Life Buddies

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Written by: mestrin

Will I survive paradise? The question enters my mind our first day on Kauai, when we pop into a dive shop called Snorkel Bob's, rent fins and masks, and on a whim, ask about a scuba lesson for later that week. To clinch the deal, the salesman offers a second dive for half price. Not that Christina needs an incentive. Her passion for adventure is matched only by my anxiety.

"Why not?" Christina asks.

As far as I'm concerned, Christina answers her own question. I know humans can survive under the ocean, but I'm no Jacques Cousteau. Heck, I'm not even Snorkel Bob. I'm anxious even in calm situations and panicky when out of my element. Diving sounds terrifying.

But I don't say anything. We book two dives. For the next five days, we snorkel alongside sea turtles, snooze on empty beaches where the jungle meets the ocean, and feast on poke. Kauai's rustic beauty and low-key vibe sooth my nerves. Christina notices.

"I've never seen you this relaxed," she says as we watch the sun set on another day in paradise.

The next morning, it's a different story. We rise early, eat, then drive to Poipu to meet our diving instructor. Like the sea, I'm calm on the surface, but beneath I'm a swirling cauldron of fear.

By the water's edge, our instructor, Paul, runs through the basics. I'm too nervous to process Paul's lesson. Instructions that sound life or death—like how to breathe through the regulator—occupy my mental real estate. Everything else—like how to clear your mask underwater so the pressure doesn't build up and cause a massive headache—sails right by me.

"Let's go," Paul says.

Christina looks confident in her wetsuit and scuba gear, as if the ocean sent her an engraved invitation to dive deep and explore its secrets. My secret is that I feel like a fish out of water. My gear is as much a mystery to me as the ocean floor, and I just want to get it over with.

To reach the bottom, Paul adds weight to our belts. This is because humans are naturally buoyant. Our bodies don't want us to dive. My body is especially resistant, so Paul adds more weight. Christina descends like a pro.

Eventually, we reach bottom. There, two thoughts collide. On the one hand, I feel claustrophobic. Each breathe sounds like Darth Vader, only instead of a steady mechanical rhythm, my breathing is panicky because each inhale/exhale sounds like the walls are closing in.

On the other hand, I feel agoraphobic—a solitary diver alone in a giant ocean.

Except, I'm not alone. Through a cloud of oxygen bubbles, I see Christina give Paul the "OK" sign. Then, Paul swims to me. His hand signals are deliberate. He's asking if I'm OK. I'm trying not to panic, trying to remember the lesson. I give Paul a thumbs up, which actually means I want to ascend. Paul flashes more hand signals. I realize my mistake. I flash the "OK" sign.

Paul swims away. Christina follows. I start to swim, then freeze. A skin diver with a spear gun cuts in front of me. I try to speak. Then I realize that under water, nobody can hear you scream.

If I could talk, I'd tell Christina about my anxiety. Honesty is the key to marriage. But I don't know much about marriage yet. We are newlyweds. We came to Kauai on our first anniversary. We were supposed to come here on our honeymoon, but I broke my ankle on our wedding night. This trip is a second chance. We vowed to love each other in sickness and health, but mostly it's been sickness—surgery, months of couch-bound agony and self-pity, followed by more months of painful physical therapy. I didn't voice my fears in the dive shop because I didn't want to disappoint Christina. Actually, I didn't want to ruin a second honeymoon.

We spend an eternity under the water. Paul points out bright schools of fish that move in unison like synchronized dancers. Christina marvels at the coral—neon orange tangles of life clinging to the ocean floor. I stick close, focus on my breathing. I endure the headache from the pressure building on my mask. Paul taught us how to release the pressure under water without flooding the mask, but I'm sketchy on the details and too afraid to try.

Finally, Paul flashes a thumbs-up. Time to surface. Hallelujah!

Paul removes the weight, and we float/swim to the surface. My ears pop. I break through the water-line. I rip off my mask. A giant sucking sound accompanies the release of pressure. I spit out my regulator, taste real air. I've made it. Then, I begin to sink.

Salt water floods my mouth. I kick hard, push myself up. Paul yells something I can't hear.

I skink again.

More salt water.

More kicking.

Gasping for air.




I'm fighting for my life.

But I don't die. Christina saves me. She swims to me, calmly presses the inflate button on my suit. Paul told us to do this. At the surface, our empty tanks make us too heavy to float.

Now, I'm floating. I taste the salty air on my lips, feel the sun on my face. Christina cradles me in her arms.

"That was awesome!" Christina tells Paul when we're back on land.

"Ready to go again?"

I can tell Christina loved it. I'm just happy it's over. I don't even care about the dented red line across my forehead where the mask suctioned to my face.

"We're going to pass," Christina says without asking me.

Paul looks confused. We've paid for two dives. There are no refunds.

"That's OK," Christina says. "We're going to get lunch. I'm starving. Don't worry about the money. We had a great time."

The excuse is a small kindness, the type I grow more grateful for with each year together. Yes, honesty is the key to marriage. But as we eat lunch at a nearby burger joint and I explain my fear, my anxiety, and how most of all I didn't want to ruin our second chance at a honeymoon, Christina listens with an open heart. Then she coins a term to describe our marriage, one we use to this day: life buddies. Just like with a diving buddy, a life buddy is someone who understands you even when you can't speak.

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