The Island Theory, a short story

 “The Island Theory”
jmww, Spring 2014

You know better than I where this is going, perhaps where this has gone.

Maybe this is not a girls’ retreat at all, but a double-wedding weekend (your husband wearing seersucker in Nashville, you in your purple Valentino on Nantucket) or a conference so dense with lectures on ornithology, dental hygiene, maritime law, or the feminist experience in colonial South Africa that dragging your disinterested spouse along would be completely unreasonable, if not justification in and of itself for divorce.

Maybe you are not even a woman married to a man. Maybe you are married to a woman. Maybe you are a man. Maybe you are a man married to a man.

Maybe, though this is riskier, you are the one who stays at home on 23rd Street while your husband goes off on his own man-cation/bachelor party/visit to mother/business trip, and maybe it is in the take-out Indian around the corner that someone calls your name, asks why you are eating alone on a cold Saturday night, asks if you’d like company, but you will not go home to your place, you will not pull your wedding china from the cupboard and sit on the brown leather ottoman. The Island Theory is not effective in conjunction with the Marital Bed.

Maybe it is Hot Ron: six-pack lifeguard at the neighborhood pool, subject of your high school poetry. Maybe it is the Swedish Left, that communist you met in the cinema in Tokyo whose knuckles were like smooth river stones. Maybe it is Julia Fielding, whose body glowed in the moonlight when you went skinny-dipping after prom, whose laugh can knock down walls. Maybe it is someone only you know about: the girl from the bunk above you in that hostel in Venice, the shave-head boy who takes your laundry in.

Whoever it is, you will act first out of altruism, which will mask your underlying self-interest. Hot Ron will find you smoking in the grass beneath the chuppah and ask you for a light. The Swedish Left will drop the notes for his lecture, “Ownership of the Revolution: Mayakovsky’s May First Daydreams in a Bourgeois Armchair,” and you will stoop to collect them. Julia will be short a dollar for the curry, and you will give it to her, she will wonder why you should be eating alone on a cold Saturday night. The person known only to you might be found lying at your feet, hit by a bus, washed up on the beach, in need of the CPR you’re trained in… but that might be going a bit too far.

In the instance of the cancelled airplanes and the snow, you will find Harry Huffman—heavy weight crew ’99, mixed you a drink once at late-night, always smelled of sweat and apples—pacing in front of Ground Transportation, dialing and redialing the 800 number for Delta. Elevator music still pressed to his ear, he will carry on to you about the airline’s inhumane voucher policy, and, when you open your mouth to say something about gas prices and the stipulation in the standard Contract of Carriage about Acts of God, this will come out instead:

“Why don’t you come to the Hilton with me? We have a pre-paid room my girls were supposed to be using, but—” You will wave your hand at the CANCELLED sign.

Ah, that old desire for affirmation, you will muse as you lie on the plastic straps of a deck chair beside the hotel’s pool. The sun will be shining just so on your winter-pale limbs, highlighting the long muscles you will have built into them since the macaroni and cheese incident, and you’ll think of what you will tell the Cheater when you return.

As soon as you’re back, and please God let that be Sunday, you think you’ll take her to lunch at that quiet little gastropub around the corner, and at a table in the back, you’ll tell her that truly you do understand. Even as an Old Married Lady, you get it—God, Harry’s hand on your lower back as you ducked into the taxi. You haven’t lost your capacity for a thrill. It feels good to be looked at, wanted, by someone new, you’ll say. It is like the first bask of spring, the heat that dissolves the winter’s strain. But, a man’s wanting to spend the rest of his life with you (these italics will appear in your mind, bright as the sun on your eyelids)—well, that’s the ultimate affirmation, isn’t it? When she (the Cheater) seeks out passing physical approval from strangers, she undermines her ability to accept the fullness of her fiancé’s love. The Cheater has said herself that she can’t really believe that her fiancé truly loves her (her self being the sum-total of her experiences), if he doesn’t know what she does those nights he’s stuck in the office, those days she plays hooky from work.

Now, you plan to repeat (and, on second thought, it might be better to have some back-up, a little intervention over cocktails in Lea’s living room), I understand the urge. You understand that, partly, the Cheater cheats for affirmation, but also, partly, out of habit (No, you’ll have to remind the Neurotic who will inevitably cut in, habit, not addiction), and it is a habit that she’ll have to learn to break. In college, you all went about your sex lives like good third-wave feminists—essentially as men with higher success rates. You reduced the one-night-stand to a science. You compared notes, even competed a little. You all patted yourselves and each other on the back—proud of your modernity, sensually fulfilled. The Cheater did not have the highest numbers—that honor is shared by the Neurotic and Doctor Two—but she did not shed as effectively as the rest of you did that well-polished practice of flirtation. If her fiancé is not with her, she’ll still scan a room for men before she enters it. She’ll still move into place next to the one she finds most interesting. If no one stops her, she will wait, laughing, beside him, until he notices her, then, if necessary, brush him as she moves toward the bar, then, if necessary, touch him again—Excuse me, she’ll say, but look lustfully into his eyes—until she’s got him in the palm of her hand.

Opening your eyes, you will signal the cabana boy for another drink, and by the time he returns with it, red and yellow striped in a frosted glass, the lecture in your head will have faded to a whisper. While your body lies beside the pool in the glaring sun, your mind will be in the dark, against the bar at Dog and Anchor, replaying the last night of junior year—the Neurotic hooks a thumb through Harry’s belt, hands you her vodka soda. In college, three of the six of you netted Harry—he was handsome, usually single, always around—but, though you always wanted him the most (if you were honest, probably because you always wanted him the most) you were not among those three. In the Dog and Anchor of your mind, you will hook your thumb through Harry’s belt, and he will turn around to you, lashes lowered over those walnut eyes, and, of course, it will be as you think this thought that the real Harry will come through the lobby doors.

Of course, he might also surface in the chlorinated water, or he might climb over the dunes from the beach. It depends on whether you’d like him to be wet or dry, glistening with sun tan lotion or sparkling, sand pasted to his toned calves. He might be carrying a coconut he bought for you from one of the vendors on the beach. His towel might be draped around his neck, his hair slicked back with salt water or hanging forward over his eyes. He will not look anything like your husband, that much is certain. He will be exactly what you always imagined him to be. He will be barefooted, bare-chested, strong, and you will rub your eyes to try to clear the sun-spots. You will lift your aviators into your hair and then lower them back down.

You will blink hard, trying to make the past and the present resolve, because, just as you were hooking your thumb through his belt in Dog and Anchor, he will have come up from the beach. The beach is better than the lobby, you have to admit, because this way he can smell of sweat and musk, the smell of the ocean, of all the creatures who mindlessly (with the exceptions of the whales, porpoises, dolphins, and octopuses) bear themselves into the current to eat, shit, fuck, and die, so that he might smell of their bodies, their cum, their waste, of plankton, salt, motor oil, of everything that has passed over, through, been dumped or risen into the water from the beginning of time. He will come—for once in his life he will come over to you—and take a seat beside you, while you watch all the images from the girls’ post-coital debriefings: Harry going down on Doctor Two in the bathroom at SAE, falling asleep on top of the Neurotic, unzipping his jeans in a cab he shared with Lea (who, now that you think about it, didn’t sleep with him after all), and he will smell, not of apples and sweat, not elemental, but corporeal, concrete not abstract, like life and sex and death, like what of those things can’t be summed up by those words.

You will not ask him to do your back for you, and he will not ask you to do his. You’re not that easy, not anymore.

He will say, “Thanks for the room,” and you will smile.

“Thank the girls.” You might say, forgetting your third-wave rules, “Send flowers,” and laugh a little. “I think you might owe them flowers.”

He will give you a look to say he knows what you’re implying and it’s bullshit, bluster, but he won’t call you on it, not out loud anyway. He’ll have a vague memory of drunkenly unzipping his jeans in a cab with Lea, and his face will go red.

He’ll slap his hand down on the tubular metal edge of the lounge chair, and the metal will catch the bone of his wrist, and it will sting. He’ll shake it in the air as he stands.

“Well, I do think I owe you dinner,” he’ll say, winking. Yes, he will actually wink—this is not up to you.

You will smile wanly and look down just as the sun catches a facet of your engagement ring, lighting a blue flare that then dies to a twinkle. That’s the thing about diamonds, you’ll think, slightly chastised, why men keep spending so much on them, why women keep wearing them, even in this day and age—their symbolism is so obvious, their sparkle so constant, that you tend to notice it only when you need to.

“Oh, you know,” you’ll say, about to say my husband wouldn’t be so keen on that, but not wanting to go quite that far, especially in case he’s just being nice. “I actually have this intense desire to just order room service and watch a movie.”

Harry’s eyes will go a little dull, but it might just be a cloud passing in front of the sun.

“Mm.” He’ll close his eyes. My god, he’ll close his eyes and groan. “That does sound good. Mind if I join you then?”

You will feel suddenly dizzy—that is normal—as if you’ve just stepped off a cliff. A warm breeze will slip through the slats of the lounge chair, and the split ends of your drying hair will tickle the rise of your breast. You’ll get goose-bumps. Now would be the time to say that your husband wouldn’t be so keen on that, there is no mistaking Harry’s meaning, or maybe there still is, but your nipples are hard, and he already knows how you understand him, and, anyway, it’s just too much—the techno music blasting in the sun, the Mai-Tais, the cloud of chlorine hanging over the pool, the prospect of spending the night in a hotel room that smells like salt and disinfectant with a flaccid room-service burger and a pay-per-view movie you might ignore on a plane, the prospect of spending the night alone for the first time in years. You’ll feel like there’s no ground beneath your feet, and you won’t be able to stop yourself from falling.

So, “That sounds fun,” is what you’ll say.

You will settle into the Island Theory as you lean into the mirror to pluck your brows—the light is always better in other bathrooms than in your own. Trying to calm yourself down, you will remember that you are on an island, shut into the locked bathroom of a locked hotel room in a gated resort on the shores of a mass of sand and rock and banana trees no more than two hundred feet wide, in the middle of a sea embraced by the white sand margins of several countries—you’ll try to count, but your geography will fail you—protected from the great continuous wash of the ocean by Haiti, Cuba, and Puerto Rico or Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines or Italy, Sicily, and the Strait of Gibralter, and no planes are flying overhead. You are safe from physical discovery, and yet your palms will still be clammy, your bowels restless, the backs of your knees cold, the fronts of your knees shaky. You will already have resorted to the mini-bar (not included in Weekend Escape Package), and your mouth will taste like smoked peat. Behind the wall of your adjoining room, you’ll hear him—Harry, Harry Huffman—turn on the shower, feel the thump of the industrial plumbing, hear the water-wasting showerhead pummel the tub, hear his feet squeak on the wet porcelain, imagine the hair of his legs flattening to form seaweed drifts as the water finds its channels, and you will not stop plucking the hair beneath your eyebrow’s arch until you look outraged, or, no, surprised.

To calm yourself down, you’ll decide, you need an island isolated not only in space but in time. When you took that philosophy class in college, you read some essay—was it by Bergson? Hegel? William James?—that said that one’s consciousness was not a glow-worm or a knife-edge or something of the sort but a saddle, and you’d suddenly seen yourself as a woman astride a horse, the horse being the present, the landscape made up of your memories of the past and expectations for the future, your changeable self defined by what of the landscape you could see at a given time. It was a functional metaphor, one you felt viscerally to be true, and, even now, when you focus on the pressed tin ceiling of the yoga studio or notice, really notice, the snow dusting the cornices across the street from your office window, you might still feel the present warm and breathing between your legs like a thoroughbred in full stride, and you will close your eyes to the landscape, listen to the breeze. As you lean against the bathroom counter, you’ll realize that lately you and your husband have been riding together, your horses so close that they rub against each other’s flanks and your knee touches his, and his mare bends her swan neck and blows breath into your horse’s nostrils. Sometime in the past the two of you crossed a stream together, leaving your other lovers behind—you can still see them, if you squint, galloping in their own fields, but you don’t often look back, not in that direction.

The light will bounce off of the shower tile and into the mirror and back off of your irises and off of the mirror again, and you will have some confused thoughts about the space-time continuum, and about the first scene in the Black Stallion movie, where the Black Stallion kicks at the walls of his padded stall in the belly of an airplane that’s about to crash-land on a deserted island, and you will begin to hum that Lyle Lovett song about the pony on the boat, and you’ll laugh at yourself and at the ridiculous surprised expression you’ve plucked into your face.      Surprise is your horse rearing as lighting shoots across the sky. Surprise is the unanticipated present, but what you’ll need is the unremembered past, or, perhaps, you won’t need to precisely forget what is about to happen—drawers will be shutting behind Harry’s wall—but to misplace it. You will be doing this, after all, as much for the past self that wanted Harry so badly way back when as to satisfy your present boredom, your present lusts.

What you’ll need is the theory of an island—cloaked in mist?—on which to leave him, an island far enough off the coast of the landmass where you and your husband ride together that neither of you will be able to make out your fingers as they work through the hair on Harry’s chest or hear his lips kiss the inside of your elbow or see that it is your legs crossed over his back, his face buried in your hair. You’ll need a mobile island, an island that will slowly drift until it is on the other side of that stream you crossed, the side where your other lovers cavort, kicking their bony heels.

You will hear Harry open his door with those tanned, muscular fingers, hear his slow, heavy tread on the hall carpet, hear him knock on your door.

“Coming,” you will call, but first you will walk to the window.

You will watch the surrounding sea begin to bubble. You will watch lava rise, darken, and congeal. Birds will lay down their guano, grasses will grow, then trees, resorts, the tower of this hotel, and you will find that you have been transported there, onto that theoretical island, into that resort, this tower, this locked room. You will open the window and lean out. You might squint, but you won’t be able to see your husband from there—only white sand, black sea, the light of extinguished stars.

Before you enter your apartment, you will stand on the welcome mat and brush the snow off the shoulders of your coat. You will feel a little winded, as if you have been galloping miles across the country, and you will not want your husband to see you this way, to know how far you’ve come. Your nostrils flared, you will inhale the smell of toasted garlic, and, when you are ready, you will call out that you are home. Your husband, bearing a saucy spoon aloft, will come from the kitchen and kiss you with his red-wine mouth, and you will kiss him, shutting your eyes, so that you can see your horse reach to scratch his horse’s withers. You will listen for the sound of the sea, but that roar you’ll hear will only be your taxi driving away through the slush on the winter streets. You will open your eyes, then, draw the curtains, sit down to eat.