desert island diet
BY MEGAN GIDDINGS
I overheard the men calling me the female astronaut. I liked that even though I hate the word, female, and am not an astronaut. I didn’t bother to correct them: it’s fun for them to speculate about my life. And because it was in the context of: “If we have to, who are we going to eat first? Anna or the female astronaut?”
There are eight of us on this island: six men, Anna, and me. We were on a boat trip, we got blown out to sea, and now we’re here. My friend, Nikki, who had invited me died the morning of day three.
Maybe it was a game they were playing: fuck, marry, eat. But I don’t think so. They aren’t funny enough or interesting enough for that.
We keep all the supplies at the island’s center. Tinned sardines, a half-eaten box of crackers, two bags of turkey jerky, one large bag of dried fruit mostly papaya, five bottles of water, iodine tablets, seven tampons, a flare gun, a bottle of Emergen-C, a bottle of vodka, a bottle of good wine, four pads, Tylenol, alcohol wipes, one destroyed fishing pole, two sort of usable ones, one container of travel-size bug spray.
Died feels too gentle. Nikki drank saltwater. She was sentient fire on the last day of her life. You don’t have to be so thirsty, she kept saying to me, and tried to push saltwater in my mouth. Her father was in every cloud, giving her advice. Get yourself a 401K. Here’s the recipe for your great aunt’s greens. She threw herself, head first, into the sea. Anna had to stop me from going after her: you’ll die.
It’s been four days since then. The men mostly sit around and chew leaves, so they don’t get too hungry. In the mornings they pretend it’s grapefruit. My dad ate one every day, says one almost every morning. It was disgusting, but now I’m thirty-five and I’m exactly like him. I listen because I don’t want to think. Their voices, their conversations, are the only times where I feel bored. Where my throat doesn’t feel ready to close, where my brain can resist thinking: you should have followed Nikki.
And now, even that’s gone.
The men perform friendship rituals. Bad jokes that they goose honk and chuckle over. They talk about me and Anna, not in a sexual way, but as if we were mysteries to solve. Women are so beautiful and alien that they have to be diagrammed out, talked about in circles, puzzled over. They fish together using the least broken poles and the silence between them doesn’t seem uncomfortable.
When Nikki and I were on the boat, before the storm, we were slapped silent by the sunlight on the water, the way the air and wet made everything golden. Clouds were gathering behind us, but we were filled with relaxed silence and a mutual heart-gladness of isn’t this beautiful? We split a bento she packed. I broke the silence by laughing at how bad I was at chopsticks. My reflection doubled in her mirrored sunglasses, my lipstick so bright pink.
She had dated my sister for about six weeks, five years ago. Nikki was someone who had more gravity than most people. When you were in her orbit, you were engulfed into conversations about ghost caribou, childhood idols, shopping for button down shirts made for people who had real jugs, how tired she was of men saying you don’t seem gay, how the most unlovable things a person could say is eating crab is gross. It wasn’t just the words she said that were important. The spaces. Her semi-colons and dashes, the trailing off. The small sounds of her brain doing its most to make you feel engaged.
The men think I rarely speak because I’m grieving. But I talk to Anna when they’re not around. Even shipwrecked, we are making friends by saying things like your hair looks really good today, we offer to share our clothes to break up the routine, and to talk about which of the men we absolutely shouldn’t trust. I say none. She says just the Steves. All men are Steves to me, I say, and it’s become our one joke. The rain is being a real Steve today. Don’t Steve out on me. We can make it.
Sometimes, I look at her and wonder if we both live, will she be my new best friend? Will we tell people how we met and they’ll laugh and say, no, tell me how you really met. Will there ever be a time, where we can sit safe and in silence with plenty to eat and not feel like our skulls are on fire from panic, from hunger.
Throughout the day, I keep to myself. I look through the supplies. I listen to what the men are saying, keep an eye out to see if they are making plans. But they eat the leaves, even though it makes their mouths extra spitty. They take naps. They talk about basketball. Joke about their shipwreck diet plans. Split a can of sardines for dinner.
There is no calm for me today. I pace. And cross my arms. I go to the other side of the island with less shade. It smells of rotting fish and sea. I try to find something patient and lovely within myself. A gull lands. I gather rocks, throw them. The bird doesn’t die. I hit sand and water and driftwood.
I was a person once who would never hurt an animal even though I didn’t like the idea of a dog or cat sharing a house with me. I was someone who was annoying when she got bored. I wasn’t afraid to whine a little, suggest something else, to change conversations, pour more liquor at a party, tell a joke that I knew would upset someone or go to a bar alone. Even when trouble came, I liked the stimulation. Drama is a word for children, stimulation is the word adults use. I’m not even sure if I liked me then, but back in my old life, I didn’t have to think about it.
When everyone, even Anna, seems to be asleep, I walk to shore. I sit on the beach and let the saltwater wash over my feet. I take off my smelly jeans and t-shirt and walk into the sea. As I try to float, I am already becoming more water than person. The stars are bright. People used to say sciencey things to me about how some of the stars we’re already seeing are dead. It’s always supposed to be deep, let me tell something you might not know about the universe. And they seem almost green and for the first time in my life, they seem alive, like things that would actually listen to wishes.
I wish upon each one that a shark will tear me apart, or a jellyfish will sting me in the heart, a shell will get lodged in an artery. And I’ll sink. Below the waves, algae, down through clouds of clownfish, to the space where water becomes black. The animals there are bioluminescent and it’s warm again from steam vents. What’s left of me is torn apart and eaten, and it’s okay. I would rather it be them.
Megan Giddings is a contributing editor at Boulevard and a fiction editor at the Offing. She is a 2018 recipient of a Barbara Deming Memorial Fund Grant. Her short stories can be found in or are forthcoming from Black Warrior Review, Gulf Coast, Split Lip, and the Iowa Review. More about her can be found at http://www.megangiddings.com. Her novel, Lakewood, will be published by Amistad in 2020.
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