Kasey plunged first into the turquoise water. White bubbles danced across her mask, her cheeks. Her clingy wetsuit relaxed its grip, and her air-filled BCD diving vest, weighed down by the heavy oxygen tank just seconds ago, floated around her shoulders. She took a deep breath through her regulator and pressed the button to release the air from her BCD.
The harsh chop of waves at the surface calmed to gentle underwater currents, the bright sun mellowed into dozens of shades of blue. For a few precious moments, Kasey knew true weightlessness, all her worldly cares suspended at the surface as she drifted down into a world of shifting color and light. Her arms floated away from her sides, the bulky underwater camera weightless in her hand.
Twenty feet down.
She pinched her nose and swallowed to clear the building pressure in her ears.
Thirty feet down.
A lively carpet of corals rose up to greet her. Kasey slowed her descent and steered herself with a kick of her fins to land in a patch of sand. A quick adjustment to the air levels in her BCD, and she found neutral buoyancy. The perfect balance of weight and weightlessness.
Eyes wide behind her mask, she took in the full sweep of underwater landscape. The Cozumel reefs were known for their crystal-clear visibility, and Kasey felt like she could see for miles. Multi-hued corals and fish, waving sea grasses. So peaceful.
Then Tom landed next to her.
Solitude over, she flashed him the standard OK sign. He fiddled with his regulator, over-inflated his BCD and began to lift, deflated his BDC and crashed down on the ocean floor, sending up a cloud of sand. Inflate, deflate. After a few tries, he found neutral buoyancy, or close to it anyway, and he returned her OK sign.
The rest of the divers landed. The divemaster rounded everyone up, held up the OK sign to each diver, one at a time, and waited for each to signal OK back. Kasey bit down on her regulator. So much hand-holding. But this was a resort dive, a chance for the uncertified and inexperienced to try out scuba diving. She had ten years of certification and a full dive log under her weight belt, more than enough to not need a divemaster to chaperone her around.
But she was doing this dive for Tom.
The divemaster started the dive, shepherding the gaggle of resort divers along the curving coral bed. Tom stuck close to Kasey. She tried not to feel irritated. He was her dive buddy. They were supposed to stick together. And he was doing what she’d instructed him to do — hanging a bit behind her and staying on her left. She kept her camera in her right hand, and didn’t want him getting in her way if a great shot came up.
It’s his first time, she told herself.
Still, he didn’t need to be that close.
“Your dive buddy is your best friend underwater,” the instructor, Jorge, said in a thick Mexican accent as he walked down the line of wannabe divers sitting on the edge of the deep end of the hotel pool, double-checking BCDs and tanks. As a first-time diver, Tom had to sit through the required two-hour training on equipment and what to expect on a resort dive.
Kasey lounged in a nearby pool chair, watching him from under the brim of her sun hat.
“If there’s a problem with your equipment, or an emergency, your dive buddy is there to help you, okay?” Jorge opened the valve on Tom’s oxygen tank. Tom pressed the release button on his regulator, releasing a loud rush of air that made him jump. He looked across the pool at Kasey and smiled. Her cheeks flushed. She took a long sip of her ice-cold pina colada.
“Dive buddies look out for each other,” said Jorge. “Explore together. Have fun together. But don’t wander off. Be good dive buddies, okay? Now jump in.”
Tom dropped into the pool, bobbing side to side as he tried to get comfortable with all the equipment. He ran a hand through his curly brown hair — a familiar Tom tick. One Kasey liked.
“He’s nothing like your usual guy,” her sister Sarah had said, after the first time she’d met him. “He’s, like, nice.”
“Yeah, too nice. He immediately returns all my calls and texts. He opens doors for me.”
“Poor you,” scoffed Sarah.
“I’m a big girl. I don’t need to be taken care of.”
“He’s just a good guy.”
Tom was a good guy. No drama, no highs and lows. Just … easy. Too easy. Kasey had found herself spending all her free time with him over the past five months. “It’s too much. And then this whole surprise trip to Cozumel. He wanted to get certified before we went, so he could dive with me. I talked him out of it.”
“But isn’t that what you wanted?” asked Sarah. “A guy who cared about the things you care about, for once?”
Kasey shook her head. He had to like diving himself. Not just do it for her, because diving and underwater photography was her hobby. What if they didn’t stay together?
“It’s too much, too soon.”
Her sister just shrugged at her.
Not that it wouldn’t be nice to have a dive buddy, especially one willing to go wherever she wanted to go, whenever she wanted to go. Help her plan dives, help carry the equipment. But getting used to having a dive buddy around was dangerous. Dive buddies got distracted, drifted away, left you for some other dive buddy.
Kasey had had enough of that. Better to swim on her own.
Tom managed to successfully descend and ascend in the deep end of the pool, earning a high-five from Jorge. He caught Kasey’s eye again, smiled again. Kasey bit down on her straw.
If only being with Tom wasn’t so easy.
The divemaster continued along the coral bed, dive group trailing behind him. With clear skies and bright sun above, the corals glowed red, purple, blue. Kasey itched to take some photos. But all these inexperienced divers inflating, deflating, and generally flailing about scared away fish and stirred up sand, ruining her shots.
She dropped back, and put some distance between her and the group. Tom stuck close on her left.
A yellowhead wrasse lumbered out from behind a giant sea clam. She swung her camera around and snapped a rapid succession of photos. Then a half-dozen blue tangs darted in front of a pink sea fan coral. More photos. Kasey’s heart swelled. The colors, the surprises around every coral, the lack of any resemblance to the surface world she inhabited. This was why she loved diving.
Two stingrays rose up out of the sand ahead of her. She started snapping. Tom drifted into her shot. He was looking at the stingrays, not paying attention. She dropped her camera and glared at him through her mask. He threw up his hands in an “I’m sorry” gesture and dropped back into place behind her.
Kasey squeezed her hand around the rubber grip of her camera. He was sticking too close. She needed her space.
And of course he’d give it to her. All he ever wanted to do was make her happy.
She didn’t need anyone to make her happy. She could make herself happy
She bit down on her regulator and kicked her fins, powering herself sideways, further away from the group.
By the end of the resort dive training, Tom and Jorge were best friends, cheering each other with Modelos at the pool bar.
Everyone liked Tom.
“You’re going to like Tom,” her friend had told her as she’d handed Kasey her birthday drink, five months ago.
“Not interested.” Until Tom had shook her hand. Smiled at her.
Kasey swallowed her margarita.
“I’m excited to dive with you tomorrow,” Tom said as the server set his beef enchiladas and Kasey’s chicken mole down on their candlelit dinner table. “I mean, the bottom of the pool is nice, but I’m guessing tomorrow’s dive will be a little more scenic.” He laughed.
Kasey half-smiled back.
“I wasn’t expecting it to sound so loud, breathing underwater,” he went on.
Kasey picked at her mole.
Tom noticed “Everything okay?”
“Yeah …” Kasey shrugged.
The crease between Tom’s eyebrows made it clear he didn’t believe her. Kasey took a gulp of her second margarita. “It’s just … doesn’t it seem like things are moving too fast?”
Tom dropped back in his chair. “With us?”
“It’s just … like …” Kasey struggled for the words that wouldn’t hurt him. “I don’t need, like, a constant partner. You know? We don’t always have to do everything together.”
Tom set his fork down. “When two people are together, they do things together. That’s how it works, Kasey.”
“I just … I think I just need some air sometimes, you know?”
He crossed his arms against her. “Are you breaking up with me?”
She looked at him, her vision wavy from tequila. The memory of the smile he’d flashed her from the pool, the same one from the night they’d met, shivered through her again. “No, I don’t want to break up. I just want to back off a little.”
Their plates were still full when the server finally cleared them.
She spotted a lone coral head, free of divers, about twenty feet off to her right. She swam towards it with long kicks, leaving the dive group behind.
Her view clear at last, she started photographing in earnest. She followed an angelfish, watched parrot fish nibble at coral, spotted a camouflaged eel. She took close-ups of intricate staghorns and star corals. A sea turtle floated by.
So did the time.
Sensing they’d been on their own too long, Kasey lowered her camera and looked back at Tom.
He wasn’t there.
She swam around to the other side. No Tom. No dive group either.
She was alone. But being alone didn’t scare Kasey.
Tom was sure to be with the group. She kicked off in the direction of the coral bed the divemaster had been following. All the extra swimming she’d done had drained her tank — the needle indicated her remaining PSI was close to the red zone — but she still had enough air to make it to the end of the dive.
She spotted the group up ahead. With a kick of her flippers, she came up behind the group and looked for Tom.
He wasn’t there.
Kasey tightened her fists. Where was he? He must have lost track of her, gone looking, and got lost himself. He didn’t know what he was doing. Why didn’t he just stick with the group?
“I can give you space, if that’s what you really want,” he’d said at dinner.
Kasey kicked furiously. This was why it was easier to be alone. She didn’t have to care if the other person was okay. She just had to worry about herself.
She swam back to the coral head, circled it. No Tom. She backtracked along the dive route. No Tom. Panic knotted in her stomach. This was her fault. She was supposed to be his dive buddy. They were supposed to explore together, watch out for each other.
Up ahead was another small coral head. She circled around it.
There he was, hovering in the water, his head swinging side to side.
She swam up behind him and touched his shoulder. He turned. His eyes were hard.
Kasey’s chest heaved with a trapped “I’m sorry.”
She pointed in the direction of the dive group and started kicking. Tom followed. Kasey tried to drop back, to swim next to him, but he just dropped back further, keeping his promise to stay out of her way. She dropped back again, reached her hand out.
He didn’t take it.
She sucked in air. Her body rose and fell with her gasping lungs, and she lost control of her neutral buoyancy. Her PSI dropped deep into the red zone.
She started flailing. Tom grabbed her elbow, looked at her air gauge. He stayed calm, easy. Always easy. He did just what Jorge had told him to do. He took a deep breath, then pulled his regulator out of his mouth and gave it to Kasey. She grabbed it, took a deep breath of his air. Tom gave her a thumbs-up, the scuba diving signal to ascend. She took another breath, calming down, and handed the regulator back to Tom. They passed the regulator back and forth as they slowly ascended.
At the surface, they both used the last of their air to fully inflate their BCDs so they could float in the waves. Kasey usually found it an unpleasant shock to come out of the quiet underwater world to the tossing waves, but for once she was relieved.
She pushed her mask back. “I’ve never run out of air like that before. I don’t know what happened.”
Tom looked away from her. “So now what?”
Kasey waved her arms at the dive boat, about thirty feet away. “We just have to get the boat’s attention. They’re supposed to keep an eye out for surfacing divers.”
“That’s not what I meant.” Tom’s voice was hard, like his eyes.
Kasey’s stomach dropped.
The boat’s captain spotted them and circled the boat around. A deck hand reached out and pulled Kasey, then Tom, into the boat. Kasey dropped down on a bench, her equipment heavy and awkward again. Tom kicked off his flippers and shrugged out of his BCD.
He didn’t sit down next to her.
“You can dive on your own for the rest of the trip.”
Kasey swallowed. “But I need a dive buddy.”
“I need a dive buddy I can count on.”
Tom walked to the back of the boat and sat down, far away from her.
She gripped the edge of the bench, trying to find her equilibrium. Neutral buoyancy was so easy to find underwater. But Kasey could never seem to find that perfect balance of weight and weightlessness on land.
Kasey slumped in the burning sun as the deck hands pulled the rest of the divers out of the water. Her camera sat heavy in her lap. She lifted it with effort, looked through the photos. Lots of fish, turtles, corals.
Then Tom, drifting into her picture of the two stingrays. She looked closer. It was a great shot, actually. Well-framed, with Tom at the bottom of the picture balancing the two stingrays at the top.
Kasey’s eyes stung. Tom had drifted into her frame. And made something good even better.
She pushed herself to standing and picked her way through the other divers to the back of the boat. There was a space on the bench next to Tom.
She hoped he’d let her fill it.