The Cardinal Rule of Divers
THE BOAT LOOKED OLD ENOUGH TO HAVE BEEN USED FOR FISHING BEFORE TOURISM TOOK OVER THE ISLAND OF COZUMEL. Long, dark green with no cockpit or cabin, it was wide enough to hold the seven of them and all their gear comfortably with room for several more. In addition to Mitchel and Leila were three men from Boston, the dive master Pablo--a squat, barrel-chested man in a muscle shirt and red swim trunks in his early thirties--and a slight, wiry youth in his late teens called Miguelito, who wore jeans and a Mickey Mouse t-shirt.
Besides running the outboard, Miguelito's main duty seemed to be to show a happy face whenever one of their clients caught his eye. A veritable Cantinflas, thought Mitchel, thinking of the 1930's Mexican movie comedian often compared to Charlie Chaplin--his wispy pencil moustache and the way his ears were jugged slightly by a low riding, carefully reversed Miami Dolphins ball hat. But it was the flip-flops he wore that did it for Mitchel. They were obviously styled for a woman. They had yellow rosettes. He thought the boy comic but Leila whispered he looked greasy.
The boat left with a roar.
" A donde vamos, hoy dia, Pablo?"
Mitchel was eager to use his Spanish. He was disappointed when Pablo answered in barely accented English.
"We are going to the big reef, amigo," Pablo said pointing offshore, northwest. "There, maybe a mile and a half."
Mitchel couldn't help adding a wink when he grinned at her. This was what he wanted to hear. Leila was not so sure. Her own smile was weak, somewhat acceding, because going off-shore was obviously important to him.
"How deep is it there, Pablo?" she said nicely, but Mitchel knew it was really directed at him. They'd been over this before. She had her doubts about snorkeling far from shore--she was not a great swimmer and was not accustomed to wearing fins and a mask. The water's too deep, it's too cold and a boat is too difficult to get into and out of, she'd said. She had reminded him he was not as strong as he thought he was because he'd been sick.
Pablo thumped his chest.
"This reef the best--not too deep, thirty, forty feet. Muy bueno for diving."
His stocky legs were full of muscle. His arms and shoulders showed he was a stubby, powerful man. Like me, thought Mitchel, low center of gravity,
"But Pablo, they're diving," Mitchel said, jumping in because he didn't want her to think he was neglectful of her interests, "we're snorkeling."
Pablo held up his finger to reassure them, his grin that enigmatic one used all over the world to assuage nervous tourists.
"No problem, amigos, " Pablo said, "trust me, this reef numero uno."
But Mitchel knew this would not be enough for Leila. He saw the corners of her mouth go tight as she moved her head slightly from side to side. Her eyes found his and he knew what she was thinking. I told you so. We should have gone to the other place.
It was Mitchel's second day out of bed after three days in near delirium from Montezuma's revenge. During the time he was unable to leave their room, he'd urged her to go out on her own so she took a bus to a nearby spot popular for snorkeling because the fish were fed to make them tame and a net kept them near the beach.
"The fish were everywhere," she'd gushed when she returned. "Herds of them. And it was so shallow if you got tired you could touch the bottom with your feet." Then she'd switched into that squeaky voice she reserved for babies and pets. "They were so cute," she said drawing out the 'o' like she was breaking into a song. "They nibbled at my fingers and toes."
He'd been lying on his side naked under the sheet, wondering if the antibiotics she had purchased over the counter would ever kick in. Before she'd returned he'd been telling himself he preferred death. He was dizzy if he raised his head. The harsh Mexican toilet paper rasped. He was either burning up or freezing. He hadn't heard her come in but felt the mattress give when she sat down. He didn't open his eyes. Her voice was like a visitation and enough of her enthusiasm seeped through to make him envy what she had done and resolve, if he ever recovered, to do some snorkeling himself before they left Cozumel.
But he'd scoffed at her beach. Feeding the fish and a net? That was for tourists. We'll go to one of those dive shops that specialize in taking people out to where there are no other people and the fish aren't tame, he'd said. She told him if he was going to do that to be sure and shop around. What difference does it make, he had argued, they're all the same, thinking the last thing he wanted to do was waste an entire day walking around like they were in Macy's. And she had given in and of course he had signed them up yesterday at the first dive shop he came to: Los Buceadores de Cozumel.
The boat was attacking the waves like it was elbowing its way into a crowded room. Miguelito had the motor running flat out, the bow bucking spray each time it rose into the air then smacking back hard into the water with a great thunking splat. The mainland of Mexico to their left, Cozumel receding on the right, Mitchel had put completely out of his mind that only two days ago he had been pleading with the Whoever that created all this splendor to please let him die.
"This is what it's all about," he shouted over his shoulder. She was hunkered behind him using his body as a shield. "Honey.....," she'd said only a few minutes before, leaving it to him to read her face and exchange seats so now he was the one sitting foremost in the prow; and when he saw her forced smile, he put his arm around her shoulders to reassure her, tasting salt when he touched his lips to her hair to let her know he loved her and how happy he was to be alive.
Both of them had been married once before. Many years ago. She at twenty, he at twenty-three. Cupid's arrow for older lovers often takes a clumsy arc. Leila had explained their courtship in just that way. They met at a Bat Mitzvah--he the only available man at a table of hungry-eyed widows and divorcees. Except for Leila of course. At the time, she had other things on her mind--her daughter was getting married and she was sweating out the closing on her house. She was depending on the sale to help finance her daughter's wedding. He put her phone number on his refrigerator but waited six weeks to call her because he thought her too classy for him.
This was their official honeymoon but not their first trip together. The first had been right after he asked her to marry him--a month and a half in Taiwan, Japan, and Thailand because he was a jazz musician, a drummer, on tour. He had insisted she take off work. It had been several years since she'd had a real vacation. She liked the idea of being around jazz musicians. It sounded like fun.
But she predicted it. The trip exposed all their foibles and flaws. It became a crash course in finding those chinks in each other's armor that left them vulnerable to verbal assault. Both of them were strong willed and outspoken. If anything they were too much alike. Several times, Mitchel had been sure the wedding would never happen--the way she had dangled the room key in the air in Bangkok then dropped it into the street before turning on her heel and striding away like she didn't give a damn. And he had suddenly panicked, a voice screaming inside him she was the one and not to let her walk away. One of them had to give. So he ran after her and stopped her by taking her arm, turning her to face him, practically going onto his knees trying to make it right, saying he was sorry he'd objected to the restaurant she had finally selected and he was sorry he had left her Frommer's Guide Book in the room because he didn't realize it was his turn to carry it, and yes, they should have decided together what they were going to do before they left the hotel and yes, they didn't have to walk any more and it would have been better to have taken a cab and it was when he said I promise it will never happen again that her expression suddenly changed and she began to laugh and when she said: "Mitchel, you change? Get serious. If you ever do, I won't marry you," his heart exploded because he knew he had passed the test.
Miguelito cut the outboard and circled the boat to a stop. There was a slight breeze from the south. Mitchel wiped his face with their towel and grooved to the change in the rhythm of the boat--no longer relentless and frenetic like a meringue, but languorous and sexy, a bolero. A few high clouds hung motionless in the west, brush-stroked in front of a waning moon. Mare's tails, he told himself, a sure sign of a perfect day.
Wet suits, flippers, tanks, masks, weighted belts. Mitchel watched with fascination as Pablo and the men from Boston completed their metamorphosis then duck walked to the gunwale before tumbling backwards into the sea. He wished he were doing that. Leila had offered to give him scuba lessons for Chanukah but since he was occasionally asthmatic, the instructor had advised against it.
Mitchel waited with his fins and mask in his hand. Leila's lay on the bottom of the boat as if they had been discarded. He placed his fore finger on her chin and asked with his eyes: what's the matter ?
"Have you noticed there are no life preservers in the boat?" she said.
He moved his hand to her shoulder. She'd had her hair cut right before they left. The pixie look fit the ovoid shape of her face.
"Come on, hon, it's going to be all right," he said although he wasn't as sure as he'd been when they left the dock. She had her inscrutable look. He waited for some indication. She pursed her lips then bent down to put on her fins. This, he suspected, might be a difficult day.
Pablo came and sat beside them to put on his fins.
"You snorkel here," he said. "You will be able to see us. Stay over the divers."
Mitchel disliked the way Pablo smiled. It was a tinker's smile. He had once been conned by a smile like that in Brooklyn into reroofing his house. Then Pablo's forefinger jabbed emphatic.
" Es muy importante amigos," he said. "You must always stay over the divers."
Mitchel watched Pablo disappear under the water. Pablo's voice, too stern, parental. Why is he making such a big deal of it, he wondered. He looked to Leila but she seemed more concerned about adjusting the strap to her mask. She complained she couldn't loosen it. He offered to do it for her but she shook him off.
He looked up when he heard Miguelito's voice and saw his fun house grin encouraging them.
Mitchel immediately forgot about his concerns and hit the water all arms and legs. The water was colder than he expected and the shock of it was slightly disorienting. He lost his grip on his mask for a moment, flailed for it, then felt it nudging his back. Mindful of Pablo's instructions, once the mask was in place, he tried to locate the divers. It wasn't until he was directly over them that he looked back for Leila. She was in the water too but still beside the boat. It was more than thirty yards away. Mitchel was amazed he had swum that far so quickly and wondered if there was a current.
"Hey Leila, they're over here."
He waved his arm and wondered if she would hear him. Her reply was unintelligible. Miguelito hadn't dropped an anchor; the motor was burbling. They were reduced to signing. He cupped his hand behind his ear. She shook her head and pointed to the ladder. He watched her climb back into the boat and hand her mask to Miguelito.
She signaled again by pointing to her head then giving the thumbs down. Mitchel groaned. He had learned to dread her debilitating migraines. At least that explained why she wasn't enjoying herself, he thought. She hadn't told him, not wanting to spoil his day.
He considered going back to the boat but he remembered Pablo had told the divers they'd be down for forty-five minutes to an hour. He looked at his wrist, but his watch was in the boat. It had been a birthday gift from Leila. It was guaranteed waterproof but you couldn't be too careful. She gestured for him to stay in the water. He raised his hand in the ok sign. Her headache would have to wait until they got back to shore. He felt sorry for her but there was no sense both of them sitting miserable in the boat. He put his head into the water.
There were no fish near the surface. There were a few about the reef but not as many as he'd expected. His conscience piqued him again. Leila's voice. Because they don't feed them Mitchel .
Then, as if on cue, he saw a large school of silver fish move over the reef, cut left then dart right, en masse as if they were a precision drill team. Do it by instinct, he thought. There had to be thousands of them. Schooled together. It's a survival technique--unpredictability, a defense.
He saw the divers finning slowly in a huddle. Pablo pointed to his tank, then his watch, then toward the surface. He knew it was Pablo by the yellow strap of his mask. Trouble? He followed Pablo's ascension and raised his head in unison with him when he broke the surface. They were far enough from the boat so that whenever they were in the trough of a swell it couldn't be seen. But Mitchel could hear the engine. From the crest of the next swell, he saw the boat. Leila was standing, shading her eyes, looking for him.
"Are you all right?" he shouted.
She cupped her ear.
"Do...you...want...me...to...come... back?" He yelled each word separately, pointing first to himself then to the boat then finning vigorously to raise far enough out of the water to use both palms to signify a question.
She made a megaphone of her hands.
He heard it, clearly, but was not convinced she really meant it. Anyway it was no fun snorkeling alone. A few more minutes and he'd go back to the boat. She was right. It was stupid to be snorkeling so far from shore over a reef too deep to dive to. They were being ripped off.
But still he was enjoying himself. He had become perfectly comfortable breathing through a tube, in fact he found it relaxing. But his beard and the mask made for an imperfect seal so occasionally he had to drain it.
Each time he looked for the boat. But this time when he raised his head he couldn't find it. He waited for the swell to lift him again, puzzled. At first it didn't sink in, the seriousness of his position. He remained calm, turning in a slow circle, listening for the sound of a motor. He checked to see if he was still over the divers. So where was the boat? His mind wanted a definite answer. This was no place for jokes or deceptions. It should have been easy to see. A hollowness began to creep into his gut the way it did the time his car got towed or the time he came home to find someone had broken into his house. There were only two possibilities. The idea of the boat sinking was too preposterous for him to consider, so for some reason, it must have gone away.
If he had been on shore he would have been looking for someplace to sit and wait. A park bench perhaps, or if at home, the sofa. But slowly it began to dawn on him: he had to stay in constant motion. He realized that some sort of countdown had begun because no man can tread water forever.
All this water and suddenly he had no saliva. He bit his cheeks gently to stimulate the flow--a trick he had learned from a singer who got nervous when performing. But it did nothing to keep a knot from forming in his throat or stop his growing anxiety.
His thoughts turned urgent, staccato--they weren't that far away, Miguelito was fooling around, the boat really had sunk--like waves worrying a piling.
"Hello, is anyone there?" Then felt foolish he had shouted. The answer came as a remembrance.
Panic, my friend, and you die.
A movie, a book, a punch line to a joke? Who said it? He couldn't remember. But he knew it was good advice. In order to survive, he needed to stay within himself.
He rolled over onto his back, surprised how easy the fins made it to float. It was something he ordinarily couldn't do. He took several deep breaths to relax, blowing each one out like a whale. A row of pelicans skimmed low over him, in formation. He let his legs sink until he was treading water again, bobbing like a cork. They were headed for the island. He envied them. Perhaps he should follow.
Cozumel was definitely closer. Pablo said a mile and a half, or was it a mile and a quarter? At sea distances were deceptive. A long way for any swimmer but he had fins. And a mask. Definitely possible. How long would it take? Surely over an hour. Floating on his back, resting, that would be his ace.
Then he remembered. The bass player had said it. Panic, my friend and you die. Nick's grin as he leaned over and said it. A new arrangement that had fallen apart the first time they performed it. The copyist had gotten lazy and used repeats and some of the players missed them. On live TV. The look on the leader's face. Chaos. But Mitchel had improvised a drum solo to cover the confusion before the lead trumpet player passed the word letter D bringing the band got back together. The big man, his famous name unsullied, not a word of thanks, sitting in his dressing room afterwards, sullen, scowling, drinking.
Letter D . A burst of adrenaline made him suddenly euphoric. His laugh forced bubbles from his mask. Shit, he could handle this, he thought. Pablo had shown confidence in him by leaving. They must have had a good reason, he thought. They'll be right back.
He established a routine. He rested occasionally on his back to conserve his energy. He would only look for the boat when he had to clear his mask and before he did look, tell himself it wouldn't be back yet so he wouldn't be disappointed. He invented games. Seeing how long he could hold his breath. Counting fish. Playing arrangements in his head, making rhythmic patterns with his hands and fins as if he were playing a solo.
He studied the divers like a clinician. He estimated how far down they really were, first in feet, then meters. He observed they never looked up. They would never know if he was in trouble. He fantasized surprising them. The lady pearl divers he and Leila had seen in Japan, he remembered, they probably went deeper. He pumped his lungs full and began to swim down. But he didn't get far because his mask began to fill with water and the pain in his left ear reminded him it was damaged from years of playing without protection. Besides for all his effort the divers looked no closer.
As long as his mind stuck to pleasant things, he would let it wander. When it didn't he put it in irons, forcing it to replay a game of chess or a baseball game, recite the Gettysburg Address or the preamble to the Declaration of Independence. Once he tried remembering previous telephone numbers in regression.
But intrusions were inevitable--a visit to a waterfall off the main road between San Cristobal de Las Casas and Palenque before coming to Cozumel. The hike in, monkeys, the jungle so thick and hot and humid it made the water in the pool above the waterfall seem twice as inviting. It had been recommended but Leila's guidebook also gave a caveat about a young boy being swept over the waterfall because the current was deceptive and deadly. Still people were swimming in and out of the current not realizing what they were risking--letting themselves be carried toward the edge then laughing and powering away at the last minute. And Leila not wanting him to swim out so far and test the current but he had to obey that nothing ventured, nothing gained force inside him that drove him to go the limit, a force he channeled each time he sat down to play. He remembered the power of the current and how he too had laughed to hide his fear.
Then it came to him.
Amigos, es muy importante, you must stay over the divers.
Pablo had stressed it. When divers are below, they usually put out a buoy. But Pablo hadn't done that. He had known in advance he was going to leave them. Mitchel and Leila were to be the buoy so they could find the divers. His mind exploded. They're out of their fucking minds. What if something went wrong? The divemaster was supposed to be there to see they all got back safely. Fucking negligence. Sharks. What about Leila?
He smacked his arm hard onto the surface of the water. If he'd been on land he would have thrown something through a window. A wave caught him by surprise and left him cursing himself for being a fool, coughing, nearly retching.
It served him right, he thought, his bull-headedness. Why hadn't he listened to her? He was bobbing again, remembering to keep his back to the swell. A few more outbursts like this and they would find him doing the dead man's float for real. From now on he resolved to treat his mind like a problem child that must be constantly monitored.
He ordered himself to concentrate on the divers.
They seemed innocent of their predicament. They idled as if they were in an aquarium. Watching their ballet, he found his anger dissolving. Swimming was like living in slow motion. No action seemed in haste or thoughtless.
He was thankful Leila had gone back to the boat. She would never have lasted this long. He imagined them together, his arms around her, trying to keep her above water, wishing for anything, a packing box, a piece of driftwood, until he was too exhausted.
He rolled onto his back as if surrendering. He could not bear the thought of losing her or to look again at the empty horizon. He pushed his mask up on his forehead. He needed the sky unobstructed. Cerulean, he thought, is a beautiful word for the entrance to Heaven. His body rode the swell like he was in a cradle.
He held up his hand. Topography--his fingers wrinkled from being too long in the water. He was beginning to feel cold. The divers wore wet suits so their core temperatures would not be affected. Fatigue plus cold equals a cramp. He remembered reading that somewhere.
One more look.
He rinsed his mask and cleared it. As he slowly swung around, he was forced to shield his mask with his hand at one point because of a terrible glare off the water. He stared into it for a few breaths, not sure of what he was seeing. At first, he thought it was some sore of cruel mirage but authenticity was the idling of an engine. He pushed up his mask. As if it had never left, there it was, thirty yards away, something dark and green and solid. And that was Leila smiling and waving.
He kicked to the boat. Leila waited for him at the ladder, her face a wild pastiche of fright and relief. Ten feet away, his left calf muscle seized into spasm. He had to struggle to climb the ladder.
"Where the hell were you?" he half whispered. "I thought I was really screwed when I didn't see the boat." She began to work his toes and massage his calf to release the spasm. She had placed their towel around his shoulders because he was shivering.
"Pablo came back and said something to Miguelito," she said, "and then suddenly we're heading back to shore. I asked them, over and over where are you going, but Pablo said no problem, don't worry. I kept insisting they had to go back. That you had been sick, that you're not a young man any more, that......." She trailed off. She put her hands in front of her face to hide her frustration. He parted them, gently, as if he were removing a bandage.
"It's ok, Leila," he said into to her ear. "It's all over and I'm safe."
"I said everything I could think of to make them come back but the bastards wouldn't listen," she said. "And then, for what? For what did we go back? A fucking fishing pole."
She hammered the alliteration, making a tiny ball of spittle appear at the corner of her mouth like it does when she is angry or excited. He saw the stout pole jutting out over the stern, the massive reel like they'd been hoping for tuna.
"And then when we came back, we couldn't find you. We were looking but we couldn't see you. You were too low in the water. Pablo was nervous. He tried to hide it but I could see it in his eyes. Miguelito wouldn't even look at me."
She cleared her throat and swallowed.
"It was Miguelito who saw you when you raised your head," she said, her voice breaking. She looked at her watch. "You were alone in the water nearly forty minutes." Her eyes found his. She wore no make-up; her hair was wet and matted. It must have been hell for her, he thought, all this plus her migraine and told himself no way Pablo would have pulled a stunt like that if he'd been in the boat.
He watched the divers haul themselves up the ladder and Pablo there to help them, bantering, obsequious. It disgusted Mitchel, the way he was working them for tips. He could see the divers were pissed by the way they brushed Pablo off. They just shed their gear and sat silent as Miguelito skidooed the boat around and headed back to shore. Pablo sat next to the fishing pole and Mitchel vowed he would throw it into the sea if he so much as touched it.
The men from Boston began to talk among themselves. Mitchel remembered they hadn't had time to introduce themselves. Leila and he had arrived late to the dock. The boat was waiting. Mitchel only knew they were from Boston because Pablo had mentioned it. Then one of them came and sat beside him. He said his name was Russell then gave a long glance to sea. Mitchel followed his eyes to where gulls were kiting the wake to see if anything edible churned up.
"What Pablo did to us and especially you out there today, was not only negligent but completely unconscionable," Russell finally said. "I'm going to smear this guy's name all over the Internet. I'm a lawyer. If this were the States, you'd be looking for someone like me so you could sue his ass. But that's not the way it works down here. You can bet he's got no insurance, none of them do, and what he makes in a year, I make in a week. It may be only a gesture but we're not giving this bastard a tip. That will hurt them more than you think. You do whatever you want."
Mitchel could see there was something unsaid by the thoughtful way Russell tapped his front teeth on his lower lip.
"Listen buddy, we want to apologize," he said. "We knew you were up there alone. One of us should have gone up and stayed with you until the boat came back. The cardinal rule of divers is, never do it alone. The guys want me to tell you we're sorry."
Mitchel shrugged. "Forget about it, Russell. Nothing happened. I'm ok."
"At least then, let us buy you a drink."
They met two hours later at a place Russell had discovered across the island--a little beach where a man barbequed shrimp and fish under a crude, open Mayan hut called a palapa. At first, they fingered their cervezas and spoke quietly, holding back, as if they were attending a wake or sitting shiva. But then the plates of shrimp arrived and the men from Boston loosened up and began entertaining them with stories about other dives they had either experienced or heard about that had either gone bad and ended in laughter or disaster. Mitchel told a few funny stories about famous jazz musicians. Leila, who had gotten the best of her headache, became involved in a long discussion about Real Estate in Boston, Real Estate being her profession. One of the men offered to buy a beer for the person who could best grin like Miguelito. Of course, it was Leila. The men laughed when Leila mimed the way Mitchel looked when he played his drums--twisting her mouth to approximate his while squinting and biting her tongue. It was a warm afternoon but Mitchel wore a sweater. His fingers were no longer wrinkled but he was still chilled from being so long in the water. He laughed along with them because laughter seemed fitting for the occasion. Whenever the talk went back to the events of the day, he felt as if he were eaves dropping his own funeral. He was certain there had been an intervention. He should be dead. Leila badgered them into coming back in time. She was his guardian angel. He moved his chair into the sun and buried his feet in the warm sand. We need to talk this day to death, he thought, so it can take its place as no more than one among many others.
That night, as they made love for the first time since he'd been sick, as she sat on top of him rocking them both nearer and nearer, he felt again the motion of the boat. He remembered how beautiful the day had been before he entered the water, how easily he adapted to the sea, how the boat reappeared dark upon the shining water. He thought of the waterfall. Palenque. He thought of how beautiful he and Leila were together, how grateful he was they had found each other. And as they approached climax, his arch drew up as his calf muscle tightened and he realized how truly thankful he was for everything in his life, every moment of joy, every pain and adventure, even for Pablo and Miguelito. And then he cried her name. Oh, Leila. And settling into the pleasant fog of detumescence, he pulled her to him. 'Til death do us part, he remembered. He had insisted they use those words in their marriage vows. The cardinal rule of divers. He was not alone. He was happy to be alive.
Thomas Lisenbee retired in 2001 from a forty-two year career as a symphonic musician (trumpet) in New York City to devote himself to his other great love, writing. In addition to being both a Poet and a Prose Writer, Mr. Lisenbee continues to indulge his desire to perform by appearing as a spoken word artist in and around New York City. His fiction had been published on-line at Wilmingtonblues.com and Carve.com, in print in Taj Mahal. His story The B-63 was short-listed for the 2006 Raymond Carver Short Story Prize. He has studied fiction writing with Julia Fierro at the Sackettstreet Writers Workshop in Brooklyn, NY and is a member of the Upper Delaware Writers' Collective. Mr. Lisenbee divides his time between Brooklyn, NY and Lackawaxen, PA.
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