I once got lost in a forest at the bottom of the sea. That’s what I told Suzanne, my therapist, but she didn’t believe me. She gave me that look of hers which always made me feel like a little girl, a lying little girl, a bad little lying girl in need of a scolding. “Seriously,” I said, retreating into the protective breast of her couch. “It’s true.”
Suzanne pondered this and then her expression opened up like a baby bird’s beak: feed me your life, your lies, your secrets, and your worms for dessert.
And so, I began again.
I once got lost in a forest at the bottom of the sea. Perhaps lost is too strong a word. What does it mean to be lost? If you forget for a moment whose bed you’re in when you wake up, are you lost? If you take the wrong exit and end up on a foreign highway, are you lost then? What if you choose not to go in the direction everyone you know is going? Are you lost or are they?
“Carmen, I need you to focus.” Suzanne wrote something detailed down on the clipboard she always kept balanced on her thin knees. She was a Freudian. Had I known it at the start, I’d never have chosen her. On her website she only said that she specialized in cross-cultural issues. And here I thought my left eye had started twitching because I hated my job, because I felt burnt out; it hadn’t occurred to me that perhaps I needed treatment for being brown. When I saw the pictures of her office — a condo perched high above Stanley Park, glass walls revealing the Lost Lagoon below — it became clear to me that yes, yes I did.
“Sure, sure, I just need to make a quick note,” I lied. Every Saturday morning at the start of my session, Suzanne would hand me a small square pad of yellow sticky paper on which to record my insights. Whenever she scribbled something, my hand would follow hers vindictively. I figured that way she couldn’t be sure if she’d had an original thought — maybe I’d written down the same thing— or maybe she’d wonder if I was documenting the odd pearly sheen of her skin, or the way her brittle red hair haloed around her head in ripples.
“Go ahead, Carmen, finish your story. I think there’s a lot to work with here.”
Well, so, and, I once got lost in a forest at the bottom of the sea. I told Suzanne about the rockfish that I’d been staring at, mesmerized. I told her about its hideous, glum face. Those thick lips in a perpetual pre-historic pout. If I were to be glib, if I were more facetious a person, one of those self-deprecating personalities you often hear about in admiring tones, I’d have said that gazing at that rockfish was like looking into a mirror. But that’s too close to the truth to be joked about. Deep, deep down in the depths of my mind, I’m convinced I look a lot like that fish — my skin as scaled, my features as bulbous and droopy, the warped shape of my body jagged, offensive. I didn’t say that to Suzanne. Anyway, I’m sure she was thinking that I harbored some corrupt love for the rockfish, which symbolized my father. Or, probably, that everything, all of this, was because my mother is a fish.
There were seven of us on that dive — me, my assigned ‘dive buddy’ Paisley (a recent divorcée from Vancouver), an Irish couple, two teenaged boys from Nanaimo, and an old balding jock named Kevin, who was our guide. They were all nearby admiring some unfathomably shaped sea slug. But I felt my heart unfurl at the sight of this solitary rockfish nibbling at a pale plant on the seafloor. We were diving at a depth of ten meters where the water’s immense weight extinguishes the color red. If I hadn’t known this, I’d have thought the rockfish was truly mud brown and not a brilliant vermillion, like the first drop of blood that rises out of a cut.
The group flippered away, but I, transfixed, thought Paisley was still with me.
“Did you really think she was there, Carmen? Or is it possible you knew you were getting yourself into a dangerous situation?”
Oh, Suzanne! Mine were the only set of bubbles to be seen. They fell upwards from my mouthpiece like silver dollars in a world reversed. “But I thought she was just on the other side of this rock formation. I never thought she’d leave me.”
Suzanne scribbled something down and so did I.
I wrote: Suzanne scribbles something down and so do I. I imagined stretching the yellow pad of paper out like an accordion, writing that same little message in progressively smaller print. Then I would mail it to her, or string it up like bunting along the hallway to her door. Just as a joke. To be funny.
Perhaps I did know Paisley had left. It’s possible. But I remember being lost in thought, contemplating what Kevin, our guide, had said on the boat ride over: that the rockfish can live to 200 years old. Some had swum these very waters while the first peoples still ruled. They’d been around before the Europeans settled the land, before the land was baptized British Columbia.
“Rockfish are pretty tasty too,” he’d said. “Ever hear of red snapper?”
“Yeah, eat the witnesses,” I’d replied, and both he and Paisley turned to frown at me.
It was probably Kevin I was avoiding. I preferred to keep my distance from him after our dive the day before. The sea had been twelve degrees and the air even colder. We were waiting on the surface for a long time, treading water, while Paisley fixed her equipment. By the time we were about to descend, I was so cold I couldn’t feel my face. My mouth could barely hold the regulator, which connected to my oxygen tank.
“My lips are numb,” I said to him.
“Go on,” he replied, a trite twinkle in his eye. “Just pretend you’re giving a blow job.”
Suzanne sighed in solidarity.
I sighed too.
It’s disconcerting to breathe air on the seafloor. At times it’s easy to forget you’re alive down there. What if heaven is really a blue womb? On occasion, there’s nothing but blue to be seen in any direction — up or down, east or west— nothing but a blue so persistent you cease to see it. Like air.
“You’re getting off track, Carmen.” Suzanne’s red halo, her pearly skin, her windows, her views — together they created an otherworldly aura that kept me dredging up my secrets and signing cheques.
The rockfish swam away. I followed, but soon I lost it. Blue inundated my ears. Blue soaked my retinas. A current decided for me, and within moments, I can’t say how long, there were only leaves, swaying greenish brown leaves. I remember the pushing pulling tide streaming along my wetsuited bones. A rhythm that made me think, not of the heartbeat, but of invisible endless motion. To be lost in a forest at the bottom of the sea is to be lost in eternity.
“Tell me exactly what you were thinking then.”
“I’m not sure.”
When your mind stops working, doesn’t the world disappear? Maybe I considered following the stalks up to the overworld. My brain wasn’t quite able to process, though, as was often the case in those days, unable to form sentences when with colleagues, with new friends, with old friends, or with anyone really, unable to relax, trapped by the unstoppable, terrifying force of being.
Better to stay. My oxygen tank would run out within the hour. Perhaps, it would feel like a mother rocking you to sleep.
Suzanne inched forward on her chair. “Well, what did you do?”
“It’s kind of weird.”
She nodded her encouragement, without judgment, with tender patient blankness. When I first started seeing Suzanne I mistook that look for the neutrality of love. Only afterwards, when I tallied my month’s expenses, did I recall that hers was the neutrality of $145 an hour.
“It scares me to think about it, so I don’t, and I haven’t. Not since.”
“Now’s the time, Carmen.”
I looked around at her bright office, through to the other side of the glass where the world was a vibrant aquarium. “I think, for a moment, I stopped being human.”
I had won.
I was one — a whale, a merganser, a clear pulsating jellyfish — free from the noise of my tyrannical human mind. Amidst the kelp, I had ten, five hundred, a thousand dance partners, long and lean of torso, nimble of waist. In silence they bent and caressed. I responded with my own sea lion movements — I swam up on a diagonal, twirled, and shot back through the blue space between the stalks, my arms snaking in slow wild formations, my fingers flitting and puckering like a joyous anemone. I somersaulted and stretched out straight so that I was a candle, my fins a wick, and when I tired, I paused upside down, bobbing like a cork, letting the many green hands guide me.
It didn’t last long. Soon I noticed my obnoxious breathing. A ventilator. Darth Vader. I was again an unnatural, unwanted visitor, and the kelp, infinitely polite, ushered me to a clearing where a familiar troupe of begoggled aquanauts swam around anxiously, their arms crossed tight against their chests. They pointed when they spotted me, their gloved hands tangling in their tubing, their bubbles growing thick overhead. All of them spoke to me at once in our underwater language — tip of the thumb and index finger pressed together. OK?
Back on the boat, my own warm salt water leaked from my eyes and into the corners of my cold pickled lips, but not out of anguish. The fresh moist air, dense with cedar and sea, tingled inside my skin. Kevin brought me blankets. Paisley fed me watermelon slices, sugar cookies, and tea. Everyone seemed suspended in a spell of frantic excitement, unable to stop recounting what they’d thought and how they’d responded. While I, for a few fleeting moments, felt like I finally belonged on the earth.
I stopped seeing Suzanne shortly after that session. But first I took her suggestion and drew a picture of the self I was afraid of — that scowling monstrous bottom-dweller. I sketched the creature onto a Post-it note. She was kind of cute. I stuck her to Suzanne’s last cheque and slipped them both into the little silver mailbox.
Mally Zelaya is a Canadian writer hailing from El Salvador by way of Mexico with a long stop in Winnipeg. Inspired by global interconnections, her fiction explores intersectional identities and decolonization through a transnational lens. She’s a graduate of the Rutgers-Newark MFA program, the Banff Centre for the Arts Emerging Writers program, and she’s currently a mentee in the Diaspora Dialogues Mentorship Program. Her non-fiction writing has appeared in the Guardian, Cosmopolitan UK, Al-Jazeera America, and the Christian Science Monitor.
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