The sun is bright and hazy and hot, so this young couple decides to put their feet in the water. The water is warm, so they wade farther in. Past the shells and the gritty froth of the breaking waves, the sand is soft and slick between their toes, like velvet. It feels good, so they swim farther out. The other people, less courageous, become small; not quite dots, but blurs of colorful bathing suits and skin, one indistinguishable from the next. The young couple might as well be alone, so far out in the water.
Adele wraps her legs around Nick, around his hips. She straddles him the way lovers do in tall water, and Nick jumps a little with each swell so that they stay above the waves. She kisses him, pulling his lower lip in her teeth with the ebb of the tide.
When she asked him to take her to the beach for some fun, he asked which beach, and she said New Smyrna. He looked it up, saw its 231 total documented shark attacks, more per square mile than any other location in the world. If you are in the water at New Smyrna you are less than fifty feet from a shark. But none were fatal; most of the sharks at New Smyrna are small, or else young, though there’s the occasional leg taken here, arm there. He informed her of these facts, and to that she said, “Definitely New Smyrna, then. I’ve always wanted to see a shark.”
He was going to say no, that the aquarium was a better bet, but she showed him her bathing suit, this tight black two-piece, and he decided that this was his first time living away from home, his first college Spring Break, and his first girl, and that he would go.
About two hundred feet out: a white flare on the horizon, a sailboat. A fishing pole hangs off the back, like a tail. Still straddling him, Adele leans back, her hips pressing against Nick’s, her belly going taut. She shades her eyes. “I bet they have beer.”
“I could buy us some beer,” Nick says, though he knows he’s missing the point. Two hundred feet is far. They’d be two warm bodies in the cold open ocean, with nothing beneath them. It’s too far.
And then, over Adele’s bright wet shoulder, he sees a shadow fluttering under the water, in a curving motion that makes him think of a flock of birds swirling and twisting across the sky, so fast that he doesn’t think it’s real. Before he can say anything, he feels his legs pelted by wriggling scales and fins and tails, more than he can count. Adele’s eyes go wide and she shrieks, a single note that jumps an octave halfway through, and she grips Nick’s shoulders so tight he feels her fingernails bend back a little, raising herself up until his mouth is in her navel and he loses balance and they both fall into the passing swarm of whatever-they-ares.
He’s above the water again in an instant. The water is empty, but swirling with leftover momentum. Nick wipes the saltwater from his eyes, and Adele is there. She’s laughing.
“The look on your face,” she says. Adele puts her hand over his heart, and she smiles. She isn’t afraid, Nick thinks. She laughs, he laughs.
A single fish, an oily rainbow, flaps laterally along the surface before disappearing underneath.
“That has never happened to me before,” he says.
She coos and holds out her arms. “Afraid?” She takes his hand, and they go out, further.
Nick hadn’t quite figured this thing of hers out yet, this not-being-afraid. She wasn’t just not afraid, she was desperately so, with gusto, with a quivering sort of intensity. A speeding-on-the-highway, eyes closed, picking-up-hitchhikers, dare-you-to-follow kind of restlessness. A kind of not-afraid that made Nick watch her with wonder sometimes, like when she ate a California Death Pepper, or when she let a stranger put a square of acid on her tongue at a Nine Inch Nails concert.
The more Nick thinks of it, yes, desperately not-afraid.
Adele, that’s her name, and when they met, Nick had never heard of that name before, at least not for a real person. She took him home to her bed, and started him off easy, missionary, and later that night showed him doggystyle. Adele was his first. She had an appetite that surprised, then delighted him.
Though Nick has no point of reference, it’s good. The best. He knows he wouldn’t ever find better, as long as he lives. She reduces him to panting, heaving jelly. And Adele, soft and sleepy beside him, satisfied in those moments in a way he never sees her any time else, as though some invisible pain were temporarily removed, some unnamed but ever-present anxiety soothed. He loves it when she comes.
And her lips. Adele has full, Slavic lips. They’re the type of lips that are always pink and feathery, and make Nick think of eating and sex. Lips that stretch rather than curve. She has a pretty face, with a sprinkling of freckles across her nose, but her lips are the most memorable thing. They are the type of lips that look best when smiling, the type he thinks for that reason create either very happy people or very unhappy ones.
So they’re bobbing in the water, this beautiful girl wrapped around this boy, a tangle of skin and fabric under a bright sky, so far from the shore that they only occasionally touch the velvety sand beneath, so far out that that the chatter of the beach fades into the sloshing white noise of the waves, that whatever they do, they are just two distant lovers in water. He’s breathless, and she’s kissing him with teeth in this way he doesn’t like.
He has not yet told her he loves her.
He’s tried to tell her. He’s taken her to nice restaurants, pressed his shirts and worn ties. And after, she fellated him in the parking lot outside of Seasons 52.
He’s made her cedar-planked tuna with asparagus and rice, on a day she had to work late, and left strands of white Christmas lights to lead her to the backyard, where she finished the tuna but didn’t touch the asparagus, and she showed him the reverse cowgirl right there on the lawn, which was the stiff kind, and it prickled him through his shirt and made it not as he thought it would be. And afterward, lying in the grass, he thought about telling her. But she said that it was so good what they had, that it was nice and uncomplicated, and she hoped it stayed that way for a long time. There didn’t seem to be anything he could say after that.
They were watching TV once, her lying on top of him, and he felt her palm circling his belly-button. “You have a cute paunch,” she said. She says things like that. He doesn’t remember the program, but he remembers this.
He tried to do it once, to say something nice about her like that, about one of those cute little unexpected things that make him smile, like how sometimes her hair after she’s just woken up hangs in a tangle over her eyes like a helmet too big for her head, or how she purses her lips whenever she looks in the mirror, or how she leaves half-full cups everywhere until the cupboard runs out, or how, and this is what he said, how when she tans it makes her freckles come out, and how much he loves that.
“You’re making fun of me,” she said, and she locked herself in the bathroom, and wouldn’t come out until he apologized and said she didn’t have freckles, which she said were ugly. She went to bed turned away from him, with make-up on. It was, Nick thought, maybe their first fight.
He hasn’t told her he’s afraid of sharks, either. He knows it’s an irrational fear, that you’re more likely to be struck by lightning or die in a plane crash or even be killed by a Christmas tree. He’s looked it up. He is also afraid of lightning and plane crashes. And he wouldn’t call his suspicion of Christmas trees irrational.
When he was a boy, his father taught him to swim by carrying him out to the deep water where the waves are smooth and throwing him in. Educational and hilarious, his father would say. It wasn’t as bad as it sounds, and he learned.
Once, there was a man selling sand sharks nearby, an old man with sunburn so bad that his face had turned hard and stiff, like clothing, or a second skin. He sat in a lawn chair and must have been there forever, because when Nick’s father bought one of the little ones from him, still alive, and the old man stood up to take his cash, there were pale stripes across his belly where his skin folded over itself and hid from the sun. Nick’s father carried the sand shark around on its fishing line, slapping its tail with his free hand so it spun around like a marionette.
Nick had never seen anything like the little shark, only about a foot long. He knows now, years later, that it was nothing that could have hurt anybody. But back then, it was leathery and hard and it was as though it was made of something tougher than muscle. It’s face was pointed, and its mouth red with its own blood. And then the eyes: worse than a reptiles. Glassy and dark, they moved and looked around. Aware and predatory and deeply, deeply frightening—even caught on a fishing line and asphyxiating in the open air.
So Nick’s father had a few beers and carried Nick out into the deep water and tossed him in, and the shark after him. Nick, of course, became terrified, this little shark uncoiling like a spring the instant it hit the water, shooting between his legs and off into the somewhere. Nick flailed and swam back toward shore and somehow his head dipped below the waves into the grit and the next thing he knew he was floating in the air, his father’s hairy forearms strong under his ribcage, the shallow tumbling surf passing below. And Nick’s father, as he carried Nick out of the ocean, was saying “Sorry, I’m really sorry,” and “Jesus, don’t tell your mother, okay?”
Nick hasn’t told this story to Adele, or that he’s afraid of sharks. He worries what Adele might think, how she might judge his father, not knowing him, on the basis of this one little thing.
A few months after they started dating, Nick learned that Adele smoked. Not regularly, but whenever she went out with her friends, who also smoked. He asked her to stop. She said no.
“It’s killing you,” he told her.
“I don’t plan to live past thirty anyway,” she said back. This hurt him.
So instead, Nick told her that the smell was awful, and it was yellowing her teeth, even though the smell wasn’t all that bad, and her teeth were perfect. She quit. That was their second fight.
Adele and Nick wade out in the direction of the sailboat with the beer. Each swell lifts them up so that their feet hang suspended, and then in the shallowest gaps between they set down onto that soft sand again. It’s like jumping, Nick thinks, and he imagines what it would look like without the waves, leaping impossibly high, with no regard for gravity.
And then, in between waves, there is no sand beneath Nick’s feet. He dips lower than he expects and his toes touch an empty swirl of icy cold water, as though the bottom has vanished. His heart jumps and saltwater gushes over his face and he has to paddle his way back up. Adele squeals and laughs, and Nick realizes that they have hit the edge of the beach, that divide where the soft sandy shallows drop off like a cliff into the dark open ocean. Nick spits out a mouthful of salt. The sailboat is a bit less than a hundred feet away, though now it seems much further out.
“We could swim for it,” Adele says in between breaths. She doesn’t make a move, and Nick is thankful.
They paddle in a little, so that they can bounce with the waves again. They are as far out as they can go. The sun temporarily dips behind some clouds, and the air relaxes. Nick looks around, and there is no one. The glare of the sun off the waves’ crests erases the horizon, the shore, so they might as well be anywhere. Two warm bodies in the open water. Nick thinks for a second that this may be a good moment. “Hey,” he says.
Adele grabs him through his swimming trunks, and she flashes her teeth, first kissing, then biting his ears, neck, chest. Nick grabs her wrists in a low swell. “Hey,” he says again, and she pushes forward anyway. It occurs to Nick that this is deliberate. She is silencing him. It occurs to him that her sexual appetite, all along, was a way to silence him, to keep him at a distance. Her hands and body cover him, and the ocean swells again, kneading them into a rhythm, egging them on.
And this is when he sees it, a flash of leathery gray hide, slick and reflective in the sunlight, breaking above the surface for just one fast-moving moment. A fin, a muscled flank. A swirl of eddies in the freshly vacant seawater.
“What’s wrong?” she asks, and between her two words he says, “Shark.”
Adele whips around. “Where?” she says, and then an underwater wake pushes against them. They are lifted and moved inches back. A displacement, an intimation that something strong passed through, fast. And then, in a gap between waves, the leather glides across the surface again. Adele jumps and is instantly closer to Nick, one hand gripping his bicep so tight it hurts. Nick has never seen Adele scared before, and yet here it is. Something new in her, something old in him.
A person learns things when they live under the weight of an imprecise fear. Lightning, tsunamis, planes plummeting from the sky in fiery wrecks. Sharks. If you are not being attacked, do not make quick movements. “Don’t move,” Nick says. Control your heart rate. Stay together. Try to look larger. Don’t let your arms and legs protrude. “Breathe,” he says, and he grips her shoulders and pulls her closer. “Get on my back,” he says.
Adele climbs on his back, and he can feel her shaking. He pulls her legs around him, and her arms to his chest, so that his palms cup her heels and lift her higher on his back, above the water. He begins to march toward shore, the colorful umbrellas and bikinis and skin scattered along the dunes. It’s a long march. The waves pull him back, then push him forward.
The shark again, behind him and to the right. He doesn’t see it, but he feels it in the water, it’s so close. Something big arcing through, circling around. The fine sand under his feet lifting up as if by wind, twisting around his ankles.
And Adele, above, sinewy and holding tight, her breast to the back of his head, her heartbeat. This new fear. She has never needed Nick. He was convenient, comfortable, uncomplicated. But now.
He may have been hoping for this. He may have been thinking, New Smyrna, no fatalities, if you’re going to get bit this is the place. If something’s going to happen.
He may have been thinking, something needs to happen. Adele has had lots of men, he knows. A few weeks with this one, a month with that one. She’s a beautiful woman, he knows, and she’s smart, all her professors tell her she’s the best student they’ve had, and he sees the faces of her male classmates fall when she touches his arm before leaving him outside a class, or when she kisses him hello. He tells her, I am different, but then he doesn’t tell her he loves her.
She’s out of his league. Next to her, he’s a scrawny little boy, a shaggy-dog with a paunch.
He may have been thinking, what if she gets bit? If one of these little New Smyrna sharks takes a nibble off her calf and Nick picks her up and he carries her out of the sea and sets her down in a bed of sand and ties a towel into a tourniquet and he saves her life, or at least something heroic, or at least something good. If the lifeguard runs down from the watchtower and sees that her leg is wrapped up and tied down, and her hand is in his, and he’s saying to her it’s going to be okay, she’s nodding and she’s in only a little bit of pain, on account of the shock, and this lifeguard calls for an ambulance and says, it looks like you’re going to be all right, this boy has saved your life, and by the way, it looks like this boy is different, and also, it looks like he loves you.
Nick carries Adele on his back, and she’s shouting “Shark!” as soon as they get close enough to shore to be heard. And this shark, as though in response, makes another pass, along Nick’s left thigh, the whole length of it, its rough skin on his much smaller than he expected it to be but still bigger than he wants it to be. This is not a sand shark. And its dorsal fin catches behind his knee, and the shark twists its head back into his groin, and he can feel the shape of it, the pointed head, the ridge above the eye. No teeth, but it feels like he’s been hit by a baseball bat. And then the shark uncoils off of Nick as though he’s a springboard, shooting off into somewhere, and it’s gone.
Adele screams as he stumbles, and then they’re underwater. Nick takes in a gasp of water, and this is something he has never done. He’s swallowed water before, little amounts of it, but never has he gasped water in a full, expanding diaphragm kind of way. The saltwater is heavy in his lungs, burning on the way in, and there is a jolt in his body, a total panic that in its extremity erases the daily fears that have plagued him his entire life. He pushes off the velvety bottom and his muscles burn and it makes him feel strong.
And then he’s above the water, coughing and boring the water from his eyes with his thumbs. And Adele’s arms wrap around his throat, and she says his name, over and over, and he loves the way she says it, because the way she says it Nick knows she is afraid for them both, and because she is afraid Nick knows that she loves him.
So maybe he regains himself, Adele on his back. He keeps on marching. But the way she says his name, the way she holds him, strokes his head, feels his skin for bites. What she almost said. Come back, he wills to the animal. Come back and take a little taste. He stops and swivels around on the balls of his feet, facing the open ocean. Adele tightens on him and she asks what he’s doing. “It’s gone,” he says.
Maybe he thinks, come back, take a toe. A little bit of a calf. He thinks, maybe I dare you. Come back. You were so close. Make this real.
They make it back to shore. It feels like all the other times he has extricated himself from the ocean. The heaviness of the water and the sudden feeling of weightlessness as he breaks from it. He staggers without the viscosity of the water to support Adele’s weight. A man, overweight in board shorts, runs to them and grips Nick’s shoulder to steady him. The hairs on the man’s forearm are supernaturally coarse, the sun supernaturally bright.
Adele, though, she jumps down from his back and kisses the wet sand. She wraps herself in a towel and she stares back at the sea, wet and wide-eyed.
The lifeguard comes. He asks them what happened, and Nick tells him. The lifeguard seems unimpressed. Adele is quiet, and he thinks that maybe something has gone wrong, that there is a new distance between them.
But then, after a little while, she says, “So now we’ve seen a shark.” And she holds his hand, the entire drive home, in this whole-handed, crushing, scared way that maybe he’s been wanting.