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What Lies Beneath

Looking into the river from the dock above, I see a stick poking up through the brackish water. Angus crouches into a pounce position, ready to fetch as soon as I release the taut leash. Alongside the dock, my fiance sits in the boat, waiting for us to board. Angus has never been on a boat, but he seems more interested in the stick than his maiden voyage.

That’s when I notice the stick has a face--and a slithery forked tongue. And it’s looking at us, standing up in the water--like a periscope-- turning its head from side to side.

Uh, David,” I say anxiously. “There’s a snake in the water--right in front of your boat.”

“Oh, yeah, you’ll see them near the shore like that. But don’t worry, they’re harmless.”

“Well, how do you know they’re harmless? I mean, that thing looks pretty big,” I say, keeping my eyes on what has now turned into a python.

On the other side of the dock, a tattooed and semi-toothless man hoists his catch of crabs from his camouflage-colored boat. His tanned stomach spills over the top of his jean shorts, cut off just above his leathery knee-caps.

I turn to the crabber. “Excuse me. Do you see that snake over there? There’s a snake. See it? Right there in front of the boat.”

I’m fully aware of the cliche I represent, the Georgetowner with the black Lab and Tory Burch tote in tow. And I’m really hoping he didn’t overhear my previous comment about not wanting to waterski because it would ruin my blow dry.

“Oh, man, I hate them things.”

Relieved that’s he’s on my team, I pepper him with questions, convinced this waterman will have more answers than my cute banker beau.

"What kind do you think it is? Do you think it’s poisonous? Could it be a water moccasin?”

“You know, you never know. But I’d stay away from it.”

“Did you hear that, David? Did you hear what he said?” Fear is drying out my throat. But my nagging voice, apparently, is shrill enough to force the serpent back under water. No doubt, David wants to join it.

“Okay, let’s go,” he says, grabbing hold of the rope to pull the boat closer to the dock so Angus and I can step aboard. “The water’s like glass. Perfect for skiing.”

We’re now zooming across the Wye River, the wind whipping across our faces. Angus is half-way in my lap, his nose pointed toward the clouds. I imagine this is even better than sticking his head out the car window. We’re all soaking in the sun, the wind, the sprays of water as we leave the snake sighting in our wake. My eyes focus on the glistening river around me and I finally relax.

When I see something jump. A fish. Okay, calm down, it’s just a fish. But then I see a fin. A brown fin. I remain calm--or try to, at least.

“David, I just saw a fin. Could there be sharks in here?”

Laughing, he tells me this is a fresh water river and it’s impossible for sharks to live here.

“Are you sure about that? I think I heard somewhere that it’s possible. You know how sharks can get lost and wander in from the ocean to the bay to the river.”

I wonder why fear is getting the best of me. Decades later, am I still traumatized from seeing Jaws? But this is a river, not the ocean. Obviously, I know it isn’t a shark, but still. Why would I want to get in the water near anything with a fin? First a snake, now a fin? Nothing to fear but fear itself. Nothing to fear...I want to ask FDR, what about snakes in the river? I don’t fear fear. I fear snakes--and sharks.

As we enter a cove, the boat stops and David cuts the engine, walking to the stern to grab a water ski and life vest.

“Do you want me to go first or do you want to go?” he asks.

I assess my options. Jump into snake-infested waters. Or drive a boat so he can ski. Both raise my pulse. But having been recently accused of not “getting out of my comfort zone,” I opt to ski. I really don’t want to go, but I know I need to. Obviously I don’t have to prove anything to him, but I need to prove it to myself. Face your fears head-on and all that.

I remember being an 8-year-old, afraid to jump off the high drive. Step by step, I climb the ladder, my fingers clutching the metal hand-railing as I ascend. Reaching the top, I walk--shuffle, actually--to the end of the diving board. Looking down at the clear, chlorinated pool, a tingling in my feet forces me to turn around. Other children await their turn below. They look up at me, “Page, just jump; it’s easy.” I pace the board several times, like Peter Pan walking the plank. Finally, I hold my breath and leap, hitting the water with a slap. Ouch. Next time I’ll point my toes.

More than 35 years later, I’m on the edge of the boat instead of the high dive. But the tingling feeling and shortness of breath remain the same. Just do it. I check the murky waters for, um, sticks before jumping in with my slalom ski. David throws me the nylon rope and slowly pulls away while I slip my left foot into the rubber hold, pulling it over my heel. I slide my right foot into the back rubber slot, and clasp my hands around the plastic handle.

“Hit it,” I yell. The last thing I want to do is linger is this water where I can’t see what lies beneath. The engine froths up the brown water and the boat lurches forward. I pop up, wobbling a bit.

Finally, I breathe again, relieved to be gliding across the river. I know my muscles will soon burn to the point where I’ll have to let go, once more facing my fear of snakes and sharks. But for now, I’m like my dog with his head to the wind. And it feels good.