Laupahoehoe, Hawaii, April 1, 1946: You know now there is no God. You are lying on a door in open ocean, waiting for the sharks, and you know.
What happens to sharks when tsunamis hit? Do they fly through the windows of car dealerships in downtown Hilo, flopping on showroom floors? Or do they go deep and wait for the carnage?
You remember very little of the carnage that has happened today. Your last clear visual memory is of Ruthie, also against a door. She has just shut the front door to the cottage you share — shared — her back against the wood, her arms and legs spread to the sides, bracing against what you saw at that moment through the windows — a moving mountain of water. You have no memory of water smashing through the windows, the door, splintering the house — only the roof suddenly on top of the swell and you on top of the roof being propelled inland over treetops. Ruthie is simply there, frozen in horror, and then she is gone, everything is gone. Maybe you shut your eyes, maybe you go under. At some point you are on the ground again, scrabbling on all fours over mud and piles of smashed wood, thinking it’s over, but then another wave comes and takes you with it and you are being sucked back out to sea.
Remember sunny afternoons, burying your toes in the wet sand at the shoreline as foamy wavelets sucked back? The pull you felt as sand whooshed past your ankles, over your sunken feet? How you loved that feeling.
Remember being on a date with your boyfriend and worrying about your beach blanket being too close to the water, since the tide was rising? You didn’t want that blanket to get wet.
You can see, as you float now, how the ocean used to look from the windows of your classroom — the beautiful, blue rolling water, the fleeting whitecaps — and you remember it made you feel relaxed in the classroom, like standing in a square of sunlight after all the children had gone home and it was quiet. You could walk around their tables, your pupils, and admire their artwork, or say “Tell me about that,” and steal glances over their heads at the Pacific Ocean right outside the windows. You would put pictures on the boards, on the door, but never on the windows, never anything to block the view that reminded you all the time that you were teaching in paradise. One look would bring you such peace. You remember but you can’t feel the feeling, you can’t experience what relaxation is, what peace and pleasure are. They are dream states that slip away with every waking breath you continue to take on this half-submerged door.
YOU HAVE paddled on this door as if it were a surfboard. You don’t remember how you found it. The sun was glinting off the brass doorknob — or did you dream that? Maybe you swam to that beacon. You are a good swimmer. For a time you had hopes you could paddle on the door past the cliffs, to the sugar mill. Now you cling to it, your cheek against its wet wood. You are resting before you die. You know you are going to die.
Your puckered white fingertips are stroking smooth colored circles the size of a child’s fingernail. They are so smooth, soothing to touch, to trace. As you begin to find more circles with the hand that isn’t gripping the edge to stay on the door, your elbow wedged on the doorknob, you become aware of a pattern. And this is how it slowly dawns on you that this is your door. Yes. The door to your classroom. What was once today your classroom before chairs and desks and chalkboards were washed away. You are touching the heads of thumbtacks, in square patterns. The papers — children’s artwork — ripped off the door — like most of your clothes were ripped off your body, like every single bobby pin was knocked out of your hair — but the thumbtacks remain where you hung their art. Simple, beautiful pictures of rainbows, cowboys, coconut trees. The waves came over the tops of those coconut trees. The tops. Mothers and fathers drawn holding hands with siblings — siblings washed away like these drawings, mothers and fathers now doubled over with grief.
You looked at this door every morning before going into class. The children’s art reminded you of your own childhood, your own simple visions, innocence, bright colors, yellow ball of sun in the sky, grass poking up in straight green lines, triangle roofs—were you really clinging to a roof before? How long ago? Life is gone. Young lives are gone. All you have is this door. And there is no greater pleasure — breathing hurts right now, your ribs ache, your muscles are sore from retching, the saltwater burns your cuts — no greater pleasure than rubbing these smooth thumbtacks. They are still here, rooted, and you are still here, and now is all you have because sharks will come or you will simply not be able to stay on this door.
It would be so much easier to slip under the water. No more fear, no more pain. No more horror movies on a continuous reel. No shark attack. You could escape the pain of being eaten. But you aren’t ready to not be able to breathe. You want to keep breathing.
Your mind can no more conceive of how it will feel to be eaten alive than it could have imagined the tsunami today. You can’t really imagine teeth going into your leg, even though you can’t stop thinking about it. Maybe like the point of a sharp scissors, the kind you kept away from the students when they cut up construction paper. The closest you can get is to imagine the shark’s body rubbing against you — rough, heavy, a dull unmistakable weight that will shoot terror coursing through you. This door cannot protect you from that.
But for now you are on it — and it is yours. What an amazing door this is — who knew how useful it would be? What a good door. Faithful. It’s good you never slammed it.
Remember being frustrated when paint spilled? Or glue? What a mess! Smocks pulled up and pretty dresses stained with red and yellow and blue fingerprints. You had no concept of chaos, its magnitude, how merciless it is. It was good in a way how clueless you were. You washed paintbrushes, you sponged blackboards, you straightened chairs, and there was order. But there is no stopping chaos. It comes in waves, one after the other. Whenever you heard tsunami, you thought one wave. What did you know, growing up in Scranton? Tidal wave, they called it. Singular. But waves come in sets. They keep coming, and you cannot stop them.
YOUR BOYFRIEND is a doctor. He likes to play God — he confessed to you. He likes mini golf too, and he liked to stand behind you as you pretended to let him teach you how to swing the club so he could press against you while you both pretended he wasn’t.
You are a virgin at sea. You are a good girl clinging to a door in your underpants and flannel pajama shirt. You were saving yourself for marriage. No one ever told you, “Make sure you lose your virginity before the tsunami sucks you out to sea.” You picture an Old Maid card floating on a puddle.
You are twenty-one and will not be twenty-two. You will never have children. Doesn’t matter. Look what happens to them. The sea is full of children today. Some were still alive, two were clinging to a tree, one was swimming out to sea with driftwood under his arms — toward a distant boat tiny on the horizon. Maybe he made it. You lost sight of him over the crests very quickly. You wanted him to stay with you. You’ve seen no one in hours it must be. But you can still see the cliffs when you have the energy to lift your head — stony, steep, and indifferent. Yet seeing them helps.
You cannot imagine your pupils caught up in the water, for which you are grateful. You have no belief they escaped — any of them. Maybe Mei Mei and her sister, if they were tardy again today. But it pains you to choose survivors — even in your head. You see them all, their beautiful young faces. But they are in their chairs. Your mind cannot unseat them. You are spared imagining what the tsunami has done to their little bodies, the fragile skulls beneath their black hair. When you see bodies crushed or submerged, they are others, faceless, not your pupils. If you could turn the knob and swing back this door now — as you did every day — would you see them below on the ocean floor, hair floating up like kelp?
YOU WERE twelve when you saw “The Hurricane.” The Strand Theater in downtown Scranton. You were in the balcony. Good to be up high. You imagine waves crashing through the scrim, flooding the orchestra.
Dorothy Lamour was so beautiful. Your dad took you. You think he had a crush on Dorothy Lamour.
But the scene you always remember is in the church. The priest tells all the islanders to come into the church, that they will be safe there. The stone walls will withstand the winds and waves, unlike their native huts — built on stilts, like your cottage was. And God will protect them. They follow him, huddle inside God’s house, all those families. The priest plays the organ, like some deranged madman. Then the waves come, and the church is destroyed. The bell tower collapses, the roof caves in. They all perish. You never forgot that. You knew even then.
YOU HEAR FDR out here. “A day that will live in infamy.” You can’t turn that off. Not December seventh though. April first. April Fool’s Day. A day for jokes and pranks. Ruthie said maybe someone would turn your desk drawer upside down. Not these children. They bring you orchids and come to school in bare feet. This was before you heard about the sea acting strangely, the weird low tide. “Come and see!”
You saw the kids on the athletic field, where the sea had washed up. They were trying to catch the slippery fish flopping on the wet grass between the goal posts.
You had only one thing right today. You did not have to teach class.
How you used to laugh at your mother. When you came to teach here, you had to keep reminding her that Pearl Harbor was on Oahu. She could not keep that straight. An intelligent woman. “Mom, the war’s over. That was five years ago. On another island! Jeez Louise!”
What did you tell her in your last postcard? That will be all she has of you now—her precious daughter who went to Hawaii and was lost at sea. Can you really not remember it? What was the image?
“Why so far?” your mother would ask.
You wanted to see the world. Hawaii needed teachers. Of course your parents said yes. Their only child — they’d give you everything. They’ve been saving up to visit you. Even today your mother may have put some bills into the kitty cat cookie jar above her sink.
You remember how your mother explained your choice to friends: “Hawaii has just taken her by storm.”
Taken you by storm.
YOU’VE WORN a life preserver. On the converted troop ship, from San Francisco to Honolulu, you weren’t allowed to walk out of your cabin without it. You joked about your “necklace.” Ruthie said orange was your color.
They dropped the bomb when you were in San Francisco. Somehow you weren’t afraid crossing the ocean. The life preserver was a nuisance, an eyesore. Now all you have is a flannel pajama shirt, soaked and heavy on your back and shoulders. You should have worn a life preserver in class, to bed. Never taken it off.
The flight from Honolulu to Hilo was your first ever. And now your last. You could see Diamond Head. So exciting! Then you were above the clouds, a pillowy white net below your silver bird. You can almost hear it now. You imagine a plane flying above you, your plane in fact, and you can lean close to the window and see down through a hole in the clouds a woman on a door in a pajama shirt and panties, bare white legs kicking, fins circling her.
You press the button for the stewardess. It is smooth and round. You press it again, and you’re aware that it is a thumbtack — a white one, as white as those sunlit clouds. You tap it, trying to remember Morse code for S-O-S. It’s simple. Is it dot-dot-dot, dash-dash-dash, dot-dot-dot? Or the other way around?
WHEN THE raft lands in the water, you don’t know what’s fallen at first — or from where. A chunk of the sky? A black chunk? Anything is possible in the apocalypse. The door lifts and tilts with the wavelets from the raft’s splash and you almost tip over. You cling more tightly with two hands, kick your feet. Edge up. Look over at it.
This is something to get into. Not on, into. This thing — black as a tire — is the thing that may save you. But you will have to let go of the door. You will have to stop hugging this door long enough to swim to the raft before it floats away. You can’t bring the door. But you can’t bring yourself to let it go. It is all you have. The raft is so black. No memories. No loyalty. Just cold practicality. It bobs with indifference. It is rubber, resilient. You can bounce back. But this door is solid, like a backbone. It has supported you. It has carried you. You have shared the truth with this door — the wet, cold vulnerable pale creature of flesh you are without your teacher garb — and it has shown you its essence as well. Ripped from its hinges, torn from its context — the artifice that framed it, the illusion that held it in place — stripped clean of anything sweet or cheerful or creative, but unsinkable, substantive, a piece of the natural world like the tree it came from. The door has been restored to its essence — this flat floating log with a wet, soft animal clinging to it. You are both no longer apart from the forces of nature and the crushing truth of its ferocious randomness. But somehow still floating, not destroyed, either of you.
To swim to the raft is to return to illusion. All will be well. You are safe. The things men build will protect you. No harm will come to you. Life has meaning.
You touch the thumbtacks, tempted to try to dig one out — to take just one with you to remind you, so you don’t forget — but this door has had enough violence done to it. So instead you rub back and forth over its surface, you kiss it, putting chapped and bloody lips to wet wood, and then you slip off into the water…
After you climb awkwardly onto and into that raft, you are suddenly on your back. You haven’t been on your back since Ruthie said, “Wake up, sleepyhead” this morning. The ocean is transformed into a backyard pool and you are in an inner tube. You can smell the manmade rubber scent, which smells like civilization, rescue, though no boats are near and all you can assume is that you are for the moment a bit safer. The plane that dropped this raft is nowhere to be seen. You can really look at the sky now. It is early evening, so you realize you’ve been floating all day. The plane is nowhere in the sky, but someone knows you are here, someone who can fly above tsunamis and use a radio. How long? You are starting to be back in time. How dark does it get on the ocean at night?
You retch and rest and bob and drift in endless dusk.
Then there is a motor.
THIS MAN is your boyfriend. Remember him? You weren’t even sure you wanted to keep seeing him. Now he is the prince of the fairy tale flood — he has come to find you. He has a boat with a motor and he and another man are pulling you in. How can it be him? The world is godless, but fairy tales are true? He is laughing and crying and it sounds like he is proposing. He wraps you in a blanket and he is hugging you. Life will go on and you will be loved and you will not be alone.
You look at the raft. They’re letting that go. That will float out to sea forever—like you were going to do. Will it float for years and years?
And where’s your door? It will sink eventually, like the planks of a splintered galleon. Perhaps it will get snagged on a reef — a beautiful reef. You hope so. Pink and orange tendrils of anemones will wave to your door. Fish will swim past its brilliantly colored thumbtacks. It will know beauty again.
But you will miss it. And nights in bed with this man, you will roll over onto your stomach and hold the edge of the mattress — and you will miss that door.
But now you turn to him. He is laughing at your chattering teeth. He is overjoyed. Wait for your teeth to stop chattering. Wait for his laughter to settle down. Then you can tell him.
There is no God.
— Jeff Freiert’s “The Door” is inspired by a true story, and is part of a collection featuring a novella and linked stories entitled “Home Break.” The opening of that novella was recently selected as a finalist in Glimmer Train’s Best Start 50 competition. His story “The Mohawk’s Fear of Falling,” won the Eric Hoffer Prize for Prose and was published in Best New Writing 2008. He has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and has taught writing and literature at St. John’s University, Adelphi University, Emerson, and privately.