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Courtney Eldridge

Sharks

She called me Monday morning to tell me about her first weekend at the beach house, and to tell me about one of the shareholders. He was a doctor, a neurosurgeon, who, she said, had consumed copious amounts of marijuana, cocaine and alcohol, then got up a few hours later and drove to work. Thatís where we started, anyway, but then we moved onto how nice it would be to kick back on the beach all weekend. I hadnít been out of the city in a year.

You can come out during the week, sometime. Itíll be fun, just the two of us, she said. I agreed, but then I thought about it for a minute, and I said that the thing was, I often lost patience with the beach. Iíd get too hot, or Iíd start to burn, or thereíd be sand in my crotch or those awful gnats or biting flies, there was always something. I usually had a good five minutes at the beach, and then I was ready to go. Although I liked the idea of spending an afternoon at the beach, reading a book, listening to the waves, napping, it never worked out that way, really. And then there was the water, it was so cold until August, and I never really swam. Oh, I never swim either, I barely go in, she said, after I told her, but itís very peaceful just to get away, she said. Yes, I said.

I would like to swim, though. I havenít been swimming in ages, I said, and I used to be a swimmer. I know, I said, maybe we should go to a pool some night, wouldnít that be fun? I said. Weíve never gone swimming before. I was already thinking maybe Chelsea Piers, even though itís pretty expensive, fifty bucks a pop. Kind of a rip off, but itíd be fun. No, she said. You know how to swim, donít you? I asked. Yes, I can swim, she said. Itís not that, itís that Iím afraid of sharks. Oh, I said, Well, Iím afraid of sharks, too. Especially since the majority of shark attacks occur in shallow water, like no higher than your knee. I know, I know, she said, thatís why I wonít go in the water. I usually just stand as close to the edge of the waves, where I canít be knocked over or anything, and I lean over and splash myself, and then I get right back to my towel. I understand, I said, I only meant a swimming pool, here in the city. Maybe Chelsea Piers, or down the street, I said, that would be fun. Iím fine with the Y, itís cheap, and we could go anytime. Then she said no again. Why not? Doesnít that sound fun? I asked.

I told you, she said. Sharks, she said. You misunderstand, I mean a swimming pool, I said. No, I didnít misunderstand, I know you meant a swimming pool, she said. Then I donít understand, I said. Havenít I ever told you about my fear of sharks? No, I said, I didnít know you were afraid of sharks, but thatís okay. I am, too. That movie, I said, my Uncle Paul took me when I was five, and after that, forget it, I said. I hear you, she said. Same here, never again. Oh, well, I can understand that much, I said. But I donít mean swimming in the ocean, I repeated. I know you didnít, she said, but Iím afraid of swimming, period. Even in swimming pools. Why? I donít understand, I said. I told you, already, sharks, she said. In a swimming pool, I repeated, thinking I still misunderstood her, somehow. Yes, she said. Youíre kidding, right? No, she said. This is amazing, I said, I never knew this about you. How long have I known you? I couldnít believe I never knew this about my best friend. Well, Iím sure I told you before, she said. No, you never told me. I wouldnít forget something like this. Iím sure, she said. No, Iím telling you, you never told me about your fear of sharks in swimming pools, I wouldnít just forget that sort of thing. Well, anyway, she said, and then she started back on the other shareholders.

But wait, I said, about the sharks, I said . . . Yes? she asked, chewing on something crunchy. What are you eating? I asked. Dinner, she said. What did you make for dinner? I asked. Eggplant Parmigiana. I made plenty. You want to come over? No, thanks, I said, Iím too lazy. Did you cook it through, though? I asked. It sounds a little underdone. Yes, she said, I cooked it through. Iím eating a carrot, she said. Oh, I said. So about the sharks, I said, you canít swim in a swimming pool for fear of shark attack? No, she said, thatís right. Iím sure I told you this before, she said. No, I assured her. You never told me this before. Are you sure? Listen, Iím telling you, I said. I could swear, she said. No, I said. Well, anyway. Get down on it, she said, biting into another carrot. First impressions, and maybe thatís unfair, but I donít think Iíll be getting down on anything, she said. But wait, I said. What? she asked. Sharks . . . sharks canít live in fresh water, I said. I know, she said. Then we can go swimming at a pool, so letís go this weekend. No, she said, no swimming. Itís not safe.

But you know sharks canít live in fresh water, or even pool water, right? They canít live in chlorine. Theyíre salt-water dwellers, or whatever theyíre called, I said. Yes, she said, I know that rationally, but I have a fear of pools, just the same. You have a fear of sharks in city pools? I asked, clarifying. Yes, she said. But how in the world would a shark get in a pool, even if it could survive? At Chelsea Piers, it might be a little easier, being so close to the water. But itís not a simple thing, you know, itís not like, say, a rat getting into an outdoor pool, or something, I said. You know when I used to swim, I said. What? she said. It was an outdoor pool, right, and we had to swim at dawn, and half the time, when weíd show up, thereíd be mice and rodents in the pool, little animals that slipped through the fence and drowned. Theyíd just be floating and our coach would have to fish them out before any of us would get in to start practice. Gross, she said.

Yes, but anyway, itís not like that, a shark isnít just going to slip into the pool at Chelsea Piers, itís glassed or something, thereís a wall of some sort, I said. Are you sure Iíve never told you this before? she asked. I told you, I said, never. So how do sharks get into the swimming pool? I asked. Itís complicated, she said. Iím sure. Go on, I said. Well, basically, scientists, she said. The answer is scientists. Sorry? I asked. Scientists release sharks into the pool, she said. And how do they do that, on the sly? No one notices them bringing the sharks in? I told you it was complicated, she said. Yes, I said, start from the beginning.

Okay. The scientists: there are these scientists experimenting on sharks, altering them or whatever. Wait, genetic engineering on sharks? I asked. Yes, she said, exactly. Donít act so surprised. They experiment on all other types of life forms, why not sharks? Well, why would they? What Iím saying is that if theyíll experiment on sheep, whatís to keep them from experimenting on sharks? Whatís off limits with these guys, you know? Far as I can tell, nothing. Nothing is off limits, nothing is sacred, so sharks are not out of the question, she said. Okay, you got me there, I said. But why would these scientists want to release sharks into swimming pools? I asked. Thatís not their primary reason. Itís during the experiment, see. Itís an accident, really. They go at night, when no one is there, swimming, because there are only a few places in New York that are big enough, and even fewer that are deep enough. Anyhow, then the sharks get free, and the scientists canít figure how to get them out of the pool, she said. So are these scientists evil? Not necessarily, she said. Iím not saying their intent was evil, necessarily, they just wanted to know if it was possible, and thatís why they started these experiments in the first place. So they didnít release the sharks on purpose?

No, no. They never meant to endanger any lives, really, but they just couldnít help themselves. They didnít think about what they were doing until it was too late, of course. Of course, I said. Yes, and so then the experiment just got away from them, she said. Happens all the time, you know. Yes, I know, I said. But what kind of sharks? I asked. Oh, all kinds of sharks, she said. Great Whites, Hammerheads, those little ones, you name it. Oh, I said. So why canít they just take them back out of the pool? I asked. Because, she said, theyíve become extra deadly, these sharks. Extra deadly? I asked. Yes, she said, lethal. Like biological warfare, that sort of thing. Once released, cannot be contained. You know how they have those top-secret labs with all kinds of diseases that could wipe out the entire population of the world? Yes, I said. But I still donít understand why these sharks canít be contained; they arenít airborne. Theyíre right there, in the pool. So take them out, I said. No, she said, they canít do that. Because part of their experiment was perfecting their teeth, their jaws, augmentation or whatever. I donít know what they were thinking, really. But they do this on purpose, the teeth and everything? I asked. No, I donít think so, I think it happened unwittingly, as a side effect of whatever it was they meant to do. My guess is they told themselves they were doing a good thing, like they always do. In any case, whatever their reasons, these sharks have extra sets of teeth, entire sets, maybe a half-dozen or a dozen sets of teeth and their teeth can chew through metal. And if they lose some teeth, no problem, they have plenty of extras. A human leg would be nothing, she said. Nothing.

Then how did they get them into the pool? I asked. In tanks, I suppose, she said. Oh, I said, right. But so why donít they take them out of the pool? I asked. Because the scientists didnít realize about the extra sets of teeth and strength of their jaws until they released the sharks into the pool. Right, I got that part, I said. Yes, and so then, once freed, of course the sharks didnít want to get back in their little glass tanks, when the scientists decided it was time to get them out, and then the sharks ate through every net. Now the scientists canít get anywhere near these sharks without risking their own lives, and of course they arenít going to risk their lives or own up to their mistake, and inform the public and risk going to jail. No, of course not, I said. There you go, she said. What, so they just leave them there? In the pool? I asked. Yes, she said. Thatís right.

You honestly believe there are sharks at the Sol Goldman Y? I asked. Itís not about believing; itís about my fear. This is my fear Iím talking about. I got that much, I said. Well, there you go, she said. You asked, I told you. No, youíre right, okay. But tell me this, what happens if you get into a swimming pool? I asked. I donít unless I have to, she said. But if you went to a pool, wouldnít you be able to see the sharks, swimming around in the pool? I mean, wouldnít somebody notice that there was a shark in the pool? Or do they have a cloaking device, too? Very funny, she says, but the answer is no. No, you wouldnít necessarily see them. They just wait, she said. You mean the sharks wait somewhere in the pool? I asked, clarifying again. Yes, she said. Where? Where would they wait, the drain? I donít know where they might be waiting, see, thatís the thing. They could be waiting anywhere. Of course, I said.

So when you have to get in a pool, I said. I donít ever have to get in a pool, she said. But there must have been a few times when you had to get in a pool, or you wouldnít have learned how to swim, I said. Well, yes, I got in a few times, she said, but not often, certainly not anymore. So what happened those few times you got in? Did you look both ways, then jump in? I asked. Well, the few times I had to get in, I usually got in in the shallow end. Iíd hold on the side of the pool, facing the water, so I could see, and Iíd hold on to the side of the pool and let myself down quickly, dunk under once, to prove I had gotten in all the way, then Iíd turn around and jump out. I had to stay in the shallow end, so I could get out faster. And if I had to get in in the deep end, I held on to the ladder, sat on the steps, in case I needed to jump out in a momentís notice. In case you saw a shark, you mean? I asked. Yes, she said. But, I said. Yes? But have you ever seen a shark in a swimming pool? I asked.

No, but I felt them. You felt a shark in the swimming pool? I asked. Yes, she said. And what did you do then, that time you felt it? I jumped out as fast as I could, of course. What do you think I did? So you were safe, I said, after you jumped out of the pool. Yes, she said, well, almost. Thereís more to it than that, she said. Iím sure, I said. Are you sure you donít want to come over for dinner? Thanks, but no, not tonight. Tell me what more, I said. It sounded like she was taking a pan out of the oven; I heard the oven door close. Well, itís not always enough just to get out of the pool, sometimes I have to run, she said. Sometimes? I asked. You run? Well, pretty much all the time, if I want to be certain, she said. Yes? I said. So, I have to run a certain distance away from the edge of the pool, out of their reach, because they can lunge, she said. Lunge? I asked. Yes, they might nip my ankle or my entire leg, and pull me back in, so I have to run to the wall before Iím safe. Wait, I said. First, how do you explain all those people whoíve survived, people who go swimming every day? Just lucky, she said. Luck, I said. Yes, she said, I donít know that Iíll be so lucky.

Iím afraid I must have started laughing then, because she said, Oh, ha ha ha, I donít laugh and belittle your fears, you know, she said. I know, but Iím not belittling your fears, Iím just trying to understand. There must be something we can do to protect you from sharks, I said. Yes, I donít go swimming, thatís what we can do, she said. No, I meant something so that you could go swimming, if you wanted to. But I donít want to, she said. But if you did, I said. Hypothetically, Iím saying. Like, I donít know, say, what if we wore those chain metal suits that shark divers wear? No, she said, Iíve seen those shows on t.v., and even regular sharks can bite through those suits, if they really want to. Not if weíre in a cage, I said. Itís not like weíll be holding out any raw meat, trying to attract their attention. Weíll just wear the suits and get in a cage and splash around. Come on, itíll be fun! No, we canít do that, absolutely not, splashing draws attention, she said. Okay, fine. So we donít splash, we just relax in the cage, I said. And the cages, those only work with regular sharks, she said. I told you already, these sharks can bite through metal. If they want to, I said. Yes, I said. Well, what if we went to a different pool, I said, one far away from the ocean? I said. Maybe weíre just too close for comfort, I suggested. No, she said, no pool is safe.

I know, I said, what if we went home, could you swim in the pool downtown? We grew up in Colorado, in the mountains. No chance of sharks there. No, she said. I told you, no pool is safe. A thousand miles from the ocean, howís a shark going to get into the pool at home? Land shark, I said. What are you talking about? she said. You know, land shark, I said, the old Saturday Night Live skit, remember? No, I missed that. Probably a good thing, too. What are these land sharks? She sounded scared. You donít want to know, I said. Probably not, she said. So how do these sharks get from the Sol Goldman Y to Colorado, or vice versa? What, they walk? Were the transported by semi, and the truck crashed, and they were thrown over the cliff into a river, what? Could be, she said. It could happen in a number of ways. The scientists could make a mistake anywhere. So where are these scientists? I asked. Thatís the thing, she said, they could be anywhere. At any time. Oh, of course, I said. Are you mocking me? No, Iím not mocking you, I said. But what are they doing in Colorado? Breeding them to ski? Snow sharks? You said you werenít going to mock me, and that sounds like mocking to me, she said. I said Iím not mocking you, I said. Good, then donít, she said. Well, anyway, itís probably the safest place in the world for them to perform their experiments, no one would ever expect them in Colorado. No, I said, youíre probably right. Yes, she said. Thatís brilliant, I thought. Sheís thought of every question, every possible angle. I was impressed, really.

Besides, I wasnít safe there, either. In Colorado? I asked. Remember P.E., when they used to make us go swimming? she asked. Of course I remembered having to go swimming in P.E. class; the final humiliation of the school year. Yes, I said. Well, thatís why I almost failed P.E., because I wouldnít go swimming. But you can swim, I said, you know how to swim, at least, I said. Not very well, but yes, she said, I can swim. But I wouldnít stay in the pool as long as we were supposed to, and Coach Draker insisted we all swim two laps, and I couldnít do it. I would stand by the fence for an entire hour, with my fingers entwined in the fencing, holding on. He didnít fail you, did he? I asked. No, but almost, he threatened as much. So what did you do? I asked. I told him I had my period. For two weeks? I asked. Yes, I told him once, and then Iíd just nod and hold my stomach, and he left it at that. I got off the hook. Coach Draker, even Coach Harris, they never contested menstrual cramps, they didnít want to risk some irate mother calling them and threatening to call the School Board. I was just lucky it was him and not that woman, the other P.E. teacher, what was her name? she asked. I donít remember, I said. But swimming is supposed to be good for cramps, you know. Yes, I know, she said, good for cramps, but bad for sharks. Iíd rather suffer than die. But you didnít really have your period, did you? No, she said, but if I had, there was really no way in hell I was getting in a pool then.

Didnít you ever want to get in the pool, seeing the other kids having a good time, splashing around? No, I never saw anyone have a good time, because I couldnít stand to watch, thinking that at any second, one of them might be pulled under, she said. Well, what if I go swimming, would you fear for my safety? I asked. No, she said. Oh, thanks a lot, I said. The thing is, sharks sense fear, she said. Blood and fear, so if you arenít afraid, which you arenít, then you arenít in as much danger as I am. You could come, see me having a good time, then maybe give it a shot, I said. No, then your life would be endangered, too. Simply by your being there, watching me? Yes, she said. Let me think, I said. Okay.

Letís go back to the part where you feel the shark, I said. Yes, she said. Where, and what do you feel? Whatís it feel like, the shark? It touches my ankle. Sometimes they graze my thigh, but itís usually my ankle. It stays close to the surface of the pool, and itís circling, or coming out of its hiding place, and I feel it on my ankle first. And what does a shark feel like? Pretty much like youíd imagine, slimy and fast ó itís gone before I can see where it came from. You look? I ask. No, I donít have time to look, I have to move, get the hell out of the pool. So you actually feel it, and then you have to jump out and run to the wall for safety? Yes, she said. Look, all I can tell you is that Iím not safe until Iím out of the pool, and back on the street. You mean youíre not even really safe by the wall? No, not really, she said. Whatís it going to do, follow you into the shower? I just canít be sure how far he can reach, and I have to be sure, she said.

He? I ask. What do you mean? she said. You said he, I said. Yes, she said. So how do you know the shark is male? Oh, because theyíre all male, she said. Theyíre bred to be male, engineered or whatever. Why do the scientists breed only males? So theyíll be that much more aggressive, she said. Of course, I said. I donít think itís sharks weíre talking about here. I donít know what youíre talking about, but Iím definitely talking about sharks, she said. Well, what I was thinking was that it might be Freudian, somehow, but I didnít remember anything about sharks in Freud. Shark dreams, maybe. Did you ever dream you were attacked by sharks or have sharks ever appeared in your dreams? I asked, trying a different angle. Let me think, she said, hmmm . . . No, no. I canít remember ever dreaming about sharks. Are you sure? I asked. Positive, she said. Well, maybe you just donít remember the dream, or maybe you repressed the memory, because it scared you too much. Maybe, she said, but Iím sure Iíd remember. Try to remember the last nightmare you had, I suggested. Okay . . . no, no, I remember the last nightmare I had, and there were no sharks. Are you certain? I asked. Yes, there was a shooting, a robbery or something, but it was on the street, there were no sharks involved. Iím eating the eggplant now, she said. Enjoy, I said.

All right, fine, so we donít swim. We donít have to swim; we could just soak in a Jacuzzi or hot tub or something. No, she said. What, hot tubs arenít safe? I asked. No, she said. And theyíre dirty, too, she said, itís a well-known fact. I know, bacteria, who knows what, if you feel underneath the seat, thereís the strange slimy feeling . . . Yes, but also, they arenít safe from sharks, either. Oh? Any body of water is unsafe. I could sort of understand that, I used to be afraid of Jacuzzis, too. Hey, did you ever see that movie Piranha? I asked. No, what happens? she asked. I was surprised to hear she hadnít seen that movie. Really? I asked. Never saw it. Well, the details are a little blurry now. But basically, the story is that piranha get into the water system of the city, L.A., or wherever. I donít remember how they get into the water system in the first place, but then, out of nowhere, they enter ó well, I donít know if enter is the right word, but ó all of a sudden, they swim into the swimming pool en masse. Itís just this black cloud in the pool; seconds before, thereís this frenetic image of the fish swimming into the camera in this pipe or whatever, and this awful buzzing sound, so youíd know they were on their way, and someone was doomed. Oh, thatís awful, she said. Yeah, and then theyíd cut from this person lounging in the pool, to the piranha buzzing, making their way through the water pipes, as the piranha were getting closer and closer . . . Then theyíd enter the pool. In like a second, theyíd enter and kill instantly, then theyíd turn around and escape back out of the pool the same way they came. Theyíd head straight back into the water system and no one could figure it out.

A wife would be bringing a drink out for her husband, and heíd just be gone, and sheíd call his name, say, Honey, where are you? Honey . . .? It was like people were just disappearing, because the piranha would eat everything ó bones, hair, everything. Gone. You see what I mean, she said. Yes, but that was a movie, I said. But it scared you enough, didnít it? Yes, actually, for a few years after that, Iíd have to check where the drain was in the pool all summer long. Then Iíd swim on the opposite side so theyíd kill someone else first, and Iíd have a chance to escape. You see? You see what I mean? Yes, I said, and after that movie, I was even afraid of taking a bath, I wouldnít take a bath unless my mom would sit there with me. I figured at least she would know what happened to me if I died. I understand completely, she said. I was even afraid of the toilet. Iíd have to check and make sure there werenít any piranha in the bowl, and then I couldnít even sit down properly. Iíd have to sit facing the tank. And then, a few weeks ago, a friend told me about this rat infestation he had in his apartment in Boston, and he had rats in his toilet. No! she said. Yes, Iím telling you. Thatís disgusting, she said. I know, so Iíve started checking again, just once in a while. Better safe than sorry, she agreed. Exactly, I said. Anyway, for a while there, as a kid, Iíd have to watch the opening, for fear they might fly out at me or something. So you do understand, she said. Well, kind of, but I donít know what I thought, how theyíd get me, exactly, but for a good year afterwards, I was never comfortable peeing. So what happened? she asked.

Nothing. I forgot about it for a while, and then I heard about those prickly fish in Africa that can lodge in a manís penis, if heís peeing off the side of a boat. So, I didnít really think about the fact that I wasnít a man, and not in danger of peeing off a boat in Africa, I just focused on the fact that it happened to someone, somewhere, and so why not me? Aside from the fact that I wasnít a man peeing off the side of a boat on a river in Africa, why couldnít it happen to me, you know? Yes. So you understand, she said. Yes, but I was six or seven years old. I can swim now. Yes, but when you were a kid, did you ever jump out of the pool, fearing for your life? she asked. Well, yes. There you go, she said. Itís not the same, though, I said. Yes, it is, she said, itís exactly the same. No, itís not, I said, I can swim now, and I pee comfortably. No, the fear is the same, your fear just isnít as developed as mine. I wouldnít put it that way, I said. You should be happy, she said. You can swim whenever you want to. But you could swim, too, if you wanted to. Yes, she said, but I donít want to. But if you got some help, I said. I donít need any help, she said. I think you do, I said, because if you got some help, you could swim without fear of sharks, and then you might want to, you might even enjoy swimming. No, she said, I donít think so. Iíve made it this far, just fine, without swimming, she said. Iím just trying to help, I said. I donít want help, I said, she said. Fine, I said. Good, she said.

But just for the record, I said, experts say sharks are greatly misunderstood, there is a lot of misunderstanding about their behavior, you know. I know, she said. Itís not like I want to hunt or kill sharks because of my fear ó live and let live, thatís all Iím saying. All right, well, maybe Iíll think of something, I said. No, she said, you wonít. I might, I said, give me a chance. Iím telling you, she said, you wonít think of anything I havenít thought of before. I might, I said, donít be so sure. Well, I am, she said. Iím sure. Well, I might surprise you, I said. Well, good luck, then, she said. Same to you, I said. I have to go now, I need to clean up, my kitchenís a disaster, she said. Call you tomorrow. Okay, talk to you then. Okay, love you. Love you, too. Night. Good night. Bye. Bye.

Itís been a good two years since then, but it still bothers me. Nobody thinks of everything, nobody. I know that eventually, if I keep going over it and over it, Iíll find something. Sooner or later, one day, Iíll find her weakness, I will, and then Iíll go for the kill.


Courtney Eldridge lives and works in New York.

 

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