I’m sitting on the sand with my head down and my hands covering my eyes. I can feel a hand on my back that I think is Kala’s mom’s. I hear people mulling around me but I can’t look up. I’m overcome by total embarrassment and horror.
First, I can’t believe this happened in front of Kala’s family. Second, I’m totally overwhelmed after seeing the woman I thought was my mom. I’m scared I look crazy or like a stalker for approaching Kala’s family in such a strange way.
“Josie?” I hear Gary say.
He sounds concerned and confused.
I look up and see Gary standing amongst the strangers in Kala’s family on the beach. I’m not sure I’ve ever been so happy to see him.
“Gary,” I squeak out.
“I found your note,” he says, before I cut him off with my quick movements.
I jump up from the sand, disregarding Kala’s mom who’s trying to comfort me. I almost leap into his arms and bury my head in the chest of his t-shirt. I start sobbing in an uncontrolled way that’s not like me. I’ve forgotten where I am and who’s around me. I feel safe in my uncle’s arms.
Gary’s saying something softly but I don’t know what it is. All I can hear is my own sobbing. I grab on tighter to the back of his shirt, pulling it taut around the front of his body.
“Josie,” Gary says sharply in my ear. “Listen to me, I want you to walk with me to the car now.”
“OK,” I say in a small way.
I feel like a little child who can’t make decisions for herself. Whatever Gary tells me to do, I will comply.
“Walk this way,” he says, turning my body with his.
I refuse to look up from his shirt. I will only look at the ground so I can walk without tripping over my feet.
“My stuff, Gary,” I murmur through the fabric of his shirt.
“Where’s your stuff, Josie?” Gary asks.
“Back there, on the beach,” I say, pointing without looking.
“Ay, brah,” I hear Gary say to someone behind us. “Can you grab that shirt and stuff for me? Mahalo, man.”
“Thanks, brah,” he says as someone comes close.
“No problem,” a man says.
I refuse to look up at who delivered my stuff, and I feel their presence dissipate as they walk away.
“This way, Josie,” Gary says, continuing our walk towards the car, per his instructions.
Gary and I walk silently and I realize I’m still crying. I don’t think I need to cry anymore, though. I feel less out of control now that I’m with Gary. The crying feels like something my body kept doing without any input from my brain.
I wipe the snot from my nose with my hand and grab my t-shirt from Gary’s hand to wipe more. Gary says nothing and continues guiding us towards the rental car.
“I’m going to let go of you to open the car, OK?” Gary asks.
“OK,” I say.
I feel his arms leave my body and I close my eyes tight. I don’t want to see anything or anybody. I pull my t-shirt, now wet with tears and snot, to my face and cover my closed eyes.
Gary’s hand is at my back and he’s helping me into the car. I sit down in the rental car and Gary closes the door behind me. I hear the gravel crunch in the parking lot as he walks around the back of the car to the driver’s side. He opens the door and sits down heavily, the weight of his body changing the balance in the car.
My face is still buried in my t-shirt so I open my eyes. The world has a dark fabric over it with bits of sunlight breaking through the threadbare spots of my old Vans shirt. I like it this way. I can open my eyes but don’t have to actually see anything. I feel safe this way.
Gary guides the car out of the parking lot and away from the beach. Our motel is so close, we are in its parking lot within a few minutes.
“Josie,” he says. “We’re here. I’ll help you get out.”
I shake my head affirmatively but say nothing else. I hear crunch, crunch, crunch, again as he walks around the car to my side. For some reason, I reach out and lock the passenger side door before he can open it. It feels funny and mischievous, and I can’t help myself.
“Hey?” He says surprised. “Can you unlock the door?”
“No,” I say with a laugh.
“Why?” He asks. “Josie, why?”
“I don’t know,” I say, laughing a little more.
I feel crazed. I hear a key in the old lock of the car, and then the door swings open.
“Can you get out of the car?” He asks in a serious tone. “I don’t know what is going on but let’s get inside so you can relax. Sound good?”
“Sure,” I say.
I’ve still got the shirt stuffed over my eyes and I’m not removing it.
“Can you walk by yourself?” He asks.
“No,” I say. “I can’t see anything.”
“That’s cause you’ve got a shirt over your face,” he says, annoyed. “Why don’t you take it down and walk?”
“Cause I don’t want to!” I yell through the t-shirt in his direction.
“Alright, alright,” he says, relenting. “Sorry. Come this way.”
His hand is at my back again and I walk forward confident that he’ll lead me in the right direction. I feel grass poking up from the sides of my flip flops as I walk towards what I know will be our lanai. I can still see streams of light through my shirt and am starting to be able to make out basic shapes, including the steps to the lanai.
“Step up,” he says.
“I know,” I say quietly.
“Let’s get inside,” he says, continuing to guide me towards the sliding glass door to the living room and bedroom.
I hear the now-familiar sound of the sliding glass door opening and Gary lightly pushes at my back to direct me through the door.
“Sit down here,” he says.
I oblige his request and plop down onto the couch.
“Can you take the shirt off your eyes now?” He asks.
“Close the curtains first,” I say.
“The curtains?” He asks, and then quickly says “OK.”
I hear the metal loops that hold the heavy, floral curtains scrape over the metal rod they hang from. The bits of light streaming through my shirt go away, and I am mostly left in black.
“Can I at least turn on a lamp?” He asks.
“No,” I reply firmly.
“Alright, it’s pretty dark in here now,” he says. “Can you look at me, Josie?”
I lower the black shirt from my eyes and stare at my tan legs that look much tanner in the dimly-lit room.
“Josie?” He asks.
I feel scared to look in his face. To look up at anything. I’m scared of what I might see around him. And I’m scared of what I might see on his face.
“Josie, look at me,” he says, with urgency.
I slowly look up and see my good old Uncle Gary sitting in a folding chair a couple of feet from me. His hair is in a man-bun, he’s smiling and his teeth are glowing a bit in the dark room. Something about his smile comforts me and I feel silly for holding the shirt over my eyes for so long.
“There she is,” he says. “How ya doin’ in there, little girl?”
“I don’t know,” I say. “Why do you seem so normal, Gary?”
“I feel better, I guess,” he says, beaming. “Probably the best I’ve felt since we’ve been here.”
I briefly think of the neighbor and then banish her from my thoughts. I can’t go there right now.
“We need to figure out what’s going on with you, though,” he says. “What happened at the beach? How did you know those people? Why were you acting so strange in the car?”
“I don’t know,” I tell him absently. “I couldn’t help it. That was Kala’s family at the beach.”
His eyes widen.
“It was?” He asks. “Where was Kala? Was he there?”
“No, no,” I say. “I don’t know where he was. I ran into them accidentally. I was there surfing.”
I remember my rented surf board. It feels like a far-off memory now.
“Oh no, Gary!” I exclaim. “I didn’t return my surf board! The guy was so nice, we have to go back!”
“Josie, it’s fine,” Gary says, holding up a hand to steady my invisible emotions. “The guy you rented it from will find it. He probably sweeps the beach if someone doesn’t return a board.”
“That’s not good enough, Gary,” I say sternly. “He was young and probably really needs the money. It’s like I stole from him.”
“Do you want me to go back and get it?” He asks.
I can tell he doesn’t want to go back.
“Yes, Gary,” I say. “That would make me feel much better. I can’t just leave his stuff laying on the beach waiting to get stolen.”
“Josie,” he says. “I really don’t want to go back there. That scene with all those people …” he says, trailing off.
“What?” I ask. “Are you embarrassed or something?”
“No,” he says a little too intensely for my liking. “I just have no idea what happened. I come up and you’re crumpled on the beach and then won’t uncover your eyes. I don’t know if someone hurt you or if a spirit entered you, or what. I want to know what I am going back to. And I’m scared to leave you.”
“No one hurt me, Gary” I say. “Give me a break.”
“Seriously, Josie?” He asks. “How am I supposed to know what’s going on? I didn’t know that was Kala’s family. I saw that lady hanging over you.”
“What lady?” I ask, alarmed.
“That nice older lady,” he says. “I didn’t get her name but she was standing over you. She seemed protective.”
“Oh, Kala’s mom,” I say.
I thought briefly he might’ve seen the woman in white, too.
“That was his mom?” Gary asks, surprised.
“Yes, she’s really nice but I was so embarrassed,” I say. “I had to get out of there.”
“Why?” He asks. “What happened?”
I pause. I have no idea how to explain this. I am really tired of seeing things that aren’t there; that no one else seems to see.
“Aaaahhhh Gary,” I sigh out.
“What?” He asks. “What’s going on Josie?”
“I think I saw my mom,” I say quietly, averting my eyes from his face.
“Where?” He asks.
“Not in here,” I say. “On the beach. When I was surfing.”
“When you were surfing?” He asks.
I look back up at him and he’s got a confused look on his face. I roll the wet t-shirt in between my hands as I continue my story.
“I thought I saw her on the beach, watching me,” I say. “Actually, at first I didn’t know it was her. It just looked like some pretty lady watching me. I saw her the first time I surfed with Kala and then I saw her again today. When I tried to talk to her, she disappeared into a group of people.”
“Kala’s family?” He asks.
“Yes,” I say, nodding my head. “Except I didn’t know it was them. I ran up to try to talk to her and then I saw Kala’s mom and sister. I got so embarrassed. I thought they would think I was a stalker or something.”
“I’m sure they aren’t going to think that, Josie,” he says. “How would you know where to find them? You were just surfing.”
“I know but I’d been trying to contact Kala all day and he wasn’t responding,” I say. “I didn’t want him to think I was following his family.”
“I don’t think he will,” he says. “You can be honest with him about what happened.”
“No, I can’t,” I say doubtfully. “What am I supposed to say? I saw my dead mom?”
Gary stares at me.
“So, then what happened?” He asks.
“The lady disappeared and Kala’s mom and sister had no idea who I was talking about,” I tell him. “Then all of the sudden, she was standing right behind them. She looked just like my mom. That’s when I covered my eyes and you found me.”
“Alisa,” he whispers.
He’s looking in my direction but it feels like he’s seeing through me.
“Am I seeing things, Gary?” I ask him.
I’m starting to feel unsteady again. Like I’m going to cry. Or lose my mind. I can see the lady, or my mom, in my mind.
“Was I seeing her spirit?,” I ask him. “I don’t understand. I’ve never seen anything like this before that looked like mom.”
“She disappeared into Kala’s family?” Gary asks.
“Yes, I told you that,” I say.
“And you first saw her surfing with Kala?” He asks.
“Yes, Gary,” I say, annoyed. “Jeez, do I have to repeat myself?”
“No, you don’t,” he says. “Do you think it’s a coincidence that you’ve only seen her in connection with Kala and his family?”
I pause and think about it. He’s right, I guess.
“No, I was just scared in the moment, I think,” I say.
“Don’t be scared, Josie,” he says. “If it was Alisa, she wouldn’t be here to scare you. She’d be here to love you. To point you in the right direction. To remind you of who you are.”
“To remind me who I am?” I ask.
There’s a tear sitting in the back of my throat, threatening to float up to my eyes.
“Yes, Josie,” he says. “You see her the first time you’ve surfed in almost ten years. Then you see her when you’re surfing again and she disappears into Kala’s family. I’d guess the message is, keep surfing and keep getting to know Kala and his family. Don’t you think?”
I stare at Gary. And he’s still smiling. He seems so absolutely Gary in the midst of this weirdness. It almost feels like my Venice Gary. Where’s this Gary been all week? I’ve missed him so much.
“I guess that makes sense,” I say reluctantly. “It looked just like my mom. I haven’t seen her since I was a little girl. I’m overwhelmed just thinking about it.”
I pull the t-shirt to my mouth and nose to stuff back the sobbing that’s threatening to come out.
“I get that,” he says. “I don’t want to minimize what you’re feeling. I just don’t want you to be scared. I think it’s pretty cool if Alisa was able to come through and give you that message. It’s a testament to her love for you, Josie. Who knows where she had to travel from to break through into this reality.”
I am surprised at Gary’s philosophy about how my mom’s ghost “broke into our reality.” I can tell he really wants me to believe him. That he needs me to believe him.
“Gary, really?” I ask. “You really think that? I’ve never heard you talk like this before. You really think that was my mom? That I’m not crazy?”
“Josie, you are not crazy,” he says. “I’ve been blocking out all this spirit stuff for so many years, when I know it’s real. We obviously can’t hide from this anymore. It’s going to be a part of our lives moving forward. Don’t you agree?”
“I guess,” I say. “I’m in shock, or something.”
“I’ve had much longer to absorb all of this, Josie,” he says. “I grew up around this stuff, remember? I’ve been thinking a lot. I have to help lead you through this, like my mom would’ve if she was here. I can’t stand by and not help you when I know so much from my own experiences with my mom and dad.”
I don’t understand why Gary’s talking so calmly about this now, but I guess I’m glad he is. I’m still not convinced that what I saw on the beach was my mom, but I like the idea that it was her. It makes me feel less scared to think she traveled from somewhere far away to give me a message. That she loved me enough to do that for me. Why now though? Why not years ago?
“Josie,” Gary says, interrupting my thoughts. “I know you might not like this idea, but I think we need to get off the island and get back home.”
“What?” I ask.
He’s right. I don’t like the idea. What about Kala? What about meeting his family?
“Gary, we’ve still got three days left,” I say. “Why would we leave early?”
“I’m not sure, Josie,” he says. “It’s just a feeling I’ve got. It seems like things are getting more intense here everyday. I feel like we both need to get back to our lives in Venice and try to level out for a bit.”
“But what about me seeing mom?” I ask. “You said you thought she wanted me to get to know Kala’s family.”
“And I still believe that, but it doesn’t have to be right now,” he says.
“I don’t know when we’ll be back, Gary,” I say. “I am not leaving early. I might not get this chance again to be with Kala and get to know his family. I’m taking advantage of it. I am not leaving early.”
I look at Gary and he’s not responding or giving any indication as to if he agrees with me or not.
“I don’t think you should leave either, Gary,” I say. “What about Janice next door? Don’t you want to hang out with her some more?”
I know it’s a desperate attempt, but I’ve got to convince Gary to stay.
“Janice?” He asks with a smirk. “No, I’m good.”
“Uh, OK, Gary,” I say. “I thought you liked her.”
“I told you it’s not like that, Josie,” he says. “I think you hear what you want to hear sometimes.”
“Maybe I don’t want to hear that you like to randomly sleep with women and dump them, Gary,” I say spitefully.
Am I really starting this again? I think my confused state is weakening my resolve to move past this.
“It’s not what you think, Josie,” he says.
“What is it then?” I ask.
I am totally exasperated with this topic. All of this evasive “it’s not what you think” crap. Well then what is it?
“Help me understand then, Gary,” I say in a more demanding tone than I intended.
Gary is still smiling at me, but it’s starting to look condescending.
“You’re not going to like it, Josie,” he says plainly.
“I can’t imagine liking it less than the thought of you sleeping with random women you don’t care about at all,” I say.
Gary sighs and looks at the ground.
“Josie,” he says, looking back up into my eyes. “I haven’t talked about this in a long time. The only people that really know about it are gone.”
“Tutu and grandpa?” I ask.
“Yes,” he says. “And Alisa.”
“What did they know?” I ask.
I’m so confused.
“I don’t just pick random people, Josie,” he says. “I’m drawn to them somehow. I have to be drawn to them for it to work.”
“To work?” I ask. “For what to work?”
“For the cleansing to work,” he says. “I don’t know if that’s the right word but it’s the word that mom used and it makes sense.”
“Cleansing?” I ask. “Like with a detox tea? Or a sauna?”
“Those can’t come close to what this does,” he says. “I’ve tried everything and this is the only thing that works.”
“What works?” I ask.
This conversation is weird and verging on alarming but I’ve got to know what he’s talking about. He talked about this with my tutu?
“Connecting with women the way I do,” he says. “I have to feel a connection. It happens in the oddest places, sometimes with odd women. But if I feel that connection, I have to be with them. They cleanse me and then I’m better until I feel a connection with someone else. Then I need to be with another person to get cleansed again.”
“Cleansed?” I ask. “You’re talking about having sex with these women, right?”
“Yes,” he says. “But no at the same time. It’s not just having sex. And it doesn’t work with just anyone.”
“It doesn’t?” I ask.
What in the hell is he talking about?
“No,” he says.
He’s looking through me again. He’s lost in thought or a memory while he looks at me.
“There’s a vibe,” he says. “If I don’t feel it, it won’t work. And that vibe doesn’t last forever. I can only be cleansed by the same person a few times and then it’s like something inside them dies, and they can’t help me anymore.”
“Help you?” I ask. “Do they know they’re helping you?”
“Not in the way they actually are,” he says. “They want to be with me. You know that. They all want to be with me.”
Ewwww. He’s right, but hearing him admit it is the grossest display of ego I’ve seen from him.
“So you use them and then throw them away?” I ask.
That snaps Gary out of his dreamy, far-off state.
“No, Josie, no,” he says, shaking his head. “It’s just for fun and then it’s over. I move on and they move on. People do it everyday.”
“Yeah, but Gary,” I say. “Don’t you think some of them are expecting more? Do you really think all of them just want some brief, short-term thing?”
He shrugs his shoulders in a callous way.
“They’re taking a chance,” he says. “I never promise anyone anything. It’s just for fun.”
“But it’s more than that,” I say. “You say they ‘cleanse’ you? How?”
“I don’t know how,” he says. “But I feel it. It’s hard to explain but I go from feeling run-down, maybe a bit sick or depressed, to feeling amazing and full of energy. I can always tell when it’s been too long. I don’t feel right. Like something is missing.”
I’m stunned. I don’t even know where to go with this conversation. Is this some weird excuse he’s created for being a player?
“I said you wouldn’t like this, Josie,” he says matter-of-factly.
We stare at each other for a few moments.
“Haven’t I seemed down since we’ve been here?” He asks me.
Of course he has. I’ve noticed from the very beginning.
“Yes, I guess so, but you seem better now,” I say.
I clamp my hand over my mouth.
“Janice?” I ask.
“Yes,” he says, nodding his head. “It took a couple of days because I was in such a dark place. But yes, it’s Janice.”
I think of the nondescript blonde lady I saw grabbing his butt the other day. I think about how she has no idea she’s “helping” him. I feel sorry for her for an unknown reason. Does she know she’s just being used?
“Janice isn’t looking for anything serious,” Gary says, answering my question. “She knows I’m from the mainland and will be gone soon. She’s just looking for some fun.”
“So that makes it OK?” I ask him.
“What else would make it OK, Josie?” He asks me. “She’s an adult, capable of making her own decisions. I told you, I don’t promise anyone anything. They enjoy their time with me as much as I enjoy my time with them.”
“Gross, Gary,” I say.
“I want you to understand this is an even exchange,” he says. “It’s important to me that you get that. I’m not taking advantage of anyone. Everyone is a consenting adult. I would never participate in anything other than that.”
I guess he’s right. As long as that’s all true. That everyone is consenting. I think back on the women I thought were his girlfriends when I was younger. Surely someone has expected something more from him at some point. But is that their problem? I don’t know what to believe.
“What about Janice, then?” I ask. “Don’t you want to stay and have her ‘cleanse’ you a bit longer?”
Saying that out loud felt wrong in some way.
“Our time is done,” he says. “I could tell when I saw her earlier today. It’s over now. In fact, it almost has the opposite effect if I overstay my welcome.”
“You mean, it stops healing and starts hurting you?” I ask.
“Exactly,” he says. “There’s a dark quality there that I can’t explain. I didn’t get it when I was younger. I tried to have long relationships and the darkness between us always got so heavy, I stopped being me. It’s hard to explain but I’ve learned almost the moment it starts to turn, and it turned with Janice. I won’t see her again.”
“So is that why you want to leave early?” I ask.
“It wouldn’t hurt,” he says. “But no, that’s not why. I’ve just got a bad feeling. It feels like our time is up here, like we need to go soon. Like I won’t be able to protect you if we stay here much longer.”
“I’m not sure you can protect me anyway, Gary,” I say. “Not from what came for me the other night at Da Nui. Not what came for me at your art show.”
Gary looks at the ground. I think I unintentionally shamed him.
“I didn’t mean it that way, Gary,” I say. “You’ve always protected and loved me but I think we can agree that you can’t stop these spirits from getting in me if they want to.”
“You’re right,” he says, nodding his head. “That’s why Kala’s so important. But I wonder if he has his limits?”
“Let’s stay and find out then, Gary,” I say.
I feel like I’m starting to plead with him.
“How will we know if we leave now?” I ask him. “What do I do if something approaches me in Venice? We still have no plan. Just because we want to get back to our normal life, doesn’t mean we will be able to.”
He stares at me. I think I’ve convinced him.
“I guess you’re right,” he says. “We don’t have a plan. I don’t know what we would do if something approached you at home. Maybe we should talk with Kala’s family soon. You saw Alisa today, what are you going to see next? We need to see if his family can help us.”
“I can’t see Kala right now,” I tell him, shaking my head. “Not after what happened today in front of his family. I need tonight to try to feel normal again.”
“I understand, Josie.” He says. “Let’s stay in. Keep the curtains drawn and order some food. Just you and me, like old times.”
I like his idea but this doesn’t feel like old times. Seeing my mom on the beach isn’t like old times. Hearing about Gary’s cleansing from sleeping with women isn’t like old times. This is definitely new times stuff and I don’t like it.