I remember when it first began. I was sitting on the living room floor playing with my toy boats, pretending the blue rug was the sea. I arranged the big boats into the areas I had decided were shipping lanes and made sure the smaller boats kept well out of their way. My father, my source of knowledge about things like shipping lanes, was watching a documentary about the Mariana Trench. I glanced up, vaguely aware of the connection between my game with the boats and the pictures on the television.
“It’s really deep, isn’t it Daddy? Skyscrapers could fit in it, right?”
“Honey, mountains could fit in it. Even the tallest mountain. You know how tall Everest is? Well, if you put Everest at the bottom of the Mariana Trench, the very top would be more than a mile under the surface of the water.”
“But the top of Everest is in the sky!”
“I know! If the ground our house is on was the bottom of the Trench, the height planes fly at would still be underwater.”
“Is the whole sea that deep?”, I asked, suddenly concerned that the scale of the world was far beyond what I had ever considered. I had begun to understand height after travelling in an aeroplane for the first time the year before, but I had no concept of depth.
“Oh no, honey, not the whole sea. The Mariana Trench is the deepest part.”
It was too late though. In my mind, the entire ocean, every last bit of it, had opened up into a giant chasm of mystery and confusion. That night I dreamed about an endless gaping wound in the surface of the planet, filled with sharks the size of commercial jets swimming around vast underwater mountains, vanishing into darkness and reappearing in a rush of teeth and anxiety.
The dream stayed with me for years, resurfacing at times when my life felt out of control. When I saw my first boyfriend kissing another girl at a party, I went home and cried my way into a sleep haunted by the vastness of the subsea landscape in my head. For an entire month before important exams at school, when I drank too much coffee and lay awake most of the night imagining all the ways I could fail at everything, the small bursts of sleep I managed to steal from the grip of caffeine and fear were filled with shadowy underwater Everests. Before my driving test, I spent a week with nights populated by imaginary aquatic creatures, grabbing boats in cavernous jaws and trailing them down below where the light could reach.
When I got to university, I spent three years feeling out of control, so terrified of wasting my potential, of letting everyone down, of never becoming what I was supposed to become. My dreams were of nothing but the endless ocean, stretching beyond the horizon in every direction. Even in my waking life, I never quite escaped the sensation of unfathomable depth below me and the suspicion that there was always something waiting to catch hold of my feet and drag me down as I gasped my last desperate breath. They say you aren’t supposed to be able to die in dreams, but I did. Every night I drowned in my dreams and every day I drowned in reality.
Then I met you. You, who found me crying at the side of the road, my car packed with everything I owned, my nails bitten to bleeding. I had made it to the end of my degree because giving up wasn’t an option but I was lost, directionless, utterly confused. I was on my way home to my parents’ house with absolutely no plan for what would come next. Even though I knew rationally that it was perfectly fine to simply have a break for a while, to give myself some space to get my head together, it was the first time in my life that I hadn’t know exactly what was coming next and I couldn’t handle it. So I stopped the car, got out, sat down on the ground and cried.
You were out for a run when you saw me. Assuming my car had broken down, and being the kind, wonderful person that you are, you came over to ask if you could help. I managed to explain that the car was fine but I don’t remember much else of what I said. I think I told you I was scared. I think I told you why. I know I talked about dreams, about the Mariana Trench and Everest.
When I ran out of words and energy to say them out loud, you talked instead. You told me you’d almost joined the Navy but realised at the last minute that you didn’t have enough respect for authority to really make a go of it. You said you’d gone travelling instead and spent a year working as a diving instructor. You told me about surfing, about feeling the power of the ocean and understanding that it was not to be controlled—it was to be respected and experienced and appreciated. You said it was OK not to know what was coming next. When I was alright to drive again, you gave me your email address and said I could keep in touch, if I wanted to.
I would love to tell you that now, all these months later, I had been diving or been surfing or been swimming in the sea. I haven’t. Yet. But I am writing this on a boat. It took all the strength I had not to cry when I was boarding but when I think about where I’m going, about the world I’m preparing to explore, I know it was worth it. I’m frightened but I’m still here. And if Everest is below me, the endless depth means nothing. I am beyond the top of the mountain and I can see forever.