My Bargain with Sharks
Ethan Bernard

I make a pact with the sharks for them not to attack and in return I promise to eliminate sweets from my diet. They ask for regular exercise as well. I agree. You don’t argue with sharks. Why, the sharks wonder, would I make such a deal when I have a better chance of getting killed by a bee? Well, do they make movies about killer bees? I respond. Not many, but yes, the sharks say. OK, I tell them it’s primal, relate the miseries of a life without ice cream, the ache of a well-performed push-up, and they relent.

One day I’m swimming in a river and cross paths with a bull shark (Carcharhinus leucas). Bull sharks can swim in rivers, true. We stare at each other, wide-eyed, while I hope that the memo made it into fresh water. The shark smiles, or opens its mouth, I can’t tell which, and glides underneath me while cool water rushes past my toes. I dive and we maneuver together, momentarily, until the shark darts away. This makes me feel good. At a local aquarium a whitetip reef shark (Triaenodon obesus) gives me a wink. Next I hope to learn the secret handshake.

I take swimming lessons, advanced, for I am preparing to make a swim in the open ocean. My stroke becomes effortless, my flutter kick beyond reproach. The swimming teacher tells me she’s never seen such dedication and purpose. Listen, have you ever been swimming with sharks? I ask. Yes. Well, aren’t you an all star, I say.

At night I dream of chocolate-covered peanuts frolicking in pools of caramel. That can’t be helped.

The weights at the ends of the barbell get heavier as I bench-press week after week. I buy a mask, but make a promise to use only my own breath for dives. This is staying natural. I often stand at the edge of the water at the beach, the foam of the waves just reaching my feet. Out in the distance I watch dorsal fins slicing through the sea, beckoning.

The charter is full of anxious people. The captain has dropped blood and guts into the water to attract them, the sharks. It is all perfectly safe, he assures us, though we have signed a very complicated release. The others have paid much money to watch huge predators swim past while they stay protected in a cage. A feeling of wonder mixed with fear, but steel bars give them the illusion of safety. I have other plans.

More blood and fish guts. The smell makes me dizzy. One person has succumbed to seasickness. I am not nauseous, only existentially uneasy. The seasick person sits in the galley, staring wistfully at a cupcake covered with chocolate frosting he was going to eat in triumph. Now it prompts only disgust. He offers the baked good up to me and I snatch it, wave it in his face, explain how I would like nothing better than to devour the chocolaty goodness, how I find the smell alone intoxicating, but I have made a bargain. I chuck the cupcake in the trash. Unfortunately, I lick my fingers. A nervous habit . . .

I swoon with pleasure until the creaminess stings my tongue. I hastily wipe my mouth and tell myself it was only a smidgen. What happens on the water is different. They will understand. Sharks are reasonable. Soon the white sharks (Carcharodon carcharias) encircle the boat, the engine is cut and the captain lowers the cage off the side. I pull on my mask and the glass fogs.

I make my way to the bow of the boat and tell the people that what I am about to attempt is something beautiful, the result of a well-thought-out plan and plenty of hard work. When I am through they will hear the word “Shark!” and think “dolphin,” the kind that jumps smiling through a hoop. I sense disbelief in their faces. Would you all prefer that I stop? I say. No, they answer, without pause, even the captain.

Over my shoulder I observe the sharks thrashing below, the water beaten into a froth. A sea of jagged teeth. I ball my fists to feel the muscles go taut, breathing slows, as the ship bobs in the gentle swells. Perched on the railing, facing the people, I feel the whisper of the breeze with each pitch of the bow and the warmth of the sun on my neck. At the top of a swell I vault backwards, cradling my mask, and the sky recedes until the slap where air meets liquid, and I sense the sharks, preparing my welcome.

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