Thalassophobia

Non-fiction
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Winner of Linda Julian Creative NonFiction Award

Originally published in Emrys Journal, Volume 38 in 2021

They are laughing at you. Four grown men: Prim, the guide. Paul, the Canadian. Mark, your husband. And the boatman, whose name you will never know. They laugh like tough boys on a playground teasing a little girl who’s afraid of a spider. Only you aren’t a little girl and it isn’t a spider. It’s a boat.

Well, boat is generous. It’s a canoe or kayak or something significantly less substantial than an actual boat. They want you to get in it. Oh, and by the way, this is your honeymoon.

It’s all because of Arundhati Roy you’ll say later, when you can sort of laugh about it, though none of it is funny. The trip to India was already planned and then you and your fiancé read The God of Small Things and added the southern state of Kerala to your itinerary. When you were finally in India, you almost cut Kerala out because it was so far south, and you were running out of time. But then Arundhati Roy intervened again. This time from the TV. The BBC.

You and your new husband were stretched out on an oversized, circular bed enclosed with a diaphanous curtain that looked as though it might have once been white but was now grey and dingy. The honeymoon suite of a three-story pink hotel in Mysore. The only thing you remember from Arundhati’s interview was that she said something like, “We all pretend we don’t know that we are dying.” For some reason that convinced you to go to Kerala, as if Arundhati Roy herself needed you to go there, as if she personally intended to teach you this lesson.

* * * * *

You first lay eyes on the boat when you arrive at the top of the sloping path down to the canals. It is floating in a narrow inlet dug for this purpose, a manmade docking spot. The boatman, a dark-skinned man, thin and sinewy from physical labor, stands at the water’s edge in a worn, white t-shirt with a brown cloth tied around his waist, a long wooden pole at least twice his height gripped in his hand. You survey the length of visible canal to be sure this is the boat you’ve hired for your trip and not some plaything left for the barefoot children you see running through the coconut trees on the other side of the bank.

The ground is slick from a rainstorm the night before and you slip, just a little, as you walk down to the shore. Your husband and Paul each grab one of your hands, which irritates you. You want to shout, “I can take care of myself. I backpacked the South Pacific without either of you.” But you don’t because you remember Fiji. You and that British girl running down a mountain screaming because fifteen minutes into your hike you noticed webs strung from tree to tree with yellow-bodied spiders the size of your hands looming overhead.

When you reach the bank, you don’t get into the boat. You stop as if held in place for a moment by the hot, humid air. You look at the boatman. At your husband of ten days. At Paul, just another traveler who happened to be in the hotel lobby when you were inquiring about the trip. At Prim, your guide, his ample belly pushing out the white, button-down shirt he wears over the lungi wrapped around his waist, the antithesis of the lanky boatman.

Without meaning to sound scared you say, “That’s the boat?” This is when they laugh, as if on cue: “Okay men, laugh at the lady.” A boys’ club. Even the boatman, whom you are relatively certain doesn’t speak English, laughs.

“It’ll be fine. The water’s not deep,” your husband says.

The boat rocks wildly as Prim gets in and you take a step back. They still think it’s funny, but you are trying to remember if you’ve ever told your husband that open water is one of your greatest fears. Have you told him that you almost drowned when you were eight? That you fell off a pier in Clacton-on-the-Sea as your mother and uncle watched from the beach.

Your uncle: “She’s drowning.”

Your mother: “No, she’s a great swimmer.”

Your uncle: “She’s drowning!”

Your mother: “We have a pool.”

The fishermen rescued you. Your mother was dumbfounded, bordering on angry. “Why didn’t you swim?” she asked. “You’re a great swimmer.” You couldn’t explain. You had been watching baskets of crabs being pulled from the sea and leaned too far forward. When you hit the water, you were suddenly paralyzed with fear, feeling things reaching for you from the murky waters below, from the void that is deeper than any ocean.

After the men finish laughing, you do get into the boat. You don’t put up much resistance, which is something you’ll ponder later. Were you just a coward? Too embarrassed to say, “This isn’t safe and I’m not going.” Or were you meant to be there? Something or someone putting you there at that time to witness those events? But why? What does any of it mean? Sometimes you like to imagine that you had a premonition. But you didn’t. Because in the end it’s not the water or the boat.

Other times you see it as hubris. Backpackers traipsing the world, overconfident and self-assured. It’s like the lopsided bus that transported you through the mountains from Mysore to Kerala. When you pointed out that the vehicle you were about to board was leaning perilously to the right your husband said, “It’s India.” As if that both explained the misaligned bus and made it safe to ride. As if it were Disneyland and off-kiltered buses and rickety boats were just this locale’s version of the Mad Hatter’s tea cups.

We’re all pretending. Proceeding with an unfounded certainty that no harm can come to us. Feigning ignorance of facts: Buses crash. Boats sink. People die. But Arundhati Roy is talking about you. You being drawn back into the abyss.

* * * * *

Once the excursion begins, you understand why every person you’ve ever met who’s been to Kerala asks, “Did you take a boat through the canals?” Breath-taking is not strong enough. Magical, too trite. It is simply beautiful.

Channels of water weaving through trees that reach over you like hands grasping for each other, patches of blue sky just visible between the deep green of their leaves. Lotus blossoms—you’ve never seen a real one before—float on the water’s surface, miniature shrines.

The small canal you start in opens into a network of larger canals. Men along the banks gather coconuts into boats just like yours. Children play in the shallows, their easy laughter reassuring. They wave. You wave back. The boatman pushes you forward, his long pole reaching down to the bottom of the channel.

You relax. Your husband takes your hand and you smile at each other and kiss. The other men smirk. Your husband takes your Canon AE1 and starts snapping photos even though he claims he’s no longer interested in photography, his former profession. You end up with at least five variants of each view, none different enough for you to distinguish between them. But then, he turns around and takes a photo of the boatman. Just one. The one that will end up on your bookshelf. The one you will look at daily, searching for import.

The boat moves slowly into a larger canal and you see that at the end it opens into an enormous lake that in turn leads out to the sea. You will remember seeing a giant white cross jutting out of the trees on a distant hill on the other side. The Canadian will insist it was a giant Buddha. Your husband will tell you there was nothing.

The boatman says something. Prim points across the water and answers. You think to yourself, He can’t pole across something this size, can he? You don’t see him fall in. You just hear the splash. The boatman is in the water.

“He’s swimming,” you say, the naive optimist. You think he’s jumped into the water because it’s so hot and that he’s going to push the boat across the lake. A flash of righteous indignation passes through your mind: It’s not okay for another human being to push us across this huge body of water. Your husband will say at that moment he already knew. He saw the boatman’s eyes as he sank into the water and knew.

“He’s not swimming,” Paul says, as he takes off his camera and neck-wallet and dives into the water. The force of his leap propels the boat toward the center of the lake. No one speaks. At least you won’t remember that anyone spoke. You’ll just remember looking out over the water and not seeing or hearing Paul as if he were miles away. How is it possible that he was just right here and now he is gone? He and the boatman disappeared, crossing some invisible line into another world. Time lags as you drift. Seconds feel like lifetimes.

“Help,” you hear in the distance. “Help!”

You dive in. You don’t think about it. You don’t decide anything. You are just in the water, swimming toward the voice.

Your husband screams, “What the fuck are you doing?”

“I can swim,” you answer, as if that were the question he asked.

The first thing you notice is that there is a current and waves, small but strong. The water seemed glassy and calm but now it is tugging at you and you are fighting, struggling against its pull. You can’t see Paul or the boatman, but you head in the direction of the voice. You are out of breath in a few moments. You stop the crawl and start the breaststroke, intermittently spitting out mouthfuls of dirty, lake water. Your thin pajama-style pants get tangled around your legs and feel like weights. You pull them off. When you get back to the boat, they will still be balled in your hand though you won’t remember holding them.

Paul sees you before you see him and yells, “I can’t keep him up.” You find him and take the boatman. You actually remember life-saving classes from high school and swim on your back with the boatman across your chest toward the boat that is now near the center of the lake. You are absolutely certain that you feel the boatman’s chest rise and fall as you pull him along with you.

You are within a few feet of the boat when you feel something reach for you, something from the depths. No one else can see it but it is there. You know it’s there. Panic sets in. You are in the water. You start to hyperventilate. It is just like the crabs. You can’t stop thinking about what is lurking beneath you, grasping for you from the unending dark.

“I can’t hold him anymore,” you say and pass the boatman to Paul who’s been swimming beside you. Your husband pulls you back into the boat, which now seems like the safest place on earth. You, Paul, and your husband struggle to get the boatman in. Prim, expressionless, is in the same spot you left him, observing all your actions as if he is in a different story.

You start CPR. Check for breath. Feel for a pulse. Open his airway. You breathe into his mouth and the air comes back out with a groan and a gurgle. You do it again and then begin chest compressions. You hear ribs cracking beneath your hands. They told you that in CPR class, didn’t they? “You’ll break ribs.” Or did they say, “Don’t break ribs?”

How many compressions are you supposed to do? How many breaths? They said, “You’ll probably never have to do CPR on a real person.” Or did they say, “You probably will?” More breaths. More dead air. More cracking ribs. Compressions. Breaths. Compressions. Breaths.

In CPR class they said—you are absolutely certain—“Continue CPR until medical services arrive.” You look up. You are drifting without oars or a paddle toward the edge of a lake that opens into the sea. There are only trees around you. No other vessels. No houses. No people. There is a dead man at your feet. Paul and your husband take over CPR. You scream for help.

Young boys appear out of the trees, out of nowhere. You feel frightened and helpless, yet these children effortlessly swim out to you, like you are in another dimension and they are your lifeline. They pull the boat to shore.

Your husband and Paul lay the boatman’s body on the sand. His eyes are open and the boys look at you and gesture and you think they are telling you to do something, like they’ve seen all the TV shows where people do a few compressions and the dead come back to life.

You start CPR again. But you have to stop because it feels like death is breathing into your mouth. You close the boatman’s eyes with the palm of your hand. You don’t know then that this will be the first of many times that you’ll do CPR, that you will become a critical care nurse, that one day death will be not exactly mundane to you but commonplace. But this one will stay with you in a way the others don’t.

The deserted shore is no longer deserted. Where there were only trees, people appear until your group is surrounded. Your wet clothes cling to your skin and even though it is still warm, the slight breeze brings chills. You in particular are surrounded by fifteen young boys who try to touch your fair skin and freckles. Your husband has to chase them away so shivering you can pee behind a bush.

A man climbs up a tree with his hands and bare feet and tosses bulbous coconuts to the ground. Another man cracks them open against a rock. You are sipping faintly sweet coconut water directly from the source surrounded by locals in one of the most beautiful places you will ever visit, which would all be fantastic if there were no dead man on the shore behind you.

You search for Prim amongst the crowd. “No worry. Taxi coming,” he says when you find him, and you wonder from where in this jungle of green the taxi will come. Paul gestures toward the dead man and someone finally seems to understand. Two men walk out into the trees. An hour later two police jeeps arrive. An officer nudges the body with his foot. They pick up the dead man and put him in the back of one of the jeeps. The rest of you ride in the other one.

At the police station, each of you write a report. Your husband’s report says, “The boatman died.” Your report is about a page. Paul is still writing when you leave.

Back at the hotel you vomit. You don’t know if it’s the water you swallowed or shock. Your husband is frantic. When they asked, you told the police officers exactly how much money you make. He thinks this was a mistake. Your meager salary, suddenly a fortune. The boatman’s family might want money. The cops might want baksheesh. The guy from Holland in the next room who looks like Iggy Pop in his heroin days thinks your husband is right and fuels the paranoia.

You are up early. Tickets for the first train out. Unexpectedly you meet Paul, who had similar worries, at the station and though you don’t want to, you all have breakfast together. He says, “What would they have done if I hadn’t gotten him. They would have had to have dredged the lake.”

Your husband, who was in India and Pakistan and Afghanistan while you were still in grade school says, “They wouldn’t have dredged the lake.” You all exchange addresses though you think he knows, like you do, that you’ll never write to each other.

On the train out, your husband falls asleep on your shoulder. You watch the scenery passing faster and faster by the window. You think about Paul. He fancies himself the hero of the story and your husband the coward. You realize that maybe you do too, only you wonder if anyone gets to be the hero. After all, the boatman is dead.

You have three or four nightmares during the rest of the honeymoon. In each, the boatman asks you why you let him die and you try to explain to him that you did your best. Sometimes you wake and that sound of your breath coming back out of his lungs is echoing in your ears.

* * * * *

Now, twenty years later, when Mark says he would have dived in for you, not for Paul, not for the boatman, but for you and you alone, you know it is true. When he says he would have rather drowned trying to save you than to have left without you, you know it is true. When he tells you that the first thing that came into his mind was a picture from the Boy Scout manual of a boy in a boat holding out an oar to a boy in the water, you laugh, because you know it too is true.

But still when he tells you he saw the boatman’s eyes and knew immediately that he was dead, you aren’t sure. After all this time you still want your actions to have meaning. You want to believe that things might have been changed.

Maybe it was just logical. You each went in according to your skills. Paul was a windsurfer. You were a strong swimmer trained in life-saving and CPR. In all the years you’ve been married, you’ve never seen your husband in a swimsuit, let alone the water.

Or maybe Paul is the hero-type, the kind of person who risks his life to save a total stranger. Maybe, on a given day, you are too, and your husband is not. But no matter how much you think about what you did, what Paul did, and what your husband didn’t do, the fact remains that none of it changed anything.

You don’t have nightmares anymore. But sometimes when you wake in the late hours and are unable to go back to sleep, you think about everything that happened that day. Now what haunts you most is not the boatman’s death; it is the first thing your husband said to you when you were finally alone together in your hotel room, after it was all over. He said, “What would you have done if you got out there and the boatman was drowning, pulling Paul down with him, and then they’d grabbed on to you?”

You think about that often, about being pulled down into that turbid water, about your certainty that something was seeking you from the depths, about how safe you felt once you were back in the boat. As you lie there in the dark, your stomach churns because you feel it reaching for you again and you wonder if now perhaps you finally understand what Arundhati Roy was saying. The boat is no safer than the water. The shore, no safer than the boat.

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