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I felt the sharp squeeze of compressed air in the cavities of my skull and quickly pressed two fingers to the bridge of my nose and breathed hard, wincing as my ears popped. I swallowed, trying to ignore the itch of my dry throat, and breathed again, feeling the force of fifteen feet of water shoving breath into my lungs.
With a solid thump I landed on the ocean floor, kicking up a cloud of greenish sand with the sweeping of my fins. In front of me sat our dive instructor Peter, with his legs crossed and his fingertips pressed together like a monk in prayer. As soon as I touched down he lifted a hand and formed a questioning Okay sign with his thumb and forefinger. I Okay-ed back, sucking in another slow, loud breath of metallic-tasting oxygen. Peter nodded and turned to gesture at my parents, who had descended on either side of me. After deducing that they too were Okay, Peter resettled himself on the ground in his Buddha position and looked us over with a critical eye. I felt foolish and ignorant at the mercy of his keen stare, conscious of the way I was being tossed from side to side by the current, pinwheeling my arms to keep upright, while he sat as motionless as a statue, as if the gods of the sea had bestowed upon him a special power over the waves.
The hazy outline of a coral reef broke through the pale green of the surrounding water about fifteen feet away from us, looming up from the sand like the jagged, dark silhouette of a mountain range on the horizon. Behind and above and on either side of me spread the Caribbean Sea, cold and silent and somber so many feet beneath its idyllic surface. A lone silver fish swam lazily past us, training one of its dark, glassy eyes on me with a disdainful expression as if sneering at my awkward body.
After a moment of near-silence, broken by the mechanical hiss of my breathing and the rush of water past my head, Peter broke out of his meditative pose and moved towards us, arms outstretched. He stopped first in front of my dad and demonstrated the first skill we were to practice underwater that day: mask clearing. With practiced movements my dad tilted his head towards the distant surface and pulled his dive mask an inch away from his face, allowing a little bit of water to trickle in. He then breathed out a thick stream of bubbles and replaced the mask over his face. The plastic was cleared of fog and not a single drop of water was left languishing in the bottom of the mask. Peter nodded sagely, the sign that all was well, and moved to complete the exercise with my mother.
Before he was even looking at me, my hands began to shake and I could feel my heart begin to beat erratically as if I was facing the barrel of a loaded gun instead of the wizened face of an old diver. Peter’s dark eyes met mine with a flat and unforgiving stare as he came to hover before me in the clear, cold water.
He demonstrated the skill again for my benefit, tipping back his head and letting water fill his mask, then breathing into the mask until all of the water had been forced out and it was clear and dry. Then he pointed at me. Your turn.
My bone-white fingers held tightly to the sides of my mask. I stared at Peter, petrified, knowing he could read the terror in my eyes and hoping against hope that it would somehow move him to pity. He only crossed his arms and became statue-still again, waiting. I gulped desperately at my air, regretting that I had ever agreed to learn how to scuba dive. I saw my parents watching me out of the corners of my eyes, certain that they felt I was being ridiculous in my fear of such an easy task.
I took one long breath and then pulled the mask quickly away from my face. Water pressed against my cheeks as it entered the empty space and I clenched my eyes shut, furiously breathing out and letting the mask snap down before checking to see if I had cleared it completely. When I opened my eyes there was a thin layer of water resting in the bottom of my mask, obstructing my vision, but I was alive, and Peter was nodding and moving away. I could breath again.
Second exercise, indicated Peter with a wave of two fingers. Before I could express even a hint of surprise he had whipped off his mask entirely and was floating before us with only the regulator in his mouth, his eyes closed, and his hair waving in the water like seaweed. He looked wild and unearthly, with black neoprene skin and garish yellow fins, so vulnerable with nothing but willpower or divinity between his fragile lungs and the cruel sea, and yet fearless.
A cold thrill of panic swept through me. There were limits to what I could bring myself to do. This was far beyond those limits. Even before learning to dive I had experienced nightmares in which I was trapped beneath the water’s surface, desperate for air, struggling to come up until eventually I would wake up shaking and gasping for breath. I might have conquered my fear in order to let myself be dragged fifteen feet underwater, but I would not, could not, remove that which kept me safe from the water itself.
My dad passed his test with flying colors. He pulled off his mask with almost as much suave confidence as Peter himself, and replaced it slowly and methodically, never showing a hint of unease. My mother hesitated slightly and reached up to pinch her nose after removing the mask, but after a second or two of pause she pulled it over her head again, always breathing out a constant, steady stream of bubbles as we were told to do.
Once again I felt Peter’s eyes on me and gave myself over to pure, heart-stopping dread. I couldn’t decide what manner of escape would be most effective: abandoning my parents and charging for the surface, breaking down and filling my mask with tears, or beating Peter senseless with my gas tank and fleeing into the surrounding coral reef. All seemed infinitely more appealing than removing my mask.
Peter came and sat before me, hanging cross-legged in the water without a hint of effort. I wondered if he was fooling us. I wondered if he really was protected by some ancient ocean force, immune to the wiles of the water, while we, mere mortals, were at its mercy.
Your turn. He pointed a long, thin finger at my chest. His eyes dared me to make a break for it.
I clenched my jaw and reached up to my face. The mask was reassuringly solid beneath my searching fingers. I could not imagine it floating in the water at my side, as useless as a paper bag over my face.
Your turn, Peter insisted, jabbing his finger at me.
I felt my heart squeeze like the air inside my lungs. I imagined the water washing up my nose, coursing down my throat and filling up the spaces inside of me, weighing me down like a lead anchor as I watched sunlight play across the water far above me.
Your turn. The finger was still directed at me. No amount of fear could make it move.
I don’t know what finally made me do it. I had chosen to be here, cold and out of place beneath the surface of the sea. I had chosen to challenge myself here, to step out of my comfort zone and dive into the unknown. I had not been shoved forcefully into a wetsuit and jettisoned into the ocean depths with a weight around my ankle. I had chosen to let the water close over my head, to surrender myself to the aluminum tank and the plastic tube that allowed me, for a brief moment, to become something slightly more than human. I had chosen this adventure. This was my test, and mine alone.
In one swift movement I ripped the mask off my face. The shock of cold against my cheeks made me snap my eyes shut. The sudden darkness and my inability to balance in the current disoriented me. With a jolt of alarm I reached up to pinch the bridge of my nose, a last attempt at protection, but it was too late. Water flooded my senses, frigid and stinging, as I reflexively drew in a deep, panicked breath. Blinded by terror I pushed off from the sand, kicking desperately for the surface. I could feel the seawater searing my throat. Out of the corner of my eye I noted the dark forms of my parents and Peter rising to the surface around me. I tried to breath through my regulator, holding my nose, but only felt water bubble where there should have been room for air. I coughed and swallowed and dragged at the mouthpiece, but no matter how I struggled I could not breath. I wondered, vaguely, how long it would take to drown.
When I surfaced I let the regulator fall out of my mouth and coughed until my lungs burned.
“Are you okay?” called Peter, floating a few feet from me in the gentle embrace of the waves. “You really scared me down there. I could see you fighting it.” Above the water his voice was low and soft and kind. Yet I could not shake the sensation of his calm, expectant eyes on my face.
“I’m fine,” I said hoarsely. I curled my hands into fists and rubbed my eyes roughly, waiting for my heartbeat to slow. It was my test, and I had failed.
“Do you want to try again?” asked Peter. My parents had surfaced near us with worried looks on their faces. I could not meet their eyes, focusing instead on the grey color of the waves lapping innocently at my shoulder.
“No,” I said weakly, pressing cold fingers against the face of my mask. “I can’t.”