When I was 14, I left Luaniua for good. We were on our last village visit before furlough, a furlough after which my parents had already told Nathan he would have to stay in America and not come back to the Solomons when they returned. He was 16. For me, though, it was more open ended - they said that I could return to the island after furlough, or stay in the States with my brother. Apparently I was in an 'in between' age where I wasn't 'too old' to be overseas anymore (something about identity being formative in the teenage years), but wasn't 'too young' to be left behind in America if that's the way it played out.
For the months leading up to our leaving the village, word was spread that Nathan wouldn't be coming back. And that I might not be coming back. It was too difficult, too painful, to tell the villagers the truth - that we were getting too old to be in the village and that we were beginning to identify too closely with them instead of with American culture. It was too difficult, honestly, to even tell myself this. Because underlying this was the assumption that American culture was the superior choice to Island culture, and that was a rejection of all that I loved and all that was real to my heart. So I made up my own story.
"My aunts in America want me with them," I told everyone. "My parents took me away from them for so long and now they want me to be with them, it's their turn to have me." This was the only reason any child would leave their family in island culture. Kids were often shuttled between extended family members, if someone had a baby and needed extra help, or a child showed potential and needed better schooling in the capital city, or simply just to acknowledge and strengthen the bond between the family members. The reality, however, was that we had no idea who I would stay with if I ended up remaining behind in America while the rest of the family went back to the Solomons. When the time came, there was an advertisement put in the church bulletin, and we found my foster family that way. But that's another story.
When the time came for my final night in the village, I found myself sitting, with my family, in the place of honor at a goodbye feast with the entire village spread in a circle around us. The ship was waiting like an ominous portent far out in the lagoon. We were on mats right up under the overhang in front of the church. Bright pressure lanterns cast artificial light and intense black shadows over the gathering. I wanted to be back in the shadows, where I knew my friends were, flirting and joking and delighting in the thrill of being gathered for a purpose with the rest of the village. Instead I was trapped at the very front. With mounds of food in front of me that I couldn't get past the tightening of my throat. I tried to eat some, since it was superbly rude not to, and also because I knew this was the last island food I'd eat.
Spread in a huge, rounding circle, at which we were the apex, was the entire assembled village, also on mats, also feasting. Men kept coming up to the front and pontificating about our family on a megaphone. My dad would bow his head and nod gratefully when each one came. I kept my eyes on the mat and tried to memorize the weaving.
I don't really remember much after that, but there are fleeting flashes. I remember when the time for dancing came, and my friends performed the dances they'd prepared for the occasion. I remember the insistent drum beat and knowing I'd been excluded from the dance practices as the 'guest of honor'. The leaving had started weeks ago, apparently, and I hadn't even known it. For their last dance I got up off the mat and danced with my friends, in the back, in the dark shadows , surrounded by the warm brown bodies and swaying hips the feeling of unity as we all together created something beautiful. The last dance of togetherness.
When the dancing was over, it was time for villagers to present gifts to us, and to say their goodbyes. They lined up, brown bodies stretching back into the dark shadows beyond the reach of the pressure lanterns. I had to sit there, as one by one they brought keepsakes for us - traditional leis, hardened coconut shell water holders, things woven from pandanas leaves. They'd place each token on the mat, then embrace me island style. Cheek to cheek, inhaling my essence with a loud snuff through the nose, and then breathing out their essence into me. Crying, my entire world reduced to the four corners of my own body, I sat dumb and uncomprehending as islander after islander grabbed my face between both her hands, brought cheek to wet cheek and mingled our breaths and our tears.
It went on forever. I remember sitting stripped and flayed beneath the bright lights of the pressure lanterns. I remember the smokey smell of turmeric and the yellow streaks of grief where the women's body paint rubbed off onto me. I remember being trapped in the moment that was forever and yet was bound by the inevitable pulling of time, the ship angry and waiting in the lagoon.
This was my leaving. Not my first or my last, but I think the one that fragmented the deepest parts of my self.