News Section: Travel
Saturday afternoon I was hanging around on Bradenton Beach, staked out on a lonely square of shade but still sweating bullets, when I decided it was time for a swim. On hot days like this one, it is nice to swim out far where the water is cooler, and float around a bit. With sunglasses on, the sky is not too offensive; and eyes closed behind dark lenses make the world a black-red salad of weightlessness. And if a shark comes, it will be fast and too confusing for anguish; there would be much for the crustaceans to eat, and perhaps no one on shore would even notice—
I maintained a good float for some time. My mind became quite clear, and it was nice to feel the Gulf envelop my resigned body, every hair on my head dancing twilight hula in the subtle current, unthreatening on no-wind mid-May summer afternoon Anna Maria Island. I was floating in the Gulf with the sun on my face, body slanted slightly and my ears shallow enough to hear, when somebody shouted from the beach, “Oh my God! Did you see that?”
I opened my eyes, kicked my feet and made myself go vertical. I looked to shore and saw no less than 30 beachcombers pointing directly at me: their chairs and floats and toys and towels all strewn about the beach, like abandoned for sudden exodus in the throes of emergency. The mood was anxious. They were shielding their eyes and pointing ... watching. A short-haired woman wearing green 1-piece bathing suit held a small child and shielded its eyes, and pointed where it should look. A few scattered clumps of children looked and pointed as well. Everyone was quite enthralled, but with what?
Were they pointing at me? Had I impressed them with my floating? Was this something tourists get excited for? Would my return to shore be celebrated with congratulations and Champagne toasts and a negotiable number of green-eyed girls? Would they love me?
[ . . . ]
Probably not. It was more likely that a large shark was about to bite me in half, and those pointing bastards would finally get what they came down here for.
... And in the end, I would have done my part for the State—
But no, I must survive!
* * * * * * *
Throughout the weeks leading up to this incident, no less than 20 acquaintances suggested I write “something about the Great White Sharks” that are said to be hanging around the waters off the coast of Anna Maria Island. Each time I replied with something along the lines of, “I’ll write about the sharks when one eats an adorable yellow lab floating on a surfboard.”
“That’s right,” I told them, “because death sells like sex—and yellow-labs are the sexiest dogs.”
—This sentiment has yet to receive a good reaction. So why not print it here? The women all said “That. Isn’t. Funny!” and the men were quick to ask, “Well, what if one eats a person? You’d write about that wouldn’t you?” And I said, “To Hell with people; Great White sharks eat people every day, only the sharks are usually people instead of sharks.”—and this was met with blank despair and contempt, for me, but no matter—they will understand in the end. Or perhaps they won’t. Either way, the thing to remember here is, in my case, the shark was a shark and the person was me, but I wasn’t ready for Hell.
And so I was in an unfavorable situation—in the water being stalked by a Great White Shark, a genuine monster designed by God to kill anything it wants with its 300 razorblade teeth and lightning speed reflexes and no empathy—a thousand pounds of muscle that say you won’t make it to the beach ...
... I always knew my death would be a bad one, and death by Great White shark is bad. My blood would likely draw more sharks that might attack other swimmers, and history would remember me as the catalyst of a bad shark massacre—and this also seemed right...
... But this wasn’t about right, or fate—it was about bone-crunching, blood spurting, hopeless drowning gargling dead eyes agony, that I wanted no part of. And so I did what any young journalist would do in this situation: I swam like hell for the beach—
It was all over very fast. The swim went fast, and then I was trudging through waist-deep water, plowing toward the beach, and everything looked brand new—the sand the palms and the road, all seemed fresh, like I’d never seen any of it before. And there was also a dolphin: strange, flashing impressions of a savior dolphin that swam me to shore—The vision was confusing, and it didn’t feel human or alien, but was made just by an awareness of grace that I knew I’d attained in the water. In the water I moved gracefully, and fast, like a dolphin—in fact, crossing the threshold from sea to shore, I felt like a dolphin, and perhaps I was one.
* * * * * * *
Later that night I was back at home on Sarasota Bay. The moon’s reflection streaked across the water like a bright white highway to Longboat Key, and I knew I was supposed to drive it—back to the beach, for answers and truth.
I needed to find those people—the people from the beach, who watched me while I swam. They were the only ones who could help me; they saw it too—and I found them at the first place I looked: Island Time Bar and Grille, on Bridge Street.
I sat at the bar in a tight grip of anxiety, brought on by a few things witnessed during the short walk from the parking lot: A man wearing brand-new flower-print elastic board-shorts and bright green t-shirt cursed loudly at a woman, and she looked even more vicious than him—like perhaps she was the abusive one, and that was why he screamed.
She flashed a mean eye at me and I turned away, and a small smiling man popped out of nowhere and flashed a “shocka” at me and said, “Right on bro, right on.”—He wore cheap sunglasses and a woven wicker fedora; a brazen price tag dangled defiantly from the brim of his hat, and it bounced gaily as he passed. The whole thing was truly disconcerting. He made me very uncomfortable.
Then I stepped into the bar and saw all of them: every person from the beach that afternoon was at Island Time—they were all drinking blended tropical drinks and Shock Tops. Some wore visors, and the men had gel in their hair; the children were everywhere, playing tag and screaming.
After 10 minutes I gave up on ordering a beer. There was an older couple among the people from the beach, who seemed separate from the rest. They looked esteemed and accomplished, and I thought perhaps they had The Wisdom. I approached them, and asked them how were the Daiquiris. They said the Daiquiris were good.
Then the man said, “Say, weren’t you that young fella from this afternoon, who the dolphin was trying to have sex with?”
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