I genuinely don’t know what I would do if I was ever forced into the middle of the ocean and that’s what spawned this piece. Winston Smith of 1984 seems weak until you can compare rats to your own fears.
“I don’t want to hear it anymore,” Dick Yung said. “We need to send someone to Japan or else it’s not gonna get done and you’re the only one here that I trust to do it. If you honestly believe that Nick can do this, then I’ll send him, but you and I both know that he’s borderline retarded.”
“No…” I said. “I’ll go. But you owe me.”
“I don’t owe you shit. You’re doing the job that I’m already paying you to do. We shouldn’t even be having this conversation. You should just do something when I tell you to do it. This isn’t a democracy, and if it was, the company would go under in a week.” I flipped him the bird and left his office. “That’s real nice, asshole. You’re lucky everyone else here is an incompetent fucking moron or else I’d fire you right now.”
It was Tuesday at 4:00 PM and the flight was leaving tomorrow morning at 6:00. I’d depart from LAX and fly nonstop for almost 12 hours to Tokyo. Unfortunately, my company forced me to get my tickets from United, so if I didn’t wimp out and quit my job altogether, I had getting my face beaten in by security to look forward to.
I grabbed my blazer and left quietly so that Dick didn’t look up from the crossword that he was doing at his desk. Smoke plumed from his ears and his face was tomato red. If he made it to retirement, I’d lose a bet with Nick. We both bet five-grand on him having a heart attack or stroke before he turned 65. If he died before, I won. If he died after, Nick won. We only had one rule, neither of us could intervene if he did have an emergency. It wouldn’t be fair if he had a heart attack and Nick saved him. To be fair, I didn’t think Dick would die beforehand, or even retire at 65 since he’s such a fucking piece of work, but it gave me some joy coming into work and seeing his lonely, divorced body coldly laying next to his desk with as much life in it as a used tissue.
Flying wasn’t the problem with this trip. It wasn’t even talking to the Asians on the other side of the 12-hour journey – it was the fact that I had to fly over the ocean. I hated the ocean and I had since I was a kid. My family and I went on vacation to Virginia Beach one year when I was like five or six, and a wave came in and swept me off my feet. It wasn’t a big deal, but I remember the salt water burning my eyes as I searched for the sunlight, trying to figure out which way was up, and which was down. Eventually I stopped getting whipped around and floated to the surface right before my lungs were going to burst. I was about twenty feet from the shore, and I couldn’t tread water. I breathed in but got a lung-full of water while I waved my hand above the calm waves. If my brother hadn’t been keeping an eye on me, I would have drowned.
Another time, when I was about the same age, I went swimming at my grandparent’s house and they had one of those big inflatable things that one person jumps on and launches someone else. Well, I was always too small and scared to get launched, so I kept my distance and swam around in the shallower parts of the pool so that I would stay out of their way. Looking back on it, using one of those in someone’s backyard pool is beyond irresponsible, but it doesn’t matter. Well, what happened was my sister jumped on the inflatable and launched my brother, but then the stupid thing drifted across the water and parked itself above me, who had just taken a shallow breath and kicked off the side of the pool. When I came to the surface, it was right above me and I wasn’t strong enough to push it up. I took another lung-full of water and since then, couldn’t get over my fear of water.
I can’t even tread water very well. My grandma tried to teach me how to float on my back, but I couldn’t calm myself down enough. The second she pulled her hands away from my adolescent back, I thrashed around and sank. I can doggie paddle, do a weak breast and back stroke, but that’s it. That’s only if I can force myself into the pool in the first place.
Before I went into sales, I thought I’d be a marine biologist. The fear that I had for water, grew to a strong curiosity in the ocean and ocean life, but the fear trumped the study and I was left short of breath any time I thought about sharks, whales or whatever else was below the hellish surface. The fear got so bad that when I was young and still took baths, I couldn’t put my head under the water because I was afraid that orca’s (or I guess I called them shamu’s back then) would get into the tub and eat me. For years, I didn’t wash my hair.
After I grew out of the fear that lay within the bathtub, it escalated to swimming pools. I couldn’t swim alone because I was afraid sharks would flood the pool and I’d be trapped, trying desperately to wade through the shallows to get away. To this day, I still struggle to swim alone. My parents have an above ground pool and taking the solar cover off or pushing it back is enough to sweat like crazy.
And that’s why I was so fucking mad that Dick wanted me to fly to Japan. I had never confided my fear in him, and I still wouldn’t because I’d be seen as this anathema in the office and I’d get forced out within a few days; weakness was a death sentence here. I didn’t have a choice but to go on to the stupid trip to explain our breakers to a bunch of foreigners who could have just gotten them from Mitsubishi.
When I got home, I packed my bags with only the essentials: clothes, my work laptop, a 2-ounce bottle of my cologne and a few Xanax to take before the bastards in the NSA rooted through my stuff. I turned on the news to see what kind of weather we’d have tomorrow and unsurprisingly, it called for sun and low winds. I threw three or four Xanax down my throat and drank bourbon out of the bottle until I felt a fuzziness tickle my brain, then I fell asleep with an alarm set for 3:00 AM.
My dreams were full of water, sharks, airline passengers, turbulence and screaming, followed by a deep black that the taste of salt and fish shit. My alarm rang at 3:00 and even though I hit snooze and tried to fall asleep, I couldn’t take my eyes from the ceiling. I dream of the ocean frequently, and it’s never the calmness and serenity that most people find in it. Pulling myself out from under the sheets that stuck to my sweat-covered body, I took a cold shower, downed three cups of coffee and a blueberry bagel covered in strawberry cream cheese before getting a LYFT to take me down the somewhat calm roads to LAX.
I hate the airport, so I took six Xanax and went straight to security, then to my gate. At 4:45, I was seated and watching others join me in the lobby and wait to board. Most were dressed in suits like me, but a few looked like they had just shopped at Goodwill for their entire wardrobe, rolled in mud and showed up. At 5:30, we boarded, and I avoided eye contact with the stewardess’s as I sat in my window seat. The sun was hidden but was starting to light the horizon in the yellow hue of smog that fucked with my asthma.
The Xanax started slowly as I sat there and waited, but I still felt anxious. I was about to fly over the ocean for hours, and then I’d have to come back in a few days. Part of my hoped the plane would crash and I’d die on impact so that I wouldn’t have to endure any more than absolutely necessary.
You know, one of my favorite books was 1984 by Orwell, and I think about the scene that he painted where Winston Smith is staring his biggest fear, rats, in the face. They force him to scream out how he’s had enough, and that he wishes that this was happening to literally anyone else, including the love of his life, Julia. Big Brother breaks him, and it took only a few hungry rats. When I first read through the book, I left thinking Winston was a coward, but now that I’m here, thinking about crashing into the ocean, I’m wondering what I would do. I like to think that I’m strong enough to take the pain myself and embrace the slow death from starvation or dehydration, or the quick death of sharks, but it’s hard to put myself in that mindset without actually being there.
Then, the full effect of the drugs hit, and I fell asleep before they told me how to inflate my lifejacket. If the plane crashed, I wouldn’t want the jacket anyway. I’d prefer to just die than risk surviving a week in my Hell.
Three hours later, I was shaken awake and the pilot was saying something about some turbulence. The man sitting next to me was gripping his armrests tightly and whispering a prayer to himself, while I heard someone behind scream about saying goodbye to their kids and husband. I shook my head, and the Xanax evaporated from my system, sobering me up immediately.
“What’s happening?” I asked the guy next to me.
“B-bad turbulence,” he stuttered.
“Is that all?”
He simply stared out the window to my right and that’s when I saw it – a trail of black smoke going as far back as my craned neck would let me see. The woman behind me was still screaming as an announcement came over the speaker system. “Everyone, please buckle your seatbelts and make sure that your chair is upright,” he said in a voice that was as calm as death. “We will be making an emergency landing on the water below. Hold on tight and brace for impact.”
The altitude changed quickly, and I could feel it in my gut, throat and ears as they struggled to adjust. I threw up directly in front of me and it splashed my shoes and the seat in front of me. Half of the people on board were screaming while the other half stayed silent with their eyes closed. We split the clouds and then deep blue was right below us. I reached into my pocket, looking for more Xanax, but then remembered that I didn’t have any with me. I closed my eyes, held on tight and waited.
The place rumbled as it skipped off the water a few times, then it settled in and landed anti-climactically and started sinking. I looked around and the only casualty seemed to be a woman who hadn’t buckled her seatbelt in the excitement. She had been ejected from her seat and smashed into the front of the cabin, splattering it with blood. I struggled to unbuckle the seat belt and became aware of the pain that stretched across my chest, but the pain vanished when I saw water soak my shoes; I was exactly where I didn’t want to be.
I stood up as the cockpit door opened and the pilot stood in its place. “Just like we practiced before, put on your life jacket and leave through the emergency exits to your left and right.” A few rows up, people started flooding out of the door, all wearing their bright orange lifejackets. I looked around as the guy next to me stood up and ran to the door.
“Hey, where’d you get the jacket?” I asked him.
“Lifejacket! Where’s the lifejacket!”
“Under your seat!” He waded through the ankle-deep water and left through the door as it flooded in. I reached below and grabbed the lifejacket and then pulled the cord; instinct totally took over and before I knew it, I was floating outside the plane, watching it fall beneath the surface.
Then I was suddenly aware of the studying I had done about sharks when I was younger. “They are attracted to wounded animals, so they seek out blood and loud noises, such as thrashing.” We were the thrashing wounded animal. We were shark food, and we were all wearing stupid bright lifejackets that would lead them straight to us.
We were alone… in the ocean. I don’t know how long it would take for help to find us, but I didn’t want to find out. I couldn’t. The water wasn’t too cold, and the current wasn’t bad, but as everyone was cheering and happy for their lives, I was being prepared as shark food.
I started shaking and hyperventilating, looking around as if there was something to grab or hold onto, but there was nothing. I was just this guy in the ocean, and I was surrounded by people dumb enough to think God will save them or that their families matter right now. Right now, all that matters is getting out of this fucking ocean as soon as humanly fucking possible!
The pilot was trying to get everyone clumped together, saying that “staying together is our best chance at survival,” and although he was right (at least for sharks) it didn’t matter. For miles, sharks would smell the blood of the woman smashed against the front of the plane because she wasn’t smart enough to wear her fucking seatbelt! Chances are we’d be fucked because one of the women on here was on their period or someone doesn’t know how to cut a bagel without hurting themselves, but right now that retard was getting the sharks appetite ready for a feeding frenzy.
I joined the rest of the passengers as the plane completely submerged itself under the ocean, and a wave rocked all of us as we tried to keep our armed interlocked. It needed to end right now. Great Whites are probably swimming at us from underwater, about to launch into the air and eat us like seals. Fucking Christ, we’re fucking done for.
My lifejacket was the only thing keeping me from sinking. My legs flailed around, frantically trying to learn how to tread water, but all it would do is make me the first target of their feast. I’m the weakest one out here and the sharks know it.
I ripped my lifejacket off and took a deep breath. “What the fuck are you doing!” the pilot screamed. “Keep your jacket on! We need all the help we can get right now, and deadweight isn’t going to help!”
I took a deep breath and dove deep underwater. Kicking with my feet and doing my best attempt at a diving, I swam lower and lower into the water. My eyes burned as I looked around to see what was near me, but it was completely empty, which is scarier than if it was full of sharks; the only thing worse than certain death is uncertain death.
I dove farther and harder, until my arms, legs and lungs were sore. The ocean was dark, and I was about fifty or sixty feet below the other passengers. They were all looking down at me like I had lost my mind, but I was the sanest person out of all of them.
I coughed and breathed in water, gasping like I had when I was a boy at Virginia Beach. It feels like breathing, but you keep inhaling to get air, but water floods your lungs leaving you breathless, but with a feeling like you should have air.
My vision started to blur as I knew my time was coming to an end. I was either going to float to the surface as an overinflated corpse, sink to the depths, or be torn to shreds by sharks before I could go anywhere. The pain of drowning is worse than I had imagined, but the swiftness was therapeutic. My sight turned to tunnel-vision, then black as I saw a large shape speed toward me.
Winston Smith and the rats were the last things to enter my thoughts as my brain lost function. If Big Brother got hold of me and put me in the ocean, I’d do exactly what I’m doing now. If they wouldn’t let me, I’d wish this fear and pain on anyone and everyone just to end it faster.