Shell of a Mom
We didn’t wanna come to the aquarium. We wanted to go to the boardwalk instead. The boardwalk had all kinds of gross rides and smelly food stands and cute boys with crooked teeth that smiled at you when you looked at them. Ava and I had saved up all month for this day out; we were going to get sick on the Zipper and eat crappy elephant ears and purchase shit clothing that we’d regret later that night. The aquarium didn’t have that. But that’s where we were.
“This’ll be great,” her mother said as we stood in line. Ivy. Glorious Ivy. Doing us a favor. An unwanted favor. “When was the last time you took me to the aquarium? I bet the belugas are all grown up by now.”
“I don’t care, Mom,” Ava rolled her eyes. Perfect stereotype of a spoiled fifteen year-old girl. Ava was really neither fifteen nor spoiled. But she played the part well. It was that attitude, that was how you made it in this world. I wondered if Ivy had been like that at our age.
Ava gave out a heavy sigh as soon as we got through the aquarium doors. I kept quiet, still embarrassed over the fact that Ivy had paid for my ticket. “Let me get it Sara,” she held her hand up as I started to protest, trying to be an adult for the first time.
“It’s only money,” she said. She smiled. Three adult tickets please. ADULT. But we weren’t adults, this was a play-date. This was something Ivy missed.
Ava groaned when Ivy suggested the touch pools in the main entrance area. It was a large darkened room with children running around. They pressed their curious little hands and noses up to the large fish tank in the center, its blue glow stretching out all around it. To the left, on the sides of the walls with murals of aquatic life, were the touch pools that Ivy talked about. I could smell them from where we stood.
“Oh, c’mon!” Ivy said. “You used to love playing with those things as a kid.”
“Yes, as a child, Mom,” Ava said, watching some children pick up a starfish. A look of disgust crossed her face. I was like that once.
Ivy shrugged. “It’s still cool. It hasn’t like, changed or anything since,” she said.
“It’s for little kids.”
“Who cares!” Ivy laughed at her daughter. Ava doesn’t get it.
I just stood there, like an idiot, unsure of what to do. I never knew what to do.
A chime went off throughout the aquarium’s loudspeakers. Somewhere along the line the orderly monotone announcer had been replaced by a recording of an over-eager twenty-something: “Hey guys, the dolphin show is about to start in about five minutes! You can still grab your seats over at the Cetacean Cove. But hurry fast! Our resident dolphins Annie and Gertie can’t wait forever!
“Also, have you checked out our new ammonite exhibit? It’s pre-historical! You don’t wanna miss out on this new exciting discovery, on exhibit now at the heart of the aquarium. Don’t pass up on this once in a lifetime experience!”
The rest of the aquarium could only be accessed through a long darkened hallway just after the touch pools, its corridors littered with tanks built into the walls. That’s where the jellyfish were. Initially Ava strolled through to the very end; she hated enclosed spaces, especially dark ones.
“Ava! Come back!” her mother called. “You’re missing the jellyfish!”
Ava stopped. I could hear her sigh from the other side. Her footsteps echoed throughout the hall as Ivy and I inspected the first tank. “They’re just jellyfish. You see one you’ve seen them all,” Ava said.
“So not true, dude. Look at this one,” Ivy said, pointing to a tiny individual only centimeters away from her finger. Olindias formosa. The Flower Hat Jelly. It looked less like a jellyfish and more like a floating brain with tentacles.
“He’s so adorable, I wanna take him home!” Ivy said.
“Where would we even keep him?” Ava said, her arms crossed.
Ivy kept quiet, continuing to stare at the tiny six-inch brain. “I dunno,” she said. She moved onto the next tank after a few moments, and we followed her like lost children. “This is so cool!” Ivy said.
It was like that for most of the day. The amphibian house, the sea horses, the tropical fishes; Ivy wanted to inspect them all, Ava just trying to get through as fast as possible. Mother and daughter fought the entire way through.
“Will you just chill?” Ivy asked. We were standing over a large tank featuring the local marine fauna of the Californian coast. They were the least impressive creatures I had seen that day, mostly just a bunch of boring fish without color.
“I am being chill, Mom. You’re just being boring,” Ava said.
“What’s the rush?” Ivy said. “We got all day. The aquarium closes at ten.”
Ava pointed at me. “We had plans that didn’t exactly involve staying here til ten,” she said. Ivy looked over at me and I held my hands up in defense. “Totally negotiable,” I said. Ava shot me a frustrated scowl.
Ivy shrugged. “Fine,” she said. “If this is boring you then you’re totally free to leave, even if I did pay for your tickets...”
Ava sighed. “Don’t do that.”
“What?” her mother said.
“You’re making me feel guilty.”
“No I’m not.”
“Yes you are.”
“I’m not!” Ivy chuckled.
They stared at one another, Ava agitated, Ivy’s face completely neutral.
“Okay then,” Ava said.
“Fine,” said Ivy. “Have fun at the stupid boardwalk that you’ve seen like, a million times.” She chuckled again.
“Sara’s never been to the boardwalk. We’re going to spend the day shopping,” Ava said.
“Your friend’s not gonna remember those stupid stores, Ava. She’s gonna remember coming to the aquarium and seeing all this cool stuff,” said Ivy. She turned to me. “Right?”
I looked over at Ava. “It is pretty cool,” I said. “Didn’t the announcer say something about, like, prehistoric squid?”
“Ammonites!” Ivy exclaimed with excitement. “And they’ve got a freakin’ coelacanth too!”
“Coelacanths are fucking ugly,” Ava said. She looked back and forth from me to Ivy and shook her head. “Whatever,” she said. She walked away in the other direction. I looked over at Ivy, Sorry, and began to follow my friend.
“Bye!” I said, turning back.
“Bye,” said Ivy, a bit of a casual sadness in her voice. She turned back to the tank, looking over the boring fish.
We brushed through the crowds for awhile, Ava leading the way.
“Where’s the nearest exit?” she kept wondering aloud. I would point out the large maps––interactive touchscreens that sprouted from the ground like monoliths––whenever she said that, but she waved me off. “I can find it myself,” she said. She swiftly cut through a Korean family admiring the otters.
“Excuse us,” she said. I followed behind her, apologizing as I went.
“Hey everyone, another dolphin show is just about to start in twenty minutes. This’ll be Annie and Gertie’s last show of the day, so don’t miss your chance to check out the antics of our favorite fun-loving cetaceans!”
“She always does this. She ruins my plans and makes me do stuff that she wants to do,” Ava said. Her brisk walk had calmed down into a steady pace. “Like, when do I get to go out and do stupid shit I’l regret later? She’s not letting me grow up and it’s stupid.”
“She misses you, Ava,” I said, not being very constructive. We entered a darkened room, a massive thing with wide ceilings and a gigantic tank in the center. The water was filled with a number of writhing sharks.
“Yeah, well... She needs to let go,” said Ava, looking out towards the animals. We walked forward. A crowd of parents and children already surrounded the tank. Ava and I stood behind a cluster of little girls, their faces pressed up against the glass just inches away from a Blacktip Reef. A larger fish, a fat grouper, lurked in the shadows behind it. I wondered if it was going to eat the smaller shark.
Ava sighed. “I don’t actually hate this place as much as I let on,” she said.
I laughed. “I kinda figured.”
Another shark––much bigger than the previous one––glided past us just over our heads, a few remoras attached to its underside. One of the girls gasped in amazement. “Holy shit,” another said. Her mother scolded her a few feet away from us. We looked at one another and chuckled.
“It’s not that I hate my mother or anything. She’s like, my favorite person I guess,” Ava said. I nodded. She continued. “But like, I dunno. She just drives me fucking crazy sometimes. It’s like I can’t even be around her without getting really annoyed, and I have no idea why.”
The mother near us gave a dirty look, probably for having said “fucking” near her kids. We began to walk off.
“I understand,” I told her.
“It’s like she suffocates me.”
Past the gaggle of families we found a passageway that led from the sharks to another viewing area, brighter than the shark room but still dimly-lit. “Welcome to Cetacean Cove!” a large sign said, adorned on either side by a cartoon dolphin and whale. A wall of glass that ran down to the floor greeted us as we entered, surrounding a pool of blue water. Light danced from the surface outside through the waves and into the room below, every visible surface in motion with light. A beluga swam by at a steady pace. We walked up to the glass as it slid past us towards the edge of the enclosure.
“I hope she knows I don’t hate her,” Ava said.
I scoffed. “Don’t be dramatic.”
The white whale came up to the rocky edge and dove down to the bottom. We watched as it flipped over and began to make its way to the other side, keeping to the floor of its habitat. It flipped over again when it met the other edge and repeated itself, swimming past the windows once more and up to the top of the opposite end. It wasn’t even swimming in circles, but a triangle.
We watched the animal do this for several minutes before Ava spoke up.
“It’s so sad,” she said. “There used to be two of them when I was little.”
“What happened to the other one?” I asked.
She kept quiet, continuing to stare at the captive whale. “I don’t know,” she said. She looked out past the glass for another moment, then up at the surface of the water. I could make out the shapes of people past the choppy waves, up at the outdoor observation area above us. They cheered as the beluga cut its routine and came up for air. The animal dove back down almost immediately. Ava sighed, tired.
“Let’s go find her,” she said. We continued on, leaving the beluga behind. Up the wide carpeted ramp leading away from the whale exhibit we could hear people. Crowds. This place was always filled with crowds. We turned a corner and came into the heart of the aquatic zoo. The main attraction. Grande finale.
A glass dome sprouted up in the very center, and the people gathered around it. The over-excited twenty-something’s voice boomed throughout the center.
"Our resident ammonites Mork and Mindy are the newest members to our aquarium! Known scientifically as Cleoniceras cavades, these weird-looking cephalopods are actually living fossils, having recently been discovered in 2013 by a group of sea divers off the coast of Indonesia! Until this mind-blowing discovery, ammonites were originally thought to be extinct along with the dinosaurs 65 millions years ago. Just think, Mork and Mindy's great-great-great-great-great grandparents could have been swimming alongside huge prehistoric reptiles such as the giant turtle Archelon or the aquatic predator Mosasaurus!"
We made our way through the crowd. Some people moved away after having their fill. “It’s just a fancy squid,” I heard a man’s voice say. As usual, Ava led the way. A few minutes of squeezing by and dodging elbows paid off, and we found ourselves directly in front of the glass border.
"Mork and Mindy are fast moving nektonic carnivores, meaning that we have to feed them a steady diet of smaller fish up to five times a day! You can see them swimming throughout the exhibit. A well-stocked dome equals a super-happy ammonite!"
There they were, near the top right, drifting around without a care. Their flesh pink and their amber shells glistening in the artificial light. The people wondered and stared and took photographs with their smartphones. The ammonites swayed to the bottom, their tentacles flitting about as if testing the water. A large fish swam past them, looking like it had just crawled out of the mud.
"Our crazy ammonites are also joined by their Indonesian coelacanth friend Mearth, scientifically known as Latimera menadoensis. Coelacanths are also classified as living fossils, also thought extinct alongside the dinosaurs until their rediscovery in 1938. A second species of coelacanth happened to be discovered in 1999."
The coelacanth wandered slowly throughout the dome. It was much slower than the other two; I was reminded of the grouper back at the shark exhibit.
"Both ammonites and coelacanths have seriously delicate systems, originating from the same pelagic ecosystem found in the deep Indian Ocean waters. Just transferring them here was such a challenge! But utilizing a system of pressurized submersibles and decompression chambers, our prehistoric residents are happy to make themselves home in our specially equipped biome-dome!"
I phased out staring at the ancient fish when one of the ammonites - Mindy, or maybe Mork - popped up in front of us. Its tentacles snatched up one of the tiny fish that inhabited the enclosure, and we watched the shelled cephalopod chew up its prey.
A few in the crowd gasped, and I found myself being crowded by a number of people trying to capture the moment forever on Instagram. Ava and I worked our way out of the miniature mob. We moved down a little to a spot at the dome that wasn’t so populated.
And there was Ivy. She stood facing the dome, her neck craned up towards the coelacanth, handbag barely held by loose fingers attached to numb hands connected to limp arms; she was smiling. The coelacanth paused in front of her, sinking a little when it did so.
“Hello Mr. Coelacanth,” she said. The fish continued on. “Or Mearth,” she added. “I guess everyone here calls you Mearth.” Ivy turned and spotted us. Her eyebrows went up.
“Hey!” she said.
“Hey,” Ava said back.
“So I guess you didn’t go to the boardwalk after all.”
“No. I mean, we were already here I guess. So like, whatever.”
“Cool,” Ivy said, forgoing passive aggression. She turned back to the prehistoric animals. “You guys see anything neat?” she asked after a moment.
Ava shrugged. “Some sharks. I think there’s only one beluga left now. It looked lonely.”
“That sucks. They shouldn’t do that, they should let it go.”
“I know right?” Ava said.
They watched the ammonites and coelacanth for another minute. I stayed a step behind, not wanting to intrude.
"As nifty as our prehistoric pals might be, both coelacanths and ammonites are critically endangered species. Your donations and contributions go directly towards research concerning these strange and wonderful creatures. With your help, we can bring more prehistoric wonders to aquariums like this one and educate the public about these rare and exciting animals!"
“D’ya wanna go get ice cream?” said Ivy.
Ava looked down and smiled. “Sure.”
“Do you want ice cream?” Ivy asked me.
I smiled too. “Yeah, that’d be great.”
Jonah Barrett is an adorable short man who lives in the heart of the Tenino forest with a number of woodland critters. He can usually be found stressing out about something he's not doing. Speaking of thing that stress him out, his latest creation is a queer romcom webseries about dreams, which can be found at vimeo.com/channels,800609.