A black tile T stretches across the floor of the hotel pool. Last time I saw tiles like that I was six and convinced they were hammerhead sharks. But then I had other reasons to be afraid. Our swimming instructor was fired a few weeks into our class and now, all these years later, there’s a trial to come back for.
A long window looks into the gym where CNN plays on a TV above the treadmills. I inch into the pool so as not to disturb its peace. The stillness is what I want. Pressing dry fingers on the surface, it buckles. Part of me always wished the tiles had turned into hammerheads. How brave that would’ve made me. How my fear would’ve been well-spent.
It’s so quiet my first splash is a shock. Then I cut cut cut, but it’s just water now, just water. When I come up to rest, someone has switched the TV to the Discovery Channel and pectoral fins fill the screen. I push off against cement as rough as sharkskin with its tooth-like scales. There are no sharks in the pool. Don’t look at the TV. But of course I do, and then I am pure muscle escaping—
h e a v e
—over the edge. Squeeze my feet; are all my toes there? (They are.) I stay on the edge and breathe, stay on the edge until the surface and I are both calm. I’ll finish my laps, I will, because this afternoon, in that courtroom, there will be a sea of faces waiting to eat me alive. If only I had tiny teeth for skin.
A hammerhead swims across the screen and the pixels ripple, shiver, and it’s Mel. She’s standing on the deck of a boat, freckles layered like stars in the cosmos. We’d taken swimming lessons together, and when we weren’t racing each other—or when I looked down at the tiles and panicked—she would tread water beside me and ask where the real hammerheads lived. “In the ocean,” I’d tell her, and she’d say, “So what are you waiting for?”
She yanks off her t-shirt and little red rockets punctuate her bicep, an arc of fresh scars. The blurb on the screen says she free dives for pearls when she isn’t campaigning to protect sharks and this will be her first time in the water since the attack. Which attack, I want to ask, but she’s not coming home. She pulls a wetsuit over her bikini and mouths something like, “The pearls won’t collect themselves.” And she’s laughing, her blunt teeth hiding the razor of her tongue as she slips her feet into fins. The camera follows her toward the water.
How will the court cameras show me? Will I be falling from my shoulders like the crest of a wave? The lawyer and her team taught us how to hold our bodies so they don’t capsize. How to project assurance. How to look up. Take a moment alone and raise your arms in a V, V for confidence—V for victory! Like you’ve already won. And she didn’t say it but we heard it anyway, Don’t you want to win?
I want to keep staring into the abyss.
Mel’s splash is neat and contained even in the chop of open ocean. Rays of sunlight fracture in the blueness. Everything is blue—everything but the shadowy Ts slinking beyond the oyster bed. She kicks forward. Beneath her snorkel, she grins, and I believe that grin.
It’s cold on the lip of the pool. And those black tiles? They lie under a surface that will never be perfectly still.
I close my eyes, reach out, and dive all the way down.
© Kathryn McMahon
[This piece was selected by Jacky. Read Kathryn’s interview]