I always know when I’m being watched, it’s one of the first things I learned growing up like I did. So when I heard the leaves rustle behind me and felt the air shift with someone else’s breath, I kept my head down and went on with my work. It was noon, already hot, the way it gets in Kaua’i when the trade winds drop, and I had almost finished the lily pond I was building for Les. I had cleared the bamboo and dredged the stream and had just begun the pretty part, lining it with coral. Whistling, I reached for the heaviest chunk I could find and wheeled around, ready to throw.
But there was no need. My stalker was old, starved, all bones and bristle, with eyes so white they had to be blind. Her back legs were stunted; the top of her head was flat; she might have been part wolf or hyena. Some of the millionaires and rock stars on the island keep illegal pets—tigers, apes, panthers, even snakes—and then they neglect them. This animal was probably an escapee, like me. I reached in my pocket for a piece of banana bread and crouched to offer it to her, but just then Simon began screaming from the guest house and his girlfriend Sonia started to giggle, like she does, as if she likes it, and the dog, or whatever it was, backed into the jungle and disappeared. I didn’t blame her.
“Hey sweetheart!” Simon—flushed face, fat breasts spilling over the waistband of his boxers—stood on the balcony and bellowed down at me.“Have you forgotten that even sex fiends need to eat? Where’s lunch?”
I wiped my hands on my shorts, put my tools away, and went up to the house, stopping at the garden first to pick some lettuce and sweet corn. I took a deep breath of the plants, inhaling the peppery basil and banana tree scents to steady myself. Simon and Sonia had been with us a week too long. Les didn’t pay attention to their fights—he was either down at the building site or at his computer, but I’d been having a hard time ever since they arrived. I had to be polite, because Simon was backing Les on the Center, so I cooked and made their drinks and did their laundry—blood on the sheets where he hit her or she bit him, who could tell—but I didn’t like to be around them. I grew up with drunks and they are not my favorite people.
Les came up from the site when Simon blew the conch shell and Sonia wandered down in her black bikini bottom and a Spanish shawl and we all sat outside by the waterfall, trying to ignore the helicopters flying overhead. Simon made fun of Les’s steamed rice and green salad, but Les didn’t care, he just laughed and pulled me onto his lap. Les had lost fifteen pounds since I’d started cooking for him; his cholesterol had dropped and his blood pressure was almost normal again. Even Simon had to admit he looked good.
“Nothing like a personal trainer,” Les said, patting my thigh, something he’d never do if Simon wasn’t watching. I wiggled off his lap as soon as I could and pretended to study my Japanese lesson while Sonia sunned herself and Les and Simon talked about people they’d known and the deals they’d put together in the past. After a while I put my book down and listened. I loved those old stories. Before I knew him, when he was young, Les had traveled all over the world. He’d lived with Tibetan monks, studied acupuncture in China, worked with a shaman in Peru. He and Simon had run a holistic health institute in Los Angeles and had held a sexual awakening seminar in Arizona. I was wondering what kind of “awakening” Simon could inspire when he saw my smile, stopped talking, and said, “Are you sure she’s not CIA?”
Les laughed and looked at me. “Don’t worry, I think the worst thing she’s ever been is a Baptist.” His voice dropped and his smile was so deep and private I began to blush. “She’s a good girl.”
“She is?” Simon raised his dark glasses to wink at me and I saw the new scratches on his face. “We’ll have to do something about that.”
After lunch Les and Simon went out to look at some property on the other side of the island in the jeep. Sonia was my job; I was supposed to take her to the beach, if she wanted, or shopping, if she wanted, or just leave her alone. “What would you like to do?” I asked.
She was sipping tequila and painting her nails.
“I’m happy,” she lied.
She should have been. Sonia was about thirty and gorgeous. Dark eyes, dark hair. But she didn’t take care of herself. She was overweight, with bruises everywhere. She had a tattoo of a dragon coiled around her navel and her skin smelled smoky and unclean. She hardly ever talked, and when she did, she was hard to hear, partly because of her accent, which was Brazilian, and partly because she was always stoned.
I picked up the bottle of dark red polish. My hands were pretty beat up, but I had nice feet. “Do you mind?” I gestured toward my toenails.
Sonia shrugged and sipped her tequila. There was a new purple hickey on her throat. I thought of Simon’s brown rabbit teeth and felt sick. “Can I ask you
Everyone asked that, I guess because of the age difference, and I never answered, because what was the point. But for some reason I wanted to tell Sonia the truth. I flushed again, remembering Les’s warm eyes and the way his lips always tipped up when he smiled at me. I thought of his hard Buddha belly and the way his hair curled like baby goat horns all over his big brainy head. I thought of the home he had offered me here, the first home I had ever felt safe in. “I love him,” I said.
Sonia lay back and fingered the fangs on her dragon as if they were real. After a while, she said, “And how did you meet him?”
Again I wanted to either say nothing, or, better, lie and tell her it had been romantic, that I’d saved Les from a shark attack or that he had waltzed me across a moonlit balcony, but, once more, I told the truth. Not the whole truth. Sonia didn’t need to know that I had come to the islands with a church group. “I answered an ad. He needed a housekeeper.”
She touched her full bottom lip with her finger while I studied my feet, which looked ridiculous. I opened the polish remover and took all the red off. “I’m going to the market,” I said. “You can come if you like.”
She didn’t answer, but by the time I walked out toward the car she was dressed and waiting. She slipped into the front seat and tied a scarf around her head. With her sunglasses and big red lips she looked like a cartoon of glamour, and for once I was glad to be myself, thin and freckled as I am.
We climbed up the canyon, past all the gated plantations. Escaped pet parrots and macaws shrilled from the palm trees, and black and golden roosters foraged through the tall grass at the highway’s edge. To make conversation, I told Sonia about the strange dog I’d seen that morning, but she wasn’t interested. “It might have been a ghost,” I said. She leaned her head back, eyes closed, bored. But I was excited. I remembered the dog’s white eyes and way it had disappeared back into the jungle like smoke. “I’ve seen a lot of ghosts,” I went on. “Once my mother told me the foster home was on fire and because of that I was able to get the other kids out in time, and one night I talked to a boy at a shelter who had hung himself. Of course, I’ve never seen an animal ghost before, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. I mean, if there’s one thing Les has taught me, it’s to trust what I see.”
“Les taught you that?” she drawled, lifting her head.
“Well, yes. You know. Visualization. It’s part of the philosophy of the Center.”
Sonia smiled, lush and lazy, and I pulled into the market at Princeville. She had no cash, of course, so I bought her cigarettes and more tequila, but when she wasn’t looking, I slipped the gallon of ice cream back in the freezer and replaced the huge tin of salted macadamia nuts that she and Simon chewed like monkeys with a bag of organic almonds. She looked at magazines while I paid and said not a word on the drive back. Since she clearly didn’t care, I decided to do something I’d been wanting to do anyway, so instead of heading straight home, I turned up toward the Japanese graveyard at the top of the hill, pulled over, and stopped.
I admire the Japanese. Their gardens are the best in the world, and even though this little graveyard hadn’t been tended in years, there were orange amaryllis and flame trees everywhere and the moss and maple plantings were stunning. Some of the mounds actually had bonsai on them. Sonia stayed in the car, head against the seat as I got out and sketched the headstones. Pitted, porous, cocoa-colored and specked with lichen—they were exactly what I wanted lining the path to the lily pond. I tried to read the inscriptions, but my Japanese wasn’t good enough yet and most of the characters had been worn away by weather. One polished plaque in English said “Iku Shimoda, Beloved Young Auntie” and that made me sad, for Iku Shimoda had been buried in a plot beside a married couple, and I imagined she’d worked hard and never had anything of her own.
Before returning to the car, I stopped to take in the view—green valley, misty fluted mountains—it was the perfect place for The Center—or would be, as soon as Les got Simon’s signature on the loan.
Les wanted to take us all out that night, but Simon and Sonia had to have their drinks first and then their coke and then their pot, and by the time we got to town the restaurants had closed, and it took Les going into Poliahu’s and talking to the owner to get us served. Simon was really loud by then and even Sonia had started to talk, or sing,rather, some flitty little bossa nova tune that she thought was cute and kept humming under her breath. She insisted on karaoke and got up on the deserted stage and sang, “I Touch Myself,” her eyes on Les the whole time. On the way home she leaned over the back seat and tugged at Les’s earring with her teeth. Les gasped when she bit and I swung around to slap her, but Les caught my hand. When I touched his ear there was blood on it. I was upset, but there was nothing I could do.
Sonia listened with a half-smile while Les told her all this, then she got up and started to dance. Simon was slumped in a hammock by then, but I could see Les watching her. His lips were curved up and his eyes had that focused look that meant he was thinking, hard.
I didn’t like it.
Les and I had never fought and we did not fight that night. We lay in bed like we always did, with our arms around each other. “How much longer are they going to be here?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” he said. “There aren’t any signatures yet. It’s complicated.”
He sounded sad. I rolled toward him and kissed his worry spot—he had this triangular wrinkly pouch between his eyes—and then I kissed all over his neck and shoulders, then slowly kissed low, lower, the way he liked, but he pulled my face up and rolled away. After he dropped off, I tried to focus on my breathing but I couldn’t get centered. I tried to think about the lily pond, the way it would look when it was finished, and how pleased Les would be, sitting out there with his students, and me, in the mornings.
I heard a noise outside the window and sat up. When I slipped out to the veranda I saw the ghost dog below, her eyes like pearls in the moonlight. I tiptoed down the stairs to find some food to set out but who was in the kitchen but Simon, standing in his swim shorts, rummaging through the freezer, looking for his stupid ice cream.
“I forgot to buy it,” I said.
“It wasn’t your responsibility. It was Sonia’s. I asked her specifically to do this one thing for me.”
“Guess she forgot.”
“I’ll have to settle for this crap.” He tore open the bag of almonds. I shrugged and sat down at the table.
“I can’t sleep,” I said. “What’s good for when you can’t sleep?”
“Ice cream, sweetheart. Why do you think I want it?” He slumped down beside me, fat thighs so close I had to force myself not to move back.
“Les is the amazing one,” I chattered. “He can sleep no matter what. Even when he’s worried. And I know he’s worried.” I paused and looked up at Simon as steadily as I dared. “He doesn’t think you’re going to go in with him on The Center.”
Simon ran his hand through his thin red hair. He and Les had met in Mexico thirty-five years ago. I’d always wanted to ask him about Les’s other women, the three ex-wives and all the girlfriends who came before me, but there was something about Simon that told me he never knew any of those women well enough to tell me anything I’d want to know. Or maybe I was just afraid of what he’d say. “It’s not up to me. It’s Sonia.”
“What does she have to do with it?”
“Have you never heard of a cash cow?”
I blinked. Sonia was the one with the money?
“Sonia,” Simon said, “is not very spiritual, as you may have noticed. She is not into meditation or whatever fucking scam Les plans to run here.”
“It’s not a scam,” I flared, “it’s a sacred and very ancient Chakra technique . . . ” but Simon shushed me.
“Blah, blah,” Simon said. “Let’s face it, sweetheart. Les has had a lot of irons in a lot of fires over the years. He’s had enough fake business cards to build a paper shithouse.”
I was silent. I knew Les had tried a lot of different avenues. But they had all been leading here. To The Center. To us.
“Sonia,” Simon said, “believes in the life of the body. She likes pleasure. She also likes pain. You know?”
“Yeah. Everyone on the island knows. She’s loud enough.”
“The person who is freaking this deal,” Simon said, “is you.”
“What do you mean?”
He looked at me steadily.
“Look,” I blurted, “I don’t care if he sleeps with her.”
“It’s just sex.”
He lit a cigarette, blew the smoke in my face.
I dropped my eyes. He was right. I wouldn’t be able to stand it. And this meant what it had always meant: it meant I’d have to leave. I’d always had to leave.
Simon touched the top of my head as he rose. “You’re a good girl,” he repeated.
It sounded like a curse.
I looked around the kitchen, at the shelves filled with jars of baby corn and okra and mango jam I’d put up, at the stalks of red ginger in the tall vases, at the photos of Les and me at the beach and hiking up the volcano, at the plans for the Center I’d colored and framed and hung on the walls. The Center was going to be a lot different with Sonia’s money. It would probably have a piercing parlor and a karaoke room.
My backpack still hung on the hook where I’d left it a year ago, the day I hiked in from Lihue to answer the ad. I looked inside—my Bible was still there, my broken sandals, my old Swiss Army knife. I picked it up and headed toward the door. I got as far as the lily pond before I turned back. I could see the guesthouse lit up and Sonia’s fat shape beginning to sleepwalk across the catwalk toward our bedroom, mine and Les’s. Maybe he won’t open the door, I thought. It had started to rain like it does in Kaua’i at night, just a rush in the dark like doves’ wings, and I crouched under the mango tree in my white nightgown and prayed like I hadn’t prayed since I left the mainland. Something slithered behind me and I jumped, but it was only the dog, come back. I couldn’t see her and when I put my hand out I couldn’t feel her, but I knew she was there. I could hear her breathing and I was not afraid. I’d been alone in the dark before, and I’d had worse companions. When Les opened the door and let Sonia in, I stood up and made my way toward the highway, the dog lagging a heartbeat behind me. When the surfer boys stopped at dawn, I got in their car. I did not look back. Not because I was brave—I’ve never been brave—but because I wasn’t ready to admit that nothing was there.