A woman, mourning the loss of her long time partner, struggles to connect with the world around her. She makes a choice to have sex with a man who is nearly a stranger, discovering in the process the complexity of pleasure and depth of grief.
Helen lost her lover to a shark attack. He was surfing off a small beach near Oahu, Hawaii, when the shark took his leg. He bled to death, trying to swim back to shore. When the call came from the consulate in Honolulu that he was dead, Helen found it impossible to think or breathe. She slipped to the floor as graceful as a drop of water, a hand over her mouth trying to hold back a scream. She did not remember booking a flight to Hawaii or hiring a car to take her to the small local Hospital to identify his body. But she must of, because the air in Hawaii was lush and alive, soft against her skin, pressing hot in the late afternoon. Standing just outside the arrival doors of the airport, Helen took a breath, and for a moment, all she felt was tropical sweetness. Then she remembered why she was there and felt her knees go weak.
The world was different.
Her heart was gone.
She slid into the passenger bench of the car, idling at the arrival gate, gleaming in the night, her to the Hospital already keyed in by the rental company. Driving in computer-guided silence, Helen thought about the width of his hands. It seemed impossible that he would never touch her again. With angry, passive exhaustion, she wondered if she'd thought of anything else for the last several hours. How badly she wanted him to touch her.
In the void of the rolling monolith of the car, she laid back, her eyes closed, the sun and shadow of branches passing overhead splashing white and red patterns on her eyelids. It never occurred to her that he would be killed by a shark. She knew they were mortal; she knew one of them would eventually live without the other, but she never considered a shark. She wasn't sure why that made it different, more difficult, but it did. The car blasted through the last flagging scraps of the city, crossing naked metal bridges with a black shine.
For a long time, she was driven along the water, the ocean black and glittering, black sea and black sky going seamlessly together. As the sun set the car made another perfect silent turn, crossed another metal bridge, and drove onto a dirt path in the dark. The sky a shattered mess of stars.
The hospital doors were metal slabs with no windows. Moths buzzed against the faint flickering blue sign, the Hospital H long ago bleached almost invisible. At the front desk she'd said she'd come from the airport, found herself completely unable to say… I'm here to identify a body… But the nurse seemed to know to expect her. She put down her biology textbook and nodded, her expression taking on a twist of sadness as though Helen were visibly and critically injured. Together they waled down an empty hallway. Cleaning his glasses, a greying doctor led her to the morgue, little more than a large walk-in freezer.
It was him.
Everything she loved in the world with one leg torn off, between hip and knee, ghastly white bone showing through the tatters of flesh. Someone had cleaned him carefully, even under his nails. His face carried no hint of an expression. Lifeless, utterly. And bloodless. He did not look asleep. He did not look as though he would wake at any moment. He was dead. She touched his hand softly and felt her heart break again. His skin was so cold. No one said or asked her anything, but Helen nodded as though answering a question. The silence persisted. There was only the rustle of lab coat fabric, the milky slide of a stylus on a screen.
In another room, she signed a paper document certifying that the body was his. She filled out forms that had been sleeping drawers waiting for him to die. The doctor asked what she planned to do with the body.
"I don't know," Helen answered. "What do people normally do?"
He told her she could make arrangements with an airline to transport the body back home, but she could also use the cremation facility at the Hospital and take the ashes anywhere she wanted. She could scatter him on the island, overlooking the crystal ocean he loved so much.
"In order to be buried at sea, you need a special net." She said, her voice thick. "To keep your body together."
"Did he want to be buried at sea."
Helen smiled softly and shook her head. The doctor looked away, puzzled but too polite to ask anything further. He handed her a small black cardboard box with the personal effects they found at the beach. A black t-shirt and pair of shorts, his passport, a book, a pair of sunglasses, a nylon duffle bag, and a set of keys on a leather tag. His cell phone, her final message unread:
I love you…
She had the cremation performed the next afternoon, waiting in the Hospital, sitting near the sputtering, struggling air conditioner. She sat very still, feeling anger, exhaustion, and sadness roll over her in long physical tides. She wanted to go home, to cry. She washed off the flight and the first few layers of grief as best she could in the hospital waiting room bathroom. She pulled on his t-shirt, and for one long silk moment, she was lost in the smell of him, of ocean and sun and sunscreen, and his skin. For one long moment, her head did not hurt, and Helen felt safe, at home, like she had everything she needed.
As he burned, she stood in the parking lot and watched the vapour from the chimney lift into the perfectly empty and bright blue sky. It should have been raining, she thought.
They gave her a brass urn, and she took it with her, switching the car to manual and driving to the beach where they said he died. She wanted to see it. She found the sleepy little town just as the sun sank below the ocean and saw the beach. She spent a long time sitting in the sand, feeling it cool quickly as evening swallowed the heat of the day. She watched the ocean and imagined him walking out of it, water dripping off his hands. She thought of Ash, how, as a fine powder or a man with 271 bones, she loved him the same. The ocean crashed against the shore over and over, black water breaking over and over. She could taste it on her lips, a slated brine in sweet air, the way she used to be able to taste him.
"No wonder I loved you." She whispered to herself softly.
She was returning to the car when she saw a scooter parked under the sway of a palm. A matte black monster made out of a multitude of parts. She rubbed the little leather tag between her fingers.
The motel clerk introduced herself as Iris. Her motel was small, a row of huts and a little wild garden of herbs outside, one of them growing mint and lemongrass and tea. There was a small altar, a few soft fruits bleeding sugar into a dish, burning incense. Iris told Helen she was sorry for her loss with a crisp formality that Helen heard almost with relief. Iris showed her to his cottage. She moved quickly, lightly, like a dragonfly peering out at Helen from behind large round glasses on a beaded chain. Her glance was fleeting.
"I thought it was him. But we waited. Didn't want to…well… he's paid up for several more days." her words were clipped off at the edges like flower stems. She hesitated near the door and turned away.
"I'll leave you to it. When you're ready, I'll have tea. Should you want it."
His room smelled like chlorophyll and a musty damp, and him. His clothes were folded on a shelf, some change and a few phone batteries and charging cables on a little table by the bed, more books, his shaving kit, a notebook she did not open, and a pen. The small scattering objects of his life, just enough to fill his duffel, were well worn. Out the window was a dense wall of green, huge palm leaves and birds of paradise, yellow Hibiscus and fragrant pink Plumeria.
Alone, she pressed her face against the pillows, smelling a strange soap, that same musty damp, and him. Her love. She closed her eyes and reached out, feeling him in the bed beside her.
It was a small relief when, teacup in hand, Iris did not seem bothered by her request to take up his room. She only gazed out at her from behind the glittering frames of her large glasses. The smoke and the steam from the tea made Helen sweat.
"You can stay as long as you like." She said, lighting a cigarette. The smoke was thick and curli in the humid air, pulled overhead by a slow-turning fan.
At dawn the next day, Helen swallowed her fear and drove the bike to the north shore of the island, back to where he died. She'd packed her hat and his book, unfinished. The constant wind and rain deformed almost all the trees on the island. They grew twisted and leaning, vines and growth reaching long for the ground, tying them to the earth. In daylight, she could see houses scattered through the trees, half lost behind the dense green walls of foliage. The heat was thick and watery, and she rode slowly through the sleepy village to the beach where her heart had been attacked by a shark.
There were already surfers there. Sitting in the sand, she watched them, bodies gliding along the waves, speed moving them smooth until momentum gave out, and they would lose the wave, falling back into the breaking spray. They would paddle back and the whole thing would start again. She sat there for a long time, watching them, mesmerised by the motion of the water. Her body and her grief felt small and far away.
Did he sit out here, board planted deep in the sand. Did he watch them the way she did, his book ignored. Heat gathered the sun moved, and Helen sat there, vacantly watching the scene. Her mind could not fasten onto any single thing. She could think or focus. The present vanished, and the future was impossible. The past tense slid like a knife through her palm. No tense had any connection with her. With them.
So she sat in the continually shifting present, her eyes mechanically tracing the monotonously repeating scene of waves crashing, the far-away chaos and variable of the surfers. Eventually, two shirtless, long-haired men walked out of the water, dripping later afternoon sparkles. One was covered in tattoos the same green as empty beer bottles, and the other had long black dreads full of beads and crystals that held the sunlight. Otherwise, they had the same kind of faces: young, healthy, and full of the outdoors.
"Hey, mama." One of them said, nodding questioningly in her direction. She realised that she must have looked strange to them. Older than them by a good ten years, wearing dark jeans and boots, pale and squinting the shade.
"You lookn' for someone?" "I knew someone who died here." She said, before she realised she was going to. "He was killed by a shark."
The men looked at each other.
"You mean John? He was a cool dude," The tattooed man said. "I'm so sorry."
"Yeah," Said the other one. "He was great, a great surfer."
"There are lots of turtles in the bay. The sharks come in looking for them. On a board, paddling out, you can look a bit like a turtle."
Helen tried not to flinch. She knew this, of course, but hearing it, hearing anything, was like a slap.
"Say, mama." The guy with the tattoos touched his jaw, ran a tattooed hand through his hair, and squinted in the sun. "You want his board? Damn, shark ripped it in two. Almost shredded it. But it washed up just after…it seemed wrong to leave it. So… I mean." He looked his friend, at her, and for a long time, nothing moved but the ocean. "I can bring it the next time we come out."
Helen nodded. She wanted to see it, to feel the edges left by shark's teeth.
"It's really too bad," The man with the dreads' voice was soft. He said it as though repeating it was a spell would seal some kind of truth or comfort. "He was a cool dude. Perfect human. Damn, good surfer."
"He was with us, remember the night before. There was a bonfire on the other side of the island. He laughed a lot."
Helen smiled and looked out towards the horizon, squinting in the sun. it was nice to think of him laughing.
Helen stayed in his cottage, assembling simple meals of mostly raw fruits and vegetables. It was too hot, and she was too full of grief to want anything more than that. One way or another, she knew she wasn't going home for a while. There was some fundamental part of her that she needed to put right first. She bought a few simple black linen dresses, a wide-brimmed hat, sunscreen, a pair of flat leather sandals. She sat on the beach for hours every day, watching the surfers reading his books. It rained a few times each day, violently. The sky fell to a ripped artificial twilight. She would take shelter at the small beach bar, a shack with an extended tin-roofed patio and a few scattered tables. She would drink instant coffee, canned carbon water and lime. Freezing cold bottles of beer. The rain would fall in hard slams, drops the size of teacups. Helen would sit under the tin roof, mist spraying on her, and watch the ocean.
Soon, the residents of the village know her by sight. She became known as the Japanese Widdow. Her lover was killed by a shark. She soon knew where to go for tea and noodles, where to find or order English or Japanese books, and where to go for shampoo and soap. Iris gave her a kimono to wear on the beach, and after a few weeks, she bought a blanket. Helen knew she was a hitchhiker in their lives and her own. A secondary character in the story of his death. None of it had anything to do with them, but still, she was tied to this place, at least for now.
She was standing on the beach, holding her hat against a gale of wind, squinting out onto the horizon. The ocean was steely blue, choppy. But there were no waves. Instead, it looked rough and flat for miles, as though the current was broken, stalled. She could smell the salt in the air on her skin. Helen's focus was so fixed on the horizon that she did not notice someone walking towards her until they were almost at her side.
"I was hoping I would see you again."
In the grey light, his tattoos looked darker, navy blue. Cobalt ink. Now that she was standing, she saw that he was a little shorter than her, broad across the shoulders.
"I have his board. It's in my car."
The world felt different again, altered. As though she'd spun around three times and clicked her heels together, her heart accelerated, and her hands went numb. It was almost as though he'd walked up and told her John's body was in the trunk. Side by side, they walked away from the beach towards the road, the sound of the ocean following them. Neither one of them spoke.
Helen remembered when he bought the board how tenderly he touched it the finish on the cedar was perfect. A cold water board, she knew and wondered why it mattered. She remembered him saying he liked feeling the water under the board. She remembered him sliding his hand over her hips.
The car was a beat-up up the gunmetal grey jeep, every non-essential element stripped away. Desperately, she tried to remember everything that happened over the last few days. But all she could remember was Ash and the ocean, eating fresh mangos and crying.
"Are you sure you want to see this?"
She wanted to. She felt like she needed to. He could not have lived without it, and she could not live without him. It was an unreasonable compulsion. She almost believed that she and the surfboard needed each other. Helen needed to see and touch everything he had seen and touched, to fill all the space between knowing and not knowing. She felt a kinship now with all abandoned things. Appliances, furniture, and art hanging on his walls. Books and a coffee maker, his bed sheets, forks and spoons. Where was his toothbrush, his razor? She wanted to carry these things with her always, like a bag of his bones.
"It's like closure?"
Helen looked at him, sharp. It was the first bright thing she thought she'd seen in days. In focus. The tattoos on his arms were of coils of ocean water, long flower stalks, coiling clouds, and a dragon.
"It's like he never existed. He left so little behind." Helen said. "I loved him. It was like shared insanity. A shared dream. This feel like my own death."
He nodded slowly as though he was really thinking about it.
"I don't think I have ever loved anyone like that."
Helen didn't know what to do with that. She couldn't see past herself. Her sadness filled all the space around her, leaving no room for anyone else. Ash's surfboard was lying across the back seat in pieces in a long black bag. The carrying bag draped open under it like a dress; it glowed with varnish, black and Ash under a thick liquid shine. It had weight even though its centre was splintered and jagged. It had a spell, a weapon. It obliterated the idea that destruction could be clean, even gleaming with polish and wax. The damage was severe. Helen almost buckled. It was like seeing his body, that same shredded end. John was gone, and the fact rendered her breathless over and over. Everything love set in motion, joy and sorrow and this massive cracking grief, seemed to have been ripped in half by the mistaken slash of fate. Helen was so left behind. So alone.
"If you want to keep it, I can drive it back for you." His voice was rough. Sandpaper. Thorns. She nodded.
Helen hardly said a word on the drive. The surfboard was silent in the back seat. The wind whipped her hair around. She leaned back in the jeep's wide, low seats and closed her eyes, leaning into the feeling of being watched. For a little while, with the lick of tropical wind, she let herself think it was John watching, some part of him, the blood he left on it, remembering her.
She took a trembling breath.
"He told me about you, you know?"
She opened her eyes and looked at him.
"That last night, he said he belonged to someone. He said you were the strongest person he'd ever known. I can see it, you know. What he saw in you."
"Thank you." She said, her voice carried away by the wind, and she closed her eyes again.
He helped her carry the pieces inside the cottage, resting them on the floor at the foot of the bed, end to end, as though piecing them back together. Outside, the neon vacancy sign flashed and hissed, filling the room with a flickering bright red glow. The sky plunged into the sudden darkness before the rain, the sky closing like a fist. Closer. Closer. He closed the space and kissed her. A deep, hard kiss, a feeling as fresh and sharp as her grief. Helen kissed him back, her teeth finding his lower lip, drawing him closer. Looking at the board, she thought she would cry, but it was too soon, and she was worried that once she started, she wouldn't be able to stop. Every. She will cry an ocean like some kind of Greek curse. She is afraid, so afraid. So she kisses him back, wrapping herself around him.
They fucked with a grinding intensity, a wildness that smashed her on all fours into the bed, his hands hauling hard on her hair. Her face pressed down. Hard. She could still smell him on the sheets. The sweat of his skin, and even though she knew it was sick, it was this that made her fuck back into him harder. Grief at that moment was smashing everything about her into little pieces as she came with an inhuman pleasure.
This is just what happened. She told herself.
How her world ended. How one life ended, and another began. It could have been anything, she realised later, stripping the sheets off the bed, her head split in pain from sobbing. She remembered his eyes, could taste him in her mouth like ocean water, smell him on her skin. The memory of him was muscular, involuntary, like breathing.