“It’s called Mosquito Bay for a reason, ladies and gentlemen,” our guide Steven shouted as the truck-and-van convoy pulled into a clearing. “So the faster we get in, the better!” I looked at Amy, black hair tucked into her life vest, face blurred by wobbly shadows in the failing Alabama twilight. Everything, I thought, was riding on this trip—our last few days together before setting out for separate cities. We’d come here, to Mobile Bay on the Gulf of Mexico in the deep south of Alabama, to celebrate the finale of our old high school memories and to mark the beginning of another, less definite one waiting for us in new and distant places. The unspoken question of how we’d handle it—years at colleges six hundred miles and a time zone apart—infused a bittersweetness into every meal of fresh catfish, every barbeque, every fresh-squeezed lemonade. It was supposed to be a flawless parade of Good Times, something to help steel ourselves against the loneliness ahead.
Then the mosquitoes came.
They swarmed us as soon as the convoy stopped. The group went wild swatting and slapping themselves while Steven, lanky and long-haired, unloaded the boats and called us by number.
“Group Four, you’re up…Group Five!”
We pushed our boat into the knee-deep murk along the shore, reeking of the citric oils we’d soaked ourselves in to guard against mosquito shellings. I was slick and sandy and sweating a rotten tropical sweat, trying to put sharks and jellyfish out of my mind as we waded in the piss-warm water.
“You ready, babe? Aren’t you excited?” Amy asked. I groaned. We pushed our yellow kayak off toward the rendezvous point, an anchored fishing boat in the dark center of the bay. We dipped our paddles into the black water, hers in front of mine, trying to sync our strokes and straighten our path.
“Stop. No. Okay, to the left. No, the left.”
“Get yours on the left. Okay, now switch. Switch.”
The other kayaks branched across the bay like rain streaking a windshield. Steven slid far in front. I tried to paddle through the thick, clinging distraction of the passersby from the nearby Bay Festival. I’d watched them as we waited for our van to Mobile Bay. They moved along the beachfront boardwalk, surrounded by their families, children in orbit, dancing and kissing in the crowded street. I felt, with each stroke of the paddle, a vortex of doubt swirling faster in my stomach—the same maelstrom I’d felt off and on in the months since we’d told each other where we were going. I lifted one end of my paddle toward the low marquee of stars.
* * *
Carved from an inlet of the Gulf of Mexico, Mobile Bay swells with an astounding number of tiny protists called dinoflagellates—microscopic organisms that, when disturbed, create a bioluminescence on par with fireflies. Properly known as pyrodinium bahamese, or “whirling fire,” dinoflagellates live in oceans across the world and can light up the water when ships or fish tunnel through them. In 1918, a German submarine was spotted and sunk in the glowing waters off Gibraltar, the creatures giving away its position as a bright blue streak beneath the surface. Concentrations strong enough for human visibility are rare, though, occurring mostly in remote places like Mobile Bay, where a gallon of water holds almost a million incandescent pods.
“It’s certified one of the brightest bays in the world,” Steven said, sitting up straighter as the last kayak arrived at the fishing boat. I looked around, thinking that maybe we’d been ripped off. The water that bordered the town we’d grown up in was nothing special. No glow, none of the magic I’d promised Amy. Just a warm, dark Southern bayou and a sense of disappointment in the static night. We’d wasted all of this time for nothing, I thought.
I stared at Steven’s silvery cross-legged figure in the starlight, hoping he’d see the ugliness on my face. “Now, follow me,” he said. Amy looked back and shrugged.
* * *
Once, long before we knew how far away we were going to be from each other, I leered into our bedroom’s full-length mirror fussing with the buttons on my white dress. I don’t remember where we were going, just that we were late and that I couldn’t button my buttons in the hurry. Amy waited in the living room. I came out, barreling toward the front entrance and saying something like, “Ready. Let’s move.” I opened the door to the misty night, our dorm lobby’s glow kicking up a flurry of moths. I put one foot through the threshold and stopped. Amy hadn’t gotten up from the lobby couch. “Are you okay?” I asked.
She couldn’t get the words out. “I…I….”
“I…I think I’m going bald,” she stammered. I laughed so hard I wasn’t sure which of us cried more. I could tell she felt a bit better, knowing from my reaction that in no way could her fine black hair be construed as balding. She smiled a little.
This is how we were. She burned with worry in the good times, letting me play the easygoing, laughing one. But when things didn’t go my way, I crumbled. I counted on Amy then, who was always better in crises: taking charge, breathing her reassuring breath, waiting with endless patience for things to finally work themselves out.
* * *
We paddled for another ten or twenty minutes toward another part of the lagoon.
“Here,” Steven shouted. Amy turned the boat while I watched the sky, feeling tired, not caring anymore about the trip or the tour or whatever it was we’d come out here to see. I’d failed—I couldn’t deliver, even in our final days together. I laid back on the boat and considered the implications.
The bay’s effect as we caught up to Steven was subtle at first: slight glimpses of color when Amy’s paddle smacked the sea, displaced droplets crackling like dim fireworks. And then everything lit up at once.
The basin started glowing like some ancient alien light source, blue radiance beneath every boat. I sat up, equal parts horrified and intrigued and guilty and thrilled. Amy and I swirled our paddles to strengthen the glow, splashing each other and sending sparks into the already starry sky. I reached into the water. The bay brightened around my arm. When I pulled it out it was as if someone had poured a living glow stick over me: millions of invisible creatures breathing a very visible neon blue, darting across my dark skin and flashing and flickering and fading back to nothing.
I looked up at Amy in the seat in front of me. I watched her in the brightness, the tiny pods giving away our position in the world. I thought of the first time I noticed how beautiful she really was, of the red dress she wore on Valentine’s Day when we went out to the dollar theater to see Hidden Figures for the third time. I thought of the way she used to let me sleep in her room overnight when I didn’t want to move after a long study session. I thought of how beds felt more comfortable when she was in them. I thought of water that’s as bright blue at night as it is during the day, an equal number of stars both above and below; conscious, now, of the power of this moment, this memory-in-progress, this antidote to the years and distances that lie ahead.