The following is an excerpt from Becky Aikman's Saturday Night Widows, a memoir which recounts the tales of six young widows as they learn to navigate the world solo. It was published January 22 by Crown Publishers.
A year and a half after my husband died, I was still out of place among my contemporaries, and, as a widow in her forties, I was out of place among other widows, too. So I’m not sure why I decided to take my first vacation alone to a place where I was even more out of place, a place that I’d never considered visiting before, a place, in fact, that had never interested me in the least.
Breezing around the Internet, I had come across one last opening on a trip to the Galápagos Islands. I saw beaches and a sailboat. I somehow overlooked the fact that the water temperature was fifty-five degrees. The Galápagos, I vaguely recalled, were famously populated with creatures that had washed up alone in a harsh environment and had to learn to adapt and evolve. I could relate. And to protect the islands’ unique environment, visitors were required to travel with a group and a licensed guide. That way I’d have company over dinner every night and something to talk about after spending days trailing around after peculiar wildlife. The romantic in me liked the idea that the trip was really out there—in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, far from everything in a daily life that now was such a challenge.
Oh, I got challenge, all right. The trip involved ten days of hiking, sea-kayaking, and snorkeling with twelve strangers, all organized by an adventure travel company known for African safaris and Himalayan mountain climbing.
I recognized the scope of my mistake at the first rendezvous with my fellow travelers at the airport in Quito, Ecuador. I was wearing clothing appropriate for the snack bar at Cap Juluca. They were wearing gear—ultralight, water-repellent, moisture-wicking, mesh-and-spandex actionwear in blazing colors that gave conspicuous definition to their lean and sculpted bodies. They frisked about in the waiting area like racehorses at Churchill Downs. We introduced ourselves. One woman let me know that she had completed marathons on all seven continents, including Antarctica, where her husband, equally fit, had shoveled the snow off the course. Another imposing figure had sea-kayaked through Papua New Guinea on her most recent trip, sleeping on floors of mud huts. She swam every morning in the icy currents of San Francisco Bay.
I’d spent much of the last five years in hospital waiting rooms. Thinner than thin and frailer than frail, I didn’t even belong to a gym, and my writing job hardly required feats of strength. Because I had signed up for the trip only a week before, I had assembled a mishmash of sporty togs from the recommended packing list on a last-minute shopping spree that I called Survival of the Fittings. My Puma cloth sneakers provided no shock absorption, torsion stability, or functional support of any kind, but I held out hope that my new wetsuit, a size too small and strained to the point of snapping, made me look like Lara Croft. Once, I reminded myself, I had been a competitive swimmer, even though now my foremost association with water was the series of drowning nightmares that were all tied up with Bernie’s death.
Our guide handed out the itinerary, jammed with activities several grades beyond my endurance level. There was also a list of our fellow travelers. I had signed up too late for my name to be included. Someone had written in ink only this: New York Woman.
Unlike the seasoned adventurers in the group, I hadn’t done much reading about the Galápagos or Charles Darwin or nature in general, for that matter. Our guide, Klaus, filled me in on the plane. A true action hero who looked the part, with sun-bleached hair and a square jaw, Klaus was skilled in surfing, scuba diving, and mountain climbing. He explained how the barren mass of islands had been formed by relatively recent volcanoes. The only creatures that lived there were descended from birds that could fly hundreds of miles without a place to rest, or land species like turtles that were capable of surviving long sea voyages on tree branches or other floating debris. Over time they had morphed into just the right configurations to keep themselves alive and attract their mates, some two thousand species that existed nowhere else on earth. I looked out of the window as we landed, catching my first view of the islands’ craggy black landscape, peppered with scrubby plants, looking about as hospitable as the surface of Uranus. This wasn’t St. Barts. It was a land of misfits, home of living things that didn’t really belong there.
If the animals living in the Galápagos could manage for centuries, surely I could suffer through ten days. I settled into my billet on the sailboat that would carry us from island to island. The first morning, I groaned with horror at the six a.m. wake-up knock. But I told myself that I had become, however improbably, a woman who owned a fanny pack with Velcro closures. It was time to strap it on. Soon I found myself scrambling over jagged lavascapes, my ankles wobbling as I struggled to find my balance and keep up with two other single women. We took each other’s pictures next to whatever oddball bird or reptile we ran across. There were three-hundred-pound tortoises; marine iguanas that were genuine leaping lizards, diving into the sea for food; and flightless cormorants, swimming birds whose wings had withered to useless stubs. Pairing off throughout history, mating couples had produced these freaky mutations. Some species, Klaus explained, like the albatross, were monogamous for life. What happens to the ones whose mates died early, I wondered? Where did they fit in?
Thanks to my dormant swimming expertise, I kept pace better in the water, where the multicolored fantasia on snorkeling excursions carried me far from such thoughts. I sloshed through the frigid sea to spy on penguins, sharks, spectacular schools of colored fish, and, one day, two manta rays—six and eight feet across at least—gliding elegantly by. I don’t know which impressed me more, the beauty of their graceful progress or the fact that I was lapping with them at six thirty in the morning.
One day as we were hiking along some tidal pools, Klaus stopped to point out something really special, a fish called a four-eyed blenny, with quirky gills that processed air and fins that allowed it to pull itself up on the rocks. We gathered close, straining to follow Klaus’s pointing finger. I couldn’t make out the fish at first. It was tiny, Klaus said, and its mottled scales blended in with the crusty rocks. I tried again, and there it was, my soul mate: a genuine fish out of water.
“Hang in there, little guy,” I said.
By the last day, I had become so nimble in my high-fashion sneakers that the others took to calling me, only half kidding, Action Girl. In fact, they were still teasing me after our final snorkeling foray as our skiff skipped across the water on the way back to the mother ship. I looked toward the horizon and spotted a large school of fish leaping into the air a hundred yards or so away.
“What’s that, Klaus?” I shouted over the engine.
“Those are skipjacks,” he shouted back. “Swimming with skipjacks is the most incredible experience. Do you want to try it?”
“Yeah!” I didn’t even know what skipjacks were. I later learned they were a fast-moving fish, related to tuna, but just a couple of feet long. Waiting for no one, I flung myself off the boat.
What was I thinking? We were out in the deep, wide-open ocean. We had seen hammerhead sharks only minutes before. When I put my face down, I saw nothing but black. For a moment, I gasped and sputtered. All those drowning nightmares crowded my mind, pulling me down. I pushed them away. Something in me wanted this adventure. And something else: by now I felt safe with my group. I sensed the impact as they hit the water beside me.
I took off after those fish, tapping some lunatic strength to churn across the surface of the sea, punching into the choppy waves. I spotted some skipjacks up ahead, just a few of them at first, and then more, and then even more, and I was thinking, Damn, these fish are fast, but I’m as fast as they are.
Unaccountably, it was true. I was slicing through the water with preposterous ease, leaning into it with everything I had, feeling the rhythmic force of my breathing and the surging, unexpected power of my arms and legs, the pure euphoria of acceleration. The water buoyed me up and carried me forward. Soon the shiny, silvery skipjacks were flashing all around me, hundreds of them, maybe thousands, tens of thousands for all I knew, yet they also moved as one, switching directions through some mystical telepathic connection, and I was right there with them, in a swirl of iridescent motion. I could have been arcing through the air with a flock of shimmering birds. I felt blessed to possess whatever it took—my old swimming skill, my aqua-dynamic physique, or maybe a fear-juiced shot of adrenaline—to be alive to that wonder.
Out of breath, I stopped and looked up, all alone in the deepest water I’d ever been in. I was astonished to see my friends scattered far behind. No one but me had caught up to the fish.
“Becky,” Klaus exclaimed when he reached me at last with the boat. “You are an incredibly strong swimmer.” He reached out a hand to pull me in.
“Trust me,” I said, as surprised as he was. “I’m not strong.”
“You are incredibly strong,” Klaus said again. I could swear he was looking behind me to see if I had an outboard motor attached. The others were equally agog.
“No, I’m not,” I insisted. Dripping all over, legs all wobbly, I pulled off my mask. I felt the rigid muscles in my face let loose into the biggest smile I’d put out there since Bernie died. “It’s this place. I seem to be well adapted to it.”
And that was how I took a trip to the Galápagos, Land of Misfits, to discover that I was stronger than I knew, that I could tackle something new, even in the wrong clothes, the wrong shoes, the wrong body. That I, too, could evolve. My newfound Action Girl persona, I understood, wouldn’t be much use back home amid the trials of work and loss. Most days I would still feel like that four-eyed blenny trying to drag myself by my flippers onto dry land.
But like the strange, adaptable species of the Galapágos—birds that don’t fly, iguanas that swim, fish that walk—I had seen that I, a wife without a husband, could bring my own grab bag of strengths and weaknesses to an alien situation. And that I might not be the fittest, but I could survive. Maybe even thrive.
Excerpted from Saturday Night Widows by Becky Aikman. Copyright © 2013 by Becky Aikman. Excerpted by permission of Crown Publishers, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.