The man in line ahead of me is probably in his sixties, wearing a greasy baseball cap with unruly gray hair poking out from underneath. A wrinkled, button-up shirt is only half tucked into his baggy jeans. When he turns to the side, I can see he’s unshaven. I take an involuntary step back. He strikes me as someone who needs a wide berth.
As the line moves slowly ahead, I automatically take a step forward without thinking. Each of us keeps up this unconscious two-step until I happen to notice that the guy in front of me is doing more of a hop. The whole floor of the post office is carpeted, but there are a series of mats strung along the foot traffic areas as well as where we queue up. The guy seems to be consciously avoiding stepping on the carpet.
I immediately flash back to a game my sisters and I played when we were young. We called it Eaten by Sharks. The entire living room was a seething ocean of Great Whites and if we stepped on the carpet, we’d get eaten and die a horrible death. The trick was to jump from the couch, to the chair, to the ottoman, to the Hi-Fi, and to the bookcase in order to stay alive. The couch cushions were placed strategically on the floor to increase our chances of survival. We could always throw a book on the floor to jump onto if the leap from the bookcase to the couch was too treacherous. When you’re three feet tall you can only jump so far. My mother was always in the kitchen—she lived there—so we rarely got caught. She learned to desensitize herself to the sounds of thumping, hitting and whining, but every once in awhile she would yell, “You kids better not be jumping on the furniture!”
“We’re not,” we’d yell back, panting, as one of us made an especially daring leap onto the back of my father’s lounger. We’d get extra points for a tricky landing, but if the chair tipped over then the sharks moved in quickly. Now you were no longer daring, but stupid and reckless. We were warned repeatedly not to climb up the bookcase because of a scene in the movie Planet of the Apes, where a full bookcase tipped over and flattened a baby ape. We had a whole set of Encyclopedia Britannica and my mother had visions of us lying bloody and lifeless underneath them. We weren’t really supposed to go near the bookcase, but in hindsight it might have been because of some of the risqué books my father kept on the shelves.
Anyway, this hopping guy who seems familiar with our childhood game intrigues me. Maybe I’m seeing too much into it and he’s just feeling particularly bouncy today. Or maybe he has an issue with OCD; there’s no way of knowing. The line inches forward, and he shuffles up automatically like the rest of us. I feel a little disappointed as I watch him near the edge of the carpet. But then, wait! The toes of his sneakers stop at the very end of the mat. He hovers there, trying to keep his balance, gripping the edge of the counter next to him to keep from falling into the sea. I almost reach out to grab the seat of his baggy pants to pull him back to safety.
I look around at the others in line, but nobody else is paying attention. They just want to have their turn, grab a quick lunch and get back to work. The sharks are churning around their ankles waiting for just one sucker to slip. I smile as I contemplate pushing someone in.
I’ve had a habit over the years of making up little challenges for myself. I don’t know why unless maybe I’m afraid to do something big in my life so this is a pretend way of feeling brave and powerful. I used to have to pull my car all the way into the garage, run up the three cement steps to the side door, and get at least one foot inside the house before the car coming down the street drove past. I was practically rolling over the hood of the car to make the deadline. Sometimes I’d trip over the lawnmower, but even if I was bleeding I wouldn’t let myself out of the pact that I had to have that one foot on the landing. I felt nimble and magical, as if this test proved that I could accomplish things no mere mortal could. Some days any accomplishment, even a senseless one, psyched me up to believe I could set goals for myself that I could actually complete.
Once I played this game when my husband was in the car with me. He had barely turned off the ignition and I was flying out of the car, pushing him over, just to get the screen door open and place one foot on that landing. The car passed and I sighed with relief. But one look at my husband told me this was weird and should never, ever, be played when another human being was watching.
“What is the matter with you?” he asked with barely a hint of amusement. He was an engineer. Engineers were not much for the game Eaten by Sharks, so there was no hope of explaining this particular spin-off.
The line moves forward again and my new friend is at the front, poised for the next clerk. He sizes up the mat situation. In order to jump from his mat to the one in front of the nearest clerk (and there is no guarantee he’ll even get this particular clerk), he’ll have to take such a ridiculously huge leap that he’ll probably bang into the counter and his hat will fly off and land behind the counter. He surreptitiously glances back to see how many people might be watching. I want to tell him about Improvised Emergencies, where you can turn a piece of fuzz into a rock to land on, or how a swirl in the carpet pattern is allowed in a pinch.
Luckily, when his turn comes up the nearest clerk is available. He pauses for just a millisecond. I hold my breath, waiting to see if he’ll go for it. He doesn’t actually leap, but he makes a giant scissor-step so he only has to touch the carpet one time. I almost applaud. He would have had to jump and be laughed at by everyone behind him in line, so he compromised and risked losing a foot to the sharks. I admire his bravery. When it’s my turn with a clerk I cop out and create an imaginary Plexiglas sheet that allows me to glide right over the sea to her. I tell myself I don’t have time to play the game properly because I’m in a hurry.
I watch him when he leaves. He won’t look at me because we both know I’ve compromised the game with that Plexiglas stunt. But he knows, like I do, that sharks aren’t really sharks at all. The mats, our islands of safety and happiness, are just places where children are protected from car accidents, bills get paid, and relationships flow smoothly along without riptides. He and I have spent the last several minutes united in the solidarity of magical thinking. I feel noticeably lighter as I watch him hopping out the door. The sun is shining when I walk out into the parking lot and head toward my car. I don’t know why, but I take extra measures not to step on any cracks.
Isabell McAren has a BA in English and is a freelance editor. She’s currently querying agents for her young adult novel and is working on the sequel.