by Mirelle Tinker
Sharks are my favorite animal when I am five because I think that if you look past all the sharp rows of teeth then you’ll find something adorable in the creature’s countenance. Berry-black eyes, smooth flippers, and an overall simplistic shape make the animal easy to take in, its nature easy to understand. Dangerous, perhaps, but when my five-year-old self stares at the shark through the lens of an aquarium, I stand comfortably close, obliviously safe. My pudgy fingers imprint themselves on the glass as I marvel at the underwater structures. Under a low-lit ceiling, the lights flicker from inside the blue exhibits, forming a twisting, curving hall walled with blue worlds.
Being a child born into a small, rural town of ancient trees and grassy hills, I understand these aquariums as magical places. In these mazes, these isolated water valleys, fish dance across coral structures, swimming close to your fingertips—never meeting but able to kiss the glass. My mother becomes a background, ambient noise as my mind swims with the clownfish and skitters with the warted crabs. While I consider how the manta ray contains its lungs and heart all within its flat form, the animal acknowledges my frizzy-haired, bespectacled head with the same sort of unfamiliarity. I wonder if the sharks and the octopi see me like I see them. When I am little, I hope they do.
“Don’t touch the glass,” the tour guide says.
And when I am eight, bubbling and crying for help in a pool at a family friend’s graduation party, I hope the creatures laughing carelessly above see me too. Water flows easily into my mouth as I attempt to cry out for attention. I don’t have time to wonder about how easily I became invisible.
Why am I drowning again?
Mom tells me it is time to go, but for some reason, I don’t want to leave yet. I hardly know the people here, the area consisting of tall, distant adults carrying wine glasses and cell phones, discussing topics I can’t even pronounce in their own hidden language. Messy picnic tables speckled with obscure pink hors d’oeuvres, swarms of grown-ups all caving into their own worlds, and the absence of any other person my age combined with ninety-degree weather leave me silently alone under the shade of a maple tree.
But there is a crystal-blue pool, an open exhibit where I can be a lingering creature observing its surroundings from that safe, intimate space. I dive into the pool. I submerge myself deeper and deeper into the water until my feet lose grounding. The exhibit captures me, becomes a trap instead of a safe place, and my frantic, waving arms are incapable of saving me. Between gasps, I risk gulping down more water by shouting names, screaming for help. My sputtering cries are drowned out, as if an invisible curtain covers me. And because the adults cannot see me, I don’t exist. I leave to meet them in the only way my body can—floating on the waves, skin beginning to purple.
Waking to a white hospital bed, I remember the stickiness of the melting orange popsicle in my hand. The cautious smiles of nurses. I’m sure my parents are here. Stagnant sunlight singes through the windows. The thin blanket crinkles over my bare legs. The walls, the crusted windowsill, and the door breathe a bleached white. All I have for entertainment is the fizzling television at the end of the bed, perched on the wall. Gumby smiles and dances across the TV screen, projecting the same sort of emptiness I gather from the cement ceilings. I’m not in pain, but the doctor tells me I must wait here until the water drains out of my lungs.
“Nothing can remain in there,” the man says. “The water needs to come out.”
So, when my nine-year-old self stands on the diving board during my summer camp’s swimming lessons, I’m understandably cautious to jump in the pool—even while the instructor below me says, “Don’t worry, I’ll catch you.”
Mom tells me the only way to be safe in the water is to learn how to swim, so I will never be submerged again. The once crystal-blue of the mysterious waters dulls into an anemic grey, the chlorine stinking the waves. Passing pool noodles and playing water-tag with the other students erases any intimacy the area once had. All the other children, fair-skinned and giggling on the poolside benches, grin like a group of pale, wide-eyed guppies. Being the only non-white child in the class, I marvel at how vibrant their veins are from beneath their arms, how deep their skin reddens when they feel heat, how the pinkness of their gums meshes with the rest of their complexion. When they smile at me, I feel no comfort. But the teacher keeps calling for me to dive, her coaxing echoing throughout the building. For a moment, I believe her assurances, and I fall, limbs flailing in the water after impact. When I force my head above, the absence of the instructor’s arms is replaced with a toothy, wet grin.
“That was an exercise,” she says, water dripping from the tip of her pointed nose. “To see if you could lift yourself on your own.”
My eyes glaze over as I silently shiver toward the stands and cough until all the water bleeds out. The huddle of children keeps giggling amongst itself. The next student dives in the pool just fine. Staring at the instructor from far away, I grab the nearest towel and make an effort to dry myself as soon as possible. The water needs to come out. I rub all the droplets off my elbows, erasing the burning scent of chlorine. Nothing can remain in there.
Older, I stare into the blue exhibits of the aquarium and I smile briefly, remembering how I used to think they were so big. I wonder if the water is cold where the animals are. I take note of how their gills move when they breathe. Does the flounder realize how strange it looks? How can the dolphin so comfortably kiss the clear wall between us? Does that shark realize that it is trapped, that even in the water it is an endangered animal? How can it be so sure of its safety? I question how self-aware these creatures are of their own containment. Can they see me walking away? Do I exist to them?
I already know the answers. They don’t know anything. They can’t taste the water they’re surrounded by and my existence to them is just as temporary as theirs is to me. We observe each other through the glass. We watch each other’s movements, never allowed to tap for a response. For any attempt to rupture this distance only results in solidifying it. I try to join the exhibit and I drown. They try to join the land and they suffocate. So we do what keeps us alive. We observe and then pretend neither of us are connected and neither of us are capable of connecting.
Still, my brothers, both curly-haired and wide-eyed, follow the octopi as they crawl across their sandy floor. They whisper to each other as if they are afraid the animals will hear them. As they dart through the halls, oo-ing and aa-ing at the shifting tentacles and golden flippers, I avert my gaze from the stingrays and belugas. Instead I keep track of my brothers and run after them, stop them, talk to them. I hold their hands and tell them to be careful. And then I hurry them toward the exit, wondering how many times the shark must slam its body against the exhibit’s barricade before the glass breaks.