I look up, Jarred from the motions of scrubbing the motor yacht on which I’m employed here in St. Croix. Jarred from the once inconceivable images that began the day before. Images of towering infernos, crumbling towers, shattered dreams, shattered lives.
A quick look up reveals a cloudless sky. The water beyond the island’s fringing reef appears calm, the wind light, overhead a baking, relentless September sun sends more sweat into my eyes.
“I don’t know, I’m not feeling so great,” I tell Jamie, my usual dive partner.
He does a little psychological arm twisting: it’s perfect weather, it’ll feel good, it’ll take my mind off things.
“Hardly,” I tell myself already feeling guilty for even being tempted at this midweek indulgence when I know so many lives have been snuffed out along the east coast of the United States. Worse, still, is the gnawing realization that on this planet a hatred exists which is capable of such unfathomable proportions. Strange how only 48 hours earlier, the world, even with all its many shortcomings, seemed so much less horrible. I’m angry and the lump in my throat still lingers, threatening tears at a moment’s notice but I realize an afternoon in front of the television bearing witness to a barrage of gut wrenching video footage is hardly going to make things any easier. Perhaps I should go diving I think as I begin scrubbing the same portion of deck I’ve been on for the past hour. “Maybe,” I finally reply before adding, “I’ll call you.”
Three hours later, work complete, we’re motoring out of the channel towards a close site called Blue Chutes. The wind, the little there was, has decreased to almost nothing and the air, even at 5 o’clock, is still heavy with humidity. “Damn, I do need this dive,” I suddenly find myself muttering, hardly audible beneath the purr of 450 horses. It hasn’t always been that way and five minutes later we’re tied up at the site’s mooring and getting our gear readied my mind is far, far away. Far from St. Croix. Far from New York, Washington D.C., and Pennsylvania. Lifetimes away. How many, I’m not sure.
“In my next life I wanna come back as a dolphin,” Nicole, my ex-girlfriend used to say quite frequently. It was her, after nearly six years of our being together, that would finally get me to give scuba diving a try. And in that time we’d spent enough time in the water for me to see Nicole was well on her way to making the transformation from land to water even in this lifetime.
Beneath the ocean’s surface, she moved with effortless grace, guided more by curiosity than anything resembling physical exertion. Long before my overdue rendezvous with compressed air, I used to watch from the surface. While, 30 feet below, Nicole glided, free diving, exploring nooks and crannies in the reef seemingly oblivious to constraints such as equalizing or air limitations. She simply belonged in the water.
Along the Kona Coast of Hawaii I witnessed this first hand when numerous dolphins from a pod of over 60 Hawaiian Spinners repeatedly came well within arms length of Nicole, encounters that seen even from the surface were obviously ones of mutual inquisitiveness, fascination and, without a doubt, for Nicole, at least, pure joy.
Jamie disappears beneath a cloud of bubbles and as I begin to follow suit I glance shoreward and wonder what, if anything, will change in my absence. Moments later, my BC deflated, I am horizontal and free-falling with the only sounds being that of my breathing and bubbles billowing from my regulator. Funny, how nearly 300 dives ago, these dispelled bubbles seemed so foreign and even a little violent, as if the exhalations were enough to rip the regulator out of my mouth. On that first discovery dive, my instructor had seen the saucer plate eyes and had me resurface. This instructor helped put my fears to rest before dropping down with me again. This time keeping me on an even shorter leash while I grappled with sensory overload and this new, Darth Vaderesqe breathing sensation.
However, today I merely point my body in the direction of the bottom, shut my eyes and plummet amidst the darkness. Relishing the raspy yet now soothing sounds of my breathing. When my eyes reopen I check my depth gauge and see I’m at almost 40 feet. Not far behind Jamie who is waiting patiently near an outcropping of plate corral swarming with various wrasses, butterflyfish and a pair of large French Angelfish.
“You o.k.?” Jamie questions me using hand signals and eyes which suggest uncertainty on the subject. I am quick to respond with an o.k. signal of my own and gesture he should proceed. As he does, I give my inflator button a quick tap and take my place six feet behind him and a few feet above the sloping reef. Languidly I wave my fins, content to move at the speed of plankton. As Jamie leads the way towards 65 feet where an upside-down barge continues down to our maximum depth of 100 feet.
En route I roll over on my back and become engrossed with the swirling blue ceiling above and with the steady stream of escaping gasses rushing up to meet it. Escaping towards the surface and what I ask myself? No, better you remain suspended indefinitely here with me and Jamie than enter the insanity of the world above, I reason. In this floating position, on the inside looking out and with 85degree water against my bare skin, enveloping me like a familiar down blanket. The urge to simply shut my eyes and attempt sleep becomes too enticing to resist. Immediately I am conscious of each breath as I attempt to conserve as much air as possible in the hope of postponing resurfacing for as long as possible.
“It’s all a terrible dream you’ll soon wake up from,” a voice in my head is telling me just as Jamie’s tank banger disturbs my mental slumber. I roll back to my stomach just in time to glimpse a Spotted Eagle Ray glide by up ahead of Jamie and off into the distant reaches of the dive’s 65 ft visibility and day’s fading light. Jamie’s childlike giddiness–fist pumped and eyes wide with the excitement of his find—brings the slightest semblance of a grin to my face. I am somewhat jaded, I realize. As jaded as only a plethora of manta ray dives back in Kona—dives among multiple mantas with wingspans the size of small European automobiles—can jade a person. Yet today the size of the ray hardly matters as my attention is focused solely on the ease in which this creature moves across the silent blue landscape. Its effortless channeled power suggests to me complete indifference and on this day of all days, it is this lackadaisicalness I am most envious of.
And so it is to go for the remainder of the dive. Forty-five minutes trapped in a liquid purgatory where the lines between the real and the surreal have never felt so hazy. Where everything that does penetrate my reality seems only to serve as a somber reminder that all is hardly as it was 48 hours earlier, 100 feet above me. It is all too much to block out and try as I do to let this fluid environment work its usual magic on the dull ache in the center of my stomach, nothing seems to work.
Everything I see reminds me of destruction and sorrow. A large section of stag coral mangled by Hurricane Hugo in 1989 has suddenly taken on an all too eerie semblance to twisted steel girders. The sight of a large big-eyed Squirlfish—its oversized eyes ideally adapted for nighttime hunting and feeding—remind me of human eyes swollen from excessive crying. Even the sight of an innocent Foureye Butterflyfish, so similar in black tail markings to the endemic Teardrop Butterflyfish of Hawaii serves as an incriminating reminder of the emotions being poured out at the surface above.
“This is ridiculous, I shouldn’t be down here,” I tell myself before heading over towards Jamie to tell him I’m ready to cut my dive short and head back to the boat. But only a few feet from his side, I see something out of the corner of my eye that stops me: a giant barrel sponge. Three quick kicks later I am hovering over this four-foot-high cylindrical life form transfixed by its shape, a form I’d first been introduced to long before I’d ever even considered scuba diving.
“What is that?” I’d cluelessly asked Nicole after surprising her at her ceramics class, finding her applying clay in vertical strips along the sides of what appeared to me to be an exceptionally large garbage can. She laughed. “It’s my final project. When it’s finished it’s going to be a barrel sponge.” Immediately followed my first lesson involving a world I knew nothing about. “A barrel sponge,” I told myself letting the word swirl around my imagination while looking around the room as Nicole’s classmates sat at their respective wheels spinning mugs, vases, goblets and other more traditional, less aquatic ceramic objects. A week later, its kiln firing complete, Nicole’s sponge came home and took up residence as the backyard garden’s centerpiece. How many times I’d reclined in my hammock staring at that bizarre creation set amidst a backdrop of zucchini, tomatoes and papaya plants and banana trees. “I’m in love with a mermaid,” I’d tell myself quite certain ours was the only yard in the state of Hawaii with a four-foot-high ceramic barrel sponge as a birdbath.
“A mermaid,” I think staring at this seemingly identical reproduction of Nicole’s creation. A mermaid had given me this gift of scuba diving and ironically, only months before it became abundantly clear the romantic portion of our relationship was finished. Perhaps she realized how much I’d miss without this activity being a part of my life. Perhaps she knew how much, as is the case today, I’d need the soothing solace of being able to slip below the waves, as opposed to merely sliding across them, surfing.
As I ponder this question I arch my back and put my arms out straight churning the water sending myself backward in lazy looping circles as I’d seen Nicole do when unable to contain her chronic bouts of aquatic bliss. And as the increasingly darkening ceiling above and sponge below begin passing in steady succession the previous day’s tragedy miraculously recedes for the briefest of moments. Replaced with a moment of gratitude which I know will continue to remain with me for a lifetime. However, the moment is short-lived as Jamie’s hand on my arm, followed with a sign to surface, break the spell.
I signal o.k. and slowly and begrudgingly begin heading towards 15 feet and a three-minute safety stop. There I hover, savoring the last vestiges of weightlessness, cherishing the waning moments of this aquatic interlude. With my time up I send myself into one last backflip before terminating the dive, breaking the surface moments before Jamie who almost immediately begins chiding me for my aloof behavior during the dive.
“What planet were you on down there?” he asks as we quickly break down our gear.
“I told you I wasn’t feeling too together,” I respond while firing up the outboards conveniently making any further interrogations impossible.
“That’s for sure,” he shouts as we begin making our way back in as the lights of Christensted and a brilliant orangish-red sunset set the stage for another Caribbean night.
But looking over my shoulder I realize on this night I’m sure of very little. Only that this sunset, more so than any before it, is a true gift. That there are unfortunately some things that even a good day of diving can’t cure. And I know without a doubt that I, too, am ready to come back as a dolphin in my next life.
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