“You can’t drink all day if you don’t start in the morning,” he says to Chris and Mike. “Am I right?”

They leave Virgin Gorda and motor to Cooper Island, where there is an eco-resort with a restaurant that serves large groups like theirs. Cash orders the blackened fish sandwich with fries, and Chris and Mike do likewise. They inform Cash with a certain solemn righteousness that they’re pescatarians, which Cash hears as “Presbyterians,” and he says, “I’m Presbyterian, too, though I hardly ever go to church anymore.” This statement cracks Chris and Mike up and Cash is nonplussed until they explain that pescatarian means they eat only fish—no meat or chicken. Then Cash dissolves into laughter that he can’t recover from. Every time he lifts his head to take a breath, he doubles over again.

“You look like you’re enjoying yourself,” Ayers says. She lifts Cash’s rum punch and takes a discreet sip. “I’m not supposed to imbibe until after the snorkeling.”

Cash tries to sober up a little. He introduces Chris and Mike to Ayers, and then their food arrives and it turns out there’s a fish sandwich for Ayers as well, which she douses with hot sauce.

“God, I love”—Cash stops. He nearly says, “you,” but he catches himself—“a woman who enjoys spicy food.”

“Rosie loved spicy food,” Ayers says. “And she could cook, too. She made the best jerk chicken. Mmmmmm.”

Cash knows he should capitalize on the topic of Rosie, since Ayers brought her up, but he’s too intoxicated to think it through strategically and he feels it would be awkward to include Chris and Mike in the conversation and rude to exclude them. He takes a bite of his own sandwich. It’s delicious.

Food, he thinks. He needs food.

After lunch, they head to the Indians, three rock towers jutting from the sea, where they anchor to snorkel. Cash is feeling slightly more in charge of his faculties after eating, but he continues to drink because he doesn’t want to risk becoming hungover.

Ayers puts her headset microphone back on and explains the rules of snorkeling—where they can go, where they can’t go, what they can expect to see. “This is the best snorkeling in the Virgin Islands,” she says. “You’ll see it all—parrot fish, angel fish, spotted eagle rays, sea turtles, maybe even a basking shark. The sharks aren’t dangerous to humans, but I’d advise you to leave them alone nonetheless. The only thing you need to worry about is the fire coral—it’s easily identifiable by its bright orange branches—and if you rub up against it, you will develop a very painful burning rash. The other danger is sea urchins. The sea urchins have sharp black spines. Please do not touch or, God forbid, stand on any of the coral. James and Wade and I aren’t just here to make a buck, people. We’re here to educate you about the natural beauty of these islands and to spread awareness about just how precious and unique this eco-system is.”

I love her, Cash thinks. She’s everything he has ever wanted in a woman.

Once Cash is in his flippers, with his mask secured around his head and his snorkel poised a couple inches from his mouth, he feels like a world-class fool. Does everyone else feel this way? People seem excited, maybe a little anxious—there’s nothing like jumping into shark-infested waters to inspire camaraderie—but generally the mood is positive, expectant.

It’s all Cash can do not to just leap off the side of the boat rather than wait his turn to go down the ladder. Once he’s in the water, he should be fine. He thinks back on the hundreds of people he has taught to ski. He recalls one girl in her twenties—a nanny for one of the fancy families with a house on Peak 7—who stared right into Cash’s eyes and with the purest fear Cash has ever witnessed said, “I’m terrified.”

And guess what? She had made it down the mountain just fine.

Cash waits his turn behind Chris and Mike, who look like frogs that mated with ducks, and then he lowers himself down the ladder into the turquoise water. He fits the snorkel into his mouth, takes a few breaths—all clear—and then lowers his head and swims behind his fellow adventurers.

How to describe what he sees?

He can’t believe it’s real. There’s an entire universe under the surface of the water. The coral—purple, orange, greenish-yellow—are like buildings or mountains. Fish are everywhere: The parrot fish are shimmering rainbows, there are black angelfish with electric blue stripes, schools of silvery fish that are as flat as coins, all of them swimming along, pecking here and there at the coral. It’s astonishing that all this exists in pristine condition and that regular people like himself, without skills or specialized knowledge, can observe it. Why isn’t everyone in the world talking about how remarkable this is? Why isn’t a snorkeling trip to the Indians number one on everyone’s bucket list? He’s drunk, yes he is, but he’s also blessed with a brand-new clarity. He is alive, on planet Earth, experiencing a natural wonder.

He lifts his head. Above the surface, life is the same. There’s the coast of St. John in the distance, there’s the boat a few hundred yards away. Cash likes the way his flippers give him buoyancy. He’s barely treading water but he has no problem staying afloat.

Suddenly, there’s someone next to him in a black mask. It’s Ayers, he realizes. She’s wearing a green tank suit, very simple and, on her, incredibly sexy. She takes his hand. They’re holding hands? Or no, she wants him to swim alongside her. She wants to show him something. What? They swim for what seems like a while—away from everyone, away from the boat—then she points. On the smooth, sandy bottom, Cash sees a gargantuan silver platter with wings that ripple. It’s a manta ray, gliding elegantly along the ocean floor. It’s huge, way bigger than Cash expected.

Ayers stops to tread water and Cash does the same. She removes her snorkel.

“That’s Luther,” she says. “He’s the biggest ray in the VIs. Five feet, two inches in diameter. He lives out here.”

“Luther is… wow,” Cash says.

“Let’s follow him” Ayers says.

They trail Luther for a while, then Ayers makes a sharp turn—she must have seen something—and Cash kicks like crazy in an attempt to keep up. She’s chasing what looks like a shark—it’s sleek, silver, menacing. She takes off her silver hook bracelet and waggles it at him and he comes charging for it, then Ayers yanks it away and he darts past her.

Cash lifts his head. “What are you doing?”

She laughs. “Barracuda,” she says. “A baby. He’s harmless.” She swims back in the direction of the boat and Cash follows.

They’re back on the boat, headed home. Cash is bone-tired but energized. What a great day. What a transformative day. He’s a convert: he loves the tropics.

“You’re allowed to drink now, right?” Cash asks Ayers. She nods and he grabs two rum punches from the bar and follows her to a bench on the shady side of the wheelhouse. The shade is a relief. He might be a convert in his heart and mind, but his skin is still that of his Scottish and Norwegian ancestors. He has been reapplying sunscreen every hour, but he’s still pretty sure he’s going to have a wicked sunburn.

He hands Ayers a rum punch and they touch cups. Ayers is wearing silver-rimmed, blue-lens aviators and her feet are resting up on the railing. She looks exhausted.

“To a job well done,” Cash says. He takes a sip of his drink, his twentieth of the day. “You know, it’s not so different from my job as a ski instructor.”

“Aside from being completely different, not so different at all,” she says. Together they look at the tired, sun-scorched, happy people below them on the deck—some snoozing, others forging bonds that will last all the way to the bar at Woody’s, or the rest of the week or a lifetime. Cash has Chris’s and Mike’s numbers and promised to call them if he ever finds himself in Brooklyn, which secretly he hopes he never does.

Ayers sucks down the rum punch and seems to both relax and pep up. “You liked it, right?”

“Loved it,” he says. “Can’t thank you enough.”

“Well, you basically saved my life yesterday by sharing your water. And you gave me your bandana. And you were nice to me when I was sad.”

“Like I said, I understand.”

Ayers leans her head on his shoulder. At the same time that he’s experiencing pure ecstasy at her touch, he realizes she’s crying again.

He hands her his damp cocktail napkin; it’s all he has. “I’m happy to give you my shirt,” he says.

She laughs through her tears. “I’m sorry,” she says. “It’s all lurking there, right below the surface. But I have to sublimate it. This job requires me to be peppy. I’m not allowed to be a human being, a thirty-one-year-old woman who lost her best friend.” She sniffs and wipes at her reddened nose with the napkin. “At my other job it’s different, because Rosie worked there with me, so we all lost her and every single person on the staff knows how close we were, so even though I have to smile while I’m serving, when I need a break I can hide in the kitchen and cry and do a shot of tequila with the line cooks.”

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