Authors: Jodi Picoult
The library at Sotheby’s isn’t really a library, but rather stacks of bookshelves that line the hallways of every floor of the office. As a cataloger, I would scour the materials, trying to piece together initial research on the market value of a piece, how much money similar works had sold for, and whatever little tidbits I could add. The way to hook people on a piece of art is to find a detail that sticks in their minds—something that can personalize the work: this was painted the day before he met the mentor who would sponsor him as an artist; this was the first painting he did in oils; this image was influenced by Degas, Gauguin, Cézanne. Every snippet of copy was reviewed and edited and arranged to grab the interest of the buyer and keep him turning pages.
What this meant for me, practically, was that I rarely sat down during the day, unless it was to type a revision, and then I’d run mock-ups and edits from one specialist to another, to the marketing people, and to the art department that organized the catalog for printing. Also, we were always on a strict deadline to get the catalog off to the printer in time for the actual auction.
That was the reason I didn’t take the elevator one day, three years into my tenure at Sotheby’s. By then my boss—Eva St. Clerck—was the head of sale for Imp Mod. I was running something to her to meet a deadline, and with the elevator stuck on another floor, I opted for the emergency staircase instead. But I was in such a hurry, I missed a step and found myself tumbling down the stairs, breaking my fall with my left arm outstretched.
I landed in a tangle at the landing, my tights torn, my knee skinned. As I lay sprawled, I considered running back upstairs to change into the spare pair of tights I kept in my desk to prevent Eva St. Clerck from taking one look at me and raising a disappointed eyebrow. I tried to push myself upright and nearly blacked out from the wave of pain that swallowed me.
When I could breathe again, I wriggled my phone out of the pocket of my jacket and texted Rodney with a single hand.
By the time he located me in the stairwell, I was propped against the wall with my legs splayed in front of me, cradling my left arm with my right. He hauled me up and marched me toward the closest elevator bank. “We’re going to the ER,” he announced, looking down at my wrist and wincing. “That is not a natural angle.”
“I can’t just leave. Eva—”
“Does not want to incur a lawsuit because you fell down the stairs when you were trying to appease Her Majesty.” When we reached street level, Rodney bustled me through the lobby and out the front door. The emergency department of New York–Presbyterian was only a few blocks away; we heard the ambulance sirens all the time.
The waiting room was half-full: there were mothers cradling crying toddlers, an elderly man with a bad cough, a couple whispering furiously in Spanish, a man in construction gear holding a bloody towel to a gash in his thigh. The triage nurse took my information down, and forty-five minutes later, my name was called. “Do you want me to come with?” Rodney asked, and even though it was exactly what I wanted, I decided to act like a grown-up and shook my head.
“Good,” he said, “because this
magazine from 2006 is impossible to put down.”
I was brought through the double doors to a little curtained cubicle, where I sat on a gurney, trying not to jostle my arm. It felt like fire under my skin, and all of a sudden it was too much: the pain, the catalog deadline, a potentially broken bone. Tears streamed down my cheeks, my nose started running, and when I tried to reach out with my nondominant hand for a tissue beside the gurney, the box fell onto the floor, and I started to cry harder.
Which was the moment the doctor entered. He was tall and blond, with hair that kept falling in his eyes. “Ms. O’Toole? I’m Dr. Colson, and I’m a resident in…” he said, looking down at my chart. “I understand that you fell—” He glanced at my face, and his brows shot up. “Are you okay?”
“If I was okay,” I sobbed, “I would not be in the emergency room.”
“Tell me what happened,” he said.
So I did, as he gently touched my elbow and wrist, moving it incrementally, stopping when I gasped in pain. His fingers were warm and sure. He asked me questions as he checked me for concussion, examined the scrape on my knee, and a bruise that was blooming on my hip. “So are you always in a hurry?” he asked.
The question surprised me out of my discomfort. “I guess?”
For the first time since he had entered the cubicle, his eyes met mine. “I suppose that’s not a bad thing, if you know where you’re headed,” he said.
“Is that the current way of saying take two aspirin and call me in the morning?”
“No. You’re not getting out of here without an X-ray.” He smiled a little, the corner of his mouth quirking up on one side. “The bad news is I’d lay odds that your arm is broken. The good news is that if you can make jokes, you probably won’t die on my watch.”
“Great,” I murmured.
“It is,” he said. “I’d hate to see my Yelp rating tank.” He leaned out of the cubicle and spoke with a passing nurse. “We’ll get you down to radiology for imaging, and then I’ll come back.”
I nodded. “My friend’s in the waiting room,” I said. “Can someone tell him what’s going on?”
He straightened. “I can get word to your boyfriend.”
“He’s just a co-worker,” I corrected. “Rodney. He brought me here. He’ll be the only one in the waiting room wearing couture.”
The doctor grinned. “You gotta love a hero in Prada.”
It took an hour for my X-ray to be performed and read and for Dr. Colson to come back to my cubicle. I was lying down by then, trying not to move my arm. He showed me the scans on an iPad, the clean white line of the break in my bone. “It’s a simple break,” he said.
“It doesn’t feel simple.”
“That means you don’t need an ortho consult. I can put a cast on you, and you can be on your way.”
He showed me how to hold up my arm, thumb out, while he gently slipped a stockinette on like an evening glove. He took a roll of cotton and wound it up and down again, mummifying my arm. The whole time, he asked me questions: How long had I been at Sotheby’s? Did I study art at school? Did I prefer modern art, or impressionist art? He told me that he was a surgical resident, but that it was his first year, and he was doing a two-week rotation in the ED. He confessed that this was his first cast.
“Mine, too,” I said.
The fiberglass wrap he used was already stiffening in place. For the final layer, he offered me a choice of blue, hazard orange, camouflage, hot pink.
“I get to
He smiled. “A perk for our first-time customers.”
“Pink,” I said. “Although Rodney would say that’ll clash with my wardrobe.”
“Choose something you won’t get sick of looking at for the next six weeks,” he suggested. “If you want something matchy, go with blue. It’s the same color as your eyes.”
As soon as he said it, he flushed and ducked his head, laser-focused on the last layer of wrap.
Finally, I was able to turn my wrist a little to look at his handiwork. “Not bad for a novice,” I said. “Five stars on Yelp for sure.”
He laughed. “Whew.”
“So,” I said, looking up at him. “That’s it?”
“One more thing,” he said, and he took a black marker from his white coat pocket. “Can I sign your cast?”
I nodded, smiling.
, it read. And a phone number.
“In case there are complications,” he said, meeting my gaze.
“I feel like that’s a HIPAA violation or something,” I said.
“Only if you’re my patient. And lucky for me,” he said, handing me my discharge papers, “you are no longer my patient.”
By the time I walked into the waiting room again, we’d planned to meet for dinner the following night, and I barely noticed the throbbing in my arm. Rodney was lying on his back across four chairs. He took one look at my face, and the signature on my cast.
After reading Finn’s email I decide I’m going to get back to America if I have to swim. I return to the apartment to get my carry-on tote and then double back into Puerto Villamil. There are very few signs of life on Isabela, but I have the best chance of finding an exit to the mainland if I’m in town.
I have to wait only an hour on the pier before a small boat approaches, its engine chugging. There is one person in it, but I can’t see him clearly from this distance. I hurry down the dock, waving, as the man hops out of the boat, turns away from me, and ties it securely on a mooring.
I say tentatively, wondering how I am going to communicate beyond a simple greeting.
When he stands and wipes off his damp hands on his shorts, then turns around, I realize it is the man from the tortoise breeding site who tackled me yesterday.
“No es cierto,”
he mutters, closing his eyes for a second, as if he could blink me away.
Well. At least I already know he speaks English.
“Hello again,” I say, smiling. “I wonder if I could rent your boat.”
He shakes his head. “Sorry, it’s not my boat,” he says, and he shoulders past me, walking away.
“But you were just in—” I run after him, to catch up. “Look. I realize we got off on the wrong foot. But this is an emergency.”
He stops, folding his arms.
“I’ll pay you,” I try again. “I’ll pay as much as you want to get me to Santa Cruz.” I don’t have very much cash left, but there
to be ATMs there, at least.
He narrows his eyes. “What’s in Santa Cruz?”
“The airport,” I say. “I have to get home.”
“Even if you got to Santa Cruz, there are no flights in or out.”
“Please,” I beg.
His face softens, or maybe it’s just an illusion. “I can’t take you there,” he says. “We’re in the middle of a strict quarantine. There are federal officials enforcing it.”
By now, I’m fighting back tears. “I know you think I’m a stupid tourist,” I admit. “I should have left with the last ferry. You’re right. But I can’t stay here for God knows how long while people I love are stuck…” My words evaporate; I swallow hard. “Haven’t you ever made a mistake?”
He flinches as if I’ve hit him.
“Look, I don’t much care what happens to me,” he says. “But if you’re arrested for traveling to Santa Cruz, that’s not going to get you home, either.” His eyes roam over me, from the crown of my head to my sneakers. “I hope you figure something out,” he adds, and with a brief nod, he leaves me standing alone on the pier.
By the late afternoon, I am not only wondering if I can get off this island, I’m wondering if I’m the only one
Even though I know it can’t be true, it feels like I’m the last person on earth. Since being dismissed by the man from the tortoise breeding center, I have not seen a single soul. There is no movement or light in Abuela’s part of the house; the beach is entirely empty. Even if there are no tourists descending on Isabela Island—even if people are being cautious because of coronavirus—it feels as if I’ve been dropped onto the set of a dystopian movie. A beautiful set, but a very lonely one.
I find myself walking in the same direction I went yesterday, toward the tortoise breeding center, except I get lost and wind up instead on a wooden walkway through a mangrove forest, with long-fingered tree branches bleached and twisted above me, knuckles bent. It is desolate and oddly beautiful; it’s the place in the fairy tale where the witch appears. Except there is only me, and an iguana perched on the handrail of the walkway, its Godzilla hackles rising as I walk past.
When I see the sign for Concha de Perla, my memory is jogged: I had bookmarked this page in the travel guide that is still lost somewhere with my luggage, as a place for Finn and me to visit. It’s known as a snorkeling haunt, arms of lava encircling a small part of the ocean to create a natural lagoon. I do not have a snorkel with me, but I am sweaty and hot, and diving into cool water becomes a mission.
I read the sign diligently, thinking of poisoned apples, but there is nothing warning me off. The walkway ends in a small, enclosed dock that looks out over the water. Two sea lions are sprawled on the boards, the wood still wet around their bodies, like a crime scene outline. They do not even twitch as I pass to lean over the railing and peer at the water: green-tinted but clear, with a family of sea turtles swimming just below me.
Well. If I’m the last person in the world, there are worse places to be.
I toe off my sneakers and peel off my socks, hiding them under the bench of the dock. It feels exhibitionistic to undress, but there’s no one else here, and I have too limited a supply of clothing to get it wet. When I’m down to my athletic bra and panties, I start descending the staircase into the water. I let it lap at my shins, and then do a shallow dive into the lagoon.
The water is cool on my skin, and when I stand, I can almost brush the sandy bottom with my toes. There are mangrove trees at the edge of the pool, and through the ripple of the water are black shadows of lava. Some of them are large enough to rise from the surface, jagged as teeth. I tread water for a few moments and then start to swim in the direction of the lava outcroppings. The sun is so strong that it feels like a coronation. I lean back, floating, blinking up at the clouds that drift across the sky.
When I feel myself being poked, I startle violently, swallow water, and come up sputtering. Two penguins bob in front of me, seemingly as surprised to see me as I am to see them.
“Hey there,” I whisper, grinning. They are the size of my forearm, tuxedoed formally, their pupils yellow dots. I stretch out my hand gently, inviting them to swim closer. One of the penguins dives under the water and reappears to my left.
The other one pecks me hard enough to draw blood.
“Jesus Christ!” I cry out, kicking away from the penguin, clapping a hand over my shoulder. It’s barely a scrape, but it hurts.
I think of all the children’s stories about penguins, which are clearly doing a disservice by making them seem friendly and cuddly. Maybe in real life they’re territorial; maybe I’ve committed an infraction by swimming into their part of the lagoon. I distance myself from them, moving a little further out of reach of the dock toward the tangled roots of the mangroves.