Acting stupid is actually much harder than it sounds. You see, there are certain expectations about being the only woman on a dive tour, and Nell is doing her very best to meet them. Despite knowing a great deal about diving, like knowing that SCUBA is an acronym for self-contained underwater breathing apparatus and knowing all the risks of barotrauma and decompression sickness from failing to equalize properly, it seems best to continue the ruse that she is just a simple, foolish girl. So she continues playing dumb, asking the men to show her how to put the mask on her face, whether the fins are fitted to her feet properly. She is the only woman among the Thai men who comprise the captain and crew, a tour bus of French men, two Chinese speakers from Singapore, three Egyptians, and two Japanese men. They don’t see her as a woman, of course. To them, she is a failed man: gay, effeminate, pitiful. The last thing they would want for their sons. The farthest thing from their minds is this girlish faggot named Lionel is a trans girl who calls herself Nell, but she’s not going to be the one to tell them. She knows how to pick her battles. The world doesn’t need another dead trans girl.
Nell knows what the world thinks of Americans: loudmouth gun-toting idiots. She knows that it is Wednesday, July 18, and it is her half-birthday. She knows it’s a strange thing to celebrate but these days she is glad to have made it another whole six months. Hooray. She is not dead yet. She is currently twenty-six-and-a-half, and her parents do not know that she is trans. Her parents do not know that she has been studying Thai and is planning to get a very expensive-for-her but very cheap surgery that will save her life. Her girlfriend’s parents are loaning her money. They think it is for medical school. She does not yet know she will be unable to pay them back. Her girlfriend will break up with her over transitioning. She will drop out of school during her residency. What is important now is how to make living in her body tolerable, which the surgery will help with, she hopes.
She spits into her mask and puts the regulator in her mouth. She doesn’t want to, but of course she remembers how many dicks she’s sucked to get where she is. That is, she doesn’t remember every single one, the size, the shape, the taste, but she remembers doing it. She was there. And she remembers how much she got, or how much she was shorted. Or how she paid for it, even when there was cash at the end, given willingly, with the smug look on his inevitably older face, or when she did the math and she knew she had to look out for herself and just clean him out while he was passed out in those white sheets in the hotel room he could clearly pay for himself, or his damn job would pay for it so she would just take everything in the wallet and use it before he woke up. And how that would make up for how much he hit her, or the disgusting things that came out of his mouth on the date, or while he was inside her. It was all fine as long as the math worked out in the end.
She spaced out thinking about all that while the head dive instructor went on and on. A balding French man in his forties, he went over the dive in accented English while smoking one, then another cigarette. The Thai captain passed a coffee can around for the cigarette butts.
“With fins you can move very quickly, in water, of course. Don’t breathe too often or too fast. Just relax when you go down. The water pressure will get more and more hard on your body — the pressure goes up the lower you go. We will not be going very deep on this dive, but please — do not hold your breath when you come up. This is the most important.” He speaks heavily accented Thai to the crew to say that they are now ready to descend.
Nell steps onto the ladder into the big blue. The sun reflects brightly off the surface of the water. She stops every few pumps of her fins to pinch her nose to equalize. The other divers disperse throughout the sun-bleached coral reef. In a few years, the coral will be completely white. The fish will be gone. The dive sites will change because they have to. Friends and couples dive together, pointing at things to each other underwater. She watches for signs of any weak swimmers (she used to be a lifeguard after being a young competitive swimmer), but this is a group of fairly fit, able-bodied adults. Her gaze returns to the diving boat. All the Thai men in the crew are sitting together, chatting. Their skin is much darker than the city Thai people she worked with at her Bangkok office, the captain’s particularly. What did he say was his English name? Adam, maybe. He was the only one who tried to make small talk, but she got quiet after he asked her if she was on the dive alone. Of course she was. The question, which was entirely unnecessary, answered itself.
She moves through the water slowly, away from the boat. She tells herself she isn’t scared, but she still breathes too often, too fast. There is a school of fish glimmering by the hull, waiting for the human food that inevitably falls into the water. There are other dive boats all around the small island. Younger divers and children snorkel in close groups, united in their brightly-colored life jackets. She can see a life where she is here again, with her kids. Whoever she is with, whoever wants to have kids with her, there’s no clear indication of that person, there’s no idea of who that could be, but there is a life she can see with love in it, where she is here again on vacation, and she is so happy thinking about that potential, thinking about that possibility, that it is enough to think about it, to survive, to live on simply for the possibility of that situation happening, and she knows better than to explicitly expect it, because expectations always lead to disappointment, so she can’t want it too much, but for now just the option being open to her, still, in this moment, is enough.
Yani Robinson is a trans writer and Baltimore transplant currently studying creative writing at UW. His favorite contemporary poets include Tracy K. Smith, Joe Wenderoth, and Randall Mann. His mother is a Thai immigrant, and he identifies much like a kathoey – living his gender through performance. He works as a community organizer for Lion’s Main Art Collective, a queer and trans interdisciplinary artist collective, and Gender Justice League, a trans rights organization. An intersectional feminist advocate for communities of color and LGBTQ persons, he hopes to become a writing teacher in the public school and prison system. Yani believes in grassroots solutions and empowering those most oppressed by class, race, or gender identity to reform broken institutions.