by Sara Paye
At the end of James Cameron’s 1997 blockbuster, Titanic, Rose forfeited The Heart of the Ocean into the sea with a feeble gasp. The sea, where dolphins swim and leap and have no metric for grief, no metric for greed or for jealousy. Blue diamonds get their cyanic color from hydrogen, a highly combustible element. A rarity, they form under immense pressure and without self-destructing. They harden and crystalize, become strong enough to cut glass.
Today I am engaged to a man whose work ethic makes mine look like a picnic. I am an easygoing, soft, and gentle human, attracted to other soft and gentle beings. These beings are often women, and so I call myself queer. But my fiancé, Jeff, is also soft, gentle, and kind. He is tender and open and makes space for me in a world where I rarely find a good fit.
Rose had a wealthy fiancé. He gave her The Heart of the Ocean. Yet like Rose with Jack, someone else confessed their love to me. Earlier this year, I went on a hike with my friend and ended up at a picnic table. In denims, boots, and an industrial-strength jacket, they got down on one knee and asked me to run away.
"Do not marry Jeff," they said, chin trembling.
Then I was combustible, breaking into many parts like a mirror shattering, feeling as though I would turn dead, turn blue from the inflexibility of my heart. I had indeed been attracted to this friend, I had thought the world of them and their leadership in our community, but now their harsh ultimatum made me cringe. My self-image of softness and this tough reality nodded at one another as I broke down in tears, instinctively craving Jeff's kind eyes, his warm smile.
“But if you’re queer, and you’re with a man, aren’t you unhappy?” My admirer's logic almost convinced me to cave, had me considering what it would mean to break my engagement of ten months. I spiraled. What about the condo? Our cat, our dog? What about the person I am when I'm with Jeff? What about Jeff? I remembered, and my body knew what it wanted before any words could form. Though I considered choosing a new path, I could not betray my skin. My skin wanted Jeff’s, wanted comfort, safety, warmth, softness.
“What does queer mean to you?” They persisted.
“I like kind and gentle people—people who are sometimes women, but sometimes men, sometimes neither.” My hands repeatedly folded a tissue. “I cannot run away with you," I told them. "It's not what I want."
A stern gaze, a fixed glare came from my friend who had before and otherwise been an eager presence. Their shoulders hunched; their hands gathered in a tense knot.
So with windows down, I drove fast from the mountain where I could have run away. I drove so fast, I got one red hot speeding ticket from a Federal Lands Trooper. His truck blinked blue and white and pulled me over. My stomach sank and the peach fuzz hair on my arms stood up straight. I could feel blood coursing through my chest, emanating from my fearful heart.
“Do you know how fast you were going?”
“No, I’m sorry, I…”
“79 in a 55,” he said.
I nodded, then waited for him to return with the citation. Parked on the outskirts of a town called Blue Diamond, just west of Las Vegas, Nevada, I gazed up at Red Rock Canyon where climbers scaffold high on surfaces formed from iron oxide and hematite, where the sun sets and the budding crest of darkness meets neon pollution. Hydrogen spectral combusts, making a glowing, dusty blue sky.
Down in the valley, in city center, I returned to the landing where Jeff was already home. I let him hold me, even though hours before I could have forfeited that privilege. Staring straight ahead, I told him what happened, how it felt like my friend had emotionally tormented me, asked to me leave or else. Jeff was consoling, brushing strands of hair to clear my tear-stained face and look into my eyes. He called them ocean eyes.
"What do you want to do?" he asked. His chest rising with a breath, the breath holding for my answer before he exhaled. I was never more certain of his love or the freedom we created when choosing one another than at that moment. My birthday would be in five days, his in seven. We are both air signs, lovers in the age of Aquarius, foodies, and underpaid social workers. So days later, on a Mexican cruise we had saved and saved and saved for, I wanted to be happy. I wanted to believe I deserved the break, but guilt and shame complicated my thought patterns with combustibility: I am queer and so is the friend I rejected.
But would that life have been easier, or better, than the one I chose?
Had I made the wrong decision? Had I steered in a direction that would bring me to ruin? The ship offered 24-hour soft serve ice cream over which I would mull these questions. I stirred vanilla into chocolate, chocolate into vanilla and wept. Jeff sat with me, asking no questions, and offering steadiness alone. He knew I had admired my friend, and he allowed me to feel the loss of my connection with them without jealousy. Now I had the emotional freedom to ask whether I should be somewhere else, someone else. Karaoke and bingo tournaments couldn’t distract me long enough. I feared the version of myself I would return to after the sunny dream of Mexico, after mariscos and ceviche, after the culture shock of federales fully armed in open vehicles, and lots of bartering for handmade souvenirs.
Aboard the cruise, Jeff and I were clad with sunscreen and sunglasses, big straw hats and lanyards, swimsuits, and sandals. We explored fine dining restaurants, shops, and an open waters casino. It was all opulence and consumerism, though I loved being surrounded by ocean. To one side of the ship, we could see the glittering shores of Baja California. On the other side was saltwater and depth as far as the eye could see.
Waves dipped and rolled and beckoned me to pause and self-reflect.
Sitting on the deck drinking Mai Tais felt like a crime, like I was abandoning some other calling, a traitor of some other life. Perhaps my fearful being would be swallowed by the life I had chosen, would be erased of its queerness if I did not take charge from this point. Saltwater foamed around of the cruise ship, and I brewed, too. I thought of my friend. Sunlight found me even in my stewing and allowed me glimpses of rest, or at least fatigue.
I drunkenly remembered Rose’s Heart of the Ocean when Jeff and I walked past the cruise ship's jewelry store. My anxious stupor was broken by a gentleman in a tuxedo. He hollered, gathering the passing crowd.
"Hey, folks! Care to guess how many karats this here blue diamond is? You guess correct, and it's yours!" He held an arm in front of us to show a blue diamond ring embedded in a velvet box. "Go right ahead, guess a number between one and five, jot it down next to your name and stateroom number to submit—to our—raffle!"
There is so much hope in a cruise ship contest, so much plastic hope.
In my loopy, messy handwriting, I wrote on the clipboard list: Sara Paye, 2.75 karats, Room 1424.
In his small, chicken-scratch handwriting, he wrote his name right under mine: Jeffrey Feick, 3.25 karats, Room 1424.
We had a supper of overcooked Mahi Mahi and dry roast chicken. There was an onboard magician who asked Jeff to pick a card to prove he and I were made for each other when he found it at the top of the stack. Worried that perhaps it wouldn’t be a match, now I will never forget the six of clubs. We ate and ate some more, and again I felt combustible. We slept most of the night, abandoning the notion that either of us could have correctly estimated the blue diamond ring's cut or size. At 3am, I woke to use the restroom. The ship had come to a stop, though its body swayed with the waves.
The story of Rose’s Heart of the Ocean represented her fiancé’s wealth—and later, her new lover’s nude drawing. Which had more value? Every audience member of Titanic had to know there was room on the raft, on the floating door, for no one but Jack Dawson. Before wobbling back to bed, I glanced from the stateroom window to the sea below, to imagine frost and descension—to say goodbye and let go of my friend for good.
Instead of some cinematic end, and illuminated by the ship's light, there was a whole pod of dolphins gliding with speed past my view.
I gasped, pointed. Jeff slept.
"Wake up! Wake up! There are dolphins out here."
Jeff woke groggily with sweet and stirring hums coming from his throat.
He made his way out of bed and over to my side. We stood holding hands, nearly naked, faces against the plexiglass. There must have been more than twenty blue-grey porpoises swerving and charging past our tired, buffet-inflamed bodies. It would be our last indulgent hurrah before Jeff’s pancreatitis diagnosis the following week. The harsh reality of medical issues would soften us both. This cruise, these dolphins, this moment was priceless. It was not frost or descension or combustibility. It was surprise. It was joy. I had almost forgotten about the karat contest, had nearly forgotten about my own blue heart.
Beholding the wild dolphins, their playfulness, I wondered aloud to Jeff, "Why let go?"
"Holding onto some stuff hurts, I guess," he said.
Jeff would be right. Clinging to a blue diamond dream of another life was cutting me open; a mirror split down the middle. My queerness would find a safe harbor within what may be perceived as an unlikely place—not with a fellow queer person, but with a man—a sweet, thoughtful, goofy and expansive man.
When morning came, we finally landed in Mexico, in Ensenada. Jeff and I took a tourist bus through the shanties and lavender fields, up through mountainside cliffs, to see the famed La Bufadora. La Bufadora is a marine geyser created by a pocket of air in an ocean cave where, from deep inside, waters erupt over sixty feet into the sky every thirty seconds to a minute. We stood beside the spectacle on one of Ensenada's many brick and asphalt bridges. The ocean bubbled with froth before the geyser shot up into the air. If the geyser was to be exceptionally reaching, the swelling oscillations below us were even more extreme, with deeper dips, fuller peaks.
"Ooh, a big one!" we would exclaim.
We were sprayed with ocean mist and renewed by the healing powers of La Bufadora. Jeff and I shouted and gasped and giggled as the ice-cold seawater shot to great heights before retreating, just to show us its descension, combustion, and surprise all over again.
After a full day in Mexico, we could feel our plastic hope expanding so we returned to the ship where we huddled in the jewelry shop, standing around glass display cases, marveling at gems we could never afford with our social worker salaries. The tuxedoed man held up the velvet box to a harsh florescent light. The blue diamond gleamed, then dimmed when he shut the box with a snap.
The small crowd of cruisers crept in closer, waiting to hear the results.
"Alright, folks, the answer is—one karat! This here blue diamond is exactly one karat! A ten-thousand-dollar value! Okay, let’s get to it! Our raffle winner is…." He cleared his throat and narrowed his eyes to read small, printed numbers from one red raffle ticket.
Jeff and I scanned our raffle numbers, saying them one by one under our breath.
But we were both wrong, so we let go of our estimates. We let go of the high-value blue diamond, as well as ten thousand possible lives of various spectral colors and depths, to choose this one karat, this neon path, this current.