I was eleven or twelve. I don’t remember exactly. We were on a family vacation, my mom, my two sisters, and I. We took a road trip to San Diego to visit Ted and Alby Jardine, my great uncle and aunt on my mother’s side.
It was a treat because I didn’t have much family growing up. We were the four amigas--mom and her three daughters--after my father split to start a new life with a new family in a new state. We were estranged from relatives on my father’s side, forbidden to speak to any of his relatives: aunts, uncles, and cousins aplenty. They had the same iron-fisted edict to shun us. None of that mattered to me, sitting in the back seat of mom’s apple green Caddy, all windows down, stereo blasting, all of us singing and free.
“Wanna go out on the boat?” my cousin Claire asked me. She was older, a beautiful blonde with perfect, acne-free skin and a California bikini body. “Sure!” I said, but right on the heels of her next questions so that our words collided. “Do you water ski?” I didn’t, but she assured me that I could learn. “It’s fun,” she said, and who was I to argue with fun? Driving to the boat ramp, I asked if we would be skiing on a lake. Cousin Claire laughed, her teeth flashing bright against skin so brown. “No, this is Mission Bay,” she explained.
Secretly, I was relieved. I had recently seen the movie Jaws and was now terrified of sharks. (Thank you, Steven Spielberg.) It wasn’t until I was in the water with my skis on that I learned that a bay is ocean, an inlet where the land curves around the water. Ocean. And yes, great white sharks had been spotted lurking (aren’t the sharks of our nightmares always lurking?) in the blue-black waters in and around Mission Bay.
The idealized girl crush I had developed on Cousin Claire evaporated. I wasn’t sure if she was joking or not, and felt stupid to ask. I mean, this from the girl who thought a bay was freshwater and bitey-fish free. It was too late to bail on water skiing and everyone on the boat was already laughing. “What did you think a bay was?” Humiliation complete, it seemed everyone was in on the joke and I was the punchline. Well, I reasoned, I just won’t fall.
Waiting in the water was the hard part, but then I felt the tug of rope and was suddenly standing with wooden paddles for feet. Such a feeling of freedom, again with wind in my hair. I loved all of it: the sound of the water rushing past, sun on my face, brisk ocean air in my lungs, and the rooster tails of spray that the skis left behind me. The boat turned to the left, and so did I, a gentle arc. I thought, I’ve got this! just as my left ski hit the wake of water created from the boat in front of me. Down I went with a splash.
I watched as the boat continued forward, dragging nothing but the tow rope, which skipped along the surface. For a few moments I watched, wondering if anyone had seen my spill. Would I be left here in the open? Would I have to swim to shore? And what to do with the skis that bobbed forward in the water, keeping me tipped in a reclined pose but still afloat thanks to the orange life preserver I was wearing. The boat continued forward, shrinking in size, smaller and smaller as if to vanish on the horizon. Then it turned wide and back in my direction. Da dum... Da dum dum...
The stupid movie! It was that moment my mind chose for a private screening of Jaws. The boat was getting closer, but my fear was faster. Da dum... Da dum dum... I could sense the shark, knew it was coming for me. The boat would never reach me in time. They would find only shreds of life preserver and one ski with a telltale bite mark. Closer, closer-- the boat-- closer. Then, unbelievably, something brushed my leg.
White terror shot through my body. I screamed, thrashing the water around me. This was no movie. I was about to be the afternoon snack of Carcharodon carcharias, a great white shark. My family would wail, inconsolable. “Why did we go water skiing?” they would cry. And maybe they might hire someone, perhaps even Richard Dreyfuss, to search for the shark. Quint wouldn’t be available, of course, having been eaten near the end of the first movie. In my panic, I wondered if I’d see the shark before it bit me, a bird’s eye view as my frightened soul might try to fly up and away from my physical body. Could I reason with the shark? Probably not. I believed the curmudgeonly Quint when he said: “Y'know the thing about a shark, he's got... lifeless eyes, black eyes, like a doll's eyes. When he comes at ya, doesn't seem to be livin'... until he bites ya.” These thoughts were coming at me faster than the shark was, but I knew this for sure: I was in a life or death battle with a real live sea monster, and I had zero skills. How would I fare having nothing but land legs when an old fisherman like Quint got it in the end? It didn’t matter in that moment that the movie Jaws was fiction.
Not a bit. Not a bite.
Finally, the boat, a hand, someone pulling me up. “Oh my gosh,” my cousin said, concern wrinkling her brow. I was obviously in distress. “Are you okay?” everyone asked all at once, a chorus of concern. “Sh-- sh-- shark...” I sputtered, shivering and safe now in the boat. But I didn’t feel safe. “Shark?” Claire asked. “Something brushed up against me!” I cried. “Oh.....” she said. “It was probably this.” Claire held up a piece of seaweed that had tangled on my ski. Seaweed or kelp or whatever non-shark green plant thing it was. But I couldn’t stop crying, shaking and wrapped up in a sun-warmed towel, my mother’s arm around me. I was done for the day.
It’s funny how the mind works, the fear that we have of the unknown--the stranger in the dark, the bump in the night, the thing just under the water’s surface. It’s Horror Movie 101: Don’t show the monster right away. The fear of the unknown is much scarier than seeing it up front because our imaginations conjure the worst. Beyond worst. Right? I just wish this go-to movie wisdom translated to real life.
Disease. Death. Loneliness. War. Loss. These are some of the real monsters we see today, far scarier than “Bruce,” the nickname the crew gave to the mechanical shark in Jaws to honor (or shame?) Spielberg’s lawyer. Ha! The monsters I see and the things I fear aren’t the seaweed of my youth. The things I worry about today are at once specific and abstract. I can view cancer cells under a microscope, yet still fear the monster of that disease. I throw chum into the water of my mind and wait for the sharks. Why do I do this? Why can’t I stop?
I need to remind myself to breathe, to meditate, to spend time in nature. I can write out my fears, perform a literary exorcism, but I don’t want to haul the nightmares to shore with me. Some people do, and to those folks, I’m sure Chief Brody would say, “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.” For me, I’ll stick with something smaller. Something with a fast motor. Something to make me feel free with the wind in my hair.