Waiting for Walden Chu

Iris Osozaki rides her bicycle down Kalakaua Avenue, scrounging for discarded 35-millimeter film containers. At The Wall, she plunges both hands into a trashcan brimming with Lappert’s ice cream cone wrappers and lipstick-stained Starbucks cups. She finds two containers: rejects the black; tosses the translucent one into her basket. Circling Kapiolani Park to check trashcans at the zoo, the canoe club and the aquarium, she snaps mental photographs for her "Moments of Life" scrapbook: a chain of preschoolers holding hands to cross the street, a grandfather and grandson practicing tai chi in perfect unison.

Back at her studio on Kapahulu, Iris soaks the film containers in a cleansing solution. She’s collected only 10 today. She used to find heaps in Waikiki, but these days the tourists are all going digital or disposable.

Kelly Kahala hands Iris the morning appointment schedule and eyes her meager harvest. "That’s pretty sad," she says. "We should start ordering them online."

"But these work the best," says Iris, rinsing the containers and tossing them into a drying basket.

"At least you’re recycling," Kelly says.

Iris tries to sing like Henry Kapono. "I got me a paradise. It’s your paradise, too …"

"All right, that’s enough," Kelly says. "Are you ready for the rundown?"

"Go for it," says Iris.

"Ok," says Kelly. "Your nine o’clock turned out to be a starchaser. Your nine-thirty will be ready for you in a couple of minutes. I’ve cleared your schedule from 11 o’clock on, so you should have plenty of time to get to the airport. The news stations have been full-on calling about the rumors. The Today Show wants a scoop. And, you got an invitation to your 20-year high school reunion."

"I’m not making any decisions until I get back," Iris says.

"Good plan," Kelly nods.

Iris Osozaki is renowned for her Film Container Theory of Essential Being and has been hailed as "the Hawai‘i-based phenom who distills human nature through refracted light." A side effect of her fame is clients who seek her out because it’s a trendy thing to do. These "star-chaser" clients are willing to shell out $2,500 for an appointment to see what all the hype is about, without truly understanding the potential ramifications of the information they will receive.

Kelly can always spot star-chasers. They are the narcissists, the socialites, the name-droppers, the über-styled. They confuse virtual reality with truth, and mistake appearance for essence. They walk into Iris’s studio and comment on its starkness, because they equate hospitality with decor. They admire young, glamorous rock stars more than old, wrinkled saints.

The nine-thirty, Ms. Z, is a marshmallow-shaped woman with tousled grey hair. Kelly shows her to the sunroom, where Iris sits in the middle of the floor on a plump blue zabuton next to a crystal pedestal cake plate.

Ms. Z clears her throat, glances nervously around, clears her throat again. "Do I have to sit on the floor?" she asks.

Kelly smiles warmly. "The floor cushions are super comfortable," she says.

Ms. Z sits. Her eyes blink like cursors.

"Good morning, Ms. Z," says Iris. "Before we start, I’ll need your signature on this form to indicate your understanding of the Iris Osozaki Film Container Theory of Essential Being policy. It says that I will look at the teardrop inside your film container and tell you plainly what I see, and that I’m not professionally qualified to offer medical or legal advice."

"One question," says Ms. Z, with her pen hovering over the signature line. "Do you need to know my reason for coming here?"

"No," says Iris. "It isn’t necessary."

Ms. Z appears relieved. "Good," she says as she signs the form, "because I’d really rather not say."

"Understood," says Iris, holding Ms. Z’s film container. "Your teardrop is already inside the container. I’ll just add an ampule of distilled water to optimize the bending of light."  Iris pours the water into the film container, recaps it and places it on the cake plate. "That should do it. Are you ready?"

Ms. Z nods.

"Alright then," says Iris, raising the cake plate to eye level and slowly circumvolving it to view the film container from all angles. "Here you are. Clear and strong." She returns the plate to the floor. "Your essential being is a hematite stone."

Ms. Z squints hard at the film container, which to her appears unsatisfyingly inert. The squinting makes her eye twitch. "Before we go any further," she says, "I have to know why you use a teardrop and how you’re able to see something where I see nothing."

"The teardrop originates from you and therefore contains your essence," says Iris. "Your eyes see the physical form of the film container, while mine see the image resulting from light refracted in and around it."

"And it’s a stone that you see?"

"Yes. Black hematite with a streak of red. Very striking. I would guess that your essence was borne out of a tumultuous or transformative experience and, as a result, you have a fiery temperament or a passionate streak. You’re embattled. A warrior."

"Crikey," says Ms. Z.

After a few moments, Ms. Z stands up as if she is ready to leave, then sits back down. "You’re right. I’m an angry person. Angry all the time. At everything and nothing. At idiots and geniuses, lovers and haters, at the wind when it blows my hair in my eyes, at the pigeons when they crap on my car. It’s exhausting. I need you to tell me how to change it."

"Essence can’t be changed, Ms. Z. It simply is what it is."

"So you’re telling me I’m doomed to be unhappy? That’s it? End of story?"

"Not the end of the story, but part of it. The rest is context. Salt can only ever be salt, yet if you put it on both meat and metal, it preserves one and corrodes the other. Interactions are contextual. Try to surround yourself with people and things that complement your essence."

Ms. Z chortles. "I’ve been trying to do that my whole life without any luck. I don’t have the luxury of seeing people straight up, you know. I have to do everything by trial and error."

Iris wants to tell Ms. Z that "seeing people straight up" has its drawbacks and that she has often wished she could be blind so that she wouldn’t have to be lonely. Instead, she says, "Humanity is a vulnerable condition," and wishes Ms. Z well as she shows her to the door.

The other morning appointments include Mr. L (a clam), Ms. V (moonstone) and Ms. V’s dog (the color yellow). Before lunch, Iris bicycles to Sans Souci for a swim. As she nears the beach, she is seduced by the sea. She hits the sand running with barely enough time to strip down to her swimsuit before she reaches the shore. Her T-shirt still hangs around her neck when she crosses the waterline to dive into the liquid embrace of the only lover she has ever known. Within seconds she is high on amniotic dopamine. Her soggy shirt is weightless. Eager wavelets lap at her ears and neck. She feels whole, as if her emptiness has been engulfed by the vastness of infinity.

Kelly has Zip Pacs waiting when Iris returns to the studio. They sit in the sunroom eating lunch and browsing through the Weekly. "Hey, check out your horoscope," Kelly says with her mouth full of Spam. "It says: A trip to an island you have never visited before will lead you to your destiny."

Iris never takes horoscopes seriously, but she gets a kick out of this one, because last week, on a whim, she booked a trip to the island of Aitutaki after seeing an advertisement in the trash. She is scheduled to depart this afternoon to vacation for an undetermined length of time–far away from star-chasers, news stations and class reunions. Although she regularly visits some of the other South Pacific islands, this will be her first trip to the Cooks.

"Hopefully, my destiny is to become a mermaid with seaweed for hair," Iris jokes.

"You could swim with the whales and never come back," adds Kelly.

Iris is daydreaming about swimming, sunbathing, strolling, lounging, kati kati and cocktails when someone knocks at the studio door.

Kelly goes to answer it and comes back flustered. "Sorry," she says to Iris. "It’s a lady who insists on seeing you. She says it’s an emergency and she won’t provide a teardrop specimen."

"Just let me grab a fresh T-shirt before you send her in," says Iris.

Kelly refers to the client as "Jade Lady," because she is draped with jade jewelry. She wears Jackie O glasses and smells of Cotillion perfume. By the time Kelly has finished saying "Iris will see you now," Jade Lady has shown herself into the sunroom and closed the door behind her.

"It’s about time," Jade Lady says to Iris.

"I apologize," says Iris. "I wasn’t expecting anymore clients today."

Jade Lady produces a film container from her purse. "I need you to tell me what you see in this," she says. "It’s from a dying man–a potential organ donor. My son is very sick. I need to know what kind of person is about to give his heart to my boy."

"I’d be happy to help," Iris says. "I’ll just need to have you sign this form …"

Jade Lady sobs. "There isn’t time. Just look at it. I beg you."

What Iris sees catches her completely off guard. The image is instantly recognizable because she has seen it before in her own tears. The realization hits like a massive wave: these are the tears of her twin soul.

"Tell me," demands Jade Lady. "Good or bad?"

"It’s good," Iris says. "A koru–a fern frond. It starts out as a baby shoot, and unfurls as it grows." She takes a deep breath to steady herself as she stands, stunned and dizzy. "Good energy and potential."

Jade Lady receives a call on her cell phone. The heart donor has died and the surgical team needs her decision. "Yes," she says, "Go ahead. I’ll be right there." She turns to Iris. "Will you come with me?"

When they reach the hospital, Iris inquires about the heart donor. "Are you the next of kin?" a nurse asks. "We thought he didn’t have any family here."

"He’s my twin," Iris replies.

"I’m so sorry. Such a terrible accident," the nurse says, as she hands Iris a backpack and a phone number scribbled on a piece of surgical drape. "This bag is all he had with him in the car. Just before he died, he asked that we find someone to look after his dog."

In the waiting room five hours later, Iris and Jade Lady receive good news. The transplant was a success. The doctor leads them to the window of the ICU recovery room, through which Jade Lady can see her son sleeping. In the tears of relief pooling in the lenses of Jade Lady’s glasses, Iris sees a tiny gold safety pin.

"I’ve been holding on to him so tight," Jade Lady says. "He always wanted to be a swimmer, but his heart was weak. He’s nearly 20 now and has never been in the ocean. Do you know how hard it’s been to keep him away from the water? I threatened him. I told him scary stories. He spent more time crying than laughing." She retrieves a tiny jar from the pocket of her sweater and gives it to Iris. "See? His tears. He collected them to measure his sadness. He has a whole drawer filled with these jars. He calls them lacrymatories."

In the jar, Iris sees a tiny silver fish. "He’s a papio," she says. "A lively one."

The doctor gives Jade Lady a surgical mask so she can sit bedside. Iris snaps a mental photograph for her "Moments of Life" scrapbook: the recycled heart of her twin soul offering a second chance to a mother and son.

The number scribbled on the surgical drape belongs to a dogsitter in Manoa. When Iris walks her bicycle to the dogsitter’s fence, a poi puppy runs exuberantly to greet her. Iris has never liked dogs, but instantly loves this one. When she scoops him up, he licks her cheek unremittingly. "You are a licky-licky kind of dog," she says to a fat face with a pink tongue and doggie breath, and she is not surprised at all to see the name "Likelike" engraved on his ID tag.

One year later, Iris announces her retirement on The Today Show. When asked what influenced her decision, she replies that a personal experience revealed a possible exception to the Iris Osozaki Film Container Theory of Essential Being. She is in the process of modifying the theory and needs time to test it.

She does not tell the story of the heart donor or what she found inside his backpack on the day he died: board shorts, a bottle of water, a ticket to Aitutaki and a newspaper clipping of a horoscope that read, "A trip to an island you have never visited before will lead you to your destiny." She does not say that she will always wonder what might have happened if they had both caught their flights to Aitutaki that day.

Nowadays, Iris spends her days at Sans Souci waiting for Walden Chu, a young man who swims daily from the canoe club to Ala Moana and back, perfecting his roughwater freestyle. The surgical scar from his transplant is barely visible as his suntanned arms and shoulders pull him forward with strong precision. Walden’s mother, whose name turned out to be Ethel rather than Jade Lady, often sits next to Iris, sporting a straw hat and binoculars.

Today is Walden’s 21st birthday. Ethel, Iris and Walden’s girlfriend Tiare have set up a picnic table with bento lunches and a cake. When Walden swims into view, Likelike bounds across the sand to greet him at the shore.

After they eat and sing and Ethel checks Walden’s heart rate, Iris gives Walden two plane tickets tucked inside a travel brochure. "A present for you and Tiare," she says.

On the cover of the brochure is a photo of a pristine, aquamarine lagoon. Walden studies it for a few seconds. "Unreal," he says. "This totally looks like the beach in my anesthesia dream."

"This time you don’t have to dream it," beams Iris. "You can see it for real."

"Did I ever tell you about that dream?" Walden asks Tiare.

"I don’t think so," Tiare says as she traces his scar with her pinky.

"When he was in surgery," says Ethel wistfully, "he dreamt that he was swimming with a mermaid who had seaweed for hair."

"That’s so cool," says Tiare.

Walden gives Iris a bear hug. "Thank you," he says. "It’s an awesome birthday present."

Iris knows her theory-modification experiment is working because she can feel herself unfolding. When she first met Ethel and Walden, she was a baby koru: pale green and snugly coiled. Before that day, she believed that a person’s essence couldn’t change. But when she looked into the tears of her twin soul, it had given her hope. The heart donor’s koru was unfurled. He lived with outstretched fronds. He was identical in nature to her, yet had adapted differently.

Walden air-kisses everyone at the table to signal his return to the water. Iris and Ethel watch him from the picnic table.

"You never told me how it was that you learned to read film containers," Ethel says to Iris.

"I inherited the ability from my grandfather." Iris says. "I can control the focal length of my eyes. It’s like having a built-in refraction kit."

Walden scans the horizon briefly, adjusts his cap and pumps his arms to find his rhythm. Tiare follows him into the water until she is waist deep and splashes him as he pushes off. "I’m going to hang here with Iris and your mom," she calls out. "Come back to Sans Souci when you’re done." Within seconds he is high on amniotic dopamine. Eager wavelets lap at his ears and neck. He feels whole, as if his emptiness has been engulfed by the vastness of infinity.

Iris snaps a mental photograph for her "Moments of Life" scrapbook: Tiare standing at the edge of the ocean, looking forward to the rest of her life and waiting for Walden Chu.

Ethel watches Walden for a long time through her binoculars. "He’s a good swimmer after all," she says quietly.

Iris nods. Above the sea breeze she hears the sound of a tiny gold safety pin unclasping and the flutter of a papio’s fins keeping pace with an unfurled heart.

More stories from our 23rd Annual HONOLULU Magazine Starbucks Coffee Hawaii Fiction Contest

Grand-Prize Winner:
"Legend of da River Street Gambler," Lee Tonouchi

"Magic Words in the Palace of Desire," Lou Zitnik