Jane Searches for Joan Didion

“You have to pick the places you don’t walk away from.” —Joan Didion

Part 2

At The Mai Tai Bar, I asked the bartender how long she had worked there. When she answered 24 years, I knew I had to ask, “Do a lot of celebrities stay here?” It took me half of a Wailua Wheat.

She nodded. “Olivia Wilde was here just last week! Sat right over there.” She pointed seven stools down from us.

“Do you get a lot of writers?”

“Like who?” she asked.

“Joan Didion,” I said.

She gave me a blank look.

I pulled Where I Was From out of my beach bag and flashed her the author photo. I felt part stalkerish, part detective. The night before, a Tori Richard sales clerk told me a lot of writers stayed in the garden rooms overlooking the courtyard to finish their books. But he had only been there a year, and didn’t know who.

“Would she sit up here?” she asked, already walking away. “I only know them if they sit at the bar,” she shrugged, and helped another patron.

I didn’t know if she sat at the bar. I know that she packed bourbon and cigarettes in her luggage. I knew that she reread all of George Orwell’s books on the Royal Hawaiian Beach. Maybe she snuck her own bourbon in the rented beach chairs, which came in pairs with a table between them, a beach umbrella wherever you wanted on your little patch of sand. They banned alcohol behind the chain after a man, drunk, charged the ocean and dove in. He paralyzed himself from the neck down. Onlookers and the lifeguard watched it happen. The water is shallow, especially shallow at low tide. Waylon and I watched tourists tread out until they were specks—only to give up, dunk themselves under and head back in. While Joan Didion read and reread, a cocktail server could have hurried her drinks. No need for the bar.

On that same beach, I read Where I Was From on my stomach, my back to the ocean, so I could see the words without squinting and periodically gaze up at the historical hotel. In front of me, a wooden reach-in storage cabinet, casket-like and also painted pink, sits. On it, someone has written the word REAL in black marker.

Our drinks still half-full, the bartender returned to ask, “You know who stayed here recently?”

I waited, my eyebrows begging, Who?

“Stephen King.”

I nod and wonder if King ever writes about Hawaii. Especially since he might be one of those writers finishing his book in the islands, because I need passages like Didion’s. From her essay, “In the Islands”:

1969: I had better tell you where I am, and why. I am sitting in a high-ceilinged room in the Royal Hawaiian Hotel in Honolulu watching the long translucent curtains billow in the trade wind and trying to put my life back together. My husband is here, and our daughter, age three. She is blonde and barefoot, a child of paradise in a frangipani lei, and she does not understand why she cannot go to the beach. She cannot go to the beach because there has been an earthquake in the Aleutians, 7.5 on the Richter scale, and a tidal wave is expected. In two or three minutes the wave, if there is one, will hit Midway Island, and we are awaiting word from Midway. My husband watches the television screen. I watch the curtains, and imagine the swell of the water.

The bulletin, when it comes, is a distinct anticlimax: Midway reports no unusual wave action. My husband switches off the television set and stares out the window. I avoid his eyes, and brush the baby’s hair. In the absence of a natural disaster we are left again to our own uneasy devices. We are here on this island in the middle of the Pacific in lieu of filing for divorce.

At the Royal Hawaiian, it is hard to work, which is predominately what Joan Didion does when she stays. I barely read three chapters, unable to take my eyes off of Diamond Head, any petite haole lady in huge sunglasses with some verve, Waylon, the red ginger, the lanterned tree, the birds I don’t know how to name; the sparrows after the egg atop my Royal Loco Moco, or any food scrap really.

In 1969, Didion and Dunne with Quintana Roo stayed at the Royal Hawaiian to save their marriage. In the lobby, Waylon asked me to try on engagement rings. Indeed, the ceilings are high, high enough to fit all kinds of love underneath. 

In April 2015, they handed out orchid leis to women and kukui nut leis to men upon arrival. Quintana, then three, donned a frangipani lei. Later, she had the flower tattooed just under her shoulder. Her mother stared at it through her veil as Quintana married her husband. Several years ago, I had to research the word frangipani; my family has always called the flower plumeria, but they are the same. Two of the trees—one pink, one yellow—grow in my grandmother’s yard. I call the tidal waves tsunamis, but they threaten and devastate the same way. How this place haunts, and how that makes me always want to discover more.