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Out of My Skinby John Haskell
What happened to me was—not me, but what happened—Im from New York originally and I moved to Los Angeles to write about movies. Now, instead of writing about movies or people making movies, I was somewhere off the California coast, in the middle of the ocean, writing an article about sharks. A group of scientists had rigged up a fishing boat with winches and scientific instruments, and theyd lowered a stainless-steel cage into the water. They were investigating shark communication, and because I was writing an article about their investigation, I was inside the cage. I was under the water, wearing a wetsuit, and under the wetsuit there were sensors attached to various parts of my body, measuring my heart rate and brain activity, and partly I was thinking about brain activity, but mainly I was thinking about sharks. Theyd pretty much guaranteed me a shark attack—something about an anomaly in the ocean current—and so I stood there, or I should say floated there, my back to the boats hull, holding the steel handrail, listening to the air as it passed from the scuba gear into my lungs. That, plus the pressure of the water, plus the temperature of the water, plus the fact that there was going to be a shark attack, was focusing my attention.
Speckled sunlight was filtering down from the surface of the water and schools of little fish were darting out from the darkness. I noticed pieces of meat floating above the cage. The scientists were chumming for sharks, and the blood from the meat was dissolving in the water. Through the mask on my face I was scanning the water, looking for a shark, knowing the minute I stopped looking, the minute I took my mind off the idea of shark, like a watched pot, thats when a shark would appear. And because I didnt want to miss that appearance, I kept my mind focused on the darkness in front of me, not thinking about anything other than the barely visible darkness. But I must have been thinking something. And I must have been in the middle of thinking it when a white underbelly flashed by, huge and white and slightly above me.
Suddenly the bait was gone. The bait was gone and the shark was gone, but I was still there. And I didnt know what the scientists, looking at the data from my sensors, were recording, but it was probably fear. My heart was pounding and my adrenaline was pumping, and I could feel my fingertips pulsing inside my rubber gloves. Id seen enough of the shark to feel its threat, but because I was protected by the safety of the cage, what would normally seem like fear, felt to me like the opposite of fear. Not desire exactly, because I couldnt actually see the shark. But I was aware of something, just beyond my vision. And when I say aware, I mean I was sensing, from the shark, a kind of communication. And since the most rudimentary form of communication is the expression of desire, I was sensing the sharks desire. And since one of the things it was desiring was my annihilation, I cant say there wasnt a certain amount of fear. What I was trying to do was reach out through that fear, and communicate with this thing. The human brain is capable of receiving millions of neural signals, and I was trying, from inside the cage, to send signals, to the shark. I wanted to tell the shark that I understood what it wanted, and that I accepted what it wanted, and I was just beginning to experience the freedom of this interspecies conversation when I felt the cage begin to rise. The scientists were bringing me up out of the water, and I didnt want to go out. And I tried to tell them. I tried to signal, through the sensors attached to my body, that I wasnt ready, that I was still conducting the experiment. I tried to think those thoughts and send those thoughts, but maybe the sensors werent working, or maybe my thoughts werent working. Either way, I felt the weight of the water pushing me down as the cage rose up, like an elevator, and there I was again, in the breathable normality of air.
The cage was set down on its special platform, and when the door was opened I remember ducking through the opening and stumbling out onto the relative stability of the deck. Although I was standing on the deck, I was still experiencing what had happened a few moments earlier. I felt almost weightless, like air, only lighter than air, my head like a balloon floating on the top of my spine. I could feel my lungs expanding, and I could hear voices talking and metal clinking against metal. People were standing in front of me, and as I stepped out of the cage I embraced, first the captain, who extended a hand, and then an assistant scientist, who brought me a mug of tea. More than embrace her, I locked my arms around her waterproof jacket. She wore overalls and rubber boots, and I could hear her asking if I was all right. I dont remember what I said exactly, but I must have been grinning, and it mustve been an infectious grin, because when she led me to a plastic crate, she was grinning at me.
I sat there, still in the wetsuit, the electronic wafers still taped to my body, a blue blanket around my neck, my butt bones on the plastic crate, my feet on the deck, the ocean in front of me, the sky above me, and the only thing missing was my thought. I noticed a corroded hinge on the cabin door, and instead of thinking about what kind of paint they used to paint the hinge, or imagining how I would paint the hinge if I owned the boat, instead of reacting to the hinge, I just saw what it was. Every so often I noticed a thought slip into my head, but it was easy enough to let it go and return my attention to the hinge. Or the assistant scientist. Her long hair was falling across her wide blue eyes. She was standing in front of a portable control panel, asking me questions, measuring my physiological responses, telling me that although she hadnt done it yet, she wanted to go under the water herself. She told me her name was Elena, that she was an intern, and we talked about Dramamine and UCLA and the life of a marine biologist. There I was, holding my mug of warm tea, looking at her face and the peaceful horizon behind her face, and I wouldnt have called it paradise exactly, but if paradise is a place where the need for protection falls away, then thats where I was.
And the only question is: How long does it last?
I was drinking my tea, tasting the tea and the sugar in the tea, and seeing this person in front of me, her teeth when she smiled, and the gums above her teeth. And her lips. The shape of her lips reminded me of a certain movie star, and I began thinking about the various roles Id seen that particular movie star play, and while I was thinking, and while I was involved in the various narratives that led from that thinking, I wasnt actually seeing the wide blue eyes of the assistant scientist. It wasnt that I wasnt paying attention; I didnt even know I wasnt paying attention. I was sitting there, in the middle of what might have been a normal conversation, and I was creating, not a cage exactly, but a sense of who I was.
Id been living with a woman in New York. When she moved out of the apartment we shared, I lived there a while longer, but the magazines Id been writing for didnt pay enough to support living there alone. And I didnt want to live there alone. And since Id been thinking about moving to Los Angeles, thats what I did. I put most of what I owned in storage, and the second thing I did when I arrived was buy a car, an old Toyota Camry. I was giving myself a month to test the waters of California, and since I wasnt sure what I would be doing, instead of renting an apartment, the first thing I did was find a downtown hotel offering rooms by the month—the Hotel Metropole—and thats where I was living.
Alan, the one who told me I should “come to L.A. and write about movies,” worked for the Los Angeles Times, and at the moment I was sitting with him, at a low table in a nostalgic bar off Wilshire Boulevard, talking about a piece he wanted about celebrity impersonators. I dont know why Alan chose that particular bar, but I call it “nostalgic” because, whether or not it actually existed in the 1950s, it was made to seem as if, sitting at the low table, with the bamboo walls and the Polynesian masks, you were somewhere in the middle part of the last century. It was a cultural memento, or more accurately, a memento mori; the past it referred to, the playboy, beach-party aesthetic that came into being after World War II, had long since passed away. The photographs on the walls—publicity stills of movie stars like Dean Martin and Tony Curtis—were cultural souvenirs, bits of the past, and like the past, they were mutable. Because Id been thinking about changing my own name I was aware, for instance, that Dean Martin was born Dino Crocetti, that Tony Curtis was Bernard Schwartz, and that Barbara Stanwyck, in her flowing gown, was originally Ruby Stevens.
Anyway, I was sitting there with Alan, and next to Alan was a tall young woman named Jane, an ex-dancer apparently, who wanted to learn about photography. She had a short, boyish haircut, and although she wasnt all that garrulous, the conversation seemed to flow. Alan, who was trying to get me work at the Times, did most of the talking. Id come to Los Angeles knowing only two people, and one of them was Alan, and this woman was an acquaintance of his, someone he wanted to be an acquaintance of mine, a romantic acquaintance. And although I also wanted that, I was still slightly uncomfortable jumping into the ocean of romance. Thats what it seemed like, an ocean, and Alans way of pushing me into the water of that ocean was to introduce me to this person.
We were drinking our drinks and talking about photography, and I said to her, “Alan told me you wanted to know about cameras.”
“I think I have the camera part figured out,” she said, and she reached into her bag and pulled out a film camera with adjustable dials and levers.
Alan, a mojito in one hand, a cheese cracker in the other, sat back in his chair, so that the triangle formed by the three of us left him slightly removed. Hed told her I knew something about photography—which wasnt an absolute lie, because I did take pictures—but I certainly wasnt an expert, and I told Jane, “I really dont know that much.”
“Dont let him fool you,” Alan said. “Hes got an outstanding eye.”
“Thats what I want to develop,” she said.
“Then hes your man.”
Alan had the habit of treating people as if they were stupid, not because he believed they were, but because by assuming they were, until they told him otherwise, he was able to feel safe.
My way to feel safe was different. A writer in Los Angeles is fairly far from the top of the food chain, and I wanted to seem a little more substantial, a little more sure of myself than I actually was. I sat with my back straight, my collarbones extended, and I looked into her eyes in what I hoped was a meaningful way. I told her about the two books Id written, and she told me she also wrote books, young-adult novels. We started talking about books and photography, and I noticed, when she smiled, that her teeth, although they were white, were not quite even, and as I looked at them I tried to imagine what it would be like to love uneven teeth, and by extension, the person behind the teeth.
Unless Alan had hired a prostitute. There was always the possibility that this was a joke he was playing, on me. Hed mentioned something about a life shed had before the life she was living now, but I didnt care, and she didnt seem to care, and we talked like that for a while, but the talking isnt what Im getting at. The talking was pleasant, but it was preparatory. What really happened, happened later, when we took Alan up on his suggestion and walked outside.
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