Authors: Jodi Picoult
After I’ve been on the island for a little over a week, Abuela invites me to lunch.
I have not been inside her home before now. It is bright and cozy, with a tangle of plants on the windowsills and yellow walls and a crocheted afghan on the couch. There is a ceramic cross hanging over the television set, and the entire space smells delicious. On the stove is a pan; she walks to it and moves the contents around with a spatula before lifting the utensil and pointing at the kitchen table so I will sit down.
she says a moment later, when she sets a plate down in front of me. Plantains, cheese, green pepper, onions, and eggs. She motions for me to take a bite, and I do—it’s delicious—and then with satisfaction, Abuela turns back to the stove and loads a second plate. I think she is going to join me, but instead she calls out, “Beatriz!”
Beatriz is here? I haven’t seen her for four days, not since we built the sandcastle together.
I wonder if she ran away from her dad’s farm again.
From behind a closed door on the other side of the living room comes a flurry of angry response I cannot understand. Abuela mutters something, setting the plate on the table and resting her hands on her hips in frustration.
“Let me try,” I say.
I pick up the plate and walk to the door; knock. The response is another muffled stream of Spanish. “Beatriz?” I say, leaning closer. “It’s Diana.”
When she doesn’t answer, I turn the knob. She is lying on a bed that’s covered by a plain white cotton blanket. She is staring up at the ceiling fan, while tears stream from the corners of her eyes into her hair. It is almost as if she doesn’t realize she is crying. Immediately I set the plate on a dresser and sit next to her. “Talk to me,” I beg. “Let me help you.”
She turns onto her side, presenting her back to me. “Just leave me alone,” she says, crying harder.
After a moment, I stand up and close the door behind me again. Abuela looks at me, her heart in her eyes. “I think she needs help,” I say softly, but Abuela just cocks her head, and my worry is lost in translation.
Suddenly the front door opens and Beatriz’s father stalks in.
“Ella no puede seguir haciendo esto,”
he says. Abuela steps forward, putting a hand on his arm.
He makes a beeline for the bedroom door. Without thinking twice, I step directly in his path. “Leave her be,” I say.
Gabriel startles, and I realize he has been too furious and single-minded to clock my presence.
“Porqué está ella aquí?”
he asks Abuela, and then looks at me. “What are you doing here?”
“Can we talk?” I say. “Privately?”
He stares at me. “I’m busy,” he grunts, trying to dodge around me for the doorknob.
I realize I’m not going to be able to divert him, so I pitch my voice lower, assuming that Abuela cannot understand English any better than I can understand Spanish. “Do you know that your daughter cuts herself?” I murmur.
His eyes, already nearly black, manage to darken. “This is none of your business,” he says.
“I just want to help. She’s so…sad. Lost. She misses her school. Her friends. She feels like there’s nothing for her here.”
here,” Gabriel says.
I don’t respond, because what if that’s the problem?
A muscle tics in his jaw; he is fighting for patience. “What makes you think I would listen to a
I have no idea what that is, but it can’t be a compliment.
Because I was a kid once,
. Because I had a mother who abandoned me, too.
Instead, I say, “I guess you’re an expert on teenage girls?”
My words do exactly what my physical interception didn’t: all the anger leaches from him. The light goes out of his eyes, his fists go slack at his sides. “I am an expert on nothing,” he admits, and while I am still turning this confession over in my mind, he reaches past me for the doorknob.
I do not know what I expect Gabriel to do, but it’s not what he actually
He goes into the room and sits gingerly on the bed. He brushes Beatriz’s hair back from her face until she rolls over and looks up at him with her swollen, red eyes.
I feel a shadow at my back, and Abuela walks into the bedroom. She stands behind Gabriel, her hand on his shoulder, completing the circuit of family.
I feel like I am in the middle of a play, but nobody has given me a script. Silently, I back away and slip out the front door.
Isolation, I think, is the worst thing in the world.
From: [email protected]
Before the mayor closed all nonessential businesses in the city today, I went to Starbucks on my way to work. I was in my scrubs, and I was masked, of course. I don’t go anywhere without a mask. The barista was joking around. She said,
I sure hope you don’t work with Covid patients.
I told her I did. She literally fell back three feet. Just…fell back. If that’s how I’m being treated—and I’m not even sick—imagine how it feels to be one of those patients, alone in a room with nothing but stigma to keep you company. You aren’t a person anymore. You’re a statistic.
The Covid ICU, which used to be the surgical ICU, is just a long line of patients on ventilators. When you walk into the ward it’s like a sci-fi movie; like these very still bodies are just pods incubating something terrifying. Which is kind of the truth.
We’re trying to be more careful about intubating because based on our experience, once a person’s on a vent he’s less likely to get off it. By now, I could identify the lungs of a Covid patient in my sleep (and some days, it kind of feels like that’s what I’m doing). It’s this vicious cycle—if you can’t breathe deeply, you breathe fast. You can only breathe 30 times a minute for so long before you exhaust yourself. If you can’t breathe, you can’t stay conscious. If you can’t stay conscious, you can’t protect your airway, so you might aspirate. And that’s how you wind up being intubated.
We give etomidate and succinylcholine before we put the GlideScope down the throat and bag the patient, because there’s a slight delay before getting hooked up to a ventilator. Ideally, you want to keep the patient comfortable but able to open his eyes and follow basic commands. The problem is that Covid patients have such low oxygen levels they are delirious—and we have to sedate them deeper in order to control their breathing and make sure they’re not fighting the ventilator. So that means doses of propofol or Precedex or midazolam, some kind of ketamine for sedation—plus analgesics like Dilaudid or fentanyl for pain—and on top of that, if they’re restless, we will paralyze them with rocuronium or cisatracurium so they aren’t trying to overbreathe the vent, and inadvertently damaging themselves. They’re on a whole cocktail of drugs…and not a single one actually treats Covid.
Man. What I’d give to know what your day was like. What you’re thinking. If you miss me as much as I miss you.
I hope you don’t. I hope wherever you are right now, it’s better than this.
The next morning, I open the sliding glass door for my morning run down the beach and nearly collide with Gabriel. He is carrying a big cardboard box that is overflowing with vegetables and fruits, some of which I don’t even recognize. I am certain I am dreaming this, until he reaches out one hand, steadying me so we do not crash. “These are for you,” he says.
I’m not sure what to say, but I take the box from him.
He runs a hand through his hair, making it stand on end. “I am
to say I’m sorry.”
“How’s it going for you so far?”
Two bright burns of color stain his cheeks. “I should not have…treated you as I did yesterday.”
“I only wanted to help Beatriz,” I say.
“I don’t know what to do for her,” he says quietly. “I didn’t know she was hurting herself…until you said so. I don’t know what’s worse—that she’s doing it, or that I didn’t even notice.”
“She hides it,” I tell him. “She doesn’t want anyone to know.”
“I’m not a psychologist,” I say. “Is there someone here she could talk to?”
He shakes his head. “On the mainland, maybe. We don’t even have a hospital on island.”
“Then you could talk to her.”
He swallows, turning away. “What if talking about it makes her do more than just…cut?”
“I don’t think that’s how it works,” I say slowly. “I knew a girl who did this, back when I was younger. I wanted to help. A school counselor told me that if I reached out to her, it wouldn’t make her do it more, or do something more…permanent…but it might make her take steps to stop.”
“Beatriz won’t talk to me,” Gabriel says. “Everything I say makes her angry.”
“I don’t think she’s angry at you. I think she’s angry at…” I wave my hand. “This. Circumstances.”
He tilts his head. “She told me about the sandcastle. About people who make art…out of garbage.” Gabriel clears his throat. “She hasn’t given me more than two or three words at a time since she got back to the island a week ago, but last night, she wouldn’t stop defending you.” He catches my gaze. “I’ve missed hearing my daughter’s voice.”
As an apology goes, that one hits the target. He is staring at me fiercely, as if there is more to say, but he does not know how. I break away, glancing down at the box in my arms. “This is too much,” I tell him.
“They’re from my farm,” he says, and then adds, with a hint of a grin, “since I couldn’t get you an ATM.”
That surprises a laugh out of me. “Does everyone know everyone’s business here?”
“Pretty much.” He shrugs. “You won’t want to leave those in the heat,” he says, then reaches behind me and pulls open the slider, so I can carry the box inside. I set it on the kitchen table gingerly, wondering if I should broach the topic of Beatriz again. Last night, I had thought maybe the girl was running away from her overbearing father; now I am not so sure. Either Gabriel is the world’s greatest actor, or he is just as lost as his daughter is.
He looks at the box of blank postcards on the kitchen table. “What are you doing with those?”
“Basically, they’re my paper supply. I’ve been writing to my boyfriend.”
Gabriel nods. “Well. At least they’re still good for something.”
“Oh!” I say. “Wait.” I whirl around, dart into the bedroom, and return with the neatly folded pile of very soft T-shirts I’d co-opted. “I wouldn’t have borrowed them if I knew they were yours.”
“They’re not.” He makes no move to take them from me. “Burn them, if you want.” He looks at my face, then sighs. “My wife used to sleep in them. I wasn’t upset because you borrowed them. It just…was like having a ghost walk over your grave.”
He says the word
like it is a blade.
Suddenly he bends down, manipulating the wobbly leg of the table. “I should have fixed this before you moved in.”
“You didn’t know I was moving in,” I reply. “And you weren’t particularly thrilled by the idea, as I recall.”
“It is possible I judged—how do you say it?—the book by its jacket.”
I smile faintly. “By its cover.” I think about him sneering at me for being a tourist, for being an American. I start to feel indignation percolating inside me, but then I remember that every time our paths have crossed, I’ve made poor assumptions about him, too.
He rips off a piece of the cardboard box, folds it, and uses it to balance the table. “I’ll come back this afternoon and fix it properly,” he says.
“Maybe Beatriz could join you,” I offer. “I mean, if she wants to.”
He nods. “I will ask.”
Something blossoms between us, delicate and discomfiting—a silent second start, a willingness to give the benefit of the doubt, instead of expecting the worst.
Gabriel inclines his head. “I leave you to your morning, then,” he says, and he turns.
“Wait,” I call out, as his hand grasps the sliding door. “If you’re a tour guide, why do you hate tourists so much?”
Slowly, he turns. “I’m not a tour guide anymore,” he says.
“Well, since the island is closed,” I reply, “technically…I’m not a tourist.”
He smiles, and it is transformative. It’s like the first time you see a falling star. Every night after that, you find yourself searching again, and if you don’t see one, you feel crestfallen. “Maybe, then, one day, I can show you my island,” Gabriel offers.
I lean against the table. It is, for the first time in a week, sturdy. “I’d like that,” I say.
A lot of people would think a vacation alone with nothing to do is heaven.
I am not one of those people.
I do not go to movies by myself. If I walk in Central Park, it’s usually in the company of Finn or Rodney. If I travel for work, and stay overnight at a hotel, I will always choose room service over eating alone at a restaurant.
The idea of being by yourself on a desert island has a romantic cachet to it, but the reality is less attractive. I find myself looking forward to my mornings on the beach, because Beatriz meets me there almost every day, and then follows me home to collect my daily postcard to Finn. I find reasons to hover around the front door of Abuela’s place, so that we can have our odd conversation made of charades, and because it almost always ends in a dinner invitation. I engage Gabriel in discussions about when the island might reopen, when the ferry will return to take me back to the mainland.
Twice I’ve found enough of a cell signal to call Finn, but he hasn’t answered. Once, a flood of texts and emails came through, but they were garbled, symbols and gibberish instead of sentences. When I can, I send responses back into the void.
I shouldn’t have gone. I miss you. I love you.
Here, too, I might as well be shouting into a canyon, and hearing only an echo.
There are some days when I don’t speak a single word out loud, and I restlessly move from the apartment to the beach or go for a run just to stop myself from having to think about Finn, about how long it’s been since I heard his voice, about my job, about my future. With every passing hour, all of that feels hazier, as if the pandemic is a fog that’s rolled in from nowhere and nothing looks quite the way it used to.
When I have no alternative, I sit by myself and wonder how far I’ve been blown off course.
I’ve been thinking about how I left things at work. If the situation is really bad in the city, then maybe Kitomi was right to hold off on the private auction. But then again, if it’s really bad there, Sotheby’s is going to need that sale more than ever.
By the time I get back, I may not even
Which is…strange. For so long I’ve known what I want to do and who I want to be when I grow up—I can’t imagine not being an art specialist. It’s not like I’ve always secretly dreamed of being an astronaut and now this is my big opportunity to strike out in a new direction. I
the direction I was headed.
I will say this, though—sometimes I look at the neon-orange Sally Lightfoot crabs polka-dotting black lava, or the pattern of spots on the back of a ray underwater, and I think: art is everywhere, if you know to look for it.
I miss you, goddammit.
I didn’t expect to like Kitomi Ito.
Like the rest of the world, I saw her as she’d been cast: the villain in the story of the Nightjars, the quiet psychologist-turned-siren who’d ensorcelled Sam Pride and led to the breakup of arguably the best band in the history of rock and roll. Whatever she’d done with her life since then—which included opening an ashram and writing three bestsellers about expanding one’s consciousness—paled in comparison to how she had affected Sam Pride. There were die-hard Nightjars fans who blamed her for his murder, because she was the reason Sam relocated from the UK to New York City.
To be fair, I also didn’t expect my boss to take me to Kitomi Ito’s apartment when she was trying to get Kitomi to commit to an auction at Sotheby’s. But Eva had been hinting for a while that since I was now an associate specialist in Imp Mod, I should be getting more responsibility. She started dragging me to meet with art collectors and their collection managers—not because she enjoyed the pleasure of my company, but to groom me for a more senior position.
I was flattered, and I was stoked. If I could be promoted to specialist—becoming an assistant vice president before I turned thirty—I would be ahead of my own ideal career schedule.
For several weeks now, Eva had been courting Kitomi as a potential client, taking her to lunch at Jean-Georges and The Modern. Given what Kitomi was floating for potential auction—a Toulouse-Lautrec original with an unparalleled history—I wondered if she ever had to make herself a meal, period. I was sure Phillips and Christie’s were wining and dining her as well; it was all part of the process of building a relationship with a seller—in the hope that the first piece they consigned for sale might not be the last. It was called the long game, and everyone in the business played it.
Just the fact that Eva commanded me to tag along, however, did not mean that she had developed any sudden affection for me. She was still the same frighteningly efficient, untouchable boss that (who was I kidding) I wanted to be one day. Like Eva, I wanted to walk down the hall at Sotheby’s and hear interns whisper. I wanted my name inextricably tangled with works of great art. I wanted to make the Fortune’s 40 Under 40 list.
“When we get there,” Eva instructed, as we sat in the back of the car that was taking us to the Ansonia, “you are effectively mute. Understand?”
“Not even a hello, Diana. Just nod.”
“What if she—”
“She won’t,” Eva says.
The Ansonia settled across the entirety of a block, a grande dame at a ball surveying the frenzy she would never deign to take part in. Kitomi Ito’s apartment was the penthouse, and to my surprise, when the elevator doors opened she was waiting for us herself. Eva shook her hand and smiled. “This is Diana O’Toole,” she said. “She’s an associate specialist on our team.”
Kitomi was so much smaller than I had anticipated, just a hair above five feet tall. She wore a floor-length embroidered robe over jeans and a white T-shirt, and her purple glasses. “Nice to meet you,” she said, with a slight accent, and I realized in that instant that in all the photographs and grainy video clips where I’d seen her with Sam Pride and the Nightjars, I had never actually heard her voice. She was part of a music legend, but she had no sound of her own.
I opened my mouth to say hello, and then snapped it shut and smiled.
Kitomi had a traditional Japanese tea set out in her living room—handleless cups and squat teapots wreathed with delicate painted flowers. She led us right by it, down a little hallway, to where the painting was hanging. I couldn’t tear my eyes from it, and I got the same flutter in my stomach I always got when I first saw a piece of art that was legendary. The smudges of color at the edges of the frame became crisper in the middle, where the lovers were depicted. Clearest of all were their eyes, riveted on each other. Suddenly I was
in the way that art can make you time-travel: I could imagine the painter, mixing his palette; could smell the attar of roses on the bedsheets; could hear the thumps of the prostitutes entertaining their clients in the rooms on either side.
Part of my job surrounding this acquisition had meant learning as much as possible about Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and his work, so that I could assess how it fit into the impressionist canon. Over the past few weeks I’d done research at the office, at NYPL, at Columbia and NYU. Born in France to a comte and comtesse who were first cousins, Toulouse-Lautrec had a skeletal dysplasia that left him only five feet tall with an adult-size torso, child-size legs—and, allegedly, oversize genitals. His father was embarrassed by his choice to become an artist; his mother was concerned for the company he kept. He had a reputation as a ladies’ man. His first liaison was with Marie Charlet, a seventeen-year-old model. Another lover, Suzanne Valadon, tried to kill herself when their relationship ended. The redheaded model Rosa la Rouge, a prostitute, was likely the one who gave him the syphilis that led to his death.
Like other artists, he was intrigued by Montmartre—the bohemian part of Paris, jammed with cabarets and prostitutes. The Moulin Rouge commissioned him to create posters and saved a seat for him always. For weeks at a time, he would move into brothels, painting the reality of the lives of sex workers—from boredom to health checks to the relationships they had that were not commercial transactions. He was much more interested in the difference between how a person acts in a certain environment and how they do when they’re alone—the space between the showman and the self; the gap between the private and the professional.
His work was described as painterly, relying on long, unblended brushstrokes. His art was more a blur than a snapshot, like scanning a crowd and having your gaze snag on something—the green, looming face of a woman, the bright red tights of a dancer. He was much more interested in individuals than in their surroundings, so there was usually a certain feature that he felt was distinctive and he accentuated that, letting the rest of the field float away. His gaze was not romanticized, but practical and dispassionate.
Around 1890, he painted a series—
that featured prostitutes in bed in quiet moments of intimacy. The women were pastel, because they used to powder themselves to look whiter and younger and healthy, but the surroundings were comparatively brighter, to contrast between where they were and who they were.
What you see,
Toulouse-Lautrec seemed to say,
is not what you’re really getting
There was no question that Kitomi Ito’s painting fit into this series, with one startling departure: here, Toulouse-Lautrec had painted himself into the frame.
Beside me, I heard Eva draw in her breath, and I remembered that this was the first time she’d seen the piece in person, too.
She cleared her throat, and I shook myself out of my reverie. I had work to do. It was my responsibility to assess the condition of the painting: Was the paint peeling? Was the frame sound? And the signature—did it look like his other signatures:
and dash almost forming an
the sharp acute angle of the
the tiny loop of the
at its cross mark. While I was doing this, Eva had her own job: convincing Kitomi Ito that Sotheby’s was the right auction house to sell the piece.
We knew that in the past, Kitomi had sold through Christie’s. But for this painting, she had invited other auction houses to make their pitches. “It’s breathtaking,” Eva said, and when she did, I didn’t look at the artwork but at Kitomi Ito’s face. She looked like a mother who had made the decision to give a baby up for adoption, only to realize that it was harder than she thought to let him go.
“Sam used to say,” she said, “that when he turned eighty, he’d never do another interview. Never sit in front of another camera. He wanted to go to Montana and raise sheep.”
“Really?” Eva asked.
Kitomi shrugged. “We’ll never know, I suppose.”
Because thirty-five years ago, her husband had been murdered. She turned, leading us down the hallway again to the table for tea.
“Is there a particular reason you decided to sell the painting?” Eva asked.
Kitomi looked up at her. “I’m moving.”
I could see Eva doing calculations. If Kitomi was going to leave New York City, there would be other things in the apartment she might want to sell.
The tea steamed in front of me. It smelled like green grass. “It’s sencha,” Kitomi said. “And there’s Scottish shortbread, too. Sam was the one who got me addicted to
I sat with my hands folded in my lap, listening with half an ear to Eva’s pointed questioning:
Have you had the painting appraised? Has the piece been moved? Has there been any restoration done on it? What other players do you work with in the art field—does someone manage your collection?
What do you hope to achieve through auction?
“What I want,” Kitomi said, “is for this painting to close one chapter, so I can open the next one.”
Her words sounded like the break of a bone, sharp and irrevocable.
Eva began to pitch the marketing campaign she and other senior associates had been fine-tuning since the first call from Kitomi. The plan was to wrap Sam Pride’s name all over the auction, because value is added for a celebrity—part of the reason the Vanderbilt estate had sold as well as it did years ago was simply the name Vanderbilt in the descriptions. “At Sotheby’s, we know art. So naturally, we would write up the history of the time of Toulouse-Lautrec’s life and pitch it to the top five Imp Mod collectors in the world, and we would give the painting the cover of the catalog. But we also know this is special. This piece is like nothing we have ever auctioned, because it is a link between two icons of their times. It’s not just Toulouse-Lautrec who should be spotlighted, but Sam Pride. At the auction, we would lean into the moment at which this painting intersected with Sam’s life.”
Kitomi’s face was unreadable.
“Nineteen eighty-two,” Eva continued, “when the album came out with this visible in the cover photo. We would also reunite the surviving Nightjars as a precursor to the auction—art begetting art.”
Eva reached into a leather folio to present the formal write-up of the pitch to Kitomi: the multimillion-dollar estimate of the painting’s value that would be presented to the public, what we thought the market value actually was, and the reserve—the secret amount Sotheby’s would keep as the price below which we would not sell.
I rose from my seat, about to ask for a restroom when I remembered I wasn’t supposed to speak. Kitomi looked up, her eyes black buttons. “It’s down the hall,” she said. “Left at the end.”
I nodded and slipped away. But instead of going to the bathroom, I found myself standing in front of the painting.
A lot of Toulouse-Lautrec’s work was about movement. His earliest art captured horses, then he focused on dancers and the circus and bicycle racing. But even later paintings felt like they were kinetic.
At the Moulin Rouge, The Dance
—one of his most famous paintings—showcases a tilted perspective on the floor to make the viewer feel off-kilter and a little drunk—while the eye is drawn to the red of the dancer’s stockings and to the pink of a fine lady’s dress and then to the gentleman she is watching and then to the flurry of another dancer’s petticoat behind him—all these angles make you feel like you are spinning, like you are in this loud room moving about, as small details catch your eye.