Kera Yonker’s Sharks and Starfish

Nov 4, 2015 by

Kera Yonker’s Sharks and Starfish

Personal Essay:


Once, you rarely left the house without make-up in case you met your soul mate while you ran to the drugstore for tampons. You considered your daily outfits carefully because you never knew when the guy sitting across from you on the subway was going to appreciate the mink-collared vintage jacket you selected that morning. You carefully composed online dating profiles written with just enough lightheartedness (you do not take yourself too seriously), humble bragging (you are accomplished and can pay your own bills), and adventureness (you are adept in the wilderness, and you are confident enough to include a sweaty, unmade up photo of yourself) to attract someone equally humorous, humble, and adventurous.

Based on this profile, you have a series of dates that include an underarm sniffer, a bicycle repairman philosopher, and the guy who spent seventy-five percent of the date talking about his carb intake, and the other twenty-five trying to get you drunk enough to sleep with him. While you are on a date with another guy who showed up forty-five minutes late and repeatedly suggests over the course of the hour that you should go home with him, you make a list of the things you could be doing with your time at that moment. You decide you’d rather be napping. You extract yourself from your date but not before he plants a wet, slobbering kiss on your cheek.

Back home, after you have washed the kiss from you face, you also wipe the Internet clean of your dating profile and take that nap. You awake refreshed. You add up all the hours spent on those bad dates. You wonder what you could have accomplished instead.

Determined to no longer waste your valuable time, you take up knitting. You make your way through the Criterion Collection. You read Moby Dick and War and Peace. You joke to friends that you are having an affair with the New York Times Crossword puzzle. You take a knife skills class and finally learn how to cut an onion. You join a gym; start running; run a 5k. You open a savings account. You buy guidebooks on South America, Southeast Asia, and Eastern Europe.

You dream of packing up and taking off. You realize that you have become the woman whom you smugly ridiculed when you were in your twenties, when you had the currency of youth: that single woman in her late thirties who drank a little too much and too loudly declared all the ways in which her life was fulfilled.

The young women at the office look at you with curiosity. There’s nothing wrong with her…so what happened? They come to you with their dating stories, laying them at your feet like sacrifices to the altar of spinsterhood, and ask for guidance to avoid ending up like you. You listen patiently, withholding comment until they have finished. You tell them what to do, how to act, when to call, when not to respond. You do not tell them they do not control their fates. You do not tell them you used to be like them, receiving the attentions of the men in the office. You do not tell them that you didn’t realize you wouldn’t always have an endless array of men in your life. “Everyone’s just so nice,” these girls gush, after the IT guys bring them coffee.

You remember what your grandmother told you: “There’s worse things than being single.” She didn’t elaborate, but you think of her life and you know what she means. You could be unhappily married. You could be divorced. You could be widowed. You could be tethered, inescapably, to a life you do not want.

Most days, the absence of someone in your life is so faint that you hardly notice it. Like a ghost, you can walk through it and think nothing of the odd chill it gives you. But then there are days when the void is sharp and unyielding, and everywhere you turn it confronts you, reminding you that you have no one except yourself. On these days you recite the list of things that are worse than being alone: You’ll never have a wedding, true, but now you’ll never be thousands of dollars in debt because of it. You will never have a honeymoon, but you’ll also never endure the end of the honeymoon phase. You will not become one of those married-too-quicklies so they could have a family right away, and thus will avoid the Year Three separations and their inevitable divorces, divisions of property, and carving up of time spent with the children. You’ll never feel a growing hatred of the person you once thought you couldn’t breathe without. No, you do not need to feel secure in the arms of another just to have it all torn away from you when they die or cheat, or leave you for someone else. Or worse, leave you for no one; leave you because he simply doesn’t want to be around you anymore. Leave you because the prospect of being alone is better than being with you.

During your dateless evenings, you sit with knitting in hand, “Shark Week” on the television. You learn that some sharks swim constantly to adequately push oxygen-providing water through their gills. You half-listen as you attempt to pick up a dropped stitch.

“However,” the voice of Sir David Attenborough smoothly narrates as a shark swims towards you on the screen. “We have seen these sharks stop moving.”

You fail to save the stitch and carefully unravel the entire row.

Attenborough continues. “The mystery is why a shark would take a breather, when that could keep it from breathing.”

You set down your knitting with its unraveled row. You stare at the shark on the screen. He stares back. He rests on the ocean floor. His mouth opens, then closes. Open. Closed. Suddenly, his tail propels him off the ocean bottom and he’s off, out of camera view.

Your guidebooks sit in a pile on your coffee table. You flip the pages through your fingers. Patagonia.

Lucky you, without a husband or kids or a mortgage; lucky you!

A friend accuses you of running away. “I’m a shark,” you tell her.

Just before you leave for South America, you attend the wedding of close friends. You love these friends who are marrying, and you weep along with all the other guests during the vows. The wedding is a reunion of your twenties, the friends you went with to dollar drink nights and supported each other through hangovers the next day at work. You were all poor and creative and unmarried back then. Now everyone is no longer poor, no longer creative, and married. When you tell them “Next stop: Lima!” their eyes narrow with envy. “I wish I had done something like that when I could have…” they say wistfully, staring into the distance as their broods hang off them. Some respond to your plans with: “Fuck you.”

There are worse things than being single. I’m a shark.

You trek through Patagonia by yourself. Some days, the sun shines and there is a breeze that cools you and the trail meanders around vistas and you can’t stop taking pictures. You cannot believe you are so close to this glacier, to this mountain, to these ice floes. You savor the impressed looks you receive from other hikers when you tell them you are alone.

Other days, the trail is all uphill and the wind drives the rain like needles into your entire body. You note with a deep bitterness the couples along the trail, their load split between them. You envy their shared loads as you envy their match. At the end of those hard days, once you are warm and dry, your wet clothes stretched like a canopy across your tent, the gear from your backpack neatly arranged at your feet, you feel small and protected. You wonder about those couples. You wonder if you had done this with a boyfriend, would you have let him buy the gear, choose the route, read the map? You realize if you had waited to do this with a boyfriend, you wouldn’t be there at all.

The next day, your pack is still heavy, but carrying your own weight has made you strong, and you propel yourself past those couples with a nod.

You spend three months in South America, visit five countries, and make three long distance treks. You avoid being mugged, raped, or murdered during your travels.

The first thing people ask on your return home is if you met someone.

You buy a king-sized bed. You sleep in the middle of it. Every night, you stretch your arms and legs like a starfish and marvel at how nothing hangs over the edge.


Kera Yonker’s work has appeared in The New York Times and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, among others.


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