Maui looked like it did in the screensavers on the desktop computer— saturated, verdant, accommodatingly paradisal. In Maui my mother could lounge by a glittering blue Pacific and not think about her teaching job, my new stepfather and I could fight against a tropical backdrop instead of inside a small carpeted living room. In Maui we could all turn our eyes from summer’s wildfires that were stretching along the California highway near home. Six years before my father had shot himself in his bedroom. We were in Maui so we wouldn’t have to think about that.
Twelve year olds do not need vacations. I don’t know what twelve year olds need but no twelve year old needs a week on a volcanic island. I was in Maui as an accomplice to my mother and stepfather’s vacationing, a witness to my mother’s attempt at placating her instinctual necessity to distract my brother and me from the reality of our father’s sudden death. Or maybe my mother was there to do nothing at all, and thought there to be no better place to finally mourn than at the Hilton Garden Inn Resort. It didn’t matter, we were there and the humidity was high and according to the concierge the hibiscus fronting the hotel had just bloomed that morning. But in actuality everything in Maui appeared as though it had just been born that morning— the smooth koi fish in the fountain, the banyan trees undulating in the heat. The days were long, edenic and balmy; and in the cool evening the moon flashed off of the waves.
We bought a shiny silver camera and took pictures on white sand, black sand, on wooden docks that were ashy with salt, in front of palm fronds and bright foliage. We visited the island’s largest KMart and bought hot dogs from the food court and left fingerprints on the metal chairs. A man cooked us fish on hot stones on the beach and after we put leis around our necks and tucked flowers behind our ears. I remember there being fire— from the grills, from the torches, from the palms of nearly naked men while women swung their hips. I did not think of my dead father while we did those things, as everything was captivatingly in front of me, alight. Alive.
I realized for the first time that I was beginning to forget my father while sitting across from my mother’s new husband, Mark, eating a hamburger with seared pineapple and staring at the blue wallpaper behind him that covered the walls of the restaurant inside the hotel. When Mark and I fought my mother wouldn’t say anything or she’d leave the room. Mark and I fought like she had fought with my father.
Mark joined the military when he was 18 because there was nothing else for him to do. He kept a framed photograph of John Wayne in our garage and liked to watch movies about wars or the West with the volume turned all the way up. He watched these while drinking Coronas and in between beers he chewed Nicorette gum. When it was warm he would move dirt around in the backyard and in the winter he would gamble at the casino and watch American Idol with my mother and they would sit together in the loveseat until they went to bed.
When Mark’s biological father died after my own we drove to East Los Angeles to empty his house of belongings, moving boxes from the shed in the backyard to the shag-carpeted living room, making patches of dirt appear on the yellow lawn as we walked back and forth from the front door to our pick up truck parked along the curb. His father’s house was the color of bleached bones and there was a small lemon tree in the backyard that my mother found endearing. The bed had already been stripped when we got there, where he had died. In his bedroom: a photograph of a woman, a solid-wood nightstand, a large mirror, an etching on the wall that Mark described as “Oriental,” a cherry-colored dresser, a pair of white sneakers. In his refridgerator Mark found a 6-pack of Coronas but he didn’t drink them. Mark was his father’s only son and like my father he had died alone in his bedroom. I wondered who had taken off the sheets.
At the funeral Mark did not cry but we were all sweating as it was exceptionally hot in the chapel. I remember someone telling me that you could fry an egg on the sidewalk in that heat. I wondered why someone would waste an egg like that. In the chapel parking lot I kept looking at Mark’s face but it didn’t tell me anything so I just looked down the street at the pastel colored buildings and at my mother’s black chiffon skirt. Los Angeles felt like it could catch fire right then and I wanted the boxes with the photographs of Mark’s father and the “Oriental” etching and his father’s clothes that took up most of the back seat to be ash too so that I wouldn’t have to think about them. On the drive home a wildfire closed the highway so we had to drive through Death Valley and I counted the Joshua trees until I fell asleep. It was 106 degrees. I didn’t realize it until later but Mark had buried the last of his parents.
When my step-father looked at me he was not satisfied and he was not proud. He threw my clothes into the backyard when I forgot them in the dryer, slammed his mug of black coffee against the table whenever I left a light on in the kitchen, when I left a bowl on the counter instead of in the kitchen sink. Mark had raised two kids previously and parented my brother and me the same. I know that you’re doing this just to challenge me, he would say, because I’ve raised kids before. But I never was. I was twelve.
We drove through the volcanic mountains one of the evenings in Maui, watching the sun acquiesce to the pull of the water. We had spent the day hiking up to a warm waterfall that fell into a clear fish-less lake and then lied on the rocks in the sun like pale lizards with our eyes closed. We drove a rented PT Cruiser through what felt like the same intersection on the way back to Wailea while the moon followed us. We were looking for a place to eat dinner while our eyes tried to grab hold of the restaurant signs along the highway. We did this in silence, still quiet from all of the sun, and the sound of the waterfall, and the deepening mauve of the dusk. The evening settled into the frame of the windshield and I began to get very hungry. We passed several restaurants but nobody could agree or the car was in the wrong lane. I suggested we stop at the McDonald’s up ahead. I wanted to relieve the ache in my side. My step-father’s response was much louder than usual: We didn’t take you all the way out here to eat at McDonald’s!
I didn’t say anything and my mother didn’t say anything and my brother didn’t say anything. The moon was covered by the palmtrees.
I remember thinking life is not fair. I thought this over and over. And wow! To think this, while vacationing in Maui!
While we drove through the night I thought about the bed with no sheets. I thought about the funeral in Los Angeles and my father’s funeral in New Mexico. Wearing black in the desert, wearing black in the pastel chapel. In the car with the moon behind the palms we could have all been wearing black, you could not tell. I tried to believe the hibiscus were still a hot pink even though it was dark and and my mother looked very tired from the back seat.
At around 9:30 we pulled up to an Outback Steakhouse.
We don’t have one of these at home, he said.
I tried to pin down what the vacation meant for us, why I could not stop thinking about the McDonald’s, years later. I tried to make sense of it as though if I could remember the precise words my step-father had said to me, I could find some part of myself to blame for it, some part of him to blame for it, to create some formula that could be applied to all future conversations in order to prevent any further estrangement. How could I have suggested such a restaurant? What did I not know?
We were there because that is what tired people do, they cannot bear to be in the house anymore and the Pacific looks so blue. Because the kitchen at home reminds us of something we don’t want to think about and in Maui we could look at the mini fridge in the hotel room and just see a mini fridge and there would be no Coronas waiting for us. In Maui we wouldn’t have to think.
One evening at dinner, several years after our vacation, my step-father: My mother drank, she would be out late. My father was out of the picture, living in LA. My step-father, he was mean… He was abusive. He died young while working, too, on the job. I was a teenager.
Mark grew up in the same town where we were living. This was the town where his stepfather died in a hospital and my own father died in his bedroom and where we hung his biological father’s etching in our living room. This was the town that burned them to ash. This was the place that caught them on fire. Life is not fair.
My mother did not take us on vacation as a distraction. No, it was a distraction from the distraction. Maui did not resemble home and because it was not home it was safe. There would be no wild cilantro growing through the grass to remind us of the house we’d just sold. The air would be different than the air in California, dense and humid like a transparent fog. It would not remind us of the summers we’d spent in the dry heat. Summers when Mark’s mother would drink. Summers when my father and I would fall asleep on the sofa in front of the box fan, or did I dream that? In Maui we were fugitives from the apparitions of home. Being there was burning a hole into the veil, a suspension of the mediation, showing everything else in clarity, in color. Instead of my father, my father, my father, it was blue, blue, blue, blue.