«David, dinner!” an accented crew member called. “Going to join us? «Almost hitting my head in the coffin-like bunk of the live-aboard, I replied, “Yep, be there in a moment.
«Scrambling in the dim light, I grabbed a T-shirt from my yet-to-be unpacked combination dive gear and civies bag. Slipping it over my head, I was now appropriately dressed for dinner and made my way up from the lower depths of the boat. In my hurry, I whacked my shin on the steep steps, making my first grand dinner entrance hunched over like Quasimodo as I rubbed the pain away.
“Good evening,” I said to one and all, straightening up to my full height. As faces and bodies turned my way, I was greeted by the far-flung corners of the world. A diving t-shirt from Palau covered a slightly growing paunch. Papua New Guinea faced me wedged between the Azores and the Maldives. Thousands of miles from the original Great Barrier Reef, a reasonable facsimile was putting her drink down. The names went on; South Africa, Thailand, Fiji; a crash course in the diving geography of the World But one dive t that was standing dead still caught my eye. A scuba tee shirt that stretched across a young woman that named a place I had never heard of, much less could pronounce. As I contemplated what hidden Xanadu this one diver shirt might be from, it was then that I saw the expressions of the faces above the surrounding worldly dive t-shirts change. In that one moment, I felt like an outcast, a leper without the covering of tattered rags. Bewilderment washed across me. Looking down, I checked my fly. No, that wasn’t it. But then, with my head still in that downward glance, I saw it. The shirt! It was the shirt that accused me of improper etiquette. It was the diving tee that even read upside down, screamed up at me. How could I be so stupid, so blind! In my haste, I had broken a cardinal rule. I wore a shirt from where I came from instead of from where I’d been! Stenciled across my 100 percent cotton tee shirt, two words cried out as the hammer of the judge slammed down. “ The Bronx.” I was condemned.
Barely lifting my head off my chest, I whispered, “Excuse me,” and sat myself down. I found myself directly across from the lovely unknown dive shirt. As I tried once again to decipher the twisted alphabet across her chest, a meal was unceremoniously placed in front of me. I pretended to be interested in the cuisine, but my eyes were drawn back repeatedly to her diving shirt. A question burned deep within me; “Where the hell is that place?”
As I was so occupied, the small talk I had interrupted with my entrance was being resumed. Yet now, as if my shirt and I were catalysts, the pace was picked up; the starter’s gun was fired and the horses were out of the gate.
“Why,” Palau said with nary a crumb on his scuba shirt, “I dived the Sea of blah, blah, when you could still see schools of blah, blah...hut now, you’re lucky to see a blah...
”The Maldives intoned, “I’ll say, do I remember that! But back in 19blah, blah, I was the one who suggested to Jimmy blah to upgrade his one-horse dive shop in blah and now, standing room only. A gold mine! I still have one of his first diving tee shirts, can’t get these...
”The Great Barrier Reef left a hint of lipstick around her white wineglass. “This is our fourth live-aboard so far this year,” she said as she lightly touched the hand of Fiji. Fiji nodded back with the assurance of more diver t shirts in the future.
In my silence, I listened. It was all in the scuba t shirts. They were our openly stated passport, our showcase of rubber stamps from bored customs agents. Where we’ve been, what we can afford, and, like connecting dots in a massive worldwide unfinished global drawing, where we may wind up. Like expanding galaxies we spiraled out from our meager beginnings, t-shirts diving our journey along the way.
Yes, it was the diving t that we first spied that spoke for us. And if you were a true “Shiny,” you spoke in exotic tongues and of many places. You spoke of a place as you came in for breakfast, another at lunch, and the all-important exotic “I have the only dive t shirt from There!” dinner diving t shirt. And if you were good, I mean really good, you had different dive tee shirts in-between meals, in-between dives. A tidbit, a mere morsel of a dive destination that was just a taste to hold you over till your next “real” dive spot. A walking Tower of Babble of destinations that all understood. Yes, it was all in the dive shirts, and I blew it!
Papua New Guinea had had the floor for some time now “...and this one chief of the blah tribe made me an honorary member...”
“...No, no. Can’t dive there anymore. Scuba tee worth a mint though; I’ll show it to you later...” Another diver representing the Third World League of Nations member spoke.
“...been to blah blah four times...”A giant manta spoke to a great white.
My heart was heavy. I had nothing to say. No introduction, no starting point. No colorful statement. Instead, ¡stuck with my meal and, reaching over my knife for a pad of butter, I knocked over the milk in the process, drowning the remaining squares, sinking them to diving depths only. Drawing my hand back, I felt a stare and looking up, locked eyes with the pretty, unknown dive tee.
Her words froze me in place. “You didn’t really dive the. ..the uh... onx? Did you?”
Looking down, I saw my shirt had folded over, and grabbing it with my free hand, I produced the “B” but had trouble finding the “r.”
“No, no, not the ‘onx,’ the Bronx,” the Bronx, I answered, holding the knife and butter in one hand and the “B” in the other. “I live there.” The reply rolled off my tongue before I could stop it. It actually had a tinge of pride to it. Smiling weakly, I helplessly watched as the h titter slipped off my knife, plunking down to join its brethren with a splash.
“oh,” came the reply from an angelic face and a place that I wasn’t sure was even on the globe at all. It was a lower case “oh” at that, too.
“Excuse me,” she quickly continued, “I have to unpack.” And I watched her get up and take her private world with her. As I shook my head, I turned back to retrieve my butter from its milky grave, noticing that all faces were watching her exit with furrowed brows. Giving up on my table manners, I impaled the butter with my knife and realized that I might not be so alone at that.
As the days passed, the diving, as usual, was spectacular, with dive sites and countries changing with each meal served.. Well, most countries, that is. For my earlier indiscretion, I stayed a man without a country, while our young mystery woman stayed an enigma. With the end of the dive trip, the last meal on board was coming up, with everybody holding their ace-in-the-hole scuba t shirt for the final meal. Walking topside, I carne upon Palau, now well-worn Belize, smoking a cigar. The dive boat was skimming the water in the darkening night, heading home.
“What do you think?” I asked nudging him as our still unknown divers t shirt walked toward us. With a mischievous grin, she passed, “Good Evening” us just to disappear below the deck. “Where in the...? ”With her disappearance, I gave up, but I tried Belize again. “Like I said, what do you think? ”Belize/Palau/soon to be somewhere else was silent.
“You don’t know,” I finally accused. He looked at me as if I had just finished slapping his mother. “You don’t, do you?” I probed more gently.
“No, I don’t,” he blurted out, but this face softened with his answer, as if a weight was lifted from his shoulders. “I don’t think anyone knows.” Almost a whisper, his last confession came.
In a tender, yet manly way, I touched his shoulder and we both knew the nature of the next question. “Are you going to ask her before we dock?” I asked, seeing if the buck stopped here.
“No, I can’t. Just can’t bring myself to do it. And the others, well, I can’t speak for them but...what about you?”
“Hey, I’m from the Bronx. You think she would actually tell me?
”Not giving it much thought, he answered, “Yeah, yeah. I suppose you have a point there. But you know, that T-shirt of yours would be pretty unique back home now.
”Eyeing him, I thought that anything with less than four legs would be pretty unique in his part of the country, but instead I said, “Oh? What do you have in mind?
”He offered up a spare cigar and lit it for me. “Well, in my cabin I have two brand new scuba dive shirts. Very exotic destinations, never actually been there myself, never been worn, I guarantee. Medium; your size.”
The stars were becoming our only light, and looking around, I thought I caught a glimpse of our unknown friend, but I wasn’t sure. Drawing in on the cigar, I let the smoke forever escape me. “Never been there?” “Never.” “Never been worn?” “Never.” “Exotic.” “Very.” Looking up, I was greeted by a starry night that would tempt Van Gogh. In the growing darkness beneath these stars, a smile crept across my face. I was in. I had him. Drawing in on the cigar one more time, I exhaled.
“Show me the scuba diving shirts,” was all I said.