Do I Need a Lawyer
I stopped because someone was taking a picture. She stood right in the middle of the parking lot, her head angled back, her phone pointed upwards at the tree. I felt annoyed at first. Only a tourist would make such a big deal out of this tree. I’d seen bigger in Tahiti. And then I couldn’t help but look up to where she was pointing her phone, at the branches and the ferns growing there, right on the tree. I’d seen so many ferns before, so common in Tahiti, sprouting from concrete, but suddenly, I saw it the way that someone might see a fern for the first time. I stopped, and I continued standing there with my head lifted up like I was a tourist who didn’t know any better.
Leigh sat at one of the outdoor tables with an older man who looked like a tourist. It was her father. He looked like most old white men visiting the islands, his face pink. He stood up to shake my hand. He was balding and somewhat paunchy, his eyes an intense shade of turquoise, and, for a moment, I felt unnerved.
Little birds hopped between the tables.
I ended up ordering the pancakes. Leigh ordered the Loco Moco. “I’ll have what she’s having,” said her father to the waitress.
I poured cream in my coffee and drank. I found I missed the taste of canned milk in coffee, although a few years ago, I found it tacky that my mother always put canned milk in her coffee.
“So how are you?” Leigh asked.
“I need a lawyer,” I said.
A cat appeared, skinny and gray. The birds had already disappeared.
“Are you taking classes?” asked Leigh.
“Well, you’re on a student visa.”
“That’s why I need a lawyer.”
“A lawyer will tell you that you should take classes,” said her father.
“I can get married. To an American.”
He nodded. “You certainly could.”
“Unless you have someone in mind, the most straightforward solution is to enroll in the required amount of classes,” said Leigh.
“I already passed my bac,” I said.
“Perfect. You can enroll in one of the community colleges for the time being. Kapiolani Community College – you can start taking classes there.”
I stared into the coffee cup. I had always been a good student, but now I found it agonizing, sitting in a classroom. I didn’t know what to say. I watched the gray cat, making its way among the tables.
“I’d like to stay here,” I said.
Leigh nodded. “You don’t have to go back to California.” She paused. “Do you want to go back to Tahiti?”
“Yes. And no.” I drank my coffee. It wasn’t about a place. I wanted to go back in time. I wanted to go back to how things were, before Bee died. I wanted to stomp out the past and all my memories. That way the past never happened.
When I sat in class now, it was as if I was falling, as if I couldn’t keep my balance. I could no longer sit still, listening to the droning of someone talking. I wasn’t the same girl that Bee had met, the girl who was so proud of passing her bac, a girl who could sit in one place for hours. That girl was gone, and I didn’t know how to find her.
I looked up to find the waitress had brought us our plates. Syrup ran down the sides of my pancakes.
Leigh had started eating her Loco Moco. Her father watched me.
I smiled, a charming smile I hoped.
His face seemed to soften, but he didn’t smile.
Leigh had papers to grade, and she left after breakfast. Her father ordered a cup of coffee.
“No thank you, Mr. Pelevin,” I said when he asked if I wanted more coffee.
“Call me Jeremy,” he said. “Do you want something else to eat?”
“I can’t even finish these pancakes.”
“It’s a lot of pancakes.”
“So you’re a lawyer,” I said.
“Yes, but not the type you’re looking for.”
“How do you know?”
“Well, you might want to talk to an immigration lawyer.”
“Maybe I should talk to a criminal lawyer. You know about me, don’t you?”
“Leigh filled me in on some of the details. I probably don’t know anything.”
“Did she tell you that I killed my boyfriend?”
“I do know there’s a presumption of innocence.”
“They all believe that I’m guilty.”
“Well that’s not for them to decide, is it?”
“Can I be your client?” I asked.
“I’m not a criminal lawyer. And I’m not sure if you’re teasing.”
“I’m not flirting with you, if that’s what you mean,” I said.
He nodded. “Good.”
“I am. And I’m supposed to walk you back to my daughter’s house. Or call a ride for you.”
I found that I didn’t want to leave, at least not yet, but I didn’t say this.
“You have friends here? Someone to talk to?” he asked.
“Well we could find you someone to talk to.”
“Like a psychiatrist? I’ve already seen a psychiatrist. In San Francisco I spent a few weeks in a place for crazy people. I was released last week.”
“Are you taking the medication they gave you?”
“Yes.” What was I supposed to say to this kind of question?
“You have it with you?”
“I don’t like the way it makes me feel.”
“Sometimes it takes a while to find the right dose.”
“So what kind of a lawyer are you?”
“A very boring type. I’m retired.”
“You were disbarred?”
He laughed suddenly. “No. My daughter has been after me to retire for awhile now. I retired last month. It’s why I’m here.”
“You don’t look like someone who’s used to living in the islands.”
“No I’m not. I’m learning. I’m old, as you said, but I hope I can learn.”
“Are you married?”
“No, she’s very much alive.”
“She divorced you.”
“No, we never got married.”
“You never married Leigh’s mother?”
“No. We had an arrangement.”
“What kind of arrangement?”
“Well, she wanted a child.”
“Ewww.” I shook my head. “I don’t want to hear anymore.” I pretended to be thoroughly disgusted. I wrinkled my nose, but it was odd, I could somehow picture Leigh’s father when he was younger and perhaps even attractive.
He smiled, amused. I wondered if he sensed that I was pretending to be disgusted.
“Let’s go,” I said.
“Would you like me to call a ride for you?”
“No, let’s walk.”
One of the tiny birds flew to the edge of the table. It hopped nervously for a moment and then took off, landing at an empty table next to us. Jeremy turned his head to look at it, and he whistled softly, a sweet sound. To my surprise, the bird chirped back. It flew back to our table, cocking its head to peer at Jeremy, and then it flew away.
Koelreuteria formosana, at University of Hawaiʻi, Mānoa.
Photo by Wendy Cutler
The next evening, Leigh was still busy grading papers, and I met her father for a walk around the university campus. A cat sat on one of the lawns, its eyes glowing in the twilight, and then there was another cat. It was getting dark, and I wasn’t too sure if I was seeing clearly.
“There’s another cat there,” said Jeremy.
We walked quietly together, and Jeremy talked about some program that left food for the cats and cleaned up after them.
“They don’t belong to anyone?”
“They’re feral,” said Jeremy.
“Does that mean they’re wild?”
“They’re not pets. They live outside here.”
I watched a shadowy cat crossing a footpath, disappearing among the shrubs. “That can’t be a bad life.”
“Not everyone is happy about the cats here,” Jeremy replied. “People worry about the native bird population.”
“Cats eat rats.”
“They do. They also eat birds. A cat won’t distinguish between an endangered bird and a rat. If they can catch it, they’ll eat it.”
It was growing darker, and although the paths were illuminated, it seemed as if Jeremy’s features grew blurry. He was the father of my mother’s girlfriend, but as we continued walking, I grew less sure of his age. I didn’t listen much to what he was saying, something about buildings as we passed. “That’s the East West Center,” he said.
I was thinking about how I couldn’t see Jeremy too clearly, or maybe it was the way that he felt. It was odd to think that way, as if people had a feeling that surrounded them. During the day, Jeremy had seemed so much older, but now it was as if something shadowy had surrounded him. If I closed my eyes … and then I was aware, in a fuzzy sort of way, that I felt relaxed. I had not felt so comfortable in a long time. Not since Bee died, and even before then, we had argued every day.
Jeremy paused, stopping between some tipanie trees, their fragrance floating in the air. My grandmother called them ghost flowers. Jeremy reached up, plucking a flower from one of the branches. He smiled and turned to me.
I took the flower from his hand and placed it behind my ear.
“We’ll get something to eat for dinner,” he said.
I laughed a little.
“What is it?” he asked.
“I haven’t been very happy lately,” I said. It had been so stark and clear, the image of Bee’s body lying beside the pool. Even before I approached, I knew that there was something terribly wrong.
I took a breath. The flowers were white and yellow, the petals soft, the fragrance of tipanie thick in the night. I just wanted to keep walking. The branches of the tipanie were long and smooth, crowned with leaves and flowers.
We walked until the university campus ended, and the road passed by a school parking lot where a long line of tipanie trees grew, of many colors. I couldn’t distinguish the colors too well under the street lights. There were pinks and oranges, and a tree of dark flowers. The school parking lot ended in a residential street, bordered by houses with orchids and more tipanie. The street stopped, and a path began. A large mango tree stood at the entrance. I followed Jeremy along the path, bordering fields. The path turned and turned again. We passed by a pile of smooth stones in a corner, volcanic stones speckled with holes. I stopped by the stones. I took the flower from my hair and placed it in a crevice between two stones.
I wondered if I was doing right, putting the flower between the stones. I remembered sitting with my dad one night while he held a toere, lightly in one hand, and a stick in the other. He closed his eyes and opened them, and he began drumming, the rhythm fast. It seemed to flow out of him without effort, but my mother said that he’d been playing all his life. Almost since he started walking, she said, although maybe he started drumming before that. There was a way to drum, and you could learn it much later in life, but when you grew up with the toere, it became part of you, and you knew, almost without being told, the right way to drum.
I didn’t grow up with the drum. I grew up with my parents screaming at one another. Things would break and they would scream some more and then it would be quiet because my dad had left. For such a long time, it seemed. His parents had come from Ra’iātea. They would know what you placed on the stones, and what you did not. But there was so much screaming and breaking, bottles and dishes and glasses, and with all that breaking, things got lost in the end. I didn’t know where they were anymore.
Looking up, I saw mountains in the distance, between the trees ahead, dark shapes of mountains and the sky above.
We’re going there, I thought.
“We’re going to the shopping center,” said Jeremy. He pointed to some lights close by. “There’s a place with plate dinners.”
“Are the plate dinners good?”
“They’re not bad.”
We had reached the edge of the fields, ending in a street that passed by a small shopping center. “Look, there’s a hamburger place,” I said.
“We’ll eat there another time.”
“You know, there’s only two of these in Tahiti.”
“Well that’s two fastfood hamburger places too many,” said Jeremy.
“There’s also the Lagoon Bleu hamburgers,” I said. “It’s really good.”
“If I have to eat hamburgers in Tahiti, I’ll be sure to go to the Lagoon Bleu.”
“You Americans always say that fastfood is bad.”
“That’s because they aren’t good for your health. It’s all about making money as far as Americans are concerned.”
“Can I get fries?” I asked.
Jeremy turned to me. “Are you serious?”
“In Tahiti, I have to go drive all the way into town.”
“In Tahiti you have fresh fish.”
“Are you kidding me?” I said. “Do you know how much fish costs?”
“Fish is sold by the side of the road.”
“Yeah, for forty, fifty dollars. I don’t have the money to eat that fish.” I walked ahead, entering the shopping center parking lot. Monkeypod trees grew, their branches over the white lights of the parking lot. “I’m getting the fries.”
“Okay,” said Jeremy. “But your dinner’s not consisting only of french fries.”
Maybe it was the bright lights of the shopping center, but Jeremy no longer felt indistinct and ageless. The neon of the fastfood place glowed, and his hair was gray. He was the age of my grandfather.
“Fine,” I said. “We’ll eat plate dinners, and then we’ll get french fries.”
“You’ll have to eat the vegetables of your plate dinner,” said Jeremy. I could picture these vegetables already: steamed and limp, served with rice.
“You know, we have people like you in Tahiti,” I said. “Shapeshifters. Although I’ve never seen one up close before.”
“There’s a first time for everything,” Jeremy replied.
“So how do you do that? Morphing so quickly into a boring old man?”
“It takes skill.”
“You don’t have to stay that way,” I said. “It’s dull.” The lights of fast food beckoned.
“No, over here. This way,” said Jeremy walking in the direction of the low-salt, bland, healthy-boring, and responsible.
Lillian Howan’s debut novel The Charm Buyers received the Ka Palapala Po’okela Award for Excellence. Her novel The Spellbound is forthcoming from WTAW (Why There Are Words) Press. “Do I Need A Lawyer” is excerpted from a novel-in-progress set in Hawai‘i, Tahiti, and Ra’iātea.