THE MAN IN THE GRAY SUIT
“Ro? You promise?" The hospital pillow was flat and lumpy, almost as uncomfortable as the mattress. Ryo missed his own bed that cradled and supported him just right. He also missed the familiar, soothing surroundings of his home. Most of all, he missed Ro. Her smile. Her carefree laughter. Her sarcasm.
He hadn’t seen her smile since the accident. He never realized how much he depended on her until his world was turned upside down. She was his rock; his strength. She had always been, ever since they were best friends as children. Being with her always felt so natural; like their destiny was with each other. Their love written in the stars. Romeo and Juliet without all the drama and death. Robin Hood and Maid Marian. Mark Antony and Cleopatra. Tristan and Isolde. Ryo and Ro.
They were an odd couple despite how easy and natural being with each other was. Ryo was the pretty one. The effeminate one of the couple. He’d worn the white dress when they got married on a beach at sunset, the warm waves lapping at their ankles. He was clearly male but mixed with a haunting feminine beauty that made him a favorite of the modeling agency and its clients. Part of that beauty came from his Japanese heritage.
Ro was his opposite. She was no beauty queen, but she cleaned up nice when she bothered to care about her appearance. As long as he’d known her, she’d been a total tomboy who hated dresses as much as she loved the ocean. Night and day; so different but they completed each other. Even paradise had its problems; disagreements and differences of opinions. Each had different priorities. Hers was money. His was her life.
Ro didn’t answer. Her head was bent over his hairless, freshly diapered crotch. She was taking much too long with this diaper change, dragging it out and avoiding eye contact. Her gaze focused on the front panel of his diaper as she pressed down on the tapes. She ran her fingers over the smooth, thick plastic to make sure it was fastened tight. Ryo stared at her, but her face was carefully blank. Her mouth was in a straight line, her eyes blank. Neutral. Guarded. Trying to hide her emotions and thoughts by acting like she hadn’t heard him. Her silence spoke volumes.
Ro diapering him was nothing new; she’d been changing his diapers since their relationship turned serious when they were eighteen. They were twenty three now; Ro was several months older than him. She’d changed his diapers throughout their dating, engagement, and now their marriage. He’d always had bladder problems; he’d never been out of diapers at night and he wore pullups during the day in case of not uncommon accidents. They’d been childhood best friends; Ro knew all his secrets and loved him anyway. He loved her, too. Trusted her. He thought he knew all her secrets. Looking at her now, doubt wriggled in his stomach. She was hiding something from him.
“Aurora?” He prodded into the widening chasm of silence between them. Ro ducked her head, hiding her face. Her fingers slid down the slick plastic, lightly pressing on the thin padding. A faint crinkling filled the quiet, small room Her fingers found the leg gathers. She poked and prodded, making sure his diaper was on just right. She was too focused on her task, fingers moving too slow. Deliberate, with too much concentration. Before the accident, diaper changes had been moments of intimacy between them. Ryo could handle his own diapers, and often did. He always felt so vulnerable when she changed him, giving her control over this most intimate aspect of his life. He also felt so loved, accepted, and protected. Cherished. Precious. This was her way of showing him how much she loved him.
Even now, as she tried to hide something from him, she still tried to stay close to him. She tried to reassure him by changing his diaper. To show without words how much she loved him. I love you, but I don’t want you to know about this. During a normal diaper change, as she wiped, powdered and diapered him, she would look at him. Smile. Make silly faces or blow a raspberry on his stomach. He’d roll his eyes at the juvenile teasing she’d never grown out of, then he’d stick his tongue out or try to tickle her back. Now, she avoided his gaze and acted like this was the first time she’d ever changed his diaper.
Ryo glanced at the balled up, wet medical diaper. It was at the bottom of the bed, by his right ankle. The left side of the mattress, where his lower leg and foot should have been, was empty. He winced, quickly shutting his eyes. Aurora handled his missing limb better than he did. It had been weeks since the accident, and the sight of his stump still churned his stomach.
Mere weeks since the last time he’d surfed. Since his near fatal encounter with a great white. Surfing was in his blood; his mother and grandfather were avid surfers. Ryo had grown up surfing; he’d even placed first in a few local competitions. His grandfather owned a surfing shop where he made custom boards. Ryo often helped him. Surfing was Ryo’s hobby, but most of his money came from modeling contracts. All surfers knew the danger lurking below the waves. They knew the risk getting into the ocean. He’d seen scars of shark bites on some avid surfers. He’d seen boards with huge, jagged bites. He realized the danger in the rational part of his brain, but a small part of him had insisted it would never happen to him. That insular bubble of ignorance had been popped by serrated shark teeth. Now, his life was like his missing leg; crushed and shredded. He didn’t know where to start picking up the pieces. The only thing he did know deep down in his bones was he had to protect Ro from making the same mistake he did.
Ro had grown up diving. Her mother ran a diving school and her father worked for the local zoo and aquarium, cleaning and maintaining the huge, deep tanks. He was a retired abalone diver. Ro helped her mother run the school in the off seasons of abalone hunting. It was too lucrative to pass up. She could make a hundred thousand dollars in under fifty days. Those mollusk delicacies were so expensive partly due to the dangers involved in harvesting them. Abalone season coincided with great white breeding season. The father of Ryo and Ro’s friend Sheila had been an abalone diver who’d been killed by a great white. Ryo had lost his leg to a great white. His leg, his surfing, his modeling. Life as he knew it was changed. He couldn’t lose his heart, too. His Aurora.
“I don’t like these hospital diapers. They’re too thin. Fourth leak already. You need better protection. Your bottom’s a little red, too. I think you’re getting a diaper rash. The nurses aren’t changing you enough. I’ll have a word with them when I leave.” Ro ran out of reasons to keep fussing with his diaper. He felt her tug down his thin hospital gown from where it was bunched up by his armpits. The gown hid his diaper; the hem brushed the knee of his right leg and the bandaged stump of his left. She covered his lower half with a scratchy, puke-green blanket.
“It’s not so bad. They only leak if I’m not changed on time. The one nurse’s aide is always late. The blue haired girl with the nose ring.” Ryo managed to catch her gaze for a second before her eyes skittered away.
“I need to throw this out.” Ro mumbled and hastily snatched up the used diaper that was squishy and cold with his pee. She carried it to the red biohazard bin.
He frowned at her back. He wriggled his hips, adjusting his position on the mattress. His diaper crinkled loudly in response. His night diapers at home were just as noisy, but they were thicker. He felt more secure with more padding. He’d also feel more secure if Ro would just promise him… Sharp pain shot through his stump, cutting off his train of thought. He gasped. In that lightning strike of pain, he almost felt his missing leg and foot. Phantom sensations from raw, damaged nerves. He squeezed his eyes shut, hands fisting in the blanket.
He was never going to get used to this. Not even his diapers could comfort him. His bedwetting and frequent accidents when he couldn’t get to a toilet fast enough were sources of shame. Diapers had always comforted him; made him feel safe, secure and protected. They boosted his confidence. He did lose some modeling gigs due to his incontinence issues. Pullups and diapers kept his pants and bedding dry. Pullups were quiet and discreet, even if they leaked sooner than a thick, thirsty diaper.
At his quiet gasp, Ro instantly whirled and rushed to his bedside. She held one of his hands while her other hand touched his forehead. “What hurts? Where? Baby, do you want me to get a nurse?” She gingerly squeezed his slender fingers. Her concern poured over him in waves, reassuring him she still cared despite trying to ignore him. Ignore the important question he’d asked her. The promise he wanted her to make. She was here today, but he wanted her here always. Not callously throwing her life away for money.
His stump still throbbed, waves of discomfort sloshing over his body. He felt tired, drained. As if the diaper change and one little movement sapped all his strength. The diaper change hadn’t been so bad; Ro had done all the work. The nurses had taught her the techniques to change him without jostling his injured limb. He could get through a diaper change with minimal problems since someone else did the lifting and moving while he stayed relatively still. When he moved the muscles on his injured leg, it felt like setting off fireworks if he moved too quick, too careless.
Ryo smiled weakly up at Ro. Her fingers ran through his hair just the way he liked. “I’m fine. Just moved too quick. Even with this in-” He held up his hand with the IV line. “It still hurts like a bitch.”
“You don’t look so good. I’ll go get a nurse.” Her fingers trailed down the side of his pretty face, brushing over his soft cheek. Her gray eyes probed him, searching for indicators he was down playing the amount of pain he was in.
“Don’t. Really. I’m fine. Promise.” At that word, he bit his lip and dropped his eyes as he remembered the wedge between them. The promise Ro refused to make. The pain had shoved his worry and emotional turmoil aside. Now it was back, but this time he had Ro’s attention.
“Baby? What hurts?”
He closed his eyes and shook his head. He suddenly felt overwhelmed and helpless. He couldn’t protect her. All he could do was beg to stay out of the water and pray she’d listen. He felt her lean closer. Salty ocean tang filled his nostrils; he knew where she’d spent most of her morning. His stomach churned. Thoughts of her being bitten like him made him dizzy. His head swam with images of gray fins, white teeth opened wide and Aurora’s severed limbs floating in bloody water. He wanted to puke.
“Tell me. Ryo, what’s wrong?” Ro’s hand cupped his cheek, her thumb stroking his cheekbone. Her pleading tone nearly broke him. Nightmares of the shark attack haunted his sleep. Sometimes he was eaten. Sometimes Aurora. The vivid images and emotions bled into his waking hours, filling him with dread. He’d told her about them numerous times, but she just brushed them aside as emotional trauma. Just like the doctors. He still couldn’t shake those feelings, even if his headstrong wife refused to listen.
He took a deep breath and opened his eyes. He stared down at his blanket covered stump. Below his left knee, the blanket lay flat on the mattress. He had to protect Ro, even from herself. She would only continue to ignore and avoid the subject if he tried to talk to her again. He knew she planned to go abalone hunting in shark infested waters, which was why he was so desperate to get her to promise him not to do it. He wanted her to tell him about her plans. She just countered with “No, I’m not thinking about it,” then changed the subject or ignored him.
“Ryo. Talk to me, baby.” Her arms, strong and warm, wrapped around him as she leaned further over the bed.
“Sheila and Marvin came by this morning. Sheila got a new boat. She named it after her father. Marvin showed me pictures. You were with them. You never told me.” He spoke softly. The pain of Ro’s betrayal filled his voice as a few stray tears trickled down his cheeks. Those quiet words struck Ro like hammer blows. He felt her stiffen as she realized the truth. He knew everything she’d tried to keep hidden from him. Marvin had spilled the beans; Sheila had asked Ro to be her diver for abalone season. Ro hadn’t answered, but she was seriously considering it. Leaning towards yes. She refused to discuss any of it with Ryo. Ryo knew in her mind, the matter was already settled. Not up for discussion. She’d been diving for years; of course she’d do it again. He never objected before because he’d brushed aside the dangers. Now reality had bitten him in the leg and woke him up. He was terrified of Ro getting attacked. She didn’t want to talk about it. Perhaps she was still in denial about it happening to her.
Frustrated tears leaked from his eyes and splashed onto her hand. Ro shuddered at the warm wetness. Her lips pressed against his forehead in a sloppy kiss. “Ryo. Baby. Don’t. Shh. Don’t cry. Please.” She hugged him hard. He made no effort to stop his tears as they fell faster. He surrendered to the emotions he’d been fighting since Sheila and Marvin’s visit. His bubble of denial had been brutally popped. The dangers of the deep were real, and they could happen to anyone. A hard life lesson that cost him a leg. He didn’t want it to cost him Ro, too. Didn’t want Ro learning that lesson. They were talking in circles, chasing each other. He couldn’t take it anymore.
“I don’t know what to do.” A tremor ran down his slim body. He didn’t feel the front of his thin diaper grow wet as he peed. A sob tore his throat. He didn’t want Ro to give up something she loved, something she’d been doing all her life. He just wished she’d dive in safer waters instead of great white ground zero. Where the abalone grew; where the money was.
“Shh. It’s alright, baby. We’ll figure it out. It’s okay.” Ro’s honeyed voice washed over him as she tried to calm him. He tasted the venom of lies in her sugary words. It was not okay. There was nothing to figure out. She was not open to listening to him. Screw him and his feelings, so long as Ro got to do what she wanted to do. Even if it cost them her life.
His tears fell like rain, soaking his pillow and her shirt. His slender body shuddered with hard sobs as he broke down. Ro held him, stroking his hair and kissing his wet face, trying to soothe him. The gentle tugging pressure of her fingers in his short hair usually soothed him, but not today. Minutes ticked by on the cock and still he cried. He sobbed until his eyes were red and swollen, nose running, and throat hoarse. Eventually his sobs died down to sniffles and his shaking died down to fine trembles. He clung to Ro like a lifeline, as if he could anchor her here with him. Safe and sound. He pressed his face into her shoulder and she hugged him harder.
“Don’t leave me.” He whispered hoarsely. Her neck was warm and wet from his tears.
“Ryo? I’m not going anywhere, baby. I’m right here.” Her tone was startled.
“Please, Ro. I love you. I don’t…I can’t…if I lost you…I…just can’t.” His words tumbled over each other and fell in a jumbled heap from his mouth.
“Oh.” Her arms tightened around him in realization of what he meant. He clung to her like a drowning man. Was she finally opening up to listening, or would she simply serve him more denials and platitudes? “Oh, Ryo…” She sighed and trailed off. His heart twisted.
“Please, Ro.” Here we go round again. I don’t know what else to do. How do I reach you? Please, please. Just listen. “Promise me. Stay out of the water. Just this season. Please. We’ll be okay. You’re more important than the money. Please. Promise me.” He stared up at her, saw the hesitancy in her face. His vision blurred with renewed, tired tears. She’s never going to listen. I’m going to lose her. He crumbled, crying again.
His head was full of images from his nightmares. Sheila coming to visit him, telling him he’d never see Ro again. Police wanting him to identify his wife’s bitten remains. Maybe this really was just trauma from his own brush with hungry death. Maybe he needed therapy. The irrational fear clung to his heart, denying him rest. Never far from thoughts. He needed to know Ro was safe on land as desperately as he needed air to breathe.
“Ryo, no. Don’t…” His sobs drowned out her words. She hugged him hard, rocking him. Running her fingers through his hair again. Pleading with him to stop crying. “Okay. Okay. Shh. Please, Ryo. Calm down. I’ll tell Sheila no if it means that much to you. I promise. No diving. I’ll tell Sheila no. I promise. Just shhh.” She cooed.
“Please.” He sniffled Her words soothed the savage beast that was his fear. They still rang hollow in his ears. Drowned by his own desperation.
“I promise, Ryo. I promise. Oh, baby. Shh. I promise.” Ro started humming his favorite tune. She continued to run her fingers through his short black hair until he fell asleep.
On her way out of the hospital, Aurora stopped at the nursing station to ask about a therapist for Ryo and told them about his breakdown. After this morning’s tear-filled crying jag, he obviously needed psychiatric help. His recovery was taking longer than she expected. He’d suffered a major, traumatic, life-changing injury, so she knew he wasn’t going to magically heal overnight and bounce back. According to the doctors, he should’ve been further along in recovery than he was. The staff reported him as being listless, almost catatonic at times. Lost in his own head. He never asked for a diaper change, wet or messy. They had to check his diapers. She was starting to think the shark had knocked Ryo clear off his rocker. Instead of a husband, she had a deranged loon.
She left the hospital and headed over to Kangaroo Jack’s Kafe; a small hole in the wall diner in a nearby shopping center. It was a well known, favorite hangout spot with locals of all ages. Tourists passed it on by in favor of loud, flashy, already-known chain fast food and restaurants. It was relatively close to the beach, too. She and Ryo used to come here practically everyday. Now, the next time Ryo would come here would be in a wheelchair or on crutches. She now had a disabled husband. It was a sobering thought.
As Ro stood in line, she looked around the greasy spoon with a new perspective. Tables, chairs, and booths clustered together with narrow aisles between. This was an old joint. Judging by the black and white pictures cluttering the stained, faded wallpaper, it had been here since her grandparents were young. Maybe even longer. A wheelchair sticker on a booth was as handicap friendly as it got. She’d have to park Ryo there then go get his food.
Had Ryo thought what his life was going to be like from now on? She doubted it. He barely tolerated looking at his leg. His mind was still on the attack, full of sharks. He was almost in tinfoil hat territory. The doctors assured her he hadn’t suffered any brain damage. Just emotional trauma.
Surfing, diving, any activity in the sea risked a shark attack. It was common knowledge. Even the landies knew it. Sometimes the dice of life came up snake eyes. Shit happened. She could be struck by a car, by lightning. Killed by a trigger happy robber with a hankering for burgers. Diagnosed with cancer. Just staying out of the water didn’t mean she’d be safe. Given the number of criminal elements in society, she might even be safer in the water with the sharks than she was on land with the humans.
Ro placed her order and handed over her money. She’d been diving for abalone for nearly a decade. She encountered no sharks. She had no doubt they were there in the waters with her. Other divers besides Sheila’s dad had been attacked, some of them fatally. Every time she dived, she risked running into a massive, hungry white pointer.
Massive increase in their bank account from the abalone was a certainty. Just a few dives would boost their depleted nest egg. Ryo would not be working any time soon; he had a long road to recovery. No more prize money from surfing competitions. No more modeling contracts. All he had was a part time position at his grandfather’s shop. A dinky paycheck compared to the big ones they were used to. She was the sole breadwinner now. Ryo was relying on her to protect and provide for him. He needed her. Diving lessons to tourists wasn’t a bad gig, but abalones were her golden goose. Giving that up was out of the question. Medical bills piled on top of top of their regular expenses. Insurance helped to a point. Now, more than ever, they could use some big, fat abalone pay checks.
She took her food and wound her way through the crowd. People she knew called out to her; she waved back but didn’t pause to chat. She passed by before they could ask after Ryo. She was too wrapped up in her thoughts for pleasantries. She should’ve chosen somewhere else for lunch; a place she wouldn’t be bothered. Like an overpriced tourist trap. She’d come here on autopilot; hadn’t even thought about it. One look at Ro’s tight, stressed smile was all the answer well-wishers needed about Ryo’s condition. They left her alone to settle down in an empty corner table by the window.
The first bite of burger woke her stomach up, made her realize just how hungry she was. She hadn’t eaten breakfast. Supper last night had been a half eaten slice of week old pizza scrounged out of the empty fridge. Most of her free time was spent at the hospital. Ryo tried to get her to go home and rest. Their house was so big, quiet and empty without him. Seeing his dirty, crumpled clothes, surfing gear, stacks of his diapers and bags of his pull ups all just waiting for him caused an empty ache inside her. Even worse was laying in their king sized bed all by herself. She missed the smell of his apple shampoo, his soft breathing and the press of his soft, warm body snuggled against her, and the crinkling of his huge night diaper as he shifted in his sleep. She tossed and turned all night. Exhausted, she’d finally fall asleep for a few hours. Then she got up and did it all over again.
Her stomach growled. The first taste of food made her ravenous. Greasy, salty heaven. She almost moaned her pleasure. Not even the enticing smells of grilling meat and sizzling fries when she’d first walked in had stirred her hunger. Worry, frustration, and exhaustion suppressed her appetite. She tore into the juicy burger, barely chewing as she shoveled in some fries.
“That’s disgusting. Meat is murder, you know.” The very familiar, nasal whine pierced Ro’s brain. Her already stressed nerves snapped. Marvin. She barely tolerated the vegan yuppie at the best of times. Now, he was the target of her ire. Ryo never would’ve broken down in a sobbing, distraught mess if the snotty weasel hadn’t ratted her out.
Ro dropped her half eaten burger onto her plate. Her eyes skewered Marvin like daggers. Disapproval scrawled on his thin, mousy features. His lips were as glossy as his carefully trimmed goatee. His brown hair was slicked back in an artfully coiffed man-bun. His clothes were thrift store chic. The condescending sneer fell from his face as she stood up. He tried to take a step back but her hand shot out, fisting in his shirt collar with all the speed of a great white. She yanked him forward over the table. Their noses nearly touched.
“Can it, soyfucker. One more word and I’ll cram this burger down your throat. I’m not in the mood. Got it?”
Fear replaced judgmental condemnation in his eyes. He tried to pull away, but Ro held firm. A muffled squeak of protest escaped his lips. He cringed in abject horror at the burger juice on her lips.
“Ro, so good to see you! Marvin! I told you not to antagonize her!” A deeply masculine voice growled, breaking the tension between them. A big, burly woman hastily approached. Her prominent Adam’s apple bobbed up and down. A gauzy pink peasant skirt swished around her meaty calves.
At the sight of Sheila, Ro released Marvin. He stepped back, straightening his clothes and looking sheepish.
“Ro, so sorry about that. We were just walking by and I saw you through the window. I just wanted to pop in and say hello. And use the restroom.” Sheila’s tone was light and friendly, trying to smooth over the awkward moment.
“It’s cool.” Ro picked up her burger and went back to eating. No hard feelings. Marvin was just an annoying, first rate douche-crate in Ro’s book. She didn’t know what Sheila saw in the pinch-faced rat. He wasn’t the sweet, pretty doll her Ryo was. Marvin was probably the only one who’d date Sheila.
Marvin watched Ro chew, his upper lip curling in disgust. “If you don’t challenge someone, they’ll never realize how wrong they are.”
Ro started loudly chewing with her mouth open, giving him a clear view of her partially masticated meat. He cringed visibly, stepping back.
“I thought you were going to get us some frozen vogurt from the new stand that just opened up? While I talk to Ro?” Sheila stood a while head taller than Marvin. The couple looked like a cross-dressing jock with a tweedy nerd. Ro never would’ve voiced such thoughts out loud. Sheila had been a childhood friend, and Ro knew well how sensitive she was about her body. So Ro never said anything, no matter how ridiculous Sheila looked.
“I am, sweetie. I just…wanted to say….hello to Ro.” Marvin muttered, his fire doused under Sheila’s reprimanding stare. “I promised Ryo I’d try to get along better, but she-” He cut himself off, closed his eyes, took a deep, calming breath. He looked right at Sheila, pointedly ignoring Ro as she finished off her burger. “What flavor would you like?”
“Chocolate. Thanks, honey.” Sheila’s deep voice was super sweet. Soon as her boyfriend left, she plopped down in the empty chair across from Ro.
“Vogurt?” Ro asked around a mouth full of fries.
“Fat free, gluten free, dairy free vegan yogurt. It’s also taste-free.” Sheila scrunched her face up in disgust.
“Going vegan now?” Ro offered plate. Sheila took two fries, dipping them in the salty grease leftover from Ro’s burger then popping them into her mouth. She moaned in pleasure.
“Mmm. So, so good. Oh, how I’ve missed meat. I’m trying, for Marvin. I promised I’d at least try. Some of the vegan dishes are tasty. You’d like them.”
Ro arched a skeptical eyebrow as she stuffed more fries in her mouth.
Sheila pouted. “Well, okay. Most of it is kinda crappy. At least I’m trying. I like steak too much to give it fully up. But I won’t eat it around him. It’s very important to Marvin.” She bit her lip, suddenly quiet. She watched in silence as Ro finished off her fries and chewed. Then had a long drink of her Pepsi.
“So…” Sheila grew uncomfortable while Ro remained at ease. “Um…” She hedged. “I was just wondering…did you two talk? Ryo, I mean? About the boat and…stuff?” She knew what a sensitive topic it was with Ryo and she didn’t want to callously bring it up, but she needed to know.
Ro knew exactly what her friend was trying to say. She wiped her fingers and mouth on a napkin. “Yes. I’ll be your diver.” She said matter of factly.
Sheila slumped in relief, smiling toothily. Ro bit back a wince upon seeing the pink lipstick smeared on her pearly whites. “Oh, good. I’m so glad. You’re the best diver, Ro. We make one hell of a team. Best sheller and diver ever.” She giggled like a schoolgirl; an odd, jarring sound with her deep voice. “I really didn’t think you’d be able to. I mean, with Ryo and all…He was so upset this morning. I’m glad you talked him into it.”
“Yeah. About that. He’s still pretty sensitive. So it’s best if we don’t mention anything about it to him. He understands, but he’s….the doctors said he’s….still very emotionally fragile. He’s gonna be like that for a long time. Loosing his leg and all…” Ro faked a smile and sucked up a huge gulp of soda. A small worm of guilt wriggled in her belly but she ruthlessly squashed it. Ryo didn’t have to know. She wasn’t lying, exactly. It was for his own good. They needed the money.
“I understand completely.” Sheila’s square face radiated compassion. She leaned forward and covered one of Ro’s hands with her large one. “You and Ryo were so supportive of me when I transitioned. Now I wanna be there for you guys. I want to split the profits with you.”
Ro’s eyes widened in disbelief. She stared, shocked speechless at the offer. Divers made good money; up to a hundred thousand a season. But the real money was for the business owners who owned the boats and sold the abalone; they could make up to a million dollars. They also absorbed most of the operating costs.
“I… thank you. But no. I can’t accept. Very generous of you. But. No.” Ro croaked out.
“Yes, you can. And you will. I’m so relieved I don’t have to find another diver. Oh, look. There’s Marvin! Gotta go! Tootles!” Sheila jumped up and ran for the door before Ro could protest further.
Ro stared at Sheila’s empty seat. Her mind swam with the financial possibilities Sheila’s gift opened up to them. No worries about bills. Savings restored. She could take some time off work to focus on Ryo. Maybe they could even take a vacation once Ryo got back on his feet. Foot. Whatever.
A flash of movement caught the corner of her eye. She turned her head. Marvin and Sheila stood outside the restaurant doors, in clear sight of Ro’s view. They ate weird, gritty looking imitation ice cream. Marvin happily dug in, watching Sheila with hopeful, expectant eyes. Sheila took a small bite and shuddered. She grimaced and smiled at Marvin, looking like she was going to be sick.
Ro snorted. All that, just to make the dweeb happy? A small voice inside insisted that’s what relationships were all about. Communication. Honesty. Trust. Compromise. Sacrifice. She should’ve talked things out with Ryo instead of going behind his back. Guilt churned the food in her stomach into a leaden ball. He’d never been fully happy about her diving in shark infested waters, but he’d never protested or said anything openly. When there was a shark attack among the surfers, he steered clear of the beach for weeks. He loved it too much to stay away forever. She was the same with diving. Plus all that money. There was no compromise on this issue. All or nothing. Dive and money, or no dive and a bank account shrinking faster than she could refill it. Ryo wasn’t thinking clearly or rationally. It was all up to her.
Sheila and Marvin left. Ro stood up and headed home. She thought of her pretty boy lying so pale and frail in the hospital bed. He was so beautiful it made her heart ache. So pretty he could pass for a girl. With his looks, he was the one who should’ve been trans. Not big, manly Sheila. Ryo’s long, inky lashes added to his femininity. Especially when his eyes were full of tears, pleading and begging her not to risk her life. He was so vulnerable; he needed her now more than ever. She was his rock. If he ever found out she lied to him, it would break his heart. Shatter his trust.
She was near tears when she pulled into her driveway. She harshly reminded herself Ryo would never know. This was for the best. She wasn’t lying, not really. It’s not like she was having an affair. They just disagreed on an income-earning opportunity. Differing opinions on the risk versus the reward. She had to be strong and make a hard decision for both of them. Ryo was too unstable to think logically or clearly. To look at the facts and weigh the odds. He needed her. She wiped her tears, determined to get on with the rest of her day.
Summer passed. Ryo continued to slowly, gradually improve. His stump healed. He had therapy, learning to walk with a prosthesis. He stayed in diapers full time, making no effort to get to the toilet. Ro eventually convinced him she wasn’t abalone diving. She just picked up more diving classes since it was the busy tourist season. He was reluctant in his trust, as if he didn’t fully believe her. She reiterated what the doctors and his therapist said; he was just emotionally scarred from his own attack. Tourists flocked to their small coastal town. They went diving, surfing, swimming. No shark attacks all scorching summer long. There were a few sightings. Great white breeding season passed. Abalone season was drawing to a close. The late summer sun beat strongly on.
Ro swam through the open water, hugging the craggy reef line. The churning tide pushed and pulled her as she hunted the elusive abalone. The shells blended perfectly with the algae covered rocks. Long, flowing seaweed and kelp helped hide the hand-sized sea snails. Ro felt her way along slowly, her seasoned eye on the lookout for any bumps or movement that might give the snail away.
The abalone liked cold, deep water and strong currents. Their muscled feet clutched tightly to the rock. Removing them was delicate, tricky work. The abalone were very touch sensitive; she had one shot to remove them before they clamped down tightly to the rocks in a defensive anchor. She could still remove them after that, but the odds of damaging the valuable delicacy increased. A single abalone could sell for a hundred bucks. To pry them loose, she used a tool that resembled a paint scraper. She slid the flat blade under the snail, pried it loose, scooped it up and put it in her bag. Intact, whole, and sure to fetch top dollar.
Before she did any of that, her first action was to measure the shell to make sure it was legal size. To keep wild abalone farming sustainable, there were strictly enforced limits, licenses, and permits. Ro took care of her end, but most of that fell on Sheila’s head.
Ro moved along through the kelp field, searching for another abalone cluster. She was on her last bag of the day. It had been a good dive. One abalone bag could net a few thousand dollars. A boat needed at least three bags full to break even with operating costs. She’d send up over half a dozen. They were sitting pretty today. All the bags were of green lipped abalone, which fetched the highest market prices, particularly in Asia.
This last bag was almost full. She just needed a few more abalone and she could call it a day. She’d been under for several hours filling up bag after bag of abalone. This spot was empty; time to move on. She looked up, searching all around. She was far under the ocean, smack dab in the middle of the great whites’ hunting ground. Up on the surface above, the sun beat down in a merciless, hazy heat. Sheila wore a sunhat, sunglasses, and an old t-shirt dress. Down here, Ro had on a wetsuit due to how cold it was. Summer temperatures above, winter below. The sun’s heat couldn’t penetrate this deep. The light still reached, making everything around her a murky, blurry blue.
Her vision was limited through her mask. She’d never see a shark coming until it was too late. She couldn’t hear under the water. She was a helpless sitting duck. A large, seal shaped happy meal. Down here, the sharks had all the advantages. Sight, sound, smell, stealth, strength. Teeth. Her only defenses were the shark shield-a small, rectangular black box with a red button that emitted an electromagnetic field to deter sharks- and the shark prod- a new invention that was basically an underwater cattleprod modified for sharks.
Looking around, she saw no sign of a shark, so she was safe to move on. She kicked hard, swimming parallel to the current until she found a promising spot. Pushing aside the dark green undersea foliage, she hit pay shell. With one last safety check, she began to collect the last few abalone she needed to fill her bag.
Some abalone divers used a motorized shark cages as an added layer of protection. The small cages slowed down the hunt. Moving along in the cage was slow. They were bulky and cumbersome. Ro preferred the protection of time. She could swim and gather abalone much faster without it. Which meant less time in the water. Less time for a shark to find her.
She put an abalone into her bag when a large, blurry movement in the murky distance caught her eye. Instantly, all her senses went on alert. She gripped the shark prod tightly and slipped her abalone scraper into her bag. Her heart beat sped up as adrenaline kicked in, but she kept her breathing even. Forced herself to stay calm. Panic killed divers. She kept her eyes on that blurry shape. From this distance, it could’ve been anything; a dolphin, a small whale, a tightly packed school of fish. Or a shark. Whatever it was, she wasn’t sticking around to find out.
An image of Ryo’s mangled, severed leg popped into her head. White bone sticking out of red meat. That could be her. Ryo’s voice, his tear-filled, shaky pleas, filled her mind. The shadow circled closer with each arc. She squeezed the prod’s long handle and began to swim for the surface. Adrenaline gave renewed vigor and strength to her tired limbs. She kept her fear tightly in check. She swam in slow, wide circles and always kept the tip of the shark prod between her body and the lazily approaching shadow. Keeping pace with the potential predator.
Other sharks could be approaching. She made sure to never leave her back exposed to the same side for too long. That gave her hunters an opportunity to strike her blind. Just because she didn’t see a shark didn’t mean it wasn’t there. Her instincts screamed for her to swim break-neck for the surface and the safety of the boat in a blind panic.
Too rapid of an ascent put her in just as much danger as the shark circling her. Even at a depth of thirty some feet, she risked getting the bends, or decompression sickness if she ascended too fast. A blind swim would also trigger the shark’s hunting instincts, enticing it to chase her. It also made her few defenses useless.
Gradually, she worked her way to the surface. The seconds stretched into tense minutes that felt like hours. She glanced up every so often, careful to keep herself oriented to the boat. She could clearly see the outline of the shark now as it circled closer, growing more bold. Memories of Ryo’s sobbing filled her ears.
[I]Please, Ro. Stay out of the water. We’ll be alright. It’s not worth your life.
Say you mean it, Ro. Not just an empty promise. I love you.[/I]
I love you, too.
If anything happened to you, I don’t know what I’d do.
How would Ryo react to Sheila telling him his wife was dead? He’d have to plan her funeral. Who would take care of him with her gone?
The great white was massive; easily seventeen feet in her estimation. Maybe that was just her fear talking. The jet black eyes focused on her were empty and cold. Just a beast full of a voracious, ancient hunger. She could make out every detail clearly. Gray upper body, white belly. Huge gills. Pink gums. Rows of serrated teeth. She felt like a chicken on the chopping block.
Ro clutched the prod, ready to poke the shark if it got any closer. She stared her death in the eye. In the end, she had only one regret. She never should’ve lied to her injured husband. The shock of her death might be more than her pretty, fragile doll could handle. Betrayal, hurt, and lies would be his last memories and emotions of her.
The shark circled closer, still swimming lazily. She turned with it. She risked a glance up; she was three fourths of the way to the surface.
No human today, buddy. This snack fights back. Ro thought then dropped the abalone bag. A few thousand dollars for her life. Predatory instincts flared to life; the shark gave chase to the swiftly sinking abalone.
Ro took a gamble, rising faster than was generally considered safe. She was a well seasoned diver in tune with her body. She knew the first signs of when she’d pushed herself too far and was approaching danger. She wanted more distance between her and the shark. She couldn’t see it. Distance gave her a better chance of getting onto the boat.
Ascending and descending were the most dangerous times for divers. Like surfers, they especially resembled plump, tasty seals near the surface. Sheila’s father had lost his life mere feet from the boat. Yet Sheila continued on. The money was too good, and she had many surgeries she wanted for her transition.
Ro rotated her body 360 for a clear view around and below her. No sign of the shark, or any other sharks. Was this the same shark that had bitten her beloved? It didn’t matter. All that mattered was finding where it went. Up here the water warmed. Almost to the surface. She could see the shadow of the boat’s bottom clearly.
She looked for the shark again. No blurry shadows. Maybe the shark swam off. Or maybe it circled below, just out of sight. Waiting for the right opportunity to strike. One tiny mistake on her part would open a window of opportunity. A second’s lapse in judgement. Dropping her guard, like when she was getting on the boat.
She could feel the heat of the surface now. Safety was so close. Fear urged her to swim faster, to go for broke in one last, desperate plunge. She ignored it, clutching her shark prod. Vigilance was vital now. She was so close to the surface she knew Sheila could clearly see her. They still had no way to communicate. Sheila could not help her; she was on her own.
Was that a shadow moving far below her? The shark? A trick of the rippling water and sunlight? A school of fish? She had no other bait to offer. The shark could close the distance between them in seconds.
The shark shield helped deter curious sharks who came up for a tentative, investigative nibble. Not a hungry shark with mouth open wide, massive weight thrown into a full-tilt , go for broke, all or nothing kill strike. Not even the shark prod could save her from that.
Heart thumping in her ears, Ro spat out her mouthpiece as she surfaced. Sheila had already shelled the last abalone bag she’d brought up. Sheila stood by, watching for Ro. At Ro’s cry of “SHARK!”, she jumped into action. She kept a lookout around Ro as she swam for the boat. Ro kicked hard. Salty water sprayed over her face and stung her lips. Both she and the boat bobbed up and down on the choppy waves. She panted hard as fear finally started to get the better of her.
Up on the surface, the water was a brilliant, crystal azure. Sheila scanned the water, face pinched tight as she fought off her own panic and memories of her father. “To me, Ro! Come on! You’re clear! Move it, girly!” She bellowed in her deep voice, as if she could make Ro swim faster by sheer force of will.
Ro wasn’t looking down; she kept her eyes locked on Sheila’s and swimming with all the energy she had left. She trusted her friend to have her back. Sheila saw a big, dark shape moving down in the depths and rising fast. She didn’t want to call out and break Ro’s concentration. She hollered out some more.
Once Ro was close enough, Sheila reached out and hooked her hands under her armpits. Water splashed over both of them. Hot summer wind blew stray hairs into her eyes. She gave a mighty, manly yank and quickly hauled Ro up into the safety of the boat.
Ro lay gasping in a sprawled, soggy heap on the boat floor. The normally oppressive summer heat kissed her chilled, shaking bones. She closed her eyes against the bright light. Safe. She was safe. The danger had passed. Her brain took several moments to process that realization. Her chest heaved with released tension as she panted, breathing heavily. She shuddered violently, limbs twitching spastically as the tight hold she’d kept on her pent up and repressed fear snapped like a rubber band. The emotional recoil rolled over her in waves.
She could hear Sheila panting as hard as if she’d just been chased by a shark herself. No doubt she was reliving memories of her father, thinking what almost happened to her best friend. Wondering what the hell they were thinking, doing this crazy shit. Doubting their decisions.
Ro’s heart drummed a staccato rhythm in her ears while her thoughts ping-ponged around like lottery balls. She couldn’t think straight. All she could do was lay there like a ragdoll, recovering from her brush with death.
“Shit, Ro. Holy shit. That was a big ass pointer. He’s circling like he’s still hungry. Think he could top the boat? Let’s get the hell outta here.” Sheila’s voice held more awe than fear. She called the shark a white pointer, a local name for great white.
Ro listened to the clunkings and thumpings of Sheila getting the boat ready to return to shore. Now that her pulse had calmed and adrenaline rush faded, she was drained. Tired. The hard, wet floor was surprisingly comfortable. She could really go for a nap right now. Hell, she wouldn’t have minded one of Ryo’s thick, soft diapers….
“Oi. Don’t sleep on me now. Let’s get you into a seat. I’m tired of stepping over you.” Huge hands lifted Ro up. Her legs wobbled like jelly; she had no will, strength, or coherent thought left. She just wobbled along where Sheila led like a lost child. If it wasn’t for Sheila’s strength supporting her, she’d fall flat on her face.
“Hm? I’m good. Really.” Ro yawned as she plopped heavily into the passenger seat. Her limp body was a dead weight on the sun-warmed leather. “Just need a minute to catch my breath.”
Sheila eyed her critically. “You’re a lil green around the gills, but you’ll be fine.” She stepped behind the controls and started up the boat. The engine roared to life, rumbling in Ro’s ears.
“As long as I’m not dinner.” Ro’s head flopped against the headrest and lolled sideways. She squinted at the harsh sunlight bouncing off the waves. A gray dorsal fin cut cleanly through the water. She stared, blanking out thoughts of her recent swim with the creature. Definitely a shark. A very large shark. The motor whirred to life and the boat sped off as the fin sank underwater. Nearby floated the sad scraps of a shredded abalone net. The loss that bag represented twisted her heart. She stared at it without blinking until it was out of sight.
“Ryo. Baby. Look at me. Please.”
Ryo lay on his back on their king size bed. He was naked except for his diaper. All of his slender, beautiful body was exposed and vulnerable, even his healing stump. Ro leaned over him, changing his diaper. She’d wiped him so attentively. He ignored her. Ever since that day in the hospital, she’d been so sweet with him. So loving, always smiling. Acting like her carefree self from before the accident. She never mentioned Sheila and abalone diving. When he asked, she just smiled and told him they’d already settled the matter. She promised, and she meant what she said. He could trust her. She was his true love, after all. His wife. Surely, he could trust her.
So Ryo smiled back and quit bringing it up. The shadow of her silence laid on his heart. He did trust her. That’s what broke his heart. He went through the motions of healing, fake smiling at the doctors until they released him after keeping him longer than they should have.
He had thought he’d feel normal, more like himself at home. While he’d been in the hospital, Ro had made changes at home, making things more accessible for him. He felt like a stranger in his own home. In his own body. This was the new normal; he doubted he’d ever get use to it. Dorothy trapped in Oz; Kansas but a memory. The sutures in his stump had healed, but the stump itself continued to pain him. Not as bad as in the hospital.
The worst change was his relationship with Ro. Both were clinging to memories. Wanting to be as close as they used to be. Now there was a sea of missing legs and lies between them and he didn’t know how to reach her. He’d tried earlier and failed. So now he just floated along in the current of life. Ro had wrecked that ship when Ryo saw all the huge deposits in their bank account. There was only one way they’d have such a big leap in income; an even higher jump than in past abalone seasons. He showed her their banking statements; asked about the money. Her silence and the look of guilt on her face were all the answers he’d needed. That’s when he fell silent and Ro begged for his forgiveness.
Ro rubbed the plastic panel on his freshly fastened, clean diaper. Ryo stared at the wall. She touched his face with tentative, searching fingers. He let her turn his head, but kept his gaze lowered. “Ryo. Please.” The hurt and rejection in her voice almost broke his heart.
“What’s there to say? You’ll just do whatever you want to do. Fuck my feelings. Maybe you can just get the shrink to give me more pills. Since I’m emotionally distraught and an albatross around your neck.” Long held hurt and anger flavored his words with extra bite.
Ro winced. Ryo didn’t feel guilty. She deserved this. Angry tears welled in his eyes and he closed them. He opened them when he felt her crawl on top of him, pinning his slim body under hers. One knee accidentally brushed against his stump; he gasped at the sensation. He tried to wriggle free, his diaper crinkling loudly. Her hands held his wrists and her weight held him down.
“Ryo.” She leaned down, licking a tear then swallowing it. His eyes widened as his tears continued to fall. “I love you. You’re the best thing that’s ever happened to me. I hurt you. I should’ve talked this over with you more. Been more honest. I’m not going to ask you to forgive me. I’m not sorry. I did what I felt I had to do. I’d do it again. You’d do the same if the situation was reversed.”
Ryo bit his lip at that. Would he have risked his life to give them a better future? He stared up into the grey sincerity in Ro’s eyes. Yes, yes he would. He sighed. “It hurts. You lied to me. You went behind my back. That really hurts, Ro. More than my missing leg. Maybe I can forgive you in time. But it’ll be a long time.”
Ro stared down into his eyes for a long moment. Her heart turned in her chest. She nodded her head, accepting his words. It was no more than she deserved. More than she deserved, actually. He was giving her a second chance, despite being so hurt. She could respect that. Be grateful for it. “So…are we okay?”
Ryo thought her words over, taking his time. Examining his own emotions. “I don’t know. But I want to be.”
“I want to be, too.” She touched her forehead to his. “I miss us.”
“So…we work on making us okay again?”
“Yeah.” Ryo chewed his lip. “Ro….did all that money really come from abalone diving? You’ve never made that much before….”
“Let’s just say the man in the gray suit threw in an added bonus.” Ro cut off any more questions with a soft, gentle kiss to his pink lips.