? SLAB | Sound & Literary Art Book

Issue 6

Fiction

John Cravens

Breathing In


The young man and the girl were lying on bright colored beach towels in the early morning sun, alone on a narrow strip of pale sand near above the high tide line. Both were darkly tanned. Shade from large Chinese palms and catalpa trees stopped at the black volcanic rocks behind where their towels were spread. Now, neither of them had spoken very much, each trying to regain the equilibrium that they had had together before the accident. Seeing the pickup's side mirror hit the bike rider still reverberated in them both, unsettling the feeling of security that they had found here their first days on this isolated part of the island.
"I've never even imagined anything remotely like that before,"
she said into the silence between them.
"It can happen in the blink of an eye," he said. "The guy probably thought that he had a beautiful day ahead, digging on this lush life. Then suddenly, oblivion."
"I wish I could stop thinking about it. I'm going to do my mantra until I can move all of that away from me. Then I'll hold it off and never think of it ever again."
The young man was almost five years older than the girl was, but she looked even younger. He often told her that too when she became piqued after being ID’ed again, her body lanky and seeming still almost adolescent, holding herself very naturally without any of the detached presence that she could easily assume. She dressed in an innocent-sensuous way, and acted unaffected by the attention that she usually got everywhere because of her good looks. The young man projected an intensity that she had thought was attractive and intriguing when they first met, now almost five months past. Sometimes lately, though, she saw an overshadowing of sudden
restlessness from him.
They lay still beside each other in the strong sunlight, the cooling onshore breeze blowing over them causing a faint rustle through the vines and honeysuckle behind the beach. A steady murmur came from waves that were breaking and running
out across the sand, feathering into quick rushes of foam that disappeared near their feet. They had been staying for most of a week at a cottage that overlooked the small cove, each day walking up the street to the beach to spend several hours there sunning and bodysurfing. And each day they had gone someplace in their rented red convertible. He always drove, taking them swiftly along the narrow winding highway, driving across the many one-lane bridges that spanned deep gulches: one day going to the Seven Sacred Pools to swim, then another day to the small church at Kipahulu to see the grave of a famous American. The day before the accident, they had gone beyond where the paved road ended to spend the morning at a small cove on the rocky coast below Haleakala
Crater. Alone there they swam naked in the surf. The next day near mile marker forty-two, they saw the bike rider killed in an instant.
"I have that Edith Piaf song in my head," she said, calmer.
"La Vie en Rose? 'Life in Pink?’”
"Yes, thankfully you brought it. Maybe it will blend away this . . . ."
She lay still, trying to have only the music in her thoughts. Then she said, "I hope we can go to Paris."
She clinched her body tight in an involuntary shrug because
of the misstep. Lately when one of them spoke of a future together those imaginings had sounded hollow. She opened her eyes and looked toward the horizon.
"It's entirely beautiful here," she said, trying to leave the assumption of any other time together.
She could not see well into the brightness coming off the water, but if she looked toward their cottage, she could see the low green bluff that rose from the ocean where waves were breaking white against large black rocks.
"I'm trying to be perfectly content in this moment," she said, carefully.
She held herself up on her forearms and turned to him and her untied bikini top dropped from her.
"You are utterly and absolutely beautiful."
She smiled to him and lay forward on her towel, and said, "I want to start feeling happy again as soon as I can."
In front of the small crescent beach there was no reef and the waves came in strong. The girl looked to the dark forms of surfers far offshore rising on swells and then disappearing into the waves' troughs, lifting again on another swell. One of them stood on his board and started riding a wave, cutting back on the rolling face, balancing in front of the breaking curl. He came near to shore before he dove into the collapsing
wave. After he began paddling out, the girl rolled over onto her back.
"I'd really like to get high right now," she said. "Right here, not thinking of anything at all."
"Those guys building that house next to us could maybe get you some weed, some pakalolo."
"Probably."
"They might set you up with the local police though."
"Why would they? You're being paranoid."
"Haven't you noticed how a lot of Hawaiians here seem to not like haole tourists too much?"
"I've thought we've been getting that older-guy-with-a-young-chick thing, like we do sometimes back on the mainland."
"I'm not that much older."
"But I look a lot younger than I am. That's not what attracted
you to me is it?"
"No."
"Then what did?"
"Your body."
"Stop it. That sounds so common."
She took a cigarette from the packet that lay on her T-shirt, and used the silver plastic lighter, then inhaled. She offered
the cigarette to him but he shook his head.
"Does it bother you if I do?"
"Yes."
"Want me not to?"
"As you please. I'm going in the water again."
That morning they had watched the sun rise beyond the edge of the ocean as they sat next to each other on a rock wall that ran across the grassy point below their cottage. Hewn blocks of volcanic rock from an abandoned sugar mill lay strewn about there under the tall coconut palms. They had spoken of how fragments from memories of the bicycle rider being killed had been scattered through their sleep. They watched until the sun rose above the horizon, then they went back to the cottage that they had for three more days and had curiously intense sex with each other, the sunlight streaming through the open blinds and onto their bed and across them.
"It seems as if you've not been wearing anything, the way you're so completely dark," he said. He touched the concave of the muscles of her back and looked at the line of paleness left by her thong. "Dark everywhere except here." He brushed his fingertips along where the faint line disappeared.
She rolled away, suddenly shy.
"I'd give anything if we hadn't seen that," she said, to deflect
his attention.
"Being there at the exact moment—seeing that instant—was a one-in-a-million bad break. But as long as you're wishing,
why not give anything if that had never happened?"
"Of course I wish it had never happened." She stood and covered her breasts with her hands and left the room.
When she came back from showering she was wearing a big white towel. He lay propped up at the head of the bed reading, with their two pillows behind his shoulders. She sat on the side of the bed and looked out the open doors and across the lanai to the ocean. Surfers floated on their boards near where rollers first appeared far out from shore. Water dropped from her hair and spread across her shoulders and throat. He leaned nearer and gently pulled the towel loose and it fell away.
She looked at him directly and said calmly, "I want you to know that I know that you're just screwing me."
He blinked rapidly several times.
"Why do you say that?"
"Because it's the truth."
"There's more to us being together than only that."
"Of course I've hoped so." She shook her head in a small and confused reaction. "Forget it. I understand that it's just what some people do." She looked into the brightness. "There's no need to talk about this—no reason at all."
She looked as though she would cry.
"This is all because of the accident," he said.
"No it isn't that. I've felt bluesy ever since then, but I've thought about this before. Lisa said it to me when I told her that we'd decided to come here."
He went out onto the lanai and sat at the table and lit a cigarette. She stood and wrapped the towel around her tightly.
Loud hip-hop music blasted from a small white pickup as it came slowly past the cottage; two Hawaiian children and a black dog were in the back. A motorcycle thumped by going the other way; the Hawaiian man riding it coasted it smoothly through the curve. A car passed with boys leaning out the windows looking at the surf and talking with excitement, pointing to the large waves.
"We're at the center of the party," she said.
He looked at the waves cresting and breaking and said, "At the beach yesterday I heard somebody say that there's a typhoon southeast of here causing these big waves."
She turned away and went into the closet to dress. She left the door open but she did not turn on the light.
That night the girl slept on the sofa under the front windows.
In the bed alone the young man could hear her flipping through the pages of magazines until he finally went to sleep. The next morning they drove back toward town to the small restaurant that was up a green slope from the highway. At the carry-away window, they both ordered macadamia nut French toast. He thought that a single order would be plenty for them both, but he did not say that. They ate at one of the wooden picnic tables in the open shelter. Small finches and waxbills flitted about and perched on the steel roof trusses above them. She said that she thought the Styrofoam trays their food came in were out of place, and that the insensitivity of using them was absurd in this natural place. At the front of a small barn down the slope a Hawaiian boy finished currycombing
a chestnut horse. They watched as he put a silver turnout sheet on the horse that covered its back and rump.
"I think I could stay here happily for a long time, if I could feel again as I did before the accident," she said. "Could you?"
"And do what for work?"
"Not what you do now, obviously. But to live simply, this place might be good."
"Fleeing the modern world isn't what I want to do now."
"Could you live in Paris?"
"I'd have to know the language a lot better. And it would take some effort and time to get licensed there. I think I need to be in LA, maybe Seattle."
"They're entirely different universes."
"They each can be anything. I think I can find a place in either universe, coming down to one street; a single building; an office in that building; a cubicle there that I can call home." He smiled seriously to her.
"Is that what you really want?"
"I'm breathing in—I'm breathing out, like the song says."
"Like humans do?"
"Exactly. What else is there?"
"That's no answer."
She compressed her lips and looked at a waxbill on an empty table taking away a crust of bread. Light rain began quickly. They both turned to see their car with its top still down. They had not finished their food but he threw their Styrofoam
trays into a trash barrel, and then with the rain becoming
heavier they ran to their car. The girl got in at the driver’s side and they sat there in the rain while the top whined up and enclosed them. He leaned across and kissed her and she quickly put her arms around his neck and held him tightly. Then she started the car. She drove them back down the narrow
road. The horse was standing in the rain with its head down and rain splattered off the turnout sheet. They crossed the highway. Only a rusty white van was in the parking lot of the general store.
A haole man with a gray-streaked ponytail ran up the sale of her Tanqueray. He did not ask her for an ID, and he said nothing and did not look up at her as she paid him.
The girl drove fast on the road through the countryside back to their cottage. The sun was out again and the hillsides and trees shone rich with subtly varied greens. They saw a double rainbow over the ocean. At the cottage they put on their swimming suits. Then they walked beside the street toward
where concrete stairs led down to the beach. For the first time since they had come there the girl wore a bikini instead
of a thong. They could see that the beach was more crowded than on any of the other days. The girl went to the edge of the bluff and looked over at the waves breaking along the beach.
"These waves are too big for me," she said.
He watched the strong waves sweeping onto the shore.
"We'll be all right if we don't go out too far," he told her.
"I'm going back. I'll read or something. I don't want to go in the water with it this rough. Maybe tomorrow this all will calm down, and then everything might go back like it was when we first came here."
She turned away and started walking back to the cottage. He watched her leaving, then he went on toward the concrete stairs.
If I can leave right now, she thought, and if I can make him believe that it's only for right now—for a day or two—then he might stay. And maybe he'll be all right about going back alone.
Do you realize how many if’s there are now? There are ifs and a might and a maybe. But what will you choose to do in all of this?
Now you're sounding like him, she warned herself.
She looked at several surfers riding their boards on the large seas that the storm was bringing, and she remembered the happiness that she had felt on their first day here. Then a sudden feeling of hopelessness came over her when she recalled what had happened at mile marker forty-two.
She said to herself, I think the hardest part may be the taking in and carrying with you of everything that you've ever seen or done. It all may always be there, no matter how hard you try to hold it back and never to think of it ever again.