by: Scott Toombs
I went diving last spring. The world tore open and broke beneath my feet, an azure sky in reverse on the edges of an endless desert plain - a pair of blue crabs like little tin kings fought over a tiny dune and a stingray glided past them indifferent as ragged claws clutched and sheared and stirred dust into infant cyclones. A purple octopus emerged from the reef and captured them both in a tentacled embrace and then faded away in a cloud of velvety indigo that I tried to grasp in the ebb and flow of the current with neoprene covered fingertips.
I saw no sharks. My lungs didn’t hurt. I went diving for the first time last spring and I’ve never been the same since.
Maggie always said being underwater was like being in love – terrifying and exhilarating – a place of wonder and peril and secrets. Every new reef was a garden, a portion of Eden unexplored and just beyond the reach of man, she said. She kept an outdoor garden wherever we lived – our apartments in Galveston, Clearlake and Corpus Christi all had modest patios, adorned with blooming cacti and succulents and bougainvillea of every imaginable hue. I told her that if coral reefs were Eden then the patio was the garden of Babylon. After she stopped diving we often sat together in her garden. Sand dollars and starfish and shells. Empty homes, long abandoned. She kept a large seashell for me to use as an ashtray.
“Tom, what’s for dinner?”
I tapped my cigarette along the rim of a potted aloe. Maggie pushed the ashtray towards me and sniffed.
“Sautéed baby seal served over white rice - with steamed artichoke - and a sauce from puréed Ghost Hermit Crab.” I flourished dramatically with my hand as if unveiling a gourmet dish.
She pinched my arm and stole my Tecate. “Have you been reading my dissertation again?”
I feigned shock. “You have a dissertation?” I took a drag and started to ash in the potted aloe again. Maggie made as if to dump out the beer and I used the seashell instead.
“Yep. I’m the princess of crabs.”
I scratched at the denim over my groin. “That explains a lot.”
“I am so moving back to Florida.”
“Okay, okay – you win,” I deposited the butt in the ashtray. “Breakfast for dinner, your majesty?”
Maggie taught marine biology at the local community college. I was working as a forklift operator at the docks and taking classes in creative writing against my GI benefits when we first met. Marine biology seemed like an easy score for a science credit. When I failed the class, Professor Crabs offered me a choice – take the hit to my transcript or go scuba diving with her for extra credit.
“How about bowling instead?”
“Mr. Yeates, why would I give you extra credit for bowling?”
“Well – just because it’s not diving, we can still call it a date, right?”
Her blue eyes were ice but she laughed. “Alright – a compromise.” She checked to make sure we were alone and then stepped forward. I grinned brazenly.
“You can take me to the beach,” she placed a hand on my chest delicately, “and you can still fail the fucking course.”
Later I found out she had a reputation for dating students. Bunny told me about it after class over a beer. Bunny was one of my creative writing professors. He was from Ireland – educated at Oxford - but decided to live on the beach in America and teach composition at a community college. He wrote historical romances. The guy looked just Patrick Swayze in Point Blank - except old – his blond hair thin strands of yellow glass and his face a weathered leather shoe. At the time he was writing a novel about the exploits of Nell Gwynn.
“Wasn’t she a whore?”
Bunny wiped the bar table clean, pulled out a Ziploc bag and started rolling a joint. “She was an orange girl. There’s a subtle difference.”
“Well – this was just following the time when England was under the tyrannical puritan rule of Oliver Cromwell. Cromwell threw away almost everything fun – no plays, no drinking, no whoring.” Bunny licked the seam of the joint and placed it behind his ear. “Well – anyway – King Charles gets back on the throne – and re-opens the theaters.”
“With whores, right?”
Bunny sighed. “There’s no helping you, lad, I swear. Orange girls sold citrus fruits during the plays – which was terribly exotic during the 17th century in London. In addition they sold blowjobs and other sexual favors, which was also terribly exotic after years of puritan bullshit.” Bunny looked at me squarely. “What’s so gad damned funny?”
“You say bullshit with Texas twang.”
“Bullshite.” He pulled the joint from behind his ear and offered it to me. “Before Nelly only men and boys were allowed to play female roles. By law. She caught the eye of the king and so began a royal affair that led to women players on the stage.” He gulped from his beer and wiped his chin with the back of his hand. “It ended with her having property and title – as well as a fairly successful acting career. Not to mention leaving an enduring mark on history.” He pointed a chubby finger at me. “Because of Nelly – we get to see breasts on the silver screen instead of fruity lads with makeup.”
I spit into a nearby trashcan. “That’s actually pretty damned interesting, Bunny. But I thought you liked fruity lads in makeup.”
He slapped the lacquered tabletop with the palm of his hand. “I’m more or less an equal opportunity fuck. Besides, gay or straight – who doesn’t like a nice rack?” He tapped his watch with a long fingernail. “Speaking of which. Your new lady-friend - how’s that working out?”
We made our way outside and settled behind the bar to smoke. “Pretty good. She doesn’t like that I smoke though.” I tapped a cigarette against my palm. “And always trying to get me into the water.”
Bunny laughed. “Hot water is more like it.”
“Says the prof who just rolled a doobie to share with a student.”
“Ah – not just any student,” he said mockingly. “My prize student.” His hand reached out to stroke my chin affectionately. I slapped his weathered hand away.
“Shut the fuck up, Bunny. You’re just mad she didn’t call you back.”
Maggie liked Bunny – very much – but said sleeping with him would be like screwing an uncle. A drunk uncle that kinda looked like Patrick Swayze and talked like an English butler.
Bunny roared. “Did you hear her, Tom? Your lowly fish wench said I sounded English!” He slapped her ass and she punched him in the gut, leaving him doubled over and laughing.
“Point Blank.” She joined us many times at the bar and often followed us when we stole outside. She stole a cigarette from my mouth and threw it in the dumpster. “That shit is going to kill you.”
“The pot?” Bunny asked as he threw back his beer and then threw it soundly into the dumpster.
“No, that’ll probably just get us all arrested and fired.” She looked at me squarely. “You might even get some dive gear on if you quit for a while.”
The Irishman laughed. I glared at him.
Maggie sniffed. “What?”
“Smoking isn’t keeping him from diving.”
“Shut up, Bunny.”
Bunny shot a sulfur colored grin at Maggie. “It’s Jaws.”
I kicked an empty beer can at Bunny and he laughed. “You know – Spielberg? The shark movie?”
Maggie giggled. “Oh, Tom, that fucking ridiculous.” She paused, eyes glimmering with the opportunity. “Do you need me to protect you from the big bad fish, baby?” she crooned, looping her fingers inside my belt.
I crossed my arms and looked away. “Yall suck. Screw you guys.”
They heckled me for some time about my fear of sharks. I explained to them that it wasn’t just about sharks per say – it was more about the environment, this blue underworld that could spawn creatures large enough to consume me - I tried to explain and rationalize – I can’t swim as fast as a fish, I can’t fight or escape something in the water and I can’t predict how wild animals behave and on and on, trying to weave a curtain around my true fear.
The ocean makes me feel small.
It was something to admire from a distance – I didn’t even like being on boats. Fishing from the pier. Toes in the sand. Cold beer. Watching the waves roll in. But feeling the swells, the bump of alien things in the murk – these things left me cold.
Maggie once lured me into the chilly waves on an early spring morning. We hadn’t been together very long. She kicked off her flip-flops and teased me into the frothing water, her breasts showing beneath a white t-shirt. First to my hips, then to my neck – finally until my toes couldn’t touch the sand beneath. I was sputtering and shivering as she reached her hand into my trunks with a sly grin. A wave went over our heads. Then I imagined my junk dangling in the water like bait and schools of toothy fish were stopping in the current to ascertain the potential meal. I pulled away and swam to shore. I heard Maggie calling and laughing over the swells and calls of gulls.
Maggie kept diving and I kept smoking. She landed a new gig at the University of Texas in Corpus Christi. I finished my degree. Published a few short stories, a few poems. Nothing big, nothing that would pay the bills. I kept working warehouses, operating forklifts. Often Maggie would travel for research – sometimes to Mexico, sometimes to the Caribbean. I went with her a few times. When I didn’t, I worried. I thought about the cartels and crooked Mexican cops. I thought about Jamaican gangsters and Caribbean pirates. I never worried about her being taken by the ocean. That was her world.
She arrived home always radiant from her travels. Her skin glowed with light from faraway beaches, her hair bleached and scented with sea salt and coconut. She recalled her adventures for me and sometimes had photographs taken underwater. Once she brought home a rusted anchor from a shipwreck. A vacant sea turtle shell. A corked bottle, hand-blown. The message inside had turned to dust but fingerprints still traced the glass. One night she returned late as a storm was beginning to swell in the gulf. I could smell salt water as she closed the door. As if the sea had followed her home, reluctant to let her go. We made love with the bedroom window open, the flash of white fire from the night sky illuminating us in monographic frames.
Then the chest pains began. She kept them to herself for a while. Maggie confessed one night on the patio. She first noticed the pain – a sharp burning sensation – while ascending on a dive. It was just a freak incident. Then she felt it again, a few weeks later, while giving a lecture. Shortness of breath. A cough she couldn’t quite shake off. Then she noticed the fine red mist, the splotching on the white Kleenex, a trickle of blood that would sometimes build up at the corners of her mouth and nose.
We moved to Houston after the diagnosis. She stopped diving and I kept smoking. A pain developed in my chest also but I didn’t tell her. It burned like a downpour of rage, heat in waves over my heart with each palpitation She started the treatment. I got a chest x-ray one day while she was undergoing radiation. It was completely clean. Her fingers began to club and darken and the nails sometimes dropped off. Her blond hair faded and fell away in clumps. She used an oxygen tank sometimes. And I kept smoking.
“What’s for dinner, Tom?”
He handed her a freshly rolled joint. She placed it between her thin lips and he brought the flame towards her. After a few hits she put it out and left it in the seashell ashtray.
“Anything you want.”
“I want you to quit smoking.”
Tom sat silently.
“It’s not your fault.”
“The doctor said this probably didn’t have anything to do with smoking. Asbestos. Chemicals. Genetics. One out of ten thousand.” She sighed, then smiled. “It’s not always about you, Mr. Big-Shot-Writer-Guy.”
Tom put out his cigarette. Blew the smoke away from her. Held his hand over the shell until the embers were choking and smothered. The sear in his chest flared and died.
She grabbed his hand, kissed it and whispered with a smile, “I want baby seal.”
After the treatment was over we went back to Corpus. She taught a few classes. Bunny helped out, drove her around, took her to the beach. Her hair grew back and the nausea departed but the cough remained. Sometimes the red mist followed. She used the tank sometimes in the evening when her breath grew short and heavy.
“This stupid thing reminds me of a dive tank,” she said through the plastic mask which was not unlike a sea shell.
I smiled and squeezed her hand. She looked much healthier. The pain remained. In my chest and hers. She took a sip from my Modelo.
“I want to dive again. I want you to stop smoking.” Her blue eyes sparkled and her lips curled into a grin. “And I want you to fuck me.”
I laughed and weaved her hand into mine and we went to bed. She left the oxygen tank in the living room.
After that night, I never saw her again.
Her car was found on a stretch of beach as the tide was rolling in, the water already beginning to froth around the front tires. Her dive gear was missing from the apartment, and a receipt for a pair of freshly filled tanks was in her purse. Her cell phone was turned off. The hot searing in my chest was unlike anything I had ever felt before. The police questioned the local dive supplier, and he identified her and remembered her purchasing the tanks alone the same morning. He said she looked very happy but seemed to have a cough that she just couldn’t shake off. I went to the emergency room clutching my chest in anguish. The x-rays came back clean. Not a single dark patch. I smoked until the tar was visible on my nails, until nicotine oozed from my pores in a mixture of sweat and Jack Daniels.
I went out to the beach at night and walked into the ocean until I was underwater. I drifted in the darkness. Occasionally I came up for air. Maggie was waiting for me at the bottom of the sea. She didn’t need air anymore. I floated with my face to the night sky, as the stars blinked down upon the mirror that was the Gulf of Mexico. I picked out the dots that made up Capricorn and thought about the Maggie breathing beneath the surface of the water, playfully trying to tease the trunks from my waist.
When the sun began to rise I crawled back onto the beach amid the crying of the gulls. Playful porpoises called out from the shallows. The pain in my chest flared like a hot ember, then cooled and extinguished forever. And as I lit my last cigarette, a pale crab emerged from the foam and pinched my big toe.