Forty feet underwater, sky horizon and ocean floor slip into unbroken translucent blue, and I swim toward a reef backlit by the sun, where the saturated colors of coral pulse green orange and purple. A small school of yellowtail snappers crowds my face. Inside a vase sponge a gossamer cleaner shrimp balances, body blotched red and blue, legs like needlepoint thread; I tip my head in and her antennae reach up to read me. Tiny fuchsia and gold reef fish no bigger than my thumbnail play ring-around-the-rosie on a textured edge of coral and I hover to watch.
I am weightless, an aquatic astronaut. I loom large. They don’t seem to mind. A few heavy-lipped groupers pause under shadowed overhangs to return my gaze and just behind me, a barracuda paces his swim to mine, eyes trained on me. This does not disturb me. The body speaks underwater, the fish and I understand this.
When I dive my breath is a loud rasp of air passing through my regulator, a rhythmic acoustic narration of my state of mind. Before I feel my calm, I hear it. Down here breath sounds like sleep, measured and dreamy, as I fall further from the surface.
Out of water things are less fluid, muddied by my unshakable aversion to small talk, to talking around the truth of things, how awkward it renders me, that dreaded loop of artificial chatter which requires me to impersonate some version of myself. Inside, I flail. Fish out of water. A detachment that can undo me. On land, this lurking anxiety is my background noise and age, it turns out, only throws light on the loneliness of it.
On a night dive in Bonaire years ago I saw an octopus sucker onto a diver’s mask, inking the evening water a midnight blue. The octopus held on though the man, spooked, tore at its eight elastic arms gripping the windshield of his mask, braiding through his short hair. The other divers gawked and kept their distance, afloat in neutral buoyancy. They seemed repelled; they said as much later back on the boat.
But I imagined how it would feel to be the one chosen by the octopus—the weight of his boneless slick body, skin against skin, cloaking my face, his arms alive with nerve cells. Investigating me. One might curl against the watered white of my neck above my wet suit, tasting me through the thousands of chemoreceptors lining his limbs. I pictured my dark hair lofted by the ocean, eyes enlarged behind my mask and his rectangular pupils focused on me. Would he feel, to my touch, like a stingray, spongy and velvet? Or more like the graveled texture of a starfish? How tight might he hold me— and for how long? With my arms around him, one of his three hearts surely sounds against me as it drives his copper-laced blue blood. I feel his breath, exhaled through his siphon, carve through the bubbles I blow.
Veiled in his cloud of ink, suspended together, no need for composure or constraint, imagine all we would have to say. He sees it in my eyes. Stay.
Suzanne Siteman is a narrative nonfiction writer currently living in the landlocked Midwest though she would live underwater if she could. Her work has appeared in Mothering Magazine, The Larcom Review, and New Millennium Writings among others.