Authors: Jodi Picoult
I steal his breath for safekeeping.
Since we aren’t supposed to have visitors and Finn has bribed his way in with donuts for the staff, I get to spend only an hour with him in the courtyard. By then, it’s getting colder, and I’m getting tired. He helps me hook my mask over my ears again, wheels me back to my room, and tucks me into bed. “I wish I could stay with you,” he murmurs.
“I wish I could
with you,” I tell him.
He kisses my forehead. “Soon,” he promises.
He leaves me with a reusable grocery bag full of books—books that I asked him to bring to the front desk for me, before I knew he would be able to deliver them in person. They are the guidebooks on Ecuador and the Galápagos that I had used to plan our trip.
Obviously, they are not in a missing suitcase somewhere. They’ve been on the kitchen counter all along, with our passports and our e-ticket confirmations, ready to pack.
I take a deep breath and open one.
Isabela is the largest island in the Galápagos and much of it is unreachable, due to lava flows and thorny brush and rocky, inhospitable shores.
Puerto Villamil remains relatively untouched by visitors; it’s a tiny hamlet of sandy roads and homes bordered by cacti on one side and a gorgeous beach on the other.
I’ve highlighted some of the sights that I wanted to make sure Finn and I saw:
The path to Concha de Perla leads to a protected bay with good snorkeling.
After passing several small lagoons with flamingos, the turnoff to the Tortoise Breeding Center is marked.
A two-hour walk from Playa de Amor will take you to El Muro de las Lágrimas—the Wall of Tears.
Around the half-submerged lava tunnels at Los Túneles, the water is sparkling and clear and home to a variety of marine species.
One after another, I read about the places I visited while I was unconscious and watch them blossom into fully dimensional memories full of sound and color and scent.
I put the book on the nightstand and pull Finn front and center in my mind. I think about how his hair felt, sifting through my fingers. How he smelled of pine and carbolic soap, like he always does. How his kiss wasn’t a discovery, but the reassurance that I had been on this journey before and knew where to go, what to do, what felt right.
That night, I don’t let myself fall asleep.
Rodney is angry at me because we are supposed to be watching reruns of
together on our phones and live-texting our predictions about who will be voted off the island, but I keep drifting off, trying to catch up on the rest I’m not getting.
Are you dead?
The last ding wakes me up, and I read his messages.
Imma find a new bff in NOLA.
Rodney is moving to his sister’s house in Louisiana, because he can’t afford his rent in the city. That sobers me. We are in lockdown, I know, and I’m likely the last person anyone wants to be in close contact with, but the thought of not seeing Rodney again before he moves makes something shift in my chest.
Sorry. I won’t fall asleep again. I swear.
On my tiny phone screen I watch a contestant who is a preschool teacher climb into a barrel to be maneuvered through an obstacle course to win some peanut butter.
Remember when you got locked in that vault at work and lost it?
I take this to mean I’ve been forgiven for napping.
I didn’t lose it, I just freaked out a little,
Plus I’ve crawled down a tunnel that was as wide as my hips.
Like hell you did. Proof?
For a moment I watch those three dots appear and disappear while Rodney figures out what to say.
screen freezes and a FaceTime call pops up. I answer it and Rodney’s face swims into view. “I don’t know if it counts as conquering your fears when you do it unconscious,” he says.
“Definitely a blurry line.”
He regards me for a long moment. “You wanna talk about it?”
“It’s a place called the trillizos. They’re like these gopher holes into the middle of the earth. I guess tourists rappel down them.”
He shudders. “Give me a beach and a frozen marg.”
“Beatriz brought me there the first time, and the second time, she ran away and I crawled down to try to save her.”
“How come she needed saving?”
“She kind of found me in bed with her father and it didn’t go well.”
Rodney hoots with laughter. “Diana, only you could hallucinate yourself into an ethical mess.”
At that word—
something in me shutters. Rodney notices, and his eyes soften. “Look, I shouldn’t have said that. Trauma is trauma. Just because someone else hasn’t experienced it themselves doesn’t make it any less real to you.”
Maggie has talked to me about other patients who have come off ECMO or the vent who suffer from PTSD. I have some of the same symptoms—that fear of falling asleep, the panic attacks when I start to cough, the obsessive checking of my pulse ox numbers. But I can still feel what it was like to have water fill my lungs as I drowned, too. In the middle of the night, my heart pounds in my throat and I’m right back in the tunnel I shimmied down looking for Beatriz. I am having flashbacks of experiences everyone here tells me I never had, and now—more than a week after being weaned off any sedation drugs—they still haven’t gone away.
“Maybe I shouldn’t talk about it,” I mull out loud. “Maybe that’s only going to make it harder in the long run. It’s just…” I shake my head. “Remember that guy who came into Sotheby’s convinced that he had a Picasso and it wasn’t even a fake or a forgery—it was a flyer for a shitty band, and he was completely delusional?”
“I get it now. To him, that was a goddamn Picasso.” I pinch the bridge of my nose. “I don’t know why it hasn’t just…gone away. Or why I can’t wrap my head around it being a detailed, incredibly weird dream.”
“Maybe because you don’t want it to be?”
“If the reality is that I nearly died, then sure. But it’s more than that. These people were
Rodney shrugs. “For a smart girl, you’re a dumbass, Di. You’re holding a phone in your hand, aren’t you? Tell me you’ve Googled them.”
I blink at him. “Oh my God.”
“Yes, my child?”
“Why didn’t I think of that?”
“Because you still can’t do the word scramble puzzles that OT gives you, and your brain isn’t firing right.”
I pull up the search engine, Rodney shrinking to a little green dot in the background. I type
There are results, but none of them are her.
The same happens when I type in Gabriel’s name.
“Well?” Rodney asks.
“Nothing.” But that’s not surprising, given the fact that the internet there was so bad that social media profiles would be useless.
Unless the internet
bad there, and I just created that obstacle in my dream.
My head starts to hurt.
“Let me try something,” I murmur.
I type in
Casa del Cielo Isabela Galápagos
Immediately, a picture loads of the hotel I had booked—it looks nothing like the one I visited in my imagination. But…it
My thumbs fly over my phone again.
I read. And in red:
I suck in my breath. “He’s real, Rodney. Or at least his company is.”
“And you don’t remember ever coming in contact with them before you went, like when you were planning the trip?”
I don’t. But maybe my brain did.
“Hang on, Rod.” I put my phone down, hoist myself up on Alice, and use the walker to make my way to the nightstand. There, I sit on the edge of the bed and pick up the guidebook I was reading the night before. Thumbing through the pages, I find the ones about Isabela Island.
I skim the categories:
Arrival and Getting Around.
Eating and drinking.
The third one down:
G2 TOURS. Open M–Sun 10–4. Private land/water excursions, SCUBA certified.
I did not highlight it. But I must have skimmed over it. My imagination clearly was working overtime to create a whole backstory and family around one tiny line item in a guidebook.
I shuffle back to the chair and pick up my phone again. “Gabriel’s tour company is listed in the guidebook I read.”
“He’s mentioned by name?”
“Well…no,” I say. “But why else would I have invented a place called G2 unless I’d seen something about it?”
“True,” Rodney points out. “That’s pretty basic. You’d probably have called it something like Happy Holidays or Galápagoing.”
“Do you think that’s all it was?” I ask him. “Do you think I unconsciously memorized all this while I was planning our vacation and somehow imagined it when I was on the vent?”
“I think there’s a lot of stuff we don’t know about the way the brain works,” Rodney says carefully. “But I also think there’s a lot of stuff we don’t know about how the world works.” He raises his brows. “Oh,” he adds. “And get yourself a shrink.”
Since the days in rehab bleed into each other, I mark time by progress. I stop using a death grip on the bars and instead graze my palm over them while I take steps. I graduate to using Alice the Walker, keeping my own balance and pushing it forward. Maggie helps by giving me verbal progress reports: “Yesterday I had to help you and you lost your balance three times, but today you’re doing it all by yourself. Yesterday I was right next to you, today I’m within shouting distance.” Vee brings me puzzles, word searches, and a deck of cards. I start by sorting cards by suit and color and number, and then move on to playing solitaire. She has me tie my own sneakers and braid my own hair. She makes me pull beads out of putty to finesse my fine motor skills, and by the next afternoon, when I text on my phone my fingers are flying the way they used to. She brings me to a fake kitchen, where I use my walker to move from dishwasher to cabinet, putting away plastic glasses and dishes.
On the twelfth day of rehab, I maneuver Alice into the bathroom, assess my balance, tug down my sweatpants, and pee on an actual toilet. I get to my feet, straighten my clothing, wash my hands.
When I step out into my room, Maggie and Vee are cheering.
There is a checklist of things I must be able to accomplish before I can leave rehab. Can I brush my hair? Can I walk with a device? Can I dial my phone? Can I go to the bathroom? Can I shower? Can I balance? Can I do light meal prep? Can I walk up and down steps?
On the day I’m discharged, Finn comes to take me home. “How did you get the day off?” I ask.
He shrugs. “What were they gonna do? Fire me?”
It’s true, they need him too much right now to risk him leaving for good. Which reminds me I will be alone in the apartment when he goes back. Which makes me terrified.
Even though I’ve been able to walk for a few days—even trading up from Alice for a quad cane—the protocol for rehab is that I be wheeled out. I’ve packed my limited stash of clothing and toiletries and the travel guides in a small duffel. “Your chariot,” Finn says, with a flourish, and I gently lower myself into the sling seat. I put on the blue surgical mask I’ve been given, and Finn sets the duffel on my lap.
Maggie comes rushing into the room. “I’d hug you if I could do it from six feet away,” she says.
“You’ve been up in my face for weeks,” I point out.
“But that was when you were a
” she says. “I brought you a gift.” She pulls out what she’s hidden behind her back—a shiny new quad cane for me to take home. “Candis,” she says, and I burst out laughing
. Candis Cayne.
“So much cooler than
“For sure,” I tell Maggie. “I’m going to miss you.”
“Ah, fuck it,” she says, and she gives me a quick, fierce hug. “I’m gonna miss you more.”
She opens the door to my room and Finn pushes me into the hall.
It is lined with people.
They are all masked and gowned, with their hair restrained in surgical caps. And they are all staring at me.
Someone starts clapping.
Someone else joins in.
There is a rolling wave of applause as Finn wheels me past. I see tears in some of the eyes of the staff and I think:
They’re not doing this for me. They are doing it for themselves, because they need hope.
I feel my cheeks heat underneath my mask, with embarrassment, with unease. I am reentering a society that has moved one month ahead without me, a place where every emotion is now hidden—a casualty of safety.
I keep my eyes straight ahead. I am the world’s loneliest soldier, limping back from war.
Getting home is an adventure. After I settle into the Uber, Finn squirts hand sanitizer into my palms and his, too. We lower the windows for ventilation even though it’s only fifty degrees out, because he’s read studies about aerosol transmission and viral droplets. Driving is eerie; the city is a ghost town. Stores are shuttered and the streets are so empty that we make record time. New York City is usually teeming with people—businessmen, tourists, dreamers. I wonder if they’re locked in the high-rises or if, like Rodney, they’ve just given up and left town. I think about the Empire State Building and Central Park and Radio City, the iconic locations that stand resolute and lonely. I used to get so frustrated when the subways were packed solid or when Times Square was swarming with sightseers. I didn’t realize how much I actually loved the congestion of Manhattan until I saw the alternative.
When we reach our apartment building, Finn hovers at my side until I shout at him because he’s making me nervous. We have to wait for two elevator cycles before we get a car to ourselves, which Finn insists on, because not everyone is taking precautions as seriously as he is.