Nonfiction: Two Islands

Read More: A brief interview with Patrick Clement James

1. Steve drives the car.  A green Lincoln Continental. The interior is a pale, sandy color like the beach.  I sit next to him in the passenger seat, leaning back. The volcano rock passes by like an alien desert in deep space. The impassive black surface hums under the sun, and beyond that the Pacific Ocean glistens. In the rearview mirror I can see Nadja and Bianca in the backseat. Nadja looks out the window behind me, and Bianca stares straight ahead. She watches the road in front of us through the windshield, her eyes covered by sunglasses. We arrived in Kona almost two and a half weeks ago.  It feels longer. The stretch of the lava rock is like my time here: no beginning, no end—without limit or meaning. In Hawaii, time stops—a planet halted in orbit. An island floating in blue oblivion. No land in sight. Nothing for miles. Only sky and space—free falling. Steve is from Hawaii. The rest of us are from New York. We rely on him to drive. When his car broke down earlier in the week, his parents in Hilo lent him the Lincoln. He seemed embarrassed when he told us he had to drive his dad’s car. But I love riding in the Lincoln. It glides on the road like a ship; and the landscape sweeps by, separate from us, the rock and sand sealed off behind the glass.


2. It feels good to be set adrift, to be on this island with strangers. When I flew out to Kona from Phoenix, I sat next to a young family. They had two children, a baby and a little girl. I tried to sleep most of the way, but the girl kept squirming in her seat next to me. It was impossible to doze. I should have had more compassion: it’s a six-hour flight from Phoenix to Kona, and children aren’t patient. But it was hard to be nice to her. She kept leaning on my side, trying to see out the window.  I would have offered to switch with her, but her mom sat on the opposite side of the aisle, and I didn’t want to put myself between an antsy kid and her helicopter mom. I looked out the window.  The continuous blue. For miles, we sailed over an endless azure plane. I couldn’t tell the difference between the sea and the sky. And I knew I would have to return the same way I came. Each mile I traveled out meant another mile to return. The moan of the plane was bearing into my head, hurling me further away from home. My back felt stiff; I couldn’t wait to stand up and walk around in the clean air. I was waiting for Hawaii, waiting for the sea salt to wash me. The little girl arched her neck to look out the window. “Just blue,” I said. “There’s only blue, nothing else.” She smiled at me.  


3. Bianca is sleeping on the sand. A straw hat covers her face. She’s lying next to Nadja, both of them topless—their pale breasts open to the sky. They seem out of place, defenseless, set adrift in these elements of sand and sun. And I am Odysseus among the Sirens. But they barely notice me.  They toss me off as one of them—just one of the girls—I’m not dangerous. I like to have sex with men. I am welcomed into the sisterhood. Sweat runs down my back, between my shoulder blades. I take off my sunglasses and turn toward the water. I walk across the beach and reach the edge. The water rushes up around my ankles. Steve stands next to me, facing the sea, looking out toward the horizon. I follow his gaze. Ruffles of white crest the waves like sweet frosting. There is a boat gliding on the blue line. It moves in slow motion.

“They took off their tops,” he says.

“Look at Nadja,” I say.

“Nadja’s tits are huge,” he says.

We swim in the water, floating in the shallow part, calling out to one another as the fat waves swell under us, the water rushing in and out of our ears. Soon we hear splashing. We look up and watch Bianca and Nadja walking out into the water. Their hair cascades over their shoulders, the wind from the sea blowing it back. They dive into a wave, swimming and laughing, surrounding Steve and me. They circle us like sharks. I swim up next to Bianca. “Isn’t Nadja beautiful?” I ask her. We watch her body, shimmering, as she floats on the crest of a wave.

“Of course,” Bianca says.

“She’s a perfect sacrifice for Poseidon,” I say.

“Yeah,” Bianca laughs, “If only she were a virgin.”


4. In Hawai’i, there is no responsibility. Even though we’re here to perform in the music festival, we act like vagrants, hobos. Everything starts over in the morning. Every day is clean and clear. The relief is palpable. It’s like opening a bottle of beer, the gas hissing out and the bubbles rising to the surface. It started at the airport the morning I arrived in Kona, the morning I met Bianca and Nadja for the first time. We waited for our luggage at baggage claim, and I tried to make small talk, but Bianca was taciturn, running her fingers through her long black hair. I lifted my luggage off the carousel. The handle broke. “Oh shit,” Nadja said, and walked away. I pushed the suitcase on its rollers, trying to make sure it didn’t fall over until I reached the van. After we piled our bags in the back, the liaison explained our housing situation and outlined the schedule for the rehearsals and concerts. He talked incessantly as he drove down the empty road, laughing inappropriately. I looked out the window at the volcano rock passing by. It was black, and graffiti was written on it with white, chalky rocks. There were words like “John Loves Sandy,” and dates—“11/02/02.” Bianca looked out the other window, staring at the ocean. After we dropped our luggage off we decided to go to the beach. When we finally dove into the water, everything changed. The anxiety of travel slipped away. The light shone on the water like an overturned can of pennies. Orange and deep red on our faces, and the pale blue sky bled into a soft lilac color. We laughed like little children. Bianca and Nadja floated on their backs, gazing upward, their hair blooming around their faces.


5. The winter before I went to Hawaii, a student at my college killed herself by jumping off the dorm roof. I was sitting in the cafeteria with some friends when it happened, and right after the ambulance took the girl’s broken body away, my friend Ellen came over to tell us about it. Later, as I walked down Claremont Avenue, the street she had landed on minutes before, I saw a lone Jimmy Choo pump lying on the sidewalk. A group of girls had seen her fall, and they stood crying at the dorm’s entrance. A staff member tried to herd them into the building, but they wouldn’t budge. A week later we found out that the girl had lived for a short while in a coma, on life support, but she eventually died. That night, rumors circulated around campus. They said she was in love, heartbroken. Another story was that her parents had moved to New York from China so that she could have a career as a singer. They said her parents owed hundreds of thousands of dollars in medical bills. They didn’t have health insurance.  


6. In Hawaii, rainbows appear out of nowhere. They materialize like ubiquitous ghosts, like souls rising from the ground. It never seems to rain. Instead, a thin cloud floats by, all mist and vapor, and everything is wet and glistening. The sun shines on, undeterred, and rainbows streak the sky. Outside the recital hall, Nadja and I stand underneath a waving palm tree and stare at all the spectrums arching over the horizon. They catch us off guard, appearing unannounced and radiant.  


7. Once, I marched in the gay pride parade in New York. I was hung over, and my head ached.  Starting at 41st Street, we walked down 5th Avenue to Christopher Street, past the Stonewall Inn, handing out pamphlets and buttons. The crowds crammed along the sidewalk, taking what we offered. They cheered and screamed, saying things like “Marriage Equality!” and “Equal rights now!” The float in front of us blasted techno music, and musclemen danced in 2(x)ist underwear. The parade stopped and started, and when we finally got down to the village, I saw men sitting on the stoops of old townhouses, drinking beer from red solo cups. In the heat, they had taken off their shirts; their bodies were tan from Fire Island sun and swollen from hours at the gym. They were mythic creatures, men I had heard about in high school, men I had read about in trashy books.  A-gays.  Top shelf.  They were the kind of men that frequented the White Party, the Pier Dance, and—back in the old days—the Everard Baths. The kind that looked like porn stars. The kind that sent thousands of dollars to the HRC, if only to get invited to the gala and silent auction. They owned duplexes in the west village, million-dollar homes full of ancient vases and abstract art. They watched us. Quiet, serene faces. Sunglasses and beards. I reached out to one, offering him a button, but he refused it. The parade came to a halt, and we waited, sweating in the sun. I looked up and saw men dangling on fire escapes and leaning out windows. They were everywhere—watching, drinking, luxuriating in their beauty. One of them waved to me from a small balcony. I waved back. He was holding a large super soaker. “Are you hot?” he yelled. I nodded my head, and he pointed the gun and shot me with a long stream of water, soaking the front of my tee shirt.  


8. Nadja and I walk along the stone path. The trees wave in the breeze and the sun shines through the palms. We hold hands. On the steps of the dorm, I step up ahead of her and quickly turn to look down at her face. She smiles. I bring my hand to her ear, and around the back of her neck. I comb her hair with my fingers, letting the brown locks slip across my hand. I squeeze the back of her neck, and she smiles at me as if she knows what I’m going to do. I kiss her lightly—lips closed—chaste, soft, demure. It feels different than kissing a man.   […]

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Patrick Clement James studied classical music at the Manhattan School of music and received his M.F.A. in creative writing from the University of Houston. He is currently a Ph.D. student at the Graduate Center, City University of New York, and teaches in the English department at Brooklyn College. His poetry and essays have appeared in Gigantic Sequins, Assaracus, Grist, Barrow Street, The Cincinnati Review, and The Mid-American Review. He is also a contributing music critic for Parterre Box.

Read More: A brief interview with Patrick Clement James