My sister and I took a snorkeling trip to the Florida Keys. This is an an abbreviated account of our travels.
Day 1 – Key Largo
We land in Key West and immediately drive up to Key Largo for the first half of our trip. My sister Jessie, an experienced snorkeler, says it has some of the best snorkeling spots in the world. I, never having snorkeled, trust her.
After much difficulty, we find our AirBnB. It is fine, nothing special, though it is certainly better than the tent my sister wanted us to camp in. She is very cheap, my sister.
I set up my travel carbon monoxide detector and we change into our swimsuits. Jessie coats herself in a natural sunscreen that looks exactly like diaper cream. It does not rub in at all. Unaffected, she moves through the world, a trail of white paste in her wake.
We cannot find a public beach access point so we pretend to be guests at the fancy resort nearby. We try to play it cool at the gate, but I am a terrible liar and Jessie looks like a Carnival Cruise ship ghost. Inexplicably, the guard decides to help our cause. He tells us the beach is off-limits to non-guests, but that if we eat at the restaurant, he would turn a blind eye if we then slunk onto the beach.
We agree to this plan. I avoid looking at his name tag in case we are captured and questioned. The less everyone knows, the better.
Jessie and I enjoy a lovely meal on the water and creep down to the beach. I keep my hands in my pockets to hide the fact I do not have a wristband. Jessie says this looks infinitely more suspicious. We swim for a bit and drive home, incredibly smug with ourselves for pulling off such a stunt.
Night 1 – Key Largo
Karma strikes under the cover of darkness. It comes first for Jessie. I awake with a jolt to find her puking in a sauce pan at the edge of our bed. She is violently ill for hours, no doubt as payment for our illicit beach romp. I ask her if she’s okay. She’s not. I put on my noise canceling headphones and nervously await my turn to be smote.
Day 2 – Key Largo
Morning comes. I’ve been spared. Jessie is still nauseous, so we reschedule our boat trip. We instead go to the public beach where I can practice snorkeling from the shore. Jessie gives me a brief lesson before popping a Pepto Bismol and collapsing onto the sand. I wade into the water and practice, occasionally waving back to Jessie like an eager child seeking an absent mother’s attention.
We leave when I mistake a large fish for a shark.
Jessie sleeps off whatever food poisoning or bug she’s caught while I explore Key Largo alone.
Day 3 – The Atlantic Ocean
We wake up bright and early for a full day of snorkeling. Jessie, a new woman, promises me the time of my life.
The waves are categorized as “moderate.” This worries me. I take a Dramamine and we catch a boat out to the reef.
We arrive at the reef after 30 or 40 minutes. I feel okay, not great, but Jessie tells me I’ll be much better when I get in the water. I’ll be fine, she says, as soon as I’m off the boat.
This is her first lie. And she knows it.
We gear up and jump in. I see some fish and coral. I’m excited. Jessie takes my photo with the underwater camera we splurged on. The memories, we reasoned, would be worth it.
It is the first and last photo we have of me in the water.
Jessie points to a spot the captain recommended. I follow her out but it’s slow going. The waves knock me around and I struggle to keep up.
I see some more fish and coral. They look exactly like the fish and coral I saw earlier.
Another wave hits me and I feel like I’m going to throw up, which confuses me. People get seasick on boats, not in the actual sea. Right?
Jessie said once I was off the boat I’d be fine.
I have to be fine.
Why am I not fine?
Minutes pass and I realize two things:
1: Jessie is a liar.
2: I don’t give a fuck about any of these fish.
I pop my head up to find Jessie and tell her this. She is yards away, which might as well be miles. I yell for her. She yells back.
“Are you okay?”
I stare back at her, too embarrassed to scream the truth in front of so many happy families.
“Keep moving, Jo! You have to keep moving!” she yells
But I can’t keep moving. I can’t put my head underwater.
I consider pulling the emergency tab on my life vest. The captain said they’d come rescue us if we pulled the emergency tab.
I inflate my life vest to the max to make myself more visible. I close my eyes and wrap my arms around myself, completely upright, praying someone will see me and drag me by my neck back to the boat.
No one does.
I spy a boat nearby. I have no idea if it’s our boat, but I don’t care. I plan to climb aboard and demand sanctuary, which I assume will trigger some ancient maritime law to ferry me back to the shore.
I swim for what feels like hours towards the boat. With a thrill, I realize it is ours.
I am the first snorkeler to return.
I heave my body aboard and crawl to the nearest bench. In my thrashing, my bathing suit bottom has become a thong, but I don’t have it in me to fix it. I curl into a ball and wait, ass up, for death.
The sun beats down on my bare butt but I am too sick to care.
People begin to return.
I hear them excitedly clamber aboard and then pause at the foot of my bench.
I am a fallen snorkeler. And they’ve come to pay their respects.
Children scurry past me.
A kind woman applies pressure to my wrist.
A couple (incorrectly) states that we’re heading to ANOTHER snorkel spot.
I begin to cry.
Jessie climbs aboard, one of the last snorkelers to do so. I sit up and stare at her for a moment before turning my head to the side and puking into the wind.
Everyone is back on the boat now. We are ready to leave, but the captain does not start the motor.
Instead, the captain begins to name local fish. All of them. In detail.
No one speaks.
The boat is silent.
His speech rings loud and clear, punctuated only by the sounds of my retching.
Jessie, now embarrassed for me, panics.
“Start the boat, start the boat, start the damn boat,” she chants under her breath, like we’re in a horror movie and some deadly sea monster is swimming our way.
He doesn’t start the boat.
Two teenage girls point to the water near me. Fish circle under my head like vultures. People stand to get a better look.
“Start the boat, start the boat, start the fucking boat,” Jessie continues.
The captain finally starts the boat. We head back to shore.
Days later, when I prepare to fly home, I do not pack my snorkel gear.