Published in Overland Issue 238 Autumn 2020 · Fiction Pinches Emily Barber ‘I can’t snorkel to save myself,’ you say, wriggling into your bathers. Rudi tugs on board shorts. ‘You’ll be fine. You’ll love it.’ He smears on sunscreen and steers you out of the pandan-thatched bungalow. Past your plunge pool, under the frangipani, through gardens giddy with crotons. At the villa gate you mount rusty bicycles. ‘I get panic attacks on the reef,’ you say, releasing your kickstand. ‘Yeah?’ Rudi says, eyes seaward. He darts by you, turns onto the dirt road and weaves under coconut palms. He flies by a spearmint mosque and through a peep of chickens. ‘Hey, wait!’ Your chest is constricting and with each pang comes a vision. Snap: Rudi bats your hand from his thigh like an irritated pope. Snap: Rudi marches through customs as if travelling solo. Snap: Rudi confounds your chatty driver with his sullenness. You pipe up again. ‘Snorkelling’s triggering for me. I had this bad experience off the island where Steve Irwin died – ’ If Rudi’s listening, he doesn’t show it. He brakes at a bead-strung warung and drops his bicycle. You do the same. Out the front, a spry local is peddling snorkelling gear. He smiles as you approach. ‘Selamat siang,’ you test your primary school Bahasa. ‘Siang,’ the old man sings. ‘Nama saya Handi,’ he indulges you. ‘Siapa namanya?’ ‘Sylvie,’ you nod, ‘and this is Rudi.’ Handi chuckles. He passes a blue mask and snorkel to Rudi and an orange set to you. ‘Honeymoon? Just marry?’ ‘She’s not my wife,’ Rudi says, alien in his foggy mask. Handi raises an eyebrow. ‘Why no marry?’ ‘She hasn’t asked me yet,’ he deadpans. ‘I’d like to,’ you catch Handi’s eye as he adjusts your mask straps, ‘but Rudi’s divorced.’ Handi looks blankly at you. You blush, start to babble. ‘He says he never wants to get married again.’ Rudi blasts air through his snorkel. ‘Too bad,’ Handi grins. He pulls full foot fins from a bucket and winks. ‘Snorkelling free for honeymoon!’ ‘Ha!’ You can feel your cheeks burning. You find your purse and wrestle with rupiah. ‘Berapa haganya?’ On your bicycles again, you follow signs to the beach. Rudi navigates narrow, acacia-fringed lanes, dodging cows and jingling pony carts. He forges ahead as though his oxidising step-through were a slick fixie. You try to keep up, your mask and snorkel dangling noose-like from your handlebars. You wave at children playing outside shop fronts threaded with Mi Goreng packets. ‘Salam!’ you greet an old woman sweeping her porch. You smile at boat builders working in the shade of she-oaks. Rudi is so far ahead. You paw at your tightening ribs. Snap: Rudi is too tired to have sex. Snap: Rudi withdraws for hours into a mediocre novel about a stoic man subsisting alone on Mars. Snap: Rudi sends back the sambal tempeh you ordered because he thinks it contains shrimp. ‘So,’ you shout, ‘I’m snorkelling off Low Island –’ Rudi fixes his gaze on the sea. You engage your diaphragm. ‘When I get into trouble!’ He only has eyes for the beach. ‘Rough conditions. Water in my snorkel!’ He peddles harder. ‘I can’t breathe. I try to surface but it’s choppy and I’m shredding my knees on the coral –’ You pass a French couple on pushbikes. He glides by, all suntan and wet hair. She skulks behind a weave basket trimmed with fake flowers. Her pruney left hand sports a wedding band that glares in the sun. ‘Attends,’ she calls but he sails on, muscular and oblivious. You address Rudi’s retreating back. ‘I’m bleeding and hyperventilating, worrying about sharks and coral spore infection –’ He keeps peddling. ‘I almost drown. I swallow so much water. I need stitches.’ You rub at raised scars on your knees. ‘Not to mention therapy. PTSD, my psychologist says.’ Rudi pushes on. On the shore, you rest your bikes against a casuarina. Before you, a cyan sea stretches to the horizon. Rudi bundles his towel and places it under the tree, never tearing his gaze from the water. Entranced and mute, he makes for the seagrass shallows. You kick off your sandals, watch as he wades into the blue and fastens his flippers. You frown, clench your hands into fists. Snap: Rudi insists on wearing the linen shirt he got married in. Snap: Rudi tells you not to laugh so loudly, the other tourists might complain. Snap: Rudi pulls from your kisses. ‘Wait for me!’ you say, throat knotting. You drop your towel, pull your mask and snorkel down around your neck, seize your fins and stride the sand to the water’s edge. Rudi is already waist-deep, his trapezoid back glistening. You see him slide his mask on, bite the snorkel mouthpiece and lower himself into the water. He prostrates himself over the coral, only the crown of his head and snorkel barrel visible. In the shallows, the water is cool and weeds tickle your feet. Sea urchins jut from sand sharp with coral. How Rudi marched in is beyond you. You pad in like a heron, lifting each tentative foot and surveying the sand. Water laps at your calves. You stand still for a moment, shade your eyes and scan the sea. Your breathing quickens. Where is Rudi? You pan left, right, left again, but the surface is undisturbed, its filmy turquoise boasting no snorkel. ‘Rudi!’ you call, sloshing in deeper. Your heart vaults. Knee deep, thigh deep, you hurry in. Your foot catches on something and, felled, you drop your fins and sprawl headlong into water that whooshes and heaves. You tumble onto soft coral. Floundering, you find your feet and kick up. You surface, spluttering, then gasp and breathe. You tread the coral. It’s okay. You’re okay. Nearby drift your fins. Much farther away, sixty metres maybe, is Rudi’s tell-tale snorkel barrel. You retrieve your fins and, not without difficulty, put them on. Breast deep, your mask on and mouthpiece between your teeth, you lower your face and peer into the water. You stay like this, your breath rattling through the snorkel as you look around. Flashing before you zip butterfly fish, and, from an anemone below, a vermillion clownfish. The coral, now you’re really looking at it, is stunning and so varied. You note fleshy tentacles and orange polyps, starry corallites and pink lobes that remind you of labia. There is fuzzy branching coral and red brain coral, coral in plates and tubes. Everywhere flit banded sergeant major fish and Moorish idols. You even spot a surgeonfish. You spy Rudi swimming even farther out. Keeping your breathing even, you strike out in his direction, taking in the reef, the fish, the sea sounds as you go. You see a moray eel retreat into its hole, and a yellow boxfish, all lips and beauty spots – a veritable Marilyn. Where the reef drops into a sloping wall, you swim up behind Rudi. He’s hovering over a metre-long hawksbill turtle. The turtle is feeding, tilting its head and snapping at coral with its beaky mouth. Rudi is so fixated on the grazing reptile he doesn’t register your presence. He duck dives down and swims over the turtle, so close he could touch its stippled flippers and shell. You watch as he regards the animal with something approximating love, his body attuned to its every movement. He is transfixed, you think. He’s so attentive, so focused. An ache wrings out from deep beneath your sternum. Snap: Rudi waxes lyrical about his glamorous ex-wife. Snap: Rudi reminisces about their honeymoon on an obscure Melanesian atoll. Snap: Rudi calls out her name in his sleep. You tear your gaze from Rudi and the turtle. You’re snorting and sputtering. Before you know it, you’re inhaling water and your snorkel is inundated. Flailing, you wrench the mouthpiece from your teeth, tug the vacuumed mask from your face and gulp for air. You mash the water with your arms and legs. Even with your head clear, you can’t breathe properly, your lungs nervous knots that refuse to fill. It’s all you can do to take shallow nips of air and furiously tread water. Beside you, Rudi surfaces, fuming. He spits out his snorkel and pounds the water with a fist. ‘What the fuck do you think you’re doing?’ You thrash and fit. ‘He-help!’ Rudi glares at you, scarcely recognisable in his mask. ‘You’re ruining my turtle viewing.’ He clenches his mouthpiece between bared teeth, drags a lungful of air and drops away, steely as a submarine. Now the pain is so rib-splitting you think you’re in cardiac arrest. You fight to stay afloat, while somewhere below you drifts an indifferent Rudi. You claw and churn, ingest seawater while metres away he ogles his turtle. You swallow more water. Gargle, flap. Snap: Rudi forgets his wallet and you pay for dinner, again. Snap: Rudi just wants to shower alone, okay? Snap: Rudi says, ‘She’s not my wife.’ What the hell does Rudi think he’s doing? Is he watching from the depths as you drown? Or is he too besotted with his newfound, coldblooded love to even register your distress? Too self-involved? Too distracted? It wouldn’t be the first time. You channel your rage and ride out your anxiety. It takes a long time and a lot of dog paddling. Head above water, chin up, you focus on your breathing until each inhalation becomes deeper, slower. You scull and float, a supine star. You lie there, breathing through chest pangs. The water holds you and above you curves a screen of sky. Snap: Rudi wades into the sea without you. Snap: Rudi says, ‘What the fuck do you’re think you’re doing?’ Snap: Rudi pin-drops, leaving you to flounder. The solo swim back to shore is long and hard. You have to crawl against a current that threatens to sweep you back into turtle territory. You’re exhausted, your arms and legs weak with work. How easy it would be to succumb to the water’s pull! Your heavy limbs would pop from the carapace that is your bathing suit and you’d drop, reptilian, onto the reef with the hawksbill. There, amid the lobophyllia, your shell armouring you somewhat against rejection, you’d subsist forever on pinches of love – whatever you could snap from Rudi’s stony coral hands. Read the rest of Overland 238 If you enjoyed this piece, buy the issue Or subscribe and receive four brilliant issues for a year Emily Barber Emily holds a PhD in creative writing at the University of Melbourne. Her short fiction has appeared in Verity la and her nonfiction has been published in Hecate. More by Emily Barber Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places. 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