The Reality of the Old Desert Island Question
The other day this woman asked me which two people, living or dead, I’d choose to get stuck with on a desert island. Questions like these are shortcuts that lazy or uninteresting people ask thinking they’ll be able to glean something about the answerer based on how they respond—like if someone says “Scarlett Johansson and Emily Blunt,” then you know that person is a creep; if the answerer responds with, “Someone who knows a lot about escaping islands,” then you know he or she is a hack; if someone says, “My parents,” then you know that person a liar.
I don’t like this kind of thing. I prefer to reveal that I’m a creepy, hacky liar a little at a time, over years if possible.
So I answered, “Isn’t that basically asking me which two people I’d choose to watch die, or die in the company of?”
I thought maybe she’d find flipping the premise cute but she looked at me like I was something way worse than a creepy, hacky liar.
Of course I’ve been chewing on what I should have said. I should have said Nikola Tesla; he’s pretty hip right now, and she would have thought I valued intelligence. Or I could have said Emily Dickinson; she’d have thought I was soulful. What if I’d said, “You’re all I’d need on a desert island”? Would that have been brash and charming or too forward? I could have said that and played it like a joke, like I knew I was being cheesy, and we’d laugh and then I’d look down like I was too embarrassed to make eye contact and say something like, “I don’t get too hung up on hypotheticals, what might happen—I’m enjoying the present moment, this conversation, too much.”
Actually it doesn’t matter what answer I gave her, or who I’d choose to get stranded on an island with. If me and literally any two people got stranded on an island together, within a few hours the other two people would hit it off and I’d be left out. Two hours if not sooner, if not immediately. Like as we were washing up on the shore of the island they’d be brushing the sand off one another while I sputtered in the surf.
They’d have inside jokes by the end of the first day. We’d be sitting around and one of them would say “It could be worse, we could be in Baltimore,” and they’d laugh and I’d think, Okay, these two hate Baltimore, I can get behind that, fuck Baltimore, and I’d laugh too and then one of them would actually point out to me that it was an inside joke between the two of them. Actually take the time to point it out, like it was me making them uncomfortable.
When would they have had time to establish inside jokes? We’d have been together the entire time we were on the island! It wouldn’t make any sense, but it would happen, of that I have no doubt.
I can only hope that the island is big enough that I wouldn’t have to listen to the two of them having sex. God, don’t let it be one of those desert islands from New Yorker cartoons, a lump of dirt just big enough for a few people and a small-ish tree. I’d have to swim out in the open ocean every time they wanted privacy, bob around until they finished up. I wonder if they’d have the nerve to actually ask me to go for a swim, or if they’d expect me to pick up on the vibe. Can you imagine if they asked me for privacy? How awkward, how annoying, but if I don’t comply, I’m an asshole. If I don’t basically rush out into the sea and away from the island so these two can hump on the eight square feet of dry land we all call home, I’m a jerk and they’re this couple beleaguered by a shithead roommate. I’d end up getting ripped in half by a great white shark while they were achieving simultaneous orgasm. They’d be marveling at the way every star in the sky is reflected in one another’s eyes while I watched my legs drift off in a tangle of intestines.
I wonder if me getting killed by a shark would be bummer enough to stop them fucking for a while. Or would it be one of those ‘life in the face of death’ things, they’d be at each other twice as much?
If they got rescued eventually, sometime after I died giving them privacy, I bet they’d claim I’d never made it to the island in the first place.
So okay, If I’m ever stranded on an island with two other people, first thing I’ll do is carve my name and the date all over the place. Try revising me out of the story now, lovebirds.
If I didn’t get eaten by a shark, if we were stuck on this island long enough, sooner or later they’d have a falling out and then I’d be the one they came to when they wanted to talk. One of them would come over to complain about the other and say something about what a weirdo he or she was, like “Whenever we try to find shapes in the clouds he sees the dumbest stuff, like the other day he said he saw a box of Quaker oatmeal. Who looks at the clouds and finds oatmeal?”
She’d say this like we weren’t living on the same eight-square foot island, like I hadn’t been so close at hand during this conversation that I could have reached out and tapped either of them on the shoulder while they were having it without fully extending my arm. That’s what my life on the island with them would be—a total lack of privacy and totally isolating.
You know what? That cloud would have looked like Quaker oatmeal, too. But I wouldn’t argue with her. I’d act incredulous. I’d say, “How could he tell the brand? I don’t think I’ve ever seen a cloud with a label on it,” and we’d laugh, and it would feel so good to laugh with someone that I’d have a hard time not crying.
I’d have to be really careful, during this falling out period, not to get my hopes up, not to get too attached, so that I wouldn’t get my feelings hurt when they inevitably got back together. Because you know after that cloud conversation I’d be up all night thinking that she and I really connected, that there might be something there, and the next day when we were cracking open coconuts from the smallish tree and he accidentally bashed his thumb and howled, she and I would share a quick look and smiling acknowledgement of what a doofus he is, and right away I’d start worrying about how we were going to tell him she and I were together now, and how awkward it would be, but I’d also be pretty excited to see the look in his eyes when we asked him to go for a swim so we could have some privacy, and by the end of the day they’d be having make-up sex against the smallish tree, too lost in the moment to request I go for a swim first or remember I’m a person in the world in the first place.
This would happen over and over, by the way. Every couple of weeks they’d fall out, I’d get my hopes up despite myself and then they’d get back together. I’d tell myself it was for the best, that the island was small and that switching partners would really be nothing but trouble, but then one day, if this went on long enough, I’d snap. I’d start yelling at them about how fed up I was, that they act like this island is their personal retreat and that I’m either a nuisance or there for no other reason than to play a role in some ongoing bullshit drama of theirs and that I’m a human being! A human being with a heart and a mind and a soul and needs of my own!
I’d blurt all this out and then freeze, because I shouldn’t have said any of it, everything is going to be so much worse because I said all that, and they’d look at each other and I’d think about hopping in the ocean and swimming away for good and then they’d say, “We’re a little surprised to hear you feel this way, given that we’ve tried to bring you into the relationship so many times.”
“What?” I’d say. “What are you talking about?”
And they’d say, “Well, monogamy doesn’t really make sense on an island this big. It’s just us, and quite frankly, that grew a little boring a while back, but whenever we get into it you swim off like you’re totally disgusted. We thought you hated us, but this is great! Now we can all be together, totally free to experiment and explore and create a new kind of love, based in total understanding and acceptance without any conventional boundaries or judgment!”
It sounds a little new age-y, this talk about total love and conventional boundaries. But right now, as I’m writing this, it’s a Sunday morning in July and I’m sitting alone at a coffee shop surrounded by couples reading each other the New York Times, the morning after an old friend’s wedding and I’m not getting any younger or less weird and if I were stranded on this island with these people and they said that, I’d rush to embrace them. And just as our arms entangled, we’d hear the roar of an airplane passing overhead, and we’d look up to see the pilot waving through the little cockpit window, and that’s the day we’d be rescued.
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