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The Pickup

(In June 2003, journalists Mark Frauenfelder and Carla Sinclair uprooted themselves from Los Angeles and moved to the South Pacific. Their first stop is Rarotonga. They brought their two young daughters with them.)

I’m at the Rarotonga airport with Hank, a stout, good-natured cab driver, who’s helping me pick up my mother. She’s our first visitor, and I’m very excited.

Her plane was supposed to arrive at 9 p.m., but we just found out that her flight is over an hour late — something to do with a delay in Oakland, CA. The tiny, poorly lit airport is all shut down except for this one outdoor terminal. It’s just me and Hank.

Hank motions for me to come back to his cab, which is parked just a few yards away from us. He bends over the driver’s seat, digs around in a box of junk, and pulls out two white flowers. He gives one to me, and sticks the other one in his hair. I slip mine into the top button hole of my blouse.

“Thanks,” I say.

The next thing I know, he’s ushering me across the road. “Uh, where are we going?” I ask. I’m not comfortable leaving the airport.

Hank nods his head in the direction of a plain rectangular building with green light emanating between the walls and the roof. Loud Vanilla Ice is thumping from inside.

“It’s always crowded Monday nights,” he tells me. “They get the backpackers.”

“So it’s a tourist bar?”

“Half tourists, half locals.”

Inside, it looks like mostly locals. A couple of heavy women smile at Hank, and one wearing a grass crown starts talking to him. He doesn’t introduce me and I suddenly feel conscious of how I look: a white girl wearing a skirt and high platform thongs, standing pretty much by herself near the entrance of this dark bar. Hank and his friend begin yakking in Maori, and the woman in the crown keeps bursting into laughter.

I notice that half the people in here have a white flower in their hair, so I slip mine behind my ear.

The ceiling is abnormally low, and a string of different colored light bulbs hangs from one end of the bar to the other. A couple of wilting ivy plants decorate the walls.

When Hank’s lady friend leaves, he walks me towards the bar. “What’ll you have?” he asks.

“Oh! Nothing, thank you.”

This is getting bizarre. I look out the door. Hank reads my mind. “Don’t worry, the plane’s not here yet. There will be a flashing light when the plane arrives, and then we’ll have 10 minutes. Now what do you want to drink?”

I don’t have any money, and I don’t want to be tipsy when I greet my mom, but before I can tell him this, he puts some money on the bar and asks, “White wine or red?”

“White,” I say, wishing immediately that I’d just ordered juice or water.

The bartender smiles at me, and I recognize her from her missing front teeth. She works at a perfume factory near our house. “Hello!” she says.

“Hi!” I say, feeling like she’s an old friend. It’s nice to see a familiar person. Sweat drips all over her face, and she tells me she’s tired.

Hank takes me by the elbow and leads me towards a small dance floor. It reminds me of one of the small-town crappy clubs I frequented when going to college, where awkward dancers would bop around to bad music. I whip my head up towards a narrow window that runs along the top of the wall, looking for the airport light. “Is it flashing?” I ask.

“No,” Hank says. I’m worried he’ll ask me to dance, but instead this American jerk named Art spots me and joins us. I met him once before at Sarina’s school fair. He has a loud voice and a huge ego.

He’s with a woman from the Philippines, who owns a manicuring salon in town. The flower in her hair is much larger than anyone else’s. She clings to Art as he drones on about his new computer, and finally I excuse myself, peeking through the entrance door. Still no flashing light.

I try to sip the wine but it tastes cheap, making me gag. Hank is talking to the fat woman again. This time I say hi to her, and she and I end up chatting. She tells me about the island she’s from, Mangaia, and how she’d never leave the Cook Islands. “I have my goats, my pigs, chickens, two dogs, family property. Where else could I have all of that?”

Finally the flashing light appears in the back sky. Hank notices it too. He’s standing with a short bearded man who won’t give anyone eye contact. Hank motions with his head that it’s time to go, so I place my plastic cup of wine on the bar and say goodbye to the Mangaian woman. She grabs me and kisses me on the cheek.

“What a nice lady,” I say to Hank as we cross the street. Then I hear the plane.


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