Lest our business outweigh our pleasure—an imbalance we were taught in the 90’s to resist—we decided to hit the beach our very first afternoon. Shawn, Chris, and I had flown to Florida for a company meeting but weren’t about to be Ohioans who squandered such a moment by wearing ties the whole week. So we donned our new trunks and discount gold herringbones and strutted toward the water, shirtless and pompous. Imagine our swagger, our ability to rap all the lyrics to Ice Ice Baby unironically. If you’re feeling pity and laughing while imagining it, you have it right.
Chris was the tallest of the three of us. But what he had in height he lacked in athleticism. Shawn was short, but not just congenitally. Shawn had been crippled years before in an automobile accident which left his legs and ankles stiff. He walked somewhat better than C3P0. And there was me, neither tall, short, or injured, but anxious that in the presence of a young woman at the beach I would do what I always did and say something stupid. That I could do so was legend. For a time, some of the guys referred to an asinine thing being said to another as “Steveing.”
Once at the beach it became clear that despite our efforts, it was the lifeguard who had standardized attractiveness. There he was, up in his chair, his body tan and taught, twirling his whistle in an apparently hypnotic circle to the fawning young ladies around him. We walked past them all and made for the tide, Chris and I leaving footprints, Shawn his awkward scuffs.
It wasn’t long before we were hip deep. Then chest deep. Then bobbing up with the waves and coming back down to barely touch our feet. There was unspoken agreement that we’d be pushing further out to sea, but I don't know why. We were swimming out past the buoys, the horizon coming in and out of view in front of us, the beach doing the same thing behind. I suppose we thought this made us brave, made us better than the lifeguard, or at least just as worthy of attention. Who knows. Out we swam.
As we laughed and splashed and yelled like oversized children, I heard a noise. Chris heard it too. Like someone clearing snot from their nose. We gave each other a glance as we rolled over the top of a swell. Then, just beyond us, two enormous black triangles broke the surface, followed by two huge spouts of water and the nose-clearing sound again.
I inhaled water and coughed out an alarm. “Killer whales! Oh my God killer whales!”
I’d seen those videos where killer whales come all the way up to the shore, all the way up onto the beach, to eat seals. I’d also looked in the hotel mirror before walking to the beach and knew that I was more seal-shaped than I was lifeguard-shaped. And we weren't even near the only-relative safety of dry land. Terror filled my mind as I imagined these creatures coming up from below and tossing us into the air for sport before finally biting us in half. The fins and sprays again, Dear Lord I’m gonna die in Florida.
I began clawing at the water and yelling “SWIM!” to Chris and Shawn. They were also a blur of arms and water and expletives. I heard the blowholes again behind us. “GO GO GO!” I choked.
I grew up on a lake in Ohio. I understand the many differences between two miles of dammed, dirty river water and the ocean, but when it comes to swimming I consider that lake as having given me an edge. That is, I credit my lakeside childhood for putting me in a distant lead as we made for the shore, with Chris several yards behind me, and Shawn, God bless him, not terribly far from where we’d started. There’s an old joke about two lawyers being confronted by a bear and one lawyer explaining he didn’t need to outrun the bear, just the other lawyer. I felt a responsibility to my friends behind me but was also aware that Shawn’s fused ninety-degree ankles might prove to be a real Godsend. I’m not proud of this.
My feet finally got purchase on sand and I ran out of the water gasping. Chris had also begun running while Shawn was still 20 yards out, cussing and splashing his way to safety. On impulse I decided to become Roy Scheider in Jaws and warn the good people of Amity Island. I couldn’t catch my breath or think clearly and so I pointed out to the water and yelled two words at the same time. One word was Orca. The other was whale. The former was to make an intellectual appeal, so people would take the warning seriously. The latter was to make sure I was understood quickly. But the two words blended and I was pointing and yelling, “Quail!”
Folks had watched us swim ashore in a panic, and had now heard me warn them about game birds. I tried again and correctly pronounced it whale. Still, blank stares all around. I couldn’t understand it. Chris ran up beside me and was yelling the same thing, in his way. “Killer Whales man. Get your kids, man.”
Shawn finally scooted out onto dry land, coughing and panting, looking better set to yell “oil can” than anything about the sea. We were thankful to have made it out alive, but I couldn’t understand why it seemed like everyone else couldn’t have cared less than they apparently did.
I ran to Captain Body Shave in his lifeguard chair, the pod of young women still huddled around the base of it. Their smiles gave way to bewildered stares as I ran up to them, pausing as I now had with my hands on my knees, desperately trying to catch my breath.
“Hey…man…warn everyone…killer whales…orca…two of them….”
The lifeguard drew in a long breath, still twirling his whistle. He looked out at the water, back at me, then at Chris, then at Shawn who was now lying in the sand on his back, wheezing. Then he uttered with near indifference,
I started to argue but was quickly mindful that my lake experience gave me no edge here. I had never heard of black dolphins, but this was no time for Steveing. I thought “black dolphins” sounded made up, mythical even. And yet it made sense that if there were such things as black dolphins then I too would probably only stare passively while those who do not know about black dolphins work through their hilariously ignorant fear. Maybe the reason no one was panicking like me was because they knew what I didn't.
After a beat I managed an, “Oh” and walked away. We pulled Shawn out of the sand and returned to the hotel.
At the end of the week we got on a plane to fly back to Ohio. An hour into the flight there was heavy turbulence that made me feel a sudden bolt of anxiety. Luggage rattled and my drink sloshed. Dear Lord I’m gonna die in the sky. Feeling fear swell inside me, I looked to the face of the flight attendant standing in the aisle. Her face was serene. Untroubled. So I assumed her peace was more informed than my terror and I uncoiled myself and enjoyed the flight. Because though things can go terribly wrong sometimes, I was beginning to learn that most times, killer whales turn out to not be whales at all.