“The Islands” builds on the idea that vacations can carry you into dangerous waters: things you’ve been trying to avoid crowd in on the idle wandering mind. A father with small children, two yellow inflatable floats made to look like islands, and the sea are the elements Marina Perezagua employs to construct this tale of summertime catastrophe. The conflict arises when the father discovers another float, another island, identical to his, on which he can just make out the silhouette of a woman. This passing glimpse is enough to ignite his desire. But reaching the spot where the other island has conveniently wedged itself is no small feat; it might imply the destruction of his closest relationships. This story takes place almost exclusively on the sea and water in general represents the endless possibilities of the existential plane. The author of “The Islands”—clearly an excellent swimmer herself—has managed to capture the ambivalence of water: its positive, life-giving qualities (science has confirmed that the sea is the origin of all life) and the negative (marine monsters, a powerful destructive force). This story strikes further notes of brilliance in the reimagining of the myth of the siren, which here undergoes a curious iconographic metamorphosis. This is not the only myth referenced in Leche (Milk), Perezagua's collection in which “The Islands” appears. As John Cheever says, the best way to understand our own times is through the myths of the ancients. The potent voice of this author will pull the reader out to sea and into the gentle rocking of the waves toward the inevitable climax, which seems to warn us that the true danger resides not in nature’s unstoppable force, but deep within us, at the root of our darkest desires.
To Narciso, protector of shipwrecks
The kids insisted on buying an inflatable float on our way to the beach. They chose the biggest one, a yellow circle with some rocks and a crab in relief. In the center was a palm tree that was also inflatable, two meters of trunk and long plastic leaves. When we got to the beach, since we didn’t have an air pump, it took us almost two hours to blow it up. I would have preferred to stay on the sand reading, but Alberto doesn’t know how to swim, and Laura is still too little to take care of him. When we threw the island in the water and the kids saw it floating there they got so excited they insisted we get on immediately.
The plastic surface was so new that its smell masked the smell of bodies covered in suntan lotion. I observed with satisfaction that the palm tree cast shade, because in addition to plastic leaves it had some fronds made of fabric that made a kind of umbrella. I lay down and, as the kids endeavored to navigate by kicking the water with their feet, I started reading.
I don’t know if the wind suddenly picked up or if I was just so distracted that I didn’t realize the effort the kids were making to move us away from the shore, but the fact is that when I raised my eyes from the book the distance that separated us from the coast was so large that the crowds of beachgoers had become invisible. Laura and Alberto continued chatting in that tone I’d accepted as the background to my reading so I’d know they were still alive. Before I began to feel afraid, I felt a split second of joy at the thought that their voices were the only traces of human life anywhere near me. The next human thing I heard was my gasp, a moan of anxiety as I worried how we’d get back.
I checked the direction of the wind. The island continued to move us farther from land, pushed along by the leaves of the palm, which acted as a sail. I grabbed the trunk and bent it in half, fixing it in place with Laura’s ponytail holder. This stopped our advance to some extent, but the sea continued to pull us away from the beach. I considered my options. Being an excellent swimmer, I could maybe still reach the shore, following the current diagonally. But I’d have to go alone, and I doubted that Laura and Alberto would follow my instructions to remain on the island until I returned with help. I could maybe trust Laura, but Alberto never listened. If I could’ve been certain that there was no chance of rescue for them, I would’ve left them there. I’d have jumped into the sea to save one of the three castaways, at least. In the end, I opted to wait and, faced with the possibility that no one would ever find us, I felt the ridiculousness of a father who chooses to die alongside his children.
When I heard the motor, I realized I wouldn’t have to become a martyr. The Coast Guard was approaching on a jet ski that towed a stretcher. A few minutes later, the beach became visible. First the colorful umbrellas, then the colorful people, then the shouts, the bare bellies, the ice chests and salami sandwiches. Once on land a medic examined us and my wife came over and decided to spare my life out of happiness at seeing us alive.
Eva had already used up all her vacation days so while she went back to work, I had to keep going to the beach. It felt like a chore, I thought the next day as I walked with the kids along the boardwalk, loaded with towels, buckets, and rakes. When we passed the store where we’d bought the float the previous morning, I was happy to see that they were still selling the same island. There it was, taking up part of the boardwalk, with the palm tree like a sundial, casting shade over the yellow of its sand. As I looked at it I felt myself drifting away from the beach; a clean breeze ran along the plastic island and up my legs, a gust of freedom caressed me. I backtracked, went into the store, and I bought it, this time already inflated. The kids, who hadn’t understood the gravity of the previous day’s accident, helped me carry it so that it wouldn’t scrape the ground as we walked to the beach.
I hunted for a free space on the sand and set up the island. I spread sunscreen on Laura and Alberto’s little bodies. Covered in the white lotion, they were camouflaged among the other kids that played at the edge of the water. I rested my head on the float and began reading but I was distracted by the thought of being lost at sea on the floating island. I observed a middle-aged couple for a moment then I stood up to ask them if they would watch my kids while I took a dip. I put on my flippers, grabbed the float, and pushed it a few meters into the water before I got on and watched as the waves pushed me away from shore. On the beach, the yellow flag that warned swimmers to proceed with caution became smaller and smaller. My kids too. My kids, as lovely as they were gradually indistinguishable.
It had been a long time since I’d felt as good as I did on my island. After a certain distance the plague of jellyfish that seemed to procreate in the human agglomeration near the shore began to dissipate, and I floated face up, with my feet in the water and my vision clouded with drops of water. All I needed was a bottle of water. If Alexander the Great had materialized before me, offering to give me anything in the world, I would have asked for just one thing: to be left alone. I felt like Diogenes in the radical present of a frothy breaking wave.
Back on the beach, the worried couple, my kids crying. A masseuse passed from one person’s back to the next without washing her hands. Oil for cash. Burps of warm beer. I apologized, calmed the kids, and deflated the float so that Eva wouldn’t see it when we got home.
The next day we went to a new beach. I’d bought an automatic pump and the island blew up in ten minutes. This time I entrusted an elderly woman with the care of Laura and Alberto. The third day I went out on the float was the day that I saw, for the first time, that silhouette I would quickly become obsessed with. I’d been drifting for about a half hour when, some sixty meters away, I made out an island exactly like mine. The same palm tree with its fabric fronds waving, the same shape, the same size, and lying on top of it, the outline of a woman. I tried to estimate her age, but at that distance, I could only see two red strips that must have been her bikini. I was curious, but I didn’t want to bother her, so I paddled away.
My curiosity grew in the night. I went to sleep and I woke up with the thought of finding that other island again. I remembered the landmarks around where I’d spotted her and I was surprised to find her in the same place. I worried that she might’ve gotten stuck between the buoys on each side of her. Once again, respect won out over curiosity, and I just shouted to ask if she needed anything. Since I didn’t get a reply I assumed that she, like me, wanted for nothing out there on the sea. A new emotion came over me: I’d gone from feeling all alone in the world to feeling alone together in the world.
The next three days were similar. She was always in the same place. I figured out that she’d wedged the island in there on purpose. It was a good spot; from there the twenty-story buildings looked like white rocks. I passed closer and closer every time, but since I didn’t want to bother her I continued to stay pretty far away. I could see the two red strips of her bikini a little better, but no more than that; I wasn’t able to make out the color of her hair, nor even her posture, although it looked like she had a habit of leaning against the trunk of the palm tree. The only thing I could clearly discern was the color of her skin; it contrasted with the light sand of the island, it was a little darker, more orangey. But despite the dearth of visual information, the mere fact that she spent hours on an island just like mine was enough to stimulate an enormous attraction that transcended age or appearance.
Over the next days, Laura and Alberto insisted so vehemently on coming with me that I had to bring them. I made them wear life jackets but with them in tow, it was impossible to get a glimpse of the island. Over the days that followed, I noticed that when the kids came with me there was always some factor that made it impossible to reach the location of the other island, either an unfortunate marine current, a sudden change in the weather, or an unbearable thirst that one morning forced me to finish my bottle of water in one gulp and return for more. When I went alone, however, my island seemed to know the way, and it sailed along as if prodded by a friendly breeze.
I still hadn’t gotten up the nerve to approach her, and I still hadn’t gotten a clear glimpse of my friend. That’s how I thought of her, as my friend, given the coincidence of our circumstances. And on each trip a new detail sharpened the attraction. Some bright flashes given off by what must have been her body covered in drops of water. She must have just gone for a dip, out there, so far away, where the sea no longer feels like the Jacuzzi it is near the shore, where the only eyes that see us are the eyes of the underwater creatures who, like us, flee from the coast. Undoubtedly she was, like me, a great swimmer. On the last trip, I’d thrown my book into the sea. It no longer interested me, I couldn’t concentrate. I thought of bringing some binoculars so I could look at her while still respecting her isolation, but that idea seemed somehow violating and I quickly discarded it. If I wanted to see her, I’d have to approach her, let her see me, and give her the choice to move away or accept me.
Laura and Alberto gave me an unbearable time. They refused to stay on the beach with a stranger looking after them, and I had to bring them with me again. The only advantage was that I could spend a lot longer on the island, so we started having lunch there. The kids were calmer after lunch, they chatted quietly amongst themselves. I still wasn’t able to cover as much ground as I did when I’d gone alone. With the kids there, a discreet approach now seemed impossible. The image of the far-off island started to drive me crazy, like the mirage of an oasis. And in the background, the murmur of the kids, who I couldn’t tell to be quiet because after all that sound let me know they were alive without my having to constantly watch them. I wanted to save my sight for my twin island, like a reflection of mine, like a floating shadow of my desire, which, after so many hours, was etched onto my retina and reappeared in flashes on the trip home; on Laura’s face, on the peak of a mountain, on the lighthouse in the port.
I stopped touching Eva. In the morning, I stuck my feet off the edge of the bed in an attempt to predict what the day would be like. Lying between the sheets, I felt the coolness of the water, the rocking of the waves under the float, the pull of the island calling to me. All the time I spent on land I was trying to recreate the feeling of floating, and one night I decided that I’d finally overtake the other island the next day. After nights of insomnia, I slept; I awoke with my tongue shriveled and salty.
The next day, ready to surmount any obstacle that might attempt to impede my approach, we set out again but, when we got to a certain point, my island, as always, stopped. The attraction was so irresistible that I thought of the song of the sirens and along with that thought came another that made me realize the impossibility of my task: the true song of the sirens isn’t a melody, it’s not a voice or a chorus. The true song of the sirens is silence.
I tried to ignore these thoughts. Thoughts would only hinder the union of our islands. Ever more transfixed, I told the kids to be quiet. It worked, I gained leagues with every moment of silence. But Laura and Alberto soon resumed their chatting, and again, we stopped. Unable to resist any longer, I threw them in the water. In their life vests, they began to float away and, once their voices had been drowned out by the distance, I began to advance, quietly, slowly. I closed my eyes and let myself drift along, imagining the soft crash of the two islands like the birth of a new continent. When I felt the collision, I opened my eyes and saw the plastic island in front of me. It was identical to mine, except for one detail that made me cry out in anguish, a call for help, a father’s shriek of desperation. The flesh of the island’s inhabitant was a different material from my own, it was flesh made of the same plastic as the palm tree, the sand, the crab. My dismay was so great that I’m surprised the inflatable woman didn’t reach out a hand to console me as I began frantically shouting the names of my children.