The orange moon is rising fast. Once it clears the trees it seems to rise so fast that it distorts, squashing and stretching and bending. Directly overhead is bright Jupiter. Since our arrival on Little Cayman, the planet has eased westward through Cancer and into a stretch of clear night sky. Orion has moved as well, and Castor and Pollux, the Gemini Twins. The Southern Cross is somewhere down below the horizon, but during certain months it can be seen from here, one of the few places in the hemisphere, late at night. That’s how the resort got its name.
Because I am lying on a beach and looking up at stars and planets, I think of the word planetoid, in part feeling like a planetoid myself because I have just eaten extra dessert when I promised myself I would not eat any, and a soggy neoprene wetsuit is an already unforgiving thing at seven in the morning.
But planetoid reminds me of Cozumel in late 2006, when it was my parents and I, my mother’s sister Barb, and three of my cousins at the Blue Angel Dive Resort. We had gone to spend Christmas and New Year’s there, to get away from the cold Midwest and from recent misfortunes that had sideswiped our families.
At the time only my aunt and two of my cousins could dive, so when they went out on the boat my mother and my cousin Lydia and I took our snorkels and followed their bubbles along the surface. A coral reef is enchanting even when one is sixty feet above it, but after a single trip out we snorkelers had decided closer would be infinitely better. After three feverish days of cramming theory and taking tests, we were qualified to put on our tanks and regulators and masks and fins and, with much staggering, follow our instructor out into the surf.
Blue Angel had a small jetty beside which was a sandy area accessible from the beach. As I remember it, the four of us went into the water there and squatted so all but our heads were submerged. The instruction, then, was simple. Put your head underwater and breathe.
The hardest single part of any diver’s education is remembering, in those first few minutes, to breathe out. The instinct is to hold it in. There is no snorkel connecting you to the above-water world, no pure air piped down, and your body knows it. You gag and cough salt water and flares go off in your brain, flashing danger Will Robinson, danger. But continuous breathing is fundamental in scuba diving and holding your breath at any point risks pulmonary embolism, so it is the gatekeeping act either mastered or not.
All three of us passed with flying colors that day. I remember kneeling on the sandy ocean floor with my mother and Lydia and our instructor. We were inhaling and exhaling evenly, several feet below the surface; bobbing in a briny swell and the afterglow of achievement.
Then the next thing I knew I was being lifted upward, and then I was being shoved down. A gargantuan weight pushed on my shoulders and tank and I flailed my arms and fins, trying to turn, trying to shed the weight, swim down or around – whichever way freedom was. I was, in point of fact, freaking the fuck out.
I remember signaling for help at Lydia. I remember Lydia, fourteen or so at the time and still in braces, watching me signal her. I do not remember where my mother and our instructor were at that moment.
The second I broke the surface, I realized that a panicking woman the size of a planetoid, desperately swimming backward, trying to get out of deep water because she’d maybe swallowed too much sea through her snorkel, had literally plowed over me in her flight. Now she was clambering over the rocks on the beach as if I’d never even been in her way. And next to me, Lydia was laughing and laughing. Later she told me she'd been laughing so hard that she'd peed in her wetsuit. The look on your face, she said.
Other things have happened to me while diving. I’ve been bashed in the head by a tank during a night dive. I’ve been caught in fierce currents. But nothing outside of my collision with that woman, after just relearning how to breathe, has made me panicky. Diving is, thankfully, a sport where cooler heads prevail.
And here on Little Cayman in 2015, watching stars and planets drift by, this head has never felt cooler.