Jason Daniels

 

Here in Paradise

Laura hung back, texting details of the noxiousness flight to Carrie, back home. Between texts, she carefully maintained the DMZ between her hand-holding mother and stepfather. They didn’t belong together; she hadn’t understood when it had happened, and now they had already been married a year the reality of their union continued to perplex. Her mother nodded and smiled at her stepfather’s banal chitchat, his voice whiny and effeminate. God.

Laura deftly switched her phone with compact and examined the tiny mirror. She had her mother’s hair, her eyebrows, the shape of her cheekbones, her complexion. She was younger and obviously prettier, hair unbroken by years of treatments, but they were bewilderingly the same. Her ex had joked that her mother was a preview of things to come. She hadn’t needed to see the leer to know the end of that relationship. She squinted at herself and previewed the wrinkles she would one day pay to temporarily eliminate. The same. What was different then? What had happened to her mother that had so warped her? The woman that Laura still carried in a childish locket would never have sunk so low. It wasn’t that this archive-mother was still married to her father, the bastard, it was something else, something mysterious. She reapplied her lipstick, savoring the bitter hint of something when she puckered. It was vaguely the taste of wax and dead roses.

On the plane, Laura had gotten the window seat she craved, but, as her mother needed quick access to the stewardess for drinks, she’d been maneuvered into the space next to her stepfather like a Miata encroached upon by an RV, his bulk pressing into her airspace, even over the cavernous distance of his necessary two plane tickets. He was a substantial man who, like a koi, expanded to fill whatever emptiness was available, oozing over such pitiful barriers as armrests. Already he was taking on the asymmetric shape of his McMansion. She feared she would come down with a horizontal variant of spine deformity from the hours spent leaning slightly right, away from the flesh of him. Even the smell had been enough to make her wince, like expensive cologne begun to rot.

Outside of baggage claim, she stood as far away from her mother and stepfather as she could reasonably manage; her lingering body refusing to let the automatic doors close. It didn’t matter that the trip had been her idea in the first place, she wanted to go home. The idea was to go with friends, anyway, not with tweedle dee and tweedle dumb. Sixteen was old enough for your own vacation.

“Isn’t this marvelous, Stephanie?” her stepfather said to her mother. He clutched at the cheap lei around his neck and grinned like a mental deficient. It was not. The colors were less vibrant than advertised, the air more humid. The first impression Hawaii gave was of an advertising malfeasance. The sun reflected by the dented hoods of waiting taxis, made even taking in the disappointment a difficult task. Her stepfather seemed oblivious, pricks of sweat all over his maniacal smile.

Laura’s mother ignored both of them as she milled around the swelter, raising her arms over her head in a theatrical sigh. “Ah,” she said, “paradise.” Laura took deep breaths, in through her mouth, out through her nose, as she had been taught. Advice from a well-meaning incompetent who thought malfeasance was merely an expression of powerlessness and negative thoughts. Breathing was power, choice, something to make the best of things. No good. San Francisco was at least as bright and lacked the humidity and floral print shirts. Her mother still had her arms above her head, letting them down only in an extravagant sweep to her sides. That woman engaged so frequently in such cliché that it was difficult to tell if she was impossibly insincere or living a life of cretin incredulity. Laura snapped a quick picture of her mother, quoted the exclamation and sent the text to Carrie, always quick with a ROFL.

A photographer materialized from the swirling masses of sweaty, overweight, over-brightly appareled tourists to corral the family together for a photograph. His camera was an obscene black mass of plastic, complete with phallic zoom lens and a studio sized flash. Hanging from his neck was a figure of Christ crucified, so detailed it seemed a celebration of ritual torture and death. Under the gaze of the suffering Lord, Laura found herself unable to shrug out of her mother’s insistent grip. Her stepfather made bunny ears behind her mother’s head. “Jesus, Bruce,” Laura said. “How old are you?”

“Say Aloha,” the photographer almost yelled, his voice a poor approximation of familial joy.

“Aloha,” Laura’s mother and stepfather said, grinning, indulgent children. Laura held her breath, willing herself not to sigh before the picture came, turning her head to the right—just so—striking the profile she hoped would come out right. Tummy in, chin up, eyes slightly slanted and downturned. Hold it. If she were going to be stuck in a sweltering hellhole with her parents, at least she could get some good pictures.

“Great,” said the photographer from behind the soul dazzlingly bright flash. The only thing visible in the aftermath of that luminary explosion was his dying Christ.

The photographer gave Laura’s stepfather a ticket stub with information on how to buy the photo, a benign transaction of “take this and call me” that came off like a drug deal. Before he walked away, though, Laura grabbed the photographer. “I need one of just me,” she said. When he looked over his shoulder, back at her stepfather, Laura snapped her fingers in his face. “Me, pay attention. I want something worth remembering.”

The photographer paused, processing the demand. He was in his late twenties, probably, with a thin goatee that wasn’t quite as pretentious as most facial hair. He was tall and narrow shouldered, giving off an air of desperation, but as he raised the camera, that changed; Laura didn’t know exactly how. Laura struck a pose for the camera, pouted her lips. Look at me.

“You should get a better location,” said the photographer, “maybe on the beach, maybe the moon behind you.”

“That’s no moon,” Laura quipped, “it’s my stepfather.” He was out of earshot, but she wanted revenge for being forced to watch Star Wars. A pathetic attempt at bonding. What tiny shreds of interest she’d had in the movie would never leave her lips. She rested her gaze on the photographer, something in his expression. “I don’t know why my mother is even attracted to him. Probably gravity.”

Before the photographer could reply, she gave a little shrug and walked away, fluidly removing her compact, rechecking her visage while she walked. She followed her mother and stepfather into the rows of cabs driven by portly Polynesian men in gaudy floral prints. Did they wear the shirts to put the tourists at ease, or did the climate simply affect everyone’s sense of taste entirely?

“Ah,” her stepfather said as he stood next to their driver, a man of similar girth and with the exact same flower puke shirt on. “Finally I’m among my people.” He and the driver laughed.

“God, shut up, Bruce,” Laura said. “You’re so embarrassing.”

***

The morning they were supposed to go on a tour of the Dole Planation, Laura instead lay out on the patio of their balcony and rubbed tanning oil, reeking approximating of coconuts, into her skin. Kids played in the pool a dozen stories below, their shrieks reflecting off of the water intermittently.

A perfunctory argument broke out when Laura announced she wouldn’t be going with them, but a combination of wheedling, whining and flat out refusing to be a part of anything with a history of slavery, she was off the hook. It was never resolved if any Hawaiian plantations had been a part of the ugly history of the slave trade, but Laura’s mother was happy enough to hear her daughter plead the case of a good, solid tan—the poor woman deluded enough to equate bronze skin with happiness. So Laura sat on the patio until they left, swathed in reams of floral prints so bright they were illegal in the continental forty-eight.

With the family safely gone, Laura spent her morning on the couch in her bathing suit, texting her friends and watching the new My Little Ponies. Ironically, she explained, and they too were doing the same. Ironically. During the commercials, she would examine herself in the floor length mirror on the side wall, experimenting with her hair, trying to find that one perfect look that would change everything. The look was reluctant, but getting there. She didn’t know what she needed to change completely, but she knew it was close, that the secret was almost hers. The day was already a rousing success, much better than the day before, with the mindless wandering of banal tourist traps and the pathetic athleticism of resort sponsored games—water Polo only works with a team of strong swimmers. Hawaii wasn’t so bad when you could do the things you liked doing at home anyway. The scent of overripe coconuts began to slowly work its way off her skin and into the furniture.

Laura’s morning reverie was interrupted by a knock on the door. She muted the television, adjusted her bikini top, prepared herself for some overweight hotel babysitter named Martha that her out of touch stepfather would have called up as an overprotective afterthought.

It was the photographer, Liam. He didn’t have his bulky camera with him, and the surprise of his eyes without a viewfinder was something that would linger. He’d come with the print of the family her mother had ordered. It was huge, making her stepfather even more of a science experiment gone awry; her mother looked like a once gorgeous actress clawing for one more shot. They wanted a snapshot of a happy family, but a parody would do as well. Laura looked good though if you could block out the other two.

“And where are the parental units?” Liam said, looking around the large room. His arched eyebrow was not sly, but it was not quite a punctuation mark.

She shrugged. “Some stupid tour. I can take the picture. Do I have to sign or something?”

“Oh,” Liam said, looking caught. “Your mom said I’m supposed to hang it.” There was something in his unease she enjoyed, like a performance veering off script.

“My mom says plenty of things,” Laura said. “I guess you can put it in their bedroom? I don’t want to see it; it’s hideous.” He had on a t-shirt that read, “Zombies only want you for your BRAAAAAINS,” and a pair of torn khaki cargos. He stood so straight it seemed he would tip forward and he had an unidentifiable expression that made him look younger than the day at the airport. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to imply, you know, your picture or anything.” She had barely moved, but her bathing suit must have shifted anyways; she needed to fix it, soon, but she didn’t dare.

“Don’t sweat it,” Liam said, edging into the room and closing the door behind him firmly. “Hocking photos of bleary-eyed tourists isn’t exactly my life’s work.”

He ignored her advice and began pacing the main living room, holding up the photo occasionally and tilting his head around to consider the placement. “Good show,” he said, beckoning to the television.

Laura threw her hands out in self-defense, dropped them into a sad, meaningless dangle. “Aren’t you a little old for ponies?” The easiest way out of a defensive situation is combativeness. It is coy; it is enigmatic.

“I don’t buy into that cynical crap that people are too old or too young or whatever.” He marked a spot on the wall with a pencil he pulled from one of his many pockets and set the photo down. He took long, assured strides to the door where he had dropped his tools.

Laura’s phone chirped with a new text from Carrie. Something about the show.

“What do you do then,” Laura asked, “when you aren’t getting snapshots of sweating invaders?” His back turned, she fiddled with her top, checked her hair in the mirror. That’ll do, pig.

“Art,” he said. “Same as everyone says. Here.” He handed her a small photo, the pose she had snagged him for. She’d never looked so crisp and sharp. Even though the background was an airport terminal with hundreds of blobby, out of focus tourists, she was singled out, absolutely. This was what it means to be the one.

“Do you want a glass of water?” Her voice came as a childish squeak. “You should. Even though Jesus was one hundred percent man and one hundred percent God, he was still seventy percent water.”

Liam gave her smile. “Sure,” he said. “You’re a funny girl. Very smart.”

Laura’s phone chirped again. She didn’t bother. It rang, her mother. “What?”

“Are you at the pool honey?”

The delighted squeals from the pool, far below, eased their way into Laura’s consciousness. “I’m in the room. The photo guy is hanging your picture.”

“Oh, how does it look?”

“It’s hideous. What do you want?”

“No need for the attitude.”

“What is it, mother?”

“I don’t remember anymore. I hope you put on some clothes, dear; you wouldn’t want to come off as a… I don’t know. ”

Laura ended the call, tossed the phone on the couch and avoided Liam’s look. She didn’t want to talk about her mother. “So what kind of art do you want to do?”

“Striking things,” he said. He had that look. What was it? Laura had a feeling of something missed, misunderstood, mistaken. “Okay, I’m done here, what do you think?”

“I think, art is about the moment.” She threads her arms behind her back and unlatches her bikini top, lets it fall to the floor. Seductively. Her locket glows on her sternum, warm. Burning. Outside, through the glass door, the children laugh and shriek.

Liam doesn’t say anything. Then, slowly, he bends over to pull out a small camera from a hidden cargo pocket. He has at least ten such pockets, probably one for everything she could imagine. She does not know how many he has for what things she cannot imagine. When he stands, his crucifixion necklace falls out over the zombie shirt. His face gets bigger around his small smile.

He strides toward her and takes a picture haphazardly. His pants swish as he walks, a sputtering fuse. He holds his camera in his left hand, askew, when he snaps the photo. The crucifixion bounces against his chest, thumpthump, thumpthump. What are the steps for the perfect photo again? She holds her breath in, her lungs burning with carbon dioxide. She isn’t doing it right; her face is on fire like the opposite of fierceness. Her arms are still threaded behind her back. They are tangled.

“No,” Liam says at last. “It is about giving in.” He pushes her back into the couch, his body a legion.

Before she can even hit the couch, she is watching herself in the mirror, her hair in disarray, his hand jammed under her bikini bottoms, the camera flashing.

“What are you doing?” Laura shrieks, but it comes out as a dull hollow of a question. He is not one of her boyfriends; he doesn’t have to stop when she tells him. Is that right? She dare not try. What had she expected to happen? Not this. Something else. What?

“Better,” Lim says, turning the camera so she can see. The image is a puzzle she recognizes the pieces to, but it doesn’t come together, she can’t fit them using her mind. Edge pieces first, perhaps, there is her hair, there is her shoulder, there is her breast. Liam opens her locket and smirks, lets it dangle.

“Better,” Laura parrots.

“I didn’t think you had it in you to make art,” he says and pulls her bikini away, snapping another picture. Laura’s phone chirps, she doesn’t look. What is her body doing? She watches the mirror to see. She shivers as her legs bend and lift under the force of his hands, the fabric of her last protection sliding away. “I thought you were just another cunt tourist like your mother.”

“I’m not,” Laura says with heavy, Novocain lips. “I’m not like her at all.” And Liam isn’t like Bruce. Is that an edge piece or one of the squiggles in the middle?

“Good, Lim says. “Come here; show me you know what art is.” His fingers behind her head, threaded through her hair are insistent, negating the point of his speech.

She doesn’t know what art is, though. She knows that it isn’t what is playing silently on the television, and it isn’t the landscapes and seashells on the resort wall, but she doesn’t know, she doesn’t know what it is. She floats where she is pulled while a hundred stories below her there are yells and shrieks, plaintive peals in the air. Head to the side, chin up? In the mirror, her hair isn’t any of the styles she practiced; it is something completely different, ‘a her,’ she wasn’t before, one she had never imagined, never wished for. In the hung picture, her eyes look down and to the side. She doesn’t know what art is and she is sure her mother doesn’t know either. This is no excuse, but what is?

***

After dinner, Laura goes to the resort pool and swims alone. The piercing chlorine drowns the world with its disinfectant purity. The pool is packed, so there are no laps, only the slow ambulation of a circular, swimming-like movement. She drifts around the eddies of small groups. She concentrates on deliberate, powerful movements, feeling the whorl around her body that pulls on her skin as nature fills the vacuums she creates. Breathe in, breathe out, stroke. Breathe in. In the dark of the night, the lights at the bottom of the pool make everything a super contrast of over bright and over dark, giving the swimmers a mysterious, secretive purpose. She closes her eyes and exhales her breath, all the way to the bottom, where the smooth concrete rubs the soft flesh of her heels, and the world above is a confused aquatic murmur.

Her mother is waiting for her when she goes to towel off, squinting in the erratic light at a mass market paperback, that makes reading a thing to be embarrassed of, while she sips a piña colada from the thatch-roofed pool bar. There is a small bundle of toothpicks and paper umbrellas, remnants of the decimated fruit garnishes, on the table beside her.

“You didn’t get too much sun, did you?” Her mother says, putting down the book, touching Laura’s shoulder with the back of her hand as if checking her temperature. The feeling is awkward, but something intense floods Laura as it happens for the briefest of moments. A shudder.

“I used plenty of sunblock.”

“That’s good. Too much sun will give you early wrinkles. You should use some lotion tonight. Sunblock only feels like it keeps your skin moist.

“Can you not use that word, mother? It’s disgusting.”

“You want to keep your looks, don’t you?”

Laura fiddles with her hair and tries to catch her reflection in the water. There is only a swirling mass of shapes and colors. “How else would I land such a catch as Bruce, right?”

“Be nice, dear.”

“Sorry, mom. I always forget how important it is to save the whales.”

Laura’s mom sighs and slurps at the remainder of her drink, stirring up the sickening smell of coconut that rises above the clean of chlorine. “He’s been nothing but kind to you; I don’t see why you have to be such a little bitch, sometimes.”

“I don’t understand why you married him. I don’t even know why you went on a first date. Don’t you have any pride? I don’t even understand what went wrong with you.”

“Yes,” Laura’s mom says, “well.” She sets the drink down on the white plastic table with a clatter of the discarded toothpicks. “There is a lot you don’t understand, dear. It’s best that way.”

“I know more that you can imagine.”

Laura’s mom sits up in her chair and rubs her palms together as if to wake herself up from a tedious lecture she’d been tuning out of. “Okay, sweetie, what do you know?”

“Nothing.”

“Please, do enlighten me with your wisdom.”

“Bruce hit on me.”

Laura’s mom stands up. “I’m not listening to this. You don’t like the man, we get it, I understand. Why would you make something like that up?”

“You’re right, sorry. It was nothing anyway.”

“Oh, so now it was nothing. How quick the cookie crumbles dear.”

“It was nothing,” Laura says. “I’m sorry. He probably didn’t even realize my bathing suit was loose. I’m sorry I said anything.”

“You really are a little whore, aren’t you? Anything for attention. I raised you better. I thought I did, at least. Goddamn it, Laura, you’ll fuck up anything if given half the chance.”

“I’ll even fuck it. I just didn’t learn to wait for the money yet.”

Maybe a slap is in order, but it doesn’t arrive. Laura’s mom simply walks away.

Laura watches the people in the pool, only a few of them now, as they splash around, joking and shoving and laughing until she is numb and cold. They carouse in the way of careless youth, oblivious to everything around them. Friendship is magic. She picks up her mother’s drink and sniffs at it. She struggles to contain the retch. She grabs her towel and shuffles her way to the elevator, waiting for it to make its way to the ground floor, each step closer marked by a morose chirp.

In the suite, she can hear the soothing sound of muted, angry voices from her mother’s bedroom; Peanuts, sans music. She’s willing to bet that Bruce will be on his way to the couch anytime now. Probably won’t fit. Maybe he’ll be done with them after all of this. Poor Bruce, he tried. She touches the locket around her neck, opens it so she can feel the click as she closes it again. Tomorrow, when she asks to go to the zoo, her mom won’t say that it is a childish request, even if she might sigh—she’ll look at Bruce, though, and at her daughter, and she will say, sure, sweetie, whatever you want. She’ll put her hand around her daughter’s shoulder and everything, for that moment, will be a little brighter until the hand comes down and the attitude back up. Not even. Bruce will be forgiven before then, no need to ruin this opportunity to romp around the tourist’s Garden of Eden, bacon at breakfast for the fat man’s apology. Her mother will blame her, she’s just a child, making poor decisions, not knowing what forces she contends with.

There are a dozen texts from Carrie, but Laura puts off responding. She climbs into bed and listens to the crinkling sound of the sheets in the silence of her bedroom as the fight between her mother and stepfather stops. Then, as faint as the tacky roughness of her bedsheets, she hears it: the children at the pool, playing their games, roughhousing, a girl among them screaming, her voice so faint and high-pitched that Laura couldn’t ever swear to its existence, but she knows that it is there, that it must be heard.

 

***

jason-daniels-square-pubJason Daniels received my MFA in fiction at the University of Houston, where he was an assistant fiction editor for Gulf Coast literary magazine, and he is currently a PhD student at the University of Utah, and a fiction editor for Quarterly West. His most recent writing has been published in Lunch Ticket, Rawboned, Words Apart, Far Enough East, Juked, Southwest Review and Printer’s Row, and his novel, Mount Fugue, was released in September with Kernpunkt Press.

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