By Ron Riekki
I have lived on seven islands. Something like that. I told my girlfriend that today, in fact. She was in Hong Kong and got the idea to go to an island. I forget the name. Thirty minutes away. On Skype, she tells me she wants us to live on an island. Somewhere. In the future. She asks me if I’ve ever been to an island. I tell her I’ve lived on ten. It’s less than that, but it sounded like a good number. But it’s been a lot. I started to list them for her.
Skaggs Island. Diego Garcia. Montréal—technically that’s an island. Mackinac Island. I pause, thinking of more. She doesn’t ask me about each one. There’s not enough time. The connection is bad. We’re alternating between French (her main language) and English (my main language). There is miscommunication and technology and distance and culture and so many things that can set fire to understanding.
I’m not sure if we love each other. We’re boyfriend and girlfriend, but we’re insomniacs, world sponges, weirdos thrown around the world. I’m in Florida. A massive peninsula. Grew up in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Lived by Presque Isle. Would hang out as much as I could at Little Presque Isle Point. Joined the navy so that I could be permanently around water. Took isolated duty instead of ship duty, so that I could be dedicated to islands.
I’ve traveled to the middle of America, seen its deserts, the Atlantic Ocean of sand that is mid-Texas, and thought that that much dryness would drive me insane.
When I go on book tours in Michigan, I plan it so that I can visit Beaver Island and Mackinac Island and Drummond Island. The expensive ferries. The cabin libraries. The air with God in each breath.
The islands haven’t been all martinis, all towels. In Diego Garcia, during Desert Storm, I remember standing on the shoreline and watching the Search and Rescue. A plane had been shot down. Or crashed. Or something that they wouldn’t tell me. But you could tell there was death in the air like pollen. It hurt the eyes. There were rumors. Confirmations.
And then Skaggs Island. A helicopter caught in electrical wiring. Everyone electrocuted. And us watching, handing binoculars back and forth.
I don’t tell my girlfriend this. I try to focus on my youth. The beaches in northern Michigan. The water so Lake Superior cold that it keeps the tourists away. Whispers of beach. The Christian ex-girlfriend not to be named, touching her, so sexual, in the shallow water, foot-warm. And then she disappeared like Christ in the tomb. The metaphor of her.
Island after island.
Without them, I’d go insane.
I don’t tell her this.
We lose connection.
I’m not sure if she’s back in Shanghai or in some remote area that’s Hong Kong but not Hong Kong, that’s China but not China.
They say that we should look under our cars before we open the door, that alligators sometimes go underneath them. A neighbor was attacked. I find this funny.
When you live by water, you have to take the drowning of your cousin with the perfection of days. You have to sacrifice for the smell of fish in the air.
Yes, I want to live on an island. I tell her this. She seems happy.
They live long here, she says.
That would be nice, I say.
Ron Riekki lives in Florida. His books include U.P. and The Way North: Collected Upper Peninsula New Works, selected by the Library of Michigan as a 2014 Michigan Notable Book. More information can be found at rariekki.webs.com.
He recommends people read National Book Award-winner Gloria Whelan's Once on This Island, which is set on Mackinac Island.