Short Story Self-Contained, Underwater
If she could speak, she would tell me she’s glad my reckoning has arrived.
In my dreams, she floats downward, endlessly retreating into the midnight abyss. My hands clutch for her, but still her wide, staring eyes and gaping mouth recede, leached of color by the depth. Her arms rise toward me, and her face is wreathed in black masses of hair, drifting like kelp and tangling in the rubber hoses of her buoyancy-control vest and regulator. She falls away, down and down until her distant form blurs and melts into the blue.
It wasn’t really like that, I know. Her hair would have been pulled back, not weaving, Medusa-like, around her pallid face, and the terror in her eyes would have been obscured by her mask. But the panic and the piercing pain I feel in my ears are the same, as I descend too rapidly, too heedlessly. I hear an alarm shrilling and the sound of my own rushing pulse. My eyes and nose fill with brine as my mask lets in the ocean, and I wake up in the salt of my own sweat.
This time when I wake, I lie still for a moment, crushed to the mattress, letting my thudding heart slow. Eventually I throw off the comforter and roll out of the cooling damp patch, reaching for my phone and bathing the room in the screen’s pelagic light. Mechanically, I check my email, check for new texts.
Two unread emails from the podcast people: “Interview Request: Follow-up” and “Reaching Out Again.” I pull up my phone’s garbled transcript of their voicemail. The show is called Misadventure , and they’ve achieved moderate renown in the packed field of true crime and gruesome death podcasts. In the first voicemail, they asked whether I’m the same Inez Pappas from the police report, but judging from their persistence, they are no longer in doubt. They want to do a short series on her, on Eileen Belson (“gone before her time”) and her tragic demise on her Cayman Island honeymoon eight years ago. Her death was all over the news, but I was twelve, and for good reason my parents shielded me from the coverage. I didn’t know her name at the time, but I know her face as well as I know my own. In my dreams Eileen’s lungs are filling with saltwater, but if she could speak, she would tell me she’s glad my reckoning has arrived.
When my dad was my age, he was a highly accomplished technical scuba diver. A hobbyist, but one of a fairly small elite, at the time. On Friday nights, he would drive overnight to a site with his dive buddy and their gear, in his two-tone Chevy 4×4. They would explore wrecks that sat in frigid, silty water, moldering well beyond the reach of leisure divers. Equipped with dry suits to withstand the cold and mixed gas tanks suited for the depth, they salvaged lost objects—ship’s bells, and portholes, and dining room china. Dad would tear a paperback book into chunks and bring a section for the long waits at successive decompression stages, on the way back up. The sodden paper would become unreadable once it dried into a clumped and bloated mass, so he got pretty good at estimating how many pages he could finish during a particular dive.
In my dreams, she floats downward, endlessly retreating into the midnight abyss.
After my brothers and I were born, Dad no longer felt he could spare the time or knowingly incur the risks associated with technical diving. Divers died on these wrecks, snared and unable to find their way free in the murky water. But the collection of china he recovered from the wreck of the Andrea Doria occupied a place of honor in a glass display cabinet in his study. As a child, I liked to play in that room, with its paper-heaped desk and its plush, pristine cream-and-copper rug. We weren’t explicitly forbidden from entering this room, but these forays still felt clandestine. The china cabinet locked with a large ornamental key attached to a dangling tassel. The key always sat in the lock, and I liked to extract it carefully and pretend I was a curator, a gatekeeper to untold wonders. I would lead imaginary connoisseurs through my gallery and, as the pièce de résistance, would gingerly slide the tasseled key back into its lock and reverently open the glass door. I would never touch the china itself—that was unthinkable—but I would expose it to an imaginary, admiring audience and then cautiously lock it away again.
One day, perhaps the third or fourth opening of my pretend gallery to the public, I turned the key and the glass shelves collapsed, the upper levels falling onto the lower in a shower of shattered glass and china. My dad appeared at the scene of my crime. I don’t remember what I said or what he said, but I know I ran away and hid in my bedroom closet. I had been playing a puerile game, and I had destroyed something irreplaceable, something that even as a child I knew was the relic of a wistfully remembered past. My dad tried to tell me that the cabinet had been faulty. He tried to coax me out of my retreat by showing me pieces of the wreckage, pointing out how the pegs holding the shelves might have been poorly anchored. The completeness of his forgiveness broke me down entirely because, whatever he said, I knew that it was my fault and that I had done something unforgivable.
Years later, when I enrolled in my own scuba-certification class, run by an ex–Navy SEAL friend of my dad’s from his serious diving days, I would stare at the flickering light patterns at the bottom of the swimming pool and imagine sunken treasure. I had taken the written exams—I knew the limits of recreational diving were 130 feet below the water’s surface, but I still daydreamed about stumbling upon an artifact, lost and overlooked, something I could bring back to dad as recompense for my juvenile error.
I passed my checkout dives in a lake in Pittsburgh in April, my twelve-year-old frame staggering under the weight of the tanks. When I strode off the dock and hit the water, the exposed skin on my body—a sliver of cheekbone between my mask, my regulator, and my thick neoprene hood—felt like it was exploding with cold. My examiner was kind and encouraging, and she mercifully saved the worst of the required exercises for last. Kneeling on the lakebed, my clumsy gloved hand clinging to a swaying rope line, I pulled my mask free from my face, let the water flood over my tightly clenched eyes, fumbled the mask back on, and cleared the water, tentatively opening my eyes to the examiner’s encouraging “OK?” sign.
The day after an Eileen Belson dream, I’m always groggy. I startle easily, and my limbs feel like they’re moving through water. Today, the effect is compounded by my dread of another email from the podcasters. Every time my phone vibrates—my sister-in-law sharing a tweet about bike lanes or my news app letting me know that Vox has a new explainer on coastal erosion—it feels like my heart is circulating acid through my bloodstream. Part of me wishes I could end the waiting, call them back and admit that they’ve found who they’re looking for. But as I’ve known since that day, I’m a coward. I can’t stand to remain in suspense, but I also can’t fling myself forward into an uncertain future.
As a reward for passing my checkout dives, my dad took me on the trip of a lifetime: a week at a dive resort on Cayman Brac. Cayman Brac was a paradise of wall diving, where divers descend to a floor at about fifty or sixty feet and swim a short distance to an underwater cliff, dropping away to infinity. The feeling of hovering weightless over the rim of the abyss was breathtaking, exhilarating, like nothing I had ever known. As we swam parallel to the vertical reef growing on the sheer wall, a moray eel undulated in and out of the rock caverns beside us, flashing a toothy smile. My dad pointed out stately drifting grouper, crusty camouflaged frog fish, and bristly neon Christmas tree worms that shot back into their holes when you came too near.
After each dive, I basked in the praise I got for arriving back at the boat with more air remaining in my tank than just about anyone, a testament not only to my small size but to my cardiovascular fitness, my calm, measured breathing, and my ability to avoid wasting air by making fretful adjustments and readjustments to my buoyancy. I’m the oldest of three, the only girl, and I wanted to make my dad proud, to avoid at all costs being seen as a liability or as an object of pity.
Fortunately for me, there was a clear weak link in the chain—a honeymooning couple in their mid-thirties, who boarded the boat one morning with a haphazardly stuffed bag of gear and half-dry wetsuits draped over their shoulders, a detached snorkel falling to the dock in their wake. The woman wore a gauzy floral coverup and a broad-brimmed sun hat that almost immediately flew off into the water and had to be fished out on the end of a boat hook. As the divemaster handed her sopping hat back to her, she caught my eye and smiled. I turned away in a way that strikes me now as unkind, but at the time, I was hyper-aware that she was the only other woman on the boat, and I didn’t want to be recruited into some kind of feminine solidarity with this ill-at-ease woman in her impractical ruffled bikini.
The divemaster was explaining where we were headed, the planned route and logistics of the dive, and the notable reef features we could expect to see. The newlywed husband took issue with some aspect of the plan and declaimed loudly about his experience and credentials, readjusting his Tommy Bahama shirt as it flapped up to expose his pasty stomach. His wife scratched idly at the peeling sunburn on her nose, accustomed to her husband’s bombast. Everyone began final preparations for the dive. I eyed the wife with smug superiority as she scrabbled to pull on her wetsuit, struggling to grasp the stiff fabric with her acrylic nails. The excess decorative fabric of her bikini bunched and rolled up under her wetsuit, leaving inelegant bulges that she smoothed anxiously.
Standing at the back of the boat, preparing to enter the water, I ran my fingers along my hairline to make sure no stray strands of hair were breaking the seal of my mask. My mask had been leaking stubbornly, every dive. I was determined not to let a steady drip of water into my eyes and nose mar today’s trip. The seal was fine. I would be fine.
As we made our way down the descent line, I could see the honeymooners swimming off together. The woman’s hips sank down and her chest rose up—some combination of misjudged weights and poor buoyancy control—and her fins scuffed and flailed along behind her, ruining the visibility and scraping the reef. Even I knew that was bad technique, terrible etiquette, and damaging to the coral. I remember turning away from her retreating fins in a sanctimonious huff.
These days, I work for a company that runs career-development workshops. When I get bored at work, I take our online career-aptitude quiz. Do you tend to assume a leadership role? Do you work best in a collaborative environment? Today, as usual, I’m mildly disappointed at the possible futures the quiz generates, so I go back through and answer as a different version of myself—someone who could be a trauma surgeon or a test pilot or even a theatrical lighting designer or a mortician. But no matter what I trick the quiz into telling me I could be, I’ve known from a young age that I’m not the sort of person who can be relied on under pressure. I’ve known myself for so long as a person who failed when tested, and who justly feared exposure and its consequences.
I’ve spent all these years avoiding direct contact with these memories, floating my thoughts over them, never permitting myself to Google her name or look for articles about the case. But now I need to gather information. If I am exposed, what will happen to Dad? After an hour of feverish research, I’m reasonably certain that I wouldn’t have to drag him down with me.
Dad was diving with his camera that day, working with a macro lens, and I followed behind as he sought out promising subjects. The waterproof camera housing was flanked on each side by a strobe flash, extended on an articulated arm like the eyestalk of a giant crustacean. As he searched crevices for clinging seahorses or flamingo tongue snails, I swam toward the cliff, intent on returning to the sensation of flying weightless over the void. An errant fin from above grazed my outstretched arm, and I hardly had time to register a flash of irritation before I realized something was wrong.
It was the honeymooner woman, and she wasn’t making a controlled, deliberate descent. She was on her back and somehow sinking. In the space of a few heartbeats, she had already drifted past me. I darted after her and grabbed for her trailing arm. I kicked upward as I groped for the button to inflate her buoyancy-control vest and pressed down hard, but she was still foundering dead weight. The dive computer on my wrist was beeping, warning me that I’d plummeted too quickly, and I was kicking hard to keep us both afloat. The rational part of my brain told me that I was getting plenty of air, but I suddenly felt like I was gasping through a straw. A knifepoint of pain built in each ear, but I didn’t have a free hand to reach for my nose and equalize the growing pressure. It felt like my mask was about to float off my face entirely, and in a crystalline instant, I imagined losing my mask, blinking out my contact lenses, and having to grope my way blindly up toward the light, eyes stinging with saltwater.
I’ve known myself for so long as a person who failed when tested, and who justly feared exposure and its consequences.
I reached simultaneously to inflate my own vest and to clear my mask and anchor it solidly on my face. But in the second I let her go, she slipped down again. My stomach clenched. I started to chase her in her freefall, kicking desperately toward the fish-belly flash of her face, but a hand on the strap of my BC yanked me back hard—Dad, with the divemaster behind him. Dad held up my wrist with my dive computer, its depth alarm screaming. He gestured with cupped hands. Boat. Go back to the boat . He emphatically pointed the way, before following the divemaster down. Even in the chill deep water, I felt a flush of shame prickle my cheeks.
I surfaced slowly and swam the short distance to the boat. As I tried to mount the ladder, the force of a swell and the weight of my tanks almost pulled me back into the sea, and a waiting crewmember had to seize the neck of my tank and heave me aboard. I was too rattled to feel humiliated. I rehearsed what had happened. If I had been braver, smarter, less easily flustered, I would have reacted like a trained, competent diver. I should have immediately stabilized my own buoyancy, holding us both securely level, without even having to swim. I could have dropped her weights, right away. I should have realized that a few drops of water in my mask didn’t spell imminent catastrophe and remained mentally collected and purposeful. I was the diver on hand in an emergency, and I had mishandled the situation. I could only imagine the despair she felt, as I let her go, in a fit of childish anxiety over my mask.
Eventually the rest of the divers returned, along with my dad and the sobbing husband. No one spoke to me at all, but I knew they hadn’t gotten to her in time. I sat at the front of the boat, avoiding the husband and his wild eyes, as my wetsuit turned clammy on my skin.
When we got back to the resort, Dad rinsed my gear in freshwater and laid it out to dry in the sun. He talked to the police. I spent a few breathless days waiting for someone to question his story and haul me in for interrogation, but the worst never happened, and then we went home.
Since that trip, I don’t like to be in water any higher than my knees. The brush of something against my ankle at the dog beach can send me into a spiral for days. Every once in a while, I check for artifacts from the Andrea Doria on eBay, but it’s probably wishful thinking. My treasure-hunting days are long past.
But now these podcasters have started looking into what happened. They wouldn’t be so eager to talk to me if they didn’t already know I was the one who should have saved her. Even if I refuse to talk to them, the story will be out there, and hundreds of people will be combing over the details on Reddit forums and reading breakdowns of the events of that day on BuzzFeed .
I meet my dad for lunch, at a strip-mall Japanese restaurant we affectionately refer to as “Route 8 Sushi.” We order the lunch special and wait for the waitress to set down our bowls. I nervously stir up the silty bottom of my miso soup. Like jumping into cold water, I think, and before I can second-guess myself, I blurt out what I came to say. About the podcasters and their messages about Eileen Belson.
I tell him that I’ve done some research, and I would only be charged with manslaughter or maybe negligent homicide, depending on the jurisdiction. I don’t know if I would be tried here, or in her home state, or in the Cayman Islands maybe, but in all likelihood, Dad could be kept safe. He doesn’t need to protect me anymore. And her family deserves to know what I did. How I dropped her. How I panicked, forgot my training, and let her fall.
Dad is frozen, chopsticks poised with a spicy tuna roll halfway to his mouth. He looks at me with confusion and concern, and then he tells me about the murder investigation.
When dad and the divemaster found her, snagged on a jutting spar of coral fifty feet down, she was already unresponsive. But when the body was officially examined, it was clear that she didn’t drown or have a sudden heart attack and pass out. Her husband sent her down carrying far too much weight and led her out over the precipice. Once he thought they were out of view of the rest of the group, he grabbed her in a bear hug, jammed her mouthpiece against her teeth, and shut off her air supply. As he later admitted in a tell-all interview, he held her in his arms as she thrashed and suffocated, then dumped the air from her BC and released his grip, counting on the extra weight to pull her quickly into the fathoms below. He planned to claim that she had gone limp suddenly and he couldn’t get to her in time, but with the body recovered and the weight of the evidence mounting, he pled guilty and was sentenced for her murder. Needless to say, he never collected on the life insurance policy he took out before leaving for their honeymoon.
They had probably been thirty feet above me during her final struggle, but sound travels strangely underwater, and in poor visibility, it’s likely the husband had no idea that someone was floating almost directly beneath them. But there I was, staring out into the deepening azure, unknowingly waiting for Eileen to fall from the sky.
As Dad starts to apologize—for my confusion, for my guilt—I realize I’ve been holding my breath. The diver’s cardinal sin. I let my breath out slowly, evenly. Dad offers to call the podcasters. He suspects they got in touch with me because he has been ignoring their attempts at contact. I shouldn’t worry. I was a witness, but I didn’t know what I was seeing.
I feel weightless, floating. Suspended and held. So much of me, almost all of me, wants to believe him, believe in my innocence. Believe that I can call the podcasters and confidently offer to tell them anything they want to know about the time I happened to be an unwitting bystander to a murder, and then move on with my life. I could become a new sort of person, a venturesome person, someone who doesn’t take failure for granted. But I can’t stop seeing her frantic eyes staring up at me and the look on her face as she fell.
It feels impossible to unknow what I’ve been sure of for years: that in an instant of frailty, I let her sink. It shattered my perception of who I was, along with any heroic fantasies I might have had. Even if I accept that Eileen was dead before she started to fall, it doesn’t change the fact that when confronted with disaster, I buckled.
I avoid Dad’s worried gaze as he makes excuses for me and tries to explain why I shouldn’t be so hard on myself. But I know he’s my dad, so he’ll always protect me. Even when it’s my fault—when something unfixable has happened, when I’ve done something unforgivable. Even if I didn’t kill Eileen, I can’t shake the accustomed weight. I close my eyes and summon the memory of neutral buoyancy, but my equilibrium has been off for so long, and I have the uneasy sensation that at any moment I could be dragged down or pulled inexorably upward.