There is a threadbare boys’ Vespa shirt on my dresser. It’s goldenrod yellow with a 70s font and navy piping on the shoulders and sleeves – the kind of shirt that places like Urban Outfitters reproduce for people who won’t condescend to shop in actual thrift stores. If it were 1992 and I were still a student at Smith, it would have clearly marked me as feminist, gay, occasionally brash. Such shirts, paired with jeans or shorts from the Army/Navy store, were our tribe’s uniform, signifiers on campus and at Indigo Girls concerts.
But that’s not its history. In June 2010, I was falling in love with American Samoa, a speck of an island halfway between Hawaii and New Zealand. I had moved to “The Rock” to manage a diabetes research project, and in my first few weeks there, I spent a lot of time driving around listening to pop radio, taking photos of pretty village churches, and discovering Value City. If part of the fun of thrift shopping is the thrill of the hunt, it was that much more so in American Samoa, where all of the clothes – like nearly everything else in the territory, new or used – had come from other islands.
Value City, in the village of Nu’uuli, was full of competition jerseys from cricket tournaments across the South Pacific and everyday clothes from Australia’s Target. T-shirts from Tongan rugby teams were tucked next to faded rashguards, spandex shot into translucence from years in salt water. Small-press religious texts leaned against earnest young adult novels. The store was frequently staffed by a tall, gorgeous queer Fijian guy with a curly Melanesian blond forelock and a penchant for blasting loud technopop. Being there was like a secondhand tropical dance party dream world.
I was at Value City often enough that I don’t remember the day I found the already well-worn Vespa shirt; I only knew it was a treasure. I wore it on weekends between snorkeling excursions and catching up on issues of The New Yorker that sometimes arrived in the mail months after publication. Life was as easy and relaxed as I had ever known it.
Then, four months into my post, I had a seizure. The CT I was eventually able to get on-island proved what I already suspected: this was something serious. I was medically evacuated to Auckland, where an MRI revealed a large mass on my right frontal lobe.
I stayed in New Zealand for emergency brain surgery and radiation therapy, an exile I chose partly because it meant not returning home to a New England winter. While the radiation treatments were quick, the cumulative effects were exhausting. I spent much of the next four months in a sunny little apartment north of Auckland napping, eating ice cream, watching Will Ferrell movies, and walking on the beach.
The Vespa shirt quickly became my radiation uniform. And while I’ll always be grateful for the hats and Hermès scarves that friends sent, I mostly remember myself hanging out in the Vespa shirt and a pair of paint-stained Levi’s I culled from a nearby recycling bin – an island castaway in cast-off clothing.
I turned 40 two days after completing my radiation treatments. Wearing my Vespa shirt, eating an obscene breakfast at a North Shore café, I felt myself moving into a new life and new decade after cancer, as free as if I had a vintage scooter and was flying down the left side of the road, feeling the breeze in my nonexistent hair.
Kelley Alison Smith is a writer and health researcher in Rhode Island who misses the South Pacific every day.