Scaring fish with Boris

When my stepson, Boris, was 28 years old and a graduate student in animal behavior, he spent five months of every year studying lizards in Borneo, scaring them to measure their reactions.


We invited Boris (not his real name) on our family vacation to a place that requires SPF-84 sunscreen.


“I’m busy,” he grumped. “Besides, I have to publish,” he said, admiring the bikini-clad fauna in the travel brochures. I suggested he design a scientific experiment he could execute between margaritas. 


As a stepmother I overcompensate. My own sons understand my occasional mega-maternal gestures toward the one who never gave me stretchmarks. Grudgingly Boris agreed to take time from his busy schedule. “We’ll scare fish,” he said.


What’s with the “we,” Boris? “I’ll need assistance,” he said, “and you’ll have time to spare.” Right on both counts. 


Boris arrives in paradise with snorkeling gear, two waterproof books of fish pictures and an underwater white-board with a companion underwater marker. He unpacks underwater socks, nylon fishing line and 8 nails, each 6 inches long and weighing 9 pounds, in case he needs to stab a reef. 


Boris finds a creature to scare: a black fish with royal and turquoise pox that stays near home, sort of a couch potato, marine style. He designates it “territorial.” 


Boris, fantasizing a byline in Fish Followers Quarterly, lures me to the fish market to buy two carnivorous fish – preferably barracuda – for the experiment.


“Carnivorous” means meat-eating. These predators, plus a beer bottle as “control,” will presumably scare the little fish. Except the market has no barracuda, living or dead. So Boris buys big and small dead aquatic animals that look like barracuda – to Boris. The fish might be smarter.


Off we flip into the wild blue ocean, wearing snorkel masks, passing a battalion of stinging jellyfish and laughing. When you smile and your cheeks bunch up under your eyes, you break the seal on the mask, water rushes in, and you have to start all over, treading water, coughing out the ocean’s salt, spitting into your mask to clean it and hollering at the dunderhead who made you chortle and choke.


Boris ties the big non-barracuda on a nylon string to my right wrist, the small non-barracuda to my left.


I am a large morsel of bait, circling a primo shark ghetto, and we’re looking for the territorial subject’s home. Before we knock, I step on a moray eel. The eel eats my big prey. The string breaks. In panic and laughter, I scream. My cheeks bulge, causing water to fill my mask. With one bite, a grouper eats my little prey, and the second string breaks.


Bless his wet heart, Boris says, “Well, that’s science. Not all experiments work,” and unties the beer bottle from his wrist. Boris and I have grown closer, if damper.


My natural-born sons think crossing Main Street against the light is the height of adventure.


Through the years, Boris has taught me: 

• That patience with a stepchild is a virtue, even (or especially) when that kid is big enough to beat you up.

• That snorkeling while laughing can kill.

• That being a stepmother can provide 75 percent of my minimum daily requirement for laughter. 


Next time, Boris: Scare your own fish. 


This appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer.