Work In Progress/Coming Soon
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. “Ben 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 Ben 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 Ben, 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. Ben smiles and lifts his head toward the sun. “Beautiful day,” he says.
I’m still hopefully staring at Ben when Vince calls out from the water, “Come on pokey.” My clumsy flippers are useless on the short aluminum ladder, so I give up and flop into the water.
“Most ungraceful entry. 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, and 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. A tiny blot; it’s 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. 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. Then I hunker back into the water and kicking away from the reef, I scrape my knee on the rough coral.
It’s strange now the temperature changes and hitting a sudden cool spot is chilling somehow, like there’s a ghost nearby. Mama? Keep going, I 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 tips drunkenly toward the ocean. I am going to drown.
A year has slipped away since Ross came out to spend time with his dad, to help with the business, and to reorganize amidst his life falling apart. It’s God’s country. The rugged beauty is grounding, and he’s living in the fold of each day. He left behind his adulterous wife and the planning and scheduling his already exhausted life into tight slots of manic focus—even the cocktails parties had multiple agendas and carefully managed minutes.
Three couples rented the catamaran for the day. They are here in the Caribbean for a wedding and boozing it up. The cook just served lunch, and the busy drone of conversations and laughter drifts past him as he stands on the swim platform looking out at the water. Someone swims with messy, exaggerated strokes. They stop. An arm shoots up and then splashes down as if yanked by gravity. He grabs a life ring buoy and jumps overboard.
Her complexion is pallid, expect for the red strip the sun painted by her hairline. Water droplets thread her lashes, and her large, light blue eyes are quiet and screaming at the same time. Ross places the life ring over her head and helps her get it positioned under her armpits.
“Are you okay?” he asks.
She shakes her head and gags. Still holding onto the life buoy, he moves to the side as she leans her head forward and throws up in the water. Her hoarse voice is barely audible. “Sorry.”
“No, don’t be. Looks like you were in trouble.”
She nods her head and takes jagged breaths. Waiting and watching her breathing transition into a steady rhythm, he feels a strange pull, like he’s the tide under the influence of a full moon. He shrugs it away. “What happened?” he asks.
“I was snorkeling and swallowed water. I couldn’t clear my snorkel and I got tired.”
“Are you out here alone?”
“No, well, now I am. I was with my husband, but he’s probably back on the boat now.”
There’s chatter behind him and one of his female passengers shouts. “Ross, is she okay?”
“Yeah,” he calls over his shoulder.
“What’s your name?”
She gives him a surprised look. “Thanks.”
“Where’s your boat?”
Her expression unsettled; she glances around. “I’m not sure.”
“Hold on. I’m taking you back to my boat, and we can sort this out there.”
With tan, coconut oiled skin, tone bodies, bright bikinis, perfect manicures and pedicures, the woman on the fancy catamaran are glossy magazine ad worthy, and they wait like a flock of glamorous birds on the swim deck as Ross guides the life buoy toward them. I’m kicking with my flippers, so hopefully it’s not an arduous task to guide me to the ladder.
A woman wraps me in a giant towel and helps me remove my flippers, and another leads me up to the deck, where I plop down on the nearest bench. I explain what happened to the group of bridesmaids and wife to be while someone named Mandy gets me a glass of white wine, which I accept. “Thank you. I can use this,” I say with a tiny smile.
It seems like Ross is about to object, but I’m breathing okay, so he lets wherever it is go. After I take a few sips of the Chardonnay, he approaches. “If you can spot your boat, I can take you there.”
Abandoning the towel and holding my wine glass by the stem, I stand and point to a group of boats about 200 meters away. “Over there somewhere, I think.”
“I have a motorized raft we can take to search for your boat, okay?”
“Sure,” I whisper, and he looks at me with concern, like he’s thinking someone left me here or I’m fleeing from something. And this is partially true, I guess, because Vince did in fact leave alone in the deep, deep water.
Ross proceeds to the swim deck and unhooks the raft. A brunette repositions the towel over my shoulder, and Mandy pours my wine into a plastic to-go cup; I’m beginning to like her.
Ross tosses the flippers in the raft and gets in. The plastic cup tight in my fingers, I reach out and take his hand, and he helps me into the bobbing raft. “Thank you. You’re all so kind and lovely,” I call out to the six people standing on the deck and collectively they wave, blow kisses, wish me well, and call me “sweetie”, and Ross smiles as though he’s impressed.
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.)