Second Largest Dragstrip
“Are we there yet?” MeiMei asked in a plaintive whine. “I have to pee.”
“You should have thought of that before we left Grandmother’s house,” Tuan answered from behind her.
Actually the peeing issue had been a little weird at first. The solution to such bodily processes had been to get out into the water, do whatever business was at hand, then climb back in. Kind of refreshing, and saves bundles on toilet paper, MeiMei had decided, but lacks a certain decorum. Could be worse, she had thought the second day of what Tuan called their “Paddle Our Asses Outta Here Tour”: she’d been spared dealing with even less decorous sanitation needs. Although about another week and that would be an issue as well. Meanwhile:
“You said we were half way to Belize, back by that bay. So we must be over the border by now.” The next big bay had been Chetumal, no doubt about that. Which would mean they were cruising along Caye Caulker. Definitely Belizean territory.
“Well, there’s an explanation for that.”
She’d learned he’d make her ask what the explanation was. So she did. And he said, “I’ve decided it makes more sense to sell you out to the bad guys.”
“Well you should have thought of that before,” she said reprovingly. “I might have brought a higher price before I got all sun-gnarled and prune-fingered and fright-haired, and calloused.”
He didn’t keep running with the gag, like he usually did. He was silent awhile, and she was aware of him moving cyclically behind her. Then he softly said, “I was thinking that it would be a shame for you to be this close to the reef cayes, in a small craft like this, and not get a chance to see them.”
“But you didn’t get around to mentioning the little scenic detour until I asked?” She found his reticence charming but spoke in a scolding voice.
“Well, see.” he continued to be flat and sincere. “I thought you might not go for it. And I was hoping you would.”
MeiMei thought about that for a hundred yards of smooth glide over the slight wind chop, then said, “And you don’t want this to be over, either?”
She could hear him blow his breath out, but he answered steadily. “As far as I’m concerned, we could keep this up indefinitely. I’m having the time of my life and enjoying the company.”
So he’d made her ask about that, too, she thought. Men. She said, “I only see one immediate problem,” and made him ask her about what it was.
What it was: “I actually do have to pee.”
She felt the subtle deceleration of the hull as he pulled his stroke and turned his blade sideways under the water. As the boat came to a halt, nosed nicely into the three inch riffle, he extended the paddle to stabilize the boat while she carefully stood up and prepared to jump flatfooted over the gunwales. But stopped and almost lost her balance when he spoke.
“Know what bums me out?”
“God only knows. You sure seem to take disasters, risks and small bladders in stride.”
“There’s no way to have a plank.”
She stared at him. Was this some nautical term that didn’t really mean what it did on dry land, like “head” and “galley” and “sheet”?
“So you could walk it,” he explained as if it should be obvious. “I took an internship in Piratical Sciences, and it’s how these things should be done.”
“First get an eyepatch, then worry about the niceties,” she said as she jumped daintily overboard in order to piss daintily into the ocean.
“It looks like a parking lot!” MeiMei protested. Or maybe a post-apocalypse freeway. This was the Belize Barrier Reef, second largest in the world, one of the largest objects on earth. And it looked like a dirty parking lot after a storm.
“Thanks for pointing that out,” Tuan said from the back seat. Because now that she mentioned it, it was like a two lane strip of grey limestone across the ocean, low waves on one side, lake-smooth on the lee side where they slid along as sleek as a Teflon steam iron. “The polyps just keep building higher and higher, into the sunlight and nutrient streams. Then they hit the surface and can’t go higher, so they spread laterally. And the top looks like old cement.”
“And it’s all littered. Where does that junk come from. Those tree trunks and stuff?”
Tuan made a tiny adjustment on his next stroke, turning the blade almost imperceptibly to glide the kayak closer to the reef. “Those ‘trees’ are coral, too.”
“No way!” But she saw it. Like huge stag corals. But laying around broken and battered, cluttering up the parking lot like trees after a tornado. Which, she realized, was exactly what they were. “They got broken off and tossed up here by hurricanes?”
“Exactly. Hard to imagine, isn’t it? And once they’re there, there’s not much is going to move them off.”
“God, I guess not. It’s incredible though, it’s like flying along the top of a mountain range. And knowing it was built up by googillions of little animals.”
“Mountain range is a good analogy. If we were flying by the top of the Rockies or Alps we’d be seeing bare rock. There aren’t many animals above the treeline and the peaks don’t even really have vegetation.”
“Let me guess, you’re a mountain climber, too?”
“I tried it. I don’t have much of a head for heights. But anyway, you move down the slopes, below the treeline, and the bare rockpile starts looking like an ecosystem. It supports all those life forms, and conditions their climate. Same thing here. Start down the slopes and it’s one of the richest, most beautiful bio-communities in the world.”
MeiMei peered over the side into the clear water. “I wish we could. Go down the slopes, I mean. See what lives right on the reef.”
She felt the kayak lose thrust, do that little nosedip she’d learned meant that Tuan had stopped paddling. She laid her paddle across the cockpit and turned to look at him. To see him pulling a mask and snorkle out from under the deck behind him. He brandished it in front of her face, grinning. “Thought you’d never ask.”
“Ever thought of asking me one of these days?”
“I’ve been giving it a lot of thought,” he said, then grabbed the gunwales and flipped the boat again, turning them both out into the warm, blue-streaked water.
MeiMei broke the surface, flipping her snorkle forward to clear it. She looked directly across at Tuan, his mask inches in front of her. “It’s unbelievable!” She didn’t care if she was gushing. The test dive back at Isla had been a staggering introduction to tropical underwater, but this was like some different world, some different universe. She’d been soaring over brain coral heads the size of SUV’s, sponges she could almost swim into and hide, schools of fish all turned out in Tuan’s not-quite-formulated “Tropical Pigmentation Protocol”. She was stunned and thrilled at once, excitement shining out of her eyes.
Tuan smiled, watching her with the same sense of wonder that had been growing in him for two weeks at sea. So delicate, so beautiful. But brainy and fun. A real treasure. He moved towards her until their masks touched. MeiMei stared into his eyes from inches away, the two of them opposite ends of tunnel of translucent silicon, divided by two panels of transparent lens. He finned lightly and reached out to rest his hands on her hips, delighting in the cool give to the flesh, to the sudden stillness that took over her Moon Goddess gaze.
He said, “I’ve been meaning to ask you something.”
She smiled and moved closer to him, hands on his shoulders and behind his neck to hold their heads together behind the double glass divider. “It’s about time.”