My wife is seated in a beach chair. She peers over her book and sees me approaching some seals hauled up on the sand. There are only a little over a thousand of these Hawaiian monk seals in existence. When they are discovered on beaches, volunteers rope off an area around them to form a zone where they can rest undisturbed.
So my transgression of one of these knee-high boundary ropes draws the attention of everyone who has been standing at the edge of the rope watching the seals. Hauled up, they look like smooth brown boulders lying on the sand. They don’t move. All spectators, wife included, hold their breath as I continue to bear down on the group. When I get very close—just a couple of steps away—the nearest seal heaves its head back. Its nose is suddenly drawn directly upwards. It lets out a double “haauwll … haauwll” that is Jabba-like: a wheezy barking that vibrates in the air in a way that communicates girth.
My wife’s favorite part of our honeymoon is this moment: my shoulders-up posture of mortal fear, stunned sandaled foot stuck out momentarily in mid-stride; then the acrobatic leap-pivot of redirection that looks like I have bounced off of something springy. To the spectators, until then incredulous at the edge of the rope, I am pardoned. Not a rule-flouting asshole after all. Just oblivious. Or, more precisely, actually that oblivious. As it lays its head back on the ground, the seal makes a sound like the last of the water gurgling down a drain. Then a hard, sand-scattering sniff. I retreat at a pace slowed so as not to recall prey in flight. A tall woman with short blond hair smiles at me commiseratingly as I cross back over the very bright and obvious orange rope. Maybe it has unconsciously struck some of the spectators as an image of all our trespassing on the island.
Probably there are lots of different ways to be distracted. You can be distracted because you are elsewhere, like if I had been walking on the beach but really, in my mind, I was having a conversation with my sister or something. Then there are various ways of being in a “state of distraction,” where the mind can’t get a grip on anything, e.g. kids with ADHD. Then there is the way in which I was distracted on the beach. This was different. I wasn’t thinking about anything else. I was in paradise, with no responsibilities whatsoever, but my mind was like that of someone with stage fright: attention bent back on itself, focus jammed up and cresting like the big storm-heaved Hawaiian breakers. In some sense I think I saw the seals.
I was on my honeymoon. The strange and tricky thing about a honeymoon is that even while it’s happening, it’s already lived as a story. We sit inside it saying, “We will have been here.”
The honeymoon as we know it, the postnuptial trip for two, hasn’t been around all that long. In the nineteenth century there was something called a “bridal tour,” where newlyweds would travel, sometimes accompanied by friends and family, to visit relatives who hadn’t been able to attend the wedding. The bridal tour made sense when a marriage was much more about social ties and the joining of two families than it is now: the pair journeyed not as tourists but as a tour. At the turn of the century couples began to adapt the bridal tour to make it a private pleasure trip instead. In Marriage, a History Stephanie Coontz talks about the transition from bridal tour to honeymoon as part of a larger revolution in the form of family life in general: the increasing interiority and privacy of the family unit, as well as marriage becoming obsessively all about the two individuals and their bond.
It’s easy to understand why, for the first half of the twentieth century, the honeymoon was so appealing. Until relatively recently a marriage came after courtship: after semi-public calls to an eligible girl, usually in her living room. The honeymoon provided some much needed one-on-one time. Naturally, in its privacy, this was also the time to cleave, carnally, finally, to one’s new spouse. In fact at first the honeymoon was a bit scandalous for this reason, because of the attention it drew to the bridal bed. But as the twentieth century softened in its attitude toward sexuality that turned around. To my grandparents’ generation, the thundering of Niagara Falls was a trope for newlywed sex, and going to Niagara was about giving in to an irresistible force of nature. (Thus the rhyming of “Viagra,” which is meant to draw on that association.)
Which is to say that it used to be pretty clear what the honeymoon was about: it was the space the couple took to begin new intimacies. This is still the lingering idea that the “honeymoon” evokes, still how the trip is sold. The advertisement has the couple at their beachside balcony. A glass of wine is drooping in her hand, and her eyes say something like “at last.” The trouble is that in our own time an actual honeymoon has little to do with an “at last” anymore. For almost all of us it is silly to go on a honeymoon for privacy. The couple plots their trip to a remote island where they will at last stare uninterrupted into each other’s eyes, but they do the plotting alone around their kitchen table.
The guidebook’s cover had a picture of Kauai from above on it. I don’t know why a Kauai guidebook would have anything else. Kauai is, in my opinion, irresistibly appealing from that angle. From above, Kauai looks like a fat oyster with a barnacle in the middle. The barnacle is a volcano. Its natural attractions are appointed evenly to its shores: the huge canyons in the west; the long sunny southern coast (where we would be staying); the more populated “Coconut Coast” in the east, with its rivers and waterfalls; the sharp, serrated ridgelines around Hanalei in the north, with perfectly flat fields at their feet running out to deep beaches.
The perfection of Kauai’s roundness is fully comprehended when you open up the guidebook and look at the road map on the inside cover. There is a perimeter road, but it cannot connect through the rugged Na Pali coastline in the northwest. So the island is round, but you cannot go ’round it, and unless you are exploring it by boat it might as well be long and skinny.
We arrived at our hotel at 1 a.m. The lobby was part of an enormous hall with an open-air atrium in the middle of it, which housed (if that’s the word) a tiny jungle. As we checked in, we could see parrots perched sleepily on the boughs of the trees, and, looking through the trees, all the way out to the audible surf. As I remember it, we woke up noonish the next day. We slept late because of jet lag, but also because it was so dark outside. Where I come from, when the rain starts it sprinkles and spits. Here, as I stepped out our door, the first raindrop fell from the sky and made a wet spot on my shirt the size of my thumb. A half-hour later we were walking by the lobby and tropical rain teemed into the atrium like nothing I’ve ever seen. It was awesome, but the awe was like what one would feel at watching the ocean finally invited indoors. It set off some hardwired anxiety about flooding.
Swimming in the rain through the turns and lobes of the fern-girded “lagoons” of the resort; a manmade waterfall rumbling on your head, cocooning you concussively in a membrane of water; sitting in the 100-plus degree hot tub while cold rain makes little iridescent crowns on the water like the surface is simmering and steaming—that is really neat. But you can only do so much of it. In fact I think that one’s body can only handle so much of it. We went to a place that the resort called a library—really a bar—and played checkers with wrinkled fingers.
The next day, with the rain not letting up, all paradise-specific plans were pretty much kaput. I thought maybe we could visit the nearby botanic gardens—this seemed rain-compatible—but on the phone the gardener informed me that the entry road had just washed away in an avalanche. Then this same guy, unprovoked, told me that if we were thinking of snorkeling at some point, this kind of intense rain would make the shallow snorkelable waters muddy (this being the sort of place where the material from the road had ended up), which are the conditions in which sharks mistakenly bite people. Then he added, as if in consolation, “The nice thing is it never rains this hard.” The rain did abate for an hour that afternoon. We found a small sandy gap between the jagged volcanic rocks on Shipwreck Beach outside our hotel and carefully boogie boarded among them. Until, that is, a Hawaiian family showed up with their own boogie boards, and the matriarch almost ran me over with a stony face that said “I don’t see you.”
I won’t pretend to be one of these people who likes the rain, at least not day after day. Glancing at the useless guidebook on the night stand, the stubs of paper poking out marking what we were supposed to be doing, it felt a bit like the plot of a really depressing National Lampoon movie with only one joke in it. But my purpose here is not to complain about the rain. In fact, the impetus for writing this is that, on reflection, those were our best days. Something awfully dear had been paid by pocketbook and planet to get us all the way out here just to be rained on. But now I see that the rain, while it lasted, had protected us. I was irritated but more or less sound of mind.
On the third day my wife and I sort of decided to just carry on like it wasn’t raining. We walked from the hotel up onto a bluff. From here we could see a solitary monk seal somersaulting in a pool among the wave-lapped rocks below. We were about to head back (we were getting soaked) when we noticed a path—or more like a web-like network of paths—through the sandy pine groves that grew along the lithified cliff. We wandered through these until eventually they converged on a trail that took us through the old burial ground of the kings of the island. We got lucky and the rain lightened to a drizzle. Looking out over the ocean, the clouds were a lumpy but unpunctured, untouched low sheet below which even lower, closer clouds were marauding. Then the sheet was pulled back and the sun shone. That’s the moment when I really remember it taking over: the seemingly inexplicable anxiety about my trip. I remember that up there, with a king’s vista of the gray Pacific, something in me had turned the wrong way. I was witnessing beauty, I knew, but the beauty was just making me watch the churning clouds, worried about losing our pocket of good weather. This was the quiet beginning of my real botheredness regarding “experiences.” We walked along the cliff until it dropped down to a remote beach. Fog opened and closed the landscape to us.
My sense is that a lot of people actually have a hard time traveling for leisure. There are some people, of course, who fail to really “get away” because they can’t leave something behind. The classic image would be the honeymooner apologizing as she ducks into a room to take another call from work. When she isn’t on the phone you can catch her staring into space.
Solutions to being elsewhere are, it seems to me, pretty straightforward under most circumstances. Shut off the phone. Then time is on your side. My distraction, by contrast, was a bit more insidious. It seemed to feed on the objectively good experiences of the trip itself. It wasn’t that I couldn’t see my perfect macadamia-crusted mahi-mahi because my thoughts were elsewhere; to speak truthfully I could see my mahi-mahi very clearly. But it was like I aimed my fork at the fish but kept accidentally skewering something else—my future reminiscence of it. I wasn’t elsewhere, but I seemed to inhabit a time other than the present. I wanted to be, as we say, “present.” But my problem with presence seemed to be capable of feeding on my own awareness of it. “Just relax,” I would tell myself. “Well I can’t relax when I’m anxious about relaxing,” I would (accurately) reflect, and so forth as new and seemingly more nuanced forms of self-correction recommended themselves seductively as a solution to the problem they were creating.
The latter part of our trip contained some dry weather. On the first dry day, the sunny one, we went to the beach, and I nearly trod on the flipper of an endangered seal, as reported. On the second we went for a hike. The name of the mountain, the “Sleeping Giant,” seemed auspicious. I thought that hiking would be exhausting enough to cut off oxygen to my new second self. A walk, Thoreau says somewhere, returns us to our senses.
The path up the Sleeping Giant had turned to black volcanic mud from the rain: wet and smooth and sticky like potter’s slip. It made a sucking fup with each step up, then, on stepping down, tiny pip-popping noises as more mud oozed out and accumulated around the sides of our shoes. As we neared the top, another couple came down the path. I have no complaints about making such a clichéd choice of venue. But there is a strange feeling when one comes around a corner and stands face to face with what are obviously other honeymooners. Few times in my life have I felt so powerfully the idea of alternate selves. She had straight blond hair. He had jeans on and was hiking in Chacos, with a minimal backpack and a bottle of water in his hand. This is when we would have exchanged exclamations on the incredible mud. But they passed us in silence down the canyon path.
Who knows what their story was. I thought I saw in them the same sort of ingrown distraction I had. This was speculation of course. But there was, in fact, a striking speechlessness to everyone we encountered on our honeymoon once the rain stopped. When it was raining we would talk about the weather. (I’ve never understood why people make fun of talking about the weather. It is of perennial consequence and thus never not interesting.) But once the weather was clear no one wanted to say anything to each other.
As I said, the honeymoon as we know it, the trip, hasn’t been around very long. It’s pretty much a twentieth-century phenomenon. The term “honeymoon,” however, is much older. It used to refer more generally to the sweetness of the earliest days of a marriage. Some people think that the word comes from a tradition in some European cultures in which mead (fermented honey) was drunk by the new couple for the first moon of marriage. Mead was supposed to be an aphrodisiac. This etymology is cute but probably not accurate.
The OED doesn’t mention mead. Instead it points out that in early recorded uses of the term, the “moon” in “honeymoon” refers to the fact that no sooner is the moon full than it begins to wane. The lexicographer Richard Huloet writes in 1552: “Hony mone, a terme proverbially applied to such as be newe maried, whiche wyll not fall out at the fyrste, but the one loveth the other at the beginnynge excedyngly, the likelyhode of theyr exceadynge love appearing to aswage, ye which time the vulgar people cal the hony mone.” Thomas Blount in 1656 is more explicit on the lunar metaphor: “Hony-moon, applyed to those marryed persons that love well at first, and decline in affection afterwards; it is hony now, but it will change as the Moon.” So back in the day, to say of a couple that they were in their “honeymoon” wasn’t sentimental but diagnostic, like saying someone is on a shopper’s high. Perhaps it was a bit more wistful than that, but the point was jocular chiding of the couple (and the species).
It is tempting to call the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century use of the word “honeymoon” cynical, but if you think about it that might be a bit anachronistic. It wasn’t cynical to draw attention to the fact that “exceeding love” was going to fade from a new marriage, because back then love was not an ideal of married life. The institution had other priorities, for which the vagaries of love could be a problem. For the ruling and propertied classes, marriage was about connections and the control of inheritance. For the lower classes it was about these things too, as well as a partnership for day-to-day labor. And it was an association pleasing to God. It wasn’t until the Enlightenment that people began to believe that personal love and marriage were somehow essentially bound up together—that one would, in an ideal life, “marry for love.” And it was much, much later than that that we got to where we are now, the other extreme, when a loveless marriage is a monstrosity.
Some people think that once love fully infiltrates the institution, this will mean the dissolution of marriage itself, which (it will someday occur to us) will have surrendered its logic and purpose. Maybe. But the general idea of promising oneself to lifelong companionship with another person has proven to be less frail than conservatives have proclaimed year after year. Marriage in the West has outlived some seemingly vital parts of the order it upheld, e.g. the loss of the laws and cultural norms around “illegitimate” children. It survived women working outside the home. By all appearances it will survive gay marriage. Certainly the gay marriage movement underscores the continued power of the institution, given that the movement is driven by the desire of an excluded group to take part in it. What is clear, however, is that marriage isn’t what it used to be. Something has changed at its core. And as love is increasingly thought of as its center and its condition, the rites, roles and laws of marriage have been transforming as well.
An instructive example is the wedding. At many weddings, vows are spoken that date to the eleventh century. After the love revolution, however, what those words are doing is not the same. It used to be that two individuals walked into the church one day and walked out of it with a new relationship, new responsibilities, new rules, effected in the public vow. Whatever its other ethical dimensions, the wedding was on the model of a contract, and could be prosecuted like one.
When love becomes the basis of marriage, however, the vows take on a different kind of significance. They become the declaration, the lived representation, of the ardor that the two people feel for each other. This change has been accelerating in the last fifty years, when many premarital couples start to live together and basically have mini-marriages. The words commemorate and crown the bond; they do not bind. This commemoration is not nothing. The “I do” marks and makes memorial a mutual devotion that already has a life of its own but that otherwise sprawls in a messy and often unspoken way across a lifelong loving companionship. But a representation is a radically different sort of thing for a ceremony to be, and a very different experience.
I believe that the honeymoon has had a similar recent history. In the twentieth century the honeymoon was for intimacy and initiation. In the last couple of generations, it lost this more direct function. Now intimacy and initiation take place in the first months of, as we put it in our maximally understated and sweetly simple way, “being with” someone.
What happens when the honeymoon loses its function? Does it just become a vacation with a special name? That’s basically how I approached it (not really thinking one thing or another about it). I thought it was a good excuse to go somewhere warm in December. We were, as everyone else we know is, exhausted. I vaguely figured that if twenty-first-century honeymooners don’t fall into each other’s arms anymore, well, then they collapse on the bed side by side. It sounded nice. But my experience was that that’s not quite the honeymoon’s mood either. Instead the honeymoon has gone the way of weddings and a lot of other traditional things: what was once performative becomes commemorative.
This memory-making—that this is to be a representative good time, that the cameras are rolling, as it were, can make you do all sorts of idiotic things on your honeymoon. I was seriously considering making some sort of stand against a whole Hawaiian family, one on six (what would this even have looked like?), because they had stolen my boogie boarding spot. I stood in the shallows, with a foamy wave sucking at my calves, scheming how to seize the day.
The worst of it, though, is the nasty pathology of presence. The honeymooner wants, above all, to be present. But he wants to be that way so that he can have been that way on his honeymoon. The result, in my experience anyway, is the opposite of that intended: each moment slips through his fingers; everything is always already over.
In its own way, the wedding too is lived to be looked back upon. But for the wedding this has an intrinsic nobility. The wedding is an experience that is to be fulfilled through time. Importantly, in the case of a wedding, the self-consciousness that marks the ceremony, the sweaty palms and anxiety and audience and all, is a match for the deliberateness of being married—the work, the will, that is poured into it and makes its inner life, perhaps in the twenty-first century more than ever. In contrast to this, the contemporary “honeymoon” has no place to put self-consciousness. It has plenty of portent, but the portent has no path to development in one’s life. The honeymoon confusedly tries to commemorate something sensual and spontaneous—the honeyed early times of marriage. The idea, vaguely, is not to fulfill its memories but just to relive them, to reminisce. The result is a minor disgrace of the mind.
As we descend the Sleeping Giant we can hear the crowing of Kauai’s feral roosters. Kauai is full of wild chickens. They live in the woods. They are all colors: gray; black-and-white speckled; green; orange with a rust-brown hood; a skinny drab brown one who looks like a mother who has no time to take care of herself, with ten chicks, beaks down, pecking, peeping, taking up a sidewalk. They stand on the posts of chain-link fences. They dart in and out of the fluorescent square of light under an awning. The guidebook had mentioned these. The chickens were brought over by the original Hawaiians in their double-hulled sailing canoes on their 2,500-mile colonial voyage from the South Pacific in the fourth century. (The big mystery with these colonists being where they thought they were going.) With no predators—for example, there are no snakes on the islands—the chickens thrive.
When we get back to our car at the bottom of the climb, a rooster with an electric blue-green body and a gray tail is standing in the crook of a U-shaped tree branch. He goes “cock-a-doodle-doo,” then hops off and struts away into the lush understory. The honeymooner can’t hear it. The end stage of honeymoon sickness is when A-MA-ZING—itself the most numb of exclamations—is mouthed by your face.