Returning to the Water

It’s August and I’ll be fifty in nine days. We’re at the Tampa Airport, checked in and sitting at the bar for a breakfast rum drink because my redneck, sharkman, lover-husband is afraid to fly.

“It’s not that bad, once you’re up in the air,” I say, drinking my water. “Trust me, I do it all the time and I don’t like flying either. You have to focus on something else besides: ‘how the hell does this big bird stay up in the air.’ Ignore the physics.”

“I’ll focus on this here rum and coke,” he says, smiling at me over the glass as he knocks it back. He straightens up. “You know I’m making this sacrifice because I love you,” grinning all over.

“Ha! Sacrifice? I’m taking you to Hawaii, my homeland.”

“I know that and I am excited. I’ve read your stories. I know what this trip means to you.”

And this is why I love Bill so much. He fell out of a plane once, or, depending how you interpret his story, was pushed, so his fear is real. Perhaps he deserved it. It had been on account of a girl, a skydiver who had skydiver friends. Bill was on the chase back then, long before he met me, and had assumed the role of a skydiver too, all the way up until he was in the plane and began to get nervous about jumping.  When the girl realized he’d been lying simply to get into her pants, she screamed at him, he backed away from her and out the door he went, back first and belly up, frantically grabbing for the elusive parachute cord on his way down. And elusive that cord was, until he grabbed his balls for a final goodbye and there was the cord and he finally floated downward, promising God he’d never get into a plane again.

And for thirty years he hasn’t.

“C’mon,” I say, squeezing his hand. “Let’s get to the gate.”

It has been thirteen years since I’ve visited Maui, home of the 1970’s adolescent and teen me who was perpetually jailed by smooth, lavender mountains, a ravenous sea and a non-functioning family. It was the place I escaped from in 1977, returned to off and on to visit Mom from 1978 to 1983, lived for a year in 1985 and went to my twenty year high school reunion in 1997. Oahu on the other hand, when was I there last? As the plane levels off at its flying altitude and Bill settles into a post-rum doze, I put my seat back to ponder my ancient timeline.

I was eleven when we’d moved from Oahu to Maui and the memory of it cuts like a new edge. Time tends to tumble the memories around, smoothing out their rough parts but some pains always remain there, stubbornly poised with hands on hips as the rest of the events soften and fade into the distance. Through the condescending haze of my grandmother, and before the oblivion of my mother, the pitiful controlling games of my stepfather, my own self-loathing, stuttering and perpetual insecurities, I loved the Oahu of my childhood. I loved the sound of the ocean at night when I lived with Grandmother at her house in Kahala. I loved the Ala WaiYacht Harbor, its salt and sun-dried piers shooting splinters into my toughening bare feet. I loved getting lost in the misted mountains simply by looking at up at them, where I could dream I was somewhere else. But when we went somewhere else, when we left for Maui, I was broken-hearted. Because somewhere on Oahu there still lived the innocent little girl before it all happened, the girl who dreamed of being a comedian, the girl who learned to read before Kindergarten, the girl who still flounced in the true innocence of youth, and at eleven years old and moving away, I was afraid I’d lose her forever.

In a way I had.

There were short trips back to Oahu during my teens to visit my best friend Jackie when we would attempt to realign our divergent paths toward adulthood. Hers: a public Honolulu high school rife with AM radio-toting fully dramatized Hawaiian ethnic cliques, the H1 freeway (and the soon to be H2 and H3 cutting through the mountains), weekends at Waikiki Beach. Me: free-loading a private school education on a quiet mountain, hippies, surfers and a silent bomb in our dusty, dry-side-of-the-island house.

Crossword done, Mensa puzzles done, ten dollar sandwich consumed, squeezing Bill’s hand as he dozes back off, I drift off into a light doze myself, one that carries me out of the metal belly of the giant plane and out into the plumeria-scented trade winds of my islands.

A slight drop in altitude leaves my stomach at the previous altitude and I awaken to see Bill nodding himself awake too.

“We must be almost there!” I kiss him on the cheek.

“Oh, good,” he says, stretching his arms upward.

The plane drops again, more noticeable this time and Bill makes a face.

“It’s alright,” I say, snapping open the window visor and looking out into the blue. The sky and Pacific merge into the same aqua. Cumulous clouds sit randomly atop the aqua and in the left edge of small oval window I see the sensuous slope of a mountain rising above the clouds. It is topped in white, which could be snow, or more clouds, hard to tell. I know this first island on the east is the Big Island of Hawaii. My heart thrums at the mere sight of it. “Look!”

Bill will have none of it.

“It’s so beautiful,” I say, my eyes watering with love for this place.

Bill reaches his arm to me for an airline seat hug and I start crying full on.

“I can’t believe we’re almost here,” I blubber and wonder why I’ve been away for so long. What have I been doing these years? Getting in relationships, getting married, raising a daughter, earning money, climbing the career ladder, getting divorced, buying properties, losing them in the recession, falling in love, earning more money, getting married again… Well, I have been busy.

For the next half hour the decent is gradual and Bill hangs in while I distract him with my chatter. I list out what we’ll do first, where we’ll go, what we’ll see and of course he can go on a shark dive for enduring the plane. His reward.

It must be like trying to hit a small bullseye to aim this big plane onto the landing strip at the base of Oahu’s Koolau Mountain range. We dip below the jagged mountains and I see the coconut palms of Waikiki Beach, the fronds pulling into the trade winds which are now causing the plane to heave to and fro downward toward the little strip of tarmac.

“I’m not liking this…” Bill says as the plane sails and swings downward like a paper airplane dropped into a forceful wind.

“I know, I don’t either. It’s the trade winds. We’ll land soon and we’ll be in paradise.” I squeeze his hand, returning my gaze out the window. The engine is grinding in its struggling decline but I hear ukulele. I smell plumeria. I see Grandmother and Mom, in long flowered muu-muus. Purple orchids garnish the dinner plates at Haiku Gardens. I smell grilled mahi-mahi. Palm fronds dance and sway in the cooling, Pacific wind. All this beauty and innocence wrap me, comforting.

The engine pitch rises, the landing gear drop and plane still swaying, we bumpity bump onto the tarmac, everyone claps, I pat Bill’s shoulder—see, we made it.


Marisa Mangani was born and raised in Hawaii, worked as an executive chef throughout the US as well as Canada and Australia, and now designs commercial kitchens for a day job which supports her writing habit every morning from 5:30 to 6:30. She recently co-wrote Sharkman of Cortez, a memoir of a former commercial shark fisherman, and she is currently concluding her own memoir, Stepping into the Water.

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