by John J. Clayton
Adam Fishman-the name, with its assimilated spelling, fits the man, an American Jew who flies his family to the Caribbean for vacations. Where doesn't matter, but the snorkeling has to be terrific so he can commune with his fish. Senior copywriter in a large agency, while he fishes in his brains for seductive copy, he dreams down into pixels that swim his computer screen. Fishman sighs for a return to clear waters-sighs partly because he's having trouble breathing these days, as if the air's too thin or too thick. Sometimes he gets dizzy. Thank God, a vacation's due him for the days he missed last summer when the agency was in the midst of a hard sell to client. That night he dreams of water and wakes to find himself curled up behind Nan. Saturday morning at services he's given the honor of an aliyah and a blessing before leaving for two weeks.
They fly to a place where he doesn't read the papers, doesn't listen to the news on NPR, though even here on St. John, the ongoing suffering that isn't called news, because it's nothing out of the ordinary, waits at the back of his head. But this is the vacation when he can teach Pete, who at seven loves to swim underwater, to snorkel-to float and dive and stare at the shimmer of blue and yellow fish streaming by in the clear water like a flag of some underwater country. To let go, almost sleep, breathing through a little tube, hardly needing to breathe at all, to make the slightest effort. He is breathed. And even when, leaving Pete with Nan, he plunges deep, searching caves under the coral to find the big squid the captain of the little boat has told them about, he has no trouble holding his breath; he's able to stay under long, long, long, while other members of the party return to the surface, dive, return, dive. Coming up, he's met by Pete and Nan-who says, "Pete was worried about you."
It's Nan who's worried, and she doesn't even know she has reason to worry, doesn't know his dizzy, choking sucking of breath of these past few weeks. Diving again, he enters a condition that feels like prayer, and there seems to be no question of breathing at all; it's as if he were wearing scuba gear. He's always swum like a fish. Bending his knees, he kicks deeper, further, till no one from the boat is visible, till the keel of the boat disappears, till the reef drops away into blackness. And it's here, down among the larger fish, solitary adult versions of the little ones in schools by the reef, iridescent blues and flame reds, that he realizes something unusual is occurring. He feels as if he's home-or at least as much at home as in the nightmare world above.
But of course, that's not saying a lot. When has he ever felt at home? His whole life hasn't he been an illegal immigrant with forged papers? Not so unusual. His fathers and mothers before him, back and back and back to the loss of the Second Temple, have been wanderers. Earlier, in fact. We've been wanderers since Abraham was told by God to pick up and go, go. We get along, breathing foreign air. At least now, in America, shouldn't we breathe easy?
But Fishman, asthmatic New Yorker, has been breathing with difficulty; he's soothed by this strange dark place.
"We were worried sick," Nan half-screams at him. Pete has been crying. Snorkelers stare. Fishman touches the subtle, perhaps invisible, slits on the sides of his neck, where the carotid artery shelters in the hollow of windpipe and muscles. Peculiar-that when, under the water, he brushed his fingers from jaw to collarbone, he felt, or didn't he, a faint ripple of openings, leaf-like, fringed; now, nothing. "It's an old capability-I used to win contests as a kid," he says. Not a lie. But by the looks he's getting, why, he must have been under for over a minute. Two minutes?
"Three minutes, maybe more. It felt like ten."
At this moment, he feels the great joy of breathing. Breath fills him. Nishmat kol chai . . . The breath, the soul, of every living being will praise Your Name. He feels flooded with breath. But he wants to dive again. There is such healing pleasure in dropping into an atmosphere that holds him, contains and supports him. And suppose he has mutated, grown gills, who knows-maybe, he thinks, through exposure to electromagnetic waves that night in the Laurentians last month, at the very top of the mountain, when he skied away from the lit-up slopes into unlit back country and saw the pulse of the northern lights. We come from the sea; in the womb we morph through fishlike being. Maybe he never lost his sea-being. Or it might be simple craziness from too little real life day after day-hunger for true life. "I didn't mean to scare you. I'm perfectly fine." He tumbles backward off the boat into the water, clears his mask; diving, he kicks down, down to fan coral, brain coral, creatures of the reef. He knows if he tries to breathe in an ordinary way down here, he'll drown like anyone else. But it's so peaceful. There's no strain. He touches his neck. Well? What is that he's feeling under the rough fringe of day-old beard?