by Lizzie Bankowski
Runestone, volume 2
In the opening scene of Jaws, Chrissie and her boyfriend are running toward the ocean at dusk. She yells for him to hurry into the water, but he’s drunk and stumbles through the sand. She is swimming by herself when her body gets yanked underwater. She screams for help, but the boyfriend sleeps on the shore.
“It hurts! It hurts,” she screams before being pulled underwater to die.
Jaws was the first ever blockbuster film, making $470 million in box office revenue worldwide. The film petrified people, but they continued to see it, because everyone loves a good shark story.
People have a habit of paying attention to great whites, but it’s the tiger shark that should frighten us. Falling close behind the great white, tiger sharks are the second most threatening species. They appear to be non-violent when they cruise through the open ocean, but are often called the garbage cans of the sea, because their serrated j-shaped teeth equip them to eat anything, and they do. They’re ferocious and focused hunters—they don’t stop until it’s over.
Tiger sharks are dark on the top, light on the bottom with sharp, gray stripes across their backs, mimicking the rays of sunlight shooting down into the water. They’re nearly impossible to spot until it’s too late. When smaller sharks happen to see a tiger shark swimming above them in the open ocean, they dive deep and disappear before any harm comes to them.
Why didn’t I think of that?
In August, we went on a camping trip for your seventeenth birthday. We drove up to the James River in northern Virginia with your parents and your uncle and went tubing. Our tubes came to a giant rock, shooting twenty feet high out of the river that we stopped to climb. Your mom got her camera out to take pictures of us jumping off. As I was climbing, I thought, “What the fuck am I doing? We could die.” But I kept climbing right behind you—one slippery water shoe after the other.
I’d like to think I would’ve leapt with or without you, but I’d also like to think you weren’t the reason I wanted to jump.
That was the weekend we said, “I love you.”
You were dropping me off, and we sat in my driveway for a while before I muttered a barely intelligible “I love you.” I was surprised you even caught it, and I half hoped you didn’t, but you did. So, you kind of muttered it back and then drove away.
Tiger sharks like warm, sub-tropical waters. They’re commonly found in Hawaii near coral reefs and harbors. It’s rare for a tiger shark to bite a human, but when they do, it’s usually fatal. When tiger sharks attack, they don’t hit and run. Instead, they chomp and thrash until they’ve eaten whatever they can of the victim.
We went to the movie theater I worked at to see a movie called Seeking a Friend for the End of the World. You didn’t want to see it, but I did because I thought it would be funny. At the concession stand, you bought Sour Patch Kids—four dollars—and a large Coke—six dollars. I told you not to get the large because it was expensive and you get free refills with the medium anyway. You handed the guy behind the counter your card and said to me, “It’s just money. They print more every day.”
In the movie, the world is ending—a meteor is going to crash into Earth. Steve Carell plays a boring insurance agent who goes on an adventure with his lively neighbor, played by Keira Knightley. She needs to find someone who can fly a plane so she can get home to her family. Steve and Keira end up falling in love—who would’ve thought?
At the end of the movie, the two are trying to keep each other calm. They look deeply into each other’s eyes and exchange sweet nothings in hushed tones. Then, after a flash of white light, we are left to assume that the world has ended and they are dead as the credits roll. I wiped my eyes before makeup could run down my face. I turned toward you and you couldn’t even look at me because you were trying not to laugh.
Tiger sharks are a solitary species, typically coming together during mating season only. When they mate, the male will hold the female still by biting down on one of her pectoral fins, leaving lasting abrasions in her cartilage.
We got into a fight, but it wasn’t a fight. It was just an exchange of tiny, electronic words back and forth through cyber space. No voices. No faces. No bodies.
It was our last day of summer and I decided, very consciously, not to spend that day with you, which put you on edge, so you picked a fight. I became a sobbing mess on Rachel’s bedroom floor, so breathless and red-faced that Rachel’s father asked if he needed to call my parents. All because you picked the right words and hit the right weak spots, after months of me being under your careful microscopic observation.
You just need to get some thicker skin.
I don’t know what to tell you.
I can’t change.
The next day—our first day of senior year—we had pre-calculus together. I was scared of you, but I was prepared to forgive you. At that point you were just an exit sign inside a burning room, but it wasn’t quite painful enough to leave.
Head on, great whites look like they’re smiling because their mouths curve upward and remain open so you can see their teeth. Tiger sharks’ mouths, however, are usually closed and curved downward into a smirk. They hide their teeth under a curved layer of cartilage that acts like a lip. Ninety percent of the time you don’t see a tiger shark’s teeth until they’re going in to bite.
It always killed me how you never used punctuation in your text messages. When I suggested that you throw in a comma or a period every now and then, you told me to shut up.
“Don’t be such a bitch about everything,” you said with a smile.
I found a way to go numb, a way to take it. I figured out how to lie to you about where I was and who I was with so you wouldn’t get angry. I figured out how to spend as little time as possible with you and still call it a relationship. It became a science.
“I know I should break up with him,” a few more weeks.
“I don’t know how to do it,” another month.
“I’m still figuring out how to tell him,” one more month.
“He hasn’t been so bad lately.”
You tell me it’s ridiculous that I always ask you for help with the pre-calculus homework. I should be able to do this. It’s easy.
“I think we’ll be okay.”
All finfish have a sensory organ called a lateral line. It’s a long canal filled with small hairs that sit just under the scales of the skin. A tiger shark’s lateral line runs from its eyes, all the way to the end of its caudal fin.
Tiger sharks’ impeccable senses stem from this line along their bodies. Through the lateral line, they can feel every electrical impulse in the water—every vibration and every movement. If a human is diving and comes across a tiger shark, they’re supposed to slow their heart rate and stay as still as possible so the shark won’t detect movement.
We were crossing the intersection of Nimmo and Upton when you got in the left lane thinking you had enough time to speed past five cars and merge into the right lane before the left lane ended. You did it Fast and Furious style—without using your brakes or turn signal.
I watched the oncoming cars get closer and closer and thought, ”I’m going to die in this fucking car with this fucking guy. We’re going to get crushed and our guts are going to spill into the Red Robin parking lot and they’re going to call us reckless teenagers or young lovers on the news and there will be a vigil at school with candles and tears and no one will know what the fuck was really going on.”
You slammed on the gas and swerved into the right lane just before the left lane ended. Then you made a hard left into my neighborhood. You pulled up to my house and I wobbled out of the car, slamming the door behind me. As I stumbled up my driveway, I heard you yell at me, “Hey! Don’t slam my door like that!”
When a whale dies, the carcass sinks and becomes a feast to several marine organisms. When tiger sharks happen upon a whale fall, instead of digging in right away, they swim in circles around it to claim it as their own, graciously granting other fish a window of opportunity to leave unharmed. Then, the tiger sharks feast until there’s nothing left but blood and bone.
“I can’t do this anymore,” my voice shook. “I haven’t been happy in a long time.”
“Sorry you feel that way.”
You must have seen it coming because it felt way too rehearsed. I can see you at the dinner table with your parents as they ask how it’s going between the two of us.
“She’s probably going to break up with me soon,” you might tell them.
“What will you do if she does?” your parents probably ask you, on the edge of their seats because they love me—I’m the daughter they never had and they are blind to how sick you make me and how much I get on your nerves.
“Probably play it cool and say ‘Sorry you feel that way,’ or something like that.”
It hurt you. I know it hurt you, because the next day at school word got around that I was a bitch, that you gave me everything and I tossed you to the side. I threw it all away. I hung you out to dry.
When tiger sharks hunt, they swim low to the sand and circle a reef or a school of fish a few times to survey what prey is available. Once they lock in on their chosen prey, they will slowly approach and do a “test bump” with their snout. They will then start to swim in the opposite direction, giving the prey a chance to let its guard down. This is when the shark comes back and attacks.
Tiger sharks’ upper jaws are not attached to their skull, so they can extend their jaw further in order to get more food into their mouth. Tiger sharks prefer to eat their prey whole in order to minimize their own risk for injury.
The pictures—deleted, the jewelry—trashed, the flowers—dead. Once it was over, there was nothing left to do but let the last of the water circle the drain.
It was March when the next girl found her way over to my desk in class one day to ask me about you.
“I hope this isn’t weird, but can I talk to you?”
You were fully aware that she and I worked together at the movie theater we always went to. When I found out that you two were dating, I decided you must have had a thing for free movie tickets.
If I had been smart, I would’ve told her to drop everything and run as fast as she could. But the version of myself I knew from ten months ago wouldn’t have listened, so I knew she wouldn’t either.
“Be patient with him,” I told her, “don’t get upset when he doesn’t reply right away. He’s a guy, they don’t do that.”
But you never replied to her right away for the same reason you got rid of her when it came time for prom and the same reason you told me you got a concussion at wrestling camp when you didn’t feel like dealing with me.
The myth that sharks constantly have to be swimming to breathe comes from the misconception that sharks sleep—sharks don’t sleep, they rest. Some sharks have to continue swimming, but others don’t. Tiger sharks either pass water over their gills swimming at an average speed of 2.4 miles per hour, or they barely cruise with their mouths open and pump water through their gills from the inside.
This versatility allows tiger sharks to slowly get close to their prey and then attack before the prey gets the chance to feel threatened.
It was May, we were sixteen, and we were at a pool party with my friends. You were hanging out with all of them for the first time. We sat in a circle in Chloe’s backyard and played “Never Have I Ever.”
Each person starts with five fingers up, and you go around and say things to try to get everyone else out. “Never have I ever watched porn,” “Never have I ever been hung over,” “Never have I ever smoked weed.” You have to put a finger down if you’ve done what is said. The first person with all five fingers down loses.
You put a finger down for every one. I didn’t put any fingers down.
It was April, we were seventeen and broken up when you texted me a picture of a note I had left in your room months ago.
I found this when I was cleaning my room and it just reminded me of the good old days.
I thought maybe you were about to grovel. I thought maybe you were about to apologize. Instead, you sent me a long, sappy message about how your prom plans fell through and how you didn’t want to go alone.
I was wondering if maybe you would want to go with me?
At this point, we were civil. We would occasionally joke with each other in pre-calc. We didn’t dodge each other’s glances anymore. We were very adult.
I told you I’d think about it. I told you that if we were to go together, it would have to be just as friends.
The next day, your mother texted me and asked what color my dress was. I told her it was yellow, but that you and I hadn’t decided for sure if we were going together or not. She replied with a smiley face.
On May 17th, it had been exactly a year since we first got together. Broken up, we walked into prom as “just friends.” But you clearly had other ideas when you snatched my hand for almost all of the pictures. I realized “just friends” wasn’t going to work for you when you stayed close enough to collect every word I had to say, and some part of you had to be touching some part of me the entire night.
It wasn’t even nine o’clock before I knew I made a mistake. I invented another lie to get away from you at the end of the night.
I never said yes. I never put any fingers down.
Tiger sharks are named for the coloration on their backs that mimic tiger stripes. These stripes are bleached into their skin by the sun from a young age because they spend most of their youth in shallow nursery waters where sunlight easily penetrates. As the sharks get older and spend more time in deep ocean water, the stripes fade, but never fully disappear.
Chrissie’s body thrashes back and forth in the water. She gets a moment of mercy to grab hold of nearby buoy floating in the water. She tries to catch her breath, but she knows something isn’t right. She knows whatever this is will kill her. The audience can’t see the shark, but they know it’s there under the surface of the water, taking Chrissie’s body for ransom.
I picture myself there in the water with Chrissie, floating in a cloud of my own blood. I picture myself being pulled under the water. I picture bites and blood and torn flesh. And then I see a rescue helicopter or a coast guard vessel. And I hear doctors telling me I’m in shock as they study my wound, telling me that the bites are slightly squared off, much like the head of a tiger shark.
I feel the tight pulls of the stitches they’ve sewn into my skin. I’ve been afraid of the water ever since.
University of North Carolina at Wilmington
Lizzie Bankowski is a senior at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington pursuing a double major in creative nonfiction writing and film studies. Born and raised in Virginia Beach, Virginia, her parents made a game out of picking up trash on the beach when she was a toddler and ever since she has been an avid environmental activist. As such, she aspires to use creative writing and film to bring environmental concerns to light.