Somewhere Across The Sea

You are a deep sea explorer searching for the lost city of Atlantis. This is your most challenging and dangerous mission. Fear and excitement are now your companions.*

“You have to decide by the time I get out of the shower,” he said. I looked down at the ring I had stopped wearing and all I could think about were the scratches I had put on it by holding subway rails, how it would be less valuable now because I had not cleaned it obsessively enough.

Courtesy: Rosemary Donahue

Courtesy: Rosemary Donahue

The cable attaching you to the Maray is extended to its limit.

Eric had proposed to me almost a year before in our bedroom. At the time, we lived on Graham Avenue in Brooklyn, and I had a terrible job working at a dog daycare. He proposed to me on a Saturday — around two o’clock in the afternoon when I was still in my pajamas and hadn’t put on my earrings, the silver and gold studs I wore every day so there was one less thing to think about.  

It was September 12, 2009, our five-year anniversary. “Do you want your surprise now or later?” he asked, twisting a strand of curly hair near his temple. He had the most beautiful hair I had ever seen, ever played with. I said I wanted the surprise now, before we went out for the anniversary dinner we could not afford (the one where he would later ask the waiter to make sure every dish I ordered was vegetarian).

He put on an iTunes playlist and asked me to listen to it and tell him what the songs had in common. He handed me a box from my favorite jewelry store. Inside the box was a necklace — a miniature leather book on a copper chain. He said, “Open the book and read it.” I saw the first page said “Will” and he was already on his knees by our bed and I was already crying. My “yes” was a given.

For years, Eric and I existed only in each other’s orbits. We met my third day at Sarah Lawrence and started dating before I’d finished my second week of college. When he was a junior, Eric studied abroad in Prague and England while I, a sophomore, was left behind in Bronxville. I spent the nine months he was gone in suspended animation, buying prepaid phone cards for $20 at a time and mailing him elaborate care packages. I was often convinced Eric was dead or with some other girl or stuck underground in the Prague subway indefinitely; I was sure, four or five days out of the week, that he didn’t love me, even though he ended most of our calls by singing the chorus of Nick Drake’s “Northern Sky” to me in full earshot of his roommates. 

I wouldn’t say I was necessarily exploring my attraction to girls during this period although I definitely kissed a few under the convenient guise of the “straight girl party make out.” Instead, I would say I was sitting in my friend Kristen’s room on campus, drinking from an expensive bottle of vodka she hid under her bed and watching Three Wishes for Cinderella.

“Why don’t we ever get to see her boobs in this movie?” I would ask as she passed me our shared glass of cranberry vodka. On Kristen’s dirty laptop screen Cinderella was out hunting and she was wearing some fetching outfit; this Cinderella was an impeccable shot.

Sometimes I felt so panicked about being apart from Eric that I would go to Kristen’s room at five in the morning to sleep in her bed. On the night before my twentieth birthday, when I got drunk from Wild Turkey and threw up all over my pajamas in her room, she handed me a pair of fleece pants and lay in bed with me while I drunk-dialed Eric, calmly putting her arms around me without a word of reproach.

You peer out the thick glass porthole and see strange white fish drifting past, sometimes stopping to look at you — an intruder from another world.

I was never one of those girls who dreamed of a wedding, but I am great planner. In the months after the proposal, I combed Etsy and wedding blogs, made an inspiration book, curated detailed song lists — anything to distract myself from the feelings, more and more frequent, that I was an imposter.

Because so little of wedding planning has to do with anticipation of the actual significance of the event, my mother and maid of honor assumed that my enthusiasm about my Kleinfeld dress and the flower arrangements translated into enthusiasm about the wedding itself.  

It wasn’t as if I knew for sure there was something wrong. Eric and I had moved into our own apartment on 67th street and 1st Avenue in Manhattan with our giant cats, nice bed, and mingled libraries. We lived above a pizza place and, honestly, when he came up the stairs at night with eggplant parmigiana slices and an order of garlic knots, it was the best feeling in the world to eat that pizza with him while watching the news and then go to bed with our cats curled between us.

It didn’t seem so strange to me that I never wanted to have sex, that it had been about four years since I had thought about him fucking me except the roughly once a week when it was actually happening and I was moaning just enough to get to the part where I could either masturbate or lie and I say I didn’t need to come so we could order Chinese food from across the street.  I thought this was just what happened to couples, never mind that I didn’t find myself attracted to men, or, at that point, to anyone beyond androgynous rock singers  (the last time I had been “turned on” had been at a Yeah Yeah Yeahs concert when Karen O came out wearing an outfit made of entirely of tinsel). I no longer considered myself desirable, let alone someone who was capable of it. 

To the left (port) side, you see what appears to be a grotto. The entrance is perfectly round, as if it had been cut by human hands.

It is August of 2010 (three months before my wedding) and I’m drinking champagne straight from the bottle in New Hampshire woods. The publisher at Seven Stories, the indie press where I work, has invited his employees to his vacation home for half a week and due to scheduling issues on Eric’s part, I’m here alone.

It’s night two of the retreat. I’ve spent most of the afternoon helping my friend Vern prepare a complicated lunch that she doesn’t bring to the communal table until a little before 4 p.m. My real contribution to this lunch is mimosas in large kids’ glasses. Because of how strong I make them, I am tipsy before 5 p.m., and I spent what is left of the afternoon by the lake watching my coworkers swim while I try to read a book about lightning survivors.

A vodka and tonic at dinner and I’m primed for the sing-along Crystal and her husband suggest. I follow them out to the large front porch. There’s a particular coworker I want to join us, and when she walks by I offer the chair next me: “Do you want to sing?”

She doesn’t have a drink so I ask if she wants me to get some wine. Instead of just getting us each a glass, I go the kitchen and uncork a new bottle of some red blend. I set the bottle between us; she and I know the same songs and we’re drinking the wine at the same pace. At one point we sing a few lines of Tom Wait’s song “Alice” a cappella: And the raindrops on my window, and the ice in my drink, baby all I can think of is Alice.

Courtesy: Rosemary Donahue

Courtesy: Rosemary Donahue

You enter the cavern cautiously and receive a radio signal in English. It tells you that you are welcome here, but that once you enter this place, you may never return to the world above.

After the sing-along ends, this coworker suggests we build a fire out by the lake. She invites the whole group, but it’s clear I am the only person going with her.  We stay up all night making bad s'mores, drinking champagne, letting our legs rest too close together in the sand. I am engaged and she has just left a six-year relationship. It is true to say that nothing happens that night. But we do go into the lake, fully clothed, my green dress soaked and flimsy, and she offers to hold my glasses while I dunk my head under the water.

For several weeks you explore the world under the sea as you have never seen it before. Without the heavy oxygen equipment on your back, you feel a marvelous sense of energy.

My affair starts like this: two weeks after the retreat my coworker and I discuss each other’s writing on her roof in Bushwick with more bad wine and two votive candles (to make it easier to see the pages in the dark). A few hours earlier Eric and I had chosen the most detailed wedding vows from the list our officiant gave us.

“Do you want to watch a movie?” she asks. The only place to sit in her room is on her bed.

An hour into Crumb we are staring at each other more than the screen; I’m very conscious of the mesh layer visible under her short-sleeve shirt. The second bottle of wine is almost gone.

“This is a bad idea,” I say, turning to look at her directly. I pause.

“If it’s a bad idea, we should at least see what it feels like.”

Now you can breathe underwater and join the Atlanteans in their world.

Eric finds out about the affair after five days. He says he can forgive me and that he still wants to get married. For a while I hedge my bets, canceling the wedding but believing it is possible to be with her for just a little while longer before I go back to the person everyone insists is my soul mate.

“It is a very exciting life indeed. You like it, but you regret that you will never again know the word above the sea.”

With difficulty, I put the box in his hand. Months of uncertainty are before me (we will get back together only to break up again and this time we will stop speaking for good), but at that moment I feel as if I am leaving one ecosystem for another, as if I am breathing with an entirely new set of lungs.

* All bold sections taken from: R. A. Montgomery, Journey Under the Sea (Choose Your Own Adventure) (New York: Bantam Books, 1995).