The Evolution of Jane

The Evolution of Jane

4.5 4
by Cathleen Schine

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In four previous novels, Cathleen Schine has enchanted readers with her special brand of brainy wit and wry affection for her endearingly flawed characters. Now the best-selling author of The Love Letter takes a hilarious trip to the Galapagos Islands with a comedy of natural selection. Jane Barlow Schwartz is obsessed with one question: why did her best friend Martha… See more details below


In four previous novels, Cathleen Schine has enchanted readers with her special brand of brainy wit and wry affection for her endearingly flawed characters. Now the best-selling author of The Love Letter takes a hilarious trip to the Galapagos Islands with a comedy of natural selection. Jane Barlow Schwartz is obsessed with one question: why did her best friend Martha stop being her best friend? The two girls, distant cousins, had shared idyllic childhood summers in the New England seaside town of Barlow, named for their family's founding fathers. Martha was not just Jane's friend but her idol, her soul mate, her confidante. Then, somewhere along the line, the friendship ended. What went wrong? Was it the family feud, which their parents spoke of only in hushed tones? What did Jane's dotty great-aunt reveal to Martha on her deathbed? Did Jane do something unforgivable? When the cousins are reunited unexpectedly on a tour of the Galapagos, they meet Darwin head on. In the pristine Pacific waters, amid blue-footed boobies and red-lipped batfish, Jane traces back through her Yankee-Cuban-Jewish ancestry to try to pinpoint the "splitting event," the moment when Martha was no longer the Martha she knew. In the process, she ponders the origin of species and the origin of friendship, the instincts of exotic wildlife and of her eccentric shipmates, the evolution of nature and of her life. The result is an antic mating of family saga and natural history. Bearing Schine's "astute ability to sum up modern relationships" (People), as well as her "wonderfully inventive comic voice" (New York Times Book Review), The Evolution of Jane sparkles with keen observations on the species known as humans. Above all, it is a warm-hearted tribute to that unique adaptation of girlhood, the selection of a very best friend.

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Editorial Reviews

Childhood memories, anger, curiosity, and love resurface as Jane spends the rest of her trip — and Schine, the rest of this clever novel — contemplating evolution, wildlife and the mysteries of friendship. Equal parts fascinating science lesson and love story.
New Yorker
'First Martha and I were one, now we were two,' Jane Barlow Schwartz, Schine's wry narrator, woefully tells us. For Jane, the loss of her cousin and childhood best friend was far more troubling than her later divorce from a badly chosen husband. When she and Martha are unexpectedly reunited on a cruise around the Galapagos Islands, Jane struggles to identify the 'splitting event' that drove them apart, and in the process she uncovers a welter of family secrets and on-board antics. The intricacies of Darwinian evolution and natural history provide excellent fodder for Schine's comic sensibility, but her inquiry into girlhood friendship never quite attains the introspective power afforded by its premise.
Deftly embroidered with a cast of oddball characters whom even Darwin would have considered one of a kind, Schine's novel is both playful and smart.
Richard Eder
Very funny, very smart...In The Evolution of Jane, thinking heals the heart or at least foritifies it as it heals itself. -- Los Angeles Times Book Review
Jill Smolowe
. . .[B]oth a humorous meditation on friendship and a clever send-up of the hypereducated class. . . .idiosyncratic characters; memorably wry and intelligent observations; brisk, witty writing. —People
Schine has written several successful, comically affectionate investigations into the human heart. This is not one of them.
Jane is on a nature tour of the Galapagos Islands, where Darwin developed his theory of evolution, to "recover" from her divorce­even though, she states unequivocally, the divorce was far less stressful to her psyche than the memory of being inexplicably rejected by her cousin and best friend, Martha, in high school.
When Martha turns up as the tour guide on Jane's trip, Jane becomes obsessed with trying to find an explanation for the breach of friendship, ultimately turning to Darwin's evolutionary theories. Schine gets points for effort, but unfortunately the results are ridiculous.
"And so, as I mulled over the problem of species, I recognized that there existed between the origins of life and Martha Barlow an important link: the confusion experienced by Jane Barlow Schwartz. This link was extremely suggestive. It seemed to promise some related solution. If A = (?) and B = (?), then all one has to prove is (?). It was obvious. The mechanism that explained the transmutation of species would explain Martha's transmutation, the transmutation of friendship."
Read Schine's last novel, The Love Letter, instead.
­Nan Goldberg
Library Journal
A best friend is a terrible thing to lose, especially in Schine's quirky world. Twenty-four-year-old Jane Barlow Schwartz is widely consoled when her husband walks out after six months of marriage, but she is more bereft about the end of her relationship with distant cousin and best friend Martha Barlow years earlier. A diverting trip to the Galapagos Islands for longtime Darwin fan Jane -- who's long wondered about how to distinguish a species -- only ratchets up her vexations, for the tour guide is none other than Martha. Schine plays it all like a fine instrument: Jane's musings about evolution and friendship, the Jane-Martha interaction and the whispered-about Barlow family feud, the camaraderie among the disparate tour members, and descriptions of the islands and their flora and fauna. Thought-provoking and amusing, this is a literary treat. -- Michele Leber, Fairfax County Public Library, Virginia
Jill Smolowe
. . .[B]oth a humorous meditation on friendship and a clever send-up of the hypereducated class. . . .idiosyncratic characters; memorably wry and intelligent observations; brisk, witty writing. -- People
Barbara Kingsolver
. . .[A] reverse allegory in which the large, real-world principles of natural selection and speciation are used to shet light ont he small particualars of a character's life. . . .the writing is fine and the plot gambols along enjoyable to its conclusion. . . .Cathleen Schine. . .makes chaos theory and speciation sound like fun. -- New York Times Book Review
Christopher Lehmann-Haupt
. . .Ms. Schine very nearly pulls off a tour de force in which friendship comes to stand for the possibility of transcending natural selection. . . .But a degree of strain becomes evident when events are made to illustrate the novel's ideas. . . .The Evolution of Jane remains a great pleasure to read. -- The New York Times
The New Yorker
'First Martha and I were one, now we were two,' Jane Barlow Schwartz, Schine's wry narrator, woefully tells us. For Jane, the loss of her cousin and childhood best friend was far more troubling than her later divorce from a badly chosen husband. When she and Martha are unexpectedly reunited on a cruise around the Galapagos Islands, Jane struggles to identify the 'splitting event' that drove them apart, and in the process she uncovers a welter of family secrets and on-board antics. The intricacies of Darwinian evolution and natural history provide excellent fodder for Schine's comic sensibility, but her inquiry into girlhood friendship never quite attains the introspective power afforded by its premise.
Kirkus Reviews
Schine's fifth novel (after the bestselling The Love Letter) again focuses on quiet revelations and the slow process of discovering what matters—as, here, a meek young woman on the rebound from a disastrous marriage escapes to the Galapagos Islands, only to run into her best friend from childhood. While a Galapagos tour might seem an unlikely choice for a woman in distress, Jane doesn't think twice when her mother suggests she go to forget her troubles. She outfits herself for every contingency—except one, which she encounters immediately on arrival: her long-lost cousin Martha, now her tour group's guide. As Martha shows them the natural marvels that set Darwin thinking along evolutionary lines, Jane ponders the evolution of her own life after the abrupt, unexplained exit of her cousin, who'd been her next-door neighbor and closest friend into adolescence. Not willing to broach the subject to Martha, but convinced that the traumatic separation was somehow her fault, Jane speculates endlessly as to the cause, and so relives a tortured family history complete with living in a town named for her ancestor, a mysterious feud that left her parents refusing to speak to Martha's parents, and an earthy great-aunt who in her declining years came to live with the family—and who later accidentally set fire to their house. Struggle as she might to stay focused on the trip at hand, Jane alternates her musings on speciation with these blasts from the past, and when a mild flirtation with a tour member seems threatened by Martha, she has an emotional, and physical, meltdown. Eventually, however, she realizes she doesn't have to blame herself for long-ago breach—and withthat insight comes new information about the family's darker secrets. In spite of genteel trappings and an exotic locale, which serves as little more than a painted backdrop: a penetrating, smooth, and often clever portrait of a woman finding herself.

From the Publisher
"Crackles with energy, wit and laughter . . . Schine is a great speculator in the commodities of life, a life-scientist hypothesizing madly. She's written a novel that makes feeling good feel like a good thing." Boston Globe

"Schine renders her story with such deftness and humor that the reader can't help but be enchanted . . . A delightful exercise in literary wit, a perfect summer screwball comedy." The New York Times

"A sensual treat . . . Light as a souffle, rich as a sundae, and as satisfying as love." The San Diego Union-Tribune

"Letter perfect . . . An affair to remember, a book you won't forget. Grade: A." Entertainment Weekly

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Have you ever lost a friend? It is the saddest and most
baffling experience. No one sympathizes, unless the friend died,
which in my case she did not. I lost my best friend many years
ago. She had been my best friend for almost a decade, for more
than half of childhood, and then she evaporated, as though she
had never really existed at all. Did anyone call me, try to console
me, try to find a new friend for me? Yet when my husband
left me after six months, I was bathed in sympathy and inappropriate
blind dates. For that brief and absurd episode, I received
the most tender consideration from all around me, most particularly
from my family. Here is the story of my ex-husband: Michael
and I were young and stupid; he, being young and stupid, left me
for someone equally young and stupid; I, being stupid, cried for
three months, and then, being young, woke up in the middle of
the night, ate a bowl of cold leftover spaghetti, thought “This is
pleasant,” and cried no more.
 But my mother had become convinced that I needed to “go
abroad” in order to heal, and I did not disabuse her of this quaint
notion. Although I was happier without Michael, I did feel regret
at no longer being a wife, if only in an abstract sort of way. Going
abroad had such a nice amour-propre-restoring ring to it.
“Off you go!” my mother used to say when she pushed me out
the door to play, to stop me from moping around the house.
 “Off you go!” she said after my divorce. “Off to the Galapagos!”
 And so, like many wounded, world-weary souls before me, like
Charles Darwin himself, I set sail for the Galapagos Islands. Is a
visit to the Galapagos a very odd vacation? It seemed ideal to me
the instant my mother suggested the trip. These islands were Darwin’s
territory, and my mother recalled my childhood infatuation
with the bearded nineteenth-century naturalist. She remembered
that I wanted to go to the Galapagos Islands when I was a little
 In my biography period, I read an illustrated account of the
voyage of the H.M.S. Beagle, which marked the beginning of my
fascination with Charles Darwin. What I remember most vividly
from that book was, first, that Darwin was seasick for the entire
five years of his voyage on the Beagle, and, second, that he had
to be very tidy on shipboard. There were pictures of the cabinets
used to store specimens, pictures of rows of little bottles and jars
and wooden boxes, each labeled in an old-fashioned hand. Life
on board ship seemed miniature, like a playhouse full of neatly
organized treasures. I’m sure there were pictures in the book of
other things as well—birds and volcanoes and ferns—but what
I remember most were the boxes and drawers and their orderly
 I have had many heroes over the years. But Darwin was one
of the earliest. And unlike some of those other early heroes—the
Bionic Woman or Pinky Tuscadero, for example—Darwin has
aged well. Perhaps because he was so imperfect, because he suffered,
because he lived so many lives—a life of physical courage
and adventure, a courageous and adventurous life of the mind, a
quiet and settled family life. Perhaps because he was such a good
gardener. I considered becoming a naturalist, like Darwin. The
problem was that once outdoors, I became bored almost immediately.
For a while, I persevered, usually by sitting inside thinking
I should be a naturalist, sometimes by actually going outside and
forcing myself to look at things.
 During this time, like all my friends, I also read The Diary of
Anne Frank and The Story of My Life by Helen Keller. But in
addition to blindfolding myself and wandering around the living
room to see what it was like to be blind the way we all did, and
crouching in the attic with a bologna sandwich, hiding from Nazis,
I used to look for fossils. I tired of being blind within a few
minutes, and I tired of fossils almost as quickly, particularly because
I never found any. I did, however, display and label a row
of rocks from the driveway. I didn’t know what they were and was
too lazy to find out, so I just labeled them by color. But I still felt a
proprietary bond with Darwin. Whenever I hear his name, to this
day, I experience a sudden alertness, as if my own name has been
 When Darwin was a young man, he collected beetles and
loved to go shooting. He was supposed to be a doctor like his father,
but at the first surgical demonstration in medical school, at
the first sight of blood, he fainted. In his subsequent studies for
the clergy, he spent most of his time carousing and turning over
damp logs looking for insects. It was appealing to me to think that
I was making the journey to Darwin’s islands much as Darwin
had—because the opportunity presented itself and life at home
was too confusing. It’s true that his parents did not send him to
the Galapagos as mine did. In fact, his father was against the idea.
But Darwin convinced his family. And so he sailed far, far away
on a ninety-foot boat, just like me.
 My mother gave me the restorative trip to the Galapagos as a
twenty-fifth birthday present. This generous and extravagant gift
was from both my parents, actually, but I knew it was my mother’s
idea. It had the scent of whim, and that’s my mother’s scent.
 “You need to go far away,” my mother said.
 “Why not the Falkland Islands?” my father said. “That’s even
farther. And they have sheep.”
 “Jane is not interested in sheep, are you, Jane?”
 “No, not really.”
 “You see? The Galapagos are perfect. There is not a single
 My mother, a Spanish teacher, found out about this trip
through a teachers’ organization she belonged to. My father said
perhaps she ought to send me to someplace normal, like Paris, for
my birthday.
 “No,” I said. “The Galapagos will be far more consoling.”
 My father laughed. “I’ve always found you amusing, Jane,” he
said, “and so odd.”
 I hadn’t thought much about Darwin or the Galapagos in
years, but now, suddenly, as an adult, I wanted to go to those
volcanic islands more than I ever had. I was no longer a wife.
I had been stripped of my category. So where better to go than
to the place where Darwin discovered so many new categories,
the place where he discovered the very secret of categories? “I’m
not a Coco Island finch anymore,” said the little brown bird on
the little brown island, “so what am I?” “You’re a Darwin’s finch,”
said Darwin. “And you, over there, you’re a long-billed finch, and
you’re a vampire finch”—until all thirteen species of Galapagos
finches were detected and named.
 What exactly is a species? The definition of a species may seem
a simple matter to you, but it puzzled and intrigued me whenever
I thought about it, which I must admit was not that often until
I prepared to visit Darwin’s islands. But once you begin thinking
about it, where do you end? I mean, what is it? How do you
know? How do you decide? The idea that we all evolved from the
same drop of ectoplasmic ooze I have always found to be perfectly
reasonable. Nor is it biological diversity itself that alarms me. But
look at one mockingbird and look at another. They appear similar,
yet they are different species. Look at a Pekingese and a greyhound.
They appear different, yet they are the same species.
 In my defense, let me point out that the concept of species has
changed drastically over the centuries. People have divided up
flora and fauna into formal categories since Aristotle—but they
keep changing the rules. These days, of course, there are recognized
scientific criteria for determining an organism’s species. But
when I pored over my guidebook looking at pictures of birds and
iguanas, I couldn’t help wondering who decided what those scientifi
c criteria were and, more important, how they decided. The
Galapagos, the islands that had inspired Darwin to find the answers
to all my questions, beckoned. I had seen those documentaries
of courting blue-footed boobies and giant tortoises chewing
cactus. The Galapagos were the frontier of species, and Darwin
their pioneer. I was going where Darwin had gone, to see what
Darwin had seen.
 “You’re searching for your roots,” my father said, “on a dormant
 “They’re not all dormant.”
 “Sturdy shoes!” my mother said. “And a hat!”
 I had never gone anywhere with a group before, and I tried to
tell myself that my Galapagos pilgrimage with the Natural History
Now Society, arranged by my mother, would not be a week
on a small boat with an assemblage of strangers, but an enriching
apprenticeship. I knew there had to be a reasonable answer to the
species question, and I guess I hoped that, traveling with a bunch
of nature enthusiasts, I would find it.

The trip was in July, and I spent much of the month of June brooding
on the nature of species and, in a less abstract but equally
challenging vein, shopping. I had to find just the right backpack. I
needed the best special quick-drying nylon shorts. There were microfi
ber shirts and bras and underpants to be acquired, pants that
unzipped into shorts and padded moisture-wicking socks, snorkeling
booties, gloves and a hood, a wet suit (long or short? how
many milligrams thick?), snorkeling skin to wear beneath the wet
suit, a Gore-Tex rain jacket, Tevas, summerweight hiking shoes,
water bottles, hats, sunglasses, a strap to keep the sunglasses from
falling overboard, and of course insect repellent, Dramamine,
ginger pills, aloe lotion, and enormous bottles of mighty, waterproof
sunscreen. The shopping was satisfying, even more satisfying
than shopping normally is, for each purchase was so specialized,
made for a reason. A teleological wardrobe. I sometimes
think of shopping as a metaphor for life; that is, one tries so hard,
picking and choosing, getting as much as one possibly can within
one’s budget, and then most of it goes in the closet, out of style or
too tight in the waist. Then I remind myself that it’s the shopping
itself that really matters, not the purchases.
 “Zen shopping,” I once explained to my brother Andrew.
 “You have far too much stray information,” he said.

On July 12, I flew from Kennedy Airport to Guayaquil, a busy, unattractive
city on the coast of Ecuador, where I had to change to
a smaller plane that could land at Baltra, one of the two Galapagos
Islands that has an airport. There, on Baltra, the Thomas H.
Huxley, chartered by the Natural History Now Society, would be
 On the plane to Guayaquil, I continued to read the guidebook
my father had given me, a wonderful natural history of the islands
written by a naturalist named Michael H. Jackson. According
to Michael H., there are thirteen large Galapagos islands and
six small ones, and they “straddle,” as he so vividly puts it, the
equator at the ninetieth meridian west, six hundred miles west
of mainland Ecuador. The Galapagos Islands were first discovered
in 1535, first appeared on a map in 1570, and hosted their first
resident in 1807—a shipwrecked Irishman named Patrick Watkins.
Watkins was stranded for years before he stole the longboat
of a passing whaler, enslaved five of its sailors, and rowed away
with them. Herman Melville, too, went there on a whaling ship.
Melville said that the “chief sound of life here is a hiss.” I began
to wonder if this vacation was such a good idea after all. Yes,
I had seen the PBS documentaries on the soaring albatross, the
tortoises, and the boobies with their bright feet. But everyone the
guidebook quoted, even Darwin, remarked on how ghastly and
glum the islands looked, with burnt fields of ash, jagged black
lava, the blinding glare of birdlime.
 I was very taken by the book, by the harsh drama of the islands
it described, and by the author’s name as well. How lucky he was
to have a middle name, I thought, under the circumstances. I,
too, have a middle name. My middle name is Barlow. Barlow is
my mother’s family name. It is also the name of the Connecticut
town I grew up in, which, as I read about those desert islands I
was headed toward, seemed suddenly such an alluring place, so
green and inviting.
 At the Guayaquil airport, which was small but as lively as
a marketplace, I waited to board a midget propeller plane and
thought, Why didn’t I just go to Barlow?
 I was told to line up with the other passengers on the tarmac.
With our bags on the ground in front of us, we stood facing uniformed
men holding automatic weapons, like prisoners facing
the firing squad.
 “Terrorists?” asked a woman near me.
 “Drugs,” said someone else. “Or a coup.”
 I entertained the idea of a pogrom. I speculated on the possibility
of being killed by a death squad before seeing even one
species of tortoise. Then a huge police dog appeared, held tight
on a thick leash. The military men remained grim as the big dog
wagged his tail gaily and pranced along the line of passengers,
poking his wet nose at our bags. I wondered if he was searching
for a new species.
 When the dog was done with us, we finally boarded the plane.
An American family of five—grandmother, I assumed, various
grown children, and one girl about ten years old, the granddaughter—
stood in the aisle, blocking my way, discussing their seating
 “You can’t give Grandpa the window seat,” the little girl said
with considerable disgust. “He’s dead.”
 “Don’t say that,” her mother said. “You’ll hurt Grandma’s feelings.”
 A guy about my age, the girl’s uncle, I supposed, gave me a
helpless, apologetic smile. A very engaging apologetic smile. I
thought he must surely be with the Natural History Now group,
for he was dressed in natural history clothes of khaki nylon and
Velcro. But then, so was everyone else. “My guidebook says the
view from the left is better,” he said. He pointed to an empty seat
and I took it. In half an hour I was looking down from the window
at a small, dun-colored, flat plateau of volcanic dust surrounded
by a flat gray sea.
 Charles Darwin visited the Galapagos in the Southern Hemisphere’s
summer. This is his first impression of the islands: “Nothing
could be less inviting than the first appearance. A broken field
of black basaltic lava is every where covered by a stunted brushwood,
which shows little signs of life. The dry and parched surface,
having been heated by the noonday sun, gave the air a close
and sultry feeling, like that from a stove: we fancied even the
bushes smelt unpleasantly.”
 I read this passage from The Journal of the H.M.S. Beagle on
that short flight, and when we climbed down the plane’s aluminum
stairway onto the runway, I expected to be met by just such a
close and sultry feeling, like that from a stove.
 I stood at the bottom of the stairway. It wasn’t hot at all. It
was chilly. I reminded myself that I was there in July, and July
was winter in the Southern Hemisphere. Darwin had visited the
Galapagos in September, which would have been what? Spring.
 Maybe this trip really was a mistake. The sun hung directly
overhead. Noon on the equator. I stood beneath the equatorial
sun three thousand miles from home, among islands teeming
with blue-footed, yellow-scaled, red-throated life, none of it
visible, the ground stretching offin cinders. I was traveling with
a group of complete strangers. What if they tried to talk to me
about the healing powers of crystals? Or Jesus? Or sex addiction?
And the islands were ugly—even Darwin said so. And they were
cold. These were the islands the Spanish called the Encantadas,
the Enchanted Islands. By enchanted, they meant under a spell,
they meant cursed.
 It was then that I saw a young woman with a sign for our group.
 I knew it was her. I could tell from across the room. I could tell
without seeing her face. There are people you recognize by their
general presence. Birdwatchers can identify a bird without really
seeing it, by getting just a glimpse, a fleeting movement, the beat
of a wing, the flash of a silhouette. The bird flies off, leaving only
an impression.
 Martha was across the room, obscured by the shade, but I
recognized her in just that immediate, intuitive way. I almost
expected her to fly off, like a bird, leaving only an impression.
 She held a sign that said “Natural History Now.” Every group
must have a naturalist guide from the Ecuadorian Parks Department.
She was our guide.
 She was also the girl who had grown up next door to me, my
best friend, the one who didn’t die, the one for whom I received
absolutely no sympathy.
 Martha Barlow, my cousin and childhood friend, still my
cousin, no longer a child, no longer a friend, standing in the little
airport of Isla Baltra, Galapagos, Ecuador, waiting for the group
from Natural History Now.
 She stared at me.
 “You look just like someone I used to know,” she said.
 “Jane? Is that really you?”
 Martha smiled, a pure, involuntary smile that welled up from
years and years of friendship. I smiled back. For one moment the
simple surprise and fact of recognition hit both of us directly.
Then I thought, This is not what I had in mind.
 An anonymous vacation with knowledgeable, mildly entertaining,
and occasionally enraging strangers was what I’d had in
mind. But here was this person who knew me, whom I had once
known. Her presence was suddenly not only surprising, but ominous.
 “I didn’t know you were here,” I said.
 “I’ve been down here for a year. I work here. Well, I live here,
too. It’s so amazing to see you. So weird. Are you actually on this
tour? You’re in my group! The past rises up and walks upon the
 The friend is dead! Long live the friend!
 Martha gave my hand a squeeze. I must admit I was filled with
what I can only call joy. Martha, my best friend, among all the
strangers and the ashes. But the joy lasted a mere moment. For
she was not my best friend, I reminded myself. She had thrown
me over, dumped, ditched, cut, cold-shouldered, discarded,
shelved, jettisoned, and retired me. I considered asking her right
then and there why she’d been so awful so many years ago, so awful
that I was reduced to mentally sputtering mixed metaphors.
Or not precisely awful, as she had never done anything overtly unkind.
She had just stopped being my friend. Stopped, like a clock.
 But of course I didn’t say, “Hey, you over there, the disloyal,
fickle one holding the sign, what the fuck happened anyway?” as
I wanted to. For one thing, I didn’t have a chance. Martha, the
group leader, the guide, was quickly surrounded by her charges.
There was a young, heavily equipped couple who introduced
themselves as Craig and Cindy Gerrard. Then two women—
surely they were at least seventy-five years old—greeted her. One
was tall and imposing with a brisk and Tyrolean manner, though
she spoke in a thick Queens accent. The other woman sported
an alarming amount of aged but still coquettish cleavage. I wondered
if Martha worried that these elderly ladies would not be up
to the trip. I decided that they both, each in her own way, exhibited
quite sufficient vigor. Another aged traveler approached Martha,
also a septuagenarian, well groomed, well preserved, small
and dapper. He kissed her hand and said, “And a little child shall
lead them!”
 Martha greeted the rest—the family I’d seen on the plane, a
middle-aged couple, and a woman wearing a United Nations of
ethnic garments and carrying an umbrella—and turned back to
me now and then to say, “What a coincidence! I can’t believe it!”
I had no idea how Martha had come to be a ranger for the Ecuadorian
Parks Department. The last I heard was that she was premed
in college.
 I said, “I thought you were going to medical school.”
 “I’m a botanist, actually.”
 “So I guess you never went to medical school.”
 “Me? No. Did you?”
 “Me? No. You were supposed to go.”
 “Well, I didn’t.”
 “Well, I certainly didn’t,” I said.
 We smiled at each other, both recognizing the comforting, irritable
rhythm of a friendship set in its ways. But this intimacy,
too, lasted only a moment.
 Martha said, “Well!” and resumed her role as guide.
 I had successively mourned, demonized, and forgotten Martha,
off and on, for quite a few years. Standing in that airport,
awkward and uncertain and impatient, I found it hard to believe
that now, after so long, Martha could casually greet me, turn easily
to the others, nonchalantly turn back again. I don’t know what
I thought would have been more appropriate. A massive stroke,
 “We’re like your little ducklings,” I said. The sound of my voice
depressed me. It was forced, lighthearted, one of those voices that
have about them a faint echo of desperation.
 “Quack,” said the oddly dressed woman, and she shook my
hand warmly, another member of the flock.
 This is where I ought to tell you why Martha and I stopped being
friends. The problem is, I don’t know. There just came a time
when she stopped calling, stopped returning my calls, stopped
dead. I never knew what it was I’d done. I just knew that I’d lost
my best friend. Or perhaps misplaced her, for here she was again,
right in front of me.
 We climbed into a launch. The wind blew in our faces. The
sea was everywhere. It filled every sense. I tried to think of something
to say. Ahead, I could see the Huxley, a ninety-foot yacht
built especially for ferrying tourists around the Galapagos.
 “Our boat is the same size as the Beagle,” I said.
Martha nodded.
 “The Beagle carried seventy-four passengers for five years.
Can you imagine all those people, all those years on such a small
 “Well,” Martha said. “Actually, I forgot to tell you. The trip has
been extended! The other sixty people are already on board!”
 Our latitude was zero degrees. Martha and I sat in a launch
motoring toward a ninety-foot boat at zero degrees. Was that like
starting out from zero? Perhaps we could begin all over again,
squabbling happily, pretending the last few years had never occurred,
ignoring the years of friendship before that. We could
meet as if for the first time and proceed from there, from zero degrees
latitude. But I saw immediately that Martha was far too familiar
to meet for the first time.
 The sun was so bright it bleached the sky a pale, pale blue. I
put on my sunglasses and watched Martha from behind them.
She loved the group already, that was clear. I was sure that she
liked all her groups, indulging them, her ducklings waddling
all in a row behind her. Martha was not maternal, don’t get me
wrong. When she played with dolls as a little girl, they were never
her babies—they were her devoted followers. I was sure that the
tourists in every one of her groups were as devoted as her dolls. I
always had been, and old habits die hard: Martha pushed her sunglasses
up on her head, and I felt an awkward urge to do the same.
 We climbed a ladder from the panga, as Martha called the
launch, to our boat. We were handed up by members of the crew.
All of them then assembled in the main cabin, a lounge with a
bar. There were ten crew members wearing dress-white uniforms,
and as they shook hands and greeted us in smiling, animated
Spanish, I thought that, unfriendly as the islands might be, the
Huxley, at least, was going to be an amiable place. The cook, fat
and bow-legged, wore a stiff, sparkling white chef jacket and a
tall sparkling white chef hat that towered officially and absurdly
above his white shorts and sneakers.
 We had been ferried to the boat in two pangas, and I had gone
with the courtly old gentleman and the two older women, the
one tall and mighty, the other soft, ripe, and risqué, whose names
I instantly forgot, as well as the young couple, who both had the
softest traces of Canadian accents, and the person of late middle
age in deeply eccentric clothing who had quacked. In the other
panga, there was the middle-aged couple and the guy who had
advised me about seating in the plane along with his family. Although
I was rather skeptical about men just at that point, I did
note that he seemed to be single and was good-looking, though
short. And I idly speculated what it would be like to have him as
my roommate on the trip. But I knew the eco-bag-lady was somehow
meant for my cabin. There was an unaccountable, hideous
inevitability to it.
 I also thought of the possibility of sharing a cabin with Martha,
of course: perhaps forcing the issue of whether we were or were
not still friends by cramped, elbow-jostling intimacy, perhaps to
punish her for her disloyalty with constant cold companionship,
or perhaps just to have an extended sleepover as in the halcyon
days of youth. I wasn’t too clear on my motives. But I did realize
that Martha probably got to have her own room, like the teacher
on a class trip to Washington, D.C. For my hubris in hoping to
share a cabin with her, I would be rewarded with the weirdo in
the kimono and Ashantiheaddress.
 I listened almost impassively as Pablo, a very young Ecuadorian
with curly black hair and the only crew member who spoke
English, gave us our room assignments, and my roommate fears
were confirmed.
 She waved at me.
 I waved back.
 Around us rose a confused competitive murmur. Our room
was one of only two on an upper deck. Other passengers looked
suspiciously at me and the roommate. A silent question rippled
through the group: Would our room be better than theirs? Or
 It was better. It had windows and a door that opened out onto
the deck. The cabins below were prettier, bigger berths, with
walls of varnished wood. But they smelled of fuel, and their little
portholes were useless. You couldn’t open them for air because
they were nailed shut, and they were far too cloudy to let in the
sunlight. In my cabin, though my knees bumped my roommate’s
if we both sat on the bunks at the same time, the fresh chill of the
air blew through, from door to bright, open window. I was grateful
for that breeze, for although we had not yet begun to move,
the slight swaying of the boat was already making me a little seasick.
 “Just like Charles Darwin himself,” said my new roommate,
with a reassuring pat on the back.
 Our cabin was not much bigger than a train compartment.
Pablo ducked his curly head in the open door to tell us we must
each take only one shower a day, or two short showers. Martha
had the other cabin on the upper deck. I saw her walk by as Pablo
added that we should not flush toilet paper down the toilet, but
deposit it in the wastebasket, which he would empty frequently.
He spoke in a beautiful, lilting English, which I barely listened
to, so intent was I on Martha, incongruous, unexpected, out of
place, a fossil, my seashell in the Andes.
 My roommate introduced herself as “Gloria Steinham, no
relation.” I guessed she was about my mother’s age, and I suspected
that even in that cramped space, her knees would seldom
have a chance to bump mine, so infrequently did she sit still
long enough to get in the way. She told me she was a science
teacher, which perhaps I should have guessed, as she seemed to
be wearing around her neck all the specimens she would need for
an entire unit on shells, seedpods, or canine teeth. Then she announced
that she was never seasick, and that she did not snore.
 “Which is a blessing,” she said.
 “My mother’s a teacher, too.”
 “She should have come with you!”
 I tried to picture my mother on the Huxley.
 “Well, if she could be captain, maybe,” I said.

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