With little to see and little to hear, my breathing consumes my thoughts. I bring it in through my mouth, widening my ribs as it collects in my lungs and when I am full, after one silent second, suspended like on the crest of a wave, I release it through pursed lips. And though I let it out slowly, the sound erupts to the sky. A fury of bubbles race upwards like unshackled souls only to break when they hit the ceiling. While they have nowhere to go, I have only forwards. I kick with slow strokes to conserve energy and keep my arms to my sides. Buoyant in the darkness, I glide through the hallway like an eel through a cave. My headlamp tosses a dim light ahead, just wide enough to illuminate the walls in my periphery. They stand weakened by decades undersea. The salinity gnaws at the hull of the ship, warping her wood and corroding her steel. Layers of silt and ocean debris suffocate every surface; bacterial particles spread like icing over the deck. Nothing stands as it was. This hallway, once adorned with art, wooden paneling and intricate carpentry, has been skinned to the bone. Most of the ship's innards have vanished like this and only it's bare frame remains, frigid in the depths. If I try hard enough, I can cast my own image of what the room once looked like over the little that is left. However, what's superimposed is no more than a shadow, a fragile mold that wavers in and out of existence against my mind's eye. After a few moments, it's altogether gone and I am left alone in the ship's spine.
Ever since I started diving, I've been fascinated by this interaction between man and nature. Immediately after man abandons a structure, nature begins the excruciating process of taking it back, piece by piece. This is nature's instinct: to convert death to new life, to recycle and to replenish. Only, we have developed things to thwart this process: metals that nature can't pierce, plastics it can't digest. And to witness, a hundred and twenty feet below sea level, the ocean's struggle to swallow its impossible prey, like a snake mouthing a glass egg, fills me with a sense of awe I experience nowhere else.
I check my watch. I'm doing fine on time. I'll have five minutes more than yesterday's dive to cover new ground before turning back.
I notice a white crab scurrying along the right wall, which is actually the floor; the ship rests overturned on its starboard side. I use his movement to monitor my pace. As I reach the vent the crab burrows into the sand. This won't be my first time going through, but it's still narrow enough to raise my hair. The hole will take me where I need to go--down another twenty feet to the first-class suites. Wasting no time, I lower myself in. When I'm torso deep, my tanks slam into the steel side. The shrill clank of metal against metal sends trembles through my skin. I reach my hands around to check my tanks, though I'm sure no damage was done. I focus on my breathing, relying on its constancy to calm my nerves, and slip, smooth as sand in an hourglass, into the greater darkness.
Truly, it was spring. The park had come to life on the first warm day. Children had returned to their slides, Frisbees to their lawns and readers to their benches. I sat on a wooden bench with chipped white paint in a patch of sunlight I found between the scattered shade of a maple tree. When I looked up, I could see that the leaves had also begun to return. Their green shone vibrantly; they appeared too proud to begrudge the winter for holding them off so long. I've always thought we could learn this from nature, the ability to move on. I brought my eyes down from the branches and on to my book, which rested on my lap. The sounds of spring distracted me today, the soft whistle of the breeze, the rustling of the leaves, the distant barks, the chirps; in thirty minutes I've hardly read a chapter. And on top of that, this was a book I was eager to read--Love in the Time of Cholera, Garcia Marquez's latest.
I opened to page forty-five. Florentino Ariza, invited into the house by Lorenzo Daza, had just laid eyes on Fermina for the first time. Through a window he saw her giving her aunt a reading lesson. I resumed here and read for a few minutes undisturbed until a new sound crept into my consciousness. I closed the book on my index finger and raised my head to the right. Sitting next to me in the same patch of sunlight, a girl I had never seen before stared, teary-eyed, into a stack of papers. She held the corners so tight I feared she might tear them off. In the few seconds I watched her, two tears fell from her cheeks onto the paper and rolled down the lines of text like raindrops on a windshield. I took out a tissue from my dusty, blue backpack and dangled it in her view. She shot back in her seat, slamming the papers down on her lap. When she looked at me, though, her face fell in relief.
"Wow. You scared me. That's really embarrassing," she chuckled, catching her breath.
"No, no. I'm so sorry. I didn't mean to bother you. I just thought you could use this." She looked back at me and smiled, taking the tissue from my hand. She had light, wavy hair, hazel-green eyes, some freckles, and a single dimple on her left cheek. Her nose was smooth and her lips, gentle. She had a nearly healed pimple on her chin.
"Is everything alright?" I asked.
"Yeah. It's fine. It's just...what I'm reading." She glanced upwards and let out an awkward laugh, the kind of laugh that confuses the face that's been so used to crying.
"What I'm reading is just so sad." She smiled and shook her head. "Now I'm really embarrassed."
"Well don't be," I said. "What's it about?" She looked down at the papers and shuffled them a bit.
"Well, it's just this reading for Dr. Harris's class." I nodded, not knowing the Professor. "It's this chapter on the impossibility of love," she continued, "from a book that was apparently never published, and it's just so sad. It's really bleak and painful, but also really beautiful. I can't really explain." A deep blush ran across her cheeks as she let out that laugh again.
The more she seemed to struggle with herself, the more fascinated I became with her. I suppose it was her authenticity that struck me. She seemed to speak without picking her words. She was just open, letting the sounds fall where they pleased. I chuckled a bit to break the ice.
"Don't worry, I understand," I assured her. "It's just not every day you see someone moved to tears by a book. It's nice is all." She smiled, this time mouth open, revealing a set of large, healthy teeth.
"Well, thank you."
"Do you mind if I look at it?" I asked, pointing to the papers.
"Sure," she handed them to me. "'The Impossibility of Love, from Catherine Sigel Hawley's last work. December, 1913.'" And on the top corner, scribbled in fat, yellow cursive: "Bryn M."
The text was written from the perspective of an old woman looking back on her life. She seemed bitter and discontent with the way things worked out. Her aim, I read at the top of the second paragraph, was to locate the "physiological basis for love." She went about this in the following two paragraphs by chronicling her most significant relationships and, at the end of each, crossing off a different part of the body, which she was now certain was not the "physiological basis for love." In one relationship, she followed only her heart and was crushed by unrequited love. In another, her mind fell in love with a man and, upon discovering her inability to commit to him, decided that when the mind falls in love, it is only "a love of ideas or an idea of love." Sigel Hawley concluded that in order for love, we must achieve a balance between the heart and mind. However, as she plainly stated: "Such a balance is not possible for the human species." At this, I was ready to hand back the pages, but my eyes had already dragged me into the following paragraph.
Consider this: the young lovers, who, despite their shared affections decide they must end their union on the day that the boy ships out to sea, driven by inevitable circumstance. Now I ask you, does this knowledge of a sudden end upset their current happiness, or does it embellish the time they have remaining? I contend the latter. The knowledge of a sudden end lifts the looming weight of permanence and allows them to love with less complication. A temporary union may feel like love, but I maintain it is not. At this time, you may ask, what if the two stayed together, through the period of distance, and eventually married, spending their lives together in joint happiness? Surely, this must be love? I would respond with another question. What is marriage if not a temporary union itself, which keeps only until death do us part, at which point, of course, the deal is off and solitude returns whether prayed for or not?
I didn't believe a word I read. I only found the text interesting because of the dichotomy it had already created between this girl I just met and myself. She believed the old woman, whose philosophy, as far as I was concerned, just grew thicker in her head with every loveless year passed until the day it flattened her faith and became her actuality, whereas, I didn't. Not only did I believe that love was possible, I believed it was inevitable. I couldn't say what was the purpose of existence, but I could confirm that love must be intimately related. So, how could that not happen for me?
I looked up at her. She sat cross-legged on the bench, playing with her shoelaces.
"I don't buy it," I said.
"What do you mean?"
"I don't know, I just don't think I could ever believe that love is impossible." Behind the girl a little boy had begun to climb a tree. He made it to the first branch and grabbed onto it, hanging in the air a few feet from the ground. He yelled for his mom to watch while he jumped down.
"Yeah, but even if it can be possible, how often does it last? You know, warm tingly feelings and deep conversations don't add up to love."
"But they could. I guess that's what I'm saying." I thought for a moment. "Why would you want to live in a world where love doesn't exist?" Just then, her eyes lit up like I had triggered an explosion in her mind.
"It's not saying that love doesn't exist! It does exist! It's just impossible for us, as a species, to arrive at it. It's too hard, too difficult. Either we have to be much simpler or more advanced creatures to experience love. But, where we are now, it's impossible. That's what this chapter is saying!" She grabbed a pen from her bag and jotted down a couple lines in the margins.
"So there's your thesis," I said, hoping to share a laugh with her. She flashed me a squinted grin instead. A few moments passed where I debated whether I should give my closing statement or just let the conversation go free to find its place with every other past conversation, somewhere, buried in the ether. But I decided on the former.
"Whatever. I think love is possible. I don't care how it sounds and I don't care what you think," I said, over emphasizing the how and what for some kind of humorous effect, of which kind I wasn't certain.
"Good," she giggled, "It's nice to see McGill has a Hopeful Optimism major." We both laughed.
"It's actually Naval architecture, but thanks." In a gap of silence we caught each other's eyes and held them for that extra moment every man hopes for, that extra moment, which could fill a lifetime if given the opportunity.
I looked down at my lap and picked up my cold book. "You know, if you're looking for a love story, this is supposed to be one of the all time greatest." She looked at the cover.
"Love in the Time of Cholera." She grabbed my book and proceeded to scribble something on its inner sleeve, then tossed it on my lap and stood up, her eyes on mine the whole time. "I just read it for the same class. There's no love in that."
This wall is made of tin. It bends when I push my hands against it and snaps back when I release, sending a deep boom throughout the shaft. The sound waves move so slowly underwater and in a place so narrow, I can't distinguish the difference between feeling and hearing the vibrations. I release a little more air from my BCD and exhale slowly, allowing my body to drift like detritus down the vent.
Claustrophobia clings to my nerves no matter how I try to suppress it. The most valuable thing I learned at the NDSTC was the ability to repress my fear of confinement. The trick, which I can't afford to forget, is to focus entirely on my breathing. However, the training applies best to caves and wrecks in general, not air ducts within wrecks. The little fear that seeps past my guard brings to my recollection a thought I used to have as a kid, standing atop a slide at the Mont Bellevue park playground in Sherbrooke. It was a covered slide that blackened the world for the two seconds you went down it. My friend Ronnie and I would climb the rope ladder, run over the wooden bridge that would rattle and even pinch our feet if we were barefooted and then climb two steps to the mouth of the slide, at which time Ronnie would cut ahead of me and dive through with no hesitation, leaving behind only the echo of his cheer. And I would stand, throat shut, unable to move. Ronnie would often make his way back up and slide down again, sometimes over and over, before I'd eventually go through. As I stood at the top, gazing into the blackness, one thought kept me back. 'What if I don't come out?' I couldn't be certain, at that age, that when I gave myself to the slide and allowed its walls to covet me, that it would let me out, and, if it did let me out, that the world I left behind would still be there.
This thought, coupled with the fact that, no matter how I might try, I can't stretch my arms or legs, hastens my breathing. Just as I begin to feel the fear in my stomach rise like bathwater to drown my heart, the tips of my fins touch the ground. I widen my legs and feel nothing in their way. I've made it through to the electrical room. Old cables plastered with the smut of the sea hang tangled from the ceiling. They form a puzzle I must solve with delicate strokes of my body in order to reach the door. And when I do, its opening is so narrow I unbuckle my BCD and slide it off my left shoulder so my tanks rest on my side in order to pass. Once through the door, I release a deep breath and watch the bubbles rise. I check my watch. Eight minutes left before turning back. My excitement's so charged I could light the room with it. The next door I enter will lead me somewhere no man has gone since the Empress of Ireland sunk decades ago. For two years I have dove this wreck more frequently than any other diver; I have been given a name for it, have been granted distinction and respect within the salvage diving community. I have surfaced with more artifacts, more brass portholes, Empress bowls, bells and personal belongings than any other diver. However, extracting such items was never my intention. The reason I now live in Rimouski and enter the St. Lawrence River every morning with 5,000 psi's of mixed air on my back, the reason I dive to the Empress and explore it with hopeless resolution is because something I lost a long time ago rests buried in its depths. And as I hover in the hallway of the first-class suites, an extraordinary thing happens, which brings to mind only one thought: that I might be close to finding it.
For the first time in two years, my memory has produced Bryn's face. Not just the parts, which I can recall at will, but their sum, her face in its entirety. For the first time without the aid of a photo, I see, clear as the morning light, that groove, which runs from her nose and expands like a raindrop into her upper lip. I see how her earlobes attach seamlessly to her upper jaw and how, when both sides meet, they make her chin. I see not only her eyes, perched like owls in tree holes, and not only the bridge of her nose, sloping into the valley between them; I see it all at once. I see the warmth of her flesh, the spaces and the intricacies of the spaces that hold her face together, the slight wear of age on her skin, the faint line between her lips and nostrils that is beginning to form from years of laughter. And unlike most memories, it doesn't flee from my consciousness when I try to focus; instead, her image remains in a natural light for me to cherish. Holding her tightly in my thoughts, I hear my intuition humming through my ribcage. It leads me with more intention than ever before and I follow, entering the first door on the right.
Bryn had a little booger in her nose. Other than that she looked perfect. Her hair lay slicked back along her neck, her timid shoulders glistened and her chest rose with a steady triumph and sank with just as much contentment. I held her in my arms and bobbed us gently in the shallow end of the pool. Her eyes came back to mine from somewhere else.
"Seriously, Stephan, what are you looking at?"
"Nothing," I laughed, though I could've just said 'at you.' Bryn squinted her eyes at me while taking her hand from my back and squeezing her nostrils. Her eyes widened when she found it and before I could touch her face she ducked underwater.
The sun sat above a green hill next to an old apartment complex, planning its descent. I felt like the sun hadn't moved in a while, as though it were making a decompression stop towards the end of a deep dive.
Bryn resurfaced wearing a rascally grin and leapt on top of me, burying my head underwater. I reached out my hands and pinched her waists. One pinch was all it ever took to tickle her defenseless.
"Stephan! I always tell you when your breath smells!"
"Hey, look, I hardly noticed it. It was a little nothing," I crooned, creeping towards her. She looked at me, then at the other side of the pool, then back, just before darting into a full swim to the deep end. I followed her, opening my eyes underwater. I never minded the sting but this pool felt especially chlorinated. No wonder though, considering it was a public pool in the middle of August, the most crowded month. After all, though, my eyes preferred a sting from chlorine rather than urine any time of the year.
When we got to the deep end, Bryn tied her legs around my waist and ran her fingers through my hair. She circled my earlobe with her thumb and brought it down my cheek to the space between my lower lip and chin. She leaned in and kissed the side of my mouth, bringing her thumb between our lips. I touched it with my tongue; the pruning lines felt like magnified fingerprints. I brought my body in closer, pressing my collarbone into her chest and my hard-on into her thigh. These were the times I felt happiest with Bryn, when I could tell nothing else was on her mind, when she didn't accidentally sacrifice the moment for some thought she couldn't keep inside. Today her mind was at ease and her nerves at rest; I couldn't have been happier.
"Steph." She quivered, fluttering her eyes. "I'm getting a little cold." I rubbed her arms.
"Do you want to get out? I could go get the towels; they're right by the bench. We'll dry off and--"
"I love you."
It was the first time I heard her say it. Blood shot straight from my heart to my face, caving in my chest and tickling my cheeks. Bryn bit her lip, equally blushed, and dipped her head underwater. I followed her down and met her open eyes beneath the surface. We looked at each other trying hard not to smile. Bubbles seeped from her nostrils like beads and I grabbed her face. I wanted to kiss the whole thing at once. I wanted to kiss through her. I wanted to live inside of her. But instead, I met her lips halfway in an embrace of hydrogen and carbon dioxide.
There is nothing left to resemble a suite. No bed frame, no dresser, no vanity mirror, no makeup set or perfume box resting on a counter below it. The room is a vacuum, its life, even its corpse, stripped away one year at a time by an insatiable ocean. I take out three meters of rope attached to my belt and tie the loose end to a latch on the door. I scan the room, taking in what little I can see. It appears large. I swim along the left wall, careful not to kick too wide; half a meter below me a thick sheet of silt covers the floor and setting it into motion would turn the little visibility I have to zero. As I swim I discover two portholes, which, at one point, strangely enough, used to welcome in the morning light and fill the room with warmth. By the furthest corner, on the wall perpendicular to the portholes, I see what little remains of a door. I assume it leads to what was once the bathroom, but I have no desire to enter just yet.
From this doorway I look back at the room and imagine a queen size bed resting against the right wall. It would've been the same set up as the apartment I shared with Bryn in Boston. Our bed was situated halfway between the bedroom and bathroom doors. When we would get ready for bed, Bryn would use the bathroom first. I imagined myself walking out of it having just brushed my teeth and washing my face. Bryn would be lying under the covers on her side facing me. Her eyes would be closed. I would walk to my side of the bed, which was closest to the bathroom, turn off my lamp, the last remaining source of light, and slip under the covers. No matter what little sound came from her, though, I would know she wasn't asleep. Never in the ten years we shared a bed did Bryn fall asleep before me and never did she wake up after. I consider myself a thinker; my thoughts have kept me awake many nights, but I couldn't say I was like Bryn.
As I progress through the room, something takes shape before my eyes. A sodden wood bar rests against the wall; it's carved into a swirl, like an old sleigh bed. I imagine that at one time it was painted gold. While moving past the frame I inhale and my BCD gargles a bit. I take it out and release a little air to purge whatever water had gotten in.
Bryn wasn't an insomniac because often she fell asleep quickly, just not as quickly as me. There existed in her mind a nervousness, she would at one time tell me, that came and rarely went away when we slept together. She would grow restless while I dosed off. On one of our last nights together she brought this up. She told me why she thought she could never sleep before me. She said that the effortlessness of my sleep told her body that something was wrong. Sleeping next to the one you love should be a challenge, she believed, a battle against your heart's desire to stay awake with that person forever. The absence of a challenge, she said, told her I couldn't be in love, which of course reaffirmed all the insecurities that I had been working to reverse. On this issue, like many others, Bryn lacked a certain sense of reason. I could never believe that sleep habits inform the state of love. However, as I look back now, hundreds of kilometers away and at least forty-two meters below her, I swallow a sharp truth.
She was right. The reason I wasn't challenged by love was not because love came easy; I wasn't challenged by love because I'm not sure it came at all. Certainly I loved Bryn some, enough to spend years doing everything in my power to convince her of such. But couldn't that just be a love of the mind? Couldn't that just be me convincing myself I was in love? I thought back to Sigel Hawley's chapter. Though it resonates with a truth more profound now than ever, I still hold the same hopeful stance on love as I did that day in the park.
I hug a pillow of air, giving it time to reach my extremities, to remind my fingers and toes that beyond the bitter cold that tenses their bones I am still alive. I bite down on my regulator, grind the rubber against my teeth, and look to the floor. I came here to dig through the silt, so, with five minutes remaining in my dive, I cup my first handful without stirring up the rest and watch it dissolve into a brown haze before my eyes. I grab onto the rope harnessed at my waist to be sure it's still there; soon the silt will plague my vision and I won't know up from down. This rope will take me home.
Holding myself up with one trembling arm, I pulled out from inside her and kissed her on the mouth. The sweat from Bryn's upper lip met my moustache like raindrops on a spider web. I took the condom off, tied it around my finger and got up to throw it away in the bathroom trash bin. On my way I glanced at the clock on the nightstand. It was seven fifty-three A.M., seven minutes before Bryn's alarm would sound. She would rush to the shower and throw her clothes on for work at the publishing house. Ever since I've known Bryn, she has always kept at least a dozen books on rotation. She can hold more narratives in her mind at one time than anyone else I know. Typically, the stack of reading material on her nightstand would include a mix of manuscripts from work, novels from her many book clubs and plenty of nonfiction, most recently books on American constitutional law. It used to bother me that she wouldn't commit to one book, but I never raised this qualm; after meeting Bryn, I didn't finish Love in the Time of Cholera for over a year and a half.
Bryn lay beside me wrapped in a calm. She wasn't one of those girls who needed time to get ready, or at least she didn't care for it. I, on the other hand, would take my time this morning because I had nowhere to be. I recently applied for a position at the Ship Signatures Division of the Naval Surface Warfare Center in West Bethesda and had no agenda until I heard back. I was eager to work with the Navy, to "run hydroacoustic measurements in the advancement of stealth technologies"; it would be a great departure from my past two years with Emerald Cruises.
In the bathroom I wet my face and forced a comb through my hair. I put on a pair of boxers and picked up my toothbrush. Bryn said something that I couldn't decipher through the running faucet.
"Honey?" I said, turning off the water.
"You don't have to kiss me, you know." I walked out of the bathroom holding the pasted brush.
"What d'you mean?"
"You don't have to kiss me when we're done." She sat up in bed covering her chest with the duvet cover.
"Why would you say that?" I knew where she was going with this but couldn't preempt her point.
"I just don't want you to feel like you need to kiss me to make me happy when you really just want to get up and go to the bathroom."
"What makes you think I don't want to kiss you?"
"I'm just saying, whether you want to our not, you don't have to." She kept her voice calm and her face expressionless.
"Jesus Christ, Bryn, if you're trying to make me feel bad about something at least tell me what it is." I took a step towards the bed, my toothbrush raised.
"Don't yell at me, Stephan."
"I'm not yelling. I'm just frustrated; I dunno what I'm doing wrong." In my mind I was loyal, loving, supportive, everything she could ask for. Bryn stared back at me.
"When was the last time you laid with me after sex?" She had turned stoic in her affects. There was no warble in her voice. Her neck was rigid, her head propped straight up like a statue, not at all crooked as if anxious for a response.
"Bryn." I let out a helpless laugh and turned away for a moment, running my hand through my hair. "First of all, no greater shift occurs, in all of human nature, than when a guy comes. That's just the way it is. He goes from wanting one thing to wanting something entirely different, like a cigarette, or a fuckin' ham and cheese. And--" Bryn opened her mouth to speak but I had to finish. "No, no. And--" I brought my voice down to reach her, "that says nothing about how I feel about you." Just when I thought I was done, I remembered my other thought. "AND, second of all, I do lay with you sometimes. You just only remember the times I don't." I would've been better off leaving out this last point, not because it wasn't true but because of the response it would stir in my her. She shot out of her stoicism into a looser, incendiary stance on her knees. She told me that I didn't love her, that the sooner I admitted it the sooner I could leave. Infuriated, I raised my arms, toothpaste flinging off the brush, and declared with a voice torn from my gut that I did love her and that if she couldn't believe that then it was she who had to leave.
I stood in the center of the room and she knelt on the bed. The sound of heavy breathing abraded against the silence between us.
"So this is what it feels like," Bryn murmured.
"What what feels like?"
"The turn." She was referring to Catherine Sigel Hawley's chapter, her reference in times of trouble. I remembered the section well.
There is a moment in every relationship when a shift occurs, whether it is a tremor, detectible only to those who are looking, or it is a cataclysm, a collision of tectonic plates, burying whatever once was with whatever now is. This shift, or, the turn, is the moment when everything changes, the moment, marked by a gradual degradation of emotion, or even by a sudden change in one's tone, which sets the relationship's course on an irreversible track separate from that, on which it began. The turn, I'm afraid, is the beginning of every end.
I thought the words through. I knew them well and respected them for the affect they had on her, but still couldn't buy into their meaning.
"Don't be ridiculous, Bryn. That's all in your head." After retreating to the bathroom, I heard her alarm ring through the door.
So long as I dig through the sediment I will be able to see nothing. In order to regain my vision I'll have to float without motion for at least a minute. This gives me roughly four minutes to run my hands through every corner of the room before my watch sounds. Relying only on my sense of touch, I remove my gloves and stow them in a zip-up pocket on my right thigh. As I begin along the wall furthest from the entrance, the last thing I see is a plume of dust rising from below. It swallows me whole and suddenly I'm afraid. I think about Bryn, the reason I'm here. If things could have gone how they should have, if I could have felt how I should have, could have acted how I should have, I wouldn't be here today. And we would be together.
I discovered a lot about myself after Bryn and I ended. I discovered that everything I disagreed with in The Impossibility of Love turned out to be my reality. I am Catherine's example; I am her evidence. While my mind, my gut, my spine, my kidneys, my liver, and my lungs were all convinced of love, my heart, the sovereign of this cursed land, refused to give its consent. My heart failed me. It gave out on me and it gave out on Bryn, impaled by fear or by doubt or by some worthless shade of gray. When a heart breaks, the cause is love, which is still warm and alive. But when a heart drowns, when it sinks in the night, the cause is ineluctable solitude; it is blank and it is cold. Every force in nature told me with the gravest certainty that Bryn was the love of my life except my heart, the only force with a say in the matter, which sat lifeless, half-buried at the bottom of an ocean. But like the devil it is, my heart only resurfaced once she left me. It's predictable and it's sad and it's the way things turned out. Suddenly I have it to follow and to go with, to listen to and to trust. Since it came back it's aim has been fierce. And so, here I am, folded in a fog so thick my heart struggles for direction and looking for something so impossible it struggles for hope.
As I enter blindly through the bathroom door, my hand grazes over something firm. I run my nail against it, unable to break anything off. I pull it out from the thicker silt compacted at the bottom and feel it from edge to edge. It's about a quarter meter long and fits well within my grip. The surface is coarse, bearing many craters. To my astonishment, I am clearly holding a human bone.
I feared the Dr.'s hand might crumble in my grip, but instead it slipped out intact, his slim fingers retreating back into his slacks. The man was around seventy; he was bald but had long, wiry hair in the back. He walked back to his desk like a younger man, though, and lowered himself into his chair in one, fluid motion. He gestured with his left hand for me to sit, and so I did. His desk was cluttered with papers and picture frames. Closest to me I noticed a clear paperweight, some small trophy and his name plaque, which read: DR. RICHARD HARRIS.
"Would you like a water bottle?" He pointed to a mini fridge a meter to his left. On top of it I noticed a photo of him and an elderly woman, presumably his wife, in a black frame with crystals engraved around the edges. Next to this was a small cactus sitting in a cream colored ceramic pot.
"That there's a rare breed," the man said, "it's called Miscellaneous Cactus." He began to laugh; his rosy cheeks nearly folded over his little, round eyes. "You know that's actually how it was labeled at the store. I bought it yesterday."
"Well, it's a nice cactus all the same," I said with a little laugh of my own.
"Mallery, Stephan Mallery."
"Right." His face fell back to a stare. "Anyway, Mr. Mallery, what brings you to my office? Or, back to McGill in general, I should say."
I had been thinking about my answer to this question the entire train ride, wondering how I would word what I had to ask the professor.
"Well, Sir. Basically I came here to ask you some things about a reading you once taught."
"Oh," his eyes brightened, "you were in one of my lectures?"
"No, actually. But my wife was. About a decade ago." I took a breath in with my mouth and let it out into words. "You taught a chapter called The Impossibility of Love from a book--"
"No," he replied without hesitation. I was bewildered. "Allow me to correct you. I taught an essay called The Impossibility of Love from a collection of essays."
"Oh, I'm sorry. I was just hoping to find some background information. I've looked in many libraries and can't find anything."
"And you won't." Dr. Harris scratched a gray patch in his beard. "Its circulation is very limited to this area."
"To this area?"
"To Quebec. It was written in Quebec City almost ninety years ago." I felt a warmth spread through my body. If the Dr. knew where the essay was written, he would know the answer to my question.
"Please, Dr. Harris," I stumbled over my words in anticipation, "what do you know of Catherine Sigel Hawley? And where can I find the other essays?"
In answer to these questions, Dr. Harris proceeded to tell me a story, which would forever alter the course of my life.
In the summer of 1883, at the age of twenty-three, Catherine Sigel Hawley, the youngest daughter of a wealthy English merchant, boarded a ship bound for Quebec City. She had planned on leaving London for years to escape the course of life her father had set for her and, in the night, without giving any word to her family or her arranged fiancé, she took to the sea.
Catherine planned on moving down to New York where she would settle to write her novel. However, she ran out of money soon after she arrived and was forced to work at a small paper mill in Quebec City. And it was there, on the cold factory grounds, that she met and fell in love with its owner, a man by the name of Benjamin Foster. Their relationship was tumultuous at best. He was a bachelor by nature, finding many occasions to break Catherine's heart, and she was a manic-depressive, giving him many reasons to do so. However, no matter how they struggled, the two could never remain separated for long. They married in the spring of 1887.
Over the course of the next twenty years, Benjamin's mill grew into the leading paper manufacturer in all of Quebec, affording them a life of luxury similar to the one she had run away from. Catherine never bore children, and kept in touch only with her closest sister, corresponding with her once every six months. In the fall of 1907, three months after her sister wrote, informing her that their father had died, Benjamin grew ill. In another month he passed. The loss of her husband tortured Catherine. Since the day he died she hardly left the house. She stopped writing to her sister; she communicated with no one. Five years later, Catherine emerged from her front door holding two hundred hand-written pages, divided into six essays exploring every corner of her views on the world's most elusive concept, "Love." She approached a local publisher, who immediately lauded the work. He offered her all he could to publish the collection, but she only allowed him one essay, "The Impossibility of Love." For some reason, Catherine grew increasingly determined to publish the entire collection in her home country. So, in the spring of 1914, Catherine reserved a suite on the Canadian Pacific Railway's first roundtrip voyage of the summer season. On Thursday, May 29th, carrying a briefcase and a thermos, Catherine boarded the Empress of Ireland.
Early that next morning, at 1:38 A.M., some twenty kilometers from Rimouski, a crewman reported the lights of an unidentified boat thirteen kilometers off the starboard bow. Captain Henry George Kendall coolly determined that the oncoming ship would pass with a safe distance on their starboard side. He grew nervous, however, moments later, when a deep fog rolled over the St. Lawrence River, engulfing both ships. At this time, Catherine was surely sound asleep in her room. Captain Kendall ordered the Empress to a halt as a safety precaution until the other ship passed. The passing ship was a collier by the name of Storstad. It carried 7,000 kilograms of coal from Cape Breton Island to Montreal. The ship's Chief Officer, Alfred Toftenes, also ordered his ship to stop. However, the Storstad couldn't come to an immediate halt and continued forward. Then Toftenes, fearing he was losing steering control in the current, decided to turn slightly starboard, sounding a long cry of the whistle.
At 1:53 A.M., Captain Kendall watched in horror as the chiseled bow of the Storstad emerged from the fog heading straight into the Empress of Ireland's starboard flank. He immediately demanded "full steam ahead," but it was too late; a collision was inevitable.
At 1:55 A.M., the Storstad cut through the Empress's engine room so smoothly most of the passengers hardly noticed. However, the impact couldn't have been more devastating. The Storstad pierced her through the heart; it took only fourteen minutes for the ship to sink. 1,012 of 1,580 lives were lost in that time.
A month following the shipwreck, an American salvage team began exploring the wreck for bodies and artifacts. However, their effort ended shortly after it began when one diver met his fate exploring the wreck. Catherine Sigel Hawley's body, along with her case, carrying the only copy of her manuscript, was never found.
Dr. Harris leaned back in his chair. I sat at the edge of mine, my knuckles in between my teeth.
"How about that?" He grinned.
"You didn't tell this story to your class?" I was stupefied.
"I didn't know the story then. A great nephew of Benjamin Foster's learned that I taught the essay and approached me a few years ago." I looked out the window, my mouth agape. The sky was brilliant. He had a view of one maple tree, which stood emboldened in the light. "You know, son, I have to ask you. What made you want to hear this story?" I didn't hear a word he said; my mind was busy arranging the next few years of my life. He repeated himself.
I told the Professor that my wife left me a few months ago and that, ever since, I have developed a growing obsession with The Impossibility of Love, with understanding it, and with discovering the remaining chapters. I told him that the rest of the collection could save my life. If only I could know what else she had to say about love, I might be able to better understand myself and maybe even find it--find love again. I told him I was going to recover the manuscript.
"Be sure to let me know when you do!" Dr. Harris roared.
His response didn't matter to me; he had laid out my future without even realizing it. I knew it was possible to salvage the document so long as it was in that thermos. No one could stop me from searching.
I stood up from my chair, took the Dr.'s hand and thanked him for his help. I was headed to Rimouski. However, as I reached for the door, I heard the Dr. clear his throat.
"You know if it's a love story you're looking for. You should try Garcia Marquez, Love in the Time of Cholera; it's one of the all-time greatest." I turned towards the Dr., unable to hold back a smile.
"I've read it. There's no love in that."
In the following strokes I discover many more bones. When I reach the corner of the bathroom, I funnel my right hand deep into the silt and lift out a skull. I trace the contours of its cheekbone with my fingers. I can't say why, but I know it's hers. I'm convinced that, at long last, I am in Catherine's tomb. And if this is where she died, then this must be where her case remains. My heart pounds through my chest. I'm so near to finding the document, which, not only could bring me back my wife, but could also serve the world. The world needs this as much as I do, I decide. As I turn to sift through more sediment, though, my clock goes off.
With no time to wait for the silt to settle, I reach for my rope. It's not there. My harness is still fastened but the rope's not there. A billowing panic surges up my spine and wraps around my throat. Suddenly I have to gag. I spit out my regulator and heave, accidentally gulping in a mouthful of seawater, which forces me to cough violently. I put my regulator back in and take a deep breath, focusing all my attention on the bubbles. I can get out without the rope. I can do that.
I take a quick swim around the bathroom with my hand against the wall until I find the door. Visibility in the main bedroom is hardly existent and, in a state of alarm, I kick hard enough upon entering that all the silt that did settle clouds up again. I am lost now in the storm with nothing to guide me out. I know that, at this point, I have depleted my initial air supply; I am using my reserved air, which is about 1,000 lbs, only enough to make it back if I shorten my second decompression stop by a minute or two.
By some stroke of grace, though, the visibility returns just enough for my headlight to reveal the faint outline of a door. I line my body with it and kick hard. Before I realize that I'm swimming too high towards the door, the top of my tanks collide into the steel frame, sending a quake so fierce through my body that my back cracks in two locations. The impact also loosens my in-line air pressure valve, which sends my reserve air gushing through my regulator so fast the resistance knocks it out of my mouth. I reach my hands around to feel for the valve as my regulator flails like a snake's tail. The valve is not only loose but also bent out of shape. This shouldn't be possible, though, for the impact to do such damage. I have no time, however, to wonder what went wrong. Halfway through the door to the hallway, a quarter of the way to getting beyond the vent, and a sixth of the way to getting free from the ship, I pull, with all my might, on the valve. And after a few moments, just as I run out of breath, I bend it back and tighten down. I grab my regulator and place it back in my mouth, taking the greatest breath of my life.
I squeeze past the electrical room door without taking off my BCD and waste no time wrangling myself through the corroded wires. When I reach the entrance to the vent, I realize on my next inhale the true horror of my reality.
My breathing feels restricted. I look at my pressure gauge. I am entirely out of air. With a few breaths remaining, all I can think is that I must make it through the vent; I can't die below. Beginning to exhale, I start up the chamber, kicking slowly but with great force. Fortunately, the way up offers fewer obstacles so I'm able to surface into the hallway on that breath. It's not until I arrive into the open and breathe in that I realize I am inhaling the last breath of my life. I take it in slowly, not by choice, but because the pressure's too great to swallow more. I feel like I'm stomping out the absolute last touch of toothpaste from a tube I never dreamed would run out. My mask begins to fill with tears even before I'm done inhaling. To think that I won't have the chance to see Bryn again and that she most likely won't even know what I died for fills me with a pain so jarring that collapsing lungs cannot compare.
Fortunately, the point, at which I can suck no more air from my tanks corresponds to the point, at which my lungs reach capacity. Full of oxygen, I relax my muscles and sink to the floor, enjoying the last time my body will rest satiated. I focus on the phenomenology of holding a full breath of air. Everything slows down for the first few moments; everything settles into place. I notice a force pushing my body forward, similar to the swinging sensation I used to enjoy lying in bed as a child, only this is slower and more graceful. I don't actually move forward though. Perhaps it is just my soul leaning against my body.
Bryn holds my hand. We are in the same hallway; only it looks the way I imagined it would before the Empress sunk. The red carpet leaps off the floor, the yellow lacquer bounces off the walls and the blue door at the end of the hall rushes outwards. The three colors meet, forming a luminous prism before our eyes. Bryn looks at me and laughs. The gleam I feel in my chest begins to sink, tugging on my shoulders, ribs, and spine. My air is expiring.
Whatever was once light in my body now turns more towards darkness with every passing second. My insides feel like they're shrinking; my atom's apple wants to fall from its perch, my heart dangles from its throne.
One Minute, Ten Seconds
I find myself pounding my fists against the wall behind me at the pace of my heartbeat. Each beat grows heavier, yanking on my chest with more force until eventually it caves and my heart falls to my guts. I clench my fists so tight my nails pierce my palms. Any other pain is a relief. I begin stretching my lungs out, simulating inhalation; this bides me some time.
One Minute, Thirty Seconds
The pain is so excruciating I can no longer keep control over my body. Soon my mind will flee from my grasp like an untied balloon and flutter into oblivion. When this happens, I'll breathe in deep, and that'll be it.
One Minute, Forty-Two Seconds
Already foreign to my own body, I begin to flail uncontrollably, excreting every last ounce of will I have not to take that breath. But, at last, I do. Water rushes into my lungs, but they don't feel like my lungs anymore; I'm no longer invested in them.
One Minute, Forty-Three Seconds
The water isn't the enemy after all. Immediately once it enters my lungs it becomes a part of me. It seeps so deep it wets my soul. I slip into a calm unlike any I have felt before. My vision begins to turn blue, but not light blue like the sky or dark blue like the ocean, just "blue" like sapphire and artificial like dye.
One Minute, Fifty Seconds
I sit at our breakfast table. The midmorning light shines in through the trees. I keep the direct light from my book because it hurts my eyes, but let it sit on my bare shoulder. Ironically, every couple of minutes, the warmth sends a chill through my body. I'll be done with my book by the time Bryn gets out of the shower. Florentino Ariza and Fermina Daza have finally come together at the end of their lives, but it is too late. They float on a riverboat between two lands they can't go back to, suspended in a synthetic eternity.
I stare blankly at the last page before setting the book down. I'm conflicted. On the one hand, the closing pages comfort me. I cling to their warmth like brittle hands stretched into bathwater. But, on the other hand, I feel empty; the book, a negative developing for months in my mind, turns up a blank print. I can't shake this disappointment in myself; I'm numb to a beautiful text and I can't tell why. The best books can't hand it over just-like-that, I guess.
The bathroom door swings open so I turn my head to see Bryn. She stands in the doorway with one towel around her chest and another rolled around her head. She stretches her arms to the ceiling and lets out a sigh. Bryn take two steps forward, looks into my eyes and smiles. This one does fill a lifetime.
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