I was in a calm, reflective mood, floating on a purple mattress in a turquoise soup. Minds on holiday buzzed around me like amoebas. Reflecting the dazzle, my sunglasses kept me aloof from their nudges and queries. I focussed on the juxtaposition of land and sea, the lovely curve of beach, and the half-naked masses darkening the fine white sand.
"You should be more social," said a high-pitched voice behind me.
I gently paddled myself around to see who had uttered these words. Perhaps an effect of the powerful sun and sunglasses, but the face of this person looked like flayed hide, or sodden washing. Sun worshippers pay the price. For that alone we must admire them. So much for my moody detachment.
"I've seen you at pranzo, but nowhere else," said the person, gender indeterminable.
I removed my sunglasses to get a better look, but rays blinded me. I blinked repeatedly, to no avail. My naked eyes could not withstand the sharp light. I screened them with my hand and bowed my head. "I keep to myself," I said. "Not very good at small talk."
"The shark is a symbol of fear and aggression," the person said.
I still was unable to fathom the face. Seagulls cried, adding high notes to the human murmur and plashing. I glanced up at the azure sky and saw their silvery glints applied like paint dabs. The word shark finally settled into my consciousness. As far as I knew, no sharks inhabited Mediterranean waters. Perhaps I was wrong.
"Encountering such a potent beast brings you face-to-face with your own mortality."
I wanted to tell this person that if he or she persisted, they'd come face-to-face with their own mortality. I kicked my foot and splashed some water at Leatherface. My action surprised me as much as it shocked him or her.
"What the hell was that, buddy?"
"Looks like you could use some hydration."
"Salt water kills my complexion."
Words escaped me. The sun blazed too fiercely to make any sense of things. I didn't feel like penetrating surfaces. I wanted to be left alone, more or less.
I pushed off and left this person to combat loneliness on their own. For me, it is a preferred state. For others, not so much. I get that. I'm not heartless. But I must be myself. And I was. I negotiated my way between violent splashers and frisky dog-paddlers, goggled otters and wriggling man-serpents who jostled my mattress. A mermaid on a red mattress, blonde hair swirling around her head, invited me to paddle in tandem to the deeps.
"What makes you think I'd follow you?" I heard myself say, though in a higher register than usual. Perhaps my thirst explained it.
The mermaid flicked her tail and smiled. "I can take you places."
And I wanted to tell her I'm not interested, but my voice failed. I opened my mouth and—nothing. I sat up. The mermaid was actually a man wearing a neon blue diving suit and rubber flippers. The blonde hair was his—remarkable, given the context. The thought of his attempt to inveigle me provoked nausea. I paddled on.
I paddled far out from the shoreline, arms extending long and red from my torso. Sailboats bobbed against the shimmering horizon. The sun radiated like a gilt Apollo depiction. Colourful ants teemed on the sands, bright umbrellas twirled like tops. The water turned aquamarine at these depths and waves rolled me up and down. My nausea intensified. I leaned over and retched into the water. My frothy upsurge floated away like a little island.
Seagulls cried, but I couldn't see them. Sensing something dark and gravid underscoring the beauty and gaiety, I stopped paddling. My purple mattress rolled with the waves. My arms, badly sunburned, ached. I dipped them in the water. As I looked down and saw a dark shape floating beneath me, I started, almost flipping the mattress. In the process I must have punctured a seam, or pierced the shell with a toenail or whatnot. I began losing air.
Well out from the shoreline, I paddled furiously in an effort to reach the shallows before the mattress deflated. Despite my violent strokes, a strange cross current slowed my progress. I could sense whatever dark thing I had seen under my mattress pursuing me, toying with me.
I paddled like a man beset by hornets, the hissing mattress softening under my weight. I glanced behind me for the telltale dorsal fin and, seeing a dark flash in the aquamarine, I panicked. Maybe there were sharks in the Mediterranean. It was something they should have warned me about.
I considered ditching the mattress and swimming the rest of the way, but I'm a poor swimmer in open water.
Abruptly I stopped paddling. My arms were falling off. Panting and sweating, a heart attack seemed imminent. When I felt the mattress bumped from below, I almost did go into cardiac arrest. Another bump sent me reeling. I screamed for help, screamed my lungs out, but mingled with the seagulls' cries, they made no impression on the shoreline ants.
Resigned to being eaten alive by a shark, I shook with fear. Then I felt a tug on the mattress. I thought the shark had grabbed it and was pulling me out to the deeps where he'd feast without disturbance. But instead the mattress started moving toward the shore. I held on as it picked up speed. Why would a shark drag me this way? I thought. Then I caught a glimpse of something flowing ahead of me.
A rope had been tethered to my mattress; something pulled it. I couldn't tell exactly what for a moment. Then, when I saw the flash of blonde hair, I felt the relief that shipwrecked mariners of myth must have felt upon being rescued.
Salvatore Difalco's work has appeared in a number of print and online journals. He splits his time between Toronto and Sicily