Prose: William Robinson
Joan’s biospy showed the cancer had come back. So we booked tickets. Paid a premium, too. It was crazy. But nothing is when you’re dying.
Galapagos bound, number one on Joan’s bucket list. She pulled out my camera and my Hawaiian shirt. “American tourists or bust,” she said. Then before we boarded, “Promise we won’t talk about it?”
What could I say? I crossed my heart.
And I tried. Goddamn it, I did. That first day out on Espanola Island? When Miguel our guide told us the bigger and brighter blue-webbed feet of the blue-footed boobies attract the females, I picked up my size thirteen sandals and said, “How do you think I landed you?” That got her going.
So did the dining on guanabana and papaya and watching the iguanas, with their blotches of coppery green and red, blow snot on themselves. By the time we crawled back to our berths, we were beat and content.
Plus, Joan met a couple. Kassie and Tom. She looked like Grace Kelly. So what he wasn’t my cup of tea. I hung with him for Joan’s sake. Cuddled up beside them out on the Zodiac with Miguel and ate in the ship’s dining room at night. And drank. At one point Joan started going off on Lonesome George. She’d read about him while on the plane. The world’s oldest living tortoise. 150 years. “Maybe he had some secret we don’t know about,” she slurred. Then she added, “You know why they called him that, don’t you? Because no one could find him a mate. Oh, they tried. A world-wide search, too. Flew in those perfectly-matched women tortoises from eHarmony. They even set the mood. Soft, munchable leaves, a pool of swamp water to splash around in. But nothing, zippo. When he died, he died alone.” She took a big gulp of wine and added, “What a smuck.”
Joan was having a good time. And I admit I too was feeling good, even buoyant. Particularly the mid-day part, when everyone remained on the ship because the sun would’ve fried our flesh, and Joan and I lay out on hammocks under a covered awning with books from the ship’s library. I picked up one about Darwin’s finches. How they weren’t much to look at but his entire theory of evolution was based on those little guys. The way the trees got harder and those with the sharper beaks survived. The symbolism wasn’t lost on me: Joan, having already been through so much, was still hanging around.
But then, on the eighth day, death found her. We were supposed to swim off Fernandina with the hammerheads, but she was tired and wanted to stay in the berth. I caught her pulling down her eyes in the mirror, to see if there was any decay there. She wanted me to go; I told her I wanted to stay. I didn’t tell her that I’d been staying up at night watching her snore, and when I wasn’t I peered out the porthole at the roiling waves, at all that vast inkiness, and at the frigate birds (or were they albatross?), flying in the ship’s wake. I kept wondering where the equator was in all that darkness, if I could pinpoint the exact moment when we would cross over. Because I wasn’t ready. I wasn’t ready to go back home to watch her die. I couldn’t tell her any of this. I had promised.
When I got back, she was still in bed, her eyes closed and a book open on her chest. I slipped out of my bathing suit to take a shower. But her hand reached for mine. Pulled me on top and inside her. I worried about my weight. The first time she’d shed so many pounds and gained only half back. So I tried to switch. She wouldn’t have it. Then afterward she got up to shower. From the bathroom, she asked me if I swam with Kassie. I said, no, that’s Tom’s job. Then she yelled Kassie thinks I’m funny. One time on the Zodiac passing an outcrop of penguins, I’d said they were the most dignified animals in the kingdom because they wore tuxedos. When she asked me if I found her attractive, I knew then where she was going with this. I wanted to say, No, I don’t, but it came out, Fuck you.
And the next day, which was our last, as we climbed Santa Cruz because she wanted to see the tortoises, I continued to wear my irritation like a stain. Miguel mentioned we’d be climbing into a fog. A thick soupy mist that descended on the island every year called guava.
Halfway up Joan noticed something about me-perhaps it was my labored breathing? I kept up, two from the end. After we were herded through thick stands of scalesia trees, she stopped to sit on a rock. “Park your keister, Mista,” she said, and patted the vacancy next to her.
I sat and she said, “Just grab a hold of that.” In the distance I could see the Zodiac tucked away in the corner of the bay, and the ship, just off the sandy beach margin. Beyond it was the ocean. Big and beautifully blue. “It’s a place at peace with itself,” she said. Then she looked at me. “I read that in the book yesterday.”
I squinted ahead and picked up a turquoise pebble. I went to put it in my pocket. But Joan touched my hand. I’d forgotten about Miguel. Every grain of sand or turquoise pebble is where it must remain, he’d told us, because nothing is a souvenir.
He was right about something else: a curtain of mist was now descending upon us.
“Here come the doldrums,” Joan said.
There was a joke in there somewhere. But I didn’t say anything. Instead I grabbed her hand. I squeezed it like a vise grip.
In another minute, the mist was near-constant. “Come on,” she said. “We don’t want to get lost up here.”
I got myself up, then helped her.
“Wait!” she said, and let go of me. I watched her skip off over the hardscrabble terrain. “Take a picture of me.”
But she’d gone too far, camouflaged into the foggy hillside.
“I can’t see you, anymore,” I said.
“Snap it,” she said in a voice that was calm. “I’m right here.”