By Gabriela Rose
Does anyone remember the animated film about the fish who lost his child? The one where the fish decides it would be a good idea to hire an amnesiac to retrace the child’s steps? Ah yes, the beloved tale of a clownfish questing for a son traumatically abducted just on the outskirts of his home!
And people wonder why kids nowadays are nervous wrecks. Regardless of the lingering psychological damage to developing minds, this film held a special place in my heart. It was the first film I saw in a theater. Afterward, I watched it on loop until my mother thought about giving me up for adoption. Throughout our home, I scattered stuffed animals and posters of the goofy blue amnesiac fish, who could barely remember her name. She came with Marlin, the aging sober who drifted mournfully here and there, not unlike a sixty-year-old inebriant whose whisky has been taken away. Together this dynamic pair searches the ocean for the kidnapped son.
The obsession even reached the family swim bag. Beach trips entailed swimming Marlin floaties, Nemo goggles, and of course a Dory one-piece. My mother still reminds me that she has plenty of photo documentation. Pictures from this era include a chubby toddler with a torso like a stuffed burrito, beans slumped in the middle. Others feature my mamá in a polka-dot middle-aged “bikini” that covered more skin than my expansive one-piece. Close friends and family re-enacted memorable moments from the film. We all went to the same local (free) beach. My friends Bethany and Luke, dressed in their favorite Disney swimwear, accompanied me toward the shoreline.
“Hey Gabby!” Luke would bait me, grinning. “Let’s play that one scene where Nemo’s mom gets eaten!”
“That part scares me.”
“That’s why I suggested it!” Luke stuck out his tongue and mocked my childish fear of the monster that had eaten Nemo’s mom. My arms folded across my chubby tummy as I stomped off toward the other end of the beach.
The north end of the beach, six feet from where I had been before, had much calmer waters. The water swayed in motion to the breeze, almost transparent. Bass, sunfish, and catfish danced alongside one another. Along the shoreline, a grassy hill appeared to be a great spot to sit and soak your toes. My plump ankles brushed back and forth over the calm water. Then I saw a fish I hadn’t seen before.
Suddenly that single fish became a school of hundreds. My feet pounced to examination mode. Now I was crouched down with my bum touching the water, my elbows on my legs. Tiny fish slithered all around me, a veritable fish army. With every movement I made, the army shifted and reconfigured, as if in choreographed battle plans. The gritty sand dug into my toenails. I looked to the right, to the left. Escape was blocked on all fronts.
If I freeze they will think I’m a piece of driftwood.
My toes rooted deep into the sand. The sand that had moments before clouded my movements now settled, leaving a clear image of chunky stumps with toes. The enemy swirled closer and closer to my camouflaged feet. My stare drew my body forward just enough to assess the forward movement of the school of fish, yet I retained enough balance to preserve a beautiful form of stillness that issued right from my bones. Inch by inch these fish swam closer. Closer! One went for the kill. Its pointy teeth suctioned onto the top of my big toe. An intense tickle sparked a wave of fear and adrenaline.
“BARRACUDA! BARRACUDA! BARRACUDA!”
I flailed my hot-dog arms, screaming at the top of my lungs. Speed carried my legs like an animation film. This was an epic sprint from one end of the beach to the next, and I was the portent of doom. My fellow citizens needed to be warned.
“BARRACUDA! BARRACUDA! BARRACUDA!”
My mamá sprinted after me, clamping her sun hat. The polka dots on her swimsuit turned into cheetah splotches, “MIJA, ¡VEN AQUÍ! ¡VEN AQUÍ!”
Ah, my mamá and I enacted the telenovela that white people expect when they see Mexicans. She was an old, out-of-shape cat; I, the dying mouse. Diving toward me, Mamá tackled me onto the grassy slope of the beach. Her arms wrapped around me, rocking me back and forth. She whispered that I was fine, not dying at all (This event would have saved her a fortune down the road). After calming my long ragged breaths, Mamá invited me to explain what had happened. I hiccupped through tears and a snotty nose. My diaphragm played with the motion of my breath, restricting my words.
“Mamá, I–I was bitten– bitten by, a, by a–”
“By a Barracuda.”
“The fish that ate Nemo’s mom in the movie! Mamá, remember!”
“Mija, those kinds of fishes live in saltwater. You’re at a freshwater beach.”
“SO! It could have swum here from the ocean. A barracuda is a ferocious predator!”
“Mi Amor, that fish in the water was a minnow.”
Ignorance is barracuda. We’re often embarrassed when it causes a scene at the local beach. Hindsight is similar to a comforting Mamá, sweat drenching an Old Navy tankini. Her whispers of truth hurt almost as much as the alleged barracuda attack. There under the bright sun in a Dory one-piece, we glimpse for the first time the difference between bite and tickle and thus prepare for deeper shores.