The Island Theory

by C. Morgan Babst

You really are happy. You are both really happy. Things are just fine, you say to those who ask, by which you mean more than fine, but you don't want to brag. Everyone can see that you are two satisfied people in a prosperous land. When you feel the need to dissemble, to disarm your friend the Neurotic or to be kind to your friend the Cheater or a bit humble in front of your divorced parents who, if you gush, will listen with a straightened attitude as if to imply that they are still wiser than you are, still 32 years older, as they have always been, the best you can do is to string together a load of oh-well-you-know-nothing-to-complain-about-yet-five-years-and-counting-and-it's-all-pretty-hunky-dory-though-he-does-put-his-feet-on-the-coffee-table sorts of things.

It's true that he puts his feet on the coffee table (or perhaps he leaves his wet towels on the floor or fails to close the windows when the forecast says rain-of course, you would know better than I), but you don't feel that you have the right to complain, as, on any given day, it is your shoes he trips on in the foyer or your bras (obviously) dangling from the doorknobs or your lipstick-stained coffee mugs from all the tea you drink overrunning the countertops. You reapply your lipstick constantly because he continues to tell you how sexy that red pout of yours is, and you like to make him happy, especially on the days you come home late to find he has been there since six, concocting a delicious meal. Maybe, on occasion, you hop bare-footed onto the distressed brown-leather ottoman you bought together (your first furniture purchase) and recite the emails your boss pings through to your Blackberry. You use a ridiculous cockney accent even though your boss is a proper posh Londoner, and maybe your husband laughs, or maybe he strings together some choice epithets, or maybe he says he's sure that someday soon you'll be promoted over your boss's head but that, for now, you should continue to use him for the money. It pleases you that your husband gets more annoyed about these things than you do. If your husband is a few years older than you are, he might occasionally bring up the subject of babies-how hot you will be when you get pregnant (bare-bellied-cover-of-Vanity Fair-hot, Demi-Moore-hot, hot-because-he's-knocked-you-up-and-it-shows-hot), or how he's already petitioning HR to institute a mandatory paternity leave policy at his work, because he is convinced this is the only way to finally level the playing field-but there's no pressure. He has fantasies of rocking the baby to sleep. He has fantasies of playing catch in the field behind your house or at the empty lot on the corner. He has fantasies involving the three of you camping, of teaching your daughter to pitch a tent, of telling ghost stories to your son, of licking melted marshmallow from your chin. It's quite possible that the only fight you've had was over a bag of pregrated cheddar cheese you brought home instead of the block of Cabot Gold Medal he'd specified on the list, but by the time the baked macaroni came out of the oven, gooey and smelling headily and exactly like his mother's, you were already lying naked and exhausted on the acceptably grimy kitchen floor. It's possible that the two of you then ate the entire thing straight from the casserole dish not because you needed comfort but because it was good. The couple of pounds you gained as a result and which generally come and go with his bouts of cooking (he favors cream sauces) looked über-sexy on you, he said. You had been too skinny before—still completely hot, but he likes something to grab.

***

The Island Theory might be developed in Jamaica or Crete, New Zealand, Novaya Zemlya, on one or other of the Thousand Islands. It could occur to you in London or Zanzibar or, depending on your finances and your sense of adventure, on Maui or Ko Samui. No matter what island, though, you will be alone, and not by choice, not because you are bored, or because your husband is one of those men who likes to have some time to himself. Actually, you won't particularly want to go without him; you won't particularly want to go at all. It will not be your kind of trip, to an all-inclusive resort, the prospect of which will keep you up at night with fears of candy-flavored daiquiris and enforced dancing, but your friends will have decided it is time for a girls' retreat. The Neurotic's self-diagnosed seasonal-effective disorder will be getting to her (she will be the one to insist on the international chain hotel, fearing, as she does, third-world taxi drivers and foreign currencies), the Doctors' vacation schedules will coincide with each other and with Lea's spring break, and all this will dovetail beautifully with your combined desire to tear the Cheater away from her mister of the moment, as the affair will have reached the critical stage—threats of love will have been made and the frequency of assignations become unsustainable, requiring the Cheater to come up with more and more outrageous lies to tell her fianc&ecaute;, including, on one particularly ignominious occasion, that she is going wedding dress shopping, when actually she plans to meet the Mister downtown for pre-brunch sex. You will be tasked with boring the Fiancé while hollandaise drips from his lips; you will go on and on about tulle, crinolines, asymmetrical necklines, and the cost of a good seamstress until you push your plate away, determined that something must be made to give.

Being the good wife that you are, you will take a cheap crack-of-dawn-flight so as not to dig into the joint savings, and you will promise the girls to have their room keys and daiquiris waiting for them when they arrive. In the 4 a.m. cab, you will not notice the snow drifting like moths in the streetlamps, and, at the airport, you will close your eyes and listen to Mahler—your husband loves him and you want to understand—rather than watch the news anchors talk with animation about the low-pressure system bringing potentially blizzard-like conditions to the east coast. When you board the plane, you will fasten your seatbelt over the plane-blanket, swipe the blind down over the black window, put on an eye-mask, insert earplugs, settle down into your neck pillow, and sleep the sleep of the innocent and over-worked until the plane touches down. Only as you walk out of the gangway, feeling, as you always do, a bit like a linebacker entering the field, will you sense something is up. Crowded around the gatehouse will be passengers for the returning flight holding their winter coats over their arms, looking concerned. Weather! you will hear emerge from the jumbled voices. Meal-ticket? Ridiculous! Hotel-voucher? The gate agent will keep repeating the words Out of our control. You will look up at the sign: JFK. 10:15. CANCELLED. You will look at the arrivals board and the departures. Across from anything departing for or arriving from New York, Boston, Philadelphia, the word CANCELLED CANCELLED CANCELLED. You will look up at the television slung to the ceiling, at the huge snowflake blotting out the northeast United States, and your heart will sink. Even less than a girls' weekend spent gossiping over pool-cocktails do you want to be alone, prey to activity directors, pitying waiters, pay-per-view, and prowling men.

"When is this supposed to end?" you will ask the crowd, the heavens.

"They say it's a pretty big front, might not get us out till Monday," a large woman will shrug. "Long as they pay our hotel bills, it's fine with me."

You will scrounge in your bag for your phone. Snow! you will write to your husband, your girls. Lea will respond with a frowny face, and The Cheater with one word—Alibi!—and, shaking your head, you will look for the exit signs. Just as your bag's wheels hit the pavement, you will hear your name and turn around.

***

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.

C. Morgan Babst is a New Orleans native who lives and writes in Brooklyn. She received her MFA from New York University, where she was a Goldwater fellow, and her fiction has appeared in the New Orleans Review and the Harvard Review. She is currently at work on a novel about Hurricane Katrina.


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