In college I had to pass basic Red Cross swimming to graduate. I shivered in the loose bathing suit the instructors handed out; the dank chlorine odor from the indoor pool made me gag. Blue for under a hundred twenty, green for medium, red for large. Why red for large? That seemed cruel. My blue suit hung on me like a dishrag. That first afternoon at the gym every instinct screamed, “Run! Run now!” but my sensible brain insisted, “You have to do this.” A dozen other girls shivered alongside me; not one of us could swim. I could smell our panic, our female fear scent. We dangled our feet over the edge; we stood in the shallow end and did calisthenics. Finally, we held onto the sides of the bath-warm pool and kicked for days – weeks. Around October the coach started yelling, “One, two, three – hold your breath.” Just before Thanksgiving break we advanced to “One, two, three – hold your breath – duck your face! Heads up!” I did it, underwater no more than a blink, but I did it, and I didn’t drown.
I learned to dog paddle for three minutes in the deep end, and float on my back, and side stroke and back stroke the length of the pool– enough to pass and graduate. But water was still my secret enemy, sneakier and scarier now, in a way, since I had entered its realm. But we had a truce: the nightmares stopped and I no longer had to say no to pool parties or weekends at the river. I could even visit the Atlantic Ocean and walk in the surf at night, but I’d never play in the waves. I hated the slapping sound they made, like never-ending punishment.
I haven’t thought of these things for years. I’m 32, married – no way a ninny. All that water must have come washing back over me because of the snorkeling – did I gasp out loud? I’m not scared any more. A tad anxious, sure, but not actually afraid.
“Juli?” Ryan taps my thigh. “Something wrong?”
I grab his calloused hand. “No. Did I say something?”
“Nuh-huh – just sorta took a deep breath.”
“Oh. I do that sometimes, don’t I?”
“Yeah. You excited?”
“I am.” Ryan and I are driving through lush resorts in a rented convertible on our first big trip together. So now we’re in Maui. This is our third day, and we’ve hiked and biked and taken a moonlight cruise. This morning he’s going to teach me to snorkel. Ryan knows about me and water; he’s patient, and he swears I’m going to love this experience. He’s promised I don’t even have to go out over my head. He won’t let go of my hand until I’m ready. I can do it.
We round one last curve and the ocean pops into view, never ending.
“Isn’t that something?” he says.
“It is. It really is.” I’ve gotten used to looking at this Pacific Ocean, ever since we flew over it two days ago. He’s right: It’s nothing like the Atlantic, except for its size. At least not here, around this island. The waves are smaller, and they roll in. By the time they get to shore, they’re only a trickle. It’s beautiful, a watery Eden, exactly like he described. I’m relaxed, almost dazed from all the sex and wine and rich food. I’m calm. I’m surrounded by water, but I’m safe with Ryan.
He pulls into a rocky area and parks the car in some shade. He’s gone all over the world hiking and biking and skiing and scuba diving, and Maui’s one of his favorite places. He’s even snow-skied on the big island. He knows all the hidden spots. Today he’s going to teach me himself; he sneers at tour boats and one-day lessons. Besides, I’d much rather be alone with him than with a mob of hassled families.
“You got the chart?” He’s opening the trunk, getting out our mesh snorkel bags. I’ve been studying the diagram of all the fish types we might see: triggerfish and gar and butterfly, a veritable encyclopedia of colors and types. I don’t believe him when he says they’ll be this brilliant underwater. How could that be? I’ve seen plenty of saltwater tanks, and the shades and shapes of the fish are breathtaking. But they’re in small spaces. And the tanks aren’t very deep. And they have lights. Not like I imagine the underwater dark.
We hike through an almost invisible path in the black lava rock, until we come to a lagoon with a pebbly beach area. No one else is here. That’s one of the things that’s surprised me about Maui; we can go places and not run into other tourists, though it’s the most popular honeymoon spot in the world. I love this feeling of privacy, of remoteness. I could stay here and sleep on this beach, if only someone would bring me mangoes and wine.
“You like it?” Ryan asks, a crinkly grin on his tanned face. His eyes flash like a naughty little boy’s – that’s one of the things I found irresistible when I met him at the tennis club. He teases, but it’s not a stinging kind of teasing; it’s more like, “Isn’t this fun? Aren’t you glad you’re with me?”
I kiss his shoulder. “You amaze me, Mister Ryan. You really do.”
I twist my wayward hair into a scrunchie and tuck it inside itself. We stand ankle deep in the surf and he shows me how to rub toothpaste on my mask and clear it, and how to breathe through the mouthpiece, and the hand signals we’ll need when we can’t talk. He lets me practice with the equipment until I’m comfortable.
“Want to try your flippers? That’s the trickiest part.”
“Thatta gal.” We sit on the rocks and wet our feet and force the clumsy flippers on; I don’t like the rubbery smell, like a blown tire, but I manage. I’m comforted, somehow, knowing my silver toe ring we bought at the street market is nestled in there, my totem to the earth. We stay put a few minutes while he points to where we’ll walk in, describes how to bend over from the waist and put my head in first, to get used to the real thing. To see that I really will be able to breathe under water.
“This is a perfect morning, Juli. The water’s still, the sun’s out, it’s not too hot yet. We ought to see a lot.”
“Promise you won’t take me out over my head.”
“I already promised. Just wait; you’re gonna want to do this every day. You’re gonna surprise yourself.”
“We’ll see about that.”
“Okay, let me show you. You have to enter the water backwards, ’cause of the flippers.” He flops along, still facing me, as at ease in the water as a dolphin. He exaggerates walking backwards, his tight behind poking out, and I have to laugh; it looks ridiculous. How could I be scared of something so goofy?
“See?” He holds his hands out to the sides, shoulder high: Nothing to it. “Want me to help you down?”
The water is like a second skin; it’s not hot, not cold. The sensation is soothing, refreshing, welcoming. As I turn my back to him, grab for his hand, I say, “Don’t let go.”
“Course not. Come on. Duck walk backwards.” The flippers feel like dead weight in the sand, but Ryan sticks his butt out and tugs and I follow. He’s right: it’s not as hard as it looks.
When we’re up to our waist we stop, turn, and face the ocean. Molokai is to our right, more rocks and shore never ending to our left. We’re still holding our snorkels in one hand; our masks are propped on our heads. “What’s out there?” I point to the waterline, the edge of the world.
“Tahiti? I’m not sure. Let me think.”
“You ready to try your mask?”
We clear the toothpaste off and put our masks on. We can still talk, and he asks if I can see real well. The masks put a distance between us. He points to the snorkel and I signal thumbs up. He puts his on, blows out, so I do the same. He takes his off and says, “Just breathe normally, okay? And if you get water in, blow out. It’ll go out your blowhole like a whale.”
He ducks underwater, the back of his head on the surface, and I see water spurt through the tip of his snorkel. When he stands he pulls out his mouthpiece, puts up his mask. “Now you’re gonna lean down and breathe. That’s all. Ready?” He grabs around my waist and I put my face underwater. It’s clear as tap water, and light; I’m under a few seconds before I realize I’m breathing naturally. When I stand and pull my mouthpiece out I can’t help but smile.
“See? What’d I tell you?”
“Is that all there is to it?”
“Yep; you just float along. Flip easy, now, only enough to stay afloat; you’re not in a race.” He points to some rocks about as far away as a house across a suburban street. “We’ll head out there. It’s not deep at all. About up to your shoulders. The fish like to hang out around rocks. There’ll be lots of coral, but don’t touch it. It can cut and you don’t want to be bleeding. And remember our hand signals. Okay? Ready?”
In unison we pull down our masks, put on our mouthpieces, and lean forward. I make myself stretch out, and I’m floating, my face in the water. I have this immediate sensation like some giant invisible goddess is lifting me, holding me in her strong, maternal hands. I’ve never felt so buoyed. I’m giddy with feeling when I see brilliant yellow fish with black snouts right in front of me. The color – like my favorite childhood Crayola! Ryan points down, and an iridescent creature the colors of the rainbow is lolling beneath us. My eyes dart; I recognize a parrotfish. A cluster of small cobalt blue fish flicker by. What are they? They don’t shy from me, just flow by as if I’m another finned being. The play of the sun creates swimming shadow fish below me. And I see caves – hills of living caves, with all these black and reddish-orange arms waving in and out, as though staying afloat themselves. They draw me, invite me in. An angelfish the size of my foot floats by, eyes me, black tailfins fanning like gauze in a breeze.
Then I notice: It’s quiet, totally quiet. The only whisper is the easy in and out of my breathing. It’s more peaceful than yoga, more soothing than massage; I am truly out of body. A school of long, transparent fish swims around us, it looks like hundreds – a gar of some sort? – not touching, not hurrying, as if we belong, as if we’re part of this underwater kingdom. Ryan is at my fingertips, but his silliness and boyishness have washed away, his silence creating a kind of magnificence.
The music is loud, the dancers raucous, but still I have this post-orgasm grin on my face. True, I’ve had two too many Mai-Tais. True, Ryan has been whispering the most erotic, obscene suggestions in my ear. He beams, like he’s fathered a mermaid. When he stands he holds onto the table until he gets his balance; he points in the direction of the men’s room. Kahale’s Beach Bar is way too loud for talking.
Out of the heat of the dance floor a native Hawaiian reels over to my table, smiling like the laughing Buddha, as shaky on his feet as Ryan. He’s no taller than I am with loose black hair flowing down his back. Except for the flowery shirt, he could’ve stepped from a Gauguin. I know he’s drunk, even drunker than I am, but our eyes connect and I see an unexpected knowing there, a strange wisdom that doesn’t match his grin. One extended hand invites me to dance, and I follow him to the crowded center of the tiny floor. People move around us, arms, legs, hips swaying. Though sweat pours from his forehead he is serene, smiling the entire song. What is it? The Hawaiian version of “Hey, You, Get Offa My Cloud”? I circle him, wiggle down, shimmy my breasts in and out, back and forth. When the music ends, the performers announce a break, and the other dancers groan and hang on one another and stagger to their tables. My partner leans toward me, toward one ear, and says something I can’t make out. I lift my shoulders in the universal question, and he takes a step back, puts his hands over his heart, pats in the rhythm of a heartbeat, and points to my chest. He leans in again and says in a singsong way, “Prehistoric heart.” He smiles with his entire body, and he’s gone.
I feel as if I am floating above the bare dance floor, only instead of feet I have airy fins. I never knew; how could I have never known?
Author's CommentAs I was writing “Prehistoric Heart,” I was aware of the young women I admire – those who face their fears and pursue theirs gifts and strengths. Especially those women who defy and overcome the presumption of male authority.