Fiction

Island Universe*

Winterguide 2016

By Joan Connor

img_0546We sit and drink, two good friends, in our forties now. We usually drink on Fridays after my husband has left our summer cottage on the island to take the ferry to the bus to the car to drive back to D.C.

Diana is my best friend on the island. On an island, you need a best friend. You need a best friend because islands are isolated and claustrophobic–difficult to get off, and everyone is in your business.

 

I drink wine, white, pinot grigio. Diana drinks gin. Neat.

“Do you miss him when he leaves?” Diana asks.

“He is a good husband,” I say, “but he’s dull.”

“Dull?” Diana asks and quaffs a shot.

Dull? He is a tidal bore. But I do not say this. My in-laws also have a summer home on the island. Diana knows them. Well. She is a year-round resident and knows everybody and everybody’s story. That’s island.

“Yes, a little dull.”

Diana gets up from her Mission chair and pours herself another gin. Her cottage retains the early details from when it was first built in the twenties, the Arts and Crafts woodwork and the later Deco cabinet pulls. Change is slow on an island; people tend to make do.

She sloshes some gin on her denim sleeve and laughs. “Were you attracted to Neil right away?”

“Attracted? No, he looks like a cupboard.” I laugh. He does, actually. He is rectilinear like a refrigerator box with feet. Solid, though.

She nestles back down in her Mission chair. “Did you ever have a major crush?” She smirks as she asks this, a little coquettish.

“In high school, maybe. There was this kid who shaved his head. We thought he was cool, but he was just bald.”

Diana snorts gin and wipes her mouth on her cuff, widens her eyes at me.

I realize I am supposed to ask her the same question. “You, did you ever have a mega crush?”

“Lillian,” she says, “my psychology teacher.”

Diana is gay–which we established the first summer we became friends after she tripped over her pronouns for an hour.

“What happened?”

“Nothing. I graduated. She and her son moved to California, I heard.”

I nod and sip my wine. “She had a son.”

“Single mother, divorced.” She slugs some gin, then asks, “Are you close to your in-laws?”

They live four houses up Foreside Road. Too close. But again I do not say this. “Close enough.”

“Salt of the earth,” Diana says.

Salt clogs your arteries. I do not say this, either.

T

his is how we spend Friday nights. We drink. We talk. Sometimes we sing. Diana favors old Judy Garland songs. Sometimes we do not sing, and sometimes the talk is desultory like the movement of stars. Sometimes we are silent. Silence on an island is different from silence in other places. Not total silence–the elegies of foghorns. The bong of a rolling bell buoy. The shuck shuck of tides mucking over mud flats and rarely, very rarely, a passing car, some old heap with shot pistons chugging past.

Diana says, “Let’s sit out on the deck.”

And we do, in Diana’s Adirondack chairs. They have broad arms, perfect for holding drinks. By daylight they are covered with rings overlapping, rings within rings. But it is dark now. Stars winkle. The light sifts like halfhearted snow. Diana is half humming, half singing. A-tisket, a-tasket, A green and yellow basket. As if to herself.

A sidereal solitariness.

“Color Me Barbra,” she says.

“Just don’t color me late to dinner?” I ask.

She tilts her head back, staring straight up into the sparkling sky. “Did you ever want to be famous?” she asks. “I mean really famous.”

“I used to paint a little bit. But I didn’t have any expectations. I was about as effective as a comb-over on a kite.”

Diana doesn’t laugh. She says, “Big famous, like Barbra Streisand famous.”

I spill some wine on the front of my shirt. “No, not really.”

“I did. I got close once. Once The New Yorker almost took a poem of mine. I got a personal letter. I framed it. I haven’t seen it in years.”

She bolts from her chair, a sudden bustle like cats when they try to spook you, like cats when they are on an important mission–Step aside, man. I am a busy, busy cat. Catnippy cats.

“I am going to find it right now. Let’s open it up.”

“Like a time capsule?”

“Why not?” She flips on the porch light as she goes inside the cottage.

Diana returns with a frame and aims the glass at me. It’s an old photo of Streisand, 1960s or early seventies. She has a sock monkey mouth and red carpet hair, what used to pass for glamour. Too much red lipstick and an updo.

Diana flips the frame over and peels back the brown paper as if she were opening a gift. She squints at the poem fixed to the back by imperfect light.

She reads, “B is for the beauty of your voice. A is April, your birth month. R is how really rare you are.” On the second B, her shoulders start shuddering. “B is Broadway doesn’t deserve you. R is for Rosen, your mother’s maiden name. A is amazing; that you are.” She repeats, “That you are,” choking now as she readies for the finale, the big flourish.

“Barbra,” she says, “with a B.”

“What else would it be with?” I ask. “Barbra with a Z? Hey, Zarbra.”

But I cannot get very far; we are both laughing. Laughing hard.

Diana stammers her way through the rejection letter: Thank you for sending us your poem. Although we cannot publish it, we want to encourage young writers. Keep trying.

“Keep trying,” Diana says. Then, “Damn. In my memory it was really good.”

And I am still laughing, and she is still laughing. But she is crying, too.

P

erhaps Diana never should have peeled that paper back. That was over ten years ago. I no longer spend summers on the island. I left the cupboard husband. I followed a job to the Midwest. For a while, Diana and I stayed in touch. Late-night phone calls, the sound of ice clinking in a glass. Gradually the spaces between calls lengthened. Satellite calls, intermittent. No less love, just less and less to say.

Feint of heart.

I wrote a letter to my love and on the way I dropped it.

Maybe stellar movement is not random. Maybe stars have intent. Maybe it is only the earth’s rotation, prestidigitation. It gives the illusion of motion. Proper motion. Radial Motion.

Or all arbitrary. Barbara Streisand dropped the A from her name. Arbitrary. It could have been the first R. Babara. Or second B–Barara. She suffered agonizing stage fright. Rare, beautiful, amazing. Still she suffered.

Our sad and solitary but somehow sublime spirals.

We twirl and swirl, island universes all. n

Joan Connor is a professor at Ohio University and a former professor at USM’s Stonecoast MFA program.  Her short story collection, History Lessons, won an AWP award and a Pushcart Prize. She lives in Athens, Ohio, and Belmont, Vermont.

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