Mary Carroll Moore
In a dream, Simon Ayers saw himself leading a different life. He had had the same dream several times since Addie was diagnosed. That was two years ago, but the dream was occurring with more frequency now that her cancer had metastasized.
Simon never told Addie about the dream because she wasn’t in it. He felt both guilty and relieved.
The premonition was always the same. It was as if a camera panned over an ocean bluer than Simon had ever imagined to a white sand beach cuddling a small island resort, then zoomed back to a boat bobbing along the edge of a vast coral reef. Simon could see bright flashes of tropical fish darting under the water. In the dream, voices grew gradually louder, like a movie soundtrack zeroing in from a far distance. Simon would recognize his own voice first, then see himself dressed for scuba diving.
“Simon Ayers, from British Columbia,” he’d say.
“That’s in Canada, isn’t it? Lovely, I hear.”
The second voice came from a small dark-haired woman.
“I’m Rose, and this is Scotty, my husband. We’re from Australia by way of New Mexico.” They would all laugh.
As the sounds in the dream got louder, Simon’s other senses picked up too. A scent swept in from the sea, salty and fresh with an overlay of fish. The feeling of wind gusting but not harsh, like cotton balls hitting his cheeks and forehead. The taste of ocean on his lips, salt crusting like rime. He’d lick them. He did the same thing every time in the dream. Next he would reach out his hand toward Rose to steady her as the boat rocked in a sudden swell. It threw her slightly against him, and he smelled her neck.
Simon always woke at this point. Sometimes, like tonight, he cried out a little, and Addie, who rarely slept anymore, said, “What is it?”
“Just a dream.”
“Nightmares?” Addie asked, because that was all she had if she did sleep. Simon said no, it wasn’t a bad dream. And Addie sighed a little, sounding disappointed.
Simon mostly loved the nights he could linger in half-sleep and reconstruct the smell of Rose’s neck. It was such a vivid thing, the essence of health and vigor that had been missing from his life since the antiseptic hospital odor took up residence in the house. Simon clung like a dying man to the scent of life emanating from Rose. It reminded him of the early years of his marriage, when Addie was in her twenties and going to grad school. She had worn her blond hair down to her shoulders, a waterfall of shimmery light. He hadn’t seen hair on either of their heads in a while, but Addie didn’t seem to care anymore. He thought of the fragrance of hair, and his eyes stung.
Addie spoke from the darkness of the bedroom. “I think we need to get away. Take a last trip. I’d like that.”
“Where would you want to go?” Simon asked after a moment.
“Someplace warm. Get out of this cold and wind.” Vancouver was raw this time of year, the ocean blasting cold air over the peninsula like a knife. “I’m always shivering. I want hot sun on my skin again. I want to bake in the heat.”
“Should we?” Simon asked tentatively. “The doctors…” He didn’t finish.
“I know. But it’s my life, what’s left of it. They can’t do anything more. They said that.” She reached out under the wool blankets and found Simon’s hand. “I need some new memories. Something I can take with me that’s not pain and medications and people in white jackets prodding and poking me. I want…” She paused like a child about to blow out candles, making a secret wish. “I want you to have another chance. I want you to remember me happier.”
Simon shot back to his dream, seeing the ocean and hearing the seabirds. The camera panning on white sand. “I’ll find us a place.”
“And hang the expense,” she said emphatically. “Just don’t bother with that.”
Simon squeezed her fingers gently, feeling something like warmth ooze back into his chest. He closed his eyes and listened to his wife’s shallow breathing.
It didn’t take long the next day to find it. A small island in the southernmost Caribbean, part of a tiny chain off the coast of Venezuela. The island was big enough for two hotels and a dive resort, Captain Don’s. The beaches in the photographs were like expanses of silky sugar. Ocean five miles encircling the chain was protected, a marine park. The coral reefs hugged three sides, shelving sixty feet deep. Fish as colorful as flowers swam right up to your face.
The third morning of their trip, Addie’s color was back. She was eating a bowl of chunked mango when Simon decided to ask her about the diving. It had been an easy trip, straight to Miami, then a Virgin Atlantic flight to Trinidad. The boat crossing to the island was a bit rough, and her gray face had made him wonder if they would make it to the island to enjoy their most expensive suite in the most expensive of the two hotels. But the suite opened onto the beach and he sat on the deck next to Addie’s bed for the two days after they arrived, the curtains pulled back and the sliding door opened so she could see the bright gleam of water.
The oxygen tank on its wheeled cart rested in the corner. She was starting to lose the ability to breathe deeply now. The cancer had begun filling her lungs with fluid, very slowly. But when he spoke of the dive trip scheduled that day, she smiled and patted his arm.
“Go, have a morning to yourself. I’m not going anywhere. Just leave me the phone, that bottle of Evian.” Simon was uncertain still. “Go, Simon. It’ll do both of us good if you have some fun.”
Simon blinked in the hot sunlight as he walked down to the pier, his scuba gear bumping against a wet suited leg. There was an eerie feeling of déjà vu about the morning, as if he had lived it earlier. Even the couple ahead of him, leaning against the weathered wood of the railing, looked familiar. Both had neon green gear bags, both were wearing black wetsuits with racing stripes up the leg. The woman was petite, black-haired. Simon watched as she looked up at the man, laughing. Suddenly Simon was swept with jealousy beyond reason, that anyone could laugh that freely, as if they had never met death in the same room. His bag felt heavier, his legs ached. The tiredness of the past two years pressed down on him. He realized that until he had heard that laugh, he had not known how badly he was limping through each day. How much he had wished it was him dying instead of Addie. How much he hated his life.
The woman turned and smiled. Rose. It was Rose. Her black hair, her small trim body, her wide smile.
Simon stopped walking and stared at her. The gear bag in his right hand slid to the ground with a clunk. The woman, Rose, kept smiling at him but now her face was puzzled too.
“Are you diving today? The boat’s supposed to be here any minute.”
Rose held out her hand, as in Simon’s dream. “I’m Rose and this is my husband, Scotty. We’re from Australia—”
“By way of New Mexico,” Simon finished before he could stop himself. That was Rose’s line. He’d broken the order of the dream script now.
Rose looked startled. “Yes. How did you know?”
“Southwestern accent,” Simon mumbled.
“You have a good ear.”
“Linguistics professor,” Simon said and smiled back. Scotty clapped Simon’s shoulder loudly and the other two looked up, as if suddenly remembering him.
“Good diving today,” Scotty said. “Visibility’s about ninety.”
“It’s my first time out in years,” Simon said. “At least in warm water.”
“No buddy with you? Got to have a buddy down there.”
“My wife—” Simon cleared his throat. There seemed to be no way to begin telling these people, strangers, yet so familiar from so many nights. “She’s not feeling well.”
“He can buddy with us.” Rose was smiling again, sunlight reflecting off white even teeth. It seemed she glowed with vitality. He looked down at her elegant bare arms, tanned and rosily freckled against the wetsuit’s short sleeve. Strong and ready to reach for the next experience. He thought of his wife’s fingers under the wool blanket as they fell asleep, so bony now he always held her hand lightly so he wouldn’t crush them.
The dive was good, a loop underwater called Marie’s Run. They’d had virtually no current to struggle against at sixty feet so Rose, Scotty, and Simon floated along gently, hands clasped against their weight belts or reaching to stroke a coral formation or point at a school of silver barracuda flashing by. The dive had been the first of the day so they stayed down almost an hour, Scotty’s navigation bringing them up right alongside the boat. Simon felt a thrill in his torso, almost physical like after good sex, as the three of them hoisted their spent tanks and fins onto the boat deck and climbed the ladder, plunking down tiredly on the benches.
“Super dive.” Scotty grinned. “Perfect navigation.”
“Scotty loves to come up right next to the boat.” Rose pushed her wet dark hair from her forehead and pulled off her dive gloves. “Today it was easy to stay on course. No underwater current for once.”
“It was great,” Simon said, turning his face up toward the sun. He felt so light, untroubled. He unzipped his wetsuit jacket and shrugged out of it.
“Does your wife dive?” Rose asked.
With a start, Simon realized that Addie had completely slipped his mind. For how long? An hour? Two? Even at work, it wasn’t easy to forget her, the myriad worries of her illness. But underwater, out here in the hot bake of the Caribbean, Addie could almost not exist.
I don’t hate her, really, he wanted to tell them. At night I watch the rise and fall of the white sheet over her chest just to make sure she’s still breathing. But I am so tired. So tired of this. But all he said was, “No.”
When the boat lurched, as in the dream, Simon was ready. He took a deep breath to better inhale Rose.
They had had another silly argument the day before they left Vancouver for the trip. This one was about magazine renewals. Simon wanted to keep another year on House & Garden, just because you never knew, but Addie said, “You never read it. And I won’t be here to read it.”
He had torn up the paper renewal notice and flung it at her, stomped out of the living room, already ashamed of himself by the time he reached the front door, imagining his wife’s bemused and understanding look as she collected scraps of white from her lap. It was always the small things. The finality of the small things that underlined his despair in a way the doctors never told you.
The last oncologist was a specialist in breast cancer metastasis. He had shown them diagrams of how the cancer would spread.
“If it was just lung cancer, we could operate, because it grows in patches, a patch here, one there.” He pointed to Addie’s X-ray. Sighed, took off his glasses, looked at them. Simon felt tears prick the corners of his eyes. “Breast cancer hits the lungs like scattershot. It’s everywhere all at once.”
Scotty and Rose wanted to dive together again the next morning and Simon woke up yearning for the cool weightlessness of sixty feet underwater. He mentioned it to Addie, tentative, hoping. “I told you I’d be okay. Just park me by the pool with my mystery.” She held out her hand from the bed, smiling, reaching toward him.
It was another good day. The sun was hot under his bare feet as he walked down the dock to the boat. But only Rose was standing there, sleek in a new black shortie wetsuit the color of her hair.
“Where’s Scotty?” Simon asked as they humped their gear onto the dive boat and began attaching their regulators to the tanks.
“Changed his mind.” Rose’s voice was curt, then she shrugged. “We’ll have fun, won’t we?” She smiled at Simon.
The tanks lined the sides of the dive boat like soldiers, steel grey metal cylinders with valves at the top. The regulator hose connected, tightened, and Simon heard the satisfying whoosh of air pressure as he tested it. They tried their mouthpieces, the spare one called an octopus, the buoyancy compensators. Rose sat back on the wooden bench in front of her tank, brushing a strand of hair out of her eyes. Simon was amazed at how blue Rose’s eyes were, how the color echoed the sea around him, how light sparked off her face in glints of white and gold. She stretched her arms over her head and Simon saw the rise of her full chest, the healthy breasts, two of them, and the normalness of this struck him like a punch. He swallowed past the sudden ache in his throat and turned to look at the ocean, blinking quickly.
“I hope it’s clear today,” Rose said. “That storm off Caracas is starting to stir up sand.” She leaned back against the tank. “Tell me about your wife, Simon. You’ve been here two days, and we haven’t met her, not even at dinner. Are you keeping her hidden on purpose?”
Simon kept staring at the ocean. Far out to sea there were swells, barely visible, the beginnings of waves, he thought. He’d read somewhere that ocean swells were miles deep but most of them were hidden under the surface. They rose so gently, you wouldn’t even know the sea was moving until water reached rocks or shoreline. Then the effect of all that momentum became visible, a slow devouring of stone and sand with relentless pounding.
“Addie’s sick. We came down here because she’s sick.”
“What’s she got?”
“Breast cancer metastasis.” Simon rubbed his face with the back of a hand. “It started out so simply, a little pea-sized lump.” He let his hand fall limply to his lap. Rose reached over and placed hers on top, resting there like a small pink bird. He watched Rose’s fingers pat and soothe, fluttering light as feathers on his skin. “She has a couple of months at most. Probably not even.”
Rose grimaced. “I think I could stand anything except pain.”
The boat was filling with other divers.
“They gave her nine months of chemo before they gave up. It turned her fingernails brown.” He shook his head and felt the back of his neck, hot and tender from yesterday’s sun.
Rose took her hand away and began fiddling with the regulator’s mouthpiece, opening it to let loose a rush of air then snapping it closed.
“Soon she’ll need one of those all the time,” Simon said. He felt like he was talking through a sort of fog.
“Oxygen. Her lungs are filling up. She doesn’t have much breathing room.”
“I can’t imagine.”
“The worst is—” Simon lowered his voice under the cheerful din of the divers settling around them. “How often I just wait for it to be over.” He turned to look at Rose’s face. “Do you think that’s criminal? To want it to end?”
Rose shook her head.
“If it were me dying, Addie would never think of how relieved she’d be after it was all over. She’s not like that. But I keep imagining—” Simon stood up, turned away from the crowd on the boat, leaned over the railing.
“Trading my life for someone else’s.”
“God, I think about that all the time.” Rose leaned a little against him as the boat rocked, then rested on the railing.
This was the dream. The swaying boat, the hot sun, the impossibly blue ocean, his bare feet anchored on the deck, watching the wave roll toward them from the distance, watching himself reach out his arms to catch Rose as she was tossed sideways. Smelling again her health, her hair, her skin. Closing his eyes to breathe in the expansion of her.
“Let’s have a great dive today. It’s Emerald Cove.” Rose smiled. “Good for barracuda and rays. More current, though. We have to stay together, make sure we don’t get pulled too far from the entry point or we’ll miss our boat ride back.” She grinned at him, tugged hair out of her wetsuit collar, and took a deep breath. “Isn’t it beautiful out here?”
That night Simon watched Addie sleep for a long time before he drifted off. The surf pounded sand down on the beach. In the moonlight Addie’s face looked faded, the color pale, as if her body was becoming translucent, a certain residue clearing out of her being. Dark fatigue still shadowed the skin under her eyes, but she was full of this radiance, especially now when she slept.
He was fascinated by how someone’s dreams shone through their skin when they were unconscious in sleep. He could read Addie’s thoughts on the translucence of her face as it shifted from the inner images.
Simon got up around midnight, padded to the bathroom, and turned on the light. He stood by the sink, staring at his face in the ornate gilt mirror, studying for what he saw on Addie’s.
But he found nothing but himself.
The next morning Rose called about eight. Simon and Addie were sitting on the terrace, eating English muffins spread with thick mango jam. Simon answered the portable phone, watching a crumb move in the corner of Addie’s mouth as she chewed slowly, absorbed in her journal writing. She shifted in the web-backed chair Simon had pulled into a shady corner of the terrace and wiped her forehead. Already the air steamed like bath water. In the distance, the sea pounded, blue and endless.
“I think it’ll be fine,” Simon told Rose. “Addie’s doing well.” He laughed. “Okay, I will.”
Addie’s smile looked a little fixed when he turned to her. “Was that your new friend again?”
Simon took a sip of his coffee. “Another dive. If you’re feeling okay, I’d like to go.”
Addie was fiddling with the valve on her oxygen tank. “I can always call the front desk if I need something. Sure, Simon. Why don’t you. And maybe I can meet Rose sometime.”
“Dinner later? I’ll check. I think you’d like her.”
“I’m glad you’ve found someone to spend your time with here.” She coughed violently, then waved Simon back into his chair. “What’s happened to her husband? Hasn’t he gone out diving with you all lately?”
“Off and on. They seem to be having problems.”
“Not like us.” She reached over and held Simon’s hand. “I love you more now than I ever have.”
He squeezed her hand then gently disengaged. “I have to be at the boat by ten. Are you sure you’ll be okay?”
The boat’s engines cut as they anchored in a small cove off the lee of the island. The divers paired up and took turns striding off the stern platform, one hand holding the mask in place, the other, the regulator. Simon released air into his buoyancy vest and floated off the side, waiting for Rose. They drifted below the surface, following the anchor line down to sixty feet.
The sea was a beautiful translucent airy green that began to deepen as they descended. They traveled along a reddish outcropping of coral reef, following the small group of divers. Rose tapped him on the shoulder and pointed up. Three manta rays flapped slowly by over their heads, elephant-ear-like wings moving gracefully in the current.
It was so peaceful to be drifting, like on an underwater river, watching the coral swim by his mask, listening only to the sound of his own breathing. His regulator amplified the full richness of each powerful inhale. He could see the burble of his exhale in the bubbles that rose past his mask toward the surface. Rhythmic, strong, powerful. He began to time the breaths with the movement of his legs in the scuba fins, the power of those too, propelling him through the emerald water.
On the boat ride back to shore, Simon was quiet, medicated by the serenity of the underwater experience. He thought about Addie last night, excusing herself early from the dinner with Rose and Scotty, going to bed. How he’d found her asleep, tears streaking on her face, the light from the moon making them look like traced silver against her skin.
He’d undressed silently, brushed his teeth, stretched his long body on his side of the bed. Sleep came slow.
Addie had been crying. Throughout the two years since she’d been sick, he could count on one hand the number of times she’d let loose with tears. She knew how much it frightened him to see her face become very red, her mouth pull down at the corners, and her lips pinch into thinness.
It always reminded him of a colicky infant he once sat next to on a plane. The child’s howling had continued unabated for almost an hour. Cries that would subside into little mewling sounds and Simon could doze for a minute, only to be jolted awake when the wailing began again.
Over Denver, Simon became gradually aware of how close he was to slapping the ballooning red face. Horrified at himself, he pushed his hands under the sides of his legs and sat like that until they landed in Seattle.
He’d hidden himself in the basement that weekend, exhausted, trying to focus on a project at his workbench. It had been a bad week, with the diagnosis just in, and he felt stretched as many ways as he’d ever been.
Toward evening, Addie hadn’t turned on the lights upstairs except for one in the second-floor bathroom. Simon wandered up, looking for dinner, and heard a strange thumping. Thin muffled screams. Taking the stairs two at a time, he rushed down the hall and burst into the bathroom, shouting her name.
Addie was naked and completely submerged in the tub. She was thrashing about underwater, her fists banging the sides of the tub, her closed mouth emitting squealing sounds, as if she were trying to scream. Simon was so astounded by this, he just stood there until she finally popped up for air.
“Sorry,” she said, wiping soap from her face. “I didn’t mean to startle you.”
“I think I’m coming down with something.” Rose added sugar to her cup of Nescafé and stirred vigorously. A small group had been meeting for coffee before the dive.
“Do you think you should dive today?” Simon asked.
“She’s fine. She’s just whining because she drank too much last night.” Scotty laid a hand on her shoulder, and Rose shook it off, inching closer to Simon. “It was those drinks with the little umbrellas.”
“Parasols,” Rose said. “And it was your idiocy, ordering rounds every time you lost a game of backgammon. Anyway, I can breathe fine.” She demonstrated.
Scotty snorted. “I’m going down to the dock.” He slapped some coins on the table and got up abruptly.
Rose rolled her eyes at Simon. “He’s a bear when he loses.” She took a sip of coffee and grimaced. “We have better coffee in Sydney, which is really saying something.” She pushed back her hair and a long strand flipped over Simon’s face like a finger stroke.
“How’s Addie doing? I wish she’d been able to stay for dinner last night.” Rose paused. “Honestly, Simon—”
“Isn’t it an awful, like, burden for you?” Rose leaned forward, almost whispering. “The waiting? Knowing she’s only got weeks, but not knowing exactly when it’ll happen?” She leaned back again, dug in her black carryall for an emery board, examined her nails.
Simon studied her. Rose was voicing his thoughts again. He loved the way she just said anything that came into her head. Not tentative like Addie. Maybe it was the Australian style.
“What’s the matter with you and Scotty?” he asked.
Rose looked past him down the pier, where Scotty was talking to a blond female divemaster. “We’re on the rocks. Have been for ages.” She said this slowly, as if tasting each word on her tongue. “Scotty thought this trip’d help, but it hasn’t. He’s just as undependable here as he is back home.”
“I thought you were the golden couple.”
“Oh, that. We put on a good show, don’t we? But it’s pretty well over. We haven’t had sex in longer than I care to recall.”
Simon imagined Rose on a white bed, the tanned skin against the sheets. He watched her red mouth take another sip from the china cup. A whisper had started in the back of his head, an evil thought: You can have a new life, you can have a new wife. It was just like a little song. He shook his head, trying to clear it out.
“Still have water in your ears from yesterday?” Rose said.
“You know, Simon, I was thinking.” Rose looked down at their hands on the black tabletop, lying close but not touching. “We could take a day trip tomorrow, if you’d like. One of the waiters was telling me about this deserted beach on the other side of the island. We can rent a car. It’s about an hour, past the flamingo sanctuary.” She ran a fingertip down the back of Simon’s hand. “We could take a picnic.”
“The three of us?”
“I don’t think Scotty will want to come. Oh. Addie. What about Addie? Would she be up to going?”
“I don’t think so. She’s been on oxygen more lately. Needs to stay close to a phone.”
Rose’s face brightened. “Okay, just the two of us. We both need a holiday.” She giggled. “Think about it. We could pretend we were in other lives for a day, be other people. No worries.”
Trade in my life, Simon thought.
The hotel packed a hamper full of sandwiches and mangoes. A blue cotton bedspread was folded next to it on the back seat of the rented Jeep, and something in the hamper rattled each time she went over a bump in the rut-strewn road. “Iced tea,” Rose said. “Two thermoses. One straight and one with something extra added.” She smiled, stretched, then quickly put her hands back on the wheel. “What a road, eh? Like the outback.”
“I’m glad this worked out. I wanted to explore the island before we left.” Simon felt light today, with a strange hopeful feeling.
“Me too.” Rose took lip balm from her bag and applied it with one hand. “Tell me something. What have you always wanted but never gotten?”
“Something I’ve never gotten?”
“Yes. But you’ve longed for.”
“That’s a tough one. How about you?”
“Oh, easy. Someone like Ayer’s Rock. You know it?”
Simon shook his head.
“It’s a huge thing, out in the desert, been there forever. I want a man like that. A man who’s solid and steady and devoted. Sounds impossible, eh? Especially for someone with my outrageous mouth.” She looked over at him, pouted her lips.
“I like your outspokenness, Rose.”
“All the Aussie men hate it. They like their women to be quiet. Scotty says I’m like a lethal charge he could accidentally step on and set off.”
“New Mexico’s better because I can be a bit of an odd lot there and no one cares.”
“Then why haven’t you found your solid rock in New Mexico?”
“The men there are all either married, happily, or gay gallery owners. It’s dry country. I’d do anything for the right man. Someone like you, Simon.” She took her right hand off the steering wheel and brushed her face lightly, as if wiping away tears. They were silent for a while. Simon watched the dry scrubby landscape bounce by the car window, the blue sea appearing in the distance when they curved around a point.
“I want to be in a different life, too,” he said. “Addie’s been sick for so long. I can’t even remember what it was like before.”
“Did you ever have kids?”
“Addie wanted them. I’m almost fifty but she’s only thirty-nine.”
“My God. Thirty-nine. She looks—”
“I know. Cancer hit her young. It ages you fast. I’m older than she is, but not that old.”
“So you didn’t want to be tied down with kids?”
“I wanted to travel, see things. Funny how it worked out.”
“You’re more tied down now than ever.”
“Yes. More than I could’ve imagined.”
Rose pulled over on a sandy shoulder, stopping the engine. They sat and listened for a few minutes to the breeze in the reeds growing by the road. A thin path wound through the scrub bushes and grass to the blue ocean below them. Simon could see the white strip of beach.
“This is it.”
They carried hamper and bedspread, bags of towels. Rose found a scoop of beach out of the wind and spread out the blue cloth. She pulled a bottle of bronzing oil from her black bag. “Will you do me?”
Simon took the bottle. Rose turned her back and in a fluid motion pulled her t-shirt off. Her back was naked.
“I hope you don’t mind. I hate strap marks.”
“No,” Simon said, staring at the thin wings of her bare shoulder blades, imagining how they would feel under his hand. He poured a small circle of amber oil into his palm. “I don’t mind.”
That evening, Simon sat on the edge of the bed in their suite, taking off his sandals. Addie watched him, her journal open on her lap. She had spread night cream on her face and neck and the skin glinted almost ghostly white.
“You deserve someone steadier,” he said suddenly, not looking at her.
“Why would I want anyone other than you?”
He didn’t say anything.
“Simon. Don’t feel so guilty. It was fine for you to go with Rose today. We’ve talked about it, remember?” Addie’s smile looked thin. She reached over and fingered the mask of the oxygen tank next to her bedside.
“When I’m with her, I feel strange, like I’m in another life.”
Addie swallowed thickly, then cleared her throat. “Just stay with me in this one till the end, okay?” she said, as if reading his thoughts.
“I’m here. I’m not leaving.” He reached over and laid his hand on the crown of her naked head.
Friday was the last dive. They were leaving Sunday morning and needed a day between diving and flying. Rose wanted to take Simon to a new site, an underwater cave.
The dive boat was thinly loaded that morning, only five divers, all experienced. They rocked in the strong current, talking about the storm off Caracas that had closed around the islands in the night.
“It’ll still be worth it,” Rose said. “Probably be some current, but we’ll be fine if we stick close.”
Simon nodded. He was having trouble with his regulator. It didn’t seem to be drawing air awfully well, but it could have been his imagination. He tested the mouthpiece and heard the satisfying whoosh. His bones ached today. Sleep hadn’t come easily the night before. Addie was breathing erratically, and every time he heard silence, he’d wake to make sure she was still alive. By dawn he was sandy-eyed and dragging.
It’s probably just tiredness. Worry, he decided. He wouldn’t mention the regulator. If anything happened, he could just surface.
At sixty feet, they were surrounded by a school of bright clownfish. Rose pointed toward the entrance to a shallow cave and swam ahead of him through the opening.
They flicked on their dive lights, finning through the surprisingly strong current. Simon kept bumping into the cave walls, steadying himself against the rush of water and trying to keep his balance. The reg was pulling well enough, not great, but nowhere near the problem it’d been on the surface. Rose turned and faced him. They were in a small chamber, circular and lit only by a shaft of greenish light from above. Rose beckoned to Simon and he swam closer, his eyes questioning. She took his hand and slowly, deliberately pressed it against her breast.
He could see she was smiling, just by her eyes, still that intense blue even underwater. Suddenly he felt sick. The reg was pulling more erratically.
He shook his head at her, pulling his hand away, but she tightened her hold until he had to wrench it from her grasp. She tilted her head, and he gestured to the mouth of the cave. Pushing him away now, Rose turned and looked at the opposite walls.
The reg was failing. Simon sucked harder, tried to reach over to pat Rose on the shoulder, let her know he was in trouble, but the current swayed suddenly between them, sweeping Rose deeper into the cave. Simon began to panic. Would he even make it to the surface in time? He could imagine himself dying down here, unable to get air.
He circled in position like an awkward whale, his breath laboring as he gulped air through the hissing mouthpiece. He felt a wave of nausea.
Beginning divers would never deliberately leave their buddies, get separated from the safety of the group, but Simon now felt it was an emergency. Rose could take care of herself, he needed to get to the surface.
He clawed his way out of the cave’s tunnels, moving the few feet they had traveled in, breathing as carefully as he could to keep even a little air flowing to his lungs. No time to orient himself, figure out the best place to surface. Exiting into clear ocean, he let the trail of his exhaling bubbles go ahead of him skyward, praying that he’d packed enough air into the recesses of his lungs as they compressed. As he rose, he scanned the landscape below for any of the other divers. But he was alone.
When he reached the surface, the fresh sea air was like a balm on his face. He tipped back his head, taking long gasps, restoring his lungs. The current had been strong below but nothing like on top. The waves were rough and tipped with white, the sky no longer blue and serene.
Simon inflated his buoyancy vest and treaded water. No chance of diving again and swimming by compass underwater where it would be less of a struggle. He knew he didn’t have the energy to make it along the surface. The dive boat was too far away, a red-hulled speck on the far horizon, tossing like a child’s toy, its red and white flag whipping in the wind. After some time, Simon could hear the engines start and see the boat beginning to circle. Perhaps they were searching for him.
He had a sudden image of Addie, asleep, her face shining with light. Her hand reaching out to cover his cold fingers.
He leaned his head against the collar of his vest, trying to ride the waves. They were getting bigger now, splashing in his face regularly. His snorkel filled, then emptied as he blew out rhythmically. But the waves were cresting over him, water filling the plastic tube too fast, and he retched up mouthfuls of salty ocean.
When he could no longer feel his legs and arms, he imagined Addie again, hovering over him, a tender look on her pale face. He closed his eyes and sank gratefully into the vision.
The dive boat hauled him, dripping and gasping, from the water just before he passed out. Rose was there. She worried over him like a mother, helping him unhook his scuba fins and tank and loosen his wetsuit jacket.
“What happened?” she asked above the wail of the wind. “I turned around and you were gone.”
“My regulator was malfunctioning,” Simon said. “I tried to tell you, but I just had to give up and get to the surface as fast as I could. God, I didn’t think I’d make it.”
“It was touch and go. Someone saw the yellow tip of your buoyancy vest in the water.”
He fought against a strange new weight on his chest, as if he was only allowed a small packet of air. He forced his lungs to expand further, feeling the freshness of each breath push against his throat. Rose held his hand.
“Addie was sleeping. Peacefully. I didn’t want to wake her. I’ll tell her all about it in the morning.” Simon’s fingers drummed on the white-clothed restaurant table, then fiddled with the silverware, arranging each piece parallel to the next, the bottom edges aligned. He caught sight of how his hands trembled and lay the palms flat on the table, stilling all movement.
“I’m still so shaky.” He levered his hands up, palms still facing down. Tremors ran wrist to finger. Rose reached over and clasped them, then lowered them down to rest. Simon released his hands from her grasp, placed them against the chair seat, wedged safely under his thighs.
“But you survived. That’s what counts. Pass or fail.” Rose absently ran her fingers through her dark silky hair. He thought of the cave, the feel of her small, rounded breast under the neoprene wetsuit.
“I don’t know. It came to me down there when I couldn’t breathe. That it’s more important to have enough.”
“Oh, something Addie once said. She said she wanted to die because she’d have breathing room.”
“What does that mean?”
“She’s walking through bigger doorways into bigger rooms. Rooms with more air.”
“There was a moment in the cave today,” said Rose. “I thought I saw Addie’s shadow. Following us.”
“She was probably looking after me. I think she knows that I’m the one running out of air, not her.” He looked down at his coffee, dark liquid reflecting fairy lights and candlelight from the terrace tables.
The steel band was really going now, the shimmering tinny tones bouncing around them. Other diners were getting up, wandering to the bar or out on the dance floor. Simon watched a woman about Addie’s age being swung by a tall, tanned man with snowy hair. They were laughing at each other’s steps. The woman’s dress was an iridescent green, like the emerald water he’d been in that afternoon, but dipped in light instead of storm shadow.
The last night before they left the island, Simon took great care over Addie before bed. Helping her into the white nightgown that was her favorite. Smoothing the soft linen sheets with his hands, preparing her pillows. By morning the sheets would be strangling her calves, twisted from her thrashing medicine-laced dreams. But for now, she looked soft, like an angel, that strange peacefulness on her face that he had come to understand during the past twenty-four hours.
“What are you thinking?” he asked her gently.
“How you look different tonight.” She shrugged a little, smiled. “Your face, maybe. Radiant almost.”
“Not just shrunken from my long soak in the ocean?”
She laughed. “No, not that kind of different. Something else.”
He sank down on the edge of the bed, reached over to stroke her bald head. “Something did happen. When I was out there.”
“An angel visit you?”
“I saw you. No, more like I felt you there. You kept me going while I was underwater, when I couldn’t breathe. Then when I was waiting and waiting for that dive boat to come and get me.”
Addie was silent for a long moment. Her eyelids drooped and Simon thought maybe she’d fallen asleep. Then she spoke. “I’ve been having a recurring dream these past few days,” she said. “Ever have one?”
“Well. In this dream, I’m in an enormous room, huge and sunny and spacious beyond belief. I’m dancing. My mother’s there, finally smiling. And it all feels wonderful. Happy. I think it might be what it’s like to die.” She laughed, gasping a little. “And the best part? I can breathe so well. I get all the air I want.”
Simon saw the mixture of relief and fear in her eyes.
“It’s close now, isn’t it?”
Addie nodded. Her gaze turned inward, not seeing him, as if she was suddenly in that enormous room again, he thought. Her eyes had a certain intense focus, looking at what was really important. Like the focus he had had today, surfacing then being lifted onto the boat deck, his cells sodden with ocean water. He remembered that moment, how everything had telescoped down to a fine pinpoint, a few words.
He spoke them.
“I don’t want to lose you.”
Addie reached across and picked up his big hand in hers. The fingers were thin and light like Rose’s. But tonight they held Simon’s with surprising strength.
Like Rose had done, Addie placed his palm on her chest, but she covered the blank spot where her left breast had once been. He felt the scarred chest, as smooth as someone else’s back. A feeling of great peace flooded him. It was unexpected, and so welcome.
Their hands rested there for a long time, above Addie’s heart, much more accessible now that the breast was gone.
Mary Carroll Moore writes from New Hampshire. Her queer YA novel, Qualities of Light, was nominated for a PEN/Faulkner, and her second novel, A Woman’s Guide to Search & Rescue, will be published in 2023. Her short fiction and poetry have won awards with or appeared in Glimmer Train, Quay, Fictive Dream, Airgonaut, Pitkin Review, Etched Onyx, Bellingham Review, and others. She’s a former food writer for the Los Angeles Times syndicate.