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On Vacation

by Linda Thomas

Think of a vacancyin your apartment building, rooms so empty that a tiny sound pinging off the blank walls flutters in your stomach. Think of the way your vacuum cleaner contains a space so empty of atmospheric pressure that every strange grain and foreign mote tries to rush in to fill the vacancy. Now think of your last good vacation--that weekend in Vegas, that week at Disney World, that summer in the Hamptons. Or maybe you backpacked into Yellowstone, flew to Cancun, did the museums in Chicago.

Wherever you went, you vacated home and brain, as in vacare, the Latin word that means to be empty or free. This emptying out, this freeing of the self from the schedules and deadlines of daily life, rejuvenates us for the return to drudgery. But there's more. A vacation, if we are paying attention at all, offers an opportunity to withdraw from the humdrum, the familiar, the habits that keep us safe. In such a state, we become other than we are.

This summer, I vacationed in Hawaii, a destination I had passed up for decades, presuming the place cliché--the hula, the ukulele, the flower lei. Then, last February, weakened by unceasing rainstorms and a bout with the flu, I could not defend myself when my younger daughter said, "I hear Hawaii is pretty." Next thing I knew, it was summer, and I was in Honolulu.

Several facts about Honolulu made losing--and finding--myself in the vacuum of freedom easy. First, there are only twelve letters in the Hawaiian language. So that even though English is the public language of the Hawaiian Islands, the hundreds of Hawaiian words used to name Honolulu places kept me constantly lost: Kapiolani, Kuhio, Kawalahao, Kalakaua, Kinau, Keeaumoku. K's and vowels. There was no way I could keep these words straight in my brain, let alone pronounce them with any fluidity. I was adrift--ecstatically so--for I was lost in a world marked by foreign words--the sure sign of a vacation.

Second, Honolulu lies between the Pacific Ocean and a range of mountains dominated by Mount Tantalus, bound by Diamond Head to the south and Barbers' Point to the north. Everywhere, contradictions fuse. The lacy green fronds of giant tree ferns soften the steel and glass entrances to a downtown highrise. As the sun sets, Pacific surf laps against the seawalls of the megacomplex Waikiki hotels. Midmorning outside a nightclub that advertises new-wave music and a two-drink minimum, three dark-skinned children practice their ami-ami hip rotation, a move that makes the hula sensual and articulate. The same mynah bird who in the morning perches on the green tile roof of the red Buddhist Kuan Yin Temple, in the afternoon squawks from the shade of the English stones that rise into St. Andrew's Cathedral. These paradoxes rushed into my vacationing self and filled me with new questions.

Finally, the Honolulu air is scented with the perfume of flowering trees, vines, and bushes, the likes of which I have not seen before. A low-branching tree with glossy green leaves, the plumeria produces clusters of creamy yellow, pink, apricot, or maroon five-petaled flowers, and a fragrance I can only describe as sentimentally tropical, the odor of serenades and balmy nights. Rainbow shower trees billow and spread in great masses of sweetpea-shaped flowers that are all at once pink and white and golden. Beneath the trees, the sidewalks are a carpet of petals. And outside a Vietnamese cafe, I spotted a large stand of pikake, its romantically white blossoms like little tubes unfurled into trumpets, and the scent as astonishing as a peacock's scream. Awash in these new smells, I could be silly, I could be still, I could find the fool in myself who bursts into song, pulls a poem from her pocket, and dances in the street. I could be on vacation.

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Linda Thomas was a judge in the Tapestry Fiction and Poetry Contest. A native of southern California, she has been writing poems, stories, and essays for 25 years, and her work has appeared in numerous print journals, including American Poetry Review, Hawaii Pacific Review, and the University of New Mexico's Blue Mesa Review. She holds an MFA from the University of California, Irvine, and is a community college professor of writing and literature.

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