I remember shaking. I remember not being able to look to my right. I remember the way that the shark looked out of the corner of my eye. Big and grey. Red mouth hanging open. Jagged teeth.
I remember the Jaws music playing on loud speakers above me.
Okay, so, it wasn’t a real shark.
I was at Universal Studios Hollywood. I was 12 years old. And I was standing next to Jaws.
I’d watched the movie behind half-opened fingers, burying my face into a pillow every time that damn music came on. Duh-duh. Duh-duh. I hadn’t been able to swim or take a bath or sit on the damn toilet for weeks without looking down first (just in case he was lurking in the toilet bowl, obviously).
And then, suddenly, there he was. Jaws. Suspended by ropes at Universal Studios. His black eyes glaring at me through a herd of tourists.
My dad wanted me to put my hand on the shark. Just like he had when he was young and visiting Universal Studios with his dad. Leaning, arm stretched out, hand pressed into the nose, bold smile. Like he had caught Jaws himself.
I remember him trying to direct me. “No, no…put your hand on the nose. Lean on him–”
He had a vision. He wanted to compare his picture to my own and see himself in my face.
Instead, I shrank. My shoulders hunched, my eyes closed, my smile a grimace, my right hand barely grazing the shark. I look like I’m praying.
After a few long painful moments, my dad finally gave up on his vision, and we moved on to some other, less terrifying display.
But, you see, I was left with this picture. And, for years, I’d look at it, and I’d cringe. Because, let’s get this straight: That is the most fake, most plastic fucking shark I’ve ever seen in my goddamn life. It’s glaring, for crying out loud. Sharks don’t glare. Their primary thought is, “Oh look, a seal. I could eat.”
Why couldn’t I just open my eyes and take the picture?
So, when I returned to Universal Studios Hollywood in 2012 on the infamous Bruce Springsteen trip, I was looking for redemption. And that goddamn fake plastic shark was going to give it to me. I was going to lean against it, press my hand into its nose, and smile triumphantly. Like I’d caught it myself.
Of course, as is the case with most of my life, my Real Girl imagination and my Real Girl reality rarely align.
Because, let me tell you something: while Jaws may be a fake plastic shark, it is a big fucking fake plastic shark. And, with the soundtrack to my literal nightmares blasting out of the loudspeakers above those huge grey fins (Duh-duh. Duh-duh), and those dead black eyes glaring at me, it didn’t feel hollow or fake. It felt real. As real as it had felt when I was 12 years old.
And, so I was standing there next to this shark, sweating and shaking and trying not to show it. And, there was a line-up of tourists behind me who were waiting to pose with Jaws. And, I was shrinking, scared, staring into the toilet bowl and waiting for a shark to attack, until…I put my hand on the shark’s nose, and I leaned in.
In the picture, I’m smiling. My right foot crossed over my left. My hand firmly pressed against the shark. Triumphant. Like I’d caught him, myself.
I wish I could tell you that profound something that I discovered about myself in that moment. The something that made me stop shaking. The something that made me lean.
But, here’s the thing. There was no profound something. There was only me. Shaking and sweating, but leaning in anyway.
Okay, okay. Get to the point, RG. Why am I telling you lovely people about this?
Because I’m scared. I’m scared all of the time. And, maybe you’re scared, too. I’m not just talking about snakes and heights and spiders. I’m talking about the big things. The things with dead black eyes and jagged teeth. What if I’m not good enough? And what if I’m wrong about everything? And what if I don’t find my way? And what if I do?
And, I guess, I wanted to tell this story today, because sometimes I still need this reminder: life is full of fake plastic sharks, and with the right soundtrack and the right lighting, they can look awfully real and important (and like they might devour you in one jagged-toothed-gulp). It’s okay to be afraid. It’s okay to shake. It’s okay to have sweaty fingers and knees. But, you’ve got to lean into it anyway. Put your hand next to those jagged teeth, pray, hope that your eyes are open, and lean.
- So, I read “Lean In” by Sheryl Sandberg this week, which helped me to connect the physical leaning in that I did to Jaws’ nose at Universal Studios with the language of fear that holds a lot of us back on the daily. Check it out! And lean into the things that scare you, people. Most of the time, they’re just fake plastic sharks.