Room To Breatheby Matthew Brennan
Marin remembers the first time he met her, walking past him along the pier where he sat, the skirts of her dress drifting on the wind, black swirls of ink in her skin bleeding through the white fabric where the wind pressed it against her body. Her dark hair was long and on this day — when she dives with him she braids it — let loose, carried on currents of air out to sea. Reflecting brightly off her dress, the Hawaiian sunlight is strong against her tanned skin, and he remembers the day warm, hot, but he can't feel it, in the heavy agitation of that wind can only imagine the day cold.
Standing at the end of the pier, Erica looked out to sea toward the setting sun, and from the way the light filtered back to Marin through her white skirt, he suspected that she wore nothing beneath. She looked back at him over her shoulder, lifting a hand to catch her billowing hair and hold it down alongside her throat, and in that moment the wind gusted and lifted her skirt, high enough from where he sat for Marin to see the lower curves of her ass, the hairless folds between. Catching the skirt and pressing it down again against the wind, she laughed, the surprise brightening her face; she came to sit beside him.
He is alone now and cold. Trapped in a shipwreck eighty feet underwater. Seconds after entering the cargo room, he felt the crush of debris falling against his body and knew he was in trouble, but it was the white, shuddering rush of air through the water behind him that confirmed it. Seawater filled his constricted regulator and he lifted his face up into the pocket of escaped air that had coalesced in the upturned corner of the room. He spit out both regulator and a mouthful of seawater, breathing heavily through the choking gag reflex that the taste of the bitter salt triggered, still — in such quantity — after diving almost every day for two years. To this wreck as often as his instructor's schedule allowed over the past six months. "Dancing with the deep," he'd told Erica yesterday; courting the mysteries of a vanished past. Today is the first time she accompanied him.
Breaking the surface, Marin's ears equalized with a warm, painful pop to the pressure of three atmospheres, the body-warmed fluid in his ears seeping quickly into the cold, dark water. Though the surface is in the low eighties, little of the strong sun reaches this depth, and Marin feels the chill creeping through his neoprene wetsuit. Beginning to calm from the adrenaline rush, Marin tried to move, but found himself immobilized from the waist down. He lifted his flashlight into the pocket of air, but even with the light there was little to see: gray metal walls a few inches from his face, the welded seams joining in a smooth and bulbous ridge that peaked above his head. The shipwreck lies on a downward list, turning the rooms onto a corner. Marin realizes that the way this position channeled his hemorrhaged air into this upper corner could save his life.
Like a caress, water moved against him, light flickering below the surface. A moment later, the water in front of him distorted, buckling upward like an expanding balloon, then broke as Erica eased her face up into the air pocket with him. She lifted her mask onto her head and spit out her regulator.
"Shit, Marin, are you okay?"
"Just fine," he said. "I'm stuck."
"Maybe I can move some of this junk."
Mask and regulator shoved back in place, she lowered herself back below the water. The motion of her hands and fins pushed currents against him, which rippled over the surface, glinting in the beam of his flashlight like a disco ball, like the golden chain Erica wore around her hips to the club last night. Marin curled his fingers, braced against the cold metal walls, wanting to feel the ache of his bruised knuckles. He smiled, remembering the surprise on the man's face. Poor guy; Erica should have known better. Her fingers slid along his belly and hips, feeling for purchase against what held him, and he closed his eyes. Thought of her lips. Felt no arousal in the cold.
She surfaced again. "It's too heavy."
"We need Brian. And more air. Do you remember how we came in?"
Pausing, each little nod of her head marked a remembered step of the maze they had swam to get here. "Yep," she said.
He wished he could see into her mind, confirm her checklist. "Go up to the boat. Get Brian and as many air tanks as you can."
"I can empty some of my tank in here to give you more time."
"No more than half. You have to get out, ascend, and decompress. Three minutes at fifteen feet."
"Do I have to stop?" Watching her gauges, she pushed the purge valve, which hissed air into the small space. "I'm coming right back."
Gradually, the water level lowered. "Yes," Marin said, "and check your tables. Take the time to do everything right. You have to make it to the surface."
Still watching the gauge, Erica stopped the airflow. "How's that?"
"It's fine. Did you hear me? Be careful and ..."
"Yeah I got it."
"Get your ass back here."
She kissed him quickly, leaving him wanting the longer, sensual kiss of this morning, and disappeared beneath the dark water. Knowing that the flashlight will last longer than his air, Marin keeps it on; there is nothing to look at, but it is a small measure of comfort trapped here alone not to be in the dark.
He awoke this morning beneath banded sunlight slanting through the blinds. The room had warmed quickly and Marin could smell the light rising up off the sheets: a scent of summer, of lazy mornings burrowed into bed beside his mother who left the shades up to wake her — home with him in the day, finishing law school at night. Marin listened to Erica breathe: a cadence of motion and suspense the way it feels to ride high on a swing. She faced him, her breath warm against his arm. Her dark hair lay against the upturned side of her face and fell across her tattooed shoulder, then down behind her and under the sheet, which her hand pinned up to her collarbone. The curve of her breast pushed into the thin fabric of the sheet, the nipple a circle of pink pressed against the white. Marin wanted her to open her eyes, wanted to look into their deep brown. But he did not wake her. When she woke, she would dress, then braid her hair, which he preferred down and loose, the way she wore it when dancing. Moving like water. He liked having her there with him, naked in his bed, but also to have these first few minutes alone. He did not wake her.
Marin switched off the unsounded alarm then eased himself out of bed — a mattress on the floor — and walked into the bathroom, washed his hands and face, then ran his wet hands back through his hair. From where they hung to dry over the bathtub, Marin pulled down his swimsuit and sleeveless, three-millimeter wetsuit, smelling the earthy, chemical scent of the neoprene and old seawater. Still damp, he stuffed them into his backpack. Erica's bikini and Lycra dive skin also hung in the shower, both dry, the Lycra a thin, silky material that contoured to her body like a second skin in the water. Marin enjoyed diving with her: she moved with a natural grace — as on the dance floor — that escaped most new divers, and he liked her familiar presence in the water, someone with whom to share his dives.
Erica was just waking when he stepped back into the bedroom.
"Good morning," he said.
"Are you leaving me?"
"Just for the morning. Still coming to the wreck …?"
"Promise?" Standing up, Erica walked to him, tattoos swirling as she moved, and kissed him, her skin smooth and warm beneath his hands.
"See you in a few hours," he said.
He wishes he'd taken the time to talk to her then. Why the hurry? The dive shop was an eight-minute walk down the beach. Time has always felt like a surplus commodity, something to waste, to get through until the dive tables would let him back in the water. Unlike air, he has never worried about running out. If he'd stayed another moment, maybe she would have arrived at the shop a few minutes later, or earlier, and missed his student's lingering touch entirely. Marin holds a shallow breath, then lets himself slide under the water, feeling with his fingers for the edge of what holds him, and lifts, straining to nowhere. Hands pressed against the metal walls, the cold beginning to settle in beneath his skin, shivers fluttering through his muscles, he pushes his face back to the surface and breathes, realizing in the same moment that the water level is not where it was. It has risen. Is rising.
Somewhere in this welded room there is a leak, and Marin feels the weight of this vast volume of water squeezing his air out into the sea. He wants to scream, but that would use more air, so he swallows the need and instead whispers, "Come on, Erica." He flips his flashlight off for a second, staring down through the black water toward where he thinks the doorway is, looking for a flicker of returning light. There's nothing. She isn't coming for him.
When Erica arrived at the dive shop this afternoon, Holly had just put her hand on Marin's arm as she leaned in to whisper in his ear, joking, laughing. He doesn't remember about what now, only the look on Erica's face as she pulled him into the shop's back room. "Who the hell is she?"
"Just … she's in my class. That was nothing."
"It isn't nothing to me!"
"Just bad timing."
"For you, yeah … good timing for me. I love you, Marin. I thought …"
"Don't overreact, okay?"
"I want to marry you!" They stared at each other for a moment. "What do you think of that?"
"Aren't I supposed to propose?"
"This isn't … can we just talk about this? What do you think?"
He paused, responding just as her anger was about to reignite. "I don't know. I just … I don't know if I'm ready for that yet."
"Need time for a few more little blond students?"
"No … shit, do we have to be all or nothing suddenly? I want you with me. Can that be enough for now?"
"For how long?"
"I don't know, just … let me think about it. Boat leaves for the wreck dive in thirty. I still want you with me if you want to come."
Marin can no longer breathe through his mouth. Each breath through his upturned nose carries with it splashes of seawater from the encroaching surface and he coughs, as much from the droplets of water entering his lungs as the salt in the water, or swallows it, trickling down through the back of his sinuses, turning his stomach. His hands against each wall hold his face out of the water, but he lets go for a moment, sliding under, to light his watch and check the time. Erica has taken too long. Something went wrong — she ran out of air herself, or got lost, or went up too fast, or Brian wouldn't let her dive again — or she was never coming back at all. He still thinks their argument resolved, that she gave him some time; but if she was coming back, she should have been here by now.
Glancing once more toward the doorway, seeing no coming light, he pushes himself back up into the air pocket and breathes again, able to take barely half a breath without inhaling water. He would have fought for her if she'd let him, has fought for her — he still feels the bruises on his hand. Clenching his fist to feel the ache, he knows he would have hit a hundred suitors to keep her and take her home, relive last night forever. Maybe that's all marriage is.
Marin tries to hyperventilate to hold his breath as long as possible, but coughs out water, then tries again and is able to draw a full, deep breath and hold it. He lets go of the walls, arms stiff and sore from the duration of the strain, cold from the metal, and sinks down in the water. Again he looks down through the water toward the room's entrance and out into the hallway, still hoping to see the flicker of her light.
Fighting down another shivering spell, Marin thinks of his parents, a continent and half an ocean away at home in the Connecticut suburbs of New York City. It is evening there now, and his father will be downstairs checking his stocks online with a glass of wine or scotch; his mother will be sitting on the back porch in the cooling night drinking red tea, reading case reports with the hope of getting a head start on a busy weekend. They will be in bed soon, retiring themselves to a few hours of peace, their work on hold until tomorrow. He regrets that he never invited them to Lahaina to see the life he has built here, never took them out on the sea, never took them diving. He has no illusions about his way of life, but he believes that if they saw the beauty of this place and felt the exhilaration of being on the sea and below, they would have understood. He knows now that he could have spent his life this way, with Erica, diving and teaching, and — as his brain recognizes that he isn't breathing — knows that he would have been happy.
Marin approaches the threshold of his lung capacity and is now making a conscious effort not to exhale. I'm sorry, he thinks, please, and looks again toward the still-dark entrance. He wants to have an image of Erica's face in his mind — one small act of atonement — and holds the dark brown of her gaze until his diaphragm spasms against his closed throat. With the sensation of light washing over him the way a shark feels a nearby heartbeat, he lets go of his breath, and as the air rushes upward and is gone, he feels the water pressing in around him, and breathes it in.