In this weekend’s story, Vanessa Blakeslee takes us to Tahiti, where our real journey is a marriage just beginning. Two honeymooners, one obsessed with Tahiti Water, explore the truths and untruths of relationships, economics, environmentalism, a shared life. We are invited to look through the window of these first few married days and somehow–through the deftest touch–see their whole future together. –Matt Salesses, Good Men Project Fiction Editor
On the flight from L.A. Nina flipped through pages of white faces lit by a bonfire at night. The faces stared at dark girls with bare feet, hands on waists and grass skirts in mid-sway. Of course, the trip wouldn’t be as crisp and fake as what was shown—hikes to the top of a ridge rimmed with blue sky, a zip-line past huge trees, charming street kids selling strands of shells and conchs. But she can dream, no rules against that. For the past few years the only water Nina drank was Tahiti Water. She and Clint were finally visiting the island.
Before takeoff the flight attendants had passed out Tahiti Water bottles to everyone on the plane, and Nina’s stood on the tray. At home she kept the fridge on the coldest setting. Here, even though her complimentary bottle had turned lukewarm, she could still taste the minerals, the magical silica. She imagined the minerals strengthening her bones, her hair and nails growing in a time-lapse photography sort of way. All tap water was swill next to Tahiti Water. She had been hoping to go there, despite the staggering price of jet fuel driving up ticket costs, the pressures to stop buying bottled water to keep paying the mortgage, and the wedding. When the time came to book the honeymoon, Nina was adamant. This was their chance to visit the volcanic aquifer portrayed on the back of the bottle. Clint favored Greece or Italy, someplace with historical ruins, but Nina uploaded the island’s official tourism website. Everybody goes to Europe, she pleaded. What about Tahiti?
In the business class seat beside Nina, Clint was reading The Economist. Nina shut her in-flight magazine and punched the call button. Clint glanced up from the magazine. “Need something?” he asked.
“Another water,” she said. “I finished this one.”
He reached into his seat pocket and wriggled out his bottle, three-quarters full. “Just take mine,” he said, holding it up. “I’m going to order a nightcap soon, anyway.”
She waved off the bottle, tugged the corners of her blanket higher, and clutched her arms underneath. “I want my own.”
“But it’s silly to bother the stewardess. I barely opened this one.”
The flight attendant beamed down then, asked if they needed something. Clint started to say no but Nina interrupted. Flight attendant gone, Clint shook his head at his wife and picked up his magazine.
“What?” she said, shrugging. “I want my own, that’s all.”
“Whatever,” he said. “Anyhow, no way is that water from Tahiti.”
“Oh, yes it is.” Nina took a quick sip and replaced the deep blue trademark cap. This had been their running argument ever since she booked the tickets. She said, “I’ve read articles by angry journalists who complain about all the CO2 the jet planes put into the atmosphere, shipping in bottled water from Tahiti. Plus there’s the volcanic aquifer.” She held out the sweating bottle and tapped the back. “Look. They can’t claim all this if it isn’t true.”
“Oh, yeah?” he said. “Prove it. I bet you in a couple of years, there’ll be breaking news about the Tahiti Water scandal. That it’s really from some polluted pond in Arkansas.”
“I’ll have to show you the bottling plant myself, I guess,” she said. “It’s the only way you’ll ever believe me.”
“Bottling plant? What about the volcanic aquifer?”
“You can’t actually go to the aquifer,” she said. “It’s underground, and the factory sits on top of it. I’ve already done the preliminary research. But we can find the factory, I’m sure.” She took another long sip from the bottle, just for spite, smacking her lips.
“Scam, scam, scam,” Clint sang softly, fixed on the pages in front of him. “The whole world’s going broke, and it’s because we’re importing water”—he glared at her—“from Tahiti. But whatever makes you happy, baby.” She lifted the arm rest and snuggled next to him, Clint’s hand stroking her knee.
At home, in between packing, Nina had clicked the link titled “Fun Facts” on the website: “We are proud to bring jobs to a part of the world that needs them. Our team works hard to bring each drop from the rock to your lips, to share Earth’s pure gift with you.” Next to the text was a slide-show. One shot captured a group of brown-faced men in blue work shirts, their smiles bright and arms crossed, white factory behind them. What else would these islanders do if not for the plant jobs? Would they be better off if they fished, or chased the cruise ships? Needs were needs, work was work. On each shore wasn’t it the same? On her trip list she noted the plant site, a day’s trek from their luxury beach hut. They would need to take a bus. A thrill, this rare chance to glimpse the other side, to see where what she so loved to drink was born from deep within the earth, far from man’s waste and ruin.
Clint and Nina spent the first three days in Tahiti renting jet-skis, sunning and snorkeling, drinking and fucking. He admitted, silently and reluctantly, that this was better than the ruins of Pompeii or the Roman Forum, which from this speck of the globe seemed to exist in his own back yard. He began to realize why Gauguin stayed, and he hoped Nina could find the lazy contentedness too, and forget the impulse that prodded her there in the first place. But on the fourth day he arrived at the breakfast buffet and found her asking a hotel clerk about the local bus schedule to the other side of the island where the artesian aquifer was supposed to be, tucked away in some lush, pristine and otherwise undisturbed valley. The clerk, a young native woman in pressed boutique hotel whites, absorbed Nina’s questions with a bewildered, strained look before answering. Clint wondered how many nosy American tourists showed up, pestering the locals about a water-bottling plant belonging to a multinational corporation—of the few who did, most were probably backpackers, Greenpeace fanatics on their way to chase down commercial fishing boats in the Pacific, or some other type of sandal-recycling liberal. The types who would put the planet first before people, never mind that people were part of the planet. Certainly this must be the first time a honeymooning couple made such a request. “You can go there, but there isn’t much to see,” the clerk said, shifting behind the counter. “The roads are not good. That part of the island is very remote.” Clint found himself trying to hide behind his pineapple and sip, the juice sweet, iced perfection. Another day in the sun, a few beers and a firewalker show later that night would be just fine.
A minute later Nina sank into the seat next to him, waving a colored tourist map marked with the clerk’s instructions. “Half a day away,” she boasted. “The island buses are safe and cost hardly anything.”
“Why can’t we just stay here, and enjoy all this?” he replied. “This fresh pineapple, for instance. I could have about three of these a day.”
“You can,” she said. “As soon as we get back. You don’t just want to stick around here the whole time, do you? We’ll always remember this little day trip to the aquifer, every time we open the fridge.”
“I didn’t think you were so serious,” Clint said. “About the aquifer.”
Nina’s chin dropped and her lips pressed into a thin line. He sensed tears brewing, reached over and patted her hand atop the map. Already this was starting to feel like the time he threw the recycling into the dumpster by mistake, Nina so mad she didn’t speak to him for two days, even though he should have known better—the bin had been filled mostly with Tahiti Water bottles.
“It’ll be fun,” he said finally. “You don’t think I’d let you go by yourself now, honey?”
“Maybe I should go by myself. Why should I drag you along if you don’t want to go?”
“I do want to go. You’re perfectly right, it will be fun. A little adventure into rural Tahiti.” He pressed his fingers between hers and leaned over. Nina’s hair was slightly damp and smelled like shampoo. “I just want to be with you,” he said into her ear. “I don’t care if we ever set foot past Papeete.”
When he pulled away she was smiling. “But didn’t you want to go zip-lining?” she said. “Maybe we should do that this afternoon, go to the factory tomorrow.”
He had thought of the zip-line that morning, but hadn’t mentioned it because he knew Nina was apprehensive about it. They had awoken at dawn to the shore birds outside the hut, had sex and fallen back asleep, so by the time they awoke again had missed the van for the jungle tour. But he’d let it go, thinking he could care less about whizzing through the rainforest, really. Unlike Nina. He hadn’t thought much of her reasoning when they booked the trip. Now the whole thing was beginning to unnerve him, her obsession with this silly aquifer. Why did Nina, whom he’d been regarding as his wife since long before the ceremony just days ago, want to ride a smelly bus to see a water bottling plant when they could be horseback-riding or getting a massage? She didn’t even like to cut through the shady neighborhoods back home. But if the zip-line was her tradeoff, he guessed he could accept that. Marriage meant doing things you didn’t want to do, sometimes. Maybe even on your honeymoon.
“Sure,” he said. “We can do the zip-line. As long as you’re okay with it.”
“I’m fine,” she said, looking down as she cut her fruit. She ate in silence, watching the late morning surfers ride the ocean.
“One billion people worldwide lack clean drinking water,” Clint reminded her the next morning as they zipped shut their day packs. “And I know you don’t want to hear this, sweetie, but consumers are nothing more than big kids who believe in fairy tales.”
“Well, I’m not that type of consumer,” Nina said. “I read labels. I’m informed.”
“You read what they want you to read,” Clint said. He was a business writer, and knew too much. Companies had two options—to reveal the truth and disappoint consumers to the point that they would lose faith, or to create a fiction and keep them hopeful, engaged, buying.
It wasn’t right, Nina thought as they walked to the bus stop. People shouldn’t be controlled by other people. Each person had a right to water, just like they had a right to be informed. But how that was supposed to play out, she had no idea.
The bus was packed with islanders, Nina and Clint the only tourists aboard, squeezed into the last bench seat in the back. Nina sipped her Tahiti Water as she took in the surroundings; she had been delighted and relieved to see it for sale everywhere. The bus wound through the countryside, the air humid and choked with diesel, the mood solemn despite the oddity of the Christmas songs belting from the speakers, a Kenny Rogers/Dolly Parton album Nina remembered from when she was a girl.
As the bus grew farther away from the port city, rural Tahiti encroached upon them. Nina had expected to see modern, middle-class homes and schools, but instead they passed concrete block dwellings with women outside beating rugs, or hanging laundry. Mutts chained to trees barked and lurched at the road. Once in a while, a multi-storied house with lots of glass loomed from the hills overhead, the driveway and property barricaded by a gate, European cars or shiny SUVs parked in front. There had been heavy rains in the valley and when they stopped in one of the towns, the bus’s tires spun in the mud and the driver shooed everybody out, jabbing his thumb toward the stand on the adjacent corner. Nina clutched her backpack close and when she slipped her hand into Clint’s, he squeezed and didn’t let go. They joined the throng of islanders, leaving the bus stuck in the street. Unlike in the States where complaints among the passengers would be volleying back and forth, no one said anything. Even passengers riding together remained silent, so Nina and Clint did too. They waited for the next bus that would take them deeper into the valley, toward the volcano. Half the passengers seemed to decide to walk wherever they were going, and soon became dots beneath the sugarcane. Nina sipped her water. She stared at her pink flip-flops with the little strawberry insignia on them, her pedicure still intact from the wedding, and the tanned feet of the woman next to her, the long hard toenails in cracked, nameless plastic thongs.
After hiking down into the rural valley with nothing but cows and fruit farms on either side, Nina and Clint approached the entrance to the Tahiti Water plant. Signs in French, English and Tahitian and an armed guard greeted them.
The guard turned over his shoulder and gestured to the white, windowless building behind him that somewhat resembled an airplane hangar, but longer. One of his dark-blue sleeves read “SECURITY” in white letters. His other arm cradled an automatic rifle. Clint wondered if the locals read English. The gun probably did the job. When Nina stepped forward, the guard’s hand dropped to the barrel. “But you’ve got to understand,” Nina was saying, “There must be a manager we can speak with. We’ve come a long way to see the factory.”
The guard gave a curt headshake. “My apologies. Visiting hours are closed because of the recent unrest, vous comprennez?” He spoke English with a French accent.
“Unrest?” Nina asked, looking around at the desolate two-lane road. In the field opposite, cows lay underneath the palms, blinking at the buzzing flies; the breeze carried the scent of manure. Nina’s face erupted into a grin. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”
“Please, madam,” the guard said. He was not smiling; his face beneath the mirrored shades glistened with sweat. “There is nothing for you to see, just bottles filling up with water, I promise. If you go up the road, a bus should come in another hour.”
“We know that,” Nina interrupted. “The bus just dropped us off. We’ve been on two buses already to get here and walked the last kilometer, and your website says there’s a tour. I want to speak to a manager.” She charged ahead, past the sign that read, in three languages, “WORKING FACTORY. EMPLOYEES ONLY BEYOND THIS POINT.”
“You can’t go in there, madam,” the guard called and darted ahead of Nina to block her. He raised the gun but stopped just short of pointing it.
“Nina, honey,” Clint said, jogging up. “Let’s go. We’re going. Pas probleme, d’accord?” Clint spoke loudly, raising his hands palms-up. The guard lowered the rifle and sauntered back a few paces, near his booth, seemingly at ease to have a fellow man at the helm of the hysterical wife situation, or so Clint thought, steering Nina by the elbow to the road.
“I can’t believe this,” she said, breathing hard. “I asked for a manager, and he acted like I wanted to see the Pope.”
“Sorry,” Clint said. “But I half expected something like this to happen.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean corporations just don’t open their doors in Third World countries for nosy visitors, that’s all. They make their own rules.”
“But the website said daily tours.” Nina shook her head. She broke away and outpaced him, hands clutching the shoulder straps of her backpack. When Clint caught up to her, he couldn’t tell if she was angry or about to burst into tears. He placed a hand on her back and she whirled around to face him. “Everything on the website, none of it seems true,” she said. She removed her sunglasses to wipe her eyes with the back of one hand, and glanced around the desolate valley thick with vegetation. The pavement was hot in the afternoon sun; Clint was sweltering and wishing for a shower, then a nap in the A/C. “The guard said something about unrest,” she continued. “I didn’t remember hearing about political protests or anything like that before coming here, did you?”
“Of course not,” Clint said. “I have no clue what he’s talking about. Although I bet we could find out, from the locals. If that’s what you want.”
“Is that what you want to do?”
“Nina,” he said. “You know I’d rather be in a hammock with something cold to drink right now, and preferably not Tahiti Water. I’m here because of you. So what do you want?”
She pressed her palms to her forehead and wandered away a few paces. “I don’t know,” she wailed from the middle of the deserted road. She groaned and spun around, her face flushed. “I want not to be lied to, that’s what.”
“Okay, then,” Clint said. “Let’s go.”
Untouched by Man
They hiked back to the village where the second bus had dropped them off. By then they were thirsty and, shins aching, ducked into an open storefront that advertised Coca-cola from a dingy, swinging sign. Clint asked for a Diet Coke, Nina her usual. The Tahitian woman behind the counter was middle-aged, her hair hidden in a flower-print wrap. She removed the caps of both bottles, set them down. Clint paid.
“You have a lovely valley,” Nina said. “And wonderful water.” She tilted back her head and guzzled the bottle’s contents so hard, the plastic crackled. The cartoon-like graphic of the volcano with a miniature Tahiti Water bottle sprouting up and floating in the clouds like the assumption of a saint made a strange picture with the actual volcano in clear view behind them.
“You should be enjoying the beaches, with a coconut drink,” the woman replied in her island-accented English. “The valley is too hot.”
“There you go,” Clint said, raising his soda to the woman. “We just wanted to see what the rest of Tahiti was like. For a day.”
Nina glared at him. “We wanted to see the factory,” she said. “But they wouldn’t let us.”
The woman’s expression clouded. She crossed her arms, let out a puff of breath, and said, “The only white people allowed are the ones who come in jeeps, the bosses from California.”
Nina brought up the website’s claim to offer tours, but the woman regarded her blankly, said she didn’t own a computer.
“Lots of people around here must work for the company,” Nina said. “Right?”
The woman nodded, wiped down the counter. They fell to silence except for the rustling of the trees outside and the buzz of insects. A teenaged Tahitian boy glided up on a bicycle, hopped off and ordered something in their language. The woman began to carve up a pineapple, dropping the chunks into a blender.
“I’ll take one of those,” Clint said, shoving aside his half-empty Diet Coke.
The woman doubled the pineapple, reached beneath the counter and cracked open a quart-sized bottle of Tahiti Water. Clint leaned forward, said, “Oh, you can just use regular water, as long as its good here”—before he realized the absurdity of what he was saying, how stupid he must seem, and insulting. The woman’s eyes met his and the local boy was staring too; she lowered the bottle slowly. She turned her back, yanked a faucet somewhere underneath, out of sight. Then she lifted a glass sloshing with brown-tinged water. “This is our drinking water,” she said, holding it up to the sunlight. Tiny dirt particles danced and settled.
“I see,” Clint said. “I’m so sorry.”
Nina was staring, aghast. The woman tossed out the glass’s contents, splashed some of the bottled Tahiti Water into the blender, and the blades churned up a pineapple blizzard.
“What’s being done about that?” Nina asked. “The company must know.”
The woman handed one of the smoothies to Clint, the other to the teenager who pedaled off. To Nina, she shrugged. “I know nothing. Only we have to pay for good water now, when before it was free. Soon they will make us pay for the air we breathe. You think I’m joking?” She shook her head. “There have been protests lately.” Someone called to her from the street, and she drifted away then.
“I wonder where we can find out about that,” Nina said. “The protests.”
Clint jostled the straw poking out from the pineapple, shook his head. “I’m not spending my vacation doing this,” he said. “We agreed, one day we’d explore the water factory. One day. Tomorrow’s the catamaran cruise.” He sipped the smoothie’s cool goodness.
“This doesn’t bother you?” Nina asked, shoving aside her empty bottle so hard it toppled. “I would never drink this if I knew the people living here were drinking swill, because the company was sucking up the good stuff, selling it to us and back to them, for God’s sake. Water should be free.”
“It should be, but this world isn’t fair,” Clint said. “I’m just afraid you’re going to go chasing something, thinking you’re going to make some kind of a difference, when really it’s going to feel like a drop in the bucket—and the waste of a honeymoon.”
“Would you want to drink that water?”
“Of course not.”
Nina’s stringy ponytail stuck to her shoulders and unprotected splotches of her neck and ears blazed pink. “I can’t go on that catamaran,” she said. “You go if you want, but I want to find out about the protests. The website said the company was building a second factory. I wonder if it’s happening there.”
“But why?” Clint demanded. “She showed us the water. How much more truth do you need?”
“All of it. So don’t follow me if you don’t want to see.”
About the Water
On the bus back they were quiet and sleepy. Nina nodded off first, then Clint. Nina slept hard and dreamed of being chased by a great snake in the Tahitian jungle. The snake wanted to swallow her whole, but she was running, determined to outlast him. Finally she found a hollow tree where she could hide.
Clint caught sleep in patches. His dreams mixed with the jolts of the bus and the passengers’ low voices. He and Nina were back on the valley road in front of the bottling plant, only somehow they were able to break in. They reached the center of the dark, vast warehouse and the aquifer, a rusty spigot dripping brown water. The squeaky footsteps of the guards approached, and so they fled the factory. They reached a ridge and peered down into a crater. But instead of lava rocks the crater was filled with Tahiti Water bottles, and Nina was saying something about recycling. “It’s up to us the make things new,” she said.
“But you can’t do that with everything,” Clint said.
“You sure?” the dream-Nina countered. “And why not?”
The next morning Nina was up and gone. Clint caught the catamaran alone, chiding himself. He should have known she would do something like this—Nina, who almost booked a ticket for the sit-in outside the White House to protest drilling in the Canadian oil sands; Nina, devoted fan of Animal Planet rescue shows and advocate for Defenders of Wildlife; this woman who loved the world so much, it made him love her even more. No wonder she was so quiet last night as they ate dinner and watched the fire-show on the beach; several times Clint had caught his wife looking off at the ocean and not at the shimmying dancers. The catamaran crew handed out towels and an ice-cold Tahiti Water to passengers as they boarded. On deck, grungy French backpacker kids sunned in their bikinis and hemp necklaces, and U2’s “With or Without You” belted from the speakers as the cat clipped across the brilliant turquoise, just offshore.
Clint told himself to relax and not to worry, but he wondered about Nina. He pictured her getting lost in a sketchy outskirt neighborhood of Papeete, or falling for some native guy with waist length black hair like the drummers from the fire-show. Clint would go back to the luxury hut and find a letter from Nina describing how she was wrong about getting married and had felt a sudden call to be a clean water activist, which didn’t seem far-fetched because he’d known for a long time that something had been nagging at her. He just didn’t have a clue what to do about it, except go along.
Being out on the open water felt good, though. What was it about the ocean that supposedly cleared the mind? Something about ions? He didn’t even feel like drinking, he realized, eyeing the French backpackers laughing and tipping back their Coronas from his towel several feet away. After a while he strolled the decks, struck up conversation with the captain, a chatty Australian, about the protests. The captain said they were happening all right, at the site of the new portside factory in Papeete. The Tahitian government had posted police at the location, afraid the protests would get out of hand and the controversy turn into bad publicity for the tourist crowd, Tahiti Water being the island’s number one source of revenue, tourism number two. “It’s some serious protest, mate,” the captain said grimly from the wheel. “Some of these islands don’t even have drinking water, and this company has owned that aquifer for years. Tahiti Water keeps promising to drill more local wells, build new schools and all that, but where they’ve put in their factory, the drilling polluted the surrounding water table. And the Tahitians are fighting each other, since of course the government wants the money from the exports. And the locals managing the factory make better money than the rest, drive new cars, so they’re for it.” Clint could sense the captain studying him from the other side of his mirrored Revos. “Why you so curious, mate?”
“Oh, I’m not, really,” Clint said quickly, and paused. “It’s my wife. She was supposed to be here with me today, but she got wind of this controversy and fancies herself some sort of activist, I don’t know.” He gave a nervous chuckle, aware of how ridiculous and touristy this must seem to the hardened Aussie captain.
“You mean to tell me she went down there, to the protests?”
“It seemed that way this morning. We got in a fight about it yesterday, and she said she was going to—do something like that, check out the demonstration. When I woke up this morning, she was gone.”
“But she’s there alone—you didn’t go after her?”
“Nina, she’s her own person. Anyway, there’s no stopping her when she’s made up her mind.” Clint shook his head. The catamaran jolted over a wave, and his stomach dropped. “Why, should I be that worried? Tahiti seems calm enough.”
The captain stared ahead, his weathered hands gripping the wheel. “You’d like to think so, but this is a poor island,” he said. “Some of those protests have turned pretty ugly.”
“So you’re saying I should have gone after her? That my wife’s in trouble?”
“I’m saying, what were you thinking? This is your wife, mate. It seems like the two of you are still acting like you’re single. Isn’t the whole point of getting married to look out for one another? If it’s not, then to hell with it.”
Clint remained silent but thought, he’s right, damn it. How could they both have been so mistaken? Now he was stuck on this boat for another five, six hours, and who knew what the hell was happening to Nina. He paced the deck, grabbed a beer, and tried settling onto his towel. His cell phone didn’t even work here; neither did hers. Where was she?
As soon as Clint disembarked the cat, he raced back to the hotel. But as he had feared, no Nina. Still in his swim trunks and t-shirt, he grabbed a cab, ordered the driver to bring him to the water protests. The driver pretended not to know what Clint was talking about until Clint threatened to get out and take another taxi. They passed the harbor of container ships, shantytowns climbing the slopes above Papeete, rounded another bend, and then hit the protest. Police in riot gear faced off with the crowd of demonstrators—hundreds, maybe a thousand, in front of a half-constructed complex, a warehouse like the one in the valley but adjoined by administrative offices. The police wielded the riot shields awkwardly, half-hiding behind them; the officers appeared uncertain and intimidated by the shouting throng. Clint jumped out, instructing the driver to wait, and darted into the crowd searching for Nina. Signs blocked him from every angle: “BOTTLED WATER FOR A FEW=BROWN WATER FOR MANY” and “Everyone has a right to CLEAN, FREE WATER.” A whistle blasted and the crowd surged, hurling dozens of empty Tahiti Water bottles through the air; the hollow plastic pelted Clint’s head and back. Then came more shouting and a hissing sound, the crowd yelling and dispersing. Clint’s eyes watered and he thought, so I’ve just been tear-gassed by Tahitian police in French riot gear, on my honeymoon, and I can’t find my wife.
He burst out of the fleeing madness, the factory whistle blaring again, no longer drowned out by the din. Staggering, Clint caught sight of a pale woman in shorts bent over in the parking lot, hands pressed to her thighs, gasping; he recognized the pink flip flops. When Nina spotted him she ran into his arms, he thought, like in the movies. Nearby, management workers in blue company shirts and khakis streamed from the buildings, escorted by the Tahiti Water company’s private security guards who outnumbered the bewildered, skittish police. The workers eyed the chaotic panorama of crushed signs and bottles, the protesters now hunkered in small groups, choking and wiping their watery faces. Some of the employees loaded pallets of Tahiti Water into their Japanese and French cars and drove away.
Clint asked Nina if she was okay, what had happened.
“I’ll be fine,” she said. “All day I kept looking for you, thinking you’d show any minute.”
“How could I do that? You know today was the catamaran cruise,” he said. “I told you I wasn’t going to some protest. What’s gotten into you?”
“So you went,” she said. “Without me. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, but part of me was hoping you’d appear.”
“We’d already paid for it,” he said.
Nina lifted her chin, her expression one of shock. “You wouldn’t think to cancel, I guess,” she said. “I’m sure they could have rescheduled us for another day.” They mirrored each other, hands on hips, Clint shifting and rubbing his face with his t-shirt, his eyes stinging from tears and sunscreen.
“I shouldn’t have gone. I’m sorry,” he said. “We haven’t been acting as a unit, exactly. But that still doesn’t answer what’s been going on with you lately.”
Nina stared at her feet. “I’m not sure. But when I was out there today, all this frustration came out. It felt good to shout. It felt great.”
“What are you so angry about?”
“Nothing in particular. And not you. Just a feeling that there are things I haven’t signed up for, that aren’t right.”
“Look,” Clint took her arm. “This world isn’t perfect, because we’re not perfect. Sometimes adding your voice can make a difference. And other times”—he looked around—“there might be better ways to get your point across.”
“I shouldn’t have left this morning like that,” she said. “I wasn’t thinking of you. God, already I’m a crappy wife.” She choked down a sob.
“Please stop,” he said, folding her into his chest. “Let’s put this whole thing behind us now. Pretend it never happened, okay?” He steered her toward the idling taxi.
They spent the last four days doing nothing more arduous than easing up from a spa treatment or reaching for the Kindle, a towel, or a tropical drink. They laughed and talked of the future, about freedom within commitment—Clint was thinking about starting a blog, exposing Western businesses with idealist facades that took advantage of the Third World, Nina an on-line course through a university back home called, “Reporting from Afar: Journalism in the Age of Social Networking and the Internet.” Maybe they could even write a book together.
But as the flight took off from Papeete, bound for L.A., the squabbling between them began. Sporadically at first, then growing more intense until they both surmised, silently, that after a week’s constant company they were sick of each other and exhausted by all that had occurred. The mutual irritation was surely just the simple itch for daily routines apart and healthy alone time. As the flight attendant passed through the aisle Nina proudly announced that the airline’s complimentary Tahiti Water would be her last, tossing the empty bottle into the trash; she was going to leave that nonsense behind. She and Clint clasped hands, watching until Tahiti was no more than a tiny brown dot in the shimmering water, recalling the declarations made at their wedding, the messy protest already a surreal, blurry sidebar to an otherwise enjoyable escape. But try as they might, what happened in Tahitiwould follow them through the decades to come, only the first in a long line of disenchantments.