The rooms of the white stone hotel by the seawall are not numbered, but named. A driftwood plaque hangs outside each door. The plaque by her door reads No One But You, and as she drops her room key and backpack on the four-poster bed, the words strike her as thrillingly symbolic. She is the kind of girl—no, woman, she reminds herself, she must think of herself as a woman now—who feels specially attuned to symbols, the deeper circuits of significance below the surface of ordinary things. She has, after all, just graduated with a degree in English literature.
Now, she slips out of her elephant print cotton pants and into a polka-dotted bikini. As she plunges into the hotel’s turquoise-tiled pool, she decides to adopt the plaque’s pronouncement as her motto, her anthem for this month-long trip abroad, which begins on this island in a sun-warmed sea, a speck of sand and coral cradled between continents. She has touted this trip to friends, flung it in her parents’ faces as a grand display of her independence.
Her friends don’t know, of course, that her parents are the ones paying for her to stay at this hotel. When she walks the seawall, the air scented with donkey dung and salt, she meets a British travel photographer, a sunburnt man with rough-bitten nails, and tells him she’s staying at a hostel somewhere in the old town’s shaded streets. She enjoys how his eyebrows leap—surprised, impressed—when she says she is here on her own. He, too, is here alone, but this, he claims, is different. When he tells her of his past travels, hiking through rainforests or herding yaks in the mountains, she imagines how, after this trip, she will be the type of girl—woman—who also has stories to tell.
Mornings, she swims in the hotel pool until her pale skin puckers. The pool is similar in size to the one in her backyard at home, though she is trying to stop thinking of it as home, to refer to it instead as her parents’ house, even as she knows that, soon, her parents will sell the house and it will no longer belong to any of them. Her mother will move into one apartment, her father into another on the opposite side of town. Not that these details of their lives matter to her.
When she surfaces from a breaststroke, a hotel worker with a net has appeared on the other side of the pool. He is near her age, wears faded grey athletic shorts with a Band-Aid on his left elbow. The Band-Aid creases, then pulls taut, as he scoops the white flowers that have fallen from a tree into the water. He is silent, eyes trained down, except when another hotel worker passes. The two of them smile, trade a joke in their language. In the pool, she chews the inside of her cheek. She tries to appear both aloof and receptive, as if, should the workers choose to acknowledge her, she could fold herself effortlessly into their conversation.
At sunset, she meets the photographer by the pier. He wants to take her on a sailing tour of the island. As he pays the captain, she perches on the bow and scans the names of the snub-nosed motorboats around them. Tawakal. Star Gold. Marlito. Aisha. When the photographer aims his camera at the pier, she pretends not to notice the local men who frown and turn their faces. She is waiting for him to focus his lens on her, framed by the vastness of sea and sky. This vastness, too, feels symbolic. If the photographer takes her picture, she wants to ask if he will let her share it on social media.
But he only shifts towards her once the captain has steered them from shore, and the last of the sun puddles on the horizon. As she gazes out across the red-tipped waves, the photographer’s fingers travel beneath her waistband.
A stone plummets from her throat to her gut. She doesn’t want the photographer to think her puritanical. His fingers are sweat-sticky and ragged-nailed, the shadows of them just visible through the cotton’s elephant print.
The next morning, alone in her four-poster bed, she knows she will tell the story of the previous night to no one. Such a story feels to her both small and cheap. She tears at the sharp edges of her fingernails until they bleed. When she was a child, her mother was the one who trimmed her nails—long past the age she was old enough to do so herself—collecting the pearly slivers in her open palm.
In the pool, she allows the water to cradle her. Some of the fallen flowers have turned translucent: what happens, she realizes, before they rot brown. When the hotel worker with the Band-Aid arrives, she scoops up the petals and passes them into his net. He smiles at her. They hold each other’s gazes.
But in the end, she is the one who remains in the pool, drifting across its surface as sun slants in daggers off the hotel’s white walls. He is the one on deck, who must pretend the light doesn’t bother him, the one left holding the petals that he must now find a place to discard.