"Diving" by Alisha Mascarenhas
2017 CBC Nonfiction Prize shortlist
Alisha Mascarenhas made the 2017 CBC Nonfiction Prize shortlist for "Diving".
I am soaking in the tub, eating a blood orange and smoking a cigarette. I watch the peel unfurl on the ledge like the shed skin of a sea creature. I leave it there all morning, my fingertips wrinkling.
I hold up a section of the orange to the sun, and the membrane, too, begins to resemble something that lived under water. The pulp is magenta, fuchsia, pale yellow. My abdominal muscles are contracting around undigested fruit and the grief that lodges there like an object. I watch the sunlight shift across the bathroom tiles as the fruit ferments and assimilates inside my body.
My mom says I have my dad's back: strong and curved. Now, it's pressed against the hard wall of the tub, my body half submerged. My eyes are shut, forehead stiffening in contemplation. My mind is shadowed with tiny purple flowers, and beneath the surface, his body lingers.
I wonder if I will to inherit his creases: marks of a lifetime of thinking. I spread my fingers to silhouette against the morning light, seeing his hand as mine, my hand as his. In this moment, I become inscrutable to myself.
The day before he died, we took a plane from Vancouver to Osaka. On the flight from Osaka to Singapore, where we had an overnight layover, my dad pulled out his camcorder. He filmed me and my brother sitting in our seats at cloud height, smiling unknowingly.
Singapore was alive with grotesquely beautiful flowers. The air was heavy with a sweet humidity. On the bus from the airport to the hotel, I began to feel nauseous. I retched, and my vomit spilled all the way down the centre aisle to the front of the bus. Walking from the bus to the hotel, my dad and I wondered what people who are from there call themselves. That night, in our tiny, dark hotel room we unzipped our suitcases and prepared for bed. I begged my dad to take us swimming in the hotel pool and he promised we would go in the morning, before our flight to India.
When dawn broke, we walked down to the pool together and it was empty and quiet and clean. I dove in, coming up to the surface for air, and finding tiny purple flower petals floating there. Later, I would decide that there was no ceiling, that the pool was in an open courtyard full of morning. My dad stayed close to my brother, who was only seven and not such a strong swimmer.
I was treading water at one end of the pool when my brother drifted a little too far from reach. My dad released his grip from the ledge, but by the time he was close enough, my brother was flailing. I turned and saw a flurry of hands against my dad's shoulders and chest, and his dark eyes were sharp and terrified. Time flashed and he was choking, spitting up clean, chlorinated water, and he held my brother above the surface and I heard him cry out for help.
I remember in the evenings when I was really little, I would submerge under the bath water with my eyes open, and watch the seaweed swish of my hair. I would open the faucet and let the water spill over my scalp and out into the ocean.
When my dad was really little, he lived with his family in a village called Cansaulim on the coast of Goa, in India. He waded in the shallow edges of the water, but he couldn't swim. In the time since his death, the beach has become lined with resorts and Russian tourists who walk along the shore in couples.
When I visit, I turn my back to them and narrow my line of sight until I see the same beach that he did. I look to the waves lapping at the shore, the fishing boats, smudges of black across the sand. I swim almost every day, running barefoot from the family house across the hot, black tarmac to dive into the waves. My aunt feeds me chikoo fruit that taste like brown sugar.
Then, suddenly, I had my brother under one arm and kicked my way to the edge of the pool. I hauled him onto the deck and laid him down on a reclining plastic beach chair. "Say thank you," I said, "I just saved your life." I turned for a second time, and I couldn't see my dad. I didn't think. I dove. It was there in the dense quiet under water that I could see his silent body, and it was just floating there in suspension. I rose to the surface and cried out.
Then, a woman materialized next to me without a word, stripping to her underwear and diving. When she surfaced, she held my dad under her arms, lifting his limp body to the pool deck. His swimming trunks clung to heavy legs, and a mouthful of white foam drifted from his lips. I started pacing the deck, deciding that this is what people do when they are in a panic. Someone hurried my brother and me away from the pool.
We took an elevator to the small, dark hotel room. The curtains were still closed and we packed our suitcases. Then, we were taken to a fancy penthouse room on the top floor. We were told to bathe in the big tub in the shiny white bathroom with two sinks and small bars of soap, and to dress. We were invited to breakfast in the hotel lobby and the sounds of a siren wailed outside. We couldn't eat, we didn't speak, and no one told us it was going to be okay.
In the bedroom, my little brother watched cartoons and I held my breath. The manager came in and told us that our dad had died. I knew he was going to say this before he spoke, so I only nodded silently. My brother kept a soft, uninterrupted gaze on the television screen.
They called my mom in Vancouver and my uncle in Cansaulim. I called my best friend who only said, "Aren't you sad?" because I wasn't even crying. The police left and the hotel staff left and they hired a woman to stay with us in the room for the night. She watched a horror movie on TV about people getting killed in an elevator. We ordered fresh watermelon and starfuit juice that our throats wouldn't swallow.
The next morning another woman walked with us to the police station so we could tell them what happened, so they could be sure it was an accident. She gave us chewing gum, and told us that in Singapore it was illegal to spit your gum out in public or to stick it to the backs of the seats on the subway. I asked her what people from Singapore call themselves and she said, "Singaporean." That's was when I realized he was dead.
For the funeral, his body was taken on a plane and landed 3,660 kilometers west, on the coast of India. I knew he wanted to be cremated, and I was furious. My brother and I were taken on a plane that landed 12,823 kilometers east, on the coast of Canada.
In the space between, those tiny purple flowers floated on the surface of the water, finally blossoming in that humidity. I guess the pool was drained soon after, but I don't know for sure. Instead, I rest in the memory of curling petals, those instants before his death.
Read the other finalists' stories
- "Caught" by Sarah Bennett
- "Trust Exercise" by Becky Blake
- "The Guardian" by Gail Nardi
- "The Road to Machu Picchu Starts at 385 lbs" by Carla Powell
Alisha Mascarenhas' writing uses poetic language as a catalyst for healing that is both immediate and sustaining. Her work has been published in journals such as West Coast Line, Subversions: a journal of feminist queries and Word & Colour and has performed through various platforms in Vancouver and Montréal. She holds a BA in postcolonial feminist poetics from Concordia University and the Simone de Beauvoir Institute in Montréal, where she currently resides. In the fall of 2017, she will begin an MFA in writing at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn.