So last night I decided to write a poem about one of the most extraordinary experiences of my life, the kind of experience that if I really let it in would change my life by opening my heart fully to the wonder of actually getting to live on earth, that would make stop feeling sorry for myself, or feeling that there was no point in trying to change. I decided to write about the night my friend Savory took me night swimming with manta rays.
Now since you are not reading a poem at the moment, you may have guessed correctly that I determined, as I did after attempting to get it right, that this experience did not want to be a poem at all. It wanted to be a few prose paragraphs in which I tell you how Savory, Renate and I drove to the Sheraton and parked our dilapidated trucks at the edge of the parking lot where Savory said we could walk out over the lava and swim about a quarter mile to the hotel who shone lights on the water to lure the mantas in for their guests to watch.
Renate opted out from the get go and proceeded to the hotel where she promptly got a good buzz on with a mai tai, claiming a spot for herself on the stone seawall with her purchased drink to watch us.
But first there was that quarter mile swim through the dark to get through first….
Actually, first I need to tell you about Savory, whose fluidity is an essential part of this story. Savory is one of the most courageously strange people I have ever met. I grew up in small town New England. Even the few gays I knew were conservative, and they were all old because to have been out in my high school was seriously not an option if you wanted to survive.
Renate told me about Savory before I met him, but I was still taken aback at our first encounter. Savory was not gay like I thought from her description. He was a straight man who dressed in women's clothes. I had heard about hetero men who did this for deviant sexual thrills, but Savory dressed as a woman all the time--in daylight. He was a carpenter! He wore lipstick and pearls and a stuffed bra under his wife-beater. On the job he wore jeans, but when not working he favored sarongs. The breasts were always there. You couldn't not look at them. It was like seeing breasts for the first time, looking at Savory's stuffed chest. Even more eye-opening to me was the fact that he had children--two with different women. Although he dressed as a woman he did not want to sleep with men. He wanted to live with women and he did. I tried to imagine kissing him (he was attractive), but couldn't. I was far from New England, in a world too alien, which bring me back to the manta rays…
But first I do have to say that trickster Renate wondered as we got out of the truck if Savory was going to wear a bikini, and what his penis looked like. He did not. He took his bra off and donned a short wetsuit over his trunks and flat chest. I was suddenly aware of him as a male in a way I had not been before. I trusted he knew what he was doing because he embodied masculine authority, telling me toI strapthe waterproof headlamp he gave me to my mask and to follow him out onto the black lava. I was nervous but was good at pretending I was not. If I hadn't been good at pretending I would still be in my hometown, right? Savory snapped a glowstick and embedded it in the crook of a palm tree. "So we know where to get out of the water on the way back," he told me. Gulp. Otherwise we could swim straight out to sea and you know what waits out there beyond the edge of the reef, right? You said, not me. Sharks.
I had never been on a night dive before. Once we were in the water I quickly lost my fear of the dark, surprised myself with the wonder of turning my head to shine the lamp on some new part of the ocean floor where coral and reef fish went about their business as if there wasn't a spotlight in their faces. Of course, it did cross my mind that night is when the sharks came out, but I just kept pushing that thought away until it sank to the bottom, trusting my strong legs to keep kicking me toward the lights from the Sheraton.
Renate waves and hallooed from the seawall, mai tai in hand. We waved back, bathed in the hotel's light. The nightly arrival of the mantas was quite an attraction and had attracted a large crowd. So far there was just Savory and me, cavorting like seals. I decided to put on a show for the tourists, turning somersaults under the water, doing back flips as they oohed and aahed like I was a trained beast at Seaworld. Underneath me a school of mullet flashed in synchronous motion, the moon goddess Hina's creatures, silver-swift. I was quite happy to perform for the tourists, had even forgotten for a bit while we were really there, until a large very well-lit boat lumbered into view, coming out of the dark into the water lit by the hotel lights. This was a tourist boat out of Kona loaded with tourists who had paid to swim with the mantas. Savory and I were gleeful, not only because our payment was just that quarter mile swim through the dark, but because they shone high beams into the water that made it even brighter. We swam out towards them and sure enough, coming towards us so slow we could see the edge where the dark began and the light ended, a manta. I took in a huge breath, cleared my nose and dove down. One, two, three, and then too many to count, gliding out of the dark to feed on the invisible, phytoplankton they filtered in through their gills as they flew. Savory and I flipped and soared with them. Even better, a scuba diver from the tourist boat lowered himself to the bottom with a spotlight he shone up, attracting even more mantas. If this sounds invasive, well, it is. It also provides the mantas with a fine meal since it is the light that attracts their prey.
If you have never had a manta swim straight toward you as you flipped back with your arms over your head in a long, slow arc, coming so close you almost rubbed bellies, let me tell you, it is one of life's sublime experiences. This encounter was so alien, so other, I actually felt like this is what it must be like to meet aliens. The mantas were cognizant, focused, playful, agile beyond belief--and they accepted our presence. I don't think the commercial boat operators were too keen on us though, since if the secret got out about how you could just walk through the parking lot to swim with the mantas instead of paying a bunch of money they would be out of business. Then again, there was that swim through the dark to factor in….I haven't been back to Kona in a few years, but I bet Savory and I did not ruin their business.
After awhile I started to feel seasick from the rocking waves so Savory and I swam back. Like he said, it was really hard to tell where to get out of the water. Thoughts of sharks once again crept in. I have never been so happy to see a glowstick in my life.
We hauled out, stripped off our wetsuits, toweled off. I put on my sweatshirt and shorts. Savory put on his bra and sarong. Tipsy Renate rejoined us and we headed off to the only place open besides the Sheraton to fill our bellies (out of our budget and not likely to want us ragged undesirables at their bar), a sports bar with widescreen TVs blaring some game I could not conceive of liking when the wonders of the deep were just a quarter mile away. We got some strange looks. I realized as we were sitting there that it was not so much that Savory was dressed as a woman that bothered people, it was that he acted like a man. Energetically he was a man and the men in that bastion of American masculinity were threatened by him. To them, Savory crossed so many boundaries he was an alien. The beautiful thing was that to him, he was right at home, in his body that could soar underwater, fluid and fleet in the dark when the hotel lights were flicked off and the mantas rose toward the moon lighting the ocean from within.