At Cape Cod in August, my girlfriend and her ex-boyfriend say they want to go to the beach. It’s her birthday weekend, and he’s visiting from St. Louis. He’s tan, like she is, and blond, and taller than I am. My skin is pasty white. He also has big hands, which he uses to fix complicated things. He knows the best way to install a transmission — a tranny — while I know the best way to cut an avocado. Slice through the peel till the blade touches the pit. With the blade against the pit, rotate the avocado 360 degrees till you’ve divided it in half. Strike the pit with the blade. Twist the blade, extract the pit, and then scoop out the meat with a spoon.
In our motel room, I look up from my copy of Ulysses. “But a great white shark patrols those waters,” I tell them.
I had seen the shark story in the Cape Cod Times upon our arrival at the cheap motel at Orleans. It was the first thing I noticed when we checked in, front page, the paper set out on the innkeeper’s counter for my reading pleasure. Something like, “Great white spotted off Nauset Beach.” The shark had bitten a seal in half. My mother knew about it, too. The story had reached the Twin Cities, apparently, for she called me later from St. Paul to warn me. Her intuition told her that my childhood fear of sharks was still lingering.
She was right. Since watching Jaws at the tender age of 5, 6, or 7, I can’t remember, I’d developed an illogical fear of water. As a kid, even our indoor community pool, even our toilet bowl — I was afraid to take a dump, always glancing beneath me, behind me — presented problems.
And now they want to sun on the beach, and go swimming. They want to sea kayak.
“I’ve already done that one,” I say. “I got my first distaste for sea kayaking in Costa Rica.” This was true — there had been a strong headwind and I could make no progress in my kayak, the whole time thinking of Jaws: Chief Brody opens the textbook to the picture of a shark biting through a boat’s hull. Upon seeing the picture his wife calls to their son, “Michael! Get out of the boat!” My girlfriend is already angry at me for refusing to buy cigarettes for her the day before at a Provincetown smokeshop. At the smokeshop counter we had swooned at the idea of smoking good cigarettes and walking on the beach, then smoking in the car at the Wellfleet Drive-In Theater. She had left her purse in the car, and I had stated that I could buy and smoke cigarettes for I am not addicted, which is true, but that conscience keeps me from enabling her for she is addicted, which is false.
So in the motel room she says fine, we’ll go without you. And I say fine, I’ll read Ulysses in here on the bed. She senses I’m making excuses to avoid strenuous physical activity, to avoid the sunlight, and she’s about half right. Caught in the middle, the ex-boyfriend just shrugs his big shoulders. They decide to go kayaking in Town Cove off Nauset Beach, not far from where the seal biting occurred.
“Watch out for sharks,” I say.
Soon I can’t focus enough to read. Like all shark-fearing men, I rehash the famous Jaws scene in which, on the little fishing boat, the cantankerous old sea barnacle played by Robert Shaw gets chomped and gobbled up. His downfall, I muse, comes from a mishap, from slipping on the boat’s wet deck. He goes down feet first. He kicks at the beast’s pointed snout, to no avail. Soon he’s in the monster’s mouth.
I would never make the same mistake. First, I would never be so unprepared as to slip. And if I did slip, my defense from the gaping maw would be more inventive. Meant to absorb strong impact, the shark’s snout is no place to aim. Instead, you aim between the eyes and a bit back — for the brain — preferably with a harpoon. That’s another thing: Always have a harpoon in hand.
In the motel I drift into a restless sleep. I dream of a custom wetsuit: spiked chain mail, spiked flippers. A knife between my teeth, spear in hand. I’m ready for the beach.
My girlfriend and her ex-boyfriend come back from sea kayaking, of course. His tan is deeper, I notice. She’s excited.
“How was it?” I ask.
She runs over and jumps on the bed, on top of me, and we roll around giggling. “We saw a seal!” she squeals. “He popped his head up and looked at me! He was so cute!”
The ex-boyfriend smiles and says, “It was frolicking.” He sits down in a chair.
The Cape Cod Times speculates that increased seal populations around the cape have attracted more great whites. Seal, the Boston Globe reports, is the shark’s favorite food.
“A seal?” I ask. “And this is a good thing?” • 26 March 2008