What part of the body is this?” Aiko asked.
“Labia,” I joked.
We were sitting just above the mouth of the ocean. The water, dark and fearsome, clawed at layered sheets of black rock in waves of bright white lace.
We were high in the rock formation’s nosebleed seats, watching the show unfurl beneath us, a wide-awake moon illuminating from some place high above.
Wayne, perhaps sensing my aching heart after dinner, had asked if we wanted to go to The Place.
Aiko, in the driver’s seat, asked if I was tired and wanted to go home, or if I wanted to be absconded.
“Absconded,” I answered, of course. Though I didn’t want to take up Aiko and Wayne’s private time together, I didn’t want to be alone with my sad thoughts either, just yet.
We parked at Lāna‘i lookout, the lone car in a lot abandoned by everything but wild-eyed cats, our phones our only beams of light.
“Jump down there,” Wayne said, “if cars come.”
We’d scuttled across the street on foot to a place without a shoulder. I looked at the ditch to my left between the craggy rock face and the metal guardrail we were walking next to. I watched for oncoming cars down the road’s long black tongue.
We stepped over the guardrail, which now bordered thick gray shrubs. It was cold through silly exercise pants, wet from the light rain that stopped just moments before.
I followed Wayne and Aiko down what used to be a path, laughing to myself as I lagged farther and farther behind, reminding myself that I’m the old lady who likes to climb but hates going downhill, who likes seeing where her feet are going, who doesn’t trust her own balance or the flex of her hips, who is scared to slip like falling on her ass will end in more than a muddy bum.
I considered that this was probably true, for me, with trails and with relationships. I hated breakups, never trusted my own footing. Each step, I felt my ankles wobble like loose hinges.
When I caught up with her, Aiko told me, happily, to go first.
I saw the mouth of a snug and silent cave. I called it a birth canal, muttered something in protest about how I’m the third born in my family. How I don’t go first.
Aiko and Wayne stood still as smiling stones.
“Should I be thinking about something as I do this?” I asked, descending the cave’s dark cavity, first after all.
“Anything you want,” Aiko said, in her always gentle voice.
She wouldn’t make me talk. Wayne, who I didn’t know very well, wouldn’t either. They’d brought me here, perhaps, to puzzle my own pieces.
The cave sloped down gently, its edges smooth and oval, traces from once-constant touch of water and rock (those age-old flames). I leaned on the walls, stepped careful-carefully, dramatically, slower than I needed to.
Birth is an easy thing to think about in a cave, I told myself between self-conscious steps. What it means to move from one sphere to the next, to be transformed. Do we forgive ourselves the pain we cause? What that transformation costs us? Costs others? Do we accept the debt and heartbreak and scars and pieces of other people we leave disembodied behind us when we stop fighting? How do we move on with boulders on our bodies?
I dragged nervous fingertips across cave walls. I felt the touching of this place. The holding of it. I let myself linger on what having that might be like, again.
I felt us crossing under the roadway we’d just hugged, heard the ocean getting louder and louder.
Lava tube! I gasped to myself, still moving slowly-slowly in the dark, my phone flashlight limited, not reaching far enough. I couldn’t see the other end of where we were going. I wished I wasn’t first. That Aiko or Wayne was in front, since they knew this place already.
“It’s okay,” Wayne said, sensing my hesitation. “Take your time.”
One slow step after another, I stepped into pockets of loose stones, where puddles once pooled. Or still pool, I thought to myself quickly, wondering how long this area had been dry, wondering how deep we’d go, if there would be water surging and we’d have to turn around, if we’d get washed out or drowned in a dark quick flood like silly people who plundered lava tubes in the middle of the damned night.
And then, suddenly, we were on the other side, high up enough from the water to feel safe from the ocean’s playful, grabbing hands, watching Wayne climb down to the water’s edge while we hung out on the ridges above, talking about this place’s body.
He came back to show us, one at a time, a lizard-backed black anemone that looked like a purple daisy when he turned it over, a speckled skimmer fish that panted on the rocks when he set it down beside Aiko, and a beautiful brown cowrie that was so buried inside itself, we didn’t know it was alive. Leho, I’d learn later when I looked it up. Lying still as a cowrie shell. That which escapes detection. A callus, as on shoulders from carrying heavy loads. Covetous.1 Aiko put the shell, smooth, in my hand as Wayne descended the rocks again to put the anemone and the fish back, carefully, where he’d found them.
We watched the night sky, the clouds disappearing and framing bright stars here and there as if to direct our attention with long, cloudy fingers. We talked about the planetary alignment, and I looked up at the two bright spots in the sky under an early rising moon that could be those planets. I wondered if they were part of that straight line.
We held still and listened, and I felt the ocean pool in my hands.
When Wayne came back to us, Aiko asked him, “What part of the body is this?”
“Blood,” he said.
Aiko repeated what I’d said, and Wayne laughed.
When we realized, at last, the cowrie was alive, back in the car, long gone from the lava tube, back on the road again and halfway to my house in Kaimukī, we stopped past the bathhouse, where Wayne said there were lots of cowrie shell friends to make, to give it back to the ocean.
“Good luck!” I said with a laugh when Wayne let go. My arms were over my head when I felt the weight lift.