“It’s called Mosquito Bay for a reason, ladies and gentlemen,” our guide Carlitos shouted as the truck-and-van convoy pulled into a clearing. “So the faster we get in, the better!”
I looked at Sarah, black hair tucked into her life vest, face blurred by wobbly shadows in the failing Puerto Rican twilight. Everything, I thought, was riding on this trip—our last few days together before setting out for separate cities. We’d come here, to Mosquito Bay on the Caribbean island of Vieques off Puerto Rico, to celebrate the finale of our old life in Louisiana and to mark the beginning of another, less definite one waiting for us in new and distant places. The unspoken question of how we’d handle it—two years at grad schools six hundred miles and a time zone apart—infused with bittersweet every meal of fresh fish and rice, every saccharine mojito, every green mountaintop panorama. It was supposed to be a flawless parade of Good Times, something to help steel ourselves against the loneliness ahead.
Then the mosquitoes came.
They swarmed us as soon as the convoy stopped. The group went wild swatting and slapping themselves while Carlitos, lanky and long-haired, unloaded the boats and called us by number.
“Group Four, you’re up…Group Five!”
We pushed our boat into the knee-deep murk along the shore, reeking of the citric oils we’d soaked ourselves in to guard against mosquito shellings. I was slick and sandy and sweating a rotten tropical sweat, trying to put sharks and jellyfish out of my mind as we waded in the piss-warm water.
“You ready, babe? Aren’t you excited?” Sarah asked.
I grunted. We pushed our yellow kayak off toward the rendezvous point, an anchored fishing boat in the dark center of the bay. We dipped our paddles into the black water, hers in front of mine, trying to sync our strokes and straighten our path.
“Stop. No. Okay, to the left. No, the left.”
“Get yours on the left. Okay, now switch. Switch.”
The other kayaks branched across the bay like rain streaking a windshield. Carlitos slid far in front. I tried to paddle through the thick, clinging distraction of the locals I’d seen back in Esperanza, the smaller of Vieques’ two towns. I’d watched them as we waited for our van to Mosquito Bay. They moved along the beachfront boardwalk, surrounded by their families, children in orbit, dancing and kissing in the crowded street. I felt, with each stroke of the paddle, a vortex of doubt swirling faster in my stomach—the same maelstrom I’d felt off and on in the months since we’d decided to move.
Why? Why are we leaving? I wondered as I stabbed into the bay.In Louisiana, we were surrounded by friends, held good jobs, and the life we wanted—the same life I’d seen back in Esperanza, a big party in paradise—lingered closer even than the jagged shoreline.
I lifted one end of my paddle toward the low marquee of stars. What good could this possibly do?
* * *
Carved from the Vieques’ southern coast, Mosquito Bay swells with an astounding number of tiny protists called dinoflagellates—microscopic organisms that, when disturbed, create a bioluminescence on par with fireflies. Properly known as pyrodinium bahamese, or “whirling fire,” dinoflagellates live in oceans across the world and can light up the water when ships or fish tunnel through them. In 1918, a German submarine was spotted and sunk in the glowing waters off Gibraltar, the creatures giving away its position as a bright blue streak beneath the surface. Concentrations strong enough for human visibility are rare, though, occurring mostly in remote places like Mosquito Bay, where a gallon of water holds almost a million incandescent pods.
“It’s certified the brightest bay in the world,” Carlitos said, sitting up straighter as the last kayak arrived at the fishing boat.
I looked around, thinking that maybe we’d been ripped off. The water was nothing special. No glow, none of the magic I’d promised Sarah. Just a warm, dark Caribbean cove and a sense of disappointment in the static night. We’d come all this way for nothing, I thought. For the same still, black water we could’ve found in any bayou back home.
I stared at Carlitos’ silvery cross-legged figure in the starlight, hoping he’d see the ugliness on my face.
“Now, follow me,” he said.
Sarah looked back and shrugged.
* * *
Once, long before we decided to leave Louisiana, I leered into our bedroom’s full-length mirror, fussing with my pink tie, wearing a suit for some reason. I don’t remember where we were going, just that we were late and that I couldn’t get my tie straight in the hurry. Sarah waited in the living room. I came out, barreling toward the front entrance and saying something like, “Ready. Let’s move.” I opened our door to the misty night, the living room’s glow kicking up a flurry of moths. I put one foot through the threshold and stopped.
Sarah hadn’t gotten up from the couch.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
She couldn’t get the words out. “I…I….”
“I…I think I’m going bald,” she stammered.
I laughed so hard I wasn’t sure which of us cried more. I could tell she felt a bit better, knowing from my reaction that in no way could her fine black hair be construed as balding. She smiled a little.
This is how we were. She burned with worry in the good times, letting me play the easygoing, laughing one. But when things didn’t go my way, I crumbled. I counted on Sarah then, who was always better in crises: taking charge, breathing her reassuring breath, waiting with endless patience for things to finally work themselves out.
* * *
We paddled for another ten or twenty minutes toward another part of the lagoon.
“Here,” Carlitos shouted. Sarah turned the boat while I watched the sky, feeling tired, not caring anymore about the trip or the tour or whatever it was we’d come out here to see. I’d failed—I couldn’t deliver, even in our final days together. I laid back on the boat and considered the implications.
The bay’s effect as we caught up to Carlitos was subtle at first: slight glimpses of color when Sarah’s paddle smacked the sea, displaced droplets crackling like dim fireworks.
And then everything lit up at once.
The basin started glowing like some ancient alien light source, blue radiance beneath every boat. I sat up, equal parts horrified and intrigued and guilty and thrilled. Sarah and I swirled our paddles to strengthen the glow, splashing each another and sending sparks into the already starsprent sky.
I reached into the water. The bay brightened around my arm. When I pulled it out it was as if someone had poured a living glow stick over me: millions of invisible creatures breathing a very visible neon blue, darting across my skin and flashing and flickering and fading back to nothing.
I looked up at Sarah in the seat in front of me. I watched her in the brightness, the tiny pods giving away our position in the world. I thought of the first time I noticed how beautiful she really was, of the red dress she wore on Valentine’s Day when she cooked Indian food. I thought of how she lets me sleep in the car overnight when I don’t want to move after hitting the bars. I thought of how beds are more comfortable when she’s in them and of when she told me her mother had breast cancer. I thought of water that’s as bright blue at night as it is during the day, an equal number of stars both above and below; conscious, now, of the power of this moment, this memory-in-progress, this antidote to the years and distances that lie ahead.
Ryan Rydzewski lives in Pittsburgh, where he studies creative nonfiction in Chatham University’s MFA program. His writing has appeared in the Atticus Review, The Fourth River, and the Three Rivers Review. He’s at work on his first book: a history of the Erie Gauge War, an event that once made his hometown of Erie, Pennsylvania, the most hated city in America. You can follow him on Twitter @RyanRydzewski.