Eliza Snelling (Brooklyn College, US)
At first the submarine was just a weekend toy. It was unusual, of course, but not in any way worrisome. After all, plenty of Ronny’s childhood friends owned boats. Ronny’s parents had even offered to buy him a boat shortly after they had heard that his girlfriend, Denise, had thrown up on the Staten Island Ferry. So they were surprised, but not shocked, when Ronny told them that he had bought the submarine.
Denise was nervous the first time she entered it.
“Maybe you should go without me,” she said, standing on the dock, watching the periscope bob like the head of a swimmer in distress. Ronny’s piloting instructor, a man he had found fortuitously through Craigslist, was already lowering the entry stairs, politely pretending he couldn’t hear their conversation.
“I want us to be together the first time. Please,” Ronny said.
Denise wondered how they would get rid of the smell if she vomited a hundred feet underwater.
“Is there even anything to see this time of year?” she asked.
“Only one way to find out.” He smiled with a nerdy imitation of rebelliousness that reminded her of how much she loved him.
The instructor summoned them over to the stairs and they stepped carefully down through the hatch.
The submarine was tube-shaped. On the left there was a built-in bed with drawers underneath and on the right was something which had been called a kitchenette in the ad. It was a single pillar consisting of a mini-fridge at the bottom, then a microwave, and then a convection oven. At the very top there were two electric burners, but they were too high to be used without a step stool. Next to the appliances, Ronny had placed a bookshelf, bolted securely into the floor. At the back of the submarine, a narrow door led to a bathroom.
Denise looked at the contents of the bookshelf as Ronny and the instructor situated themselves at the controls. The top shelf contained books about marine geology and biology while the second shelf had thick volumes including works by Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, all with Post-it notes sticking out at rakish angles.
Ronny was supposed to be a prelaw student. But, a few months earlier, he had started taking Introduction to Marine Sciences with Professor Howard MacMillan. He had registered for the course reluctantly, taking it only to fulfill a distribution requirement. But then, after his first day of class, he spent all of dinner asking her questions like “Did you know that 90 percent of the earth’s volcanic activity occurs underwater?” and “Did you know that there are about 250,000 marine species?” Two months later, he’d bought the submarine.
Denise picked up a copy of Cosmopolitan which Ronny had thoughtfully tucked in between the law books. As she flipped through hair styles and sex tips she tried to block out the rhythmic swaying of the submarine, consciously taking regular, deep breaths.
“Remember, nice and easy on the pedal,” the instructor said to Ronny just before Denise felt her body plummeting. Her fingers were crossed and her eyes shut when the movement of the submarine steadied.
She decided that she would never do this again and opened her eyes.
Through the porthole, she saw a rippling of silver, folds of scales slowly gliding past the glass with the inanimate majesty of a flag caught in the wind. The scales gave way to a fin. Then the fish was gone and Denise looked out at the open water. It was gray and murky so that, until there was movement, she saw nothing. Then, deep within the gloom, she saw a flapping, a darting, a school of tiny line-like fish pursued by a large, gray bulk.
She realized she didn’t feel sick. Now that they were totally submerged and there were no waves to rock them, the submarine moved smoothly, gliding down toward the ocean floor.
“This is it!” Ronny exclaims, staring at the violet-tinted LED screen that reports their depth as 11,001 meters. They are one meter deeper than the lowest known elevation in the world.
Ronny pulls Denise into an embrace, then a kiss. She runs her hand through his hair, but even as he is kissing her, Ronny watches the final number on the digital display turn from a one to a two.
“It’s amazing,” he says. He shifts his gaze from the instrument panel to the front window, which reveals a panoramic view of uninterrupted darkness.
“What now?” Denise asks.
“Now we think of a name.”
Less than six months after their first trip, Ronny started to talk about giving up his apartment to live full-time on the submarine.
“It would just make more sense,” he said to Denise as they ate grilled cheese sandwiches in his kitchen.
“What about during the week, when you have class?” Denise asked.
“The dock isn’t that far away. Twenty, thirty minutes from campus, max,” Ronny said, “And besides, I can stay with you on nights when I have class early the next morning.”
“You’ve really thought this all out.”
“Yeah, I mean. I’ve done some thinking.”
“I’ll miss you,” Denise said.
“You’ll see me as much as you do now. More probably. We can find you a nicer place with some of the money I’ll save not paying rent.”
But every apartment they looked at was in some way worse than the one she already had, and she lived with roommates so Ronny never actually stayed over on weeknights. Instead he stopped going to class. He only went on campus on Tuesdays for Advanced Marine Topography: Methods and Theories—a course which, his academic advisor had informed him, did not fulfill a single one of his degree requirements. After class, Ronny went to Professor MacMillan’s office, where he would stay until around six. Then he’d meet Denise for dinner before taking her back to her apartment where they’d sometimes have sex. At eleven or twelve he would drive through the dark to the dock and sink under the water again.
Denise looks out the porthole above the bed as Ronny watches the numbers on the display continue to climb. She can see her washed-out reflection, a ghost in the glass, and she examines the window for cracks. She thinks of the webs of frost that she saw on car windshields as a child on subzero days in Illinois.
“It was the window, right. That’s what you said? On the Trieste?” she asks.
“They made it to the surface.”
“But they only went 11,000 meters.”
“It was 1960,” he says. He runs a finger gently over the seal around the edge of the glass. “Maybe MacMillan Deep,” he says.
“As a name for the crevasse. MacMillan Deep.”
Denise goes back to looking for cracks in her reflection.
Denise moved in with Ronny on the submarine for all the same reasons as she had moved in with boyfriends before: because she was afraid he couldn’t survive without her, because she was afraid she couldn’t survive without him, and because he had stopped giving her money to help out with her rent. Ronny smiled when she told him, and together they moved her bed, her dresser, and her winter coats into the storage room that he had already rented for his skis, golf clubs, and seven suits.
As spring came and the water grew warmer, they started diving. Denise liked the silence of it, holding hands as they pulled air from the tanks strapped to their backs. They found seaweed that looked like witches’ hair and long prehistoric eels. Denise bought fish tanks that could be hung from the ceiling of the submarine and Ronny caught glow-in-the-dark jellyfish to fill them. Sometimes, before they went to sleep, bodies matched tightly against one another on the narrow bed, they turned off the lights and talked in the glow of the jellyfish. When Ronny got the letter from the university, he waited until they were alone together, their faces washed in that bluish, tentacled light before he told her.
“They kicked me out,” he said.
“What?” She set down the murder mystery that she couldn’t see well enough to read anyhow.
“I’ve been on academic probation. I didn’t tell you. Now I’m not anymore.”
“You can re-enroll next semester, right? Can’t you?”
“No, I can’t. And I wouldn’t anyhow.” He put his hand on her cheek. “I’m sorry.”
“Let’s go somewhere,” she said. “We can do that, right? Go south. See dolphins.”
“Yeah, we can see dolphins,” he said, and a week later they did: miniature gray rainbows rising out of the waves in the distance when they surfaced.
At 12,021 meters, the numbers on the display stop changing. Denise watches the one, waiting for it to morph into a two, but it doesn’t. She feels they are hanging in a gap in time, a pendulum caught off-center.
“Are we stopped?” she asks Ronny.
“I think the meter’s just malfunctioning,” he says. “I’m sure we’re still moving. I can feel it.”
“Maybe we’re at the bottom.”
“There’d be sediment. We’d kick up sediment if we hit the bottom.”
“Can you fix it?” she asks.
“No. I’d have to get someone from the dealership to look at it.”
It occurs to Denise that even if they are still going down, even if they reach the deepest point in the ocean, they won’t know how deep it is.
The day after Denise saw wild dolphins for the first time Ronny asked her, “Did you know that MacMillan says the deepest point in the ocean could be in the Atlantic, not the Pacific?” She was standing on a step stool, checking to see if the water she was heating on the electric burner had come to a boil yet.
“No,” she said.
He explained MacMillan’s theory, telling her about the tidal evidence and the disturbance of ordinary biological distribution patterns. He lowered his voice a little when he talked about the omissions in sonar maps of the area.
“It’s not far from here,” he said.
After that, instead of travelling near the surface, where they had once floated through sunny currents alongside paper-thin stingrays, they plunged into the ocean’s depths. The water got darker and it became harder to see out the portholes. Now objects approached the glass without warning, materializing out of the darkness just before they hit. Occasionally Ronny would look at the display panels and then drive the submarine straight down toward the ocean floor at a kamikaze angle. They entered the worlds of the deepwater bottom dwellers: fish with bodies like neon tubes, eyeless crustaceans and sea cucumbers that looked like bits of sand that had come to life. Sometimes Ronny would fail to lift up quickly enough and they would land in sandstorms that turned the black water brown. The sonar system on the submarine was intended for recreation, not exploration; it could indicate if they were about to crash with another vessel but couldn’t tell them how much water lay between the soles of their feet and the bottom to the ocean.
The jellyfish in the hanging tanks died one by one. Denise begged Ronny to deal with them, but each time she asked, he told her he’d do it later. She was afraid to touch their translucent bodies. At night, when she went to bed, the light from the jellyfish was replaced by the glow of Ronny’s laptop screen.
One morning, after they had been underwater for four days, Denise turned on the overhead lights and Ronny told her to turn them off. “We have to conserve the generator battery,” he said. They started waiting until ten in the morning to turn on the lights, and they turned them off at eight in the evening. Sometimes Denise stayed in the bathroom for a long time after she was done so she would have an excuse to sit in the light.
Denise started reading Ronny’s marine science books. He had two shelves of them now; the law books were gone. None of them mentioned the possibility of a trench in the Atlantic. She read the one book on the shelf with the name Howard MacMillan on the spine. It was titled “Perilous Waters: An Examination of Convergent Threats Leading to the Endangerment of the Smalltooth Sawfish.” There was nothing about the crevasse.
Ronny paces and Denise looks out the porthole. She starts thinking she can see traces of things in the darkness: fins at first, illusory glimpses of motion, and then shark’s teeth and the discarded carcasses of the jellyfish she finally dealt with herself, putting them into the expulsion compartment which propelled their limp forms into the ocean, miles from where they belonged. She sees outlines of candy bar wrappers, then wings of birds, and then a rabbit, fat and leaping through the nearly opaque water. She thinks of the first boy she’d ever kissed: Dorito-flavored lips in a single-car garage.
Ronny walks into the bathroom as if it is a natural continuation of his pacing and closes the door.
While he is in the bathroom, Denise stands up, walks over to the instrument panel, and changes the course of the submarine. She points it upward, stepping on the pedal as gently as if she were walking onto ice. Then, before Ronny emerges from the bathroom, she pulls up her feet and reclines across the seat, pretending to be absent-mindedly gazing out the window. The meter continues to read 12,021 but she thinks she senses a slight motion, the feeling of being lifted.
Ronny opens the bathroom door as he is still pulling up his zipper. He looks wild, Denise thinks. He is unshaven and he has lost so much weight that his clothes no longer fit him. There are ink marks, red, black and blue, on his collared shirt.
She goes to him and feels his new beard.
“I’m sorry for getting you into this,” he says. “I should’ve come alone.”
“No, it’s better this way. It’s better that we’re together.”
“We’ll hit soon. I know we’ll hit soon.” He looks over her shoulder, toward the window, toward the instrument panel. She nibbles at his ear.
“Let’s make love,” she says.
“We’ll be the first ones to do it here.”
Denise kisses Ronny, her hands on his shoulders and she presses him down onto the bed. She doesn’t want to sleep with Ronny, but she can’t let him look at the controls and see the lever flipped to ascend. And it is possible, of course, that the jolt she felt was a hallucination. It is possible that they are still sinking deeper and will soon be crushed by the weight of so much water above them. She imagines for a moment that the submarine itself is cooperating in Ronny’s quest, implicated and unwilling to forfeit, carrying them deeper and deeper. She lifts Ronny’s shirt over his head, revealing the pale, almost luminous rectangle of his skin, like a block of sunlight sliced to shape by a narrow window.
Afterward, his skin is hot and moist as they lie beside each other. She leans in and is about to kiss him when, at the same moment, they both see a star-like orb of light floating outside the porthole. Beyond the light is the intimation of a shape. It is an angler fish, Denise thinks. They are returning to the realm of life. They are going up. Just after the orb passes out of view, they see a crisscross of neon.
“There’s life here,” Ronny says. He walks to the front of the submarine but doesn’t look down at the controls, just stares out the wide front window.
“There must be some sort of energy source down there,” he says. “Something that’s producing light and heat.” He stares reverently at the glass, his expression beautifully naïve, while the water slowly becomes brighter and less impenetrable.
Then he turns from the window and looks at Denise for a few seconds before he looks down at the controls.
“We’re going up,” he says. Before them, the shadows of fish are barely present in the darkness.
“You did this, didn’t you?” he asks.
Denise nods. She tries to kiss him, but he turns away and rolls down onto the bed. She watches as he lifts a hand to the porthole and runs his pointer finger along the glass, unevenly, as if he is tracing a river on a map. When he drops his hand out of the way she sees the frost-like crack. She doesn’t say anything. She lets him, like a blind person, come to understand the crack’s meaning with his fingers. Meanwhile the submarine continues to rise.
“Do you hate me?” she asks Ronny.
“Don’t do that. Don’t make me comfort you now.”
She takes out a mystery novel and is surprised that she is able to concentrate. She is still aware of Ronny, but his presence doesn’t prevent her from comprehending the words. He sits, nearly motionless, and she isn’t sure if he is looking at the view or the crack which could have killed them both.
Just after the detective notices that she is being followed, the depth meter returns to life. The lines flicker erratically for a few seconds, forming shapes that aren’t numbers, then they settle, reporting that the submarine is 54 meters from the surface, then 53. Ronny is still staring at the glass, now sucking on a lock of his hair, and so Denise checks the sonar screen to make sure they won’t hit anything when they surface. They are clear. She holds the submarine on a steady course until sunlight pierces through the water-streaked window of the hatch.
Eliza Snelling is a first-year Master of Fine Arts student in the fiction program at Brooklyn College in New York City. Her work has appeared twice in the Sarah Lawrence Review and is forthcoming in Wolf Review and The Writing Disorder. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from Sarah Lawrence College.