A breeze darted up from the water below as the sun settled down into the ocean. Bradley and I sat outside on an upstairs patio at the Waterfront. I wanted the atmosphere to be romantic, but it never quite was with him.
The weather cooled more and I shivered in a sundress, the only nice outfit I’d packed for an eight-week trip. He wore a 1970s-style short-sleeved shirt with a coffee stain across the pocket, the material worn so thin his white undershirt was visible beneath it. It might have once belonged to his dad, the surgeon, or he might have picked it up at a thrift shop.
I wished he would offer me his brand-name fleece jacket to take the chill off my shoulders and arms, even though I knew it would be too small for me to zip. Like his jacket, Bradley didn’t quite fit me. I knew that before we left Los Angeles for the internship in South Africa. I knew it back at the start of the first semester when I was just getting to know him, when we sat a table that looked out on the water at the Santa Monica pier.
A different ocean churned below us now, the Atlantic instead of the Pacific, and we were far below the equator where the seasons reversed course. And I knew I had no chance
“I’m thinking about going on a shark dive,” Bradley said, his thin lips pulled into a grin.
He took an oozing bite of lasagna and then tipped dark Pinotage into my glass. I told him the meal was on me and he’d ordered a bottle to share, even though he knew I rarely drank red wine.
“You know, like 70 percent of the time when people go whale watching, they never see anything,” I said, spouting off a stat I’d heard the one time I’d gone on a tour at Dana Point for a story I’d written at a parenting magazine where I’d interned the semester before. “I bet it’s the same with sharks.”
“I talked to some guy when we were in Simon’s Town and he told me about a couple outfits that guarantee an encounter.”
“How can they do that?”
He looked out to the water and then turned his green eyes back to me, a mischievous tilt to his head.
“Guess they throw fish guts in the water and that attracts great whites.”
He ran his fingers through his shag of sandy blond hair and I found myself reaching up to tuck my own hair behind my ears, a bit of discomfort, a bit of flirt. I held the glass up to my mouth and paused, an attempt to draw his attention to my wine-stained lips, the one part allowed to be full and supple without judgment.
“I’ve seen one up close before, a great white,” I said. “At the Monterey Bay Aquarium. They had a juvenile one when I was home for Christmas break.”
“Not quite the same. I imagine it’s the ultimate adrenaline rush.”
“My point is even a baby one was huge. I can’t imagine being in the ocean with a full-grown one. Maybe even more than one.”
He rattled off something he’d read online at the internet cafe about the materials used for the cages.
“They are so safe,” he said. “I’m totally going to do it. Maybe in two weeks. You should come with me.”
I shook my head no, but then the words that came out didn’t match.
“Okay. I’ll go.”
“Alright, Sadie, let’s do it. Just you and me, kid.”
He reached across the table and touched his slender fingers to my shoulder, his cheeks rosy from consuming the majority of the bottle of wine. Moments like that made it hard to move on.
We met in ordinary circumstances, two graduate students standing in line at orientation, waiting for ID card photos. And then we happened to have all our classes together that first semester.
Bradley called me the second week on my landline, having looked up my phone number in the directory. He asked about a homework assignment, but then we talked for an hour. About classes, about our classmates, about nothing really. Bradley got in the habit of calling me and talking for hours a few nights a week. I could hear him on the other end of the line exhaling his cigarette smoke into his room, or chugging a diet Coke, or sometimes taking a piss. I let myself be flattered that he didn’t hang up on me to meet these bodily needs.
He sat next to me in class every night, the smell of smoke and cologne lingering in the air between the Apple computers at the table top desks.
The second semester we both applied for an internship program in South Africa, one of three far-flung possibilities. The Cape Town location made the most sense for me with my focus on print journalism, but it also meant a summer spent with Bradley.
At LAX, he carried all his stuff in a military green duffle bag that stood almost as tall as me when he held it up vertically at the baggage check. We boarded together and I swapped my aisle seat for his middle one so he could stretch out his long legs. In exchange, he let me nuzzle against his shoulder as I fell asleep for the long red eye flight, the smell of his last cigarette before takeoff entrenched in his thermal top.
We had barely a day to adjust to the time and we were due to arrive with other students at the Newspaper House building on St. Georges Mall by 9 a.m. Bradley and I walked that first morning, past a mural of sea creatures on the outside of the Two Oceans Aquarium along the curve of Dock Road where a crew of men in hard hats worked to renovate a ship in a dry dock. We stopped at a coffee shop and Bradley paid for his coffee and a hot chocolate for me as I pulled out a few rand from my pocket.
“I got you today, Sadie. You can pay tomorrow.”
We were assigned to work for the same paper but the rhythm of the first day kept us separated. I walked past him while he took a break in the smoking lounge as I went out on assignment with a South African photographer who served as both chauffeur and translator. I arrived back just before the end of the day to find him laughing with Melody, a girl from our class I didn’t know well.
The next morning, I waited in the dorm lobby for Bradley to walk to work and Melody was there in a brown armchair moments before I arrived.
“Do you guys want to share a tuk-tuk to the paper today?” she asked.
“We’ve been walking. It’s cheaper and we get a little exercise in.”
“That’s a good idea. I could use it.”
Bradley and Melody fell into a stride together, smoking cigarettes and sharing stories of life on the East Coast, while I fell a step behind. She was a thin girl with two blond streaks in her hair and a wardrobe of punk t-shirts.
One morning when Melody didn’t show up, Bradley and I made our way up Dock Road alone.
“I think she likes you,” I said.
“Doesn’t matter,” he said. “She’s not really my type. She’s kind of annoying. She’s always trying to prove she’s cooler than everyone else.”
I smiled at that and fell into the same stride as him.
Halfway through the internship, someone in our program had a birthday so we went out to dinner in the town center at a restaurant that converted into a night club after dark. The speakers played booming bass and I moved out of step with the rhythm with the other girls from class. Bradley sat at a table in the corner, security for our coats and purses.
“I’ll buy you a drink for watching all the stuff,” I said. “What do you want?”
“Absinthe,” he said.
“Seriously?” I asked.
“Yeah, I saw a bottle at the bar. Do a shot with me.”
I ordered two and brought the bright green liquid in glasses back to his table.
“Whoa, what are you guys doing?” Melody asked. “You’re gonna hallucinate tonight.”
“That’s not true,” Bradley said. “It’s just like vodka. Doesn’t get you high.”
He clinked his glass against mine and we shot it down. It tasted like an herbal licorice and I coughed as it hit my throat.
“Can’t handle your absinthe, huh?” he threw his head back with a deep laugh, his shaggy hair falling back from his eyes.
I moved back to the dance floor, sweat streaking across a v-neck t-shirt, and Melody followed me. She leaned toward one of the other girls, her Clash T-shirt wrinkled and tucked into her jeans, and whispered something. They laughed. Then Melody leaned toward me.
“Do you think getting him drunk is going to get you laid tonight?” she said, her hot breath on my ear.
“What does that mean?” I asked.
“Everyone knows you like him and he’s totally not into you.”
“I don’t like him. We’re just friends.”
My cheeks burned and my eyes started to sting. I clenched my teeth to hold it all in.
“Yeah, right. You only came to South Africa to be near him.”
The absinthe crept back up my throat and into the back of my mouth. I was going to be sick or I was going to cry. I moved through the crowd toward the bathroom, but the door was locked. I went back to the table and grabbed my purse and coat, then headed toward the exit.
“Where are you going?” Bradley called, but I didn’t turn around. I got out onto the sidewalk, my ears still ringing from the loud music, and Bradley touched my shoulder.
“You can’t walk home alone,” he said. “I’ll go with you.”
“Don’t you want to walk Melody home?”
“Yeah, but she’s not ready to leave yet.”
I pulled out of his grasp and started walking.
“Sadie, stop. I’m joking. You need me to go with you. You aren’t even walking in the right direction to get to the hotel.”
“You’re an asshole, Bradley. I can figure it out. I just need to find the ocean and then I follow it west.”
My face buckled then and the tears started.
“You’re an asshole. Just leave me alone.”
Bradley took my hand and led me in the opposite direction I was facing.
“Let me walk with you.”
His voice was calm and smooth, his fingers cold locked into mine.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m really drunk. No absinthe for me anymore.”
When we got back to the dorms, he bought a bottled water from a vending machine and handed it to me at my door.
“Drink this and get some rest,” he said. “And maybe take some aspirin. See you in the morning.”
After that, I left early for the newsroom and walked alone along the dry dock, listening to music on my iPod. I didn’t want to face Bradley and his disinterest in me. I spent as much time out in the field with the South African photographers as I could manage.
The following weekend, our professor rented a chartered bus to take us to the Cape of Good Hope, I couldn’t avoid Bradley. Almost everyone was hung over, except for me, because they’d all gone out the night before while I stayed in and wrote postcards home. Bradley fell asleep on the back of the bus and then as soon as we arrived at the tourist site, he took off at a brisk pace alone.
Melody and the other girls sat on picnic benches at the base of the hike out toward the vista point, too tired for the trek. I followed the path, Bradley’s worn jeans and gray sweater a blur in the distance ahead of me. My legs grew sore and the wind whipped my long hair against my face, but I kept moving forward. Bradley had disappeared around a curve in the rocky trail and I stopped to take photos of the turquoise water below.
As I approached the end of the trail, I could smell the remnants of a recent cigarette mixed in the sea air.
Bradley stood there, leaning on a post, his eyes closed.
“Hey,” I said
“Hey. Want a picture? Proof that you were here?”
I handed him my digital camera and the shutter clicked under his finger.
“Looks like your memory card is getting full,” he said. “Do you have another one?”
“I filled them up already. I was going to buy one at the Waterfront, but they were super expensive.”
“I can upload some of the photos to my laptop and burn them on a CD or something when we get home.”
“Thanks. That would be nice.”
That’s how we ended up at the nice Italian place— thank to him for backing up my photos. After dinner, Bradley told everyone in the newsroom we were going to shark dive in three weeks.
“Are you sure about that?” our professor asked. “I don’t think it’s a good idea.”
“I’ve been researching and one company seems reputable,” Bradley said. “Anyone else want to go?”
Bradley made the reservations and we each put a $50 deposit down. We owed another $100 on the day of the tour.
Melody smirked at me in the newsroom while we both typed up stories on deadline.
“You? Shark diving?”
I kept typing as though I didn’t hear her.
At lunch a couple days later, Bradley tried to pay for his sandwich and his credit card was declined.
“That’s weird,” he said. “I don’t have any cash. Can you spot me?”
I handed over some rands.
“I’ll pay you back after I check in with the bank.”
“Bad news,” he said, in the newsroom the next day. “I guess I got overdrawn in my checking account. I’m not going to have the money for the shark dive. We can still cancel and get our deposits back if we do it today. I’ll look into it when I get back after my assignment.”
Melody sat down next to me as soon as he left.
“Guess you dodged a bullet there,” she said. “We all know you were only going because you’re in love with Bradley. We’ve all been laughing about how you’d do anything for him.”
“I’m not in love with him,” I said, shuffling my notes to keep from looking at her.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if you offered him the money to go.”
“I’m not going to give him money. And I’m still going. With or without him.”
When Bradley got back to the newsroom, I sat in the chair next to him.
“Don’t cancel my reservation when you call the shark dive place,” I said. “I’m still going to go.”
“Are you sure?”
I was. I needed to prove something, not to Melody or the other girls, not to Bradley. To myself.
The day of the dive, Bradley offered to ride to Simon’s Town with me but I said I’d go alone. I reserved a cab to take me to the harbor and waited outside the lobby with a towel and a clean pair of clothes in my backpack, a black one-piece suit under my jeans and sweater.
“Good luck,” he said. “I’ll see you tonight. Take pictures of whatever you can. I’m so jealous.”
At the harbor, the boat was smaller than I had expected. The crew numbered five and then there were five of us to dive. Two Australian surfers, a couple from England and me. Would have been six of us with Bradley.
“Brave of you to go alone,” the British woman said.
The dive expert went over all the equipment and handed out wet suits for us.
“We don’t use chum, but we’ve had good luck the last few days,” he said. “A couple of younger males have been hunting in the area.”
My stomach somersaulted as I thought about the shark I’d seen in the aquarium over the winter.
“Who wants to go first?” the crew man asked.
“I’ll go.” I said. If I didn’t go first, I worried I’d back out.
He helped me zip up my wetsuit, so tight it kept me from trembling despite my growing trepidation. Then he connected the diving gear I’d never used before and my fears expanded to all the things that could go wrong in the water, shark or no shark.
“We are going to lower you in,” he said. “If we don’t see any activity, we’ll pull you out after 20 minutes. If we do get a sighting and you want to come up earlier, you can pull on the rope and we’ll bring you up.”
I stood on the edge of the boat, a cove full of jackass penguins and seals in the distance, and the crew helped lower me awkwardly into the cage. As soon as I got underneath the surface, I settled into the weightless feeling I always loved in a pool, but I couldn’t relax the way I did in the confines of a concrete space devoid of sea life. I listened to the swoosh of my breath in and out, but everything else was quiet. The water was dim, but I could see sparkles from the sun when I looked up.
I tread water in an uneasy circle from the center of the edge, with a secret hope that my 20 minutes would expire without an encounter. I thought about Melody’s words and they echoed true through the underwater silence. I didn’t belong on this trip, or in this cage – and I didn’t belong with Bradley, my hopes aside.
My thoughts ricocheted as I stayed in the center of the cage, controlled movements and an eye watching all directions. I didn’t know how long I’d been there when I saw a movement in the distance from my left. I saw a flash of white and then nothing. Everything fell away then: the clique, the newsroom assignments awaiting me, Bradley. My breathing accelerated, my body tensed.
And then I saw all of it, a gray head with a small black eye, a white belly and a tail fin flipping in the current. The shark looked smaller than the one I’d seen in the aquarium, but more foreboding without 13-inch-thick glass between us. It came right at me and I froze, unable to tug on the line to be lifted out into the sun, into the air.
I reached up one hand to the line, but my fingers wouldn’t grip it and my eyes widened as the shark moved in a zig zag, a wake of ripples trailed it. I held my breath and closed my eyes behind my face mask, willing it to disappear. When I opened them, I saw the shark’s dorsal fin, its nose pointed away from the cage. Something in the distance caught its eye, a penguin or a seal pup, and it was off.’
The shark wasn’t interested in me.
I was something to toy with for a moment while he waited for what he really wanted.
Favorite drink: Peach sangria.
2 limes, sliced
2 peaches, sliced
one can of peach nectar
2 cups peach schnapps
Mix those ingredients and refrigerate for several hours.
Top off with:
1 bottle sparkling white wine
1 cup lime-flavored sparkling water
Melissa Flores Anderson is a Latinx Californian and an award-winning journalist. Her creative work has been published by Punk Noir Magazine, Rigorous Magazine, Livina Press, Variant Lit, Roi Fainéant Press, and others. She served as guest editor Roi Fainéant Press’ first special issue, HEAT, due out 6.26.22. Follow her on Twitter @melissacuisine or IG @theirishmonths
image: MM Kaufman