It is Nick who notices it first, a small sailboat thrashing in the surf about fifty metres from shore. The winds have been mounting slowly throughout the day, the further we drive from Waikoloa in the hills, the further north along the coast toward Hawi, where we have to go to get the pearl bracelet. Gwyneth is in the bush somewhere behind the outhouse, and so he and I stand near the cliff’s edge and watch the boat in silence. It looks like a toy down there. A toy some celestial older sibling is bent on destroying.
“Do you think anyone’s in there?” I say. I picture a lone man pitching around in the cramped cabin below deck, his meagre belongings strewn across the floor, puke in places. The waves are dramatic. I look left and right along the cliffs, slashed, carved and pocked, perfect and imperfect as faces. The waves did this, and now they’ve gone to work on the boat. It rolls so far starboard that it looks like it will flip.
“I hope not,” he says.
“But there could be.”
“Yes,” he says, “I guess there could be.”
Gwyneth comes out from behind the mint green Porta Potty, not quite still pulling up her shorts, but almost still pulling up her shorts. She tugs the hem of her t-shirt down over her hips as she walks towards us. “Those things are disgusting,” she says. “Give me a squat in a bush any day.”
Now that it’s our third day together we’re all a lot more relaxed and therefore able to say things like squat in a bush. She comes and stands beside us. “What do you guys see down there?” she says. And then: “Holy Hanna. Now why on god’s green would he anchor so close to the shore?” As soon as she says it, it becomes clear that of course it didn’t anchor there, but had been dragged in.
The boat’s bow dips under, and a wave crashes down on top of it.
“I’ve never seen him here before,” she says. “We’re gonna have to tell someone.”
It wasn’t until our flight landed in Kona three days earlier that I realized I had no idea what she looked like. It was two in the afternoon and there was no one around and Nick looked at me and said, “What does she look like?”
“I don’t really know anymore,” I said, and Nick said, “Oh.”
I attempted to conjure what I could of her in my memory as we waited. There was a blonde fringe, there were worn-through Reebok high tops, there were freckles perhaps. I am old enough to know that these memories can not be trusted. The last time I saw Gwyneth I was eight and she was forty. That was twenty-four years ago. Back then I would have imagined any sixty-four-year-old woman to be a sweet grey-haired granny carrying a crochet-project-in-progress everywhere she went, and the fact that I no longer do so is another testament to the fact that I have officially embraced my thirties.
An old black soft top Cabriolet swerved into view. It lurched to a stop in the middle of the lane and a woman leaned toward the passenger window, her torso jerking with the effort of rolling it down.
“Gwyneth?” I said.
“Alison,” she said. “Mahalo!” And I could see her in there, behind giant sunglasses and khaki shorts, behind the striped cotton t-shirt. The blonde fringe remained, and I had been right about the freckles. Her skin was a rich nut brown.
She got out and we looked at each other, her door wide open and creaking on its hinge. “Look at you,” she said. I introduced Nick and we threw our bags in the back.
A parking attendant came over. “Excuse me, ma’am. Your car is blocking one of the lanes. You have to pull it over.”
Gwyneth stopped and looked at him. “I do?” she said.
“Yes ma’am. Your open door here is also a hazard to other vehicles.” Gwyneth looked around at the deserted roadway and sidewalks. “Someone could hit it,” he said.
“We don’t want that,” said Gwyneth as she looked up at him, shielding her eyes from the afternoon sun. “I just had this sucker detailed.”
We abandon the boat and drive on through the wind. The rest of the way to Hawi the road is strewn with fallen trees. Five minutes before we get there, Gwyneth downs the last sip of what she calls cheesy white, wedging the tall empty glass back between her seat and the handbrake, the withered remnants of ice cubes melting miserably in the bottom of the glass. Soon we approach a small strip of tourist shops and Gwyneth pulls off the road. I’m hoping for a restaurant. We haven’t eaten since breakfast, not counting our stop at the macadamia nut factory where tourists could taste, then buy. We tasted at least ten flavours of nuts, as well as shards of brittle and drams of locally grown and roasted coffee, all served in thimble-sized paper cups. We left with a hundred-gram pouch of lightly salted macadamias, three caffeine buzzes and bits of garlic flavoured nuts mashed between our molars.
The reason we are now pulled over on the side of the road in Hawi on a day so windy there’s a charge in the air, is that my mother came here with Gwyneth the last time she visited. She bought a bracelet—a single smoky grey pearl on a thin silver band—which I saw on her wrist and admired, and which she said she’d originally bought for me and then decided to keep. She had asked Gwyneth to take us up here so I could get one of my own with money she’d given me for that purpose.
The shop brims. I pick up a children’s toy made from aloha shirt fabric: a bright orange gecko with jumping marlins all over its back which I find difficult to reconcile. Gwyneth asks the woman behind the counter if she can use the phone to make a call about a stranded boat. The woman’s hair is eighties hair and her eye makeup is blue, but she’s dressed in flowing paisley bamboo-derived fabrics. She stands behind the counter rearranging pearl necklaces in the jewellery case.
“The phones are out,” says the woman. “This wind!” She then asks if she can help us with anything else and Gwyneth tells her that I’m looking for a specific bracelet with a single smoky grey pearl. The woman leads me to a display in the middle of the store and says, “Here you go.” There is an array of them, identical, all lined up and delicately hanging from a small repurposed branch. “As you can see,” she says, “each pearl is different.” As she sashays away, paisley flowing and tea tree wafting in her wake, I run my eyes over the orderly row of identical smoky spheres. The more I look at them, the more I begin to think that maybe the woman is right, maybe they are each unique, and by the time she returns and asks how I’m doing, I’ve narrowed it down to three.
Nick comes over from where he’s been looking at a carved wooden turtle, and by looking I mean absently running his fingers over the grooves of its shell, petting it. I ask him which one he likes best, and he tells me he doesn’t know. He looks at the bracelets, each a copy of its neighbour, and says, “They’re all so different.”
That first day as we drove back from the Kona airport, I sat up front and Nick took the back and when the road opened before us I found myself at ease, not like I was in a car with a woman I didn’t know, but rather with a woman I’d always known. She was relaxed, and this relaxed me, even though she had one index finger hooked around six o’clock, the other hand pointing out landmarks and scenery, only coming to the rescue when the car slipped out of third, which happened on the inclines. There was a large drinking glass perilously wedged between the driver’s seat and the handbrake. It was half full of a nearly clear liquid, several much depleted ice cubes still bobbing around at it surface, holding on.
Gwyneth pointed out resorts, hillsides, the directions to the other islands, everything whipping through my vision in a blur as she sped along the highway. She began talking about the volcano, which was nearly directly behind us, and I tried not to let myself be too startled by the fact that she was looking back at it as she described it to us. She sensed each time the car drifted into the oncoming lane and turned around just in time to get us back on track. We passed a roadside memorial: hibiscus, frangipani, a crooked cross. I glanced back at Nick who looked as though he’d stopped breathing.
The landscape was moonlike: black lava rock baked onto the land in all directions, the occasional scraggly tree and tufts of dry grasses created the only breaks in the rolling mineral-scape. The resorts popped up on the horizon, verdant strips of perfect landscaping leading from the highway down the slope to the shoreline, lush palms arcing the entrances, welcoming. Desert mirages. Gwyneth named each one as we passed them, looking out to the left of the car describing to us what was down there.
“Ok so you see those palm trees down near the water? Can you see the one that’s leaning a little more to the left, right near the centre of the second cluster of palm trees from the right? One of the places I landscape is just down there.”
After half an hour we turned left off the long straight road from Kona, and began up the hill towards Waikoloa. Coming out of the turn, her glass slipped from its spot and the contents spilled out into the foot well. The smell of white wine filled the car.
“Holy Hanna,” said Gwyneth. “Now that’s a damn shame.”
The road continued up, cutting through the black land.
Outside the police station in Kapaau I want to wander. Gwyneth is trying to get in touch with an officer about the boat, but the door is locked and so she’s talking into a courtesy phone attached to the building. There is a statue of King Kamehameha that I am curious about because I saw some people taking photos of it as we drove in, and also because I need to stretch my legs. Nick recommends we stay where we are, standing beside the Cabriolet in an empty parking lot. I protest but I see he has a point: the path to the statue is strewn with fallen fronds and coconuts. Up above, king palms bend and slash, threatening the ground below, their grip on their branches tenuous and suddenly uncertain. The sky is deep and blue, too swift for clouds to linger. The air is a vessel today, transports the ocean breeze a little further, carries eerie distant sounds out from the forests. In the car from Hawi, after I bought the pearl bracelet, the smell of barbecue had hypnotised us as we drove past a falling down roadside shack with a spray-painted sign claiming America’s Best BBQ Ribs, fragrant smoke twisting from its roof up into the wind. Now, in the parking lot, we’re thinking about it.
“Do you think they just have fries?” Nick says.
“I don’t know,” I say. “Maybe.” My hunger has somehow moved out of my stomach. It has metastasised, colonising the rest of my body, spreading throughout my limbs. It threatens my vegetarianism. It owns me now, which is probably why I say, “You know, we could just get ribs.”
“You could get them, I don’t mind.”
His composure and level thinking in the face of starvation brings me back to my senses. I say, “Let’s go back after and see if they have fries.”
I don’t want this to forever be the day that I ate meat, a day that becomes lore and features in anecdotes that come out at dinner parties and begin with something like, We were so hungry and nothing was open, and Alison just couldn’t help herself. I don’t feel like adding to his arsenal of secret truths that potentially comes out years down the road while in some sad conversation after a fight late into the night, in which couples bargain for happiness. When I say this to Nick he says I’m being crazy, that the hunger is eating my brain, but I tell him he should take it as a compliment that I see us bargaining for happiness in the future. “That’s real intimacy,” I tell him, and he just stares at me until he says, “We need to get you some food.”
Forty minutes after Gwyneth picked us up from the airport we pulled into her driveway. When I asked her if she’d like me to lock the car she said, “No just leave it.” I noticed that all the windows were still down and the keys were in the ignition. When we walked in the house it was unlocked as well.
“I figure,” Gwyneth said to us later, “that if you’re good to the universe, the universe will be good to you. I try to give kindness, and I tend to get it back.”
“You two will be sleeping in Lily’s room,” she said as we walked inside. I spent several puzzled moments trying to work this out—I was sure she lived alone—until I realized that Lily was one of the cats. There were fourteen in total, four that lived in the house, and several which came inside for meal times, and a number of other rescues that were still pretty feral and looked mangy and hissed as well. They all ate fresh sushi-grade fish. That night looked like yellow fin tuna.
Lily was by far the largest, and when she was done eating her sushi as well as several of the other cats’ sushi she sauntered out the side door to watch the koi pond. After some time, I noticed her come back in, jump onto the couch and lie down directly on top of another cat and fall asleep there. The cat underneath was named Puhi. Gwyneth told us her name meant freshwater eel, and that she was deaf. I felt nervous to be taking Lily’s room.
Gwyneth cooked us snapper on the grill, wrapped in thick broad leaves. We made an exception. She offered us wine.
“It’s nothing special,” she said, brandishing a litre bottle of generic white I recognized from Costco, “but I like it just fine. I call it my cheesy white.”
She gave each of us a wine glass but poured her own in a glass just like the one in the car. She added ice to her glass, and we toasted.
We ate and filled each other in. She was curious about my life and seemed fascinated by it. She was very complimentary of Nick, telling me I found a real keeper, telling him how handsome he was.
“Nick,” she said, “So you’re a musician.”
“I am,” said Nick. “I play mainly blues.”
“No kidding,” said Gwyneth.
“He brought his harmonicas,” I said, and Gwyneth said she would love to hear him play. She also talked about her ex, Tim, whom she’d been with during my childhood, and about his wife and daughter, both of whom she didn’t seem to care for. She talked about how Tim, too, used to play harmonica. “We still talk a lot,” she said, but I knew that it had been years since she last saw him.
Later, after dinner and well into the second litre of cheesy white, Nick played harmonica in the living room. All the cats fled in the first two bars except for the deaf one, who slept on. He played Delta blues for us, his entire body entering the instrument hidden in his hands, his eyes closed, his breath circular and perplexing. I looked at Gwyneth and her expression was trance-like, the mirth unearthed by the first few minutes replaced gradually by memories. She looked at him as if she had known him forever. She studied him, retreating somewhere as the music moved around her. I had heard this one a million times, so I looked at the cat and stroked her in time with the rhythm. She purred softly from within her silent world.
The phone rang before the song was finished and Gwyneth stood up.
“Hello,” she said into the receiver, and then, “Holy Hannah!” She covered the mouthpiece with her hand and grinned at us, her eyes glassy from joy and wine. “You’ll never believe this,” she said in a not-quite whisper. “It’s Tim!”
After finding no one at the police station, we get in the car and head to the fire station. I think of the sailboat in peril, perhaps by now dragged even further in. I imagine the man in the cabin again, by now in hopeless tears, looking at a photo of someone he loves, crossing himself. We pass the barbecue place again and Nick says, “Alison wants ribs.” I shoot him a death stare and he smirks at me, but before I can feign protest Gwyneth pulls over and says, “Me too. We’ll get ’em to go.”
There is a line to get to the counter, which is a flap where the shack opens. We stand in gravel looking at the menu. There are no fries here. When it’s our turn to order, the woman in the shack tells us they’re closed. Her eyes are crazed and I decide she is either affected by the wind or, once I take note of her mullet and missing teeth, a crack pipe. Gwyneth folds her arms on the exposed two-by-four where the transactions happen in this place, and leans in toward the woman.
“Really?” she says. “You just sold some half racks to the group in front of us, and now you’re closed?”
“I meant we’re out of meat,” the woman says, her eyes darting, her face sheening. “There’s nothing else open on account of the wind. Power’s out. We been so busy we sold out.”
A man appears from the section of the shed where the magic must happen.
“What is it y’all are after?” he says to Gwyneth. The smell of the meat is both good and evil, right and wrong. The woman fidgets.
“Some ribs to go,” says Gwyneth, “although we’ve been led to believe you guys are fresh out.”
The man sighs. “Chelsea, you gotta stop telling people we’re out of meat,” he says. “Now pull it together and serve these nice people.” He smiles at us, tells us it’ll just be a few minutes, and retreats back out of sight.
“Sorry,” says Chelsea. “We just been so busy today. We’re the only place open.” She offers the sheepish and holey smile of a toddler. “I guess I just kinda keep losing my shit.” She emits a nervous laugh, takes a deep breath in and out and rolls her shoulders once. “That’ll be twelve fifty.”
In the car, the sweet metallic smell of the meat energizes me and I feel rebellious.
“Mainlanders,” Gwyneth says, disdain creeping around the edges of the word. She puts the car in reverse, slips the shoulder strap of her seatbelt over her left shoulder like she’s putting on a small backpack, like it’s going to fool anyone, and speaks to the rear view mirror. “They think they’ll move to Hawaii and that life will be a certain way, but you know, it isn’t always that way, and that back there?” She indicates with a pointed thumb shaking lazily in the direction of the shack. “That’s how a lot of them end up.”
It’s not clear whether she means a bit crazy, or selling meat on the side of the road, or addicted to drugs, or getting mullet cuts for three bucks in the kitchen of their neighbour’s trailer, draped in an old bed sheet and smoking cigarettes. Maybe she means all of those things, or maybe none of them.
Yesterday Gwyneth took us down into one of the resorts she had pointed out from the speeding Cabriolet on the day of the airport. I think now of the Nintendo and Toyota houses she took us to, the gardens of the inordinately wealthy that Gwyneth keeps perfectly manicured year round, the houses and landscapes sitting picturesque in anticipation of the few weeks a year they’re used. Around the side of the first house I saw a tiny pineapple growing from the centre of a starburst of fronds and thought: If a pineapple grows alone in a garden and there’s no one around to eat it, is it still a pineapple?
I wonder what anyone expects when they move here.
Gwyneth asks me to pass her a Bud, so I unzip the cooler bag next to me in the back seat, open one can of beer and then another, pouring the contents evenly among three brightly coloured plastic juice cups, also from the cooler bag. For the third day in a row we’ve left the house fully stocked with cans of Budweiser, a jar of pineapple juice and a small stack of incognito cups, dubbed thus by Nick. Gwyneth had looked at him with admiration when he first said it, and laughed for nearly a kilometre. When she looks at him it’s like she’s looking at someone else, as if she’s searching him for another man in another place and time. Because of this he is forthcoming and generous with his humour.
We bump along the twisting roads sharing the ribs, drinking the Bud, wiping our sticky hands on our bare thighs. If there’s a way to break vegetarianism, this is the way to do it. Everywhere we go Gwyneth names the flora. We stop when we see a fallen tree up ahead lying across the road, cops redirecting traffic. We hold our incognito cups down near our feet and Gwyneth turns the car around to find a different route.
The fire station is open, and when Gwyneth goes inside Nick and I shuffle around outside, full bellies and beer buzzes.
“Regrets?” I say.
“Never,” he says.
Gwyneth comes out with two firemen who are rushing toward their truck. She is still speaking as they climb into the cab and buckle up.
“It’s just so windy down there,” she is saying, “and I guessed it was just some guy who didn’t know what he was doing, or just got swept up in the wind or something. I’ve never seen him there before. You should see the waves. I kept thinking he was going to flip.”
One of the firemen says, “Thanks again, ma’am,” out the window and the truck starts and drives away. I watch them go and wonder what their plan is, how they’re going to get out there and help that poor man, who by now has achieved a state of calm resignation and is meditating on the trajectory of his adult life.
Gwyneth says, “You two ready to head home? By the time we get there it’ll be time to feed my kitties.”
We all get in the car and Nick says, “I’m glad we were able to finally find someone to go help that poor guy.”
Gwyneth loops her seatbelt and starts the car. “No no,” she says. “They’re headed somewhere else. Apparently there’s a small house fire down the way.” Nick and I look at each other in the mirror. When we’re back on the road she says, “Yeah so I guess that boat is just always there. Those guys say it’s been there for ages.”
“Huh,” I say.
Nick says nothing.
“Yeah, exactly, who knew right?”
We head back to Waikoloa a different way, not via the coast road but up into the hills, completing a loop. Nick pours more beer. The air cools as we climb, the poor old Cabriolet keeps dropping third, and the rolling green landscape makes me feel as though we’ve somehow transported somewhere else. That place of black lava, of sporadic palms, tufts of fountain grass, of teal beaches down below, Maui in the distance—it could be somewhere else entirely.