On Departures

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III. Kauai

First, the assault on senses blunted and diminished by a New England winter: unfamiliar bird calls, feral chickens, fresh fish, fruit, and honey, fresh coconut milk drunk through a hole hacked open by a guy with a machete at a farmer’s market stall. The light, and the colors of the land—intense green against the red soil. The moisture in the air, the scent of plumeria, pikake, and gardenia. The viscous, treacherous mud (why are we wearing hiking boots? why not squish into the red mud in bare feet?). The turquoise water and white spray against the black lava on the coast. The three-part sound of surf, heightened by recent storms: the building swell of the water, the breaking of the waves, and everywhere a deep, rushing, roar of the whole ocean heaving and racing.

You can tell when someone has just arrived on the island. You see them with their pallid skin and brand-new beach clothes, fumbling to put on sunglasses unused since August, pulled toward the beach, eagerly tossing aside their shoes, gingerly stepping into the waves, onto the lava shelf rough against feet softened and sock-muffled for as long as they can remember. You see them around the hotel, taking pictures of themselves in the hot tub, drinking pineapple expresses at the bar, standing on the beach, taking selfies with the whole pacific ocean as their backdrops, posing with arms spread wide, marveling, amazed: I can’t believe we’re HERE!

We do everything—swimming, sunning, snorkeling, hiking, stopping at every overlook and viewpoint to look at taro ponds, canyons, waterfalls, fields of pineapple, geese. Very ordinary poultry becomes exotic scenery because, like us, they’re completely out of their domestic context, roaming the island loose. We have moments of slight frantic-ness, torn between the determination to find the secret waterfall described in the insiders’ guide book that every single one of us has–and the atavistic need to lie still on the beach, any beach, baking in the heat and sunlight. Made ragingly thirsty by swallowing too much sea water, we seek out shave ice, and fish tacos, and coconut water; we hunch over a mango, shamelessly and indelicately slurping up every shred of fruit.

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And as we go everywhere, so go the souvenirs—all of us shopping and shopping, needing every t-shirt, bar of soap, candle, bag of salt, jar of honey, every turtle figurine, every sarong (where will I actually wear this in my ordinary, cold, dark non-island life??)—needing it all to preserve these moments of exotic warmth, vibrant color, lushness, and, above all, this freedom from the mundane everyday.

That last evening, we stop at the beach, and walk as far from the hotel lights as we can, to take one last look at the night sky, dense with stars. How can this be the same sky as in Boston or Vancouver? The same hemisphere? Days (only days!) later, back on my own urban street, walking home on a frosty January night, I will notice that poor Orion is at a different angle, missing much of his stellar company, a shadow of himself in the blanker, never-quite-dark of the city. And the crescent of the half moon is not reclining, as it looks from Kauai, but propped back upright with staid Bostonian propriety.

On the plane back: a wet bathing suit in my luggage and salt in my hair and on my skin, after my last chance to snorkel and swim in warm water; sand in my shoes from a little trek up on the lithified cliffs to catch the last sunset; my muscles and nerves and inner ear still swaying to the push and pull of the surf of the Pacific. I’m listening to the sound of waves on my noise-canceling app, so that I can drown out the chatter of my fellow passengers—not ready for the noise and material concerns—still immersed in island life, island time. Looking out the airplane window to a landscape shimmering in a coating of snow and frost—not ready to be cold again.

And then it’s done, gone from experience to memory. We try to hang on to the smell and feel of it. Made peevish by nuisances at work, and the aches and pains and viruses of January, and neglected sidewalks crusted over with treacherous ice and slush, we try hard to pretend that, as far as we travelled, it wasn’t far at all, that it’s near in both time and distance. We have to try very hard indeed.

I look for coconut-scented lotion, and wear my t-shirts and rings everywhere. I cherish a pair of glass earrings, sparkly and orange, the color of sunsets and nighttime torches, bright relief to my winter mourning of black and gray wool and jersey. I can’t bring myself to put away a flowered silk top, too gauzy to contemplate wearing in the face of an impending nor-easter and sub-zero temperatures; I’m fearful that it will get forgotten if I put it in a drawer—fearful that I’ll forget where it came from, where I was. My tan starts to fade; I’m perversely gratified that a nasty scrape, earned while snorkeling over coral in shallow water, is leaving a scar, still red on my increasingly white skin.

I’m the least botanically-inclined person I know; nevertheless, I buy a tropical plant that I think has a Hawaiian look about it. I set it on a dresser in the sunniest spot in my little apartment, and fuss over it. I converse with it daily: I apologize for the cold and darkness it has to endure.

We continue to talk about it. We do that thing that people do: “Can you believe that it was just a few days ago that we were on the lithified cliffs at Shipwreck beach??” We marvel: “Can you believe that it was just last week that we were hiking in the canyon?” We hang on: “Can you believe that it was just two weeks ago that we were in that wonderful, fantastical, exotic sunlight and warmth that is so different from where we are right now??” But then a few days become a couple of weeks, a month, and it all starts to become a little too far, fading around the edges, dreamlike.

We look longingly at our photos, our calendars, at tv shows and golf tournaments–hating golf, mesmerized by the tropical splendor that overwhelms men in ridiculous pants. We prepare for violent, extravagant, historic snow and cold. We get a little box, embossed with the pictogram of a sea turtle, and start putting some money in it every week, with a piece of paper marked “Hawaii.”

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