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
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
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
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
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
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.