Jill Widner – Bethel Street, You Could be Barcelona

They hadn’t spoken in nearly a year. Not since she had stashed the brown paper bag on the shelf for packages in the Asian Studies faculty mailroom, his name scrawled across the front, Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching taped-shut inside. Not since she had slipped the three-by-five index card in between the pages like a bookmark, you fucking coward, emblazoned across the surface with the damp fumy strokes of a broad-tipped, black felt marker.

[private]She supposed at the time she had expected the gesture to prompt him to prove to her that he was no such thing. As it happened, the only effect her outburst had on either of them was discomfort and, in the end, he had kept his distance.

Until last night. When she had decided to send the text message. Rather, until this morning. Fourteen hours later. When she had received his reply:

I wouldn’t object to having lunch with you. Haven’t much time. Perhaps best to meet downtown.

In less than a minute, Elizabeth had texted back: Corner of Nu’uanu and King? One o’clock?

From where she is waiting, half-guarding a vacant parking space, half-scanning the two avenues for his car, Elizabeth glances at the rain clouds in the sky. When the light turns green, she almost doesn’t recognise him approaching in the crosswalk. She had forgotten the apish swing of his arms, the way his thumbs flip back and forth against his jeans, slightly out of synch with his footsteps.

“I’ve already parked,” Stephen says, stopping to light a cigarette. “But thanks,” he adds, nodding through the smoke in the direction of the parking meter. He glances from her face to her throat to her shoulders to her hips, taking in the way she is dressed – the jeans, the hooded sweatshirt, the rubber slippers. He brushes his palm down the back of her head. “Where did you say you’re taking me?”

“It’s a Vietnamese place. I thought we’d walk first. Down Maunakea.”

“The street where leis are sold because it leads to the harbour,” he recites, as if reading from a guidebook of Honolulu for tourists.

“I like the smell of the flower shops. I like the smell of the harbour.”

“As do I.”

The shops on Maunakea are nearly identical. A single counter. One or two refrigerated glass cases. Inside, strings of fresh flowers hang down in straight lines from a rod. A large Hawaiian woman sits in a straight-backed chair, her crepey grey hair pulled back from her face in a knot. Another woman sits cross-legged on a lau hala mat on the floor, her arms buried to the elbow in a mound of white petals.

The woman in the chair bites the end of the string and ties a knot with the rub of her thumb. She raises her eyebrows in Stephen’s direction. “You like buy lei for the wahine?” She points to the leis made of large, dyed carnations. “Good price today. We get orchid. We get tuberose.” She points to a slender white spike of a flower. “Nothing beat the smell of tuberose.”

Elizabeth’s attention is on the cooler behind the woman. On the bottom shelf, wrapped inside flat, waxed paper packages, single strands of white pikake, Arabian jasmine, are coiled away from the air. This is the lei Elizabeth would have liked. If Stephen had asked.

“So. Which one you like buy today?”

Stephen turns his back without answering.

Elizabeth lifts her hand in apology and follows him through the door.


“Where did you say this place is?”

“On King. On the corner of North King and River.”

“North King and River? Isn’t that a pool hall?”

“It’s across the street. It’s Vietnamese.”

“You mentioned that.”

As they step from the curb, Elizabeth smells the harbour on a gust of wind, the briny air, full of diesel exhaust mixed with tar and the smell of garbage. It isn’t the way she remembers.

Stephen glances at the narrow facing walls of an alley, his eyes fixed for a moment on the graffiti painted above a dumpster. Elizabeth stares longer at the silver brushstrokes of kanji on the green wall.

The shops on River Street are crowded close together, the windows moist and smeary, the anglicised Vietnamese names of the restaurants scrawled across the glass like graffiti. Pho Bac. Ban Le. Pho 79. From the open doorways comes the smell of meat frying. Charcoal burning. Lysol drying on linoleum floors.

In between the restaurants, the fronts of the shops stand open like garage doors, rusty sheets of corrugated metal rolled up under the eaves. Beneath the awnings, card tables are stacked tightly with brooms and brushes, bamboo steamers, rice scoops and wooden mallets. Against a wall, fifty-pound bags of rice are stacked like a levee and, beside them, in baskets on the floor, the dry, cracked skins of roots and produce whose names she doesn’t know. Elizabeth smells burlap. She stops in front of a window crowded with metal cooking implements: colanders, ladles, spoons and woks, lidded containers stacked in a frame.

“Look, Stephen. Everything is made of silver.”

“I think it’s tin.”

The light in the Vietnamese coffeehouse is fluorescent. Elizabeth looks beyond Stephen’s shoulder at the room, trying to remember the way she had felt the week before, sitting alone at a table. The streetwalkers standing in front of the sailor bar on the corner through the plate glass window and, inside, the faint smell of lemongrass, the sound of coffee dripping through a silver strainer balanced over a glass of ice. The restaurant had seemed different at night, like a jewel of light under the dark awnings. Now, all she sees are the stopped blades of the floor fan, thick with dust and grease.

The waitress hurries by with plates in her hands.

Stephen wipes his sunglasses on a paper napkin.

Elizabeth lets her foot drop from the rung of his chair to the floor. “I’ll get menus.”

When the waitress arrives, a wide tray balanced above her shoulder, Stephen watches her narrow wrist lowering the platter of lettuce and steamed white circles of ink-tinctured squid to the table.

“Unusual girl,” he says, nodding after the waitress. “Don’t you think?”

Elizabeth shrugs. “How do you mean?”

“She seems educated.”

Elizabeth had heard it too. It was her accent. British. Continental. Maybe Singapore.

“Doesn’t dress very well, though,” Stephen adds, lifting his fork to his mouth.

“Yet there is something about the way her feet possess the floor,” Elizabeth offers.

For dessert, the waitress sets a glass on the table filled with green plantain, cardamom, splinters of ice, and coconut milk. She places one spoon on the table between them. “Vietnamese milk shake.”

Stephen lifts the spoon. Sets it back on the table. “That was presumptuous.”


He pushes the glass across the table. “You drink it.” He turns the check over and reaches for his wallet.

Elizabeth tries to take the slip of paper from him, “Don’t. I invited you.”

Stephen waves her away. “It isn’t much.”

Outside it’s pouring. The frayed awnings, heavy with rain, sway ponderously over their heads. Stephen steers Elizabeth by the elbow past the sidewalk stalls in the direction of his car. As they pass the Oahu Market Elizabeth smells char siu in the air. A red-stained side of pork turns on a spit inside a heated glass cabinet. She likes the sweet taste of the barbequed meat. If she’d been alone, she would have carried some home, wrapped in white paper, warm in her hands.

“Look, Stephen,” she says, starting down one of the aisles.

“Elizabeth. I need to get back. It’s raining.”

Elizabeth ignores him. At the end of the aisle, several bamboo cages are stacked on top of a counter. Inside, crowded inside the bamboo boxes, frogs blink behind miniature wooden bars.

Something Stephen does with his mouth makes his moustache move. It is a habit Elizabeth has forgotten. A signal that he is about to disappear inside of himself. It was the expression he used to make from behind his desk when students were grouped in a circle around him and he would catch sight of her, standing in the doorway.

It was his habit to make her wait. Sometimes they walked first. Sometimes he took her to a bar near the university where they smoked from the same cigarette and drank from the same glass until dark. Driving her home, he stroked her hair. The window frames of the studio she rented beneath a large white house high on Wilhelmina Rise cranked open on hinges. He liked the way the air drifted in through the screens. The sound of the rain, when it rained, falling on the steps, the mud, and the leaves.

Elizabeth thinks he is going to be sick. There are too many people. Too many raw smells. She leads the way back through the crowd toward water buckets filled with tall rigid flowers near the entrance, calla lilies, torch ginger, bird of paradise.

“Breathe these,” she says to him when they reach the pails.

“I don’t think they have a smell.”

The rain is loud on the metal roof over their heads.

“Breathe them.”

Stephen rests his hands on the sides of the bucket and breathes the stalks standing fresh as leeks in the clear water.

Soon the colour returns to his face. They are standing outside again, trying to decide whether or not to run through the rain to his car. Stephen glances at his watch.

“We should go,” Elizabeth says quickly, before he has a chance to dismiss her.

“Actually,” he stammers. “Would you care to have a drink?”

Elizabeth doesn’t answer.

“What was the name of the place we used to go on Bethel Street?”

The few men at the bar turn on their stools when the white couple enters the room. Elizabeth’s hair is drenched. She sets her rubber slippers, which she has slipped off to run through the rain, on a stool while Stephen speaks to the bartender. They move to a table that faces the harbour. Elizabeth rubs her fingers back and forth across the lacquer finish of the table. The wood glows. Stephen sees it too and takes her hand.

“It is so easy for you to do this.” Elizabeth says. “It’s as if there isn’t a difference for you between talking to a woman and kissing her.”

“That isn’t true. It’s much more difficult to kiss.”

Elizabeth rolls her eyes. “Not that difficult.”

Across the street, a pilot boat is backing away from a ship.

“Have I told you that I was here before?” Elizabeth asks.

Stephen turns to the photographs on the wall. “We’ve both been here,” he says, as if she has forgotten, as if she’s had too much to drink. “Many times,” he says, turning her hand over.  “And Bethel Street, you could be Barcelona,” he half sings in a lowered voice. “How does that song go?”

And Bethel Street, you could be Barcelona, / With the ships upon the water at your feet. / And everyone’s a jewel in Barcelona. / And, Bethel Street, you’ve never failed me yet. “How did you remember that?”

“I remember everything.”

“I meant I was here a long time ago. It might not have been that pier exactly,” Elizabeth presses her face to the window, “but I remember the clock tower. I’ve told you this. My father was an engineer. We were on our way to Southeast Asia.” She glances at Stephen. “We came through Honolulu on an ocean liner. I was seven.” Elizabeth meets his eyes. “I had the mumps.”

“The mumps?”

Elizabeth nods. “My family had gone away for the day. I was quarantined to a cabin on one of the lower decks. Someone was supposed to check on me, but no one ever came. It was raining. Hard, the way it is today. There was thunder. I kept opening the cabin door. I was afraid the ship was going to break loose and float away.”

Stephen takes her hand again.

“I could see a group of boys treading water between the ship and the pilings through the railing. They were calling to each other across the water. Passengers threw coins into the harbour in those days for the boys to retrieve.” She glances at Stephen. “They’d dive off the pilings before the coins had a chance to sink. The water was so clear you could see the silver coins somersaulting down through the water. I must have thought that was what they were doing.”

“Did you speak to them?”


“Did they speak to you?”


“What happened?”

“Nothing happened. They must have gone away. I must have gone back to my bed.”

Stephen shakes the ice in his glass. “Will you excuse me for a moment, Elizabeth? I need to make a phone call.”

Elizabeth watches the rain pouring onto the sidewalk outside. She watches her breath materialise and disappear on the windowpane then looks back to the table, the tumblers of scotch, the only thing bright in the room. The things enough alcohol could make her say.

When Stephen returns, he motions for the bartender to bring another round.

Maybe you should have said something to one of them.”

Elizabeth doesn’t answer.

“Do you think?”

The corner of the cardboard coaster she is bending back and forth breaks off in her fingers.

“What do you think?” he asks again. “You must think something.”

“It isn’t that I don’t think,” she says. “It’s that I don’t communicate what I think quickly enough for you. That’s the reason you grew tired of me.”

“I wasn’t tired of you. You thought you had been replaced.”

Elizabeth tips her glass to her mouth. The ice bumps into her teeth. “I was replaced.” She looks across the table at his face, her attention focused on a small horizontal scar on his cheekbone. “How did you get that?”


“The scar beneath your eye. It looks like someone threw one of those little metal stars at you.”

“One of those what?”

“Those star-shaped martial arts weapons schoolchildren carry. They look like they’re cut out of tin can lids. I’ve seen little twelve year olds slipping them out of their pockets on the bus.”

Stephen reaches for his wallet. He looks evenly into her eyes. “I’m sorry I disappointed you.”

Elizabeth turns her hand back and forth in the air. “We drink well together. We kiss well.”

Stephen’s moustache moves from side to side as it had in the marketplace. As it had in his office. As it had in so many places. “It is easy to kiss you. I meant that.”

The windshield of Stephen’s car is plastered with coin-sized petals and leaves the wind has blown from the jacaranda trees that line Nu’uanu Avenue. He adjusts the windshield wipers and pulls into the traffic. Glancing in his rearview mirror, he takes her hand.

For a few blocks she tries to pretend. And then she can’t any more.

“What is it?” he asks.

“There’s a bus stop on Bethel. On the corner of Nimitz and Bethel. I think you should drop me there.”

He releases her hand. “I understand.”

He stops in front of a cinderblock building facing the bus shelter. Nailed to the wall is a sign: Cold Beer. Cigarettes. Flowers.

Elizabeth looks at Stephen, uncertain whether he has seen it. She opens the door to get out.

Stephen looks from the roughly painted board to Elizabeth standing barefoot in the rain holding her rubber slippers. “Cold Beer. Cigarettes. Flowers,” he says aloud. He reaches for his wallet and pulls out a twenty. “I’ll wait for you.”

A few minutes later she is back, her arms full of cold bottles and green stems.

“The woman? She used an abacus.”

“Some people still do around here.”

“Wait. I need to tell you this. Her fingers were like the bones of a bird. On the plate next to the abacus? There was the skeleton of a fish. The whole skeleton. Perfectly intact, picked clean. It was so tiny. It was as if she’d walked into Woolworth’s and lifted a fish out of the aquarium. Manini, she called it.”

“Why are you laughing, Elizabeth?”

“Because she didn’t have change. So she gave me the beer and the flowers, and then she said she would read my face. That I could have it all for the twenty. There’s a word for that. I can’t think of it now, for reading your fortune in your face.”

“Phrenology, I think.”


“Phrenology is the study of the relationship between the structure of the skull and a person’s character.”

“This is different. This is face-reading. Like palm-reading. She said the mole beneath my eye was bad luck. Not bad luck. Sad luck. She said tears come with that.”

Stephen pulls away from the curb.

“So I asked her about scars. If it was the same for a scar beneath the eye.”

Stephen shifts from second to third.

“She said, Probably tears come with that too.” Elizabeth lowers her face to the cold waxy tops of the torch ginger. “It feels like we’ve just met.”

And maybe they had. She’d had so much to drink she couldn’t remember.[/private]

Jill Widner

Jill Widner lives in Yakima, Washington, and is a fiction reader for Drunken Boat. She was shortlisted for the 2011 David T.K. Wong Fellowship at the University of East Anglia and winner of the 2010 Short Fiction competition (University of Plymouth Press). Her fiction appeared recently in American Short Fiction. See more of her work at jillwidner.wordpress.com.

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