"The Golden Hour" by Rachel Davidson
Adhering to the destiny of her name, Stella felt content flying through the sky. She read a Murakami novel, turning bleached thin pages and sometimes pausing to look out the window. The plane coasted above cotton clouds through solid blue, and time may as well have stopped, like a suspended note in a song.
Only when she glimpsed outside again and saw land rather than sky did she realize that six hours had passed, and she would soon land in Honolulu. This journey marked several firsts for her: winning sweepstakes from her favorite coffee shop, visiting Hawaii, and traveling alone because her friends and family could not put off work and school to join her. She didn’t mind, though, because she did not want to indulge as she might be tempted to with company, by shopping in shiny department stores, eating in fancy restaurants, or reclining in the arms of a new lover. Instead, she planned to examine indigenous flowers and plants to supplement her botany grad school research.
After stepping off the plane into warm, fragrant air, she walked through the terminal, hailed a cab, and at long last, flopped on the bed in her beachside hotel. Napping through jet lag, she woke at 8 p.m. local time to find Kalakaua Avenue below her lanai still bustling. Thousands of people had flown across the Pacific to be here today. Aloha shirts wavering in the breeze were suffused with bright colors and facsimiles of flowers that, despite their cartoonish two-dimensionality, still inspired some tranquility in her nature-loving heart.
Suddenly, her stomach rumbled and she remembered that it was already past dinnertime in her previous West Coast time zone. She wasted no time walking to a beachside restaurant. It looked peaceful in the gourmet magazine strategically placed in her hotel room, but the music was a touch too loud, forcing her to raise her voice to communicate her order.
Having polished off her spring rolls and ahi sashimi, she sat at the edge of the deck nursing her unnaturally orange Mai Tai, watching the wind blowing over the tides. She felt a tap on her shoulder and turned to find a sunbleached Australian man. The lines on his face marked him as a touch older than her 25 years, though it could also be the time spent in the sun that aged him, judging by his streaked hair and burnt shoulders. What brings a pretty girl like you here by yourself, he said. She silently admired his chiseled jaw and recalled her friends’ suggestions to let her worries go here, but still cautiously answered, a botany research trip. You must be clever, huh, he replied. I suppose, so, yes. What’s your favorite flower? Hibiscus. Well, that one’s pretty popular here, you know, so you came to the right place. Do you know what people say about leis and Hawaii? I could make that come true for you. That’s disgusting, she said. She was thankful she had already paid for her meal, because she was easily able to stand up and exit the restaurant. He called after her, but she kept walking.
Still unsettled by the undesired turn in that conversation, she emerged from the hotel complex onto Kalakaua. Checking her phone screen in an attempt to clear her mind, a text appeared from the person she least wanted to hear from. Before leaving for Hawaii, she had asked her ex to stop hurling insults she didn’t deserve, but their reply was saturated with fresh vitriol. She stopped in the middle of the sidewalk, a rock in the stream, forcing other pedestrians to maneuver around her as her spirits sank deeper. But then her ears caught the rustle of palm leaves above, snapping her consciousness back to the present time and place. She decided that this was new soil, where she would only nourish healthy plants. So after a moment’s hesitation in which she lamented the deceased relationship, she blocked their number and social media accounts.
In an attempt to ward off lingering anxiety, she continued walking, but the unabating crowds streetside provided little calm. She felt for the sleep-deprived parents clutching maps and jittery children; the salespeople hawking Ugg Boots and timeshares late into the evening; the people bundled up with tents and shopping carts on the opposite side of the road where fewer dared to walk. This in mind, she bought an ice cream bar – both to practice self-care, and to support the struggling part-timer behind the Häagen-Dazs counter. Sitting on a rocky ledge by the ocean, chewing on chilly almond chocolate, she let her legs dangle freely. Just as her heart was attuned to these people searching for happiness on this crowded little island, so it was to the waves grasping for purchase, reaching higher and higher on the sandy shore. Staring into the darkening horizon, she lost track of time.
The next day, she woke up early to fetch her rental car from the lot down the street; a rather Spartan beige sedan, not part of the sweepstakes deal but rather her own initiative. She set off down Kalakaua in the direction of Diamond Head. Hotels and ABC convenience stores gave way to houses, more spacious and well-kept the farther east she drove. She passed through Hawaii Kai, then Waimanolo, Kailua and Kaneohe as she rounded the southeast corner of Oahu. Winding through the mountains, grander and greener than any in Honolulu, she wondered if intergalactic travel was within reach, for this landscape was so different from her native Pacific Northwest, so alien in its vibrancy that she couldn’t help but laugh.
An hour later, she arrived at the North Shore and passed through old town Haleiwa, surprised at the newly colorful and immaculate storefronts belying the area’s heritage. However, the Waimea Bay beach park nestled between hills had not yet been built up, so she chose to spend the afternoon there. She took note of the varieties of plants around her while walking along the edge between pavement and sand, feeling gritty scratches against her bare feet. Walking along the rock face, she looked out and admired the surfers. They may fall countless times, but they always rose again, in search of a way to marry the rhythmic tides with spontaneous flight.
On the way back down through the center of the island, she stopped at the Dole Plantation for a bowl of soft serve ice cream topped with pineapple chunks, which she savored while jotting down her report on the day. She intended to use her sightings for future research, but found her writing veering away from botanical details into free verse.
Triangle edges separate land and sky, and on the heights of these mountains, clouds make ripples of light and dark dappling across green. Coconuts bubble up from palm trees, like so much froth in the ocean. Cyclical waves, cyclical time.
Neon lights and dissatisfied youths may live on in overcrowded cities, but everything would return to its origin, one day. Knowing that, she could sit there – alone, with memories of past relationships and anxieties about life beyond grad school darkly occupying the recesses of her mind – and somehow still feel at peace.
As the sun descended, the red dirt surrounding the building became infused with soft orange and brown tones, and the edges of blooming pink bromeliads shone yellow-white. All was bright before her eyes, and she couldn’t help but think that this was the soul-cleansing beauty she had sought.