The heat is different. You don’t feel a piercing hotness, that knife of sun that flames your skin when you stand still for too long. No. It’s a slow, creeping, dripping heat. You breathe it in when you step out the front door (heavy, typhoon-proof steel that closes behind you with a soft, hammering click). Like the other kind, you can’t stand it for long. You drown in it as it smothers you from every side. That’s why every base has a pool.
Even ours, Plaza Housing- the annexed outpost of the larger, developed Camp Foster- had a grimy 25-meter. Brilliant aqua in a sea of stony concrete. A jewel in the Asian sun. If there was nothing to do indoors or off-base in the summer, I could always count on finding Alicia or Coree for a solid few hours of amateurish flips off the diving board, interspersed with twenty or thirty minute intervals of tanning on the adjustable, rubber-slated pool chairs. We’d walk home, flip-flops squeaking, as the sun went down, pruny fingers gripping damp towels caped around our shoulders, crunchy hair and bathing suits dripping. Sore and laughing.
If you were to visit, it would be easy to find your way home. The house is the last one on the street, as far back as the barbed-wire fenced limits of the base housing goes. The numbers don’t help you find it, since the layout of military housing is always jumbled, units and cul-de-sacs pieced together in whatever way the Okinawan topography will allow. Enter the Plaza gate (flash your American ID to the Japanese gate guard in his little booth, get waved through), drive over the canal bridge; down the shaded, winding main road, passing streets lined with identical single-family dwellings (multi-plexes are a thing of newer, larger bases); pass the tennis courts and the Officer’s Club restaurant and ballroom (the only space large and classy enough for our high school’s homecoming dance); then the road curves around the looming, gnarly banyan tree. (I only climbed it two or three times; its branches were too dense and vertical to find a good perch, and the way down was tricky.) When the road ends, turn left, and four beige-and-tan dwellings later you will be at the end. Drive straight into the driveway. Rest in the shade of the fading white stone pillars. Check for banana spiders scuttling around the sidewalk cracks. Crusty corpses of baby centipedes collected in the tracks of the back door.
Don’t go inside yet. Walk between the kitchen wall and the shed into the late afternoon glimmer of the sloping backyard. Feel the lawn stretch away from you and down, down to the last reaches of the barbed wire fence, to the hole in the back that teenagers must have crawled through long ago, only to turn back when they couldn’t brave the thick Japanese vegetation pushing up against the edges of American order and development. Rest your palm against the bark of the tree; pick off a few cicada skins. Can you hear them? Their angry whir means it’s time to keep going. Keep flying, find a mate, find food, find something. The nasal, whining roar will wake you bright and early, if the national anthems (American, then Japanese- I never paused to wonder at this) over the loudspeakers don’t.
That backyard made us special. We had one of the only views of the ocean. Past the fence, the huge plateau on which Plaza was situated fell away to reveal the whole southwestern coast of Okinawa far below. At night, the maze of sun-bleached concrete became technicolor, and the Coca-Cola sign at the center of the ferris wheel in American Village shot neon lights out and across the spokes. The night I had my whole class over for a bonfire, I was especially proud of this view. Though hardly anyone’s house was distinctive, the backyard made ours the best place to live. How the plot had acquired a fire pit, no one knew, but I refused to waste it.
Despite having a decidedly mediocre level of popularity in high school, I plucked up the courage to make a Facebook event announcing a first-night-of-summer party, with the added incentive of being able to burn any and all schoolwork from the year in our fire pit. My house was easy to locate, I planned it before anyone cooler could come up with something, and most importantly, no one else had a fire pit. The stars aligned and almost everyone came. My mother passed around ice cream sandwiches; friends and acquaintances alike shared lawn chairs and laughed. One of the other Plaza boys brought his guitar. We signed yearbooks. One of my friends was so excited to purge himself of the rigors of scholarship that he threw his entire backpack into the fire, calculator and all. It turned the smoke green, and we all laughed. My lawn became littered with chemistry tests, Great Gatsby essays and algebra homework, the flames dancing in the center. My flannel smelled of campfire smoke for weeks afterward. It was the happiest night of my life.
Now, since the sun sets over the coast, you’ll begin to squint as the entire back of the house turns gold. I don’t know what it is about Okinawan sunsets, but aren’t they just brilliant? See how even the clouds glow brighter? See all the colors?
Slide open the glass doors on the back patio and part the vertical blinds to enter the living room. (Is it empty? Or is there just the blue, squarish, government-issued couch?) Who lives there now? It doesn’t matter. It will always be our house, really. (A few months after I left, loyal Bailey snuck in with a video camera, poking into my old bedroom just for proof: it was empty.) The kitchen will be bare, so that space between the high counter and the wall will look gaping and sad without our table to fill it. Through the window above the sink, you can look all the way down the street and imagine us walking home from the bus stop. Timmy’s basketball goal on the curb, rarely used (I think Mom and Dad wondered if the spectacle of presenting it on his birthday was worth the trouble of taking it with us when we left). The pink hibiscus waving their fat faces at a rare breeze.
After dinner, if given the choice between washing dishes and walking Bagger, I always chose the dog. The heat subsided at night, and I could listen to music and watch Bagger chase the cockroaches scuttling under the streetlights- pouncing his paws, then jerking his nose away when they moved unexpectedly. I had a longer and shorter route; the one I took any particular night depended on how much homework I had, or how much I wanted to think: about whatever boy I had a crush on that month, where I’d go to college someday, who else was staring at the same sky somewhere far away and making wishes of their own. What did God want? What did I want?
The best spot for thinking was around the corner from the tennis courts. The road opened up into a parking lot much too big for the tiny shoppette at the far end (the best and only spot for Friday night DVD rentals and candy). The left curb was the bus stop and the backyard of the house across from Coree’s. This diverted into a small back road connecting the parking lot back to the main road, on which was situated two houses (one of which I knew), and provided the passageway for my shorter route. To the right stretched the parking lot, the shoppette, and behind that, the pool, and the streetlight under which I learned how to kiss. (Behind that, the row of abandoned houses for Generals where Coree and I sprinted the night before I left.) Straight ahead was the road with the fewest streetlights. The longer route.
If I was feeling particularly daring, I might venture all the way to the houses on the far corner, and see if I could glimpse families eating dinner through lighted windows. If not, I’d follow the darkened street until it connected with the main road, which was always the way home, since we lived at the end. I took my time here. Barefoot on rough sidewalk, the cicadas at a low hum, the heat now an easy blanket around my shoulders. I passed Alicia’s house, shrouded in tree shadow, crested the loop that rejoined with the tennis courts. If there were stars, I would sometimes lay down, right there in the road. Eight-thirty at night felt emptier than a graveyard. I never worried about being seen by someone from school. (At least, not enough.) Time would slow to a crawl as I traded memories with the sidewalk grit, a vaguely familiar indie song crooning through my earbuds. Bagger would sit patiently, panting slightly in the humid air, until I’d exchanged enough pleasantries with the sky and breathed deeply enough to feel satisfied; I’d pick myself up from the scratchy asphault and lope home dreamily.
Still there? Go back outside the house. Take a walk for yourself; it doesn’t take long to know it all, to etch a map into your muscle memory. Wear shoes or don’t; it doesn’t matter. The funny thing about being in a climate where most natural things can kill you (habu snakes, banana spiders, heat exhaustion) is that everything feels safe. Feel as much of it under your feet as you possibly can. Breathe in grass and concrete and school bus exhaust and laughter from whatever crew is ruling the tennis courts these days. Soak the heat in through every pore. It will get inside you whether you let it or not. Inescapable and saturating, you forget what it feels like to be anywhere else. When you finally return into a harsh wave of air-conditioning, you will suddenly realize you are soaking.