The Last Time I was Near a Volcano
The last time I was near a volcano it was in Hawaii and this guy was trying to get me to go on a helicopter ride over Mauna Loa on the Big Island and look at the lava.
No thanks, I said, and told him how a few months back one of those helicopters had crashed on the side of the mountain and sent its passengers to a premature and useless death.
The guy hadn’t heard of this. He had just come in from the mainland to visit me because we used to go out. I hadn’t seen or talked to him the whole six months I had been gone and now here he was. Looking exactly like I remembered except completely different. Wearing the wrong kind of Aloha shirt, the kind you buy from a store in Waikiki that has a picture of Tom Selleck in the window. Trying to convince me to go flying over a volcano.
I swear, it’ll be okay, the guy who used to be my boyfriend said. And besides, all death is useless.
He tried the argument from another couple of angles, he smiled and frowned and bent over backwards trying to carry it, but I wouldn’t budge. So he left me in Kona at his hotel and went off on his own.
You’ll be sorry you missed it, he said as he drove off, but I was already sure I wouldn’t.
His leaving gave me instant relief like he was a pebble in my shoe and I could walk better without him. Without him I could sit on the beach and contemplate the waves and draw them in my notebook until I got tired or hungry or sleepy. I was free to be lazy and inactive and let myself surrender to the rhythm of my surroundings, to fall in the quiet and the sand and the sunshine. To talk to strangers or just gather my thoughts that ever since the guy had arrived seemed to get away from me.
I had seen the volcanoes before, Mauna Loa and Kilauea. I saw Kilauea spit out smoke, I walked to where you can see its caldera, that giant sunken hole breathing out fire and sulfur, the smell of lava catching up to you even as you stand far enough away to be safe. Well safe as you can ever be. I didn’t need to see it all from the air to understand. But mostly I didn’t know why he had come or why I agreed to meet him.
For old time’s sakes, he had said on the phone and I went along with it. It seemed like the thing to do. The Aloha spirit and all.
He returned at noon just as I was waking up from a nap. I was brown from the sun and my dreams had found their way back to me. I was in a better mood now, but he was beside himself with joy and adjectives. Big. Impressive. Awesome. Really really amazing. His enthusiasm went on for dictionaries. On and on until he could be certain I could really get it, how magnificent it was to see the lava flow and the volcano smoke, but from above. Divine, he said. Mind-blowing.
He talked and talked and I stood there studying him, trying to remember what I used to like about him. Was it his hair, his eyes, the way he commanded everyone’s attention as soon as he walked into a room without even trying? I couldn’t even guess. The reasons now lay forgotten in pockets of lost pants or misplaced in drawers of furniture that stayed behind when I moved.
I took this as a souvenir, he finally said, and showed me a small flat rock, black and porous. I took it off the ground where we landed. Want to touch it?
I jumped back as to avoid his hand.
You can’t take this with you.
Why not? It’s a rock.
You can’t take volcanic objects off the island.
I knew from the way he looked at me that he thought I was crazy.
It’s bad luck, I said. Pele will get mad.
Pele, he said. He didn’t seem to understand.
The goddess of the volcano. I said. She doesn’t like it when people take stuff away.
He shrugged. Whatever. It’s a rock.
He put the pebble back in his pocket. I could see that he was trying. That he had come to get me back. He tried his case once more.
Let’s go get some lunch, he said. He straightened the collar of his ridiculous shirt. He smiled. He touched my arm.
I don’t know what got into me but I couldn’t let it go. I erupted.
Didn’t you ever hear, I said, didn’t anyone tell you that before you get on the plane to leave the islands you’re supposed to shake your clothes off and kick the dirt off your shoes just to make sure? Otherwise bad luck might follow you all the way back to the mainland.
Mainland. He scoffed. You sound like a native.
He thought he made a joke. That made me even madder.
I’m not hungry, I told him. I’ll just stay here. You go eat.
He protested a little but finally left the room and I packed my bag and called a cab to take me to the airport.
On the flight back to Honolulu I saw it all: the volcanoes and the smoke, and the lava running down the mountain, destroying, creating, constantly changing everything in its path for no reason other than it was standing in its way. It really was magnificent.