By Blair Hurley
Where did we meet?
It’s in Chicago’s Shedd aquarium of all places.
I’m there on a rainy weekday, one of those rare times when the great marble-columned front hall isn’t rebounding with children’s voices. Only the unemployed would be there at such a time, poking around the water snake tanks in the dark corners of the jungle habitat. Only the people with nowhere better to be are tapping on the glass in their sweatshirts and rain boots, watching the snapping turtle’s incremental climb up its waterlogged branch. We can smell it on each other — the anxiety, the self-neglect. It smells like vinegar, something herby, our warmed-up leftovers: cumin and thyme. We keep our distance from each other, gazing at the poison frogs, searching a mossy tank for the flick of a lizard’s tail.
Another aquarium visitor keeps appearing in my vision, not following exactly, just tracing the same evolutionary route through the museum, moving from the electric blue jellies to the cartilaginous worms, and on up to the vertebrates. You are a stranger holding a dripping lilac umbrella. We move down the dark glowing hallway from tank to tank, pausing to examine each one, keeping the distance between us exact. We pause at opposite ends of the penguin enclosure, listening to the exuberant squawks and keens of these little birds, the outraged dignity of retired generals in their ungainly walk.
I am thinking, a woman bought that umbrella. Who is she? She is your sister. Your girlfriend. Your wife. Your ex. Yes, maybe your ex.
You are following me, I’m certain now; for no other reason would you skip the bright sunny rooms with the cheerful otters doing their flips and twirls. We’re the only ones moving into the darker tunnels, the places with the ghost-pale sharks and nocturnal snails.
I don’t feel afraid. In the past month I have been to the Art Institute and the Museum of Science and Industry and the Mexican Heritage Museum. While my savings slowly deplete themselves, that little fantasy number ticks down in my account, I am becoming cultured, I am getting to know my new city. The unemployed know things that the working don’t. They get empty movie theaters in the daytime and window seats in the cafes. They know what the light looks like in the library at four in the afternoon: golden and solitary.
In each of these places, men have approached me; men with kids in tow, hipster men hidden behind their beards, lonely men in shabby winter coats. Midwestern men with a blunt midwestern friendliness. They say, Gee, Renoir sure likes ballerinas. Would you get a load of this tornado simulator? They ask, So, where’re you from? Do you like the Cubs? Ready for a Chicago winter?
I am a New Yorker who is out of place, who finds it suspicious to have strangers talking to you. It’s easy to wear New York impatience and pride as a kind of protective coating. I shrug and walk away from them. I don’t want them to hear my voice; even that is too personal to share.
When I was in the whisper chamber at the Science Museum, I stood in the corner where you are supposed to hear your friend speaking to you from across the room. I waited for a stranger to enter the opposite space. Then I spoke: Hey there. What’s your name?
The man spoke back, surprised and hesitant. I’m Bill, he said. How about you?
I said, Tell me your story.
He spoke: talked about his job (insurance), his home (Indiana), why he was in Chicago (friend’s wedding).
Now tell me yours, he answered.
I opened my mouth: I knew it was my turn to play the game. But I couldn’t make myself speak. I hurried away, but it seemed like his voice was still with me.
We’re looking into the whale tank now, a massive container of solid blue, the Belugas disarming ghosts that pop up next to the windows, smiling that Cheshire cat smile. You’re way over there at the end, turning your umbrella thoughtfully in your hands. You’re tall and straight-backed and I can see the fringe of brown hair roughing up the collar of your coat. When you turn into the tide pool room, I follow.
This is where life begins! Proclaims the sign at the front of the door. A simulated tide is rushing back and forth across the rocky pool. You can reach into the water and handle things. There you are at the end, starfish in hand, and I think, I have to speak.
I plunge my hand into the water instead, gasping at the cold. My hands, fumbling for a creature, are going numb.
You smile, pulling out your hands and wiping them on your coat like a clumsy surgeon. “Do you think they like being handled?” you ask.
Still I am dumb. To speak is to invite — something. Don’t speak to strangers, my mother tells me, and my father says with a smile, Then how do you make them not strangers?
I’m ten and I’m walking home from school in the rain. A car pulls alongside, the window rolls down, and a friendly voice calls, Looks like you need a ride!
I’m so wet and cold and not smart enough. Soon I am in the hot damp air of the car, trying to look out the fogged up windows. It takes me a while to know we’re not heading to my street.
I look down at the starfish in my hand. One leathery arm is curling around my finger very, very slowly, with the instinctive grip of a baby. Sweet, really.
You say, “I come here all the time to see the tide pool.”
Why? I want to ask, but still, nothing comes out. You seem to know that I’m curious, though.
“Look at these guys.” You hold a starfish, salmon pink and with rough sandpaper legs working its way out of your grasp. “They live in cold water, so their metabolism is very, very slow. They can take days to move and years to age. Time for them must feel like moving through syrup. Instead of slipping away like sand.”
I nod. But something seems wrong in the logic. Isn’t time relative? Wouldn’t it feel the same to them, while we would seem to be rushing forward, blurred with speed?
I think, a day in a city where you don’t know anyone can stretch forever.
Once, in the New York Subway, an enormous man stepped so close to me that I thought the great moon of his body would eclipse the sun, encompass me in his shadow. He told me that I was very attractive, and would I like to get some coffee? It was a reasonable request. I politely declined. But two stops later on the train, I realized I was heading in the wrong direction. I got off the train and walked up and over and down and waited for a train going the other way. I realized that the man had gotten off the train too, and he had gone up and over and down. We were the only two people on the platform. “You’re just trying to get away from me,” he said in a low voice. “You don’t have anywhere to go, do you.” I stood in a long silence, feeling every muscle become suddenly liquid and light, preparing for use. My body hummed with fear but also something else. Exhilaration.
That’s what I feel while I watch you fumble with the sea creatures. I want you to speak again, to keep trying. But I realize too slowly that you are wiping your hands and walking away. There is something in my throat. I can’t make the parts work. I croak. I squawk. I stutter. What must you think of these animal noises behind you?
That isn’t what happened, you tell me. You didn’t sound like some starved penguin.
Then what did you hear? Why did you turn around?
I don’t know. But it was human. A human sound.
Copyright Hurley 2016