By Anel Viz
Illustrated by Kit Moss
Part I. Barcarole
1. The Shoal
I tried to distract myself with work, but the bitter cold at last determined me to take a much needed and long overdue vacation, so I rushed through my end of term corrections to be able to spend the last two weeks of January in the sunshine of the Caribbean.
For the first three days I luxuriated in doing nothing and let my mind go blank. I didn’t even explore the small town in which my beachfront hotel was located. I lay on the sand far from the water line, seldom venturing into the ocean, staying under the trees so as not to burn. We’d had overcast skies since early fall, and the northern winter had left me very pale. I spoke to no one. I read, I slept, returned to the hotel for my meals, and went to bed early. I needed time to myself, time to do nothing.
On my third morning there, I began to feel restless. I rented some scuba equipment and a boat and sailed out to a small island I had spotted on the horizon. I didn’t even ask its name. I went wearing only my swim trunks, a tee-shirt and a small hat with a visor, and took only a large beach towel, my book, sunscreen, a few pieces of fruit and two liter bottles of water. It was no doubt rash of me to dive alone, but I meant to hug the shoreline and figured the risk would not be much. The seabed there is sandy and not very deep.
It did not take long to sail there, no more than twenty minutes, even in what was really not much more than a motorized rowboat. It reminded me how many little islands there were in addition to the bigger ones. I had let it slip my mind although I’d seen them from the plane.
I rounded the island, apparently uninhabited, and anchored in an empty cove that looked southwest over an endless expanse of ocean under a cloudless sky. It was as calm as a lagoon, and may have been one, though I passed no reef on the side from which I entered it. I took off my tee-shirt, checked my equipment one last time, sat balanced on the side for a moment, and flipped backward into the calm, shimmering water.
The flat, sandy bottom, no more than ten or fifteen feet below the surface, was barren except for the occasional conch. Jutting out, a rocky promontory dense with vegetation formed the east end of the cove. If I were to find interesting underwater formations and marine life anywhere on this island, it would be there, and there I headed.
As I approached the promontory the sandy bottom sloped more steeply toward the open water, and its foot was indeed cluttered with rock crusted over with the shells of tiny mollusks, and plenty of crevices to shelter the more timid creatures and hide their lurking predators. The land on the far side fell straight into the sea, and beyond it the ocean floor plunged sharply down some sixty feet or more, where a few hundred yards ahead of me a dense shoal of silver fish hovered in an immense wall between the bottom sand and the rippling surface. I swam cautiously to within a few feet of it so as not to disturb the fish in their dance, and held there treading water at a depth of about forty feet.
The school suddenly became agitated and their motions erratic. Had they sensed a shark? The wall divided in front of me and vanished in either direction, and I found myself face to face with another diver, a young man who had been watching them from the other side, treading water like myself and wearing nothing but his diving mask. His dive must have frightened them off. He could not have been there long without air.
We were maybe six or eight yards apart. He was beautiful. Lean and muscular, his long, black hair adrift in the current, his sex wagging handsomely with the in-and-out movements of his arms and legs. The evenness of his tan showed that he was in the habit of diving nude, but he evidently had not expected to encounter another human being in that isolated spot, for he cast me what looked like a sheepish grin from behind his mask.
He pointed to the surface. I looked up and saw the white hull of a boat, at least ten times larger than mine. Then he jerked his head upward with a slight shrug of his shoulders. An invitation? I nodded, and he headed toward the surface just as the scattered shoal swirled back into place and reformed between us, closed like a gleaming silver curtain, and blocked him from my view.
I had, as I’ve said, spoken to no one except the hotel clerk, a couple of waiters and the owner of the boat rental since I got there. I felt more isolated suddenly cut off from him than I had sitting in my boat looking out over the ocean or swimming through the empty water along the sandy bottom of the cove, and for the first time since my arrival I felt the need for human conversation. I started back up wondering what was in store for me. A cocktail, a cup of coffee? Had he come there alone or was his girlfriend also on board? I imagined he would have slipped into a swimsuit by the time I got there. I didn’t even know what language he spoke.
2. On Board
I surfaced some five or six yards from the boat and swam to the ladder that hung over the port side toward the stern. When I grabbed hold of it he reached a hand over to help me up. I’d not been diving long and the oxygen tank was still fairly heavy.
He had, as I’d suspected, slipped into a suit, though there wasn’t much of it, just a Speedo as black as his hair and almost as skimpy as a thong. He flashed me a disarming smile, not so sheepish as the one that had greeted me five fathoms down, and said, “I’m sorry if I embarrassed you.”
“Embarrassed me? I’d be diving naked too, but I was afraid there’d be people at the beach when I got back to my boat. I’m anchored in the cove on the other side of that headland.”
“Yeah, you run into people in the lagoon there once in a while, but I don’t think they’d mind,” he said as he handed me a towel.
“You never know. The last time I was here I fell asleep naked on the beach, and when I woke up two couples had set up their blanket not far from mine. The negative vibes were so strong that must have been what woke me up, but they could have gone anywhere. The whole beach was empty.”
“It happens. Some people are jerks; you can’t help running into ’em. So you had a bad experience on that beach? When was that? You come here often?”
“Not there, on another island chain a few years back. This is my first time here. I don’t get down to the Caribbean often.”
“Couldn’t you tell? And you?”
“Brazilian, but I live in the islands now.”
“Your English is terrific.”
“I’ve been here quite a while. Staying at the resort, are you?” He pointed toward shore. There was nothing there, of course. He meant my island, which you could see from the other side.
He went on: “But as I was saying, some people are jerks. That’s why I dive in the inlet here. I prefer to be alone. It’s always empty, so it’s private and the fish don’t avoid the place. It’s a lot deeper here too, and the ocean floor is so much more interesting. You never know what you’ll run into.”
A pointed remark, to be sure. “And no one dives here?”
“You’re the first one I’ve met.”
I looked around. It was more an inlet than a cove, narrow and cut back a good quarter-mile into the island, with no beach at all. Just high rock face on all three sides, precipitous like the calanques east of Marseille, but only a fraction of their height. That early in the day the southern sun shone straight in and there was no shade to speak of. “Very private,” I said.
“Then let’s get comfortable again. Can I get you something to drink? There’s white wine in the cooler. Or would you prefer a martini? Vodka. I don’t care for gin.”
“White wine is fine, thank you. It’s way too early for a martini. I can’t risk spending too long in the altogether, though. You see how pale I am.”
He was already buck naked before I finished speaking. “Catch!” And he tossed me a bottle of sunscreen. “It’s strong – number 45. You’ll be good for a few hours.”
“Thanks.” I kicked off my trunks and started applying the sunscreen while he went into the cabin to pour our wine. Pale as I was and with my light brown hair already starting to bleach from the sun, I felt twice as naked as my host.
He returned with the wine in stemmed glasses, not the plastic cups I half expected. “Nice body,” he said. “You work out?”
“Not really. I’m the lazy type.”
“Then you’re lucky. Don’t cake your body with goop – rub it in. It’ll work just as well. Here, let me get your back.” He set the wine glasses down on a white wooden box built into the side of the boat. Ropes, I imagined, or safety gear. Then he extended his right hand, and I held out the lotion. He took it in his left and used his right to shake mine. “Robinson,” he introduced himself.
“That’s what I call myself since I came to the islands. I had another name in Brazil.”
I told him my name and turned my back to him. He placed a dab of the cream between my shoulder blades and nonchalantly drew it down my spine to just above my cleft. Then he spread it to the sides, working his way down and stopping just above my buttocks. “There. You’ll be fine.”
He spread two towels side by side on the deck and placed the wine glasses next to them, inviting me to lie down with a sweep of his arm. I tried not to focus on his genitals, though I’d seen him give mine the once over. His gaze took in everything when he looked at me, not just my face.
“No, I’d rather chat.” I’m pretty particular about my music and had no way of knowing how his tastes would run. Tunes I don’t much care for can ruin an otherwise lovely get-together. “Why spoil the setting with a touch of civilization?”
“Oh, we’re quite civilized here,” he teased.
I lay down on my stomach. I can’t drink lying on my back. “What brought you to the islands?” I asked.
“So I could be myself. You can’t truly be yourself except when you’re alone.”
One could take his answer any number of ways. “Aren’t you being yourself now?” I asked.
“More so than less, but not entirely. Are you?”
I honestly don’t know why I didn’t respond to any of his openings – Lord knows he made enough of them – or how I kept from getting hard. The man was gorgeous. He must have had his suspicions, but with no encouragement from me he played it safe and let things stand.
3. A Practical Joke
We sunned for over an hour, casually chatting. He lay on his back with his wine between us just above our heads, and he’d look at me whenever he raised his body turned to take a sip, and may have at other times too. My eyes were closed to enjoy the warmth of the sun, but I could feel his stare. I also had the impression that his hand would now and then brush his penis (brush, not stroke), but he may have only been readjusting his balls. I made a point of not looking.
“I’m afraid I can’t offer you anything,” he said. “Besides the liquor all I have is some crackers.”
“I brought some fruit with me. It’s back in the boat.”
“Fruit would be nice. What kind of boat you got?”
“Just a rented dinghy with an outboard. Barely enough room for myself and my gear. Can’t even stretch out in it. Shall we go for the fruit?”
“Why don’t you go? You came to swim, didn’t you? And to explore.”
“Will you swim with me?”
“But you’d rather hug the bottom, wouldn’t you? And I don’t have an aqualung. I only snorkel. No, you go and bring your boat back here and we’ll tie it up to mine. I’ll stay here and hold the fort.”
His English was amazingly fluid and idiomatic. Grammatical too, and barely a trace of an accent, with none of the lilt of the islands where he’d learned it. At most an r that was not quite right or missing entirely and an occasional pure vowel in place of our American diphthongs. I liked his voice, but he would have sounded sexier with an accent.
He turned to lift my oxygen tank and I stooped to put on my trunks. “Enjoy your swim,” he said. “No one will be there.” And I left them lying on the deck.
When he fitted the tank on my shoulders, it hit me that his line about “hugging the bottom” could be taken as the position we would assume if we had sex. His delivery so flat that it went right over my head. Holding my nose with one hand and my mask in the other, I jumped feet first and bare-assed into the warm waters of the Caribbean. I wet the mask, put it on, took the mouthpiece between my teeth, did a showy surface dive, and set out.
The shoal had disappeared and the deep inlet looked empty. I promised myself to explore it when I got back. Were there caves he could show me among the tumbled boulders where the seabed rose up as an island? For now, though, I would not linger. I wanted to get to my boat and bring it back quickly. I felt stupid that I had pointedly ignored all his advances, and made up my mind to follow through if he should venture another, however cautious. I wondered whether in that last add-on of his, “And to explore”, he had intended a double meaning. Well, he would have to be less cautious than that!
I came to the surface as soon as I rounded the point. He was right; the cove was empty. I swam the rest of the way under water, climbed into the dinghy, hoisted the rock anchor, and started the motor.
His boat was gone, not even the trace of a wake in the inlet. He’d left me high and dry without a stitch of clothing for below my waist. Revenge for my coyness? If so, maybe I deserved it.
I shrugged it off. A practical joke, that’s all. One can hardly call taking someone’s bathing suit a serious theft.
I didn’t know whether or not he lived on the island where I was vacationing, or, if he did, if it was in the same little town as my resort. I doubted I would find him again. I was minus a bathing suit – no great loss – and he had rendered my return a bit awkward. I could deal with that.
It was too early to be heading back. Half angry, half disappointed (it was hard to tell which emotion was dominant), I set out to explore beneath the surface of the inlet on my own. It was a lonely swim. I kept imagining he would suddenly turn up in front of me as I had first seen him, beautifully naked and smiling sheepishly, embarrassed on account of his stunt this time, not at having been caught with his pants off.
But he didn’t. It may have been because of his disappearance, but I felt less confident about diving alone now, more exposed to danger in the inlet, but without my trunks I would have felt more exposed in another way, and, as he’d said, here there was a lot more to see. I wondered if the inlet had been formed by some underwater earthquake, it was so different from the neighboring cove. But I saw no fissure, found no caves – only mollusks, anemone, seaweed clinging to the rocks, and darting, rainbow-colored fish. Then the sparkle left the water, and I knew that the sun had moved and no longer shone on the inlet. It was time to go.
The shoal had formed again, this time beneath my boat, and thicker than before. I waited for it to part, then swam straight into it. Did I expect to find him there? Instead of scattering, the shoal closed in around me, absorbed me. They showed neither curiosity nor fear, nor did they come to nibble at me. They swirled around me indifferently, even brushing against me, but I was able to move among them in perfect freedom and did not feel trapped.
On leaving, I passed the beach where I had first left my boat. Other people were now anchored there, a family of six with their dog and two couples who had come together. It struck me that, unlike me, all except the dog were wearing suits. For some reason I found that very funny, and I started to laugh.
Part II. Romanza
4. Shopping for a Bathing Suit
Walking suitless the long mile back to the resort did not pose a problem. I simply wrapped the towel around my waist like a sarong. It hung about three-quarters of the way down my shins and made me look conspicuous, but not very. Only the man who’d rented me the boat took any notice. “Nice get up. Did you lose your suit or something?”
“Very funny. Say, is there a guy in the village who goes by the name of Robinson?”
“Not that I know, and I know everyone here.”
I asked the desk clerk, too. He hadn’t heard of him either. I half thought about going down to the marina to look for his boat. I was sure I could recognize it. But if neither of those two knew him he must live on some other island, who knows how far away. It didn’t occur to me to ask about his boat, Solitude I.
I went to the hotel gift shop the next morning to find a replacement for the trunks I’d left on the boat. Nothing there suited me (so to speak). All they had were baggy suits that hung to the knees, every one of them in gaudy Hawaiian prints – palm trees, fish, etc. The salesman sensed my dissatisfaction and said, “If you can’t find anything you like try the Beach Shop. They have a much larger selection.” So I did.
The Beach Shop was not large, but it had such an amazing amount of merchandise crammed into it that you could hardly move. Swimwear of all kinds, straw hats, visored caps, logoed tee-shirts, sweatshirts with hoods, bathrobes, towels, flip-flops and sandals, sunglasses and sunscreen, bug spray, calamine lotion, band-aids, postcards, magazines, books to help you identify aquatic life, film, throw-away cameras, maps, beach balls, paddle balls, volleyball sets, pails and shovels, blankets, mats, director’s chairs, beach umbrellas, picnic baskets, thermoses, bottled water and energy drinks, charcoal, lighter fluid, water wings, flippers, patches for inner tubes, surfboards, masks and goggles, snorkels, scuba gear, wetsuits, plus seashells and the usual novelties.
The chaos around me was bewildering. I felt as if I was in an overfilled garage desperately in need of a sorting through and throwing out. They should have moved at least some of it out front onto tables on the sidewalk during the day. A large woman of mixed race and equally indeterminate age sat crocheting on a high stool by the cash register behind the counter. No less jumbled than her store, her features combined traces of East and West Indian, African, Hispanic, something Middle Eastern, and perhaps a touch of Chinese, but she was fair-haired. Her wrinkles could easily have come from long exposure to the sun. Her skin was lighter than Robinson’s.
As I tried to make my way toward the clothing section down the narrow aisles she could not possibly fit into, she asked, “Can I help you with anything?”
“I’m looking for a bathing suit.”
“Then you need a man’s advice,” she said, and called out, “Tomás!” Whereupon Robinson himself stepped out of the back storeroom. When he saw me he broke into a smile as sheepish as the one he gave me when we met underwater.
“I thought you were called Robinson,” I said. “Anyway, where’s my swimsuit?”
“Back on the boat. Do you really want it? I thought it was unbecoming and that you should get another, something that will show off your assets.”
I wasn’t convinced by his explanation. His running off with my trunks was, I thought, another flirtation. “Then you should make me a gift of the new one,” I said.
“You’re right. As soon as I sailed off I regretted having truncated…” (he stressed the word almost imperceptibly) “…what promised to turn into a rewarding friendship. But you have to let me choose it for you.”
“Then I’ll have to okay it.”
“I’ll wear a Speedo, but not a thong.”
“Pattern or solid?”
“Solid color. Please.”
“I’ll pick out three and let you choose the one you like.”
The three he picked out were light blue, red and a dark rust color. I chose the last because it was the least skimpy of the three, though revealing enough, Lord knows.
“I’m glad you’re taking that one. I chose it because it matches your eyes.”
“Does it really?” I’d never seen my eyes as quite that color. “Is there a mirror here somewhere?”
He stretched his arm out to indicate the clutter. “Are you kidding?”
“Not even in the fitting room?”
“What fitting room?”
“How do people know they’ve got the right size?”
“Oh, the size is right. I know how you’re built. But you can try it on in the employee’s toilet if you like. There’s a mirror in there too. I’ll show you the way.”
I showed him with a look that I would not follow him to the toilet. Here I was again, refusing his advances when I’d promised myself not to. But there was that woman watching us from behind the cash register.
“I wonder if I should get a medium. This is my first Speedo. But I’ll take your word for it.”
“How much longer are you staying?” he asked, lowering his voice.
“Through the weekend.”
“I’m off Thursday and Friday.”
“I’ll be here,” I said, wondering where all this was leading.
“Not if I have my way with you.”
“So to speak.” I obstinately refused to accede to his double meaning.
“Yes, so to speak. But listen. Whenever I have more than one day off in a row I go to my own island.”
“So you own an island now, do you?”
“Of course not, but I may as well. No one else ever sets foot there. It’s not much of an island, just a speck really, but I live there whenever I don’t have to work.”
“Except in hurricane season, naturally.”
“Then too sometimes.”
“Concentrate on your sale, Tomás,” the owner cut in. “I don’t pay you to chat up your friends.” Did she know he was gay?
“Look,” he went on, “I don’t have time to describe it – the island, I mean: I’m working. But I’d like to take you there. If you like sun and surf with no clothes to get in the way, that’s the place to be. Will you come with me?” (He was really piling them on now. Daring, but all perfectly innocent.)
“You’ll let me have my trunks back?”
“Yes, if you promise to wear them only on your northern beaches.”
“Well, I wouldn’t be wearing that on your island either, would I now?” I teased, eyeing the rust-colored Speedo in his hand.”
“I certainly hope not.”
I thought it was about time I gave him some encouragement. “Just the two of us?” I asked.
“Of course just the two of us.”
“Then I’d love to go with you.” His face lit up. “But in return you have to let me buy you dinner at the hotel tonight.” They didn’t have much of a restaurant, but compared to the handful of fried fish stands along the main road it rated four stars.
“Then it’s a date.”
“They’re both dates.”
He bought me a snorkeling mask in addition to the Speedo. For his island.
The beach shop was about a mile from my hotel, just beyond the marina at the far end of town. After that there were only a few widely spaced houses until the town evaporated altogether into the bush. I walked back along the dirt road carrying my gifts. There was no sidewalk. The sea lay to my right, out of sight behind the scrub-covered dunes. Here and there a narrow winding driveway leading to a hidden beach house cut into them. For the first quarter-mile small roads ran off to the left at right angles, lined with bungalow-like houses painted in peeling pastels with bright begonias clustered round them. Then came most of the shops – hardware, fishing tackle, souvenirs, a pharmacy – all on the left side facing the road with more houses behind them. Some people had set up tables to hawk chunks of coconut, pineapple wedges, and even hand-sculpted tortoise shells. It surprised me they would sell them so openly. I’d thought they were protected.
After the row of shops a large, barren square opened up to the left. That’s where the buses pulled in. It was covered with patches of coarse, unkempt grass and a fair amount of litter among the rutted tire tracks. On the far end of it and perpendicular to the main road stood a long, narrow, two-story building in whitewashed cement with a corrugated metal roof. The upper level, supported by iron poles, jutted out over the lower, which was set back along a raised cement walkway. The ground floor housed the tourist office, the post office and a grocery store. Above it was the police station, which you reached by a staircase at the far end. Beyond the square were more houses, then nothing for a few hundred yards till you reached the manicured lawn and palm-lined driveway of the resort.
I reserved as soon as I got back, and secured us a table on the terrace near the balustrade so we could look out over the palm trees and frangipani on the lawn to the beach and the ocean beyond.
I’d told him to come at seven-thirty. At a quarter past eight he still hadn’t showed. The insects came out, and the bats to feast on them. The waiter brought a mosquito coil and set it by my feet.
I was just getting ready to order, thinking that this wasn’t the first time he’d disappeared, when I saw him come out onto the terrace.
“Am I late?” he asked.
“Look at your watch.”
“Haven’t got one. That’s why I came here, remember?”
I passed him the menu. I was curious to see what he liked beside crackers and alcohol. It would help me choose what food to bring on our trip. If I left it up to him we’d end up very drunk and very hungry. There’s no worse hangover than the kind you have on an empty stomach.
He ignored the menu and grabbed the wine list. “You’ll let me pay for the wine?” he asked.
“Then I’ll buy us cocktails.”
“All the cocktails you want, but I’m buying. Vodka martini? That’s your drink, isn’t it?”
“Dirty, yes. You’ll be having one too?”
“No, I’ll try one of their rum concoctions.”
“Whatever the gentleman is up for.”
I wondered if these double meanings came naturally to him or if he was still uncertain that I had accepted his sexual invitation. “So tell me about your island,” I said. “What’s it called?”
“It doesn’t have a name as far as I know. Too small. But I call it Friday Cay.”
“And I’m going to be Friday.”
“My man Friday.”
We interrupted our conversation – our banter, I should say – so the waiter could take our order. Then I went on: “That reminds me. Am I to call you Robinson or Tomás?”
“Does anyone else call you that?”
“Has anyone else called you that?”
“I’ve never asked anyone else to call me that.”
His answer was too much like a declaration of love for comfort. Not that I’m afraid of love, but we hardly knew each other. “Hardly” is an understatement. We didn’t know each other at all. He knew less about me than I did of him, unless everything he had told me was a lie, which was quite possible. And then I saw the ambiguity in his answer, as ambiguous as everything else he said. Someone could have given him that name without his asking, a lover who’d left him or whom he had left, or maybe one who died, or perhaps just a tourist he’d picked up once, like myself. Whatever he said was double enough to be called duplicitous.
My little water sprite, my manly Mélusine, this enigmatic merman some puckish Prospero had conjured up for me, full fathom five, from behind a school of glimmering fish, an imp who pilfered bathing suits, a practical joker who spoke in riddles without seeming to do so.
“Getting back to your island…”
“Yes, I’m getting back to my island, and this time you’re going with me. You’ll like it too, and come back and vacation here often.”
Was he hinting at a commitment? It was much too soon. Could he be that lonely? Well, he had made that choice, not I. I put on a serious expression and said doubtfully, “Resorts in the Caribbean are expensive.”
“You wouldn’t have to stay at the hotel. You could stay with me.”
“At your house or on your island?”
“Both. Are you worried I’d maroon you when I had to work? But I don’t have a house. Just a small room over the store. Comes with the job, rent free. It’s messy, I’ll admit. I don’t take as good care of it as I do the Solitude.”
“What would your boss say?”
“Juana? Why would she care? I’m allowed to have guests.”
“Do you have guests?”
“Who would stay with me? The locals have their own houses, and any tourist in his right mind would prefer to be at the hotel.”
“So I’m not in my right mind?” I was used to his style by now, and was fully aware he had avoided my question.
“You shouldn’t ask personal questions if you want me to be straight with you.”
We stopped speaking because the waiter came with our drinks. “So?” my friend asked when he had gone.
“I’m waiting for you to ask me another personal question.”
I was starting to see I’d been wise to wait before acknowledging his come-ons. He might have jumped me right there in the boat. This way he knew there were limits he could test but not ignore.
He pressed his knee against mine under the table. I did not withdraw my leg, but I didn’t return his pressure either. I could have slept with him that night if I wanted to, in his room or mine. As it turned out I could have had him even if he didn’t want it, he was so buzzed by the end of the meal. But he did want it. I didn’t. If we had sex I might wake up in the morning and find he had vanished again. Better to wait – I wanted to see his island.
“Do we bring camping equipment?”
“To the island? No. I’ve built a shelter there, a lean-to, and I have blankets and things like that in a plastic storage bin.”
We ate slowly and talked much. “No dessert,” he said. “Just coffee. And a brandy. Is that okay?”
“Somehow that doesn’t surprise me.”
When we stood up to leave he asked, “Aren’t you going to call for the check?”
“I’m billing it to my room.”
“Then let me leave the tip.”
He had no idea what I’d spent – mostly on alcohol – and his tip was a little on the stingy side. I put out my hand to shake, half afraid he would try to kiss me.
I saw him to the door, then went to the desk and gave the clerk five more bucks to pass on to our waiter. “Someone left a note for you,” he said.
He handed me a half-sheet of paper, folded in four and fastened with Scotch tape. It read:for fun in the sun my island’s the one. – R.
6. Friday Cay
I spent the next two days wandering the beach in my new rust-colored Speedo trying to develop a decent tan. Too restless to lie out by the resort, I took long walks to have a look at the beach bungalows. Most of them were ramshackle wooden affairs, half-hidden in the dunes. A few had low fences to warn trespassers off their little stretch of sand, but these did not get in the way since none of the properties came at all close to the water. There were a fair number of people on the beach, playing paddle-ball, splashing around, listening to their radios, grilling fish. I did not see Robinson.
On the day of our trip he came to my hotel at daybreak and had the desk call my room to wake me. I could not imagine that someone who no doubt had had his fair share of alcohol the night before would be such an early riser. Not that he was a lush. For all he had drunk at dinner the other evening, his speech never slurred, his sexual innuendos never wavered, and he walked out of the restaurant without staggering, although he took a moment to steady himself against the table when he got up to leave.
Luckily I had shopped for food the day before, splurging on three bottles of not very good wine – I had no idea how expensive it was! – and got my stuff together before I went to bed, but I still had to shower, and I wanted breakfast. “I’ll be down soon,” I told him. “I just have to hop in the shower and shave. It won’t take long.”
“Can I come up and wait in your room?”
If he came up we wouldn’t set out for another two hours at least (admittedly a very pleasurable two hours) and I’d miss breakfast. “I won’t be but a minute. Why don’t wait you for me in the coffee shop and order us breakfast instead?”
“I don’t eat breakfast.”
“Well, I do. Ask them to have my usual breakfast ready when I join you about fifteen minutes from now. Have them charge it to my room.”
“Which room is that?”
“Just give them my name. They’ll know.”
I was getting into the shower when the phone rang again. It hit me immediately what it must be. The coffee shop wouldn’t open for another hour. I ignored the call, put up coffee in the electric maker that came with the room, and stepped into the shower.
He would not let me wait for the coffee shop to open. I could eat on the boat, bread and cheese with the coffee I had made in my room and poured into a thermos. We sailed out of the marina a little after seven. My bathing trunks lay neatly folded on the built-in storage box.
I more than half expected him to rip off his clothes as soon as we reached open water, but he only kicked off his shoes and socks. I watched him from the deck as he stood at the wheel in his white shorts and short-sleeved shirt, a white captain’s cap on his head. And he was wearing a watch.
I had no trouble visualizing the body underneath his clothing. Short (five foot five at most, maybe five-six), narrow-waisted and slim with the gentle musculature we call a “swimmer’s build”, the even tan on his smooth, unblemished skin, his back and chest hairless, forearms and legs almost so, and just a faint trail of fine hairs running from his navel to the sparse curls capping a crotch he might have shaved.
“Are you sure someone hasn’t come by and run off with the blankets and whatever else you keep there?”
“Not a chance. No one knows the island even exists except me.”
“And now I will, too.”
“But not where it is.”
He was right. With no view of the compass I had no idea where we were headed nor any way of taking our bearings. If I had to steer by the sun and stars I’d be lost.
It took us nearly three hours to reach his island. No wonder he wanted to get such an early start! In the beginning we passed dozens of small islands, most of them flat and apparently uninhabited, though there may have been homes built on some of them. They were too distant for me to make out details like that; he kept well out to open sea. As we approached the end of our trip there was not an island in sight. I knew we had reached the island when for the first time he headed straight toward land.
Friday Cay was as small as any of them, perhaps two or three square miles in all, but the terrain was hillier and more varied. We had not come close enough to the others to tell for sure, but it may have had a more irregular shoreline as well, which would make for better snorkeling.
We pulled around a reef to anchor along a beachless section of the shore. As far as I could see, there was no spot suitable for camping. “We hike to the lean-to,” he said. “It’s not far. I built it just above a nice stretch of beach, but I always leave my boat here. It’s more sheltered.”
“And we’re supposed to swim to shore holding the food over our heads to keep it dry?”
“Silly. And you think I’d swim dragging our liquor supply in a net behind me? We paddle in using the inflatable.”
“So you brought liquor, did you? I expected you would. Vodka for your martinis?”
“No, rum. It fits the castaway scenario better, and it’s a hell of a lot cheaper too. Okay, time to get undressed. From here on no more than flip-flops for the walk and a tee-shirt in case you need to protect your back from the sun.”
“Mightn’t it get chilly at night? I brought a sweatshirt.”
“Unlikely. You can bring it, but you can’t wear it. I have one in the storage bin too.”
“And what about a hat?”
“Hats are allowed.”
We loaded what we’d need into the life raft. I asked, “Shouldn’t we take the first-aid kit too?”
“I keep one in the storage bin.”
We pulled the raft up above the high-water line, put on our backpacks and headed up a steep rise. At the top we turned to the right and followed a natural path back down to the beach, about three-quarters of a mile from where we’d cast anchor. I felt not a breath of wind on the island, though it had been blowing pretty strongly on the open sea, and if you looked back you saw the water far out was choppy.
The vegetation was fairly thick, but not high. There were even a few trees. I wondered if we’d be doing some hiking around the island.
“Nothing much to see,” he said. “If you look out from the highest point there’s nothing but empty ocean on all sides, and the island itself is just as empty. Why bother?” However, by the time I left I had walked every inch of it.
We spent the day snorkeling, splashing around in the ocean, and of course drinking. We wrestled a bit in the surf, but he made no advances, paid no attention to my body, and kept his speech free of the sexual innuendo to which I had become accustomed. Had I misjudged him, or was it his turn to tease me? If so, I deserved it. Now it was my turn to be wary.
But when we returned at night and lay naked under the blankets, the tarp-covered lean-to roof above us, the embers of our fire glowing ten feet away, he asked, “Aren’t you going to kiss me goodnight?”
I touched my lips to his, our mouths opened and locked on each other, we pressed tight against each other and explored what we had ogled five days before with free-roaming hands. I moved my mouth slowly down his body and buried it against the hardness between his legs. I tasted its sweetness. He sighed, moaned, and writhed, stroking my hair all the while. “Take me,” he whispered. And I did.
In the middle of the night I felt him quietly free himself from my embrace and leave the lean-to. “To pee,” I thought, and drifted back to sleep.
Part III. Fugue
I woke when the sun was already fairly high in the sky. He was not with me. I looked at my watch. A little after eight o’clock. Well, I knew him to be an early riser.
I stumbled out of the lean-to rubbing the sleep from my eyes, expecting to find him on the beach or in the water. No sign of him. Off for a stroll? I called out, “Robinson!”
No answer. I called again. “Robinson, dammit, where are you? Stop playing games!”
Remembering what he’d said about never eating breakfast, I built a small fire for coffee and took a roll from my backpack. When I opened the small cooler he kept by the storage to get some cheese – the one in which he’d put the wine and dry ice we’d carried in our packs – I noticed that he had finished off one of the bottles of rum during the night.
The coffee was made, I was sipping it, and he still hadn’t returned. It suddenly occurred to me that he could have taken off in the boat and left me stranded. He’d done something like that before. How many days till his next two days off in a row? Was there enough food and water? I wouldn’t lack for liquor, that much was certain, but I’d miss my plane and not get back in time for next semester. Was this his way of keeping me with him? Or had he left me the life raft and a paddle? Some good it would do me! I had no idea where I was.
My heart pounding, I ran to where we’d anchored, as sure that I’d find the boat gone as I’d felt certain of waking up next to him, but it was not. The life raft was also where we’d left it. I cupped my hands around my mouth and called out to the boat, but no one appeared on deck, so I swam out to have a look. It was empty.
I now found myself between the horns of a dilemma. If I left the boat and went to look for him he was perfectly capable of taking off in it and abandoning me for real, but I would maroon him if I left without him. So I sat there.
After half an hour I realized that sitting in an empty boat was a ridiculous way to spend a lovely day on an uninhabited island. He’d probably returned to the lean-to and was wondering what had become of me. So I went back. He wasn’t there.
I set out to comb every inch of the island. It took me over two hours, and I couldn’t find a trace of him. He’d been right to say there wasn’t much to see. Just some short cactus and palmetto here and there in the coarse grass and some yellow flowers. No animal life to speak of except for a frog or two, scurrying lizards and land crabs, a few abandoned bird’s nests, and of course the insects. No gnats or mosquitoes to annoy me. What would they have fed on?
By now he could easily have assumed I’d disappeared and set off back to the resort town. I couldn’t decide where to go first, the boat or the lean-to. I climbed a small rise and saw the boat still anchored inside the reef, and headed back to the lean-to. No Robinson.
Only then did I notice that his snorkel was gone and see the trail of footprints leading into the water, no footprints heading back. It suddenly struck me that he had drowned. Or maybe he’d been killed by a shark. No, not that. If he’d been the victim of a shark attack some of him would have washed up on shore, a reassuring thought that made me shudder.
I took my mask and combed every inch of the shallows looking for his body, going as deep as thirty feet, after which there was a sudden drop-off. The ocean floor was as empty as my soul.
I returned to the lean-to and called for him again, just in case he was playing games, though I didn’t believe he was. “Robinson! I’m leaving! Come out of your damned hiding place or you’ll be stuck here!” Then I waited a while longer, collected my stuff, and went back to the boat.
On the way there I remembered that I had no idea how to get back to the resort, not even what direction I had to sail in. Well, if there was a working radio on board I should be able to contact someone who would guide me there.
Once on board I got back into my clothes. I checked the radio and it worked. Then realized I had another problem. I didn’t know the first thing about driving a boat this size. I wasn’t even sure one “drove” boats. I hoped there was an owner’s manual somewhere. It took me over an hour to find and was so thick I was sure I’d need a week to read it. Trying to stick to the essentials, the first thing I learned was that it wouldn’t start without a key. I checked the pockets of the clothes he had left in the cabin. It wasn’t in them.
I went back to the abandoned lean-to. Just seeing it in the distance depressed me. For some reason, being dressed only made it worse. Sooner than approach it, I called for him again and again. I forced myself to go there and rummaged through his backpack. I had to dump it out on the blanket, but I did find a set of house keys and something that looked as if it might fit the ignition of a boat on the same ring. I slipped it in my pocket and stood up to leave. Then I fell to my knees on the blanket and wept.
It was late afternoon by the time I was ready to sail for home. I had at most two hours of daylight left. Should I risk sailing the hour or so in the dark? I wondered if I went back and slept one more night in the lean-to if I’d feel him slip under the covers next to me in the middle of the night. But I knew he wouldn’t, and decided to chance the trip.
I carefully steered out from behind the reef and sailed straight out to sea. I didn’t try the radio until I’d lost sight of the island. It didn’t take long to contact someone. He somehow managed to pinpoint where I was and talked me back to where I wanted to go, my eyes glued to the compass. With my inexperience the return trip was slow going, and I didn’t reach the marina until ten at night. Only then did I report Robinson’s disappearance, but I identified him as Tomás.
The night watchman would not let me leave the marina, and sent me back to the boat to wait for the police. They took their time in coming, questioned me at length, took down my statement, then drove me back to the hotel for the night, but would not let me remove anything from the boat, not even my own belongings. They told me to come to the station to sign my statement first thing in the morning. I asked them to be more specific and found out that “the first thing in the morning” meant ten o’clock.
I took a long, hot soaking bath before getting into bed.
I dreamed about Robinson that night. He was naked, as I had first seen him, five fathoms down, but dead, suspended in the water, his buoyant arms extended to the side and floating at shoulder level, his eyes vacant. The blue, sunlit water sparkled, and yet it was not quite clear. It looked thick, like a gauze shroud, and when I tried to swim to him the water resisted the pull of my arms and I made no progress. I, too, was naked, and had no scuba gear. I felt the need to surface; I couldn’t breathe. And as I headed upward, the shoal of silver fish returned and started nibbling at his corpse. I woke up unable to breathe. Sweat dripped from my body and I felt icy cold. I would have the same or similar dreams many times for the next few months.
8. The Inquest
When I went to sign my statement, the officer in charge asked to see my passport and airline tickets. I had to go back to the hotel to get them. He thumbed through them, read them carefully several times, then looked up at me in consternation and said, “But you’re leaving tomorrow!”
“Well yes, I am. So I’d like to get my things that were left on the boat if I may.”
“But you can’t leave until after the investigation! It shouldn’t take long; the case is clear enough. But I’m afraid you’ll have to stay here until it’s over, and of course we won’t be able to start right away. Tomorrow is Sunday.”
“Am I under suspicion or something?”
“Not at all. We’ve been expecting something like this. Tomás always went diving alone. It was bound to happen. The only surprise is that he had someone there with him so we know where it was. We thought we’d just find his boat, or not even that. Nobody knew where he went.”
“Then why am I required to stay? I have to get back to work.”
“You see, you’re the only material witness we have. We can’t possibly allow you to leave until we’ve finished the investigation. Then we’ll arrange for your return home and the government will pay whatever extra cost is incurred for changing your flight.” (It didn’t.)
“Well, may I retrieve my property from the boat in the meantime? I only brought the bare essentials with me, and it looks as though I’ll be staying here somewhat longer.”
“I’m afraid that’s impossible too. Your property will have to remain on the boat until the case is closed.”
“You mean the investigation, don’t you?”
“No, I mean the case.”
“Any idea how long that will be?”
“Well, unless we find the body, which looks unlikely, it remains open for a year, after which we’ll put the boat up for auction and mail your property to you.”
I used my credit card to replace the toiletries I could not take off the boat. Fortunately, I had left the rust-colored Speedo he’d given me in my room – what would I have used it for on the island? – so I didn’t need to purchase another bathing suit. Then I phoned my school and explained the situation to them. I guessed I would have to miss the first week of classes. There wasn’t much they could do except ask me to keep them informed.
A professional investigator was sent in from the capital. Unnecessarily extravagant, I thought, for a case as cut and dried as this. He arrived Monday evening and began his investigation the next day.
“You’re here to make a deposition in the case of the disappearance of Mr. Tomás Sextafeira,” he began. “Do you still hold to your sworn statement?”
“It isn’t a sworn statement,” I told him, “but I’ll gladly swear to it if you want me to.”
A little more paperwork was required to make my statement a sworn statement. Then, much to my surprise, he questioned me at great length about myself, nothing even remotely connected to Robinson, after which he asked me to return the next day for further questioning. But first I was to accompany him to Mr. Sextafeira’s lodgings to be present at the search.
Juana greeted me when we came by to get the keys to Robinson’s room. “You know the witness?” the investigator asked.
“I saw him when Tomás sold him a swimsuit the other day.”
“Is that how you met Mr. Sextafeira?” the investigator asked me.
“No,” Juana cut in. “I could see they knew each other already. They talked for longer than it takes to make a sale.”
She led up a flight of stairs behind her store and let us into his room. The investigator immediately began asking me where Mr. Sextafeira kept various things. Juana started explaining that I’d never been there before, and the investigator sent her away so that I would answer the questions.
“She’s right,” I told him. “I haven’t been here before. I’m afraid I can’t help you.”
He started nosing around by himself. Shortly afterward a policeman showed up with two dogs on leash. It seemed silly to me.
“They won’t find him here,” I said.
“They’re here for the scent. You’re taking us to the island tomorrow. We have to conduct a search, you understand.”
“But I don’t know where it is. He took me there, that’s all. I’m not even sure it has a name.”
“You don’t expect me to believe that, do you? How did you get back? Besides, all the islands have names.”
I explained how I had found someone by the radio who helped me find the resort town.
“We’ll check out your story,” he said. “For now you’ll have to explain why you didn’t report his disappearance right away.”
“But I did! I told the night watchman at the marina as soon as I docked.”
“But you didn’t radio in the information?”
“To whom? I didn’t know how to contact this island. I was lucky enough to find someone at random to help me. I don’t even know where the guy lives. I don’t think he lives here.”
It took them three days to find the man who’d helped me back, but at least he confirmed my story.
So now we could go to the island, which turned out to have a name after all: Altozano Cay. In the meantime he continued to question me about our trip. What were we doing on the island?
“Camping, swimming, enjoying each other’s company.”
“Precisely. Enjoying each other’s company how.”
“Swimming, camping, a cookout, a few drinks, telling stories. You know.”
We returned to the island accompanied by a search party and the two dogs, who started barking as soon as we reached the shore where we’d beached the inflatable. They dragged us straight to the lean-to, sniffing all the way, very proud to have discovered this gold mine of Robinson’s scent. But of course there was no Robinson. They went sniffing up and down the beach as far as the water, wagging their tails the whole time. By now the sand had covered his footprints. I showed the detectives where they’d been. It was easy enough; the dogs’ had simply replaced them.
We spent hours combing the rest of the island, but the dogs didn’t pick up his scent anywhere and kept wanting to return to our campsite. We left his belongings where they were and sailed back to town. The investigator asked me to come by the next morning at ten to make a final statement, after which he would arrange for my flight home.
My so-called final statement turned out to be a two-hour interrogation about Robinson, his family, his life story, his likes and dislikes, his medical history (including allergies and dentition), etc. I knew absolutely nothing about him except that he liked alcohol, not even his age, but the investigator ran through the whole list of questions, returning to some of them a second or third time, perhaps to trip me up. “I thought you were his friend,” he said doubtfully.
“I was, but I only met him a week ago. We had dinner together, we went camping, that’s about it.”
“I see. Well, I suppose we’re done then.”
I breathed a sigh of relief and asked once again if it would be possible for me to reclaim the items still on the boat, the backpack I’d brought with me for our trip. I didn’t have much hope, but much to my surprise he acquiesced.
Before he would give me the backpack, he rifled through it on the deck of the Solitude and made an itemized list of its contents, dictating a detailed description of absolutely everything to one of the policemen who accompanied us. We were about to go when I noticed my trunks lying on the storage box. “That too,” I said.
“Why wasn’t it in your backpack?”
I answered by telling the story of how we’d met. The policemen smirked and snickered at anything having to do with naturism.
“Why didn’t you tell me all this before?” the investigator wanted to know.
“It didn’t seem pertinent, and you never asked.”
“That’s not true. I questioned you at great length about Mr. Sextafeira.”
“But not how we met.”
“This changes everything.” And out of the blue he suggested that I had raped Robinson and then murdered him to cover up my crime. We would return to the island, this time with chemicals used to check for blood, and they would drag the entire shoreline and send divers snooping around it for a radius of two miles.
I was stunned and broke out into a cold sweat. “That’s absurd…” I began, but my fright only lasted a few seconds. The local policemen burst out laughing and one of them said, “That wouldn’t have been necessary. Tomás liked men.”
“Well, that shoots down that theory,” he said, slamming his folder shut. “I’ll book your flight.”
In the weeks following my return, my recurring dream gradually softened and became almost happy. I no longer woke up in terror, but filled with melancholy and nostalgia. Still, the incident had been a shock to my system, and my work suffered for it.
Other elements crept into my dream (I was preparing to teach The Tempest later that semester), and eventually we traded places, Robinson becoming Ariel to my Ferdinand. He would save me from drowning and bring me unconscious to the beach, where he nursed me, making love to me as I had to him and covering my body with kisses. A split second after I woke he would vanish, and I would search the island for him, sometimes with yapping dogs on a leash, sometimes following a mysterious, alien music played on a flute-like instrument or his ditty from Act V: “Where the bee sucks…” By the time we got to the play my take on Shakespeare’s drama had taken such an odd turn that my students must have wondered what the hell I was talking about.
Some of its incarnations were truly bizarre. Juana would appear as Prospero and berate Robinson for seducing me when he had been ordered to rescue me for her daughter. Once the investigator showed up as Caliban. But my dream always began with our meeting in the water, surrounded by the swirling shoal of silver fish.
Late in spring, I received a surprise letter from the government of the island where I’d vacationed. “Mr. Sextafeira” had suddenly reappeared, and I was to return immediately to face charges for having stolen his boat and marooning him on Altozano Cay.
I dashed off a letter pointing out the absurdity of the charges. I had not stolen his boat; I had returned with it immediately. They knew very well I had not marooned him. They had searched the Cay themselves for a full day with the help of scent dogs. But I was happy to learn that Mr. Sextafeira was still alive and would be glad to know where he had been all this time.
I had no intention of complying with their subpoena. To the best of my knowledge, we had no extradition agreement with the island. Before I sent the letter, however, I thought I had better check that out, and I contacted my lawyer.
He found my story extremely curious. (I was so used to it by then that it seemed perfectly normal to me.) I was right. No extradition agreement existed and I should under no circumstances honor their request that I return. He was more concerned about their laws regarding homosexuality, which he had not looked into, than he was about the charges themselves. He declared my letter satisfactory, but thought it would be better to recast it as if it came from him, and he sent it to the official who had written me, with a cc: to the American consulate.
After this incident my dream became totally ridiculous and mixed up. The island police reappeared as the Neapolitan government under Alfonso, and I became so confused I had to cut short our study of the play and move on to another.
I did not hear from my lawyer for over a month. Then he called to tell me that “inasmuch as Mr. Sextafeira had stubbornly refused to press charges despite repeated urging” by an unnamed government investigator (“Caliban,” I thought), the case against me had been dropped. I could safely return to the island, he said, if I wished to do so.
That will be the day! But my dream stopped. I missed the beginning of it.
A soft parcel wrapped in brown paper arrived a few weeks later. My bathing trunks. In it I found a note written in a hand I had seen only once before:
I can easily imagine spending six hours in a jet, followed by an interminable, hot, bouncing bus ride with sweaty people packed all around me, staying the night in a cheap hotel, then another two air-sickening hours in a seaplane, another overnight, and a long ferry ride to find no one waiting for me in the marina of some God-forsaken island in the middle of nowhere. But I’ll probably go anyway; don’t ask me why. Curiosity? the lure of adventure? addiction? (There’s no denying the man is beautiful.) I can’t help myself.
I must be crazy.
(© 2012 by Anel Viz. All rights reserved.)