Gary and I are on our way to Kala’s parent’s house for the barbecue. I’m not ready for this. I thought I was, sort of. Then I betrayed Gary and felt like I had to tell him what I said to Alaina. That wasn’t pretty.
He was actually really understanding, which made me feel even worse. I’m just beating myself up and I can’t seem to stop. I feel like an ungrateful brat. But on the other hand, I still don’t feel good about Gary’s “cleanses.” I don’t know how to deal with the information, so I’m trying to push it to the back of my mind.
I reach over and turn down the radio playing reggae music in our rental car.
“Gary?” I say.
“Yeah, little girl,” he says in a distracted way.
I think he’s looking for the next turn to Kala’s house.
“Are you sure you aren’t mad at me?” I ask sheepishly.
He already told me several times he’s not, but I feel like I need to hear it 100 more times for it to sink in.
“Josie, seriously?” He asks without looking over at me.
I’m peering up at him, begging for reassurance of some kind, but his eyes remain on the road.
“Gary, I just feel terrible,” I say. “I can’t stop thinking about it.”
“You need to let this go,” he says sternly. “I promise I am not mad. In fact, I really understand. I remember feeling mixed up about my mom’s abilities. I know this isn’t the same thing, but I can imagine how you might feel.”
“I was just scared and confused and acted without thinking,” I say.
Gary slowly pulls to a stop on the side of the road and puts the car in park. He finally turns his gaze towards me with a small smile.
“Let’s move on from this,” he says softly. “No harm done. It won’t do you any good to keep dwelling on this. We all make mistakes. You should be proud of yourself for admitting it to me, and also telling me how you really feel. Most people would probably hide something like that.”
“Really?” I ask.
“Yeah,” he says, shaking his head affirmatively. “It’s hard to talk about uncomfortable feelings. I feel honored that you trusted me enough to tell me you were feeling something like that about me. I know it wasn’t easy. I feel like I’m doing something right if you can be that honest with me.”
I stare at him for a beat, recalling my crying fit when he came back from Alaina’s shop with my new outfit. I cried on the couch (again) and he comforted me, which felt wrong. Him comforting me after I betrayed his trust didn’t feel right.
But Gary’s always been an understanding guy. And he’s always been there for me since mom passed. I’m lucky he was there for me again, but I still don’t understand how he could’ve been.
“It was awful, honestly,” I say. “But keeping it from you would’ve been worse. I’m really sorry I was scared of you, or of your relationships, or whatever.”
I trail off, unsure how to categorize what Gary does with random women.
He puts his big, tan hand on my cheek and keeps that small smile on his face.
“Little girl,” he says. “You’ll be fine. We will get through this together. This doesn’t change our love for each other. I probably shouldn’t have told you all of that so abruptly. I just couldn’t keep the secrets anymore. Someday you’ll understand what it’s like to have children. It’s an all-consuming love that can’t be broken by anything.”
Gary’s never referred to me as his child before in such a direct way. It makes me feel special and softens the blows I keep inflicting on myself.
“I’m glad you told me,” I say emphatically. “I don’t want to live in the dark anymore. Knowing all of this will just take me some time to get used to.”
“I get it,” he says. “You ready to go?”
I sigh out a long, deep breath.
“Not really,” I say.
I smooth down the jean skirt over my legs and admire the pinky salmon tank top laying on top of the denim.
“I love this fit,” I say. “But I’m not ready to meet Kala’s family or our family. I’m nervous.”
“What’s there to be nervous about?” He says with a laugh.
I know he’s kidding. We both understand the gravity of meeting family members he hasn’t seen since he was a boy, and that I’ve never met. Seeing our Aunt Halani was a very recent disaster.
“Oh yeah, nothing to be nervous about at all,” I say with a sarcastic chuckle.
It feels good to laugh a little bit. To try and look at this situation in a light-hearted way. That’s Gary’s influence on me. And I’m glad I have it in my life.
“I’ve got your back,” Gary says. “If anything weird happens, you signal to me and we are out of there.”
“Thanks, Gary,” I say. “And I guess, same to you. If things get tense or something, let me know and I can leave at any time.”
“Oh, I’m not worried,” he says as he pulls the car back out gently onto the road.
“Oh yeah, cause you’re so cool,” I say.
I’m trying to joke like we always do. My heart isn’t really in it, but I’m trying. It’s all I can do to get back to feeling normal with him.
“Too cool for school,” he says.
“What’s that mean?” I ask. “Or is this another Gary thing that no one understands?”
Gary laughs. The sound of it makes me happy.
“No, it’s an actual saying,” he says. “I didn’t make it up.”
“I don’t know how you remember all of this random stuff, Gary,” I say.
“I don’t either,” he says. “Is this it?” He asks, pointing to the dark green house I recognize as Kala’s.
“Yep,” I say. “Pull around to the ocean side and there’s a parking lot.”
“Damn, they’re right on the beach, huh?” He asks.
As he pulls towards the parking lot, I see it’s already full of cars. There’s a crowd gathered on the grass and sand in front of the parking lot, closest to the ocean. It looks like about 40 people.
Yikes. That’s a lot.
Gary stops the car and puts it in reverse.
“I’ll just park on the street,” he says.
I see the smoke from a grill rolling in the air, and the smell of cooking meat makes me realize how hungry I am.
“I’m starving,” I say out loud without thinking.
“Me too,” Gary says as he parks the car.
“Here goes nothin,” Gary says.
He opens the car door and pushes his big body out of the small door.
“Nothin’?” I ask, confused.
“Sorry,” he says. “Just another saying.”
“Wow, Gary,” I say with a chuckle.
I meet Gary on the driver’s side of the car and we walk towards the back of the house where all of the people are gathered. Gary grabs my hand as we walk and it makes me feel less nervous. It feels like we are a united front and can face anything that comes.
As we round the corner, the tentacles in my stomach erupt for the first time in days. I’d almost forgotten they existed. I drop Gary’s hand and grab my stomach.
“Oooofff,” I say softly.
“You OK?” Gary asks.
“Yeah, I’m fine,” I say quickly. “Sorry.”
I don’t want to explain the tentacles to Gary right now. The truth is I don’t know what they are, anyway. I just know they come alive whenever I’m near Kala.
Since I know Kala must be close, I survey the crowd. I immediately catch the back of his head. He’s one of the tallest people and one of the few with a long ponytail and shaved sides. Once I spot him, he turns and looks right at me.
I wonder if his tentacles rumbled too?
Butterflies take over the tentacles and I feel a little breathless. I wave to Kala and smile. He does the same and then walks towards me.
“Josie,” Gary whispers.
I look over at him and see something in his face I haven’t before. It’s almost like fear, but then also pride.
“You’re glowing,” he whispers.
I know he’s right. And I know it’s because of Kala. All those feelings for him come rushing back in an instant. It’s not like I forgot that I’m falling in love with him. But being in his presence makes those feelings impossible to ignore.
“Kala!” I yell enthusiastically.
A few members of the party turn and look in our direction. As he comes closer, the speed of his walk picks up to a trot. I can’t help myself, so I run a few steps to him and outstretch my arms. In a few seconds, he is right in front of me with his arms open. He scoops me off my feet into his embrace. I bury my head in his shoulder and wrap my arms around his neck.
“Josie,” he says in my ear from what feels like a far-off place. “I’ve missed you.”
The tentacles in my stomach connect with his and lock in a familiar way. I feel like i can’t move and need to stay planted chest to chest with him. But we can’t do this right now, can we? In front of everyone?
He kisses my hair and cheek and sets me back down on the ground. The tentacles disconnect and howl in pain inside my head.
“Are you OK?” He asks.
“I think so,” I say, wincing through the uncomfortable feeling in my stomach and screeching in my mind.
“Do you feel that here?” I ask him as I place my hand on his stomach.
“Yes, I do,” he says, looking into my eyes.
His dark eyes bore into my soul and I forget where we are again for the second time in a minute.
“You’ll get used to it,” he says.
“Hey man!” Gary bellows from behind my back. “You must be Kala! Great to meet you man.”
Then Gary is upon us and shaking Kala’s hand. I suddenly remember we are in a public place and realize I was too slow to introduce them.
“You must be Gary?” Kala asks, looking from Gary to me.
“I’m, I’m sorry,” I stutter. “Kala, this is my uncle Gary. Uncle Gary, this is Kala.”
“I think we got that figured out little girl,” Gary says with a teasing chuckle and a wink.
“Oh,” I say.
I’m overwhelmed and embarrassed. This isn’t playing out in my head the way I thought it would.
“Kala, I’ve heard so much about you,” Gary says. “It’s great to put a face with the name. Josie thinks a lot of you. Thanks for making her time on the island memorable.”
“Sure,” Kala says enthusiastically. “I’m happy to meet you.”
I think I’m blushing, but I don’t know why. Well, actually I do. This is my first boyfriend that Gary has ever met.
Wait. Is that what Kala is? My boyfriend?
Gary puts his arm around my shoulder and pulls me in tight.
“So, I hear you’re going to help introduce us to some family tonight?” Gary asks.
“Well, my mom kind of put this all together,” Kala says in a shy way.
It’s a side of him I haven’t really seen. Shyness. It makes him look like a little boy. An adorable little boy.
I understand, though. My Uncle Gary can be a lot at first, and meeting him is like meeting my parents, I guess. That’d be intimidating for any boyfriend.
“Cool, cool,” Gary says. “Are your mom and dad around?”
“Oh sure,” Kala says. “Come on, let me introduce you.”
Kala turns to walk towards the crowd while Gary and I follow him. Gary still has his arm around me and I fit tightly under his armpit. As we walk, the faces in the crowd start to become clear and I see Kala’s mom and dad.
“Aye, mama!” Kala yells in his mom’s direction.
His mom and dad turn and approach us. They both have big smiles on their faces. I feel a bit silly for thinking they wouldn’t like me because of the incident on the beach the other day.
“Josie, aloha kaikamahine nani,” Kala’s mom says.
She reaches for my shoulders and kisses me on the cheek.
“Aloha, ipo,” Kala’s dad says.
He doesn’t go in for a kiss, but nods to me with a sweet smile.
“Mom, dad, this is Josie’s uncle Gary,” Kala says.
“Gary, we’ve heard so much about you,” Kala’s mom says, extending her hand to shake his.
“Nice to meet you, Gary,” his dad says.
“You’ve heard about me?” Gary says with a laugh, and his most charming smile.
“Yes, from your family,” Kala’s mom says. “I’m Kahealani.”
“Oh, really?” Gary says. “My family?”
His giant smile falters for a moment, but then it’s back, as big as ever.
“What a beautiful name,” Gary says, taking her hand in his. “What does it mean?”
“Heavenly mist,” she says, her cheeks rosy and bright.
“It suits you,” Gary says, shaking and then dropping her hand.
Gary moves his attention to Kala’s father.
“And do you have a name besides dad?” Gary says with a chuckle.
“My friends call me Ori,” he says.
“Great to meet you, Ori,” Gary says, shaking his outstretched hand. “I hope to call you my friend.”
Ori nods to Gary with a smile.
“Thanks for inviting us tonight,” Gary says. “My niece told me you’ve all been very welcoming to her. This is exactly what I hoped she’d find on this trip.”
“It’s our pleasure,” Kahealani says with a smile. “Our Kala thinks so much of her, we’re happy to have you both here.”
I look over at Kala and he’s beaming. Everyone seems happy.
This is actually way less awkward than I thought it would be. It feels like we are all a big family, in a way. And I wasn’t expecting that.
“I hope you’re both hungry,” Ori says. “We’ve got enough food to feed an army.”
“Oh yeah, I’m starving,” Gary says, rubbing his stomach. “I’ve been looking forward to this all day.”
“We’ve got Kalua pork, Huli chicken, lomi lomi, poi,” Ori says. “Kay made her special Mac salad,” he says, nodding to Kala’s mom.
“We’ll eat soon,” Kahealani says. “Let’s introduce you to some people first.”
I glance at Gary and Kala who continue to look elated. I feel happy too, but there are nerves underneath that I can’t shake. I think meeting our Kinimaka family has me worried, but I can’t put my finger on why.
“Sounds great,” Gary says. “You lead and we’ll follow.”
Kay and Ori turn towards the crowd and Gary falls in line behind them. Kala steps next to me and grabs my hand. When he does, a familiar electric current runs from my finger tips, up to my shoulder and then down into my belly. I shiver at the current, and squeeze his hand tighter.
“You look beautiful,” Kala whispers in my ear.
“Thank you,” I say.
Now he’s making me feel shy. I’m not used to compliments like this. Or feeling this way.
“Are you excited to meet your family?” he asks, leaning down again towards my ear.
“Sort of, I guess,” I say as I turn to look up into his face.
The mixture of beauty and innocence in his eyes is almost overwhelming. His long eyelashes and thick eyebrows make his eyes one of his most beautiful features. I’ve never felt this way just by looking at someone before. I can’t look away, and forget what I’m saying.
“I’m, um,” I say.
What was I talking about?
“I’m just nervous,” I say in a small voice. “I’ve never met them.”
“Don’t worry,” he says, squeezing my hand in a reassuring way. “I’m here and your uncle is here. Nothing to worry about.”
I agree in theory, but I can’t shake the sinking feeling in my chest that this meeting won’t be what any of us have hoped for.