Riptide by Christina Frei


by Christina Frei

She peers out the airplane window at the emerald shadows of Diamond Head, silvery ocean haze stretching to a thin line of golden sand. Shining Hiltons, Sheratons, and Marriotts reflect the rising sun like orange flares. Neil Young inhabits her head from the cassette in her walk-man as they touch down to an airport her mother remembers as a mere shack. I can’t believe how much it’s all changed! she keeps repeating.

They are welcomed by an assembly-line of Polynesian women in faux-grass skirts and smiles, draping leis of orchids over the bent heads of the latest arrivals. A pink hibiscus is tucked behind her left ear. The air is thick with jasmine and tuberose.

Her mother, square-jawed, boney chested, explains to complete strangers on the mini-bus to the hotel how she got married here almost twenty years ago, had two kids (here’s one!) while her daughter watches dread-locked surfers head to the beach in board shorts, flip flops, faded Hawaiian shirts, to the tune of Heart of Gold.

She’s in love for the first time with a boy back home, recalls obsessively how he danced, how he leaned in toward her as if she were all that mattered. He didn’t call her before they left, wasn’t home when she braved a blizzard to see him.

Her mother takes her to see their old house on Kinau street, now a gas station sporting multi-colored bunting. Even the hospital near Waikiki where she was born has been torn down for a golf course. Her mother’s eyes tear up, not for what’s missing, but for what’s still here to bring back all the betrayals and disappointments, and it makes her want to cry too, for the boy her mother has never even met.

They lunch quietly on banana bread and pineapple juice, the tour guide enthusiastically signs ‘hang loose’, a contrivance that fails to cheer her and annoys her mother. They skip organized activities in favour of a swim at the beach. Not far from shore a Humpback whale breaches lazily and pink-skinned beachgoers slick with coconut oil, stretch their necks up to see. There is a sign warning of the Portuguese man o’ war, but she swims anyway, while her mother reclines in the shade of an immense Koa tree.

It’s not a gastropod she encounters, but a riptide that grabs her and pulls her under then spits her back out. She can almost touch the sandy shore, but like a cat toying with a mouse, the water catches her up again, sucks her back into a wave, over and over, forcing her to gag on saltwater. She grabs onto a rock until the ocean relinquishes its grip on her. She staggers back to her oblivious mother, shoulders shaking with sobs of relief as her mother tentatively pats her arm in a confused effort to comfort her, not for what has happened, but for all the possibilities that once lay ahead of them like stars, one-by-one extinguished.


Christina Frei grew up in Halifax, Nova Scotia and has lived in Toronto, Dakar, Amsterdam, and Montreal. Her poetry has appeared in numerous journals and she has been nominated for Best of the Net 2013, three Pushcart prizes and a Best New Poets award.


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