Hawaiʻi Review, the University of Hawaiʻi’s literary journal had a reading and launch on Saturday May 6th, 2017, for issue 85, entitled “Occupying Va.” The theme of a pair of issues (85 and 86) is the space between things, which has meaning for Pacific peoples. The readers included Kapena Landgraf, Lee Kava, the Hong Kong-based poet Wa Wa, Eric Paul Schaefer and myself.
My short story ‘The Breach” (read the full story here) is based on the true story of my motherʻs cousin, Charles Makekau Apo, a 1957 Kamehameha graduate who attended Harvard. As a veteran Kamehameha teacher and Harvard graduate, I thought I could get inside the head of someone who was very much a pioneer – it was extremely unusual for Kamehameha students, and Hawaiians to attend Ivy League colleges in the 1950s – and try to understand the struggles he may have been facing in terms of social norms, social class, and social capital. More generally, it is a story of the conflict, often internal, of Hawaiian, local and mainland haole norms and the imposition of one on the other, which, for Makekau (as he is called in the story), begins at Kamehameha and only continues at Harvard. Below is the excerpted version that I read from.
By ʻUmi Perkins
This story first appeared in Hawaiʻi Review #85, Fall, 2016
The letter in the mail was thick. Addressed in pica type to Charles A. Makekau, the envelope read, “Harvard University – VERITAS” in Crimson, and was postmarked Cambridge, MA 02138. He’d been waiting all day, every day over spring break, doing nothing else. His heart pounded so hard he was sure his Japanese neighbors could see it beating in his chest. Back in the house, Charlie took his mother’s stainless steel letter opener and delicately sliced open the envelope, careful not to make any tears. The letter, on fine parchment, began: “Welcome to the Harvard class of 1956!”
The next day, feeling good, Charlie regarded himself in the mirror. He thought he looked Chinese with Hawaiian coloring and lips. His jet-black hair was slicked back and to the side. The overall effect was handsome enough. He looked at his body. His stomach was flat from youth but soft from indulgence and frailty. He thought of a girl he would see in Smith Library – something welled up in him, but he fought it off. He took a dress shirt off a hanger. He was appalled that men had recently started wearing florid blouses – he liked his shirts crisp and lily-white.
In the last days of high school, he seemed to form an unspoken bond with the two boys who were going to Stanford, Jerry Kamoku and Randall Hoʻopiʻi. The popular boys gave him big grins and raised their chins toward him as they passed in the hallways of Paki and Bishop Hall, as if to say, “You’re one of us.” But they were athletes, going on baseball and track scholarships. Charlie was no athlete, nor was he on scholarship. He was going on brains, paying full tuition. But all agreed he was bound to be one of those success stories, a doctor in the new Honolulu, where racial boundaries were just beginning to loosen.
Charlie boarded the Clipper ship. Gaining speed along the water of Keʻehi Lagoon, the chopping ceased, and the pontoons lifted off the lightly rippled sea. He crossed the vast expanse of the Pacific. How could Hawai’i be a part of America if this separated it? It seemed endless, but he would come to know that it separated his home from another realm entirely, another world, not just far away, but alien.
A week later, Charlie got off a train in New York and took a bus to Boston. The campus straddled the Charles River, the first real river he’d seen. Old, but stately red brick buildings made the skyline jagged in a way not entirely different, he thought, from the way it may have looked in the seventeenth century. But the historic buildings were flanked and juxtaposed by Harvard Square, a mottled, steamy, miniature version of the more literate sections of Manhattan. He checked in to Elliot House. The common room had a grand piano. His suite had a Persian-style rug and a fireplace. His new roommates walked in gleefully, quickly pausing, seemingly taken aback by his appearance, and then just as quickly seeming to decide they would like him. “Hey buddy, I’m Alfred, Al…” “Harvey.” “I’m Charlie,” he said as he shook their hands haole-style, and a grin slowly appeared on his face, mirroring theirs. They were from Brooklyn and Long Island and had both gone to school in New Hampshire, at Exeter and St Paul’s. Harv Shapiro was the first Jew Charlie had ever met.
After an impossibly short time, Al said, “We’ve got to do something about your clothes!” They went to Brooks Brothers and got him fitted. He was dipping into monies he shouldn’t have this early in the year, but it was worth it. He would write to ma for more. After the measurements were taken and the suits ordered, Harv said “Now … to John Harvard’s!” and there was no refusing him. Charlie spent far more than he meant to on beer and whiskey that day. This became a Friday ritual.
There were two other boys from Hawaiʻi at Harvard, but they were from Punahou. He ran into one of them, Howard Brigham, at a finals club called The Fly. The young men there wore robes, smoked cigars, played pool and acted like kings. “Charles, isn’t it? From Kam School?” “Charlie.” Howard was with a group of other boys, and one of them said, “So you’re from Hawa-yah, eh?” Another said, “By the way, how are ya?” His laugh excluded Charlie. Howard laughed nervously. These Punahou boys were conflicted mavericks who rebelled against their families by not going to Yale. Noblesse oblige required them to be cordial to a Hawaiian, but networking meant sticking with the Blue Book families their grandfathers had met while lobbying for Hawaiʻi’s annexation. The kama’āina families cherished these connections above almost all else.
When he told Al and Harv of the encounter with Howard, Harv said, “Forget those goy snobs!” Al said, “Right. Besides, you’re almost there, Charlie …” Where he almost was he knew, and knew not. The next time Charlie saw him, Howard looked at him without recognition.
[Charlie] began to speak out in class about the inequities of life in Hawaiʻi and Puerto Rico, where they had taxation without representation. He even mentioned the unlikely rise of John Burns, a cop turned politician – actually he had lost every race so far – and how he had called Hawaiʻi’s system one of “economic strangulation.” He told the story of Joseph Kahahawai and the Massie Case, and how honor killings still took place in America’s fringes. His classmates, from Connecticut and Newport, downplayed his protests as anecdotal, not representative of American political life. But how could they know what life was like on the edge of American empire? How his hardscrabble Portuguese friends from small kid time, like Skippy Gomes, scratched out a living as newspaper boys in Kauluwela, their skin becoming wrinkled at eleven or twelve? Yet he was covetous of these scions of the East Coast establishment families. While he championed the Kauluwela boys, he grew unrecognizable and unintelligible to them, the last trace of Pidgin draining from his speech into the gutters of Harvard Square.
He got a D on a Zoology test and left the class feeling as if life was ending. It was his first D. He’d never gotten a C. When he complained to his roommates about his difficulties in his science classes, they tried to reassure him: “Small fish, big pond, all of that, old boy…” They were both business majors and had no academic troubles that would matter. They would go effortlessly on to Wall Street and summer in the Berkshires or on the Cape.
For the first time, he began to procrastinate. He erratically read philosophy – Descartes, Mill, Kant – in no order, with no plan, and when they weren’t assigned. It did help in barroom conversations to drop a philosopher’s name. (The ritual at John Harvard’s now included Wednesdays and Saturdays). “Kierkegaard claims…” made people think he was deep and erudite, and they began calling him “Charlie the barstool philosopher,” which gave him a certain perverse pride. It also made him feel phony, like the characters he’d heard about in Catcher in the Rye. He’d stumble home in the snow over the rough, uneven brick sidewalks, centuries old, questioning his own integrity aloud in front of Harv and Al, who gave each other significant looks over his stooped shoulders.
He bought a record player, and listening to music became an activity, not just background. Jazz was a revelation, especially this new jazzman John Coltrane. Charlie was thrilled to think Coltrane had been stationed in Hawaiʻi and made his first recording there. He felt sure that Coltrane had listened to the Kamehameha song contest in ‘46 – everyone in Honolulu huddled around their radios in those days to hear the classes compete on the Friday before Spring Break. How different his music was from those predictable songs! Every song ending in “Haʻina ia mai,” with no bridge or refrain. His roommates found Coltrane repetitive, but Charlie felt that in playing two adjacent notes over and over, back and forth, he was looking for the space between them. When A Love Supreme came out, it was obvious that his playing was a spiritual practice and Charlie wondered if that space between the notes was, for Coltrane, where God resided.
He began to work in the Elliott House gardens, though he had shown no inclination towards plants before. He was now taking Botany, but it seemed to bear no relation to real practice. He even learned how to weed the flowers and get the dead material off, revealing the fresh plant beneath, and casting off the chaff. The deadwood was tossed to the side of the building, forgotten. All this was to avoid his chemistry work, and it tore at his insides like a spade.
It took a week to make the trip, cutting his summer short on both ends. On the Road had come out and he thought of his cross-country train ride as a Kerouacian misventure. He was far too timid to hitchhike or even drive. Kerouac’s prose, though, burned with an intensity he felt but could never match.
America stretched out in its endless sameness, except for the Rockies and California, where vistas were breathtaking compared to his truncated island world. America wasn’t really states, as they’d been taught at Dole Elementary, he realized, but regions – the green and rocky East, the brown, flat Midwest, the grey Western plains. But, the Pacific! What was once simply endless now began to feel more like home than Cambridge or Honolulu. The breach, he called it. He felt he was crossing seas and centuries. He wasn’t entirely comfortable in his skin or his suit in the East or in the islands, but here, in this space that America claimed to bridge, but he knew could not, nothing welled up nor needed to be fought back.
Many years later, his cousin recalled that at family gatherings, in the heat, Charlie had worn his Brooks Brothers suit, a felt hat. And carried a walking stick.
Before Christmas, Charlie asked Al to drive him to the train station, since his trunk would be hard to take on the T with all his new clothes. Al demurred, making a lame and transparent excuse about his sister, who Charlie knew was at Wellesley and had her own car. Charlie felt an overwhelming nausea that was a kind of revulsion at the thought that everyone, despite all the “Buddy” and the “Hey pal,” was entirely out for themselves. It started at the bridge of his nose and sank to his stomach and made him feel seasick. He found it hard to breathe. It dawned on him that he’d been a project, one Al had now given up on. He felt he would never be there, and everyone, other than he, had known it all along.
The letter in the mail was thin. It read “Harvard University – VERITAS” in blood-crimson. Veritas – truth. His nose turned up into a sneer as Charlie took the letter opener again and carefully slit the edge. Though he saw it coming – he hadn’t been asked to go home last Christmas – his head spun. This last time over the breach would be his last. The only part of the letter he remembered later was “You will always be part of the Harvard class of 1956.”
He fell into an abyss, and only left his room to raid the liquor cabinet or throw up in the bathroom. When the hards were gone, he went for the wine, some of it his father’s vintage. His mother only confronted him on Christmas Eve, when he chose to make one of his forays to the wine rack. She was beside herself and more disheveled than he’d seen her, making preparations for Christmas. She looked as if she scarcely recognized him. He was pale and bloated, his eyes shadows. “What you tink you going do now?” His lip curled into the kind of wicked smirk he’d seen at the finals club. “What I …tink?” Their eyes locked, and he knew what she was thinking. She had passed the English standard test to get into Roosevelt, only one in her family, and Pidgin only slipped out in the most fraught moments. He softened his look, and hers turned to a panicked beseeching. He turned into his room, sat on the bed he never left, and downed two glasses. He thought of the breach of his trust and the false bill of goods he’d been sold, for which he’d willingly paid his family and culture. He thought of the turmoil on both sides of the Pacific, and how neither side could ever understand the other. The unknowing innocents on this side and the clever wicked – unknowing of his world – on the other. And then, the Pacific between. The peace of it took his breath away and he fell, ineffably, into the breach.
Keola came over the next day. He went into Charlie’s room because his mother would not. He came out and, without looking at her, shook his head, wordlessly staring at the floor.
The official cause of death was an asthma attack. Everyone was at the funeral: Keola, Uncle Joe, Pop Diamond, Grace Lee, Jerry Kamoku, even Dr. Oleson. They offered their condolences to his mother: “He was a fine, brilliant and cheerful young man…” She wondered why they came if they didn’t know him. He was buried at Puea Cemetery in Kalihi, three plots over from Joseph Kahahawai. Kahahawai’s grave reads: “Born December 25, 1909, killed January 8th, 1932.” Charlie’s reads: “Born December 8th 1932, died December 25, 1953.”
Luriyer “Pop” Diamond’s book Images of Aloha is dedicated to two Kamehameha graduates, Randy Hoʻopiʻi and Charles Makekau Apo, “whose lives were far too brief.”