There is an axis to this day, a point around which the rest revolves. And it is just outside the bar of the Ilikai Hotel. Being Honolulu, don’t think ‘bar’ in the sense of anything with walls. Having just come from the Hilton Hawaiian Village a block away, I can testify to this principle. Take the lobby. Nothing separates the carpet-and-tile Hilton interior from the sidewalk outside except an arbitrary point at which the ceiling begins and the sky stops. Protection from sun and rain, that’s what the vast area offers, a lobby as open as a carport. Every hotel I have ever witnessed in Hawaii is like this. And what has brought me here to this spot on the concrete bar-terrace of the Ilikai?
Never mind the mundanities, life’s long road has brought me here to witness the Japanese man at the front table of the virtual bar, that portion of concrete designated for drinks and food. He is my age, perhaps slightly older. I believe he is among the many tourists from Japan who flock here in the winter. He is seated on a disabled scooter, one withered leg slightly propped up on a cane. The man may or may not have some food on the adjoining table. His attention is on the book resting on the holder of his handlebars. In my mind, this is not a momentary snapshot, but a panorama of his trip. He is here enjoying the warm weather. He is alone. His days pass like this. Days on holiday. No job or retirement routine. Rising, sensing the tropical air, going outside with his book and maybe a word here or there to other tourists. On holiday, sunny and alone as Aschenbach. No Venice this. That’s what my wheelchair exploration around the neighborhood has confirmed. The disabled man on the scooter is old enough to be a polio survivor. I wonder how the disabled, persons who stick out, build lives in a society accustomed to ‘hammering down the nail that protrudes.’
I regret that I saw no way to interrupt the man’s reading, say hello, make an effort at being friendly. He seemed so self-contained. Still, I might have tried. I am sensitive to signals, used to being formal, even if I don’t know the Japanese cultural signals. I might have tried. For I have the great luxury of not having anything like the Japanese man’s apparent life. I do not holiday alone. Although in moments when I am alone, rejection, grief and loss can easily cloud my vision. Making me think one moment is forever. But it is not.
I have the great luxury of being here on a family visit. Extended family. But not overextended. Marlou’s parents, acknowledging that I can no longer handle their upstairs condominium on my own, and at 84 they cannot handle me as a house guest, have come here. Well, next door to here. The Prince Hotel. Which before I began wandering the surrounding blocks of Waikiki seemed a rather staid establishment. Now it is simply tasteful. Having gone out in search of a modest lunch, I am now ready to give up my quest and return to the bar of the Prince.
Nathan, Marlou’s nephew and Dick and Joan’s grandson, is visiting from Iowa. This morning the two of us swam in the hotel pool. The place was deserted. At that hour, the shadows of the Prince’s 30-story towers fall across the pool terrace. Sun lovers stay away, I suppose. That and the simple reality of this place, that it is a business hotel. The few people in lounge chairs are engrossed in laptops and yellow writing pads. Nathan and I enter the water.
Which isn’t easy. Something has changed in my musculoskeletal experience. I used to have no trouble grabbing a railing and stepping down gingerly into a swimming pool. No more. Being barefoot, the slow control necessary to remain stable…who knows? Now the whole thing is very difficult. Moreover, paddling around the water is different. My legs tend to spasm more, extending oddly. The one that works seems hard to bend. Still it is a freeing experience, anxieties aside. And when it is over, and I sit dripping on two Prince towels, I can feel something calmer, looser about my body. Nathan and I look at the adjoining hot tub. No way. The steps are too big. This has been enough.
Dick is in dialysis. Which happens every other day or so. Somehow kidney failure and congestive heart failure have become intertwined, making his life harder than ever. He weighs less than I do. And that’s where he is on this day, at some dialysis center getting a high-speed mechanical blood wash. Which keeps him alive but at some cost. This, I can see, is no substitute for what is normally a steady and slow background function of the body.
They are like parents to me, Dick and Joan. This surprises me. But our differences now seem minor. Dick complains about Hawaii‘s Democratic Party machine. And all I can see is his courage, his ability to bear loss and even his ability to grow. Nathan, who managed to miss his flight from Des Moines and forget his cell phone, would have greatly irritated an earlier Dick. But Dick has acquired patience. Moreover, he has acquired Joan.
‘Oh,’ she said, hearing of Nathan’s delayed arrival for this very short trip, ‘I once missed a flight from Tallahassee.’ She is the embodiment of the Good Mother. On the night of Nathan’s arrival, the two of us sit in the lobby of the Waikiki Prince watching taxi after taxi arrive without her grandson. Until, at 11 PM, 1 AM California time, I give up. For some reason, I had only slept for three troubled hours the previous night. Which makes my own participation in this vigil something of an achievement. My secret is that I am taking a cue from Joan. The message of the Good Mother? Yes, Nathan does not have his act together. But at one point or other, none of us do. I can remember being a very turbulent 23-year-old.
The next day, in the ultimate test of this newfound enlightenment, I even fulfill my promise to Dick. ‘Make sure Nathan dresses properly,’ he advised me. An impossible position, managing the attire of a young adult man, but Dick has enough to manage on his own. So, what the hell, Nathan doesn’t have much of anything to wear here. Somehow the blue jeans he packed had not quite made it from washer to dryer. So he packed them wet. And speaking as someone who washes the occasional pee stain out of his blue jeans before retiring and dons them slightly wet the next morning…well, enough calling the kettle black. The ultimate sacrifice? Well Dick and Joan are driving Nathan around Oahu on the first day, I actually drive my wheelchair up the street to the vast shopping center, all expensive name brands straight out of The New Yorker. Along with much of the clientele to which one must add the readership of the Asia Times. Not that I am paying any attention. Nathan’s slim waist proves hard to fit. There is nothing for it but to journey from one end of the mercantile hellhole to the other. The Gap. I fall into The Gap. And, yes, they have some shorts that fit him. And we are in business. He is dressed as much as any human being needs to be in Hawaii. And today I am a man.
For all its exhausting harmonics, Hawaiian music does have a point. It is the same point contained in the Hawaiian sunset, which is not a song or a movie but that thing now hanging outside my hotel window at 6 PM. Something about the tropics in the way the sun crashes into the water. Probably something about the volcanic haze blowing in from the eruption currently under way on the Big Island. And something about the people at their best, a strange gentleness.
I could sense it even on the plane’s descent, fierce green jungle, black lava cliffs, aqua blue sea tapering into some surprisingly wild point of land not 50 miles from Honolulu Airport. Polynesia. And in the last seconds of the journey, a rounded tropical lagoon, Pacific greenery crowding its lip, a familiar enough feature of the local topography. This one only distinguished by the presence of large gray ships at anchor. Pearl Harbor. What an improbable place to start a war. Trouble in paradise, lots of it. Dick says he has never forgiven the Japanese. And what do I know, having not lived through those days and not being empowered to forgive? As for the man in the disabled scooter reading his book on the lonely hotel terrace, he certainly could not have fought in the war. But he could, just possibly, have been wounded in it. Everything encourages us to forget about loss, certainly everything in Waikiki. Except for those of us who are immersed in it, enrolled in its courses, certain to never graduate.