The Longest Breath

In  by March 10, 2023

Ayuko hadn’t spoken aloud since Mina brought her to Seven Palms nearly a month earlier. She was angry at her daughter for forcing her to leave Japan for Florida. At the same time, she resented Mina, her only child, for not making more frequent visits to the retirement home.

Ayuko avoided interacting with the Seven Palms staff and the other residents by pretending she didn’t understand English. She was frustrated with all of them for not speaking any Japanese. At first, the staff made an effort to communicate with her, introducing her to the other seniors. She remembered a few of their names, even if she’d never said them out loud. Sarah. Ana. Destiny. George. Kay.

Ayuko spent most of her days sitting alone in her room. Her window looked toward the new shoreline, where the main road headed straight into the bay. Downhill from Seven Palms, there had been a river and the rest of the town. Now, there was just brackish water.

Six months earlier, before Ayuko arrived, what the meteorologists referred to as a “thousand-year flood” had swallowed the town. When the waters from the bay flowed upstream, flooding the banks of the river, everyone evacuated in a hurry. The water kept coming, covering whole houses. Days passed, and then weeks, without the water level returning to normal. Aside from minor tidal changes, it wasn’t going anywhere.

From her window, Ayuko could see the steeple of a church. She had never seen the church itself, but she could tell if the tide was high or low by how much of the steeple was visible.  

The view made her sad, and she was glad Shin hadn’t lived to see it. Her husband had worked as a fisherman for many years, and after he retired and sold his boat, he had never been the same. A year later, he looked like he’d aged ten years. The doctors said his death was due to a heart attack, but Ayuko believed he had simply given up.

Sometimes she was tempted to give up, too, but her heart kept beating anyway. Ayuko was eighty-two, and back in Japan, she’d felt like she still had plenty of living to do. There, she was a free diver, swimming deep down on a single breath of air and bringing up pearl after pearl. She had been diving since she was a girl, following in her ancestors’ footsteps, until her own daughter put a stop to it.

“You can’t keep putting your body through that,” Mina had said. “It’s too dangerous for someone your age.” She insisted on bringing Ayuko to the United States, claiming she wanted her close by. Then, instead of letting Ayuko live with her and her husband, as tradition dictated, Mina had moved her mother into Seven Palms.

At night, in her dreams, Ayuko left her lonely, sterile room behind. She inhaled deeply and descended into the blue depths where she had spent so many years. When she awoke, she exhaled with a frustrated huff, returning unwillingly to the surface and to the dry dullness of her waking life.

Each day, one of the nurses escorted Ayuko to the TV lounge, while speaking to her slowly in English about how important it was to be social. Other residents walked to the shopping plaza up the street in the afternoons, but Ayuko sat in the lounge with the residents who were too incapacitated to leave. She found shopping in the giant American stores exhausting. Instead, she sat in silence, watching whatever the other residents put on the TV until the nurses let her return to her room.

Ayuko wasn’t the only new resident who disliked the home. Thousands of people had been displaced by the flood. Several of the older townspeople had rented rooms at Seven Palms, planning to stay only until their houses were once again habitable. It now seemed unlikely that day would ever come.

Mina had negotiated a good deal on Ayuko’s rent, since her room overlooked the flood. This was a view many of the new residents found depressing. Outside of the home, the road leading into the water was blocked off with orange pylons and a big sign that read: “No Admittance.” Local residents weren’t allowed to swim—or even take boats—through the area, since the flood had left it full of toxic chemicals and hidden obstacles.

One afternoon, it was raining, and many of the residents skipped their daily shopping trip to stay in the lounge and play cards or Scrabble. A few of the locals whose homes had been claimed by the floodwaters talked about what they missed most.

“My photo of Norm,” said a woman with curly white hair, “I kept it by my bed and always kissed it goodnight. I will never forgive myself for not packing it.”

“Did you live close by?” a lady named Kay asked.

“So close. Palm and 3rd. The yellow house kitty-corner from the New Hope Church. It’d be a two-minute walk from here if there wasn’t any water.”

A nurse named Steven had been listening in. He asked, “Have you looked into hiring one of those resurfacing teams? I hear they do a great job of bringing stuff up and cleaning it.”

The woman nodded, “They charge thousands of dollars. It’s such a racket. Only licensed resurfacers are allowed in the water, so it’s the only way to get your stuff back. I don’t have that kind of money, and the insurance company won’t cover it. It’s an act of god, they say.”

“I tell you, I wouldn’t want to get in that water, even with all the safety gear they wear,” said Steven. “My girlfriend works at the hospital, and they’ve had people coming in with that brain-eating amoeba thing. It used to only get people in fresh water, but all of the patients admitted they’d gone in the floodwaters. The doctors think the amoeba mutated. It can survive in saltier water now, and it kills almost everyone it infects. Get a little of that water up your nose, and you’re a goner.”

Ayuko resisted the temptation to roll her eyes. Only an amateur got water in her nose while diving.

The woman sighed, “What isn’t in that nasty water?”

“Manatees,” said Kay softly, and everybody got quiet, remembering that the slow-moving mammals were now believed extinct. The latest floods had been the last straw, destroying all of their remaining habitat.

The curly-haired woman sighed again, “We lost so much. I know it’s just stuff, but I miss that picture. It hurts to think about it starting to dissolve.”

“It may seem vain but I miss my pearls,” said Kay. “They belonged to my grandmother and I wore them on my wedding day. Now my granddaughter is engaged and I just wish ...” Her voice trailed off.

It was the mention of pearls that put the idea in Ayuko’s head. She’d spent her life diving for them, and she couldn’t help wondering, could she do it one more time? She wasn’t afraid of the pollution or the unfamiliar location. What did she have to lose? She missed the dives and how alive they made her feel. She missed the sense of focus that came from controlling her breath. She missed the way the water pressed against her body when she was down deep.

I could dive out there, she thought to herself. But could she really?

During the day, the staff monitored the residents’ whereabouts, expecting them to check in and out at the front desk. At night, she might be able to sneak out, but she’d never be able to find her way around underwater. She would need a light.

The next afternoon, Ayuko signed herself out for the first time and walked to the Target in the shopping plaza. In the sporting goods section, she found an empty aisle and a taped-up sign: “By order of the health department, we are unable to sell diving masks and equipment until further notice. All local diving areas are closed to the public due to pollution.”

Ayuko had never worn a mask to dive. She didn’t like the way they fogged up, making it hard to see, or the marks they left around her eyes when she took them off. In the next aisle, amid the biking and hiking supplies, she found what she was looking for: a waterproof headlamp.

She paid for it in cash, just in case Mina was tracking her spending.

Ayuko went to bed early and set an alarm on her phone for 1 a.m. When it woke her, she dug through her dresser for her swimsuit, but it wasn’t in any of the drawers. Mina must have taken it, probably to prevent a situation like this. Ayuko shook her head. That settled it.

She would dive without a suit.

She put on her robe and slippers, tucked the headlamp into her pocket, and walked quietly down the hallway. If anyone saw her, she would act confused, head for the kitchen, and make a cup of decaffeinated tea. Nobody spotted her. Ayuko slipped out the side door and propped it open with a small rock to prevent it from locking behind her.

A minute later, she stood at the water’s edge. She put on the headlamp, tightening the strap until it was snug, but left the light turned off. She removed her robe, folded it neatly, and tucked it under a bush with her slippers.

Looking out at the water, she took a deep breath. It smelled wrong. A little salty, but there was something else there. Something rotten. Something toxic.

She stepped forward into it and was surprised at its warmth. She walked in deeper, stepping gingerly, because she couldn’t see the bottom. When the water was up to her waist, she swam toward the church steeple. She was grateful that the curly-haired woman’s home was near one of the submerged neighbourhood’s only visible landmarks. When she neared it, she turned on the lamp and ducked her head beneath the surface. The water was too murky to see much, so she dived down farther to get a sense of how the block was oriented.

When she saw the yellow house, it occurred to her that she didn’t have a plan for getting inside. The doors and windows were probably locked and held even more tightly shut by the soaked, swollen wood. She hoped she wouldn’t have to break in.

She surfaced for a quick breath, then swam down again to take a closer look. That’s when she noticed an upstairs window had been left open. The woman must have left in a hurry during the first evacuation and forgotten to close it. Ayuko popped the window screen out and laid it carefully on the roof. Then she returned to the surface.

She would need more air this time. She turned the headlamp off and floated there for a few minutes, looking up at the stars. She breathed deeply, letting her body relax as she mentally prepared for the dive. She was naked and the night air was cool, but the goosebumps on her arms were from excitement.

When she felt ready, she inhaled until her chest was full, flicked on the headlamp, and began her dive. When she reached the house, she swam through the open window and down a wide hallway. She found the master bedroom at the end of the hall.

Ayuko had never been in an underwater house before, and the experience was disconcerting. In the dark expanse of water, the bedroom felt small, but compared to her bedroom in Japan, it was massive. The size felt wasteful to Ayuko, another example of American excess.

When she saw the small blue and white ceramic frame on the bedside table, she remembered the purpose of her dive. The photo looked intact, so she picked it up and returned down the hallway. She swam out the window, approaching the surface.

When she emerged, she was proud of herself for barely needing to catch her breath. The dive had been easier than she’d expected. She swam to shore with the frame in one hand.

When she reached the shore, she used the robe as a towel, and then put it on. She returned the headlamp to one pocket and slipped the frame into the other. She pulled her wet hair into a tight bun.

She had gotten away with it.

Standing there, looking out at the dark water, it occurred to her that she hadn’t encountered even a single fish. Was anything left alive out there? She might never know for sure—unless she returned for another swim.

Despite her concern for the sea life, Ayuko’s spirit was buoyed by the thought of future swims and by the knowledge that at some point the following day, she would sneak the little frame onto the curly-haired woman’s bedside table.

She headed back up to Seven Palms. Once again, she had a plan. If a night nurse stopped her, she would act as if she didn’t understand the rules. She made it back to her room unnoticed, the night nurses busy elsewhere.

Ayuko turned on the light and inspected the small ceramic frame. She rinsed it in her bathroom sink and carefully removed the photo from the frame so they could dry separately. Then she took a shower and went to bed. She dreamt of being back underwater.

By morning, the photo was dry. She was surprised at how well it had survived the six-month submersion. She put it back in the frame and tucked it into her bag. Then she got dressed and headed to the cafeteria. She knew she was carrying something precious.

As usual, the woman behind the breakfast counter said, “Good morning.”

For once, Ayuko didn’t ignore her. She said, “Good morning,” and smiled.

Copyright © 2022 Lisa Beebe. Originally published in Prism Review. Reprinted with permission of the author.

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Lisa Beebe

Lisa Beebe lives in Los Angeles, where she sometimes talks to the ocean. Her work has appeared in Five South, HAD, Indiana Review, Psychopomp, and Vestal Review, among others. Her story, “I (Palm Tree) Los Angeles,” was selected for the 2022 Wigleaf Top 50.

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