“Oh yes, Valerie will like it very much,” said the energetic young man with blue-black hair and a sharply cleft chin, in an accent that was vaguely ‘English’. He and Jacob Eisenman were standing in the large shabby room that overlooked the crashing Pacific, on Kauai, one of Hawaii’s outermost and least populated islands.
Jacob later thought that the implications of his tone were a sort of introduction to Valerie, although at the time he had not entirely understood what was being implied. Jacob, the gaunt German who was (incongruously) the owner of this resort. Then he simply wondered why, why very much’?. The young man’s clothes were pale, Italian, expensive-looking; it was unlikely that he (or Valerie) would be drawn by the price,which was what drew most of the other guests: older people,rather flabby and initially pale, from places like North Dakota and Idaho and, curiously, Alaska—and a few young couples,wan, tired families with children. These people stayed but were not enthusiastic; they would have preferred a more modern place (Jacob was subject to radar intuitions). And so this young man’s eagerness to register for the room and to pay in advance, which was unnecessary (with a hundred-dollar bill)made Jacob apprehensive, as though he were being invaded a sense that he dismissed as paranoia, to which he was also subject. But before he could sort out reactions the young man had swung out of the driveway in his orange rented Datsun, presumably to fetch Valerie from the nearby hotel, which he had said they did not like. “So loud, you know?”
In fact for no reason Jacob found his heart beating in jolts, so that quite out of character he went to the bar, unlocked it and poured himself a shot of brandy.
The bar, a narrow slat-roofed structure, was ten winding steps up from the pool, between the rental units and Jacob’s own office-apartment library. Curiously, it was almost never used by the Alaskan-North Dakotans, nor the young couples. Nor was the neat functional built-in barbecue, which was adjacent. Most of the units had kitchenettes, but still,wouldn’t they sometimes want to cook outside? The barbecue was the last ‘improvement’ that Jacob had given to his resort. He had spent most of his earlier years in California, going up from Los Angeles to International House, at Berkeley; he later concluded that he had been misled by that background. Only Californians liked barbecues, and no one from California seemed to come his way.
Except for a disastrous visit from his best friend, fat Otto from I. House days, and Otto’s new wife—a visit which Jacob had determined not to think about.
The Datsun rushed back into the parking area, and ‘Valerie’ got out. At first and somewhat distant glance, filtered through the bougainvillea that hung about the bar, she was a delicately built young blond, in dazzling white clothes. Huge dark glasses on a small face. An arrogant walk.
Jacob took a too-large swallow of the rough brandy, which made him cough. So that both people turned to see him thereat the bar, at eleven in the morning. (“You aroused such false expectations,” Valerie said, later on.)
The young man, registered as Larry Cobb, waved, and Valerie smiled indefinitely. And, a few minutes later, all the way from the room that he had rented them, Jacob heard aloud harsh voice that boomed, “But darling, it’s absolutely perfect.”
Could that voice have come from such a delicate girl? He supposed it must. Jacob pulled on the large straw hat he always wore—he detested the sun—and hurried away from the bar.
The practical, or surface reason for Jacob’s presence in this unlikely setting was that he had inherited it from his parents. However, as Otto had pointed out more than once, he could have sold it when they died, when the place was still in good shape. Now he’d have to spend God knows how much to fix it up—assuming, as Otto did assume, that he wanted to sell.
The Eisenmans had fled Berlin in the early thirties, with their young son and a few remnants of their once-thriving rare-book business; following one of the terrible and familiarly circuitous routes of the time (theirs had included Hong Kong),they finally reached Los Angeles, where they set up shop again and were (finally) successful enough to send their brilliant son to Berkeley. Later they were persuaded to invest in and retire to a warm island resort. It worked out well. They loved Kauaii,where the sun warmed their tired bones and all around them magnificent flowers, flowers hitherto associated with expensive florists, effortlessly bloomed. Birds of paradise. Anthurium. Poinsettias, and of course everywhere the violent colors of bougainvillea and hibiscus. They tended their property lovingly, and, a loving couple, they died peacefully within a week of each other. Jacob flew out to settle the estate and quixotically decided to stay. Well, why not? His Berkeley landlady could, and did, ship his books; besides, he was tired of graduate school, instructorships. And, as he wrote to Otto,“You know I have a horror of airplane flights. This way I avoid the return trip. ”
He promoted Mrs. Wong who had been his parents’ housekeeper to the position of manageress; he then instructed her to hire some local girls to help with the cleaning up. He was aware—his radar told him—that some of the local islanders imagined Mrs. Wong to be his mistress. He didn’t mind,actually he liked her very much, but nothing could have been further from the truth.
Mrs. Wong was plain, round-faced, fat, and slovenly in her dress, and Jacob was sexually fastidious to the point of preferring celibacy to compromise. In fact in his entire life—he was almost fifty—he had had only three love affairs, and none of long duration; he was drawn to women who were violent,brilliant and intense, who were more than a little crazy. Crazy and extremely thin. “Basically I have a strong distaste for flesh,” he had once confided to Otto.
“Which would explain your affection for myself,” ponderous Otto had chuckled. “Pure masochism, of course.”
Their kind of joke, in the good old lost days.
The next afternoon, late.
“It was like labor pains,” Valerie loudly and accusingly said; she was speaking of the waves that had knocked her to the sandy bottom of the ocean, and from which the young man, Larry, had grabbed her out. “When Quentin was born,they kept coming back.”
She spoke furiously: Why? From behind the bar where Jacob was making their drinks (he had never done this before but the bar girl was sick and Mrs. Wong was somewhere else)he pondered her rage. At being a woman, forced painfully to bear children—blaming Larry for Quentin? No, they were not married. Larry was certainly not the father of Quentin, and she was not that silly. Rage at Larry for having rescued her? No.
She was simply enraged at the sea for having knocked her down. It was an elemental rage, like Ahab’s, which Jacob could admire—that was how he felt about the sun.
In the vine-filtered sunlight he could see that Valerie was older than he had thought, was somewhere in her thirties. All across her face, over the small nose, slight rise of cheekbones,were tiny white tracings. Tiny scars. An exquisitely repaired face: Jacob did not want to imagine the accident involved but then he did: driving too fast (in a convertible, it would have to have been a convertible) north of Boston, she had gone through a windshield.
Her eyes were large and very dark—at first glance black,then perceived as an extraordinary midnight blue. Her voice was rasping, a whiskey voice, the accent crisply Bostonian. She was wearing something made of stiff white lace, through which a very small brown bikini was visible.
She gulped at her drink: straight gin, with a twist of lime.
“God,” she said. “I’m all scratched.”
Larry asked her, “Does it hurt?”
“No, it just looks funny.” She turned to Jacob. “You’re so pale. Don’t you go swimming at all?”
“No, I hate to swim.”
She stared at him for an instant, and then seemed to understand a great deal at once; Jacob could literally feel her comprehension, which reached him like an affectionate hand.
She burst out laughing, a raucous exhilarated laugh. “But that’s absolutely marvelous!” she cried out. “I absolutely love it! You also hate the sun—right?”
Jacob nodded. But at the same time that he felt touched he also felt some part of his privacy invaded, which made him uneasy. He had been recognized.
“You must have a marvelous time here,” said Larry, attempting a joke.
“I read a lot.”
Larry did not like him.
“I need another drink,” said Valerie, who probably had noted this too.
An impulse made Jacob say what he had not said before, to guests. “Look, I’m not always around. But if you want a drink that’s where the key is.” And he pointed to a spot at the top of a beam.
This was said to Larry (to make Larry like him better?) but it was Valerie who smiled and said, “That’s really nice of you.”
“We’ll keep track,” was what Larry said (and finally forgot to do).
Jacob left as soon as he could. He had decided to start re-reading Moby Dick
Valerie liked his shabby place because she was rich, accustomed to grandeur. She was the opposite of upward ascendant—downward descendant? Was she that? Quite possible. Larry was somewhat younger than she—and rich in a different way: he had earned a lot of money, recently, in something fashionable. A record company? TV? He resented Valerie’s carelessness, her easy lack of ambitions.
Ahab said, “They think me mad, Starbuck does; but I’m demonic, I am madness maddened! that wild madness that’ sonly calm to comprehend itself . . .”
Valerie had (probably) been married several times. Perhaps a husband had been with her when she smashed up the car? A now-dead husband?
At about eleven the next morning when Jacob approached the bar, Valerie was perched on a high stool, her long thin brown legs drawn up childishly. She had made herself a tall drink. “Won’t you join me?”
“I don’t drink much—no thanks.” Then, to her raised eyebrows he added, “Yesterday was out of character.”
“You aroused such false expectations.” But she let that go,and then asked, as though it were what they had been talking about for some time, “How do you feel about flying?”
“I hate it; that’s one reason I’m here.”
In an instant she had taken that in, and her riotous laugh broke out. “God, that’s terrific.” Then she said, “But what do you do about it?”
“Obviously: I don’t fly.”
“If I could only understand why I’m so afraid. Larry has driven off to Koloa,” she added, irrelevantly. “You’d think I’d be afraid to drive.” And she told him about her accident,the crashed convertible in which her second husband had been killed—the crash that in some sense he had already seen.
Jacob grasped then that they were communicating on levels that he could not understand at all, that even made him somewhat uncomfortable. He could so vividly see and feel whatever she told him—apparently, in fact, even before she spoke.
“I have some idiot faith that if I could understand it, I wouldn’t be afraid any more. Of flying,” Valerie said. “I think that’s what’s called shrink-conditioning. I’ve even tried to ‘associate’ to the fear, and I do remember something weird:myself, in a white wicker carriage, a baby carriage—how could I remember that?. Anyway my nurse is pushing it, a young Irish girl, Molly. And we’re at the top of a hill in Magnolia, near the shore, and some older kids tell her to let it go. . . .”
But she might as well have stopped talking, because Jacob could see it: a stone-fenced New England landscape, wild roses. A pretty dark maid with a tweed coat pulled over a white uniform. “But she didn’t let. go,” he gently said.
“Of course not. But what in hell does that have to do with being afraid to fly?”
Larry arranged to go deep-sea fishing, near Lihue. Valerie sat by the pool, in a white bikini, with a stack of books. Seeing her there from above, as he conferred with Mrs. Wong about the necessity for a second visit from the plumber, Jacob was aware that he could go down to her and pull up a chair, they could talk all day. But that prospect was too much for him; it made his heart race. Instead he went back to the dim seclusion of his library; he went from Moby Dick to Nerval, “Je suis le veuf, le tenebraux . . .” He went out into the sunlight.
He and Valerie had a brief conversation about Jane Austen,whom she was re-reading. “I read her to regain some balance,” said Valerie.
“You might try reading her on planes.”
She gave him a long speculative look. “What a good idea.”
Pretending busyness, Jacob went back to his office.