Twice in entering the ocean my left nostril starts to bleed. I do not notice until a friend points it out. I flick my tongue across my philtrum, a taste test: there it is, the Fe, the NaCl. I have forgotten how salty the sea is, and most of my high school chemistry.
While I snorkel (in spirit: mostly I am squinting at fish through Costco goggles, gasping for air every third second, as if the waves were made from fire, as if every stroke polluted my lungs, as if I didn’t just taste the iron to confirm that through me flows oxygen, a heart alive), I think about if fish are attracted to blood. I am terrified of getting too close to them, of destroying their patient, complex reefs, of them destroying me. In the sea I am so fragile and small. During my senior year of high school, the magnitude of the universe and our relative insignificance was so empowering I made it the yearbook theme. During my senior year of university, I stopped giving a fuck and dove headfirst (literally, it was painful, but only briefly) into nautical intractability. Now I find freedom in fear. I am not in control. (“You don’t actually do reckless things,” Matthew tells me one balmy evening, as the ocean glistens a deep black and stretches onward, blindly, forever. “All your risks are calculated, rationalized.”)
As in ionic equations and governing contracts, any relationship can be constructed from, although not reduced to, a set of compromises. The sea and I exchange compounds: my blood, its sand, both in probably inconvenient places. I think about the conservation of mass, I think about how it’s cliche when people tell me we’re born from stardust. I decide feeling righteous is an emotional waste, and accidentally (or maybe not, maybe in self-punishment) swallow the crest of a wave. It is so salty I immediately develop a headache. It is not the first time I have reacted negatively to external salt. I think about streams (of water, of data), the holes in our bodies, consent, intimacy, and people with .io domain names.
We spend the last day in the south of Maui. Myna, who were originally brought in 1866 to control the cutworm moths that ate sugarcane, one of Hawaii’s staple exports, are everywhere. They have now become a threat to local wildlife, and a minor inconvenience to tourists in grand beach resorts, who complain about the myna’s call, which sounds like a rusty door hinge. The other category of white people, the ones who live here, all seem to have an respect of indigenous culture that is scarce on the mainland. I wonder: Do they feel like myna? Loud, and considered an invasive (though highly adaptive) species? Are my friends and I, afforded this vacation through our tech salaries, curating photographs to post on social media and whining until we’re fed The Like, the myna?
Part of our last day involves a hike through “archeological sites” with the Sierra Club. One of us found it Googling. When we arrive (after frustration and haste and “Where the fuck did ______ go, why can’t we just stick together”--but still before the ranger), we are surprised to see that everyone else in the group is local, white, and retired. The ranger makes everyone get in a circle and introduce themselves. After we speak, she tells an anecdote about Korean school teachers that makes all of us uncomfortable. (We are Chinese and Vietnamese and a bit Indonesian; the Asian diaspora is confusing to us and our families.) She chastises my friends for wearing sandals, nods approvingly at my closed-toed shoes (which, by this point, smell transcendentally awful); my friends change into sneakers, and then we watch everyone else spray paint stakes and hammer them into rock formations built 800 years ago. Someone finds the skull of a deer. Two hours in, as we descend the lichenous lava, someone else asks me, “Aren’t you glad you changed your shoes?” I am mildly offended, but mostly find it funny, in a sad, well-intentioned-but-still-racist way.
On our first day, we are picked up from the airport to the Rent-a-Car place by a man a few years older than we. He was born and raised on this island; he considered moving twice, but life (once, inexplicably, another, the birth of a son) always compelled him to stay. “They’re stopping sugar cane export now, though, since it’s not as profitable,” he sighs, gesturing out the window towards fields we cannot fathom--it is night, and we are fresh off the plane. “If anything gets me to leave, it’s that. If they chop them down, Maui won’t feel the same anymore.”
The plane ride home is a red-eye. I drift through sleep uncomfortably, scratching the 16 mosquito bites I’ve collected on my legs. They are close enough that if I fan my fingers across my thigh, I am greeted with a delightful topology of my own private histamine-induced mountains. Only female mosquitos bite, for they use the nutrients from the blood to lay eggs. Mosquitos: born from blood (my blood) and still water. With each passing day the bites shrink a little, itch a little less. Since then, I’ve moved in with a friend, whose father has a low-sodium diet. I’ve also started an internship, where I was thrown into a sprint meeting immediately after HR orientation, and could, obviously, contribute nothing. Let me be clear: the magpie, in its clever beauty, will always be my favorite bird. But the myna has the right idea: when you are invited to something, if you are adaptive and--dare I say--agile, you too can be boisterous and invasive, but, as long as you’re useful and cute (or white), people (who, exactly?) will forgive and see the value in you.
It's all so neoliberal. Pointing out these things has always brought me the same sour self-satisfaction reminiscent of days when I was so high-strung on a superiority complex. (Sometimes--not often, but enough--I wonder if these days are still abound.) Then I donate and call representatives and make a point of self-education, but still feel like nothing will ever be enough. I am privileged that I am not exhausted with outrage, that I have the resources to fight. By principle my activism and actions stem from a genuine desire to make the world less bad, but Matthew keeps reminding me that I'm a real asshole. A magpie caught with a beakfull of the queen's jewelry. So the curtain falls.