At Your Own Risk

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Our room at the Sheraton sits on the fourteenth floor, and through the window we can see waves, and a thin strip of sand rainbowed in rented umbrellas, which, from here, look like the paper ones floating in the daiquiris downstairs.

Philip took our twin boys camping for the weekend, and I’m supposed to be visiting a girl friend in Figure Beach.

I’m in Figure Beach— that part is true.

Graham sells backpacking equipment at Outdoor Trails, in the shopping center where I buy groceries. There’s a patio between the stores, and I started smoking for a reason to flirt with him at the railing on his breaks.

But we know each other from before this. We went to the same college, but, as in high school, we avoided each other. After that, he found me on Facebook. Now, in my tenth year of marriage to Philip, I’ve decided to give him a chance.

“Tell me how that works,” I imagine Philip saying, if he ever found out. It’s difficult to see how he would find out though. Graham and I are pretty careful, most of the time.

We walk through the rotating hotel doors, the brass finish eroding with salt and wind, to cross the boardwalk where the inline skaters coast.

Yellow signs are nailed to the posts: NO LIFEGUARD ON DUTY, SWIM AT YOUR OWN RISK.

We arrange our towels in the sand.

Graham likes to lie on his back with his t-shirt over his eyes, and I like to sit up and watch the action on the shore: this mother here, for example, taking pictures of her daughter in a beaded bikini, heavy in the hips for twelve or thirteen. The girl laughs over her over-tanned shoulder like in the magazines, then kneels in the surf and splashes water on herself for the dramatic, sexy shot.

They’re getting it all wrong. But if my husband were here, he’d tell me again how I hold people to unfair standards.

Our twin boys love me, and they need me, but they prefer Philip. He throws them the baseball in the backyard, and he burns his knees on the carpet playing cowboys. He lets them check the oil in his truck even though they’re ten. He lets them rent scary movies, but I’m the one they wake when they’re too scared to sleep.

I don’t know when it started that I quit knowing how to act around them, but now I say all the stupid things mothers say, and feel old saying them, as if there really were nothing more to life than brushing teeth and putting on seatbelts and saying please.

Graham sits up. He stares out where the horizon shimmers. “Want to get in?”

I do, I nod. Before we meet the water, a man in cutoffs unhooking a large fish from his line yells over: “Look here, caught a baby shark!” He wants to show-and-tell, so we go and look at the catch steadied in his hands.

“Nice,” Graham tells him.

This reaction doesn’t seem to be what the man wanted.

“Caught a baby shark right here,” he says, turning the foot of clean silver to me this time.

I consider the fin, the inverted mouth on its slick underside, the freakish eyes. It looks almost fake, like something in the aquarium gift shop, except that it’s struggling for life. “What kind is it?”

He shrugs. “Tiger, maybe. You want to touch him, young lady?”

I shake my head and step back. He laughs. I ask if he’s going to keep it.

“No,” he says. “I always throw em’ back. I’ve caught about a dozen of these this summer.”

A little blond boy skips up to the man, saying, “Wow!”

As if our cue, Graham and I continue toward the water. My boys would have said “Wow!” in the same style.

“Caught a shark!” I hear the man exclaim again, before the wind carries away his voice.

The water’s warm—too warm, and after a while I feel slightly sick with the slow roll of waves. I feel a sharp pinch on my thigh, like teeth.

When Graham’s head emerges, I splash him, saying I know he’s not a shark.

“What?” He grins in mock innocence.

“But, okay— if baby sharks are around, then where are the real ones? Don’t they have to be nearby, like, lurking?”

Graham laughs, but I have a sudden vision of him vanishing headfirst into a bloody mouth of fangs. If Philip and the boys were here they’d say sharks don’t have fangs, Mom, they have teeth.

I squint back at the shore, the white sand, to see the man release the shark back into the water.

“I’m getting out now,” I say, taking a stroke inland, but Graham grabs my waist and pulls me back.

“If there’s a shark attack, I’ll save you,” he says.

“Okay. Or don’t.” I pull myself to him against the current and wrap my arms around his shoulders, clinging weightless to his back. The air feels good on my chest.

I let him go.

We float.

***

Before dinner, we drink whiskey-sodas in the downstairs lounge. Only a handful of people are here, and we’re all mostly watching the clouded-over sunset through the big window.

The TV plays the news. I ask the bartender if there’s been anything on the local station about sharks. “No,” he replies, looking at me a little blankly before continuing to wipe down the bar.

At Joe’s Ocean, you order up front. The fans are going, rustling the flyers thumbtacked to the wall for tackle and bait, surfing lessons, parasailing. We choose a table on the screened-in deck where our grouper sandwiches arrive on Styrofoam plates. The salt and pepper are in washed-out Corona bottles, and the ketchup and tartar sauce are collected in castle buckets. Philip and the boys would hate Joe’s Ocean because there are no hamburgers. I tell them one day they’re going to turn into hamburgers.

For dessert we take the three-dollar pineapple chunks soaked in rum, and it’s only then that Graham gets around to his ultimatum. He thinks I should leave Philip. “The only way this works,” he says, “is if you leave him.”

I tell him I like the way things are.

“You’re being reckless,” Graham says.

“It doesn’t feel reckless.”

We’re being reckless.”

“Yes, but it doesn’t feel reckless.”

“You’re an innocent. You don’t understand that bad things are going to happen to you.”

But look— if I were to leave Philip and the boys and move in with Graham, then what? Once I thought I could fall in love with Graham, but no. It doesn’t work that way, I found out.

Graham probably doesn’t really think I should leave Philip, and I doubt this ultimatum will be mentioned again. It was sweet, though.

I like my husband, but our marriage isn’t a fairytale. Philip says, what marriage is?

It’s just that my life hasn’t turned out like I thought. When I was little, collecting rocks in the quarry and braiding jewelry in my bedroom, I thought my life would be extraordinary. I was going to make discoveries, and fall in love, and be very wise and noble, just like Jane Eyre.

I’m thirty-two years old now.

“Do you think we’re getting old?” I ask Graham.

“Well, I’m getting old. But you’re not. You’re still so young it’s ridiculous.”

“I don’t know what that means.”

We’re the same age, after all.

“You will,” he says. “You will. You’ll see. Just wait.”

I slip my foot from my sandal, and rest it on his tennis shoe. “Let’s just stay here.”

“Twist my arm. We’ll rent a little house, fish for sharks all day. Sleep together every night.”

“Let’s do it.” We eat our pineapples. We get up to dance.

***

We’re up early in the morning. We left the balcony door open overnight and air-conditioned the world. The floor is salted with fine sand and the room is hot. The mirror is foggy with the science of it.

We have coffee on the balcony in our underwear. There’s the parking lot below, and some early joggers crossing through it. Behind our hotel is the highway, with its traffic that sounds like the ocean. We sit in white plastic chairs, with our feet propped on the railing.

I look at the ocean, then sit on the railing in front of Graham. I pretend to lean back, then I do lean back.

“Be careful,” he says and stands up. “Don’t, Noelle.”

I laugh and lean back further. “Why not?”

***

The television in the lounge plays the forecast: a windblown cloud with a lightning bolt through its face.

But the sun is shining now, and we’re the first to lay our towels on the beach.

I try what Graham does. I lie on my back and bake.

But after a while, I’m restless. The girl and her mother are out with the camera again. The catcher of sharks stands thigh-deep in the water, soaking the fringe of his cutoffs. His line is in, and eventually I realize he and the man fishing twenty yards to the left are friends by the way they shout back and forth.

Beyond them, the surface of the water is calm. I keep thinking I see the flash of a fin, but the fin turns into a tiny wave, or it’s the trick of the sun’s white diamonds angling over the water. I get the idea to rent Jaws for the boys, and I like imagining the four of us snuggled in throw blankets, passing the box of Warheads. But then I think they’ve probably already seen Jaws. And probably they think it’s cheesy. Their idea of a good scary movie, when I think about it, is the one with slashers and the walking dead.

I feel a tangle of guilt thinking of Philip and the boys. It feels like seasickness in the too-warm ocean. But shouldn’t I feel worse? I feel only slightly scared, slightly anxious. It doesn’t feel like enough.

I mean—Graham sold Philip the tent they’re sleeping in this weekend. Isn’t that supposed to be horrible?

The man from yesterday is reeling in, reeling in. He shouts over to his friend, “That’s two in two days!”

Graham sits back on his elbows, and we watch the commotion. The friend and the girl and her mother walk over to look when they realize he’s got a shark, and they all crowd over the thing, which, from here, looks the same as yesterday’s. The girl touches it and shrieks, then jumps around in the sand.

The mother retrieves the camera from her pack and starts snapping pictures. First she wants the man to pose with his catch, and then she wants a shot of the two men together with the shark. She’s one of those mothers. She keeps gesturing for them to get closer, to smile. After a couple of frames they insist the girl have her picture alone with the shark instead.

She models it like a pro, doing yesterday’s poses. She prances with the shark, laughs over her shoulder with the shark. What will they do with all these pictures, I wonder? Put them on Facebook? And then what?

A wash of clouds grays the ocean, and at the first clap of thunder we gather our things. We sarong our towels around our waists and walk up the boardwalk. We’ll eat lunch at the hotel, then pack and drive back.

I turn around once to look at the beach, and it’s as though everyone is pretending a storm isn’t coming. Umbrellas tremble in the wind, and it’s storm-dark, but the swimmers still swim in the ocean. The sunbathers lie still.

I ask Graham if he thinks it will start lightning. Lightning on a beach is dangerous, don’t people know that? And baby sharks—they do come from somewhere, do they not? The stories of ripped arms and legs, and people dying. When I tell Graham this as we turn through the rotating doors of the Sheraton, he laughs and says, “What—do you want someone to get eaten by a shark?”

***

I’m back home before Philip and the boys. We thought we’d have to drive down the interstate through the storm, but it turns out it blew right over the coast.

I clean up the kitchen and make an early dinner, their favorite: macaroni and cheese with hamburger. Soon I hear the truck pulling into the driveway, then the boys racing through the door with Philip behind them pretending to be a monster.

All three of them dump their gear in the middle of the living room. I tell them to wash up for dinner, but they don’t, and I hate repeating momisms.

We eat at the kitchen table. At once, they tell me about their trip— the muddy lake, how they arranged their sleeping bags, how many marshmallows they put into their mouths at once.

“How was Figure Beach?” Philip asks.

I tell him that it was hot, it was fine, it was sunny.

The boys ask to be excused, then stomp upstairs two at a time to play video games.

Later, after they’re in bed, Philip and I watch television. We don’t really talk, we’ve quit trying to understand each other, but he puts his arm around me.

He’s tired, he says, he’ll be asleep early tonight.

I think, did the weekend happen? Only hours ago, I was staring at the calm ocean, thinking of the destruction waiting just under the surface.

But it’s like we’ve been sitting here, Philip and I, with our backs against the sofa cushions this whole time. Just as when I left, the television seems too loud, and the overdue library books wait on the step.

I stare at the turned-up corner of the rug, and the rings bitten into the coffee table. I put my legs on the coffee table. I imagine the ocean lying still below us, a shark brushing my legs. I want to be dragged under.

Photo by Ippei and Janine Naoi




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About Author

Erika Seay's fiction has appeared in the Colorado Review, South Carolina Review, New Ohio Review, CutBank, and Meridian, among other literary journals and magazines. She received an M.F.A. from the University of Arkansas and lives in Richmond, Virginia.

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