The Final Seduction - by Chelsea Stephen
*names and places have been changed
In my dream I am soaring over crystalline-flecked glass of blue-white-green, the depth of the water is alive with distortion and light. I reached my hands down to break the calm surface and feel its resistance against my own forward momentum. I am moving so fast, the warm salty water whips around my palms, through open fingers, licking the back of my hand as it tries to pull my body into the blue. I close my eyes and smile at the sensation of my return home, back with the sea. The sun dances lightly upon my bare skin, but inside my heart is heavy with the omnipresence of his memory and the awareness that I can not surrender to the pull, not now. I know I have to awake, that my visit is just a hazy reminiscence waltzing across my tired mind. I awake with a salty tongue, grasping for a bygone memory, now as distorted as the ocean floor seen from that very vantage point above the surface.
Lying awake, I think of the island. I remember how awful it was. Of course it wasn't all that awful. There was the water.
Months before my transplant to the island, I had been living in Colorado. My boyfriend at the time, Nic, had sent me an email titled, “I think I'm going to regret this.” And inside was a link to a post “seeking aquaculture assistant at Research Institute*, Caribbean”. Nic had heard me talk ad nauseam about my dreams of quitting my dead-end lab technician job and starting a backyard aquaculture business. He also knew of my intense longing for the ocean. We loved each other, Nic and I, but we were pretty lousy at a relationship and when I read that email I was certain he was trying to get rid of me. So I applied for the internship knowing- perhaps a little arrogantly - that I'd be on my way to the Caribbean in a few months time. And that he wasn't coming with.
I moved to the island in January, with high hopes. By August I was gutted open like a fish. And in late December, I left the island standing tall if only to extend the distance between my head and my battered heart. I don't believe in regret, which is why this story isn't a sad one. I believe that everything is an opportunity to learn. What's unfortunate, or maybe its just fact, is that every opportunity has several hidden grenades to look out for. I'm particularly skilled in finding these grenades, and then pulling the pin so that every lesson feels like fire and brimstone before I come out the other side having learned a thing or two.
Everything was a competition among the cutthroat community of expatriates at the institute. What no one seemed to understand was that I wanted nothing to do with their men, or their jobs. I just wanted to learn how to grow fish to feed mouths, and spend as much time under the water as possible. The ocean became my sanctuary. In it and under it, I was home. And in water I never had to make small talk with anyone. It wasn't like jogging with others, wheezing between asinine topics of hair color or boys. Learning to free dive - dive below the surface on a single breath - was the closest I ever felt to belonged anywhere on that island. Without an air tank strapped to my back, with only goggles and a pair of fins, I felt animal, and extremely calm. In pushing myself, I became exceptional at holding my breath because in the back of my mind I think I would have been ok if I found myself airlifted off the island on account of nearly drowning: a free ticket home. I never wanted to resurface, but I always did.
I don't remember specifically meeting him, but it might as well have been in the water. Every so often I'd pause mid-swim and see Max* wading nearby smiling at me. What the hell was the director of the institute doing looking at me? Almost everybody on that island was an asshole or intimidating or both, so you can imagine the paralysis induced by bumping into the director himself. I was tongue tied anytime I saw him on shore, but at least in the water I could avoid conversation if I just kept swimming. At first I didn't like it – sharing the water with him - not because he was invading my space, but because when he was around I felt as though I was intruding on his. He was there first, after all, and I was just a small fish in big seas. But of course I always returned to swim if only to keep my sanity, and when he could, Max would join me. He was impossible to keep up with, and I became obsessed with trying to out-swim him. Sometimes he would disappear from the island for days and when he'd reappeared unannounced I'd delight at the closing gap between my hands and his feet as we'd swim and swim and swim for what seemed like a lifetime.
On shore, I hardly recognized him. Coworkers would pander to him, and he'd eat their bullshit by the fist full. When he wasn't looking they'd talk such trash about him flies would flock to their mouths. It didn't take long for me to realize he knew what they were saying behind his back. He was sad and lonely, and in moments of weakness he'd admit these things to me because, I believe, he knew that I was too.
On land he was a weak, tired, dried up old fish with only a smug title shrouding his sadness. But in the water...in the water he was strong, and fast, he'd take dangerous risks, he defied age, he'd shine. I believed him to be non-human. And we had nothing in common except the only thing that mattered: the water was our escape. He taught me to swim faster, dive deeper, push limits, and never quit. And in spite of myself, I fell in love with him.
On the day after my twenty-sixth birthday, I found myself, for the first time in a long time, with nothing to do. No fish to feed, no tanks to clean. Everything and everyone around me felt eerily still, a jarring contrast from the erratic thoughts that loudly competed for my undivided attention. I grabbed my sketchbook to quiet my mind, and I sat beneath the gazebo with my pencil in hand and the blank page mocking me for what seemed like eternity. Then I heard his voice, and every hair on the back of my neck stood at attention, the thoughts in my head scattered like stray cats. Max approached me, as I knew he would. It had been days since I'd last seen him, and he smiled broadly. He solicited my help in cleaning the hull of his neglected sailboat, Moon Shadow, with the promise of letting me sail her afterwards, and I swallowed the impulse to jump up and shout YES!
“How about you meet us at my place in an hour after my phone conference?”
He meant “us” as in the other people he supposedly invited, but when I showed up I found we were alone. The plans had changed, he told me, and we were going to take the boat out of the harbor to clean her. We made the short sail to a nearby sandbar and anchored. Without hesitation we both took to the sea, and worked over the crusted hull in silence, Max on one side of the boat, me on the other. I watched his feet underwater and occasionally, when I wasn't paying attention, he'd grab my ankle and pull me under playfully. For a moment, after we had finished, we sat in the shallow water talking about everything and nothing, my hands gently kneading the sand.
“You're a goddamn mermaid,” he smiled and without warning he tried to kiss me.
I toppled backwards and dodged his lips. The grenade in my chest exploded, painfully. Swim, my head screamed! Go! And I swam hard for the boat, cursing myself as my outstretched arms sliced the water forcefully. How did I let it get to this? How did I let this happen??? I had led him on. I felt so stupid. Swim, swim, swim. I stopped, out of breath, and let him catch up to me.
“I'm sorry,” I said.
My ears were ringing, my cheeks were on fire; I was petrified and embarrassed. I don't remember the details of his response. It doesn't matter. Every night thereafter he would invite me over for wine. I refused over and over again. But there was a shift in the way I craved his attention. I longed for his glances, the burn from his blue eyes as I walked by him, the subtle graze of his hand on mine when we'd both coincidentally meet at the coffee pot. And then, I remember the first time I stayed over at his house, the feeling of complete control. I thought I had caught the impossible fish, unaware that I was the one getting caught.
He was so very wrong to take me, but he couldn't resist and I didn't care. With him I feared nothing. I gave him everything I had not knowing that nothing I could give would prevent the inevitable explosion of our clandestine romance. A fisherman can sing his love for a fish as he carries it to the filet table. Such is the way Max loved me.
He knew what I could never have known, and that was that his heart was never mine to hold. I was a reprieve from his insufferable ex-wife. I'd heard the stories of Pat leading up to their divorce: the mattress set ablaze, the kitchen-ware shattered against the walls, years of emotional and physical abuse, the alcoholism. But the ex in front of her title meant nothing to him. He was chained to her, in the way that a fish is tied to the sea, or a person to the land. We would never be able to inhabit each other’s homes, and while the truth was in front of my face the whole time, it was the one grenade I never saw.
Even though Pat lived in the States, she and Max made pleasantries in public for the benefit of their children, and she often returned to the island in the summers with the youngest ones in tow. That summer, Pat's explosion was seen, heard, and felt by everyone at the institute, not least of which was me. I remember all too well the night she cornered me in the lab while I was working alone, threw a chair at me, told me to sit while she cursed me with her serpent tongue. The stench of booze stung my nose. She said that she found out the truth about me from an intern. Of course, I knew it was a lie. She had gone through his phone, seen all his text messages to me, his “mermaid”. They were both good at lying, Max and Pat. I was not his mermaid, I was merely a prize fish, reeled in, weighed, photographed, and now set on the filet table.
Later, he came to me crying.
“I need to fix my family,” he said. The first slice.
When I understood that he truly meant what he said, we sat on the bridge in the dark, the same bridge where we used to rendezvous under the night sky. That night every fucking star was shining, and I silently begged one of them to shoot me down in a fantastic final blaze, turning me to stardust and burnt human flesh. In stead they stayed perched snuggly in the sky and just twinkled at me, and so I whispered, fuck you.
“What?” he turned.
“I have to leave”, I said. “I can't stay here, it hurts too much. I want to go home." I had four more months until the end of my contract.
“You are so much stronger than that,” he pleaded. “Please don't leave. I need you here, this place needs you”.
I'll never fully understand why I stayed. The naïve girl in me thought I could get him back, I'm sure of that. But also my pride wanted me to show everyone that I wasn't leaving without dusting myself off and walking out standing tall on my own two feet. One last beautiful seduction. And so I endured those last four months, and it damn near killed me. During that time, Max and I rarely swam together. Pat had practically relocated to the island, staking claim. He would come to me sometimes at night when he could shake her chains, and we'd talk. Just talk. Afterwards, I'd go to sleep feeling conciliated, but then I'd wake up always at 4 am with the scalpel in my chest. In the final month, Max left the Island and didn't return until the day after my flight home.
Just before my work contract was up and I was getting ready to leave the island for good, I went with a team of divers to harvest the fish I had helped rear from egg to adult. The grown fish were caged 50 feet below the ocean surface, in a giant offshore aquaculture net, algae-covered and resembling something like an old forgotten spaceship. Throughout that past year I had closely monitored their health, I had fed them, I had loved them. On that day, donning air tanks, we dove down and entered the cage wielding hand nets and small mesh bags. There were 4,000 fish and only six of us, so we had to grab what fish we could with whatever time our air supply permitted. I remember netting my fish, one at a time, and sticking my gloved fingers into their gills to restrain them from their violent protest. With the other hand around the base of the tail, I shoved them into the small mesh bag. Their fear was palpable. Their gills pumped clouds of blood with every open-mouth gasp. Back at the surface, lying on the floor of the boat the captured fish continued to suffer with involuntary flips and flops for the 5-mile ride back to shore. I remember sitting next to the pile of fish on the floor of the boat, their eyes wide open, mouths gasping. There was so much oxygen around them with no way to breathe it, and they were literally drowning in air. As fish die, their colors actually become more saturated, not at all like the gray sullen death of a human. Fish get one final seduction before the curtain falls. It’s unsettling and beautiful. I loved those fish and I felt deeply sorry for their pain. That whole ride back I never took my eyes off them. It was the least I could do to have the respect to watch these creatures as they slowly and painfully died in a blaze of color.