In the summer of 2016 Selena and I were traveling in Kauai, Hawaii’s lush and beautiful “garden island.” It was my first time in Hawaii and the first long trip we’d taken together as a couple. The initial few days were spent in silly power struggles: I insisted on driving most of the time, we squabbled over petty things. Even taking this trip had been hard for me to commit to: I felt our relatively new relationship was hanging by a thread and kept a fierce internal conversation going about whether we should break up pretty much all the time. We were a chubby interracial lesbian couple in our thirties, an Asian-American and a white woman, and I, a lifelong loner who’d struggled to form long-term relationships, was acutely self-conscious of how people viewed us, sensing hostility when perhaps there was none. Nonetheless, Kauai was generous to us right away: we snorkeled the morning after we arrived off dramatic, mountainous Ke’e Beach and several giant sea turtles lazily swam past us in the water; later, on a beach stroll, we bumped into a monk seal hanging out by himself, not knowing then how rare and endangered the species is.
Traveling in Kauai Hawaii Photo Gallery
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We stayed at a female-only guesthouse that we’d found in the Damron Women’s Traveller . It was owned and run by a middle-aged woman called Sharon, who lived next door with her youthful, butch girlfriend, Aquarius. Skinny and intense-looking, Sharon had been involved in the technology industry on the East Coast of the U.S., burned out, and had apparently fled to Hawaii to get some peace and inner tranquility. The house she’d chosen to buy in the down-to-earth town of Kapaa looked deceptively peaceful: a white, suburban bungalow just a few steps away from a small, sandy windswept beach. It should have been ideal, but Selena and I found it oddly hard to get comfortable. The garden was intensely hot and muggy; Selena was paranoid about mosquitoes, so didn’t spend time with me there. I tried to get Selena to walk on the beach with me, but she was unwilling, and I didn’t find it as refreshing as I expected. Our rooms were decked out with crystals and pretty curtains but there was a kind of grimness to them, especially at night, when it was dead quiet except for a few cars roaring down the street to the beach.
The damp wind blew through the house all day long. Selena and I had separate rooms since we had trouble sharing a bed due to her snoring and tossing and turning (later diagnosed as sleep apnea). I remember barring the door to my room every night with a chair or my not-particularly-sturdy green nylon suitcase, checking the closet carefully to make sure there was nobody lurking inside. There was a sense that there was something out there trying to get in. Sharon insisted impatiently that we not lock the back door of the house, that this wasn’t how it was done in Hawaii. She seemed almost militant about it and oddly unconcerned with the comfort of her guests. In an attempt to relax, Selena and I scheduled a hot stone massage (Lomi Lomi) at an outfit called Auntie Angeline’s Day Spa in the nearby town of Anahola. Disoriented, we ended up climbing some steep stairs, haphazardly knocking at a stranger’s door and hearing dogs bark, but luckily no one was home to encounter us cluelessly asking for a massage. Once we found Auntie Angeline’s, some low buildings hidden down a quiet rural road, we were given towels and a salt/clay scrub by a slim, brown-skinned woman with a deep voice, who showed us to the steam room.
I kept thinking that she would come and fetch us, so we stayed in way too long and emerged boiled and sleepy to get our separate massages. At the little wooden hut where we left our clothes, we donned flowing, colorful sarongs, as we’d been told to. I know I felt young and vulnerable and unsure what was going to happen next: I think Selena did as well. We were not that young, though. I was 37, she was 34, yet we had a hard time seeing ourselves as attractive, both of us having been overweight for years. Selena, a former athlete, was androgynous, bronzed, Filipina-Chinese; I was a bit more curvy, taller, but lacked self-confidence in the way I carried myself, dropping my eyes when young men stared at my breasts. When other girls bloomed in their late teens, I had armored myself with feminist texts and a stern uniform of jeans, shirts and jackets. Of course it was the late ’80s, so that went over a bit better than it would have today. But still: I had never had my moment in the sun. My few brief relationships hadn’t helped ground me, either. Separation, sadly, seemed to be the theme for Selena and I on that trip in 2004. We were, in fact, not a very solid couple at the time, having only gotten together about eight months before. (We did break up about five months later, then reconnected after spending a year apart.) What we didn’t know then was that Selena, who seemed extra spacey and not herself on the trip, provoking my occasional outbursts of helplessness and rage, was suffering from lifelong ADD, attention-deficit disorder.
She had exerted all her will-power to get us to Hawaii, making the arrangements and buying the tickets, but seemed oddly lost and unmotivated once we were actually there on the ground. In angry reaction, I became driven and controlling, insisting we must drive here, do that… It annoyed me that she did not read the guide book and left all daily planning up to me, yet seemed somehow disappointed that we were not having enough fun. And so it was time for the Lomi Lomi massage. Both the deep-voiced woman and a Caucasian man called Mark worked on me. Selena was in another room, being massaged silently. Later I learned that she’d quickly fallen asleep. The only intimacy, then, was between the bodyworkers and me, yet it seemed impersonal in a good way. As they moved my legs, placed flat, warm stones on my back, I felt like I was being re-worked, put together again. I felt completely calm and receptive, not stiffening at all at their touch, secretly delighting in the mixture of male and female energy. When they left me, I rested for a while. Then I got up. There was a mirror in the room and I stood in front of it, still wrapped in my red silk sarong. I couldn’t help gasping. The person who looked back at me was a vibrant woman, her dark hair mussed and swept back, her fair skin glowing, her eyes clear and bright.
I had never experienced myself as attractive and female before. I also felt unusually light and happy. In the other room Selena was snoozing, her face sweet and childish. I kissed her on the lips gently. When she woke up she looked confused, then asked how long she’d been sleeping. She didn’t seem to feel as transformed as I. As we stood outside preparing to walk down the drive towards the car, Selena took a picture of me with the dark green mountain as backdrop. I am smiling and curvaceous in my rose-colored longsleeved shirt and black leggings. As if to prove that something had changed about me, Mark wandered outside, mentioning he was done with his shift, and engaged me in conversation. As we chatted—I asked him about a chronic shoulder problem I had—Selena fidgeted at my side. He looked into my eyes as he talked and I realized that he was interested. He had seen me, of course, nearly naked. He had placed rocks on my bare flesh, rubbed me with oil. If I’d been alone, I thought, I might have gone with him to his apartment nearby. I might have dared to do that. But Selena was with me and I had my responsibilities. Selena was sullen for a while after that. I tried not to say anything, for I had done nothing wrong and didn’t want to fight about a man paying attention to me. We stopped for a sandwich at a little café. In an odd coincidence, a gay male couple we’d spotted on the plane from San Francisco and whom Selena had sat beside (due to us flying stand-by, we’d even sat in different parts of the plane!), walked up to us as we got back into the car. “How are you doing?” asked the younger of the two men curiously. Spacey as ever, Selena was taking a while to answer. “We’re OK. We’ve been fighting a lot,” I blurted out. He nodded. “That happens here,” he said, surprising me with his honesty. “It’s a place where feelings emerge, where you have to be real.” We said friendly goodbyes.
I wondered as we drove away if they thought we were in serious trouble. Although the man’s words were kind, it seemed he’d approached us as a counselor might. Were we really that dysfunctional? Were we scary together? These were questions I asked myself silently but did not know how to approach Selena about. She seemed unwilling to analyze our relationship; I was always the one who was drawn to do that. I did not tell her that my behavior had started to remind me of my Irish stepfather, a lawyer and a chronically angry and controlling man, especially on vacations when his own agenda seemed particularly important. Of course nobody questioned him. We headed south, avoiding the touristy beaches of Poipu at my suggestion. We wandered around a little Russian fort, deserted and sad, the ruins facing the ocean. I thought of the European travelers who had come here seeking their fortune, of the Hawaiian kings who had also died out. The crumbling red earth seemed to remember them. We stopped for delicious ice cream at a kiosk in sleepy Hanapepe–it turned out to be the original location of Lappert’s Ice Cream, at whose branch in Sausalito I used to get muffins and coffee in my 20s. Finding the tiny, well-maintained shack out in the middle of nowhere seemed surreal. On the return trip, I was happy to let Selena drive, and I sat back and watched the vast sky, which was bright despite some rainfall. To my astonishment, the most beautiful double rainbow hung over us as we drove back to Kapaa. Almost the only car on the two-lane highway, it appeared we had the island to ourselves, and I felt a peace and euphoria then that I’ve always remembered.
Our trip had a strange coda. We had only two nights left to go. Selena was in the hallway outside the bathroom of the guesthouse when a low, whispery male voice said at her ear, “Come over here…” She rushed into my room, pale with a sickly, anxious smile, to tell me what had happened, after checking to see if there were any teenage boys hiding in the house or garden. But no one was there. She asked if we could go to a hotel nearby. I didn’t want to, pressed her to tough it out. “You can sleep in my room,” I said. We switched rooms, and I spent an uneasy night in her bedroom, which did have an eerie presence about it. It was hard to put into words, but it was as if I was being watched by some slightly malicious spirit the whole time. The next morning, I plucked up my courage and marched over to Sharon’s next door. “Selena heard something,” I said. “She thinks there’s a ghost in the house.” I wanted Sharon to laugh—even wanted her to smile complicitly with me at Selena’s paranoia, I’m sorry to say—but her reaction was oddly blasé, muted. “Well, she’s not the first one who’s felt something,” Sharon said. “The place used to be rented out by the military. And then when Beth (my ex), and I moved in, we held séances there. I used to be a medium.” I stared at her, open-mouthed. A medium! “But why did you do séances?” I asked.
“Well, a good friend of Beth’s committed suicide. She wanted to communicate with him, to get some closure, as she was grieving so much. So we did that a few times. Beth had a lot of problems. We worked out a lot of dark stuff in that house.” And it seemed like they had left those dark energies there, an ironic gift for the women travelers who came seeking peace on a quiet Hawaiian island. I smirked as Sharon’s lover Aquarius came over rather grimly to “sage” the house. I guessed she was humoring Selena, publicly banishing the spirits to get us to stay another night and avoid giving us a refund. Yet Sharon and Aquarius kept a wary distance from Selena and I, which irked me too. I wanted Sharon to like me (after all, I was sensitive and intuitive too, wasn’t I?) but it seemed that in me, she saw shadows of the abusive or dysfunctional men and women who’d come into her life before. She treated me gingerly, as someone she’d prefer to deal with as little as possible. I felt this was unfair.
I was a nice person, wasn’t I? Open? Or did traveling and just being with Selena mean that I would be always pegged as the dark one, the glowering person who wanted to control and punish my sweet, childlike girlfriend? In any case, we left Kauai with no fond farewells from the two women, but with greater ease between us. And through some gift from the gods, unlike our harried and stressful trip over, on the way back we were ushered smilingly into first class by the flight attendants at United and treated like royalty. Dressed in a skirt, I felt like Selena’s wife. I even beat her at Travel Scrabble. Life was good, and I hoped that the trip would have lasting consequences for our relationship. We did not break up that month…instead dragging things out to November, when Bush’s win over Kerry seemed to symbolize the general hopelessness of things. Now, still together, we are changing. She has been treated for her sleep apnea, for ADD, and working as a freelance editor I feel more grounded and happy myself. It has taken us seven years to agree to live together, a stretch of time during which many other lesbian couples would have gotten together, become domestic partners, and broken up. Yet our dreams still only occasionally coincide. I still ask myself whether this relationship is “enough,” and I know she does too. Our travel time, which manifests mostly in short trips to Santa Cruz and Mendocino, is rarely pleasurable and harmonious, though we love the places we visit. Perhaps harmony as a couple is not the goal.
But I also remember the moments of happiness we’ve experienced together and believe that they are signposts as well. It seems like we are trying to get to the same places, involving sea and sun and fresh air and a certain natural wildness, but we may best experience them separately. Or is our separateness an illusion, because we are so much alike? This was an epiphany I had on another trip to Hawaii wither her a year later, smoking a joint on the porch of a funky inn on the rainy side of the Big Island. The joint had been given to Selena by the inn’s owners, an older lesbian couple who lived downstairs. Perhaps they wanted to make us happy, loosen us up a bit. Yet the exciting lovemaking that I hoped would happen did not ensue—Selena said we were officially exes and it would be a bad idea—so I sat out on the porch by myself for an hour or so listening to Abbey Road and reading A Fine Romance, a self-help book about relationships. In my stoned state, I wished Selena could give me what I wanted, but I also felt curiously content to be out there on my own. An insight suddenly came to me about Selena, as I mused over our annoying differences, her little refusals to go along with my program: It’s not her fault you’re not happy. There’s nothing wrong with her at all . In fact, you’re not even that dif erent… Perhaps I sensed a deeper love was there between us all along, beyond all the petty power struggles and surface clashes. It seems like we are always surrounded by people who tell us in subtle ways how they see us or who we are. Traveling, we seek acceptance in the eyes of strangers and sometimes we find it. In my experience, though, it’s places and not people who bring out the best in us. A place can be spacious and holding, embracing even, while a person can be judging, rejecting, classifying and labeling. I see that judging person in myself; I still find myself judging Selena when I want to stop. I want to be more like the islands themselves: warm, spicy, tolerating storms of rain and wind, beautiful, fertile, changeable, adventurous, enduring.