Authors: Jodi Picoult
Beatriz doesn’t look at me. “The silver lining is that I don’t have to see what people are saying about me.”
I stop walking. “Is that something you usually have to worry about?”
What if her cutting is tied to bullying somehow? I still don’t know much more about Beatriz than I did when I first saw her on the ferry. She guards her secrets like her life depends on them. For a teenager, I suppose it does.
I have been wondering if I should intercede in Beatriz and Gabriel’s relationship. From my vantage point, all I see is misunderstanding. But then I think I have no right to involve myself in someone else’s relationships when my own are a mess.
Finn’s emails are now shorter and more desperate.
For the past two nights, I’ve awakened in the middle of the night, convinced I hear my mother’s voice.
“When was the last time you talked to your mother?” Beatriz asks, as if she’s reached right into my mind.
“Before I came here. I visited her,” I say. “Although I can’t really say it was a conversation. It’s more like she talks
me and I try to keep up.”
“My mother used to send me cards for my birthday, with money in them. But that stopped last year.” Her mouth tightens. “She didn’t want to have me.”
“But she did.”
“When you’re pregnant and seventeen and the guy says he’ll marry you, I guess you do it,” Beatriz muses.
I tuck away this information about Gabriel.
“I think unconditional love is bullshit,” Beatriz says. “There’s always a condition.”
“Not true,” I offer. “My father would have loved me no matter what.”
But is that true?
I wonder. I adored the same things he did—visual art and painting. If I’d been obsessed with geology or emo rock, would we have clicked the same way? If my mother hadn’t been absent, would he have been as attentive?
“And Finn,” Beatriz says. “Don’t forget about him. How did you know he was
“I don’t know that,” I bluster. “I’m not married to him.”
“But if he proposed here, weren’t you going to say yes?”
I nod. “I think that I used to believe that love was supposed to feel like a lightning storm—superdramatic, with crashes and thunder and all the hair standing up on the back of your neck. I had boyfriends like that, in college. But Finn…he’s the opposite. He’s steady. Like…white noise.”
“He puts you to sleep?”
“No. He makes everything…easier.” Saying this, I feel a surge of love so fierce for Finn that my knees go weak.
“So he’s the first person you felt that way about?” Beatriz asks, probing.
She isn’t looking at me, but there’s a stripe of heat across her cheekbones, and I realize she isn’t really asking about me. If not for this pandemic, Beatriz would be at school and would likely be confiding in a friend her own age about her own crush.
Then I think of what she said about being flamed on social media. I remember that Gabriel told me Beatriz begged to come back to Isabela.
Suddenly she breaks into a jog, and stops at the edge of a yawning hole that seems to reach to the belly of the earth. It’s about sixty feet wide, with a ladder mounted at the lip, twined with several thick ropes. Ferns and moss grow on the walls, which narrow and narrow to a black hole further down. I peer into the abyss but it looks only dark and endless.
“People rappel to the bottom,” Beatriz says.
I feel the walls of the tunnel pressing on me, and I’m not even inside it. “I am
rappelling to the bottom.”
“Well, you can climb partway,” she says. “Come on.”
She scrambles down the slippery wooden rungs, wrapping the ropes around her arm as a safety measure. I follow her more cautiously. The tunnel narrows around us. The vegetation smells ripe and lush as I concentrate on stepping firmly with my foot down, down, down.
When Beatriz descends into the neck of the tunnel, I lose sight of her. “Beatriz!” I call, and her voice floats up to me.
“Come on, Diana, it’s magic.”
The further down we go, the hotter it gets, as if the tunnel is tapering toward hell itself. There is no more vegetation, just lava rock that is light and porous, and that shimmers in the faint light from above. I keep moving methodically and nearly scream when I feel Beatriz’s hand close over my ankle. “Three more rungs,” she says, “and then the ladder runs out.”
She shifts so that we are clinging to the same bottom rungs, side by side. “Look up,” Beatriz says.
I do, and the sky is a tiny pinprick of hope. When I glance back down and breathe in, it feels like the air from someone else’s mouth. I can’t see at first in the dim muscle of the tunnel, and then all of a sudden I can—just the shine of Beatriz’s pupils. It feels like we’re sharing a heartbeat.
“Remind me why we’re here,” I whisper.
“We’re in the belly of a volcano,” she says. “We could hide here forever.”
For a few moments, I listen to the moan of wind from what must be a hundred feet above. Something wet drips onto my forehead. It is terrifying being here, yes, but it is also almost holy. It’s like crawling back in time. Like preparing to be reborn.
It feels like the place to confide a secret.
“Truth or dare,” I whisper, and I hold my breath, waiting.
“Truth,” Beatriz says.
“Your father told me you wanted to come back here, but you don’t want to be here.”
“What’s your question?”
I don’t answer.
She sighs. “Neither of those,” Beatriz says, “is untrue.”
I wait for her to elaborate in this cocoon of darkness, but instead, she turns the game on me. “Truth or dare,” she says.
“If you could change your mind three weeks ago and take the ferry home, would you?”
“I don’t know,” I hear myself answer, and it physically hurts to say it out loud, in the way that truth can sometimes be a knife.
The whole time I’ve been here, I’ve told myself that being stuck on Isabela was a mistake. But there is also a small, new part of me that wonders if it was meant to be. If I’m delayed because the universe decided Beatriz needed someone to depend on; if I had to distance myself from Finn to see our relationship more clearly—its strengths, and its flaws.
Unconditional love is bullshit
. “Truth or dare. Is there someone at school you wish you could be with?”
I have wondered if, when I eventually leave, Beatriz will go back to Santa Cruz, back to her host family and, maybe, this crush. If that would stop the cutting. Would make her happy.
“Yes.” The syllable is no more than a breath. “But she doesn’t want to be with me.”
I hear the quiet hitch of Beatriz’s breath. She’s crying, and I’m pretending not to notice, which I suspect is what she wants.
“Tell me about her,” I say softly.
“Ana Maria’s my host sister,” Beatriz whispers. “She’s two years older than me. I think I’ve always known how I feel but I never said anything, not until there were rumors that school might close because of the virus. When I thought about not seeing her, like even just at breakfast, or walking back from classes, I couldn’t breathe. So I kissed her.” She curls herself closer to the ladder rungs.
“It didn’t go well,” I state.
“It did at first. She kissed me back. For three days—it was…perfect.” Beatriz shakes her head. “And then she told me she couldn’t. She said her parents would kill her, if they found out. That she loved me, but not like that.” She swallows. “She said I was…I was a mistake.”
“Her parents wanted me to stay during lockdown. I told them my father wouldn’t let me. How could I live in the same house as her, and pretend it was all fine?”
“What will you do when school opens?”
“I don’t know,” Beatriz says. “I ruined it. I can’t go back there. And there’s nothing for me here.”
There’s something for you here,
You just can’t see it.
“Will you tell my father?” she whispers into the dark.
“No,” I promise. “But I hope you will, one day.”
We cling to the ladder in the hot throat of the world. Her breathing evens again, in counterpoint to mine. “Truth or dare,” she says, so softly I can barely hear it. “Do you ever wish you could do part of your life over?”
The truth is yes.
But…it’s not these past three weeks. Instead, it’s everything leading up to them. The more time I spend on this island, the more clarity I have about the time leading up to it. In a strange way, being stripped of everything—my job, my significant other, even my clothing and my language—has left only the essential part of me, and it feels more real than everything I have tried to be for years. It’s almost as if I had to stop running in order to see myself clearly, and what I see is a person who’s been driving toward a goal for so long she can’t remember why she set it in the first place.
And that scares the fuck out of me.
“Dare,” I reply.
A beat. “Let go of the ladder,” Beatriz says.
“Absolutely not,” I answer.
“Then I’ll do it.”
I hear her release her fingers from the rung, feel the shift in the air as she falls backward.
“No,” I cry, and I somehow manage to snatch a handful of her shirt. With the ropes wrapped tight around my free arm, I feel her deadweight dangling.
Don’t let go don’t let go don’t let go
“Bea,” I say evenly, “you have to grab on to me. Can you do that? Can you do that for me?”
A thousand years later, I feel her fingers clutching my forearm. I grab back, forming a tighter link, until she is close enough to the ladder to grasp it again. A moment later, with a sob, she falls against me and I wrap my free arm around her. “It’s okay,” I soothe. “It’s going to be okay.”
“I wanted to know what it would be like,” she cries, “to just let go.”
I stroke her hair and think:
You cannot trust perception. Falling, at first, feels like flying.
Four weeks after I arrive on Isabela, I get an early birthday present: a strange and unlikely dump of old emails into my inbox. I have no idea why some were coming through, yet not others—but there are several from Finn, and two from my mother’s facility, updating me on her health (no significant change, which I figure is good news). There is also a note from Sotheby’s, saying that I have been furloughed, along with two hundred other employees, because of a massive downturn in the art sales industry. I stare at this for a while, wondering if Kitomi wasn’t the only one to delay her auction, and trying to rationalize that being furloughed is better than being fired. There’s also an email from Rodney, telling me that Sotheby’s can suck a dick, and that the only people who weren’t furloughed were tech support, because they’re pivoting to online sales. He never thought he’d have to return to his sister’s house in New Orleans, but who can afford rent in the city on unemployment?
The last line of his email is
Girl, if I were you, I’d stay in paradise as long as I could
On my actual birthday a week later, I am invited to Gabriel’s farm. It’s twenty minutes by car into the highlands, and he comes to pick me and Abuela up in a rusty Jeep with no side doors. “You don’t look a day over forty,” he deadpans when he sees me, and when I shove at him he starts laughing. “Women are so sensitive about their age,” he jokes.
As we drive, we see more galapagueños out and about than I have in weeks. At first, when the island closed down, I could walk the beach or hike into the highlands and not see another soul. But now, by the fifth week of lockdown, with no actual cases of Covid on Isabela and no one new arriving to spread it, people have begun to sneak out of their houses and break curfew.
As we wind into the center of the island, the scrub and desert landscape at the shoreline gives way to lush, thick vegetation. The shipments of food and supplies to the island have been extremely limited, and I know that Gabriel isn’t the only person here to rely on family farmland to supplement them during the pandemic. We pass dirty sheep in pens, goats, a lowing cow with an udder as full as the moon. There are banana trees, with green fruit defying gravity to grow upward, and girls squatting in fields pulling weeds. Finally Gabriel turns onto a dusty path that winds toward a small house. Beatriz had led me to believe that it was nothing more than a glorified tent, but only half of it is under construction. Gabriel isn’t building a house as much as he is expanding it.
For Beatriz, I bet.
I’ve been thinking nonstop about her confession to me in the trillizos. I’d said that if Beatriz talked to me about suicide, I’d tell Gabriel—and her recklessness in the tunnel truly worried me. But I couldn’t confess to Gabriel what had happened unless I explained why, and that would mean talking about Ana Maria not returning Beatriz’s affections. That, I know, is not my secret to share. Gabriel doesn’t strike me as the kind of parent who’d be upset if his daughter came out, but then, I do not truly know him. Whatever strides the LGBTQ+ community has made in the United States, they are not universal; moreover, this is a predominantly Catholic country and gay rights aren’t exactly the mainstay of that dogma. I think about Abuela’s house, where painted crosses decorate every bit of wall space. In the absence of church services, suspended because of Covid, she has created a small altar where she prays and lights candles.
Instead, I’ve found ways to see Beatriz every day, to take her emotional temperature, and hope I don’t have to betray her in order to protect her.
Beatriz comes bounding out of the front of the house as Gabriel pulls the emergency brake on the Jeep.
she says, smiling at me.
I realize something is tugging at me and I turn to find a little white goat with brown ears chewing on the hem of my T-shirt. “Ooh,” I say, kneeling down to rub its knobby horns. “Who’s this?”
“I don’t name my food,” Gabriel says, and I gasp.
“You are not eating this sweetheart,” I tell him, “and he has to have a name.”
“Fine.” He grins. “Stew.”
“No.” I fold my arms. “Promise me. Consider it my birthday gift.”
Gabriel laughs. “Only because Stew’s a terrible name for a lady goat. As long as we can milk her, she’s safe. We trade her milk to the neighbor for eggs.”
He helps Abuela up the steps into his house. The livable area is two rooms: one with a small kitchen, a tiny table, two mismatched wooden chairs, and a beanbag chair; the other a bedroom. I don’t see a bathroom, just a little outhouse in the distance. While Gabriel and Abuela stand at the table, unpacking the food she’s brought to cook and talking in Spanish, Beatriz pulls me into the bedroom.
There is a mattress on the floor and a scarred chest of drawers, but there is also a mirror with mosaic glass around it, and a quilt with flowers embroidered on it, and fairy lights strung on a series of nails that have been tacked to the wall. This must have been Gabriel’s room, I realize. I wonder if he transformed it into this little oasis for her, hoping for the best before she came here from school. I wonder where he sleeps now.
“Oh,” I say, pulling several postcards from my tote. “I brought some more.”
“Cool.” Beatriz takes them, setting them in front of the mirror.
Since our day at the trillizos, we haven’t talked about the girl she left behind on Santa Cruz, or if she still feels like cutting. Only once in the past two weeks has she even alluded to what transpired. We were sitting in Puerto Villamil, watching boobies torpedo into the water to catch fish, our legs dangling off the pier, just letting the afternoon settle around us like cotton batting. “Diana?” Beatriz had said, apropos of nothing. “Thanks. For catching me.”
What I wanted to do was wrap my arms around her tight. What I did instead was bump her shoulder with mine.
I said, when I meant the very opposite. It wasn’t nothing. It was
I figure Beatriz will tell me what she wants to tell me and needs to tell me when she’s ready. And God knows, right now, I have nothing but time.
There’s a knock on the door and Gabriel pokes his head inside. “You ready to earn your supper? I need help picking fruit.”
“It’s my birthday,” I protest.
He shrugs. “We’ll have the goat for dinner instead.”
“Funny,” I tell him, and turn to Beatriz. “Come help. I’m way too old for physical labor.”
She shakes her head. “I’ve got other things to do.
Gabriel leans toward her and in an exaggerated whisper asks, “Was that good?”
“Perfect,” Beatriz says, and she skirts us on her way to the small table, where Abuela is already measuring out flour. “Go on,” she shoos. “Leave.”
I follow Gabriel outside. “She’s making a cake for me, isn’t she?”
“You didn’t hear it from me,” he says.
“That’s sweet.” I sit down on a stump near the front door as Gabriel untangles something from a pile of tools. He hands it to me—a wire basket on a stick—and then picks up a five-gallon plastic bucket.
“You mean we’re really picking fruit? I thought that was just a ruse to get me out of the house.”
“It was. But also, this is a farm.” I follow him into the fields that stretch behind the house, where he points to yams and corn, lettuce and carrots. There is a patch of pineapple not ripe enough to harvest, and then we come to a small group of trees. “Papaya,” Gabriel says. He takes the pole and squints up at the leaves, jostling the tool for a minute before he lowers it again and with a little flip of the wrist, drops the heavy fruit into my hand.
“I didn’t know papaya grew on trees,” I marvel.
We work in companionable quiet while he strips the tree of its ripe fruit, and then I kneel beside him to dig up a few yams. By the time we get back to the house, I’m filthy. Gabriel leads me to a water pump, jacking its handle so that I have a stream to wash my hands and my face. When I return the favor, he strips off his shirt and ducks his head and torso under the water, shaking off like a hound and making me shriek.
The noise draws Beatriz, who stands in the doorway. “Perfect timing,” she says. Then she claps, and Abuela appears behind her holding a small one-tier chocolate cake on a plate.
“te deseamos a ti…”
Beatriz runs ahead and whispers something to Gabriel, who takes out a lighter and flicks the flame to life with his thumb.
“No candle,” he explains.
Abuela sets the cake down on a picnic table outside the house, which has been decorated with strewn flowers. “Make a wish,” Beatriz orders.
Dutifully, I close my eyes.
That I was back in New York with Finn.
That my mother will get better.
That this will be over soon.
These things are what I should be wishing for. But instead, all that runs through my mind is that it is hard to make wishes, when in the moment, it feels like you have everything you need.
I open my eyes again and lean toward the lighter in Gabriel’s hand. Gently, I blow.
He winks at me, and snaps the lid so the flame disappears. “That means it will come true,” he says.
After we finish the cake, Gabriel builds a fire in a ring of lava stones in the yard. He turns on a small transistor radio and we all sit on folding lawn chairs. To my shock, there are presents for me: Beatriz gives me a small box she has decorated with shells; Abuela gives me a necklace with a medal of the Virgin Mary on it and insists on securing it around my neck. Even Gabriel tells me he has a gift—but it’s an experience, not a thing, and he’ll take me in a few days. Afterward, Beatriz brings me a blank journal and demands I do a portrait of her, like the ones I did at the feria. When the last of the light leaves the sky it’s decided that Beatriz will share her bed with Abuela, and that Gabriel and I will camp out under the stars.
When we are alone, I look at the medal nestled between my breasts. “Did I just get baptized or something?” I ask.
Gabriel grins. “It’s called a miraculous medal. It’s supposed to bring blessings to people who wear it with faith.”
I glance at him. “So basically if I’m not Catholic, lightning could strike at any moment?”
“If it does, it will likely hit me first, so you’re safe,” he says. He pokes at the embers with a stick, stirring them, and then picks up the journal with the sketch I made of Beatriz. “You’re very talented,” he tells me, carefully closing the book and setting it on the picnic table.
I shrug. “Party trick,” I say.
He disappears into the house for a moment. When he reappears with two rolled sleeping bags, the radio is playing a Nightjars song. “The first vinyl album I ever bought was Sam Pride’s.”
I look up at him. “Was it the one with Kitomi Ito naked on the cover?”
Gabriel blinks. “Well,” he says, “actually, yeah.”
“I know her,” I tell him.
knows her.” He lays one of the sleeping bags at my feet, and shakes out the other on the opposite side of the fire.
know her,” I tell him. “I was in the process of selling her painting. The one from that album cover, actually.”
Gabriel pulls his own sleeping bag closer to the fire pit. The reflections of the flames dance over his forearms as he pours what looks like water from a bottle into two shot glasses. “That sounds like a story,” he says, and he passes me a glass.
he says, and clinks his own against mine.
Following his lead, I drain it in one swallow, and nearly choke, because it is most definitely not water. “Holy
” I gasp. “What is this?”
“Caña.” He laughs. “Cane sugar alcohol. One hundred proof.” Then he leans back on his elbows. “Now tell me why you know Sam Pride’s wife.”
I do, skirting over the fact that my last conversation with her may have cost me a promotion, if not my job. When I finish talking I look up to find Gabriel staring at me, puzzled. “So your job is to sell other people’s art?” he asks, and I nod. “But what about your own?”
Surprised, I shake my head. “Oh, I’m not an artist. I just have an art history degree.”
“Useless arcane knowledge,” I reply.
“I doubt that…”
“Well, at Williams I wrote a thesis on the paintings of saints and how they died.”
He laughs. “Maybe that miraculous medal isn’t such a stretch after all…”
I hold out my glass for another shot of liquor. “Hey, I’ll have you know that Saint Margaret of Antioch was eaten by a dragon, but is usually painted with said dragon hanging out at her side. Saint Peter the Martyr’s portraits
the cleaver in his skull. Saint Lucy—patron saint of eye problems—was always shown holding a dish with two eyeballs on it. Oh, and Saint Nicholas—”
“Papá Noel?” Gabriel pours me more caña.
“The very same. He’s often painted holding three gold balls that look like candy, but they’re actually dowries he’d give to poor virgins.”
Gabriel’s eyebrows rise. He lifts his own glass. “Merry Christmas,” he says.
We toast, and I swallow; the second time, I’m expecting the burn. “So as you can see,” I tell him, “my esteemed education has made me very good for trivia at cocktail parties.” I shrug. “And it helped land me my dream job.”
He leans back on the mattress he’s made of his sleeping bag, his feet crossed. “People dream of making art,” he says. “Nobody dreams of selling it.”
This makes me think of my mother, gallivanting all over the world to take pictures that won awards, that graced magazine covers, that chronicled struggle and war and famine. How her images were in museums and even gifted to the White House but had never been sold in a public forum until I auctioned some off to pay for her assisted living facility.
I shake my head. “You don’t understand. These pieces of art…they’re worth millions. Sotheby’s is synonymous with prestige.”
“And that,” Gabriel says, “is important to you?”
I stare into the fire. Flames are the one thing you can’t ever really replicate in art. The moment you make them static in paint, you take away their magic. “Yes,” I reply. “My best friend, Rodney, and I have been plotting our meteoric rise through the company since we met there nine years ago.”