On vacation in the Caribbean, my husband and I amble into a water gear shop, looking for fins. A skinny young man with tattoos like sleeves all the way down his arms tells us that, just so we know, they do kayaking trips. “We’re the ones,” he tells us (describing himself and the two shop owners) “that do the kayaking trips at night using clear-bottomed boats with LED lights.” But there are other trips they offer, too, he says, one of which is a venture out to Steven’s Cay.
“We have to cross a channel on that trip, so we’re careful who we take,” he says, then adds, “We don’t just let anyone go,” meaning it requires at least a modicum of physical prowess, and some people aren’t up for it.
I should explain that as he tells us this, I am standing there wearing a very wide-brimmed sunhat, its laces hanging down like a bonnet’s. I have also, I confess, been just asking him about what fins to buy for snorkeling—the long or the really short—and have opted for the really short because I don’t plan to dive. And, to boot, I‘ve expressed a particular interest in the hot-pink fins.
He must know what I’m thinking because he says quickly, “I’m not talking about you two. We’d definitely take you two.” Maybe he says this because my husband is wearing a manly baseball cap and a sporty shirt and shorts. Not that I want to go on this kayaking trip that crosses the channel and goes to Steven’s Cay, but I do want to be the type they’d let go. I tell myself he can tell I’m athletic, despite the short pink fins and the wide-brimmed hat.
I tell myself I’m still as strong as I was twenty years ago. Which maybe I am, but maybe I’m not.
Maybe it’s a different kind of strong.
* * *
The first time I ever snorkeled I was in love for not the first time but I thought the last. I was in Mexico with a man who had slept in hammocks on beaches and had backpacked his way through little towns where he did not always know the language but knew how to survive on a few dollars a day. A man who didn’t give a hoot about AC or bathrooms with floor-to-ceiling privacy walls.
I don’t remember much about the snorkeling itself, only that we did it one day along the Mexican coast on one or the other of the desolate beaches we traveled through that summer (were they all desolate, or have I made them so only now?). In my memory, we snorkeled in green water with seaweed and grasses, things I could get caught in, but I am sure the memory is wrong about that, too. Grasses off the Mexican coast? I must have added them for effect all these years later, of what I now see as my tendency back then of getting tangled in things I should not, to not understand how I might become lost in certain type of love. He was the one who wanted to snorkel, and it was one of the things that I could say yes to with no fuss or reservation. I protested hostels. I flinched when I flipped on the motel bathroom light at night and roaches scurried across the green tiles. He also wanted to hike some Mexican ruins near Oaxaca, and I said yes, but I must not have told him how, years before, other Mexican ruins had scared me, that once when I had ventured below ground into the dark clay and rock passageways of Teotihuacan, I’d had a panic attack and fled out the way I’d come and never tried again.
I’d bought bulky leather hiking boots for that trip to Mexico with that man who wanted to see the ruins near Oaxaca. The boots were brown and sturdy and tough. And now, nearly two decades after buying them at an outdoor store in Columbus and stuffing them in a green backpack and boarding a plane and trudging onto buses to travel the Mexican coast—which at the start seemed exotic and exciting but three weeks later seemed much less so, to the point where all I wanted was to go home—I still count on them for the rockiest of places. They’re the only pair of boots I’ve ever owned. They remind me of all the places I’ve hiked since then, across snow-capped mountains and grey-stone beaches, through jungled paths and down sliding, treacherous valleys, where I was unsure of my footing but trusted my legs and these ancient boots. And so, I kept on going.
On vacation in the Caribbean, I lace them up for the hike with my husband along Ram Head Trail, which leads to a bald cliff where wind beats against rock and water bashes stone far below. We stand alone at the peak. When I move even a little toward the edge, it makes him nervous, so I step back and stay close.
On the return trek, I ask him if he wants to snorkel in Salt Pond Bay, before we make a last trudge to our Jeep. We strip off our clothes to our swimsuits, and we slip on our fins—mine that hot-pink, his a royal blue.
The water is clear (no seaweed, no grasses).
We dive in together, and then: we breathe below.