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They finished first, splashing the Kilo Hoku into Ala Wai Harbor with sails taut, rigging ahum. All but the skipper and a pair of trimmers hiked on the rail. Back at the pier, Bret accepted the bottle of sparkling wine and raised it for a sip, the bubbles burning his tongue – his first taste of Champagne, acidic and disappointing. He passed it to Tobias and Conor, eyeing the discontented sky – the briny haze, the tatter of high clouds.
“I can’t drive you guys back tonight,” Professor Aragaki said, coiling a line on the dock, the sunset paling behind him. “There’s a monk seal at Waikiki, right in front of the hotels.” His tone was reverent. The seals were endangered. They hauled out on shorelines to rest, but on town beaches, in those days, they were unheard of. “I’m going for a look.”
Aragaki taught their Introduction to Oceanography course and was the only reason Bret was aboard. One morning early in the semester, he’d called for experienced sailors. Bill, the boat’s owner and skipper, had asked Dr. Aragaki to find new crew. After class, Bret, Tobias and Conor – Bret a stranger, the other two old friends – had been waiting beside the dais.
Bret’s command of sailing was limited to a few long-ago afternoons with his grandfather in a borrowed dinghy, its weathered coamings slapping the foul-smelling lake water. But on his first afternoon aboard the Kilo Hoku, his inexperience had gone mostly unnoticed, as had the cheat sheet of sailing terms he’d scrawled on his palm – realizing too late that the first burst of seawater would render the notes unreadable. As he’d hoped, sailing was transformative. In this new reality there was influence and opportunity. Yacht clubs and friends like Conor and Tobias. Conor’s dad ran a private equity fund in Connecticut, which was offering an internship the next summer. Bret had applied immediately. Tonight was the only time he’d see Conor before break. His last chance to ask if Conor would put in a word with his father.
Bret’s unfocused transcript – his intentional turn from journalism to marketing was still pending – and general lack of upper-class suitability were not going to get him the kind of internship he needed without help. So the gig with Conor’s dad was his most viable escape from another summer working the fryer, the reek of hydrogenated oil trailing him home. Enumclaw – his mind recoiled. Soft mossy roofs and yards with busted trampolines. A meager main street clinging to desperate bars and antique shops.
“Conor boy, good hustle on those tacks,” Bill said, standing in the cockpit with a contented smile. Bill was bald, gold-watched and gruff. He’d founded an office machine company – the uninspired, saltine-cracker sort of success that instilled Bret with yearning, but also inexplicable dread.
Conor stood at the gunnel in his designer sandals, framed by strings of Christmas lights hung on the nearby clubhouse. An unselfconscious grin spread above the marble scaffolding of his jaw, a look honed for approving coaches to be deployed for supportive bosses – men like Bill. He and Bill looked invulnerable, standing together. Bonded by status, accustomed to winning. Wealth cloaked them with invisible armor – Conor more so because he was born into it. By contrast, Bret – five-nine, 160 pounds, loaded with student debt – felt naked and imperiled.
Dr. Aragaki tossed the coiled line onto the deck and stepped closer on the pier, nodding to the three of them. “You can come see it, if you want,” he said, still preoccupied by the seal.
Conor and Tobias turned him down. They’d spent last Winter Break on a Galapagos cruise with Conor’s parents, so the seal was just another endangered slab of fur and blubber. Unwilling to split with Conor, Bret declined too.
Bret convinced the guys to ride the bus to save the cab fare, promising the 13 would get them to campus with no transfers – which was true, though he underplayed the quarter-mile walk to the stop and the bus’s plodding circuit through Honolulu. They snuck the Champagne aboard and passed it among themselves in the air-conditioned chill, ducking for swigs in the back row, drinking with gusto because it was their prize. The driver indulged them with an eye-roll. Tobias and Conor grew bolder as they neared their stop. Bret worried about the transit police.
Bret planned ways to bring up the internship. The longer he delayed, the more daunting it became to redirect the conversation. Still, no awkwardness or measure of embarrassment could outweigh another summer in the kitchen of the Eagles Lodge. Returning home was failure. Success was a promising – albeit lonely and sort of mundane – summer in Greenwich, writing presentations for fund managers. Just the sort of résumé boost he needed.
At the last off-campus stop, the bus was delayed by an exiting rider, shouting at the driver, wearing grimy clothes and a Santa mask – not only the beard and hat but a whole face, loose and rubbery like the end of a condom.
“We should get a suite at the beach,” Conor was saying. “Tell the girls they can see the monk seal from the balcony. Rare wildlife,” he said, affecting Aragaki’s awed tone. “Once in a lifetime.” Then, switching back to his usual bluster, “They love that kind of shit. Bret, you in for a third?” He didn’t need to ask Tobias.
The argument up front had drawn the attention of a disheveled woman sitting nearby and she let one of her plastic bags slip, avalanching a rattle of plastic water bottles onto the floor.
“Uh,” Bret said, stalling, feeling the onset of mortification. He slid off the seat, crouching, gathering the woman’s bottles, feeling uncomfortable – even somewhat guilty – for having introduced Conor and Tobias to this squalid scene. A third of a suite. Maybe a hundred dollars? Food money for a month. No way.
“Forget it,” Conor said, impatient, swiping a hand in dismissal. “I’ll pay. But we tell the girls it’s my room.”
Bret finished loading the bottles and retook his seat. Conor elbowed him. “Dude, you’re gonna get syphilis.”
Bret shifted his gaze to the ground, eyeing Conor’s designer sandals again. He mustered a laugh – hoping to seem easygoing – and went silent again.
They spilled out in front of the law library, the hot breath of the bus fanning out, mixing with the ever-present scent of plumeria wafting down from the lawn. Bret spotted his roommate, Thuan, walking up from the bike racks where he stored his moped, straight black hair flopping on his forehead. Tall and disciplined about his workouts, Thuan met everyone with the earnestness and intensity of a Make-A-Wish kid at spring training. And now he asked Tobias and Conor the questions he asked everyone: What dorm are you in, where are you from and why are you here?
Interview over, Tobias and Conor went back to planning. “Thuan, you know any girls?” Tobias said.
Thuan nodded. “Lots.” Indeed, he did. He was so extroverted that Bret sometimes found it exhausting. Bret didn’t know how many of Thuan’s female friendships translated to hookups. More than he was getting anyway.
“Great. If you can bring four girls, come to my party,” Conor said. He signaled Tobias and they walked off toward their own dorm, in the only tower with private bathrooms. Bret realized then that the exchange to UH had been a downgrade from Tobias’s and Conor’s university.
He considered following Conor to spring the question. But with Tobias there, it’d be awkward. Their first night on the boat, noting that he and Tobias were closely matched in height and build, and seeing Tobias’s greater skill, Bret had made a show of outgrinding him on the winches, compensating for inexperience with grit. But he had a fondness for the guy because, on a shelf in the room he shared with Conor, he’d spied Fugazi’s 13 Songs on CD. He’d uncovered no similarly endearing details about Conor.
Up in his room, Bret bent and used a handful of tissue to pick up the husk of a cockroach he’d spied under his desk. The buzzing overhead fluorescents glared on the pineapple-yellow walls.
“You like Conor?” Thuan said. Bret had told him about the internship. Thuan wanted context.
“People seem to like him,” Bret said, dropping the wadded tissue into the waste bin and leaning in his desk chair. Having considered it a moment, he said, “Anyway, he knows a lot of people.”
“I saw him at a bar, talking to my friends,” Thuan said. Bret pictured tittering girls, Conor leaning with confidence. “I went to buy drinks and he crowded in and said he’d have a shot, like it was his round. But it went on my tab. And the next time he bought drinks he forgot I was there.”
“Probably wasn’t intentional,” Bret said, lifting a snow globe of the Seattle skyline from his shelf – an ironic gift from Cara, his not-quite-girlfriend who’d nonetheless broken up with him. “I think if you’re born rich, you don’t get so hung up on fairness.”
“Is that what you want?”
“Born rich? Sure, but I’m getting old for it.”
Thuan was changing shirts again – cords of triceps shifting, his confident posture highlighting slabs of pectoral muscle. He didn’t acknowledge the dumb joke. “You said you wanted to write for magazines.”
“I don’t want to go through life never knowing what it’s like to have money.” Bret glanced at his screensaver, watching the star field rush out of the abyss. “Is that tacky?”
Thuan eyed him, looking amused. “My family immigrated. If someone finds a way to earn, we don’t worry about tacky.”
Bret felt implicated in something – he wasn’t sure what. “If you want real money, you have to decide now. You can’t start out indifferent and then change your mind.”
“You’re American. You can change your mind whenever you want.”
That was awfully optimistic, even for Thuan. Bret turned the globe in his hands and picked at an errant bit of glue on the base, worrying over Conor’s demand that Thuan bring girls. “You better make some calls.”
As they rode to Waikiki in a taxi – Conor, Tobias and Thuan in back, Bret in front watching the meter – Bret was thinking about Thuan’s comments, about how little he knew about guys like Conor. The world saw them differently than it saw him. He’d become sorely aware of how he was perceived, on the fizzling of his quasi-relationship.
He recalled meeting Cara – the way she’d written her name in big vigorous cursive, how her face lit up with deep passion when they talked about the future. She was trim, with fantastic legs and a wide smile under clever green eyes – looks that could’ve imparted a sense of entitlement, but to which she seemed mostly oblivious. Maybe she was conscious of an advantage sometimes – how her appearance offered access to certain things, the way Bret’s sailing could.
He’d fallen hard, as he always did with girls out of his league. She liked his tousle of brown hair, his strong nose – his wry humor, when he was comfortable enough to share it. It hadn’t been a breakup exactly. He felt more like an intern who hadn’t received a permanent offer. She dreamed of vacations in overwater bungalows and five bedrooms in a good school district. He talked of backpacking and, someday, a loft in a gentrifying neighborhood.
Their split jibed with his mother’s worries. She wanted him to be a radiation therapist. Not a doctor – that was too lofty for their family. But she was only vaguely aware of the difference between a BA and BS. And she was ignorant of prerequisites. What stung was that her goals for him always seemed tied to concern the world might not love him – certainly not in her selfish mode – unless he made money.
So on the plane to Oahu, with sudden resolve, he’d rewritten his future. He could apply to become a marketing major. Work in branding – at worst, as a technical writer. Securing a good job wouldn’t be easy – not the way it’d been for his Boomer parents – but it was essential. A path to invulnerability.
Bret noticed Tobias looking sullen as they walked into the hotel, met by the salty-sweet smell of coconut shrimp and buttery ono from the restaurant, slack-key guitar in the bar and a froth of gold ornaments on an imported fir in the lobby.
They stopped by the elevators. “You guys wait here,” Conor said.
Bret watched the elevator lights moving up and down above the eucalyptus-green doors, distracting himself from his unasked favor. He felt the dampness on his palms and in his armpits. Could this be his last opening?
He swiveled to Thuan and Tobias. “I’ll be right back.” Tobias eyed him, puzzled, probably reading urgency on his face.
When Bret caught up to him, Conor was talking to a floral-dressed desk woman.
“Hey man,” Bret said. Conor clacked his father’s credit card on the counter, sweeping Bret with a glare. Bret stepped back, not wanting to crowd him. “I need a favor.” He explained his job search, and his application for the internship. “I was wondering, if you don’t think it’d be weird…”
The desk woman rattled the keyboard. Conor didn’t look at him. “Sure, no problem,” Conor said.
“Really?” Bret searched Conor’s face for any sign of irony, or teasing, but Conor seemed serious. Still, he sensed something unsaid behind Conor’s casual expression.
“I’m not sure why anyone would want it,” Conor said. “So boring.” He leaned and did a standing push up off the high edge of the desk. “A few buddies are thinking about being analysts at Lehman.” Standing straight again, he checked his biceps where they swelled from his sleeves. “You should try that. Pay’s shit, but at least it’s got status.”
Or maybe I’ll become CEO, Bret thought. “Yeah, I’ll consider it. But the internship…” He glanced at the exuberant ornamentation of the lobby tree again, a Douglas fir – he’d seen plenty along the White River – probably shipped from somewhere near home.
“I’m sure I can get it for you,” Conor said, looking around, as if searching for some more-discerning person. “But I also need a favor.”
“Of course, anything.” Bret tried to anticipate the request. And for a moment, he knew how it might feel to enter Conor’s circle – mutual benefits, a sense of acceptance.
The desk woman pushed a printout to Conor and he whipped off a signature. “Two cards?” she said.
“He’s just a buddy of mine,” Conor said, but he accepted the second card.
They stepped away from the counter. Conor stopped and gripped Bret’s shoulder, turning him so they were facing. “When you’re home, I need you to find some OCs.”
“OCs?” Bret had no idea what this was.
“Oxy,” Conor said. “Pain pills. You’re from some, like–” he winced theatrically “–shithole town out west, right? No offense. You must know people. It’ll be easy.”
And now Bret knew what he was talking about, but wasn’t sure what to do with the information. It was true. Bret was a few degrees of separation from a handful of addicts back home. One was in prison for stealing copper wire from a construction site and another was dead. None of his friends used, though. His cousin who’d been hooked had gotten clean, and now he never stopped talking about Jesus. “You want me to bring them back here?” This sounded illegal.
“Yeah, they’re prescription, you can just put them in an old bottle and bring them on the plane. I do it all the time. Everybody’s got pills.”
“Why me?” Bret said. “You’ve got every connection in the world.”
But connections talk,” Conor said, with an imperious shake of his head. “You’ll keep this quiet.”
Not at all sure he was sufficiently ballsy – or reckless, or stupid – to do it, Bret nodded. “Sure, no problem.”
Girls were arriving in the suite. Bret drifted, thinking of home. Frank, a dishwasher at the Eagles, had done time, and still lived in a halfway house. He probably knew ways to get OxyContin. And Bret’s friend Daryl’s brother had been to rehab. He was sort of scary though. Bret wondered how easy it was to get caught buying the stuff.
Thuan had become the center of activity. Most of the girls who’d come knew him best, so he defined their zone of security, which meant Conor and Tobias had to heed the same geography. Bret stood apart at the wet bar, mixing his second drink of spiced rum and something called pass-o-guava nectar from an open can. No ice in the bucket, so he added more alcohol, swizzling with a finger. He glanced at Conor, who was showboating for the group, and gulped his drink, shuddering from the astringent booze.
He envisioned Enumclaw – rattle of bare trees, blustery cold, tinged with woodsmoke – thinking of his flight next Thursday, wondering which car he’d borrow when he got to his parents’ house. It was the first of a series of calculated decisions. Winter Break had become complicated.
The more he thought about Conor’s request, the more it rang false. Was it really about discretion? Not wanting to give his contacts leverage? Bullshit. It was a test. Without money or connections, what value did his friendship have? But the analysis changed if he’d transgress on Conor’s behalf. His transgressions would make him complicit. And complicity was loyalty’s vicious older brother.
A few people were on the balcony, peering over the railing. A girl at the edge swung her head around. Bret recognized her – haole like him, with an upturned nose, gently curved face and a single beaded braid under umber hair. She looked vaguely like Cara.
“The seal’s behind the trees,” she said. “We’re going down.”
“Let’s do this,” Conor boomed from across the room.
In the elevator the hair-braid girl stood next to Bret. He’d guzzled the rest of his drink and now he felt its heat. For a moment he worried she felt it too. A dumb thought. He glanced at Conor, wondering if he should doubt the guy would honor their deal.
The hotel’s floodlights shot bright yellow light onto the sand, the beach now a rolling field of light convexities and dark concavities. They could see the orange rope and the signs warning tourists, “DO NOT APPROACH.” The lights were off over the monk seal, but when its oily black eyes opened, Bret saw the glint of the skyline reflected, like cold stars through broken clouds.
Conor shucked his shirt and shorts, briefs and all. The girl with him, Sara, stripped to her underwear. “Let’s do this,” Conor roared. He raised his arm, pointing at Bret, grinning. “You’re my guy, right?” Bret nodded weakly, his face growing hotter. But it was deeply satisfying to be noticed – to have value. Conor went buffaloing into the water, foamy wake blooming.
Beside Bret on shore, Tobias watched Conor, his expression subdued, pensive. “We’re friends because we grew up in the same neighborhood,” he said, as if Bret had insisted on some justification. “Swim team. Parents in the yacht club. Now we’re in this exchange program.”
Bret knew what he meant. So much of life was determined by one’s childhood address.
All the others had jettisoned clothing and were now splashing into the blood-warm ocean. Brett and Tobias followed.
“Let’s swim out where it’s dark,” Conor said, his tone hushed and conspiratorial. He swung his chin out to sea, then back at the seal. “We’ll come up on the water side of him.”
Bret and Tobias opposed it, saying they should let the beast rest. But Sara signed on, as did another guy, Charlie, a big, Hawaiian kid from the North Shore. The rest stayed behind in the calm, shoulder-depth water. Bret’s body loosened. His thoughts had a pleasing fluidity from the rum. The hair-braid girl swam close enough that he could feel the current from her body when she moved. They faced Diamond Head now, mirror shards of moon on the water.
A far-off clamor yanked Bret out of his brief reverie – an eruption of shouting on the beach. A stranger’s voice, a man yelling, “Hey there, stop!”
They turned to see Conor in the seal enclosure. A man in tan pants and white epauletted shirt was approaching. Sara was still in the water. Charlie – having grown up in a world with real consequences – had vaporized seconds before the guards appeared.
There was a moment of stillness as the men faced off. Then Conor began to run. A second guard swept out from the deep shadows on the hotel grounds, lunging at him. Conor easily broke away, arms pumping, hopping the ropes, pulling ahead of his pursuers. And even from forty yards Bret could see he wasn’t scared – he was grinning.
The guards gave all they had to the chase, sprinting in Conor’s wake, puffs of sand rising behind them. Conor must’ve decided to go for cover on the other side of the street, because he feinted right and veered left toward the three lanes of traffic. The driver of a landscaping truck saw him coming and braked hard.
As Conor passed the truck’s grill, his head pivoted toward the oncoming car. Too late. The bumper caught the side of his legs and for an instant he appeared weightless, turning in the air. Bret heard a groan escape his own lips, a sound of helplessness and private loss. Conor smashed down on the windshield, limbs rending, meat and bone compressing, glass bursting. He tumbled back over the front end onto the sandy pavement. The sound arrived a quarter second later: a nauseating thump, followed by a hiss of glass on concrete. He landed out of sight.
Dressing on the beach seconds later, all eyes were on the disturbance on Kalakaua. Except the monk seal. Bret glanced over and saw it staring back at him, head raised, fixing him with its black, pitiless glare – an aspect older than humanity.
12 years later, in Seattle, inside the candy-colored expanse of cafeteria at the online travel startup where he worked, a Facebook notification appeared on Bret’s phone – a friend request from Conor, which he immediately accepted.
Scrolling the pictures, he saw Conor’s face bearing the same happy arrangement of features – posed humdrum rosters of friends in restaurant interiors designed to justify high prices or ensconced in family vacation homes with holiday décor unlovingly arranged by staff – but the glow of heroism that’d once persisted behind his eyes had dimmed.
Bret recalled that night – bits of memory washing up like old, uncanny artifacts. Conor’s brain had swelled, and they’d induced a coma. After his release, his parents had brought him back to Connecticut, his college career displaced by physical and speech therapy. The internship was forgotten, and Bret lost touch with him and Tobias. But now Conor was here on Bret’s phone, subtle suffering etched in his face, having never received full access to his world.
Bret recalled the ecstatic charge he’d felt just before they’d heard the shouts from shore. And he remembered the way they’d dressed and run together, up from the water’s edge to the street where Conor lay limp, blood pooling from a head wound. Someone had spread a red-striped beach towel over his middle, a small token of dignity in front of the gathering crowd. And Tobias had knelt, speaking to him – a stream of words, kind and incomprehensible.
The impression left by these memories was of vastness in tension with meaning. Like standing on a forlorn stage, crowded with supporting characters, with no lead, playing to an empty house.
After work – his mood muted but serene as he climbed the stairs to the two rooms of his apartment – Bret fixed himself a bachelor’s dinner and sat eating at the coffee table, glancing with vague contentment at some show. He went to bed early and lay in the semidarkness, listening to his neighbor’s television – the wahr-wahr of muffled voices and brief clips of song – and thought of swimming.
Ryan White is a writer and lawyer living in Seattle with his cat, Django. He's currently revising his first novel, The Retreat. His work has appeared in J Journal, Seattle Homes & Lifestyles and Curbed. He’s been briefly jailed and hospitalized (separate incidents) while chasing waves in Mexico.