Night arrived, starry and warm, and brought with it the familiar rumble of drums from the hills above the hotel. Robert took a sip of his Scotch and let the liquid burn in his mouth. As they had done each evening since arriving in Bora Bora, he and his wife Susan sat in front of their bamboo bungalow and listened to the sounds of the island. In the trees, strange unnamed birds made clicking noises that always came in odd-numbered bursts. An ocean breeze rustled the leaves of the plants that grew around their hut, and when it ceased they sometimes heard the laughter of other vacationers on the beach.
The trip had been Susan’s idea. Sitting at their breakfast table in Minneapolis with the snow glittering like spun sugar outside the window, she suggested they take an extended vacation while they had the chance. In the absence of children, they had both developed full, time-consuming careers, and over the decades many travel plans had been scrapped. “We’ve earned a little time in paradise,” she said. He agreed.
Robert put his glass down next to his lounge chair and looked over at his wife. She was asleep, reclined with a novel tented on her chest. A lock of grey hair had fallen across her cheek. He gently tucked it behind her ear and lay back, eyes closed. He was tired, too, sapped by the sun, but he wanted to savor every moment in this amazing place. It could have been the air, or retirement, or the serenity of a difficult decision finally made, but with each passing day he felt more relaxed and at peace.
Every morning they ate breakfast in the hotel restaurant, coming to favor the incredible selection of tropical fruits over rich but torpor-inducing French fare. Afterwards, they gathered their things from the bungalow and walked the short distance to the beach. At first, they spent most of their days reading; there was a third suitcase filled entirely with books they’d long meant to read and never gotten to. When they were thirsty or wanted a snack they hailed a waiter, who brought their order on a bamboo tray. When they needed a break from the sun, they dragged their chairs into the shade of a tall, tapering palm, or returned to their bed to make love beneath the slow revolutions of the ceiling fan.
They didn’t converse much. After thirty-two years of marriage they were comfortable with silence. All the truly important words had been spoken at home in Minneapolis; repeating them here would only make things more difficult. Robert had worked in advertising, a business in which the repetition of words was part of a carefully planned sales message, and he didn’t want to sell to Susan. So they read their books and drank their drinks and tried not to think about the things they weren’t supposed to say.
The hotel offered its guests the use of bicycles, tennis racquets, and all sorts of water-sports equipment. Robert usually wasn’t into beachside athletics, but as their stay went on he found himself returning again and again to the little thatch-roofed hut that distributed the toys. A few times he paddled Susan around in an outrigger canoe, weaving between the pilings that supported the over-water bungalows and making her laugh when he splashed her with an oar.
The water in the lagoon was a clear, unbelievable blue, and Robert found snorkeling like being on another world, with a different body and a different life among the spines and bulbs of coral. Sometimes Susan joined him in the water, but usually she stayed on the beach and watched or read. Robert would hold his breath and dive deep, letting the current carry him along as schools of fish parted and merged around him. In places, the lined white surface of the coral looked like a brain. He learned from an Australian couple that coral was really the calcified bodies of millions of tiny creatures; only the dots of color on the surface of the brain were alive, like tumors of life rather than death. Although he knew he wasn’t supposed to, Robert sometimes traced his finger slowly along the pattern of folds and grooves.
They watched windsurfers zip about in the lagoon, and by the second week Robert decided to try it, even though he hadn’t been on a board since he was sixteen. Susan told him he was a fool, that it wasn’t worth getting injured over, but Robert couldn’t be dissuaded. He remembered how much fun it had been as a kid, but mostly he wanted to see if he could still do it.
For three days running, he spent nearly half the afternoon in the shallow water by the shore, struggling to get the mast upright and the sail into the wind before he toppled off the board. It was difficult, and it made his back ache, but he didn’t give up. He enjoyed the sensation of his muscles flexing and straining, enjoyed learning it was never too late. And then on the fourth day he suddenly had his balance, as if his body had worked it out while he slept. He felt the wind wanting to pull the edge of the rippling sail around and he let it, holding the crossbar lightly with both hands and grinning into the sun. Before long, he was able to ride out into the lagoon and back without falling. Susan told him she wasn’t going to watch him show off, but several times he caught her with her book in her lap and a smile on her face as he skimmed past.
Their trip took place toward the end of the rainy season. On some days, massive clouds scudded across the sky, appearing out of nowhere and then disappearing just as quickly. More than once they opened up for a brief but furious downpour, and Robert began to understand how storms could catch even the best sailors unawares.
Every other day and twice on weekends, the hotel ran bus tours of the island. Robert and Susan took a three-hour trip that ran through cashew groves and pineapple fields in the lush hills. The driver casually navigated the narrow, winding roads, telling the same jokes in French and English as the bus roared by nearly-naked Tahitians on sputtering scooters. The final stop was a local distillery, where they drank samples of banana and coconut liqueur and came away with souvenir bottles for friends at home.
They signed up for a second tour, which included Polynesian ruins and a hike in the mountains, but an hour before they were scheduled to depart Robert got a splitting headache. It came on suddenly, and Susan had to walk him back to the bungalow.
He lay on the bed with his hand curled around his eyes, breathing shallowly. From the bathroom came a clink and the sound of running water, and then Robert heard her unzip his toiletry bag and rummage for his bottle of headache pills. There was a long silence. Groaning softly, Robert opened one eye and saw her standing in front of the sink, holding a translucent orange bottle up to the light. He closed his eyes again.
The light snapped off, and Susan moved to the bedside. “Here,” she said, and pressed four tablets to his lips. He swallowed them with water from the glass she held out. Susan put the glass aside and rubbed his back through his gaudy Hawaiian shirt. “Robert?”
He swallowed thickly. “You know what? I can barely think. I just need to lie here for a while, okay?”
“All right.” She stood up. “I’ll be right outside on the patio if you need me.”
“Go on the tour,” Robert said.
“I’m not going to go without you.”
“I’ll be right outside,” she said again, and slid the glass doors closed.
Mountains covered eighty percent of Bora Bora, sheer grey cliffs soaring up from the encircling skirt of beaches. Their hotel was on the eastern side of the island, and in the early evening the sun would drop behind the mountains, leaving a soft glow but no direct rays. Great fingers of light reached up through the haze rising off the peaks and suffused the passing clouds with tones of red and gold. At these times the mountains looked almost fake, like the papier-mâché landscapes Robert had placed around his toy train set when he was a child. He often wondered whether the people on the other side of the island gave thought to their extra minutes of daylight.
In the open-air lobby of the hotel there were sign-up sheets for activities ranging from shark feeding to hang gliding. One day after lunch, Robert put their names down for a twilight trip around the island on a sixty-foot sailing yacht. Late that afternoon, a young Tahitian named André brought them to the boat in a small runabout. They sat quietly while he chattered away about the hotel and the monsoon season and about wanting to see Los Angeles someday. There were four other couples on the cruise, all young honeymooners who talked excitedly about where they had been and what they had seen and the lives they looked forward to together.
The captain, a tall, wind-weathered Frenchman, stood at the wheel and pointed out items of interest as they skimmed across the turquoise water of the lagoon. He showed them the World War II gun emplacements on the mountainside, which were now almost completely overgrown, and related the story of Captain Cook’s arrival in the mid-eighteenth century.
At one point, the boat passed into a section of water that was a rich, dusky blue. The captain told them this was a natural inlet in Bora Bora’s coral reef. The water was dark because it was much deeper, and led out to the ocean. At the edge of the islands, he said, the ocean floor rose up thousands of feet in only a few hundred yards. The water inside the shelter of the reef was shallow and calm, but outside, the waves were fierce. Ships passing through the inlet had to be careful not to get dashed to pieces. As the captain guided the boat across the dark band of water, Robert saw huge swells rolling through a gap in the distant white spine of coral. On either side of the gap, the waves were breaking and sending explosions of spray into the air.
Later the captain had the crew anchor the boat, and they ate dinner watching the sun set. The sound of the waves crashing against the reef came softly to them over the water, and that night Robert heard it in his dreams.
Robert usually went windsurfing in the afternoon, when the breeze was strongest. One day after he came in to shore, he took a roundabout course to their spot on the beach and sneaked up quietly on Susan. He leaned over her and shook his head, spattering droplets of water on her upturned face. She laughed, and pulled him down for a kiss. Then she released him and looked at the top of his head. “Oooh, Robert, you’d better be careful, honey,” she said. “Your little dome is bright red.”
He dropped into his chair and picked up his book. “Don’t worry,” he said, “just getting a helpful dose of radiation, dear.” He smiled at her, but she didn’t smile back. He sighed. “Oh, all right. Hand me the sunscreen, please.”
Susan took it from the beach bag, tossed it to him, and stared back down at her own book. Robert slathered some lotion on his head, and then sat facing her with the bottle in his hand and the cap still open. He sighed, and traced one of his eyebrows with a fingertip. “Look, Suze,” he said, “we already—”
“You’re right,” she said, cutting him off. “Let’s order a couple of Mai Tais and some of those plantain chips. What do you say?”
Robert searched her face for a moment and then nodded. “Yeah. Yeah, that sounds good.” He stood up and moved to her chair, still holding the sunscreen. “But first… Uh, oh, I think…” He made a face. “I think I might have diarrhea.” Susan looked up at him, still not smiling. Robert squeezed the bottle of sunscreen. There was a coughing noise and fat drops of lotion splattered across her legs and stomach. Susan snorted and giggled a little. Then, when she saw his expression of mock woe, she gave in and screamed with laughter, making little kicking motions with her feet.
Robert laid his hand on her shoulder. “Well, ma’am,” he drawled, “it looks like you’ll have to go in the water and wash that off. I’d be happy to help you, of course.”
Susan stood up and hugged him, squelching the lotion between them. “Race you,” she whispered into his ear, and then took off down the beach with Robert close behind.
On their last evening in Bora Bora, Robert and Susan ate an early dinner and went strolling along the beach, hands loosely clasped. He’d had a headache all the day before, and another this morning, but around three it cleared, and he felt good. The timing couldn’t have been better. They came to a small, open-sided bamboo hut that had been erected in the middle of the beach. Torches were burning at the doorway, and there was a low, woven-reed altar inside. As they drew close, a huge, bare-chested Tahitian smiled and beckoned them in.
“Robert, what is this?” Susan asked.
He took her hand. “It’s a wedding chapel. I’ve arranged for us to renew our vows in a Tahitian ceremony.”
Susan gazed out toward the ocean, but didn’t say anything. He waited. Finally she turned back to him and gave a small smile. “Okay.”
Robert led her to the altar. The holy man raised his hands out to the side, palms up, and began the ceremony. He asked the ancient gods to bless the couple, to watch over them and to guide them, and he asked the couple to love and respect each other, no matter what life brought their way. As he continued, Robert took Susan’s other hand and looked into her eyes.
When the ceremony was over there was a smattering of applause from the small crowd of vacationers who had gathered to watch while they sipped their drinks. The holy man gave Robert and Susan each a small white feather. He told them to walk to the water’s edge and throw them in as a symbol of their journey together on the ocean of eternal life.
Later that night they lay together in the hammock in front of their bungalow. Moonlight shimmered in a streak on the ocean. A bottle of banana liqueur stood on the small table next to a single glass; his headache was threatening to return. Susan was on the edge of sleep when Robert said, in a low voice, “It’s almost over.”
Susan turned her head and drew in a shaky breath. She made a fist and pressed it against her lips. Suddenly she swung her feet to the side and got up. She took two quick steps to the sliding glass doors and pulled them open. “Come on,” she said, “it’s getting late. It’s time to go in.”
Robert said nothing.
She waited. “Are you coming?”
“No,” he said.
She went to the hammock, pulled him to his feet, and put her arms around him. The smell of her perfume, light and spicy, not an older woman’s perfume at all, mingled with the tang of the salt air. He breathed deep and hugged her close.
“You’re sure?” Susan whispered. He nodded, and heard the click in his throat as he swallowed.
“All right,” she said. Her embrace tightened, and then she let him go.
“I think I’m going to take out one of those windsurfers,” he said. “Try some night sailing.” She nodded, and tears spilled down her cheeks. She brushed them away with her wrist.
“Susan…” He reached a hand toward her, but she shook her head and took a small step back, folding her arms tightly across her chest.
“You better go ahead,” she said.
“Okay,” he said, but he didn’t move.
“Good…good night, Robert.”
“Good night, sweet Susan.” He waited a moment longer, and then began walking toward the beach. His shadow stretched across the sand before him until she turned off the patio light. He wanted to look back, but he didn’t, and he was glad when the rustling palms became the only sound he could hear.
Robert made his way to the thatched hut where the canoes and windsurfing rigs were piled against one another, waiting for tomorrow’s carefree vacationers. He smelled the smoke of burning palm wood, which the islanders used in their cooking pits, and the brine of the ocean. The sound of music drifted faintly from the hotel restaurant, but when he listened carefully he thought he could hear the distant roar of waves slamming into the reef. Robert kicked off his sandals and pulled one of the surfboards to the water’s edge. He remembered the captain of the sailboat telling them how beautiful the reef was by moonlight. As the wind filled his sail and he glided slowly away from shore, he prepared to see it for himself.
Ian Breen lives and writes in western Massachusetts. His fiction has appeared in Five Chapters, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, Roanoke Review, and elsewhere.
Jordan Singer is a photographer in Boulder, Colorado. See his full bio here.