The vacation was Charles’s idea, insisted upon despite – or more accurately because of – the fact that I was still waiting for my diagnosis. He’d always been quietly of the opinion that my illness was all in my head. Not that he said so, but the thought slipped in between us. In bed when he ran his fngers down my back and told me that my skin was beautiful, my skin was so perfect. When he handed me a cup of tea, along with a small dish of ice cubes to cool the water, and asked not how I was, but how I felt. It sat in that small sea of wrinkles between his eyebrows, giving him what looked, to all the world but me, like an expression of genuine concern.
On our frst full day on the island, just barely off the plane and still all sleep-fugged, we walked down to the beach with towels tossed around our shoulders, arguing about whether we should have come.
“You don’t know when they’ll call,” he told me. “And anyway, you don’t need to know everything immediately. If something’s wrong, they can deal with it when you get back.”
“I had trouble breathing again last night,” I said. It was the frst symptom I’d noticed – that shortness of breath that forces you to pull deep shuddering gulps of oxygen down into the bottom of your lungs just to feel you aren’t going to drown. Most people get it from time to time for no reason, and then it goes away. So for a week or two I joked about the situation, calling it midget breath and baby lung syndrome. But it kept on, with me. Eventually Charles stopped fnding the names amusing, so I just shut up and called it what it was. “I tried the meditation thing, where you close one nostril, then the other nostril.”
“Did it work?”
I shrugged. “Not really.”
We tramped down a few cracked wooden stairs, not talking, past a four-sided outdoor shower, and down onto the long stretch of smooth pale sand that bordered our resort. The scene was so perfect it almost felt cheesy to enjoy it: surf curling over black rocks, the water aquamarine and tufted with white. A volcano in the distance, clouds drifting off it like benign, angelic smoke.
“The waves are a little big,” I observed. We had been warned about undertow.
“It’s fne.” Charles took my hand and walked me down the beach to an unclaimed point. We whipped our towels off of our necks and unfurled them, staking out a position with just a bit of shade from an overhanging tree. An alabaster woman eyed the spot with proprietary disapproval as she passed by, hauling an umbrella and a cooler. A moment later, while I leaned against a tree branch unwinding the batik wrap skirt from my hips, she came by again, a little closer.
“That woman is lurking,” I said. Some ffty yards away, she stuck her umbrella in the sand with a chink.
“Ok.” Charles wasn’t really listening. He was drunk on vacation. He pulled off his t-shirt and threw it to the ground, then clapped his hands, palms fat together like a child. And like a child, his whole body was coconut scented, arms happy and glistening with sunscreen. For days he’d been full of relaxation plans and statistics, plotting routes to the ideal unraveling of our stress and to the forgetting of our troubles. It was a little infuriating how often he was right; it seemed to me that you shouldn’t be able to plan bliss, but here we were. A tropical island. Soft sand and a warm breeze. Cocktails built of three different liquids whose variable viscosities burnished them, yellow, to red, to brown.
Charles shouted like Tarzan: “We’re going in!”Then he winked at me and smiled.
So we dove. Me too – I admit I got carried away by the excitement in his voice, and by the hot sand – too hot to walk across at a considered pace. Charles grabbed my wrist, but lightly, and we ran into the water until it dragged at our shins and knocked us down headlong into the waves.
“Should we be worried about someone stealing our key card?” I asked, foating on my back. It seemed like something a clever thief might grab. Go up to people’s rooms while they’re busy in the water, and take their credit cards and watches before their skin has time to tan.
Charles gave me a baleful look. “We shouldn’t be worried about anything.”
We dove a few more times, and then stood in the tide letting the biggest waves come and lift us by the hips.
“Marry, fuck, kill,” Charles said. It was a game we liked to play: pick three people and attach one action to each. Like: the three Beatles other than Ringo – marry, fuck, kill? Or: your old roommate, her boyfriend, their cat – marry, fuck, kill? Charles continued: “Us.”
“There are only two of us,” I pointed out.
He raised his eyebrows in a so what? way.
“Ok,” I said. “Fuck me, kill you, marry me.”
Charles looked pained, but what other choice did I have, really? Human beings are supposed to possess a survival drive. He often told me so himself, when I felt down. As a kind of admonishment.
“Marry you, kill, um. Kill your illness” – he said it like that, very pointed, but also as though the idea was just occurring to him – “Fuck me.”
I dipped my head under water so I could roll my eyes, then popped back up. While I was down there, I thought I saw a fish swim by. Something black and large. We’d edged out deeper now, up to our chests.
“You didn’t say that was an option. But isn’t it interesting that we both chose to fuck ourselves?”
“You also chose to marry yourself,” Charles said. “Which is particularly interesting because it also means marrying your disease, which you claim to hate.” He has always had a strange way of building moments up just to take the wind out of them. A sail going slack, and falling over your body like a kidnap bag.
“Well it’s a for-better-or-for-worse kind of thing, isn’t it?” I replied.
We met eyes for just a second, then let our attention skid off in different directions. The alabaster woman, I noticed, was swimming now, some hundred yards away from us but at least as deep. I wouldn’t have thought her the type to get in the water past her ankles, not when the sun is magnifed by it. The waves work like a prism. Like a sheet of tilted glass. They burn you up.
But there she was, bobbing up and down in a sleek breaststroke. Not really the kind of swimming for the ocean. With the breaststroke you want a glassine pool.
She ducked down again, and disappeared.
For a second I didn’t believe my eyes. It was really quite choppy, and it wouldn’t have been hard to miss her in the rise and fall of the surf, the foam. Still, I began to count, scanning back and forth over the near horizon, and after a full minute she hadn’t surfaced. She wasn’t on the beach. Not anywhere.
“Charles.” I tugged on his arm. “That woman from before.”
“She’s not going to steal our key card,” he said. “She probably has her own, nicer key card.”
“No, I just think she’s gone.” Then I saw the black shape again, and gave a little scream.
“What?” Charles turned to me. “What is it?”
“I think it’s a shark.”
I spoke quietly, not wanting to cause a panic. But right in the place where I’d seen the woman disappear, a dark point emerged from the water and then vanished.
“What?” Following my eyes, Charles squinted. “No. That’s just a rock.”
It might have been, I knew. My eyes crossed with the effort of trying to pick the shape out in the spume, but it didn’t show up again even when the waves receded. On the shore, people basked on their blankets. A little girl right out of a sunscreen ad dug in the sand with a pink plastic shovel. When she lifted up her blue plastic bucket, its handle sagged under the weight.
“I’m hungry,” Charles said. “Let’s go eat all the fsh in the sea.”
We slogged out of the water and roughed each other up with our towels – it hurt a little, like an Indian burn. Though maybe that was just because Charles attacked the task with so much gusto. Damp clothes bundled in my arms, I followed him back up the wooden stairs, both of us pausing to rinse off at the shower. I looked out at the swimmers, at the sunbathers, trying to fnd the woman and her big umbrella, but I couldn’t spot her. Although, I knew, that didn’t mean she wasn’t there.
At night, when I get scared and don’t want to wake Charles up and be chastised back to sleep, I call my friend Maureen. She’s used to it. She doesn’t even try to diagnose me anymore, because the results are never good: the two of us crouched over computers in our respective darkness, searching for all the different ways to ft together puzzle pieces made from black and yellow bile. Once I woke up with a shock of hot pain in the left side of my head, just behind the ear and above it. There seemed to be no question that my brain was compromised – an infection, a complication, sickness bleeding into the folds.
I could hear Maureen dragging herself from the depth of sleep on the other end of the line. When she’s especially deep in it, she always seems to be talking around a ball of butter. Smearing her words through hot, clotted cream. It makes me feel like I’m not talking to her, but instead to a special, night version of her, one that’s made for the night version of me. Both of us warm and steaming in the dark, wrapped up in quilts. Half-blind, with the lights so low.
“I think I’m going to die,” I said, hidden in the bathroom. She yawned at me.
“Well, probably not.”
“How do you know?”
“I saw it in my dreams.” She paused. “There was also something about a rat terrier.”
We sat quietly for a while, just breathing at each other. I thought she’d fallen back asleep, but I wasn’t ready for that yet, so I decided to carry on the conversation, as if in blissful ignorance.
“Really,” I said. “How can you know?”
Maureen made the sound of a shrug. “Did you call a nurse before you called me?”
Begrudgingly, I admitted I had not. Our insurance includes a 24-hour nurse’s hotline, the number to which is available on our fridge, printed on a fat magnet. The nurses rarely comfort me though, and I can only imagine that’s they’re primary occupation, besides maybe telling emergency cases that they should hang up and dial 911.
“There are, at a guess, ten thousand hot needles in my left temporal lobe,” I offered.
“So why not call the nurse?”
“They couldn’t do anything. They’ll just tell me to wait until the morning, and if it still hurts, go to urgent care.”
We sat quietly for a little longer. Charles, if awake, would already have made me call. He would have prised the phone from my fngers and dialed. Maureen, though, she listened. For the things that I wanted, and could not say. “
You know,” I could hear her stretching in the background of her comment, joints softly popping, her throat releasing a slight eee. “It’s normal to be scared when you wake up and feel sick.”
“There’s even a Calvin & Hobbes about dying at night. Being scared of it, I mean.” Maureen knows that I don’t sit up at night worried about pain, for its own sake. There are worse things than pain.
“Wait, that’s a cartoon?”
“Calvin & Hobbes. Totally allowed to be both things at once. Dark and stupid. Slapstick followed by your inevitable demise.”
“Well, it is.” She was three thousand miles away, and still I could feel her certainty. I’ve never met a more emphatic person. “The tiger tells him that being close together means it’s ok to go to sleep, because they’ll meet again in their dreams, even if something bad happens. And the boy loves him so much, he believes him.”
“I don’t think Charles would be comforted by his proximity to me if he woke up to fnd that I’d died in the night.”
“Corpsifed closeness.” Maureen said. “Yeah, that’s tough.” I pictured her in her bed, knees pulled up to her chest, back arched smooth. She went on: “You know, I think I would be glad. If it was me. Because I’d know we were together, and that you were happy, and safe.”
“Maybe I should’ve married you, then.”
“Maybe you should’ve.”
It was hard to tell, just from her voice, if she was joking or being serious, and I couldn’t decide which was worse. Which one I wanted. The phone is like hot breath in your ear. Ultimate distance and ultimate proximity all at once. Why not let Charles keep sleeping alone, and then let him wake up into a whole new life?
“I should try to go back to sleep,” I said.
“Take like four ibuprofen. Good night, kid.”
On the way to the lava felds, Charles and I talked about the beautiful Indian doctor who would give me my diagnosis. We made frequent pilgrimages to her offce –fve times already in the past twelve weeks – and here in the tropics, we missed her. She always wanted some complicated new blood work, the details of which she read from a page in her leather planner, using one squareedged nail to keep her place.
“Why not…a lumbar puncture?” she asked once, as if it were a kind of scotch.
To reach her, you had to walk through the hospital, through the big air-lock doors and the hallways full of the sweet-sick smell of antiseptic hand foam. But when you closed the door behind you, all that disappeared. You stepped onto a thick Persian rug, and caught the scent of incense lingering in the air. Though I couldn’t imagine she was allowed to burn it. A set of framed engravings hung on the wall, each representing a miniscule aspect of the anatomy. Each so small and particular they meant nothing until they were taken together.
At frst I found the space splendid, medical, a little romantic. She had comfortable chairs in front of her desk for visitors, leaving the velveteen couch unused except as a makeshift fling system for her papers and folders. One day we came in and found the papers stacked hastily across the foor, as if they’d been swept off the couch in a fit of some passion – sex or sleep.
Soon enough, though, I spotted little things amiss. The scratch on her mahogany desktop; the row of sci-fi novels tucked away on a low, dark corner of her bookshelf. Her fcus was dripping a thick white sap. I didn’t mind. The imperfections made it all more familiar – a place like any other, with an inhabitant struggling to stave off decay. When I asked the doctor if she had any new information for me, she cleared her throat nervously, fngers fitting over her notes.
“There’s just one more thing I’d like to try,” she’d say, every time. “Before we commit to a defnitive course of action.”
As we navigated the small island road, I told Charles I thought she was dragging her feet to spare me, and he said she was probably just being meticulous.
“You only think that because she’s pretty.”
“Well.” He looked thoughtful, pulling the car around, sharp, into a parking space. “She’s meticulous with her makeup, too.”
A heaviness had come over the day. I hopped out into the wet heat and propped my foot against the bumper, the easier to apply my sunscreen. We were both hiking with bathing suits under our clothes – more uncomfortable for me, with my one-piece, than for Charles, whose suit was indistinguishable from a pair of shorts. But he promised good swimming at the end of the road, a secluded natural rotunda shaded by trees and lapped by turquoise. Secluded seemed right: there was only one other car in the lot, and no sign of its driver or passengers. With paths snaking out three directions, they could’ve been anywhere, or nowhere. I shivered.
Just in front of us was a spiky beach, lots of boulders and no safe place to dive in. The waves crashed hard from every angle, and I stared at the mess of them, somewhat hypnotized, until Charles came up and rubbed my shoulders.
“Everything is probably just fine, you know.” His voice was soft, and I shook his hands off me. I couldn’t stop thinking about the pale woman by the resort, the way she was there one moment, then gone. I wished we could abandon the hike; I wanted to swim, right then, no waiting. As though I could sink under the waves and fnd her there, waving at me. Smiling, and long-fngered.
“Let’s go,” I said. “We have to make good time if we want to lounge around in the cove and still get back before dark.”
Behind me I heard a little splash and a patter, and I turned back to look, thinking that it might be an animal. But nothing had changed, and Charles didn’t seem to notice.
“Good point,” he said, and stretched his fists up like a bodybuilder. “The sunset.” His face was alive with satisfaction, his body wiry and glowing with strength.
When I was a child, I went through a brief mania for ghost stories every year at Halloween. I enjoyed the structure of seasons and holidays, the comforting way they came around, again and again. Dragging their predictable parts along with them. There were, it seemed to me, recipes for things. Ghost stories, for example: take a book, and a blanket, and a cold, dark day. Take a stormy night.
One afternoon in fourth grade – I must’ve been nine or ten – my class spent the last hour of the school day in our library, some students crouching around the computer catalogue while others browsed idly through the collection of Choose Your Own Adventure titles. The smell was particular: stainless steel shelves and sweet-papered books, the covers protected by plastic sleeves. I walked around in it, muttering stories and ideas to myself. It was October, and I’d been re-zoned into this school at the beginning of the year, so this was my frst real trip to the library.
I was kicking a little rock as I walked, trying to be surreptitious so no one would ask me why I didn’t just pick it up and throw it away, and I slammed my knees into a shelf I hadn’t noticed was there. Blood rushed to my head as I looked over the titles – Six Tales of Hauntings, Three For the Graveyard, The Malodorous Corky McGill – and saw that every single one indicated scary stories or true crime. To my child brain, it was fate: something had drawn me there. Something wanted me there. I sat down on the foor and started sorting through, assuming the same alchemy that led me to the books in the frst place would help me pick the best, the blackest one.
By the time I got home I was itching to read, quaking all over with the desire to curl up on the couch and lose myself. Twin bruises had formed on my knees, but I didn’t mind – if anything, they made me happier. They were reminders. My book of choice was perfect, full of stories with talking cats and unseemly neighbors who used their glass eyes to stare into children’s souls. Fall had come, just as I dreamed it. I sat down and pulled a blanket over my lap.
But something was wrong with the sky. One half, through the window, was a proper and ominous grey while the other half burned with the hot, saturated blue of late summer. Worse still, a strong wind was blowing the cloud cover away, and I had to keep shifting in my seat, raising and lowering the angle of the book, to keep my view appropriately sullen.
All that squirming must’ve made some noise, because my mother came in and asked me what the commotion was about. I tried to explain about the sunshine, the wrongness of it, certain that she wouldn’t understand. But my mother nodded and looked away, thoughtful. For a moment I hoped that things would really be ok. That this was one of those situations where adults knew more than children; understood a power we couldn’t fathom.
“You could close the curtains,” she said. My heart sank. “Or hide under a blanket, with a fashlight. Or why not both?”
I agreed to try, dragging a thin quilt off of my bed and propping it up with spare cushions, so I had a little couch-nest with a soft, vaulted ceiling. I made myself cozy inside while my mother tucked the curtains tight together, sealing in the dimness of the room. A few minutes later she brought me a mug of hot chocolate, which was – she assured me – just right for fall. Her eyes, I remember, were so eager. I said it was perfect, and shooed her away with the beam of my fashlight.
The truth was, I could feel the heat of the sun outside my handmade cavern, outside the thick walls of my house. My mother hoped to teach me how to make my own satisfaction, but what I learned was how hard you have to try to get even a facsimile of what you want.
The lava felds themselves were hundreds of years old, but looked like newly tilled farmland. Or perhaps, more accurately, like overturned parking lots: concrete chewed up by a siege of jackhammers, and then carefully mixed and spread by a track-hoe. In fact, they were the fossils of volcanic explosions, the very same sort that created the island in the frst place, pushing it above water. All that liquid, all that bubbling, turned to stone by time.
I’d assumed the hike wouldn’t take long, but a few minutes in I began to reassess. Walking on the lava rocks wasn’t easy: they were sharp and irregular, even on the pathway, making the sound of fint-against-fint every time you kicked a piece free. The knife-edges cut at me through the soles of my shoes, but Charles didn’t seem to mind – he was happy, ooh-ing and ahh-ing at the landscape. Pausing to take many identical pictures of the little black goats that popped up on the rocks, perched atop stony crags or half-hidden behind the scabby trees. Whenever we stopped for a photo op or a pee, I heard a scratching noise approach and then pause some distance away. A goat, I thought. A shy one. But the sound was less like hooves over stone, and more like something being dragged. A kid with a backpack, maybe. A pale tourist, with a cooler.
The scenery really was unusual; even the bathing suit pinching my hip couldn’t fully distract my attention. After scrambling up a hill, we passed through a shallow valley full of what looked like bleached bones, which I stared at for maybe a little bit too long. Charles insisted they were just rocks, or maybe desiccated wood, but why, then, would they have been scattered like offal near a pool of neon orange sludge, rimed with neon green? A pool The Thing might rise out of? He had no answer.
“Interesting bacterial life, I bet.” Charles, the optimist. “
Why weren’t there any other people in the parking lot?”
“You know. Why haven’t we run into anyone else? It’s like the only place we’ve been alone on the whole island.”
Charles stopped and looked at me. It’s not often I say something that moves him to that particular expression, even with all my symptoms, all my aches and pains.
“Seriously?” he asked.
I shook my head. “Never mind.”
On the other side of the valley our path took a turn – away from the ocean, which seemed strange. We were supposed to end up on a beach, after all. Take in the healing salt air, the salubrious rays of Mother Sun. Behind us, something skittered around; a scratching, slapping sound. Wet fesh whitewashing the rocks. I moved a little closer to Charles, who smiled and took my hand.
“Really though, doesn’t this seem like the kind of place you’d get stalked by a killer?” I asked. And Charles laughed.
“Or like, a panther.”
“Or a goblin.”
“Marry, fuck, kill,” Charles said. “Panther, killer, goblin.”
“I’m serious,” I told him. “I feel like something’s following me in here. Every time I turn my head I see it out of the corner of my eye, but I can’t quite catch it.”
My breath came faster, then a little faster still. Shouldn’t have come, I told myself. Shouldn’t have come. I’d known it all along: we should’ve waited for the doctor to call. We should’ve stayed close by the hospital, all our resources. I thought miserably of my cell phone, back in our hotel room, locked in the safe.
“Look at that,” Charles said.
I could tell from his voice that he was changing the subject, and when I glanced up I knew why. A mountain – the volcano, in fact – rose up in the distance, vibrant green. Clouds hovered around it, almost protective, and I couldn’t help but see the glorious contrast between the calcifed lava we were trekking through and the verdancy that had come, over the course of centuries, to claim it. A glimpse of blue sky was visible around the peak; a break in the cloud cover that would bring us afternoon rain.
Charles was taking another picture. Through the creak of his sneakers against the stones, I could practically hear him writing mental photo captions. Perfect day in paradise. And God of fre!
I looked back down at the path, turning my body slightly so all I could see was black stone. There was always a little piece of blue or green creeping in, though. Now that I knew it was there. I tried squinting one eye to keep Charles’s red t-shirt out of sight, his water shorts. My breath was still ragged and uneven. Standing there, waiting for my pulse to go down, I couldn’t decide if I was angrier at the way I’d worked myself up, or at the easy way the monsters could be dissipated. That all I had to do to escape was look up.
We made it to the swimming cove not long after. Maybe an hour and a quarter of total hiking; I should’ve known. Charles doesn’t take me places where he thinks I might get seriously winded. I’m like a lady with the vapors: he may not understand or believe in my affiction, but he has certainly come to expect it.
Unfortunately, you couldn’t really swim in the swimming cove. The same whirlpool waves that I’d seen from the parking lot were here, too. Only more so. The protective curve of the bay pushed the water round and round, dashing it against the shore. There was one shade tree, far enough back from the tide line that you could sit beneath it without getting wet, but the tree was covered with ants. I laughed a little. Charles had promised swimming – promised. But here we were. He sat down a ways away from the tree and opened a protein bar, brushing his legs off periodically.
“I really think,” I said, “that woman drowned earlier today.”
“The really pale one. The bitch.”
“Oh come off it,” said Charles.
“Don’t you think that my opinion deserves the beneft of the doubt? It does happen, you know.”
“I’m sure it does.” He blew a piece of hair off his forehead. “I’m sure. But just say it happened. What would you expect us to do about it?”
“Nothing,” I said. “You’re missing the point.”
Which is, I wanted to say, that things go wrong. They go wrong, and there’s nothing you can do to fx it.
I shook my head.
After a half hour of sitting around, during which I let myself be persuaded to eat a protein bar of my own, just to get my blood sugar up, we headed back to the car. I was looking forward to the same walk through the lava and bones; I thought I’d do better this time, knowing a bit more about where to put my feet. I also thought we might miss the sunset, which gave me a rather spiteful thrill. But we took a smooth path instead, one that was half the distance. An easier way, that had been there all along