Cliff Dives and Fearful Hammerheads: On Turning Twenty

by Michelle Donahue

A post in our Milestones series from past contributor Michelle Donahue.

There’s something momentous about turning twenty, about that young thrill of abandoning teenage-dom and adventuring into adulthood. The last day I was a teenager, felt like a day where I could reimagine and revise myself into an adult. It felt like a day I should remember. Lucky for me, it was a memorable one. I was studying for a semester on the Galapagos Islands and I was on a program-run trip where we were sailing around many of the uninhabited islands. We would be hiking to the tip of a cliff and then walking down or jumping off to snorkel around the island.

I’ve always loved heights, so when we finished the hike and arrived to the cliff, I knew I had to jump. I’d been dithering on the hike, too interested in the blue-footed boobies and frigate birds, so by the time I arrived to the cliff, a situation had already developed. One guy had jumped, but the first female was hesitant and was slowing down the jumping line. The men were impatient and muttering that no girl would be brave enough to make the jump.

The non-jumpers had already taken the path down toward the water. Most were already snorkeling. I knew this would be my best chance, perhaps my only chance, to see a hammerhead. I knew I’d be most likely to see one, if I was at the front of the pack, where it was quieter.

The line to jump seemed treacherously slow. Even the guys seemed hesitant. I looked down from the edge. We were very high up and there were rocks to the left that had to be avoided.

Again, I heard a guy muttering that no girl had jumped yet, that none would. It felt like he was looking straight at me. It felt like a challenge, so I took off my hiking clothes and took one look at the water and thoughtlessly made that leap. Perhaps I was cutting in front of the others, but no one was going in that moment, and that thrilling fall, the splash of cold Pacific water, was worth a little misbehavior. As I hit the water, I felt sure that my ability to quiet any concerns about danger, at least in regards to height and water, was something I wanted to carry into adulthood. I wanted to be the sort of person who took the leap, who didn’t worry about shedding my clothes to reveal my swimming suit clad body that I had always thought a little too round and soft.

Once I hit the water, I broke into a sustainable free-style sprint, to try to join those who hadn’t jumped and were already swimming around the island. They were far enough that my nearsighted eyes could barely see them. But years of swim team and water polo propelled me toward them. I always felt comfortable, most myself, when in the water. There was no room for fear or self-consciousness because in the water my body did what I wanted it to do. I was in control. Powerful and fearless.

It felt like I reached the group in mere seconds, but it must’ve been minutes. I passed the person in the lead and then broke into a full sprint to put more space between myself and the group.

I sprinted until my arms burned. And as if by magic or some otherworldly coincidence, just as I was starting to slow, to settle back into a leisurely stroke, something gray and momentous came from the depths below. At first I thought it was a reef shark, normal, but still beautiful. Then it turned its head to reveal the unmistakable shape of a hammerhead. We locked eyes for one moment, before it turned its head to plummet away from me. How strange to have a shark be scared of you. I tried to follow it, but I was no match.

Instead, I was left dizzy and breathless, feeling as if the world had given me a reminder of my strength and power on this last day of being teenager. A reminder not to abide by fear, but to jump, to swim with all my strength and show the world what I had.

I was the only person in the group who saw a hammerhead that day. A gift for turning twenty, for becoming adult.

Michelle Donahue is a PhD student in Creative Writing at the University of Utah. She has work published in Arts & Letters, CutBank, Beloit Fiction Journal, Paper Darts, and others. She has an MFA from Iowa State where she was the managing editor for Flyway. She is a prose editor for The Adroit Journal.