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The Exquisite Corpse - A Journal of Letters and Life
Edited by Andrei Codrescu
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the making and unmaking of person
The Making and Unmaking of Person

In The Torrid Zone
by William Starr Moake

On rare occasions in Hawaii the tradewinds stopped blowing and an equatorial air mass crept north to cover the islands for several days. The tropical belt just north and south of the equator is known as the "doldrums" or the "horse latitudes". Without a breath of wind, the stagnant air is unbearably hot and humid -- fit only for dolphins and whales, according to sailors who were sometimes trapped in it for weeks. On land it felt even worse, like drowning in sticky honey. The overcast sky was often tinged with a faint yellowish glow that reminded me of hell.
      In May of my second year in Honolulu, I caught a raging fever during one of these awful heat waves. Aside from the fever, I had excruciating joint pain and my eyeballs hurt. It turned out to be dengue fever, the first outbreak in Hawaii in more than fifty years.
      I had the fever for an entire month. During that time, I was forced to try to sleep sitting upright since it was too painful on my joints to lay down. I was so delirious I could barely function. I lost my apartment keys twice, ate very little and often couldn't make sense of the television programs I attempted to watch. I took two or three cold showers each day to bring down my temperature. I sat on the sofa with two fans blowing when the mid-afternoon heat made me swoon. At times my apartment seemed unfamiliar and I was paralyzed by a strange fear.
      There were lasting effects from my bout with dengue fever -- perhaps even brain damage. I will never know for sure because I no longer trust the judgment of doctors.
      I sweat 24 hours a day now. I have learned to despise the tropical heat more than ever because I feel as though I am living in some sort of hell from which there is no escape. I pray for the cooling rain that seldom comes, yet I shiver with chills whenever the air temperature drops below 80. My body is addicted to the very thing I hate. I sleep fitfully during the worst heat of the day and stay up all night as if I were a bat. I feel more bat-like than human and I walk the lonely city streets at night, looking for other creatures of darkness: stray cats, prostitutes, muggers who might take pity on me, anyone with whom I can make a connection. I can't relate to day people. In the blinding sunlight they move around like insects in a speeded-up movie.
      The sun has become my enemy. Its rays sear my skin with heat and ultraviolet radiation and suck the breath out of my lungs. I have nightmares of dying from melanoma, covered with carcinogenic blotches like a rotted prune. Even at night I wear sunglasses to guard my eyes against the reflected sunlight of a full moon. If only this hot ball of gas could disappear from my horizon -- but I know it's not possible.
      I dream of blizzards and lakes frozen in ice. I fled the arctic Michigan winters as a teenager, but I look back on those days now with a nostalgic longing. I ache to feel the bite of sleet on my face and numbing cold in my toes, to leap head-first into a snow bank. These fantasies seem like a pilgrim's paradise to me.
      But I can't return to the cold country. Living here so long has thinned my blood and I would die with chattering teeth. I am condemned to live in the torrid zone until this terrible heat finally consumes my body like spontaneous combustion.
      My intellectual dreams are dead. When I was a young man, I wanted to become a famous writer. I foolishly thought I could find adventures to write about in the tropics, not realizing this was the exception among writers rather than the rule. For every Joseph Conrad there are a thousand would-be authors who venture into jungles and exotic islands but never write a single worthwhile line. The tropical regions of the world represent a vast intellectual void festooned in bright colors. Real literature is native to temperate climates and doesn't feel at home under a palm tree. To write about the human condition from a hammock or a beach mat is more than naive, it is a sham. Why write about anything when frangipani blossoms fill the air with a soporific perfume?
      The majority of island Kanakas know this truth and have absolutely no interest in books. They are semi-literate on purpose, even speaking a sort of baby talk called pidgin with stubborn pride. Like bronzed gods they thrive on emotions, not words. They are violently impulsive, as quick to take offense as to love. They are perfectly adapted to the strange subtleties of life in the tropics. I envy them, but I am also afraid of them because they are suspicious of people like me who live largely inside our minds. Locals always give me "stink eye" when they notice me reading a book at the beach or on a bus, as if they had caught me masturbating in public. I know to them reading is little more than mental masturbation.
      I never wrote the great novel I imagined, but what is worse, I eventually saw through my dream. The natives are right. Words don't really matter in the tropics. They are superfluous sounds and symbols compared to the immediate realities of island existence. Yet I can't help myself. Out of habit I waste precious time reading and writing when I could be surfing or spear fishing or pig hunting in the mountains. Or making love to a wild-eyed coconut girl like Kini Hoopai.
      Kini is the Hawaiian equivalent of Cindy, but she hates that haole name, even if it is on her birth certificate. Kini is hapa-haole, part white on her mother's side of the family and somewhat embarrassed by this lineage. Like countless young locals she has gotten swept up in the sovereignty movement in Hawaii, which teaches a return to local language and culture and hopes (unrealistically) for the American government to relinquish ownership of the islands.
      Kini is an enigma to me, as many island girls are. On the one hand she has a stunningly beautiful physique: perfect face with dark almond-shaped eyes and a gleaming smile, long black hair down to her waist, a voluptuous figure and small feet. She looks like the quintessential Hawaiian beauty, worthy of any magazine cover. But she is also a rabid tomboy with distinctly unfeminine traits. She speaks too loudly and often resorts to gutter language. In spite of her hula lessons she is clumsy and moves without a hint of gracefulness. When she drinks too much, Kini tells filthy jokes that embarrass even me and she sleeps with too many men. I think of her as a gorgeous mess and this contradiction has a troubling effect on me. In some respects she scares the hell out of me. She is too intense and direct for me to feel comfortable when we are together because I never know what she might do or say.
      Kini would rather go barefoot than go to heaven. She is more competitive than an all-pro linebacker and I mean physically. Although all women have a small amount of testosterone, I think she has more of this male hormone than any three men. She likes to ridicule me for reading books and she makes fun of my writing if I show it to her. She doesn't respect me at all, thinks I'm a haole wimp. But in her quiet moments, when she is relaxed with a far-off gaze, she reminds me of an angel. I can't get over her exquisite beauty, even if it only goes skin deep. I could sit for hours and just stare at her as long as she didn't talk. I wish I were a painter like Gauguin or at least a photographer so I could capture her image for posterity.
      On my night prowls I sometimes go visit Kini at her apartment in Kalihi. If I have to awaken her, she grouses at me.
      "Don't you frickin' haoles ever sleep?"
      "Only in the day time. We're all vampires, you know."
      "Shit," she mumbles, reaching for a cigarette.
      "Do you have any beer? It's past take-out time."
      "Look in the refrigerator."
      From the kitchen I ask her if she wants one. No answer, but she shakes her head in disgust when I return to the living room with only one can of beer.
      "You didn't say you wanted one."
      "Next time bring your own beer."
      "You're in a good mood tonight."
      "I got fired today."
      "What's the difference? I have to find another job now."
      Kini had worked as a waitress in the restaurant of a Waikiki hotel. Since I met her, she had also been an office receptionist in the business district, a sales clerk at a jewelry store and a groom for a dog trainer. She changed jobs once or twice a year and new employers kept hiring her because of her looks.
      "Do you need any money?" I offered.
      "Not from you." She went to the kitchen and got herself a beer.
      "What's wrong with my money? Tainted or something?"
      "You'd want me to fuck you for it," she said, returning to the living room.
      "Not necessarily," I teased. "We could call it a loan."
      "Don't gimme that. I see the way you look at me."
      "Most women are flattered by a man's attention."
      "You're old enough to be my father."
      Kini had been married to an older man when she was a teenager. They had two children and he beat her whenever he got drunk. She divorced him and left the children in the care of her mother, who lived on the North Shore.
      "Tell me what happened at the restaurant."
      Angry tears welled up in her eyes. "Frickin' manager always hated me. I don't wanna talk about it."
      "What did he do?"
      "Leave me alone!"
      When Kini cried, her beautiful face went to pieces like a jigsaw puzzle dropped on the floor. Although it was painful to watch, I couldn't help being fascinated by the amazing transformation. She was twenty-six, but she suddenly looked old.
      "It wasn't much of a job in the first place," I said to comfort her. "You'll find something better."
      "Don't try to cheer me up," she sobbed.
      "I wouldn't dream of it."
      "What are you doing here anyway? Don't you have a home?"
      "I wanted to ask you for a date."
      "Like hell you did."
      "Maybe a movie and dinner somewhere nice."
      She wiped her eyes with the back of one hand. "I already told you I'm not going to fuck you."
      I was certain she didn't remember we had made love once at a party several months earlier in Kaimuki. She had been too drunk and stoned on pakalolo to remember anything from that night. I never tried to revive her memory and considered it my little secret.
      "I'll give you twenty dollars if you stop saying fuck. It's very unattractive."
      "You just said it."
      "Listen, you eat dinner, don't you? All I'm saying is let's have a meal and a movie together some night. On me."
      "I'm not gonna sit through one of your high mucky muck movies."
      "All right, no movie. Just dinner."
      "I get to pick the restaurant?"
      "Anywhere you like."
      That was where she lost her job. "Why in the world would you want to go there?"
      "To rub it in the bastard's face. Order the most expensive food and bitch that it tasted like shit. Then leave no tip."
      "I always tip."
      "If you do, I'll kick your ass!"
      She meant it, too, but I could only smile. "Okay, no tip."
      "How come you're being so nice to me?"
      "You look sad with that mascara running down your cheek. Sort of like a sad clown."
      "Not funny," she said, wiping her face with a Kleenex tissue. But then she giggled and suddenly she looked young and beautiful again, like a chameleon changing colors.
      After I finished my beer, I slipped a hundred dollars into her hand as we stood in the open doorway.
      "I don't want it," she said.
      "You can pay me back when you get another job. You might need it for something in the meantime."
      "You nevah give up, do you? You're one stubborn haole man."
      "And you're a bitchy Kanaka woman."
      When I said it, she smiled like a naughty little girl proud of her mischief -- that perfect radiant smile that melted my heart. Too bad there was no real affection behind it.
      As I walked down the hallway, I wondered if I heard Kini mutter thanks. No doubt wishful thinking since I found it difficult to believe she would ever say anything like that to me. It wasn't her fault, though. Kini had a damaged personality like so many native islanders. Most were trapped in a crippling hatred of haoles, Japanese, other outsiders and ultimately each other. The ancient kahuna's prophecy had come true: some day you will be strangers in your own land. The spirit of aloha began to die when white explorers discovered Hawaii and introduced the two most destructive drugs of western culture -- alcohol and Christianity -- along with venereal disease and mosquitoes. The result was a 90% decline in the Kanaka population, genocide by negligence in a fragile paradise.
      And so tomorrow night I have a dinner date with this gorgeous foul-mouthed coconut girl. I'll try to keep her from drinking too much wine and insulting the restaurant manager, but I know in advance that my efforts may be futile. I only hope she doesn't punch him or throw the wine bottle at him. If we can get through dinner without a riot, I'll take Kini for a long drive along the windward coast of the island. She loves to hang her head out of the car window and howl like a dog in the balmy night air. We'll stop at Makapuu and Waimanalo and walk on the beach. Then I'll head for the Pali tunnel and drive her home.
      I probably won't get lucky with her the whole night. I won't try very hard, even if she's drunk, because it's satisfying enough just to be with an exotically beautiful woman who is half my age. In my small Michigan hometown there wasn't a single female as good looking as Kini, and I feel like I've come a long way since then.
      In the torrid zone this is what I do for an evening's entertainment. I pass the time with an overpriced meal and a long drive in the moonlight with a coconut girl who doesn't love me. Or time will simply pass me -- it's difficult to know which is true. In practice we live on Hawaiian time, another way of saying that time means very little in the islands. It ticks away unnoticed, like water flowing underground. We drink at the well of time and don't care to know when it will run dry.
      I will sleep through the following day and never see the merciless tropical sun that cooks my flesh. With any luck, I will dream of blizzards and mountains of snow.




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new economics of late capitalism gallery zounds the making and unmaking of person
diaries and memoirs translation and her retinue
the book of revelations and epiphanies working class sweat
the making and unmaking of person the corpse reads classics letters

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