by JUDITH DORE
Adam’s hand is snaking its way into my swimsuit when he tells me I am naïve.
I think this is hilarious, but I neither laugh nor stop his hand’s journey. All of it feels good: the heat of the sun, his hand tracing the underside of my breast, the ridiculousness of his speech. My eyes are half-closed and I can feel the stretch of the muscles in my neck as I lean to my right to give Adam more leeway. I turn my face away from his increasingly heaving breath. It smells of cheap beer and I prefer the scent of the sun-baked seaweed and brine of the ocean. I can pretend he is someone else.
“Naïve, how?” I say this with an innocence I don’t feel. Adam chuckles, the tone meant to make me feel small. I want to pull away from him, but I don’t.
“Everything has a price,” he tells me. I slither a glance his way. His eyes are on my breasts, so he doesn’t see me watching him. I wonder how hard I’d have to kick him to knock him overboard. I imagine him flailing in the water, sputtering and indignant, and this makes me grin.
“Of course it does, silly,” I say.
“What I mean is, to get what you want in life, you have to sacrifice.” His hand slides lower, dips into my bellybutton then between my legs. He thinks he is being seductive.
“Mmmm,” I say. He takes this as encouragement and puts a finger inside me.
My eyes turn to the beach, about a hundred yards away from where the catamaran is anchored. The ocean is quiet at low tide. I’ve been vacationing in the crook of Cape Cod for most of my life. My family used to rent cottages here when I was younger, before they graduated to luxury condos, but I stopped staying at my parents’ place the summer I got my first job out of college. I prefer the freedom granted by my own resources.
I love this part of the beach, where the tide goes out for a mile and leaves pools to explore. I’ve never understood the attraction of Provincetown, where people go to play with artists and wannabes. Too many people with too much pretention. In fact, I can’t figure out why my parents chose this part of the Cape playground to hang – they usually choose places and things that reflect their superiority. Maybe they like feeling like bigger fish.
Adam and I have been coming to this part of East Dennis for the past three years. He bought the catamaran the first summer we spent together. I’m not a fan – I’d rather ride on something with sails and thought the commitment was stupid. Adam said that I needed to grow up and learn to take care of something besides myself.
The sand dunes hide the roadway and the parking lot by the access beach, but I can still make out the opening where the fencing is awkwardly wind-tipped. I’ve been watching that spot for the better part of two hours, seeing families and other loudly outfitted vacationers passing through the gateway. No one I give two shits about.
I am sick of waiting.
Adam is kissing my neck, trying to nudge me backwards. I’m holding the guardrail with my back to him, and I’m not inclined to lose my view of the beach. I hear Adam’s frustration, but I also know that my resistance turns him on.
I toss my head from side to side, exhaling loudly. Buying time.
‘Fucking jackass’, I think, ‘Where is he? He said, he promised…’
‘No’, I remind myself, ‘he didn’t promise’.
The catamaran lurches, and I tilt my head to the side, away from Adam. He squeezes the tender flesh of my inner thigh. It hurts. I yank his hand away, but disguise my action as an excuse to kneel and steady myself. The water has become rocky.
I pretend not to see Adam’s look. It’s a disdain that’s become all too common lately. I’ve probably earned it, but it doesn’t mean I like it.
I point at the horizon, and he follows my lead. The inside of my mouth is bleeding a little. I have a habit of biting the inside of my cheek when nervous. The sore spot tastes metallic as I brush it with my tongue.
“Shit. Storm,” Adam says, fumbling to his feet and making his way to the captain’s chair. He turns the key, and the engine sputters.
I look back at the beach and see people collecting their towels and lounge chairs. A trio of children are dancing “ring-around-the-rosy” while they keep an eye on the grey clouds in the distance. I wonder what the father figure tells them as he pulls their grasped hands apart, pointing skyward then back at the person I presume is his wife. I imagine the kids are miserable and that his wife’s face is pinched. But I have no proof that my observations are true. Just remnants of my own memories.
“A little help?” Adam says, that tone I hate at the fore. My teeth grind before I break a grin, turning at my waist to look flirtatiously his way. My dentist is going to shoot me next time I see him, I think, feeling where I’ve chipped enamel.
“Oh, it’ll pass,” I say.
Adam grunts and goes back to trying to start the boat’s engine.
The dark clouds are moving away. Fleeting storms are normal this time of year, and I like waiting them out. I feel like I can breathe in the moments the danger slips away, like I’ve survived.
The water is still choppy. I don’t know if it’s because of the retreating storm or the tide moving in or both. The turbulent waves are hypnotizing.
I learned to swim in both the shallow waters of low tide and the chaos of high. I like aspects of both: the bobbling quiet beneath the water as fish skirt away from my inelegant strokes and the feel of sand and saltwater up my nose after I catch a particularly riotous wave inland. The only time I was frightened by the ocean was when I was a kid and a crab tweaked my toe. I was sure it was the sting of a jellyfish trying to consume me.
“Adam?” I say. I jump to my feet with excitement. “Adam!”
I’m pointing again. Something solid is slicing through the cresting waves, something both frightening and charismatic. “That,” I say. I hop up and down with excitement, the way I sometimes did as a girl when I found something unusual in the tide pools.
Adam looks pissed until he sees what I have: a dorsal fin followed by a slightly smaller tailfin. He is tan, but I think the colour leaves his face.
“Holy fuck,” he says. He falls back into the captain’s chair, making me roll my eyes. “Fuck.”
“You suppose it’s a Great White?” I ask. The shark is maybe fifty feet away, and I can’t help leaning over the guardrail to get a closer look. I look from side to side to see if any other fins are visible. Just the one.
“Get back from there,” Adam says. I look over my shoulder at him, then back at the fin. It’s not doing anything, not headed our way, not headed towards the beach. It’s just swimming one way, then another. Seeking, hungry, traveling.
The cat’s engine turns over a few more times as Adam tries to get it going.
“Will you stop that?” I snap. I don’t normally lose my temper with Adam, but I can see that every time the engine sputters, the shark moves further away.
“Fucking bitch,” Adam responds, and I look at him. He’s looking at the steering wheel, disgust and fear in his countenance. I feel a spurt of discomfort deep in my stomach.
“What is it?”
“Just shut the fuck up!” he shouts. I taste my own blood again, stare at him one pulse longer, and then turn back to where I saw the shark. It’s no longer there.
A few minutes pass before I feel Adam’s hand on my shoulder.
“I’m sorry I yelled at you. It’s just that—” he pauses dramatically. My shoulder shrugs of its own accord as I look back at the empty beach and finless waters. “It’s just that one of the floaters is busted. And we’re out of gas.”
My shoulder twitches hard enough to dislodge Adam, and I stalk to the rear of the vehicle. I am not surprised by his disclosure. I’m only disappointed that I wasted my day.
“So we swim back,” I say reasonably.
“We can’t leave the cat!” Adam says. Of course his property is his first concern.
“I’m swimming back.”
I don’t even hold my breath as I plunge into the water, an impulse that amuses me even as my lungs protest. Bubbles tickle my face and waist, welcome and cleansing.
My shoulders lose their tension as I reach forward, towards the shore, towards where Brett is supposed to be. I’ve never had good technique, but the water assists me in pulling forward, away from the cat, my hair like a medusa halo, sensual along my propelling body.
When I need to surface for air, I realize that Adam has followed me. He splashes like an injured seal. I can’t judge how close he is, but I want distance between us, so I duck beneath the surface and kick my feet.
The tide is definitely coming in. I feel it both pushing and pulling me, the undertow growing, giving me less control. It feels different than the ocean of my youth.
I let my mind drift, feeling the flow of the water, letting it tell me how to move. I think about how clam diggers sought holes in the sand, how I never caught a single one, thwarted by their ability to scoot away just as I caught a glimpse of their ridged shells. How my sister and I would run screaming from stranded horseshoe crabs, and of our reverence for marooned starfish.
One summer, I'd tried to make an aquarium of found snails and hermit crabs, only to have them stink of death a few days later. I didn't really know what to do with my acquisitions. My mother took me to the library, and I read all the books, but none helped me really understand what food they needed, or how I could get it. The kind of water that they needed to survive. I tried table salt and hot dogs.
Embarrassed by my failure, too ashamed to show my dad how badly I’d cared for my pets, I left their carcasses out in the front yard for the birds. When even the birds refused to eat them, I put their sad little bodies in the creek behind our house, hoping that they would find life somehow, there downstream, outside my bad influence. I was a silly creature, even then.
I ended up using the empty fish tank for my punk-haired Barbie to swim in. My mother bought me inflatable doll furniture, not the good kind that was made by Mattel but some ugly knock-off she found at a Kmart going out of business sale. I kind of hated her for it, but in the end I made good. Barbie had hermit crab shells for pets.
Sound travels strangely underwater. I hear Adam shrieking through Jell-O. It sounds like he is chewing on his own guts.
I breach the water to see Adam and a white belly full of teeth spraying above the waves. It’s pink and red and foamy. Adam’s screams are the same as when he had called the boat a bitch. A horrible giggle burbles in my gut. I think of hot dogs and saltwater.
The shore isn’t so far. I see a maroon Subaru peeking over one edge of the sand dunes. Brett. I stroke my right arm over my head, then my left. I ignore the crunching gurgle behind me. You’re late.
Time moves like water as I swim towards the beach. Even with the flood in my ears, nose and mouth, it’s too quiet.
My eyes have been closed. I don’t mind saltwater in my eyes, but I’ve not opened them at all. I am moving with purpose, so it takes me a few minutes to realize I’m not swimming alone.
It’s the bulk that strikes me, the sheer solidity and grace. My eyes sting a bit when I open them. The shark is gorgeous. I feel like a clumsy fool swimming alongside him.
I’ve read that the eyes of a shark are dead, but this is untrue. Everything is contained in that blackness, all the colours, all the horror, all the joy, all the knowledge.
Those eyes tell me I am beautiful.
I am still pulling water with my palms as I regard the shark. A bit of debris is caught in his jagged teeth. I wonder about the taste of Drakkar Noir, copper and denim. He is almost close enough to touch.
My knees hit sand. I stand with a stumble. The shark is not far away. His belly must be brushing the sand, rough and uncomfortable. Yet his tail is unencumbered, swishing side to side. I am a bad judge of size, but he is maybe fifteen feet long.
When the ocean scared me, I’d stomped the shell of that crab until its claw waved sadly with the ebb of the water, its life gone. As I see my companion wagging his tail at me, I wonder what it would take to crush him. But a flood of love squashes my rage until I cannot comprehend where it came from to begin with.
Water is dripping from my hair, and I suspect some tears may be mingled in with the rest of the saltwater. I shake it off; swiping defensively at my eyes, then turn away from the ocean. Over the dunes, I see that there is no Subaru.
The sand sticks on my feet, and I watch the seagulls scavenge the beach and feed on half-eaten bologna sandwiches. I think about swimming in the ocean again, soon.
Judith Dore is a writer, runner, guitar putzer, avid book lover, mother & alcoholic who has always found horror stories comforting. She has a degree in Journalism & Mass Communications from the University of NC in Chapel Hill and has worked in business writing, which is frightening in its own right. Judith lives with her husband and son in upstate NY where she often can be found running through town while listening to scary stories on her iPod. Judith’s story, “Predator”, appears in the June 2013 issue of HelloHorror.
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