‘Ocean Boy’ by Carla Crujido13 min read

2 comments

Illustration by Katya Roxas

Late one night, before summer turned to fall, Ocean Boy was born in a desert town at the confluence of two mythic rivers. He was descended from men who dove for pearls in the waters of a faraway Pacific archipelago, fished the deep waters off the coast of the city named after a saint. His mother was a girl who could dive deeper and swim faster than the boys of her one-time coastal town. A mermaid, the kind ones called her. Bottom dweller, the unkind ones said.

As he grew from a boy to a man, he played the guitar to keep the demons of despair that haunted him at bay. Wrote songs of longing for a place that sang to him as he slept. Plaintive baleful songs soaked with melancholy. Songs of the deepest blue. But here, in this town at river’s edge—where the winds were fierce and dust could blind—his songs fell on ears that could not hear the rhythm of the ocean written into them.

Ocean Boy started to spin in the chaos of winds called Relocation. He could not breathe. The doctors called it asthma but his mother knew it was homesickness for the home he had not yet found. The one that saturated his songs and him.

The days passed and the music that once flooded him stopped. Perplexed by the loss of his lifelong companion, he put down his guitar.

“What are you doing?” his mother asked.

“I can’t hear anything but the wind. The music is gone,” he said. “Dead. Who am I without it?”

“You are your music,” she said.

“Exactly,” he said.

He thought of his grandpa who lived and died because of these winds, this town, that power plant. The winds blew men off the job site—away from home, away from marriages, away from children. The leaving winds. His grandpa had chosen to stay.

“I gave everything to that company,” he would remind. The edges of his grandpa glowed green when the sun set. Did he have death scripted into his DNA like his grandpa, because of his grandpa?

Ocean Boy moved to the city that was emerald. Went to work in a restaurant in Nihonmachi owned by a childhood friend of his grandpa’s. Washed dishes until the old man pulled him into the kitchen.

“Enough,” he said one night. Instead, he trained him to slice vegetables, cut fish, hand press vinegar rice. Ocean Boy took pride in his work. He wanted to prove himself, show the old man he could do it—for himself and his grandpa. He practiced, perfected.

“Very good, very good,” the old man praised.

On days when Ocean Boy didn’t work, he wandered the streets of his neighbourhood. He liked that it was once known as the Lava Beds. Thought it fitting since his family hailed from a strand of islands with one hundred volcanoes. He also liked that these blocks were once the centre of the city’s vice and sin—brothels, box houses, saloons and gambling halls—which, he thought, always made a place or a person more interesting. He drank beer in a tavern with one hundred years of sordid stories soaked into its floorboards, ate tacos on a patio facing an alley filled with art and bantered with a beautiful server named after a song, searched for ghost signs on the sides of old brick buildings. Sometimes, he sat under the viaduct and smoked cigarettes as he watched the late afternoon light flirt with the water of Elliott Bay.

“Sit,” the old man said one night after the restaurant emptied. “Tonight, we celebrate Ebisu, the happy god of children, fish, and fortune. I want to make you something special.”

He pulled up his sleeve, chased a blowfish with a net, scooped it from the tank, leaned in and said something to it. Quickly and deftly moved his knife through the fish until it became whispers of sea flesh mounded on a plate with white radish and green citrus. He poured cold rice wine into a cup, pushed it across the short expanse of glass. Raised his own bottle of beer to Ocean Boy.

“Kanpai!” each said to the other.

“What did you say to him?” asked Ocean Boy.

The old man laughed, “I told him not to kill you. Fugu is very poisonous if not cut correctly.”

Five nights a week, Ocean Boy and the old man sat on crates in the alley and smoked cigarettes. Sometimes they talked, sometimes they sat in silence. The old man looked forward to this time, so did Ocean Boy. It began with small talk: What did you do on your day off? Have you tried the malasadas at Fuji? The barbecued pork at Tai Tung? Did you catch the game last night? The news?

Once Ocean Boy tried to ask the old man about his time working side by side with his parents in the fields of the Sacramento Delta, his childhood internment at Topaz. Two particular things he knew about him.

“Forgotten time,” he said. But Ocean Boy knew a childhood sliced in two by toil and war was not forgotten.

“Tell me your stories,” the old man said. So he did.

He told him how he grew up in a loving, left-of-centre family: mom, grandma, grandpa, an auntie, two uncles. How food and laughter were their religion. How beyond their small circle life was a series of small and large cruelties and that over time, they became tidal, threatened to drown. How the children called him Whale. A single word taunt stuck on repeat, followed by peals of laughter that shadowed him to the cafeteria, the gym, the library. When he was older and the roundness of childhood had dropped away, the jibe turned to Thinks he’s Neptune, sneered with derision. How his grandpa had died before he had taught him how to be a man. Before they had gotten to take long road trips together that would involve burgers eaten at roadside stands and winning numbers inked onto Keno paper.

“We’ll win big, his grandpa said. Move to the islands. I’ll paint and you can play music. We can fish and go kau kau.”

But the poison that was nuclear took him too soon.

Ocean Boy told the old man how his father—whose ancestors came from an island in a sea where selkies swam—had left him behind. Set off to the Rose City to make the dreams of a girl not much older than Ocean Boy come true. When their ill-fated love affair reached its expiration date, he was lured in by a woman of the land: tall and strong and thick as the trees that lined the shores of the river that cut their metropolis in two. He became a footnote in his father’s story. Forgotten when the new wife had one child, then two.

He was erased.

He told of how he put down his guitar when a sound void hit him like a tsunami. How he was assailed with an unfathomable loneliness for a place he could not name. The old man knew no advice could ease the deep ache of a life disrupted by cruelty, the inhumanity of others. He let the boy talk and he listened.

Weeks passed. Ocean Boy’s memories got louder, started to loop. A sudden swell of sadness overtook him. The oceanic one he had inherited from his mother and his grandfather. The voices of the past became a reprise.

One night he touched the tip of the knife used to prepare the blowfish to the center of his bottom lip. It tingled, numbed. A week later, he touched it to the tip of his tongue. The sensation was more intense: tingle, numb, float. He repeated it nightly. Let the knife rest longer. The fleeting thrill became a need.

Days bent into months. He died small deaths daily, heart cell by heart cell. The blowfish poison dulled the pain, dulled his dreams. At night, he fell into a chasm of black slumber or didn’t sleep at all. He became disoriented, vacant, a ghost.

On nights he didn’t put the Fugu knife to his lips, he’d wake the next morning with the taste of sugar and pineapple on his tongue. On the days when there was a respite from the thrum of rain inside his head and the static of sadness went silent, he could hear the mele of the islands. Come home, they sang.

As the months collected into a year, Ocean Boy devoted his life to Fugu. At work, he watched the blowfish swim in their tank, whispered kind words before he took their life, sliced them, served them. At midnight, he walked down Jackson to his apartment that sat in the night glow of Smith Tower. Turned the TV on and the sound down, opened the foil packet that held the Fugu liver stolen from the restaurant, shaved off a piece with the hand-forged Japanese knife he bought from the overpriced kitchen store at the Market, lifted it with chopsticks, placed it on his tongue, waited for the poison to surge through him. The rush of euphoria built until he thrashed and flailed, hit his head on the countertop and the underside of the cupboards, tore at the skin he wanted to escape until blood painted his nails. He gasped for air, his movements slowed, his eyes clouded. Finally, he fell into the chair in front of the mute television, his nightly ritual complete. He had become the Fugu—pulled from his tank, slapped onto the counter, skinned and sliced, devoured

Late one November night, the old man put his hand on Ocean Boy’s wrist and pressed it into the cutting board before he could lift the knife to his tongue.

“I can’t stop,” Ocean Boy said.

The old man took the knife from his hand. You’re drowning. It’s time to go.

He reached into the pocket of his worn blue jacket, and pulled out a ticket. Printed in black was the island of Ocean Boy’s grandpa, his great-grandpa. Ocean Boy shook his head. It’s too much! The old man motioned to the other side of the counter, then joined him.

“Let me tell you a story. When your grandpa and I were little, we went to a school for Chinese, Japanese, and Filipinos only. No white kids. They had their own school. Then Pearl Harbor was bombed and we Japanese were sent to the camps. Half the children and teachers from our school disappeared, so it closed. Your grandpa and all of the others who were left were sent to the other school, the white one. When I came back after the war, the kids made my life hell—they spit on me, called me names, beat me up—even the ones I grew up with in the pear orchards and the asparagus fields. They didn’t want to be close to me for fear that my misfortune was contagious. But not your grandpa, he put up his fists and fought for me. We were eleven years old. He did that for me, I want to do this for you.”

It was the most the old man had ever shared.

“Take it,” he said. “Please.”

Ocean Boy hugged the old man and cried into the blue of his jacket.

That night, Ocean Boy packed his waterside life into a two duffle bags, then called his mother.

“I get in before daybreak,” he said. He got on a midnight bus and headed east across the state. Stared at his reflection in the black of the window. He was a stranger, even to himself.

His mother arrived early, but the bus arrived earlier. She circled the inside of the depot but could not find her son. On her third orbit, she stopped in front of a man: bearded, gaunt, haunted, lips cracked, a gash caked with blood over his right eyebrow.

“Ocean Boy?”

“Mama!”

In a decades old diner, over eggs and toast and coffee, Ocean Boy described his daily escape to her as diving into blue and staying under to the moment before surrendering to the silence. But before the dive, there was the excitement that preceded the slice of body into water: the shiver, the sting, the surge.

“I’m sorry I’m so broken,” he said. Salt collected on his cheekbones and hers.

A string of weeks later, he picked up his guitar, blew the dust from its neck, strummed until it became a melody. His unused voice cracked. He took a breath, reached into the hidden place inside of himself that the sadness hadn’t touched. His voice grew, regained, redoubled. His mother watched as the posturing of self-preservation cracked and fell to the floor.

“You’re back,” she said. Her voice flooded with astonishment.

“I’m back,” he said. Leaned his guitar against the wall. “But where did I go?” he asked. His seawater eyes alight with wonder. “Why didn’t you save me?”

“I tried. Only you could save you.”

Night after night, Ocean Boy heard a far away song as he slept. A sugared voice, a ukulele. When he opened his eyes the last notes of the song were fading as the sun pushed over the edge of the eastern sky.

One December morning, Ocean Boy stood with this mother in their tiny tri-city airport, not wanting to say goodbye. She pulled at her lower lip with her teeth. He knew she was trying to keep from crying. To keep from saying the things she really wanted to say, like, Don’t go.

“Last call for flight,” the announcement overhead bellowed.

“That’s me, Mama. I’ve gotta go or I’ll miss the plane.”

“I know,” she said in a voice so small it sounded like a child’s.

He picked up his bag and his guitar, then leaned down and kissed her forehead. When he turned around to holler a final farewell, he saw a wave of tears crashing against her ankles.

Ocean Boy flew over the blue expanse of sea. When he arrived on the island, he checked into a hotel where Elvis stayed. This he did for his mother. He walked the streets of Chinatown. This he did for his great-grandpa. He ate burgers and fished from an old seawall. This he did for his grandpa. He sat on the beach, played his guitar, listened to the waves argue with the sand. This he did for himself. He rented a jeep and drove around the island. Made up stories of what his time with his grandpa would have looked like here. Pointed out places they should have seen together: the base where his grandpa was once stationed, the dock where his great-grandpa got off the boat from his own island, the now empty buildings where his mom used to buy shave ice and crack seed. Small histories that made up a larger one—his.

On the day before he was scheduled to fly back to the mainland, Ocean Boy stopped at a diner for eggs and rice and sausage. After he had eaten and paid the check, he stood in the parking lot and smoked a cigarette. Let the island’s chords wash over him. The multisyllabic crash of the waves, the whisper and sigh of the palm trees, the velvet winged flap of the wind, the soft shoe rhythms of the late morning rain. It was, he realized, the sound of home.


Carla Crujido is a hapa writer of Filipino, Mexican, Norwegian, and German descent. She is the co-editor of the anthology Nonwhite and Woman: 153 Micro Essays on Being in the World forthcoming from Woodhall Press in 2022. Her work has appeared in The Ana, Yellow Medicine Review, and elsewhere. Carla is a graduate of the MFA program at the Institute of American Indian Arts. Originally from San Francisco, she now calls Phoenix home.

Katya Roxas is a Communications and Design Strategist at the University of British Columbia. Katya has experience with branding, content creation, and social media and has a Bachelor’s Degree in Multimedia Arts, specializing in graphic design and illustration, and a Diploma in Digital Marketing and Communications. Born and raised in the Philippines, Katya is well-versed with the sacrifices and opportunities that come with being an immigrant. Through her experiences, she strives to break the barriers of cultural misrepresentation by creating honest and inclusive visual expressions. 

2 comments

2 comments

K 24 July, 2021 - 3:48 pm

Beautiful. I felt every word.

Reply
Morizen Foche 11 August, 2021 - 5:05 pm

This is fantastic CC. Your writing is great
—mo

Reply

Leave a Reply to K Cancel Reply