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Published: Sun Jul 1 2007
Salman Toor, The Inheritors (detail), 2022. Courtesy of the artist and Luhring Augustine, N.Y. Photo: Farzad Owrang.
Open Water

Underwater, there are many ways to die. This was the first thing I learned. Today we are doing our safety checks. The scuba instructor points to the board, he goes down the list, nitrogen narcosis, he says, carbon monoxide poisoning, hypothermia, air embolisms, the bends, blackouts. My son suffocated in the womb. The cord was stretched too tight and he died. I have a pain in my ears every time I dive. I can’t go past ten feet without feeling the pressure in my head. The doctors say that in the womb babies learn to breathe liquid before they learn to breathe air. I think it’s beautiful to think of my son this way.


“I’m glad I’m with you,” Janice says. She is taking the class for her husband. He’s dead too, passed away in his sleep after thirty years of marriage, two daughters, and a promised honeymoon in Tahiti that never came. Janice is my buddy. Everyone has one, even the instructor. We stick together, rehearsing dive drills in pairs.

We learn to clear our snorkels, swimming in circles around the Portland community pool. Janice gives me the thumbs up, we haven’t learned this yet, but I understand she is having fun.

The instructor keeps telling us to equalize our ears. He says that we should hear a slight popping sound, like air escaping. I haven’t heard it yet. I keep trying, pinching my nose closed and blowing, feeling the air building in my eardrums. Janice gives me the thumbs up again, but all I can do is shake my head and keep trying. I feel the blood reddening my face, and the pressure in my ears growing. “Don’t worry,” Janice says afterwards, “you’ll get it.”


“Imagine an old time dive suit,” our doctor said. I pictured the sponge divers my mother used to tell me about in the Gulf, the bulbous, metal heads, the waxed canvas suits. The doctor pointed to our ultrasound. My wife, Claire, leaned in closer to look at the thin line of the umbilical cord. “Everything the baby needs goes through the cord here.” The doctor pointed to the cord, tracing it with his finger.

The screen showed how the cord was twisted around our baby’s body. “Should we be worried?” I asked.

“At this stage,” the doctor said, “the cord gets wrapped around the baby frequently, and unwraps just as frequently.”

I had my hand on Claire’s shoulder and I gave her a squeeze.

“The cord and the baby are just floating around in the uterus, twisting and untwisting,” the doctor said, moving his eyes over us and then back to the ultrasound. “There’s nothing that can be done. It’s normal.”


We practice buoyancy control in our fourth class. The instructor has told us that when we learn to be neutrally buoyant, we should feel like we’re floating in space. Janice shoots me a sly grin. “I’ve always wanted to take a trip to outer space,” she whispers.

I imagine myself floating around in the water, feeling neither weight nor pressure, feeling nothing but the push and pull of the current.

We all get in the pool and watch the instructor inflate and deflate his BC, his buoyancy compensator, filling his dive vest with air and then letting it dribble out toward the surface. He drifts up into the space in between, his legs crossed, his hands out on either side of him. “Graceful,” Janice says.

We do everything in pairs. And when it’s our turn we put the weight belts on and get in. The pool is ten feet deep at the farthest end, and as we swim out I can feel the weights shifting on my hips, the lead pulling its way around to my stomach, and the droop of the belt where the weights collect.

The instructor is out there, helping us into our vests, getting the tanks positioned on our backs. Janice gives me the okay signal and we go down.

It’s harder than it looks and pretty soon we’re both sitting on the bottom. I can see the class on the other side of the pool, waiting for their turn. The water giving everyone’s legs a muted, washed out light. I try to equalize my ears but they still won’t go. Janice gives me the okay signal again. I return it and try to get my buoyancy going. The pain has become a screw tightening in my head. I cross my legs and feel the weight of the tank scraping against the pool bottom.

The sound of the vest inflating makes me think of helium filling balloons at a birthday party. I rise through my neutral point and hit the surface. The weights shift around on my stomach until I’m face down in the water. I panic, trying to get my head up. I think I’ll drown. And then I take a desperate gasp through the regulator and realize I’m breathing.


We practice in the pool because it’s safe. “You have to know what to do before it happens,” the instructor says. He says this because we can’t simulate all the things that can go wrong, the nitrogen narcosis, the bends, the dying underwater.

Something is preventing me from equalizing. All I know is that I can’t do it. And I won’t know until I get out in open water, under all that pressure.


In my spare time I watch a show on fishing the Bering Sea. They say it’s one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. They say if you go overboard, there is a ten percent chance you’ll live.

The coast guard, the fishermen, the sea, they’re all part of it. They interview one of the rescue officers, one of the guys who dives into the water to pull these fishermen out. He says that the water is so cold up there, the first thing the body does is go into shock. The moment the body hits the water; the first instinct is to breathe. Most die this way, he says, breathing water, trying to get oxygen, going into shock. Their first move is fatal.

The scene changes and they show one of the fishermen before he goes off on the boat. He’s young. Twenty-something. He looks scared. The voice behind the camera asks him a series of questions. He’s a little loose, a little mouthy. I can tell things aren’t right with him, like he’s puffing up his chest, like he’s trying to impress the cameraman. “My worst fear is that I’ll drown,” he says. “I think that would be the worst.”

And I know right there he is going over.


I walk Janice out. Our last class has finished. This weekend will be our open-water test. I’m a little nervous about the whole thing. I think I’ll sink to the bottom, I think I won’t be able to adjust the pressure in my sinuses, that I’ll rupture my eardrums and lose my hearing. “Don’t worry,” Janice says. She’s got this soothing way of speaking, like she’s been working on a trauma line for years now. But what I realize is that she is talking to me like a son. A cool, practiced voice after all these years, like floating on water. It’s reassuring to hear her voice like this, to feel as if she understands.

We’re waiting around for our rides. Her youngest daughter picks her up after every class, and depending on how Claire feels, I either get a ride or take the bus. I can feel the weight of my bathing suit and towel in my backpack. It’s cold out, a wet November on the Pacific.

I don’t know why I haven’t asked Janice about her husband. We were all asked about our reasons for diving on the first day. Janice gave hers, and so I assumed she was fine with it. Standing on the sidewalk outside the pool I assume she has made her peace with her husband’s death.

I’m not sure how we get into it. We’re standing on the sidewalk looking up into the sky when I ask about her husband. Perhaps I say something like, “Why now?” or, “What do your daughters think about all this?” I try to phrase it in a way that shows I’m just making conversation, that I understand all this, that I’m just curious. But what I realize—after Janice starts talking about her husband’s passing, who he was before, who he was to her all those years before, before kids, before marriage—is that I don’t know Janice the way I should. I realize that everything we have said to each other has been in the form of hand signals.

“Are you okay?” she says. I haven’t told her about my dead son. I haven’t told anyone. What was my reason for coming to the class? I said something stupid like I love dolphins, or I’d love to see more of the world.

What Janice says really gets me. I feel something like an egg caught in my throat. I feel a pressure in my chest, like I’m going to bust up, break apart, right there on the sidewalk with Janice telling me about her husband. She says that it doesn’t matter that they never made it to Tahiti; she says it never really mattered. She says it’s like a lost limb. “Sometimes, when I’m in the water I look over and he’s still there. I can still feel him,” Janice says, and then she looks away for a time and I know what it’s all about.

After a minute, Janice turns and gives me a look. Her daughter has pulled up to the curb and Janice puts a hand to my elbow and I can feel her gentle fingers through my coat. And what I understand from Janice is that every time she gets into the pool, every time she goes out into the water, a little piece of her is meeting her husband halfway.


We never planned on having a baby. We never planned on getting pregnant. We were sitting in the doctor’s office discussing options. I kept thinking, I can’t afford this right now. Claire didn’t believe it. She couldn’t believe she was pregnant. And there we were, sitting in the office trying to talk to the doctor about abortion, trying to say the things that were on our minds, but saying nothing all the same.

The doctor wanted to make us understand. This was when he told us about the breathing. He said it was like a practice run. He said that the baby fills its lungs with liquid, pushing it in and pushing it out, just like air.

We kind of sat there for a little while—me and Claire—looking at each other. And we knew something had changed about the whole thing, something had made it real, and we couldn’t do a thing about it after that.


On the morning of our dive test we meet on a sandy beach and go through the safety rules. The instructor wants to know all about the hand signals. He makes the underwater okay signal, and then the surface signal. He calls on us at random and makes sure we know our physics. He says we will be diving in pairs today. Stick with your buddy, he says.

We check our gear. We lay it out in the parking lot and go through the various functions, cleaning our masks, deflating and inflating our vests, checking our regulators, and tightening and loosening our tank valves. “Here we go,” Janice says.

I’m still worried that I won’t be able to dive past ten feet, but Janice says not to worry about it. I imagine myself making the signal for going up. I think about calling the whole thing off. But then Janice puts her hand on my shoulder for support and I help her get her fins on. We’re standing in a foot of water, the feel of the cold Pacific leaking into my ankles and creeping up my suit. I think about the Bering Sea fisherman, the shock of the water, the gasp for air.

Janice swims out first. It’s strange in the ocean. I can feel the tug of the current on my body, the cool ambiance of the water flowing beneath my suit. Half the time I keep my head above the water. It feels weird breathing through the tubes, looking down at the ocean bottom, until it drops away and there is nothing but a green expanse below.

The instructor goes down the line one by one, we return the signal, patting a hand to our head to let him know we’re okay. It’s a magical feeling, floating there with the weight of the tank on my back, my legs dangling away into the abyss. I feel as if I could float here all day.

The instructor points down and two by two we start releasing air from our vests until we’re dropping below the surface. Janice looks at me and I can see her eyes through the glass of her mask. She gives me the okay signal and then waits for me to return it. She’s waiting and as soon as I give her the signal she lets a little more air out and I watch her turn and dive slowly toward the bottom. I can feel the pressure in my ears. I pinch my nose shut and blow, waiting for the pop, but nothing happens and I’m diving after Janice, waiting for her to stop.

I begin to feel it in my ears, as if rock after rock were being placed on my head. I wonder if I should turn back. I wonder if I’ll hear my eardrums bursting, or if I will enter a space where sound no longer exists. Janice keeps diving, her hand to her nose as she equalizes her sinuses. I’m sure I’ll lose my hearing. I think I have to turn back, I can see the bottom now. My head burns. And all I’m doing is taking breaths through the regulator, pinching my nose and blowing.

The seafloor is large and brown below me. Purple starfish are cluttered in groups along the muddy bottom. The pain might kill me. Janice is looking at me, her eyes turned up like little smiles inside her mask, her hand asking if I’m okay. I close my eyes. In the darkness I feel the ocean all around me, a weightless drift. There is the sound of coarse breathing, the slow fill and release of my lungs. I think how no one really knows what will happen until it happens. And then I feel a pop, a relief of pressure, a pain escaping.

Urban Waite is the author of The Terror of Living, a novel forthcoming from Little, Brown and Company in 2011. His fiction has appeared in Gulf Coast, Meridian, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Colorado Review, The Southern Review, and elsewhere, and is forthcoming in One Story. A graduate of the Emerson College MFA program, he has received fellowships and grants from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Saint Botolph Club Foundation, and Vermont Studio Center. (updated 10/2008)

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