Authors: Jodi Picoult
And somewhere on a lava-sand beach, Finn will drop to one knee and I will fall into the ocean of his eyes and say
yes, let’s start the rest of our lives
Although I have a schedule for my life that I have not deviated from, I’m treading water, waiting for the next milestone. I have a job, but not a promotion. I have a boyfriend, but not a family. It’s like when Finn is playing one of his videogames and he can’t quite level up. I’ve visualized, I’ve manifested, I’ve tried to speak it into the universe. Finn is right. I will not let a little hiccup like Kitomi’s uncertainty derail me.
Finn kisses the top of my head. “I’m sorry you lost your painting.”
“I’m sorry you lost your patient.”
He has been idly tangling his fingers with mine. “She was coughing,” he murmurs.
“I thought she was there for her gallbladder.”
“She was. But she was coughing. Everyone could hear it. And I…” He looks up at me, ashamed. “I was scared.”
I squeeze Finn’s hand. “You thought she had Covid?”
“Yeah.” He shakes his head. “So instead of going into her room, I checked on two other patients first. And I guess she got sick of waiting…and walked off.” He grimaces. “She has a
and a gallbladder that needs to be removed, and instead of thinking of her health I was thinking of mine.”
“You can’t blame yourself for that.”
“Can’t I? I took an oath. It’s like being a fireman and saying it’s too hot to go into a burning building.”
“I thought there were only nineteen cases in the city.”
“Today,” Finn stresses. “But my attending put the fear of God into us, saying that the emergency department will be swamped by Monday. I spent an hour memorizing how to put on PPE properly.”
“Thank God we’re going on vacation,” I say. “I feel like we both need the break.”
Finn doesn’t answer.
“I can’t wait till we’re on a beach and everything feels a million miles away.”
He pulls away so that he can look me in the eye. “Diana,” he says, “you should still go.”
That night, after Finn has fallen into a restless sleep, I wake up with a headache. After I find some aspirin, I slip into the living room and open my laptop. Finn’s attending at the hospital made it clear, in no uncertain terms, that taking time off at this moment would be
That they were going to need all hands on deck, immediately.
It’s not that I don’t believe him, but I think of the deserted train station, and it doesn’t make sense. If anything, the city looks empty—not full of sick people.
My eyes jump from headline to headline: State of emergency declared by de Blasio.
The mayor expects a thousand cases in New York City by next week.
The NBA and NHL have canceled their seasons.
The Met has closed to all in-person visits.
Outside, the horizon is starting to blush. I can hear the rumble of a car. It feels like an ordinary Saturday in the city. Except, apparently, we are standing in the eye of the storm.
Once when I was small my father and I went with my mother to shoot pictures of the drought in the Midwest, and we got caught in a tornado. The sky had gone yellow, like an old bruise, and we took refuge in the basement of the B&B, pressed up against boxes marked as Christmas decorations and table linens. My mother had stayed on ground level with her camera. When the wind stopped shrieking and she stepped outside, I followed. She didn’t seem surprised to see me there.
There was no sound—no humans, no cars, and oddly, not a single bird or insect. It was like we stood beneath a bell jar.
Is it over?
Now, I don’t realize Finn is standing behind me until I feel his hands on my shoulders. “It’s better this way,” he says.
“To go on vacation by myself?”
“For you to be in a place where I won’t worry about you,” Finn says. “I don’t know what I might wind up bringing home from the hospital. I don’t even know if I’ll be
home from the hospital.”
“They keep saying it’ll be over in two weeks.”
I think. The news anchors, who are parroting the press secretary, who is parroting the president.
“Yeah, I know. But that’s not what my attending’s saying.”
I think about the subway station today. About Times Square, devoid of tourists. I’m not supposed to hoard Lysol or buy N95 masks. I’ve seen the numbers in France, in Italy, but those casualties were the elderly. I’m all for taking precautions, but I also know I am young and healthy. It is hard to know what to believe.
If the pandemic still feels distant from Manhattan, it will probably seem nonexistent on an archipelago in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
“What if you run out of toilet paper?” I say.
I can hear the smile in his voice. “
what you’re worried about?” He squeezes my shoulders. “I promise I will steal rolls from the hospital if fights start breaking out in the bodegas.”
It feels wrong, so wrong, to go without Finn; it feels even more wrong to think about bringing a friend along as a substitute—not that I know anyone who could leave for two weeks with zero advance notice anyway. But there is also a practicality to his suggestion that sinks its claws into me. I already have the vacation time blocked off. I know we can get a credit on Finn’s airfare, but the fine print on our amazing travel deal was no refunds, period. I tell myself that it would be stupid to lose that much money, especially when the thought of showing up for work on Monday makes my head throb harder. I think of Rodney telling me to snorkel with the iguanas.
“I’ll send pictures,” I vow. “So many you’ll have to get a better data plan.”
Finn bends down until I can feel his lips in the curve of my neck. “Have enough fun for both of us,” he says.
Suddenly I am gripped by a fear so strong that it propels me out of my chair and into Finn’s arms. “You’ll be here, when I get back,” I state, because I cannot bear the thought of that sentence being a question.
“Diana,” he says, smiling. “You couldn’t get rid of me if you tried.”
I honestly do not remember getting to the Galápagos.
I have the Ambien to blame for that, I suppose. I took it as soon as I got on the flight. I remember packing, and how at the last minute I took my guidebooks out of my carry-on and put them in my luggage. I remember checking three times that I had my passport. I remember Finn getting paged back to the hospital, and how he kissed me goodbye and said, “Victoria Falls.”
“You’ve already forgotten my name,” I joked.
“No, that’s the next UNESCO site we visit. Except, for that one, I go to Zimbabwe and you stay here. Fair’s fair.”
“Deal,” I promised, because I knew he wouldn’t leave me behind.
After that it is all bits and pieces: the crazy bustle of the airport, as if it is holiday season and not a random weekend in March; the bottle of water I buy and finish on the flight and the
magazine I never crack open; the jolt of the wheels that whips me out of a dream state full of facts I’d read about my destination. Still logy, I stumble through the unfamiliar airport in Guayaquil, where I will stay one night on mainland Ecuador before my connecting flight to the Galápagos.
I remember only two things about landing: that the airline has lost my luggage, and that someone checks my temperature before letting me into Ecuador.
I don’t have enough Spanish or bandwidth to explain that my flight for the islands leaves early tomorrow, but surely this has happened before. I fill out a report at baggage claim, but based on the number of people who are doing the same thing, I don’t have high hopes for being reunited with my bag in time. Wistfully I think of the guidebooks I packed in there. Well, that’s all right. I’ll be discovering places firsthand; I don’t need to read about them anymore. I have the essentials in my tote—toothpaste and toothbrush, phone charger, a bathing suit I packed in case
this very thing
happened. I’ll come back to the airport in the morning and fly to Baltra on Santa Cruz Island in the Galápagos, then take a bus to the ferry to Isabela Island, where I’ll stay for two weeks. Hopefully my bag will catch up with me at some point.
After I shower, I braid my hair, connect to the shitty hotel Wi-Fi, and try to FaceTime Finn. He doesn’t answer, and then a few minutes later, my phone starts to ring. When his face swims onto the screen, it is hidden behind a face shield, and he’s wearing a surgical mask. “You made it,” he says.
“I did,” I tell him. “My suitcase, though, wasn’t as lucky.”
“Wow. You mean, not only did I give up a vacation in paradise…I also gave up a vacation where you’ll be walking around naked?”
I smile. “I’m hoping it doesn’t come to that.” Suddenly I feel very tired, and very isolated. “I miss you,” I say.
The sound of an ambulance siren swells through the speaker. Finn’s eyes cut to the left. “I have to go.”
“Are you seeing it yet?” I ask. “The virus?”
His eyes meet mine, and behind the Plexiglas shield I notice the faint circles underneath them. It’s ten
. While I’ve been asleep on a plane, I realize, Finn has not left the hospital for twelve hours. “It’s all I’m seeing,” he says, and then the line goes dead.
The next morning, my flight to Santa Cruz goes off without a hitch. But there is a sea lion between me and the ferry to my final destination.
It sprawls across the dock in the sunshine, a slug of muscle, whiskers twitching. I edge closer toward it with my camera, thinking I can send a picture to Finn, but the minute I’m within striking distance its head and shoulders swoop upward and its eyes fix on me.
I run, leaping over its tail as it lets out a yawp and a roar, and I nearly drop my phone.
My heart’s still pounding when I reach the boat. I glance over my shoulder, certain that the beast is right on my heels, but the sea lion is immobile again, splayed on the bleached boardwalk like a lazy dog.
There are only two ferries a day to Isabela Island, but the afternoon trip isn’t as crowded as I expect it to be. In fact, there’s only me and two other passengers. In broken Spanish, I ask the man who helps me board if I am on the right boat, and get a sharp nod. I take a seat outside. And then, suddenly, we’re afloat and Santa Cruz Island starts to get smaller and smaller.
The Galápagos are a collection of islands flung into the ocean like a handful of gems on velvet. They look, I imagine, the way the world did when it was newly born—mountains too fresh to gentle into slopes, mist spitting in valleys, volcanoes unraveling the seam of the sky. Some are still spiky with lava. Some are surrounded by water that’s a dozy turquoise, some by a dramatic froth of waves. Some, like Isabela, are inhabited. Others are accessible solely by boat, and home only to the bizarre collection of creatures that have evolved there.
For two hours on the ferry I am sprayed, jerked, and yanked through choppy waters. One of the passengers, who looks to be a college kid backpacking around, is an unsettling shade of green. The other is a girl with the smooth brown skin of a local. She seems young—maybe twelve or thirteen?—and she is wearing a school uniform: a knit polo shirt with a school crest embroidered over the heart and a pair of black pants. In spite of the heat, she is also sporting a long-sleeved sweatshirt. Her shoulders are hunched, arms clutching a duffel; her eyes are red. Everything about her says:
Leave me alone
I keep my eyes on the horizon of the water and try not to throw up. I mentally compose a text to Finn:
Remember the time we took the ferry from Bar Harbor to Nova Scotia for your roommate’s wedding and everyone on board got sick?
The ferry does not, as it turns out, go all the way to Isabela. It stops at a mooring, and then the backpacker, the girl, and I share a water taxi the final leg of the journey—a short distance to Puerto Villamil. I am squinting at the sugar-sand beach and palm trees when the backpacker beside me laughs with delight. “Dude!” he says. He grabs my sleeve and points. Swimming beside the boat is a tiny penguin.
As we get closer, the mass of land differentiates into individual sensations: hot gusts of wind and hooting pelicans; a man climbing a coconut tree and tossing the nuts down to a boy; a marine iguana, blinking its yellow dinosaur eye. Sidling up to the dock, I think that this could not be any more different from New York City. It feels tropical and timeless, lazy, remote. It feels like a place where no one has ever heard of a pandemic.
But then I realize that there is a horde of people waiting to secure the services of the water taxi. They have the sunburned look of tourists who are already refitting themselves into the mindset of home, shoving and yelling over each other. One man holds out a fistful of cash, waving it at our driver, who looks overwhelmed. “What’s going on?” I ask.
“La isla está cerrando,”
I think, rummaging through my limited Spanish vocabulary.
“I don’t understand,” I say.
The young girl is silent, staring at the dock ahead. The backpacker looks at me, and then at the crowd. He speaks in Spanish to our taxi driver, who responds in a stream of words I don’t know.
“The island’s closing,” he says.
How does an island
“They’re locking down for two weeks,” the boy continues. “Because of the virus.” He nods at all the people waiting on the dock. “They’re all trying to get back to Santa Cruz.”
The girl shuts her eyes, as if she doesn’t want to see any of them.
I can’t imagine how all these people are going to fit on the small ferry. The taxi driver asks a question in Spanish.
“He wants to know if we want to go back,” the boy says, glancing in the direction of the ferry, still moored a distance away. “That’s the last boat off-island.”
I do not like it when plans change.
I think of Finn, telling me to leave New York City. I think of the paid-in-full room waiting for me within walking distance of these docks. If the island is locking down for two weeks, then they must be assuming that’s how long it will take for the virus to be controlled. I could spend those two weeks fighting with this angry mob to get a seat on a flight back to New York, and hole up in our apartment while Finn works.