MICHAEL WAS A man of routine. Before he even opened the door to his room, he’d located a laundry and had dumped almost the entire contents of his duffel bag into a coin-operated washer. After that we went up to his room, which was quite small, but functional, with two double beds, a dresser, and a closet-sized bathroom.
“Maybe I should go down to the lobby to give you some privacy,” I said as Michael unzipped a small case containing clean, non-sailing clothes and toiletries.
“No, no. Just kick back for a few minutes. I’ll be really fast,” Michael promised.
He wasn’t fast at all-and I could understand why, not having had a hot shower for a week. But after a while he came out with a towel wrapped around his waist, got some shaving supplies out of his duffel, and set himself up in a narrow galley space with a fluorescent light and a sink, just outside the bathroom.
I spent a pleasant minute looking at his hard chest, lightly furred with hair that had turned more silvery from the time at sea. Michael glanced back at me, in the mirror, and nicked his neck.
“You cut yourself, and it’s my fault because I distracted you.” I went closer to examine him.
“No, it’s just that I can barely keep my eyes open to see what I’m doing.”
“Let me do it then.” I rinsed the razor, and pressed a hot, wet facecloth to his neck and face, holding it there for a half-minute.
“This could be dangerous,” Michael said.
“It’s a bit tricky, when you have this much growth,” I said while lathering his face and neck with Barbasol. I shaved his neck first, and then seated myself on the edge of the vanity to be closer to his face. He closed his eyes, and they stayed closed as I finished and pressed a warm cloth across his face again.
“You’re an excellent barber,” Michael said, opening his eyes and turning to the mirror to survey the results. “I wish you could do this on a regular basis.”
“I’m afraid that’s not part of my job description.” I spoke lightly, thinking to myself about how I wished I didn’t work for him. How nice it would have been if I could have met Michael as just a guy in another office at the State Department or the Pentagon. If he’d never hired me, we could have done whatever we wanted, from the start.
“Rei,” Michael said, stroking the curve of my neck with his finger, mimicking what I’d done to him with the razor. “At sea there’s plenty of time just to stand and think. I’m starting to conclude that…well…perhaps we’ve been making things more complicated than necessary.”
“What do you mean?” There was so little space between us, with me up on the sink just a few inches from his chest. My fingers longed to press themselves against him, but I held off.
“You don’t work for me right now. Your current OCI contract closed out seven weeks ago.” Michael took a deep breath. “To make things even more above board, I’m on vacation for the next seven days. We’re not involved in company business at all.”
“Remember what the agency psychiatrist said.” I couldn’t look at him.
“It was such nonsense that I’ve put it all out of my head…”
“He pointed out that we have this problem because we’re defining ourselves by gender. If we were two guys, we wouldn’t be in this wretched position to begin with…”
“I like our position just the way it is,” Michael said, looking down at our bodies pressed up against each other. “And I’m so glad you’re not a guy. Come on, Rei, tell me what you really feel. Not what you think you should say.”
“I want more. I don’t know what exactly,” I said slowly. “The thing is, I made a personal pledge to myself to focus on my helping my father recover. I can’t trust you right now. You’re overcome by fatigue, and you’ve told me that your hormones go blotto when you’re tired.”
“Stop,” said Michael, and he pulled me against him, hard, so there was no more space, and then we were kissing each other, the kind of kiss that I’d wanted on the boat, but couldn’t have because of all the people. Michael kissed me again and again, tasting of lime and toothpaste, and I drowned in it, thinking that maybe things had changed after all.
Michael’s fingers traveled over my bare back, then slipped under the edges of my dress. As my own hands began moving over Michael’s bare chest, I felt something buzz between our hips.
Michael laughed, and I swore and reached into my dress pocket to haul out my small Nokia with my father’s telephone number staring up at me from the window.
“Hi, Otoosan,” I said, but in fact it was Uncle Hiroshi. “You?” I answered, so startled that I spoke in English. “Did something happen to Otoosan?”
“No, he’s fine, and watching the news. Tell me, are you driving home now?”
“Not just yet,” I said, feeling Michael lift himself away from me. He went to the duffel bag with clean clothes and began sorting through it.
“The fire that started yesterday has spread across the mountains,” Uncle Hiroshi continued. Edwin and his family came to us early because they heard the Farrington Highway is going to be closed in one hour. You must return home now.”
“I’m in Waikiki, but of course I’ll start driving. See you soon.” I glanced at my watch. It was four-fifteen, which meant rush hour had already started, plus there would be even more cars traveling, because of the imminent road closure.
I clicked the phone off, and looked at Michael, who had gotten his jeans on, somehow, without my seeing anything.
“You have a pressing appointment, it seems.”
“My uncle called to tell me there’s a big fire on the Leeward Side, and the highway I’ll take home will shut down in an hour.”
“What? You mean you’re going to try to race a fire in rush hour?” Michael shook his head. “Just stay with me till it’s over. I’ll make it worth your while, I promise.”
“No, you don’t understand,” I said. “I’m supposed to serve dinner to nine people tonight. I promised them I could manage dinner, even if I came out to meet you.”
Michael shook his head. “That’s a crazy thing to worry about, in the current situation. Aren’t they concerned for your safety?”
“Michael, I think the road’s still OK.”
Michael gave me a long look, then said, “Let’s see if we stand a chance.” He flipped channels on the television until we reached a local news channel covering the fire live. A map flashed on the screen, showing exactly where the road closure was scheduled.
“A few miles past our resort,” I said, tracing the screen with my finger. “If we leave now-I mean, if I leave now-I’ll definitely make it.”
“Of course we’ll go together,” Michael said.
“But we should go now-like, within two minutes.”
Now I remembered, when I’d swum with my father in the morning, there had been a column of smoke in the mountain range behind the pool. It had been so far away, and there had been no visible flames, so that I hadn’t thought much about it, except that it was another one of the small mountain fires I’d be reading about in the newspaper. And now that fire had spread.
Michael offered to drive, but I refused; he wasn’t on the car-rental policy, and he was sleep-deprived. He acquiesced, staying awake only to help me find the Piikoi Street entrance to H-1 West. Because of my companion, I could use the HOV lane, where I pushed the van to seventy-five. There were solo drivers in the HOV lane tonight and, luckily for them, no motorcycle police to catch them. The expressions on the faces of the drivers of the battered trucks and vans surging westward were tense, as if everyone was thinking the same thing: get me home, before the road closes.
The miles ticked by, and in about thirty minutes I’d reached the place where the lychee truck usually stood. The sky had turned from blue to a brownish-gray, and it smelled as if I was on the verge on a bonfire. The fire was finally visible to me, a long jagged line twisting through the mountains, and down to the Pierce fields. Firefighters with tense, dirty faces trudged the land lugging hoses; their trucks were parked every fifty yards or so along the H-1 shoulder.
Michael coughed himself awake. “Why did you let me fall asleep?”
“You needed it,” I said. “And your being awake won’t help anything. I know the way, and we’re really close now.”
“The air in here is…”Michael coughed.
“A lot like a mesquite barbecue. I already took care of that,” I said as he reached for the dashboard’s air-recycle button.
He drew back his hand, then placed it over my right, which had the steering wheel in a sweaty death grip. “Hey, I recognize his place. I once swam at a beach around the bend- Oh, Christ.”
“What do you see?” I asked anxiously.
“It’s nothing, just that there’s a high-voltage power plant just across the street.”
“They wouldn’t let us through if the fire was too close,” I said. I slowed, because the traffic ahead of me had slowed mightily, and eventually we were side by side with the power plant, though I could barely make it out because of the smoke and many fire engines surrounding it. The old plantation village and Kainoa’s coffee shop were pretty close. I wondered if they had survived.
A mile past the plant, it became very difficult to see anything except for the crisp line of flames on my right. Smoke billowed across the road, traffic slowed to five miles an hour, and a line of smoke rose from the earth to my left. I looked again, and saw what I’d feared-there was fire on both sides of the road. We and the other cars were traveling on the firebreak itself. It was hard to feel calm and collected, driving a few feet from a fire in a minivan containing almost twenty gallons of gas. And even if the worst happened, and we had a chance to jump out of the van, there would be nowhere we could breathe. You could run from fire, but not from the smoke.
“Flames on both side of the road now,” I said to Michael in a low voice.
“I guess the fire must have traveled through tree root systems to the other side.” Michael powered down his window and called out to the firemen, ‘How far ahead is the closing?”
Someone shouted something back, and Michael rolled up the window again. “I could barely understand him, but I think he just said try to go through.”
“Try? What kind of advice is that, to drive through a fire?”
“They wouldn’t leave it open if we couldn’t make it,” Michael said.
“This is a hell of a first date.”
“Let’s not count tonight. We’ll start fresh tomorrow-that is, if we live until tomorrow,” Michael added grimly.
During the time we’d been talking, the smoke had become lighter. I could see clearly again, and while there was fire on the right side of the road, it seemed to be spreading right back up the mountain. Had the wind changed?
“You did it!” Michael said as Kainani’s hibiscus hedge appeared. As I took the Kainani exit, a short bridge over the highway into the resort, my heart rate slowed to normal. There was no fire here on the emerald green lawns, where the in-ground sprinklers were going full-blast. The guard booths had been abandoned, and the gate was up, so we went straight through.
“Look!” Michael pointed at the golf course, where five lean golden animals streaked swiftly across the green. They looked like wild dogs, and I guessed they were a family because there was a range of sizes.
I slowed at the turn so the dogs could get across the street bisecting the golf course. I imagined they’d left their mountain home in desperation, but what would there be for them here? I kept my foot on the brake until the dogs had passed, then drove the remaining block to the Pineapple Plantation gate, where I stopped again. We’d made it.
After a half-minute, Michael asked, ‘Do you need to call the house to get someone to buzz you through?
I shook my head. “My keychain has a microchip that activates the gate, but I’d rather not hurry through.”
I turned to him, and took both of his hands in mine. “Michael, I’m not sure I should have brought you. I didn’t prep you about what might happen. I don’t know if you can endure it.”
“Come off it!” Michael laughed lightly. “What could be so terrible after all we’ve just passed through?”
I took a deep breath and said simply, ‘My family.”