Letter From A Devastated Place

Photo by Andy
Letter From A Devastated Place by Akemi Johnson

The summer that you were eleven, you moved with your family to that little red-dirt town on Kauai. Less than a year earlier, the hurricane had ravaged the island—stripped its fruit trees, shredded its palms, wrecked the places tourists liked to go. Iniki had tossed apart people’s lives. Debris still littered the shoulders of roads: steps leading to nowhere, shells of houses collapsing toward the earth.

To you, it was an adventure. The fishing pier was a mouth missing teeth; you leapt across the torn-away boards and caught a shark from its lip. With new friends, you snuck into off-limits places like the cavernous wooden gym that had housed the community center. During the hurricane, winds approaching two hundred miles an hour had blown through the gym’s windows and around and around inside, demolishing its contents before blasting straight up through the roof. The hole in the ceiling looked perfect to you, a skylight through which to watch stars. Someone had dragged a couch to the top of a pile of rubble, below the hole, and kids made out there and smoked weed. You and your friends threw LP records around like Frisbees, cheering when they shattered against the walls.

To the others, maybe that gym, muddy and damp, was more frightening than fun. Maybe it brought back the screaming of those deadly winds and huddles formed with neighbors in the high school gym. But you—you who had been safe on Oahu—loved the danger and decay of it all.


In the hot afternoon, we pull off each other’s clothes without speaking. You chuck my bra behind the futon. I bite your lip until we feel a crunch. In the months since you left, you haven’t cut your hair; its dark waves lie flattened and long. Five or six pounds have transferred between us, from my body to yours. Your palm measures my ribs. My fingers find your belly soft, and there’s a pallor to your skin, which I want to believe is grief.

In the beginning, nearly two years ago, you sometimes startled me with your beauty. Standing at the foot of my bed in boxers, stripped of your black-frame glasses and sagging jeans, you were exposed as this bronzed surfer hunk, a man from my dreams. I’d been living in Honolulu fewer than six months and was still heady over the new world, where my own hapa haole face and culture were reflected back at me over and over—in the foods at the grocery stores, in the words in conversations, in the people on television, in you. When we first met, at a twilight barbeque, you were introduced to me as a filmmaker. You wore that plaid cap that I hate and seemed endearingly shy. We talked about David Sedaris and being mixed race, and something inside me was already opening. Then, over dinner, you said your father was a pastor. His church wasn’t far from here, down near the freeway, across from the Anheuser-Busch distributor.

“Perfect,” I said, watching you carefully. “You can get a drink when you need it.”

You chuckled, but didn’t indicate whether you had followed your father or rebelled. Later, after I learned you worked part-time at the church, leading the youth group, I wondered if you were a virgin, saving yourself. You weren’t—thank God—but I could feel the years of Sunday school in the hesitancy of your grip and the stints at Bible study in the way you held your shoulders, lifted an inch toward your ears.

Now, in the bedroom that we had painted a hopeful yellow, you slam me down on the mattress. You crush my wrists, one atop the other, and yank my hair to expose my throat. It’s post–break up sex—frenzied and unthinking and painful and intoxicating. For a beat, I recognize in your eyes the person I remember, and that thing in my chest is opening again, turning toward you, flooding. I kiss your mouth and taste salt, and when I look up what I had recognized is gone—the cloud cover has rolled back in.

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Akemi Johnson is a writer whose work has appeared in The Nation, Kyoto Journal,The Asian American Literary Review, and elsewhere. As a Fulbright scholar, she researched the US–military base borderlands in Okinawa, Japan, and she is now completing a creative nonfiction book on the experience. She lives in San Francisco.