When we were kids, my brother and I held underwater tea parties at the bottom of our backyard pool. We plunged headfirst toward the deepest depth, holding the bubbles in our noses, trying to preserve as much air in our lungs as possible on the way down. Before reaching the drain, the auspicious site for these gatherings, we would reverse our orientation and attempt to lower ourselves to the whitewashed concrete floor by sending the stored air out of our noses and scooping our arms through the water until we anchored. We would cross our legs and raise our hands in a grandiose wave across the pool drain that served as our tea table.
In the space of what could have only been seconds, we pantomimed our way through salutations, the sipping of tea, and the sharing of finger foods. We attempted conversation but the words, indiscriminate upon our lips, were lost altogether in the murk. Somewhere in between the sandwiches and the lemon squares, we would have each wiggled a free hand under the cap of the drain to give us some protection from the invisible forces that were doggedly fighting to pull us apart.
The first to dislodge from his perch and begin the reluctant drift upward would be grabbed by the ankle by the other and yanked back down for a last second, a final farewell. We would stare at each other through the bent light of water, our lungs burning in protest, waiting for the other to make an earnest move toward the top. Finally spent, I would kick off the floor, beating my legs in a desperate swirl as I grabbed my way toward the blue sky, and hope that we'd break the surface in unison. Sometimes we did and we'd smile through the water streaming down our faces. Other times I would slap my face underneath the water's top to see him still at the bottom, staring up at me.
I've been recalling these submerged moments lately because my life out of the water has felt a lot like those tea parties. A recent decision has sent me back to the pool floor where living under the pulverizing power of deep water makes the mere business of breathing something to consciously consider.
The process by which a couple arrives at this place is difficult to catalog. There are no markers along the way to help you identify when your lungs are just low or actually empty. And so you go along, each yanking the other back down by the ankle, hopeful there is more time. More will. More air.
We've been at the tea party for a long while, clasping that drain with time-brittled fingers. We have been staring at the other's face, distorted by the depth, the words from our mouths garbled in the liquid transom. It's unclear who stayed rooted and who went screaming for air — or who is to blame for the place they staked — but that doesn't really matter in a marriage. All that is important is that we're no longer at the table together. Some days it feels like I'm on the bottom. Other days it feels like I am bobbing at the surface. Then there are days where it feels as though we've both breached and can face each other through eyes no longer stung by chlorine and ears that have found a dry equilibrium.
Like I said, it's hard to know who floated away first. Whose breath expired. Who stopped yanking the other back down.