The Eternal Pursuit of the Whale’s Song

My fiancé Simon, my mother, and I boarded Air Hawaii from the Houston Intercontinental Airport around seven in the morning to visit my dying father. My mother, who came from a traditional Indian family, had still refused to grant my father a divorce even though she hadn’t spoken to him since he’d retired a decade earlier from his engineering firm and moved to Honolulu. His assistant Emily—his only companion—was the one who called to tell us that my father was on his way out. But, always the dutiful wife, my mother booked a flight immediately. When I questioned the decision, she just kept repeating herself to avoid further argument. This was her M.O. “He’s my husband,” she said. “My husband. My husband.”

“Yes,” I said. “And it’s insane to pretend you have a relationship with him. Insane. Insane.

On the plane my mother sat herself between Simon and me. Her phobia of being peripheral was worse than her fear of death.

Simon hated my mother but hated confrontation even more, so he promptly fell asleep. I pinched his arm. His head bobbed, and his eyes flickered open. Then he drooled on my hand.

“Wake up,” I hissed. We’d been dating for six months, engaged for three, and lately he’d been driving me crazy with his constant state of robotic calm. Even when he was awake he seemed half-asleep. Lately sex between us seemed meticulously planned (Simon was a mathematician). The motion of our lovemaking was like a see-saw, a steady up and down motion with little variation other than the occasional change in positioning. Did he stay up nights figuring out the intricate calculus of orgasm?

My mother lifted the armrest between us. Boundaries aggravated her, and she dispensed of them whenever possible. “Have the two of you talked about babies?” she asked.

“No,” I said wearily. “We’re not even married.”

She clasped her hands together. “Every day, Leela,” she said. “I pray every day.” Then: “My mother didn’t marry until she was twenty-six. Your age. She thought she had plenty of time. But then—poof! Her eggs dried up and her life was over.”

“There was no poof,” I said. “She had you, and she lived until she was 75.”

“Oh, there was a poof all right,” she said. “She wanted six kids and ended up with one.”

She tucked my bra strap under my shirt. I’d been raised to think that God was always just around the corner with his Polaroid, ready to snap the picture that would be put to the committee on Judgment Day. If your bra strap or underwear ever made an appearance, that was it for you.

The groggy morning light strained to fill the plane. It was soporific, engulfing us like a giant yawn. My mother’s wedding ring glinted in the sunlight. I hadn’t seen it in years. It had become part of the tangle of jewelry in a drawer that had come to resemble a junkyard. 

“Why are you wearing that?” I asked. “Oh right. It’s your wedding ring. Your wedding ring.”

She closed her eyes with a melodramatic sigh. A few minutes later, a tortoise-necked man on my other side began talking to us.

“Are you two on vacation?” The man asked.

My mother missed no opportunity to flaunt her tragedies. Her eyes flickered open. “No,” my mother said, “my husband is dying.”

He murmured his apologies, paused, then said: “Your husband sure was lucky to have such a gorgeous wife.” I rolled my eyes.

My mother bowed her head. She wore a white button down shirt and pants, a loose outfit that seemed a slap in the face to the gorgeous tautness of her body. For her, any display of sexuality had to be entirely accidental; when someone complimented her on her shirt, she’d notice a “button she’d missed.” Sexual suggestiveness was like shoplifting; it seemed to thrill her, but when confronted she denied it had been intentional.

But, even though she was all too aware of her beauty—which the smitten described as “exceptional” and the envious, like me, “fucking unjust”—she wore her loveliness like a kid given a necklace of pure gold. She was uneasy possessing it even as she reveled in its value to the outside world.

She was a pharmacist, and I began working alongside her as a pharmacy technician two years ago, just after graduating from the University of Houston. She couldn’t bear to be alone after my father moved, so I took the job to be near her. When I was a child, my mother told me that she had pursued pharmacy to help people heal and to carry on the legacy of her father, a doctor in Kolkata who’d treated many of his poorer customers for free. But she tended to be sympathetic to only the most “appropriate” conditions and illnesses. Influenza was acceptable; gonorrhea was absolutely not.

But my mother’s loveliness duped others into deeming her a saint. One customer at the pharmacy referred to her as a “Hot Mother Teresa,” especially once he heard that she was nursing an ailing husband. My father was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis in his twenties and by his early forties had been confined to a wheelchair. After he got sick, my father grew immune to my mother’s charms and to the charms of the world around him. He stopped speaking unless absolutely necessary. Around him Mom constantly clamored to make noise, trying to make herself heard. Even after my father disappeared from our lives, she never lost the habit of seeking attention.

The next hour and a half consisted of my bearing witness to Mom’s grotesque flirtation with Turtle Man. I tried to shake Simon awake; he rewarded me with more spittle. So I tapped my mother on the knee. “Switch seats with me.” She didn’t put up a fight; now that she had Turtle’s attention, I was off the hook for a while.

Simon’s hair was strewn carelessly over his eyes. The near perfection of his nose, combined with the sharpness of his cheekbones, created the illusion of arrogance.  I’d fallen for him in part because of his name—I’d had a crush on Simon Le Bon from Duran Duran for years, and the fact that my Simon resembled the lead singer (aside from being Indian) seemed too much of a coincidence for me to ignore.

Comfortably seated next to Simon, I sang Duran Duran’s “My Name is Rio” into his ear until he couldn’t fake sleep any longer. “You win,” he said after attempting to drool on me a few more times. He grabbed my hand, kissing it briefly. “But you better be carrying Xanax on you. You realize that the FDA approved it after meeting your mother.”

My fingers slid into his. His hands were beautiful and soft.

I’d met Simon at the pharmacy several months earlier. My mother’s eyes scanned his body when he walked in. He had all the prerequisites—Indian, with a good build, no evident piercings. As he slid a prescription to my mother, she glanced at it, wagged a finger at him, and said, “Yes! I knew I’d seen you before.”

“I’m sorry,” he said, shoving his hands into his pockets. “I don’t think we’ve met—“

“Years ago,” she insisted. “You used to build Lego castles with my daughter Leela. We spent some time with your family when the two of you were children.”

I was filling an order at the time. “I don’t remember ever building a Lego castle, Mom,” I called out.

“You spent hours building Lego castles,” she said. She stepped back, grabbed my sleeve, and guided me to the counter. “Leela here stole my bindis and put them all over her face and told you that she had a rare strand of Monster Pox. You were so scared of her, Simon. You ran around the house screaming Monster Pox, Monster Pox.”

According to my mother, I’d coincidentally had childhood friendships with several Indian males (always in their twenties) who’d walked into the pharmacy.

A new customer approached my mother, and I took the opportunity to whisper to Simon: “I’m sorry. She’s totally lying. We never built Lego castles together. My mother scares me sometimes.”

He laughed. “Pharmacists scare me.”

“Why?”

“You have my life in that computer,” he said. “A prescription can be as intimate as a diary. You could write a whole book about me if you wanted.”

“Right,” I said, “because you’re that interesting.” He grinned. And I began to feel an intense attraction to everything about this man I didn’t know.

Two days later, he came in with a prescription for Cipro and a reservation at an Italian restaurant for the following night.

Our flight landed at 5:02 p.m. My mother called Emily on the cab ride to the hotel. The woman said that my father had died at approximately 4:32 p.m., which sounded like no approximation at all, and my mother hung up and stared at Simon and me like a bird that had just slammed into a glass window.

We were staying at the Royal Hawaiian, a pink palace overlooking Waikiki Beach. Though my father never spoke to us again after he left, he sent my mother checks without fail every month, so she was as rich as she was miserable. As we passed through the lobby, a man and woman were taking their vows, impeccably dressed and holding hands like figurines you’d see on a wedding cake. The view was beautiful, but the wedding seemed zoo-like. Strangers wearing sand-coated flip-flops and swimsuits stopped and gawked. Then they kept walking, talking loudly.

The room Simon and I were sharing had the pink sheen of the rest of the palace. It had a large balcony and windows, and the splashes and screeches and warmth outside flooded our room. I stretched out on the bed. In the fullness of the sunlight my stomach seemed more sensual in its softness. Everything was new. I pulled at Simon’s pants, and he turned around.

I winked at him.

“Honey, your dad just died.”

“I haven’t seen him in ten years,” I said. “There’s no need for me to go celibate.”

He sat beside me on the bed and gazed out the window. “But he was your father.”

I’d told Simon about Dad—about how in his early twenties he’d been training to run in the Olympics when he was diagnosed with MS. After that, he self-medicated to tolerate the gradual wasting away of his body. But I hadn’t told Simon about the last time I visited Kolkata with my parents, when I was eleven. I told him about the visit now, about how my father’s pendulous stomach flattened within the first fourteen days of our visit, and the heaviness of his eyes diminished for some time. In his childhood Dad made his own fighter kites out of bamboo sticks and rice paper, and he laid them out for me on his childhood bed like a shy kindergartener. The colors were bold—purple, blue, red—and I could see the kites had been made in spurts of exhilaration, in the midst of a vision of himself as a creator, an innovator. The tissue was poorly pasted and torn. I pointed this out, and he said: “Well, I was only a boy when I made them,” he said. I had never imagined my father as a boy. I had to close my eyes and picture him, a child, inhabiting this strange house years ago. 

When he asked me if I wanted to fly the kites, I saw the child in my father once again—his joy, pure and unfiltered, shone in his eyes. That was what I’d loved about Simon too. The childlike glee in his eyes.

“The kites you see in America are mostly for decorative purposes,” he told me during our first lesson on the roof. He’d limped as he climbed the stairs up to the roof, but, once seated, he sat tall in his chair. “But these kites are alive; they have a mind of their own. They’re called fighter kites for a reason; the goal is to cut other people’s strings until your kite is the only one remaining.”

The roof of my grandparents’ home was concrete and flat. My father handed me a reel wound with a thin, transparent string made out of ground glue and glass. When he first mentioned flying kites, I fantasized he would burst into song like the father in Mary Poppins.

There was no singing, but my father was almost giddy as he freed his kite into the air and showed me how to release mine. My kite was defiant, delinquent, darting around in all directions. My father, on the other hand, was a puppeteer on an inverted stage; the kite’s motions corresponded perfectly with the movement of my father’s hands. His kite swooped in and cut mine, swiftly, gracefully, before sailing on.

At the end of the lesson he commanded: “Now cut mine.” His kite was suspended, paralyzed, in the sky—an open target. With its wings spread apart, it looked like a victim of sacrifice as I fumbled with my reel. It bobbed patiently in the air like a martyr, in acceptance of its approaching death. It took several attempts, but I finally managed to sever the string in choppy, amateur movements. And then I burst into tears. Dad blinked, startled. Then he wrapped me in an awkward embrace. “It’s just part of it, Leela. One kite has to lose.”

Simon nodded, listening. “But you didn’t want to win.”

“It was something he’d made, Simon. That he made as a boy. And it was lost to the sky.”

Simon smoothed back my hair, pulling my face to his torso. The gentleness of his touch still moved me. “Maybe he was trying to teach you something about saying goodbye.”

“Well, duh. But I didn’t want to say goodbye,” I said. My face was pressed against his shirt, and I heard the petulance in my voice.

“Of course you didn’t, baby,” Simon said softly. Then he stepped back. “I’m going to get some fishing equipment while it’s still light out,” he said with a faint smile, “but I’ll be back.”

“You’re going to leave me alone with her?”

“How about this,” he said, his smile strained. “I’ll bring you back a nice long rod.”

“You better,” I said. “I haven’t seen a rod in a while.”

I watched from the balcony as Simon made his way down the beach, his shoulders hunched. As handsome as he was, his posture was terrible. I imagined him as a kid, small and ill at ease with his body, and some of my warmth for him returned.

In the beginning, our love had been dizzying. On our first date, he blurted out, “You have beautiful arms.”

“That I’ve never heard before,” I laughed. I had been wearing a red strapless dress and worried all evening that my breasts were sprawled over the table on exhibition for all to see.

“Oh yeah,” he responded. “They make me think of trees—tall, happy trees with the branches hanging over the water. They’re lovely. Powerful.”

“That makes absolutely no sense, weirdo,” I said, laughing. But, as nonsensical as it was, the compliment roused me—it introduced the possibility of something surprising and real.

Over the next few weeks we groped one another with the desperation of teenagers breaking curfews; defying the idea of the austere match our parents thought they’d made. We violated their ideals in our secret moments—sex in Memorial Park behind a scrawny cluster of trees barely separating us from the passing joggers, crude verbal exchanges during love-making. I still lived with my mother, and our sexual trysts seemed a delicious contradiction to her outdated values.

“I might be starting to love you, Indian Simon Le Bon,” I whispered one night as we groped in the parking lot outside a Kroger’s.

“Then marry me, Indian Natalie Portman,” he murmured, his breath warm against my ear.

It struck me months later that we’d essentially committed to marrying avatars, not real people. But I figured, back then, that engagement would naturally lead to emotional intimacy. Of course, it didn’t. We’d reveled in deceiving our parents for so long, but once we had their approval we were left with our unformed selves. And soon our relationship became one long conversational pause—with pressure to speak, though nothing remained to be said.

I grabbed a blanket and settled into a chair on the balcony. Surfers skated over the frothy waves below. Off in the distance three naked men played soccer, kicking the ball as their genitals jumped around like pom-poms. I squinted, wishing I’d brought my binoculars. It had been weeks since I’d seen genitals—from near or afar.

My mother opened the hotel room with the spare key—of course she’d insisted on taking it—and sat down on the balcony. “Where’s Simon?”

“Down at the beach.”

She looked vaguely alarmed. “Without you?” She peered at the Pom-Pom genital boys on the beach. “Are those boys naked?”

I held up a hand. “What did you find out about Dad?”

“Your father wanted his body cremated,” she said. “No funeral. I’m going now to see him. He’s been moved to the funeral home. Do you want to come?”

I nodded—I had to—though the idea of greeting his corpse nauseated me.

She wiped her eyes with the side of her hand. “Your father must have loved it here.”

He would have loved it. The vast expanse of sand. The openness of the sky.

During the last few weeks of our visit to Kolkata, my uncles flew their kites with my father, and the volume of conversation rose as their kites approached one another, dodged, and then attacked. My cousins, who were watching, roared like sports commentators, lauding or dismissing the kites. “That kite has no balls!” One cousin heckled. “It doesn’t deserve to be black. It should be wearing a pink, frilly dress.”

Gradually the kites acquired personalities—my father’s kite, Obi-Wan Kenobi from Star Wars, was the meditative type. My oldest uncle’s kite, named Fonzie after the Happy Days character, was overconfident—a self-assured teenager challenging the older virtuoso. When my father severed my uncle’s kite, it wasn’t without some sadness that we watched Fonzie float out of sight. Sure he was brash and pompous—but he was young, and he’d made a valiant effort. My father initially bristled with irritation when my uncles heckled him, but eventually he softened, unable to contain his laughter. It broke free with startling force, and my mother gaped at him. Did you just laugh? She asked. My God, the sky must be falling!

But underneath her mocking tone resided a deep, intimate respect. She would sit next to me and gaze reverently at my father like he was a prophet. It was easy during those moments to see how it had been different once between them, and the faint breeze around us was light with optimism, a hopefulness that faded soon after we returned to Houston. Soon after that trip he was confined to a wheelchair.

My mother rose from her seat on the balcony, and I followed her outside. She clutched her purse with both hands, as though it was in danger of being swept away by the wind. I held her hand as we waited for a cab.

Inside the casket my father’s body was small and doll-like, his face almost shriveled. He was dressed in a white shirt buttoned to the collar. His fingers were splayed, his hands flat on his chest. I wanted to put something in his hands to bridge the vast, lonely space between them.

A year after we got back from India, my father and I went to the park to fly kites. My father hadn’t gotten used to his wheelchair, and his movements were jerky, frustrated. The kites moved groggily through the sky. “It’s this damn heat,” he grumbled, swatting at the air.

“But it was even hotter in India,” I said timidly. He said nothing. His kite had become lodged in an oak tree. I stood up to retrieve it, but he put a hand on my wrist to restrain me and wheeled himself over to the tree. He tried to stand and yank on the string, but he fell back into the chair with a thud.

My parents argued in their bedroom for hours after we returned. When it quieted I found my mother in the kitchen, staring into a glass of water. “He used to make magic,” she said. “He refuses to even try anymore. He’ll barely even talk to me.”

I was silent, the marble floor cold beneath my feet. The month before he left us, my father passed his days in bed, staring blankly at the ceiling. I brought him his meals upstairs, and every time I came close to his motionless body I was terrified of finding a stiff corpse. I watched his belly, silently praying for it to rise. It always did, but my relief was short-lived. I mentally prepared for his death daily. Was happiness like food? I wondered. Once deprived of it for too long, would Dad eventually die?

The morning he left us for good, he wheeled himself to my bed and hugged me. My feet were bare, and at that moment I badly wanted a pair of socks. I was exposed, unprotected, without them. “My precious girl,” he said, his head heavy on my shoulder. “I wish I could stand it, the wasting away of my body, my spirit. I wish I was vulnerable enough to let you watch it happen.” His voice was hoarse, and when he let go my shoulder was damp from his tears. “Because you are so dear to me.”

I said nothing. He’d left, in spirit, long ago. I watched him wheel himself out of my room, slumped in his chair. Nothing remained to attach him to the world.

My mother wept at my side. Emily stood quietly in a corner. She had organized his life after he moved to Hawaii, enabling him to live in virtual isolation. She was the conduit between him and the outside world: getting his groceries, making his phone calls, emptying his bedpan. Her demeanor was stiff, unobtrusive, asexual—everything my father would have wanted from an employee.

I couldn’t cry. My father had taught me to sever ties with him that day I cut his kite and watched it disappear into the sky. I could have mourned at a ceremony, dressed in somber grey tones. There I could slip in and out of sadness as though it was a rented suit. But there was no funeral here, no collective grieving. There was only a body as still in death as it had been in life.

After we’d visited India for the last time, my paternal grandparents passed away, and my father’s childhood home was sold. He’d only brought with him two kites—one of which we’d abandoned in the tree. The afternoon my father left us, I raced to the park on my bike, praying that the kite was still intact, securely tethered to the tree. But all that remained was a scrap of pink tissue dangling from a branch.

My mother virtually charged into Emily, hugging her tightly. “We were so in love. Did he talk about me often?”

Emily threw a desperate glance in my direction. Tell the truth, I thought. Please.

Emily looked away. “He spoke of you so fondly.”

In the cab on the way back to the hotel my mother was still wailing. “Did you hear that? We were in love. Emily said. Emily said.”

I sighed and took her hand in mine. “I made reservations for us all to go snorkeling tomorrow morning. It’ll take our mind off all this.”

She sniffed. “We came to mourn. Not take a vacation.”

“Stay at the hotel then and mourn,” I said. “But grieving isn’t a full time job. I need a distraction.”

She didn’t respond, and I knew she would come. Since my father had left us, she’d grown terrified of being unseen for too long. Even mourning had to be a group-activity.

I returned to my hotel room alone. The sun still lingered in the sky—a dazzling orange, it appeared to rise from the sea like smoke. It was hard to imagine it was making its descent. The bustle below had quieted to a low rumble of voices. A man walked alone by the ocean, which surged and retreated from the banks in a self-assured rhythm. A steady accumulation of murmurs came from a party inside a giant red tent parked perilously close to the ocean. The red flap floundered in the wind whenever a new couple entered.

My relationship with Simon deteriorated soon after we became a real couple. Shortly after our engagement, we spent the night together, and Simon began talking dirty in Bengali. I didn’t have a clue what he was saying. My parents had planned on teaching me Bengali, but each held the other responsible for teaching me the language. So I never learned. Simon continued his crude Bengali monologue, and finally I said: “I’m sorry. I can only talk dirty in English.”

“You don’t speak Bengali?”

“No,” I said, breathing on his neck, “but I can be more crass and inventive in English than you could ever imagine.”

“Well, that’s even better,” he said, grabbing me. But he was more distant that night, and I felt like a felon. The awkwardness between us never went away. When Simon’s parents called and he lapsed into long conversations in Bengali, I’d sneak away to the backyard, away from his laughter and warm words.

I changed into my flip-flops and bathing suit, seized by a need to shake myself out of chronic weariness. I grabbed a flashlight and then went downstairs. The air near the beach was chilly, and my throat was dry as I slogged through the wet sand. I passed by the red tent, where country music was playing, and people sang along, breaking into claps and whistles every few minutes. 

I turned around and walked toward the tent, driven by a sudden desire to make my presence known. I lifted the red flap and stepped inside, where a couple was swaying drunkenly, belting out something resembling “Yesterday” by The Beatles. Middle-aged couples were pressed together. Wine glasses dangled perilously from their fingers. Children ran through the tent and jumped around holding hands, all joy and motion and eagerness. I realized after a moment that I had stepped into a wedding reception. I leaned against a wall. In the midst of family, I was anonymous. I left unnoticed.

A single seagull sat on the beach, facing the ocean. The smoke of the sunset had cleared. Soon there would be nothing left to see.

I found Simon on an isolated patch a mile from the hotel. His fishing rod hung limply from his hand. He was smoking a cigarette, inhaling with deep reverence the tiny torch with a faint flame at its end. His veneration for it made me want to hold one myself, as though we were in vigil. The light disappeared into the chunk of ash.

“Fish aren’t biting,” he said.

“Maybe they’ve gotten savvy,” I said.

“How was it?” He stepped toward me.

I shook my head.

He reached over to squeeze my hand. “Leela, I wish I knew what questions to ask you.”

“No one knows what to say after someone dies.”

“I’m not talking about just now. I mean always. I wish I knew how to know you. To speak your language.”

“Me too,” I whispered. I rested my cheek, briefly, against the broadness of his back. And, for a second, he was no longer the illusory Simon Le Bon. He put out the cigarette and got down on his hands and knees, collecting brown and white pebbles from the sand. He flung a pebble into the sea, then another. I expected them to skip gracefully against the water’s surface, but each brushed the surface and then sank.

“Maybe it’s not about asking the right questions,” I said finally. A massive, unwieldy rock sat at my feet. I bent over and picked it up with some effort.

“What do you mean?” He asked.

I flung it into the water, underhanded. The water splashed, slapping us in the face as the rock landed with a disgruntled thump. We began to laugh. Then Simon collected his gear, and we walked back to the hotel, hand in hand. He held his fishing rod in his other hand, like a cane in the sand. 

“I mean,” I said, “that maybe the problem is that we’ve stopped asking questions at all. Because we’re afraid to admit what we don’t know.”

We hadn’t walked together, side by side, for so long that we collided often. “How did our bodies fit so well together during sex,” I said, laughing, “when we can’t stop bumping into each other?” And before he said anything I realized it—our bodies hadn’t aligned properly during lovemaking since we’d started to know, actually know, one another.

“Well, maybe it’s okay to have bumpy sex for a while.”

“Maybe. What’s the name of this shell?” I asked, shining my flashlight down on the sand.

He knelt down. “I really don’t know.”

We kept walking. “Is that the Big Dipper?” I asked, pointing into the distance.

“Leela, I have no fucking clue,” he said, doing his best Simon Le Bon accent.

I smiled. “You know you’re actually nothing like Simon Le Bon,” I said.

“Oh, I know it. And you are definitely no Natalie Portman.”

We couldn’t stop laughing. I could keep making Simon up, filling in the gaps through the prescriptions I’d filled for him. That was what my parents had done after all—lapsed into silence. Stopped asking the uncomfortable questions. Or we could revel in all that was unknown, mysterious to both of us. And find a way to create our own language.

When we arrived back at our hotel room Simon fell asleep, his arm slung over my chest. His body was warm, substantial. Real. So many nights I had stayed up, trying to match my breathing to his. But I could never quite keep pace with his quick inhalations. That night, for the first time in many months, I let myself breathe naturally. And I slept deeply, and well.

My mother fetched us before dawn, and we dragged ourselves downstairs to a van labeled “Dolphin Expedition.” As we crawled into the back seat, the other passengers, a couple and their child, sang their hellos.

“You here on vacation?” The man asked. He wore a Hawaiian shirt unbuttoned to midway down his chest. His wife wore a tight pink halter top and obscenely bright orange lipstick. The boy swayed back and forth with impatience.

“No,” my mother spoke up. “My husband died. We were very much in love—“

“That sucks,” the wife said, cutting her off. My mother sat back, visibly annoyed, and I covered a smile with my hand. I wrapped my arm around her shoulder.

The woman went on: “Last night, we were just trying to play our guitar by the hotel pool, and these people complained. Such prudes.”

“Yeah,” her son repeated. “Total prudes.”

When we arrived, we were guided to a boat, and we sat on the sides as it whirred through the water. The breeze was cool on our faces, and when I looked at Simon he was smiling. We both were. The Prudes’ son refused to take off his cowboy hat, and he waved his arms over the side of the boat, chanting “DolphinsDolphinsDolphinsDolphinsDolphins” until the hat was swept into the water, and he broke into tears. After a while the boat paused in the water, and the instructors helped us put on our goggles and gear.

“Will the dolphins come to us?” My mom asked, worry straining her face.

  “Dolphins are very warm and friendly,” the instructor said. “They love people. They get excited whenever they see humans, and they show it by spinning.”

The instructor dropped a microphone into the water, and a deep, elephant-like moan vibrated through the water. “That’s the song of a humpback whale,” she said. “Every mating season, a new male creates a unique song, and the rest of the whales echo it. You can hear it from miles away. It always sounds closer than it actually is.”

“It sounds like Chewbacca from Star Wars,” The Prudes’ son said.

“Time to get in the water,” the instructor said.

We dangled our legs over the side of the boat as the instructors nudged us into the water, one by one. As the instructor prodded the Prudes into the ocean, I felt sick, as though we were all being forced into a mass grave. The bodies toppled over and splashed in the water.

“We’ll meet back here,” Simon whispered, standing behind me. Then it was my turn, and after the initial shock the water was surprisingly warm. The snorkeling mask was tight on my face, and I tugged on it. “Heads down,” the instructor shouted from the boat. “You’ll miss the dolphins if you keep looking up. Stay underwater.”

Legs flailed underwater, indistinct as strands of seaweed. My mom was behind me, pulling at my ankles. She said: “You can’t leave me alone.”

  “You need to look for them yourself,” I said, squeezing her arm. “You’ll survive without me.”

I pulled the mask over my face and dipped my head underwater, moving my legs like scissors to propel myself forward. My breath emerged in short gasps. When I came up from underneath the surface, Simon bobbed in the distance. Or at least I thought it was him. I couldn’t pick him out definitively from the rest of the bodies encased in life vests. I waved in his general direction, then swam on.

The song of a whale vibrated through the water, a deep, definitive sound, and I felt a sudden chill. I ducked my head back under the surface with my eyes wide open, while the mournful wail shook the waters. I wanted, more than anything, to be engulfed in the haunting music. 

  The whale could have been miles away, I knew, but I thrashed toward the source of that howl. The ocean trembled, and then, just as suddenly, the rumble was gone. The others were even farther away, and I realized I’d been swimming in the other direction from them for some time. 

I ducked below the surface again, and below me a school of six dolphins swam like a mirage before the ocean swallowed them up. I followed them, my arms making wide arcs. But they’d soon disappeared. In the distance, I heard the Prudes yelp with delight as the dolphins sprang up around them, spinning up in the air.

  Around me the ocean was vast and thick and unknowable. I wondered if the dolphins gravitated toward all humans, or whether they approached only those who were fully alive. I imagined my father bobbing in the water with a lifejacket, waiting for the dolphins to come. Perhaps they’d sense he had left most of himself behind in that childhood home in Kolkata filled with handmade kites, and they’d swim past him, dismissing him as a corpse.

The others climbed back into the boat, ending their courtship of the dolphins. My mother and Simon waved, gesturing at me to swim back. I waved in return. I would rejoin them soon. But for now I paddled further away and waited, hoping that the whale would continue singing its raw, haunting song, and the dolphins would spin above the water in a magnificent display of camaraderie, pronouncing in their emphatic dance: You are not yet dead.


Image Credits: Wikimedia Commons