This story is by Charles Parker and was part of our 2019 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
As I dipped my foot into the pool, it felt like the perfect evening for a swim. The day, which had been hot and muggy, had mellowed into a golden twilight, with a light breeze carrying away the oppressive, mid-summer humidity, leaving it a little cool feeling; a pleasant contrast with the slightly warm pool water. I slid smoothly into the pool and began an even crawl stroke from one end to the other. This easy rhythm calms me and brings me into a meditative state. I have always loved to swim in weather like this.
Actually, I’ve always loved to swim, period. This pool was actually the reason that I decided to rent this house four years ago. It was more house than I needed — or could afford — but I couldn’t resist having a pool in the back yard: a long thin pool, admittedly more suited to doing laps than a kid’s pool party; but that was perfect for me. So I badgered a friend into joining me on the lease, and we moved in together.
And I was right. This was the place for me. It was an easy commute to work, and I could come home at the end of a hard day and let the tensions ease away in my pool. I loved to swim, and I was fairly good at it; good enough to have competed a bit throughout high school and college. That seems eons ago now, when seeing me in a one-piece swim suit used to turn quite a few boys’ heads. I liked the way they looked, and I loved they way they watched as I got out of the pool.
Because of that, I often thought that it would be fun to spend time at the beach. To lay out a towel and bask, while boys strolled by pretending not to look, pretending not to imagine. But I never could, largely because I knew that as strong a swimmer as I was, whoever was with me would expect me to swim in the ocean a bit.
And that was not happening.
Not that I couldn’t, of course. I was perfectly athletic enough to do it well. But the thought of it terrified me. Paralyzed me. It was stupid, but I couldn’t bring myself to swim in water where unknown creatures were swimming below me. With me. Watching me.
Which is why I am here: swimming back and forth in my own safe pool. I have been this way since childhood. I remember my parents bringing all four of us kids to the Caribbean one year. I must have been about ten years old. It took two days for them to coax me into the water. I mean — for God’s sake — it was a vacation in the Caribbean; there was nothing to do but swim in the water.
I had puttered about building sand castles as long as I could. Until, at last, when I couldn’t avoid it any more, I let my eager father drag me out into the water. It was fine for a while; fun, even. We played catch and laughed and jumped, ever further and further away from shore. Even then, I was a good swimmer, and eventually struck out for deeper waters.
It was warm and restful, surrounded by the womb-like water, which was so clear that I could see everything around me. I felt whole and at peace. For a moment. Then, with a jolt that made my whole body seize up, I saw it: a dark shadow, large — much bigger than I was — swimming right below me, and matching my speed almost perfectly.
I froze. My world shrank to one small point about 20 feet underneath me. I screamed, but all that left my mouth was a trail of bubbles. I felt my insides knot. I lunged for the surface and grabbed a mouthful of air. When my head dropped below the surface, the shadow was still there. Calm. Waiting. I knew my life was over.
After a moment of numbing, shattering terror, I realized that the shadow had not moved — relative to me — from where I first saw it. It remained 20 feet below, mirroring my every move. And then it hit me with the force of a baseball bat swinging for the bleachers: I was looking at myself. The brilliant sun was casting a shadow through the clear water, magnifying my delicate ten-year old frame to the size of a Great White (or what seemed like a Great White to those ten-year-old eyes).
Slowly, gradually, I calmed myself. I brought my head above water, taking deep gulps of air. I looked around: my father was 50 feet away looking at something beneath the waves, enjoying the gloriously clear water. My mother and siblings were on the beach working on the same sand castle that I had left them with. Everything was the same. And everything was different.
Slowly, gradually, I turned towards the beach, and began — methodically — to swim back towards my Mom.
“Are you going back in so soon?” Dad called. I didn’t answer. I just kept moving, not stopping until I walked out of the water, lay face down on my towel and began to cry silently. I never said anything.
I also never went into the ocean again. For the rest of that vacation, I buried myself in books, slathered myself in sunscreen, and ignored my father’s pleas to come play in the water. And I have never been back since. Being the oldest of the siblings, I was able to guide discussions of future vacations along lines that avoided visits to the ocean. There was always lots of swimming; just always in pools. Just like now: clear, gentle, chlorinated water. Back and forth; back and forth.
Many years ago, I had learned to keep my fear of the ocean to myself, as sharing it almost invariably provoked some sort of ridicule from my friends. “Jane, don’t you know that you have a greater chance of being hit by lightening than being attacked by a shark?” “Jane, don’t you know how much more dangerous we are to sharks than they are to us?”
Of course I know that. Of course I know that my fear is irrational. I’m not an idiot. But really, all I ever wanted to do is scream at them, “Haven’t you seen the opening seen from Jaws! (which I had been hectored into seeing for a date). It’s dark and terrifying. All Chrissie wanted to do was have a little fun. And she never saw it coming; she couldn’t do anything about it. And then she was gone.”
Maybe that was it: maybe it was the sense of something totally beyond my control. But I don’t think that I’m unusual in that regard. I mean, whenever any of us hear the stories of the latest nut case on a rampage with a gun, don’t we all figure out what we would have done differently than the people being shot, so that we wouldn’t have been killed. How rational is that?
How often do we watch horror movies — movies which by definition are about irrational fears — and comfort ourselves with the idea that in a similar situation (which is itself silly), we would do something differently. We would survive. It’s all about control.
Given that general human tendency, staying out of the ocean seems like a pretty simple solution to address my own irrational fears. Swimming laps in my own pool makes consummate sense.
It’s so interesting how on some intellectual level we all know that life is beyond our control; and yet on an emotional level, we cling to the illusion of control as if it were a tree root sticking out of a cliff side, and we can do nothing but cling to it, or plunge into oblivion. All we want to know is that we have some sense of control over our lives. Maybe religion had some place in a world where there was not even the illusion of control: a world where you had to pray for good crops or for someone you loved to heal from a sickness. Now we just fertilize and give antibiotics. No need to trust in some unseen God. Sartre had it right. Or maybe Camus; he seemed happier.
Swimming laps like this always puts me in this kind of philosophical frame of mind. There’s something about the water: so primal, so much home. While I had been swimming, full night had fallen, and I was beginning to tire. A rolled over on my back, paddling gently, looking up at the the first stars. Time to get showered and have a little dinner, I thought. Then, in the blackness, I felt it: the sharp tug on my heel, and the caress of rough skin sliding by my leg. It couldn’t be; and yet I had been waiting for this moment all my life.