by Jonathan Isaac Rubell
Jonathan Isaac Rubell
Jonathan Isaac Rubell is currently an undergraduate student at the University of Vermont pursuing a degree in Secondary Education and English. Between student teaching and coursework, Jonathan spends his time writing poetry and non-fiction, as well as composing songs on guitar. This is his first appearance in Amarillo Bay as well as his first publication.
I slipped my fins off and reached out to grab the ladder hanging off of the fifty-foot puke-yellow dive boat. The engine revved. The crew shouted at each other in Spanish.
"Breathe! One, Two."
The boat bobbed up and down as I struggled to toss my fins onto the deck.
# # #
Upon receiving my SCUBA license in Florida, I took an open water test in Long Boat Key. The visibility was what the experienced divers liked to call shitty, and there was no reef or plant life at the site. Once I crashed into the sand twenty-five feet below where the real air was, I felt fairly comfortable. My breaths were deep, slow, controlled. As time passed below sea level so did my clumsiness. I moved with the ocean, going with the flow was effortless. The small school of Atlantic Spade Fish all shared a similar expression of furious curiosity. They hung out with me, probably wondering why there were so many bubbles and hoses, or not understanding why I wasn't swimming at them with my mouth open. I watched them and they watched me. Two species that usually meet on the other side. My species would greet them with hunks of dead fish, hooks, and knives, monofilament line. Their greeting was far more polite. It was this dive, with ten feet of visibility, and one phenotype of fish, that drew me in.
I felt I was a character in a "B" movie, like The Abyss, exploring a world seldom seen, a world so removed from the one we live in. It was genuine though, no fake monsters, or aliens, no twenty-something director yelling cut. I was doing something that inspired the writers of movies and stories, little by little giving meaning to this foreign place. Divers are scientists, and this was the real deal.
# # #
"Breathe God dammit!"
I pulled myself up the ladder and nearly dropped my weight belt on top of the two men lying next to one another on the deck of the unfortunate looking boat. One of the men had a tattoo of Poseidon holding a trident amidst a raging sea that covered most of his shoulder and bicep. He sat up and pushed himself into the corner between the used oxygen tanks and starboard railing, perhaps to catch his breath. The other man on the floor was barely breathing, but moaning as two men on the crew struggled to strap the oxygen mask onto his face. Warm seawater heated by his lungs trickled underneath my toes. His eyes had rolled backwards, but his eyelids were still open, revealing only white. The boat lurched into gear and once again my weight belt, still swinging from my right hand, almost fell upon the man on the floor. I looked around for my buddy, my father, as I swung the B.C.D. and oxygen tank off of my back and screwed the valve shut. I didn't see him until his hand had clamped down on my shoulder. My father, who almost always says the right phrase to diffuse a situation just looked at me. We sat down together, and listened to the drone of the engine that muffled the moans of the man still lying on the deck.
# # #
Diving was something that my father and I could do together, but unlike playing tennis or baseball, it was an activity not normally on the father-son to-do-list. I skateboarded and he did whatever middle-aged people do. Diving became the one commonality between us, and after that first dive, we could share anything, everything.
He and I planned a five-day trip to Cancun, just to dive. There would be no water polo at the all-inclusive hotel, no margaritas with breakfast, no parasailing, windsurfing, or clubbing. We both knew that diving in one of the most popular and supposedly beautiful places in the world would make all that other stuff seem as fun as bridge at a nursing home.
My father had already been to Cancun on previous diving trips. He already experienced everything I wanted to, but was so addicted, that he needed to see more. His stories about barracudas — that swam at anything shiny — teeth baring, fifteen foot sharks, mollusks, octopi, fish that could have been colored by a six-year-old girl, convinced me that this trip would be absolutely perfect.
# # #
Somewhere in the channel between Cozumel and Cancun, a group of sixteen tourist divers must have been a little irked when they surfaced only to see their dive boat speeding away. I wonder what their dive masters told them so that they wouldn't freak out considering they only had a few English phrases under their belts.
"Guys, we gonna have good time, we wait for boat? Where you from? . . . Oh, yes I have cousin there." That was the attitude down there. To "have good time," even if people die.
# # #
Our first few dives were everything I hoped they would be. Schools of uncountable types of fish glided around us, sea turtles flapped their fins as if they were flat, oval birds. Crustaceans' antennae poked up through crevices in coral while snails, bigger than human fists slid along algae-spotted rocks.
With each dive, I grew more confident, stepping off of the boat into choppy water without fear. I stopped holding on to the anchor line, and descended freely instead, monitoring my dive computer more and more carelessly, as I could predict what the numbers would read on the digital screen. I began to crave the smell of neoprene, the feeling of fins propelling my body and gear gracefully through the sea. Pulling on a damp wetsuit became a game instead of a hassle, and the rubber mask strap tugging on dry hair became less noticeable.
My father and I conquered four different locations in Cancun including two underwater caves called cenotes. Cave diving is one of the most dangerous sports, as it incorporates the challenges of spelunking, forcing equipment and bodies through small holes, and claustrophobia. There is no up inside the caves, no way for a person to surface and gasp for air. The only option is out. I forgot all of this, the fear, the danger. It was just too heady. Silver bubbles of used air sat and jiggled back and forth on the ceilings, stalactites and stalagmites met to form great pillars of rock in the large chambers. This was worth the danger, the notion that an equipment malfunction would almost certainly result in death, a bloated body dragged out by a dive master, hoses and flashlights dangling, bouncing off of rocks. I could understand the danger, but failed to acknowledge it. I thought that nothing like that would happen, not to me, and it didn't. There were still two open water dives waiting for my father and I before a bellhop would load our bags into a hotel van, and we would sit in uncomfortable chairs at the airport, thinking about which stories to share with our friends and family. The first would be the deepest of my diving career, but hopefully filled with the most life, as we would be descending down a shelf, an underwater cliff, which dropped hundreds of feet until the shade of the water would grow darker. A true abyss.
# # #
The puke-yellow boat bumped both sides of the slip twice before the ropes on the bow and stern could be cleated to dock. Two Mexican EMTs climbed aboard with a stretcher and rolled the man on rather forcefully while a third spoke to the two crewmembers and dive master. All four were ranting in Spanish and pointing to the man with the tattoo, who was still catching his breath in the corner. Seeing this, he got up, walked to the bow, and sat back down in another corner. As the four men shouted at each other, the two other EMTs stood patiently on the dock next to the man strapped to the stretcher. He had calmed down at this point and stopped moaning, most likely listening to the crew bickering at one another. The four men argued for what had to be almost ten minutes before the dive master motioned for the EMTs to go. The man on the stretcher was finally carried off of the dock and into an ambulance. As the unfortunately neglected boat backed out of the slip, the guy with the tattoo emerged from his other corner and sat down next to my father and me. During the puke-yellow vessel's journey toward the rest of the people that were supposed to be on it with us, he told us what happened, having to yell over the sound of the ancient engine.
We learned that the man on the stretcher, his dive buddy, had snagged his regulator hose on a rock about eighty feet from the surface of the water. The regulator fell out of his mouth, and he began to inhale water. The man with the tattoo told us that he brought his buddy all the way back to the surface, and pushed him onto the boat, whereupon he assumed the crew would be of some assistance in reviving the guy. Apparently none of the crew knew CPR, so the man with the tattoo climbed onto the boat and revived him while the crew stood there and watched.
I was too numb to move from my seat. I tried to make sense of what just happened, my first dive over fifty feet, caves, bubbles, sea turtles, a man gasping for air. It was too much, too much beauty, contrasted with the morbid thought that the guy still might die. I should just stop thinking, I thought, and did. People in wetsuits climbed aboard. I stared. They were all smiling and talking about how beautiful the fan coral was. I sat. The dive masters spoke in quick, quiet Spanish. I closed my eyes in apathetic bliss. Nothing went through my mind. I felt nothing, literally an emotionless drifter.
My eyes opened to a neoprene ass less than a foot away from my face. The neoprene ass slowly turned into a neoprene crotch. A voice from above the crotch boomed into my ears, "You look like you just saw tiburon!"
"Well I didn't see a shark, but I saw a guy almost die," I answered. The man whose crotch was closer to my face than the usual crotch to face proximity crouched down while rubbing his mask with detergent to keep it from fogging. He was one of the dive masters left in the water.
" You gonna be fine. We almost ready to go next dive."
"I don't know about that," I said.
"You just stay close, is ok!" He patted my shoulder then grabbed an oxygen tank from the port side of the boat and placed it in front of me.
He left the tank standing upright and walked away to get his own tank ready. I had to catch the tank as it tipped from the boat bobbing in the ocean. I reluctantly grabbed my B.C.D. and octopus rig and attached them to the tank. My dad already had his fins on and his regulator in his mouth. He gave me a quick look, then stepped off of the boat. My fins were on, my regulator was in my mouth, my mask was on, I stepped into the water, and started my descent. I no longer felt nothing; fear took its place. My breaths were quick and shallow. The sea floor came into view, and my breathing began to resume to normal. There was something so comforting about being down there again. I watched my dad glide just inches above a fan coral formation while tiny orange fish with white stripes across their torsos swam over and around him. To those fish, he was nothing out of the ordinary, just another part of the ocean.
On the boat ride back to Cancun my dad ruffled my wet hair and said, "I'm sorry I didn't say anything and just jumped in. I knew that if we had talked you wouldn't have wanted to go back in for a second dive."
"Thanks," I said.
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