You think about your mother, because of course you think about your mother. How you rolled your eyes and told her things like stop worrying and scuba diving is safer than driving a car. Roatan, the Honduran island where you have worked as a scuba instructor for over a year, is steadily moving beyond your reach, replaced by blue and blue and blue.
As it recedes, you think about the boat captain who didn’t notice your signals and calls for help. For a long time, you shouted and whistled and waved your arms with your orange safety buoy lifted up over your head. You did this as soon as you realized the current was pulling you and your customer out to sea.
The customer is young and pretty and afraid. Her panic would be bad for both of you, so you tell her this is fine, this happens all the time, even though you know it’s not fine, it doesn’t happen. Although you don’t tell her this, she’s the reason you are in this predicament. She wasn’t a strong enough swimmer to resist the current, and she quickly exhausted herself.
Would a man know what to do right now? You can picture the other divemasters and the boat captain, all men, cursing at you from the boat, blaming this failure on your innate weakness. If you were a man, this wouldn’t have happened. You wonder how long it will take for them to notice you haven’t returned to the boat.
Drowning will come last, after dehydration, exposure, hypothermia. You imagine blaze-of-glory endings, diving down and down on your remaining air.
Suddenly, not-wanting-to-die makes you laugh. You laugh so hard tears spring from your eyes, but you can’t wipe them away because of your mask. The customer doesn’t notice; she’s young, with absolute faith in your abilities, more than you deserve. She’s waiting for you to tell her what to do.
The boat doesn’t come. If you wait any longer, it’ll be too late—you’ll lose sight of the island, and your odds of rescue will diminish to a fraction of a percent. Your tiny, neoprene-clad bodies will become indistinguishable from the expanse of water around you, like specks of dust on the edge of a black hole.
On the retreating shore, you can see brightly-painted buildings. You’ve seen those resorts and tourist shops from the safety of land. Up there, it’s a normal day.
In that moment, you know with absolute certainty that you’ll be fired for this, if you survive. It doesn’t matter that none of this is your fault. The thought makes you want to laugh again.
You bare your teeth against the hard plastic of your regulator. An undiscovered country inside yourself has emerged: savage, feral, driven only by the need to survive. Yes, you think. Yes!
You tell the customer you’ll be making a “shore exit.” You comfort her with lies about how safe and common it is, even though you have never heard of anyone doing it before.
You swim hard, your faces down to improve your speed. There is nothing to see but the strange patterns made by sunlight unable to penetrate the blue. Your bodies lift and drop, lift and drop, with the passing swells. The swells also want to go towards shore, and you let them carry you. You cling to the customer’s tank valve to keep you from getting separated, and a burn in your shoulder grows to match the burn in your calves and thighs.
You’re so focused on getting to your destination, you’re shocked when it actually rises up out of the water in front of you. The waves break at the rocks, sending up geysers of foam. The only way out is up, but the pier is too high, little more than a slab of concrete that juts out above your heads.
But men have emerged from the resort. They call out to you, their words lost in the roar of the waves. You can’t simply swim towards their outstretched arms; the waves will grind you into the rocks. Instead, you take off the customer’s gear and follow the wave in. You hand up the gear, then haul ass away again before the next wave comes. You do this several times. Finally, you tell the customer to go, go, go! and she does, and the men on shore hoist her up and out of the water by both arms, like a dancer.
You understand, in that moment, that you will survive; your mind is already constructing the version of the truth that you will tell your mother. Then the wave comes, and you propel yourself forwards into firm hands that grip your arms and lift.
It is like taking flight.
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/zqvol