Short fiction by B. E. Brockway
When I heard his voice that morning my first thought was this might be the day that I lose her.
I was in the back of the shack with both hands curled around a cup of coffee, my feet propped up on an unopened box of board wax, just staring into space, not thinking about anything.
Certainly not thinking that today I could lose Lana.
“Is Mike Rivers around?”
The voice set off alarm bells in my head. Remember those old World War II movies where an insistent bell would ring on a ship being attacked? The all hands on deck, battle stations everyone, this is not a drill alarm?
I pulled my feet under me, stood up too quickly and spilled hot coffee on my hand. I set the cup down and wiped my hand on my shorts, then raked my fingers a couple of times through my hair, wishing I’d had it cut since Lana had pointed out last week it needed it.
I tried to take a calming breath, like they taught in yoga class, but my heart was racing too fast. I reconsidered. On the exhale I pulled back my shoulders a little, trying to make my chest look bigger. Maybe manly-man intimidation would work better than Zen in this case. I pulled off my t-shirt and chucked it on the chair. One perk of the job was flat abs.
I stepped out of the shadow toward the sunlight streaming in the front of the small, wooden building. I felt Noreen’s eyes on me as I went straight for the door. Leaning over the wooden counter stacked with colorful brochures was no way to impress a guy.
“Brent!” I barked, pasting on a smile and trying to sound enthusiastic. “They’ll let anybody in this place, won’t they?”
There he stood, couple inches taller than me, broad shouldered, thick haired, big, confident smile on his face. I quickly took in the expensive sunglasses and Tevas; over the past several years I had learned to size up tip potential.
“Mike! You’re a hard guy to find, you know that?” he replied, holding out his hand. I gripped it firmly and pumped it a couple of times. It felt weird to participate in my past-life greeting ritual; shakas were my method now.
“Dave Brock told me you were living the life here in paradise,” he continued.
“Kate with you?” I asked, ignoring the swipe at being hard to find. It wasn’t like Lana and I were on the run, just not exactly sending out bragging Christmas cards these days.
“Do you think Kate would let me come to Maui without her?” Brent said. “She’s got a big day planned by the pool. Me, I can’t sit still. I asked around the resort, managed to track you down.”
Out of the corner of my eye I saw Noreen tilt her head, knew she was wondering who the hell this haole was.
“How are you, man?” he said. “What’s it like to live out here?”
“It’s pretty sweet,” I replied, trying to sound more confident than I felt. Hitting the reset button on your life is generally only a good thing if it’s by choice.
“I bet Lana loves it here,” he said. “She always was crazy about the beach.”
Ah, Lana. Leave it to Brent Lowery to get right to the point. His whole point in looking me up, his whole point in life.
That laser focus had served him well, had helped him fight his way to the top of the whirlpool when the recession was dragging guys like me under.
His gaze was even, his eyes never broke from mine, but I wondered if his heart was beating faster, if he was resisting the urge to lick his lips, if he was picturing Lana in his head. All things I would be doing if the situation were reversed, if it was me asking after the love of my life after not seeing her for years.
“Yeah, man, I’d love to take a lesson from you, but my doctor told me no lateral stuff for a while after my ACL surgery last fall. I blew it out in the Raleigh Iron Man.
So much for the flat abs advantage.
“You’re crazy, Brent. You don’t need any lessons,” I said. “I teach dead beginners on baby waves. You’re way past that.”
“I’d love to see how these waves compare to the ones in Wilmington,’ he said.
“Well, the weather is more reliable, that’s for sure.” I surveyed the horizon. That blue on blue view always brought me peace.
“Waves are waves, man, you know that,” I continued. “Each one is different, each one is this same. It’s primal, goes back to the beginning of time.”
“Wow,” Brent said shaking his head. “I’d forgotten how granola you could be. I guess this place really brings that out in you.”
I kept my eyes on the water, took a discreet calming breath.
“Remember how much time we spent on the water in college?” he asked. “How did we ever manage to graduate?”
He rubbed his chin with the back of his hand. “Man, I’d give anything to be riding waves every day.”
I tried not to take it as an insult, most people would love to spend their days surfing in paradise. But they wouldn’t love trying to eke out a living shoving fat, clumsy tourists toward the beach while treading water.
“And Lana,” he said. “What does she do?”
I wish I could say she whiled away the hours lounging by the pool, like Kate, or chasing after a couple of sweet, tiny versions of us.
There was no way he wouldn’t run into her at some point, I couldn’t avoid telling him.
“You must’ve just missed her at the resort,” I answered. “She works the concierge desk. Books excursions, stuff like that.”
I also couldn’t avoid seeing the eager look in his eye, eager to lay eyes on her, maybe eager to win her back.
I could picture Lana in her billowy dress in the upscale lobby, tanned and smelling like the fresh flower holding back her long blond hair behind one perfect ear. An ear I knew Brent had nibbled on in the past. College was a lifetime ago, I told myself. He and Kate have kids for Christ-sakes, he’s not going to throw all that away.
“That’s great,” Brent said. “I’ll stop by to say hi, maybe I’ll book a snorkel trip or something.”
His phone beeped.
“I need to get this, Mike,” he said. “The four of us should get drunk together like the old days. I’ll set it up with Lana.”
He raised one hand in a lazy wave as he drifted away, phone to his ear.
“Who’s the shoebie?” Noreen asked, never taking her eyes off the stack of receipts she was adding up on the hand calculator.
“Someone I knew a million years ago,” I answered, trying to keep the panic out of my voice.
* * *
After eight hours of giving lessons, I was usually happy to trudge wearily home, happy to see Lana puttering around the kitchen.
We’d eat out on the lanai, then stroll about a quarter mile further up the mountain to where there was a view of the ocean over the hulk of the resort. We’d watch the sunset from on a huge fallen banyan tree, our improvised bench, her head resting on my shoulder.
Tonight I only felt dread. Knowing goal-driven Brent, he’d have made a beeline for Lana, charming her in the sunny lobby. I could picture him showing Lana his ACL scar. I wondered if seeing him would remind her of the path not taken. Of the big house, expensive vacations, kids, nannies, soccer games. I wondered if she’d long to gently trace that scar with her finger.
As I approached the house I could hear Lana’s tinkle of laughter. My stomach sank.
The three of them were sitting on the lanai, drinking wine. Kate looked polished in a crisp pink sundress with sandals that wound around her ankles.
“Mike!” Brent called out as he saw me approach. “What a place you’ve got here!”
I knew he meant the tropical surroundings, not the tiny bungalow we called home.
Kate rose from her chair and put her arms out for a hug. She still wore the same perfume.
“It is so great to see y’all,” she said as she held me. “I’m so glad Brent ran into you.”
Ran into. Stalked. Fine line.
Lana, smiling, said, “Mike wanted to go out for dinner, but I convinced him to come over instead.”
She looked serene and happy, her cheeks glowing. The light at this time of day always made me fall in love with her all over again. I wondered if it affected Brent in the same way.
“Everything’s ready to go, we were just waiting for you,” she said, as she headed inside.
“You’re lucky this guy didn’t stop off for happy hour someplace,” Mike joked. “Used to be he would never pass up a tropical drink special.”
I held the door for Lana and she breezed past me, she had changed into her favorite dress, the one that made her eyes look so blue.
“Poor, Mike,” Kate drawled. “Company demanding his attention after a long day of work. Don’t feel like you have to entertain us, feel free to decompress a little.”
“No, I’m fine,” I said, smiling at her.
Kate was always so considerate. I’m sure she was a good wife. She just wasn’t Lana.
“Decompress?” Brent asked loudly, laughing. “From what? He’s living the life!”
“It’s true,” I admitted, trying not to read anything further into his comment. “The walk home is a good way to wind down, too.”
“The two of you are so fit,” Kate said. “No need to go to a gym, just a healthy lifestyle, that’s so cool.”
“I’m going to see if Lana needs any help,” I said.
Kate’s chair scraped loudly on the stone patio floor.
“We’ll all help,” she said.
Lana had everything all prepped, bowls and stacked plates and silverware spread out on the countertop. She was sliding fish into the oven. She looked radiant, flushed with the excitement of having company. I shuddered a little.
Brent and Kate were grabbing dishes and chattering away, so I excused myself to go change. I did a two-minute rinse and pulled on some khaki shorts and a polo shirt.
The mirror didn’t reflect a confident surfer dude dressed up for an evening with old friends, however. Instead I saw a thirty-five year old man teetering on the edge of a volcano, swinging his arms, trying to stay balanced.
* * *
“This place really is paradise,” Brent announced, a little glassy-eyed, as we sat sipping wine after dinner. He had insisted on opening up another bottle.
“I mean,” drawled Kate, smiling.
The meal had been filled with talk of the resort, Brent and Kate’s life in Raleigh, their kids’ antics. I could tell they were pussyfooting around, trying to downplay the ease with which they glided through their days. That was almost worse than outright gloating.
I hadn’t seen my wife so animated in a long time. It made my heart hurt.
I kept a weather eye on Brent, thought of how, if the situation were reversed, I’d be trying to drink in the sight of a lost love like Lana.
“Mike!” Brent barked. “You should put in a fire pit. We just had one done at our place and we use it all the time.”
“Actually, we just rent here,” I said. “My boss Noreen is our landlord.”
There was an awkward silence. I thought of how excited Lana was when we bought our brand new McMansion in Raleigh. God, we were so young then. Young and hopeful.
“From our room you can see an island, do y’all know what it is?” Kate asked. Good old Kate, always trying to smooth things over.
“That’s Molokai,” Lana answered.
“You used to be able to see it from here,” Lana’s voice trailed off. “Before they built the resort.”
“It used to be a leper colony,” I added quickly, trying to push away an uncomfortable beat of silence.
“No way!” Kate exclaimed.
“Yeah,” said Lana. “They banished all the lepers there until, like, recently. Right, Mike?”
“I think it was pretty much only lepers until the late 1960’s,” I said.
“I guess there are worse places to get banished to,” Brent said, laughing. “If I was a leper, I don’t think I’d mind living out my days on a tropical isle.”
“And now?” Kate asked. “What’s it like now?”
“Some people say it’s the prettiest of all the islands,” Lana explained. “It’s not very populated. And it doesn’t get that many visitors.”
“Guess it never shed that leper image,” Brent said. “Maybe they need to do a marketing campaign.”
I cast a glance at Lana. I caught her looking at me in that way she had when she was trying to send me a signal, but I couldn’t for the life of me figure out about what.
“Why don’t we take a walk up the hill to see the sunset?” I suggested. I figured getting everyone to stand up and move around might give Lana a chance to pull me aside, to whisper what she wanted in my ear.
“That sounds great!” Brent and Kate said, almost in unison. They laughed and began to rise.
“Oh, I’m sure you guys don’t want to walk around in the dark with us,” Lana said. She glanced at me, the look flashing in her eyes.
“You should walk back to the resort and watch the sunset from the tiki bar,” she continued. “It’s a much better view, you’re right on the water there.”
I saw a look pass between Brent and Lana. I imagined them sharing the darkest of secrets.
“You guys should relish this alone time while you can,” said Lana. “Hawaii is so romantic.”
She flashed Brent a huge smile, the kind she turned on the tourists when she wanted to upsell them.
“You read my mind, Lana!” said Kate, a slightly drunk smile on her face. She grabbed Brent’s arm. “I’ve been dying to get this guy alone all day.”
“How could I say no to that?” remarked Brent, laughing. “I think that’s my cue to carry my beautiful wife off into the sunset.”
“Promise we’ll see each other again, y’all,” Kate said, laughing, shaking her husband’s arm. “Brent, make them promise.”
Brent looked quickly at Lana, then at me, where he held my gaze. He held his hands out palms-up, spreading his fingers. “Yeah, I’d love to talk to you about something, Mike,” he said. “Let’s all meet tomorrow for happy hour someplace. You probably know all the best local spots.”
“How about Mako’s?” Lana piped in. “Say, six o’clock?”
I shot her a glance. It would be packed with tourists from mid-afternoon on.
“C’mon, hula girl,” Brent said, as he bent his knees and presented his back to Kate.
She giggled and jumped on for a piggyback ride.
“Brent!” she squealed. “You’re going to blow out your knee again!”
He hooked his arms around her legs and started to pad through the yard toward the street.
“‘Bye guys,” he hollered. “See you tomorrow!”
“Woo-hoo,” called out Kate.
As soon as they were out of sight Lana grabbed my hand and pulled me toward the street. We headed wordlessly up the mountain; our sunset ritual walk. Instead of calming me, I felt like each step was bringing me closer to doom.
In a few minutes we were settled on our banyan tree, her head on my shoulder. I kept thinking about what Brent wanted to talk to me about, why Lana was shooting looks at me during dinner, wondered if they were related.
My eyes fell on Molokai, and I thought about the conversation at dinner. Were the lepers happy or were they miserable with their fate? Were they restless or content?
“Mike,” she said.
My jaw clenched. The weight of her head felt like an anvil, rather than the reassuring pressure I loved.
“Brent wants you to come work with him in Raleigh,” Lana said. “He told me at the resort today, asked me to prime you up for his offer.”
I tried to swallow, but couldn’t, my throat was so dry. I took a few shallow breaths.
“We could move back,” I said softly. “If that’s what you want.”
She lifted her head up to look directly into my eyes.
“How could you think I would want anything other than what you want?” she asked calmly. “And why would you want that life, when ours is so happy?”
She returned her head to its spot and I noticed how perfectly it fit there. How perfectly it felt there.
“Why do you think I told him to meet us at Mako’s tomorrow night?” she continued. “So we could blow him off more easily, say we missed him in the crowd. You know how persistent Brent can be.”
“‘Blow him off’?” I said. “Sounds like something you would’ve said back in college.”
She laughed self-consciously, like she did when we first dated, like she knew she shouldn’t be so catty.
“I kinda felt like I was back in college,” she giggled. “With Brent going on and on. And I can’t believe you would invite them up to our special place.”
“Wow, I’m glad you’re on my side,” I said, dramatically, and she laughed harder.
I meant it, though, like Lana would never grasp. I meant it from the rubbery bottom of my worn out flip-flops to the top of my sunburned scalp. I was thinking about all those nights I’d spent sitting on that fallen tree fretting about what I’d lost, when I should have been savoring being stranded in paradise with her.
E. Brockway has had short stories and essays published in The Maine Review, The Southern Tablet, Torrid Literature Journal, and elsewhere. She has received writing awards from WOW-Women On Writing, the Chattahoochee Valley Writers annual literary conference and the 700-member Atlanta Writers Club. She is currently working on her second novel, while seeking an agent for her first.