I woke early on our first morning on Kaua‘i. Early, because I always have a hard time sleeping my first night in any new bed, and early because my body was two hours ahead, on Portland time. I started a pot of Kona coffee and opened the curtains to the lanai. In Portland, the sun had already risen, but I knew it was still dark, cold, wet — the 45th parallel in February. In the tropics, darkness faded into purple and gray shadows, revealing the outline of swaying palms. The peculiar physics of the condo’s location on C-shaped Keoniloa Bay meant that, somehow, you could see the sun both rise and set, dawn to dusk, beginning then ending then beginning again.
My back and legs hurt from being crammed into an airplane seat the previous day, and my arm and neck from the accident that totaled my car three months earlier. My head and my heart hurt from watching my dad and my brother disintegrate. The previous spring, my dad had tried to kill himself three times in three months, the last attempt landing him in the psych ward. My brother was confined to his bed — partially by physical pain, and partially from the fistfuls of morphine and Xanax and Ambien and whiskey he swallowed daily in an attempt to mediate the chaos in his chemically unbalanced brain.
With my husband still asleep and daybreak as my backdrop, I lay on the living room floor in front of the lanai. I bent my left knee over my torso, twisting my spine the opposite way, my right knee over center, rotating my spine back. This way and that, into a helix — double, single? I didn’t know. I just knew something twisted inside of me needed to be undone.
Five years later, I wanted that experience of unwinding again.
Michael had surprised me with this trip seven months earlier, on our anniversary, two days after my dad was placed in the psych ward. He gave me a card cradling a sheet of white paper folded into quarters. At the top, it said:
FIVE NIGHTS IN KAUA‘I*
Freshly Remodeled – Stunning Ocean View! Poipu, Hawai‘i
*Not yet rented, but fully redeemable for five nights of Hawaiian luxury!
Available beginning Sunday, February 7, 2010
Four color-copied pictures showed a condo: living room, dining room, bedroom, lanai, decorated in “Island Casual.” It meant the furniture was wicker, not wood. It meant the upholstery was tropical patterned cloth, not sedate suede. Counters and cabinets were construction grade, but none of it was scratched by cats, or worn by life. The photos revealed the turquoise ocean and tilting palm trees beckoning just beyond the lanai. If I pressed my ear to the pictures, I could hear humpback whales singing to their beloved. “Can we afford this?” I think I actually gasped. Michael worked just above minimum wage at a bookstore, and I cobbled together writing assignments, teaching gigs, and massage clients. We had a combined annual income of around $20,000.
“I’ve been saving money, and we have plenty of time to save more,” Michael said. “You need a vacation, sweetie.”
He knew how tired I was, tired in a way that couldn’t be fixed by a good night’s sleep.
My balmy morning air was fragrant with coffee beans born of the Big Island’s volcanic soil. I arched my spine and stretched my hamstrings; I made my neck long. I was a cat, a cow, a cobra, downward-facing dog. I became a triangle, a tree, mountain, eagle. In the light of dawn, I was a warrior. I saluted the sun.
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Later that day we hiked the Maha‘ulepu Trail, scrambling among lithified cliffs and sacred Hawaiian sites and dusty red clay. On one side was the Poipu Bay Golf Course, charging $250 for a day’s play; the other side was a straight drop down into waves crashing against jagged lava rock. Clusters of signs threatened hikers:
Warning: Active Golf Play * Risk of Injury * Watch for Stray/Errant Golf Balls
Warning: Hazardous Cliff! The ground could break off without any warning and you could be seriously injured or killed. Stay back from the edge.
Danger: Do Not Go Beyond This Point
We’d hiked this trail before, and I suppose all these dangers technically existed, but they were also so remote. I’m sure the state or the resort — or whoever — planted the signs to ease liability. It was as simple as that: post a warning, and if someone got hurt or died, there’d be no one to blame.
The word Maha‘ulepu
translates to “falling together,” which is how it felt climbing over the sand dunes and limestone and gnarled tree roots on the path. Michael would be there to catch me, to lend me a hand, and if we were to fall, it would be as a couple.
Maha‘ulepu Beach was the reward at the end of the hot, dusty trail, its white sand stretching quietly, seductively. The last time we’d been there was five years earlier, right after my dad had been in drug rehab and my brother embezzled $30,000 from the family company. That time I had taken off my hiking boots and waded into the cool water. The tides swirled in and the tides swirled out, each time digging a deeper trench around my feet. I was dropped into a cinematic moment where everything
swirled around me: the air and the sky and the cliffs and the sand. It wasn’t vertiginous; it was the universe unwinding something that had become horribly stuck inside of me. Like a muscle that had contracted too many times and ran out of the energy needed to relax. The ocean coaxed my fibers loose from the binding pain.
Five years later, I wanted that experience of unwinding again. To have the universe act upon me, to loosen the pain. I stood in the same place I’d stood five years before. The tides moved in and the tides moved out; they carved sandy trenches around my feet. And that was it. There was no cosmic swirling. No energetic unwinding. Just me with my arms folded across my chest, trying to keep from falling down.
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Halfway down the beach a Hawaiian monk seal basked in the sun. She was averaged-sized (about seven and a half feet long and 500 pounds), with a dark grey coat and her white tummy turned to the sky. She looked dead, or very sick, but that’s just how monk seals look when they come ashore. They’re mellow and want to warm on the sand just like humans do. About 900 monk seals live among the uninhabited Northwest Hawaiian Islands (the islets and reefs and atolls that most people don’t think of when they think of Hawai‘i), and another 100-300 in the islands where people live and tourists go on holiday. And that’s all there are in the entire world.
Whenever one of these endangered creatures crawls ashore, volunteers from the Kaua‘i Monk Seal Watch Program immediately rope off a 150-foot perimeter around the pinniped. They erect signs telling you: Don’t touch the seal, don’t make loud sounds, and don’t use flash photography
. The volunteers also take notes about markings on the seal so that it can be identified if it shows up at a later time, in a different place. Personnel from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration try to tag the hind flipper so they can keep track of the seal’s migration, reproduction, health, and feeding habits. Mostly, the volunteers talk to curious onlookers about the seals to create greater awareness about their precarious situation. And let me tell you: this totally works. When you’re staring at one of these magnificent, incredibly cute creatures and are told that they’re dying out at a rate of 3.3% per year... well, let’s just say I have pulled the last $20 out of my fanny pack and given it to them.
This is how it goes: volunteers and scientists talk and track and protect, they erect boundaries and warnings, they help monk seals in distress, and let the ones who are not in distress just be. Maybe Kaua‘i could do that for me. My mom had not made it past the age of 58, my aunts had died at 45 and 56. My dad and brother might not be long for this world, either. My kin was dying out, but maybe Kaua‘i would keep me alive.
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is also the author of the short story collection Baby’s on Fire: Stories
published in 2015 (Press 53). Her work has appeared in over two dozen literary journals, including The Rumpus, Baltimore Review
, and Salon. She is Editor at Large for Forest Avenue Press. Liz teaches in Portland and at literary festivals across the country. She lives in a house in the woods with her husband, an indie bookseller and writer. Volcanoes, Palm Trees, and Privilege
is her most recent book.