TEETH OF OUR ANCESTORS
I awoke midday, my body sunken into the shore. All sun. Everything warm.
My mother and I had spent the morning sifting through Florida’s Gulf Coast sand for shark’s teeth. Tiger. Hammerhead. Mako. Maybe, if we were lucky, a Megalodon. With sticky fingers, we held up the paper placemat from the beach’s one restaurant, which detailed every shape of shark’s tooth with its corresponding species. Venice Beach! Shark Tooth Capital of the World!, it said.
None of them looked quite right.
I unfurled my cupped palms, frosted in sand. Two meek teeth. The only two we’d found. Baby teeth, perhaps, or sharks shunted from the herd. Never meant to be predators, too small a bite. Perhaps not teeth at all, just triangular bits of black stone. Perhaps all just triangular bits of black stone, transformed by the narrative drama of Gulf Coast tourists into the ancient bones of beasts.
I would tell everyone they were Megalodons.
In my blue house on the river, on the opposite coast, we kept a bowl filled with bits of the ocean. Perfectly symmetrical, ridged shells. Conchs. Smooth stones. A shard of green glass with the etchings of a vintage beer. And then a wide-rimmed, teeming bowl of shark’s teeth. It was nearly an entire bottom jaw’s worth of black gold, dutifully earned along the same beach I returned to now. Stuffed into pockets of beach bags by burnt, delirious children and past fathers and cousins whose faces I could no longer place.
Method was a matter of preference, but you could argue your superiority.
You have to get into the water, they’d say, right as the waves roll in, spot them through the clear blue. You then needed to leap with outstretched hands and grab it before the ocean took it back. Others insisted walking far up the beach, where the ocean’s shrapnel lay abandoned. Rotting fish and slick black seaweed and, if the land was on on your side, the precariously placed glint of a tooth. You would then run back to the group, arms waving, triumphant.
I liked to sit and dig instead, uncovering layers of earth, crab shell and fish bones and those sand fleas that tickle into your palm, their whole lives a primal dig downward. I would drip sand along the bareness of my belly and lay back as the warm Gulf water fed me.
I wondered, looking out at the swarms of bodies, all eyes peeled to the ground, if we’d simply found them all. There were only so many sharks, and their teeth now filled the commemorative bowls of beach-hungry families across the peninsula. We mine the earth and expect it to give, endlessly.
And then I heard the frenzied yell of a young boy, prize in hand.
This beach, a two-mile stretch of curved shoreline along Florida’s west coast, is a part of my narrative but not of my memory. I was too young on my visits to know it myself, so instead I know it through my mother’s stories. The story about how our stepdad, Ricky, would summon the gulls by launching Ritz crackers into the air with a specially made slingshot, the sky instantly swarming and white.
Stories of sailing trips and aloe baths and packed Volvos, of key lime pie and tense dinners and tense, packed Volvos.
This was the beach of Ricky’s parents, of Rochester money, whose summer condo was a short walk inland. All their children and grandchildren were tall and lean, as if their summers at the New York lake house had drawn out their imperfections. Rick’s sister was an architect, designing grand racetracks for horses from her home in Chicago. And then there was Rick, who did not design racetracks, but instead ran a company who built the concrete siding that runs along the interstate. But he lived his life as if he did design racetracks, and I suppose it was this incongruence that brought the most shame.
Rick, who built things with his hands and took photographs in morning light and biked through Hong Kong. Who rowed before sunrise on the St. John’s River, the grey of the water spotted with gator snouts. Who yelled and swore and drank bottom-shelf liquor.
As I write this now, I realize I do not know the music he liked. I only ever heard him whistling. At the house by the river, it was always just around the edge of the room, trailing, melodic.
The sun moved closer as I laid in the sand. Closer to the Earth, somehow, and to this particular shore and to my skin. I moved into the water so the waves could cool off my toes, the insides of my thighs, the pale of my wrists. The Florida sun does not shine or shimmer. It engulfs, carnivorous and ancient. The Florida sun grew my bones and likely the world’s bones and to be in its presence is to see the land at its prehistoric beginning. Boiling hot and painted with ferns, crawling with whip-tailed, big-mouthed beasts. Everything predator. Everything prey.
As I ran the pointed edge of the tooth along the violet of my vein, I thought to myself, he reminds me of you.
His charisma, his long legs. The way he filled his space with beautiful things. The way he filled rooms. Smaller things, too. The purposeful, neat curve of his handwriting. The way the house would smell like lemon and the river as he cooked fresh fish for dinner. Some embodiment of masculinity that feels both dated and timeless. Equal parts joyful and drunk and artistic and unequivocally handsome. The way he carried himself with a sense of comfort, in knowing that the world would never stop being charmed.
I am still so charmed.
I watched my mom further along the shore, still looking for shark’s teeth, taking small, tidy steps. Searching and searching. Her eyes picked up just where they’d left off a decade before, on this same beach with her husband, Her eyes know how to scan for just the right colors and shapes. Our bodies remember. We laid longer, under the same howling sun, mixed in the sand alongside the teeth of our ancestors.
If anything is true it is this: We return to the same oceans. We swim back whence we came.