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The International Writers Magazine: Christmas in Hawaii

Mele Kalikimaka
Roger Poppen

I arrive at the Honolulu airport on Christmas Eve, a little before midnight. That's what, about three or four a.m. on my Central Standard internal clock? The bleary-eyed throng jostles me toward baggage claim. I've had two of those tiny bottles of vodka to help me sleep on the flight from the mainland and am still groggy.

I must have slept--the front of my shirt is damp with drool. I wonder if I'd snored. My wife complains about my snoring. As if she doesn't. I had no complaints from my seatmate. I try to recall who sat next to me for the past six hours. A man or a woman? I can't remember.

Hawaiian songs ooze through the public address system in a whiney, crooning falsetto, accompanied by tinny guitar and plinking ukulele. The occasional verse in English lets me know we are either celebrating the birth of Jesus or yearning for a Christmas luau. I'm here because of bargain holiday rates. Mele Kalikimaka.

The Heimlich machine coughs up my luggage. I have only two pieces but one is the size of a Stonehenge boulder. It contains the snorkeling gear, groceries (so we can save money on meals) and all the stuff that would not fit into the wife- and-kids' suitcases. My things are in one small bag. I carry my laptop in a shoulder case, assuring me of extra scrutiny at check-in. Who knows what evil lurks in the mind of an iBook?

We are frugal travelers. My solo flight is part of a scheme utilizing frequent-flyer miles, discount coupons, and special offers, put together by the Internet Shopping Queen in a plan that would rival D-Day. With luck, I'll rendezvous with her and our two teenagers Christmas morning at the Kauai airport.
We are not seeking a room at the inn, however; we're booked at the Marriott.

I enjoy traveling alone. It allows me to arrive early for check-in, get a cup of Starbucks, leisurely read a magazine, watch travelers and make up stories about them. With my wife, arriving on time for anything - a movie, a child's school performance, a flight - is unthinkable. Arriving early is a mortal sin, a wasteful extravagance akin to paying retail. Showing up just before the doors close, "last call for boarding" echoing through the terminal, brings her a sense of a job well done.
My flight to Kauai leaves at eight tomorrow morning and I look around for a place to sleep. In the spirit of economy, I decided against a hotel room for a paltry six hours. I've spent nights in O'Hare, Hartsfield, LAX--nothing to it. A padded bench or an out-of-the-way strip of carpet is all I need to hunker down like a homeless person on a city grate.

There are no padded benches or carpets in the Honolulu airport. The polished volcanic rock floor stretches into infinity, its bumpy surface catching the light like wave caps on the nighttime Pacific. Rows of chairs are covered in black plastic that is rated on the Moh's hardness scale only slightly less than basalt. Each seating space is separated from its neighbor by a knife-edge metal armrest. There is no lying down here, no accidentally touching the person next to you. The missionaries have prevailed.

I pull my wheeled suitcases in tandem away from the baggage carrousels toward the darkness, and find a seat next to a stalagmite with an electrical outlet to plug in my laptop. If I have to sit upright, I will write for a while. Usually, the attempt to construct a grammatical sentence after ten p.m. is enough to overload the circuits and knock me out. I type, 'I arrived at Honolulu airport at 11 p.m. It was xmas eve.' No good. I delete and start over. Don't edit, I tell myself, just make some observations. My thoughts are jumbled but I struggle on, trying to capture the cavernous feeling of the place. Words won't come. Neither does sleep. I click on Solitaire.

Hawaiian Christmas songs reverberate continuously, becoming number one on my Hate Parade. They are periodically interrupted by recorded announcements warning of the dangers of second-hand smoke, leaving vehicles at the curb, and unattended luggage. The latter will be destroyed. Mahalo.

The messages are delivered by a robotic female voice in English, Hawaiian, Japanese, and a sinister language I've never heard before. Farsi perhaps? Members of the armed services and their families are invited to the USO Center near carrousel six, open from eight a.m. to midnight.
Midnight is long past.

A man in a security uniform approaches and I place my feet on my suitcases to show they are well-attended. He tells me I must relocate to the area near the Security Office on the floor above. I wander into the gloom in search of an elevator, suitcase wheels rumbling behind me like a bad dream. I emerge in the ticketing concourse, a dark hall with heraldic banners of airline logos hanging overhead. A light at the far end beckons.

A door marked 'Security' is centered in a cream-colored wall, flanked on either side by rows of the inhospitable black chairs. Fluorescent lights blast downward like a beam from the mother ship. En Lux, Securitas! A half-dozen travelers are draped on the chairs like rag dolls, luggage stacked on the floor at their feet.

I take my place on the end of a row, leaving an empty seat between me and the person to my right. She glances at me, a young woman with a round face and dark, Asian eyes. She slouches with feet propped on a lavender airline case. No shoes, she wears lavender socks emblazoned with Hello Kittys. A young woman next to her rises, says something in Japanese, and hurries off into the dimness.

Both girls are plain but pretty enough, having the advantage of youth. I am attracted to Asian women. Why, I don't know. Gentlemen prefer blondes, but I am no gentleman. My wife is ABC--American-born Chinese. She teases me, saying I was expecting a meek, subservient spouse that would cater to my whims. I don't know what I was expecting, but she is none of that. My wife likes blue eyes. Mine are grey. Close enough, I suppose. We all make compromises.

I close my eyes and feign sleep. I see the pale face of the girl next to me, her white arms. I once worked with a Japanese woman who said that white skin is highly valued in her culture. My wife told me that when she was young, her mother scolded her for getting a sun tan, saying dark skin is for peasants. I like dark skin. That is my expectation of my wife--she will get a nice, dark tan under the Hawaiian sun.

The music from the floor below is thankfully muted, almost drowned out by the whoosh of fans, the buzz of florescent lights, the hollow echoes of a few people moving about. The sounds collect in the great, empty space like in a vast funnel, swirling about. The public address announcements disappear for long intervals. Somewhere a telephone rings. Tinnitus whistles in my ears. A sharp, toxic odor penetrates my nostrils. I open my eyes to see the girl next to me painting her toenails. Lavender.

With great concentration she gently swipes the tiny brush in smooth strokes from cuticle to the tip of the nail. Her feet are very white, nicely formed with a high arch and well-shaped toes. If I were a foot fetishist, I would thank heaven for this gift.

She turns her head and sees me watching, gives me a small, cat-like grin. Ah, an opportunity to make this a real story. What does the protagonist want? What are the barriers to achievement? I could stand and motion for her to follow me. We could find a dark alcove where we could . . . what? My imagination fails me. I give her a mousy smile and close my eyes again.

With dawning light, activity increases, workers bustling to their stations and travelers arriving in increasing numbers. My companions of the night have departed. I haul my baggage to the far end of the terminal and check in. I have a cup of Starbucks and arrive at the gate in plenty of time to watch people and make up stories about them. I wonder if my wife and children will make their flight.

The hop to Kauai allows the stewardess, who looks and talks like a middle-aged schoolteacher from Dubuque, barely enough time to serve the papaya juice. At baggage claim, my dark- eyed son meets me to help with the luggage. He is a head taller than me. Could he have grown that much in twenty-four hours? The rental car is parked at curbside, my daughter dozing in the back seat. My wife's kiss is as warm as the morning sun. "Mele Kalikimaka," I tell her.

© Roger Poppen December 2008

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