Elaine Chiew

Insurance

 

You go diving with him in the Bahamas as a leap of faith, even though you’re not sure whether it’s a leap of faith in yourself or in him or in your togetherness.  It’s new still in your relationship; you’d met him at a medical conference while out lounging on a cabana. He had drawn up close, in his tan linen jacket and sharply-creased blue trousers, and asked if he could buy you a drink.  Not that you were really looking for a relationship, or even a carefree fuck, because your mother is in her last stages of Alzheimers’ and it’s just you and her, but between shuttling on the commuters’ train from her home of assisted living and your job in insurance sales, you’d begun to find chit-chat with strangers nauseating.  But there was something about his blue eyes and shaggy hair that spelled an aura of wanting to please and you thought to yourself, oh why the hell not? Your mother would disapprove of his slight put-on dishevelment and crude jokes.  When it’s just the two of you, he is altogether more serious, more real, more himself, but he truly comes alive when the audience is ten or more.  Then he would sing Nessun Dorma in a faux baritone (which your mother would find kitschy or attempt a ballerina stunt and split his pants).   But your mother will never meet him, or if she does, she will never remember.

So you think of him as insurance.  A kind of biological safety net, safe enough to risk an underwater world where you go diving with him.  You are such a terrible swimmer that once you’d sunk to the bottom of a kid’s pool at the swimming club and thought you were drowning and screamed for help and when people rushed over and someone finally pulled you out, you claimed a leg cramp because you were so embarrassed.

Down now in these murky watery depths, you panicked and started hyperventilating.  Water rushed into your mask. Your heart-rate dropped to a new plumbing depth.  Someone grabbed your shoulder and then held your hand and guided you with finger gestures on how to empty your mask of water.  You sucked in lungful after lungful of oxygen and began to feel giddy.  All you could see behind his mask are his eyes, but not the expression in them because there was a film of moisture over everything.  A school of fish swam past and you thought you’d never seen anything more beautiful in your life.  You thought the man holding your hand was a godsend, and you wondered if he wasn’t the diving instructor, with his rapid gesturing and purposeful movements.   There, before you, were schools of marine bioluminescence.  Florets of musky coral.  Plumes of purple anemones.  Membraned jellyfish, lit from within, rising as clouded fumes.  Seawhip. Polyps like thousands of eyes.  They sensed your dark presence.  An entire school of fish changed direction.   Your lungs swelled, you felt the massive ache in your jaw even before you heard the snap upon bone. What was blue became red, then black.  You were neither fish nor human now.  There was no name, no memory, for the undersea monster you’d become. You powered through subterranean coves, your body sleek, aerodynamic.  Swimming.  Finning.  The water closing over you was icy, instantly numbing.  Your sleek tail torqued, you rappelled down to seabed level.

When you finally surfaced, you were delirious.

You told this man it was the most amazing trip of your life.  The two of you were sitting eating lunch at a seafood place with all the other divers, and that was when you learned two things: the school of fish was barracuda, and the man who had held your hand was no instructor but the man you were dating for insurance.   You burst out laughing and you simply couldn’t stop.  Everyone around you first smiled indulgently, including the man you were dating, and then their smiles became more hesitant, and the way their smiles started to fade made your epiglottis seize up and you choke on your mouthful of tilapia.

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Elaine Chiew is the editor/compiler of Cooked Up: Food Fiction From Around the World (New Internationalist, 2015). She has won prizes for her short fiction and also been shortlisted in numerous other U.S. and U.K. competitions. She is currently based in Singapore and has just completed an M.A. in Asian Art History at Lasalle College of the Arts.