Welcome to Aileen Hewitt’s author page. If you would like to contact Aileen, please leave a comment below and she will be in touch shortly.
Aileen has worked as a public school English teacher, guidance counselor, and social worker. She is now in her fourth career, writing from her home in Old Greenwich, CT. She has been published in many places including the North Dakota Quarterly, CHILD magazine, and The New York Times.
FROM OUR SHOWCASE:
Readers of our first multi-author collection of short stories, MEMOIR, VOL. 1 and the now-defunct ‘Homework’ column in The New York Times will already be familiar with the work of Aileen Hewitt. For the rest, please enjoy!
STAYING ON THE SURFACE
by Aileen Hewitt
Several years ago, I became envious of the scuba diving friends vacationing with us in Akumal, the rustic Mexican diving resort my husband and I had visited for the past twenty years. Always a contented snorkeler, I now wanted what they had. Their gear was glamorous. The rituals of their suiting up and preparing their tanks and regulators fascinated me. I wanted to know more about the equipment and the rules of communicating underwater. And I wanted to drift along the face of the reef, forty feet down, amid the brilliant coral and schools of fish.
I considered diving lessons, but worried that a broken eardrum from a childhood diving board accident would be a complication. Even ambivalence can be pleasant when you are on vacation, and for the next three years, I entertained the same scuba/snorkel debate, settling into my week-long dithering as easily as into my beach chair. But I wasn’t getting any closer to making a decision, and along the way, the pleasures of snorkeling had begun to fade. Thinking about what I was missing caused me to miss what I was seeing.
It was my doctor who finally convinced me that two sinus operations and a broken eardrum did not augur diving success. Why couldn’t I just enjoy snorkeling? Good question, one that I had already begun to ask myself. I felt ashamed that I had allowed a steady pleasure to slip away.
I brought a new resolve and a new mask the next year. The first morning, I was in the water at dawn, leaving my husband and friends drinking coffee on the porch. The sun had just cleared the horizon, casting a dazzling white ribbon across the mirror of the bay. During the past year, swimming laps at home, I had daydreamed about this moment, but hadn’t anticipated the effects of the sunrise. Below the surface, the sun’s rays made a path of light, beckoning me out, past the massive brain corals and waving sea fans, into deep water. I was a bit spooked by the otherworldliness, but also entranced, unable to resist the pull of the light. I swam out, with 30 or 40 feet of visibility in every direction.
As if by magic, the sea turtles appeared at the limit of my vision, heading toward me, like fat birds flapping stumpy wings. There were five of them, ranging in size from two feet to four feet. I had hoped to see them during the week, but never presumed they would make such a dramatic appearance. I swam aside and got behind them, awed by their look of ancient gravity, timing my arm strokes to theirs. We swam in the light path until we were back in shallow water, over a grassy bottom, where they began to eat breakfast. They favored the shortest grass, the new growth, the way a discriminating chef prefers the tender mesclun lettuce.
More turtles arrived, one missing a right front flipper. I was upset at the first sight of it, but the turtle did not seem at all troubled by the injury. I stayed with them for more than an hour, until I felt very much like a turtle myself, lifting my head out of the water when they surfaced to breathe, making eye contact. There is something innocent and improbable about a turtle’s body, but the eye is knowing and world-weary, jaded even.
Then, as if by some signal, they all headed back for deep water. Perhaps they knew that when the dive boats began to operate, they were vulnerable. Several had scars on their shells where I assumed a propeller had gashed them.
I was with nine turtles that first morning. Over the course of the week, I joined them for breakfast and watched them groom themselves, heaving sand onto their backs and scraping it with their flippers to dislodge parasites. In the afternoons, they were in deep water, swimming with the strange shark-like remoras which attach themselves to the turtles’ shells with suction discs on their heads. The snorkeling I had done before was nothing like this. A bit ruefully, I realized that the turtles had probably always been there at dawn, when I was lying in bed wondering whether or not I could be a scuba diver.
The next year I found the school fish. One afternoon, in deep, perfectly clear water, fifty feet or more, I was suddenly surrounded by a school of bar jack. A child’s cartoon fish, the jack has a perfect profile, the foot long body tapering to a tiny waist before rising up in a surprise of tail. Singly, they are not especially colorful, but massed together they pulsed with iridescent lavender. These were so thick I couldn’t see the ocean floor, just their swirl and flow around me. The school acted as one organism, curving apart, and then, with a flashing turn, re-forming like a stream of mercury. Suspended on the surface, weightless, bobbing rhythmically, I soon lost all sense of land life. I felt I could breathe the water.
There were over 100 varieties of fish in the bay: dainty angel fish and wrasse, like enameled jewels; party colored parrot fish with their silly looking bee-stung lips; yard long trumpetfish standing on their heads; huge lumbering grouper and hog fish that always startled me – something THAT big must be dangerous; the torpedo shaped great barracuda, quietly menacing as he swam parallel to me, though my diving friends said he was just curious.
I never tired of looking at these fish, but it was the schools that I sought. I wanted that out-of-body experience, the thrill of being completely disoriented by a visual blitz. The jacks were there almost every day, and the blue-black tang. Very dark above, and silver below, the tang gave the impression of disappearing. When the light was right, massive blocks of fish wheeled and popped right into another dimension, invisibility. It knocked me out every time.
It has been five years since I last wished for scuba gear. Now, I go deeper by staying on the surface. Not governed by the time limits of diving, I spend hours in the water. And because I almost lost my pleasure in snorkeling, I have reclaimed it with zeal. It is no longer a mere vacation pastime to me, but a source of wonder, of insight, of boundless delight.
The schools of fish still engulf me. When I want to visit the turtles, I look for their patches of cropped grass and wait for them. I see the same individuals every year, the one with the missing flipper, the ones with the gashed shells, the brown one with all the barnacles. I think of them often when I am at home, amazed at their constancy, amazed that I know where they are, always. When I close my eyes, the curve of the bay is there, the dive boats rocking on the surface and the turtles below.
Aileen is currently at work on a collection of essays. To contact her, please CLICK HERE.
To read more of her work, CLICK HERE to read an excerpt of Aileen’s memoir, ‘The Memorial Service’.
To read the whole of ‘The Memorial Service’, CLICK HERE to buy MEMOIR, VOL. 1.