The Indian jutted from the bow of the skeletal remains of a British whaling ship. His surface cracked and the once bright colors of his headdress faded. I swam up to him, touched the wooden surface of his face, the hollowed eyes, the jutting nose, the slightly agape mouth. Algae grew into every open crevice, painting his brown face a muted shade of green.
The seafloor next to the shipwreck was scattered with remnants of silver cups, china plates, cutlery. Bronze nails with a verdigris finish from the years of oxidization. Small details of lives once lived; morose reminders of lives that ended at the bottom of the sea.
I exhaled into my mouthpiece, a flattened-oval tube between my lips, with a ridge in front of my teeth. My first scuba lesson had been in a community pool back in Ohio. The instructor was a young man named Freddie, an Oberlin dropout he proudly told our group of seven. Freddie had left college to move to Queensland where he first learned to scuba above the Great Barrier Reef. He told us that floating above the brightly colored coral was akin to a religious awakening. Freddie had returned to Oberlin to bring this awakening to the rest of us.
It had been Sam’s idea that I learn to scuba, and after I was denied tenure it was his idea to travel to Hawaii. “I can take a sabbatical,” he said to me over dinner. “And you can figure out what you want to do next.” He stopped when he saw me cringe. “I’m sorry; I just mean that it would be good for you to get away for a little while, clear your head.”
What he’d failed to say, the space that had been growing and stretching between us, was that my denial of tenure meant that there was nothing left for me in Ohio. What he’d failed to say was that with his own career, with our close group of friends, with our bungalow with the rhododendron bushes that bloomed fuchsia in the summer, we had never entertained the thought of leaving Ohio.
Sam appeared beside me at the Indian, holding his hands up in the thumbs up position. I looked out at the vast blue surrounding the shipwreck, and felt trapped, the sea flooding my senses. My breath caught and numbness spread through my limbs. I tried to heed Freddie’s advice from our last class, “Focus. Breathe. Don’t panic.”
“What happens if something goes wrong with the equipment?” I’d asked, nervously tapping my feet against the floor. “What do you do? What about decompression sickness?”
“The most important thing is to stay calm,” Freddie said and launched into a description of each piece of gear. It was the day before our first open water dive in Lake Erie. When he saw my expression, Freddie smiled, his eyes kind. “Don’t worry, Lydia, you’ll do great.”
“You’ll do great.” The same words echoed back to me the morning I went in for my review. “You’ll get it. I know it,” Sam said as he placed cup of coffee and the Times in front of me at the kitchen table.
But the coffee that morning was bitter, and after the meeting when I returned to my small office I was overwhelmed with the sense of being a stranger in a place that had once been mine.
I bit down hard on the mouthpiece, let my breath return to normal, and nodded at Sam. He waved, and moved away from the Indian and swam across the shipwreck to inspect the stern of the ship. Sam had read about the shipwreck in National Geographic and spent almost the entire last half of the year scheming. Visiting the wreck involved a twenty-five day boat trip the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, which he arranged with help from a biology colleague at the University of Hawaii. The challenge of a voyage, of the chance to see a recently uncovered ship was more than he’d ever imagined. And as each day passed, as Sam’s sabbatical neared its inevitable end, I knew that these were the last twenty-five days. The last twenty-five days before our return to Oberlin, before my return to emptiness that had yet to settle. Ten years of teaching following eight years of schooling. And all that was left was a couple of cardboard boxes stuck in a corner of our garage I was unable to sort through.
“There are options, you know,” Sam had said, tracing collarbone, both of us naked in our small room at the bow of the ship the night before our dive. “There are other things besides teaching.”
“You’ve never had to consider other options.”
“Lydia, this isn’t about me. This isn’t about my career. I’m not trying to patronize you or trivialize what you’re going through, I’m just trying to be supportive.”
“I know.” But I’d moved out of his arms, stared out the small porthole into the line of ocean and sky. Perhaps it was arrogance, but the minute I’d stepped into that classroom I never thought I’d leave it.
I closed my eyes, rocked back and forth with the ship, and when Sam reached for me I laid still, until he sighed, turned over, and fell asleep.
Sam reappeared by my side and touched my arm. He lifted his index finger in the direction of the surface. I nodded and reached for his hand, threading my gloved fingers through his. Tomorrow the ship would turn around, head back to port. And in two weeks I’d stand in our garage after Sam left for his first class, and I’d face the boxes, the boxes that held the past eighteen years of my life.
I touched the Indian’s face once more and loneliness engulfed me. For a century the Indian had rested here, trapped by time and warped by the sea. There would be no more voyages for the Indian. There would be no more Oberlin classrooms for me.
Melody Feldman received MFA in Fiction from Fairleigh Dickinson University where she was the assistant editor of The Literary Review. Her work has also been published in 34th Parallel, Gloom Cupboard, Camroc Press Review, The Adirondack Review, and others. Melody lives in Washington, DC.
This story is sponsored by
Jesse Pohlman — author of the Physics Incarnate series, blending sci-fi and suspense as past secrets catch up with physics professor Emmett Eisenberg.