It was one of our better days, maybe the best, until it wasn’t.
Mouse and I awoke shortly after dawn. We took a long walk on the beach. We didn’t see another soul. We didn’t expect to. We swam in the ocean. It was as calm as a lake this morning although only yesterday there had been high waves. The undertow was still there and so was the riptide, but we were careful. We were both good swimmers.
Mouse was more than good. In college, she’d been the state champion in several long distance Australian crawl events. There’d even been talk of the Olympics, but that hadn’t worked out. It wasn’t the only thing. Even good swimmers, however, can get into trouble in the Pacific Ocean. We stayed close to each other and didn’t go out farther than waist deep. Still, there was the adrenaline surge of knowing we were courting danger and there was no one within miles and miles to help us. No one except each other. Yeah.
We showered off the grimy residue of salt and sand, and ate a filling meal. We still had some bread and hard-boiled eggs left, and lots of granola and bananas. I used our machete to crack open a green coconut. Yesterday, the machete had slipped off a shell and cut me, but this time I was careful and did it right. I guess you can still teach a new trick to an old guy—maybe middle aged, after all 58 isn’t really that old.
Coconut milk is too sweet for my taste, but Mouse liked it. She loved sweets. It was one of a thousand things we differed on. That was our meal. When I remember it, it doesn’t sound like much, but at the time it was enough. I guess our stomachs had shrunk during our abstemious days on the island while we were playing like we were Robinson Crusoe. I called it what it was, a late breakfast, but Mouse always called these late morning meals brunch, a word I hated. It sounded like something lazy rich people ate in Manhattan or San Francisco, not what down-to-earth backpackers ate on a deserted island in the Pacific Ocean.
What were we doing here? I was still trying to figure it out. Whatever it was, I was beginning to think “playing” was the right participle. It felt like we were pretending to be people we weren’t.
It was the first vacation we’d been able to take together in years. Her job at the United Nations and mine at Amnesty International kept us more than busy. We had frenetic lives, investigating human rights abuses and getting governments to act against them. This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for us to get away from it all and be alone together in a peaceful place. But by now the novelty had worn off. I couldn’t wait to get off the island. I suspected Mouse felt the same. We’d already been here five days. Maybe it was too much time alone together and too much peace.
The boat back to the mainland wasn’t scheduled to pick us up for another two days. It was what the backpacking guide books call “an adventure” without really telling you what kind of adventure or whether a sane person should undertake it. I don’t think I’ll ever read a guide book again after this trip. Not that it’s bad, or at least all bad. No, it’s just that seven days with the two of us alone on a tropical island hemmed in to a narrow stretch of beach by rough ocean and impassable jungle is too much of a good thing. A full week in paradise can sometimes seem like hell.
And then there’s always the nagging concern: What if…? What if the boat doesn’t come to pick us up? We are sure it will, but…. Mouse shares my concern. We talk about it every day. Was this a good idea? Well, maybe. Would we do it again? Not in a hundred years. Would we advise our friends to do it? Probably not if we want them to remain our friends. It’s all just too much of a good thing. Sure, a day would have been great, two days tolerable, but a whole week? We got sold.
We met a guy who knew a company that put together a package, and Lonely Planet liked the company and so did Trip Advisor. What could we do? We were like a chicken that had been grabbed hold of just before its neck was to be wrung. But that doesn’t have anything to do with the question that is absorbing me now. That is theoretical, hypothetical, lying somewhere in the cute or the past. Now, this afternoon, the question was: Where in the world is Mouse?
All I know is that when I woke up, the foam sleeping mat next to me was empty. “Hey, Mouse,” I called softy, “you up already?” No answer. “Mouse!” I yelled. Still no answer. “Hey, you hiding or something?” I yelled even louder. Finally I lost it.
“God damn it, Mouse,” I screamed, “answer me when I call you.” I am a nice guy. Really. I am. I know I am because everyone I know tells me so. “Hey, you’re really a nice guy,” a fellow drinker tells me after I buy him a beer, a hitchhiker after I pick him up, a bum after I slip him a dollar, a mom after I give her kid a treat. They all thank me, praise me. Can the whole world be lying?
No, I don’t lose it often. I don’t like that voice. I don’t like myself when I use it. And that’s another thing Mouse and I agree on.
The palapa was empty. It didn’t take a Sherlock Holmes to figure that out. The entire palapa, and “entire” is a term of art. It consisted of a single room built on a round wooden platform perched on the sand, with a palm frond roof and open sides, although frond shades could be lowered in stormy weather. Today, just like yesterday, and the day before and the day before that and the first day, there was no storm in sight. I called out to her again and again but she didn’t answer.
Sometimes she wouldn’t—when she was lost in thought, turned in on herself, living in an alternative fourth or fifth or sixth dimension. She had also gotten into the habit in recent months of just wandering off, another way of entering a different dimension. We almost never argued, but of course, as with every couple, there would be times of tension, friction or unhappiness. One minute she would be there and the next gone. That’s why I nicknamed her Mouse. The first time I said it, she took it as a joke and laughed. So I started using it all the time. She didn’t like it.
The more I said it the more she detested it. She’d make a face and turn away from me, as if to say, “Not that crap again.” I thought of it as an affectionate name in a humorous vein, but she didn’t have much of a sense of humor—or at least not the same kind I had.
I walked out onto the beach. It wasn’t much of a walk—six steps. I counted them. One, two, three, four, five, six, sand. Soft, white and very hot sand. In my hurry I forgot to slip on my sandals and had to go back to get them. Six steps back to the palapa. Six steps back to the sand. Eighteen steps. Where the hell was that woman?
I looked ahead across the beach, as white and soft as bleached sugar. I looked left, a mile to the rocky headland. I looked right, to the curve of the shore. As usual, there wasn’t person in sight. I would’ve been shocked had there been. Where would they come from? So far as we knew, that is so far as we’d been told, no one lived on the island—no villagers, no peasants or fishermen, therefore no soldiers or cops or spies; best of all, no guerrillas or smugglers or paramilitaries or hijackers. It was a small island, so small it wan’t on any but the most detailed maps, and even then had no name. This was one island the whole world forgot. If God and man didn’t know about it, neither did the devil.
Of course, I din’t believe God or the devil existed, but I believed their work products did. The world around me seemed empty, a void. The beach in front of me dropped steeply to the ocean. That’s why the riptide was so strong here. At every step we took into the ocean, the tide threatened to tug us out into deep water, deeper than we wanted to go. We were OK swimmers, but not in this ocean, fighting this tide. No way.
Only the sky was crowded—with pelicans and cormorants and gulls. I watched as a gull flew close beside a pelican while the pelican skimmed the fringe of a wave. Having sighted a fish beneath the crest, the pelican rose in the air and then plummeted straight down beneath the water. Moments later, it flew back into the air with a fish in its mouth. But its beak is like a scoop and it cannot eat the fish in the position in which it catches it The pelican has to clear the water out of its beak, toss the fish up in the air and catch it in a different position. When the pelican I was watching performed this feat, the gull flapping beside it swooped in and snatched away the pelican’s lunch.
I wanted to discuss it with Mouse, to tell her how it was just another natural lesson in how a small animal can get away with tormenting one that is bigger and stronger and a better provider. The pelican might have hated that gull with every fiber of its being.
Mouse would have understood that pelican, empathized with its struggle to survive a natural order that was loaded against it. On the other hand, this time, the little guy won, the big guy lost. But Mouse wasn’t around and so I found I was talking to myself. I felt like an idiot.
NEXT WEEK, PART 2