She licks her finger and smears figures onto the windshield. e, she says, the base of the natural logarithm raised to the power of i, the imaginary unit, and pi. Her voice is husky, roughened by cigarettes, her words lightly accented with her native French. Two transcendental numbers, three simple arithmetics, five constants, one equation.
The car is parked at the edge of an overlook notched into the sea cliffs that gird Makapu’u Beach. It’s November, the last month of hurricane season, and the surf is unusually rough, the approaching swells roiled and choppy, the breakers avalanching in great heaves of foam. A few bodysurfers wade in the shore-break, but the beach is almost deserted—a red pennant staked high on the berm warns of sucking riptides.
It welds geometry to algebra. It is self-evident, complete, profoundly elegant. The woman is forty-three though she looks much younger—her hair is coppery and long and thickly curled, her skin is pale and spangled with freckles.
This equation was true before it was ever imagined. It will still be true when the sun is a heap of cinders. The woman traces the outline of the smudges. Her nails are long and tapered, their tips burnished to a frosty white. Nothing else so endures because nothing else is as true. You see?
The boy in the passenger seat nods. He is fifteen and like so many Hawaiian boys he’s big for his age, his features an amalgam of the Polynesian, the Asian, the European. He wears the crisp uniform of a private school—shorts and shirt and tie—and a backpack heavy with textbooks is perched on his lap. He and the woman are eating ice cream from plastic cups—strawberry for her, chocolate fudge for him. The car’s air conditioning is running at full and the boy, whose name is Kaleo, marvels at this icy wash of air over his skin, marvels that, for the first time in his life, he is shivering.
The woman takes a cigarette from her purse and lights it, her cheeks hollowing as the tobacco ignites. She exhales slowly, letting the smoke wreathe her face, and inclines her head towards the boy, as if sharing a secret with him.
The other children, they cannot see the beauty of this equation—its precision, its austerity. But you, vous avez le talent. You grasp it, intuitively. That is a rare thing. A treasure. You understand?
It’s been two weeks since the boy left Waimanalo Public to start at The Ko’olau Academy, the days unspooling in a slow blur of starched shirts and long bus rides and strangers who do not know his name—days sluggish and stifling, days of immanence, days of waiting. It is only now as he looks into the face of this woman, this haole woman with eyes like wet celadon, this teacher of mathematics that he knows only as Mrs. Braithwaite, that the boy finally feels himself at the edge of some new thing, some province whose expanse he can sense but not yet fully discern.
A sudden commotion on Makapu’u Beach—people are shouting and flapping their towels—and the boy peers through the passenger window. A moment later the woman leans in beside him, her breath misting the tinted glass, her hair soft against his shoulder.
What is it? she says.
On the beach below, bodysurfers are scurrying out of the surf, their limbs thrashing against the receding wash. Behind them, just past the breakers, a hulking wave is surging towards the shore. This wave has crossed deep waters for days, a massy ridge rippling over the ocean surface, its proportions moderated by the depths beneath it. Now, as it enters the sloping shallows of Makapu’u, the wave slows and steepens, its bulk rearing up into a precipice, its crest the pivot on which velocity and amplitude and gravity conjoin, each matching the other so that, for an instant, time seems to stutter and jam, sprocketed into a static gap where the wave hangs suspended, its form straining towards its own collapse.
Years later, the adult Kaleo will remember this moment as a kind of tableau, a scene viewed at a distance yet one that he also inhabits. Though a physicist and a rationalist, he will imagine that this perspective, this assay of memory, is how God might view the world and mankind—backwards from some infinite temporal distance, the arrow of time exhausted of all velocity, His omniscience not supernatural but simply a remembrance of what had already occurred.
In his memory, Kaleo will see the wave locked at its apex and he will see himself—a public housing boy, a scholarship boy, a brown boy in Hawaii—and he will see the woman (her most of all) and from this remove Kaleo will remember how the woman will lay her hand across the boy’s knee, her fingers icy and splayed, her pinky slipping under the end of his shorts to caress the heavy thigh muscle beneath, and he will remember that when she leans in to kiss him he will flinch away at first before slowly relaxing into the pressure of her mouth, that both will keep their eyes open as they kiss and that the boy, still shivering, will be shocked by the taste of the woman—ashes and salt and strawberry ice cream—as her tongue traces the smooth bones of his teeth.
The woman will drive the boy back to the apartment she shares with her husband, away now on business in Oregon. She will take him to her bedroom and undress him and then have him undress her, the boy’s hands trembling as he unbuttons her blouse, as he gropes at the fastening of her bra, as he lifts away her skirt, as he peels the stockings from her legs. The woman’s skin will smell faintly of lavender perfume, an old-fashioned scent the boy associates with plump aunties but which on her he finds shocking, almost profane.
Those first moments with the woman will be a series of sharp revelations for the boy—her small breasts, nipples like pale gumdrops. The thick tendons of her thighs. The curve of her buttocks. The ridgeline of her spine. The folds of her labia, the hard nub of her clitoris. Her anus, puckered like a kiss.
They will fuck through all the long hours of the afternoon, the woman reveling in the boy’s youth, in his eagerness, in the desire which narrows his eyes as her fingernails dig furrows into his back, his chest. Afterwards, they will wash each other, lathering away the sweat and semen and blood with Ivory soap, the water from the showerhead tepid, cooling. After they have rinsed the soap from their bodies the woman will kneel in the tub with her back to the boy and he will rub shampoo into her hair as she sings softly, her eyes closed,
J’ai trouvé l’eau si belle, Que je m’y suis baigné.
The next day he will tell his parents that he is studying math with Mrs. Braithwaite after school and this will not be a lie for in the moments when they lie sated and apart, the woman will ply him with questions of geometry and algebra, rewarding him with favors for correct answers and withholding them when he answers wrongly. This game will linger in the boy’s mind so strongly that, years later, he will remember the contours of the woman’s body not in adolescent clichés but in abstruse mathematical terms, as if she were both an assemblage and a whole, a topography mapped in the tessellation of her eyebrows, the arc length of her lips, the convex jut of her hipbones.
For three weeks the boy and the woman will be lovers. In class she will ignore him, favoring the other students with her attention, calling on the boy only when he makes mistakes and mocking his efforts aloud. She will do this not out of any desire to obscure their relationship but as a kind of game whose import only she and the boy understand.
There will be other games. During their second week together the woman will show the boy how to braid her hair, how to coil the soft plait around her throat while she masturbates, how to choke her when she comes until her body goes limp beneath him. They will play this game so often that the woman will take to wearing a scarf of yellow silk to cover the bruises on her neck. One afternoon, Kaleo will discover this scarf in a wastebasket, discarded by the woman after it has frayed. The fabric will be slippery and cool against his skin, a weightless froth like moth wings brushing his cheek. Kaleo will slip this scarf into his backpack, the only thing of hers that he will keep from those three weeks. Years later, he will find that the scarf still smells of the woman’s lavender perfume.
In the week before Thanksgiving, a tropical depression that has been churning in the doldrums near the equator will abruptly escalate and begin to spin. Hurricane Iwa will lurch east across the Pacific for six days before finally sweeping over the Hawaiian island chain. Kaleo will be at home when the eye of the hurricane passes over his house and in that sudden stillness thousands of exhausted seabirds will come to land, terns and petrels and shearwaters that have been trapped at sea by the hurricane’s spiraling walls, a listless and bedraggled flock indifferent to anything but the ground beneath them.
Kaleo will return to school a week later where he will find a substitute teacher in Mrs. Braithwaite’s class. The substitute, a balding red-faced man, will only shrug when Kaleo asks where Mrs. Braithwaite is. During recess, Kaleo will leave the campus and catch a bus to the woman’s apartment. The door will be propped open, the furniture covered with drapes. An old Filipino woman vacuuming the floor will tell the boy that the tenants have vacated the premises, that a new couple will be moving in the next day. When he asks about a forwarding address, the old woman will wave him away and turn back to her cleaning.
Over the next few weeks, Kaleo will learn that there have been rumors at school, that people have seen things. He will find himself avoided by students and faculty alike, politely but pointedly ignored. At the end of the year, his scholarship will not be renewed.
It will be five years before Kaleo hears from the woman again. He will be eighteen and in his first year at college when the postcard arrives, an expensive glossy depicting the Paris skyline. On the reverse,
Kaleo will recognize the tilted handwriting immediately. Below the equation will be an address in New York City. The postcard will be signed,
Tu es dans toutes mes pensées, Madame B.
More postcards will follow, eventually giving way to long letters in which the woman details the minutiae of her life, the gossip of the circles she inhabits, the small pleasures she encounters during her day. At first Kaleo will respond with letters of his own, but he will quickly realize that she has little interest in the episodes of his life, that the track of their correspondence necessarily centers on the woman and the things of her life. He will accept these conditional exchanges just as he had accepted the pedagogic nature of their fucking, a passive surrender in which he yields his own agency to the greater desires of the woman, a kind of consumption that Kaleo will still find darkly arousing.
In his third year at college, Kaleo will write the woman that he is switching his studies from mathematics to physics. He will describe this change as a logical progression from the abstract to the concrete, from the Form to the Iteration. Her reply, scrawled in pencil on a cheap postcard, will be immediate—You stupid, stupid child. What a disappointment you are. Several weeks will pass before she writes again, resuming her correspondence as if his newly chosen field had never been mentioned.
The woman will not mention marital troubles in any of her letters to Kaleo and so it will come as a surprise when she writes of her divorce. James is devastated. I hope in time he will come to see how necessary it was. On pardonne tant que l’on aime.
Kaleo will be twenty-five when he gets this letter. He will be working on his doctoral thesis—an examination of wave function collapse as an epiphenomenon of quantum decoherence—when his girlfriend brings him the envelope and lays it on his desk. His girlfriend will have grown accustomed to these twice weekly letters with their feminine handwriting and were she to ask Kaleo about them he would tell her about the woman and their affair but she will not ask and so he will offer no explanation. It is this reserve, a reticence almost, that will endear this girl to Kaleo and, in all the years of their marriage, this comfortable distance between them will remain intact, a constant upon which both will come to rely.
At forty, Kaleo will be a tenured professor of Physics, his days meticulously scheduled, his hours strictly accounted for. This rigidity of routine will not be a burden for him, rather he will find a sense of liberation within the confines he has imposed upon himself, a freeing up from the mundane burdens of choice that might otherwise distract him from his research. In all other matters he defers to his wife who will prove to be as efficient as she is placid. And while Kaleo sometimes senses a small sadness in her, their inability to have children will not lessen the affection between them, their marriage a whole unto itself, each sufficient to the other.
The letters will have continued to arrive over these last fifteen years, the woman writing of her re-marriage to a man “in the publishing industry,” of their travels to Europe and Asia, of her life in Manhattan and the eccentric people she meets. Fifteen years of monologue, each letter signed,
Tu es dans toutes mes pensées,
Her last letter to Kaleo will arrive on a Tuesday morning. He will slip this letter into his satchel, intending to read it after his morning lecture. He will not learn that the woman has died until a week later when he receives an email from the hospice in which she had been staying.
In those months after her death, Kaleo will find that his memories of the woman do not fade as he had expected them to but rather grow sharper, more distilled, more insistent. At oblique moments during his day (walking across the Commons, erasing equations from his whiteboard, making tea in the Faculty Lounge) Kaleo will find himself abruptly bemused, lost in a kind of fugue as florets of memory blossom in his mind, a sudden and smothering profusion inflorescent like yarrow buds, sliver upon sliver layering the aggregate—
Her sunhat tangled in the thorns of a bougainvillea. The slow chop of the ceiling fan in her bedroom. The bone-handled paring knife, the chipped saucer, the sliced lemons she put in her gin. The sharp smell of the Gauloises she had smoked in bed, a seashell on her belly for an ashtray. The scarf of yellow silk, still redolent with her perfume. The soft weight of her hair in his fist.
All of his attempts to master this onset, to order them as neatly as he orders equations of force and mass and momentum, will fail, the memories hardening into a kind of shrapnel, each splinter bright and entirely uncalcified, without context or order yet each so distinct, so utterly palpable, that while these memories grip him he often cannot distinguish the immediate from the recalled.
In this fog of memory, only the woman as she was will be visible, the fictions of her letters, the details he learned after her death—her abandonment by her husband for a younger woman, her remarriage to a book dealer she met in a cafe, the drab basement studio she lived in after this second husband left her, the headaches that were not migraines, the charity hospice she died in—all of this will be obscured, veiled by his memories of the three weeks when they had been lovers and, especially, of the moment before it began, when the woman and the shivering boy had peered down on to Makapu’u Beach, their breaths held as they watched the wave suspended at its apex, its collapse just a moment away.
Dennis Y. Ginoza is an MFA student at Pacific University. He lives on the Kitsap Peninsula and blogs at www.dennisyginoza.com
Q: What was the inspiration for this piece?
A: One of my seventh grade teachers was gorgeous, a former beauty queen and model. She didn’t teach math, but if she had, I’d probably still have flunked.
Q: Why are you a writer?
A: David Long contends that “a writer is a reader moved to emulation.” I agree.
Q: What musical instrument are you?
A: I’d like to think I’m a shakuhachi but am probably more of a recorder: “Merrily We Roll Along.” B, A, G, A, breathe. B, B, B, breathe. A, A, A, breathe. B, B, B, breathe. B, A, G, A, breathe. B, B, B, breathe. A, A, B, A, breathe. G-G-G-G. Hold the last G for a count of four.”
Q: What’s your favorite part of the writing process?
A: I love editing and rewriting. First drafts kill me.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: Short stories and my MFA thesis.