Amy pulled back the gauze and peered at the wound on her leg, a series of raised welts capped with dried blood. It looked worse today, she thought. Puffier. Maybe infection was setting in; these beautiful places were treacherous. Just last week she had read about a man who suffered a minor cut on his leg while zip lining in Jamaica and died eight days later. “Don’t touch the coral,” the instructor had warned, and she hadn’t. Not with her hands.
She panicked, that’s what happened. They’d all been given little bags of frozen peas, which they were told to dispense gradually, and it was fun at first to let loose a pea and watch the fish arrive in their hot bright colors. They flashed around her face and body, and then she felt them on her legs, bumping, nipping, she wasn’t sure. Picturing all those urgent, rigid mouths on her flesh, she spilled the bag of peas, and suddenly there were fish everywhere, darting past her shoulders, shooting up from below. One, electric blue and as long as her arm, had an underbite loaded with spiny white teeth. She flailed in the water, tried to backpedal, her flippers pulling hard, and then her leg smacked the coral and she yelped into her snorkel. Two seconds later she thought of her blood, streaming into the ocean, and the opening scene in the movie Jaws, and that’s when she broke the surface and screamed for Dinah.
Who just now came out of the bathroom, smiling and flushed, wearing nothing but a white towel. She walked over to the sliding glass doors and stood there, hands on her hips, admiring the view: palm trees, white sand, turquoise ocean—exactly as the brochure had promised. Amy regarded Dinah’s strong shoulders and plump, muscled calves.
“This place rocks,” she said, turning around. Her blonde hair fell in wet ringlets around her shoulders. Dinah was short and strong. “Dinah-mo,” their friends called her. She ran a catering business and often worked eighteen-hour days with no sign of fatigue. “I love that seat in the shower, don’t you? So much easier shaving your legs.”
This time, their third trip to Hawaii, they were staying at the Four Seasons in Wailea, in an oceanfront suite. Amy, who made good money at Benson Accountancy, opted at the last minute to splurge. While Dinah had not wanted to spend so much money on a room, she changed her mind the moment they walked in. “Oh my,” she said, setting her purse on a marble-topped writing desk. She swept past the plush furniture and potted palms and stopped at the doors leading out to the lanai, beyond which glittered the blue Pacific; a mauve mountain floated in the distance. “We’re ruined,” she remarked. “I hope you know that.”
“What do you want to do today?” Dinah asked. “How’s your leg?”
“I’m not sure,” Amy said. “I think it might be a little worse.”
“Let me see.” Dinah approached the chair Amy was sitting in, and once more Amy pulled back the bandage. Dinah looked at the scrape and frowned. “Looks about the same to me. Does it hurt?”
“Only if I bump it.”
“Does it feel hot?”
Amy shook her head.
“Then don’t worry about it. They got antibiotic on it as soon as you came out of the water. You’re fine. But I guess you won’t be doing any more snorkeling.”
“I don’t care—the water’s too cold anyway. Didn’t you get cold yesterday?”
“A little,” Dinah admitted. She leaned in closer, kissed Amy’s forehead. “Give me ten minutes, then we’ll get some breakfast. I’m starving.”
High above their heads palm fronds clattered in the breeze. Amy peered up, hypnotized by the metallic flashes of sun on the rippling leaves. Orange and yellow hibiscus flowers nodded from a hedge beside their table. A few feet away two zebra doves cooed at one another and bobbed their heads. Yesterday, in a cove not far from the resort, Amy and Dinah had spotted a group of turtles swimming in a sun-struck cavern. Over and over the creatures swam above and beneath each other in what appeared to be a gentle form of play. For over an hour, perched on a large black rock, Amy and Dinah had watched them, not wanting to break away from something so lovely and rare.
Amy forked up a piece of sausage and studied the larger dove that was now puffing out its striped breast.
“Have you noticed that everything here seems to be in love?” she said. “Birds, turtles—I think the palms are in love with the wind.”
Dinah lifted a wedge of her Sunrise Quesadilla. “Who wouldn’t love this place?”
“Funny how you can’t live here, though. I mean, once you move here it isn’t paradise.”
Dinah frowned. “I don’t know about that.”
“It’s true. That sales girl at Banana Republic yesterday? I chatted with her when you were trying on pants. She has three jobs and two roommates and she still can’t afford to live here. She’s moving back to the mainland as soon as she can scrape up the airfare.”
Dinah chewed, considered. “Yeah. I guess it wouldn’t be much fun being poor in paradise. Still you’d have all this.” She spread an arm across the sweep of the ocean. “In the middle of January.”
Amy nudged an orange slice of papaya to the edge of her plate. She was getting tired of papayas. And mangoes, and pineapples, and guavas, and passion fruit. Not that they weren’t delicious, just that they were everywhere. There was a mountain of whole fruit in the middle of the buffet, and bowls and bowls of cut fruit scattered down the table. The bounty of these islands, the wanton, unstoppable life. Philodendrons three stories high. Orchids surging out of tree trunks. Amy regarded a huge yellow hibiscus flower inches from her arm; it looked like it wanted something from her; she could almost hear it panting.
“Even if I had the money,” Amy said, “I think I’d go crazy after a while—island fever. I’d start wanting things I couldn’t have. Redwoods. Fall foliage. Fresh apples.”
“San Francisco,” Dinah added. They lived in Novato and drove into San Francisco at least once a month for dinner or plays or exhibits, sometimes just to walk through the Castro and see what the boys were up to.
Amy felt a tickling sensation in her wound and pictured a legion of bacteria assembling there, hoisting tiny vicious picks, ready to start work. It seemed she had already used up a large portion of her fear and now she was more curious than anything else. Wouldn’t it be something, with this lump under her arm, to die of a scrape? That zip liner probably had no idea what was happening to him. She pictured him in some thatch-covered island bar, popping a few Ibuprofen and eyeing the native girl who was bringing him drinks.
It might be nothing of course, the lump. It probably was nothing, Dr. Stark had said. But Amy had watched the doctor’s face as her fingers explored the area, had seen the wary attentiveness. “When did you first notice this?” Dr. Stark asked.
Amy mustered a light tone. “A few months ago, I guess.” The doctor tightened her lips and prodded the flesh around the lump.
“Has it grown?”
“I’m not sure. Not much, anyway.” Amy could actually feel it now when she pressed her arm to her side.
“It doesn’t move,” the doctor said, dropping her hand. “Does it hurt?”
“No. Not at all.” From the doctor’s slight frown Amy understood that this was not the optimum answer. The doctor returned to her seat and typed something into the computer. “You’re a little thin.”
“I don’t think I’ve lost any weight,” Amy said.
The doctor gave a shrug. “Two pounds since your last exam. Any fatigue? Fever or chills?” she asked, keeping her eyes on the monitor.
Dr. Stark looked over at Amy. “It’s probably just a cyst or a fatty growth, but we need to do some imaging and a biopsy. I want you to come in next week.”
Amy swallowed hard. She was at a disadvantage here, in this paper vest, perched on a table, waiting for orders. She needed clothes, a proper chair. “I’m going to Hawaii on Monday. Can I come in the week after?”
The doctor nodded and turned back to the computer. “That’s fine, but no later.”
Amy and Dinah looked hard but could not see the turtles. The water was choppier today and they could barely make out the cavern. After a few moments, they climbed down from the rock and began walking along the beach. Great clouds hung over the ocean, which was vast and grey and ruffled with whitecaps. The wind was warm and constant.
“Look,” said Dinah, pointing. Far out, the great black tail of a humpback broke from the sea. Seconds later, another, and then another. “Wow. Must be a whole pod.”
Amy, thrilled, began counting. What was it about whales? Why did they cause such a stir? Their monstrous proportions, or those impenetrable depths they rose from without warning?
“I’ve seen thirteen,” she said. “They don’t look real, do they? From here they look, I don’t know, prehistoric.”
“They do,” said Dinah. “They look mythic.”
After a while they turned back toward the hotel, and as they walked they discussed how they might spend the last three days of their vacation.
“Are we still getting tattoos on Friday?” Dinah asked. This had been the plan, to go to Lahaina the day before they left and get their first tattoos. Dinah had decided on a string of ivy around her ankle; Amy was considering something small—a bird or a turtle, maybe—on her shoulder.
Now, however, Amy was having second thoughts. It wasn’t the pain that gave her pause—that, she’d heard, was minor; it was the idea of a permanent stain, of ink sinking into her pores and staying there. This was her skin, the tender wrapping she came in. Branding it felt willful. Like trespassing.
“I’m not sure,” Amy said. “You can.”
“Chickening out on me?” said Dinah, neatly skirting the foamy wash of a wave.
“Something like that.” She did not want to share her misgivings and squelch Dinah’s enthusiasm—not that she could. Dinah was an eager sort, always ready for a new adventure and not inclined to deliberate. The mishaps and rapid-fire alterations involved in catering were hurdles she was born for.
“Well, you’ve been wanting a new pendant—maybe you can shop for that while I’m in the tattoo place.” Dinah moved closer and reached for Amy’s hand. “What about today. What do you want to do? We could go zip lining. They have half-day tours.”
Amy shuddered. “No thank you. Not after reading about that guy in Jamaica.”
“Amy. Thousands of people zip line every day with no problem. That was a freak thing.”
“Maybe.” Amy looked out at a long red boat that was moving rapidly over the water. “I just don’t see the attraction—hanging from a cable, zipping over the scenery. Shouldn’t we be slowing down here, smelling the lotus?”
Dinah laughed. “What a cranky pants you are. I think we need to get you a Mai Tai.” She let go of Amy’s hand and ventured over to a dark still form on the sand.
“Oh god—it’s a baby seal.”
Amy approached the lifeless creature, which was black and about three feet in length; it had not been dead long. “It’s a monk seal,” she murmured. “They’re endangered.” She had read a lot about Hawaii, “the extinction capital of the world,” and its lost species.
“I wonder what happened to it,” said Dinah.
“Probably something happened to the mother. Normally they don’t leave their newborns for weeks.” Amy felt her throat thicken; she blinked back sudden tears. “Life is horrible,” she said. “It really is. It’s horrible.”
“C’mon,” said Dinah, taking gentle hold of Amy’s arm.
“Wait,” Amy snapped. She couldn’t just walk away as if this animal had meant nothing. She squatted down and laid a hand on its cold wet fur. She looked at the closed eyes and the whiskers, and then she looked down the beach at the heartless palms, the string of hotels. Finally she got to her feet.
“We should tell someone.”
They were driving up to Kapalua, where they had decided to spend the afternoon. The northwest coast was supposed to be great for whale watching, and not overrun with people. From a store near the their hotel, Amy and Dinah had purchased a bottle of wine, some soft cheese and a box of water crackers (they wanted a baguette but the market sold only local breads and these were all studded with banana or pineapple). The hotel sent them on their way with two enormous mangoes, which Amy accepted with a false show of delight.
The ocean, which had turned from grey to sapphire, rolled by on the left, each glorious vista surpassing the one before. Dinah, who was driving, looked over at Amy and said, “Remember the Road to Hana?”
Of course she did. Who didn’t remember that road? Fun for the first couple miles, punishment for the next thirty. Like many couples, they had given up halfway—all those sickening turns through a jungle that grew increasingly ominous. And when they did stop to quell their nausea, the mosquitos were unbearable.
“This is so much nicer,” Amy said. She was determined to be more agreeable, to prize what pleasure she could from these last few days here. “Thanks for suggesting a picnic—I don’t think there’s anything I’d rather do more.” Dinah, keeping her eyes on the road, smiled.
They had been together almost two decades, had unwittingly achieved such a durable base that separation was neither conceivable nor possible. They’d had problems of course, like any other couple, flare-ups that came with the territory: a cook living with an accountant. Early on, there were even agonizing affairs—simultaneous, one apiece—from which they’d eventually, amazingly, recovered. Trust could be broken, they’d learned, but just once…surely, just once. Maybe, Amy thought now, their relationship had never really been threatened, never been in danger at all. Was that possible in this world?
Amy shifted in her seat, pretended to study the scenery. Her hand stole beneath her shirt and moved up to her armpit. For a moment she fingered the lump, which did seem larger now. Last night, making love, she was nervous that Dinah would find it.
Amy had not told Dinah about the lump, not yet. There was no point in worrying them both. She would tell her later, when she knew more. This was the snag about love—no one was spared. For as long as possible she wanted Dinah to be free.
Which was another downside to love—had she been single, Amy would have postponed this trip. Instead, not wanting to disappoint Dinah, she had upped the ante, had arranged for expensive accommodations, as if such defiance would surmount all else. The truth was, she could not dislodge the fear. Sometimes it took breath away; mostly it worked as a filter through which everything showed its flaws. She shook her head, remembering last night, comparing it to the lovemaking of their first trip here, when there was no room for caution or review, when there was only hunger followed by pleasure. But that was many years ago. This lump under her arm—she couldn’t blame it for everything.
Amy looked out her window at what appeared to be fields of sugar cane. There was even a sweetness in the air. They set fire to these fields before harvest, she’d read, to burn off the tops and leaves. She pictured the crackling flames, the clouds of grey smoke rising over the island. It seemed a violent solution.
She turned back to Dinah, who appeared, as usual, faintly contented, one hand on the wheel, her elbow resting on the open window. She had a temper, for sure, but it left as fast as it came; mostly she was fine with life. She was probably not thinking about burning fields right now.
“When we get back to the hotel,” Amy said, “we can check out those zip line tours. Maybe we can go tomorrow.”
Dinah looked over. “Really?”
“What the hell,” said Amy, lifting a shoulder.
“Exactly!” Dinah grinned.
They parked on a ridge high above the ocean. Across the water, softy draped in blues and greens, was the island of Molokai. Colossal white clouds hung over its peaks and valleys. On the left side of the beach, a string of black rocks stretched into the sea. The sand itself was pink. Amy stood next to the car, lunch in hand, trying to take in the scene. She could not. This is what was meant by “impossible beauty.” You absorbed what little you could, and then you gave up.
“It’s kind of steep,” said Dinah, who was eyeing the path to the beach. “But we can do it. We’ll just go slow.” She turned around. “Is your leg okay?”
“It’s fine,” Amy said, realizing that it was; she hadn’t even thought of it since breakfast.
Crowded by the rampant plant growth, they sidestepped their way down to the beach, pausing at the bottom to smell the sea-drenched air and gaze again at the island set before them like a gift. Brilliant flashes of sun rippled over the water. As if instructed, they walked to the rocky arm of the beach and found a place near the cliff to spread their towels.
They drank some wine, watched two sanderlings dash back and forth through the lapping waves. Above them, a white tern sailed.
“I heard you get up last night,” Dinah said. “What were you doing?”
Amy pressed her plastic cup into the sand. “I went out on the lanai.” She smiled, remembering. “I took off my top.”
“It was wonderful. Now I know why women in Tahiti go topless. Really. It’s reason enough to move there.” Amy recalled the dark palm fronds moving above her, the white crests on the ocean, the muffled roar of the waves. Half-naked, arms open, she felt like she was offering herself, to the night, the wind. She tried to explain this now to Dinah: the warm wind on her breasts, how vulnerable she felt, but powerful, too, both of these at once.
“Wow,” said Dinah. I’m definitely trying that tonight.”
“Damnit,” said Amy, who was looking over Dinah’s shoulder. “Why do they keep showing up?”
Dinah turned and regarded the figure walking their way, a lone man wearing a large brimmed hat; a pair of binoculars hung around his neck. “He looks harmless enough,” she said. “And you do have a shirt on right now.”
A commotion at sea drew their attention. Two large animals—presumably whales—were thrashing in the water, rolling over and over each other, the ocean breaking around them. Amy and Dinah got to their feet. The man, who was quite close to them now, stopped and studied the animals through his binoculars.
“Are they fighting?” said Dinah, “or mating?”
“Neither,” said the man, lowering his binoculars. “They’re juveniles. They’re playing.”
No matter where you went on vacation, Amy thought, there was always a slight man in Dockers and a sunhat who knew everything there was to know about whatever spectacle you were looking at. Not that she wasn’t grateful for the information—teenagers frolicking!
“Lots of whales out there today,” he added, and not five seconds later, a little farther out, the great fan of a humpback’s tail came suddenly into view.
“They’re breeding now, aren’t they?” Amy asked.
The man nodded. “That’s what they come down here for, breeding and birthing. The calves do better in warmer waters.”
A woman with two children walked up. They stopped a few feet from where the man stood. “Hello,” the woman said, smiling. “Aren’t they wonderful?”
Now they were a crowd, as it seemed they should be with something like this in front of them. Amy looked back at the rolling pair, who were making quite a racket smacking the water.
And then, off to the right, an enormous whale surged out of sea, all the way, the ocean pouring off its body, its great fins and belly white against the blue sky. In the instant that it hung in their world, this magnificent, improbable beast, Amy threw her arms up and whooped, as they all did—they could not help themselves, as if whatever ecstasy that sent this creature out of sea had rushed into them, and when the whale fell back, in a tremendous splash, they felt in their own bodies the sound of its weight.
Afterward they all beamed at one another, helplessly, and then they began to speak, sharing their joy. Wasn’t that the most amazing thing they had ever seen? Was it their first time? What did it mean when whales breached? Even the man in the hat did not know the answer to that one.
Dinah, who had at some point caught hold of Amy’s hand, hugged her now and said, “That was worth the price of the trip.”
Amy looked back at the ocean, at the place where this marvel had occurred. It must have felt wonderful, that instant of dominion, that pause between the rising and the falling. There was no other way to account for the effort.
An earlier version of this work was originally published in Crack the Spine.
Jean Ryan, a native Vermonter, lives in Napa, California. Her stories and essays have appeared in a variety of journals, including Other Voices, Pleiades, The Summerset Review, The Massachusetts Review and Blue Lake Review. Nominated for several Pushcart Prizes, she has also published a novel, Lost Sister. Her debut collection of short stories, Survival Skills, was published in April 2013 by Ashland Creek Press. Please visit her website at http://jean-ryan.com.