As I arrive at the Institute and the heater sinks me in stuffy-warm air, I realize I haven’t spoken to you in nearly six years. It’s an icy day. The snow stacks knee-high, floods walkways, turning them to marsh, and the sky is empty—pale white like a beluga whale. I slipped before coming in, and the right half of my clothes are wet-darkened and dripping. I don’t want to shiver because of it, but I must. Today is your twenty-eighth birthday.
It’s dim in the building, like an indigo dye has covered everything, and the only light is a lamp in Jerry’s and my office. We’re the only ones here this early. We’re the only ones who care this much. Jerry doesn’t acknowledge me when I sit at the desk next to him, but he’s left a reusable to-go cup of coffee at my spot. Steam blows out of the hole in its lid. Headphones cover his ears, and, on his computer screen, whale song sound waves float up and down. I smile. While starting-up my computer, I try to imagine who you are now—you have several cold metal rings in your face and a seaweed green mohawk, you go by Flo instead of Flora, you’re a painter, you run in the morning, you’re married and swelling with babies—but it all seems so fake. All I can see clearly is your face as a child. Your straight brown hair. Your scowl when you said mom.
I don’t think of you again until rewatching a video of a mother blue whale. Her baby is under her, and they touch belly to belly. They drift slowly, with peace. The baby slips down to the mother’s mammary glands, and the mother gives her milk. It’s beautiful. I think of you because we were never like this. I think of you because I want to feel touch like that.
At the Institute, we often wait until a fisherman or tour group spots a pod before boating out to see them: blues, humpbacks, orcas, minkes, bowheads. Today, we just listen. We take notes on clicks, coos, groans, trills. Sometimes, I name the whales after listening to them. Sometimes, I contort my throat, arch my tongue, and mimic them.
Later, when Jerry leaves, he doesn’t say goodbye. I like him for this. I don’t think of you again until rewatching a video of a mother blue whale. Her baby is under her, and they touch belly to belly. They drift slowly, with peace. The baby slips down to the mother’s mammary glands, and the mother gives her milk. It’s beautiful. I think of you because we were never like this. I think of you because I want to feel touch like that.
* * *
When you were five years old, I worked at the research center in Rarotonga while studying the mating habits of humpbacks. You stayed at the resort mostly. Watched television in Samoan. Asked the half-attentive au pair to order another virgin Piña Colada. After work, I’d come home and tell you about how males blow bubbles to attract mates, how they sing songs, how they can love so many other whales rather than only one. We’d be wide-eyed and grinning, and, bathing, you’d submerge your whole face underwater. Let out a gurgled shout. Make your own bubbles.
You could become a whale too, you told me, coming up for air.
In the third or fourth week in Rarotonga, you had to be rushed to the hospital. My face was pressed into my journal when they called me, and my wet hair spotted the pages. I had just finished scubaing with a solitary humpback we’d named Mera, and, during, my insides had bubbled with joy. In the ocean, life seemed wider. Vast. Shimmery and endless. Holding onto Mera’s fins, feeling the blue and bumps of her skin, I felt in love. After the doctor called me about you, it took me ten minutes, fifteen, to leave. I needed to hold on to the thought of Mera for just a bit longer. I held my breath until I felt lightness. Bunched my hair and smelled the salt in it. Let the strands string my face like jellyfish stingers.
They said your stomach looked like hurricane wreckage. Your intestines were scrambled, swirled, knotted. That day, you ate your toys—magnetic building sticks and tiny steel balls—one after the other. Swallowed them whole like you were toothless. The magnets could sense their kind, and they swam until they were together again. Migrated, clumped. A family of magnets tangled in your insides. Laying sprawled on the hospital bed, your lips were light blue.
I believed you could sense I stole those extra minutes thinking about Mera because after surgery, you wouldn’t speak to me. With shiny eyes and sweat-stuck hair, you crossed your arms. Pouted your lips. I brought you a stuffed animal octopus from one of the gift shops. Big boggled eyes and many soft felt suckers. You tried to flush it down the hospital toilet. Came back crying with shoes that smelled like piss. This was the first time we seemed lost to each other.
* * *
The next day, Jerry and I go out on the water. It’s freezing, our breath makes white waves, and thick snow suits lubber our bodies. Jerry reaches to help me on the boat. His hands—mittened—look like flippers, and the water is deep navy. We’ve run the motor for two hours, faces chapped red, when we spot them: two adult blues. Long, sleek, the color of raw sapphires. Though we can’t see, I imagine their fins grazing each other. I imagine the never-ending water. Adult blues are hardly ever together. They tend to give each other space, and the sight of them makes a few warm tears—both happy and sad—roll down my cheeks.
Jerry speaks. “How beautiful.”
His features—strong jaw, thick eyebrows, summer-sky-colored eyes—normally severe, quiver, and I quiver with him. We sit there for a half hour, floating with them, and, right before we leave, they bellow. Loud, but gentle. We can hear their love. Can feel it reverberate off the boat. When we come back to the Institute, the moon is hanging, slanted and half complete, and Jerry and I leave how we always do.
At home, I think of you because I feel like you need to be thought of. I want to miss you. In bed, with blue light splashing my face, I search for you on Facebook, and your photo is suddenly right in front of me. I haven’t seen you for years, but here you are. I sponge the details of your life. You have the same brown hair, you work at a grocery store, you’re in a relationship with a tired-looking man named Kevin. I wait for my heart to ache, for my stomach to turn, but it doesn’t.
When humpback whales want to reach their family—their young, their mates—they will often turn upside down, point their nose to the sea floor, and sing. All humpbacks of the same pod know the same song. They can find each other from hundreds of miles away. They are unified in this way. They will sing back. Knowing this makes me get up from the heat of my duvet. I stand and bend my body in half, so my hands are starfished on the hardwood floor.
I think of us as humpbacks, walking my feet up the wall, forming a handstand. What would our song be? It’s hard to imagine us having anything that’s “ours.” Blood rushes to my face, and I feel light, calm, warm. I begin calling. Trilling my lips, sighing oh’s and ah’s, singing my own whale song. This thought occurs to me often: I know how to speak to whales, but I can never understand them. While I am singing, I never feel you sing back.
* * *
I found a whale dead once. An adult gray whale locked in an Oregon cove. It shifted back and forth, bloated and sickly pale. I could smell the rot from the beach, and a brown sea bird pecked at it. Plucked bloodied bits of flesh and swallowed them. You had already moved out but came to visit me for Spring Break. It was your second year of studying something like fashion design or musical theater, and you’d gotten yourself pregnant. You came to visit, but also to get rid of it. Driving to the clinic, you told me about nightmares where the embryo ate you from the inside out, gnawed at your organs with gummy teeth and sucked them away.
Now, you sat in my hotel room, bleeding and sipping hot tea with a plastic straw. Looking at the whale, at its dead, podless body, I cried. A little for you, partially for the whale, mostly for me. I wondered if the whale tried to sing to another whale, or did it die alone? Did it swim far enough away that it could never be found again? I laid on the cold sand for hours, pulling at a patch of grass, feeling sick to my stomach.
When I came back to the hotel, you were watching cartoons on the tiny television, eyes red-rimmed and wet. A cup of chocolate pudding suffocated in your grip and a sunburn made your tank-topped shoulders boil and peel.
“There was a dead whale stuck in the cove,” I said.
You were quiet and expressionless for a moment. Just stared at me. I wanted you to cry with me. I wanted to feel your warmth. I think you wanted the same things from me.
“I don’t care about the dead whale, Mom,” you said, laying down, wrapping yourself in a blanket.
That night, I took a shower while lying in the bottom of the tub, my body held by the porcelain. I listened as the water slapped my skin. Felt its wet heat roll into my creases, down my sides. I stayed like that for hours. Days, maybe. For that time, I felt the gray whale’s misery. The loneliness. I felt what killed it.
In the morning, you were gone.
* * *
Walking to the Institute the next day, I list important memories of us in my head. There aren’t many. I try to remember what color the coned hats at your tenth birthday were. Try to picture your first soccer game. These memories feel like lies. Daydreams. Mostly, I just remember the whales. My throat aches and, for a moment, I want to try calling to you again. It won’t be the same, but maybe you could still be a replacement for them. Maybe we could be our own pod.
The Institute is blue, dim, and mildew-smelling like it normally is. This washes my sadness away, somehow. You dissipate in my mind like sea spray. I go to Jerry’s and my office, and he’s there, watching a video of bowhead feedings. He leans closer and closer to the screen as krill collect in the whale’s baleen hairs. I watch him for a moment: he slides side to side slowly in his rolling chair, his hair whirls at his neck, he’s still wearing his mittens. Instead of sitting at my spot, for the first time, I touch him. I place my hand on his shoulder. It’s muscled, cool and slick with his windbreaker, and he turns around. He doesn’t look surprised; he only waits. His eyes are beautiful. Blue.
The motions feel natural, necessary, as I let go and unbutton my pants. Jerry stands up, too.
“The whales,” he says. It’s a question, but also an agreement. He unzips his jacket.
“The whales,” I respond, nodding, pulling off my shirt.
We have sex on the chilled tile floor entirely naked, wanting to feel each other’s smoothness. We don’t kiss or talk while it happens, but when he’s inside of me, I feel complete sameness. Unified. Known. He drifts up and down. When he moans, I moan back to him. Blue whales are the largest animal in the world. I wonder if they feel their grandness, their connectedness.
When he finishes and I finish, it is like you never existed at all. You swim away from my thoughts. I will forget you for years and years, again. Maybe I didn’t wish to remember you after all. Maybe I spoke to you, but never understood. Maybe I never wanted to understand.
Miranda Williams is a 23-year-old writer and editor from New Mexico. Her work has been published in The MacGuffin, Blue Earth Review, The Best Small Fictions, and Booth, among others. She received her BA and MA in Literature from Arizona State University where her research focused on queer and feminist narratives. She is Editor-in-Chief of Suburbia Journal (previously Ember Chasm Review) and an MFA candidate at Northern Michigan University. Find her on Instagram @mirandaiswriting or on her website mirandawilliamswriter.com.