In paradise, they are forever putting on makeup and sweating out of it. You can tell time by the number of times they sit before the mirror in one or another thatch and straw room with one or another opened rolling bag ponderous with bikinis while they snake bronzer at a cheekbone or rub some thick gloss across a lip that may or may not be tugged at by the teeth of some man for that moment wanting.
My life at home doesn’t contain tropical birds. It does not have rats that at night steal bits of abandoned mango from festively patterned plates. It does not have the lovely browbeating of a crashing surf. It does not have crabs that explore the toenails of anyone thoughtless enough to fall asleep on the beach. And it does not have Margaret Atwood in a black halter-top Boden one piece with a gauzy red Moroccan sarong tied at her hips.
“It’s fine. I don’t need to see Margaret Atwood’s ass,” Jad says from the palapa as he licks chicken wing grease from his fingers.
“Until yesterday, you didn’t even know who Margaret Atwood was.” Harmony says in a voice better suited to a porn baby. She wears a pink piece of fabric across her small breasts that approximates a bikini but looks as disposable as a tampon wrapper.
“Neither did you,” Jad says.
“Fair enough,” Harmony replies, and then they begin kissing in a way that sounds like suction cups being pulled from plate glass. For the record: palapa was not a word I knew before paradise.
Margaret Atwood is my roommate, and she is surprisingly good at palm reading and match making. In the afternoons, we spread towels on the sand and play checkers.
“There’s something appealingly backwoods about checkers. It asks nothing of you,” she says while gaining another double king with one hand and downing the rest of her tequila Rickey with another.
At home at this moment—mid-day, July, weekday—I’d be in a hot LA-adjacent town serving draft Miller High Life to a trucker who’d just come through hours of desert and was now playing “Time for a Cool Change” repeatedly at full volume on his phone. Who knew what I was or what I’d do next, but to all of paradise I am a “model/actress.”
“I’m tired of the difficult thoughts,” Margaret Atwood says while tapping her unpainted toenails on an abandoned crab husk. “I’m tired of obsessing about a potential apocalypse. The moment for that has passed. This,” she gestures to the heated ocean water, the splay of shirtless men eating microwaved pizza off of a disposable platter, the cameras and their cords clinging to generators. “This is the apocalypse. We’re here.”
Let’s put it this way: when I came into this, I had no idea my love match would be an older woman with a past penchant for speculative fiction and a wardrobe of drapey prints.
She wakes me up at 2 AM, and I hit my head on the faux bamboo underside of her bunk. I’m fairly sure I can hear the wall-banging noises of Harmony and Jad fucking next door.
“This is important,” she says. “I’m fairly convinced Rachel Kushner was created by Karl Ove Knausgaard.” We’re all tired. No one has slept much or well. A wall-mounted camera is going right next to my head, and it hasn’t dipped below 95 degrees in three days. But I worry that Margaret Atwood is losing it a little.
“I mean, an attractive woman who writes about women’s prison and Italian motorcycles. Only a man like Knausgaard would dream that up. Anyway, it doesn’t matter.”
If I had to guess what she was saying it would go something like this: men make us up to be what they want which is nothing like what we really are. I pretend and nod while I follow her down the stairs and toward the water.
“That Knausgaard, total sexist,” I say because I know it’s a word a certain kind of woman over the age of 65 will swoon upon hearing from a younger woman’s mouth.
“Don’t be surprised when these crabs die out and the ocean becomes un-swimmable,” she says before we happen upon Sam and Belle who have declared themselves “the most solid couple in paradise” and whom we’ve awakened from the bed in the palapa.
It doesn’t surprise me to find that Margaret Atwood is a certified officiant. “I can do this right here,” she tells Sam and Belle. They are wide-eyed and with glossy hair in the way of ponies. “Don’t wait for some overblown finale moment,” Margaret Atwood tells them. “Besides, roses are the absolute low point of flowers.”
And so it goes that we are standing below a circle of screeching bats in the middle of the night. We are shoeless on the sand with crabs angling into the arches of our feet. The crew is out of sight, so no one will see how Belle and Sam stand in the dark with the water repeating itself behind them and speak vows that sound like something that would be printed on a poster in brushstroke font.
But even Margaret Atwood tears up a little when it’s over and we head up the path through the grasping branches.
“You know,” she says, and her voice is thin and rattly, “Hummingbirds weigh less than a penny and fly over oceans. Not that it matters.”
She pats at her hair, which is always frizzy and maybe a little more so with the humidity. As she climbs up to her bunk, I see the way age has affected her shins, which are covered in the dark veins and easy bruises of the old.
“Fuck sentimentality,” she says, “It will kill us all.” And then we sleep for the first time soundly, until the human-sounding tropical birds wake us at dawn.