Crazy Stuff I Make My Husband Do: Free Floating
By Kattina Rabdau-Fox
Phu Quoc Island, Vietnam
Editor’s note: Kattina Rabdau-Fox is my weird wife. She is super outdoorsy. I am not. When we moved to Singapore, nearly four years ago, she started writing an occasional column for Globejotting called “Crazy $%&# I Make My Husband Do,” in which she would drag me, kicking and screaming, on so-called “outdoor adventures.” (For professional reasons — she is a middle school teacher — we later watered down the name to a more polite version.)
In 2011, when we moved to this island in the urban tropics, we rented an apartment with a refreshing pool. This was awkward because, at age 40-something, I found myself facing the embarrassing reality that I had never really learned how to swim. I could flop around like a dog, float on my back, and probably avoid drowning if you threw me in a small lake, but it wouldn’t be pretty. As worked in my home-office each day, looking down at people swimming graceful laps in the pool, I thought, “I wish I could do that.”
So I signed up for swimming lessons at a community pool in my neighborhood. After four of those lessons, I found myself one day, off the coast of Phu Quoc Island in southern Vietnam, way over my head.
This is Kattina’s version of what happened – a story she wrote more than a year and a half ago. For the last 19 months, her article has been festering in my e-mail inbox – primarily because I wanted to write my own version of the events and publish the two of them together on Globejotting.com. It has been one of those stories I just never got around to writing. Also, I must confess, her story gets a little sappy, and while I’m an emotional kind of guy, public sappiness isn’t usually my thing.
But it’s Valentine’s Day today, a day when the world becomes slathered in sappiness. So I’m running her story today, with the hopes that I might actually get my own, rather different version, written in the next few weeks.
At this moment in time, seeing as it’s Valentine’s Day and all, I would like to take the opportunity to tell my weird but cute and fascinating wife that I love her more than bacon and chocolate and walruses – even though she sometimes almost gets me killed.
Here is her tale:
“We’re going to be down there 45 minutes?!”
Dave has this realization as our boat pulls away from the pier.
The day before, when I approached the dive shop on Phu Quoc, a Vietnamese island in the Gulf of Thailand, I had never intended to drag my water-phobic husband on an underwater adventure. I just wanted a boat to take me to a reef where I could snorkel under the tropical sun. Dave wasn’t going to come. He was going to stay on land and write. But when I went to ask about boat trips, he came along.
A sign advertised a “Try Diving” course.
“You can go tomorrow,” said Rodolphe, the shop’s French owner.
I had never scuba-dived. I was curious, but I hesitated. I was wondering if an all-day activity would throw off the rest of our schedule, when Dave chimed in.
I was speechless.
Dave has been working to become a better swimmer. Having graduated out of water wings, he was beginning to hold his own in the water. Weekly lessons had produced a more confident stroke.
But that was in a two-meter-deep pool. He had yet to apply his new skills in the swirls of an open ocean.
* * *
We arrive at a reef off the island’s west coast. Joining us are a German PhD student and a peppy British family – all experienced divers. They suit up in fins, masks, regulators, weight belts, and tanks. Rodolphe says he’ll take them out first, for 45 minutes. Dave and I can snorkel until they return. When they get back, we’ll have our first dive.
The group disappears off the side of the boat.
Dave and I put on snorkels. I plunge into the sea and turn to see Dave make his first hop into the water since weeks of lessons. A sputter and a vicious dog-paddle ensue. He rights himself and adjusts his mask, but he’s not looking so good.
He tries to frog kick in diving fins. That doesn’t work. He switches to calmer scissor-kicks, but his body is neither upright in the water nor parallel with the surface. Instead, he is thrashing, as if a shark has his leg.
Panic rises in his face. I swim toward him. In a soothing voice, I remind him to kick downward. His fins will do most of the work.
He manages this until a swell douses him with a face full of water. Panic returns.
He thrashes to the hull of the ship. Grabbing on, he tries to catch his breath, and get a handle on the motion of the waves. But the seas are rough.
It’s dangerous to use this perch alongside our 35-foot boat. Dave wants desperately to get back on board, with a beer in hand, I can tell. He clambers up the ladder and I think our trip is sunk.
* * *
There are two ways I can handle this if I want to coax Dave back into the water. Option one, which sympathetic spouses do, is to get out of the water myself and help talk it out. This might calm him enough that he’ll go in for another try.
Option two, which I sometimes prefer, is the “tough love” approach. If I don’t go up there, Dave will get bored and jump in again.
More often than not, I choose option two. After seven years together, I have learned that Dave is always writing a narrative in his head. He can keep the narrative that his wife is a meany who makes him do crazy shit, even when it goes against his survival instinct. With my tough love tactics, he will keep that story going, no doubt – and I will accept the moniker of “worst wife ever” if it means he tries things that push him out of his comfort zone.
So I choose option two and swim off to the reef. But then, I second guess my approach.
“What if he really needs to talk?”
I turn and head back to the boat.
But when I get there, I’m surprised to find Dave already back in the water, all alone, snorkeling with smooth strokes. He has ceased flailing. He is moving with his face in the water. He seems calm. Surprisingly calm.
* * *
The divers return. Rodolphe rolls out the equipment we’ll use for our first dive. He teaches us the gestures we’ll need to communicate underwater. Then we suit up.
Nobody has told us how heavy diving equipment is. When wearing 20+ kilograms of gear, walking and breathing feel difficult. They never show you that on the nature shows.
We wobble to the edge of the boat. Dave says he’ll go first. The British mother coos, and tries to soothe my husband.
“Hold your mask and regulator like this,” she says, squishing her hand over her face like a suctioning, cartoon octopus. “Just step off the boat like you’re walking.”
As if you can see where you’re walking when your hand is over your face.
“Just be calm,” she continues.
Ha! We are talking about Dave!
I am glad, however, we have a mom on board. At least she is making me feel calm.
Dave hesitates for a few awkward moments, Then, he drops into the water. I splash down behind him.
Using the controls on our vests, we sink to a sandy-bottomed area. Four meters underwater, we kneel. Rodolphe walks us through the exercise of pulling our regulators out of our mouths, blowing bubbles, and clearing our masks.
Bubbles obscure my vision as I exhale. I can’t see anything. I panic momentarily. Water fills my nostrils. I stop breathing and thrash for a bit. Then I remember Rodolphe’s instructions: “Blow out your nose.” I do and the mask clears. Breathing again. Nice thing, this air.
Our next exercise is achieving and maintaining what’s known as “neutral buoyancy.”
In diving you must balance the downward gravitational pull, provided by your mass and your weigh belt, against the upward force of your oxygen tank, your lungs, and your buoyant ass. You can inflate and deflate your vest to rise or sink.
Neither rising nor sinking is your goal. You want to find an equilibrium, so that you can use your legs and body position to go up or down, left or right.
But underwater, all Rodolphe can do to demonstrate how to achieve this is with simple hand gestures. He points to the red button on our vests. A gentle tap will inflate them with air from our tanks.
Dave presses his button. He holds it too long, rocketing upward like an untethered helium balloon. Next, he presses his gray button, plummeting back down at an ear-rupturing pace.
But after a few more goes, he and I both find ourselves hovering above the sea floor. We are doing it. We are actually doing it. Dave is not panicking, he is not thrashing about. He is kicking, gliding, flying underwater like Superman. He is as graceful as I have ever seen him.
We swim over reefs of feather-duster worms and brain corals, boxfish and urchins, tangs and nudibranchs. I have wanted this my entire life.
* * *
I approach outdoor pursuits with passion – moreso than Dave. Sometimes, I do these things by myself, and I feel lonely.
There is lots to be said for finding someone you can share hobbies with. You create common experiences. You bond over pushed boundaries and “war wounds.” When you don’t share similar loves, the negotiation is trickier, but still, the payoff is in the pursuit itself.
Dave and I push each other in different ways. He pushes me to take emotional risks, to be more patient and become more empathetic. Sometimes I’m successful; sometimes, not. I push Dave to take new physical risks, to trust his body, and to trust that other people will keep him safe. In the end, we bridge our outlooks and experiences.
I am have come to better understand how Dave sees things. I have learned to let go of control of how he “should” experience things. I let him create his own narrative instead of the one I think is right.
Dave has learned, I think, that before forming an opinion about a new physical challenge, he should try it. In order to try these new things, he must let go of old narratives based on old abilities and fears, and replace them with a reality that reflects what he really can do.
* * *
I watch Dave through a blur of green-blue water. He flashes Rodolphe an “A-OK” sign. This will be my favorite memory of this dive.
That evening, back on land, Dave and I have our “nightcap recap,” an evening travel ritual, learned from our friends Rena and Gary, in which we recount our favorite and least favorite events of the day. Dave marvels not in the fish, nor the reef, nor the natural beauty. He revels instead in his ability to breathe underwater, to be suspended halfway between the bottom and the top – away from land, away from the “no ways” he’s always had in his brain.
He floated, suspended in the moment. That was his new reality.
And he liked it.
Kattina Rabdau-Fox is a middle school science teacher, an incorrigible outdoor freak, and the suffering wife of Globejotting’s benevolent dictator, Dave Fox. She currently teaches at an international school in Singapore. In the summer of 2015, she plans to relocate to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, to continue teaching.
If he does not drown before then, her freakish, dog-paddling, nature-fearing husband will be tagging along.