didn’t used to know what I know about boys and smoking. If I could go back to the first time I learned anything about both, I’d probably turn right around and drag myself by my own ponytail to the back pew of the first church I saw, even if it was Catholic, and do whatever it is that Catholics do until I found my way out of the day when I learned about boys and smoking in 2003. Even after I’ve had more than a decade to think about it, I still wonder what I misplaced, and if I could find it again if I looked more slowly, if I waited for a sign.
“So…you’ve never done anything. At all.”
Keoni smirked, running his hands through his hair, making it stand up with sweat before jamming a ball cap down on his head. Keoni was a smirker. He didn’t grin like most boys I knew, with an almost apologetic childishness that stood out next to the fuzzy almost-moustaches on their lips. Local boys come in two body types, Gollum and Sumo Wrestler, and Keoni came in Type 1. He looked me right in the eye while he wiped his hand down the swim shorts that hung so low I was sure he was not wearing any underwear. Not that I was checking. His t-shirt was ragged, with the sleeves torn off and the sides open. His few stomach hairs were fully visible, and the dark tangles of his armpits.
“All I’m saying is there’s something good about a little love. You can’t hide out forever, you know.”
“There’s nothing good about having sex with someone who is not one with you already in every other way, someone that you’ve married. My body is a temple,” it sounded ridiculous, but I said it anyway. “You know I’m religious.”
He crossed himself with his middle finger. He was making fun of me, and I was a willing target, not quite in on the joke. “Hallelujah and shit,” he said, “but mine isn’t an abandoned temple, you know? I mean, not to kiss and tell, but I’ve had everyone I want, so just you wait till that burning hits. You’ll get some.”
“Why are you going after me, then?” I was painfully conscious of my studied speech patterns, the traces of old books that stuck to the roof of my mouth. Everything he said rolled off his tongue as though he was massaging the words, almost like a chant.
“Jesus Christ, I’m not even trying.” He laughed a little, and I saw a flash of silver on one of his back teeth. He lit a cigarette without offering me one. “You’re sitting there wasting your frickin’,” he let out a low half-whistle, “I mean, damn! You’re…mysterious. It’s weird. You’re a weird temple,” he repeated, studying my hands from a respectful distance.
“I’m not your mystery. I’m not some temple to worship at,” I said, hoping against the thought that Keoni would ever come inside my house and see that my parents worshipped me, whether they knew it or not, whether they would have believed it or not. I outnumbered Jesus: There was one cross in our kitchen, and framed Scriptures above the toilets, and an awful lot of pictures of me, almost like I was dead. When I used the bathroom late at night, my own eyes watched me creep down the hallway, accusatory and confused, as though my third-grade self knew all about the older me, and could not decide if I was the kind of person she wanted to grow up to be. The photos must have known that, up until that day, I had never thought of myself as having any other choice.
Keoni and I were in the Field, which is why I had not already left. It had probably been a hippie commune back in the sixties, and when I first knew it, the Field was a homeless camp, sheltering old tents that didn’t keep the rain out under thorny keawe trees and stubby bits of grass. There were patches of marijuana grown by the less mentally ill and more industrious with families and rotten luck. When I think about the Field, I remember it like that: the shadow a couple blocks from my house, our version of a local haunted mansion, filled with junkies and children with gold teeth. When I was seven, it was bulldozed by the county and made mildly respectable, which is another way to say that it became a difficult place to squat.
After that, it was a convenient temporary residence for anyone trying to ditch school. The Field was not level, but it looked like it was, and the county wasn’t determined to keep the trees from growing back. Everyone knew about the Field, and teachers didn’t want to waste the energy picking through thorns to find students who were high and/or disruptive. It wasn’t uncommon for students to bring towels (or, audaciously, beach chairs) with them to class. Under the students’ watchful eye, it became a pirate’s cove, with liquor bottles stored in almost-buried coolers with only their lids exposed, weed for anyone with ten dollars, and a few colas for the rest of us. There were condoms, used and unused, though no one I knew ever admitted to having sex in the Field until college, and only to people who had never been there. Even now that we’re all grown up and the Field is surrounded by black shielding cloth advertising a new set of condominiums, we only talk about it as a sacred place, a secret all the more holy because no one was hiding it from anyone.
I went there on Fridays out of school spirit. My friends, especially the surfer types, told me I didn’t understand the concept of ditching, since I only went during my free period to amuse myself and sweat out the energy they were using for sex. That didn’t stop me from going.
On Saturdays, I went there to drink Dr. Pepper, alone. Sometimes people would drift through, or deals would happen within earshot. Normally, I was left to my books.
Keoni was the only other person there that first Saturday, and I’m sure he didn’t understand me; I thought I understood him. He never once tried to touch me, never leaned in for a kiss, never put his hand on my knee and rubbed his fingers along the line of unshaven hairs on my shin. I always wondered if he would and was somewhat relieved when he didn’t. I needed time to build my labyrinth and seal the exits.
“Do you smoke?” he asked. I didn’t, not then. He smoked more cigarettes than I ever saw him smoke again that day; I learned to smoke secondhand, wondering if he would give me a cigarette if I asked for one.
“Why aren’t you home?” I asked the second week.
“Why aren’t you?” he asked. “Nah, it’s chill, but my Dad’s home this weekend.”
That was the only reason he ever gave me. We didn’t press each other, and in the quiet we developed a doubly secret friendship. We did not speak to each other at school, and we didn’t say that we were friends to anyone, including each other. Some of my more rebellious (though who am I to call them that?) friends knew Keoni, and it was only many years later that they knew that I did too, that I had been closer with him than all the rest.
When I went to the Field, I had to pass the McDonald’s before entering on south side, opposite the school. Stupid people tried to ditch at McDonald’s, but I just bought coffees on my way. I would read whatever book I had taken with me—usually a Jane Austen, though occasionally a Ray Bradbury or Ayn Rand to scare my parents—underneath one of the trees until Keoni did or did not show up. If he did, one of us would eventually go back to McDonald’s and buy three double cheeseburgers, a large fry, and a large coke, to go, and the other one would wait in the Field.
When he first asked if I’d like him to pick up food from McDonald’s and held out his hand, I felt my blood freeze, as though the $3 I was supposed to hand over was the full portion of my savings, the account number, my grandma’s trust fund, my social security information, and birth certificate. He hopped away with it while I paced beneath the trees, stepping on thorns until my two big toes were bleeding.
“What’s wrong with you?” Keoni asked when he got back. I was still pacing, and he twisted around to watch me, hands paused over half-opened wrappers.
He was the first boy I’d ever let touch my money, and it was shockingly intimate, the way my damp bills were tucked into the wallet he wore in a pocket that I knew rubbed against his bare skin, the way his long fingers worked over his thigh when he moved the pocket to the side.
I smuggled my smallest Bible into the Field just after I had started dating Justin, a boy from my freshman year biology class who moved from Arkansas. He was an average and regulated kisser. He learned the right way to do things: He did not bother with his tongue for the first four seconds, he knew to put his hands in my hair, but only if it was down. He used breath mints almost hourly and only smoked cigarettes when offered.
I hadn’t planned on bringing the Bible with me, but it was fate. I know that now. I had not removed it from my purse since youth group and all of my books seemed dull that day. By then I was questioning everything, but the poetry of the Psalms was not lost on me. I had just fallen into the rhythm of the 139th when Keoni’s shadow covered the words. He gently took the book from me and I felt that old, half-pleasant fear in his presence, even though I was somebody’s girlfriend and not the kind of girl who cared what Gollum-boys thought. He felt the pages and sighed.
“This would make great rolling paper.”
There had always been an alternative version of myself, strong and tall—but not gangly—and having great sex. She answered him.
“Do you have anything on you?”
He carefully unzipped the side pocket of his shorts and held up a baggie that reeked through the plastic. His look told me I was in on a conspiracy and that I didn’t have much choice but to see it through to the end.
The saint in me offered a compromise, like I was haggling for slightly less time in Purgatory. Not that I believed in Purgatory, of course. “We have to read the page first. Both sides.”
Keoni immediately sat down and started reading, his voice hurried and halting and musical, as though he was exploring the page with his soul as well as his eyes. It reminded me of how I take Communion.
“… And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh”—he said it like Nine-Eva— “in which there are more than one hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?” He paused, and flipped back to the first chapter. He read in silence, leaving me itching with guilt and anticipation. It was a feeling I would get used to. We smoked our way through Jonah that day, and began to hop around the books with abandon over the next several weeks, him reading everything, ears turning red at the Song of Songs, while I spent hours fuzzy and delighted at the covers of classics I could not focus on enough to read. The only book we could not smoke was Lamentations; Keoni saved the tiny pages after he had read them, tucking them in his wallet with the McDonald’s money.
After Justin and I had been dating about three months, Keoni got a girlfriend, and the temptation to become friends publicly was now doubly impossible. We spent Saturdays together as often as not, but our talks centered on the other’s partner—me telling him that Carly wasn’t anything special, he reminding me Justin was a “fucking haole,” as though I’d forgotten. Even though he never said anything about my whiteness, I was sure there was a quiet part of him that hated it. I wondered why he didn’t smirk at Carly’s voice like he did at mine; I wondered if I did the same thing to Justin. We spent time joking about our lovers’ kisses (I was still celibate) and never once laid a hand on each other. I sat on mine when he was gone, shaking my head at the smell that radiated off his skin and into my veins.
That was when Justin first asked me to come over on a Saturday, and of course I went, but not without stopping by the Field and leaving a few pages from Matthew and a couple from Genesis, just to be sure that Keoni would know I wasn’t angry, that I would get there when I could. We’d been saving Genesis. I walked back past my house without stopping. Justin had said his parents wouldn’t be home. His house was similar to mine, but had pictures of his brother and older sister to mitigate his stare from the wall.
We had spent almost an hour on his bed, staring at the ceiling and drifting in and out of a conversation that had no point: one of those talks that, in high school, meant we loved each other. He left for a few minutes, and I started to fall asleep under his rotating fan and the warm syrupy heat. Instead of lying down beside me, he kissed my neck; I smelled that unscented smell. I rolled over onto him and had a moment of lightning, one that let me reach for his crotch. He played with my breasts, first over my shirt, then under it. When he offered me a condom I helped him with his belt, and for a little while nothing mattered to either of us, even while I hoped and supposed that this would be the worst experience I would have. I am still disappointed that it was not. When I was getting dressed, I dropped the silver ring I had worn until that day into my pocket.
Seeing me fully clothed made Justin nervous. I imagined he had not had sex lessons in the way that he’d had piano lessons. I was shaky, still roiling, unsure of my footing, and too weightless to support him. I left his house smelling like his deodorant and went straight to the Field, passing by my house on the far side of the street.
When I picked my way through the safe path that we had cleared of thorns, Keoni was waiting. His eyes roved over my body in the detached, superior way he had, his hand tucked into his shorts up to his palm, motionless. Had it been someone else, I might have thought he was jacking off, but he wouldn’t have bothered to leave his shorts on. I’m sure he saw what I was not hiding. He handed me a warm beer from an in-ground cooler.
I listened to him reading from Matthew and felt smaller than I’d ever felt in my whole life. That was the first time I came home from the Field after dark, drunk as well as high, and smelling alternatively of sex and dust. I unlocked the front door and found a note from my parents. They were at Bible study, and I didn’t need to worry, there was a casserole in the fridge.
Justin introduced me to Keoni one day, proud to have a genuine “local boy” for a friend. I played dumb, and Keoni joined in. He understood that Justin was a part of the costume I needed to wear, and he never once stripped me.
“Hey, Leah, right?” His mouth twisted in recognition of the lie and the truth. He pulled me into a rough, masculine sort of hug.
It hit me on the toilet at 2AM: That day was the first time he had ever said my name out loud, and I wondered if he could have remembered it without asking anyone about me for all those months.
On Christmas Eve, I defiled the family Bible for reasons I will never explain to my parents. After we had each opened a tiny present—mine was a pair of socks with little spaces for each toe—my mom handed me the big family Bible. It was leather-bound, with our last name in gold across the bottom left corner, a sparkling Thomas Nelson add-on that made the whole thing feel a little unsacred. It was my year to read the Story; I chose to read it from Luke. After the shepherds finished celebrating and Mary had hidden everything in her heart, I began to tear the page out of instinct, watching the black letters divide just in front of the black ribbon. Dad gasped, and the book fell from my hands, face-down into the carpet, the pages crinkled beyond hiding. Mom lovingly picked it up, returning the family photo that was taped to the inside cover. I sat on my hands as though they were not shaking, as though I was not already long gone, as though I had not already found my way out from under my own eyes staring at me from the frames in the hallway.
My parents may have known then that the person living in my skin was a new being, one unrelated to the photos watching me, someone had no roof over her head, who wanted nothing but to lay down, who ran and ran and ran, who hasn’t stopped.
“Is there anything we can pray about for you?” My dad’s eyes were syrupy-warm, and he blinked fast to make it look like he was crying. I think I said yes anyway.
That night, I crawled out of my bedroom window and sat on the roof of the house, staring at the stars through gaps in the rain clouds, until dawn came and I had to wake my parents for Jesus’ birthday. The first gift I opened was a new pocket Bible, with my name embossed on the cover, staring me down from my desk until I moved it to the closet, where I felt it watch me until I finally propped it open on my shelf, gathering dust in the Psalms.
Maybe because they knew he had “good folks,” and maybe because I had been sulky, my parents let me spend New Year’s Eve with Justin. We feigned drunkenness from the single glass of wine (for me) and bottle of beer (for him) that his parents offered us. After they fell asleep, we crawled down the stairs to the sound of neighborhood kids setting off firecrackers, and drank a little from every bottle in the liquor cupboard. He reached for me on the kitchen floor and we crept back into his room, passing out with our hands intertwined under each other’s clothes as though the effort itself was enough to count. I was sorry we were falling asleep, his nose pressed behind my ear, my fingers rubbing his spine. When I woke up, fully clothed, I didn’t wake him. It wasn’t out of spite, but I couldn’t tear my thoughts from myself, and could not reach him. He didn’t notice through the thick fog of his hangover. I left him a glass of water, went to McDonald’s for coffee, and tried to pretend I wasn’t going to the Field.
If I go to that McDonald’s now, it’s not going back; it’s more like stepping through a familiar wardrobe into an unfamiliar present. Then, it was still filled with the rock-hard pastel chairs on one side, mismatched with the red benches and chairs on the other. It was within walking distance of one of the most expensive restaurants in our town, but we could get lunch there for $3.12. This McDonald’s was a stalwart life-house against the stemming tide of propriety, with rivulets of ketchup cemented in the grout. I suppose it did, but that doesn’t mean I don’t miss going there instead of the new, shiny, freshly mopped one that stands in its place. The old one gave the illusion of wildness.
I ordered the cheapest coffee on the menu and handed my money to the counter girl. I had exact change, and we smiled at how quickly she was able to get me out of her line and move onto the invisible person behind me.
I sat down at one of the back tables and felt a familiar shadow on my back. That was when I decided that I knew what I had to do, not for salvation, but as my riotous defeat. Keoni’s hand was warm on my shoulder.
“Can I sit here?” he asked, already moving to sit, chair squeaking. I don’t know if he knew I was nodding with my soul as well as my head, or if he saw my ponytail bouncing too much, because he laughed and kissed my cheek, like a grandma would. He smelled sweetly smoky, like cigarettes and women’s shampoo. I wondered why he was here alone, and where he’d gotten the shampoo.
“So, what did you do for the holidays?” I asked.
My body buzzed, itching, screaming; I wondered if he could sneak into my room. He would be natural, a perfect fit. We had touched only once or twice, and even in the platonic brushes of arms and the accidental stepping on of toes, we were as graceful as we’d be dancing together, I thought. The foreigner I had been sleeping beside the night before was hungover from both alcohol and my presence, female and wild, traitorous. I knew he would be asleep, unreachable, and chose to follow, right then, the screaming in my legs and hands and lips. I wondered if I had the look yet, the look that said there are no sacred places left on my skin, the look that said “initiated,” that said, “worship.” I knew what I needed to know from Justin. I knew who I was and what I would ask of Keoni moments later.
“I found Jesus,” he replied.
His food number was called, and the warmth drained from the kiss mark on my cheek. He returned, unwrapping his egg McMuffin and sipping an iced coffee, sitting up straight for the first time since I’d met him. He’d even shaved the bad moustache he’d been growing out. I felt a twinge of hope: he didn’t know what religion meant and I could tell him that Justin and I were over and I could make that the truth and I knew it was hopeless. The way he said it, like he’d found God in the Field, hiding behind the trees, it was as though he believed it. His whole face relaxed while he was eating, like he could taste the food and enjoy it. I sat back in my chair, gripping my knees to keep my legs from shaking. He told me that it was the book of Luke that got him.
“That Mary…what a mom.” He finished his food and wiped his mouth with a napkin, watching his own hand crumple it.
We knew how to pass time next to each other and sat for a few minutes in electric quiet.
“What’s your first name?” I finally asked.
“David.” He paused, grinning for the first time. “Damn, do I have to go by that now? Are there rules ‘bout that? I didn’t sign up for some haole shit, did I?” He leaned back and rubbed his hands through his hair. His hand was finally out of his waistband.
I tried to glare at him and he laughed.
“No, but at least your name’s good. Leah was just some blind chick who got married before her little sister,” I paused, “and David was a man after God’s own heart.”
“I don’t know what that means, but it sounds dope.” He looked delighted.
I went back to the Field, and God wasn’t there. The foot trails where the thorns had been brushed aside were hidden by the flooding. I could see it all then: where he’d learned to recognize the smell of holiness, to breathe deeply, and I hadn’t known that the smoke between us was incense, that I had misinterpreted entirely what we were taking in while I was learning to live here, under the sky.