by Ellen Graham
When I was a child I always heard that someone could talk the ear off a pig. Can someone really truly talk the ear off a pig? I’m serious, has this been studied? Can the endless meaningless ceaseless sound of chatter chat chat actually cause the cartilage of a poor porcine ear to dissolve, melt, tear and finally drop off in sweet relief? I think I’m ready to lead this experiment, right here, right now on Flight 498 to Hawaii on Thanksgiving Eve.
It started on the airplane, as soon as they closed the doors and the perky voice on the intercom asked the “fly tents pare departure” and I settled down with my book and seven trashy magazines filled with helpful hints I need. Since my divorce I can’t seem to look right. My bangs have a mysterious life of their own, so short I look like Imogene Coca or Prince Valiant. And I have another stomach, newly sprouted above the old one and below my breasts, like an upside down camel, and I wonder where the third one might appear. When I pass myself in the mirror I see a dried apple face and round shoulders, a creature living in a tree in an evil forest.
I open a magazine that promises to flatten my belly in only three weeks (!) while offering all important tips for maintaining my eyebrows. I feel a sharp fingernail tapping my neck and turn around to find Theresa, dangling four little bottles of Jack Daniels.
“Come sit by me, the guy next to me said he’d move. We can get to know each other.” She yanks on my shirt. “C’mon.”
Since John left me I took a job processing insurance claims. I don’t need the money but I do need the comfort of sitting at the same desk every day, with the same pen and the same yellow stickie notes put on the side of the computer, convincing me I have things to do. “Pick up the dry cleaning” says one from August. “Call M.C.” says another from September, even though I don’t know anyone called MC or with the initials MC. “Buy tickets!”
Theresa sits in the cubicle next to me, surrounded by pictures of her husband and two sons and three Labradoodles, all blonde, all smiling.
“Oh, I just leave the family at home every Thanksgiving and go and visit my friend Madine in Maui. Madine is 75 but she is a trip—it seems like we are the same age, not thirty years apart. Are you sure you don’t wanna come with? It’s a free place to stay and everything.”
So here I am, putting Jack Daniels in my Coke and watching the lacquered flight attendant wink at Theresa.
“You will just love Maui, I went to a luau last time and we had poi and made palm fronds for our head and oh my god, the flowing lava drinks, they put them in great big mugs shaped like surfers do you know that poi tastes like paste and then they bring out the pig and oh my god the skin is just crackling and they give you great big pieces of it and they teach you the hula and I was sooo drunk…”
She pauses and I take a big breath, as if I have run out of air. My neck is sore from my head bobbing up and down in agreement, like a little chickadee at a feeder. There must be movie I can watch, something about Martin Sheen and a garbage truck? I paw at the seat back trying to find headphones.
“Oh no!” says Theresa. “Let’s talk instead.”
Two hours later she has finally fallen asleep; her long blue nails still clutching her tiny bottles, her mouth open as if ready to begin talking as soon as she wakes up. Her nails have a star on them. Someone is sitting in my former seat, leafing through my magazines, so I put my head back and stare at the ceiling of the dark cabin.
“C’mon sleepy head, we’re landing. Boy you sure are the quiet one; you’ve barely said a word.” Theresa is pulling her brown hair into a ponytail. She points at the lush sugar cane tilting against an impossibly blue sky. “Oh, I’ve just gotta get a picture of that!” She pulls out her camera and turns to me. “Smile! Oh, wait, put that chin down a little bit, there!” The flash blinds me and I see a blue ball every time I look out the window.
We land and Theresa starts trotting through the airport. “I’ve gotta get a lei, do you see one of those little stands? Here, you watch for our luggage and I’ll look for Madine to drive up.”
The air is lush and heavy and I am anxious to feel sun on my skin. It feels oddly sexual to have summer in the middle of November. I see two boys ride by in a cherry red Mustang and I am jealous of them.
“Here she is!” squeals Theresa and I see a tiny white car with a tiny white woman hunched over a tiny white steering wheel. “Madine, Madine!”
She opens her door and they hug while I stand to the side. Madine’s head appears over Theresa’s shoulder.
“Oh Madine, you remember, that’s Lauren. I told you she was coming.”
“Oh yeah” says Madine, “The divorced one.”
Madine drives off the road and on again, Theresa in the front seat and me sitting cross legged like a child in the back.
“Now when we get there, don’t track in sand.” Madine turns around and points her finger at me. “I mean it.”
Theresa and I walk the two blocks to the beach and lay out the thin towels Madine has given us. Theresa pulls the straps down off her bathing suit exposing the pale flesh of her sagging breasts. She has decided it’s time to talk and I am trapped like a rat.
“Oh, you should see the brunch the hotel puts on, there’s papaya and pineapple of course, and oh, these little breads with butter and jam, you can get some of those to take home with you and coffee of course, and your juices, oh and oranges and bananas and even pancakes and they make the eggs right in front of you in metal pans.”
For the first time since my divorce I am longing for John’s long stretches of indifferent silences.
I’m not even sure silence is what did us in. It was something in his exacting nature, knowing if I complained about too much milk in my latte he would say “well you know latte means milk.” I came to dread it, the katydid turn of the head, the way his tongue would flick slightly. “Laurencin was your nickname? But you know that’s the masculine form in Italian, what sort of nickname is that?”
Still, it feels like a foreign country being alone this late in life; a geography I am not happy to trek through. My rhythm is off.
Theresa is still talking and I find if I keep my focus in her general direction she can’t tell if I’m watching her or the water. I catch snippets of what she is saying: “Whales” “Krill” “Food chain” “Says here” and I watch the light of the waves and imagine myself in the water, bobbing farther and farther away.
In honor of Thanksgiving Madine has put on a wig that makes her look like an extra in Planet of the Apes. She is wearing big flowered shorts and her pukka shell necklace. She is eating a Powerbar. “I found this in your suitcase, I hope you don’t mind. I got hungry waiting for you girls to get ready.” She gnaws around the edges like an insect on public television.
I sit on the lanai and rub aloe on my thighs, sunburned and uncomfortably hot. Madine looks over her glasses at me and eyes me up and down.
“You should do something about that extra chin. Don’t you want another man?”
Theresa, in her third bikini of the day, hands me a video camera.
“I was saving this as a special surprise! Look! We can all say what we are thankful for and I’ll make a copy of it and we’ll have something to remember about each other and Thanksgiving and being here, being here in Maui but me first!”
She poses on the wicker chair, a movie star ready for fame.
“I’m thankful to be here and I’m thankful for Madine. And I’m so thankful I have a family and their love to go home to.” She dabs with drama at her eyes. “You’re next Lauren”
I sit on the edge of the chair and think.
“Middle age is just a big fuck you.”
That night I sleep in Madine’s room.
“Don’t be stupid, I like the couch. I fall asleep to CNN all the time. You take my room and Theresa can take the guest room.”
Her room is bare and everything in it is the color of bone. I get into her narrow bed and when I reach under her pillow I find her folded nightgown, square and aqua, and it touches me somehow. There are tiny lime geckos on the wall that run underneath the curtains when I make a sudden movement. I lie awake and amuse myself with this, conducting my own little band of reptiles. They pump up and down on their legs, little lizard pushups, establishing territory. I sleep finally, over the sound of men analyzing the world. I dream I am walking on the beach and those lizards are as big as alligators and they chase me down the beach and fling themselves on my back, thud, wrapping their fingers around my neck, and I run down the beach with them riding me, heads bent down to mine, big teeth gleaming in the moonlight.
When I wake up it is still dark outside and I can hear the dull pounding of the surf over Madine’s snoring. I pull my legs up to my chin and touch them, the skin scaly and unfamiliar. I remember like a dream what it was like to have hands other than my own traveling over my body. I get dressed and crawl out the window, my bare foot caressing the tail of a too-slow lizard. I walk to the water and sit in the cold sand, wondering how many miles away I can see. The feral cats are hunting, weaving in and out of the sand. I rub the sand between my palms, soft like sugar. A black cat, ears as big as a bat, pets himself on me, marking me.
The sun rises and joggers and scavengers arrive. I walk back in the apricot light, feeling stiff and old. The screen door has been left open and I walk in on Madine at the kitchen table with a snorkel on and her dentures out. She laughs, a frightening sound, like a crow sneezing. I feel the flash of the camera.
“Ha! Look at her face!” says Madine. Theresa comes in from the lanai.
“Got ya! We wanted to get a picture of your face when you saw Madine. Want some coffee? I put some Jack Daniels in the pot. How about a cigarette?”
I take them both. My hand looks thick and masculine and I worry that I am becoming genderless, caught for the rest of my life between too silent men and too noisy women. The whiskey is strong in my coffee, and makes a pleasant burn in my throat. I look at them. I am completely helpless.
“I need my own room. I mean like a motel.”
They look at me like they have forgotten who I am.
“Nightmares, you know. Insomnia.”
They continue to stare, silent at last.
“I’m afraid of the lizards.”
Madine weaves the car furiously to the motel, occasionally stopping for lights. I sit in the front with her, Theresa in the back painting her toenails silver. I wonder if my body has changed the chemistry in the air between them so they no longer make sense to each other.
“Remember our trip to Mexico?” Theresa asks. “Remember the appetizers?”
“Mexico? What about it?”
“The appetizers! Tell her about the appetizers!”
Madine turns to me. “What is she going on about?’
I look at Madine’s legs, her blue veins pushing up against her tan, her skin pooling at her ankles.
“I don’t know why you insist on a place of your own all of a sudden. It’ll cost you, you know”
We pull up to the Coral Reef Motel, its neon sign flashing The Bide-A-Wee of Ha-wai-ee. It is the color of mildew and half of the rooms are boarded over. I check in with the manager, Barbary (“Just like the coast!” he says) who hands me a key and insists upon cash. His hands are brown and soft and his face is as big as a dinner plate. He looks at my breasts when he talks to me.
“I like redheads”, he says, “We don’t get many haoles like you—you call me if you need something.”
He hands me a banana.
“You can pay for it later. We work on the honor system here in Hawaii.”
He runs his finger down my arm.
“Be careful. Don’t get burned.”
I sit on the bed with my suitcase and my honor banana. Newspaper covers one entire wall. In the middle is a big cartoon of a man skewered on a hypodermic needle under the headline “Drugs in Hawaii: Are Tourists Getting Away With Murder?” Next to it is the Maui police blotter: “Man attacked in yard with apple and brick. Assailant flees” and “Police on lookout for man claiming to be a woman.”
I close the curtains on the soft afternoon light of Maui and take out the Jack Daniels I have stolen from Theresa. I pick up the phone and dial the front desk.
“Barbary like the coast I need something.”
When Barbary leaves I can smell both of us on my hands. The underside of my arm has an island of pink welts and when I peel back the sheets I find a colony of insects who have taken over the bed. They are devouring the mattress, the first step in conquering this room, my space, the world. I lie on top of the sheets and wait. Lizards appear on the wall, softly at first, then bolder and finally they begin their pushups, claiming territory, making boundaries, and letting me know who this world belongs to.