Allya Yourish

How to Stay Alive Underwater

My parents met scuba diving off Florida’s Atlantic coast. The story goes that my mother was seasick, vomiting over the edge of the boat. My father checked on her, held her hair back, and asked her on a date. I inherited a love of the water, its nausea too.

I grew up in Portland, Oregon, surrounded by enlarged images of fish. The backgrounds were always aquamarine water, clear as glass, the fish gape-mouthed and frozen in time. My father took all these photos, kept his SLR in its underwater casing, even though we lived two hours from the ocean. “I’ll teach you sometime,” he’d say.

Underwater, everything is nearly silent. This is true even in the ocean, with improbably large creatures moving around who, I swear, should be making some kind of sound. I see a shark at Sugarship, off of Perhentian Besar. I pass by first, swimming toward a wide and yawning doorway on the floor of the ocean, and only notice the shark when the dive master bangs a small metal rod against the steel of his oxygen tank. The dull clank draws my attention, he indicates towards the wreck and I am awed by the smear of grey nestled amongst the splitting planks and collapsing doorways.

I get scuba certified on half a tablet of Xanax and a huge dose of dramamine. Chris, our instructor, tells me he thought I’d drop out. It’s one task that gets in my way—we have to sit on the ocean’s shallow floor, turn off our oxygen, take off our masks and then restart the airflow, put the mask back on, and blow out all the trapped water. It feels like drowning. I get as far as taking off the mask before frantically swimming the ten feet to the surface, my tears mixing with the surrounding water. Chris follows me up. “Look around,” he tells me. The island rises in front of us, palm trees dotting the coastline. “You’re in the most beautiful place in the world. There’s nothing to be afraid of.” Not up here, I want to tell him, but down there, without air or vision or noise, there is no beauty, there is no place. I put the mask back on. I keep crying. I descend and try again. Push back to the surface, gulp in a steady supply of salty air, descend, try again. Eventually the drugs get me drowsy enough to forget how to panic. “I’m just surprised you got through it,” he tells me later, “most people don’t, not once they start surfacing.”

It is a running joke in my family: never promise me anything, I always remember what I’m owed. After high school, my father promises me a trip to Hawaii to learn how he captured the underwater world in all those photos he took before my birth. We study digitized slides, the fish bug-eyed and vibrant through his lens. My mother delays the trip, my father dies the following year.

Every dive ends with a hand signal from the dive master, we gather around a line dropped by the boat, a tether to the surface. We ascend slowly, pausing halfway up. The quality of light changes as we go, the color of the water transitioning from a deep cobalt to a pale green. When we break through the surface, I am always shocked by the desaturated world, the waves, the way reality crashes into existence and I am suddenly buffeted by wind and water. It is so busy, so chaotic.

On their honeymoon, my parents meet and befriend an octopus. My mother repeats the story at every chance she gets: the octopus lived in a dilapidated wreck, was the size of her palm, would fit rocks together like puzzle pieces with her. They went back to the wreck daily, the octopus always greeted them. “As smart as a four year old,” she’d say. I don’t remember my father telling this story. Anyway, I never met an octopus while diving, I cannot imagine that kind of intimacy underwater.

I find grief to be relentless. I find myself adrift, alone, within it. I cry all the time. I can’t think of my father without pain, so for a time I try to stop thinking about him, treat every memory like a purpling bruise. There are opposite nights, nights when I prod at my rawest hurts, anxiously play through every voicemail from him I have saved, when I scan my memory to corroborate that I still know his nicknames for me, that I can still hear the cadence of his voice. Most of the time I can’t stand it, though. I have to stay above the grief or I will be beneath it forever, I think.

Chris loads me up with metal disks, weights tucked into my vest to drag me down under the surface of the water. “Stop holding your breath,” Chris tells me. Air floats, I sink a few feet every time I exhale. I am stubbornly buoyant, I empty my lungs and still remain close to the surface. More weights.

I wasn’t allowed to dive until I turned 18, my parents were convinced the pressure would stunt my growth— “and you don’t have inches to spare,” my mother would say. I’ve researched it since, there is no scientific basis for this fear, but it kept me from diving sooner. It kept me from diving with my father.

After the boat takes the group home, we sit at the sand-encrusted picnic tables at the dive shop. Our wetsuits half peeled from our bodies, our skin caked in salt, we begin recounting every fish we saw on the dive and scribbling each sighting in our small blue notebooks. There is a guidebook to flip through, other divers to debate an identifying blue fin or yellow spot. I am hopeless at the task, the fish fade to a blur and my visual memory fails when it comes to the crucial specifics. My notes are reliant on the assumption that I have seen exactly what everyone else did.

I dream of my father on a boat, the wind whipping his hair back from his forehead, his eyes even bluer against the backdrop of sea and sky. He wears a wetsuit and slowly empties out of it, like sand in an hourglass, turning to dust until the black neoprene is a corpse-shaped husk.

I am on the surface of the water, Perhentian Kecil in the distance. I am crying. Chris is telling me that this place is beautiful, and that I can stay in the boat, if I’d like. I sputter and choke on the cusp of salt air and salt water. I am sick with desperation, tired of my own tears. I take a deep breath. I put my mask back on. I descend. I try again.


Allya Yourish is from Portland, Oregon and currently lives in Ames, Iowa. She was a nanny in Paris, France, a Fulbright grantee in Kuala Krau, Malaysia, a news assistant for the New York Times, and now she is getting her MFA in Creative Writing and the Environment from Iowa State University. Her work is forthcoming or has appeared in The Citron Review, Terrain, Nixes Mate, ALOCASIA, and more. In her spare time, she buys too much nail polish and tells everyone to look at the moon. Find her on Twitter @AllyaYourish.