The Beauty in Me

Hawai’i, U.S.A. – August 1993

The highway from Honolulu to the North Shore slices through naked orange earth. A desolation that I didn’t expect. “Those are pineapple plantations,” Pebby explains. Her battered beast of a car sputters. She blanches. There’s an electrical problem of unknown origin. “If it starts to smoke, we need to pull over and get away,” she explains. “It might catch on fire.” Beater cars are the norm on the North Shore of Oahu, it seems. It’s even a source of envy to have one. As we descend into Haliewa, the problem subsides. She gives me a quick tour of the town before heading to work.

My little sister is a professional daredevil. She dives off the waterfall at Waimea Falls Park. When I sit in the audience and watch her, I see the high-strung little girl who dreamed of going over Niagara Falls in a barrel. She is living her dream. She is twenty-one and has lived in Taiwan and Thailand. I visited her in Bangkok a year ago. So much has happened since then.

Photographer Unknown

I clasp my hands in my lap. I’m on the verge of twenty-five. I’ve made it as far as California. But that’s nowhere near far enough away. What would it be like to live such a life of freedom? More than anything in the world, this is my wish. I’m still unable to visualize too far into the future. I’m unable to see past today, really. Maybe this is how it’s supposed to be.

While she works, I explore the park. After her shows are finished, we meet up at the entrance. She places a crown made of palm fronds and flowers on my head. She hands me another creation. “This one goes around your ankle. I make them in between shows.”

Back to her place we go. Rents are astronomical on the North Shore, if you can even find anything. Pebby resides in a shack in the middle of a banana plantation. She pays more per month than I do in my shared house in Palm Desert. Light streams through the cracks in her walls. Her bathroom consists of a toilet, sink, and a tub with a rubber hose. Cold water only. I wash up, gritting my teeth against the cold, keeping an eye out for cane spiders. They have leg spans the size of my hand. They are too rubbery, too cartoonish, however, to be frightening. But that doesn’t mean I want them on me.

We spend her only day off hiking into a narrow, green valley. The jet black slopes of solidified lava are blanketed in the richest green I’ve ever seen. Along the way, she tells me of the spirits that inhabit Hawai’i. The Menehune, the Little People. And the Huaka’i po, the Night Marchers. I listen in silence as the gulch constricts around us. I can feel we’re not alone. The trail ends at Sacred Falls, a thin white ribbon that cascades down a shiny black groove. People frolic and soak in the murky baptismal font below.

The next morning, I drop Pebby off for work and drive to the beach. I’ve been back in the Southern California desert for a couple of months now. I live in a place of perpetual sunshine and warmth, and yet, no matter how much light shines on me, I’m surrounded by specters. Dad’s death, my breakdown, the night in the hospital, and lingering, always, the bad thing that happened two years ago. The betrayals that followed. All of that which finally drove me home to Michigan. In utter defeat.

But the darkness is dissipating. I am able to be touched again. I even have an almost-boyfriend. He had tears in his eyes when I said goodbye. A week apart can be forever, sometimes. I know he’s seeing another while I’m gone. Just to prove to himself that I’m not so important. The things we do to protect our hearts. I just want mine to be alive again.

I sit on my towel and watch the surfers bob in the waves. So serious and yet so comical. Congregations of beach bunnies await their return to shore. Perfect bodies in tiny bikinis. Hair color and physical features may differ, yet they are indistinguishable.

Not so long ago, I was just as pretty as they are. I look down at my pasty white body with a sigh. I’m nowhere near overweight, but my limbs are flaccid, hesitant. I’ve just re-emerged from the primordial ooze. I’m in the process of taking form again. Of re-becoming.

When I showed my driver’s license at a convenience store, the clerk, a young dude, exclaimed, “Woah, that’s you?” He looked at the license again, then at me, and shook his head.

“Yes,” I said, too numb, still, to be hurt. Still just trying to stay alive. And have you looked in the mirror lately, dude? I took the bottle that I’d bought and left without another word.

I squirt sunscreen into my hands and begin to rub it into my skin. A gust of wind blasts me with sand. It sticks to the sunscreen. I flip onto my knees and cower under my towel until it passes. I peek my head out. The wind seems to have spared the beach bunnies. Of course. A movement out of the corner of my eye. A guy is sitting on the sand a few yards behind me. A camera hangs around his long neck. He’s laughing, but it’s not unkind. I roll my eyes in embarrassment. Whatever. With a giggle and a shrug, I lay my towel flat again. The sand and sunscreen mixture has now hardened on my skin. I go for a swim to wash it off and rinse the knots out of my hair.

When I get back to my towel, the guy strolls up to me. His name is Vava. He’s from Brazil. He’s a photographer. Black curls, deep brown eyes, and soft features. I’ve heard that many Brazilians have African ancestry. I answer his questions with an amused frown. Why would he choose to speak to a dork like me?

“You have personality,” he says, as if reading my thoughts.

We melt into easy conversation and the day passes. He tells me of a place he’s heard of, not too far away. A sacred place on a hill. We find it as the sun descends towards the waves. We walk softly amid the primitive monoliths. Neither of us speak. He cradles his camera in his long delicate fingers. I back away and observe him as he works. He is in another realm.

He lifts his head and smiles at me. “Thank you.”

I shrug. “You’re welcome.” The conversation starts up again as we walk to the car. We make plans to hike to the top of Ka’ena Point the next morning. I drop him off in town and head to Pebby’s. I catch a glimpse of myself in the rearview mirror. My skin is glowing and blonde strands have begun to appear in my hair. Two days in Hawai’i have achieved what months in California could not. I’m beginning to shine again.

We scan the jagged edges for the trail. No markings are visible. We walk until we come upon a dead end. I peer over the side of a deep green chasm. So far down. The uncanny stillness within me. Not much is frightening anymore. We give up the search and pull ourselves up the side of the cliff. We’ll worry about how to get back down when the time comes.

We stand at the edge. An instant of panic. He could so easily push me off. But it passes. I turn to look at him. His gaze is piercing, yet gentle. His camera in his grasp.

“Take off your clothes.” His mouth twists into a smile. “I dare you, wild girl.”

I stare down at the distant waves, my heart pounding in exhilaration. An instant of hesitation, then my clothes fall to the ground.

“Turn to the side. A little more. No, that’s too much.” His soft touch on my shoulders. His delicate fingers tilt my chin up. The whimsical sparkle in his deep brown eyes. “Look into the sky. Okay, perfect.” He pauses. “There is so much beauty in you.” He kisses my cheek and steps back.

The wind’s embrace. The sharp clicks of the camera. And the sun, flooding my heart with joy. Finally.

Pebby meets us at her shack for dinner. We share the story of our adventure and a bottle of crappy red wine. The daredevil hasn’t yet climbed Ka’ena Point. After the wine is gone, she leaves for her boyfriend’s. And Vava and I are alone.

We giggle and smooch and grope, but never quite get to the act itself. We doze for a while, fingers interlaced, and then he leaves. My address tucked into his backpack. His flight to Tahiti leaves in the early morning. Maybe he’ll write to me, maybe he won’t. It doesn’t really matter. I do a quick search for cane spiders, shut off the lamp, and burrow into the blankets. Smiling. When I get back to the desert, I will tell my almost-boyfriend. He will pretend not to care. Soon we will no longer be almost. I don’t even know how I feel about this. I close my eyes and drift into dreamland.

A couple of months after my return to Palm Desert, a manila envelope materializes in my mailbox. No return address. Inside are two black and white photos. Me at the top of that serrated peak. Head thrown back, beaming at the sky. My body in profile, a flattering, elegant pose. Tendrils of hair caught in the wind’s grasp. I cringe. The monochrome tone accentuates my acne scars and cellulite. Then I see the words scrawled on the back: Ka’ena Point, August 1993. Look at you there. Just like the day you were born. So beautiful. Vava.

65 thoughts on “The Beauty in Me

  1. What a beautiful story! Wishing you meaningful moments these days as well. Btw I know cane spiders are super creepy, but I think they eat cockroaches (which are almost as creepy) 🙂

  2. This warms my heart, Julie. Your story reminds me that the people we randomly meet can leave the most profound memories. I’m happy for your ‘re-becoming’.

  3. Great story Julie!! I remember some bits and pieces of it but it’s great to read about it! I always LOVE reading your material! See you soon! Love you! 🥰

  4. “The things we do to protect our hearts.” Your story brought forth so many of my own attempts too…and of the shames we pile upon our bodies. And, then of course, I always admire your courage in wanting “to be alive again,” despite the pain and hurt. How marvelously you juxtapose both in this post. Wishing you a lovely autumn.

    • Thank you, dear one. I wrote this to remind myself that our hearts exist to be alive. Yes, it does take a lot of courage to open up after being hurt. A delightful autumn to you as well.

  5. Hello Julie,
    Simply wow. Such a wonderful, poignant story of a special experience, told with such honesty and thoughtfulness. I appreciate your message of healing and redemption – it really made my evening. Stay safe and happy autumn to you.

  6. You touched my heart with this story Julie. Thank you so much for sharing this, your writing is simply exquisite. Shine on beautiful you. Yes, you are re-becoming … 🙏💜

  7. A carousel where the Earth swirls with fantastic beings, an honest paradise hiding the proverbial snake; because sweet things of life somehow are venom too. Yesterday I traveled to an orange earth of the desert, and arrived to an agricultural lot, these days they are producing strawberries and fields of cactus used to farm an insect that produces a red tinture. I thought too. I am very glad the day got your gleam and a kind smile, in dark days that is like finding gold.

    • We live in a time of deception, for sure. Discernment is a crucial skill. I hope all is well with you, amigo, and that your trip to the desert was full of light.✨

      • WordPress from me is having some changes, before I could check and like in the web, and as so I had noticed properly that you had turned off the likes. It feels nice, amiga : ) And rereading my comment I had to write “I thought an ‘orange earth’ too. The load of my days is lightening a bit, wishing you well too, amiga. I was thinking the Brazilian traveler made a portrait of you, and now we are reading his portrait by you : )

  8. Your every post is magic, Julie. What a beautiful day, perfect remedy, and sacred encounter. Isn’t it interesting how sometimes we get just what we need at just the right moment? I head for Oahu in ten days and will try to walk in some of your footsteps. ❤

    • Yes sometimes random magic happens when we need it most. Have a wonderful trip to Oahu! When I was writing this, I looked up the places I visited all those years ago. Apparently Sacred Falls is off limits now because of a landslide that happened in 1999. I’m lucky that I got to see it, even though I’ve got no decent photos of it. Pre-digital days, you know. 😎

  9. A moment in time lovingly remembered – fine writing as ever, Julie. Intrigued by Beater cars – not a term I have heard before (and I am a petrol head ;-)). I can understand the attraction but there isn’t the same scope in the UK – cars over 3 years old have a mandatory test to prove they are roadworthy which sort of limits the scope for finding wrecks on the verge of collapse – a shame 🙂
    I haven’t posted anything recently – the usual laziness but I also contrived to catch COVID which laid me up for 4 weeks. Not a pleasant experience but the worst seems to be over. Hope you are keeping ok, all the best, R

    • I believe everyone should have to own and drive at least one beater in his/her lifetime. I’ve had more than one. I loved to watch people moooove outta my way. Haha. 😎

      So sorry to hear that Covid knocked you flat for so long, but good to know you’re recovering.

      All is well here. I share your laziness for posting. The new WP block editor certainly doesn’t help my motivation. Take care.

  10. A beautifully fragile flower child, Julie. Is your sister still defying devils? Bubbling with youth then, is she a happy fulfilled woman now? Wishing you peace of mind.

  11. To remember is a profound gift, Julie. To connect with another, for a moment is time, gives vibrant life to our present. Your writing is a testament that we are the stories that we hold within our souls.

  12. Great picture of you and your sister next to the “beater.” I’ve had a few of those that took me on some wild adventures. Somewhere, there’s a photo of one. Sigh.

    Loved your story and admire your patience to persevere.

    Agree with you about the Block Editor. It’s awkward. There’s a way around it to continue with Classic editing.

    • I’d love to see that photo.🙂

      They’ve hidden the classic editor well. I can only seem to use it to edit posts and then it takes out all the formatting. The block editor is so restrictive and unintuitive. It’s become a chore to post.

      Wishing you a beautiful autumn, John.

      • Try this to bypass Block Editor: Go to Dashboard, click on Posts/All Posts. New window opens. Look to the top where it says Add New. Click on menu arrow, click on Classic Editor. It should open a posting window with all the usual Classic Editor features and formatting. Works on my Apple iPad and iMac in both Safari and Chrome browsers.

        Still looking for that photo.

    • I had the desire to explore the planet for as long as I can remember. This trip deepened the wish, and then it eventually came true. It can happen sometimes.🙂 Hope all is well with you, Lexie.

  13. It’s an amazing feeling finding that spark that relights life into us and makes us feel human again, I found it South Africa and boy what a difference.

  14. Such a beautiful story, and beautiful storytelling. I was immediately immersed, both in your narrative, and in my memories of Oahu in 2015, and in hints of memories of being that age, twentysomething, and being so sure and so unsure at the same time. I wonder how I ever survived. I imagine you do too. And yet here we are, richer for all life has thrown at us. Thanks Julie

    • Yes, when I look back I wonder how I made it through. The depth of the pain I was in back then only became apparent decades later. I believe we minimize/normalize it while we’re going through it, probably as a survival mechanism. I guess we’re richer for it, but lately I wonder if we tell ourselves this as a way to assimilate it and carry on. Maybe one day I’ll figure it out. Hugs back to you.💖

  15. Another amazing piece of writing, Julie. To be able to dive into these adventures with you is a bit of a thrill, takes me into another world, a tribute to the life you’ve created ~ and how fun it would have been to spill a beer or two with you and your accomplice, Pebby, on this adventure. I like your mantra of “We’ll worry about how to get back down when the time comes.” It makes me feel nostalgic about the fearlessness of youth yet also comfortable knowing I’ll never recapture such a carefree spirit as I had then, and I’m better for it 🙂 Gotta say, love the photo of you two next to Pebby’s beater.

    You share such rich memories of the past with your words and photos, a feeling of time being limitless in youth along with the belief that all those great souls you meet along the way will always be there… until time moves on. I think that is the innocence of youth I admire and had forgotten about, so thank you for taking me back. Don’t suppose you could share with us the photo that Vava took of you on Ka’ena Point, could you?!? 🙂 Enjoy the autumn of your Michigan, and take care!

    • Kaena point was my favorite place in all of Oahu. It was past mushroom valley and quite a dry, desolate hike from the end of the road from the northwest. the Hawaiians have a legend that it is the place where souls depart the island after death.

      • So you did go there eventually and it ended up being your favorite place. Not surprised, Peb. I do remember how desolate it was, but I didn’t remember that legend. Or maybe you didn’t know it yet, when I was there. Did you know that no one has been able to visit Sacred Falls since 1999? We’re lucky to have seen it.

    • While I was writing this, I wondered if I would be able to publicly share those photos, if I still had them. We live in a time of sharing everything, but I guess I’m old fashioned that way. Anyway, I deliberately destroyed those photos when I moved overseas. The only person who ever saw them besides Vava and me was my almost-boyfriend who did become a boyfriend. I didn’t want anyone to find them in the box I left at my parents’. I was ritualistic about their destruction and in my mind I still see them more clearly than if they were in my hands.

      Some may see it as a sad thing to do, but I’ve come to believe that we carry everything within us at all times— past present and even future, though accessing the latter is something we’re only beginning to understand. This memory, like all of those I share, are very foggy at first. Until I sit very still and quiet and so much comes back. First emotions, then events, thoughts, and sensations. Some details are so random and surprising. When I do this, I feel as though time is forever limitless and age is a construct of society.

      Anyway, I giggle at the idea of young Dalo in the beater car with Pebby and me. Oh my, the antics we would have subjected you to.

      Thank you, always, for sharing your rich thoughts. They brighten my rainy Saturday morning. Wishing you a delightful Czech autumn. Take care.

      • I think it is always good to hold a few cards close to the vest. Secrets are valuable to have if for nothing else than keeping you company at times. Good choice in leaving those photos in the past ~ as you say it makes the memory even stronger.

        It is funny how some memories stick with us, no matter how minor, yet others leave almost immediately even if at the time we deem them so important. I enjoy looking back, especially via photographs, and as you say at first it is quite foggy and them details begin to crystalize. Powerful, and I can see that in your writing. And, yes, to have been at the mercy of you and Pebby, young fearless minds with the backdrop of the paradise of Hawaii, it would have been something else 🙂 Enjoyed this post very much – and wishing you well. Take care ~

  16. Hawaii is probably my most favorite place in the world. I lived there twice and I think it shaped me as a person. Loved seeing your adventures there ❤

    p.s it’s your former DPRK roomie (tried emailing you asking about your bunny Raven) my emails keep getting returned 😦

    • Hey, Jenn! 💕So nice to hear from you. Hawaii has a special magic, for sure. Though I wouldn’t want to live there, at least for very long. Sorry about the email fiasco. I will email you from my new address. Raven is doing well. 🙂

  17. So often we read, or talk, about falling down, reaching rock bottom, and then how it felt to be back “up” again. It’s not usual to be talking about the ‘during’, the process of rebuilding one anew. Thanks Julie for this piece, it was stunningly beautiful.

  18. Vava was a gentleman. É boa gente mesmo… You did meet some good people along the way.
    Thanks for the story. (Written form my “new” cabin in Cuernavaca… Bises.

  19. A very beautiful story you shared. You really know how to make your memories memorable when you read them and how vivid the photos make your story to people that read it. Also how you picked yourself up when you were sure yet unsure about your life at the same time and I really related to that myself.

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