Work In Progress/Coming July2022
The Islands-April 3rd 2020
It’s a modest sailboat with a decent engine, but the seating on the deck leaves something to be desired, as does the demeanor of the captain. He’s hung over, I decide as the stale, slightly rotten scent of cheap rum squeezes through the large pores on his leathery skin and wafts toward me.
“They’re rated number one on Trip Advisor and Yelp for half day snorkeling excursions,” my husband Vince told me yesterday. Husband, God, it’s been six months and I can’t get used to the sound of it. It’s a belated honeymoon without the bliss and the fireworks. The romantic getaway to Saint Thomas has changed nothing; I’m flat lining in the passion department, but still faking it. When will he notice?
I lean against the worn pillows on the built-in bench seat and take a sip of iced ginger beer—cool, sweet, and soothing it slides down my throat. Deep turquoise water, the warm wind drying my ash blonde, salt water tinged hair, the greenery and white sand fringing a small beach in the distance—it’s almost peaceful. If only….
Sherri, the captain’s girlfriend of twenty years, climbs effortlessly from the galley and places a gorgeous vegetable tray down in front us. “Appetizers,” she says, her bright teeth carving a smile on her caramel brown face. “Pete is heading out to a spot by Dog Island that will be better for snorkeling,” she adds as I start in on a zucchini strip.
Vince is talking. Loud and abrasively cheerful, his blah fest about the “superior” snorkeling gear he purchased for our trip buzzes around me like annoying insect sounds.
I’ve snorkeled before during childhood trips to Hawaii with my grandparents. Colorful fish, the warm sun, the sandy floor of the ocean five feet below is what I remember, not the panic I experienced when I got into the water fifteen minutes ago by Little Saint James island—Jeffrey Epstein’s island. It has to be shit luck to get in the water here, I thought as I clunked off the back of the boat. Turns out there wasn’t much to see, and relieved, I followed Vince back to the boat.
We anchor in calm waters, in an area crowded with catamarans and boats—some posh and crowded with tourists and some small like the one we are on. Captain Pete points. “The coral reefs and cliffs there are prime for fish spotting. Sherri will show you around. Just don’t stand on the coral beds. That’s a good way to get stuck by a sea urchin, and they’ll tear right through your foot.”
Slipping on my flippers, I watch the captain’s twenty-something daughter, who is visiting from Portland Oregon and almost as pale as I am. The daughter jumps into the water with two foam float noodles. I touch Vince’s arm, interrupting his conversation with Sherri. “Babe, she has floaties.”
He flaps a dismissive hand. “You don’t need that. You’re buoyant, especially with your flippers. Are you ready?" he asks, and he turns and watches Sherri slip into the water with hardly a ripple.
I make eye contact with Pete, who is drinking from the giant plastic tumbler Sherri gave him. It’s dosed with something—rum maybe—to soften the jagged edges of his hangover and mood. Please suggest a noodle. Get up and go down into your dark galley and get me one, I plead with my eyes. Pete smiles and lifts his head toward the sun. “Beautiful day,” he says.
Vince is down in the water. “Come on pokey.” The boat rocking gently, my clumsy flippers try to negotiate the short aluminum ladder. “Oh my God, Amabel, just jump.”
My arm outstretched, I plunge, and the water folds me in a cool embrace. “Most ungraceful entry into the water. You win, sugar,” Vince says and everyone smiles, except me. He waves his arm, “Come on,” and he adjusts his mask and snorkel and submerges his face.
Sunlight streaks through the water, illuminating Vince’s red swim trunks. And rattling breaths echoing in my head, I follow. You can do this, breathe, you’re getting oxygen. It’s fine, I tell myself, but the tight spot in my chest won’t leave.
Their dangling legs kick softly in the pale water by the surface. They are having a conversation that I can’t join. If water gets into my snorkel, I might not be able to clear my mask. The current is pushing me toward a ridge of rocks that stretch to the ocean floor seventy-five feet below.
Vince is back under the surface, touching my arm and motioning to me. Then he dives and swims toward an opening in the rocks. Oh fuck no, I’m not coming. I shake my head. He shrugs, and turning sideways, he disappears through the opening.
The pink noodles and the daughter’s long, pale legs are my new safety beacons. Freaking, relax, Amabel, I say inside my head. Fish: puffer, yellow, orange, now a small school parting for me, like a colorful billowing curtain. It’s an effort to take in the mystery and beauty and not to panic about breathing while submerged in saltwater—an unnatural thing.
I stop and floating, I search for familiar pairs of legs or for the driving, graceful bodies of my husband or Sherri. Alone, I drift closer to the underwater cliff of rugged rocks covered with purple sea anemones that dance to the rhythm of the current. Just around this group of rocks and I should be able to see the boat.
My head breaks the surface. The ocean bobs around me, skewing my sense of direction. Where is the boat and everyone else? My eyes sweep the dynamic liquid field. There it is, a tiny blot, the furthest away in the smattering of boats. Vince is maybe fifty yards from the boat and following him is the girl with the pink noodles. He’s shouting something I can’t hear and waving with big sweeps of his arm.
My mask is slipping down and treading water, I adjust it and put the snorkel mouthpiece back in. The vented top of the snorkel must have dipped beneath the surface when I brought my head up, because I inhale and briny water rushes into my mouth and down my throat, sputtering away my breath. I jerk my head out of the water, remove the mouthpiece, and suck in air. How do I clear this? I blow into the mouth valve. Face submerged again, I propel forward—breathe, one, two, and more water.
I stand on a coral bed, gasping and fearing the stab of a sea urchin. Still some distance to go—miles it seems—and Vince is near the sailboat now, motioning with wild arms. I see you. That’s not the problem.
It takes multiple attempts to clear the snorkel, and my throat is raw from salt water and effort. Chest tight with panic, I hunker back into the water and scrape my knee on rough coral as my flippers fan out behind me. Ouch. I’m bleeding—sharks. Shallow sharp kicks and my arms push me away from the reef.
It’s strange now the temperature changes and hitting a sudden cool spot is chilling somehow, like there’s a ghost nearby, and for a moment I see Mama’s face. Keep going. Should be close.
White in the grainy wet light, the hull of a boat appears in the distance. I bring my head and shoulders up out of the water. The sun has slipped behind a cloud, puffed like cotton, and the ocean has turned dark and moody. Flippers heavy on my feet, I tread water and look: right, left, east, west, north, south. It’s a horrible realization and the pit of my stomach is a rock, weighing me down, trying to pull me under—I’ve gone the wrong direction.
I turn my body east, blow in the snorkel to clear it of water, insert it into my mouth, and start out. Again I swallow water, a large mouthful this time, and I’m chocking and coughing. My cloudy mask is down over my lips, and I yank it off. Where is Vince?
Bile creeping up my throat, I let go of the mask and snorkel and swim. An eighth of a mile; maybe can I do this? No. I stop and raise my arm to alert the group of people on a boat thirty feet away. Please help me, my voice thunders inside my head, as spoken words fall short of my lips. The sun leaves the cloud cover and throws blinding fists of light at me, and the bright blue sky is tipping drunkenly toward the ocean. I am going to drown.
After years of often challenging public service work, Tracy found writing fiction to be more cathartic than running at a mad pace on the treadmill in her garage or sipping red wine as she watched mind numbing television. And she discovered she loved writing fiction as much as reading it.
Tracy lives with her husband and two small, obnoxious dogs in California, where she enjoys hiking, skiing, walking on the beach, wine tasting, and a rare summer rainstorm. In her spare time, when she is not curled up with her Kindle or binge watching “Bosch”, she is working on her next novel, which God willing is slated to be a New York Times Best Seller that gets adapted into a film. (It’s the dreams that keep her going.)