One of Those Times
Renewing vows are for assholes, she thought, as she stood in her mother-in-law’s living room with a veil hiding her face. She couldn’t really see Dan, but she knew he was nearby because of the strength of his cologne. Some new brand, she thought, nothing she’d bought him. She liked the Polo he’d always worn. She liked the memories of that scent. It reminded her of the first time they kissed from the bottom of the escalator to the top. A single, full kiss. But now he was trying to be young again, so his medicine cabinet was filled with Black Code and Angel and DKNY, bottles that were pretty and expensive. He smelled like boys half his age. It was probably because of his father, Marty. Sixty years old and getting calf implants and wearing Kenneth Cole stretch cotton shirts and those hybrid athletic-dress shoes. Genetics, she thought.
She needed to smile. She was always reminding herself, around Dan, around her in-laws. But with the veil so thick across her face she wondered if they could see her smile. She wondered why her face was covered and why she agreed to this silly ceremony. She imagined herself ripping the veil from her hair, kissing Dan one last time with her hands pulling at the sides of his face, then giving the finger to the first row of family and lighting out of that house, storming down the street, removing heels and dress and slip and panties and bra and slipping into the twilight.
She needed to smile.
Dan spoke to her. Spoke vows, a renewal. She heard them intermittently: “promise to love, uphold, trust…take care of…speak no ill of….” She smiled a bit, and for real this time. She thought, they sound like the worst things a person can do. If I don’t speak ill I will continue to do nothing. I will forever be standing in a veil with a man I once loved who no longer makes sense to me.
“Honey,” Dan said. And then with concern, “Honey?”
She wasn’t responding because she was still thinking about the unfathomable things that people think about when they know they are walking a plank.
She came to and without hesitation recited the vows she had practiced at the grocery store, walking the aisles with a push basket in search of only one thing: whipped cream. Renewing their vows on Thanksgiving was his idea. He thought he was being clever.
“Really, Charolette, we can give thanks for the past fifteen years. What better time?”
She just smiled when he said that.
“Come on,” he said, like a puppy dog, she thought. “What do you think?”
And she replied, “That’s a perfect idea.”
More words and then her veil lifted and there was the face of the man. She said, “With these vows I look to the next fifteen years of passion.” She wasn’t saying that the past fifteen years had been passionate, and she hoped everyone understood that. She was looking forward with expectation, with desire for fifteen years of passion. In that sense, she thought maybe this whole renewal of vows might act like a renewal of life. That because of this simple, ugly living room scene, they might be launched into a real sense of matrimony. Either way, she didn’t want to end up dead before being buried.
“You looked so, so, so gorgeous,” Nancy said.
“Thank you, Nancy. I so appreciate a mother-in-law that—”
“Charolette,” she scolded. “All these years and I still have to tell you. Call me Nance.”
“I know. I’m sorry.”
“Oh, honey. Your hair’s crooked. There are bobby pins in the upstairs bathroom vanity.”
“Okay,” Charolette said, wondering if bobby pins were sharp enough to sever the veins in her wrist.
“And there’s spray right there on the counter.”
Nancy picked at Charolette’s hair for a second, rested her hands on her shoulders, adjusted the seams and ran her fingers down Charolette’s sides to her hips then turned away with a pat. A pat that surely said, Oh honey, Dans don’t make passes at Chars with fat asses, she thought.
The face in the mirror was still tight. A few lines around the eyes and mouth, but nothing too aged. Her cheeks and brow still had lift. Her throat, while somewhat slack, was smooth and resisted jiggling when she shook her head.
She looked like her mother in the picture that hung above the mantle. One of those black and whites. Pre-wedding. In a studio with a fake nature background. Her head tilted just a bit to the left. Her half-smile. Charolette’s father had it enlarged and hung up after she died. It replaced an expensive vase, which moved to the recreation room. When you sat on the couch you faced the portrait. It was really all you could see at three feet long and two and half wide. Charolette remembers days when he would sit with a cup of tea and just stare. Later on, in high school, the portrait became something of an icon. On Easter, Memorial Day, Thanksgiving and Christmas, Charolette, her older brother, Benjamin, and their father would stand before the mantle and offer respect, remembrance and everlasting love. On Mother’s Day, they had to dress up for the ceremony. And on New Year’s Eve, at midnight, their father expected to be left alone with their mother. It was hard to pass the portrait without acknowledging her mother’s posthumous existence. And that’s how he wanted it, she thought.
As sweet as it seemed it certainly left its unhealthy mark. Charolette would have been out of her marriage in the first five years if it hadn’t been for her father. The first time things went incredibly sour she went to him for advice. He told her, sitting on that same couch, occasionally glancing at that same portrait, that she should tough it out. “Get through it,” he said. “You never know how long you’ve got. Make every day you spend with him the best day of your life.” And how could she deny such wisdom coming from a man who would move mountains to have his wife back, and would spend his remaining days in love with her memory? She didn’t. She continued to live the relationship. Three years later, in the midst of a brief affair, she approached her father a second time. Charolette divulged her extramarital life and asked her father’s advice. “I should tell him, right,” she said. “I should just leave him. This is over.” She remembered him pulling her out of the living room, as if what he had to say would be too explicit for her dead mother’s ears. In the kitchen, with tears in his eyes and a garbled throat he told her never to let Dan know. “These sorts of things can kill a man,” he said. He told her to stay. “That’s the least he deserves from you.” Though she obeyed, it was the last time Charolette sought out her father’s advice. And she wondered then if her father had done the same thing to her mother, if she had died before he had the chance to make amends. Or perhaps he did tell her and she never forgave him. But through it all he stayed, and in the end was left with a portrait—an image of what had been, maybe the last good moment to remember.
After ten years it simply became easier to stay with Dan than to leave him. They had a lifestyle. A house, cars, bills. She blamed her father for this.
Downstairs people were still talking about their weddings and how beautiful they were. Or about their renewal and how it put a new polish on a dull marriage. They talked about children and asked Dan when he and Charolette were going to get around to it. Never, she thought.
When she caught Dan alone in the laundry room, where he was trying to Oxyclean a stain from his tux shirt, she asked him why people never talk about the news or what’s happening with Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie at shit like this. “It’s always what they did or wish they had done or didn’t do. Fuck, this shit is driving me crazy.”
Dan looked at his watch, grabbed her shoulders, “Just four more hours and we’re out of here,” he said then kissed her.
“I’ll repack again.”
“Okay,” he said.
She breathes into the moment. She takes in the heat and humidity and smell of sweet and stench. This is the right mix, she thinks. Gardenia and frangipani trees line the sidewalk, their fragrance only apparent close up. But as she scans the streets past the airport, the locals look corroded. Half awake. Half dead. Like cheap rental cars salt-rusting at the edges but still running. Like her, perhaps. Maybe Hawaii is where people come to decompose, she thinks.
The seven miles from the airport to Kona are intoxicating. Other-worldly. Life forces itself from cinders—the lava flows are thousands of years old—and from that grow cacti and sagebrush, palm trees and naupaka.
“Hear that,” Dan says to her. “That’s the ocean.”
When she focuses she can hear the swell and crash of waves to the west.
“But the coast line is so far away,” Charolette says.
“It happens this time of year. The autumn storms send the waves south.” Dan puts his hand on her leg. “They’re big enough to surf.”
She listens to the movement of the ocean mixing with the traffic. She wants so badly to cup his hand with her own but she’s become used to not doing so. Resentment requires withdrawal. She holds her breath. Dan moves his hand back to the steering wheel. As she exhales she looks inland to Mauna Kea rising 14,000 feet, already with a bit of snow dolloping the top. She looks from the ocean back to the volcano and sees that she is in the middle and how the road is a ribbon cut through the dark jagged lava.
“How do you think they did it?” she asks.
“How did those natives get to the ocean? I mean, they didn’t fly.”
She imagines, for a moment, the sky silhouetted with hundreds of dark skins, red and orange feathered cloaks kicking behind them, carrying their weight thousands of feet to the cusp of what is seen and unseen.
“They probably went around.”
Charolette stares at the right side of Dan’s face. Wrinkles age out from behind his sunglasses. His skin has begun to darken in places and hair has begun its erratic genesis from the most insulting spots: his cheekbone, the top of his ear, his temple. Of course they would have gone around, she thinks. They would have walked and walked and walked. They would have waited for something better. She doesn’t think she would have made it. She would have tried to fly.
They stay cheap. This, again, is Dan’s way. Their rental car pulls into the parking lot of the King Kamehameha Hotel. According to the brochure it sits adjacent the Ahu’ena Heiau, a temple built to Lono, the god of peace and prosperity. It is on the seaside and climbs 20 stories. It doesn’t look so cheap, she thinks. But at check-in she hears the $59 rate and when they get to the room she sees the $59 rate.
“Is this an oil stain?” she asks, kneeling on the carpet, studying an area larger than a Thanksgiving turkey.
“I’m not sure,” Dan says, inspecting it only for a moment before pulling open the sliding glass door to the balcony. He steps out. “Ah, here we go.”
Charolette is still examining the stain and wondering why, if it is oil, it is in this room. And what could have happened for someone to bring in motor oil.
“Charolette, come here.”
She joins Dan on the patio.
As she looks west, she looks to ocean. Miles of water rounding at the horizon. This early in the morning the air is still a bit cool, but she can feel the sun taking over. Dan moves behind her and wraps her in his arms. His chin rests on her head. And she lets herself relax. She snuggles in and works her arms up under his so they’re across her chest. It’s like an ad for a hotel, she thinks. This is what people do when they go onto balconies in Hawai’i. They stand just like this because that is what they do. She stays wrapped inside him anyway. And eventually she feels his erection forming and she arches her back a bit and moves into it. And as if they were twenty again, Dan undoes her shorts and pulls down his pants and slips his hands under her shirt, cups her breasts. Charolette holds onto the balcony and fixes her sight on the horizon, continuing to round and soften until she closes her eyes.
Was that all I needed, she thinks while in the shower. She takes pleasure in washing her hair even though the shampoo is Pert, even though the water is soft and film sits on her skin. She doesn’t wash certain parts of her body because she wants to remember the balcony a bit longer. Is that all that was missing for all these years?
Dan opens the door and Charolette smiles and welcomes him saying, “Aloha.” And he kisses her and he says, “Mahalo.” And they go about in that manner for twenty minutes until she fixes her sight on the way the soft water catches itself on the white bath tile and she closes her eyes.
Jameson’s by the Sea is a quaint restaurant Dan heard about from a friend. They eat fish and have white wine and dessert, which they rarely do. The sun has set but the concrete and lava rocks sitting seaside still radiate warmth. The ocean swell has in it a certain sound of sun as it crests and crashes. And by the silly candle that lightly illuminates the patio table Dan doesn’t look so bad to her. He looks old, still. And he looks anal. And he tells her a story that she knows she’s heard before; she’s not listening so she can’t be certain, but she is pretty sure. However, none of that matters right now. All she can see is him as he used to be. The orange of the setting sun lights his face a bit and he seems fresh. Charolette wonders if this is how it happens: at some point life turns to monotony and patterns and excuses until you go to Hawaii and see the sun on someone’s face. Maybe that is what Hawaii is for—to remember that people can still be beautiful.
She remembers seeing commercials and ads where families are submerged with headgear, breathing through plastic tubes, close to turtles and clown fish and sometimes a small shark. You can see that they are smiling because their cheeks are pushed back and lips upcurled around the snorkel. They are always blonde and thin and so clearly a family. She and Dan had gone home for her father’s funeral, choosing to stay in a hotel because the house was too empty. Hours before the processional, they were sitting on the bed, drinking Tanqueray travel bottles because they were still in their thirties. Charolette wearing her black evening dress that she wore when they went out for dinner and drinks and dancing—the dress that made Dan horny and they’d end up doing it in a bathroom or elevator or car. Dan never had black then. He wore navy blue slacks with a grey sports coat. She wasn’t really watching television. Just looking. And an ad for the Caribbean came on and blonde people were snorkeling and she said, “I wanna do that before I die.”
She can’t believe Dan remembered it, and she is giddy when he rents a yellow kayak and they leave the dock with a small cooler of beer. Charolette’s wearing her first two-piece in a long time. Dan rows them across Kealakekua Bay to Captain Cook Monument, a very small spot of land with a 25-foot marble obelisk jutting above the ocean. After Cook was killed by angry natives, his fellow Englishmen erected the monument. Charolette stares at its whiteness and wonders how long things are really meant to last. These islands, this monument. A person’s generosity. Her love.
She tilts her head to the sun and takes a deep breath. Dan drops anchor and she watches as he dons his breather and flippers.
“Coming?” he asks. And she smiles like she has a snorkel in her mouth.
“In a minute.”
He jumps and disappears. Charolette watches his bubbles surface like soft small marbles until he reappears 10 feet away. He looks to her and she straightens her back, waving. He throws a kiss.
Dan moves further out. And she looks back at the volcano rising and the ocean she is in and scans what she can see in between.
Then she pulls the anchor. This is the time I decided to leave, she thinks. Because things are good again. Because nothing can stay this sweet. She remembers thinking when her father died, imagining him growing ever more feeble in front of that portrait, that true choices are rarely made with foresight—they happen in the blink of an eye, like raising a fist to a friend who has startled you by jumping from some wonderful hiding spot. So, she thinks, the choice she makes must be made without planning, and in a moment where what must happen, happens.
Matthew Haynes is the author of the novella, Friday. His short stories and essays appear in The Normal School, Hawaii Pacific Review, and Yellow Medicine Review. He is a State of Idaho Fiction Fellow, Lambda Literary Fiction Fellow, and Lambda Literary Fiction Writer-in-Residence. He lives in his hometown of Butte, Montana.