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January 25, 2014

Undercurrents

You start the day as morning breaks. Night person that he is, your husband protests at your idiocy—haven’t you seen enough dolphins? Why start an excursion this early? He feels safer in the light of stars long dead.

But not you. You glory in the budding colors, and you throw your arms to the sky, a child of the sun, as the outrigger boat cuts through a school of dolphins playing around Balicasag Island.

Did you put on sunblock? he calls out. Except on my back, you say. He clucks his tongue. The sound is lost, whipped away by the wind. Sit, he beckons with a tube of sunblock. You’ve learned after three years that you gain little by arguing, so you submit to his ministrations even when you know your wet suit will soon cover your back anyway.

His hands are as cold as the lotion, pressing against your flesh. You know he is frowning from the way his fingers work against your skin, movements precise, rubbing away any possible malady caused by the sun. Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in the world, he says, I should know, I’m in the medical business. No need to remind him that the company he works for only manufactures specialty bandages and surgical dressings. Skin cancer is not the only tragedy, you think; there are worse, slower deaths. You wonder if his irritation is resurrected by the sight of your uneven skin tone. Frequent diving has smudged your skin, your watch and swimsuit leaving patches of white. You had seen him look at the lines drawn by the sun on your thighs and upper arms where your short wet suit ends. Wear a dress with sleeves, he said when you were about to slip into a strapless gown for his friend’s wedding.

Undercurrents01

There, he slaps your back, all done. Thanks, you say. He doesn’t answer. Perhaps the noise of the engine drowned your voice. A spray of water from the bow tickles your ankles, and you reach down to the side of the boat, holding out your hand to the soft shower. The sea is quiet. There are still two hours before you reach Apo Island. You can use the time to talk, but when you turn to him, you find him stretched out on his back at the narrow bench. And he doesn’t catch your cry that you saw some flying fish, there, just a few feet away.

He rests his head on the plastic box housing his dive mask, an uncomfortable position. His towel is draped over his face; even at night he slips his head under the blanket. How can he breathe, you wonder. The towel hides the firm line carved where his eyebrows come together, the lateral ridges between his eyes, across the high bridge of his nose. He looks younger than his 32 years; he reminds you of a boy, only lined. His body is long and streamlined, built for diving. But his limbs remain pale from the long hours he puts into his work, the time spent outdoors limited to wining and dining doctors and hospital administrators at night.

He scarcely joined you in your dives and had logged only a few after completing his certification course. But it never stopped him from displaying his NAUI card in his wallet. Once, when he was distributing calling cards at his high school reunion, you caught him handing his NAUI card to his classmates. Oh wait, he laughed a little too casually, that’s not my business card; that’s my diving certification. And his friends obliged with oohs and aahs.

So it caught you by surprise when he suggested this trip to Bohol; a second honeymoon, he called it. His promotion the year prior had earned him a week’s worth of paid vacation. It’s about time we have a baby, he said, gathering you in his arms, and perhaps it’s true, maybe it is time, but it bothered you the way it seemed so planned. Or was it that he had been considering his timetable, not yours?

It was his exactitude that impressed you the first time you met. He was one of the Rotarians—rookie climbers, all—that your mountaineering club escorted in a clean-up trek up Mt. Maculot. He was determined to enjoy himself and took copious notes of the discussions at the pre-climb meetings. He started jogging 10 kilometers a day. He arranged his backpack carefully, its weight distributed to fall squarely on his hips. He bought all paraphernalia he deemed necessary, down to the color-coordinated egg luggage that assured him his breakfast wouldn’t break. A model climber. You thought him cute in his earnestness, like a little boy who wanted to win a game so badly.

That night on the mountains he abstained from the drinking and smoking—standard mountaineers’ fare—and joined you and your two friends lying on the grass, gazing at the night sky. Secondary smoke is dangerous, he said beside you, waving a piece of cardboard to ward off the cigarette smoke headed your way. They should know—he frowned at the others—they’re mountaineers; the lungs expand during a climb and the large particulates and gases in the cigarette smoke scar the lungs and damage the cilia, he said. You laughed at the severity of his tone, but was touched by his solicitousness. And you told him he looked too young for his Rotarian colleagues, who had been huffing and puffing up the trail behind him. He smiled, pleased, and said that he had joined the club to build a network of business contacts. He had known where he was headed. He was reaching for his stars. There, he said, pointing to five bright points of light, that’s the constellation of Cassiopeia (kas-ee-uh-PEE-uh, he pronounced for you), and his finger crisscrossed the sky from one star to another, forming an irregular W. The stars sprung out from the heavens by his hand, and you listened to him recount that in 1572 the Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe had observed in this constellation a supernova (exploding star, he explained). Like the Big Dipper? you asked, but he said, No, no, no, the Big Dipper is just an asterism, a group of stars forming part of a constellation; the Big Dipper is only a part of Ursa Major (the Great Bear, he translated), one of 88 constellations in the sky. It gripped you, this scientific display; it made the stars more solid.

He latched on to your version culled from Eskimo legends that the stars are the glow of your loved ones who passed on to the next life, placed in the firmament to guide your way. Yes, yes, he interrupted you in his eagerness, what we see now are often lights of stars already dead. Most stars began shining about 10 billion years ago, he said, and the sun started perhaps just five billion years ago. He couldn’t stop talking and you couldn’t stop listening—some stars are even bigger than the sun, with diameters 1,000 times as large as the sun’s. The sun is only a medium-sized star, he said.

He was delighted to learn you were a diver. Wow, he said. He thought it remarkable that you, a woman, were engaged in such an ambitious sport. And he followed you to diving school, where you were already completing your divemaster’s course. His correctness was appropriate for scuba diving. Serious fun, he called it. The slightest mistake can be fatal, he said, poring over the physics of lung expansion injuries and reviewing multiple dive computations. He studied hard and was pleased to get the highest marks in the written tests, higher than the grades you got when you had taken that beginner’s course years ago. A year later it made sense for you to marry him. He brought order to your universe, and he never forgot to call his mother in Tarlac on Sunday afternoons at three.

Undercurrents02The boatman cuts in on your thoughts and asks you which site you want to try first. You look up and find Apo Island emerging from the horizon. Which side is the current going? you ask. The boatman searches the winds and the waves, and points towards Napoleon site. Probably that way, he says. Let’s do Mamsa Point, you say, and the boatman grins, Going for the fishbowl, ma’am? Yes, you grin back. The currents can be strong in Mamsa, and the bigger fish swim against the flow, keeping apace; to divers they appear stationary as if trapped in a fishbowl. Morning is the best time to dive Mamsa when visibility is at its peak.

You bend down to fix his dive gear, choosing a tank and fastening the regulator to the top. You secure his buoyancy compensator, clip the hoses, pump air, and check the gauges. He suddenly sneezes, and it annoys you. He sneezes with precision—once, twice, thrice—always thrice, each time the same short intake of breath before it explodes through clenched teeth and rattles wetly at the end.

You checked the equipment? he asks, rising and folding his towel three-wise on his side. Yes, you say, but he checks the equipment anyway, taking the regulator from your hand and breathing on it, testing the compressed air. You stand back. What would he say if you tell him you can assemble the equipment in the dark? Or that your divemaster’s initiation required you—bare except for your swimsuit—to dive 20 feet under the sea where your gear had been scattered, and you had only as much time as you can hold your breath to set it all up? He would probably tell you, like he did when you told him you were shifting careers, that it is foolhardy, that it isn’t logical, no sense in risking your life, it’s just a hobby. That you emerged triumphant from your rite of passage would not impress him.

He thought it first a joke, one of your flights of fancy, he called it, when you had resigned as manager, cashed in on the bank’s generous separation incentive plan, and taken a dive instructor’s course. That’s not really work, he said, it’s not stable and your insurance premium will shoot through the roof. You didn’t answer, just as you kept silent when he had complained about your dive gear dripping on the bathroom floor. What could you have said anyway? Besides, there wasn’t much time to quarrel on this matter. He was promoted, given a car with a bigger engine, a bigger office, a bigger sales area, a bigger everything. And abruptly your schedules varied. You now work weekends when divers flock to the seas. He said he was too tired to join your trips, no doubt caused by the nights out made even longer by his newly padded expense account.

It is still early when the boatman drops anchor, and you suit up, sweeping your hair from your forehead before sliding the mask around your neck. He prefers your hair long, but wet tresses bother you in between dives so you cropped it short, and now it bobs around your head like a cap. You look like a man, he had said.

This is Mamsa Point, you say, keeping your voice light lest he thinks you are lecturing, we’ll go down a maximum of 80, maybe 90 feet, and drift in the direction of Napoleon. How’s the current? he asks. Hard to tell, you say, Mamsa’s current goes from slight to strong but we shall swim with it, close to the rocks, until we get to the school of big jacks and then just hold on to the rocks. Jacks? he asks. Jackfish, you explain, mamsa is the locals’ word for jackfish, and you could see him file that information in his mind.

He sits on the edge of the boat, hunched forward to balance the weight of his tank. He stares at the sea, its surface marred only by an occasional ripple. The sun reflects lightly off the waters, and the sky is clear. You hope he’s not considering aborting this dive. It’s been a while since you last dived Mamsa. He had opposed the idea of diving today; he had thought you should be resting, shaping your body for gestation, nurturing some maternal instinct.

You think that perhaps you should now tell him not to worry, to trust you, that you’ll have fun below, but instead you say, Time to review our signals, and you go through the routine of hand signals—little or no air, stop, problems with equalizing, problems with clearing. In an emergency, don’t panic, you tell him, just stop, breathe, think and act. All right? you ask.

Your watch, he replies, pursing his lips towards your left arm, and you twist your watch around so its face nestles on the inside of your wrist, safe. It was the first thing you bought with the lump sum you had received from the bank. Much too expensive for a hobby, he had said when you were eyeing it at the shop months before, a Swiss masterpiece would be lost on the fish. He became upset that you had grazed its casing against some coral.

Let’s go, you say, and you tumble backwards into the waters, your weight belt tugging you down, and you relax in the liquid embrace, cocooned. And then you remember him, and you head to the surface, hoping he no longer suffers from panic attacks. Not that he would ever admit it to you. You suspect his cerebral, methodical approach to diving hides a fear of being submerged in the sea, where man is alien and nothing is predictable. You saw him yesterday reviewing the rudiments of diving when he thought you wouldn’t notice. His prowess with dive theories does not extend underwater, and you think maybe he cannot forgive you for that.

Stick with me, you say to him when he surfaces, hold on to the line if you have trouble going down. He nods. You release some air from your compensator and float down.

Pressure begins building in your ears, and you equalize gently. You see him do the same, both hands gripping his nose, his face pinched as he forces the pressure through his ears. Are you okay? you signal  to him. He nods. When you do not move, he nods vehemently, waving you on with his hand, Go, go. We go this way, follow me, your hands flash. You fin your way down to the rock cliffs. The current swells slightly, drifting in the direction of your route. It would make finning unnecessary unless the current turns against you.

There is a burst of color as you reach some table corals. You hold out a hand, pretending to play with the clown fish darting out of the anemone, halting your descent to give him time to adjust to the pressure without being obvious.

At 70 feet a mass of adult butterflyfish converges a few feet to your left, weaving together, a parade of yellow fins and black and white stripes. You turn to him, pointing him to the display. A Butterflyfish Garden, that’s what the locals call this place, and you wonder what he’s thinking of, what he sees. Does he marvel at their grace? Does he see a supernatural hand in the big black dot on each side of the fish—eyespots, believed to protect the fish from its enemies? Or would he be wracking his brains figuring out which family they come from?

He struggles to keep afloat beside you, and you reach out to add more air to his compensator. He cannot control his buoyancy and he uses his arms to paddle—a redundant exercise. I’m okay, he gestures, taking the inflator from your hand. You fin backwards. Let’s go, you signal to him, and you swim sideways, keeping him within your vision. He tilts and thrusts out his fins, knocking off some fan coral, and you close your eyes to the destruction.

You are nearing the jacks when the current suddenly changes pace, heaves, and turns against you, its force intermittently crashing you against the wall. Your hand seizes an overhang, and you turn to him behind you, signaling with the other hand, Hold on, hold on to the rocks! He finds a crevice and hangs on, his legs splayed out behind him. Saltwater flows into his mask and his eyes widen, how can he clear his mask? You move towards him, shifting from one rock to another, the ridges cutting into your fingers. And you grab his tank to steady him, and motion for him to release the saltwater. You see him exhale through his nose without lifting his mask, alarmed at the saltwater pressing against his nostrils. No, you signal to him, lift your mask to clear it, you can still breathe through your regulator. You quickly demonstrate.

Undercurrents03He manages to release some saltwater when the current sweeps your bodies to the side, and the sudden shift in weight loosens your grip on the rock, and you are both carried away. A down current pulls you into the depths, and he thrashes wildly, his movements trivial. Breathe, you want to tell him, your heart pounding, but there is no time to listen to your fears. You release your weight belt to help arrest the descent, and fin upwards, grabbing his right hand and fixing it to the top of your tank. Hold on to me, you signal. His other hand is fixed to his mask, his panic refusing to let it go. The current abruptly halts, and then surges upward, then sideward. You twist and turn your fins, backwards and inwards. Stop thrashing, you signal to him. No use swimming against the current, you say, your hands working overtime. The sudden changes in pressure are hurting your ears, and his right hand falls away from your tank to equalize. No, you yell into your regulator, just swallow, work your jaw! But he cannot hear you, and you lose him to the current. He hurtles past. You burst after him, find one of his fins and hang on, two bodies sprawled out, whirled to one side. The current gathers force and maintains a course parallel to the surface.

It feels like flying, you think, this rapid run through the sea. Or like skateboarding. The water is smooth and cool on your cheeks, and you stretch an arm. He is jerking below you, one hand to his mask and another inching its way to seize your hand clutching his fin. You know that his heavy exertions and ineffective movements will drain his reserves. Beginners are always inefficient with their air. You look at him, his life hanging on to 5’2” of you.

What if? you think. What if—enchanting little words that tingle in your mind and travel down to the fingers that you curl around his. The words resonate, like there are no other words before that, no other thought. Can he hear them? Can he see your eyes? Your hand feels light. It does not feel like your own. In this world, there are an infinite number of possibilities; the laws of terra firma do not apply.

He hangs below you, lost in a world he cannot conquer. His eyes blink rapidly behind his mask. His breathing escapes in a vigorous stream of bubbles. You wonder how he is going to tell this story to his friends one day, if you survive this. Will he tell them he now has experienced a whirlpool? (An eddy, you’ll tell him, that would probably be what they call an eddy.) Will he tell them of the butterflyfish? Will he tell them he held on to you for dear life?

You look up to the sunlight breaking through the waters.  A shoal of jackfish near the surface circles the sunbeam, their silver bodies glinting. The sea is hushed, and the sponge corals flow with the current.

And you tighten your grip on his hand. The current slows down. You signal to him to begin a slow ascent, no more than one foot per second, and to pause at 15 feet to decompress. Only when your outstretched hand breaks through the waters do you release his hand.

Are you crazy? he shouts upon reaching the surface, whipping away his regulator, eyes flashing, I could’ve died down there!

Yes, you say, you could have.

 

“Undercurrents” is Janet Villa’s first published short story. It won the Grand Prize of the NVM Gonzalez Award for Best Short Story in November 2003. It is published in “Best Filipino Short Stories,” ed. Gregorio Brillantes (2007) and anthologized in “Hoard of Thunder: Philippine Short Stories in English 1990-2008, Volume II 2001 to 2008,” edited by Gémino H. Abad (U.P. Press)

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