We used to have a regular routine; I would interrupt her from staring out into space and ask her what she was thinking about, and she would brush me off with an inane yet precise comment about the sound of the door handles or the complexity of the coffee pot. It was one of those simple mechanics of our relationship, repetitive and rusty, with me clumsily trying to pull her in closer whenever she felt distant. Of course, it is only looking back that I realise her answers always left little clues to a detached puzzlement towards her current form, and she always looked slightly relieved after sharing, as if I’d reeled her in from a deep abyss.
That day, speeding through the water back from Gilligan’s Island in the small motorboat, I was too busy looking out for dolphins in the open sea to notice her mind wandering. We were all tired: lulled by the saltwater, cold beers drunk at the beach, and the day’s sun. Our journey took us from the small island where we had spent the day, back to our holiday cabin in the bay, past shorelines of whispy half-moon sand strips and sprawling emerald green forests.
Some of us gently closed our eyes behind our sunglasses, embracing the last of the day’s sun. The rest of us faced the horizon, silently hoping we would be the first to spot a spurt or a jump from the water. I’ve recreated that day so often that at times it’s hard to distinguish the real memories from the added details from my imagination, but I know that she was sat on the other side of the boat, following the shore with her eyes. I glanced over at her at one point; her long caramel hair was flicking in the wind, topaz earrings reflecting the sun, her long tanned limbs poised and alert, her hand clasping the side of the boat. Spray danced up the sides of the boat, forming perfect white pearls that caught the light before falling back into the ocean. She looked completely normal, yet also, again in retrospect, to be travelling in a completely different direction to the rest of us. I resumed my scanning of the open sea. The next time I turned my head, she was gone.
The official report was a tragic drowning of a young female tourist, and unofficial explanations were in the dozens. I remained adamant that she was too strong a swimmer to drown in calm waters, and the divers never found a single trace of her. While my grief at her loss was overpowering, the qualification of tragic never sat right with me (although I never voiced this, mainly for fear of reinforcing some of the more sinister unofficial explanations of her disappearance). In the years that followed, I returned regularly to search for her: snorkelling over every square meter of the shoreline, pestering the same locals over and over, combing through old wives tales for clues.
It wasn’t until I widened my search to start hiking through the forests on the shore that I felt any closer to finding her. Even then I found little of consequence, but it was an almost constant sensation of being watched that kept me believing she was somehow just around the corner. I’d spot a dazzling blue earring, only to reach out to a small lizard tail flicking and disappearing into the undergrowth. I’d reach a gap in the canopy, and stare up at the turkey vultures hovering, so static that they reminded me of the blank look on her face when she stared out to space. I’d hear my name whistle through the trees, reverberating in the final notes of a frog call.
But it was the occasional lone iguana that stopped me in my tracks, and brought me a steady, grounding comfort. A stripe of caramel spikes down its back, its long fingers curled around a branch, and a pensive, unwavering gaze. I imagined her that day, travelling in a different direction, propelled by the ripples of a long tail, creating streams of silver bubbles in her wake, and then pulling herself on to the shore. These silent exchanges with iguanas gradually led me to decipher those blank stares and mundane answers of our past together: the symptoms of a being in captivity.