I had a dream last night. I was in St. Andrews but it wasn’t St. Andrews, and there were zombies hunting me. The whole world was overrun by zombies. I had a gun but when I fired it the bullets zipped off in odd directions like those balloon stalls at crooked amusement parks. All out at sea there were sharks and you could see the sharks from the shore – big beautiful silver shapes circling in clusters of three. I tried to climb out onto a boat via a heavy rope, and I almost got low enough to touch the sharks, but I couldn’t and didn’t, and when I got onto the boat there were more zombies.

Then I woke up.

I realised then that it was more or less the same dream I’ve had every night. Sharks. St. Andrews. Zombie-like bad guys. Guns that don’t fire.

Please explain what just happened.

I’ve been trying to figure that one out myself for years…

What is your earliest memory?

Running back from a creek with tadpoles in my hands and getting yelled at. Slapped, too!

If you weren’t an adventure filmmaker/musician, what other profession would you choose?

I would pursue whatever profession would allow me to wander around aimlessly.

 

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.

The Gulf Coast of the United States is a self-contained biosphere. The selection of things you can do to entertain yourself is as unique as the culture, and boats piloted by Cajun sea captains are as abundant as the restaurants selling etouffee and crawfish. Frequently trips leave the Louisiana shores on expeditions out into deep water where adventurers hunt for yellowfin tuna hiding below the waves.

A few years ago I left on one such voyage out of Venice, Louisiana. Unknown until the recent BP oil spill, Venice is a bit removed from the regular, beaten path. If you’re unfamiliar with its exact location, it is seven hours east of Houston and two hours south of New Orleans. From there, you drive to the end of the world, go through a frozen sea, past the dead floating bodies of pirates that have lost their way, and over a giant waterfall.

Venice is eleven miles past that.

My grandfather was an avid fisherman his entire life and instilled the love of the sport in me. From the day I could walk, I can remember standing on jetty rocks and throwing my line into the deep. A cooler full of redfish and speckled trout would accompany me and my grandfather home, where my grandmother would fry them up. My childhood is a collection of Saturday afternoons filled with the smell of hot oil in the air and a pan full of freshly cooked, cornmeal covered fish on the table.

I cannot begin to count the nights that I’ve spent on one beach or another, stoking a fire to burn away the dark’s chill and waiting for the first fingers of sun to reach over the horizon. Mornings spent waist-deep in the ocean with a fishing rod in my hand have always been the most peaceful, even if not necessarily safe. When you’re in the water, it is seldom efficient to walk back to shore with every fish caught. A stringer tied to a belt loop will often suffice, with each fish added to the string until you hit your limit. I vividly recall having had that string hit by a massive force and jerked out towards deeper water before the pressure released. Pulling it in, the half of a fish dangling off the end is all that is needed to remind you that sharks are quite present. They’re usually black-tips though, and I have shared the water with them my entire life.

As teenagers, we used to fish specifically for them, swimming out to the second or third sand bar with a fishing pole and a piece of bloody meat attached to a large hook, casting from the shallower water, and then swimming back with the pole to wait for an indication of a hit. Swimming with blood-drenched chunks of flesh through the murky gulf probably doesn’t rank high on my Brilliant Things I’ve Done list, but it is exhilarating.

And though I’ve spent a lot of my life on the water, I had never been offshore to fish. I knew only of the tales of snapper and tuna that my friends brought back with them when they went out. Venice would change that.

My brother Jeremy called me to meet him at the last minute. We needed a break, he said. He and his friend Scott had chartered a boat and the other two people going with them had suddenly backed out. Our cousin Marshall and I had been called in as replacements. I, though, was the only rookie on the tour. Offshore fishing was a regular pastime for Jeremy, Scott was a lawyer that owned his own boat and went frequently out on the Gulf down in South Texas, and Marshall had worked as a hand on a vessel for most of his life. It was the perfect crew, as long as I could manage to hold myself together.

“You’re gonna get sick,” Marshall said. “It’s okay though. Everyone does their first few times. Just make sure you throw up over the side.”

“And you may want to take it easy on the alcohol tonight,” my brother added. We were sitting on the deck of the house boat at the fish camp and I had just poured another massive glass of Jack Daniels, sans mixer. I’ve always found it disrespectful to the whiskey gods to add anything to it but ice. The three of them had been there for a day already and were well rested. I had just driven in from Texas.

“I’ll be fine,” I said confidently. They chuckled together at my ignorance, then Scott began to brief me on what to expect aside from the inevitable sea sickness. The weather had been bad he said, but a hole was opening up in the morning and that was when we were going. It was January so it was going to be cold, but worth it. On top of it all, he’d found the perfect captain and the perfect boat. Money can’t buy a better trip, he swore, and then he was interrupted by the skipper himself.

Though Scott was a bloodthirsty demon of a fisherman himself, he had gone to great lengths to find a captain that was even sicker than he was. Captain Al was the kind of guy that went spearfishing for mako sharks in his down time; just him, a pointy stick, and five-hundred pounds of muscle and teeth in the water at the same time. I had always considered myself somewhat brave for swimming with the black-tips, but this man chose to virtually French kiss the fastest fish in the ocean for fun. He was a young version of Captain Quint.

“I don’t want anyone in this goddamn boat that doesn’t want to kill stuff!” he began. “You got that? This isn’t a goddamn pleasure cruise! We’re coming back with fish, and if we can’t catch ‘em and reel ‘em in, then I’ll stick raw meat in my pockets, jump in, and bite them to death myself. I’m serious here, people. We’re going to war!

I know where they are, and if they’re not there, I know where they’re hiding. We will hunt these fish down and we will kill them. We’ll kill their families. We’ll kill every one of their goddamned fish friends. We’ll even kill other fish that might owe them money. Nothing is safe out there! I swear to God, if I have to put hooks in my face and swim down there and wake ‘em up, we’re coming back with fish. Now get some sleep. We leave at 6:00 am.”

With that, he slammed a double shot of Jack and went to bed.

Following his lead, the four of us retired as well. Final advice was given to me as we drifted off in our bunk beds. Scott’s multiple offshore trips a month qualified him to brag and explain his strategy for soaking up the sure-to-come excitement of the next day.

“No cameras. That’s the first rule,” he said. “There are a lot of things that not everybody gets to experience and this here’s one of ‘em. I don’t carry a regular camera and I don’t carry a video camera and I don’t carry any of them other kinds of cameras. You gettin’ what I’m sayin’ here?” He was drunk, and his Texas accent was getting thicker.

“I don’t neeeeeeed a camera ‘cause I keep all the pictures right here in my head. Right here.” It was pitch black, but I assumed he was pointing at his head. He continued. “You can’t print it, because it’s all in my head. There’s a lot of stuff up there that no one will ever get to see. Places I’ve been. Fish I’ve caught. Memories that will never go away.”

There was a long pause.

“A lot of fat girls in there, too,” he finished.

We drifted off to sleep with perfectly justified high expectations for the next day, and then somewhere through the night, Murphy’s Law stepped in.

We awoke the next morning to find Captain Al storming up and down the dock and screaming into a cell phone. As we made our way out of the house boat he finished his call and informed us that our plans had changed.

“Someone stole my goddamned gear in the middle of the night! I don’t know who it was yet but I when find that sick sonofabitch I’m gonna cut him the fuck up, eat some of him , and feed what’s left of his ass to the goddamned pelicans! But don’t worry. I got everything under control.”

Not only had all of his equipment been stolen, but the weather was deteriorating as well. Still, Al had arranged a replacement boat and a new captain to take us out in his stead. It was up to us to decide whether we were going to attempt to salvage the trip or not, and like any group of testosterone driven, still slightly drunk males, we did.

The four of us climbed into the new boat and headed fifty miles out to the Midnight Lump, a salt dome in the Gulf of Mexico that is legendary among deep sea anglers. The three of them laughed a bit more at me, satisfied that I was going to lose what little food I had eaten somewhere on the ride out. I wasn’t very confident myself. I had never been this far out on a boat before. I had driven seven hours, slept very little, and eaten even less.

It was forty degrees outside before the spray hit, and when that happened it dropped to absolute zero. The water temperature would not have been an issue had it been avoidable, but the seas were anything but calm, as if Poseidon had been up drinking the night before as well, perhaps playing quarters with Davy Jones. The 2-4 foot waves we had been expecting quickly turned to fifteen foot swells which we were hitting at 140 miles per hour. That may be a bit of writer’s embellishment on my part, but still, 4-6 foot waves in a fast boat sucks.

If you haven’t done it, do this instead. Crawl into a rock tumbler, put that in a clothes dryer, get someone to push the whole thing off a mountain, land on a trampoline, and bounce into the side of a moving train.

While you have to pee.

Charter services usually provide bean bag chairs so the passengers can flop down on the ride out to deep water. They do it because the bags absorb a lot of the impact as the bottom of the boat smacks the surface between swells. That, and who doesn’t love bean bags? I rolled over in mine to see my brother’s face buried in his rain slicker. He looked slightly green. Weird, I thought. I feel fine.

I pulled myself up to the center console to watch the waves as we hit them. As I did so, I noticed my cousin attempting to hang his head over the rail. Every time he tried to throw up, he was launched backward and away from the side. “Are you okay?” I asked.

“I will be. Gimme a bit,” he replied, groaning.

“So when does it get bad?” I asked. “Because this is awesome so far!”

He rolled his eyes upward at me from the deck. “You. Shut. Up.”

Scott was in a similar position on the other side of the boat, retching violently into an even more violent sea. The grey rain ran in ice cold rivulets down his brow as he turned to me. “How the fuck… are you… not throwing up?” he managed to ask, and then his head flopped forward again.

I didn’t have an answer for him. It was a bit disturbing to find that my body didn’t consider any of that abnormal enough to react. Then again, where was the difference between being out on that water and any of the other things I’ve forced my body through over the last two decades? Years of riding rivers, climbing rocks, jumping out of planes, combat landings and sideways helicopters and a million other things probably made my body feel like it was on vacation bouncing around in those waves.

I held onto whatever I could find, savoring every moment of it. The butterfly feeling hit my stomach and left again, only to return as we launched off another wave. I let go of the rail for as long as I could, only to be tossed haphazardly back onto my beanbag, and then I clawed my way back up to do it again. “Wooooohoo!” I yelled as the spray washed over my face.

If there was a letdown at all, it was finding out that you can’t catch big fish without a boat full of people working together. With the sport of it over, I was left to soak up the rollercoaster ride by myself as we headed back in.

“We’ll have to do this again when the weather is better,” my brother said as another plume of icy water broke over us. “It’s way more fun.”

“I don’t know how it could be,” I said. “This was amazing.”

 

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.

 

Sharks

By Robin Antalek

Essay

The fall I was fifteen my mother had surgery that would hollow out her insides, scoop them clean like a wide mouthed spoon against the split open flesh of a watery honeydew melon and keep her in the hospital for ten days. This was back before insurance companies got involved and surgery actually meant you recovered in the hospital. Children were discouraged during visiting hours and while my father might have been able to sneak me in, he was too disoriented by the absence of my mother for that long, to even consider what I might need.

The doctor had told my father that my mother would have to take it easy for a month after the surgery and somehow my father equated this with the purchase of an electric clothes dryer. Pre-surgery, my mother hung our laundry on the clothes tree out back: an aluminum contraption with a center rod spiked into the ground like a beach umbrella. The actual lines criss-crossed at the top in the shape of a square, reminding me of the God’s Eye’s I was forced to make during my brief attendance at Vacation Bible Camp out of yarn and popsicle sticks. It was an oddly inefficient design, poorly engineered, that usually toppled under the weight of the wet clothes listing severely to the left or the right if things weren’t balanced just so causing the entire process to begin again, this time with cursing.

I went with my father to Grant’s Department store where my old fifth grade math teacher from Saint Ann’s also worked part time in the appliance department. While my father perused the dryers, Mr. McGowan brought up the subject of monthly payment plans, obviously aware of our financial situation since he had been on the committee that had expelled both my brother and me into the world of public school and the glories of smoking in the bathroom, for non-payment of tuition. Of course they had messily hidden the money issue beneath my mother’s vocal support of Roe Vs. Wade, but I knew the truth. After a few Old Milwaukee’s, my parents could be very forthcoming on a variety of subjects.

While I pilfered candy from a dish by the salesmen’s desk, I noticed my father flinch as he looked at the price tags, finally arriving in front of an avocado green dryer that had the lowest price. It was a basic model, Mr. McGowan exclaimed, his complexion ruddy, with broken capillaries that spread across his cheeks like the silvery threads left behind by slugs. It would do the job for the little lady, he said as a last resort to sway my father.

If my mother had been here she would have turned and walked out. As a matter of fact if my mother knew my father was even considering this she would have called him a fool. There was no way that I could even tell her about his idea: My father hovered over me when he called her room every evening after dinner and handed me the phone. Her voice would always start out strong and then dwindle down to a thready whisper. Every call ended with me saying I love you and my mother repeating it back only it sounded like she was on the moon not the hospital ten blocks away. I hated the phone calls and besides, they were so not the time for telling the truth. I knew that by the fake tone my father took every time he announced into the receiver, “here’s your girl! Like my mother had just won the grand prize on Let’s Make A Deal.

But I could tell my father wasn’t going to budge on purchasing the dryer with money we didn’t have. Servicing the pools of southwest Florida paid the bills, my mother’s job as a nurse provided a little extra, but without her income there was nothing left over. In his lifetime my father had been a pilot and an engineer but for some reason was now devoting his life to a fledgling pool business. I was just beginning to figure out that there weren’t enough Old Milwaukee’s in the world to get that truth out of him. Pride was not even going to allow him to consider a payment plan and we left Grant’s Department store with a handful of candies I’d swiped and Mr. McGowan’s beady little eyes boring into our backs as we bid a hasty retreat out into the buckling heat of the asphalt parking lot.

 

An idea landed in my lap innocently enough. At the very end of the town pier, an old wooden structure that extended out into the Gulf of Mexico like a multi legged sea creature, there was a group of guys who fished for shark after midnight. For obvious reasons, the town discouraged shark fishing. Once the sharks established a feeding area, it would be hard for the sharks to distinguish between a bloody hunk of chum versus the tasty thigh of a tourist.

But the shark fishing continued because the meat was just exotic enough for area restaurants (tasting just like chicken, no lie, albeit a little chewy, so more like conch) and the remainder of the shark: the jaw and the teeth, could be cleaned and dried and sold to the tourists – an entire jaw from a six foot shark could bring ten dollars, maybe more. The way I saw it: five jaws equaled an avocado green clothes dryer. I was no sissy. At my father’s urging I had been baiting and cleaning fish for years. I had cut the jaws out of sharks that had turned up on shore after the red tide. How hard could this be?

The opportunity arrived when, aided by Old Milwaukee’s and exhaustion, my father turned in before eleven o’clock. By eleven thirty he was sound asleep and I was on my bike headed to the pier, his heaviest fishing pole and a bag of tackle strapped to my handlebars. When I got there, I propped my bike up against a piling and walked to the end of the pier with the pole. I was wearing a t-shirt of my brother’s and it rattled around my torso like a sheet in the wind, baring more of the body I was trying to hide, to be invisible among the guys. The pier was empty except for the glut at the end, guys passing the time with a cooler of long neck beers, their fishing poles held loosely in one hand or leaning against the railings, a deep bucket of bloody chicken parts in a tall white plaster bucket – dripping over the sides and trailing off towards the bait table like a bad crime scene. The air smelled like pennies. A few of them glanced my way, seemed to take in the pole and the plastic bag of tackle I clutched in my fist and dismissed me with a smirk.

I walked over to the railing and looked down. It was obvious that for the amount of lines in the water some of the guys had more than one pole going at a time. The tables were empty, the wooden board of the deck glistened from the bait buckets, not a catch in sight. The water lapped against the pilings and made a clucking sound. Occasionally, a cigarette butt would arc over the side and land in the water below, the hiss of the flame as it extinguished forever lost in the wind.

I hung over the railing for a while getting up my nerve. Hoping a shark would appear and make me less obvious when a guy sidled over to me and hoisted his body at a dangerous angle over the top railing of the deck so that he had to look back up at me. When he had my attention he said, “You think a shark is gonna come up and bite cause your cute?” I simultaneously frowned and laughed nervously. He was older than me, but not by much. I was pretty sure I’d seen him around school last year, but not this current year. So he either graduated or dropped out. I was guessing the latter. He offered to help me and before I knew it he had taken the pole from my shaky hands and threaded a bloody mass onto the hook. He squeezed it in his fist, allowing the juice to run down his arm in thin cock-eyed rivulets. I took the pole from him like I did it everyday and arching back, I cast the line over the side. He raised an eyebrow, but said nothing as he wiped his bloody arm against his t-shirt.

After a while he lit a cigarette and cracked a beer, offering me the first swig. I took it, keeping one hand on the pole, and drank deeply until my throat felt funny from the foam and I handed it back. I noticed the others were starting to pay more attention to me because he was, although I wasn’t sure it was the kind of attention I wanted. The wait for a shark went on forever, the only sounds in the dark were of a beer being opened or the strike of a match followed by sulpher as it skunked the air. When it finally happened the guy whose line it was reacted quickly and quietly. He braced himself in a wide leg stance as he strained to bring up the shark. The muscles in his calves shimmied and quivered. Others moved in to help him, peering over the side, offering encouragement in muted voices. When I think of it now they reminded me of nurses in the delivery room, administering direction in low, firm voices, that didn’t interfere with the real work at hand.

When he finally pulled the shark in, the sleek gray body was scarred in the pale underbelly, it’s body, supine against the planks of the dock, shuddered like a child at the end of a temper tantrum, the hook and line still imbedded deeply in its throat. Out of water the shark continued to thrash but it was clearly losing the battle. By the time I turned back to my father’s fishing pole it was gone, along with the guy who had baited the hook. Whether he had taken the pole or it had slipped over the side in the confusion of the moment, I’d never know. In a panic I ran to the end of the pier, to my bike, intent on getting home and into my bed before my father knew I was gone. As I pulled out of the parking lot, I swerved as headlights illuminated the road from behind. I glanced over my shoulder quickly and caught the outline of a familiar truck and behind the wheel my father, his face all pale angles in the light of the moon, his mouth an angry grimace, his brow furrowed in worry. Instead of stopping to accept my inevitable punishment, I continued pedaling as my father trailed slowly behind, ushering me home.

 

In the driveway as I dropped my bike, he stayed in the truck. I could feel him watching me as I slid open the glass door on the carport and walked inside, careful not to look back and meet his eyes. I lay in bed too afraid to sleep, face and teeth unwashed because I was scared of the consequences if I left my room. I considered the fact that he wouldn’t tell my mother because then he would have to admit to the plan of a dryer and she would have been furious, still it didn’t make me feel any better about losing his best fishing pole.

What I didn’t know then was that in the morning my father would wake me early with a gruff announcement of breakfast. After eggs and toast we would take a ride to Ace Hardware where he would purchase a bag of cement and then he and I would spend the morning beneath an aching sun digging a deeper post hole for the clothesline and then filling in all around it with the pebbly gray concrete. I would hold the post steady with both hands as he poured the cement. Sweat dripped down my forehead and the tip of my nose causing my face to itch but I wouldn’t release a hand from the pole afraid to move, afraid of disappointing my father again.

 

 

Ghosts

By Robin Antalek

Essay

My childhood was a combination of magic and terror.

I come from a loud, sprawling clan of first generation Italian Americans who, for the most part, resided within walking distance of each other in the hamlet of Pelham, New York, a suburb of Manhattan.

They loved food, God, their newly adopted country, baseball, and their family with fervent yet equal abandon. My earliest memories are of the wrap around porch of my grandparents’ home overflowing with cousins and aunts and uncles eating, drinking and talking all at once; of my older cousins wearing teased bouffant hairstyles, and white lipstick, their hemlines inching way above the knee; of my grandfather and his brothers drinking homemade wine and smoking hand-rolled cigars beneath the grape arbors in the backyard; of going into Manhattan, my hand held firmly in my grandfather’s, to watch the circus elephants arrive in town linked trunk to tail; of Jones Beach, of Coney Island; of rambling village parades where nearly half of those marching were related to me. Of holidays: of Christmas, Thanksgiving and Easter, Halloween and the Fourth of July, where the house was always full of people who had known me since I was born.

When I was eight my mother did the unthinkable: she moved us to a speck of a town in southwest Florida at the lip of the Everglades. It was 1968. The world she had grown up in had changed enormously. A President had been murdered. A classmate who had gone to Mississippi to register voters had disappeared. People no longer married for life. Sex was no longer something you waited for. The town she chose was so small you had to squint to find it on a map. My relatives, whose sole relationship with the Sunshine State was firmly rooted in the beach cabana culture of Fort Lauderdale and Miami, shook their heads in disbelief as we left behind all that we had ever known.

We arrived with very little from our old life with the understanding that it just wouldn’t fit. The house in my new town was single-story without a basement, and everything inside, without shadow, was a violent bright white. Our new neighbors, parents to a roll call of children who seemed to arrive in two-year intervals, insisted we call them Miss Ivey Dell and Mr. David, and after they spanked their kids they read them Bible scriptures and told them Jesus loved them. A long black snake slithered out of our laundry basket. Bright green lizards clung to the screens on the windows. The yard didn’t grow grass; instead it was filled with mounds of crushed shells and fossilized rocks. Slowly it began to dawn on us that our furniture was far from the only thing in our new life that just didn’t fit. Still, we stayed and slowly, the new life started to take over the old.

As childhoods went back in the late sixties and early seventies, mine was fairly autonomous. On weekends and summer vacations, I remember leaving the house on my bike in the morning and not coming home until dinner. The landscape was so raw and clean that it was easy to be a pioneer. The beaches were pure back then, hardly a condo or house in sight, just long unending strips of white sand bordered on one side by the aqua water of the Gulf of Mexico and on the other straggly pine forests surrounded by clumps of sea grape and sea oats that were not yet considered endangered. As a child as I stood on the shore and contemplated the horizon, it seemed as if I had discovered the tipping point at the end of the world and Cuba, a place even more wild and unpredictable, was just beyond my reach on the other side as a dare.

I learned to shuffle my feet as I entered the water to ward off the prehistoric-looking stingrays and horseshoe crabs with the barbed venomous tail that burrowed in the shallow shoreline. I watched the waters turn blood red from a surge of bacteria known as the Red Tide, and I helped my mother cut the jaws out of sharks that had died and washed ashore, and dried them in the sun to sell to tourists who had just begun to trickle into town. I swam to the sandbar and beyond. I swung off the ropes of a sailboat. I felt the blunt bump of a shark nose as it brushed against my legs. I was young and invincible just like the lyrics to a bad pop anthem.

As a teenager, the deserted beaches held marvelous pockets of privacy. I had a bikini that made me braver and more sure of myself than my old ragged one piece. There were bonfires and boys with long hair, sun-bleached white on the tips, whose wiry bodies were bronze and toned from endless hours surfing the waves. Boys who gave me rides on the handlebars of their bikes to the beach. Boys I curved around on a sandy blanket, boys who broke my heart, boys whose hearts I broke. Altering our moods seemed innocent; a joint passed around the bonfire mouth to mouth until it was gone, a bottle of limb warming amber liquid, origins unknown.

One of those nights I wandered away from the bonfire with a friend. Walking along the beach at night, the sounds of the waves rushing the shore, the moonlight turning the sand silver. Even in the dark the air was still so warm. I was buzzed enough that my limbs felt fluid, but not so buzzed that what I saw emerge from the woods in front of me wasn’t real. Three men in white hoods, their bodies shrouded in volumes of white cloth that was folded and gathered crudely, like a child’s elementary attempt at a Halloween costume. I grabbed a hold of my friend and because we were sixteen we stood for a moment longer than we should have, longer than common sense, before we turned and took off back down the beach towards the bonfire.

I didn’t look over my shoulder until we were in the light of the fire, back among the clumps of people who greeted us with a long-neck beer and the wave of a joint. Puffed with bravado, we told our story accompanied by the roaring of the Gulf and the hiss and pop of the fire. A ragged group was formed to investigate. Someone talked about the remains of a burning cross, a lost dog, the forlorn cry of a child in the night, a stolen bike, a piece of torn white fabric caught on a branch, as if all these fragments, real or imagined, were connected. Around the fire, our faces appeared haunted and distorted by the flickering flames. We huddled under blankets loosely tented around our shoulders till dawn, until the gulls cawed and the sky streaked pink behind the slowly dilating charcoal smudge of night sky.

We had no idea what we were waiting for or what we would do once it arrived. We had no idea what was to come.

 

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23 Comments »

Comment by Irene Zion
2009-10-20 08:58:28

Robin,
What started out as a lovely family tale morphed into a story of disassociation to a new life and then into the story of a child’s introduction to hatred and terror.
Phew. I’m exhausted riding through it.
Good job.

Comment by Robin Antalek
2009-10-20 13:45:57

Irene, I had the same experience reading your last lovely piece. Thanks so much!

Comment by Matt
2009-10-20 09:32:18

Wow.

’scuse me. I kind of feel the need to go surfing now. Back later.

Comment by Robin Antalek
2009-10-20 13:47:03

hmmmm…… you can’t ever separate the boy from the board!

Comment by Richard Cox
2009-10-20 10:33:01

This is a dense and vivid journey. Nicely done.

As a child I always feared the moment I would forget to shuffle my feet and plant my foot squarely on top of a stingray hidden under the murky surface of the water. Luckily it never happened. Well, not yet, anyway.

Comment by Robin Antalek
2009-10-20 13:47:54

Keep shuffling…. that’s my motto anyway. Works for most everything. Thanks so much for the compliments, Richard

Comment by Zara Potts
2009-10-20 10:36:34

God, how creepy.
But what lovely writing Robin! I could almost smell the salt from the ocean and the smoke from the bonfire.
What happened next??

Comment by Robin Antalek
2009-10-20 13:48:52

What happened next? I fell in love with another sensitive soul who stayed up with me all that night…..

Comment by jmblaine
2009-10-20 10:54:28

A professor once told me that good writers
describe well
and the touch you put on things
is magic here,
where have you been?

ps. the Klan winds through my childhood as well
but I cant find the words to write about it
yet

Comment by Robin Antalek
2009-10-20 13:51:22

My God…thanks. I am humbled by the compliments. When I began this piece I thought I wanted my “Klan” experience to start it off – only to find the entire thing flipped around in the telling. You might find a way to tell your story yet. A wise teacher once said to me when I was stuck that I should think about…”going in the back door.” Have you?

Comment by Simon Smithson
2009-10-20 13:36:09

Wow, good piece!

Like Irene, this one caught me by surprise. It started in one place, then ended up in another.

Sort of like childhood, I guess.

Comment by Robin Antalek
2009-10-20 13:52:32

Simon – you are so right I hadn’t thought of childhood that way until I read your comment!!! I love TNB people!

Comment by Col. Hector Bravado
2009-10-21 04:48:08

You have a great way of letting what was then a new landscape help tell this story of strangeness and change. Beautiful, restrained portraiture. The cutting of a shark’s jaw sticks in my head. And the emergence of hillbilly hatred from the woods…it reminds me of a story my dad told me.

When I was very young, my parents — hippies fresh from Rhode Island in their red VW microbus — moved us to southwest Missouri in service of my dad’s quest to wash his hands of society to what degree he could. The Ozarks were beautiful. Some things about the Ozarks were not. He described to me an early meeting with a realtor/land guy who, upon their first appointment, met them not at a prospective piece of land, but a black graveyard.

“See that?” the man said to my mystified parents, pointing at the headstones. “That’s why we don’t have a nigger problem in this county.”

Comment by Robin Antalek
2009-10-22 09:51:33

Your anecdote leaves me speechless. Have you ever told that story?

Comment by Col. Hector Bravado
2009-10-24 06:17:56

Only here, on this comment thread. And to a few friends.

(Comments wont nest below this level)

Comment by Autumn
2009-10-21 06:57:16

Your writing about Florida really knocked me back to my childhood: slopping through low-tide mud to hunt for urchins and horseshoe crabs, swimming past the sand bar, bonfire and boys with long hair. I was a teen in the 90s, but I guess the experience never changes.

I, luckily, never had any experience with the Klan, but racism was definitely alive and well in Florida back then too. And, I fear, sadly still is.

Comment by Robin Antalek
2009-10-22 09:56:02

When writing this, I was never quite sure if a place that held such a strong and lasting impact on my memory would translate on paper… I’m glad it resonated with you. Writing about childhood can be unsettling when you layer in adult perceptions….

Comment by LitPark
2009-10-21 10:23:41

Haunting, and beautifully told.

Comment by Greg Olear
2009-10-21 14:18:18

I agree with Susan. Haunting (they look like ghosts, after all) and beautifully told.

Comment by Robin Antalek
2009-10-22 09:52:39

Greg and Susan… thanks so much….

Comment by Marni Grossman
2009-10-21 19:57:49

Florida’s such an anomaly. It’s a southern state, but it’s easy to forget that amidst the flea markets of Boca and the parties of Miami. You shine a lense on a very different Florida. And you do it so damn well.

Comment by Robin Antalek
2009-10-22 10:01:59

You’re so right about that! Florida is indeed an anomaly…. one forgets that it is much more than the birthplace of Mickey Mouse! Going back to that town, which I did this summer for the first time in nearly fifteen years, was still unsettling. Although not sure if it was just me trying to reconcile past and present, or there was something else at work. I’m glad you enjoyed the piece – thanks!

Comment by D.R. Haney
2009-10-25 18:56:42

Very well described, Robin, as others have said, and I love the conclusion, which to me is reminiscent of the final fadeout of a European art film from the 1960s, though it’s hard to explain why. I think, for example, of the girl vainly waving to Mastroianni on the beach at the end of La Dolce Vita. Or maybe it’s simply sufficient to use the word “haunting” and leave it at that.







I couldn’t go home yet. I’d made it this far out into the world—surely I could go a little farther.

The PR woman in charge of the Filippino press trip I was on arranged to have my stay extended, and I eagerly researched methods to get to a small island north of Cebu called Malapascua.

I chose Malapascua because my guidebook listed it as one of the few places in the world to dive with thresher sharks. The common thresher shark ranges in size from 10 to 25 feet and has a tail shaped like a scythe, with which they use to stun their prey. A pelagic species, thresher sharks generally reside at depths too dangerous for divers to reach.

Thresher

Perfect, I thought. No matter that I hadn’t been diving in years. No matter that the thought made my chest tight, my breath short.

According to my guidebook, Monad Shoal, off the coast of Malapascua, is one of the only places in the world known for daily sightings of thresher sharks. It’s here where the thresher sharks convene every morning to have a symbiotic relationship with the small wrasse fish who cleans them of bacteria, eating the dead skin from their bodies and even the insides their mouths.

My diving with sharks, a creature I was deathly afraid of, seemed the perfect antidote to the raging desperation I felt inside. I was 25 years old and my father had just died of cancer two months before, leaving me parentless and quite alone in the world.

On the morning that I was due to return to Los Angeles, I instead waved goodbye to my fellow journalists and watched as they clambered into the air-conditioned van for their ride to the airport. Then I climbed into the backseat of a taxi and asked the driver to take me to the local bus station.

Getting to Malapascua was no easy feat. The journey began with an eight-hour bus ride through the jungle up to the very tip of Cebu where I would then have to find a boat willing to take me out to the island.

I sat by myself in the old un-airconditioned school bus and stared out the window at the passing trees and densely tangled vines. The bus, like most Filipino transport, was decorated with an outrageous assortment of fringe and beads and wildly painted colors. American classic rock blasted from little speakers strategically placed throughout the interior, ensuring that no one could hear anything but ABBA’s finest.

2153677jeepneyphilippines

The other passengers on the bus turned around frequently to stare at me and whenever we stopped, people along the side of the road would grab their companions and point up at me: this wide-eyed white girl traveling alone. I didn’t mind their stares, my lips curving into a slight smile in return. I had a week under my belt of this kind of treatment. I was beginning to get used to it.

I also just didn’t care anymore. At some point during this trip—perhaps walking through the Chinese cemetery in Manila at dusk—I had decided to just give myself up to the world. I had nothing, absolutely nothing, to lose.

And seemingly the world responded in kind. For the rest of my trip I was handed off from person to person. Everyone seemed interested in the young American woman traveling alone. The taxi driver, the bus driver, the young ticket-taker boys all inquired after my journey. Where are you going? Who are you going with? You’re alone? Where are your companions? Where is your husband?

I answered their questions honestly, admitting that I was very much alone and transparently clueless about what I was getting myself into. Each of them took it upon themselves to hand me off to the next. The taxi driver made sure I got onto the correct bus. The young ticket boys on the bus walked me out to the docks at the end of the island. The boat driver assured me that he would see me to his aunt’s resort (a series of ramshackle huts on the beach). And each of them, true to their word, made sure I reached my next destination.

I’ll never forget sitting perched on the edge of that rickety catamaran on my way to Malapascua. I’d been the last passenger on the bus when we reached the end of Cebu and the young ticket boy escorted me over to the docks. Hey, this girl wants to go to Malapascua, he called out to several men lounging around the makeshift port.

Uncharted5

And soon I found myself scudding along the clear blue ocean, my face lifted to the sun, all signs of land disappearing from view as I went farther and farther out into the ocean.

No matter how sad I was, no matter how wrenchingly lonely I felt, no matter how bottomless my pain seemed, there never disappeared a part of me absolutely determined to live my life. I closed my eyes to the warm ocean breeze and I knew this about myself.

Malapascua was incredibly small, maybe one mile by two. The electricity shut off every night at 10 p.m. and the running water only ran twice a day. The entire time I was there I only encountered three other tourists: two American Peace Corps workers and their traveling friend. After I checked into one of the huts on the beach I walked over to the dive place and introduced myself to the dive master, a friendly British guy named Duncan.

I got certified as a diver when I was fourteen. Both of my parents were divers, my mother the more serious of them, and we went every year on our annual trips to Grand Cayman. My mother and I were always dive buddies, checking each other’s gear and swimming alongside each other. She loved to point out anemones and eels, which she’d find hidden in secret little crevasses among the coral. We’d nod at each other, our eyes wide in our masks, mouths smiling around our regulators.

Divers_2

But I hadn’t been diving in years. I didn’t know where my certification was, didn’t know if I even remembered how to read the gauges or adjust my buoyancy level. I didn’t care, though, and I told all of this to Duncan. He assured me that it would all come back easily, that it was a simple dive, and handed me a form on which he jokingly suggested I sign my life away.

I scribbled out my signature as he explained that we would dive Monad Shoal early the next morning. The dive was 80 feet, he described, and we would simply descend and kneel on the sandy bottom to watch the sharks as they went through their morning routine. I looked around the dive hut at the pictures on the wall, those enormous grey fish, their tails almost as long as their bodies. I nodded at Duncan, told him I’d see him in the morning.

I spent the rest of the day exploring the island. I wandered through the tiny village and out into the mangroves, walking from one end of the island to the other, clouds floating across the sky before me and the ocean stretching out for unknowable miles. I thought about my parents and my life and what they would want for me and what I wanted for myself. And I knew that I was doing it, whatever it was.

The next morning I showed up at Duncan’s dive hut at 5:30 a.m. It was still dark out, but just as Duncan had said, the roosters woke me on time. We set about loading up the boat with gear—we would be the only divers, although there was a young Filipino boy who would remain on board the boat while we went down. Monad Shoal was a good half hour out into the wide, open ocean. I could only faintly see land in the distance once we finally reached the buoy that marked our dive spot.

My anxiety mounted as we assembled the gear. I hadn’t been diving in years. I’d hardly ever gone without my mother and never without a large group of people. Dawn was barely beginning to break and the ocean was dark and choppy. I tried to imagine the sharks eighty feet below us. Duncan said there were usually around thirty of them. My heart was pounding as I dropped backwards over the edge of the boat in my mask and fins, my B.C. and regulator.

As soon as we began to descend into the water, my hands tight around the anchor rope, my heart began to pound even harder. My chest was grew tight. I was terrified. Visibility was poor; I could hardly see five feet below me and I could not tamp the rising sense of panic thinking about the school of sharks pooled below us.


I shook my head at Duncan, cut my finger across my neck to call it off; I couldn’t do it.

He was kind about it, pouring me a cup of coffee from a little thermos and wrapping a towel around my shoulders, but sitting on the bow of the boat as we skimmed across the water on our way back to Malapascua, I felt foolish. Tears slipped down my cheeks.

What was it I was so desperately trying to prove to myself?

I’ve told this story a hundred times and it never ceases to be anti-climatic. But the truth is that I didn’t have to dive with those sharks in order to know that I was living my life. The moral of the story is that old adage: it’s not about the destination, it’s what gets you there. It’s the journey itself that matters. I didn’t need to swim with sharks to prove that I could handle the deaths of my parents.

I returned to the Malapascua that morning with Duncan, thanked him one last time, and ran off to meet my new friend Melanie, a Malapascua native and sole bartender at the one of the island’s two bars—the floating one. Melanie and I spent the day snorkeling off the southern tip of the island, pointing to the brightly colored parrot fish and carefully concealed eels.

Uncharted4

Heading back to Cebu a few days later, my back stuck to the pleather seat of that old school bus, Boston blasting through the tinny speakers, I knew I’d found what I’d gone looking for and I was grateful that I didn’t have to dive with sharks to find it.