By Cecilia Kennedy
In the shallow end of the pool, I can see my pale legs streaked with sunscreen as I tug on my suit and push the skirted bottom down so I don’t look like an inverted umbrella. Cocoa-butter-jasmine-scented lotion hovers in the humid air above while I pull myself through the icy blue water. I’m suddenly aware that I’m smiling. I’ve finally made it here, to summer—after such a long winter—and I’ve treated myself to a dip in the pool.
Children laugh, play, and splash. A woman I’ve never met before reaches for my arm and tells me about the barracuda that’s “right here—right in this pool” swimming with us, and “isn’t it amazing? A barracuda. Imagine that!”
The smile on my face grows rounder as I stare at her with an open mouth of surprise and sheer wonder that this woman thinks a barracuda, in a swimming pool, is a fortunate thing. All around me, the children shout, “I’ve seen it!”
“It’s this big,” one tells me while stretching out his arms as far as they will go, which is about three feet. I decide that a three-foot barracuda is just too big for this swimming pool—for any pool, really, but the adults and children here are swimming out towards the deep end, hoping to find it.
At one point, I look up at the lifeguard, who is sitting in a chair high above me, and he’s been listening to the conversations in the shallow end—and he smiles.
“Oh, yes. We’re the only pool in this area with a barracuda. Gotta love that!” he says.
I don’t respond. I just stand there with my mouth still hanging open, so he continues.
“They don’t hurt you. People really aren’t on the menu. They swim fast—that’s their defense. You couldn’t even catch it if you wanted to.”
But I really want to know what it’s doing in chlorinated water and how it’s surviving—and if it’s even legal to keep a barracuda in a community swimming pool, but the people around me are so incredibly happy that I just don’t have the heart to ruin everything, so I try to relax and swim.
About midway out, I see it. A thin, silvery thing with a protruding underbite and dark crossbars that run like ridges down its back. I can’t see its jaw, but I’ve heard that barracudas have sharp, jagged, irregular teeth that can tear large chunks of flesh from its prey. It passes by and moves out of sight. Now, I’m waiting—just waiting to hear a child scream—a child who has accidentally cornered it, and I can’t shake this thought from my head. The blood in my ears throbs as my heart pulses in my chest. It’s the only sound I hear now. My fingers and toes begin to twitch, and I’m overcome by the urge to leave the pool immediately.
I pull myself through the water with my arms as quickly as I can. When I reach the stairs in the shallow end, I stumble ungracefully onto the concrete. All of the loose parts of my flesh that aren’t stuffed into or tied down to my suit flop about and I hope no one is looking. But the lifeguard is watching, and when his shift ends, he makes his way over to my chair and reminds me that barracudas aren’t dangerous. And now I feel ridiculous—and ashamed. Perhaps I’ve broken a rule. So I go back to the pool and watch the barracuda glide back and forth, like a thin silver flash of lightning, and I keep thinking about how lightning and water don’t mix.
Then, I remember. My mother once told me that when I was a baby, she flew with me on a plane overnight, during a thunderstorm. Lightning struck our plane and blew out one of the engines. The pilot told everyone not to panic because he could still fly the plane and land it safely, which he did. So maybe that was my one brush with death—and I’d lived.
By the edge of the pool, I stand, until the children go by. “This is silly,” I tell myself. “No one else is afraid, and it looks like fun. Don’t I deserve to live a bit? To not be so afraid? To be the first in this pool to touch the barracuda?”
When I see an opening, I dive in head first, aiming for the thin silver line that swims into view. All around me, the people shout a warning and I see, upside-down—and far too late—the number 3 and the letters “FT” painted onto the floor of the pool. The glint of the concrete and the tiny waves of water washing over the stairs in the shallow end are such small things I’d overlooked. How much time had I wasted on the seemingly bigger things? I feel a rush of scales against my cheek—and I’m savoring this brush with a streak of lightning.