Breaking Away

Her mother’s words echoed in her head like a voice in a cave. “You’re good for nothing . . . , nothiinn . . . , thiinn . . . .” Her fingers curled into a tight fist, teeth clenched inside a locked jaw. She wanted to cry, to tell her, “That’s not true.” Instead she fronted a stone face that fought hard to suppress tears and ran to her room. A three-by-two-foot aquarium with three fish in it sat on top of Melinda’s commode, next to the television. It had three fish in it—an angelfish, a rainbow fish, and a guppy. She knew each fish by its scientific name, had studied its habitat and habit and had built a reef around them complete with pebbles, coral, and shells. She made sure to change the water and filter regularly, to clean the glass inside and out and not to overfeed the fish. She spent hours of solitude watching the fish swim in the small tank—round and round they went, sometimes forming circles around each other, sometimes pecking at the dead coral.

She stood in front of the aquarium and watched the three fish in it swim freely among the coral in the pebbly bottom, with no one telling them they’re good for nothing. “. . . nothinnn . . . thiinn . . . ” The echo subsided. She wished she could swim with the fish and feel the water massage her body far away from the sound of reproving human voices. She put on a DVD from her Jacques Cousteau collection and submersed herself in the world of plants swaying with the currents and fish weaving in and out of them at will. One day I’ll swim among them.

Soon after she graduated from high school, she had her car tuned up and bought new tires. She packed some summer clothes, her fish tank, and DVD collection. She was going to California. Was a career in scuba diving her dream or was it just a notional escape? The question would forever haunt her unless she tried it.

“What you gonna do in California that you can’t do here?” her mother asked.

Melinda didn’t want to tell her that she was going to learn scuba diving. She couldn’t bear to hear her laugh.

“I’ll find something.”

“You better call me.”

“I will.” She put her car in drive and did not look back.

Melinda rented a one room apartment in Venice, two blocks from the beach. The place was noisy—cars screeched to a stop outside her window, music blared from the T-shirt shop on the street, and pedestrians strolled with boom boxes attached to their hands. But the apartment was cheap, and she could walk to work at the flower shop, where she learned to arrange beautiful bouquets for weddings and wreaths for funerals. She marveled at how much beauty there was on both occasions: one joyous and full of promise, the other somber and marking an end. Both floral arrangements fit her mood—a part of her looked forward while another part had expired.

There were many days when unsold flowers were sent to the waste bin. What a pity to throw away such beauty, she thought. They still have a couple of days of bloom in them before they wither and die. One day she found calla lilies, white daisies, blood-red roses, white mums, and purple carnations among the discards. They all looked perfectly good, and she could not bring herself to throw them away. She decided to make a wedding bouquet from the lilies and daisies and a funeral wreath from the roses, mums, and carnations. When she was done, she locked the shop and took the floral arrangements home. She put the bouquet in the refrigerator and left the wreath in the car. She walked to the Venice Pier Beach and walked to the end with the funereal arrangement in hand. The shops had closed for the night and the pedestrian path, with all its street vendors and performers, was eerily dark and silent. A crescent moon shined bright above the pier, casting shimmers in the undulating water below. She walked, reef in hand, with purpose, to the end of the Pier. A few anglers leaned against the railing to the right and left, with and ever slight up and down motion of the hand. They looked at her with mild curiosity and then returned to their fishing. At the end of the pier, she leaned over the railing and threw the funereal wreath to the sea.  “Goodbye, good for nothing.” She rested her arms on the pier and watched the wreath bobbing up and down with the wave until it disappeared.

 

When she opened the refrigerator the following morning, the wedding bouquet greeted her with its scent and beauty.

“Today we begin,” she said to the flowers. She drove to the local dive shop and signed up for classes.

The instructor was an older man, a science teacher by day. Lessons began in the swimming pool of the YMCA and ended with weekend field trips by boat to swim in the kelp beds wearing full gear. She was not a good swimmer and struggled to keep up with her classmates. She wished she could call home to hear some supporting words, but knew her mother’s habit of quashing dreams. “Now that you’re working, you can start paying your way,” her mother had said when Melinda got her first job at the local diner. “Fifty dollars a week.”

“I want to save up for a car.”

“So you can cruise with your friends at all hours of the night?”

“No. Sometimes I have to work ‘til closing, and I don’t like to walk home that late.”

“Fine. Forty dollars a week.”

“Twenty-five.”

“Thirty.” Melinda was hoping to have enough money saved up after high school to be able to get away.

The music from a boom box outside her window brought her back to the present.

“I can do this,” she said to herself.

Three times a week, for the next six weeks, she went to the Y. She dove into the deep end of the pool wearing the air tank, flippers, goggles, and snorkel. She swam under water, back and forth the length of the pool, checking her pressure gauge, clearing her mask, and always lagging behind her classmates.

On her first ocean dive, she let gravity pull her body off the boat, back first, in the fetal position. The cold Pacific Ocean shocked her, and she wouldn’t let go of her bent knees.

She had dipped her feet in the water of Venice Beach many times before, trying to muster the courage to submerse completely; but she couldn’t adjust to the cold. This time she thought that the wetsuit would protect her.

“It’s just an initial shock,” the instructor assured her. “Your body temperature will warm the water inside your wetsuit in seconds.”

He was right. When she stopped shivering, she looked around. The water was calm, and she was bobbing up and down with the roll of the waves. She felt weightless despite a weight belt and a full air tank on her back.

“The water here is thirty feet deep so check your gauges and stay in sight of your buddy.” The instructor locked the mouthpiece inside his lips and led the way down.

Giant kelp rose to the surface from a sandy bottom, its fronds swaying to and fro in a rhythmic dance with the currents. And there was Melinda swimming in the company of golden Garibaldi and rockfish. The silence was marred only by the sound of the breathing bubbles rising to the surface in a crystalline dance and the clicking of her equipment in sync with the beating of her heart. She could have swum forever, but the instructor signaled it was time to surface.

The second dive was from the beach. Timing was everything. She had to catch the wave at the perfect moment to avoid being crushed against the sandy bottom. Missing that, she would have to time the next set of waves, while her classmates waited for her on the far side of the breaker. Melinda stood waist deep in the water counting the waves in a set between each lull, the ideal time to swim out before the next set, dive under it, and resurface at the far side. Seven sets of waves rolled by her before she roused enough courage to plunge into the breaker. The wave crashed further out than she had calculated, and she was caught in the foaming fury that rolled her back onto the sand like a piece of flotsam. The instructor caught a wave back to reach her.

“How you doing?”

“Humiliated. Everybody made it to the other side except me.”

“Give me your hand. We’ll do it together.”

Hand in hand, they shuffled backwards to where the water broke. They turned to face the oncoming waves and began the count.

“When I say ‘Now,’ take a couple of deep breaths, raise your arms above your head, and nose dive deep under the breaker. Concentrate on your breathing and the rhythm of the waves. Ready?”

“Ready.”

“Now.”

Melinda took a final deep breath, bit on the regulator mouthpiece, and lunged forward and down. The surf rolled over her, and she found herself bobbing in the womb of a swell. Above her, she could see the finned feet in scissors motion of her diving buddies as they treaded water. She surfaced among them embarrassed and apologetic.

“Fantastic!” said one of them.

“That was awesome!” said another.

“Let’s go,” said the instructor. The students kicked their fins in the air and disappeared in the ocean.

Melinda struggled to keep up with them. Her buddy slowed his pace to be by her side and occasionally gave her a thumb up. At times he pointed down to an abalone shell or to an eel behind a rock. Sea urchins were everywhere. A school of silvery fish passed her by, ignoring her intrusion into their world. She was at peace in this environment and slowed her pace even further to take in every inch of her surroundings.

 

Three more dives followed and her swimming improved each time, but she was still the last one in the group.

Then came the written test. She hadn’t studied the decompression tables nor done the exercises to calculate the safe ascent rate to avoid “the bends”—the intoxicating effect of narcosis that is the bane of many divers.

“You need to take the class again,” the instructor told her.

“You mean I failed?”

“There’s no such thing as failure. There is trying out something and learning that it isn’t for you. There is giving up, and there is perseverance. You aced the written part, but you need to become a stronger swimmer. My next class will begin Monday. Will I see you there?”

“I passed the written part?”

“Ninety-five percent.”

“I’ll be there.”

Again, she began swimming with diving equipment at the Y. Then came the first dive off the boat followed by the more daunting dive from the beach. The surf was more menacing this time, still she managed to surface on the far side of the breaker together with her buddies; but she lost the goggles in the process and couldn’t continue the dive. She swam back to the beach and waited.

At the end of the class, the instructor informed her that she had made great progress but needed to keep trying.

“What for? I’m good for nothing.” Nothinn . . . thinn . . . thiinn …

“Are you going to quit or are you coming back for another try?” The instructor silenced the echo.

“I’ll be there.” Silence trailed her voice.

Melinda returned to the Y for her swimming practice followed by the series of required dives. She had mastered the dive off the boat, where the waves rocked her like a baby in a cradle. The dive from the beach, however, continued to be a challenge. The surf seemed to gain fury with each dive, as if determined to remain unconquered. Melinda was waist deep in the water, facing the advancing breaker that gained strength as it came closer. She took a deep breath. The crest rose high. She arched her body, arms out front, and launched into the trough. She surfaced on the far side of the crest and watched the wave roll away, yielding its power as it approached the beach.

“That was awesome!” she shouted.

“Good dive,” said the instructor. Back at the dive shop, he presented her with the diving certificate.

“I can’t believe I did it!”

“You have a strong will. You can do anything you put your mind to.”

That evening, she wasn’t bothered by the cacophony of nightlife outside her window. The instructor’s words echoed in her head, “Strong will…anything you put your mind to…”

“I can do this,” she repeated to herself.  She saw a future flash in front of her. She’ll become a diving instructor; she’ll study the ocean, become an oceanographer; she’ll study marine ecology. The opportunities were plenty.  She called her mother. “Mom, I’m a certified scuba diver.”

“What’s the good of that?”

“I just wanted you to know. I’m gonna continue with my classes to become a professional diver.”

“You mean like a Coast Guard?”

“Could be.”

“Maybe some military discipline will put some sense into you.”

“It’s what I want, Mom.”

“You’re stubborn enough to succeed,” was as close as her mother could get to wishing her daughter well.

“No, Mom. I have a strong will.”

 

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