We’re All Here Because We Love You
Catherine is moving to Switzerland for Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—four dolphins at Oceania, the country’s premier marine amusement park, who are in need of an experienced trainer. Their previous trainer has been let go for reasons not made clear to Catherine; she wonders if the dolphins had simply grown tired of that trainer’s piousness—she had been the one to give them those apostolic names—and thereby occasioned her firing, like petulant children concocting against an ironclad babysitter. A recommendation had been put in for Catherine to fill the position at Oceania, delivered to the top brass by a whale trainer she’d slept with years ago at a marine conservation summit in San Antonio. The sex had been unremarkable, but still Catherine had saved his number, knowing him to be well-connected in the competitive and nepotistic world of marine mammal training. When she asked him to put out his feelers for her last week to see if he could possibly procure her even an apprenticeship, for which she would be embarrassingly overqualified, the whale trainer had returned her call two hours later with the job offer from Oceania.
Catherine is thrilled by this unexpected opportunity to get back into the tank, especially when considering how recently it was promised her that such a thing would never happen. She does not allow herself to ruminate on whether she has earned another chance, nor whether she is ready for it. Evaluating one’s own preparedness, she thinks, is often the initial foray into unpreparedness. It is an undermining inquiry, that variety of self-analysis. Instead she daydreams of those playful, echolocating charmers, looks carefully at photos of them from Oceania’s website until she can tell each of them apart. Even after years of working with them in aquariums and in shows, the dolphin still manages to evoke in Catherine a kind of arrhythmic reverence: a sense of awe felt first in the heart’s skipped beat before spreading throughout the body. Submerged in the bright blue womb of the tank, hemmed in by a clique of ebullient dolphins, Catherine has never felt the sense of power she’s heard other trainers proselytize about, nor the sense of peace boasted about by the same, but rather an ineffable, imprecise longing: to stay, to settle, to remain under longer than her lungs would ever let her.
Her relationship to the gauzy embrace of painkillers was not dissimilar.
A woman in group therapy at Goldenrod Springs, the rehabilitation center in Reno where Catherine has spent the last forty-eight days, had been the one to draw that correlation. The woman is an alcoholic with tattooed eyebrows. It’s simple, she’d said—Catherine wants to live underwater. Catherine doesn’t want to come up for air. It had made Catherine vaguely defensive to be so presumptuously and nonchalantly solved by the woman, but everything here has made her vaguely defensive. She often feels that this is the point.
Goldenrod Springs is where they sent her after she’d been fired from Dauphinas, the interactive aquarium in Miami where she’d worked for six years. It was Rich, her former boss, who had insisted Catherine would never again have the chance to work in tanks, not if he had anything to say about it, but as it turned out he did not wield much power in this regard. With nearly two months of unabridged sobriety under her belt, she has received this invitation to Switzerland—a place she has never been and whose geographic location she can only gesture toward nebulously on a map. It’s the kind of second chance Big Ben, the head counselor, is always talking about. They call him Big Ben because he is tall and British and always telling you what time it is. He does not support Catherine’s decision to end treatment early. She is still some forty days shy of the suggested 90 day stay, and to leave now, Big Ben stresses to her, would be to double the likelihood of relapse within a year. There is unequivocal data on this which he laminated yesterday and placed in her her mail cubby, where it will remain, unread, after she leaves. He says that there is a way for even sobriety to intoxicate an addict; this excitement to flee, to disappear into a life overseas, he calls a false buzz. She tries to flatter him while insisting on her own restitution at this, their final meeting—it’s all thanks to you, Big Ben—but to no effect. If she is going to leave without completing treatment, he says, it will be without his blessing, and she’ll have to sign an AMA, a form which, when notarized, more or less confirms her as an addict in denial, though she considers herself to be neither.
Big Ben stares at Catherine now as he slides the AMA form slowly across the desk toward her. He makes his disappointment known in every gesture. Behind him is a poster which reads, Try To Drown Your Fears and You Will See That They Can Swim. He says he won’t give her a pen to sign with until she takes ten minutes alone, closes her eyes, and really thinks about her decision one more time. Remember how you got here, he says, as if it’s possible she has merely forgotten. He doesn’t seem convinced that this charade will have any meaningful effect, but Catherine chalks it up to a kind of last resort insurance of the no-stone-unturned variety. Big Ben leaves the room and she looks over the contract.
This is to certify that I, ________, a patient at Goldenrod Springs in treatment for addiction, am refusing, at my own insistence, and against the evidence of my attending counsel, the continuation of treatment at this facility. The risks of doing so have been explained to me to my satisfaction. I hereby release Goldenrod Springs, its personnel, and my attending counsel of any responsibility for whatever consequences may come about as a result of my leaving under these circumstances.
Attached to the form is the initial paperwork Catherine filled out when she checked in.
The first question they asked was, “Do you identify yourself as an addict?” and Catherine had colored in the circle for No, she did not, for she had always thought herself a remarkably highfunctioning and self-moderating pillhead. This was not an argument that fellow patients or faculty took seriously, but she still mostly stands by it. She had never looted from the orange bottles in anyone’s medicine cabinet, despite how often such circumstances presented themselves. She had done extensive research about what not to mix, and knew most of the dangerous interactions for all analgesics and barbiturates that she could possibly encounter. And because she had been the mistress once, several years ago, to a general practitioner whose wife was a double amputee, there was rarely an issue getting regular prescription renewals. What addict goes through the trouble of keeping her addiction lawful? The renewals were all she had asked of the doctor after he had ended things—she supposed she loved him, though not with much investment, the way one is fond of an aunt—and he was all too happy to write the scripts so long as Catherine never told his wife about the affair—the legless wife, who often filled in as a secretary at the front desk and whose wheelchair was bedazzled in pink rhinestones. This arrangement had saved Catherine from ever needing to learn the art of subtly asking a gas station attendant where she might find chill pills or skittles, which was something she saw on a crime procedural but could not imagine herself doing.
She also found pills, found them with an uncanny frequency: a five milligram Valium on the floor of a movie theater, a Ziploc bag with several Demerol marked FOR RUTH wedged between a Greyhound seat, and once, years ago, as if divinely delivered, a ten milligram Oxycontin in the pew of a Presbyterian church during the boring and distressing funeral for her mother, from whom she was estranged, especially postmortem. Her suicide had amber-trapped their years of not speaking; it had given her the last word.
Catherine’s roommate in college had something similar happen with dimes. The girl was always finding dimes and attributing them to her dead father, whom she claimed had always called her Dime before he wrapped his pick-up around a telephone pole, an inelegant and clumsy ribbon. Everyone had found dimes at his funeral, if you believed her. She had wanted to memorialize her father and this phenomena in ink on her left ankle, but the tattoo artist had misunderstood and what he had given her instead was a nickel.
She always verified the pills she found through Pill Identifier forums on the internet to make sure that whatever she thought she was taking she most likely was. M362, M357, D35, the imprinted equations on the back like a digestible code for bliss. The ten milligram Vicodins, scored in the middle, tended to bring to Catherine’s mind the image of tiny oblong tennis courts on which shrunken athletes in white visors volleyed back and forth. The Demerol were pressed planets, stepped on by a giant. The generic oxycontin, square and oddly speckled with red dots, were the tiles of a bathroom floor in which a beautiful woman had been stabbed in a crime of passion. This was the way she was able to think about the world, this was the way she was able to see it. The pills could rip off the tight red dress of her brain and expose all that a sober imagination refused. They could make her medulla bloom with blood, with insight. They could dilate her cortex until her head felt uncolonized and weightless and able to contain all the languages of the world. High, she could single out one pane of glass when all anyone else saw was a skyscraped city. She could see the ocean as ocean and as gathered drops of water both. She could look at a man’s head between her knees and biographize each hair on his head.
When she got to speaking this way, Big Ben had always interrupted her, reminding her what else the pills had been doing: severely dysregulating her metabolism, leaving her always sallow looking and somewhat dizzy; eating away at her nasal lining with the determination of a termite, providing frequent nosebleeds; draining roughly $60,000 over the course of four years from her bank account; and, most drastically, they had lost Catherine the job at Dauphinas she had fought desperately to secure, a position she loved and at which she excelled. The comment cards from the audience always served to prove this, the patrons taking care to mention her by name and highlight her agility, her showmanship, her command of and respect for the animals. Big Ben is fond of using these comment cards, of which he had obtained copies, as a mechanism for both inducing guilt and encouraging the possibility of reclamation.
In the time she has been here, Catherine has often been made to tell and retell the story of her firing, though to what gain she could never really discern. She doesn’t find it very interesting. The day of her last show, Catherine had forgotten whether or not she had taken the two Vicodin she usually took before a show and so she had taken another two backstage just in case as the audience gathered into the bleachers. Ten minutes into the fifty minute production, she was struggling to keep her eyes open. It was a show full of missed cues, failed stunts, slip-ups, and literal slips—she had taken a hard fall on the platform and the audience had gasped at the ugly noise. The dolphins were understandably confused and were, by the end, angry and uncooperative, swimming away from the platform and waiting for the gate to be lifted back to their pool. She had dated men like this, men who left impolitely, in judgement, when they could tell she was toasted. You really need to get help, they’d say, then shut the door without offering it.
In the end, the groaning and perplexed audience was refunded, the disappointed children seated in the SoakZone cried in dry clothing, few of her fellow trainers would look Catherine in the eye, and the drug test Rich had made her take she had failed with flying colors. The party line from Rich and the rest of the managerial staff was that, by showing up to work and performing under the influence of narcotics, Catherine had endangered herself, her fellow trainers, the audience, the dolphins, and the reputation of Dauphinas. Her attempt to dispute this claim by saying that it was when she wasn’t high—usually due to a misunderstanding at the pharmacy or a poorly-budgeted supply—that she felt most absentminded, most clumsy, most graceless, was met with rolled eyes and frowns of shallow compassion.
Her exit from Dauphinas was unceremonious. Rich had not even offered her the opportunity to have a final moment alone with the dolphins, though Catherine had gone around back to the pool anyway. Just to watch, from a distance, for a moment, as the dolphins swam nimbly around the perimeter, whistling. She loved them ferociously and had to resist the urge to jump in and kiss the rubbery sheen of their skin. She had trained them and performed with them six days a week for more years than she’d done anything else in her life. She had fed them from her hand and checked their tongues for canker sores. She had seen them give birth, and seen those babies give birth, too. Her relationship to them was the most consistent and loyal in her life. It felt, at least, the most reciprocal. She had longed to step down from the bleachers and press her hands against the cool glass of the tank, to draw them over, but she knew that the best reaction she could possibly hope to get from them still would not have felt anything like forgiveness, anything like love.
It is a different kind of weeping when it’s about a dolphin being disappointed in you, a different kind entirely, and she wept in this way for many days, leaving her couch only to go to the pharmacy drive-thru in her underwear.
The intervention, if that’s even what you can call it when only three people show, two of them after the addict has already arrived, had been something of a shock. It was her father who contacted Goldenrod Springs to arrange it after learning of Catherine’s firing. Like many widowers, her father was a man who suddenly softened in his widowhood, the death of his wife having defrosted him like a cut of meat to reveal a substantial and preserved kindness. And like most daughters whose fathers develop a penchant for giving a damn later in life, Catherine regarded his newfound interest in her well-being as too convenient, too little, and roughly thirty years too late. He had been on no one’s side during the ten-year argument between his wife and daughter, had offered nearly nothing in terms of commentary. He had chosen not to leave Catherine’s mother after what she’d done, even though what she’d done was try to give a middleof-the-night handjob to Allen, Catherine’s college boyfriend, whom she’d brought home to Miami for Thanksgiving. Her mother had been more drunk than usual and he’d been asleep in the guest room and she had woken him up with her hands. Allen had pushed her off and come running into Catherine’s room swearing and genuinely frightened and half-hard. The commotion had awakened her father, and it had truly been a scene, the four of them in the hallway, everyone but her mother horribly confused, everyone but her mother screaming, no one appropriately dressed, even the family labrador alarmed and barking. What the fuck is wrong with you, she had yelled at her mother, who had responded by vomiting a mess of milky pink bile on the carpet and then stumbling away like a shot deer. That he had forgiven her mother this transgression—his word—made Catherine think of her father from then on as a man of embarrassing weakness. Her best friend in the fifth grade had a much older brother who was mentally handicapped, and it was what Catherine felt when in their home, when seated next to the brother at the dinner table as he yelped unbearably and without acknowledgment, that she felt regarding her father: an exasperation with the feebleness and frailty of others. It was a type of pity, but it lacked kindness.
She had only seen her father a handful of times since the funeral, and so it surprised Catherine to see him in her apartment that afternoon, sitting on her couch with Big Ben stoic behind him in the corner like a potted plant. Her father had cried modestly and his small, feminine hands trembled as he read from a four-page letter he’d written that expressed, in recycled language, both his shock to learn of the severity of her addiction and his hope that she would accept the treatment being offered to her. He then ad-libbed an apology for the empty room—more are on the way, he’d said, I promise, as if consoling an unpopular child an hour into a poorly-attended birthday party. He’d invited Sasha, a trainer from Dauphinas, and Michael, an ex-boyfriend of Catherine’s from high school whom she had not seen in years but who was now her father’s dentist. They arrived five minutes apart, both blaming traffic. Sasha went on and on about how she’d always admired Catherine’s work ethic and dedication to the animals, which was nothing she’d expressed before the intervention, and most of what Michael had to offer was predicated on Catherine’s having been voted most likely to succeed in high school, which had put the intervention on pause as Catherine rifled through her closet to find the yearbook that disproved this. She had, in fact, been voted most opinionated, she pointed out to the group, which was another superlative entirely. It was a softer way of categorizing her teenage anger and self-righteousness, a Catholic school translation of misanthropic bitch.
And then Big Ben had piped up, taking the reins of the failing intervention. He gave a long speech, the details of which Catherine can’t recall, for she hadn’t really digested them in the first place. “You can’t go on living like this,” she believes that’s how he began. And then he yielded to the kind of dot-connecting behavior that had always infuriated her, stitching together a durable causality to which her addiction could be ascribed, and thus explained. Everyone wanted to trace her substance abuse back to its beginning, locate the inciting incident, but then what?
Nobody seemed to have a plan for what to do with the answer should they find it. It was an insultingly tidy endeavor these people engaged in, attempting to explain Catherine’s unhappiness and attraction toward numbness by singling out one moment, one event which forever disrupted her life and whose tremors would continue to do so, in perpetuity, if she did not accept the help offered. It was predicated on so many fallacies: that Catherine herself wasn’t aware of why she took the pills; that someone could know better than she the origin and extent of her misery; that it was one thing in particular rather than many things, rather than everything, rather than nothing identifiable at all; and finally that pinpointing the cause, should one exist, did even an iota of good. It’s of little interest at what longitude and latitude a bomb is dropped if the blast zone is one’s entire life.
This is nothing she’s articulated in group, knowing that simpler addicts often find comfort in attaching their ruined lives to things that had transpired years before. It works neatly, the use of the blame boomerang, and Catherine does not begrudge anyone the use of it.
“We’re all here because we love you,” Catherine’s father had said that day in her living room, after Big Ben had finished his disquisition.
“Well I’d say all is generous,” Catherine had replied, and these were the last words she’d spoken before packing a suitcase and following Big Ben out the door, where outside waited a white van with tinted windows. She could tell that they had expected her to put up a fight, but what should have felt like the most wearisome and significant decision of her life Catherine couldn’t help but regard as an act of inertia, all of it a kind of lazy surrender. She had not made the decision to accept treatment so much as she had been taken out on the wave of its offer: flotsam at low tide in the shape of a girl, moon-pulled from her home, her life, her pills, from Florida all the way to Reno, to this facility where, during her intake session—what was called an “inventory of the self”—she was asked the question, “Why are you accepting this treatment?” and, unable to think of anything more accurate, wrote, “I am sad.”
She reads it again now, her self-inventory, waiting for Big Ben to return. I am sad. Not the most exact of her proclamations, but not inaccurate in its brevity. She had been so terribly sad. And while she still considers herself unhappy, she is also sober, which is new, and for the first time in years Catherine is embracing her own hopefulness rather than approaching it with caution. Switzerland—has she ever heard a bad word about Switzerland? She has not. Four dolphins under her tutelage, an ample salary, free housing in the park’s luxury condominium— there is, for once, no shortage of evidence to legitimize her optimism.
So when Big Ben returns, armed with a pen which he hands her reluctantly, with an attitude of resignation, Catherine signs the AMA form quickly, gathers her things, and walks out the doors of Goldenrod Springs and to the van waiting to take her to the airport.
Big Ben follows her to the parking lot. He hopes he won’t be seeing her again, he says, but fears he will. Catherine loads her suitcase into the van, gets in the backseat. She rolls down the window to flash Big Ben a sanguine smile, waves goodbye. She is all bright promise, all aptitude, but even here, in this moment, as the van makes its way down the long driveway and onto the interstate, and during the endless and turbulent flights that follow, and when she misses her connecting flight at JFK and has to wait seven hours in the arctic airport with all the kiosks closed, and sixteen hours later when she finally lands in Zurich but her luggage is nowhere to be found on the metallic grin of the conveyor belt at baggage claim, and an hour after that when she fails miserably to navigate Swiss public transportation, and when she finally makes it to the front entrance of Oceania, Catherine begins to feel herself—not slipping, not quite. But losing balance all the same. Swaying. Wobbling.
Catherine is taking her nightly walk through Oceania. It’s been more than a month since she arrived and started work, but she still feels slightly mischievous being in the darkened park after hours. The condos provided for the trainers are located two kilometers past the attractions and stadiums, and Catherine has been doing one lap around the grounds every night to clear her mind before bed. Some nights she will push herself to do two laps, and those next mornings her calves throb, fat as ripe grapefruits.
Nothing but the pools and tanks are lit at night, and everything glows a radiant, sparkling blue. The posts throughout the park are dotted with flyers advertising the highly-anticipated rave taking place on Friday, the eighteenth birthday party of Anna Ganz, the daughter of a famous Swiss actor. Her father has rented out the entire park for the night, and on the posters Anna Ganz has her arms raised, her eyes shut. The shadows of the hammerheads streak the pavement as they swim past, overtaking Catherine’s silhouette as she walks. Further out, Catherine can see the moonlit skeleton of the Poseidon Plummet, the park’s only roller coaster; she can see the long bent spine of its drop. She can also make out the log flumes that parenthesize the property, which she often wishes reached all the way up to the staff lodging. It would be a more lively and efficient way to arrive into work, she thinks, as the staff shuttle has always been running late or broken down when she’s tried to utilize it.
She passes the sea lion and otter exhibit, and a few of the otters come close to see her. Their whiskers stretch out like music staves. She can never tell if they are smiling, though she thinks they always seem to be. The otters and sea lions are trained by her neighbor in the condominium, Simon, with whom she shares an adjoining balcony. Catherine has been sleeping with Simon since three days after her arrival. This despite the fact that he is a bit younger, quite short, and relationships between trainers are pointedly discouraged in the welcome packet. He’s a Swiss native who speaks decent English, though his ordering is such that it occasionally appears as if he is having mild strokes between subjects and predicates. He snores aggressively and he weighs less than she does and Catherine can not remember ever sleeping with a shorter man—he is five three, she guesses, five four at best.
Their arrangement, at the start, was meant to be such that no emotional feelings were to be developed by either party. Catherine had made Simon agree to this before she’d even let him kiss her, and he had shown no resistance. I will be without strings with you, he’d said. It is suggested to the recently sober that one wait at least a year before seeking out a new relationship, though this has little influence on the lines she’s drawn around and between them. Establishing these parameters provides a kind of moral warranty for Catherine should Simon ever come to her bearing love she can not or does not wish to reciprocate—I told you not to, she could then say, and be blameless—while also serving as a barometer by which she can measure his perseverance. Though most days she wishes it weren’t so, it seems Catherine can only let herself be loved by those men she has advised not to do so. She could love them back, too, these brave men. To be loved through the bright yellow caution tape she wraps around herself at the beginning, to be loved by one ducking underneath it and approaching her anyway—this is the way she has always wanted it, and the only way she can imagine love as something two people sustain together over time. She wants to be disobeyed. She wants to be trespassed. Because it’s far too easy, the love that comes when you ask for it, if it’s even love at all. Wasn’t it just persuasion? Catherine has never known what to do with that kind of love but gnaw herself free of its trap.
Earlier this evening, Simon said he was falling in love with her. He had dared move closer. After tonguing an alphabet between her thighs, he came up for air, kissed her neck and said, “For you, I am falling.” It did not charm her as either of them had hoped, but to say anything else in return would’ve been to dismantle something to which she has grown accustomed, something which makes her feel relatively comfortable when tethered to it in this new and foreign life. So she’d said it back. She agreed.
It was a way of telling the truth in advance, she wills herself to think now as she continues her walk. Because it’s not as if she can’t imagine being in love with him; she can imagine it fine. There are things about him she loves already—the way he stumbles in the dark from bedroom to bathroom in the middle of the night, cursing as he stubs his toe on the nightstand; the way he gives her his full attention as she relays some ultimately meaningless anecdote from her day, as if he might be quizzed on it later; the way he’d needlessly chastised himself after offering her a beer once, having momentarily forgotten her sobriety; the way he looks at her from the splash zone those times he stops by to watch her work, his polo soaked and his smile wide and white. He is a man who cares and doesn’t shy from showing it. During sex, he won’t put himself inside of her unless she guides him in with her hands, so overly concerned is he with her minute-to-minute consent and happiness and comfort. He has never asked for the story of her life and she is glad for not having had to give it. He respects her measly fortifications with alarming, astounding patience. It is an occasionally suffocating love, but she has grown used to far worse. So she’d said what she said, hoping that doing so might presage the sentiment’s truth, though she knows that it is a doomed kind of love when one person has already swum so much further out from shore than the other. There is no catching up to them. One can try, but there is just no catching up.
She stops, finally, at the tank that houses her students, her bottlenosed boys: Matthew, Mark, Luke, John. All four rush through the freckled glow of the pool when they see her. They click at her as she presses her hands to the glass, fitting themselves vertically to her shape, flukes to feet. This was the first trick she had taught them when training began, and they’ve since proven themselves to be excellent pupils. It had made her cry a little, her first day back in the water, when they surrounded her with such excited curiosity. She did not feel altogether worthy of their interest or respect, but still she was relieved, grateful that nothing had changed about what it was to share space with these creatures. And what was it? If pressed to explain, Catherine usually resists translating, out of fear of sounding mawkish or cloying, what she feels undeniably when in their presence: a kind of god coursing through her marrow, a rapt recognition of the interconnectedness of all breathing things. But to speak in such ethereal language was considered too new-age. There had been a time when it behooved one to sound new-age, ambiguously spiritual, but that time, she feels, has passed. Instead she says that working with them is the treat of being alive, and, for her, that’s it exactly.
Everyone up top at Oceania is very pleased with Catherine’s work and with how far the dolphins have come—they’re almost ready to be integrated into the bigger and more elaborate shows, the ones held at night for patrons who pay extra and which are oddly set to the music of early 2000s American pop. They’ve mastered almost every trick she knows how to teach: front flips, back flips, hoop jumps, corkscrews, triple wraparounds. All that’s left is the walk-on-water, where the dolphins line up and parade on their flukes across the length of the pool. It’s a crowdpleaser, but difficult to teach. Though, as it turns out, Catherine is a far better trainer when she’s sober. She is more focused, more patient, and more committed than ever without the pills, which is something she must have always known somewhere deep in the muck of her addiction.
Last week, Big Ben shipped her a small envelope with a 90 day chip engraved with her initials, which isn’t something he does for just any addict, he pointed out in the enclosed letter. She thinks sobriety is nice, though not especially interesting. It is a comfort not lost on her, waking up every morning with a head not pounding from overnight withdrawals, but it’s also true that the pills were glorious neuro-seamstresses, and the alterations they used to provide—the way they’d untangle her nerves and rend them clean of ache; the lightness of limbs, arms gelatinous; the sweet hum of the slowed heartbeat; the way they made her body feel boneless, as if it were made of nothing but clear, warm, rushing water; her body an upright river—aren’t sensations easily forgotten. Being not high is, for Catherine, something she can be both proud of and bored by, in turns.
She lost it two days later, the chip. She had planned to send it to her father, a token of love and apology both, a postcard from the other side, but then she hadn’t been able to find it. She has tried, with little success, to ignore the narrative implications of this.
This is her life now and she knows that it is, but still there is the persistent feeling that it’s in fact someone else’s life that she’s broken into and assumed, the way it sometimes happens in thrillers from the mid-90s. That she is only days away from being found out. But found out as what, she can not say.
It’s getting late, but she lingers just a bit longer with her apostles. Even their names have grown on her. She wonders if this is the only way she will ever dole out her love: to these animals who can not comprehend its conditions, its limits. But what is it to love something that can not deny you? What is it to love something that would swim far from you if only it were able? Catherine wants desperately to believe that they love her back, in whatever way they are able, but she knows it’s dangerous to think this way. The dolphins lack the language to disabuse her of what are likely misapprehensions, which is perhaps why she’s chosen this career in the first place. I am the one with the hands that feed them, she tries to remind herself, when she gets to thinking that the dolphins pine for her the way she does for them at night, or when they seem ecstatic to see her in the mornings. I am the rewarder, no more, no less. But this line of thinking is very easy to outrun, especially in moments like this: all four of her boys lined up behind the glass, fighting to get the best view of her. It makes her feel famous, hounded by marine paparazzi, and she carries the image with her all the way back to the condo, where Simon is asleep in her bed, his body clumsily arranged and the covers pulled back, awaiting her arrival.
The next morning as she’s walking into work, Catherine is met by a small militia of animal welfare activists, gathered in protest of the upcoming rave. They are distributing literature to passersby warning that the assured chaos of the event—namely a bevy of drunken, rowdy, unsupervised teens—will be hazardous to the animals and their habitats. They are calling on Oceania to cancel the event. The literature cites an incident in Cancun several years ago where a group of spring-breakers had rented out a section of an aquarium and ended up hand-feeding heroin to unattended seals. Something similar might happen here, they suggest. The group is small, but what they lack in numbers they make up for in preparedness. They have camping chairs, board games, homemade signs in English and in German, tents, jugs of lemonade, even a hibachi grill. It was much different in Miami, where there was occasionally an anti-captivity zealot who chained himself to a lamppost outside Dauphinas whenever he went off his meds. The trainers had called the man Free Willie, because Willie was in fact his name. Catherine had sat with him once.
“Do you know that a dolphin swims forty miles a day in the wild?” he’d asked her, his body twitching. “That’s roughly the size of this county. And now they’re in your pools. Imagine living life in your bathtub. Can you even imagine it? You can not.”
Catherine hadn’t answered him. She had just held his free hand and waited for the police to arrive.
In the small crowd, Catherine sees a young girl, her hair like white lightning. She is the most strikingly beautiful child Catherine has ever seen: pale pink complexion, button nose, and the soft features of a Singer Sargent model. It’s as if she’s walked right out of one of his canvases. She can not be more than six or seven, but when she locks eyes with Catherine it is as if she has hated her for twenty years. “SIE WERDEN DIES BEDAUERN,” her sign reads, and she waves it angrily.
Catherine feels paralyzed by the girl’s glare, she feels apprehended, and so she jumps, startled, when Simon wraps his arm around her from behind. He kisses the top of her head, smelling of salt and Drakkar Noir.
“There are people who have time too much,” he says, as the protestors heckle the two of them in their staff polos, “and this is what they do.”
“What does her sign say?” Catherine asks. “That girl.”
“She is saying you will regret this event,” Simon translates. “But this is not her, this is her parents. She does not know anything. She is just a girl.”
“She’s beautiful,” Catherine says. “And she’s staring at me.”
“She is not,” Simon says, trying to lead her away. The protestors are shouting in two languages but she cannot make out either of them. Someone has fired up the grill and there is the smell of sausage. And the girl continues to stare at Catherine, scrutinizing her as if picking her out of a lineup.
“You don’t think they’re right, do you?” she asks, and Simon gives a dismissive laugh.
“You worry too much,” he says, though Catherine has always believed the opposite was true. “All of the animals will be fine. There will be security, plenty. They are even setting up more wastebaskets so the trash will not be all over. Plus we will have the night off together. I have already made plans for us; romantic plans. I’m not worried so why should you be?”
He holds her by the wrist and together they walk through the entrance gate to Oceania and to their respective exhibits. Above them, the clouds pass like herded sheep. Catherine does not have to look back to picture the young girl’s scowl, for it is already following her inside, already melding itself to her memory.
Today is the day she will get her boys to master the walk-on-water, she’s convinced of it. They’ve been practicing it six days a week, and they continue to get closer and closer to the other side of the pool, their flukes dusting bubbles off the face of the water. The problem is that they keep coming back to her before they finish the trick, all four of them, for a treat. Foolishly, she had still been rewarding them for doing so. But now it is a matter of strict withholding from them—withholding food, affection, response whistles, everything—until they complete the stunt as directed. This is not a part of the training process she enjoys, but she knows that it’s the only way Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John will be absorbed into the larger Oceania company. As of now, they are extras; they perform only three times a week in twenty-five minute shows, and spend the rest of the time drifting lazily in the tanks, being photographed by tourists. Were they to be approved for the bigger shows, they’d be kept more active, rewarded more frequently. They’d be stimulated. Happier, Catherine is tempted to think, they’d be happier, but she does her best to resist the urge to evaluate her subjects in this way.
After a show last week, a young tourist had waited with his mother by the staff stage exit for Catherine. He had wanted to get her autograph and a picture with her. Even though doing so was a serious breach of conduct, she had taken the boy backstage with her to see their pool. The mother trailed behind, nervously. Catherine had pointed them out by name, the dolphins, and Matthew had come right up the platform to greet them. Catherine had the feeling she was making this boy’s dream come true, and she had reveled in having the capacity to do so. “They look so happy even though they’re trapped,” the boy had said then, and walked solemnly to his mother. Ever since, it seemed a grand denial of circumstance for Catherine to talk in terms of a dolphin’s contentedness.
Four hours into training, Catherine having consistently deprived all four dolphins any reward whatsoever when they approached the platform, it’s Matthew who finally realizes he’s meant to fluke-dance all the way to the other side of the pool and then swim back. Catherine tosses mackerel into his open mouth like frisbees and he cracks a sort of smile. The next goaround, the other three follow Matthew’s lead, and it’s the loveliest thing she’s seen in
Switzerland: all four of them in perfect syncopation, the soft white of their bellies exposed, dancing from one end to the other, saltwater Rockettes leaving the slightest of waves behind in their wake. She goes through a whole bucket of mackerel and then some, praising them all with high clicks of love.
A successful training day like this had once seemed significant, had once provided Catherine with a sense of accomplishment, but that is not what she feels now. She is proud of her boys, but also troubled for the first time by what their compliance to her means. She knows that mastering this final trick means that they’ll be in the larger Oceania company by the end of the month, the desired outcome of Catherine’s hiring, and soon the park will bring new dolphins into its custody, bottlenosed calves. They will cry for days, Catherine has seen it before. They will echolocate for their mothers, a gloomy music. A baby dolphin thinks the pool is the ocean, someone had actually told her that once. They think it’s the ocean and that they’re continually exploring new parts of it, mistaking themselves for lost rather than caught. She is embarrassed to have ever believed so obvious a fiction. Eventually the freshmen dolphins will reconcile themselves to their relocation, they always do, and Catherine will take them through the same training she’s given Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. She will treat them with rigor and care and love, which should count for something, and then they’ll be graduated, too.
But she has the hazy feeling, as the dolphins swim away from her, full and sleepy, that none of them are where they’re meant to be, even and especially her. She feels accused, culpable. But what for? She walks around the platform to lower the gates for her boys.
“Do you guys know that I love you?” she asks them, and she asks it with the inflection of someone anticipating an answer though it, of course, does not come.
Later that night, Catherine and Simon have a sleepy kind of sex where they skip right to what works. She wants him to treat her more forcibly, rough her up some, turn her over, but doesn’t ask him to. He is insufferably gentle, leisurely. He always fucks her as though she is not yet broken in. She loses focus somewhere in the middle and listens to the passing freight train, whistling beyond the woods. There was a sign she hated in the rehab center that said, It’s the first car of a train that kills you, not the caboose. She removed it a few weeks into treatment, tossed it in the dumpster, and Big Ben had penalized her, given her additional cleaning duties. When he asked her why she had taken it down, Catherine couldn’t say. But she knows why, she knew then: because the adage, though powerfully phrased, made no space for the possibility of deliverance. She got enough of that elsewhere; her life, for example.
And because she knew locomotives often ran backward. She had seen them do it once as a child, on the tracks behind the house of her youth, and felt that she had rewound the world; that she had set everything into reverse with her will, calling it all back.
The train’s whistle grows dim. Simon does not come and neither does she. He kisses her forehead, her earlobes. He talks about the date he’s arranged for them tomorrow, and some time passes after he stops speaking until Catherine realized he’s asked her a question. What? she says, and he says, You are tired, sleep. He falls asleep first, moments later, his arm draped across her side like a seatbelt.
The day of Anna Ganz’s eighteenth birthday rave, Catherine wakes up well into the afternoon with a migraine, fevered and dry-mouthed. She’s had a terrible dream in which the young girl from the protest was chasing her through Oceania, her pupils ink-black and lit torches for hands. A small ravine of saliva runs from her bottom lip to the pillowcase and she wipes it away with her wrist. The sheets are damp with sweat. Her head throbs, and the yolky light through the balcony door casts the room with a flaxen filter. The TV is still on from last night, set to the local news station. They’re broadcasting from inside of Oceania. There is b-roll footage of Anna Ganz in hair and makeup, the army of teenagers lined up to get in. She mutes the channel.
When she turns over, she sees that Simon is not asleep beside her. On the nightstand is a letter attached to a gift bag, tongues of tissue paper rising from its mouth. She reads the note first, in which Simon explains that he’s running errands in Kreuzlingen. He’s hired a car to pick her up this evening and bring her there for dinner. He says it’s the best restaurant in Kreuzlingen, though she is not at all familiar with that town’s culinary competition and so his appraisal of it is irrelevant. “Wear this tonight,” he writes as a postscript. “It will look best on you.”
She hesitates, but not long enough to suggest that not opening the bag was ever an option. And when she does open it—delicately, as if dismantling a bomb—what she finds is her 90 day chip, which Simon has added like an emerald charm to a thin, silver necklace. She hopes that he’s simply ordered a new one for her, but as she turns it over she sees her engraved initials, C.A.N. “Even your initials spell your possibility,” Simon has written on the tag. “I looked everywhere twice, it took many of my days, and then I found it. I found it for you.” She begins to sob, though she is not moved. She is frightened, ensnared. She has the urge to place the necklace in her mouth, see if it dissolves on her tongue. Or else to chew it, disappear it with her teeth, swallow it whole. Instead she places it back into the bag, rearranges the tissue paper, and runs to the bathroom where she vomits in the sink, mostly coffee and phlegm. Both of her hands tremor. She lies down nude on the cold tiles.
Simon had looked everywhere. Twice. How much time must he have spent scouring the acres and acres of attraction? How often had he stopped by the lost-and-found? For her, who had forgotten the chip had gone missing altogether. She had hardly ever registered possessing it. Catherine is reminded of first arriving in Switzerland, her missing luggage that never did turn up. When do we quit looking for lost things? she had wondered then. And on her nightstand, Simon’s answer. He hadn’t, she had. What else was there to it beyond that?
She remains on the bathroom floor for an hour, maybe two, dipping in and out of sleep, of sobbing. Her migraine repositions itself to a different part of her brain, dancing a vigorous choreography behind her eyelids. She feels a hollowing in her abdomen, a cavity of rot and dread. My kingdom for a Vicodin, she thinks.
Her phone rings. The car Simon’s sent is waiting in the Oceania parking lot. The driver says they won’t let him back toward the condos for security reasons. She can hear the roaring techno music in the background. She says nothing, hangs up without so much as acknowledging the man. She is still unshowered, her hair knotty with grease, but dresses herself in the nearest pair of pants and the top she’d worn to sleep but wrestled out of in the night, the fabric still dewy. When she sees herself in the mirror, she’s startled by her own placid expression. It suggests a plan she does not have. It belies the grievous upheaval taking place within her. She looks once more throughout the condo, hoping it will appear to Simon, when he comes looking for her, at least at first, as though she has simply dematerialized, evanesced. Not departed, but ascended, molecule by molecule.
And then she’s off. She runs down the hallway, down the steps. A staff shuttle is about to leave, but she makes it just in time. The only other passengers are girls Catherine has seen in the cafeteria, ticket booth girls with large breasts and faces pocked with acne scars. They are drunk and giggling, maybe at Catherine, she can’t tell. Already the cacophony of the rave can be heard, and they are still half a kilometer out. Catherine still doesn’t have the faintest idea where she’s going. There is the sense that she is following detailed instructions; that she’s been magnetized into movement by the will of another. It was the way she had walked into the general practitioner’s office after hours the first time he’d invited her to do so, she thinks, the volume getting louder and louder as they approach the park’s center. It was the way she had followed Big Ben into the van after the intervention, Simon into bed after he’d promised not to love her.
Soon, the shuttle is surrounded by a sea of overdosed Swiss teens, each of them glowing bright pink and neon green in the dark. The driver stops, cusses in German for the kids to make room, but they won’t budge. The ticket booth girls seated beside her hop out and join the redeyed mob. Everyone is dancing like they’re on fire but don’t mind it. The strobe lights pulse. The shuttle driver inches further and further along. And the volume, the sheer volume—it’s as if someone has turned the dial up on the whole country. The bass enlists Catherine’s heart in its thumping, making a speaker, a satellite of her chest. When the shuttle can’t get any further, Catherine steps off. Dizzy and disoriented, she tries to makes her way through the dense and jungly crowd toward the dolphin exhibit. Her phone rings again. It’s Simon this time, no doubt calling to see if she’s on her way. She ignores the call. For now, her plan begins and ends with hiding, waiting out the rave. She is going to hide in the pool, swim in secret with her disciples. She is going to plunge herself all the way to the bottom and will herself to grow gills.
When she jumps the fence to the dolphin exhibit, what she sees is not at first surprising. It is what was always and obviously going to happen. This will become clear to her eventually, though it will take years to understand and the rest of her life to countervail. Inside the water, her boys thrash nervously, horribly, ramming their skulls with purpose into the concrete perimeter. A rich current of blood runs through the water. The dolphins click at an awful pitch, the pitch that means agony. Later, the autopsist will conclude that they were driven mad with sound; nothing more, nothing less.
Catherine’s body goes light and limp with fear, and the whole world becomes a top, spinning without mercy. She can beach them, she thinks. Get all four of them onto the platform. She convinces herself that she can corral writhing dolphins underwater. She’s heard of this superhuman strength in petite mothers who lift Pontiacs off the bodies of their children. This is what it was to be hopped up on barbiturates, once upon a time—her body a river, her body a raft. Her body a thing that can save.
She dives into the pool, hoping to puncture a hole in night’s balloon and release all the volume up to the starless and uncaring bruise of sky.