The road to Hanalei Bay is surrounded by lush green jungle, wild chickens with their chicks trailing behind them. Over one-lane bridges: waiting, waiting as eight, ten cars go by, often more than local courtesy condones. Before reaching the end of the road which ultimately leads to Koke’e Beach, take a right turn in Hanalei which leads to the pier and the water. The views are gorgeous, green mountains with silver lines of waterfalls trickling down. Kids jump off the sides of the pier and the sand is hot enough to blister feet.
It was here where I learned to surf, stood up for the first time on a slow-moving wave, left leg forward, arms extended. I felt a push I thought was from you but no, it was the wave. Then I was standing, looking toward the shore, hoping that I wouldn’t fall. At the end of the day, my arms were sore from paddling out, my underarms chafed by the sides of the surfboard but it was all worth it. The time spent underneath the morning sun. The water beneath me. Never mind the bruises, the knock on the head. Never mind the scratches.
We went out ziplining near Poipu Beach on the second day, soaring above the forest canopy and the kids in our group asked about the bruise on my arm. I miscalculated where the door frame was, I told them. She’s a clumsy girl, you said, your arm around me, squeezing my waist. Afterwards, sushi in a small town where we were about to sit outside when it began to pour rain. We ran inside, hair already soaked, for neat rolls stuffed with softshell crab and yellowtail. Nigiri for you. Maki for me. Outside the window, the rain ceased as suddenly as it had begun and I watched the sun sink into the ocean as you took a phone call from someone I didn’t know.
The boat that took us along the Napali Coast on the fourth day gave me the headache of motion-sickness but I couldn’t shut my eyes to the sunlight hitting the waves, the spinner dolphins spinning in the air, the dark caves that hid beauty inside. In one, a waterfall. In another, a ceiling of sky. This was the easier route to see the wild, dangerous coast. The only other routes were by helicopter or by making an 11 mile overnight hike. You’d rather have hiked but this was one instance in which I won. Instead, we traveled by boat along the coast, one that, we were told, hadn’t always been so green and verdant. Palm trees were not, after all, native to these tropical islands. We snorkeled off the coast and I was terrible at keeping the water from my mask; breathing seemed so complicated. You saw eels hiding in the coral but I was unwilling to dive down and forsake the air. Swimming, your strong suit, was never mine.
On the way back, the boat hit the waves head-on. The spray flew backwards, hit my yellow rain jacket, soaked my exposed skin. It was less dizzying, this riding against the current. Every wave was a battle. When I stepped out of the boat onto the beach of Hanalei Bay, silver streaks flashed by my feet in the warm water. When I raised my head to look back, you were talking to the captain. Your face held a smile but your arms chopped the air.
That afternoon, at the bar by the beach in Lihue, Duke’s, I saw a plastic gecko attached to the mirror behind the bottles of alcohol. It moved without my noticing; I only realized it was real because it changed places from above the vodka to behind the gin. We rented boogy boards and I found myself feeling restless of the lazy floating, the sun burning my back. There were surfers in the distance but the rocks were sharp there and the currents strong. I was afraid to try.
I remember the first night in Kauai. We had just gotten off the plane, after 12 hours and a layover in Phoenix, and had picked up the rental car. It was nine at night but felt like three in the morning when we found a saimin restaurant, an old-fashioned place with communal tables and bowls of noodles. We had gotten skewers of chicken and a bowl of saimin. All around us, others were eating the same thing. Dark-skinned Hawaiians, lighter-skinned tourists. There was a little fly walking on the table which you squished with a napkin.
It was late by the time we drove along the one road that curved around Kauai to find the hotel. There were few streetlamps and the signs we saw were confusing. There were almost no cars. Your GPS didn’t work and the directions you had seemed vague. You ended up driving past where you should’ve turned and at that point, we had been awake for over twenty-four hours. I was so tired that I hallucinated women crossing the street, gleaming machinery by the side of the road. Sometimes I think that maybe I have always had difficulty in distinguishing between reality and imagination.
Early in the morning on the fifth day, we drove south to Waimea, on the other side of the island from where we were staying in Princeville. We drove up into the mountains, to see the Grand Canyon of the Pacific, Waimea Canyon. There were red-dusted hills along the way, water bounded by flowers. We hiked and hiked and the views were spectacular, all red and grey and green with the blue sky above. There was a large rock in the ambiguous shape of a frog and soon after that, a waterfall that didn’t roar the way I expected it to. Tiny flowers on the dirt a quarter the size of your thumbnail; all petals, no stem. On the way back from the waterfall, we lost the path and the other hikers we talked to didn’t seem to know where the path went either.
We stopped to see Kipu Falls, while heading back to Princeville. We parked by the side of a dirt road, surrounded by sugarcane that rose above our heads. There was a pathway through the sugarcane; the leaves cut my arms and legs and the trail was muddy. I heard the sound of voices and rush of water before we arrived at the falls and as soon as we did, the mosquitoes descended upon us. You spent an eternity trying to hook the swinging rope and finally, you soared out over the water, dropping in a cannonball from twenty feet. I took photos of the circle of ripples, the stillness in the center. It was the way I felt when we argued, in it but not of it. I left with bites all over my body.
We kayaked down the Wailua River, starting from the Kamokila Hawaiian Village where a man slept with a cat on his belly and peacocks strutted among the replicas of ancient Hawaiian buildings. We took separate kayaks, knowing how it was to be in tandem. One rushing, the other always behind, twirling in circles and trying to keep up. Even so, we lost each other after the fern grotto, on the way to the secret falls. I managed to find my way to the gravel-strewn beach where hibiscus flowers littered the water and made my way alone. The water shoes didn’t protect my feet from the rocks and mud splattered my legs. There were people in the pool around the waterfall, none of them you, but right beneath the falls, I was alone. The water pelted my skin like fists, ran down my face as tears, cold and stinging. It felt like relief and release, finally understanding the difference between being alone and loneliness. How one can function without the other.
On the way back to my kayak, I helped a grandfather and his grandson cross the river. The current pushed against our legs, the rocks slippery beneath our feet. It would have been so easy to be swept away. I saw you then, standing on the beach with thunder behind your voice. You said nothing to the man and his grandson; you only told me that it was time to go, your fingers pressed into my arm. I recognized the truth of your words before you would.
You were sleeping when I left. It was the third of July, three days before we were supposed to leave. I drove through dark streets lit only by my headlights and the fireworks in the sky. The road to the airport was blocked and the detours didn’t make sense. I reached the airport in time to hear my name on the loudspeaker.
I could not see Kauai in the dark beneath the airplane’s belly, only an ocean of night that hid me from you.
© Su-Yee Lin
[This piece was selected by Frances Gapper]