Lost One In: A Plan B Essay
I bargained with God once—even wanted my poor mother—in a flooded cave in central Florida. Let me out. Let me finish my book. For about three electric seconds the fanged rock through which I crawled yielded like warm flesh.
Another time, I got lost inside a shipwreck, in the North Channel between Lakes Superior and Huron.
I’d just finished ratcheting myself up the steel staircase from the engine room where my breath exhaust dislodged ferrous debris the size of poker chips. My boyfriend was still down. I hung around a few minutes. And then, craving still more sights, trained and equipped to solo—and probably a little stoned from the narcotic effects of nitrogen in the tanks of air I was breathing at this depth, under such pressure—I swam farther in.
A peep show of tiny rooms lined a narrow corridor. An ochre-stained sink. An upright rubber boot overflowing with mud. Levitating in the frigid water, I reached out to steady myself against a door jamb and by accident palmed a mud puppy, a type of aquatic salamander, unusual but not unheard of in these realms. Illumined by the powerful light I carried: blunt antediluvian head, star-cold eye regarding me back. Enchanté, brilliant alien. Even the wreck itself, this steel and wood cage, seemed a living organism, host to what lay secreted away in a habitual dark but for my awed presence.
I poked about some more. Such transport. Until a startled lingcod or a compromised beam or strut or my brass-tacks partner, aggrieved by my dilatory sightseeing—how increasingly we’d squabbled over dive plans—sent me ass over teakettle through the silt and I trashed the viz.
Once I settled—blindly figured floor from ceiling, understood alive, still breathing—shame struck. Profound fear—that too. But what clawed me most was this: despite my geeked-out multiplicities of life-sustaining gear, hard-won regimens of independence, insurgent belief in accomplishments, including my first book published and second project begun, here—inside a remote labyrinth—I’d fucked up.
In truth, I knew. So much for my prideful mask of self-invention. Like my mother, who’d succumbed for much of her adult life to chemical cocktails, I, too, foundered in the poisons of an abusive relationship, emotional treachery, deceit. Self-deceit. The smudged interior was me.
Somehow I bellied down, remembered to just basically breathe. And in soul-sucking blackness—possessed, for reasons still unfathomable to me, of sheer dumbass luck—on hands and knees I wormed my way out.
For a while I had it all figured. This writing thing, diving thing—snakes entwined in a transfiguring codependence. An Orphic conception that drove me to abandon my editorial day job and stay up all night excavating language, character, story. A swashbuckling idea I’d previously been too afraid to possess but which, unleashed, raced me to deep-drunk dives where I actually heard the blood blipping through my body, its arterial channels spiked with siren-call. To a state where I could fancy that narcosis brume as mist on the estuarial fields of the mind. To continue to dive even for a little longer after that close call in the wreck. Writing, diving: in both, I pushed back the darkness, emerged transformed.
And then I quit diving. Big duh: closer calls, not much left with which to bargain.
I reasoned. Maybe writing held its own as worthy exploration. Might require more of me, might require—well, me. Shorn of its partner, writing might be heartsick for a time, but it—and I—might survive.
And then damned if that second book didn’t chew me over for years before finally spitting me free.
On one of my last-ever underwater excursions, I met a wolf eel. This encounter materialized in the Pacific, off British Columbia’s Sunshine Coast. Apparently, the creature took one look at me and, teeth bared, bolted partway from its hiding hole between two submerged boulders to derrick back and forth. Like an endless revising of the distance between us, we bobbed, staring each other down until—in a non-navigable agon of exalted fascination and wincing, apologetic voyeurism—I finally moved on. But, god, what a mug. Wizened, ferocious. Scared—that I clearly divined. Thrilling to witness, and yet I felt bad, still do, for stressing her so far out.
Elise Levine is the author of a story collection, Driving Men Mad (McClelland & Stewart, 2003), and a novel, Requests and Dedications (McClelland & Stewart, 2005). Her work has appeared in publications including Hotel Amerika, Joyland: A Hub for Fiction, Sententia, Prairie Schooner, and Best Canadian Stories. She lives in Baltimore, Maryland.