I recently woke to a blue sky over a place I didn’t want to leave and I should have guessed that from there the rest of the day would take on the kind of proportions it didn’t fully deserve.

San Francisco isn’t supposed to be part of America, but I saw it as heartland visiting again after eight years living away and abroad.If there was anywhere I fit in, on any continent, it had to be this place with the blue sky white at the edges and fierce MUNI drivers and food choices galore and ideas forever coming to fruition and close, brisk ocean.Possibly, I just missed a place where I didn’t have to act like a grownup like I hadn’t for so many years of house parties and second-hand clothes. I’d convinced myself moving back might make my world less complicated. So I went looking for signs urging me to return and, if those didn’t turn up, I needed irrefutable reasons why my young family and I should live out the rest of our days here, within a country that was plummeting further, rising from the ashes or just realizing the dream.Until I confirmed which one applied, I was only on vacation.

The cage hangs suspended just under the water’s surface by a series of pontoons and rigging tethering it to the boat above. Inside it the dive master and I float like the nearby bait lines of tuna drifting lightly in the current.

We are miles out to sea, well beyond where the Pacific endlessly smashes itself upon the broken teeth of the California coast. From the deck a person can still see the thick sleek sea lions sunning themselves on the rocks in the distance, but under here everything is an unending gray-blue expanse, as the light only penetrates in translucent fingers that grasp at the darkness without finding purchase.

Occasionally schooling fish flicker silver at the very edge of vision, but otherwise the ocean appears empty. The only sounds are the hiss of our respirators and the bubbling escape of our breath.

When I make eye contact with the dive master he taps his wrist as though indicating a watch and draws a clockwise circle in front of my mask, a gesture I interpret as It takes a little time.

We wait.

Despite being a veteran snorkeler I am unused to the neoprene casing of the wetsuit and the weight of the breathing apparatus on my back. I don’t like the restraint of the cage much, either; I would prefer to be swimming unencumbered, the water on my skin, even though I know a thousand bad deaths might be waiting so far from shore. Inside the cage it is too easy to compare myself to a morsel in a bait box.

With nothing other to do than float and breathe, I study the depths below, hoping for some fish, or a sea lion, or even some red devils, but nothing emerges. The continental shelf is down there somewhere, hidden under layers of blue so deep as to be black.

A good friend once confessed to a deep-seated, almost instinctual fear of the open ocean; doubtless he would find this experience to be absolute hell.

Just as I’m starting to think we’re just going to deplete our oxygen reserves watching oily tuna bait dangle, the dive master taps my arm and points out into the gloom. At first, it’s difficult to see, but before too long what looks like a smooth gray blur casually reveals itself as the approaching robust snout and unclosed grin of a Great White shark.

Swimming straight for us.

This is what I’ve come here for. I’ve consumed hundreds of hours of documentary footage of sharks. I’ve gone skin diving with leopard sharks, sand tigers, hammerheads and moray eels. Once during a trip to the Sea of Cortez a curious manta came close enough for me to touch it.

None of those experiences are adequate preparation for seeing the business end of a Great White casually, implacably bearing down on you.

I am suddenly very, very grateful for the presence of the cage.

It passes around us slowly at first, cruising a wide perimeter around the boat. It’s a big animal. As it passes out of sight beyond the stern I hold my hands out to the dive master like I’m grasping a box. How big? He responds by holding up a series of fingers, 5-5-2, then rocking his flattened palm back and forth. 12 ft, more or less.

The shark circles us twice more, tightening the gyre with each pass. For such a big fish it passes through the water with little effort from the broad-bladed tail. I think of that tail, strong enough to propel the shark clear out of the water in pursuit of prey, and shiver despite my wetsuit. The last turn is close enough that I can see the absence of the male claspers; “it” is a “she,” terrifying and magnificent.

I could kick myself for failing to bring one of those disposable underwater cameras, even though I know the cheap lense would be unlikely to pick up anything in these visibility conditions.

She breaks her pattern and swims beneath the boat, passing close enough that I can the feel wake as she cuts through the water. Her senses are keen enough to have smelled the bait fish, but now she’s close enough to detect the electrical impulses given off by my quickening heart.

Holy fuck, she can feel my fucking heartbeat.

We watch her and she watches us, unblinking, one eye always fixed on the cage even as she inspects the baits. Others have described the immense black of shark’s eye as something dead, or lifeless, but what I see instead is curiosity, an eye straining to take in everything it can. Seeing her so close fills me with a sensation that is not quite fear or excitement, some kind of galvanizing adrenal fascination I have no word for. Awe is perhaps the closest.

I’m fascinated by her, by the elegant design millions of years of evolution have given her. Despite how at home I feel in the water, seeing that torpedo form in motion demonstrates how feeble my own meatsack body is for handling these elements.

I want to touch her. I want to reach out beyond the bars of the cage and let my hand run over the smooth-sharp denticle surface of her skin. But the baits are all—in retrospect, very wisely—strung at points too far away from the cage, and she remains safely out of contact range.

Finally, after one last pass, the shark turns away from us, eyes rolling back and jaws slipping forwards as she snaps at one of the baits. With a flash of serrated teeth and the audible crunch of fishbone it is gone, leaving just a blunted metal weight at the end of the thick white rope.

When she tries for the next one the crew above yank on the bait rope, causing her to chase, to seize and thrash about in the nature documentary theatrics of an attack. For one instant she rolls, and I get the clear sight of the gapping jaws and fresh pink mouth before she bites down on the chunk of tuna. Even without the teeth, the bite pressure alone could crush my bones.

A few minutes thrashing and it is done, the sea gone as calm as it was before her feed began; a few scraps of tuna hanging in the water offer the only evidence it ever happened. She cruises around us a bit more, as though expecting us to provide her with more food. Eventually she turns away, and with a few strokes of her tail vanishes back into the gloom just as casually as she emerged from it, disappearing like a gray ghost in a long endless night.

 

I’ve always been obsessed with sharks. I think the obsession began around the same time I decided dinosaurs were the coolest thing, and when that dinosaur obsession devolved into a mere interest, and then into a closet interest after the realization that I didn’t possess the requisite science or math abilities to be a paleontologist, my love of sharks stayed strong.

To this day I never miss Shark Week. I never pass up the opportunity to look at pictures of sharks on the internet or in magazines. I read about shark attacks like others read about sports. I always see the newest shitty shark movie on TV and always hate it a little less than anyone else.

 

My stepfather–who we’ll just call G.–sat across the dinner table from me. My mother sat to my left, silently pushing her food around the plate. I assumed this was because she’d discovered G.’s latest affair and was dealing with it in her usual silent denial. G. discussed what he’d be doing if it were his sophomore year in college instead of mine, Things I Would Have Done with Your Opportunities being a favorite topic of his. I’d only come to town to retrieve a few things I had left behind when I moved into my apartment, and I was eager to get back on the road as soon as possible.

It was early October, 1998. I was 19 years old.

G. was a Machiavellian bully of a parent, though one who preferred to intimidate psychologically rather than physically. My mother moved him in when I was six, and the ink was barely dry on her divorce decree before she married him. As the only boy in the house, I received the brunt of his attention. Everything was subject to scrutiny: my clothes, my taste in music, my prowess with girls, my lack of interest in team sports—all measured by some unspoken standard of masculinity I perpetually failed to live up to. That I earned a black belt in karate at sixteen made no substantial impression. I grew up in a state of quiet but pervasive fear, only finally escaping when I went off to college. I deliberately chose a university elsewhere in the state and came home infrequently.

Though not typically violent, G. hit me three times before I reached the age of 10. Once hard enough to make my gums bleed.

He largely ignored my little sister. This is the only reason she survived this period of our lives.

I finished my meal, but when I went to clear my plate my mother took it instead. “I’ll get this,” she said. “You just relax.”

Alarm bells went off in my head. Each family member was responsible for his/her dirty dishes, an inviolate rule for as long as I could remember.

She cleared not just my plate but the entire table, portioning the leftovers into Tupperware containers with astonishing economy of speed. G. sipped at his beer and made a show of appearing nonchalant. Some weird, nervous energy encoded his body language, and I found it vaguely threatening. Every lizard-brain instinct told me to flee, but before I could conjure an excuse my mother returned to her seat.

“There’s something we need to tell you,” G. said. “It’s about your father.”

My father? My father had become persona non grata years ago. During the divorce he battled viciously in court to avoid owing child support, a prolonged conflict which left my sister and I with smoking blast craters marring the landscape of our youth. When the courts decided against him, he abandoned his children in favor of his new wife.

“We’ve never been completely honest with you,” my stepfather continued. He stared me straight in the eyes, his poker face rapidly abandoning him. “But we think it’s time you know the truth. You’re not really his son. You’re mine.”

Mine.

The world fell away from me like a free-fall ride at an amusement park.

G. grinned as though he’d won a fucking prize.

My mother said nothing.

When I didn’t respond, G. kept talking: about his affair with my mother; about the anecdotal evidence that “proved” I was his biological son; how my various aunts and uncles had been aware for years. Something about how this would “free” me from the pain of the divorce.

I wasn’t really listening. I felt like a  freshly branded cow, a smoking MINE seared into my flesh. My heart beat against the ragged edges of broken feelings: betrayal, violation, confusion.

And so much anger. I wanted to glove my fists in the grinning bastard’s blood.

“I have to go,” I said, grabbing my leather jacket off the chair. No one tried to stop me.

Here’s where I lose the plot a bit. Everything was scattered, my head as big a jumble as a bag of Scrabble letters. I drove aimlessly, circling around the freeways, taking whatever off-ramp or side street presented itself. The city seemed both starkly real and yet grotesquely unreal, as though I’d stumbled into some Twilight Zone simulacrum of my life.

I stopped at payphones, attempting to get in touch with my friends, but it was Saturday and they were all out. I left them rambling, nonsensical messages.

Eventually, running low on gas and inertia, I found myself at the beach. The early autumn days were still running late, and the evening sun was just setting. I sat down on the sand to watch it, jacket pulled around me like a turtle shell. It was just another sunset, the exact same image I’d seen countless times, and yet so stunningly beautiful that for a moment I was able to forget about everything. One last explosion of color before the world finished turning to gray.

My crappy little 35MM Kodak was in my jacket pocket, and I snapped a few pictures.


Later I would pick myself up off the beach, drive back to school, and with the help of my friends, begin the process of reassembling myself, fearing for years afterward that crucial pieces were irretrievably lost.

I would not speak to any member of my family, save my sister, for months.

I would learn that G. had been threatening to leave my mother for his current mistress; she had hoped that allowing him to openly claim me as his offspring would prevent him from leaving her. But G. would move out before Christmas, and they would be divorced by springtime.

And before graduation, I would publicly–and cathartically–disown him.

But those events were in the future, still waiting to happen. For now I just sat there, alone on an empty shelf of beach, watching the sun slowly dive into the Pacific as bit by bit the earth carried me away from it.