BY THE TIME WE PICK UP OUR LUGGAGE IN THE LIHUE AIRPORT AND HEAD
for Avis, dusk has settled. Ben bolts ahead of me, carrying his suitcase in front of him with two hands. I tried to talk him into buying one with wheels on some happier trip, so he wouldn’t aggravate his tennis elbow, but no, even though he’s not that much bigger than I am, he lugs it himself. I drag mine along. It’s 80 degrees, and there’s a thick layer of humidity. Nine hours ago, we left our house in Seattle.
“Carly, are you coming?” Ben turns and looks at me like I’m a dawdling toddler.
“I’m not as fast as you.” Even when you’re carrying your own.
The car, a red Mercedes convertible, picked out by Ben, takes another half hour to sign off on. By this time darkness surrounds us.
Ben stops at the first intersection. He can go straight ahead, turn right, or turn left. “Which way?” He says. “We’re looking for Fifty-six.”
Ben turns right, drives by the north side of the airport, gets to another stoplight, then says, “I guess it’s back that way.” He U-turns and heads for the main intersection.
Are U-turns legal here? That’s all we need – to start out with a traffic ticket on this “second honeymoon” that Max, my father-in-law, insisted on giving us.
Ben turns right on a red light and goes north on 50.
I hope we’re headed for the condo in Princeville that his parents recently purchased. Pam, my mother-in-law, told me,” A trip like this will be good for the two of you. It’s been over a year since Dale…and it is your twentieth anniversary coming up.” She couldn’t bring herself to say “died.”
I thought about our first honeymoon, spent here in Kauai at the Coco Palms. Max paid for that one, too. My parents in Elma, “The Slug Capital of the USA,” couldn’t have afforded such a gift, and as college students, we sure didn’t have the money. I didn’t tell Pam, “I don’t want to go to Kauai. I don’t want a second honeymoon. I don’t even know if I want to be with your son.”
Instead, I shook my head in agreement, which I always do with his parents.
An hour later we’re traveling along the same road and signs now identify it as 56. Aren’t we getting any closer? All I want is a bed – and sleep. Traffic is scarce and there are no discernible buildings. As our headlights pierce through the gloom, my chest tightens with the rhythmic swoosh of waves. As tired a he is from countless late nights at the office, Ben might miss a curve and the car could catapult over a cliff.
At last, I see another sign: Princeville 21 miles. “Still twenty-one miles!” My voice clangs in my ears.
“We’ve gone over twenty. Dad said it was twenty-five.” Ben sounds like he’s just played three sets.
Minutes later, we reach Princeville’s entrance with its huge fountain and statue of Neptune. When we get to the Pua Poa complex, I yell, “There it is!”
He pulls past the guard house for the hotel, U-turns, and goes back to the condo parking lot where we sit, staring at several looming, unlit buildings. “Which one do you think it is?” I say.
“The unit is four-oh-three. We’ll have to go searching.”
The entry areas are almost as dark as the road. We stumble along, tripping on a curb here, a tropical plant there. At our third try we find the right building. On the top landing we face two sets of double green copper doors. Faint illumination sifts through etched-glass inserts. Ben says, “We’re to the left.”
“How do we get in?”
“There’s a lockbox.” Ben runs his hand over the stucco wall. “Here it is.” He takes a piece of paper from his pocket, holds it up to the skimpy light from the door, and says, “The code’s two, three, three, one.” After several tries, with no luck, he says, “What are we going to do?”
“Sack out in the car?”
Ben takes off his skinny, black-framed glasses, rubs his eyes, and puts them back on. With a couple more attempts, the box cover miraculously thunks onto the tile floor. Once he figures out which way to turn the key in the lock, he opens the doors to a huge expanse of room with one dimmed lamp in the far corner. Windows that reflect us looking like a pair of exhausted refugees fill the ocean side. The ceilings are at least 14 feet high.
“This place could be a Hollywood set,” I say, feeling a tug for my cozy office at home.
“Dad told me it was fantastic.” Ben puts his hand lightly on my shoulder. I’m too tired to move away. “Let’s go get the luggage and crash. We can appreciate it tomorrow.”
Ben, carrying his suitcase, pants like an old black lab as I thump mine up the many banks of stairs.
It’s 11:00 p.m.
By 5:00 a.m., I’m awake, lying on my right side, curled up with my arms tightly wrapped around myself. Ben, who’s still out for the count, lies too close. I scrunch to the edge of the bed. Rain like falling tears splatters glass panels of the solarium across from this room. I didn’t expect to wake up to a downpour. What did I expect? Nothing. I have no expectations. Just a wish that someday Dale will reappear. He would have been up early, anxious to get to the beach.
Pam told me, “Hideaways or Pali Ke Kua is a real treat. It’s treacherous getting down there, but it’s private and fun to watch the surfers.” She searched my face, then said, “Stick together and be careful.”
Ben throws his arm across me. I crawl out from under his grasp and pad to the windows.
“Are you up already?” His voice is muffled.
“I can’t stay in bed any longer--jet lag.” I don’t turn.
In this solarium is a chaise upholstered in palm tree design fabric. It looks comfortable enough to sleep on. Four floors below me is a small yard. If I walked out there, beyond the low black chain fence, which serves as a warning rather than an actual barrier, I could float over the bluff down to Hideaways.
“We can get breakfast. Dad said the Wake-up Café in Hanalei makes great omelets, and they open at six.”
I can feel him staring at my back, and when I don’t answer: “Do you want to do that?”
“If you do.”
I really want to stay at this window all the rest of the day, all the rest of the week, and when I get tired I want to lie on this chaise. Two young men walk along the path north of the condo with surfboards strapped to their backs. The rain has stopped, the sun is coming out, the sky is streaked with pink. It makes the boys’ healthy, tan bodies glow.
“So, we’ll get ready?”
“Sure.” I tear myself away from the boys’ progress down the hillside.
Wake-Up Café is one small room with a narrow porch--the whole place no bigger than Dale’s bedroom. On the walls are pictures of surfers, some from 50 years ago--many of them even younger than Dale.
While we wait to be seated, an old couple, probably mainlanders who retired to Kauai, stand ahead of us. There is a thin girl with dark hair pulled back in braids. She greets us with a big “Aloha!” Her purple-flowered wraparound dress swishes as she reaches for menus. Two hefty Hawaiian women cook up a storm in the tiny kitchen. I’ve seen this before--small, delicate young women, and after a few babies, they become obese. Maybe it’s too much poi. I never lost all the weight after Dale was born. Not until this past year. The girl says to the old couple, “You can sit down--I’ll have your order right up.”
Once tall but now stooped over to about five and a half feet (our height), he looks from beneath scraggily eyebrows, and croaks, “Don’t make our usual. We want something different.”
His wife, half a head above us, says, “They’re so fast around here, we have to tell them if we want something new, or they’ll bring our regular order before we can even get sat down.” She turns and grabs the old guy’s arm, leaving behind a cloud of Jungle Gardenia as she helps him to their table.
I can’t imagine us at that age.
Five minutes after we order our omelets, there they are steaming. I stare at my heap of eggs and cheese and wish I hadn’t let Ben talk me into such a large meal. He also got a macadamia nut cinnamon roll that the server said was terrific. I nibble at it. Before, I would have felt badly about leaving food. At Mom’s table nothing was ever wasted. Fifteen minutes later we’re finished, and I wonder what we’re going to do with the rest of the day.
“I thought after a stop at Hanalei Lookout, we can drive to the end of the road. There’s an eleven-mile hike – the Kalalau Trail. We could walk on it for a short ways.”
His parents seemed to have completely filled Ben in--right down to correct names. “We’ll see…”
The Hanalei River Valley looks exactly like the picture on a postcard Max sent when they came over to buy the condo. He wrote, “This is where the islands’ taro grows. That plant they use to make poi. Pretty terrible. Try it once and judge for yourselves. You’ll love the lookout.”
Max was right about the scenery. The many shades of green in the quilt-patterned fields along each side of the winding river are as breathtaking as those we saw in Ireland during a trip Ben and Dale and I made when he was in sixth grade. Dale kept us in stitches with his accent and limericks. This is the first time we have gone anywhere without him. The apex of our triangle, he held us together. After his death, months blurred with the simplest acts of survival. As time has passed I feel the shape of our life pulling further apart, and I don’t know if I care about remolding it.
Shortly before we get to the end of the road, Ben points out a pasture full of horses--mostly palominos. Just beyond this hikers take off on their trek along the inaccessible Na Pali Coast.
“There’s the first of the wet caves--Waikanaloa,” he says.
Pulling into a parking place, we’re so close I can almost reach out and touch the freshwater pool. Quite a few cars maneuver through the tight area, and I wonder if any ever slip into the water. Dale, seeing the lidded-eye shape of the cave, would have said, “I’m snorkeling in there.” If I jump in the water and swim for that dark opening, will I find him?
Ben says, “If you want, we can hike to the other wet cave--Waikapala’e--it’s close. There’s a Hawaiian legend that it was dug by the goddess Pele for her lover.” He smiles invitingly.
“I’d rather go back and watch the horses.”
Several are swaybacked, with ribs protruding. There’s a pregnant mare and another one with a foal nursing. A robust-looking stallion stands watch over his herd with a white bird (Ben tells me it’s an Egret) on his back. In spite of myself, I smile.
Another day, after another breakfast at the Wake-up Café, Ben says, “You sure didn’t eat much.”
“I wasn’t that hungry.”
“You haven’t been hungry for months.”
“If you really want to know, the sight of food makes me sick.”
“Of course I want to know. You look like you’ve lost at least fifteen pounds.”
“Isn’t that good?” He used to say I was too heavy.
“You’ve always been fine for me. More than fine.” He reaches out to take my hand. I let him hold it for a moment before pulling away.
As we head for the Mercedes, he stops and riffles through a rack of sundresses in front of a gift shop. “Would you like to buy one of these?”
“I brought enough clothes.” In my wheeling suitcase.
“You might like something special from our trip.”
“I don’t think so.”
Once we get on the road, he says, “We can go down to Port Allen and take a cruise along the Na Pali Coast since we didn’t do the hike. Does that sound like fun?”
As we drive south Ben says, “Look at all we missed coming up here in the dark.” He slows and turns his head at the road sign, then laughs. “It says two-point-one miles, not twenty-one miles. That sure gave us a shock.”
“Look at all these new buildings. None of this was here last time. They came after the hurricane in ’92.”
“I wonder how old timers feel about the construction.”
“Hate it. Have you ever heard of residents anywhere liking it when bigger, more expensive houses and condos come into their space? I’m sure it’s helped the economy.”
Spoken like a true Republican.
“I’m also sure they’d pull up the drawbridge and keep the builders, as well as the tourists, out if they could.”
“You’re probably right.” We used to argue about this sort of thing--me spouting opinions in the same way I did with my logger father who defended clear cutting on the Olympic Peninsula.
“We could go visit the little town of Kilauea and the lighthouse one day. Remember when we did that before? It was the farthest north we drove.”
“Vaguely.” I recall the white tower and a bluff covered with those same white birds as I saw by the horses. I felt dizzy looking down at the water. Ben blamed it on my pregnancy.
For several miles we’re quiet. Then, as we approach Waimea, I see it. The Coco Palms. A battered, brown shell of the old Coco Palms. Totally deserted. Looking as if it could blow over at any moment. For the first time in months, I feel a pang about something other than Dale. “It’s like a ghost town.”
“You knew it was ruined in the hurricane.”
“Yeah, but I thought it would be gone, bulldozed, not left here as a reminder of what it used to be. I don’t understand why they would leave such an eyesore for all these years.” I picture our room with the conch sink and Jacuzzi big enough for two. I’d never seen such luxury. We took walks among the palms, listening to the call of a shell trumpet, watching torchbearers circling the area with their flames, seeing other people getting married or renewing their vows. It was here that we had many romantic nights, despite neither one of us wanting to be married and certainly not having a baby, despite Ben’s wish for me to have an abortion, despite my refusal and my parents’ wish to take me back into our Catholic home where four of my seven siblings still lived, despite his father’s and mother’s insistence that we marry and their explicit hope that this would make their only child settle down, get into law school, eventually join his father’s practice. I wasn’t their dream daughter-in-law. I wasn’t Ben’s dream wife. But despite everything, the magic of paradise took over, and our marriage began.
“They keep thinking someone will rebuild or transform it into condos.” He gazes at the site of our honeymoon, seeing something different than I’m seeing. “If you want we can come back here and go through the old grounds. I heard they still have weddings among the palm trees.”
“Would you really want to go in there? It looks like it should be condemned.”
“Maybe next time it’ll be restored to the old glory.”
“Maybe so,” I say but think, I don’t ever want to come back here again.
Our cruise along the Na Pali Coast in a catamaran that holds 50 is fine until we get to the turnaround. Choppy waters make several people seasick. Ben and I sit on a bench, port side, watching the cliffs. Gradually, the landscape turns into smaller hills and beaches. I feel nauseated and don’t want any of the chicken teriyaki that most of the passengers line up for.
“You get a meal,” I tell Ben.
“No, we can find something later.”
“Thanks. The smell is making me feel awful.”
One boy has spent most of the cruise on a gangplank, bouncing with the waves. He’s tall with a tattoo of some Asian sign on his arm, and looks like he could be a basketball player on Dale’s team. I wish I would’ve let Dale get the tattoo he wanted. I imagine this kid on one gangplank, Dale on the other, hollering back and forth to each other. Now, this boy pays for his earlier exuberance--his complexion looks green. But he’ll leave the catamaran and be back to normal in another hour. For the hundredth time I wonder if Dale’s boundless enthusiasm was his downfall.
If I mention this Ben will say, “That’s illogical. It would have happened no matter what. It’s how his body was made.” So, I don’t tell him my thoughts. I quit voicing them months ago, around the time when he suggested a grief counselor “…to help you get through this.”
“What about you; don’t you need something to help?”
“It’s the most horrible thing that has ever happened to me, but I have clients who need my attention. I have Dad’s work to sort through.” Eighteen months ago Ben convinced Max it was time to retire. He was in the process of reorganizing the firm when Dale died.
I was writing the second edition of a chemistry textbook, and meeting with its publisher in Chicago the night Dale went to bed--never to get up. A blizzard hit, trapping me for 48 hours. Ben said, “The doctor feels it’s essential to perform an autopsy immediately.” When I finally got home, Ben said, “You wouldn’t have wanted to see him after that.” Dale had been cremated and all I have left of my son is an urn full of ashes. They could be anyone’s ashes.
Several times Ben said, “Don’t you think work would give you something to take your mind off Dale?”
“I don’t want to take my mind off my son!” I would answer.
I had a contract, but I bagged out on it. I couldn’t concentrate on formulas. They offered me an extension, but I couldn’t fathom ever going back to that book. Eventually, I started another one--a new grammar text for elementary school students. I can shut my office door and stay there from early morning, all through the night, catching a little sleep on my sofa.
Obviously worried about the state of our marriage, Max and Pam came up with this trip.
It’s almost dark when the catamaran docks. The boy and his family walk ahead of us toward our cars. I hear his father say, “A bit much for you, huh, son?”
The boy takes off at a lope, a younger sister racing behind. I can picture her sympathizing with him, then insisting on a turn at his Game Boy.
“”I don’t want to drive this road again in the pitch-black,” Ben says. “Would you mind a fast McDonald’s instead of a decent meal?”
“Fine with me.” Dale, like all his friends, used to love McDonald’s, along with every other type of junk food. Could it have been the saturated fats? If I hadn’t been so busy with my work, made more nutritious meals, more fruits and vegetables, would things have been different?
The next day Ben tells me that we’re going to Na ‘Aina Kai. It’s 240 acres of botanical garden and sculpture park. “This is interesting,” he says, reading a tour book Max sent along. “It was started by the ex-wife of Charles Schulz, you know, the guy who did Peanuts.”
What would I do with my settlement if I were to become an ex-wife?
We arrive at the Orchid House and sign up for the Ka Waimakai Walk. The place is full of exactly the sort of people who would gravitate to this type of activity—well-off and middle-aged or older. The women are fully made up, in bright-colored designer resort wear. Their husbands are garbed in “roughing-it” costumes purchased from expensive sportswear companies. Max and Pam would fit right in. There is a pair, however, that doesn’t look at all like they belong. They have to be in their twenties.
The guy wears a navy-blue polo shirt and rumpled cargo pants. It’s the girl who I secretly scope in on. She has long, silky, brown hair cut to shoulder length, and golden tan skin polished with some sort of sweet-smelling oil. She wears an iridescent-pink sundress with thin straps, a smocked bodice, and a skirt that hits just above her knees. The bottom of the skirt is sprinkled with sequins. Did her husband buy this dress for her from the outdoor rack in front of an island gift shop? Standing under a vine-laden arbor, she would make a perfect model for a Na ‘Aina Kai brochure. They are the only others on our tour.
I feel old and frumpy in my gray T-shirt, gray pants, and gray jacket tied around my waist. I feel like the scrubber woman in some dingy apartment building. Ben--in his orange button-down-collared shirt and pressed jeans--is oblivious to how I’m feeling, and if he’s conscious of the young woman, he’s pretending not to be.
The leader, a portly fellow in a green jacket with the garden logo on it, wears knee-high socks that reach to almost the bottom of his walking shorts, along with laced boots. We all have on sandals. He says his name is Larry and that he lives in nearby Kilauea. “Been there since the eighties.” He’s probably one of those who would hate all the development. In the past I would’ve grumbled with him about it.
Through the walk into the jungle, I lag behind taking pictures with Ben’s new digital camera, always conscious of the girl, trying to get her in a few shots to study later. I notice she isn’t as thin as I had first thought.
Every few minutes Larry stops to tell us about some beautiful flora specimen, showing off his knowledge, giving us more information than we will ever remember, shrugging off all questions and comments. We obediently tag along.
Small flies start nibbling at our bare flesh. I put on my jacket and am protected. The girl gets the most attention. Where she stood quietly, pristine-looking, as we began our tour, by the time we are in dense foliage, she is pushing her hair off her face, rubbing at her arms, and bending to swat at her legs. The husband gives her little pats.
Larry shows us the fruit from a noni plant. “This white, pimply-looking ball has a fetid smell like the worst cheese ever. It’ll stay on your shoes for days. Be careful!” He pokes at a fallen glob with a stick and gives each of us a whiff. It is putrid. I have an urge to push the girl into a pile of it.
Upon reaching the beach and respite from the bugs, her husband asks Ben if he will take a picture of them together. He says, “We’re expecting a baby in five months. This is our last vacation by ourselves,” and puts an arm around his wife. She rests against him, obviously glad to be done with the ordeal of our hike.
I feel horrible for my nasty thoughts.
The young man offers to take a picture of us, and when he looks at the screen of Ben’s camera, says, “This is great.”
It is good. We look like twins with our similar fine-boned bodies and short, brown hair. If Dale were towering between us, this could be our next Christmas card.
We walk to the Princeville Hotel for a luau one evening and have our first taste of poi. I don’t know how we were fortunate enough to miss it on the last visit.
Before singing and hula dancers start, our emcee, a robust Hawaiian woman with three white floral leis, welcomes children on stage to play while the drummers warm up. One little boy catches my eye. He is about 18 months old, dressed in a shirt with a dolphin on it, shorts, red sandals, and a complimentary lei of tiny seashells. I sip a mai tai and watch him. On his head is a red baseball hat turned backward. What a character, cavorting and making faces.
In spite of our honeymoon in paradise, Ben was miserable during those months afterward, waiting for “the baby”--I’m sure remembering keggers with friends and thinking of all the things he would rather have been doing than working at a 7-Eleven or sitting in a cramped apartment with his pregnant wife. I sure felt that way as I stood with an aching back at the ironing board we’d picked up at a garage sale--pressing other people’s clothes in order to earn a few extra dollars. We both were able to continue at the University of Washington, thanks to Max’s generosity. Once Dale got here, we fell in love with his huge grin and infectious laughter.
This little guy on stage has those same qualities. His mother stands by the side, hands reaching toward him every time he gets too close to the edge. It was easy to save Dale from harm at this age. If only I had been able to reach out and hold him that night. Save him from his journey into darkness.
This morning, as usual, I’m awake before six. The sun streams in. On every other morning I stayed in the condo on the chaise, waiting to see what Ben had planned. Today I decide to explore Hideaways Beach by myself. Maybe surfer boys will be there before too long, and I can see them up close. Ben lies flat on his back, snoring. It’ll be a couple of hours before he stirs. For a second I consider leaving him a note. But I don’t want him to know where I am.
The steps are steep and staggered and built halfway down the slope into red clay. When I get to their end, I see a strip of path going straight for a drop-off, and then turning abruptly to the right, where it winds down at a less scary angle. Someone could slip before reaching this turn and fall onto the rocks and water below. Momentarily, I wish Ben was with me. Then I tell myself, You can make it. Sidestepping onto grass and working my way along, I’m pleased with my balance. Before long I’m on the beach, all by myself, with the roar of waves enveloping me. I sit on my towel and wait and watch, mesmerized by the continuous movement. A pair of surfers appear through the foliage. They nod at me and head to the far side of our cove, where they put up a small, blue domed tent. After leaving their belongings, with boards under their arms, they run for the water. One has a mop of curly, dark hair, just like Dale’s. I watch them catch waves and, after a few seconds, fall. It’s hard to get much of a ride here.
“The surfing is only for experts,” Max said. “As far as swimming, look out for strong currents and sharp coral. Only go in when the water’s calm.” I hope both boys are skilled enough. Perhaps I should stay until others show up--make sure they’re OK.
“How come you’re down here all by yourself?” There stands Ben.
“I woke up. You were still asleep.”
“You could have left a note.”
“How’d you know where I was?”
“I always wake up when you leave our bed. I heard the door shut and watched from the balcony, got ready, and here I am.” He plops down on his own towel. “That trail is sure steep and slippery.”
“It wasn’t that bad.” Can’t I have a few minutes to myself? “I wanted to be alone,” I say. Then, when he looks at me with his eyebrows raised, “There’s no reason for us to stay together, you know.”
“What do you mean?”
“Without Dale, there’s no reason for us to stay together.”
He faces me for a moment, then picks up a small branch and starts drawing two stick figures in the sand--holding hands. “How ’bout if we enjoy the beach?” He says, ignoring my comment. “Let’s go swimming.”
“You know I don’t like to swim in the ocean.” The last time was with Ben and Dale on a Panama cruise a couple of years ago. Our ship stopped at a little island where we rented a cabana. After playing in the waves, we ate our lunch and watched Dale bodysurf for hours before he crashed on a lounge chair. When it was time to return, we had to shake him repeatedly before he awakened. We had a good laugh about it. Was that a warning? Was it a foreshadowing of what was to come? A late-evening basketball practice, him getting home and heading straight for bed without even eating the dinner that Ben told me he had prepared. The next morning he wasn’t able to rouse our son. What if I had been home? What if I had checked on him that night, the way I always checked on him before I went to sleep?
Ben runs into the ocean. A wave raises him high, then drops him. Water reaches to his waist. “Come on in,” he hollers, gesturing with his hand. He lays back, staring up at the sky, letting his body lift and fall, appear and disappear.
I stand with water up to my ankles.
“If you come out this far, you can float here next to me.” Ben’s voice is almost inaudible.
I wait for a couple more waves. The water creeps up to my knees. What about the surfer boys? I need to pay attention to them.
“C’mon. I miss you out here, all by myself.”
I take a tentative step, and another one, and many more. I’m up to my waist, and he’s floating next to me.
“Lie back -- let the waves take you.”
I stand there, going up and down, ready to dig my toes into the sand and plow back to shore, race up that slippery path, and as far away as I can go.
Ben takes my hand. His is hardly bigger than my own. “I’m here,” he says.
He gently tugs me, and a wave comes, and I think, Why not just lie in the water and let it take me where it will?
I ease myself backward and start to roll. It’s like a cradle. We used to have a cradle that we rocked Dale in when he was a tiny baby with colic. Now I remember--he wasn’t always lively and cheerful. The doctor said, “Some babies are so tightly wound, they need to blow off steam--use up energy in order to quiet themselves so they can rest.” His little body would stiffen in pain, and he would cry out each night, and after what seemed like hours, while one of us continued to rock the cradle, back and forth, back and forth, finally, he would drift off.
Perhaps this is how it felt for him, this leaning into the waves and letting go. Ben told me, “His face was peaceful. It must have been easy.”
He gives my hand a little squeeze, “Are you alright?”
“This is nice…we could stay here forever.”
“We can stay for a long while. And when it’s time to go, we can still be together.”
Right this minute, while the waves rock us, I think maybe this is what I want.