The women flung the water-heavy towels over the balcony to dry in the heat, squinting from the brightness of the day. Jane saw a family of turtles bobbing up and down next to the reef where they’d just been snorkeling out through the sliding glass porch doors. Clouds moved across the sky, stopping their pace when Shirley glanced up.
Jane made darjeeling tea for two, twisting the little purple packet-casings off the string while she waited for the water to boil. Shirley went down the street to the gas station to pick up the paper and get fresh cream for the tea and check the mail from the box.
The front page story of the Island News was titled: “Young Girl Attacked By Shark.” Shirley's eyes became extra focused as she read, crossing the street back to her place and hiking up the hill while she took in the events of the unexpected attack. What transfixed Shirley’s attention most was the vitality and instant life and death situations that just seemed to happen with no controlling force. There was no right way or wrong way to an event like a shark attack; there just was. That danger, death, and life could switch up so quickly, out of the blue, was a truth Shirley was not willingly prepared to face.
Why? She thought to herself. Why couldn't she admit that this was a death realm too? She was not particularly squeamish, but there was something about it that she was aware she preferred not to confront as per the culture.
She saw sharks hiding in the plumeria trees and wondered if she too would be eaten by a shark.
They sat, drinking tea in silence as Jane read the article about the young girl.
She sighed and muttered, “Oh no, no no,” the way a mother says no when their toddler spills red grape juice on white furniture.
Shirley pushed the shark’s jaws out of her mind and thumbed through the mail, opening a letter from her sister, Lola.
Shirley carefully opened it with her snake shaped letter opener and pulled out the letter. The stationary was light brown Japanese rice paper and he had used a hard black pen to write:
Dearest Sister Shirley,
I came across this Japanese stationary store today in the city and of course it made me think of you and how much you love all the beautiful accoutrements of this culture. it reminds me of when we were children and would eat those rice candies wrapped in paper and how magical it was because we could eat the paper too. Which, of course made me think of how our parents tricked us into eating seaweed when we were little by telling us it was paper.
Who does that?! Ha ha ha. Missing you here right now, where I'm having a cuppa and Daiquiri is snoring in my lap, oblivious that anything bad could ever happen in the world. We should only hope for as much.
PS. Are you visiting Grace this summer?
Shirley closed the letter and smiled and she told Jane we needed more tea.
Jane had put down the newspaper and was thinking about getting some kind of chemical face-lift and if the pain and requisite redness would be worth it. Shirley assured her to at least wait until her 40's and to stop being so self-possessed and concerned with such minimal realities.
Shirley went through the rest of the mail that was wholly unexciting except for a small postcard tucked in between her phone bill and her car insurance bill. Shirley and Jane sat there, feeling accomplished and completely not-so at the same time.
This was their summertime college break routine day in and day out when Robert was out of town. He worked in Honolulu on the main island during the week and flew home on the weekends to be with Shirley. On a very clear day if you squinted at the horizon you could see the thin sliver of Oahu where Robert was the coach for the university's sailing team. They were a top-ranked team in the nation and even worldwide and Robert loved nothing more than to fly free though the wind and air on the boats and race.
During the week Jane, Shirley's lifelong best friend, would come over to Shirley's early and they'd swim before it got too hot. They tracked the UV on a website and would plan accordingly, but generally if they were in and out of the water and back into the shade of the house by 9am they were good on sun exposure.
If the total summation their lives so far could be painted as one moment, it would be this one. The two women in the living room overlooking the bay, with two cups of tea, sitting in silence, resting from their morning surf and snorkel, letting their hair dry. It was a quiet meditation of days followed in routine that escaped most of the burden of everyday hustle and bustle. A special pocket that wouldn't be repeated as such.
From the living room, the entire bay was in view wrapping around the island like a crescent moon lapping the sand. The waves were now nonexistent, every ripple from this morning totally flat.
“Like mirror glass,” said Jane upon noticing this small fact.
The main island road was down the cliff and veered off to the right of the mountain, to head north. In the distance, from the house one could hear the two lanes of traffic steadily sliding forward. The bay dominated the majority of the view until met with the horizon line of a whiter blue haze. Some days the vog from the volcano came in with the East winds and bogged the sky. Today, the trades had stopped by mid morning and the air was too still for any vog to make its way from the volcano on the distant big island. It was a pleasant change from the trade winds that usually dominated the East Side of the island making low-laying trees grow at certain tilts and encouraged the tides to deliver more trash from Overseas fishing barges to float in through the channels and wash up on shore. As children we used to pick through it and make castles out of the foreign garbage.
Apart from the panoramic view of bay and beach, the only other view was out on the porch. Sitting on the left side of the porch, Shirley and Robert could watch the sun descend over the mountains behind them, setting west and heading for the Sandwich Island Atolls. When the sun—taking its last flash for the day—hit the mountains, the entire range would light up, accentuating the carved details that waterfalls and volcanic eruptions had formed over the millions of years and gave it the true majestic fame it had been renowned for. In the radiance of the decreasing sun, soft oranges and singular strands of gold poured over the top of Mount Wai'ale'ale, showering down to the crests of waves on the East side until slowly it would turn to a dark blue soft gray and the twilight would emerge and it would be time for the remaining surfers to get out of the water.
The mountain range in the middle of the island peered over the right side of their rooftop and a slice of mountain and sea, both the most strikingly beautiful parts of the island, were the views they looked at each day. Day in and day out. In the winter when the rains came the red dirt slid down the cliffs into the storm drains and made a red sea for half a mile out in the bay. Being surrounded with all this natural beauty changed Shirley and Jane’s and Robert's lives.
Time would be generous during these silent moments because the two felt at peace with everything, despite the rest of the world situation. A click of a button and TV news was nothing more than an idea. Foreign wars and deceitful leaders vanished from the world of palm fronds and papaya.
Shirley and Jane weren’t saintly; they were middle class in a first world country that had not experienced war in their lifetimes, surrounded by an unfathomable natural beauty that made them trust in God if god was the reality around them, not despise.
Even the shark biting the girl. She lived. And this was all part of the cycle of this place. From the living room, they could accept that as truth.
After getting stoned on the porch many a time to consider this very fact in the late afternoons, lighting citronella candles and clearing their throats and washing it down with water, this is what they always came to conclude. That it really had nothing to do with them at all and there really was no free will. They were merely actors on a stage that had been predestined for them; pre-decided and therefore all that was required was participation. And compassion for the fellow actors in the scene.
Shirley would sit cross-legged and comfortable in a cotton dress while Jane preferred to stay in her leopard print swimsuit and lean forward on the couch in an English riding style with both legs on one side perched against each other like apricots. Smiling, tan. Her bathing suit would always leave a little salt-water stain on the couch that Shirley never pointed out but noticed. The women would sit discussing the latest book they’d read, the newest recipe almost always involving fish and mango with champagne, and they would allow the sun, not usually so intense, to dry their hair and warm their legs.
Today was a day like any other in the order of things. A morning swim, a cup or two of Darjeeling, Shirley’s quite predictable and satisfying silent morning with Jane. Chitchat about the locals, investments, upcoming trips, health of family members. Life was not trite because after all, it was what was happening.
Something felt slightly different today, though. Something felt slightly "off" or nuanced every day, but it was usually expertly covered by mango recipes and headline news and tea with women. Anything to feel attractive and immortal.
On this particular Saturday, Shirley felt conventional and alone. Even though Jane was sitting with her. These moments in the kidney living room when the sun streamed in a flushing warmness were eternal for Shirley. They were ubiquitous, quiet, and calm and offered the peace of what was and what is and in the very least, Shirley and Jane could contemplate it.
Jane would lean forward, her shining face illuminated against her jet-black hair, wild green eyes in the brightest of morning lights. She was usually laughing, a huge wide mouth with a set of perfect white teeth.
Shirley could feel the sincerity of Jane’s happiness pouring through her like water rushing and bursting the French doors on the balcony open, but couldn’t help feeling that it was of the ignorant sort. For hours and hours until improvement comes and an increasing awareness arises. Jane was good at flooding Shirley with animated and transparent heat waves. Look good and make others feel good about themselves by looking at her and feeling that they too were capable of something as plain and simple as feeling good like how beauty just feels good. But on this particular day—which had so far been balmy, repetitive in thought, and rather tiring—Jane wasn’t the only one to flood Shirley. She received a visitor.