by parker blaney
My brother and I loved banyan trees. When we first moved to Hawaii we often wanted to be in their embrace. The Hindu believe that their benevolent god Krishna lives in the coils of the tree, trunks that connect at the base and twine upward like arteries sprung from a human heart. The sucker trunks, grey and shiny like alien skin, shiver and make ominous sounds when the wind moves. At first they made us feel afraid, and yet we were still drawn to them.
When I was twelve and my brother fifteen, our family moved from a small town on the southern coast of Maine to the island of Oahu in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. The new sights and sounds and smells were strange and unsettling, so it took Scott and me a while to muster the courage to climb a banyan tree as we had scurried up maple and pine trees back home. Initially, our family lived at the Pagoda Hotel, a few streets back from Waikiki Beach, and a huge specimen stood in a park near the Honolulu Zoo, a few blocks from the hotel. When we climbed it for the first time and sat high up in its branches, it felt like we had resurrected a part of the home we had left thousands of miles behind. We sat there until a security guard came along and told us to get down or he’d call the police.
“We’re going, we’re going,” I remember yelling down to him, as we scrambled from the tree and ran back to the hotel breathless, laughing nervously.
“Boy, they sure are touchy around here,” Scott said after we had calmed down.
After the Pagoda Hotel, we lived in an apartment a few blocks away until, six months later, we moved to Pearl Ridge. Our new house was in a new settlement of large, one-story homes twelve miles west of Honolulu and built on old cane fields overlooking Pearl Harbor. Up in the heiau—a Hawaiian word that translates roughly into “ancient burial ground”—at the top of Pearl Ridge, a large banyan tree marked the entrance to the dirt road that wound up through the tropical rain forest. Scott and I spent hours enveloped within the thick canopy of jungle, exploring the spine of the ridge or the deep, lush valleys that fell to either side. We often retreated into this opaque jungle to escape Dad’s drinking, Mom’s anger, their physical altercations, or some adolescent disaster that had befallen us, finding creative ways to protect ourselves that we did not have at home, like two animals discovering a burrow or high tree in which to hide.
We also had to worry about the dangers at school. Scott’s junior year—I was a freshman—a local boy walked up to my brother as we waited for the bus after school, called him a mahu—the Hawaiian word for gay— and punched him in the face. Scott didn’t try to defend himself; he wasn’t much of a fighter, although he wished that he was. The boy was really a young man and quite handsome. He wore a black, neatly trimmed mustache and goatee and a black silky with white and pink orchids. He didn’t look angry when he walked up to Scott, just matter of fact, maybe a bit sad, like he already regretted what he was about to do. Then he was gone, vanished like some lovely apparition our schoolmates had folded up and hidden inside their rigid bodies.
I don’t remember Scott telling either of our parents, or their asking him about his swollen lip. Perhaps he felt he deserved the punch. Perhaps he hated himself for being the way he was. In any case, neither of my parents called the school and demanded that the boy be punished.
My brother was sixteen by then and in his “swishy period,” as he called it later on, and he regularly attracted a hail of scorn and derision from his classmates. We were also both haoles—a Hawaiian word for white foreigner—and were in the minority by far. There were perhaps twenty-five white students out of four hundred. Our classmates were Hawaiian, Japanese, Filipino, Portuguese, Samoan, Chinese, and a few I have probably forgotten, often of mixed ancestry. For me the girls with Chinese and Hawaiian blood were the most beautiful, while Scott loved the young men with Samoan and Portuguese blood. We loved them—mostly—but only a few loved us back; their parents taught them that we had stolen their land, or our ancestors had anyway—which was true. I only convinced a few that I had nothing to do with this, and that I was also upset by what my race had done to them and their land.
We skipped school the day after Scott was punched in the face, hiding in a closet and waiting for our mother to leave on errands. We stole two packs of Winston Salem 100s from her bedroom, made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, filled a jug with cold water, walked up the hill to the heiau a half-mile away, and climbed into the banyan tree near the entrance. Scott’s lip was still swollen; his handsome face was his best asset, he used to say. Any attack on it was an attack on his very being. It was the one thing no one could criticize. Not my father, not anyone. He had dark brown, wavy hair, striking green eyes, and delicately shaped cheekbones. His body was slender and wiry, and he was surprisingly strong. He was a beautiful boy. The faint outline of the thin, elegant mustache he would wear until he died of AIDS in 1992, after a short life struggling with drugs, alcohol, and broken relationships, made him look almost like a man already.
A cool windward breeze made us shiver. Overhead, a jumbo jet sliced through the blue of the sky as it prepared for a landing five miles east. In the bright sunshine his eyes seemed to bore into me. He told me how the punch had humiliated him more than it had hurt him, and how much he resented the boy who had thrown it.
“If I was as tough as you are I would have punched him back.”
“I’m not that tough,” I said. Even though I was three years younger, I already outweighed him and was stocky and compact. I had quick feet and hands and could throw a baseball almost ninety miles an hour, a talent that would later interest professional baseball scouts and land me a scholarship on a nationally-ranked team.
“Well, Dad thinks you are.”
He told me the punch wasn’t as random as it had seemed. He and the boy had “done things” in one of the high school bathrooms a few days before.
I listened without saying anything. I had long been his audience. In a way Scott was my first client. I learned to listen and empathize quietly, to use a sort of calmness and equanimity to help him ease his strong emotions. After college I became a psychotherapist, which I largely attribute to the time I spent listening to his troubles. Back then he would bitch to me for hours, sometimes about the injustices of the world, but mostly about Dad’s disapproval of him. Dad was never physical with his children like our mother was, who hit us with various objects when she was angry. Dad punished with a few well-chosen words, which were usually focused on Scott. He didn’t like Scott’s swishy behavior either, which I’m sure is why we both knew the boy would never be punished, that somehow the blow had really come from our father.
I remember one Saturday night Dad and I and one of my friends were sitting in the front yard and Scott came out of our house and announced he would walk to the mall at the bottom of the ridge to cruise around. He wore a Clint Eastwood flat-brimmed cowboy hat with a tassel dangling off the back, skin-tight crushed red-velvet pants, a form-fitting T-shirt, and four-inch platform shoes. Dad’s eyes pinched slightly and he made a ticking noise with his tongue, like a bug out in the grass. I don’t remember if he called him a queer, but the expression on his face said it all. My friend snickered loudly and Scott limped off. There in the dark I could feel his shame. I didn’t try and defend him. Back then I didn’t have the courage or the skill to go against my father, who was, despite his small physical size, a psychologically powerful man, especially when he was sober.
I shifted on the branch and let the sun warm my face. It was early in the morning and mist rose from the grass and jungle that surrounded us. I waited patiently, puffing on my cigarette, feeling sure someone had given me the job of listening to my brother for some purpose that I couldn’t see. Perhaps I felt guilty, the favored son, the one named after my father. What kind of parent names the second-born male after the father? I had grown into his idea of a son: I didn’t wear funny clothes or act like a girl and I was interested in sports. But that was more my dad’s idea. I think he needed me to be that way. What I remember most is the feeling that if I accepted my brother—and I did, even when he sometimes embarrassed me in front of my friends—I could somehow make it better, that the sting of my father’s disgust of him would be dulled.
We smoked cigarette after cigarette, folded like little monkeys in the giant tree. The banyan stood on the east side of the entrance to the heiau, which afforded a spectacular view of the valley between Pearl Ridge and Aiea, the next ridge over. Roosters cawed under the green canopy far below; a local chicken farmer who owned the land was burning brush. Blue smoke wafted up out of the jungle and seemed to hang there indefinitely. White egrets, tiny fluttering handkerchiefs, drifted in small flocks from one side of the valley to the other, nervous and unsettled. The thought of going back to school the next day upset my stomach. School was full of rival factions from Aiea or Halewa, rumbling on the football field and occasionally turning on the haoles for fun. I can only imagine what it did to Scott, who was afraid of physical violence. I often felt like the older brother. I wasn’t afraid to dust it up with one of the local kids if he called me a haole. I was getting a reputation as a tough guy, but we didn’t talk any more about the assault. There was nothing we could do, so why bring it up again? Even I was no match for the big senior moke who had punched him. Our vulnerability was inevitable.
Scott was turned slightly away from me, looking into the green valley, Aiea Heights rising up beyond it. The muscles of his jaw quivered under his skin. Helplessness seemed to swell his lips as much as the blow they took. He clenched a cigarette between them and squinted as the smoke made his eyes water, but he refused to remove it from his mouth. The smell of hibiscus flowers was all around us and mourning doves cooed in a nearby paper tree. Along the ridge above us the wind moved through the filao trees, its peculiar sound like the sighs of hundreds of people. We stood on thick branches high up in the tree, where the sun drenched our bodies. We smoked and spit, amusing ourselves by spattering the leaves as the drops fell to the earth.
After a while we climbed down and walked out to the red clay road and looked back. The banyan stood there, impervious and silent, filling much of the blue sky. How could we, I wondered, be as strong as it was, as unaffected by its environment? How could we survive here on this island, without having everything New England taken from us, leaving us bare? Back home we had friends and diversions to help us avoid Mom and Dad’s troubles. Here, we were isolated and alone. Navigating school and our parents seemed impossible in that moment. But somehow the tree gave us hope. The country and the islands were at a crossroads in the early seventies. Local people protested a housing project on the ridge west of Pearl Ridge, concerned with developers encroaching on the interior jungle, which contained Hawaiian burial grounds. The Watergate scandal droned along on TV, which we watched with our father after he came home from work, our angry mother in the background as Dad sipped his first beer of the evening and slowly grew stoned. Scott and I sensed our family unraveling. But the tree maintained an order despite the chaos of its twisting trunks, a route along winding, uneven branches that suggested movement upward, closer to the sky, farther away from the damaged people on the ground below.
I playfully curled my arm around Scott as we walked out to the tar road. I kept leaning against him, jostling him out of his mood, something I would do verbally with my troubled clients later on. He first pushed me away and then grabbed me and made like he was going to throw me to the ground, but held me bent over backwards. I cawed with enough fake alarm that he let me back up and ruffled my hair and called me a stupid haole. I thought he might go off on a rant against Dad, but he didn’t. Instead, he was silent as we walked along.
The heiau road came out near the house of my friend, Ed White, a chubby hapa Korean kid who was probably the best junior Ping-Pong player in the galaxy—although his mother was the best adult player in the universe. She had played on the Korean national team when she was a young woman, and she could beat Ed or me with either hand as she sipped a cocktail and laughed as we flailed away with our cork paddles. But Ed wouldn’t be around yet. He was still in school—as we should be. Well, I told myself, he had an easier time of it than Scott and I did. He had half-Korean, half-white in his blood to help him mix in with our classmates.
It was just after noon and the sun blazed down on our necks. My stomach growled. We had eaten the sandwiches before ten o’clock and drunk all of the water. We sneaked back into the jungle and skirted the back lawns of the houses of our neighborhood. We cut through Kaonohi Park and walked down our dead-end street and into our garage. There was no one around, so we went into the house, grabbed a couple of cans of ginger ale and a bag of chips, went back into the garage, and climbed up into the false attic. Mom came home a few minutes later. She was a buxom chemical blond with sharp features—a hawk nose and intense green-brown eyes. Her back was broader than that of most men. She had shapely, powerful legs. We watched her muscle bags of groceries into the house.
We waited until we heard the Wong children returning from school. They lived up the street, two houses away. Mr. Wong maintained a beautifully sculpted, manicured lawn and gardens. Their house was as ordered and neat as ours was chaotic. Our mother had insisted Dad have the house painted barn-red, like in New England. On the peak of the gable-end nearest the driveway, a wooden seagull screwed to the siding acted as a sentry. Our pool was green with algae, the concrete deck around it full of cracks and uneven places. A steel, homemade tower rose above the house about sixty feet, where its array of ham radio wires helped Dad talk to people all over the Pacific Rim. The guide wires were bolted to the fence surrounding the pool and on the other side of the house. The radio tower was rusty and hummed sharply in a Kona wind. My heart jolted in my chest whenever I heard the sounds or saw the tower jacking back and forth. It strained against the threads holding it. I expected it all to come crashing down at any moment.
We walked nonchalantly into the house from the garage.
“Where’s your homework?” Mom said sharply. Large paper bags crowded the dining room table. She was putting away a jar of pickles and a bag of jasmine rice in a pantry cupboard next to the refrigerator. The television was turned down low in a corner of the living room. Her white toy poodle, Jolie, begged at her feet for a scrap of food.
“We did it at school,” I lied.
“Sure you did,” she said.
A bag of green apples sat on the counter. “Can we have an apple?”
“Wash your hands. You both look filthy. What have you been doing?”
“We’ve spent the day breathing,” Scott said. “Just like every other kid.”
“Don’t get smart with me, mister.” She ripped open the bag of apples and tossed a couple at us.
We heard Dad’s red VW Bug pull into the driveway around five o’clock. Scott helped Mom set the table while I sat on the mouse-colored couch and watched soap operas. I changed the channel to Days of our Lives and Mom yelled at me to leave it on General Hospital. Dad, with his rounded belly and black saggy mustache, walked into the living room smoking a cigarette. He was Head Engineer of Combat Systems on the Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard, but he dressed like he’d just come out of a cheap bar down in Aiea; he’d worn his blue and gold aloha shirt too many days in a row and his dark pants drooped in the crotch.
As Dad walked through the living room and into the kitchen, Scott glared at him the whole way. Dad pecked Mom on the cheek, which she held out like someone had just poured lime juice into her mouth. He didn’t seem to notice. But I was already an expert on noticing every word and gesture, every lift of an eyebrow or adjustment of a mouth. In some sense, my life depended on it, to feel the first quiver of an earthquake before it happened. In a few minutes we sat down to eat the pork chops, mashed potatoes, frozen peas, and a loaf of French bread that Mom had prepared for him. Dad made slight popping noises with his mouth as he ate, and Scott never took his eyes off him, especially his mouth. His swollen upper lip quivered as he watched our father eat. He gripped a butter knife in his left hand, and I wondered if he might jump up and stab him with it. Dad didn’t seem to notice this either. He remained as impenetrable to those around him as a rock to the soil underneath it. He drank one beer after another as he ate. I watched with grim fascination as the expression on his face slowly changed. Sober, he never showed his teeth when he smiled, but when he was drunk he grinned openly, displaying small, evenly-spaced yellow teeth. He was generally soft-spoken and gentle, introspective, but not now. His manner grew cocky and aggressive, and he now noticed Scott scowling at him.
“What are you looking at?” he demanded.
Scott didn’t say anything but continued to glare at his plate.
A few moments passed before Dad jerked backwards and stood up, knocking over his chair, and walked away toward his bedroom, muttering something about people not leaving him alone even in his own house.
“What did you do that for?” Mom scolded. But he wouldn’t answer her, just looked down at his plate, chewing his pork chop and potatoes with gusto, a hateful smirk on his face.
“Are you going to answer me?”
Mom’s face was burned from too much sunbathing out by the dirty pool. She stabbed a piece of meat with her fork and held it suspended over the table.
“Leave me alone,” he said. His voice was low and full of warning.
Mom grimaced as if she would say something more, but she didn’t. Instead, she stripped pork from the bone noisily and stuffed mashed potatoes into her mouth. She finished quickly and then jumped up and disappeared into the back of the house. She came out a few minutes later and grabbed an armful of Dad’s beer. She gave us each a dirty look and then stalked back into the bedroom. After a while we could hear them giggling. Then moans. Scott, disgusted, carried the dishes to the dishwasher and loaded them. After he put away the food he began to wash the pots and pans. I got up to help dry them, nudging him with my hip as I stood beside him at the double sink. He nudged me back, smiling.
It was the same sad, frightened smile he’d had on his face when he’d come out to us last summer on a family camping trip up near Waimea Bay. Not many gay boys of sixteen in the early seventies were announcing this to their families. We had camped on an outcropping of lava a few yards from the sea. Terns chirped and squealed their way into my consciousness over the three days we were there. My older sister and her husband and daughter, who lived on the windward side of the island, pitched their tent next to ours. My other sister, a sophomore at a local college, slept on the ground near the fire.
Scott had announced before the camping trip that he had something important to tell us. The first night he took a few of us at a time down to the beach away from the tents and the fire. In retrospect, I suppose he wanted only a small number of family members present in case there was a negative reaction. He took my mother and father away together; it felt a bit like someone leading people away to be executed—or I remember the gravity of the situation that way. I was told last. But I knew long before that moment. We had slept in the same bedroom our entire lives, and I knew the boys he had loved on the schoolyard in Maine. I had no need to formally accept him now, since, like his eyes or the shape of his nose, he just was. It never occurred to me to reject him as others would in the years to come. I loved him.
Despite this, he was disappointed by my reaction. I said something like, “No shit, Scott.”
Afterwards, we all sat around the fire. Scott rocked back and forth and cast furtive glances at us; we were mostly silent. What do you say after a revelation like this? Coming out was not part of the national lexicon with an established ritual in those days. Mom slumped in a beach chair and slowly got drunk on whiskey and smoked pot with my oldest sister, which Dad disapproved of.
She kept lamenting, “It just can’t be so. It just can’t be.”
Then she pleaded directly to Scott, “You won’t give me any grandchildren?”
And then after a moment, “But at least you’ll be able to take care of me when I’m old.”
Dad stayed quiet, didn’t drink much, and smoked one cigarette after another. He watched Scott get up and walk around the tents, tend the fire, serve food to everyone, as if he now had confirmation of something he had long suspected. He took the dinner plate gently from Scott without comment. His eyes never left him for long. He even stopped Mom when she had gone on too long, told her to quiet down so she didn’t bother people who were camping near us. It was a curious, unexpected response. There were rumors that the best man at their wedding twenty years before, a man named Lew Ames, was gay. Lew, a thin, spidery looking man, worked for Braniff Airlines in Dallas, Texas and sometimes flew out to visit us in Hawaii on long weekends. Scott had confirmed Lew’s orientation to me on more than one occasion, without details.
Now at the kitchen sink, it seemed as though the swelling of Scott’s lip had finally lessened. I was glad. We finished the dishes and watched TV for a while, occasionally hearing Mom and Dad going at it in the back room. I could tell from Mom’s giggles that she’d had a drink, too. She drank, she said, more to keep up with our father than to join in, whatever that was supposed to mean. Perhaps she always felt she somehow had more control over him if she was in on his wild behavior, instead of openly opposed to it. But that could change on a dime; we both knew she was a loud, sulky drunk.
I slept in my brother’s bedroom that night, as I often did when I felt something was about to happen, although this sixth sense never helped me outside of the house until years later as a psychotherapist. The moon shone brightly through the window. In the middle of the night we woke up to angry voices—beasts grunting in the next room. We jumped up and went into the hall; tangled arms and legs rolled around on the shag rug that covered the living room floor. Mom, her hairdo torn apart, straddled Dad and pounded him in the face with her right hand as she held a hank of his hair with the other. He bucked his hips, trying to get her off, and flailed with his hands, yanking her hair when he could get a handful. Dad would be hard-pressed to lick my mother when he was this drunk. She was a tough, angry woman, while he was always the more cerebral and delicate. He and Scott were more alike than either of them would have ever admitted. But alcohol did profound things to my father, and he could be unpredictable. He somehow slipped out from under her, rolled on top, and began punching her in the face.
Scott pushed past me and laid his knee across the side of our father’s head and knocked him over. Dad groaned and curled into a ball, wrapping both arms around his head. Mom lay still, not moving, blood dripping from her nose. After a few moments she also began to groan and jack her legs about. She lifted her head and looked at me, the skin of her forehead knitting together as if she had never seen me before in her life.
“You little son-of-a-bitch,” Dad said.
One slurry eye, flecked with light from the moon, looked up at Scott, who stood over him, fists clenched.
He swiped at Scott’s legs, caught hold of one and tried to knock him over, but Scott lashed at him with his foot, kicking him.
Blood spurted from his mouth. He groaned and turned his face away.
“I’m your father,” he cried over and over again, his body shaking, his left arm held out protectively.
Then Scott was gone, like the wooden-faced boy at school who had punched him, melted into the darkness. The door leading into the garage slammed shut. I chased after him. Despite the glow of the moon, I never saw him as I ran up the hill. My heart leapt in my chest when I reached the top. A liana hung down from the banyan tree, and for a moment it looked as if it were attached to my brother’s head, pulling him up. His back was to me. One foot and leg rested awkwardly on a branch high up, leaning against the other as if it were crippled. The moon washed the sucker trunks in pale, silvery bands. The wind blew in the filao trees, sighs that rose and fell. I scrambled up to him and his inert body swung slowly to face me—a gallows swing. He clutched the vine in his hand.
His swollen lips parted, that same fearful smile.
“Jesus,” I said.
We were thirty feet up, so we could see that the fires from the chicken farmer still burned in the valley below. Even in the dark, the smoke hung visibly in the air, like swarms of nameless night creatures. He held the liana so I could grab it above his head, and we both shimmied our feet until we teetered in the middle of the thick branch. His body smelled of sweat and trembled slightly. I nudged him with my hip and he nudged me back. His face was smooth and gentle, etched in moonlight, my beautiful brother.
“He deserved it,” he said. “He really deserved it this time.”
“Yes, he did,” I said. “But you didn’t deserve what you got.”
He was quiet for a while.
“No, maybe I didn’t.”
We stayed in the tree until the eastern sky above Pearl Harbor started to grow light. I don’t recall all the things we talked about. I do remember wishing I could take away his pain, even though I knew I could not. My greatest fear was that I couldn’t help him at all, or couldn’t help him enough or in the right way. It’s a feeling I still get sometimes—that I will not say the right thing to a client, that I will fail them.
Sometime during the night we moved closer to the middle of the tree so we could huddle among its folding trunks and branches, drowsy, primitive animals seeking warmth and protection. We opened a single eye at the same time to watch the sun many miles away hike up over the rim of the earth. Its light bathed the green jungles of Aiea and the brownish murk of Pearl Harbor, the flinty blue water inside the reef and the slightly darker ocean, all the way to the horizon.
Parker Blaney’s work has appeared in The Common. He was the co-author of When We Were Soldiers, an exhibit at ArtFusion 19464 of the personal narratives of fifteen Vietnam veterans from southeastern Pennsylvania. He earned his MFA from Bennington College and is a psychotherapist in Portland, Maine.