by Matthew Salesses
Eric avoided the eyes of the two shipmates, Luke and Dom, both muscular and white, as he took the snorkeling gear from his wife. Soon he would be alone with her. They would leave the Lady of the Reef for the ovular island that sloped into the water like a woman letting herself slowly into a pool. He stepped down into the motorboat, the dark blue shadow of the reef below. He spit on the inside of the mask.
“Rinse it off,” his wife said.
“It’s for visibility. So we can see out of them clearly underwater.”
“Yes,” she said. She turned to their captain. “Let’s get going, Chrissie, please.”
The motorboat shook slightly with each miniature wave. Earlier, he had tried to get his wife to make love to him down in the hold and she had climbed up on deck and tanned under the eyes of the shipmates. Now she took photographs of the island, giving the scene a frame, trying to keep her camera steady. He traced over her face in his mind: over the lens covering her eye, down to her slim, suggestive lips, around to the hollows in her cheeks and the cord with the flat leather resting on the back of her neck like a hand.
When the boat stopped he stepped into the water, feeling the captain’s fingers wrap around his ribs. “I can’t get any closer to shore without hitting bottom and possibly damaging the reef,” Chrissie said. “Breaking one piece kills anything connected to it. So watch your feet and step out as far as you can. Around here it’s mostly dead coral.” He felt the bumps and juts under his foot, the skeletons of the reef. “The beaches on most of the Whitsunday Islands are washed up coral instead of silicon.”
He watched his wife reach her long legs over the side, pushing off the boat from the fulcrum of her waist. Beyond, the shells and pieces of broken coral glinted like white sand. He watched the motorboat depart as they walked the rest of the way to the beach.
“Not much to spread out on,” he said. “We could go snorkeling. I can see the reef right out there, and we have our masks.”
She stretched out on the coral, adjusting her back, removing the top of her bikini and wrapping the fabric around the camera. “Don’t stare at me like you’ve never seen me before. Why don’t you go snorkeling—dear?”
He lay beside her, judging the distance to the Lady. “Nora-bora,” he said, like he used to call her. She didn’t respond. He felt his body and head still with the sway of the Lady. He propped himself up on his elbows, watching the water dribble over and between the shells. “Do you remember that game we left early when the Mets were up by seven and they ended up losing?”
“I don’t like baseball, Eric. You knew that from the beginning.” She said his name like dropping a rock into a pond.
“You don’t remember.”
“If I thought about it.”
“We went back into the city to that little soup shop you used to love. That went out of business. And you had that—that minestrone they made. They had the game on, and we watched it for a little while and they were still winning. You said you didn’t like baseball and wanted to go to the apartment and make love.”
“Yes. I remember that restaurant. And the minestrone. But I can’t recall specific games.”
“We drove around a little while and I kept you buttered up till we got back. We may have had something to drink. You might have been a little tipsy.”
“Then you can’t blame me for not remembering.”
He looked out over the reef and water to the Lady, then farther out to where he could see the shape of another island in the distance.
“The shells are digging into my back,” she said. “We can go snorkeling if you want.”
He sighed. “We made love and you told me you didn’t love me. But I looked straight in your eyes and I knew you were lying.” He lifted a little coral with his toes and it tumbled down his foot to his ankle. It was true she had warned him she wanted to be alone, before she came on this vacation. “It might have been the last Mets game we ever saw.”
“You have some memory, Eric,” she said. She pushed herself up from the beach and put on her top. She carried her mask into the water and he followed the line from her legs to her arms like an arrow.
* * * *
He could hear nothing underwater but his breathing and the rise and fall of frothed waves. Sometimes Nora appeared in front of him or off to the side, but he couldn’t talk—only wave or point. She was beautiful, a streak of light in the water. He duck-dived and his breaths rumbled in the tube. He imagined the crew back on the boat. The whole trip he had noticed how people treated him differently, an Asian with a white wife in Australia, where they didn’t belong, even without knowing he had tried to choke her and she still refused to forgive him. The mask covered his nose and he breathed out of his mouth now like he did when he was trying to sleep.
New things swam past him and he headed toward them, trying not to think about how fragile her windpipe had felt. By the dead coral was a group of five squid the size of fingers squirming through gray dust, not like one hand but five hands each of one finger. He trailed a blue and yellow fish, then took off after school of faster creatures. One of the triangular fish that surfaced by the Lady to feed raced by him before he knew it was there. Underwater the boat and Nora and America all seemed the same mysterious distance away.
When he got back she was sitting up on the coral waving at the approaching motorboat. Luke was standing in it, his arms sweeping grandly. “I think they want us to go out there,” Eric said. She turned but didn’t acknowledge him. She swung her snorkel and gear into the water and swam out to the boat. He watched Luke help her in, waiting for the captain’s gesture to follow.
“How was the beach?” Chrissie asked as she turned the motorboat around.
“Strange. I could still feel the ship on the land. And I’ve never seen a beach of dead coral.”
“It was boring,” Nora said. “Shells aren’t sand, either.”
“They dug into her back,” Eric said. “The water was beautiful.”
She pointed to several places, stretching out her body the way she did in front of mirrors. Luke was inspecting. “Did you see anything interesting?” he asked her. “You’ll see some interesting things when we dive.”
“There were some swaying coral things. And fish everywhere.”
“I think I saw some small squid,” Eric said.
Chrissie mentioned that giant clams sometimes bit onto anchors and were lifted out of the water before they let go.
“Whales sometimes swim through this area,” Luke said.
Nora brushed the hair from her face. “Do you think we’ll see any?”
“What about the whale watch we went on, honey?”
“Where was this?” Luke asked. “Back in the States? You’ll see much more here.”
“There are all sorts of things in the States,” Eric said.
“Not this sort of thing. This is the largest reef in the world. You can see it from space.”
Eric reached his feet into the center of the boat and pointed out an island in the distance, asking its name. Chrissie listed the shapes on the horizon. She shared facts about the islands and reef like fingers running over a rosary. “You probably won’t see any whales,” she said. “They pass through on their migration pattern. But there’s a chart of other species on the Lady that I can show you when we get back on board.” She talked about night diving, its private darkness and light, the attraction of the fish to a lit-up camera, like movie stars. She said the postcards they saw of the reef were captured by a flash of light in the dark. As they pulled up to the yacht he realized she might have been flirting with him; he thought she would be more attractive with her hair down.
Dom helped them up the ladder while the motorboat was tied to the Lady. Luke brought up the equipment for the dive. “I’ve laid out everything you need here,” he said. “Why don’t you put on your wet suits and fins and you can hang your mask and snorkel around your necks. Then put on the weight belt and we’ll carry the rest in the motorboat.”
The wet suit clung to Eric, around his thighs and crotch and under his arms—his typically thick Korean torso—but Nora looked good in it. Her suit was tight in the right places and smooth and dark like leather.
He hooked the weight belt around his waist, watching Luke help Nora on with hers. He could see Dom raising an eyebrow, could sense him turning to say something but they had nothing they could say to each other. Ignoring the mate Eric went down the ladder into the boat, the belt clinking against the metal and weighing on his hip, making him feel shorter and fatter. He stood in the motorboat and steadied his wife’s waist. They motored back to the semi-circle beach as Dom went down to cook dinner for their return.
* * * *
“The weights will feel more natural once you’re out of the boat,” Luke said, his whale-tooth necklace swinging against his chest. “They counteract the weightlessness of the water and the BCDs.” They raised their newly heavy bodies over the edge. The ocean smacked at their waists and the pieces of dead coral bit into the parts of their feet not covered by the fins. Luke strapped the vest-like BCDs and the attached tanks onto their backs and they fastened them around their stomachs. If they leaned back, he explained, the tanks and the air in the BCDs would keep them afloat.
Nora steadied herself in the water by grabbing the men’s arms as Chrissie and the motorboat buzzed away. “Grab hold,” Luke said, putting his palms out to each of them. “It’ll be easier. I’m going to teach you a few drills before we dive.”
They learned about the regulators allowing air from the tanks to their mouths and the BCDs regulating their buoyancy by filling up or emptying of air. Nora studied each technique. Eric felt only the anticipation of action, a rush between his skin and the rubber.
They switched regulators, retrieved them, learned the gauges, the signals, rules. He rushed while she delayed. They learned how to tilt their heads back and blow water out of their masks, and how to take out and put back their regulators without breathing in water. They learned how to repressurize their ears so it wouldn’t hurt when they changed depths. Luke blew a bubble underwater like a smoke ring as Nora practiced. The bubble rose to the surface and Eric watched Luke through the center of it.
“Should we hold hands?” his wife asked. “While we’re down there?”
“It would be good if we held hands.”
“I’m not holding hands,” Eric said. “I just want to get out there.”
“Just follow by my side,” Luke said. “And don’t touch the BCDs while we’re down there. We’ll adjust them when we start swimming, but then leave them alone.”
Eric let the mask suck onto his face. “Let’s get out there.”
“What if we lose a fin or our BCD starts to leak?” Nora asked. “What if we run out of air?”
“You won’t, dear. You’ll be fine.”
“There’s plenty of air in the tanks and everything is checked out,” Luke said. “Your fins won’t come off. If you see that you’re running out of air just give me the signal and you can breathe off of mine until we surface.” He swam out backwards over the reef. “You’ll both be fine.”
Stopping above the darkest shadow of coral he said, “Okay, let the air out of your BCD until I hold up my hand. Then just try to stay with me. If you get left behind, swim up to the surface.”
They descended, holding their noses and popping their ears every few feet. Luke waved and they kicked their fins out until they were next to the reef. Eric swam with his head tilted so he could see his wife. She was a much better swimmer than he was. With a few strokes she hovered over the coral, where Luke was, gliding without touching it. He couldn’t make himself quick or deep enough to join them. As they sloped down to meet the lowering ocean floor he stayed at the same level in the water and the reef grew farther and farther from him.
The water became murky sediment, a stirred-up snow globe off-color. He swam downward. His ears hurt. Pain increased across his forehead, and he pinched his nose and blew hard against the cartilage. Fish were everywhere: the murkiness made them fade and appear like colored ghosts, so many he brushed against them swimming. He remembered that sharks’ scales could cut if rubbed the wrong way. A stingray swam beneath a section of coral and he tried to follow it through holes in the reef. The coral twisted around itself, spilling over the ocean floor and poking out of crevices. Sometimes it curled over and created tunnels filled with strange fish and smaller, brighter creatures that darted in and out of swaying tentacles. Thin fish with fluorescent lights on their sides flitted by; around the corner stretched-out fish that might have been eels sidewinded like desert snakes. In its deepening the ocean became darker and bluer and the reef seemed endless.
His wife was farther from him now but he didn’t know in which direction. He let the air out of his BCD so he could skim over the coral as quickly as they did, and he felt his fins landing on it, breaking it. He had heard the directions when Luke said them, was there when they did the drills—it was just a matter of pressure, he thought. He let the air back in and floated too high. Looking up he could see the whiter column of the sun in the blue above him. His fingers worked over the BCD and along the tube that connected to the regulator in his mouth. His wife was off somewhere, both she and Luke far in the distance like the whales on their migration patterns. The air went in and out. Each time it went out the smallest of bubbles rose to the surface. He turned in the water, unsure which direction they had come from, how to get back to her.
He repressurized his ears again but the ocean slipped into his mask, puddling under his lower eyelashes. He stared at the water on either side of his nose, forgetting how to get it out. The fins cramped the arches in his feet and the painful strain of moving them sank its teeth into his shins. Finally he filled the BCD until he was pulled up to the top, blowing out his ears again and again as he went. The water in his mask rose up to his eyes and he closed them.
When he could feel the wind above the surface he removed his mask and emptied it. He was near the boat. He could see Chrissie waving at him but no sign of Luke or Nora. The wetsuit around his head was like the inside of a balloon. He put his mask back on as Chrissie shouted something. He slipped back in and could see nothing again except the bottom of the Lady and the coral covering the ground. He checked his air and swam around looking for his wife. The ocean had been warm at first but now he could feel the coldness of the suit against his skin and the empty pressure of the water. He wanted to dig his finger into his ear. In the sky he could make out the sun cradled in the last puff of cloud, and then the fish again surrounded him, and what he wanted most was to rest his hand above his wife’s hip or feel the soft baby hair on her arms, and not remember these feelings but own them. He remembered her neck between his hands, the fear of himself somehow less than the fear of what would happen if he released her, how their marriage would break apart—what could that future possibly hold? Finally he looked down at the bottom of the ocean and wanted to sink himself all the way into the reef and let the coral take over his body like the splintered hull of a shipwreck. Yet he kicked his legs out, and again, and swam up to look for Nora.
He resurfaced and saw the motorboat approaching. She and Luke glared over the yellow rubber. “What were you doing?” his wife asked as he climbed in. “Where were you?”
He let all the air out of his BCD to take the weight off and lay against it with the tank behind him. The water dripped off the suit and the neoprene clung like someone else’s skin. He peeled off the hood. He looked at her and said nothing. His eyelids came slowly together and relief dripped down like the melting of diamonds in his calves.
“You look happy,” she said. “You saw all sorts of things down there, did you? A giant clam, a shark, a sea turtle? Yes? A couple of whales?” She clenched the rubber siding. “We came back up for you, you know—surfaced and you were nowhere—got back on the boat. You saw Chrissie calling you and headed back under to see more. I didn’t even get to see the damn famous reef. I just saw some stupid—waving—coral.”
“Chrissie should kick you off the Lady,” Luke said.
Nora’s chin quivered, and Eric wanted to reach up and rest it like a leaf on the bough of his arm, reach up and feel her press her cheek against his skin voluntarily, vulnerably, unafraid. “She won’t,” he told the sailor.
“Either way I’ve already offered Nora another dive. You shouldn’t even be on board then.”
Finally anger rolled away the lethargy in Eric’s limbs. I can beat him, he thought, picturing his yellow fist against the sailor’s white jaw, just for an instant. But he would not be reduced to taking Luke’s place furling the sail or making knots if he laid him out unconscious. He would not be reduced to that. He was no shipmate. “I’ll be here as long as you are,” he said.
When the boat got back to the Lady they climbed the ladder and he watched Luke put away the equipment and fold the wetsuits, work on the sail and help wind the ropes. He entertained the thought of buying the yacht and putting the sailor out of a job. Across the deck Dom nodded, rubbed his tanned neck, nodded again. “Dinner’s below,” he said. Eric brought the caviar they had been saving up onto the deck. The Lady started out again on the Pacific, and he became dizzy with the rocking of the ship. Nora smiled as she ate; caviar was her favorite. He was sure it meant something to know a person well. They pulled away from the ovular island with the little dead-coral beach and the tide washing over the discarded shells. All around the Lady of the Reef the clear blue water grappled with the sunlight, trying to drag it beneath the surface. He wanted to swim out, with his wife, and show her how the colors underwater were both duller and brighter. He could hear Chrissie talking to him calmly, telling him again the rules of the reef, and he looked out at the horizon where people had once thought it possible that the world was flat and had an ending. All he wanted to do was dive again, but he knew instead that she would dive and he would stay on board. She and Luke would hold hands and he would wait for her to return.