“My name is Tulip. Raquel Kahele from the hotel bar sent me here.” I signal the cart I’ve pushed all the way from the hotel lobby to the outdoor conference area called The Volcano Lounge.
The lady at the door, stuffed into a tweed jacket that has to be sweltering in the Hawaii summer, peers through her reading glasses at a clipboard. “I didn’t know we had a . . .” She stares at my cart like she’s not sure what to call it.
“Party on Wheels.”
“I’m not aware of any order for a Party on Wheels.” She blinks a few times as though the word “party” does not compute.
I lean against the handle, my bright pink lei dangling near the shot glasses. “All I know is Raquel told me to bring it here.”
As the lady, whose name tag identifies her as Florence, flips through her papers, I scope out the conference. Something is very off about it. Raquel told me it’s called Personali’Tea. It’s for people who are interested in using personality tests to coach clients. Raquel, who runs the Oahu Grand Hotel bar, bartended the conference last night and called me up to gush about how “cute and fun” the conference was. She asked, “Got a temp job all lined up for tomorrow afternoon?” and I said, “I won’t know till the morning.” So she said, “Temp for me tomorrow.” That way, I could attend the Personali’Tea while making money and “really good tips.”
But I’m not getting a fun and cute vibe at all. I mean, we’re in Hawaii, and all the guests are wearing boring business attire that’s more appropriate for some dusty conference room in Secaucus, New Jersey. They’re in tight circles murmuring and nodding to each other as though the world’s very survival depends on their discussions.
One bald guy with a paunch squeezed into a thick black jacket is staring through his wire-rim glasses at a sheaf of papers while some scrawny young guy with a pocket protector bites his nails and looks on. Neither is taking in the view.
In fact, no one is taking in the view, even though we’re in—hello!—Hawaii. This conference area is open air. It leads onto a white sand beach and has full view of the ocean, glinting in the morning sun. The water laps against a green-covered volcano on the right. I’m willing to bet that volcano could spew blood-red lava, and Wire-Rim Glasses Guy’s only reaction would be to push his specs up his sweaty nose and scribble more red ink all over his papers.
I’ve lived on the Hawaiian island of Oahu for three years now, and the view still looks like a flipping postcard to me.
What’s the matter with these people? Cute and fun? What was Raquel thinking?
Maybe I’m in the wrong place.
“Diana! Is that you?” A surprised voice behind me makes me jump. I peek over my shoulder, but I don’t see Diana, my twin, anywhere. I have no idea what she would be doing here anyway. She’s been in Tibet ever since finishing her doctorate in psychology at some hoity-toity Tavish College in Pennsylvania.
But questions can come later. For now, I need to get inside The Volcano Lounge and away from my sister. She wouldn’t be caught dead at a personality quiz conference. Once I’m inside, I should be safe.
“Um, Flo,” I say, “maybe we should go with the flow. You let me in and confirm the paperwork later.”
She purses her lips at me—maybe she doesn’t like me calling her Flo—and flips to another page. “I just don’t see any record of a Party on Wheels.”
“Diana?” the same voice says behind me.
I slouch over the cart, make myself as tiny as I can. It’s just like my sister to not notice someone bugling her name. Honestly, she’s probably wandering around with her nose in some psychology textbook and her head in the clouds. But at least that’s good for me. It means she won’t have noticed me yet. To be on the safe side, I slip on my oversized sunglasses.
(Gucci, in case you were wondering.)
(Okay, fake Gucci. I got them at a flea market. Don’t judge.)
They’re not much of a disguise, but they’re all I’ve got.
The bellowing lady’s voice gets closer. (”Diana, is that you? I thought you were in Tibet.”) I need to hide. I take reconnaissance of the conference area. Up ahead, in front of the beach, I’ll be in full view of the entrance to the hotel lobby, which is no good.
Along the left, a stage takes up all the space. But to the right, beyond a row of chairs and some round tables peppered at the rear, stands a copse of palm trees.
I’ve got my plan: I’ll smash my way past Florence. She’s barely five feet tall. I doubt she could chase me down. If Diana does happen to spot me, I can take cover behind the palm trunks.
“Diana?” The voice is on my heels now. Diana can’t be far away. I grip the cart’s handlebar and whisper to Florence, “I’ll be inside if you need me.” And then I shove my way into the Personali’Tea, keeping my eyes trained on the bottles and glasses in front of me.
Above the clink, clink, clink of the glassware, Florence’s voice rises: “What do you think you’re doing, young lady?” but no one stops me.
To my right, someone grunts, “Jung.” He’ll be with the Myers-Briggs crowd. I must be in the right place after all. On my cart, the bottle of Blue Curaçao taps the carafe of pineapple juice. I slow down so I don’t break anything. To my left, a lady talks about animal instinct. She’ll be with Gary Smalley’s four animal personality test. I’m Sanguine Otter: fun loving.
I know because I took the test last night to prepare for my temp job today.
Okay, I took it because it was cute and fun and you never know what insight you’ll get into your life.
The narrow, curved trunks of the palm trees cut into my line of sight. I swerve the cart to the right and tuck the Party on Wheels behind the trees.
I scan The Volcano Lounge, keeping my eye out for Diana. Once I confirm she hasn’t followed me, I’ll set up shop properly. No point being here if I don’t make any money.
I really need to talk to Raquel about her definition of cute and fun. Last night, as I looked up information about Personali’Tea, I found pictures from last year’s conference. Now that was, in fact, cute and fun. Colorful booths faced the seashore. They were decked out with slick tablets where attendees take online personality tests. Besides the usual offerings (Myers-Briggs, four humors, Enneagram), there were fun tests that matched your personality type with different wine and cars and even shoes. (I aspire to Harry Winston but am stuck at flip-flops: ready to get up and go at any minute! Maybe I should start ascribing to the school of thought that people can change.)
But this year’s Personali’Tea is a downer. No booths. No colorful swathes of fabric. No tombola promising juicy prizes. Just stuffed shirts standing in tight circles nodding and mumbling and pushing glasses up their noses.
Hmmm, maybe I am in the wrong—
“Did you see Diana?”
I duck. A lady, the same one who’s been hollering after my sister, is standing just feet from me, talking to someone I can’t see because an orange and pink plumeria bush is in the way.
I wonder how the lady hasn’t melted in her blah business suit. Her black hair is severe against her powdery face. Hasn’t anyone told her ladies of a certain age should opt for cream foundation?
“No,” the man who must be behind the plumeria bush says. His voice, deep and velvety, strikes me as vaguely familiar. “Isn’t she in Tibet?”
The lady turns in a circle, and I take cover behind the cart, peering through the space between the palm trunks. I can’t let my sister find me here because she disapproves of me temping, and I might have accidentally led her to believe that I found a steady job in real estate. I didn’t lie. I was temping at a real estate agency when I talked to her on the phone last, and the call, well, it cut out just as I was going to clarify that I was still temping. I planned to call her back, pinky promise. But I couldn’t. Because I dropped the phone in the toilet.
Long story. Doesn’t matter.
The point is, I’m just a temp, and she’s already finished her doctorate in psychology. I thought she was on a research trip to study something or other involving societies that raise llamas. I think? In Tibet. I don’t have all the details on account of the phone falling in the toilet.
Although what she would be doing at a Personali’Tea, I can’t imagine.
Wait . . .
I am in the wrong place. This must be some sort of shrink conference. I stifle a groan.
The lady looking for my sister stomps off. I raise my phone to call Raquel and alert her to my mix-up when a guy steps out from behind the plumeria bush and makes me forget my phone and Raquel and pretty much everything else.
Because he’s not just any guy. He’s Cooper Byrd. Professor Cooper Byrd. Professor Cooper Byrd from my sister’s snooty Tavish College. Just my luck that I mix up conference areas and pick the exact same one that is host to what is apparently a Tavish College conference.
I know him. Or anyway, I’ve met him the few times I’ve visited my sister at her school. That’s why his voice sounded so familiar. And deep. And velvety.
My breath catches. It always catches when I see him.
He’s cute in a nerdy, almost accidental way. You know, how Clark Kent is. Clark Kent, when he whips out his cape and transforms into Superman, is all buff and gorgeous in that “I know I am all buff and gorgeous, wink, wink!” kind of way. (If you’re a man, don’t try this at home. Few men can pull off a cape.) But when he’s back to being his bespectacled self, all shy and respectful at his newspaper job, you still get the sense that his uptight business attire and geeky glasses are hiding a whole lot of delish.
And even though Cooper is wearing the same kind of uptight suit everyone else is, he stands out. He towers over everyone else. His shoulders fill out his jacket just so. And he has this adorable tic where he tugs at his tie. I’ve seen it when he’s talked to my sister about publishing his articles or correcting papers or working towards tenure. It’s like, deep down, he knows he doesn’t belong in a suit and tie. He belongs in a loose, linen shirt and board shorts.
You thought I was going to say cape, didn’t you? Got you.
The breeze ruffles his dirty golden waves. No amount of professionalism can tame that hair.
What I wouldn’t give for my limp, mousy locks to be more like his.
I do wish he’d turn this way so I could get a better view. Turn this way, Cooper. Come on, turn this way. I take off my sunglasses so I can see him better.
As though we have some sort of connection, he swivels around, the sun catching the golden strands in his hair. He’s wearing his glasses today. They give him an air of nerdy, uptight chic that makes my tummy do flip-flops. His eyes, piercing blue like the ocean, survey the tree trunks. Does he suspect someone is here, hiding? Maybe not, because he turns away, slowly enough for me to appreciate the outline of his Roman nose. A nose that knows it is noble enough to take up just the right amount of space.
Sigh. Professor Cooper Byrd.
I have a bit of a crush on him.
Had, I mean.
You can’t blame me, can you? My sister’s other colleagues from Tavish College, when they find out I’m just a temp, screw their faces up funny like they’ve just stepped in poo, then turn their attention back to my sister as she drones on about psychometric disconfirmation. Okay, maybe psychometric disconfirmation isn’t a thing. The point is, they act like I’m not even there.
Not Cooper. When he found out, he pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose, grinned in that shy way of his, and said, “Ah,” as though he knew being polite was more valuable than being superior. He even invited me to stick around for coffee with him and the other professors, but I said no. I figured he was just being polite.
After all, why would someone like Cooper want to have coffee with me?
My sister has a crush on him. I’m sure of it. After all, she blushes when he talks to her, but I’ve never come out and asked. She’s shy and doesn’t like talking about her feelings.
Which is weird for a psychologist, don’t you think?
It’s probably why she’s buried herself in llama-related research.
My phone rings. It’s Raquel. “Raquel,” I whisper, “I’ve messed up. I think I’m in the wrong place.” I don’t tell her that not only did I come to the wrong conference, I landed in the exact kind of conference where I don’t belong: a conference for successful brainiacs who actually finished school.
“I know,” Raquel says. “Personali’Tea called. They’re waiting for you. Where are you?”
“Some snooty psychology thing.”
“Hold on a sec. I’ll let Personali’Tea know. Don’t hang up.”
I watch as Cooper approaches the bald guy with wire-rim glasses I saw earlier. He and the student have migrated close to the palm fronds. I realize Wire-Rim Glasses Guy must be a professor. He’s jabbing at the papers with a red pen.
Cooper pulls the papers out from under the professor’s nose. “Karl, what did I say about the world’s depleting reserves of red ink?”
“Don’t be absurd,” Karl says in what sounds like a German accent. “There is no depleting of red ink. Come, Frederick.”
Ugh, red ink. One of the many reasons I couldn’t hack college.
“Tulip?” Raquel says.
I duck farther down even though I know no one can hear Raquel.
“Yes?” I whisper.
“Are you on your way?”
“Uh-oh. What happened?”
“Well, the thing is, I think my sister might be here.”
“Shoot. Isn’t she—”
“Llama sabbatical in Tibet, yeah. That’s what I thought too.”
“Did you see her? Did she finally manage to tan?”
“I haven’t spotted her, but some lady kept hollering her name.”
There’s a moment of silence before Raquel says, “Sure she didn’t confuse you for her?”
“In a bartender uniform?”
“Darling, my bartender uniforms are fabulous.”
“Sheez, you’re probably right.” I feel silly. I should have thought of the mistaken identity angle myself. After all, my sister and I have switched identities loads of time, or at least, we used to.
I miss those days.
I guess the panic slowed my thinking. And then, I got distracted by Professor Cooper.
“Why the sigh?” Raquel says.
“I didn’t sigh.”
“Sure you did. Doesn’t matter. Are you inside the shrink conference?”
She gasps. “How’d you manage? They refused my overtures. Each and every single one.”
“I barged in to avoid my sister.” I feel silly all over again.
“Oooooh, savvy. As long as the Party on Wheels is parked there, leave it. We might make some sales before they kick us out. I’ll send Ricky over and take the other Party on Wheels to Personali’Tea. I can cover for you while you head back.”
“You’ll love it. It’s so cute and fun.”
“This sure isn’t.” Except for Cooper. He’s walking away from me now. The breeze ruffles wisps of his wavy hair, and I can just catch a hint of his ocean-scented cologne. The back of his jacket shifts on his shoulders as he raises his hand to push his hair back. My eyes wander down.
“I hate to see you go, Cooper, but I love to watch you leave.”
“What?” Raquel says.
Shoot, I didn’t mean to say that out loud. “Oh, um, I’m waiting for a chance to leave. I don’t want people seeing me crawling out from behind a bunch of palm trees.”
Raquel laughs, tells me she wishes she could hire me full time, and hangs up.
I didn’t lie to Raquel. I do want to wait till I can slip out without being seen. But I also want to finish watching Cooper leave.
What I mean is, I don’t want him to see me. He and I, we are part of different worlds: I flunked college. He teaches it.
As he mingles with the crowd, all I can see is his head, towering over the others.
His world is Oxfords, polished to a refined shine. Mine is . . . well, flip-flops, apparently.
He turns. I spy his nose. I sigh.
A few moments later, he is gone.