I have not, historically, been a risk taker. Try this new television show? OK. Choose a new breakfast cereal? Maybe. Strap a bungee cord to my ankle and leap face-first into a pool of asphalt? I’ll be hiding the coat closet.
Of course, I’m not saying that I should be jumping from airplanes or swan diving off cliffs to prove that I’m brave, just that I can be disproportionately afraid of certain things. At times my fear that Something Bad Will Happen can be so powerful that it dares the universe to deliver.
On our honeymoon, Bryan spent hours backstroking in the ocean outside our room, while I worried from the balcony. The water was choppy and dark, I could tell a storm was coming in, and you couldn’t see the bottom because the sand was so churned up. As all of you know, when you can’t see what’s around you, you’re obviously surrounded by vicious beasties that would like to suck the marrow from your bones.
After much cajoling, Bryan finally convinced me to join him for a swim. I cautiously waded in up to my thighs, and was immediately stung by a jellyfish.
This is how it goes. I predict that Bad Stuff will happen, and Bad Stuff never lets me down. So, this year, one of my birthday goals was to ignore my own best instincts. I decided to take more risks.
When we left for Belize, I knew it had some of the most beautiful reefs in the world, and we agreed to take a snorkeling trip. I had to steel myself for the good of the group, because I’ve never really enjoyed snorkeling. When I’m not struggling to get my mask to work, I’m floating paralyzed in a teeming soup of living things. All of them swim faster than me, and sharks totally know this.
Still, I’m the one who wanted to take more risks, so a few days into vacation we climbed aboard the boat that would take us to the reef, about fifteen minutes away from the island. Once we were in the water, my new resolve to resist panic was holding up. We’d been swimming for a half hour or so, and I was having a great time. That is, until our guide grabbed my upper arm and pointed out a dark, ominous shape waiting below us. It was a shark.
I inhaled a lungful of salt water, jerked my head up to choke and gasp for air, then smacked my face back into the water so I could monitor the shark. As our guide swam down toward it, I began to hyperventilate and search frantically for Bryan. I planned to grab him around the chest and drag him back to the boat.
Our guide took hold of the shark’s fins, and then let it pull him along as it struggled to get away. Horrified, I finally found Bryan in the tangle of limbs and snorkel masks. He read my terror, and responded with a dizzy grin, shoving his hands in my face with his thumbs pointed up. Chum, I thought.
Having scared the shark away, our guide returned to the group and we continued on our way back to the boat. I was shaking a little as I climbed aboard and peeled the mask off of my face. You didn’t like the shark much, did you? Bryan asked. No, I said. I did not.
A few minutes later, the boat stopped unexpectedly and our guide pulled out a bucket of fish. He threw handfuls overboard, and in a few moments the water was jumping with sharks. I inhaled deeply.
Climb in! our guide yelled, over the din of gnashing teeth. They won’t bite.
I drew my eyebrows in and pointed accusingly at the convulsing mass. Biting was all they seemed to be doing. Biting is, in fact, how sharks roll.
Our guide laughed, They’re nurse sharks! Not aggressive.
They were leaping and tearing at the fish, piling on top of one another to get at it. Our friend Erin, a certified diver, was already halfway down the ladder. Bryan snapped his mask on and ran his thumb beneath the elastic band. Come on, baby! he said. I clenched my teeth and whimpered.
You’re not coming? he asked, throwing one leg over the side. He was disappointed. My eyes widened. No! I said. No! Why exactly are we getting in the water here? For a front-row view of a feeding frenzy? But Bryan was already in.
I reached for my camera and kept an eye out for his head bobbing above the waves. I could hardly believe how many sharks there were, or how vicious they looked, tearing at the chum.
While I watched, I could already begin to feel the pull of regret. I knew that when we got home, I wouldn’t be able to join in when Bryan told this story to our friends; that I would have to say I’d waited in the boat.
I thought about how much of my life I’d spent watching other people do things that scared me. Here I was, standing by, while people a few feet away from me were seizing a once-in-a-lifetime moment. I knew I wasn’t being brave, and I was jealous of the others who had slipped into the water so confidently. I thought about my resolution, and how swimming with sharks is the actual clich that people use to describe foolhardy risks.
As I secured my mask, Bryan surfaced and beckoned me in. I adjusted my snorkel, and jumped.