Of course, the dress had its problems. The waist was loose and the fabric sagged and folded over on itself where there should have been the curve of a hip holding it taut. Also, there was the length, hitting his unshaven legs just short of a well-defined calf muscle. The darts on the bust jettisoned outward. Erect and empty, they waited to tent themselves along the contours of a nipple, filling instead with puffs of island wind that tickled his chest hairs as he walked. Still, Robert thought it was a good fit. He liked the way his shoulders looked, delicate and round, under the nearly weightless belly of spaghetti straps. The burnt umber trim complimented the warm undertones of his skin, and the material, a basic cotton-silk blend, felt soft between the padding of his fingertips. Even the bold hibiscus print seemed right. Robert didn’t mind that everyone on the island wore a similar pattern. He could appreciate the allegiance of a uniform.
While Robert combed the crowded beach of Waikiki, he knew he was being watched. Mothers in full-piece bathing suits corralled their children onto the safe parameters of the family towel while sky-rise hotels cast long shadow gazes in his direction. He scanned the overweight faces of strangers as they stared. Doughy faces made O shapes to show their disapproval. Each face had a glassy sheen to it, patches of unblended sunblock sticking to its chin and cheeks, like icing on pastries.
The Hawaiians seemed less affected, not like the tourists. Earlier that month, while accompanying his father into a bar, Robert had overheard a conversation about Mahus. The Mahus were Hawaiian transgenders living on Molokai, one of the smaller islands about twenty kilometers from the Big Island. Mahus were held in high regard on Molokai mostly because the Hawaiians believed them to be closer to Madame Pele. As he let his limbs swing girlishly at his side, Robert wondered if the locals he passed now were praising this haole for invoking their spirit mother. His eyes widened at the thought, an island like me.
Robert had come to Hawaii by way of his father and his father’s novel. The novel had carried his father to many unfamiliar places, most of them green and bright and ridden with too-big plants encouraged by relentless rain. This place was no exception. Robert had been spending these long summers with his father for several years. It was an arrangement between husband and wife, an opportunity that gave his mother uninterrupted time to work on her dissertation, while his father wrote in peace. The couple spoke every Thursday and Sunday evening.
Robert had never dressed this way in public. Before that day, he had traced only the narrow corners of his bedroom in a sensible stacked heel. He had seen his reflection in a double-breasted blouse only through the dirty mirror of his private bathroom back home. And always, he had hurried to undress at the sound of his mother’s approaching footsteps.
The dress had taunted him. He had spotted it hanging in the window of a hotel guest shop. He had been with his father the first time he’d seen it, and pretended to let it pass, unnoticed. The second time Robert had returned alone, with a portion of the weekly allowance his father provided stuffed messily into his pants pocket. Robert paid the shopkeeper $17.95 plus sales tax. He watched as the elderly man with the thin wrists wrapped the dress in ginger-colored tissue paper. Robert had stopped the man, who had been reaching for a shopping bag. “I’ll just take it,” Robert said, and placed the dress neatly into his backpack along with the receipt, and left the store. Back in his room, he laid it out on the bed and smoothed the wrinkles with his long patient fingers. Pianist’s fingers, his mother called them. There in the musty back room of his father’s rented condominium, Robert thought the dress lost some of its appeal. In the store window, the colors had seemed vibrant hung under colored lamps, a lovely gardenia lei drooped about the neck.
It was a risk to wear the dress in public. The island was not small but there were always chances. He’d taken certain precautions. With another portion of his allowances, he had rented a moped and driven across the length of the island. Knowing that his father found the crowded north beaches there lacking in authenticity, he did not expect trouble. He had calculated to avoid mistakes. Now he could stroll without worry and relish in the delight of being seen. He could lean into the wind and feel the sun on his freckled back, never thinking how he might explain the square-shaped burn that would be left in the place where the dress was cupped open.
At that moment, Robert passed a woman on the beach. She recognized him immediately as the son of the married man she was seeing. She had met her lover at a bar with a jukebox on the south side of the island where, after several strong drinks and much talk of his unfinished novel, he had shown her a wallet-sized photograph of his son. Since then, her lover had shown her many more pictures of him though, of course, she had never met the boy. She had come close once. One night, while she lay in her lover’s bed, as he, in the next room, telephoned his wife, she had stumbled down the hallway naked and half-drunk on wine and watched the boy while he slept. She had stared hard at his face and tried to distinguish which features belonged to his mother. His ears, his lips, his long lovely fingers.
fiction poetry "fact" photography