Mouth Breather

In my other life, I’m not afraid of fish.

The first day I had to myself, I bought a snorkel set at the Cost-U-Less and went to the beach down the street from our condo. My son was finally in daycare and I was supposed to be finishing a book. My husband was at work, running the bookstore on this Caribbean island, where we’ve now lived for nine months.

My British expat friends here call it “being at a loose end”; it’s why we meet for coffee some mornings and why I try to pencil the beach into my daily routine. We’re all at a loose end. I’m always asking myself what a happy, functional person would do if they had the time I had, and then I try to do it. After a few weeks things feel staid, I worry I’ve lost sight of my own personal impulses, that I’ve been following someone else’s idea of personal satisfaction, and ignore it all. I stop going to the beach, stop exercising, stop journaling, stop meditating, and then therefore stop writing and fall into despair, before I slowly add back all the bullshit, realizing it’s the striving to tick all the minor, everyday boxes that keeps me sane, keeps my brooding eye off the larger box, the what-the-fuck-are-we-doing-here-waiting-for-life-to-start box.

It was in one of those upswing weeks, a fresh-start week, a rebuilding-the-scaffolding-of-a-life week that I marched to the beach with a podcast in my ears and a snorkel set in my Baggu tote.

The ocean was completely clear, as it is every single day: a comical blue-green that’s never cold. Walking into it one cannot help but sigh and feel grateful. Lucky. Offended, almost, by the unearned perfection, the steadfastness of all this beauty. Is this it, I wonder? Putting yourself in the way of natural beauty, was it that, all along? Nature works this way for me, winning me over despite myself. If only God would, too, though I suppose people would argue that the two are intertwined. Bait and switch!

Snorkeling sounded like the right thing to do here, a “water sport.” Passive engagement — my specialty. Plus there is always something very decisive-feeling about standing up on your beach towel and marching toward the ocean, especially when the gesture involves tugging a mask over your eyes and stuffing your mouth full of gummy plastic. Mission critical: look at fish.

The snag, of course, is that every since I was a child, for as long as I can remember, I’ve been scared of the ocean. Not the water itself, and not so much that I don’t go in. It’s stuck with me like a mild social anxiety, where I can function, I’m just screaming in my head. Being afraid of the ocean always felt related to my fear of the dark, maybe they were the fear of the same thing really: murk, loss of control (or the delusion of it), being somewhere things could get you. I’d skip through the shallow parts, pulling my legs high up in the air, cling to my parents’ slippery bodies as if to avoid stepping on something spiny and poisonous.

I wouldn’t have said I was afraid of fish as a kid. Or even afraid of the water. It was a private thing, barely conscious, and always something I could transcend.

The clear water in the Caribbean, though, means I can see the fish move in circles around My ankles. What I do in the ocean is stand there, waiting for something bad to happen. I squint at the motion of light on water and wonder if it has teeth.

I try not to think about it, to remind myself I deserve to enjoy this ocean as much as anyone, and then inevitably some mass of bigger fish start flopping, coming up out of the water in arcs, splashing, making me gasp. They’re fast and focused, clearly after something. I don’t want to be in the way of them. This is when I freeze, my mind a litany of every dangerous sea creature known to exist here: lionfish, barracuda, moray eel, shark.

Even the benign fish might touch me though, might slip their gooey bodies astride mine, those horrid mouths opening and closing. This is when I scurry back to my towel, when I sit there watching the fish in their disgusting frenzy and wait for everyone else in the ocean to run out, too. They don’t. Aren’t they scared? Did they see my arms flailing as I all but flung my body on the shore? I have to keep myself from catching the eyes of all the tourists, pointing at them and shrugging.

Everyone at the beach is mellow and contemplative, just glad to be there. I can’t imagine an inner life where contemplation didn’t involve anticipating catastrophe.

You could say I’m not a beach person, though I’m not ready to. I love arriving at the beach, looking at it, hearing it, wondering what the fuck to do with myself besides sit on the beach and do whatever I’d do off the beach, except now I’m in public getting skin cancer with no wifi. So snorkeling it is.

In a way, snorkeling is preferable to just plain swimming. In snorkeling the point is to look; it’s a sport perfectly married to my paranoid vigilance. Instead of floating on my back in the sea, trying to pretend relaxation as I wait for a nurse shark to break character and attack my spinal column (“they don’t until they do,” I always want to say), I can put on my mask and breath through my mouth, and let my heart race as I look right and then left, waiting to see one before it sees me.

I know intellectually that most of the fish are harmless and moreover afraid of me. I imagine myself swatting them away, punching them in their sides. I find myself wishing I had a weapon of some kind, or a suit of buoyant chain mail. Something to make me feel more dominant. A gun? Do I want to shoot a fish? I know that I do not like being in the ocean in a bathing suit, do not like my chubby thighs bobbing in their seductive vulnerability, a siren song for moray eels, lionfish, the barb of a sting ray. I imagine them overtaking me, like Hitchcock’s BirdsFish.

The problem is the fish are beautiful, remarkable here. I know this. I have Googled them all. I hate them but I also don’t want to be kept from seeing them because of a thing as small as fear. I want to go see fish and tell my husband about them later. I want him to second guess me and then argue with him about what I saw. I want our argument to end with me showing him a photo on the internet, to say, I know that is what I saw, and for him to say, “Okay!” I want him to say, “I can’t believe you went snorkeling all by yourself! I need to get a mask so we can go together.”

It helps me to be alone when I do new things, to operate without the context of someone to regularly turn to for assurance. “Is it on right?” “Should I put on my flippers now or in the water?”

There was no one at the beach that day who knew me, who knew how out of character it was for me to spit in my mask the way I’d seen other tourists do the day before, and so I did that, and then dove underwater without hesitation.

It did not take long for me to flipper-swim my way into marine life. Electric yellow and blue angelfish the size of my head surrounded me, like they do in cartoon movies, moving in unison and then swinging to a stop, like skiers braking at the bottom of the slope. Parrotfish, clownfish, fish with long trumpet noses and brown spots, all swam tentatively around me. I flapped my flippers, trying to splash just enough to keep them at a distance. I crept on, feeling like I had been shrunk and deposited into a pet shop aquarium, one of those tiny novelty divers you can buy as an accessory.

I had the distinct feeling that I was trespassing, and that they knew better how to maneuver themselves down here; that I was outnumbered and should they decide to, they could attach themselves to all edges of my fashion rashguard and spirit me away. I did not like this feeling, though like most unpleasant feelings I argued with myself over it. C’mon you’re being unreasonable, people snorkel here all the time, it’s literally just looking at fish, nevermind that you haven’t topped up your phone and you don’t even know the number for 911 if some creature comes and bites you with its prehistoric teeth, plus you spent 50 goddamn dollars on this snorkel set we all know you’ll never use again.

I was paddling toward shore, looking this way and that, not really committed to a direction, when a long silver-gray fish darted over to my body, swimming in parallel, under my torso. He (he was a he, there is no other possibility) was about the size of my forearm. He had big eyes, what seemed in my panic, and overbite. Barracuda. I screamed in my mask and kicked my legs in a fury and slapped the water until I washed up into the sand. Once ashore I sat there gasping, looking around, waiting to tell someone what I’d just seen. I felt like waving a red flag and urging everyone to save themselves. But no one was watching me, I was completely alone. I’d never do it again, those horrifying fish.

Now, when I’m honest, I know it could have been anything, but that night over dinner I could feel my husband questioning me, sure it was a tarpon or God knows what else. Something without teeth. I hit the table with my fist. “No! I’m sure of it.” I was feeling that it didn’t matter now did it, because a barracuda was possible, and this disgusting creature was after me. I’d invaded its space, gone against my better instincts, and he’d confirmed it for me once and for all. I’m afraid of fish. I live in the fucking Caribbean and it’s terrible and I hate it. The end.

In My Other Life, a collection of essays from writers we love, is The Awl’s goodbye to 2016.