A woman seeking adventure remembers the past, affects the future
Walk With A Shark
She set out before the light of dawn. The salty air moving around her was damp with a humidity that would evaporate completely in a few hours time. Despite the early hour, it hadn’t been hard to wake up. For her, the eve of a great adventure isn’t for sleeping anyway. She followed the road that winds through the vacation complex, passing darkened condominium windows and enjoying the solitude. The world was still asleep, but she smiled knowing that when people began to wake, she would still be alone.
This was going to be the kind of day she lived for. A prize awarded to herself for surviving the mundane. Ever since she was young, she had been in pursuit of the extraordinary. Life, she felt, was a quest for experiences that stir the soul. When the park ranger had described the five mile hike out to the tip of the cape, he had warned that it was not an excursion for the delicate. There was no road out there. The only way out and back was on foot, and there were no amenities beyond the entrance to the trail. She couldn’t wait to get started.
She turned off the road onto a wooden plank boardwalk that passed through a courtyard between two apartment buildings. As she brushed past a flowering bush its perfume surprised her with its sweetness. The path curved slightly to the left and a soft breeze stirred her hair, sending a pleasant chill across the back of her long neck. She climbed the three steps into a gazebo that served as a gateway between what was man-made and what God had created. She removed her flip-flops and pushed them under a bench, no one would bother with them until she came back. In her bare feet she walked out of the gazebo at the far side and paused at the top of the short flight of stairs that led to the beach. The roar of the ocean reassured her that it was there, even though in the darkness she could not see it. She took a deep breath, filling her lungs with air and courage, then let it out slowly until her body was rid of any residue of fear. As she descended the stairs she thought to herself, the adventure has begun.
She calculated the time it would take to make the trip. That was why she was leaving so early. As she took her first steps onto the cold sand, she realized she hadn’t thought through what it would be like to walk for the first hour in total darkness. She made her way cautiously across the expanse of shadowy beach, her eyes darted here and there when she thought she saw movement out of the corners of her eyes. The sea was black and seemed to flow from the ebony sky. The waves breaking on the shore were white and provided the only clue that the water started there. She decided to walk on the high side of the beach where the sand was dry until the surroundings got lighter. She didn’t want to step on anything, dead or alive, that had washed up overnight.
Her senses were heightened and her nerves were on edge. She told herself she wasn’t frightened but she was kidding herself. She should be used to this feeling by now. She wasn’t an adrenaline junkie by any criterion, but she liked the challenge of putting herself in situations requiring courage. In an effort to conjure some confidence now, she began shuffling through her memories to times past when she had successfully evoked stalwartness. Her mind wandered, as it often did, to her years in the Peace Corps. The two and a half years she’d spent in central Africa had been replete with fear defying situations. She remembered the first time she rode her P.C. issued mountain bike into the bush. She had been out of her element, and more than a little terrified. She hadn’t yet learned much of the local language, and she was weak from her body’s ongoing adjustment to the indigestible food. She had felt small pedaling alongside the massive trees lining the dirt road and fearful of what lay behind those trees. Suddenly, there was a burst of sound and movement just ahead. In her haste to stop she had almost fallen off her bike . Out of nowhere a herd of cattle appeared, cutting across the road in a huge cloud of red dust. An exaggerated version of the Texas longhorn, they were bigger and blacker. She stood there straddling her bike as three men emerged from the hole in the bush with the cattle. These men looked different than the central Africans, their features were finer and their skin was lighter. Their faces were decorated with intricate black markings and their eyes and mouths were smudged with traditional black make-up. They wore flowing robes of bright fabrics, and on their heads were wide cone-shaped hats trimmed with golden bobbles that reflected the sunlight. She had heard about the M’Bororo, a nomadic tribe of herders, but this was her first glimpse of them. The men were talking animatedly among themselves until they looked up and saw the woman. They stopped dead in their tracks, staring. A wave of cold panic swept over the woman. Her obvious vulnerability made her legs feel heavy. If this encounter were to turn hostile, there would be no one to hear her cry for help. The next several moments passed in slow motion as they stared at each other. Then, slowly, one of the African men brought his hands up to his chest, palms facing the woman, in a gesture of greeting and good-will. It was a signal that meant peace, we mean no harm. The heaviness in her legs subsided, and the woman parroted the sign, and smiled. The men nodded slightly, then turned and disappeared with the last of the cattle into the bush. No, she wasn’t an adrenaline junkie, but wanting experiences like this one drove her to places outside of her comfort zone.
The sun was clearing the horizon when she passed the last private beach house and arrived in front of the barrier marking the beginning of the state park owned beachfront. She glanced at the posted signs warning people not to disturb sea turtle nests and wondered why anyone would. There was something magical about the seashore at this time of morning, when the new sun casts golden pink light over everything. She was grateful to walk in the water’s edge now, the arches of her feet were beginning to ache and the cool water soothed them. As far as she could see, the coastline spread out before her.
By eight o’clock she had been walking for hours and not seen another human being. There were no telephone wires or utility poles, and less footprints in the sand, too. Few people walk this far out. She liked that. She felt fearless and free. She wished she could always feel this free. Again her mind began perusing her memories, this time recalling experiences of exuberance. Her wandering mind went back to a day long ago, when she was in her early twenties. It was a Friday and she and a friend had left Los Angeles on the spur of the moment, both needing to escape the fast pace and noise of the city. By early evening they arrived at the Joshua Tree National Park. They found a quiet picnic table with no one around, and opened a bottle of wine. Half the bottle and several cigarettes later, the woman announced she was taking a little walk.
The flat, desert landscape was punctuated by what looked like small piles of pebbles stacked up by a child. As she approached the closest mound, however, she realized that each pebble was actually a boulder. It amused her to think of God as the child, stacking the boulders into piles. The surface of the boulders was porous and the traction it provided made scaling the face easy. In no time she was standing at the top of the pile, easily three stories above the desert floor. The desert at sunset was spectacular. The boulder piles and cacti were silhouetted in black against the vibrant colors of the horizon. She felt lightheaded from the view and the wine. With her arms outstretched she felt free as a bird, like she was no longer part of the earth, but part of the heavens. Unfortunately, her elation was as short-lived as the sunset. As if someone had switched off the light, the sun slipped under the horizon and it was night. Finding a way down was more challenging than her ascent had been. It was dark, there was nothing to hold on to and no footholds. She fought a rising panic, refusing to indulge in thoughts of falling or rattlesnakes. Slowly, she picked her way down until her feet were safely back on the ground. Only then did she contemplate the danger from which she had just emerged unscathed. Looking back now, as she walked along this gorgeous beach in the safe embrace of the bright sunshine, she deemed the elation she'd felt standing on the top of the world well worth the danger she'd risked.
Time passed like sand through an hourglass and still she walked on. The sun was higher in the sky now and the day was heating up. Although the coastline in front of her appeared endless, she estimated the tip of the cape to be less than an hours walk ahead. Her memories floated in and out of her consciousness, some lingering longer than others. Fatigue was clouding her mind, and the combination of solitude, reminiscence, and the glare of the sun on the sand and water gave the morning a dreamlike quality. The shoreline curved inland ahead and as she rounded the bend she thought she saw something in the distance. She put a hand to her brow to shield her eyes from the sun. Was there someone standing on the beach? Her pace slowed as her pulse quickened. She hadn't expected to see another person way out here. She was too near the tip of the cape to turn around now, but her urban street sense was urging her to be careful. This was a very isolated area. Of course, she reasoned, it could be another adventuresome soul like herself who had hiked out here yesterday and camped on the beach. It was not in her nature to give in to the fear that was simmering in the pit of her stomach. She walked on.
Distance is deceiving, it turned out she had plenty of time to anticipate the impending encounter with the stranger on the beach. In her mind she played out several conversations in which she auditioned different ways she would introduce herself. As she got closer she wondered about the person she would meet. She couldn't yet make out any characteristics, gender, age, or race. Peering ahead, she observed that the person remained motionless. The stranger seemed simply to be standing there, staring at the sea. She was getting closer now, she thought the stranger was a woman. She kept her eyes on her, waiting to be seen, but the other appeared so lost in thought that she hadn't noticed her yet. Only twenty yards of beach now separated them, and suddenly the stranger's head snapped up in the woman's direction. She looked startled, but there was something disquieting in the way she remained motionless. The woman realized she was young, a teenager, seventeen or eighteen at best. The sea breeze blowing her brassy blonde hair revealed dark brown roots and her heavy eye make-up was badly smudged. Her clothes were dirty and rumpled like she'd slept in them. The woman had been smiling at the girl, but her smile faded as she got ever closer and the girl still didn't move. She came to a dead halt though, when she saw the gun.
The girl was holding a small pistol at her side. It swayed ever so gently, like its weight was becoming too much for the thin hand that was gripping it. The woman stood paralyzed, staring at the gun. Sweat ran down the small of her back rousing her senses, and she shifted her gaze to the girl's face. The girl still hadn't moved, but as she stared at the woman a single tear ran down her cheek. The roar of the ocean seemed to be inside the woman’s head and the heaviness was back in her legs forcing her as motionless as the girl. You’ve got to do something, she thought to herself, and the image from the recently revisited memory of the M’Bororo men came to her. Slowly she brought her hands up to her chest, palms facing the girl, as she silently said, 'Peace. I mean you no harm.' The gesture seemed to wake the girl from her stupor and she flinched, and in a voice that was buffered by the sound of the waves she screamed, "Why are you here?"
She collapsed to her knees and sat back, resting the gun on the top of her thighs. Her head was down and she covered her face with the other hand, sobbing 'Why are you here?' over and over again.
In her deflated pose the girl looked even younger. The gun still represented a threat but it looked impotent on her lap. The terror the woman had been engulfed with moments before gave way to pity as she watched the girl cry. What had happened to this child and what would she have done to herself? My God, what was she going to do?
Minutes passed before the girl ran out of tears. Slowly she looked up in the direction of the sea. The woman finally spoke. "My name is Jada,” she called out.
The girl didn't shift her gaze from the water. Her sadness was palpable. Jada’s senses returned to her, and she considered her dilemma. She assumed the girl was suicidal. Was she crazy or just depressed? If she wanted answers one thing was for sure, Jada first needed to get the gun out of the equation. Searching for a way to reach out to her, Jada chose the tactic her mother had always relied on whenever they had a problem to work through. Keeping her eyes on the pistol, Jada said, "Are you hungry?"
The girl said nothing. Jada sat slowly on the sand where she was standing and pulled her arms out of the shoulder straps of her backpack. From it she pulled out a baggie of homemade chocolate chip cookies. "Here," she offered.
The girl turned her head. She seemed to think it over, then said, "Yeah. Okay."
Jada said, "Why don't you put your gun over there first?" She nodded to a spot about three feet from where the girl was sitting, then waited to see what she would do.
"I guess so," said the girl. She tossed the pistol and it landed with a soft thump in the powdery sand. The gesture told Jada what she has wanted to know most, that the girl was willing to give up the weapon. Jada got up and sat close enough to the girl to hand her the bag of cookies. As the girl ate, Jada asked softly, "So. Got a name?"
The girl looked at the cookie she was holding. She seemed ashamed. "I'm Eve."
They sat that way for a moment and the only sound was the water lapping up to the shore. Then Jada said, "Listen Eve, I was just walking out to the point and back today. Sort of an adventure, I guess." She paused, then went on, "It's none of my business what you were doing out here. But, since I am here, well, if you wanted to talk about it..." She let her question trail off. Eve didn't look up from her cookie.
"It's my last day of vacation," Jada went on, "Back to the daily grind tomorrow. I'm in real estate. I hate it. But I have a daughter and a son to think about."
"I don't have anybody.", said Eve quietly.
"Well. You're young, right? Seventeen? What about your family?"
Eve's face was strangely still, as if she'd perfected masking it of all emotion. She simply said, "I've got a dad."
There was a deadness in the way she stated it. Jada felt chilly despite the sun beating down on them. She knew the answer before she asked the next question. "He treat you right?"
Maybe it was the kindness in her voice, or maybe no one had ever bothered to ask her that question before, but Eve looked up at Jada. She looked her right in the eyes. It had been a very long time since she’d looked anyone in the eyes. She had grown used to keeping her head down and trying to be invisible. What she saw in Jada’s eyes was compassion. Not anger, not condescendence. Just kindness. She didn’t look away as she said, “No. No he doesn’t.“
Jada reached her hand into the baggie Eve was still holding and pulled out a cookie. She took a bite and said, “Why don’t you tell me about it.”
Maybe it was the serenity of the ocean, or the peacefulness of the deserted beach, or just the empathy she was being shown, but in that moment, Eve made the decision to trust Jada. She began to tell Jada her story. She started slowly, with scattered facts about how her mother died during her birth, and how her father's drinking had worsened over the years. As she talked, her story gathered momentum and soon she was talking about the beatings. There was the time he lifted her off her feet by her neck with his fist drawn back and punched her because she had asked to stay up late and watch a good movie. Another time she hadn't ended her conversation and hung up the phone fast enough for him and he'd chased her around the house with a baseball bat. Once he had woke her at two in the morning because she hadn't folded the towels in the dryer, and he'd kicked her in the ass down the stairs, forcing her to fall. She talked on and on, and Jada just nodded and listened without interrupting.
“Then, yesterday, I was washing the dishes. My dad was in the next room, watching TV. It was early but he had already been drinking. And, see, these papers had come in the mail the week before. Financial aid forms for college next fall. They just sat there in the pile of junk mail, even though they say if you don’t mail them in quick they run out of money. It’s first come, first serve. So, I took the forms and I filled them out myself. All except for two boxes, where they want to know the parent’s income. I don’t know what he makes, and I was afraid to write whatever in there ‘cause I don’t want to be turned down. If I can’t go to college, I’ll never get out of there, you know?” Her voice got thick and her eyes watered up. She paused a moment before she went on.
“So, I’m doing the dishes and I’m getting the nerve to go in there and ask him to fill in the two boxes. I tell myself, now or never. So, I walk in there with the forms and I tell him I did all the work and I’ll mail them myself, he doesn’t have to bother with anything, except for I don’t know what to put in the Parent’s Income box. He didn’t even look away from the TV screen. He just reached up and took the papers and let them fall to the coffee table and kept on watching his show.”
Jada shook her head and picked up a handful of sand, letting it escape through the bottom of her fist. Eve went on, “I went back to the dishes but I was so mad. He never even acknowledges the good grades I get, why should he care about college? Right? But that’s bullshit, I want to go! I want to get out of there. So I walked back to the living room and I reached down to take the papers back. I figured I’ll put what I think in those boxes myself and send them off. But he slammed his hand down on the papers. What did I think I was doing? I didn’t need him, is that it? I was going to do what ever I wanted to, right? I just walked away from him. I didn’t know he was right behind me until I got to the kitchen. I turned around at the same time he punched me, right in the cheek. I didn’t even realize he’d done it until I was looking up from the floor on the other side of the room. He came at me while I was still down, kicking me and punching me. I was defending myself, though. I grabbed at his face and scratched his eye. I kicked back. The whole time he screamed how he hated me. How he’s always hated me and how he wished I was dead.”
Jada was staring at Eve, this time it was her eyes that were full of tears.
“When I could, I ran into the bathroom and locked the door. I heard him leave in his car. I packed myself a small bag and I went to his closet and got his gun. I hitched to the park and walked out here.”
She paused and stared out at the water. The sun was passed its zenith, coming into the hottest part of the day. Jada got a water bottle out of her pack and offered it to Eve. Finally, she asked, “So, were you going to do it?”
“Shoot myself?” Eve thought about it a moment before answering. “I was afraid to do it, and afraid not to. Then you were here. Just like that, you were here.”
Jada thought about that day long ago, standing on the pile of boulders in the desert. She said, “Eve, do you know what makes you strong?” Eve had turned towards her again, and she raised her thin shoulders in question. “When we are faced with a scary situation, and we find the courage to prevail, we emerge on the other side with a strength we could not have found otherwise. You are young, and your father has been a son-of-a-bitch to you. But you have found the courage to survive. You have learned to be strong. That skill will take you far in life.”
“Whatever,” she mumbled.
Jada persisted, “I know you have painful memories in your life. It’s hard to go forward. But in your life you will create new memories of amazing experiences that stir your soul. You will learn to be fearless and free. Those memories will carry you forward. Life can be a quest for the extraordinary.”
“God, it sounds so easy when you say it,” said Eve, and she smiled for the first time.
Jada said, “Listen, it’s a long walk back, but we could do it together. What do you say?”
Eve looked one more time into Jada’s eyes and felt hopeful. “Yeah, I’d like that.”
Jada started to stand. Then she saw the gun lying lifeless on the sand. “Eve, you won’t be needing that, will you?”
Eve slowly shook her head no. Jada had an idea. “Let’s leave it out here.”
From her backpack she produced her journal and a pen. Tearing a page out, she hastely wrote an anonymous note explaining that a gun had been found. She walked over to the pistol and gingerly picked it up, placing it carefully with the note into the empty cookie bag. She said to Eve, “The first sea turtle nest we pass on the way back, we’ll lay this against the inside of the protective fencing. The park rangers check them regularly to make sure no one messes with them. They’ll find the gun.”
Eve didn’t say anything, but she seemed as relieved as Jada was to be rid of it.
The long walk back from the end of the cape was spent talking about the future. Jada offered advice and pledged to mentor Eve if she would have her. The hope that had begun to bud in Eve's heart was blossoming with each step they took. Jada shared her adventures of starting out as a young adult. Her inspiring words breathed more hope into Eve. The sun was lower in the sky when they stopped to cool off in the edge of the water. Suddenly, just five feet off shore there appeared a long dark mass in the water. Eve saw it first, and pointing she said, “God, I’ve never seen a dolphin so close to shore before!” They were amazed at the close proximity and started walking quickly along the shore to keep up with it, waiting for it to surface and breathe. After a couple of minutes though, it was still underwater. Jada said, “Could it be a shark?” Just then its head thrashed as it swam in a characteristic shark move, confirming the answer. Jada’s heart beat fast as the adrenaline rushed through her veins. In awe, they kept up with the shark for another couple of minutes before it turned towards deeper waters.
Eve said, “Can you believe how close we were to such a dangerous animal?” For just an instant, Jada thought about the gun. She thought back to this morning, and all the things that had happened since then. Still enjoying the adrenaline rush of seeing the shark, she smiled. To Eve she said, “This is what it’s all about. Experiences. You have to get out and live. And every once in a while, you have to walk with a shark.