The pendant was shaped like a curved tongue. "This catches the truth," she said.
“Everybody is looking for love. No one is denying that,” Frank said. “But relationships suck. They take compromise… Or balance. The only difference is, if you say ‘balance,’ you sound like a flake; if you say ‘compromise,’ you sound like a hard-nosed prick. Doesn’t matter,” he sniffed, “they mean the same thing.”
That night, the air in my room was unbearably hot and stuffy. An aged and rusted air-conditioning unit rattled beside my bed; periodically it wheezed and sputtered a mist of beady moisture into the air that settled on the musty-smelling turquoise carpet like dew.
I decided to go for a late-night swim. I wanted to cool off and get some fresh air before I went to bed. As I walked out of the elevator and onto the pool deck, the first person I saw was him. His head rested on the side of the hot tub, his arms spread out behind him like massive wings and his hair was slicked back in zigzagging curls—and without even thinking about it, my plans for the evening changed to somehow include him.
When I arrived in Honolulu, my sister picked me up at the airport in a rented car. And then we drove around for what felt like an eternity. She kept missing the turnoff onto the highway.
I told her I knew where to go.
“Sure you do,” she said, sounding irritated.
“I know where to go,” I insisted. “You pass it every time.”
She didn’t say anything, just continued to drive.
“Okay,” I said. “Whatever.”
The man in the hot tub was, quite possibly, the most beautiful man I had ever seen. My seeing him that night at my hotel was a coincidence. I had noticed him a couple of days before. I was walking along the beach near the Hilton Lagoon with my sister. He was sitting on a patch of grass beneath a coconut tree, peering out at the ocean with a body board leaning against his long muscular legs. I stopped to observe him, but my sister continued walking. When I looked up, she was some distance ahead of me, swinging her arms by her side. She was walking as if she were on a busy city sidewalk, not a lazy stretch of beach. I had to run to catch up with her.
Soon after arriving in Honolulu, I rented a surfboard. A woman wearing a pink miniskirt and big ugly glasses laughed at me: “You’re going surfing out there? What about the wall?” She was sitting in the sand on a white plastic bag. She shook with laughter. “What about the wall?” She glanced around, searching for somebody else to partake in her joke. Every time she moved, the plastic bag rustled beneath her.
“Are you going surfing or what?” my sister prodded. I ran across the beach and started swimming out into the ocean. It wasn’t long before I discovered the stone wall meant to protect the swimming area next to the beach. It had been hidden by the high tide. I had to struggle for several minutes in order to cross the barrier. The waves kept pushing me back. After I had made my way over the wall, a local surfer on the other side gave me a startled look. He warned me to look out for the coral. “You could really get hurt if you fall down,” he said.
“Yeah,” I said, panting.
“Oh.” He creased his forehead. “You already know?”
“No,” I said, “I don’t think I’ll catch a wave.” And I didn’t. I was too tired, or maybe too embarrassed, to try.
I started to think that the beautiful man and I might be meant to be.
I walked across the pool deck and put my things down on an empty lounge chair. I pulled my sundress over my head and got it stuck behind my ears. For one awkward moment I couldn’t see a thing. I wriggled and squirmed until I was finally able to get the dress off. To regain my composure, I stared up at the empty sky. I was intensely aware the entire time that he might be watching me.
The swimming pool was a small rectangle and only five feet deep. It wasn’t really good for anything except wading around in. I climbed in and attempted some aimless breast strokes. No one else was in the pool. I looked over at the hot tub. A man was standing right in front of the beautiful man, blocking my view. After a few minutes, I got out of the pool and walked over to the hot tub.
“My name is Frank,” the man standing in front of the beautiful man said. “And this is Andy.” He slapped the shoulder of the beautiful man and looked around, knitting his eyebrows together. “Are you alone?”
“Yes,” I said. “Well, sort of. My sister left earlier this week; she had to go back to work.”
While my sister was in town, we stayed in one of the newest and most exclusive hotels on Waikiki, surrounded by glitzy restaurants and designer clothing stores. My sister said she hadn’t been on vacation for three years, so she wanted the best.
“There’s a Burberry on every corner here,” she pointed out.
I could never have afforded a place like this on my own. But since my sister had arranged for our accommodations, I accepted my surroundings as a luxurious gift. I was relieved my sister could only stay a week. Otherwise I might have started to feel guilty.
Within a few minutes, Frank had told me his entire life story: he was abandoned by his drug-addicted mother at a young age, married to the only woman he had ever loved at the age of twenty-two, and divorced at the age of twenty-nine. He was an officer in the US military and had been stationed in Hawaii for over a year. He had dated a girl for six months, but he’d had to break up with her (“She was getting all crazy on me”). And now he was dating a new girl whom he met online in a chatroom (“Not a dating website, but you know, just a place for people to talk”).
“Where are you from?” I asked him.
“I’m from all over the place,” Frank said, glancing at Andy. “He’s from France.”
In late afternoon tourists leave their air-conditioned rooms and traipse up and down the shady boulevard, gazing at shop windows and watching street performances. At least, that is what my sister and I did. The sidewalks were a spectacle. Audiences bulged out into the street, crowding around a man juggling basketballs or moving in slow motion. People stuffed dollar bills into tip jars and stood in lines to get their pictures taken with the performers. I passed a woman sitting on the ground with an assortment of jewelry by her feet. Her face was dark and chubby, and her long black hair was streaked with grey and swept back into a massive braid. When she saw me looking, she smiled and I noticed that she was missing a few teeth.
She patted a necklace. “This is done in the old way.”
I knelt down and picked up the necklace. It was a string of smooth, pearly white beads with a pendant hanging down from the middle. “What is it?” I said.
“It’s whalebone.” Her eyes creased. “I carved it.” She reached out and fingered the pendant. “This is a curved tongue. It catches the truth.”
I took my wallet out. “How much is it?”
“Make me an offer,” she told me.
I didn’t have money. I said, “I’ll be right back.”
“I might not be here,” the woman said, shaking her head. “Once they see me, they’ll ask me to leave. I’m not wanted,” she said. “I don’t do tricks.”
My sister nudged my back. “Come on. If you want it, just get it,” she said, and handed the woman some money.
“French!” I exclaimed. “I’m from Canada. I speak a little French.”
Andy didn’t say anything. He stared straight ahead at the bubbles bursting on top of the water.
“Why are you in Hawaii?” I asked him.
This time he responded. He was studying finance at Hawaii Pacific University and had come because he wanted an American experience. “You know,” he said, “like in the movies.”
“Yeah,” Frank interjected, “but before he met me, he was just hanging out with a bunch of foreign students. Since we’ve been hanging out, I’ve been able to show him a whole bunch of different things.”
“Like what?” I asked.
Frank stroked his chin. “Well, one night we went out to the canal with a couple of fold-out lawn chairs, a cooler full of beer and a transistor radio. Another time I took him to the shooting range.”
“Oh yeah,” Andy smiled. “That was fun!”
“Was it a real shooting range?” I asked. “Or just one that you set up in your backyard?”
“Now that would have been a real American experience,” Frank said, pounding the water with his fist he was laughing so hard.
“You might think I’m crazy,” Frank said, screwing up his eyes, “but I know what’s going on.”
Frank told us about the drills they’d been running at the military base. “We’ve been pretending to be at war with North Korea,” he explained. He was especially proud that he had completed his most recent simulated mission: “Ninety-four percent of my men died in the process,” he admitted, “but, in the end, I was successful.”
“Ninety-four percent?” I said. “How do you even know such a thing?”
“It’s all done by computers,” he nodded. His face fell, suddenly serious. “The simulations have to be realistic. They’re preparing us for the real thing.”
“Is war with North Korea imminent?”
“Look, there are a lot of things you don’t know about,” he snapped.
I turned away from Frank, not sure of what to say next. I looked at Andy, but he didn’t seem to be listening. His eyes were directed at us, but glazed over as if he didn’t see a thing.
The day my sister left, I accompanied her to the airport. We didn’t talk much in the car. I kept massaging my arm.
“What’s wrong with you?” she asked. “Why do you keep doing that?”
“The waves were choppy this morning,” I said.
I had gone sideways into a wave and my surfboard had been pushed into my face and slammed into my elbow. Now my elbow was aching and my nose was tender.
“You should be more careful,” she said.
At the airport, she tried to give me money.
“What’s this for?” I asked, shoving it back to her.
“Just take it,” she said. “You think life is a dream. But it’s not. You can’t stay here without money.”
“So,” I asked Andy, “what do you like the most about Hawaii? Surfing?”
“He doesn’t surf,” Frank said. “I took him once, but he wasn’t any good. The funniest part is,” he laughed, “most people mistake him for a local—I mean, doesn’t he look like a surfer? With his bleached blond hair?”
“But the joke’s over,” Frank said, “as soon as he opens his mouth.”
Andy made a slight jerking movement, but kept on smiling.
“What’s the biggest difference between America and France?” I asked. “I mean, what’s the biggest difference you’ve noticed so far?”
“That’s easy,” Andy said. “The optimism. Americans still believe in the rags-to-riches story.”
“That’s kind of sad,” I said, “don’t you think? How many people actually get to be rich?”
“I’m not talking about statistics,” he said. “I’m talking about what they believe in.”
“Well, if you ask me,” Frank said from behind me, “the illusion is better than the reality. Because with the illusion, there’s always something more to hope for. I mean, who really needs reality anyway? It’s depressing.”
I said goodnight to Frank and Andy and walked to the elevator. My feet were wrinkled from being in the hot water for so long, and the night air felt cool against my skin. As I stepped into the elevator, I told myself to forget about the evening, and Andy, as fast as I could.
But I still think about him. Not necessarily about who Andy was but about what he could have been. Sometimes I even imagine meeting him again, only this time he is someone else completely. I also think about the necklace—I picture its hand-carved beads and tongue-shaped pendant. I have to picture it, because I don’t have it anymore. Shortly after arriving home from Honolulu, I lost it. It must have slipped right off my neck but I have no idea when. All I know is, I reached for it one day, and it was gone.