How to Escape from Sharks
This is the story of my escape from a tiny little farming town in Northern California.
The ocean was five miles west of town. There were sharks in the ocean. These were the days way before surfers, really, and no one gave any thought to sharks. This was a good dozen years, at least, before “Jaws” was released.
When I was a freshman in high school, there was a beautiful girl with a beautiful voice, a singer, a senior. She set the gold standard. She came from a family with several kids. They lived out in the country. They farmed, but they were affluent. They were civilized. They’d moved to the area rather recently, which is to say they weren’t part of the decades-old antagonism that had existed between the various farming families since well before I’d come into the world. So this beautiful girl named Suzanne, who inspired such unbridled jealousy amongst every gorky girl with pimples, myself included, was out swimming in the ocean. She was with friends. Some said she was having her period. A shark whooshed up from underneath and both her legs were gone before she knew it.
This was the kind of news that made headlines in the little local paper for weeks on end. Incomprehensible tragedies, gurgling up from out of nowhere, devastating events that made no sense, whose only purpose seemed to be feeding the bulimic gossip mill. The town I came from was a Stephen King kind of town. He’d have loved it. He’d have felt right at home. The population was 12,000 the day I was born into it, and 12,000 the day I escaped. Some kind of ritualized balancing act was clearly at play.
The beautiful girl, Suzanne, recovered. She got prosthetic legs and a large van-sized vehicle with hand controls. She continued to sing, but not in the musicals. The headlines never took note of her rise to the challenge. They just rutted on and on, harvesting fresher, gorier fodder to fill the encroaching blankness of lives in that town.
They got plenty.
A couple of years after Suzanne’s shark attack, one of her younger brothers was eaten alive by a tractor, driven by their father. Conventional wisdom had it that the family was cursed. They were devout Catholics (who wasn’t?), but there was a perverse delight in the fact that these beautiful, wealthy, refined people, who toiled the earth just like most of the townsfolk, were surely getting their just desserts. They kept themselves aloof. They didn’t gossip. They didn’t feed on other folks’ misfortunes. I didn’t understand it then, but they weren’t sharks. They didn’t try to be.
But it became apparent to me that sharks don’t confine themselves to oceans. They’re in the fields, too, waiting for their glint of light, right below the dirt’s surface, vampires on the prowl. They know what’s going on up top. They’re patient. They swirl. They wait. They’re in no hurry.
A Lutheran preacher (un-Catholic), gave the dreary go-forth-and-change-the-world speech at graduation for the class ahead of mine. Six months later, he commits suicide in a motel room wearing a tee shirt and naught else, with a note to the girlfriend who’d dumped him, blaming her, if memory serves. The cops found impassioned letters from him to her. They’d been routinely smoking…….brace yourself, you are forewarned…….SPOILER ALERT……marijuana. Mari-WHAT??? A drug. A narcotic. An illegal substance the possession of which could have put him behind bars for decades. You gotta love it. The guy jerks off to his own self-pity and eats his gun. The paper publishes all the love letters, in the precise fashion the preacher had staged the whole thing, Mr. Go-Forth-and-Prosper. Wifie grabs the kids and leaves on the next train.
It was empirical proof that there are sharks under the floorboards of cheap motel rooms with neon lights blinking into them, under the discolored shag carpeting, under blood-soaked mattresses.
Here’s another one: I’m in fifth grade. Mother is principal at another grammar school. My teacher’s weird husband follows her into a grocery store and starts shooting up the place, trying to get her, my teacher, a woman I actually liked. Somehow, somehow, the cops get him before he can kill anyone. There must’ve been a cop right there, in the store. Talk about headlines. Mother couldn’t begin to deal with it because it linked her directly to the obvious insanity, danger, and violence, the cheap and fleeting nature of life in that town. It impacted her professional reputation. It was all about her. Teachers, educators, were supposed to reside high above the vagaries of life. They had a moral obligation to lead exemplary lives. Shallow, but exemplary. Shallow was just fine. Shallow was not a problem. Shallow wasn’t even a concept. It wasn’t in the lexicon. Good thing my father never figured out how to get a gun. My fifth grade teacher stayed put. She took off for a week or so, then she was right back there in front of us, with her funny stories that were actually history lessons, geography lessons, math lessons. She chose not to escape, and we kids were better off for it. Her escape had already happened for her: her husband was dead; no more threats, no more whatever hell it was she’d been living with and not letting it show on the outside. I think she actually re-married a nice, kind of nurdy gym teacher a few years later. I’m pretty sure that’s what happened. N.B.: I’m not saying here that sharks can’t be compassionate on occasion. I wouldn’t dream
of saying that.
It started to look like nowhere is safe.
Then: it’s my senior year, a week before graduation. We have a ‘Suzanne’ in our class. But of course. She’s got the highest GPA. She’s been accepted to Stanford, on scholarship. She’s going to escape and never come back. She’s dating the tallest, cutest, richest smart guy in our class. They’re down at the dunes, messing around, which in those days had nothing to do with touching unexposed skin, just so we’re clear on that, okay? They’re late. Daddy, who’s head of the high school Music Department, will likely put Cute Tall Smart Boy off limits. They’re rushing back to town on the narrow two-lane road, one lane each direction. They don’t see the big flatbed semi stuck in the east-bound lane without its lights on, with no cops around, no flares, no nothing, nothing going on, just wailing home past all the plants where they freeze all the vegetables you eat to this day, so Daddy won’t furrow his brow, because she’s such a good girl, with her whole charmed life right in front of her, and she’s got a 10:00 curfew. The station wagon slams into the flatbed semi, right at eye level. She loses a quarter of her skull. They rush her to the nearest brain surgeon, which takes about four hours. God knows how they did that with no lights and no phones and no cops. She lingers for about half a day on life support, such as it was in those days, and then that fails. Her parents give notice to the high school and are gone far away by July. They disappear into the ozone, and that’s it. Sharks again, sharks swirling, sharks on a feeding frenzy, sharks going for the tawdriest of trite drama. Her name was Michelle. We all hated her because we all wanted to be her, because everything she wanted came so easily to her, especially looking good. She was a natural, a pro, at looking good. We all felt like we’d killed her ourselves. At least that’s what I assumed. It’s not like we talked about it: Who would you most prefer to see die this week? Her death haunted me for years. There’s no guilt like Catholic guilt. It’s utterly fantasy-based. The stuff that’s reality-based, they don’t feel guilty about. Anything real can be rationalized. Michelle’s tall cute affluent boyfriend walked away without so much as a band aid. His name was Bob. I hope with all my heart he found his way home again, to the place where his soul lives. I hope he found his way back. At the very least, I hope he found some very good scotch. I hear lots of stories, about people who regain their footing after surviving bizarre things they had no desire to survive. I hope that’s what happened to Bob.
So there I was in this seemingly benign little universe that looked the same from every direction, cut off from the world by the Sharks, cut off from anything that might conceivably indulge me sufficiently to feel alive, to have a real human experience or two, unable even to express that sentiment with words or otherwise.
My dear departed shrink used to say, “You can take the girl out of the town, but you can never take all the town out of the girl.” He said that sweetly, gently, lovingly, with a wink, even, but he was wrong. I escaped. I remain escaped. I was never there. My first order of business, dispatched in very short order, was to pull a Michael Jackson. I so feel for him. I morphed everything imaginable about my appearance, my language, my background, my history with sharks. I reinvented myself right there on the spot. I did it deliberately, and I did it well. That was my real escape, not just leaving the city limits, not just pole-vaulting over the moat. You have no idea who I am. You don’t know anything about me.
One thing I learned along the way is that if people need something to talk about, I”ll gleefully give them plenty. This has served me well. I can still carry it off with a certain je ne sais quoi. That’s what the sharks taught me. They taught me how to lay low, then cause a big fat commotion. Someday I’ll write them a thank-you note. They also taught me by omission the value of subtle, nuanced drama, the value of principled drama, ironic drama, sarcastic drama, innocent drama. They taught me to nurture my curiosity. They taught me that no matter how anything in my life looks from the outside, it can be authentic to me, and that’s all that matters. They taught me not to spend my life looking like shark bait.
They taught me the world owed me a whole big bunch of fun.
I ‘scaped. I went off to college in Southern California, all the while Mother telling me I wasn’t smart enough, I’d never have any friends, I was lucky to have her for a mother. I applied, I got accepted to two UC campuses, I told my mother I needed a check (that part was never a viable issue), and I packed myself up. There were 450 kids in my senior high school class. Seven (7) of us revealed ourselves to be heretics by turning our backs on Sharkville. No one said, “Good luck.” No one said, “Have a nice life,” or “We’ll miss you. Take care.” Are you freaking kidding me? Who the hell did I think I was, that Shark City wasn’t good enough for me? Who the HELL??? I’d be back inside six months, my tail between my legs.
So I went away to college, and it turned out everyone there had left somewhere, and we learned overnight we’d all grown up in the same house, in the same fog, with the same secrets and sorrows. Even the sharks that chased us there were the same; they, too, were all related. We had all been variously robbed of our innocence, and now, we’d found each other. Game on.
A year and a half later, I married a rock musician (a WHAT???), a nice Jewish boy who’d been on the Steering Committee of the Free Speech Movement, who’d edited and published the Daily Cal when the University closed it down, who came from LA and from money. This was me, the one who hadn’t been invited to my own senior prom. The one who’d never so much as been kissed in Shark City. Hoards of people traveled from Sharkville to Santa Barbara to gawk at me getting married. They couldn’t begin to get over it. I hear I was the talk of the town for years. Most probably, it was only for a few months. Like I said, I’m pretty good at that kind of thing.
We had fun, before I eventually learned I’d married my mother, sveltely exchanging one control freak for another. But until then we had fun, and we surfed the crest of the big wave for five years, and the sharks left us alone. Not a bad run. We divined hippie weddings, then we divined hippie divorces. We had a beautiful baby who’s today more beautiful than ever.
She hasn’t been back to that town since she was six years old, and we were merely passing through.
That’s how you escape.
Judy Evans is a girlfriend, mother, and friend.
To comment on this story, visit Fiction365’s Facebook page