The Homecoming (Part Five)

In this post-pandemic world, travel had become trickier.  On top of the health layers, people didn’t act the way they used to.  Extreme behavior was becoming the norm.  If one of the passengers on his flight from Chicago to Honolulu hadn’t acted up, threatening the flight attendants and even the pilot, then they wouldn’t have had to make an unplanned stop in San Francisco.

The SFO airport police had escorted the unruly man from the plane, and by the time they’d taken off, he was aware that instead of landing in Honolulu at 8:00 in the morning, he’d be getting in at 2:30 in the afternoon.  For sure he’d still have plenty of time to check in to his hotel, the old Pagoda near the old Holiday Mart.

While he’d missed the party bus in the morning, and the lunch out at Turtle Bay, he’d still be in time – plenty of time – for the class dinner at the Pine Gardens Chinese Restaurant, their old stomping grounds from high school and college days.

There was enough time after he’d showered and changed to walk to the restaurant, and he marvelled at the changes to his hometown over the 30 years since he’d left for good.

Honolulu had grown way up, and the traffic seemed insane.  Compared to the traffic in suburban Wisconsin, this was madness.  There still was nothing even close to a rush hour traffic scene outside of Green Bay.  All traffic was like all traffic there, the same slow same.

When he reached the restaurant, he was still an hour early.  The restaurant was already open for dinner, although there were no customers yet.  An elderly woman sat at a table near the kitchen, making one perfect won ton after another, stacking tray after tray of these tiny works of art.

After he explained that he was part of the class reunion dinner party, she sat him down and brought him a pot of steaming black tea.  It was too hot to drink, so he spooned some ice out of his water glass and dropped it into the tea cup.

Then, sipping carefully just in case it were not cool enough, he tasted the tea.  The ice had watered it a bit, but that taste was unmistakable.  It was still fine quality black tea, just as it had been way back then.  This place never stinted on the leaves, nor did it use them more than once.

He raised his cup to the old woman who’d resumed her won ton construction.  “Great tea,” he said.

“Thank you so much,” she said, smiling and nodding.

He sat there staring through the gray tinted glass out onto the afternoon traffic.  What a madhouse.  Even ensconced in this little air-conditioned wonderland, he could feel the heat and smell the choking gas fumes swirling outside.

A figure filled the door and pushed through.

The tall, thinnish woman called hello to the old woman. “I’m here for a class reunion dinner,” she said.  “I’m a little early.”

He looked at her.  She was not immediately familiar to him.

“Oh, very good,” the old woman said, standing.  “He is here for the dinner too,” she said, indicating him.

The woman looked at him.  She too was trying to figure who he was.

He stood up. “Caroline?” he said.

“Oh my God,” she said, coming to him and hugging him.  “How many years has it been?”

“A whole darn lot,” he said, “at least thirty.”

They stepped back and at gave each other the once over.  This was Caroline Kamemoto, former head cheerleader and heartbreaker of his class.  She still looked good.  Certainly not 75 years old.

“You’re not a Zoomer,” he said as they sat.

“Argh,” she grimaced.  “I am a total non-digital age Luddite.  I can’t even stand writing on a computer.  I still do all my writing by hand.  I don’t even do email unless someone’s holding a gun to my head.”

“Ah, I see,” he said.  “That must make keeping in touch with everyone hard these days.”

“Oh no,” she said.  “I still write actual letters to my kids.  They’re really the only people I need to write to.  And while I’m not a computer person, I’m very, very good on the phone.”

“Yikes,” he said, “I’m just the opposite.  I hate the phone, always have.  I’m an emailer.  Really, I think the last time I wrote a letter was when I was in school in Wisconsin and would write to my folks back here.  In those days, long distance calls were so expensive I had to donate blood whenever I needed to call home.”

She laughed.  “That’s right, you’re a real snowman nowadays.  How can you stand the cold in the winter?”

“I can’t,” he said, shaking his head.  “Never could.  I hate winter, always have.  If my wife hadn’t loved it so much, I might have convinced her to move back here.  When we would come to visit my family, she’d talk about how she could never live in a place where there was no change of seasons.  I don’t know, now that I’m retired I might move back here.”

“She won’t object now?”

“Oh, no, she, ah, she passed away.  I’ve been on my own for fifteen years.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

“No worries,” he said, “it’s been a long time now.  I’m good.  How about you, how’re you doing?”

“My sone lives in England, my daughter in Japan.  I hardly see them.  Of course we talk on the phone all the time.  My husband, I lost him a long time ago.”

“Oh, I’m sorry,” he said.

She laughed.  “Oh no, no, no, he didn’t die.  Unfortunately.  He just ran off with my best friend.  I definitely miss her more than I miss him.”

They both laughed.

“Say,” he said, “how come you aren’t on the party bus?”

“I missed it,” she said.  “Why aren’t you on it?”

He explained his flight difficulties.

“That’s terrible,” she said.  “The world has turned so mean.  The whole racism situation, and the Asian hate crimes, I can’t believe how bad it is.  Do you ever have problems in Wisconsin?”

“No, not really.  I’ve known most of the people I know for so long, I think they think I’m white.”

They laughed.

“But seriously,” he said, “I had it way worse when I was at the University of Wisconsin.  We know the whole Asian hate thing has been around forever, from long before we were born.  It’s just that it finally was allowed to boil to the surface.  I have been really lucky, though.  I’ve been blessed with good friends, good neighbors.  Not to mention that nothing bonds a community like Green Bay like cheering for the Packers.  Now if I were, say, a Dallas fan living in the Green Bay area, I’d undoubtedly have been a victim of a Cowboy Fan hate crime.”

“Sports,” she said, “my ex was a big sports fan.  He’s slowly become such a jerk before he disappeared that I started hating sports way back.  By the time he skipped out, I hated everything about sports.”

“Whoa, you?  The head cheerleader?”

“Yeah, that seems like another lifetime.”

“Every guy at our school was in love with you.”

She looked at him, didn’t say anything.  Then, “Nah, you’re just imagining that.”

“Oh no, I know personally for one hundred percent certainty that all the guys in our class wanted to marry you for sure.”

She blushed.  “You guys were the best guys I ever knew.  I wish I had married one of you.”

Now it was his turn to be silent.  And now that he wasn’t talking, and she wasn’t talking, and they were looking at each other –

The door burst open and in poured a very boisterous group of 23 mostly inebriated 75-year-olds.

“Geez we look good,” she said, laughing as they both stood for the only in Hawai‘i style of hugging and kissing.

Even though he’d not intended to drink any alcohol, his old partner in crime, Mel Yonamine, managed to get several beers into him.  Mel sat between him and Caroline, and he kept elbowing him, whispering, “Eh, she’s available, you know.”

He thought love at 75 was pretty ridiculous, and just smiled and nodded whenever his buddy gave him one in the ribs.

After the pain of karaoke ended, the gang were ready to call it a night.

“Besides,” said Mel, if we don’t get home and sleep this off, we won’t be able to fully appreciate getting drunk on the cruise tomorrow night.”

After a whole lot more hugging, the crowd thinned.  Somehow he found himself and Caroline the last ones there.

“So where are you staying?” she asked.

“I’m at the old Pagoda Hotel.”

She laughed.  “Remember how we used to get rooms there and have drinking parties?  They must have hated us when they had to clean up the morning after.”

“Well, if they did, they still took our money, one party after another.”

“Hey, how did we get those rooms anyway?” she asked.  “I don’t think any of our parents would have signed for us?”

“It was Mel,” he said.  “His dad was head chef there.”

“Oh, right, right, right.  I’m amazed he didn’t lose his job.”

“Well, he finally did.”

“Oh no.”

“Oh yes.”

They walked through the doorway into the night.

“Did you drive?” she asked.

“No, actually I walked.”

“Can I give you a ride?”

He turned and smiled at her, saying nothing.

Finally she asked again, “Can I give you a ride?”

There’s something, he thought, that is very freeing about several beers. “I would love that,” he said.

She hooked her arm through his.  “Well, then,” she said, “I’m just around the corner.”

And off they went. He had a funny feeling this might be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

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