Fiction and Drama
What happened to me—not to me, but what happened—I’m a writer of magazine articles and I was writing an article about sharks, about how they communicate with human beings. I was somewhere off the California coast with a group of scientists who were studying the human response to shark communication. They’d rigged up a fishing boat with winches and scientific instruments and a stainless steel cage, and I was inside the cage. Sensors were attached to various parts of my body, measuring my heart rate and my brain activity, and I was under the water, breathing through an air tank strapped to my back. I had my back to the boat’s hull, scanning the water through the mask on my face, and even through the wet suit, I could tell the water was cold. But I didn’t care because I was thinking about sharks. They’d pretty much guaranteed me a shark attack—something about an anomaly in the ocean current—and as I held the steel handrail I could hear the air as it passed from the scuba equipment into my lungs. That, plus the pressure of the water, plus the temperature of the water, plus the fact that there was going to be a shark attack, was focusing my attention.
I saw schools of little fish darting out from the darkness, I saw the speckled sunlight filtering down from the surface of the water, and I noticed pieces of meat floating down from above the cage. The scientists were chumming for sharks and I could see the blood dissolving in the water. I knew the minute I stopped expecting the shark, the minute I took my mind off the idea of shark, like a watched pot, that’s when a shark would appear, and since I didn’t want to miss that appearance, I kept my mind focused on the water, trying not to think about anything other than water, but I must have been thinking something, and I must have been in the middle of thinking it when a white underbelly flashed by, huge and white and slightly above me, and then suddenly the bait, which had been floating in the water, was gone.
The bait was gone and the shark was gone, but I was still there, still feeling the effect of the shark. I’m sure the scientists, looking at the data from my sensors, would have called it fear, which is a word describing a certain emotion, and it was definitely an emotion I was experiencing, and yes, my heart was pounding, and yes, my senses were acute, and I’d seen enough of the shark to feel the threat, but because I was protected by the safety of the cage, what it felt like to me was the absence of fear. I wouldn’t have called it serenity because my body was full of energy. My fingertips, through the rubber gloves, seemed very alive. And although I couldn’t see the shark, I was aware of it, just beyond my vision. And when I say aware I mean I was sensing some kind of signal from the shark, as if the shark was communicating. And because the most rudimentary form of communication is the expression of desire, I was feeling the shark’s desire, and one of the things it was desiring was my annihilation.
So there was fear. But it wasn’t overwhelming. Because the cage was protecting me I was able to communicate with the source of the fear. The human brain is capable of receiving millions of neural signals, and what I was trying to do was send signals, to the shark. I was trying to tell the shark that I understood its desire, that I accepted its desire, and I was just getting into this conversation with the shark when I felt the cage begin to rise. The scientists were bringing me back, and I tried to signal through the sensors that I wasn’t ready, that I was still conducting the experiment. I tried to think those thoughts and send those thoughts, but either the sensors weren’t working or my thoughts weren’t working. I felt the weight of the water pushing down as the cage rose up, like an elevator, out of the water, and there I was again, in the breathable normalcy of air.
The cage was set back down on the deck and when the door was opened I remember ducking through the opening and stumbling out into the relative stability of the boat’s deck. I could feel my lungs expanding in my body, and I felt light, like air, lighter than air, like a balloon. I noticed the people in front of me, and as I stepped out of the cage I embraced the first person who extended a hand—the captain probably—and more than embrace him, I locked my arms around him. I could feel his heart beating beneath my hands, and I could hear him asking if I was all right. I didn’t feel my own heart but I must have been grinning at him, and it must’ve been an infectious grin, because he was grinning at me.
An assistant scientist, a young woman wearing overalls and rubber boots, led me to a plastic crate, where I sat, wrapped in a blue blanket. I could tell I was still feeling the lingering exhilaration of my interaction with the shark because my thoughts . . . I didn’t have any thoughts. It was all sensation. And because thoughts maintain the idea of who we are, when my thoughts were gone, I was gone, and without the barrier between me and the world, the world looked different. I was looking at a corroded hinge on the cabin door, and instead of thinking about what kind of paint they used or imagining what I would do if I owned the boat, instead of reacting to what I saw, I just saw. Every so often I would notice a thought pop into my head. But it was easy to let it go and turn my attention to the assistant scientist. She brought me a mug of warm tea and leaned against the side of the boat, telling me that she hadn’t done it yet, but that she wanted to go into the water herself. She told me that her name was Elena, that she was an intern, and we talked about U.C.L.A. and graduate school and the life of a marine biologist, and I wouldn’t have called it paradise, but if paradise is a place where the need for protection falls away, then that’s where I was. And the only question is: how long does it last?
And did I want that protection?
I was holding my mug of warm tea, looking at her face and the peaceful horizon behind her face, and I knew she wasn’t a threat. But I was feeling something unfamiliar. Lack of thought was unfamiliar to me, and because it was unfamiliar I felt I needed to do something.
I asked for more tea. The tea was comforting. I tried to focus on this person who was saying something to me and it wasn’t that I wasn’t paying attention. The problem was, I didn’t know I wasn’t paying attention.
I could feel my butt bones on the plastic crate, my feet back in a pair of socks now, and shoes, and the sky was above me and the ocean in front of me and Elena was standing to my right. All these things were there but so were my thoughts. And while I was having them, while I was involved in the various narratives contained in those thoughts, I wasn’t actually seeing the sky or the ocean or the wide blue eyes that were looking at me. What I was seeing were my thoughts. Millions of thoughts were passing through my mind, and some of them persisted, not long enough to remember them, but long enough to distract me from the world. Not that my thoughts weren’t part of the world, but even as we talked I could feel those thoughts creating a barrier. I could feel my old self, the one who’d been absent when I was under the water, reconfiguring itself. Without any overt effort on my part I was going back to my habit of being, back to the safety of what I knew.
I turned to her, and I can’t say I didn’t feel a little relief, because who doesn’t like safety? But the odd thing was, it didn’t feel like safety.
There I was, having a putative conversation with her, and at the same time I was thinking about the tea, and the lack of sugar in the tea. I was oscillating between her and the tea, back and forth, neither with her nor the tea, and I obviously wasn’t in a cage anymore, but I did feel confined by something, and whatever it was I wanted to escape. I wanted to reach out to this person, to enter the world and communicate with this person, to see and hear and touch the world in front of me.
Except maybe I didn’t.
Maybe I wanted to be protected from the world. Maybe I wanted to keep the world at bay.
Except I didn’t.
So there I was, sitting at a low table in a nostalgic restaurant-bar called Kon Tiki off Wilshire Boulevard. I call it nostalgic because, although it didn’t actually exist in the 1950s, it was made to seem as if, sitting at the low table, amid the bamboo walls and the Polynesian masks, you were somewhere in the middle part of the last century. It was a cultural memento, or I should say memento mori, because the past it referred to had long since disappeared and died, as everything does. The Playboy beach-party aesthetic that came into being after World War II, after we’d won the war in the Pacific, was part of a generalized nostalgia that included the photographs on the walls. There were publicity stills of movie stars of the past, people like Dean Martin and Tony Curtis, and because I’d been thinking of changing my own name I was aware that, for instance, Dean Martin was born Dino Crocetti, that Tony Curtis was Bernard Schwartz, that John Wayne was Marion Morrison, and that Barbara Stanwyck was originally Ruby Stevens.
Anyway, I was sitting there with Alan, my editor, and also a tall young woman, a model or swimsuit model, who wanted to become a photographer. Her name was Gabby, and although she wasn’t all that garrulous, the conversation flowed. I was doing most of the talking, along with Alan, who was a friend as well as my editor, and the young woman was an acquaintance of his, someone he wanted to be an acquaintance of mine. She was transitioning, as they say, from being in front of the camera to being behind the camera, and Alan had an interest in her. Also, I’d recently come out of a fairly long-term relationship and was still slightly uncomfortable jumping into the ocean of romance. That’s what it seemed like, an ocean, and Alan’s way of pushing me into the water of that ocean was to introduce me to this person.
There we were, drinking our drinks and talking about photography.
“Alan told me you wanted to know about cameras.”
“I think I have the camera part figured out,” she said, and reached into her bag and pulled out a film camera with adjustable dials and levers.
Alan was sipping his mojito, sitting back in his chair so that the triangle formed by the three of us left him slightly removed. He’d told her I knew something about photography, which wasn’t a complete lie because I did take pictures, but that was about it, and I told Gabby, “I really don’t know much.”
“Don’t let him fool you. He’s got an outstanding eye.”
“That’s what I want to develop,” she said.
“Then he’s your man.”
Alan had the habit of treating people as if they were stupid, not because he thought they were stupid, but because until they told him otherwise, by assuming it was so he was able to feel safe.
My way to feel safe was different. A writer in Los Angeles is fairly far from the top of the food chain, and she would know that and naturally I wanted to do something, to seem to be a little more important than I was. I tried to stand straighter and I looked into her eyes in what I hoped was a meaningful way.
She was a beautiful actress or model whose ambition was to be something other than merely beautiful, and thinking I might be a way for her to achieve that ambition, she smiled a lot, and I could see that her teeth were perfect, and as I was looking at her teeth I was imagining going home with her and living forever in a paradise of love.
Unless Alan had hired a hooker. There was the possibility that this was a joke, on me. Either way, I wanted to seem like someone different than I was.
If she noticed, she was too polite to say anything. And I didn’t say anything, and we talked like that for a while, but the talking isn’t what I’m getting at. The talking was pleasant, but it was preparatory. What really happened, happened later, when we took Alan up on his suggestion and walked outside.
He suggested we stop talking about photographs and go outside and take some. So we finished our drinks, stood up, and “You two go,” he said. “I have to take this call.”
I don’t know if there was a call, but we left Alan, walked through the lunchtime drinkers, past the bamboo walls of photographs, and when we opened the heavy wooden doors, suddenly there was light. It took a while for our eyes to adjust to the light, and when they had I asked her where she wanted me to stand. She was going to take my picture.
“Where do you think?” she said.
We were standing at the edge of the parking lot. The cars were in bright sunlight, and from what I knew about photography I knew it required light, so I suggested I stand in the sun. “I’ll stand by this car,” I said, staking out an area next to an expensive-looking black sedan.
She asked me to do something.
“You’re the model,” she said. “Right? Everyone thinks it’s so easy.”
I didn’t know how I wanted to stand, or how she wanted me to stand, and “How much are you taking,” I said, meaning how much of my body.
“Act like you’re walking.”
I tried to do that.
“I mean really walk.”
And I walked, but I walked too fast. And it would be safe to say that things, literally, weren’t clicking. I made an attempt to strike a pose, and she didn’t say anything but I could tell that she didn’t like it, and I said, “If you were me, getting your photograph taken, how would you stand? Here,” I said, and took out my little silver camera and pointed it at her.
She was standing next to a car, and still holding her camera, and she gave me a look. “I’d stand like this.”
I took the picture.
And because that seemed to relax her, I took another, and then when she seemed to get more comfortable, I said, “Now me,” and I stood in the same way she’d stood, and she was looking through the camera at me, and I could hear that she wasn’t taking the picture. “Go ahead,” I said. “Take it.” I was the one in front of the camera but she was the one who was nervous. And I told her, “It doesn’t have to be perfect,” but she said she wasn’t sure about the light. “Don’t worry about light,” I said. “Work with me, baby,” and I did a fake fashion-model imitation.
I was joking, but she was serious, telling me about the light and the focus, and while she was talking I took another picture, of her. And when I did, she stopped concentrating on her camera and started concentrating on me.
I thought she might like to use my camera, and I held it out to her. “I think it adjusts automatically for the light,” I said, and instead of saying anything she just stood there. So I took another picture. I didn’t know what I was doing, but because she seemed to assume I did, I took another, and then another. She put her camera on the hood of a car and I moved so that the sun was off to the side, and she moved away from the car, and away from her camera, and she began moving her hands, not to any purpose, except the purpose of looking good. That was her mask and she was comfortable in that mask. She was creating the composition and I was behind my mask, snapping the pictures.
And sometimes you need a mask. Like the steel bars of a shark cage, sometimes you need to feel safe enough to express something that exists behind the mask. And that’s fine, except in our case, instead of allowing us to reveal who we were, instead of allowing us to speak honestly from behind the safety of the masks, the masks did what masks are supposed to do, they hid who we were.
I suggested she take me while I was taking her. But she didn’t seem to be listening anymore. She was lost now in what she was doing, in the role she had taken, the role of a model, which was her default role, and now she was in it, and as I kept shooting photographs of her, photograph after photograph, I could feel myself carving the rut of our relationship. And it wasn’t a bad thing, this rut. It was still very shallow, but it was getting deeper and deeper, and because it was a rut, we continued to communicate in this way. She was letting me know what she wanted, and she was sensing what I wanted, and I wasn’t telling her where to stand or how to stand, she was just standing there, posing, and I let her pose, and I continued taking photographs.