Jemma Hale wished she had a cigarette as she stood in front of the stairs that led to the ominous red doors of Nui Elementary School. That’s what they did in all the movies: hold the stick with two fingers before taking a strong pull and letting the smoke and tension leave their body in one intoxicated breath. She didn’t smoke, so she settled for a deep breath to calm her anxiety.
The main office was very bright with newer wooden desks, monitors, and a video surveillance system. Jemma’s eyes met the receptionist. She could only be a few years older than Jemma, but the stress of the job was beginning to show in the deep scowl on her face. She was set in her ways. Like most of the new community surrounding the school.
“They are waiting for you, Ms. Hale.” The woman motioned to the principal’s office.
Jemma had been summoned to the principal’s office only once … no, twice in her academic career. The second time had nothing to do with academics. Back then, her school needed serious repair, and so did she. When the principal asked what was going on at home, Jemma couldn’t vocalize her resentment or pain. Her mother had just broken up with the most stable man she had known and was about to give birth to another man’s child, so she answered as vaguely as possible and ran out of the office when the dismissal bell rang.
This new school put her old elementary school to shame. Nui Elementary was a parent’s dream. It was newly built, with many upgrades the other schools in the area were lacking. It had been added to their complex for a new housing development nearby and the department of education reassigned her neighborhood to be part of the student body.
She was not surprised at the opposition from the new residents of the development and members of the school board, but the attitudes of the faculty disturbed her the most.
Jemma steeled her nerves and walked through the door. She was greeted with a smile by Mrs. Cadena, the principal. Then looked to the other occupied seat and the reason she had been summoned to the principal’s office once again, Mano Hale.
Jemma took the seat next to Mano.
“Ms. Hale, thank you for taking the time to come. I know you’re pressed for time, so, let us get down to it, shall we?”
“Manny was in another altercation at lunch today. He and another boy had to be separated by two of our janitorial staff in the middle of the cafeteria. Considering that this is Manny’s third fight this quarter, I wanted to talk to you and see if there is any way we can curtail his behavior before more drastic measures have to be taken.” Mrs. Cadena leaned back in her chair. “He already has to be suspended for this incident.”
Jemma drew in a breath. “How long is the suspension?”
“Three days. His teachers have been notified and he has the appropriate papers so that he can keep up with the coursework and assignments. But is there anything going on at home that might be causing this behavior?”
Jemma turned to Manny, who seemed to be entranced with his shoelaces. At eight years old, he was advanced academically but socially, he had some growing up to do.
“So what do you have to say about this?” Jemma asked him.
Manny’s steady brown eyes locked on hers. “He started it.”
“Mano, we have talked about this. You cannot talk and fight at the same time. Fighting is not the answer.”
But as the words came out of her mouth, she was reminded of another word: hypocrite. Perhaps if he had grown up with words and talking, they would not be here. How could she reprimand him for acting out when he was becoming a product of his home environment?
“He calls me ‘opala’ all day, all the time. When I told him to leave me alone he pushed me and said it again. He kept whispering to me and I kept ignoring it like you said, Memma.” His eyes pleaded for understanding. “And then he said it louder so that the whole room heard and everyone laughed. And I punched him in the face.”
“Trash? He called you trash.” Jemma’s eyes narrowed and her lips pressed into a thin line. When she turned back to the principal, Mrs. Cadena held up her hands.
“Ms. Hale … I know that the other boy should not have said such a thing, but Manny cannot keep using violence to solve these disputes.”
Jemma was not satisfied with the principal’s explanation. At first it sounded as if there had been a small disagreement and Manny had acted inappropriately. This was not the case. And to think that the principal would sit there and tell her half the story was burning her up, fast. She felt her heart begin to race. She breathed deeply. She had to be an example to Manny if nothing else. There were more civilized ways to handle disagreements but right now she couldn’t think of a damned one.
“And what is the other boy’s punishment?” Jemma asked through her teeth. “Where is he? I didn’t see another parent leaving when I came in.”
“The other boy is not suspended, Ms. Hale. We’ve spoken to his parent and think the issue has been resolved sufficiently.”
“Well, I don’t think it has been resolved, Mrs. Cadena.” Jemma dragged out the syllables of her name at a near shout. “Manny was verbally attacked, being harassed. He was not the aggressor in this situation. The other child needs to be reprimanded the same as Manny. Manny needs to be in school. This suspension is … is unfair and ridiculous.”
“Ms. Hale, this is not Manny’s first altercation. The other boy has none. The suspension will stand. There is nothing to be done about it.”
“And all this other boy gets is a phone call home? Probably making Manny out to be the villain. I don’t think verbal abuse should not be tolerated, no matter who it comes from.” She grabbed Manny’s backpack. “Let’s go.” She glared at the principal. “I will be at the school board meeting, Mrs. Cadena.” She emphasized each syllable again. We will see if the board shares your classist views of equal punishments.”
She stomped down the school steps and felt the wind against her skin, but it did nothing to cool her temper. The nerve of that woman trying to pin the blame of a cafeteria fight on her innocent eight-year-old brother. Well, he was innocent this time. She would ream him into next week for something he did do. But never for defending himself from mean-spirited kids.
They walked in silence before turning a corner to stand at the front door of her retail party store. She pulled out her keys, unlocked the door, and was hit by a refreshing burst of cool air. It helped. Though, she desperately wanted to turn around and give that principal another piece of her mind.
She held the door open for Manny and watched his body language as he passed. They would have a talk, but now wasn’t the time. Jemma still didn’t know what she was going to say to him, so she let him scrape the bottom of his shoes all the way into the back room that doubled as storage and office space. She put her purse away and picked up her apron to wait out the last two hours until she could close for the day.
John Tanaka pulled his suitcase from the conveyor and turned to the thousands of people at the Honolulu International Airport. He spotted a young mother struggling with a child and two suitcases. He helped her stand them up, then popped the handle on the smaller one with princesses on it and handed it to the child, a cherub girl who pushed blonde strands of hair away from her face. Her big sky-blue eyes reminded him of another time and place.
He gave them a smile and a nod, then headed outside. The letter folded in the front pocket of his shirt felt like a fine grit against his skin. He had opened it once, and read it once, and once had been enough. There were unanswered questions from his last serious relationship. Questions, he thought would have never been resolved, until he received the letter.
He had been content with his life being a partner in a marketing firm and traveling the U.S., but as he stepped past the automatic doors, he was struck by uncertainty. He didn’t know why, but somehow ink floated off of the page and led him home when nothing else could. It had almost been a year since he had been surrounded by joy, laughter, history, memories. And regret.
The phone in his pocket vibrated.
“Johnny, I’m on my third trip around this loop. Are you outside yet? ”
“I’m six-two. You can’t miss me.”
“Well, you’ve been gone so long it’s a wonder I would recognize your voice.”
John watched cars float past until a middle-aged woman pulled up in a four-door sedan. They shared a brief smile before she said, “Let’s go, Johnny. I got a club meeting at seven and I don’t want to be late.” Ma, sharp-tongued as ever.
John secured his bag and sat in the sedan, adjusting the seat as far back as possible. Luana Tanaka presented her cheek for a kiss before pulling off, and he obliged.
They passed palm trees over forty feet tall, silhouetted by a crisp blue sky in the background. The sun was different here, brighter, warmer. He thought he had come to terms with why he couldn’t stay home longer than a week, then he thought about the paper folded against his chest and couldn’t decide if he should have returned at all.
“So you called me out of the blue to say you’re coming home for a while,” Luana said, breaking the silence. “You want to let me in on the occasion?”
John smiled. The quiet could only last for a while and then she transformed into his mother: devout cheerleader and biggest critic. No cut cards and straight to the point.
“I missed you Ma. Isn’t that a good enough reason to come home?”
“Johnny, it’s your business and that’s fine, you’re entitled to your life but … you’ve been gone nearly ten months this time.”
Luana gave him a look that said she would extract the reason eventually. “Whatever the reason, getting to see you is good enough for me.”
“Look, Ma, I know…”
“Your father’s your father.” She cut him off, effectively deciding she would change the subject. “No changing him. He still works with Reggie on the days his joints aren’t giving him trouble and fishes the rest of the time.”
Thomas Tanaka was getting older, and on some level it was disturbing because his father was still John’s hero. And heroes didn’t get old, have joint problems, or take medication.
Luana pulled up to the house—the same, run-of-the-mill two-bedroom home in which he was raised. If it was up to John or his two brothers, they would have moved out long ago but Luana was adamant that they were happy where they were.
John stepped out the car door and stretched his arms over his head.
He turned to his father’s voice. The old man was just as tall as his sons, somewhat fuller in the middle, but showed no sign that he’d slowed down. They embraced.
“I’m so glad you’re here.” Thomas said, embracing him with a pat on the back. “Your mother said we couldn’t touch the food until you arrived, threatened us with that spoon of hers.”
John let his parents pass and took a look at the neighborhood that held all his fondest memories. It was his lifeline for so many years, but it couldn’t be his home. Not now. And if the letter in his pocket had anything to do with it, not ever.