November 29, 2023
Why Not Just Stay?

It wasn’t the Hawaii I’d imagined. But it was seductive all the same.

My aunt Janet has long black hair that extends past her hips and wears purple tie-dyed T-shirts emblazoned with howling wolves and frowning medicine men. She moved to Maui shortly after her job as a travel agent brought her there in 1984, and has rarely left the island since. She and her Hawaiian boyfriend Kelena live in Kula, a cool, misty district of Maui’s upcountry, in a small, knick-knack-filled house largely furnished by garage sale bargains, and things they’ve pilfered from the condos they clean for a living.

In August of 2008, I took a trip with my friend Natalie to visit them for the first time. Though I didn’t necessarily find the Hawaii I’d always imagined, the clear blue skies or pristine ivory beaches, I found other things.

Nude Beach

“Hi, I’m Little John. What are your names?” asked a middle-aged man with stringy yellow hair and red skin that hung from his tall frame in loose folds. We tried to concentrate on his sun-chapped lips instead of looking down. Little John was not so little.

“Are ya’ll from out of town? he asked, after we took turns shaking his clammy hand. I resisted the urge to cover myself with my towel. “You look like you need some sun,” he said. I felt my pale skin redden.

This was Little Beach, a secret nook hidden between two walls of volcanic rock in Makena. Our hosts had mischievously directed us here without mentioning the main attraction. Fascinated and embarrassed, we found a spot for our towels a safe distance from the all the nudes and stretched out on our stomachs.

Most of our fellow sunbathers were middle-aged and Caucasian, sitting in groups or pairs, chatting, joking, passing joints.  Some had butts as flat as cardboard or as hairy as heads. Their breasts hung low to the middle or low to the sides, with nipples like saucers, or chocolate dimes. To our right, a copper-skinned Hawaiian woman practiced yoga on her towel, every inch of her strong, compact body the same luxurious shade of golden brown. People really do come in all shapes and sizes, I thought.

“Should we?” wondered Natalie.

“Why not?” I said.

Trying to seem nonchalant, we slipped off our suits and turned on our backs. The soft ocean breeze felt different now; more intimate. The sky turned a sharper blue, like the iris of some clear, all-seeing eye. I was just beginning to feel at home in my new skin, when Little John approached, hand outstretched, fuzzy blonde legs planted firmly and confidently apart.

The Fire Dancer

Just upland of Kula is a zip-lining course. Janet and Kelena drove us there one drizzly day for a discounted private tour. Our guides’ names were Sean and Ailani: lean, smart-mouthed daredevils in khakis and Aviators. Through the misty leaf-green light, we zipped from one platform to the next. Sean went first, twisting midair like a dancer, while Ailani clipped carabiners to our diaper-like harnesses and sent us careening through the trees.

“Perfect,” said Sean each time we reached his end of the line, struggling to control our feet as they pattered up the platform. Like graceful little woodland creatures. We liked him. He had strawberry blonde hair and a square, dimpled chin, and was charming and fearless. Probably in his mid-20s, we guessed.

Sean’s passion, he told us later, was fire dancing. He invited us over to his house, a sparsely furnished two-bedroom, whose most notable features were a pink gecko named Alex and a tiny red snake named Zeke. His roommates weren’t interested in meeting us. I had a feeling we were not the first young tourists to pass through Sean’s life, freshly-tanned and curious, collecting adventure stories to tell their friends at home.

Sean took us out to his backyard, which had a perfect view of the coast and the light-speckled towns below. We passed around a joint for awhile, and then Sean pulled out his flaming batons. He twirled them through his fingers, tossed them into the air, juggled them between his legs. Once he even missed, and a flaming baton went swirling into the bushes.

He was 31, we learned, born and raised in Chesterton, Indiana with five brothers and sisters and the dream of becoming a professional fire dancer.  When we left that night, I watched him fade away in my rearview mirror by the light of his batons.

The Redwoods of Polipoli

On our last day in Maui, we hiked through the Polipoli redwoods. At 6,200 feet above sea level, the highest point in Maui, Polipoli is one of the few places outside of California where redwoods grow. But not many tourists come. Through a mist so thick it blocked our view of the sky, and even the tops of the giant russet trees around us, Natalie and I hiked in silence, bending every now and then to collect a brilliant red or orange or yellow leaf.  No sound but our breaths and the crunch of our shoes on the trail.

For a moment, a mile down a winding path obscured in myth, I thought: how nice it would be just to stay here. Instead of going back to Ohio to wrestle through my second year of college, through the highs and the lows, the piles of paperwork, the inevitable toughening. Why not just stay? Where small-town boys from Indiana make a living flying from tree to tree and juggling flaming batons. Where you come to escape your past, to spread free love, to share your naked body with the sun. Where growing up is someone else’s problem.

One comment about “Why Not Just Stay?”

  1. Jack Miller says:

    Dear Julia,

    A lovely little tale that takes me into eternity. Your words wash through me like the ocean leaving a cleanliness behind. Yes, why not stay. I could sure feel the pull for you (or is it for me) about living in a freedom such as this. Thank you for your message. With love, blessings & miracles, Jack xo

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