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Mask Removal - Emily Greenspan

My SCUBA Divemaster mentor, Helena, was a 40-something woman who had left her home in the Netherlands to become a dive instructor in the Andaman Sea. She radiated a quiet, mysterious beauty. Her blue eyes contrasted sharply with her skin, tanned deeply by the Indonesian sun. She never wore sunscreen, and she smoked a lot of cigarettes. Her voice was gravelly, kind of sexy, and carried a reserved intensity that I found a little intimidating.

A week into the Divemaster training, Helena said that it was time to assist on an introductory dive course. Our student was a Swedish woman named Ann. Since it was the first day of Ann’s course, we’d practice basic skills in shallow water.

Ann, Helena, and I geared up and marched to the beach I’d grown familiar with, tanks weighing heavy on our backs. We floated in the sandy shallows to strap our fins over our neoprene booties, then kicked deeper into the bay over glimmering turquoise water. At the red buoy, we emptied our jackets of air, allowing the weights on our waists to pull us five meters below.

I was an unlikely Divemaster trainee. Just a few months prior, I’d been a complete newbie preoccupied with all the ways the sport could take my life. My eyes couldn’t appreciate the wonder of a clownfish oxygenating its eggs in a tangerine anemone or the brilliance of corals sparkling with sunlight when my brain was swirling with thoughts of getting the bends, or a collapsed lung, or running out of air.

Yet after a few weeks of getting to know the complex gear and making diver friends who bolstered me with kindness, I became infatuated with the watery world. My new friends, including a French dive instructor I had a painful crush on, capitalized on my enthusiasm and, much to my own surprise, convinced me to pursue further training: the advanced course, then the rescue course. Now, the Divemaster course.

Once we’d settled on the sand, Helena pointed at Ann (you), then pointed two fingers at her eyes (watch), then pointed at herself (me). Her right hand slowly, elegantly arrived at her face, pressing into her mask. She levitated off the bottom for a moment, turning to the side so we could see her profile, and her left hand gingerly lifted the mask strap off the back of her head and placed it in between the fingers of her right hand. Bubbles ascended from her forehead, and water flooded her eyes and nose as she pulled the mask away from her face. She blinked and revealed her blue eyes gleaming like sapphires, a deeper blue than the surrounding aquamarine liquid. Doesn't it burn? The sapphires fixed on me and Ann, and Helena raised one finger for one minute, the length of time the mask needed to stay off.

The beautiful, piercing blue eyes stared at us. This gaze was arresting, even a little terrifying, but I couldn’t look away. My gut rumbled beneath my wetsuit. My eyes were more comfortable darting back and forth than resting in place. Just seven years prior, I’d been a sleep-deprived, overachieving high schooler, back laced with stress knots. Each morning before school, I’d confront the mirror, where my eyes flitted and flickered back and forth, catching skinny loops of hair poking out of my ponytail, tiny blackheads on my jawline. I’d remake my ponytail ten times, squeeze sebum from every offending pore. At school, my pen had furiously flown across college-ruled pages, never to miss a teacher’s point, because who knew what might be on the test.

I’d come a long way since high school, but I was still recovering from this anxious way of being. I still used my words to poke holes in swollen moments of sustained eye contact, offering commentary, asking questions, or otherwise chattering away to diffuse the intensity of seeing someone else so intimately. But the watery world put me on mute. Kneeling on that soft sand before Helena’s gaze, I had no choice but to look.

The next morning, before my dive with Helena and Ann, I decided to test the open-eye practice for myself. I wanted to know if I could handle it, if I could see anything. I went to the water with my fins, leaving my mask behind, and swam out to the red buoy. I gasped a deep breath and duck-dived down, eyes squeezed shut, kicking to propel myself to the sand. My eyes blinked open to hazy water, dreamlike turquoise fog. No pain, just slight discomfort, like I had milk in my eyes. Blinked again. Then, blurred outlines of things I recognized: a grey sunken concrete block, a rounded red coral bommy, my own olive-toned hand. Shapes and colors. I smiled, and a little water dribbled into my mouth. Was I really seeing so much? I marveled at my eyes as they discerned a yellow-grey orb floating above the sand, maybe a cowfish, maybe not. Who cared? Maybe I didn’t always need to see everything up close, didn’t always need to know the intricate details of my world. Maybe just opening my eyes was enough.

My body swiveled to ascend. I expelled my retained breath in a squeal when I punctured the surface, smiling. My knuckles rubbed my eyes clean and I clung to the red buoy, bobbing gently, eyes still closed, hot sun warming my scalp.


Emily Greenspan is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Wesleyan University currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Nonfiction at Ashland University where she was formerly the Lead Creative Nonfiction Editor for Ashland’s literary magazine, Black Fork Review. Emily is working on a book-length memoir about how SCUBA diving became a balm for her anxiety disorder. She has not yet been published.

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