A scuba diver is on a deepwater dive with her husband, one hundred and thirty feet below. The red frequencies don’t make it this far down so everything around her is green or blue, the seaweed and the shipwreck and the husband and the algae, hued like a mood. The shafts of sun that do reach this deep are so dispersed as to seem an inherent glow, original to the setting, less falling from above than staying where they are, where they always are. Breathing steady, breathing slow.
They’re in Lake Michigan, diving after a shipwreck from some decade in the 1800s, and so the scuba diver and her husband are outfitted in these big bulky dry suits to deal with the freezing cold, baggy jackets and baggy pants that look like ski gear — the underwater equivalent of winter clothes. Nylon hoods cover their heads and surround their faces, leaving only just enough room for the goggle-masks over their eyes and the respirators plugged into their lips, connected by a thin rubber tube to the steel cylinders of oxygen on their backs. Like mermen, or survivors of the apocalypse, or both at once. The husband is swimming a little above and a little ahead of the woman and the wake from his slow-flapping flippers brushes her bangs back from her face, and for one endless moment, she has the impression that they’re the only humans in existence.
The shipwreck is from the era of the early railroads and the Erie Canal, when the markets of New York were suddenly accessible to Chicago and, by way of Chicago, much of the Midwest, and commercial fleets suddenly populated Lake Michigan’s surface and its depths. This particular vessel is a schooner, one of those skinny ships with two masts and many more sails, and because of the cold and the pressure and some other miracle of circumstance it’s almost perfectly preserved down here, filmed with a thick layer of algae but otherwise just about the same as it was almost two hundred years ago. And everything inside it, too. As she approached from above, drifting down at a snail’s pace to allow time for her ears and mask to pressurize, the scuba diver amused herself by imagining the wreck as a ghost ship. But now that they’ve arrived at the deck and swum into the ship’s chambers, she is surprised to find that it actually is a ghost ship: a skeleton floats in the first room they enter, still despairing the massive hole in the hull. Its skull seems to make direct eye contact with her precisely because it has no eyes. Her husband takes out an underwater camera and gestures for her to pose for a photograph next to the dead man, and she reluctantly allows herself to drift to its side. She removes her respirator and grins. In other rooms they find other skeletons and each time the husband insists on snapping a similar shot.
The eeriest part of the ship, however, turns out to be the hold. The vessel had been carrying a full shipment of brand-new porcelain toilets when it sank, and so the hold is still lined from wall to wall with commodes, ranks of ceramic basins gaping up at the woman and her husband. She can’t help but think of birdlings when she looks at them: open beaks eager for the food of their mothers’. She cannot say why this unsettles her so deeply, unsettles her even more than the actual skulls and bones, and she also cannot fathom why all of the merchandise is exposed like this — why on earth the toilets are unboxed, not packaged at all for the voyage, and, given this, how it is they remained in their tight arrangement even throughout the disaster and the sinking and the two hundred years that have passed since. The husband is obviously not so bothered. He shakes his belly to imitate laughter and takes more photos. This only heightens the woman’s discomfort. Hovering about ten feet above the legions of toilets, about five feet above her husband, watching him mug for a selfie, she turns in an idle circle as she waits for her nerves to settle. A large part of what’s wrong is that she does not understand what’s wrong. Until her air supply abruptly cuts off for no apparent reason, and what’s wrong is that she cannot breathe.
When the woman was first getting certified for scuba diving, about two years prior, she became comfortable breathing underwater much more quickly than her husband. In their very first pool dive, lying on their stomachs on the bottom of the shallow end, the husband returned to the surface for air four times before the instructor finally coaxed him into trusting his respirator for more than two breaths in a row. But even after he began to breathe comfortably, the exercises continued to torment him — the training naturally centered on the skills required to recover from every possible mishap, and this constant reminder of possible disaster was torture to him. His eyes shrank into his face and his hands fluttered constantly at his sides, picking at his wetsuit, toying with the straps of his mask. Slippery, slipping. He had to try three times before he correctly pressurized his ears and mask on the way down, and six times before he managed to properly simulate losing and locating and replacing his goggles at the bottom of the deep end.
Something about breathing underwater in the pitch dark of your own closed eyes, he told her on the drive home, gave him the terrifying feeling that there was no world outside his own mind; no world to escape into; no escape.
For the woman herself, there was no such feeling. There was no feeling to it, really, at all. She’d experienced jitters when she first descended, while drawing those initial breaths beneath the surface of the pool, but then she simply refocused her energy on her breathing as per the instructor’s advice, keeping her breathing steady and slow until, as promised, the fear receded. She did not convince herself that the danger wasn’t real; she did not think about danger at all. Throughout the session she watched her husband flounder with a mixture of curiosity and pity, because she understood that they were not experiencing the same emotions, that his brain was being inundated with a larger dose of anxiety than hers, and so there was that much more for him to overcome.
If anything, she told him in the car, it was more impressive and courageous that he pushed through, given the amount of fear he was fighting.
She placed her hand on his knee and kept it there until he looked over at her, and then she withdrew her hand and looked away.
The procedure for when your air supply runs out is as follows: 1) exhale steadily; 2) slice your hand across your throat to gesture to your partner that your air is out; 3) locate your partner’s alternate respirator; 4) breathe from your partner’s alternate respirator; 5) exit the dive.
The woman fails the first step immediately. She holds her breath — just for an instant, just for that first moment when she realizes that she is not receiving oxygen — and then the sense that she has messed this up, that she is messing this up, that she’s gotten the procedure wrong and the procedure is now done wrong, all of this overwhelms her so quickly that she forgets to stop holding her breath until the arrival of a secondary panic, the secondary realization that she’s still holding her breath, and it all rolls over her like a hurricane across a body of water, gathering all of her into its gale-force winds, and even after she finally starts exhaling a little stream of bubbles all she wants to do is weep, although of course all she really wants to do is breathe. She has never felt panic expand this quickly. She never knew that it could; and the possibilities of what else she does not know suddenly become just that much more threatening. Before, none of the described dangers of the world applied to her — disasters happen to other people — but now that she is one of these other people, every danger, known or unknown, might apply.
But if she falls apart all at once, she gathers herself back together just as quickly. She forcefully reminds herself, once the stream of bubbles is flowing from her lips, that she has achieved step one: that the procedure is back on track: that she is not, in fact, failing. She has not failed. The steps are working and the steps will work. Her hearts beats and her heart beats and she keeps breathing out, as though she might at any moment be able to breathe in, and she swings her flashlight back and forth over the husband’s face to get his attention and slices her hand across her throat to communicate her situation and she swims over to him and he swims over to her and she plunges her hand into his dry suit for his second respirator and yanks the broken one from her mouth and replaces it with his spare and breathes, and breathes.
Bubbles flow up along the sides of her face, up through her hair, up to the ceiling of the ship’s hold and through the gaps in the hull, up towards the surface.
Directly beneath them, the army of toilets softly gleams beneath the glare of their flashlights. A particularly thick cloud of green algae floats over from where her husband disturbed it and turns their flashlight beams even greener for a moment, and then it passes on.
The woman breathes, and breathes.
The husband makes a hand signal to ask if she’s A-OK and she gives the same hand signal back, to confirm that she’s A-OK. She shakes her head from side to side, meaning to shake her head at her own ridiculousness, at her ridiculous panic, but her husband is confused by this and asks again if she’s A-OK and she makes the A-OK signal once more. She wants to kiss him. He clasps her forearm in his.
After he draws her close to his body, however, she can’t help but peek at the gauge on his oxygen tank, and notice that he has barely any oxygen left in his tank.
Authorities would later determine that faulty pressure gauges were to blame for the mishap on the lake floor. The couple’s oxygen tanks were otherwise up to inspection standards, but the needles on the pressure gauges were simply stuck at 3000 dpi — the pressure level of a full tank of oxygen — which misled the fill station into thinking the tanks were topped off when in fact they only held ten or fifteen minutes’ worth of air. Only after the tanks were just about zeroed out did the needles finally swing back down and reveal the true quantities remaining.
The local newspaper, covering the incident and the investigation that followed, likened the tragedy to the Challenger explosion in 1986. In that accident, the newspaper’s most ambitious young journalist wrote, the entire space ship imploded because of a malfunction in one of its smallest components: a single broken O-ring, a tiny circle of rubber that sealed the cabin’s smallest chinks from the outside, whose failure allowed a minuscule amount of air into the spacecraft and thereby prevented the chamber from properly maintaining its pressure in ascent until the chamber collapsed under the massive force of the movement and the fuel tanks ignited and the crew members were incinerated on live television, mid-air.
‘It’s almost always the simplest parts of a complex system,’ the journalist wrote, privately ecstatic that the editor was willing to let such sweeping language go into print, ‘that are overlooked’.
It is impossible to interpret the expression on the husband’s face through his mask and goggles, given the respirator plugged into his lips and the nylon covering the rest of his skin, as he takes the pressure gauge from the woman with his free hand and looks at it for himself. His other hand’s grip on her forearm slackens and she drifts an inch away from him, and then another inch. They are still close, but they are farther apart than before. He brings the gauge right up to his goggles and shakes it, and then shakes it once more, and then brings it back down from his face and looks up at her.
Based on the shorthand for reading the gauge as they both understand it, a single person would have about thirty seconds worth of air left. Which is to say, about fifteen seconds for each of them.
It’s important to note that this could be enough for them both to safely reach the surface. Through controlled and careful swimming and very long, slow exhales, they could space out this remaining oxygen and reach the surface without gasping for breath, and would even have enough time to slow their ascent at key moments to allow their bodies to decompress. There have been many recorded instances of individual divers entirely out of oxygen who have made similar controlled emergency exits from the depths with no lasting damage to speak of. The woman does not yet have reason to panic.
Until, that is, the husband makes a complex gesture with his fingers that she does not understand and then reaches over and plucks his secondary respirator from her lips like it’s just that easy, because it is just that easy, and then makes another gesture, and turns to swim away.
In retrospect, the husband could have meant a very simple thing with this movement. Later on the woman will spend days reinterpreting the most likely meaning: he’d placed a fist over his chest, the gesture for breathing, and then pointed at his mouth, most likely to indicate his respirator, presumably to communicate that they needed to share his single respirator on their ascent to ensure that they didn’t go through the air too quickly.
But what she sees when he takes his spare from her lips is the gesture for breathing and then the gesture for himself, as if to indicate that just he is breathing now, that he is leaving her behind to drown because only one of them can make it back up to the surface, and once that interpretation enters her mind there is simply no room for any other. The panic that she’d only seconds ago subdued comes roaring back and claws the rest of her rational thinking apart, and she ceases to recognize this person before her, ceases to presume that the features of her husband lurk beneath this mask and hood and diving apparatus and sees his body as what it is, another competing consciousness seeking to satisfy the demands of its flesh, and she imagines she can feel the weight of all the one hundred and thirty feet of water above her, can feel it pressing into her, compressing her, because truly she can, because truly it is, and her husband has disappeared, has long since disappeared, was never there to begin with, and this body and its tank of oxygen is moving away from her and her head is pounding and her whole body is pounding and she is going to die, she is going to drown here, she is going to choke on water and suffocate and her body won’t even rise all the way to the surface because she’ll be stuck in this hold and she’ll stay here, floating, dead, until she rots into another skeleton on the ghost boat, stuck in the toilet room and how long has her husband been a stranger, has he always been willing to leave her to die, has he always been prepared to let her drown as soon as the choice arrived, and her whole body is pounding and she is going to die and this stranger hates her and she hates this stranger more, more than anyone or anything she has ever hated before, this nylon suit of flesh floating to the exit and leaving her behind to die, she hates him with her whole body and her whole mind and she frog-kicks her legs out behind her and catches the stranger in the door to the hold and shoves her elbow into his throat and removes his primary respirator from his lips and takes a long breath, the last breath, and then kicks off from his chest, knocking his head against the threshold and sending him back down into the hold as she propels herself propelling upwards, and she rises and he sinks.
Another important piece of the puzzle is gas narcosis, the newspaper would later report. While the medical community still doesn’t understand precisely why, there is a well-documented phenomenon of intoxication that can occur when divers descend beyond one hundred feet below. They feel not so much drunk as intensely hungover: symptoms include headaches, dizziness, disorientation, irrational thinking and, in some cases, borderline insanity.
‘There are even some recorded instances,’ the journalist would describe in a paragraph that the editor eventually cut, ‘wherein divers apparently decide to die. Bodies are recovered with plenty of air remaining in the tank and nothing at all wrong with the equipment, and it appears the divers simply removed their respirators from their lips and let water fill their lungs.
‘Although it may be only the most fleeting of lapses,’ the journalist clarified, ‘since once the lungs begin to fill with water – especially if there is not air immediately available – and the diver starts involuntarily to cough, it does not take very long at all, in fact, to drown.’
The scuba diver is about fifteen feet from the surface when she looks back down. The grip of panic finally slips when she reaches the rest point, the requisite pause in ascent to reduce the risk of decompression sickness, and without really thinking about what she’s trying to see, without really thinking at all, she glances back the way she came.
She realizes that she had expected to see her husband behind her only when she does not.
Unconsciously, her hand rises to the button on her buoyancy device, preparing to descend, to go back down to get him. Even though she already knows, as her thumb hovers over the button, that she will not. There’s still no air in her oxygen tank; she has not taken a breath during the entire ascent, but only maintained her same small stream of exhaled bubbles, as per procedure. She cannot return.
The wreck rests in the blue depths, exactly the same as before, as always, the mid-nineteenth century lurking in a drowned vessel on the lake floor.
A stray current brushes her bangs from her face and her body sinks back down a few inches. A painful lump begins to form in her throat.
She ascends the remaining few feet to the surface and breaks back into the open air.
On their second day of scuba training, the husband finally found his bearings. He awoke that morning before his wife and prepared a fresh cup of coffee and a bowl of sliced fruit before she even came downstairs, and sang along with the radio as they drove to the pool. She told her husband that he was intolerable and kissed him on the lips twice, first as their car waited at one red light and then again at the next. At the second stop he wrapped her into her arms and didn’t notice the light was green until the two cars behind them honked. He nailed every training exercise on the first try, same as she, and the instructor declared them the best pair of students he’d ever had. They flew to the Bahamas to complete the open-water portion of their training, and began to go diving at least once every couple months for the next two years. They got a mortgage and bought a house but decided to put off having kids for another year, to allow them more time to explore the world, both above the surface and below.
It was on a speedboat, flying over the surface of the Pacific for a reef dive, that they decided they’d name their first child Benjamin if it was a boy, and Bella if it was a girl.
The scuba diver heaves herself far enough up the ladder to lay her torso on the boat’s floor, but feels too weak to bring her legs all the way up after her. Her fins sway with the lapping of the waves against the boat’s hull, pulling her body half an inch back towards the water, pushing her that same half-inch back out. The boat tilts towards her, tilts away. Her face is pressed flat into the floor, her nose squashed and her teeth pressing into her lips, biting from the inside. The sun heats her dry suit in seconds and beads of sweat break out across her brow, slide down the side of her face, pool where her skin meets the fiberglass.
Two hours later a local stevedore will find her passed out at the helm of her boat, run aground near an industrial pier, essentially beached on an outcropping of rocks. She will still be wearing her dry suit, her oxygen tank still strapped to her back. The doctor on call in the emergency room will declare her a victim of dehydration and heatstroke and at severe risk of decompression sickness, and will keep her in the hospital for thirty-six hours before releasing her. The police will attempt to interview her in bed twice, and each time they will fail.
The second time the officer comes to the door she will not pretend to be asleep but will simply stare at him in silence, with slightly open eyes and slightly parted lips, until he leaves.
A particularly large wave slaps against the back of her thighs where they still hang down over the speedboat’s ladder, and she is suddenly seized with the need to not be here, to be away from here, to be miles away from this place and this day, and she rears to her feet and flops her way to the boat’s tiller and dislodges the anchor and roars the engine into gear, still in her full dry suit, still wearing her empty oxygen tank on her back, still half sea creature and half survivor, like the last woman in existence, and she guns the boat towards shore.
Samsun Knight’s ‘The Dive’ is the winner of the 2018 Disquiet Literary Prize
Photograph © Tchami