Editor’s note: In this stirring personal essay, from the Review’s twelfth edition, a college professor revisits an adolescent adventure from grad school days. During a trip to the Kiribati Islands, the world’s easternmost nation rising just two meters above sea level, he writes a stunning metaphor: “The first people to see tomorrow will be the first to lose their entire country to climate change.”
MOST OF THE PEOPLE I MET IN KIRIBATI got their first tattoo when they were thirteen or fourteen years old. The tattoos were small— often just a friend’s name in bleeding blue, hand-written with a needle and ink.
Etiaroi’s were cleaner, more complex. Her first was an armband of barbwire for her father when she was twelve, she told me, “because he is in jail.” The second was an armband of Samoan symbols, “for my first love, a Samoan boy when I was very young.”
Even without them, it would be easy to tell that Etiaroi wasn’t from here. Her voice boomed louder than anyone around, and she walked like she was too big for a rural island of 2,500 people.
ETIAROI AND I MET on the basketball courts during my third week on Christmas Island. I was twenty-six, on a grant to visit several of the Republic of Kiribati’s thirty-three islands by freighter and write about the impacts of climate change. I was also in the social hole that is graduate school, where debt and uncertain job prospects encourage adolescent relationships. I was more focused on intellectual pursuits.
In fact, it was a metaphor that drew me to Kiribati. With an average altitude of only two meters, most of Kiribati’s islands will be uninhabitable or underwater within fifty years. Kiribati is also the world’s easternmost nation, pressed against the international dateline in the middle of the Pacific, making them the first people to welcome the new day.
It’s a stunning metaphor: the first people to see tomorrow will be the first to lose their entire country to climate change. I knew I needed to see it, so I hopped a plane to Christmas Island, ready to spend the summer soaking up as much as I could.
Etiaroi barely said a word the day we met. She was the only woman in a three-on-three basketball game, pushing and playing in a place where it was rare to see women older than sixteen unmarried, let alone playing sports.
I’d stopped to say hi to a friend when one of the players came over.
“Do you play?” he asked.
“Sure,” I said.
I don’t, but I rarely say no while traveling. Besides, at six feet tall, I had a good four inches on anyone out there. How hard could it be?
Etiaroi lined up against me. She was the tallest of her teammates and had short-cropped hair and long, athletic limbs. She stared me down with big brown eyes and was as beautiful as she was intimidating. She was all business, while my default is a quick smile. I knew I was in trouble.
I tried to flirt, hoping she’d ease up, but she ran circles around me and left me defeated without a word. The game wasn’t even close.
“Come dance tonight,” Alice said the next day. Alice worked at the Communications Office, the only place that offered internet or phones on the island. “There is someone I want you to meet.”
I was wary. Alice was nineteen and unmarried. Her parents had arranged a marriage for her at fifteen and while she’d talked them out of it then, American missionaries from Georgia were trying to arrange one now between her and their twenty-one-year- old son. Alice’s family seemed unlikely to let her say no again, but she was struggling with the decision. Kiribati offered women very few choices, she told me, and she desperately wanted to go to the U.S., “but I don’t love him,” she said. “I hoped it would be you, but maybe it is him.”
I’d been trying to be friends with Alice, but after that conversation I realized it might not be possible. I determined to only see her in the office.
“No dancing for me,” I said. “I’m not much of a dancer.” But she wouldn’t relent.
The dance was in the town maneaba, a large grass hut in the middle of the village. It was a family event—bright lights and no booze—not like the bars on the outskirts of town where proper young Kiribati women weren’t supposed to go.
“Come with me. Let me introduce you,” Alice said, walking me over to Etiaroi. “Maybe you like her instead of me.”
Etiaroi and I talked on the outskirts of the party all night. She was twenty-one, from Tarawa Island, Kiribati’s capital 2,000 miles to the west. She was bartending at The Bay of Sharks, one of those outskirt bars, saving money while waiting for a visa. She was staying with her cousin Tuutana, and they planned to visit family in Honolulu once the visas came in. They’d been waiting for a year, but this was a place where the mail only comes every few months.
“Maybe I can find work in Hawaii,” Etiaroi said. “Maybe we can stay.”
“You don’t like Tarawa?” I asked. I’d assumed Kiribati’s capital was more cosmopolitan, in part because of Etiaroi. “Why do you want to leave?”
She scrunched her nose like I’d asked a stupid question. “There is so much more in America. There is so much more I can do. Here, there is nothing.”
“Christmas Island is quiet,” I agreed.
“No. I like Christmas,” she said. “It is nicer here, but very traditional. Tarawa is fine, but it is dirty. And small. There is so much more out there for me.”
For the next two weeks, we spent almost every moment together—picnicking on secluded beaches, walking tropical lagoon flats, and dancing to Australian and Fijian pop at The Bay of Sharks. We talked music and dreams, and she told me she wanted to go to nursing school in the U.S. “I just want to help people,” she said.
She was more secure in her desires, and I found her confidence intoxicating.
None of it felt romantic, not really. My flirtations were often ignored, and it became my day’s goal to make her smile. Mostly we talked about our own plans, as if we were young friends dreaming of our own possibilities—her as a nurse in Hawaii, me as a professor in Colorado.
Occasionally she’d sneak into my room late at night. In bed she was timid, hesitant, and she’d sneak out before sunrise, looking both ways as she implored me to whisper like we were kids at summer camp. I made a joke of it one night, and she squeezed my arm hard. “You don’t know what it would be like if people knew. You don’t understand.”
When the freight ship that would take me to the other islands arrived, I thought I saw tears in her eyes.
“I’ll be back in a month,” I said.
They couldn’t be tears, I thought. I was the soft one.
THE FREIGHTER BOUNCED BETWEEN ISLANDS for the next month unloading rice, flour, and sugar. Kiribati is one of the most cash- poor countries in the world, with only 20 percent of its 140,000 people participating in a cash economy. The rest live off whatever the land and ocean provide, so the freighter only visits four times a year, bringing basic items and picking up dried coconut meat and seaweed, their few exports.
With no hotels on the outer islands, I stayed with families along the way. I explored Tabuaeron Island by bicycle with an ex-Navy Seal who had married a Kiribati woman and become one of three foreigners living on an island of 1,500 people. On even more remote Teraina, I drove a Kiribati Minister of Parliament from village to village by scooter so he could tell people what had been going on in the world over the past three months. In almost every village, I was asked if I was single. In several, I was thanked for my country’s role in World War II when the U.S. ended Japan’s occupation of Kiribati.
I asked about the rising oceans as I traveled. Most people understood it was happening—they saw it, and they were building seawalls by hand to fight it, but the reasons were less understood or too overwhelming to focus on. Most cared more about food or schools or roads than where their kids would have to live in fifty years, or how their tiny nation could fight something so large.
I collected experiences I would later write about, and while I occasionally thought about Etiaroi, she was quickly becoming a memory to carry through later life.
When I returned to Christmas a month later, Etiaroi shrugged her hello. I was excited to see her, if only for a few days before my flight home, but I felt myself checking my excitement to match hers.
We danced that night at The Bay of Sharks and then drove to the beach, laying a blanket among the stars. As we kissed, her long dress flipped up and I saw a new tattoo—a dozen hearts, hand-done in bleeding blue, wrapped around her right ankle.
“When did you get that?” I asked.
She covered it with her other foot, curling toes around swollen skin.
“One month ago. Tuutana did it.”
“What for?” I asked.
The question escaped before I could stop it. I closed my eyes, hoping they’d suck the words back in, wishing I could instead pull her close for our last few days together.
Etiaroi stared silently at the ocean, past our feet, then up at me. The blood emptied from my face.
“Because,” she said, looking away. “I—I have a lot of love.”
She didn’t say anything more. Neither did I. I tried to cuddle as if nothing had happened, but the night was over. Her face went as quiet and distant as it was when we were among other people.
I left three days later, catching a plane back to Colorado.
I never saw her again.
IT’S BEEN OVER TEN YEARS, and I’ve told many stories of Kiribati. The metaphor of this sinking land only becomes more real through time. A few years ago, Kiribati bought 6,000 acres of land in Fiji. While it was purchased for farming, their president warned that the land might become Kiribati’s permanent home if the world didn’t start addressing climate change.
“In a worst-case scenario, and if all else fails, you will not be refugees,” the Fijian president told the Kiribati people. “The spirit of the people of Kiribati will not be extinguished.”
I tell these stories, but I still don’t know how to tell the story of Etiaroi.
I am now a college professor in Manhattan, happily engaged to a wonderful woman. Being engaged has caused me to pause on past failures to make sure I don’t repeat them, but I still don’t know what to make of Etiaroi.
A part of me wonders if I’d become the thing I was there to investigate, taking advantage of my power in the world without considering the consequences of my actions. I’d treated our time casually, as if it were a vacation—a word that implies the ability to step away from reality, a word that holds little meaning to most people in this world.
I was a deeply in debt graduate student, sure, but my options were wide open based entirely on where I was born. I could fumble through possibilities. I could treat relationships and experiences as collectible or discardable. I could walk away.
I was there to question the consequences of our disposable culture—to explore a nation sinking because of habits led by my own culture, and I couldn’t help but fall into the trap myself. I didn’t know how not to.
At the same time, I hesitate to turn Etiaroi into a metaphor. I hesitate to oversimplify. We’d been together without promises or pretense, after all, and relationships lead us in different ways. I don’t know how she felt. I don’t know when she felt it.
I write and tell stories about that beautiful and disappearing place, but I have avoided telling this story. I can never make sense of what happened. Not really.
I avoid it, but it’s there, imprinted on me forever.
Brice Particelli will be a 2020-2021 Steinbeck Fellow at San José State University in narrative nonfiction. He earned his Ph.D. from Columbia University and has been a teacher at Pace University, in New York. His writing has been published in Harper’s, Guernica, and Salmagundi, among others. He is a 2017 NYSCA/NYFA Artist Fellow in Nonfiction with the New York Foundation for the Arts and the co-editor of America Street: A Multicultural Anthology of Stories (Persea Books, 2019). Website: www.briceparticelli.com.
Delmarva Review publishes evocative new prose and poetry selected from thousands of submissions annually. Designed to encourage outstanding writing, the literary journal is nonprofit and independent, supported in part by a grant from the Talbot County Arts Council with funds from the Maryland State Arts Council. The submission period for the next issue opens on November 1. See the website: www.DelmarvaReview.org.