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The Isle of Youth by Laura van den Berg

Posted 11.01.13

Laura van den Berg reads a story excerpt from her forthcoming collection, The Isle of Youth, published in November by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

I Looked For You, I Called Your Name

The first thing that went wrong was the emergency landing. My husband and I were both reading In Flight Magazine and enjoying the complimentary wine in first class—I’d never flown first class before, but it was our honeymoon and we thought that was what we were supposed to do; drink in the daytime, luxuriate in our good fortune—when the plane lurched and oxygen masks fell from the ceiling and a passenger in the back screamed. We didn’t know it then, but the pilot was already steering the plane toward an empty brown field, preparing for our descent.

The landing itself was terrifying: a hard, screeching wallop that knocked us around in our seats. Wine spilled in our laps. Bags overturned and people’s possessions spread into the aisle. My husband elbowed me right in the nose and I tasted blood in my mouth. When we finally stopped, the flight attendants, all of them leggy and red-lipped, applauded, as though the emergency landing had been performed for our amusement. I unbuckled my seatbelt and cupped my nose, stunned silent by the pain.

“The seatbelt sign is still on,” my husband said, resting a hand on my back.

I leaned forward, away from his touch. These were the kinds of moments that had been recently giving me pause. We’re new at this, I kept telling myself, but there was no denying that I was often confounded by his priorities.

I sat up and touched my nose. It felt swollen. I looked down at the pool of red in my lap and dipped my pinkie finger into the wine. We thought we had overcome the worst, having endured the flight from Newark to Houston, the ten-hour trip to Buenos Aires, and the connection to El Calafate Airport in Patagonia, but all I could think about was how wrong we’d been.

My husband continued staring at the illuminated seatbelt sign. My entire face hummed with pain.

“It doesn’t matter anymore,” I said to him, licking the wine off my fingertip. “We’re on the ground now.”

Within an hour, black buses arrived and carried us away from the field and the airplane sitting uselessly in it. A representative from the airline came too, a young man dressed in a pinstriped suit. It was a mechanical error, we were told. The injuries had all been minor: a woman cra- dling her forearm, a man with a gash on his cheek, my banged nose. A full refund would be forthcoming. The man passed out little cakes in plastic wrappers to the passengers.

In the bus, my husband took my hand, but let go when he realized my fingers were sticky with wine. He pulled hand sanitizer from his bag and squirted a dollop into his palm.

“What are you sanitizing?” I said. “You just touched me.”

“If you’d read the statistics on how many people don’t wash their hands after using public toilets, you’d be sanitizing too.”

I went to the tiny bathroom in the back of the bus and looked in the mirror. My nose was swollen, the nostrils crusted with dried blood. I tore a piece of toilet paper in half and wedged the white clumps into my nose. As I made my way back to my seat, a few of the other passengers stared.

I looked out at the fields dotted with sheep, their coats gray and shaggy. We passed a stone church and a woman selling paper-wrapped fish from a roadside stand. We were outside San Antonio Oeste, where our resort, Las Grutas, was located, on the San Matías Gulf. This was in the province of Río Negro, the northern edge of Patagonia. As we drew closer to Las Grutas, the landscape got rockier; we went by a row of hulking granite formations, reddish in color, like a miniature mountain range. It was January when we left our home in Philadelphia, but in Patagonia it was summer, the weather warm and breezy.

When we finally arrived at the resort, a tall white building with arched windows, we learned we’d been upgraded to a suite, courtesy of the airline. In the lobby, we passed the manager’s office. The door was open. A TV was mounted on the wall and tuned to the news. I glimpsed a reporter standing by the white nose of an airplane and paused, but I didn’t understand enough Spanish to make out what was being said. I’d been practicing Spanish with a Rosetta Stone video, and when I arrived in Patagonia, I was disappointed to learn that I’d retained only a collection of random words, fragments of sentences and thoughts.

From our bedroom, there was a marvelous view of the sea cliffs and the beach beneath them. The sand was powdery and white and marked with dark rocks, including a huge stone in the vague shape of a ship. The tide was going out and every time the waves rolled away they left a sheen on the beach. For the first time since we landed, I felt like everything was going to be okay.

Reprinted from The Isle of Youth with permission by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Copyright © 2013 by Laura van den Berg.

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