When we got to Biloxi Bay, James jerkily backed the boat up as close as he could get to the shoreline. Roxy and I grabbed the small blue cooler we’d lightly packed with the beer and granola bars we’d gotten at the store. She unhitched the boat, pushed it into the water, and tied it to a short steel rod that poked up from the ground. I liked watching how confidently she moved about the vessel, saddened that I no longer felt that way in my own body, worried I might be stuck in the state I was in for the rest of my life.
I was sick, a nonspecific flu-like malaise that didn’t bend under what had so far been a good vacation: extra sleep, deep breaths of ocean air, warm coffee on a friend’s sofa. But the aches of my body and an unwavering fatigue shadowed me, made it hard to breath when I woke each day and worsened as we ticked off the touristy things on our list: ghost tours in New Orleans, beignets and chicory coffee, hiking the Jurassic looking trails. I decided to pretend my symptoms didn’t exist, let the storms inside of me pass silently instead.
On our way to the bay, we’d driven by the Gulf Coast Research Lab where James was finishing his dissertation. It’d been almost five years since the BP oil spill. The lab was perfectly situated to monitor whether ocean life could recover from five million gallons of oil saturating their ecosystem, and to observe residents as the fear they had for the water’s ability to destroy their homes during Katrina was slowly put to rest. The oil spill seemed to call on an ability to forgive the world for its randomness. Eleven tornadoes, miles of flooding — life had a way of pushing through the tumult, of wanting to know more deeply the parts of the self that survive. And in the case of the scientists at James’s lab, identifying the qualities formed in response to environmental change was what mattered most, told the greatest story.
While James and Erik, my boyfriend, went to park the car, Roxy and I sat on the two cushioned seats at the stern of the boat that faced the captain’s chair. She pointed out where we were going: Deer Island, a 400-acre piece of sandy land that seemed close enough to touch. But this was a misjudgment of how things actually were. Just because I held something in my view didn’t mean I was connected to it by anything more than proximity.
I was twenty-two, on my first vacation with a serious boyfriend, and wanted to believe I’d found safety, comfort. I was starting to realize that the way I lived inside of those feelings exposed parts of myself that I didn’t want to see, the ones that didn’t actually know how to let someone in. Roxy and James were in their late twenties, the youngest married couple I knew, and seemed deeply fueled by their partnership. I imagined that James could sense when Roxy was feeling sick and would make her large pots of ginger tea, that she wouldn’t be afraid to show her symptoms to him. Wanting care didn’t make her a burden. I thought of Erik, briefly wishing I could communicate to him through a troubled look, that he’d feign his own sickness to lessen my responsibility for interfering with our trip to Deer Island..
Mostly, I wished to be alone.
A migraine tightened around my brain. I felt nauseous, unsure of how long I could keep up what I thought was politeness, but was just really just a frustrating timidity: say yes to it all. Be a good guest. Dreary, fevered, I hadn’t felt like myself in days. I was beginning to realize it’d been much longer than that if I was being honest, my sickness was just making it apparent. When the discomfort with oneself becomes physical, it’s harder to ignore. Sometimes our bodies would rather hold things in, cover them up like a splinter, but eventually they find their way out.
“We’ve never gone out as far as those,” Roxy told me when I asked about the islands further out, the land masses that seemed to emerge before us as we moved away from the bay. The drumming of the boat’s motor filled the space after she spoke, the one where I could have asked if they’d ever thought to, if maybe we could go there instead.
If looked at on a map, the other islands lay in crest around Deer Island. Cat Island. Horn Island. Petit Bois Island. The names belong in a children’s movie. But Deer Island floats quietly in the middle, not necessarily a barrier island itself, but somewhere in between. Hawks and osprey are some of the few endangered birds that float above though I didn’t see any movement as we pulled up to the shoreline, James playfully saluting Erik as he jumped to the bow of the boat.
Deer Island was vacant. I didn’t ask if we were allowed to be there, if it was safe to go out at night on a boat that only had a small lantern as a light source for all I could tell. Roxy told me some of the folklore of the area, that on stormy nights, a strange light appeared to float slightly above the water around the island. The Firewater Ghost. Fire and water, things that are meant to extinguish each other. The word held the moment of their brief coupling. Boiled water to steam, flames sprayed out of existence.
Watching Roxy and James the last few days, I envied their ease together. Before we left the house, Erik and I sifted through his suitcase for an extra sweatshirt. I hadn’t brought any of my own, assuming I wouldn’t need one in the south.
“I’m not sure which one you want to wear,” he said, offering me a Rolling Stones sweatshirt with frayed sleeves and a brown fleece clogged with dog hair. Whispering, I told him I really didn’t feel good and thought being on the water in the cold would make it worse. I knew he wanted us to see the island. White sand and pine trees. I had wanted to see it too.
“You seemed fine yesterday,” he said. I thought of the basketball game we’d played, the Mexican food and margaritas afterwards.
“I wasn’t.” Here I was telling him, however small of a way it was, that there was something wrong. Maybe I was too sensitive, expecting too much. But the moment felt like it was choking me, the longing for my discomfort to be reason enough for concern lodged in my throat. That’s where it would stay. I couldn’t tell the difference between the feeling of something being stuck and the rawness of my flesh from the past few days of coughing.
“If you really don’t want to come, you can stay back here,” he said, tossing the fleece at me. “It’s up to you.” Over these past two years, Erik was usually gentler with me. When we first started dating, I’d gotten food poisoning and he’d come over with Gatorade and a thermometer. He did his schoolwork in my living room while I slept in bed. I held on to this version of Erik, the one who’d made me berry smoothies, and walked out to the car, a cheery smile on my face. It was his vacation too and his frustration with me would disappear when we returned to Michigan. I just had to get through the night.
Another couple joined us on Deer Island, a woman who worked in James’s lab and her boyfriend, a career sailor. They’d come over from the commercial pier where their sail boat was docked on a dingy with a small motor attached. They lived on the larger boat together and planned to sail to Florida when her contract with the university was up.
What this meant was that everything they owned was on the boat, that they’d never lived in a place long enough to accumulate enough to rent a storage unit. They worked around the harbor, which paid for their spot. They lived on their own sort of island. I longed to be able to plan such a life, an existence that required little, a love that travelled with ease.
I wanted to leave our home in Michigan, but facing the question of what would happen with Erik if I moved meant acknowledging that he would never come with me. His music, his job, his family. All of it was there, and I feared the solitude required of me to build a life of my own.
Roxy suggested that we start collecting wood. There was less than an hour of sunlight left in the sky, so we broke off into pairs to scavenge the island for pieces of driftwood and dried reeds. James went with Erik and I went with Roxy. It was easier for us to walk in the sand barefoot, so we slid off our shoes and left them near our cooler where the other couple dug out a fire pit in the sand.
We found a few hollow logs, some mossy branches. When we carried them back to our spot, James told us that Erik had wandered deeper into the island and was taking a while to return. I tried calling him, but the service was spotty. I told the group I’d look on my own.
As I walked along the edge of the island facing the Gulf, I imagined what it was like during Katrina. It seemed impossible for it to look anything like it did now. It must have been reformed, fixed by hand. I looked for evidence of this process as I walked, a patched up tree or fenced in shrub, but over those few years, the island’s organic patterns may have adjusted and blended with any imposed design. This idea soothed my body briefly, seemed to tell it that it is okay to break, that pieces come back together on their own.
The other night, James told us about the fish he was studying, how the deposited carbon from the oil had actually led to more available food for this particular fish. The species was thriving, though it was an outlier. The name of the fish didn’t matter to me as much as what I took to be the lesson: unexpected victories, nurturing oneself from what seemed to be toxic. Some behaviors are natural responses to an environmental change, others are a choice.
Where the island started to curve, I could see Erik wading in the water with his jeans rolled up to his knees. The tableau of a real vacation. Walking towards him, I felt a surge of longing. I liked that we’d both gone off alone even if I had been in search of him. I liked that I could watch him without him knowing, to see him the way I thought him to be.
“Found you,” I said, kissing his cheek. He took my hand and we walked towards the light of the fire where the other couples waited.
“This island is so dead,” he said. “I thought we’d see some birds at least, but there’s really nothing on it.”
Except us, I wanted to say, but it seemed to hold more hope than I was willing to offer.
The six of us had gone through twenty four beers, unevenly. I tried to remember how many James had, though I suppose it didn’t matter at that point. We were speeding back through the water, moving swiftly past buoys that sat like rocks poking out of the waves. I held onto Roxy’s arm. The lantern, of course, narrowly lit anything beyond the front deck. I turned around and glared at Erik, who sat motionless next to James as he steered. I couldn’t tell if he too was afraid, or if the speed put him at ease.
“Slow down,” I yelled.
“Use your phones to check the water,” James said, less of an instruction than a way to make us feel like we were helping. Roxy’s body shivered as she pulled me closer. Brittle air hit our skin.
“We’re freezing,” she yelled. James didn’t hear her. “You’re going too fast.” Again, she yelled, and again.
“We’re still about fifteen minutes away. Want me to speed it up?” He must have heard some part of Roxy’s request, even if he couldn’t make out the words, sensing the discomfort in her voice.
The force of the nose of the boat crashing into the water sent us midair. Terror kept me still, wanting only to make it back, trying to save my voice for when we got too close to the buoys. I tried to remind myself that James spent his life on the water for a living, that yes we were being reckless but were not truly in danger.
“No,” we said in harmony, but James revved the engine anyway — and we were off, swerving around another buoy seconds before we would’ve hit.
Roxy and I screamed. The change in speed immediately slammed us into our seats, my tears mixing with water. Stop, slow down, we kept yelling, digging our fingers into each other. No chance of being heard again without getting up, which neither of us would do. I was angry, angry with Erik. Of course he’d do nothing. Of course he’d think it was fun and was waiting for me to complain or tell the group to stop. I couldn’t do anything fun. I thought of the bridal party that crashed late at night across the street from my childhood home in New York, everyone except the best man drowning in the Hudson River’s murky waters. My family woke to helicopters making laps along the river. I could use that story as evidence, prove to him that it was a big deal, that this boat trip had been stupid, aside from the fact that I definitely had a fever now. My voice would be gone by the morning, if we made it.
When we got to land, I did nothing to hide my tear-stained face. But I suppose it was read as a drunk one, a wet one, washed out from exhilaration instead of fear. My hands ached from clinging to the boat’s metal rail. The ache was everywhere, centered in my throat. Feeling the total defeat of my body, I imagined never speaking again.
“Whew, crazy ride,” James said as he stepped out of the boat and joined us at the edge of the road. Roxy leaned playfully into him, asking to be warmed up.
I wanted to be forgiving like Roxy, to find comfort in my partner and believe in their protection. But I stared at Erik with something I’d call fury. I didn’t have anything else I could be but myself.
“I can go get the car,” Erik offered, taking the keys from James. I watched him walk away, the cool air moving through my throat more easily than it had all week.
Deer Island was once connected to Mississippi, geological proof that parts once joined don’t forever stay and rarely do. A casino now sits near the edge of the bay where the land masses used to meet. Their border has become its own kind of attraction. Businesses have petitioned and petitioned to turn the island into something else, to develop it and make money off of its unique position. They want to run a ferry. They want to build a theme park with small rides and stands that sell fried dough. The islands around it — Cat, Horn, Petit Bois protect the main shoreline from soil erosion. Sandwiched between these islands and the mainland, Deer Island is protected both from industry and natural changes. Simply through the circumstance of its environment, Deer Island is safe on its own.
But then I think of the strange light that is seen hovering above its surrounding waters. I wonder if it has a way of protecting itself.
Juliana Roth is a writer whose work has appeared in Irish Pages, The Bear River Review, The Establishment, Alternet, among other publications. In 2016, she received an honorable mention for the Tom Howard/John H. Reid Fiction & Essay Contest and was a screenwriting finalist for Sundance’s New Voices. A Cowden Memorial Writing Fellow and recipient of the Quinn Creative Writing Prize from the University of Michigan, Juliana holds a degree in English Literature & Languages and environmental studies. Currently, she is a teaching fellow at Rutgers University-Camden where she is at work on a novel and a collection of short stories.