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Authors: Jodi Picoult

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BOOK: Wish You Were Here
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“And we’ll make sure you have food,” Gabriel says, reading my thoughts. He bends down and kisses Abuela on the cheek. “I don’t want to leave Beatriz too long.”

I follow him out the front door, onto the porch. When he jogs down the steps, headed toward my apartment in the rear, I call his name. He turns, looking up at me, impatient.

“Why are you doing this?” I ask.

“Doing what?”

“Being nice to me.”

He grins, a streak of lightning. “I’ll try to be more of a
cabrón,
” he says, and when I blink, he translates. “Asshole.”

“For real, though,” I press.

Gabriel shrugs. “Before, you were a tourist,” he says simply. “Now, you’re one of us.”


What I want to do: crawl underneath the covers of my bed, and pretend that when I wake up, I’ll realize this was all just a nightmare. I will breeze down to the dock, board a ferry, and begin the first leg of my journey back to New York City.

What I do instead: accompany Gabriel and Beatriz to a swimming hole inland. Beatriz says that if I’m all by myself I will just wallow in my misery, and I cannot contradict her because it’s the rationale for every outing I’ve dragged her on this past week—when
she
was the one who needed distraction. She is carrying a snorkel and mask looped onto her arm, and it bounces against her hip as we hike. “Where are we going?” I ask.

“We could tell you,” Beatriz says, “but then we’d have to kill you.”

“She’s not entirely wrong,” Gabriel adds. “Most of the island is closed because of the pandemic. If the park rangers find you, they’ll
fine
you.”

“Or take away your tour guide license,” Beatriz tosses over her shoulder.

Gabriel’s shoulders tense, then relax again. “Which I am not using anyway.”

She turns on a heel, walking backward. “Are we or are we not going to a secret place you used to take clients?”

“We are going to a secret place I used to go to as a boy,” he corrects.

We finally reach a brackish pond with water that is the color of rust and bordered by brush and thickets of fallen, twisted branches. As Isabela goes, it is far from the prettiest of landscapes. Beatriz begins to strip down to her bathing suit and long-sleeved rash guard, leaving the rest of her clothes in a pile. She fits her snorkel and mask to her face, then dives into the muddy lagoon.

“Maybe I’ll just wait here,” I say.

Gabriel turns in the act of pulling his shirt over his head and smiles. “Now who is judging a book by its cover?”

He kicks off his shoes and splashes into the water, and reluctantly I peel down to my bathing suit and wade in. The bottom drops away sharply, unexpectedly, and I find myself swallowed up by the water. Before I can even panic, a strong hand grabs my arm, holding me up as I sputter. “Okay?” Gabriel asks.

I nod, still choking a little. My fingers flex on his shoulder. This close, I realize that he has a freckle on his left earlobe. I look at the spikes of his eyelashes.

With a strong kick I free myself, and start swimming in the direction Beatriz went.

Gabriel overtakes me quickly; he is a stronger swimmer. He’s headed straight for a wall of tangled mangrove roots, or so it seems, near which Beatriz’s snorkel bobs. She lifts her face when we get closer, her eyes huge behind the plastic of the mask. The snorkel falls from her mouth as she scrambles up a makeshift ladder of roots and disappears into a fold in the brush. After a moment, her head sticks back out again. “Well?” she says. “Come on.”

I try to follow, but my foot keeps slipping on the branches below the water. Gabriel’s hands land square on my ass and he shoves, and I whip around fast with shock. He raises his brows, all innocence. “What?” he says. “It worked, yes?”

He’s right; I have cleared the surface. I bang my knee and feel a scrape on the bare skin of my thigh but after a moment, I find myself on the other side of the mangrove thicket, staring at a twin lagoon. In this one, the water is almost magenta, and in the center a sandbar rises like an oasis. On it, a dozen flamingos stand folded like origami as they dip their heads into the pool to feed.

“This,”
Gabriel says from behind me, “is what I wanted you to see.”

“It’s amazing,” I say. “I’ve never seen water this color.”

“Artemia salina,”
Beatriz says. “It’s a crustacean, a little shrimp, and it’s what the flamingos eat that makes them pink. The concentration in the water makes it look so rosy. I learned that in class.” At the mention of her studies, her face changes. The buoyancy of her shoulders seems to evaporate.

If I can’t get off this island to go home, she also can’t get off it to return to school.

She curls her fingers around the edges of her rash guard sleeves, pulling them more firmly down over her arms.

As if the mood is contagious, Gabriel’s face shutters, too.
“Mijita,”
he says quietly.

Beatriz ignores him. She snaps on her snorkel, dives into the pink pool, and kicks as far away from us as she can, surfacing on the other side of the oasis.

“Don’t take it personally,” I say.

Gabriel sighs and rubs a hand through his wet hair. “I never know the right thing to say.”

“I don’t know if there’s a
right thing,
” I admit.

“Well, there’s definitely a
wrong
thing,” Gabriel replies, “and it’s usually what comes out of my mouth.”

“I haven’t seen any new cuts,” I tell him.

“I know she talks to you,” he says, “and those conversations are for you to keep.”

I nod, thinking of what Beatriz told me about her mother, and how that doesn’t feel like a confidence I should break.

Gabriel takes a deep breath, as if he is gathering courage. “But will you tell me if she brings up suicide?”

“Oh my God, of course,” I say in a rush. “But…I don’t think that’s why she cuts. I think for her…it’s the exact opposite of being suicidal. It’s to remind her that she’s here.”

He looks at me as if he is puzzling through my English. Then he tilts his head. “I’m glad you’re staying,” Gabriel says softly, “even if it is selfish of me.”

I know he is speaking of whatever fragile thread I’ve spun between me and Beatriz, who clearly needs a confidante. But there is more to those words, a shadow crossing my senses. I feel my cheeks heating, and I quickly avert my face toward the flamingos. “What are those?” I ask, pointing to the small gray-and-white mottled birds that hop on the sand between the legs of the flamingos. “Finches?”

If Gabriel notices me trying to change the conversation with the finesse of a wrecking ball, he doesn’t comment. “That’s a mockingbird.”

“Oh. And here I was, feeling Darwinian.” I smile, trying for a joke.

Galápagos is, of course, famous for its finches—and for Charles Darwin. I’d read about him in every tour guide that was packed in my lost suitcase. In 1835, he came to the islands on the HMS
Beagle,
while just twenty-six and—surprisingly—a creationist who believed that all species were designed by God. Yet in the Galápagos, Darwin began to rethink how life had appeared here, on a spit of volcanic rocks. He’d assumed that the creatures had swum from South America. But then he began to realize that each island was vastly different geographically from the next, that conditions were largely inhospitable, and that new species popped up on different islands. By studying the variations in finches he developed his theory of natural selection: that species change to adapt to their circumstances—and that the adaptations which make life easier are the ones that stick.

“Everyone thinks Darwin based his work on the finches,” Gabriel says, “but everyone’s wrong.”

I turn. “Don’t tell my AP Bio teacher that.”

“Your what?”

I wave my hand. “It’s an American thing. Anyway, I was taught that finches look different on different islands. You know, like one has a long beak because on one island the grubs are deep inside a tree; and on another island, their wings are stronger because they have to fly to find food…”

“You’re right about all that,” he says. “But Darwin was a pretty shitty naturalist. He collected finches, but he didn’t tag them all properly. However—likely by accident—he
did
tag all the mockingbirds correctly.” He tosses a pebble, and a mockingbird takes to the air. “There are four different types of
los sinsontes
on Galápagos. Darwin collected them and measured their beaks and their sizes. When he got back to England, an ornithologist noticed that the mockingbirds were significantly diverse from island to island. The modifications that helped them adjust to the climate or terrain on a given island had been replicated, because the mockingbirds that had them were the ones who lived long enough to reproduce.”

“Survival of the fittest,” I confirm. We are sitting now on the edge of the sand oasis, watching flamingos tightrope-walk along the water. Beatriz is at the far end of the lagoon, diving and surfacing, over and over. Gabriel’s lips move in silence, and I realize that he is counting the seconds she stays beneath the water.

“Do you ever wonder what animals we’ll never know about?” I ask. “The ones that
didn’t
make it?”

Gabriel’s eyes stay on the surface of the water, until Beatriz appears again. “History is written by the winners,” he says.

Five

The day after I learn that the island is not reopening, I walk into town to the bank, hoping to figure out a way to transfer money from my account in New York here. The bank is closed, but near the docks a bright collection of tables have been set up underneath a tent. Masked for safety, locals move up and down the aisles, picking up wares and chatting with each other. It looks like a flea market.

I hear my name, and I turn to see Abuela waving at me.

Although Abuela and I do not speak a common language, I’ve learned a few Spanish phrases, and the rest of our communication is still gestures and nods and smiles. She worked, I now know, at the hotel where I was going to stay, cleaning the rooms of guests. With the business closed, she is happy to cook and watch her telenovelas and take an unscheduled vacation.

She is standing behind a card table that has been draped with an embroidered cloth. On it are a few folded aprons, a box of some men’s clothing, two pairs of shoes. There is also a cake pan and a small crate of vegetables and fruits like the ones Gabriel brought me. A word-search magazine is open in front of her, with a little sheaf of G2 postcards (does everyone have these?) stuck inside as a placeholder.

Abuela smiles widely and points to the folding lawn chair she has set up behind the table. “Oh, no,” I say. “You sit!” But before she can respond, another woman approaches us. She picks up a pair of the shoes, looking at the tongue for the size, and through her mask asks Abuela a question.

They exchange a few more sentences, and then the woman sets on the table a large tote. Inside are jars of preserves, pickled garlic, red peppers. Abuela takes out one jar of jam and another of peppers. The woman slips the shoes into her tote and moves off to the next table.

I glance around and realize that although transactions are going on all around me under this tent, no one is exchanging money. The locals have figured out a barter system to combat their limited supply chain from the mainland. Abuela pats my arm, points to the chair, and then wanders down the aisle to survey the wares other locals have carted from home.

I can see double-jointed racks of used clothing, mud boots lined up in size order, kitchen utensils, paper goods. Some tables groan heavy with homemade bread or sweets, jars of beets and banana peppers. There are fresh cuts of lamb and plucked chickens. Sonny, from Sonny’s Sunnies, has brought a full array of bathing suits and batteries and magazines and books. A fisherman with a cooler full of the catch of the day wraps up a fish in newspaper for a woman who hands him, in return, a bouquet of fresh herbs.

I could trade, too. But I don’t have a surfeit of clothing or food I’ve grown or the ability to cook anything worth bartering for.

I run my hand back over my hair, smoothing my ponytail. I wonder what I could get for a scrunchie.

Just then, a zephyr of boys blows between the rows of tables. One small one straggles at the back, like the tail of a kite. He’s red-faced and clearly trying to catch up to the bigger boys, the leader of whom is waving a battered comic book. As I watch, another boy sticks out his foot and trips the little one, who goes flying and lands headfirst under one of the tables. His crash stops the chase. Rolling onto his back, he sits up and shouts at the boy still holding the book. Even in Spanish, it’s clear he has a lisp—which the bigger boy mocks. The bully rips the comic book in half and tosses it onto the smaller boy’s chest before sauntering away.

The boy on the ground looks around to see who witnessed his humiliation. When his eye catches mine, I wave him closer.

Slowly, he walks toward me. He has dark brown skin and raven-wing hair that catches the sun. The mask he’s wearing has the Green Lantern symbol on it. He clutches his torn comic book.

Impulsively I pull one of the G2 postcards from Abuela’s magazine and root around for the pencil she was using to do the word searches. I flip the postcard to its empty side, and with quick, economical strokes, I begin to sketch the boy.

The summer between high school and college, I spent a month in Halifax, doing portraits of tourists in the Old City. I made enough money to stay at a hostel with my friends, and to spend the nights in bars. It was, I realize, the last time I traded in art of my own creation. After that, I spent every holiday building up my résumé for the internship slot at Sotheby’s.

Every artist has a starting point, and mine was always the eyes. If I could capture those, the rest would fall into place. So I look for the dots of light on his pupils; I draw in the flutter of lashes and straight slants of brow. After a moment, I pull at the strap of my mask, so that it swings free of my face, and then motion to him to do the same.

He’s missing his front four teeth, so of course I draw that smile. And because confidence is a superpower, I give him a cape, like the hero in his torn comic book.

What feels rusty at first begins to flow. When I’m done, I pass the postcard to him, a mirror made of art.

Delighted, he runs the length of the tent, thrusting it toward a woman who must be his mother. I see some of the boys who’d been bullying him drift over, looking at what’s in his hands.

I sit down, satisfied, and lean back in the lawn chair.

A moment later the boy returns. He is holding a fruit I’ve never seen before, the size of my fist, and armored with tiny spikes. Shyly, he sets it on the table in front of me and nods a thank-you, before darting back to his mother’s table.

I scan the tent, searching for Abuela, and suddenly hear a small voice.
“Hola
.

The girl in front of me is thin as a bean, with dusty bare feet and braids in her hair. She holds out a dimpled green Galápagos orange.

“Oh,” I say. “I don’t have anything to trade.”

She frowns, then pulls another postcard from Abuela’s magazine. She holds it out to me, and tosses her braids over her shoulders, striking a pose.

Maybe I
do
.

When Abuela and I leave the
feria
two hours later, I am no richer in cash, but I have a straw sunhat, a pair of athletic shorts, and flip-flops. Abuela cooks me lunch: lamb chops, blue potatoes, and mint jelly that I received in return for my portraits. Dessert is the spiny fruit the boy gave me: guanábana.

Afterward, belly full, I leave Abuela’s so I can take a nap at home.

It is the first time, in my own mind, I’ve called it that.

To: [email protected]

From: [email protected]

It’s crazy—
everything’s
been shut down. There are no flights out, and none in, and no one knows when that’s gonna change. It’s probably safer that way. Even if you could fly into the U.S., it’s a shit-show. You’d probably have to quarantine somewhere for a couple of weeks, because we don’t even have enough Covid tests right now for the people who are coming into the hospital with symptoms.

The truth is that even if you were home, I wouldn’t be. Most of the residents who have families are staying at hotels, so they don’t infect anyone accidentally. Even though I’m alone in the apartment, after I peel off my scrubs in the entry and stuff them in a laundry bag, the first thing I do is shower until my skin hurts.

You know Mrs. Riccio, in 3C? When I came home last night, I saw people I didn’t recognize going in and out of her apartment. She died of Covid. The last interaction I had with her was five days ago, in the mailroom. She was a home health aide and she was terrified of catching it. The last thing I said to her was, Be careful out there.

One of my patients—she was extubated successfully but was in multiorgan failure and I knew she wasn’t going to last the day—had a brief moment of consciousness when I went in to see her. I was in full PPE and she couldn’t see my face well so she thought I was her son. She grabbed my hand and told me how proud she was of me. She asked if I’d hug her goodbye. And I did.

She was alone in her room and she was going to die that way. I was crying under my face shield and I thought: Well, if I catch it I catch it.

I know I took an oath. Do no harm and all that. But I don’t remember saying I’d kill myself to do it.

Once we saw a movie, I don’t remember the name, where there was a WWI soldier who was all of twenty, in a trench with a new recruit who was eighteen. The bullets were all around and the twenty-year-old was calmly smoking while the younger kid shook like a leaf. He asked,
How can you not be scared?
The older soldier said:
You don’t have to be afraid of dying, when you’re already dead.

Whatever is going to happen is going to happen, I figure.

I read that the Empire State Building will be lit up red and white this week for healthcare workers. We don’t give a fuck about the Empire State Building, or about people banging pots and pans at 7 P.M. Most of us won’t ever see or hear it, because we’re in the hospital trying to save people who can’t be saved. What we want is for everyone to just wear a mask. But then there are people who say that requiring a mask is a gross infringement of their bodily rights. I don’t know how to make it any more clear: you don’t have any bodily rights when you’re dead.

I’m sorry. You don’t need to listen to me vent. But then again, this probably isn’t even getting through to you.

Just in case it is: your mom’s place keeps calling.


A few days later, while Beatriz is occupied making tortillas with her grandmother, I ask to borrow Abuela’s phone to leave another message for Finn. Gabriel has taught me how to dial direct internationally, but calls are expensive, and I don’t want Abuela to incur the costs, so I keep the conversation brief—just letting Finn know I’m all right, and I’m thinking of him. I save everything else for the postcards Beatriz mails.

Then I call my mother’s memory care facility. Although I haven’t received any emails or voicemail from them, that may be a function of the internet here, since Finn said they’ve left messages on our landline at the apartment. The last time The Greens reached out so doggedly, there was a glitch in the direct deposit that paid my mother’s monthly room and board. The administration was all over it like white on rice, until I smoothed out the mistake and their money came through the wire. It will not be easy to sort out another bank error from a quarantined island.

I dial the number and a receptionist answers. “This is Diana O’Toole,” I say. “Hannah O’Toole’s daughter. You’ve been trying to reach me?”

“Hold please,” I hear.

“Ms. O’Toole?” A new voice speaks a moment later. “This is Janice Fleisch, the director here—I’m glad you finally called back.”

It feels pejorative, and I try not to get my hackles raised.

I look over at the counter, where Abuela is showing a recalcitrant Beatriz how to knead lard into flour to make dough. Curling the phone line around me, I turn, hunching my shoulders for privacy. “Is there a problem with my account? Because I’m not in New York at the—”

“No, no. Everything’s fine there. It’s just that…we’ve had an outbreak of Covid at our facility, and your mother is ill.”

Everything inside me stills. My mother has been sick before, but it’s never merited a call.

“Is she…does she need to go to the hospital?” Were they calling to get my permission?

“Your mother has a DNR,” she reminds me, a delicate way of saying that no matter how bad it gets, she won’t be given CPR or taken to the hospital for life-sustaining measures. “We have multiple residents who’ve contracted the virus, but I assure you we’re doing everything we can to keep them comfortable. In the spirit of transparency we felt that you—”

“Can I see her?” I don’t know what I could possibly do from here; but something tells me that if my mother is really, really sick, I will know by looking at her.

I think of Mrs. Riccio, in apartment 3C.

“We’re not allowing visitors right now.”

At that, a crazy laugh breaks out of me. As if I could even come. “I’m stuck, outside the country,” I explain. “I barely have any phone service. There has to be something you can do.
Please
.”

There’s a muffled sound, an exchange of words I can’t hear. “If you call back this number, we’ll get one of our aides to FaceTime with you,” I hear, and I fumble around for a pen. Abuela has a marker attached to a whiteboard on her fridge; I grab it and write the digits down on the back of my hand.

When I hang up, my hand is shaking. I know that people who catch this virus do not always die. I also know that many do.

If my mother sees me on video, she might not even recognize me. She could get agitated, just by being forced to talk to someone she can’t place.

But I also know I need to see her with my own eyes.

I am so focused on this, I forget I am in a place that lacks the technology to make this possible.

I hang up Abuela’s phone and punch the new number into my cell, but there isn’t a signal. “Dammit,” I snap, and Abuela and Beatriz both look up. “I’m sorry,” I mutter, and I dart out to the porch, holding my phone up in various directions as if I could attract connectivity like a magnet.

Nothing.

I smack my phone down beside me and press the heels of my hands to my eyes.

She has been an absent mother, and now I am an absent daughter. Is that quid pro quo? Do you owe someone only the care they provided for you? Or does believing that make you as culpable as they were?

If she dies, and I’m not there…

Well.

Then you won’t be responsible for her anymore.

The thought, shameful and insidious, vibrates in my mind.

“Diana.”

I look up to find Gabriel standing in front of me, holding a hammer. Has he been here the whole time? “My mother’s sick,” I blurt out.

“I’m sorry…”

“She has Covid.”

He takes a step back involuntarily, and rubs his free hand across the nape of his neck.

“She’s in an assisted living facility and I’m supposed to video-chat but my stupid phone still won’t work here and—” I swipe at my eyes, frustrated and embarrassed. “This
sucks
. This just
sucks
.”

“Try mine,” he suggests. He pulls out his own phone, but it’s not the device that’s the problem. It’s this whole damn island. While the local cellular network seems to function, anything that requires any real bandwidth is a complete loss.

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