“You’re beautiful today.”
I looked at him, a shadow until our eyes cleared. He held the face of a million would-be suitors, the face of my soul mate. Now, he was the one to look away.
“I mean,” he sputtered, “you’re always beau— ”
I couldn’t let him say that word again, no matter how good it felt. “Steven, is my order ready? Chamber of Commerce of Hawaii, slide, four-color, and a dozen b/ws. Thank you, btw.” This last part I almost whispered, but he caught the drift, blushing and turning at the same time to grab a photo envelope covered in big red letters, my name.
“Merry Christmas, Carol,” he said, handing me my order. Before we could say any more, another customer jostled in front of me, an older, Chinese lady in a hurry. In downtown Honolulu on Aloha Friday, we’re always in a hurry.
As I drifted down Bishop Street, back to my second floor office overlooking the old and the new, Steven’s words covered me like the finest silk from Paris — a vision in cobalt blue, pressed against a young girl’s body on the edge of 22, instead of my mom’s frumpy brown muumuu hand-me-down.
Not Steven. He’s just a nice, friendly employee with a menial job, and he smokes. He probably lives with four other guys in a one-bedroom apartment in Kalihi. That rules him out. My dead father’s voice, the one who chain-smoked his way to an early grave a decade before the ’60s, just like my mom is about to.
Nobody love you now. That voice belonged to the Vietnamese psychic, a woman younger than me with a doctor’s-sized waiting list of desperate patients dying to find love, a better career, a future with the flick of her hands over a simple deck of cards… the one who lived in a tractor house among other dirt dives in the suburbs of Kaimuki. But one day, you meet a businessman. He love you with all his heart.
The first time I met her, she scared me by bringing up Mark. I think my mom heard about her, this scary accurate psychic in Hawaii everyone swears by. In broken English, this young Vietnamese psychic welcomed me into a tiny room. I only remember an even tinier window, dirty with Kona winds, ocean and palms trees just beyond our reach.
She flipped a few cards. Asked me to halve a deck. I began to think she was playing me when, out of nowhere in her broken English, “You have boy watch over you. He dead now. He die after high school. He love you lot. He your guardian angel. He always watch, very protective.”
The only person that matched this description was Mark, a boy I met early on in high school, a boy who turned out to be gay, a boy who died after high school of AIDS (if what I hear is true). By my junior year, we’d planned to marry. I’d become a writer, a journalist, and he’d go into the lucrative field of computer science, the next Bill Gates. Hell, he could’ve been Bill Gates.
Mark was doing things on the computer most of us could only dream of in the early ’80s, things kids are getting into now. Tall, dirty blonde, thick, tousled hair, the warmest blue eyes, a crooked smile… that Mark.
We loved each other without question. But he didn’t desire me. One night, after two years in the closet, he told me so over the phone. Brutally. So unlike him. “When I look at you,” he said, matter-of-fact, “you don’t turn me on. I’m sorry but it’s the truth.” He then proceeded to describe in excruciating detail just what about my physical body turned him off, this kind, gentle, beautiful boy.
“I can change. I can have an operation to be a man. I never wanted to be a woman anyway!” I cried.
“Carol, you know that wouldn’t be right. You will find a man who loves you completely. You deserve a man like that. I’m so, so sorry I can’t be that man for you. I wanted to for so long, but I can’t live a lie.”
I don’t think I had ever cried as violently as on that day.
I would hear the same speech a decade later from the man who would become my first and only husband. Only, he wasn’t interested in other men, just other women who looked nothing like me, women who were taller, wholesome, and impossibly, boyishly thin like Elle MacPherson and Lori Loughlin.
So you’ll excuse me if I cut you off when you start in on how beautiful I am. I’ve heard that bullshit before.