Over the mountains the oil sky was splitting open, the yellow light crawling over the world. I stood sleepless at the end of the dock watching a flock of gulls float over the small swells, their white feathers dissolving in and out of the fog.
The rest of the class drifted down the small hill toward the boat in small groups, bundled in matching blue and white sweatshirts with our school mascot. They huddled into a small circle and I lingered. Across the distance—the impossible new divide between us—I could see their excitement spark at the sight of the boat and take shape in their faces and wrestle them over completely.
Cappy’s blue truck coughed into the parking lot at six and we all gathered up behind the truck’s bed. Cappy jumped into the bed and began pushing the tubs of flippers and wetsuits into our arms and we hauled them, single file, down to the empty dock.
When I stepped up to the truck Cappy jumped to the ground. He pulled the last oxygen tank from the bed: metal grinding over metal. Our eyes met and his face—perpetually doughy—balled up until he was squinting. “I’m glad you decided to come,” he said.
We anchored in a light fog off of Catalina, the island’s coast a sliver in the distance. Out on the water the world felt muted; the sun behind the clouds, the mist heavy and damp across my skin. It was the first time I’d ever been far enough out on the ocean to feel the openness turn claustrophobic.
While the rest of the class pushed themselves into their wetsuits I curled into a deckchair and pulled a small blanket over my legs. Cappy walked across the deck, from diver to diver, asking test questions and checking gages. He told everyone the same joke and laughed always before the punch line. At my chair he rested a hand on my shoulder, squeezing gently. I looked up at him and waited. His face pinched at the glare skipping over the waves. I wanted him to tell me his joke. I wanted him to stay. I opened my mouth but his fingers slacked and he was gone.
Beyond our small boat there was a hush. I could feel it rolling over my toes and my feet, pressing itself in the smallest spaces between voices and jokes and laughs, between one word and the next, between syllables. Our boat was the only sound in the world. I could feel it like an absence.
I enrolled in Introduction to Diving because my mother had been a diver in her past life. I found the Polaroids in an old photo album, the pages stuck together and cracking. They were ordered chronologically, pasted above small dates and locations, each written in careful blue ink. I turned the pages and watched my mother turn 25 and 26. I slept with the album beside my pillow.
At first I was surprised each time I opened the album; between the pages my mother is so tan and full and smooth: a woman from another life. I stared for hours, searching for what separated my mother from this woman, this not-yet-mother. What I found: she had not yet collapsed in on herself.
In the photos she is beautiful like I had never seen her before; she catches light on her wet skin, curves it over her body. She is a flare on the lens, a miniature sun. She is still and weightless and half-submerged in foreign seas.
One by one I watched the divers walk from the boat and into the between, the nothingness, where they balanced, like the tick of a second hand, before their bodies gave way and they collapsed into the rippled-glass water—broke it fully through—and resurfaced. I hated the initial dive the most, even into the three-foot pool where we met for class twice a week. I felt the terror physically. Some days the panic shut down my body limb by limb. It kept me from sleep: the cold pulling me in, the wetsuit squeezing fully against me, suddenly clamping violently around my throat. It was the feeling of being consumed.
Their dark heads freckled the steely water, rising and falling with the swells. I stood and leaned against the railing and watched my classmates tread water. Cappy looked up at me after a time and gave a thoughtless wave. The last diver crashed from the boat.
My mother got thin in a fast way. She got thin in a way I did not understand until I found the photos—they preserved forever everything she had lost in a half-year. In them I have kept her tense present: she is 24 and holding a beer, the top half of her wetsuit hanging limp from her thick waist, her breasts full; she is 25 and facedown on a towel, one muscled arm dangling over the deck, fingers reaching for the waves; she is 26 and midair, between boat and water, naked, ghost-leged, arms raised.
The photos became an unbearable contrast. Her thinness was everywhere.
The divers sank slowly away from me. In the clear water I could see them shrink and wither, their bodies twisting and kicking, exploring the new resistance, their black limbs dissolving. They looked weightless, though their weightlessness, I knew, came only from the whole of an ocean pressing in on them with such force that they were held, suspended, their edges dulled, their fervor numbed.
Soon I could not see even their shapes.
In one photo there is only the broken surface, exploded white with buoyant air. The rest of the ocean is a blue so easy that it has washed over the horizon and swallowed the sky.
I have stared at the photo for hours hoping to find a glimpse of my mother, but she is vanished under the water, hidden beneath her own impression. There is only the small contusion of forever-white on the forever-ocean.
I fell asleep waiting in the deckchair and woke to splashing. It was nearly midday and my skin was damp with mist. I heard the divers surface one after the other and for a moment, before I stood, I laid still and listened to the silence break. Their laughter was distant and sharp.
Above, the clouds drifted in from the west, rising as they neared the coast, their thickness waning. I reached up and grabbed a fistful of their pearl ripple between my fingers and pulled. I dragged them, the whole great sheet, across the sky and over Catalina. Over where the soil radiated; where the warmth pushed them deeper into the nothingness above; where they thinned and evaporated and, finally, became the nothingness.
Then there was the sun, there on my blue and white sweater, golden and warming the fabric through to my skin.