Should a woman, at some point, simply retire from love? As she chronicles her amorous disasters from her condo on one of Miami Beach’s Venetian Islands, “J” broods on the past and observes the sometimes-steamy doings of her condo neighbors. “A woman who wants, a man who wants nothing. These two have stalked the world for thousands of years,” she thinks. Nine Island, Jane Alison’s intimate autobiographical novel, was published by Catapult this week, and Alison will make an appearance at Kramerbooks on Tuesday, October 4 at 6:30pm. You can purchase Nine Island at Kramerbooks or here or here.
SO I’VE SAILED the seas and come to—
No. I’ve sailed no seas. I’ve driven south down I-95, driven south for days, until 95 stopped and I was back in Miami.
No country for old women.
I’m not old yet, but my heart is sick with old desire, and I’m back in this place of sensual music to see if it’s time to retire from love.
What a delight to be free of that maddening monster, lust!
So Plato claims Sophocles said.
I’d just spent a month with you, Sir Gold, up where 95 starts. After thirty years since I’d seen you last, thirty years of disaster with men, one day you dropped from the sky to my in-box. Your name there I looked at a very long time.
Ahoy! you finally said when I clicked.
First we had a yearlong exchange of pictures and words. Then I flew up for a week of ceviche, strolls through hydrangeas, Greek pots. Then you asked me to come again and stay awhile in your stone house on a hill.
These words I looked at a long time, too.
Bring Ovid! you said. Bring the cat.
Are you here yet? you said, when I’d just started driving.
You smoked me a trout, yanked armfuls of greens out of your ground, made me a tarte tatin. You even filled your swimming pool just so I could swim!
Gazing down at the naked older me, you murmured, Look at that.
Later you said, Isn’t this funny, after so many years.
Come closer, you murmured in the dark.
And in the morning: happy whistling as you strode over wet grass with the dog, then bounded back to me still in bed.
I thought, Could it be?
But when the month was done—well, who knows. Your hazel-green eyes went pained, and you decided it best to stay as you were, just the dog, the stone house, the hill.
Thanks for coming up, though!
I ramped onto 95 south thinking, Really ought to give up on
Sobs shook the Mini, rock songs blasting to heighten the pain, for seven high-speed hours.
But give up on what, exactly, I have to ask myself. Has it not been decades of comical disaster? Should be good to give up on disaster.
I stopped near Annapolis to see my mother. She is a lady who’s sailed the seas of love, all the way from Australia. She’s had a long career in men, trailing me along through husbands, then boyfriends, then the species of men who vanish by daybreak, until finally the seas dried up and she landed alone. She knows all about my wandering. Erring, as she calls it.
You, too? she said to me once. Oh, my darling dear.
When I parked outside her house in Woods Landing, she came to the door and wavered, silky as ash: she wobbles and lists even sitting. Loss of labyrinthine function, doctors say, a phrase that has bewitched us. She insists it isn’t dizziness; the horizon just started tilting one day, and she can’t get it to stop.
I came in and watched her lurch and careen from wall to fridge, then tumble into a chair, surrounded by her carved and painted birds, clutching the table for safety.
Look at you! I said to her. This has to end. You need a plan. Do you hear me? A plan for where to live next. It’s time.
She tossed her head and glanced away. Let’s not talk about me, she said. Let’s talk about you, bossy girl. How’d it go?
Meaning the month. She’d heard about Sir Gold three decades ago, when he first broke my heart. Then much, much more about him this year, when it all seemed so hopeful again.
I shook my head.
She pondered me. After a moment, sighed.
Well, she said, placing her spotted hand on mine. Well, well.
Maybe, darling, you should give up on all that. Maybe it’s just time.
Got back in the car and drove blurrily south. Last chance lost! Odyssey done!
From Annapolis down around D.C., through Virginia, North Carolina, South. Trees changed from oaks to loblollies to palmettos among pines as the sun freckled my hands, mottled my chest. Buster was with me, have I said that? Buster, my darling, the only real one. Skinny and black with a white spot on his nose, almost entirely blind and deaf, paws flailing for knowledge.
Three decades of wandering among men. I have to ask myself, For what? Who made them the trees, the stars?
Boys at seven running after you and knocking you down, sticky lips all over your face. Boys in alleys, on sand dunes, in cars; boys on tables, on stairs, in closets. Skinny blond painter with fish eyes I lived with awhile, tall architect with an eclipse in one eye and long hands that shook. The one I married and stayed with for years . . . Then the wretched end of that and it was back to the start: a heat-seeking tour of old boyfriends. Who knew? Might be something I’d missed. Wrote to old boyfriends from decades before—college, high school, one from fifth grade—the kind that really know you and send messages back that fill you with hope. Have thought about you often! Would love to see you. Come! The tour took me up and down I-95, involved lots of nervous drinking and ruinous sex, but one old boyfriend after another in flesh was not what he’d been in ether, and not at all what he’d been before. First was Lurch, then Mick, Sad Eyes, the Devil. But they turned out even more errant than me: girlfriends or wives kept secret in pockets, vessels broken on once noble noses, gazing into glasses of gin.
And this was when Sir Gold appeared, drifting back into my life like a cloud.
Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita . . .
Just halfway along the footpath of life
I looked up, alarmed—I was in a dark wood . . .
Pine forests, pine barrens. Swamps.
In Georgia I stopped at a hotel with walls made of oyster shells jammed in concrete, and in its saloon I ate shrimp and grits and drank too much wine for a woman alone, helplessly checking for messages. Someone—you—saying, Come back!
Such a sickness, wanting. No end?
After the hotel of shells came the zone of orange groves. I’m skipping the miles of spattered asphalt, turtles pondering on the side of the road, gas stations, Waffle Houses, outlets for cigarettes or perfume, trucks with no qualms about blasting my Mini to the shoulder. But we recover fast and mad, no trouble getting in their way again and making them lose time. Once we were in Florida, I gazed into the orange groves. Groves to the east, groves to the west, slanting corridors of citrus, the sun biblical as it set beyond them, an almighty crown of light.
Then 95 ended and I was back in Miami. Where I’d moved two years ago, fresh from marriage and shaky, true, but full of hope and vim. Such vim! LIVE IN PARADISE, the ad had said. I’d looked up at all the glass shining high in the sky, enormous white clouds pulsing. Energy in that upper air: ions spun through deepening blue, singing LIVE THE LIFE!
But below that sky of dancing ions, up and down Route 1: billboards for breast augmentation.
Excerpted with permission from Nine Island by Jane Alison. Published by Catapult as a paperback original and e-book in September 2016.