for Kavya Raman
By Jemimah Wei
Liwen very nearly does not pass her Open Water, and when she surfaces to see her mother standing anxiously on the deck she feels something turn over in her stomach. Her head is still muffled and there is salt stinging her eyes, causing tears to stream down her face.
How, her mother says, how was it?
They do not usually allow parents on The Codfather but Mrs Chen was particularly insistent. She showed them the invoice for $649 as if Liwen's course had cost more than everyone else's, but it was the note of panic in her voice that finally moved them to make an exception. Liwen spits the regulator out and raises her right hand, her thumb and index forming an O, the remaining three fingers shivering in the sea breeze. The universal diver's sign for I'm O-K.
Tiny bubbles start to form on the surface of the water to Liwen's right and left, and within seconds additional heads emerge, gasping for fresh, uncompressed air, the splutter and hiss of BCDs inflating all around her. Although they'd all been an indiscernible mass of black and neon yellow just a minute ago, she can see them now, breaking off and returning to their individual bodies. The girl pulling off her dive hood, for example, is revealed to have beautiful red hair, darkened by the water and plastered to the sides of her face. She wheezes to the boy beside her: "That air tasted like a blow job." This endears her to him immediately. Liwen sees the admiration flash across his face as he situates his mask at the top of his forehead. Later she will watch as they huddle together under the warm towels and compare the types of fish they saw, and sense the changing currents between them. But for now, she glances worriedly at her mother, who is too far away to hear that exchange.
More bubbles and here comes Liwen's dive master, Uncle Edward. Although he had said on the first lesson to call him Edward, they affix the Uncle out of respect. He dives with no rash guard, the temperate waters of Lazarus Island don't require it, and so when he gestures to the different fish underwater, or leads them to a particularly interesting piece of coral, they can all see the giant tattooed manta ray spread out over his browned and toughened torso, rippling through waves and muscle. As he rolls up his surface marker buoy and nods at the boat hand, the new divers bobbing around start for the boat, degearing in the water before pulling themselves up the silver ladder.
Don't worry Auntie, Uncle Edward calls, your girl did great. Pass, okay!
Her mother, doubly reassured, sits back down on the dinghy, making way for the dripping divers who unzip their wetsuits and start hosing down. Uncle Edward doesn't look at Liwen as she fins past him and waits her turn for the ladder. She has passed: she will, like all other novice divers before her, receive her Open Water card in the mail in four to six weeks, and move on to other more exciting waters – Crystal Bay in Bali, Chandelier Cave in Palau, Dream Hole in Okinawa – phasing out of his life, outgrowing him. They will never cross paths again.
It is a well-known fact that the Open Water exam is the biggest hurdle of a novice diver's journey into the seas. Once you have the OW card, you can backroll off the edge of any boat and let yourself be buffeted along by gentle currents, cruising above aquatic cities where clams quiver and clownfish bristle. Or, if you catch a strong enough current, you can hook onto the reef and watch the sharks glide by. Diving is easy, the pros like to say. But the OW exam is rough.
It is rough because it simulates all possible worst-case scenarios to test each baby diver's mettle. Over the last two days Liwen has had her mask snatched off her face, had her air suddenly turned off, and had to do a compass check while completely disoriented in a murky cloud of silt, a storm raging on the surface of the water. Open water divers have yet to earn their full wetsuits, so her bare legs have been scratched, scraped, and blistered by coral, battle scars declaring her inability to stay neutrally buoyant. Just as quickly as the cuts open up they are disinfected by the saltwater, and her tears gather only momentarily under the mask before they are blinked away. She is determined not to let the $649 go to waste. Half the people who take the Open Water fail, she'd already seen two divers panic and bolt for the surface. A third was unable to remember the hand sign for air checks and failed immediately. O-K, not O-K. That was not going to be her. Every time she watched someone fuck up, she steadied her breathing and checked her pressure gauge. 130psi. 120. 110.
After the lessons, you need three complete dives to pass the Open Water, but typically by the time you get to the last one everyone is visibly more relaxed, more playful. They are the ones who have made it this far, unfazed by whatever the ocean throws at them. The last dive is a Fish Identification dive, so divers will pair up and scatter, scratching marks on their underwater whiteboards whenever they see a new and interesting fish. Liwen, who arrived alone, did not have a buddy, and so was taken under Uncle Edward's wing. She preferred this too, because despite her calm demeanour, her heart rate still spiked every time she deflated her BCD and sank to the ocean bed. The buddy system is a diver's holy grail but how was she supposed to entrust her life to another novice? More likely they'd both get swept away into the deep blue.
When they first descended, Uncle Edward signalled for her to follow him around the body of the wreck, checking ever so often on her air and decompression status. O-K? He signalled at her. O-K, she signed back.
It is often better to attach oneself to a dive master even if you are an advanced diver because nobody is as familiar with the channels and surges as a local. Besides, Uncle Edward was the one person who could pass or fail her, and already there was a certain confidence in her kick, a giggle bubbling in her chest as she chased a blue spotted ray flurrying up sand on the seabed. In her mind she had already passed; in her mind she was exploring wall dives in Palau and chasing hammerhead sharks in the Galapagos. She got excited and inhaled too fast, her body rising, and Uncle Edward had to fin up to pull her down.
She checked her air, her decompression time. O-K.
But he didn't let go. Her posture was wrong, she was negatively buoyant. She saw him frown through the blue tinted glass, and flip her around on his knee. They had come to rest on the seabed, and too much movement would disturb the sandy bottom, so they both worked at being very still. He lifted the bottom strap of her BCD to count her number of weights: four. They had checked this before, on the boat, but he double confirmed it and paused. Don't worry, she wanted to tell him, I just got excited. I won't accidentally ascend again. I am in control. But all she could do was blow bubbles at him through her regulator.
The wetsuit is made of 3mm foamed neoprene to protect the diver from external stressors, such as jellyfish stings, coral cuts, cold waters, and so it was a while before Liwen realised that Uncle Edward's left hand had possibly come to rest on her crotch, directly below her weight belt. She couldn't be sure because the oxygen tank restricted her movements and it was hard for her to twist around to see. His right hand floated before her face suddenly. O-K? She blinked, then signed back. O-K.
Just like that he let go and they were back moving through the water. She was steadily keeping her breath under control. A diver's lungs are like balloons, an 'inhale' causes you to rise, a deep 'exhale', to sink. Move too fast either way and you'll throw your buoyancy off. He was ahead of her and she watched the manta ray on his torso ripple as he examined a glowing nudibranch and pointed it out. O-K? Yes, I've seen it. O-K, she signalled back.
But she was unable to maintain neutrality hovering above the nudibranch, and kicked a little too hard. He caught her right before she crashed into the wall of coral, which would have left very painful scratches all the way down her thighs. Crash hard enough and the corals will draw blood, maybe worse. He used his pointer to show her the sea urchin she'd barely missed, then drew a finger across the length of her thigh, down from the bottom of her shortie to her mid-calf. There was no neoprene between them this time and as he pointed again to the urchin's spikes and put his calloused palm against her leg, squeezing, he signed to her to make sure she understood the danger she was just in. The importance of breath control. O-K? he signalled. Her eyes wide. O-K, she signalled back.
The manta was off again and she scrambled to catch up. But there is only so fast you can move through water. At the end of the day a girl is not a fish, where they are slippery, she is sluggish. Each 'inhale' rumbled in her ear, each 'exhale' scattering shoals. She timed these breaths to moderate her movement, each kick controlled and slow. Several times Uncle Edward turned to check on her and she signed back: O-K. Then the 45 minutes were up and he unfurled the SMB, releasing it upwards to call for the boat. Other divers slowly rejoined them. His eyes were on hers while the reel unspooled, the manta quivering with his breathing, in, out, in, out. O-K? he signalled, holding her gaze. She didn't sign back, just trained her focus on her dive computer. Three minutes. It beeped, the nitrogen dissolved, she kicked upwards and now – she is gone.
That night she crawls into bed next to her younger sister who the world will not touch for the next three years yet. Her sister, who had fallen asleep waiting for Liwen's good news, stirs and breaks from sleep softly, yawning and blinking expectantly at her.
Play mermaids, she says, and Liwen obliges, flipping the switch on their homemade night lamp that casts flickering shades of stained blue and green on the wall. Just five minutes, Liwen says, and her younger sister crawls into her lap and puffs her cheeks out like a fish blowing bubbles.
Did you see the Underwater Kingdom, she wanted to know, and meet the young prince of Atlantis? Liwen nods, brushing out the braids in her sister's hair to give her mermaid waves. The blue glitter hair spray they used the night before hasn't completely washed off and still winks at her from between layers of her dense, black locks.
Did you tell them you have a mermaid sister? And ask if she can attend the mermaid ball too? A steady stream of questions follows and Liwen describes the ways batfish swim in shoals of five or seven, little crabs fighting on small, red rocks, these stories of otherworldly wonder lulling her sister closer and closer to dreams. I can't wait to grow up, her sister finally says, her voice getting slower and more satisfied. I am going to make the rainbow fish my best friends and have lionfish as pets. And make a dress out of seashells when I am the princess of Atlantis.
Liwen gently moves her sister from her lap and onto the pillow, and smooths out her hair with one hand. She sees her sister slipping, fighting to stay awake, one minute more in the imaginary kingdom of their making. The turquoise cast on her face makes her very beautiful, Liwen thinks, very precious. You'll have to pass many exams first, Liwen whispers, lying down next to her, the ocean is big and dangerous.
I'll pass, her sister says, as if comforting her. I can do anything.
Liwen closes her eyes. But she can feel her sister's gaze still on her, and when she opens them again, there she is, smiling.
Right?QLRS Vol. 19 No. 1 Jan 2020