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Challenger Deep
by Kathleen Bradean © 2006

Pop rode from Oakland to Guam in my lap. I put my vintage green and yellow A's baseball cap over him so that people wouldn't notice the plain cardboard box with the gold embossed stamp, "Whiteside and Sons Funeral Directors." A dusty cobweb clung to the back corner of the box. It had taken me a while to make good on my promise to him.

The first two days on the island, I let Pop sit on the dresser in the hotel room. Afraid that a maid might think he was trash, I decided I had to carry out his final request. Until I closed the past, the rest of my life was suspended.

I removed my hat as I ambled into the hotel lobby. By the time I reached the granite and glass reception desk, the hotel staff beamed expectant smiles.

"Hi. I need to find out how I can hire a boat."

They nodded, as if they understood everything. "Yes, Sir."

I grinned at them. It helped that I was so athletic and lanky, barely any hips or breasts. My look was boy next door—suntanned, with a white-toothed California smile. The short blonde haircut, the way I moved, the unisex clothes, worked magic. I passed!

Then, recognition set in. "Um, Ma'am. Miss Erica." Fear that they'd offended me pulled at the corners of their eyes. They still smiled, but a little less certainly, less brightly.

My smile faded too. Funny how one little word had enough power to make me feel right with myself. But they snatched it away from me as quickly as they offered it. I wanted to be Sir. I wanted that magical word back.

"I need to hire a boat to take me out over the Challenger Deep." I set my A's cap on their polished counter.

The smiles drooped a bit more. The staff shrugged.

The hotel manager stepped forward to handle me. He wore a lei of waxy cream flowers over his dark green suit. The rest of the staff faded back, but their ears were tuned to the conversation and I saw their gazes slide away from their tasks to watch me. "No good fishing over the Marianas Trench," he told me with a tight smile. He folded his hands at his waist as if that closed the matter.

"I'm not fishing. I'm—." Who knew how many local laws I broke carrying around Pop's ashes, much less dumping them into the ocean? "I'm paying my last respects."

"It's all the same ocean. Same water. Why not take an island tour and pay your respects during that?"

He tried to hand me a glossy three-fold brochure of feral blondes on a sailboat, each clutching a tropical drink. I didn't accept it from him.

"I made a promise. My father was on the Trieste survey team that measured the Challenger Deep. He wanted to go back."

The manager's smile grew more fixed. "There's nothing out there. Just ocean." He decided a minor problem with the Japanese tourists at the far end of the desk needed his attention.

No one was interested in stories about Pop. They didn't care that being on the team that measured the deepest place on earth meant something to him, and they couldn't understand how important it was to me to carry out Pop's final wish. I made a promise. Pop raised me to keep my word.

Pissed off, I shoved my A's cap over my cropped hair. My walk as I crossed the lobby had a definite female motion to it. I tried to get back into my male groove but couldn't.

I decided to explore past the fenced hotel grounds. The day before, I saw boats beyond the hotel's private beach. I figured I'd simply go hire one myself.

I reached for the brass handle on the lobby's glass doors.

A chubby, flirty doorman rushed to open the door for me. He was the one who always offered to bring me boys, girls, or smoke. "My brother has a boat," he whispered out of the side of his mouth.

"A big boat?"

The doorman shrugged his rounded shoulders, a common answer on the island, I was learning. No one wanted to say no.

"Last week, one of his customers caught a tuna! Big fish." He threw his arms wide, inviting me to imagine it.

Across the lobby, the manager cleared his throat.

The doorman scooted behind a potted palm. His dark green uniform blended with the plants.

"It's the distance I'm worried about." I felt silly, talking to a huge terracotta planter, but when I stood closer, the stiff palm fronds poked my face.

"My brother goes out there many times, I think."

And made it back apparently, which was my bigger concern. I shoved my hands into the pockets of my khaki shorts. "Can I meet him? See the boat?"

The doorman peered around the potted jungle. "I'll make the arrangements. Meet me beyond the security gate at five o'clock tomorrow morning."

"That early?" It felt so cloak and dagger for such a sunny, tropical island.

"The trench is very far. Better to start at daybreak so that it isn't dark when you come back." The doorman moved from behind the big planter. "Bring lots of water, three times what you think you need, food, and beer," he told me as he moved across the shiny marble floor. Then he trotted back. "Best prices, just for you, at the market in the blue building. Don't go into the other store. No good there. They rip you off. Charge you tourist prices. Go to the blue market. Ask for Gogui. My cousin. Tell him I sent you. You get a good price." He nudged my elbow then glided away to open the door for the Japanese tourists.

*               *               *

The pure white sands of the hotel's imported beach gave way to Guam's domestic brown sand past the hotel's bamboo gate. It was just after dawn and the air was already torpid. Bright flags on ships' masts refused to flutter in the light breeze.

The doorman called out to me from behind a scraggly hibiscus bush. I wondered about him. Maybe skulking around playing games of intrigue made days of endless perfection seem more exciting.

Pop's box of ashes poked my back through the pack, prodding me on, or warning me, I wasn't sure.

Morning was rising, flat and harsh, over the sullen waves. Guam sat near the International Date Line, so we were among the first people on earth to witness the beginning hours of a new day.

"You went to see Gogui?"

I nodded.

"I told you. Best deal around."

Why we were whispering was beyond me.

The last high tide left a meandering line of tiny pink shells, seaweed, and dried foam along the sand.

"Tano!" The doorman greeted his brother as we trudged through the deep sand. "This is Miss Erica. She needs a boat."

Tano worked fishing line in his brown hands, his long fingers arcing high over his palm. He glanced up at us when the doorman hailed him but he didn't say anything. When we were a couple feet away, Tano set aside the knot he tried to tease out of the line.

Why was it that men always had the thick, long lashes that women wanted? His eyes were like tropical water over shallow white sand beaches. I could see the line of his hipbones above the low waistband of his shorts. A large hook, carved in bleached bone, hung between nipples like melted chocolate kisses.

I should have negotiated the price before I saw him. There had to be a premium for all that languid sex. He caught me looking, so I pulled the brim of my cap low over my eyes. Tano and his brother chatted in Chamorro, the island idiom. Whenever they laughed, as sparkly as sunlight on water, I felt as if it were about me. I shifted my backpack and dug the toe of my black Vans into the sand.

Tano's boat looked like shit, but all the sport-fishing boats along the beach were as weathered as the men who captained them. The metal fittings were speckled with rust. The dingy red stripe running along the hull was crusted with salt.

I looked past the surf to the ocean. It went on without end, and the boat seemed so small.

"No good fishing in the deep. Fish like warm, shallow water," Tano said to me.

I glanced up at him again. High cheekbones, thick lips, he was too incredible to look at straight on, like the sun. Sparse hairs on his chin curled wildly, one lighter brown than the others. A flush of heat hit my lips and cheeks, as obvious as a hard-on. I felt the welcome, warm tingle of interest between my legs.

"I'm not fishing. I want to release something."

The doorman tried to infect our half-hearted haggling over the price of the trip by baiting Tano and then me in turns, but we already reached an understanding between flitting glances.

*               *               *

It took most of an hour to get the boat ready to go. The doorman disappeared when the work started. Tano told me what to do, sometimes showing me by covering my hands with his dark brown ones. By the time the boat was on the water, we had a casual flirtation going. It was easy. No forced chuckles, no posturing.

Tano asked, "What's with the hat? You touch it like a talisman every time you mention your father."

I caught myself touching the brim again and gave him an embarrassed grin. "Pop and I were big fans of the A's. He bought this cap for me when I was in seventh grade. We caught a foul ball that day."

"I touch a tree every time I return to shore. Superstitious, both of us," he chuckled.

I gave him a friendly little nudge with my shoulder as we bent to lift the cooler onto the deck. Tano bumped back, grinning and showing a gap in his front teeth.

We set sail as the sun broke above low clouds. Land slipped from sight and I felt as if the world went away.

"You don't get seasick, do you, Erica?" Tano asked as we hit open ocean.

We slammed up and down waves until he tacked enough to cut through the troughs. The side-to-side rocking was harder, but at least my teeth didn't clack together.

I patted my stomach. "Something I inherited from Pop. Sea legs. Sea stomach, I guess. He was in the Navy." The sun was already strong, so I put on my sunglasses and tugged at the brim of my cap when I felt the wind try to lift it. "He was stationed near here for a couple years."

"Good, because it's going to be hours of this," Tano warned. He squinted at the bright light bouncing off the white surfaces of his boat.

There were large padded captain's chairs at the back of his boat for fishers, but I settled onto the worn red cushion under the sun shade and propped my feet on a cooler. I sipped from a cold beer. "Your brother told me that you go out to the Mariana Trench a lot. If there's nothing there to see, as everyone keeps telling me, why do you go?"

Tano stared at the water. Damn, pissed him off, and I wanted to sweet-talk him into a little bump and grind. He was just my type—a jock. It was going to be a very long day if he wasn't going to talk.

Tano did talk though. His eyes focused past me as if he were remembering a distant, hazy past. "About three years ago, I was unhappy. I was in love. There was a man... He consumed my heart and soul. I lived for the sight of him. On the day he married a woman, I sailed to the edge of the trench. I hung over the railing, staring into the deep, wondering if I had the balls to jump. Instead, my tears fell. Maybe, they are still falling."

"The trench is deep," I agreed. "Seven miles from the surface to the bottom of the Challenger Deep—the lowest spot along the trench. Pop told me that you could toss Mount Everest down it and still have a mile of water left." I almost touched the cap, but saw Tano's teasing smile and held onto my beer instead.

"Big enough to hold all the sorrow in the world."

Tano leaned far over the side of the boat. It was body poetry, the arc of his lean brown torso, the grip of his long toes on the railing of the boat, the way his hand slapped against the rising waves.

After he swung back onto the deck, he dragged wet fingers across my lips. I licked the drops away.

"Tastes like tears, doesn't it," he asked softly. Our bodies touched.

We stayed there, pressed together, staring down into the water as if it held answers.

"Pop once told me that the human body is mostly seawater."

Tano smiled slyly. "Does that mean we're mostly sorrow?"

It was my turn to stare off at the intensely blue water. I ran my fingertips over the lumpy white A on the front of my cap. "Some of us."

*               *               *

We played his CDs of local technopop and danced like we were in a club. The unpredictable motion of the water made it hard to keep my footing, but Tano put his hands over his head and moved like curling waves. I wasn't as steady so I bumped against him a lot, but I closed my eyes and imagined I was a hot boy under the flashing lights of a foam pit, and everyone wanted to take me home. When his hands went to steady me, I pretended strangers couldn't stop themselves from reaching out to touch my boy flesh.

When the batteries died in his player, I collapsed onto the cushions, laughing. "I haven't danced like that in a long time. I expected, you know, a tropical paradise, people to be so much more open about their sexuality. But it's worse here than back home. When they think I'm a man, I can dance with a girl, but the moment they realize I'm," I gestured down to my body with contempt, "this, they get angry and move away."

Tano rested his elbows on the boat's console. He still panted from our dancing. "I have to be careful. That's why I couldn't tell him that I wanted him. I could only suffer, and want, and be silent."


I wanted to tell him that I understood, but at Pop's funeral, people said, "I know how you feel," and I'd think, You can't even begin to guess what I lost. But I'd nod and stare down at the carpet until they moved on to the food laid out on the dining room table.

*               *               *

I had to move under the faded red sun shade to stay in the short shadows. Noon already. He watched me out of the corner of his eye. "It's a strange thing to be doing, burying your father."

I shrugged.

"Usually the son does that, around here."

I peeled the label off my beer bottle with my fingernails, trying, as usual, to take it off in one piece. Another superstition. I wasn't even sure what curse a whole label blocked.

What the hell, he came out to me.

"I'm not a woman. I mean, not inside. Just on the surface." I got the big label off and worked on the smaller one at the neck of the brown bottle. "I was supposed to be a boy. I have two older sisters. They're girls."

I knew that sounded stupid. I set aside my beer.

"I mean, they're girly-girls. Real girls. Inside and out. Not me. See, everyone knows if the two older kids are the same sex, the third child is the last try for the other. Mom even told me that the only name they had picked out was Eric. In the hospital, they slapped the A on the end to make me Erica."

I pulled off my hat. I worked my hands around it in an unending circle while I spoke to the inside of the cap. "I would have made a great boy. I hung around Pop and helped him work on the cars. I was the only one who went to baseball games with him. We both liked gingersnaps and root beer." As if that described the bond we shared that excluded my Mom and sisters.  I was Pop's son in every way but the one that mattered to me.

Tano asked, "Do you like girls?"

I gave him that frank look that I learned in bars, the one that got people to follow me to dark corners. "The individual person matters more than the gender. Men, I understand. Women are like a separate tribe with weird rituals and a different language. I don't get women, but I like making love to them. I like men too. More."

"You like everyone except you." He sipped from his beer. "I only like men."

*               *               *

The waves whooshed and hissed. It was a vast desert, the surface of the ocean. No birds overhead, no signs of life in the water. I drank more beer than I should have and watched Tano because there was nothing else to see.

Every movement he made was sure, slow. I envied the way his fingertips trailed over the boat's chromed steering wheel. His lips were so rough and cracked from the sea that I thought they'd feel great nibbling on my skin.

Sweat shone on Tano's slender neck. I wanted to lick it away. Sex surged through my blood, in my chest, in my belly, between my legs. I wondered if men felt that too, or if it was all in the dick for them.

Shit. I was dumping Pop's ashes, a funeral of sorts, and I was cruising the island boy. I was going to burn in hell.

*               *               *

"Did you ever think of changing to a man?"

After hours of silence, his voice startled me.

"Yes." I drew my feet off the cooler and leaned forward with my hands clasped together. "I mean, I looked into the treatments. The stumbling block was that I had to live as a man for a year. Not that I didn't want to, but I didn't know when to begin. On the way home from the doctor's office? I got onto the bus as a man, but three stops later someone called me Ma'am and I was back to being female. The next morning I planned to start off fresh, but I couldn't escape my body. Every night I'd go to sleep swearing, "This is my last day as Erica," but then I'd get dressed and go to work and still be stuck in the twilight world between who I've been and who I want to be."

Tano smiled out at the waves. "You can't become who you already are. You can only accept it. Maybe you're not male; maybe you aren't female. Maybe you aren't straight; maybe you aren't gay. Maybe you're simply you." He made me see myself in a tilted mirror. "There are vast spaces in the between. There's more ocean than island."

"Maybe I'm the shore."

*               *               *

The bottom dropped out of the world. I clutched the boat railing. I was falling, falling while we were floating. Dizzy, I gulped air.

Wave. Trough. White foam. In the distance, the water was unrelenting blue, but the crest curling off the bow of the boat was green and gray. Nothing was different, yet primal instinct told me that I was in danger.

Intense pressure squeezed my chest as if I dove into the depths. "What is it?"

He answered in a whisper, "We're over the trench." He cut the engines. Even the waves were hushed, as if we'd stepped inside a great cathedral.

The swells knocked the boat.

"Is it always like this?"

He nodded. His pale eyes were as wide as mine. It didn't seem possible, but we could feel it, the void below us. I stared up at the azure sky, afraid that if I looked down, like a cartoon character, I'd fall.

I didn't think I believed in such things, but I swore I felt the immense presence of god.

I wanted to run. I wanted to hide. I lurched to my backpack and pulled out the box of Pop's ashes.

"Maybe you shouldn't drop your father over the side. Maybe you should throw in your sorrow, like I did. Let it sink."

"It's not that easy."

Tano snatched my A's cap off my head. He tossed it onto the waves like a Frisbee.

"Hey!" I was too afraid to jump in after it even though I was a great swimmer.

That much water could drown you, I thought. The weight of it would drag you under the surface. You'd never see the sun again.

My hat bobbed on top of a far wave, disappeared on the rolling surface, reappeared even further away.

"That was the A at the end of your name. Now, you are Eric."

My mouth open and shut like a hooked fish.

"Your life as a man has begun."

He was an idiot. He didn't understand. "It isn't that easy. It can't be that easy."

"But what if it is? That hat was a gris-gris, a magic charm. Throw it away, and throw away the A that made you into a girl."

Anger welled up behind my eyes.

Tano pleaded with me. "Believe just enough to make it real. Go back to shore as a man. You don't know when to being? Begin now! Right now! Because the now is the only time you ever really have."

My throat was too tight to breathe.

"I let my moment pass. I'm stuck in a now that never ends, the man I want living with someone else. Before that happened, I should have acted," Tano told me, and I saw tears in the corners of his eyes. "Don't waste your now, your chance."

The hat slowly absorbed water, growing darker. The big white A on the front sank lower as it absorbed tears. When it was full of them, it fell below the surface. Feeling as if I were drowning, I gasped in salt air.

"You can only tread water so long before the misery will pull you under. It's not sink or swim. It's sink or fly."

The hat was gone. Could I cast off my outer self as easily as he cast away my hat? I inhaled again and relaxed my fists.

"I only like men," Tano reminded me.

He came to me, wrapping his arms around my waist. I felt his dick against my thigh. He kissed me, and it was like kissing the sea. I tasted the salt on his mouth and felt the tug of his chapped skin over my smooth lips. His skin was hot from the sun.


I was Eric. Kissed, suddenly I was a prince.

I shoved Tano to the floor of the boat. His shorts came off in a quick tug. I was more aggressive than he probably expected, but he didn't seem to mind. We fucked like men, raw energy wildly spent. I spat white foam on his cock and jerked him while we kissed, bodies pressed together. Rough, I grasped his balls the way a man would, sure of the grip, not afraid of hurting him.

My thumb pressed under his cockhead. His eyes widened and I said, "I know. I know," because I did know what felt good. When I was a man, I was pure balls and sass. I fit in my skin.

He drew his knees up. I tightened my strokes over his dick. He thrashed under me until white come spurted across the hollow of his dark brown stomach. Tano scooped the load away from his belly button and flung it into the abyss. Giggling, we kissed.

*               *               *

Pop told me that the day he sailed to the edge of the Marianas Trench was a profoundly spiritual day for him. He didn't use those words exactly. Being a Navy man, he said something like, "God grabbed me by the balls and made me take a hard look at the man I was becoming."

Maybe Pop knew I needed to face it. Maybe he wanted it for me. Maybe that was why he made me promise to bring him there.

I was sorry that I wasted three years keeping that promise.

The breeze ruffled my short hair like a friendly paternal pat.

Tano started the boat's engines.

Against the Challenger Deep, the hurdles ahead of me suddenly seemed like nothing. A drop in the ocean.

Tano turned the boat around.

Pop always said that the measure of a man was in how he kept his word. Out of habit, I reached for a cap that wasn't there, and, remembering, smiled a little.

I tipped Pop's ashes into the vast blue. The wind picked them up and scattered them further. Pop flew on gusts of wind, and then he fell, soft as tears, and is probably falling still, into the mourning wake. I felt every inch a man.

© 2006 Kathleen Bradean.  All rights reserved. Content may not be copied or used in whole or part without written permission from the author.

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