Hey everyone, so this is something I started writing in one of my summer workshops. It’s a short story based on an actual trip I took in high school that changed me forever. I hope you enjoy!
I sat in a van with the other ten teenagers I was going to be spending the summer with. It was 2006, and I was a high schooler who had just arrived in Florida for a marine biology excursion sponsored by a certain theme park that dabbles in ocean rehabilitation. To spare myself from any lawsuits, let’s just call it “Ocean Planet”. We were driving from Orlando International to the Ocean Planet dorms we were going to be staying in for the beginning of our trip. The van was filled with excitement because this was the first time most of us were going to be spending a large amount of time away from our families.
As everyone was talking about where they were from and comparing who loved animals the most, I quietly looked out the window wondering when they were gonna shut the hell up. Becky O’Kent, a girl from Beverly Hills, but zip code 90212, not 90210, quickly became my first ally. While the rest of the group was being all giddy and thrilled, she simply turned to me and said, “I wanna do Broadway when I grow up, but my parents hate that so they sent me here to encourage me to major in the sciences when I go to college”. I looked her silently, lost in shock, asking myself, why is someone speaking to me? Nobody in my hometown ever talked to me. Where I’m from in Ohio, if someone did start saying something to me, it was normally just to could call me a fag. I felt anxious as I searched for the words to respond with.
You see, I never really enjoyed taking on the whole loner-quiet-outcast role. Those were skills I had to learn while growing up to keep myself from being harassed and beat up. By nature, I was actually always a very outgoing and funny person. So, I decided that since I was on a trip and away from home, maybe I’d try opening up…at least just a little. I smiled awkwardly and said, “Yeah, I’m kind of stuck between becoming an actor, or a marine biologist, so I get it”. I almost flinched as I awaited some kind of insult, as that’s what normally happened whenever I spoke, but it never came. It was a peculiar change from what I knew as the real world.
I rolled down the window to feel that colorful breeze that only tropical areas have. Florida may be a Republican shithole, but when you come from an area known as the Great Black Swamp, any place that beholds palm trees and blue skies will seem wildly exotic.
The van approached Ocean Planet’s main gate and everyone’s eyes grew bright with the kind of optimism you can only have when you’re young. As we got out of the van, the counselors welcomed the group and everyone seemed to be a lot more thrilled about life than I was, which really, isn’t that shocking. Back then I rarely felt much reason to get out of bed, let alone actually muster the ability to feel excitement. That rest of that first day at Ocean Planet was actually quite uneventful as a whole, and played out like your standard camp scenario. We did ice-breakers to get to know each other, we were shown our rooms, we met the people who were in charge, and we had a horrid “picnic dinner”, meaning we had a shittily made sandwich and a cheap-ass bag of chips…Thanks Ocean Planet. The one cool thing we did get to do before bedtime was go see the whale show. Now, this being 2006 meant that this would have been between the second and third murder committed by their star attraction. It felt disturbingly cool to be looking at a killer whale that was in fact, a killer whale.
The next morning at breakfast, Jean, the Animal Rescue Specialist (ARS) came in to give us the news of the day. She told us that it was going to be a hands-on day in the Rehabilitation Unit of the park. Now, if any of you have ever been to Ocean Planet, let me tell you, the Rehabilitation Unit is nothing like what you’ve seen before. The crystal-clear waters, beautifully crafted tanks, and immersive viewing areas, are all for paying guests only. The back of the park looks more like the bowels of a ship. It’s there to get the job done, not to look nice. It feels like you’re walking through a Nightmare on Elm Street dream sequence with all of its exposed pipework, sludgy drippings, and the echoes of injured animals crying out for mothers that will never come.
I was walking with Becky at the back of the group as we passed through the various pools and colossal filtration systems that roared like jet-engines about to ascend to the heavens…which was odd, because this place seemed to be more closely related to hell. Jean was up front telling all of us how this area was the true life of Ocean Planet. She said that saving animals was her main goal, and her job here was simply her means to do it. She talked about how heartbroken, yet motivated she feels when injured animals come in for care. The most common victims are sea turtles. Trashy little shits in Florida make a hobby out of spray-painting turtle shells, binding their fins together with barbed wire, and hammering through their shells. And for any of you who don’t know, turtles aren’t animals who crawl into their shells. The shell is literally part of their body. So, when people puncture the shell, the fat and muscle of the turtle becomes exposed, gets infected, and then fissures into a bacterial cesspool that kills them. Turtles are slow yet graceful creatures, and can live up to around one hundred years. Their docile nature however, makes them easy prey for asshole humans.
I remember sitting there having to hold the shell in place as one of the ARS’s drilled little holes to sew in a metal plate to cover the exposed section of the turtle’s insides. It became clear early on who the weak people were. Anyone who squirmed at the sight of the turtles were about to have a really rough summer ahead of them.
That afternoon, after helping at the turtle center and after lunch, we headed back to the rescue area for a few more hours of work before we were allowed to go roam the park. Our afternoon task however, was one that none of us could have ever imagined. Once again, me and Becky were at the back of the group, where she was making fun of the kids who didn’t want to touch the turtles. “What kind of future marine biologist is too afraid to get involved with marine biology?” she asked with a grin. As we giggled to ourselves, I heard Jean say from the front of the group, “The smell of the rotting flesh is worst”. My head quickly perked up, and then suddenly I too caught a whiff of something very wrong. The group in front of us stood silently as if they were entranced by something. Eager to know what was going on, I ran up to get a glimpse, and what I saw has stayed with me forever.
It was a manatee. Or more precisely, it was half of a manatee. The front half to be exact. I was filled with confusion, repulsion, and oddly enough, a sense of curiosity. The smell of rotting manatee for anyone interested, is like vinegar, pistachio, and dead fish. It’s oddly acidic, which I never expected. You get this strange tingle in your nose when inhale it. Jean looked solemn as she walked over to what was basically just a reinforced above-ground pool. “She was brought to us last night”, she said, “She was struck by a speedboat, and they just left her there to die. It was another boat in the area who actually called it in”. I walked up to the pool, captivated by the sheer macabre and absurdity of a half manatee. As I got closer I could see how truly horrific the situation was; its eyes blinked! It was alive! I genuinely lost my breath for a second. I couldn’t believe the thing wasn’t dead. I stared directly into its eyeball, trying to comprehend how this animal was still alive. “Why don’t you put it out of its misery?” I asked. Jean looked at me with caution, as if she knew there was no good answer. “Because she’s pregnant”, she said, “We want to try to keep her alive long enough so when we pull out the baby, it has the greatest possible chance of survival”.
Becky walked up to the tank, seeming to be in as much shock as I was. I couldn’t bring myself to look into the face of that manatee anymore. I had to move. I had to walk away from its suffering eyes. I grabbed Becky’s arm and pulled her along as I circled the pool, looking at the murky green water. Jean spoke loudly, trying to inform the whole group, “We had to put this pool up overnight. We couldn’t risk putting her in an actual tank because there would be a risk of infection to the other animals”.
There were pieces of lettuce and cabbage that had been thrown in for her to eat, which were floating untouched. We walked to the manatee’s backside so we could see the wound, and saying “wound” isn’t really a good word. There was no wound really, because there wasn’t a place for a wound. There literally was no back to the manatee. She wasn’t sown up or bandaged because there really was no way to sew her up. Manatees are actually much larger than humans. They’re immensely thick animals, so you can’t just graph their wounds shut. The very sight of that manatee was enough to make someone’s mother faint. It was as if someone threw a manatee onto the ground, took a chainsaw, and in the most rushed and sloppy job ever, began to cut it in half. You could see chunks of pale flesh-colored meat dangling. Severed veins and arteries were periodically leaking some kind of plasma or puss that only had a vague red tinge to it.
Most of the kids in the group couldn’t even bring themselves to look at her, and the ones who did, couldn’t handle the sight for very long. This was the first time most of them could physically see how awful and unfair the world truly was. I hated those kids for their innocence. I was already aware of how cruel life was.
That lesson was taught to me at age eleven. In my crap-tastic hometown in Ohio, my life went south at a very young age. By age nine, I knew I was different from the other kids. Everyone in my class started writing love notes to each other. One boy would pair with one girl and write a love note. Then boys started fighting over which girl they’d get to write their love note to. One day during lunch, a massive argument broke out amongst everyone in my class over who could pair with who. After hearing such a commotion from the classroom, our teacher rushed in and began yelling at everyone and then asked what had happened. As all the boys fought and argued, I sat silently, trying to figure out why anyone would give a fuck about girls. From then on, I was known only by the name Faggot. Then in the sixth grade, I was beat up for the first time. After tackling me to the ground, everybody gathered in a circle to spit on me. I looked up and saw everyone closely huddled around my body, then my vision blurred as a wad of spit went right into my eye. After that, I couldn’t get up. All I could do was lay on the ground, stunned by the realization that life would always be shitty. I started crying. I cried for hours. I couldn’t even go back into the classroom I was crying so hard. I hid in the back of my school’s chapel until almost the end of the day. When I returned to the classroom the teacher didn’t even ask me where I was or what had happened. I knew they had told her, and I knew she didn’t care. That was a fact I was going to be constantly reminded of in my life.
That night at dinner me and Becky couldn’t stop talking about the manatee. Even though life had taught me to remain silent, something about turning a corner and seeing a half manatee sitting in a shallow pool demanded conversation. It was just too insane and unbelievable to not talk about. In fact, we we’re talking about the manatee so much that we felt we needed to name it because it was probably a memory we would never forget. “How about Marco?” I said, and then we both busted out laughing. Becky could barley sit up straight, “But she’s pregnant! She’s a girl! You can’t name her Marco!” There’s something so strange about traumatic events. Laughing at them seems to be the best cure. If I wasn’t able to be making jokes about Marco, I probably would have just cried about Marco instead. Personally, I prefer laughing. One of the other girls, Shawnee Brew, from Boonfuck, Idaho, walked over to us and was like, “You know, you’re being horribly immature right now. You can’t be making fun of that manatee, it’s in pain!” I thought it was pretty obnoxious for a girl who was so disgusted she could barely even look at the manatee, to be telling me to respect it.
That night as I lay in bed, I couldn’t stop thinking about Marco, and oddly enough, I couldn’t help but feel an intense sense of relief. In most of my life, I was the one suffering. It was nice to be thinking about the suffering of something other than myself for once. There was this lovely detachment that led to a feeling of safety. No matter what horrible things happened to Marco, it really wouldn’t impact my life at all, and that gave me a great sense of solace. That night I slept better than I had in years.
At breakfast the next morning Jean assigned tasks. Everyone got fun tasks; some with penguins, some with dolphins, and me…I got Marco. “You were pretty much the only person who could handle looking at her”, Jean said to me, as if I had won a prize. I looked at Becky who was giggling at my unfortunate circumstance.
Ok, I’m gonna digress here real quick to talk about my disgust for manatees. I hate them and they’re fucking gross. Their skin looks like leathery cellulite. And even worse, they move so slow that barnacles and algae grow on their backs. How fucked up is that? Can you imagine other living things penetrating your skin and living off your body? God damn I hate manatees! They’re like floating feral fat mounds, and I despise them beyond belief. And on top of that, this particular manatee happened to be deteriorating away into a pool. So anyways, you can only imagine my dread of having to see Marco again.
Jean paired me off with another ARS named Dale, Dale…how fucking Florida. Dale was however, a young and sexy man. He was a tall guy with a swimmer’s body and dark hair. I saw him taking off his wetsuit once and he had a happy trail that started a little above his belly button (squeal!). I would totally jump him, if ya catch my drift. He was going to make this experience much easier for me to handle.
So there I am, standing in front of Marco’s tank. Dale walks up with a few pairs of chest-high waders and hands me one. “That water is extremely dirty and you wanna make sure to not get any on you” he said as he put one of his legs in his waders. I started putting mine on too, “So what do we need to do?” I asked. He tells me that we need to get in the pool and try to keep it as clean as possible. We were going to take one of those pool sweepers and try to filter out some of the crap in the water, and by crap I mean the insides of the manatee that’s been falling out into the pool. He also wanted to pull out the old lettuce and cabbage and put fresh pieces in. But, in my opinion, why keep throwing leafy greens into a pool when they’re just gonna rot anyways, but whatever. So there we are, me and Dale, just doing a normal day’s work of filtering the pool and skimming the water, as a half manatee casually floats around, dying slowly.
At one point, and I swear to God I’m not making this shit up, I’m walking backwards with the sweeper and I feel my back bump into the fucking manatee! I was startled as I turned around and came eye-to-eye with Marco. Her eyes looked at me as though she was begging me to put her out of her misery, and as I looked back at her, I feel I gave a similar look.
You see, Marco wasn’t the first time I had seen something brutally torn apart. After my little crying episode in the sixth grade, everything went from bad to awful. I had already lost all my friends in the previous years, but now I was enemy number one. I was the sole scapegoat for anyone who needed a punching bag. My grades plummeted and I spent the summers of sixth, seventh, and eighth grades in summer school because I was failing classes. However, even though my grades started to rapidly drop, my weight on the other hand skyrocketed. I became reclusive to my room, where I hid from the human population as I ate my feelings away. I felt broken, like I was barely being kept together by small threads that could snap at any minute. I always felt like I was stuck in someone else’s body. I was an outgoing and artistic person. I was nothing like this fat, awkward, ugly monster that I had become. And if you’ve never been the victim of bullying, let me tell you, the only thing worse than being the gay kid, is being the fat gay kid. I couldn’t handle it anymore so I stopped eating. Within less than a year I went from being overweight at two-hundred pounds, to being underweight at one thirty-five. The weight loss didn’t end up helping though. My reputation had already been deeply cemented.
Me and Marco had been locked in eye contact for what seemed like minutes. “Are you ok?” Dale asked as he threw a chunk of browning lettuce out of the pool. I realized that I had been lost in a daze for quite some time. I tried to make myself look like I wasn’t an emotional wreck, which obviously only makes it more apparent that you are indeed an emotional wreck. I took a deep breath, turned and smiled, and said, “Yeah, I’m fine, why?”, as if my comatose stupor was totally normal. “You just look like you’re about to have a panic attack or something”, Dale said. Dale was incorrect, I wouldn’t start collapsing from panic attacks until I was in my twenties. He was however correct that something was wrong. Thinking about my life was emotionally taxing, but I was too afraid to admit that to a stranger, especially one as hot as Dale. “Well”, Dale said, “I know how hard this probably is. I know it’s a gruesome sight, but I want you to know that you’re doing work that’s messy, but necessary”.
I kept my head down, “It’s not that…It’s… It’s nothing”. In fact, I was so distracted by my own thoughts that it was hard to focus on Marco’s situation, which perhaps was for the best. Had I been able to fully reflect on the scenario of me sweeping a pool as Marco’s organs fell into it, I probably would have thrown up. This level of desensitization was probably the reason why I was the one standing in this pool, rather than someone else from the group. I continued to sweep the pool in silence, making sure to keep distance between me and Dale to avoid conversation, and also to keep distance from Marco because…well, because her backside was rotting away, do I need a better reason as to why I don’t want to be too close to a dying animal? There was no avoiding Marco though really, Marco was all over the pool…literally. I had been wading through Marco the entire time. Marco was even in the air I was breathing, as the stench of her rotting flesh burned into my nostrils.
“So, what do you and your friends do back home for fun?” Dale asked as we continued working on the pool. Inside I gave an exasperated sigh. I hate when people ask me what my life is like because I can’t tell them the truth. Can you imagine if I answered truthfully? Was I supposed to be like, oh yeah, actually, my life sucks. I’m beat up and made fun of, I have nobody to go to for help, and I’m starting to wish that I were dead because I can’t keep going on like this? No, obviously you can’t say that, because nobody would have cared or believed me. In fact, lying about my life was something I had gotten very good at because my parents weren’t too cool with the whole gay thing. My dad, being a firefighter, was a total man’s man. He didn’t want one his son to turn out to be a queer. And my mom, she was even worse. As a devout Irish Catholic and Republican, her first allegiance was to her God and her church. My life quickly tumbled into the snowball effect. I couldn’t tell my parents about my suffering grades and billowing weight, because that would have led to telling them about how school had become a war zone for me. How was I supposed to focus on school when I was constantly being harassed by other students and ignored by my teachers? And there was no way to bring up why I had lost all my friends and why I was getting beaten up without bringing up the fact that I was gay. So, I learned to lie. I told my parents I was doing poorly in school because I simply wasn’t smart. I told them I had no idea what they were talking about when they asked me about my weight. I told them I stopped hanging out with others because I just didn’t find them fun anymore. But soon the lies were building up on top of each other and I was sinking underneath their weight. So instead, I turned from lying to avoidance. When asked how my day was, I simply said, “It was fine”. My parents knew something was wrong, but they both didn’t want to believe that I was gay and that it was destroying me. So with a little lie on my part, and some hefty denial on theirs, we were able to quietly drift apart from each other and go about our crappy lives.
“Do you do anything for fun?” Dale asked a second time. Oh fuck, I spaced out again. I turned to Dale, completely exhausted from the very thought of my life and said, “Not much”. I wasn’t in the mood to get into my life’s story with a guy whose name was Dale. I thought that Dale wouldn’t know anything about struggles, and probably would have hated me for being gay anyways. I had never known a handsome straight guy to be nice to me, and I didn’t want to take any risks with Dale.
Deflecting conversation was the easiest way to avoid to getting hurt. But he tried again, “Aw, c’mon bro, I’m sure you do something. You’re kinda tall, you play ball or anything?” The very idea that I would play sports was laughable. I imagined myself walking up to all the jocks, the juggernauts who ran my school, the people who abused me the most, and then ask them if I could throw some balls with em. Dale obviously had no idea what it meant to be gay in Ohio.
I cracked a little grin as I silently laughed at Dale for being so clueless. But also, I mean he was a cute straight guy and he was talking to me, and maybe, despite my fear and hatred for straight men, I kinda liked it. I mean, it wasn’t exactly something that’s ever really happened to me before. “Oh hey there!” Dale howled out, “I see that grin! So you do play ball?” I bit my lip trying not to blush. Dale was a fuckin’ moron. “No Dale, I don’t play sports…they’re not really my thing”. He put the skimmer down and crossed his arms like he was in the mood to engage in conversation rather than work. “So then what?” he asked, “Are you like, one of those guys who spends all of his time with his girlfriend or something?” Now I was really blushing. It’s embarrassing how quickly my face glows red. “No, I don’t have a girlfriend”, I said as I quickly turned around to hide how nervous I was. “Oh… well how about a boyfriend?” he asked. I stopped moving. My heart stopped beating. My skin lost all color. I blinked a few times, and had a moment of shocked silence….
…But this was Florida. I was somewhere far away from home. I thought maybe it wouldn’t kill me to open up. At worst, if Dale hated me, then at least I knew I’d never have to see him again. I quietly replied, “No…I haven’t had a boyfriend yet”. Dale smiled, pleased with himself for getting me to talk. “Well don’t worry, I’m sure you’ll be a total player when you hit college. I hear gay dudes score like crazy!” Now that made me smile uncontrollably, and at this point I’m sure my cheeks were so red you could’ve named a crayon color after them.
Is it sad that the best moment of my life up to that point was taking place in a pool next to a rotting animal?
But at the same time, good moments in my life were few and fleeting, so I wouldn’t have wanted to trade that moment for the world. Dale continued asking me questions about my life and about my hometown. It was so odd for someone to be taking an interest in me. I never had anyone genuinely talk to me. I had become so used to either being someone’s enemy, or being forced to lie about my life that I never got to just be me.
My veins felt like they were open wide and the blood coursed through them with an ease I had never known before. I could take deep breaths of air, and I wasn’t clenching my jaw like I normally did to cope with anxious energy. It felt good to have a real interaction with another person. So good in fact, that I almost forgot I was in a pool with a rotting manatee until I felt a snout rubbing up against my backside.
I turned around quickly and saw Marco moving her snout. Was she trying to eat? Or was she sniffing me? Was it a desperate plea for a mercy killing? “I still can’t believe she’s alive. It just doesn’t make any sense.” I said to Dale as I slowly backed away from Marco. Dale’s job was to rehabilitate animals, so this was nothing new to him. Animals with deadly infections, missing limbs, and hopeless futures was just part of his job. “You know”, Dale said, “Sometimes life gives you two choices. One is shitty, and the other is even shittier. Manatees are becoming endangered here in Florida. Keeping this one alive for the sake of potentially bringing a healthy baby into this world is a risk that we have to take for the continuation of the species”. I looked at her exposed organs, barely being held in place by rapidly deteriorating meat. “Do you think she’s in pain?” I asked. Dale, sounding a bit vulnerable, replied, “I’d imagine it’s probably pretty bad”. That moment of vulnerability made Dale seem a little more human to me, and I liked that.
Dale started pulling apart a new head of iceberg lettuce to scatter around the pool. “You know”, he said, “There used to be a giant manatee species called the Steller’s Sea Cow. They were about thirty feet long, making them longer than Great White Sharks, and they would have been about two to three times as thick as a White as well. They were docile and curious animals that would swim up to people as if they were about to make new friends. But once the fur trade caught on to how much potential money there was in em, they were hunted to extinction in under thirty years.” He threw some lettuce in Marco’s direction, then continued, “It’s sad actually, humans have this cruel nature to target the easiest prey they can find. It’s like we let out all of our aggression on things we know can’t fight back”.
I knew that lesson all too well. I was the easy prey back in Ohio. But I didn’t think I was ready to talk about that with Dale, so instead I just said, “Like the sea turtles”. Dale started making the ‘hang loose’ gesture with hand as he stuck his tongue out. “Dude!” he said, “Sea turtles are the shit! They’re my total spirit animal!” Then he reached under his shirt to pull out a piece of a turtle shell that he had turned into a necklace. “Sea turtles are what got me here! My first job with animals was at a turtle rescue center down near Miami”. Dale was now probably the most attractive guy I had ever met, and his love for ocean life only made me like him more.
I spoke, not wanting this newfound happiness to end, “I can’t believe the things people do to them. If I ever saw someone abusing a turtle I’d probably go crazy and kill em or something.” Dale starting making the yyyyyeeeessss gesture with his head, and then was like, “Dude, I’d totally be right there beside you!” I fantasized about me and Dale roaming the Florida beaches at night and roughing up delinquents who got their rocks off by abusing turtles. Dale was quickly becoming a full-blown, walking, talking, wet dream.
Later that evening when we were having dinner I told Becky all about how awesome it was to work with Dale. “You’re so fucking lucky!” she said enviously, “I got stuck with one of the shy girls and we had to clean the starfish tank with some woman who wouldn’t shut up about how the ocean isn’t a foodchain, it’s a foodweb. And ya know, Becky was kind of right. I actually had fun that day. Sure, I was taking care of a rotting animal, but it beat any day back in Ohio. My life meant something that day. I was helping to keep an endangered species alive, how many people can say they’ve done that? And on top of that, I was having a good conversation with someone who had similar interests to me. And not only someone actually, but a hot straight guy had similar interests to me. That was something I never thought possible.
In fact, at that age I never even saw myself as a “guy”. Guys were these strong, confident, and often evil things that made a career out of informing that I would never be one of them. At that point in my life I barely even saw myself as human to be honest. I felt like I was this unwanted trash heap that must have been oozing toxic sludge. People in my hometown avoided me as if I was patient zero for the Ebola virus. But here in Florida, where nobody knew who I was, everything was different. People treated me like a person. People gave me responsibilities. People may have genuinely liked me! What the fuck, right?
The next morning, I was excited to get up. I scarfed down breakfast as fast as I could so I could have as much time with Dale as possible. When I got to the manatee tank though, Dale was standing there with about seven other people, huddled in conversation. I walked up, wondering what was going on, and when I got close enough, I could sense something was very wrong.
Marco never had much life in her, but today she seemed more inanimate than usual. In fact, Marco seemed flat-out lifeless. You know how there’s that difference between being around something alive and something dead? Like you somehow just feel the presence of a beating heart? Well, now I had a dreaded sense that Marco was no longer Marco, but instead was just a lump in a pool. I walked over to the conversation to hear what the plan was.
“We need to cut the baby out now!” one woman argued. “I will not let that thing inside one of the operating rooms. The risk of bacterial infection to other injured animals is too high”, a man, who I later learned was Ocean Planet’s hospital director, said. Dale yelled back, “Well we have to try, otherwise why did we keep her alive in the first place?” The hospital director put his foot down, “If we take that into an operating room, do you know the kinds of diseases that exposes all the other animals to? Or the clean-up that will be required? We can’t allow rotting flesh to spew all over a sanitized space!” That was followed by a lot of arguing about Ocean Planet policy.
I stood next to Dale silently, feeling somewhat relieved that Marco was no longer in pain, but at the same time curiously upset at her death. Sure, I hated manatees, but Marco…Marco was different. Marco had become my manatee. “Then we’re gonna do it here in the pool!” a woman shouted. She was blonde, with her hair pulled back in a ponytail, and had been furiously taking notes during the conflict. I learned that she was one of the surgeons at Ocean Planet. “The chances are low”, she said, “But the manatee is already in half, cutting her again can’t hurt her. So, everyone gear up! I want this to be happening in no more than twenty minutes, the longer she sits there dead, the less chance the infant has of surviving”.
Ocean Planet protocol was very much against a teenage summer intern to be involved with matters such as these, but the circumstances of Marco in general were already something the books had never prepared for. I told Dale I wanted to be a part of this. Dale was right in what he had said earlier. People treat the defenseless like crap. I knew that all too well. Marco was a victim of that system just like I was, and because of that, I wanted to help. I wanted to win. I wanted to show this shitty world that the little guy can have a victory. I was determined to help pull that damn baby out. “Dale”, I said, “Let me help! I wanna help with this!” Dale was older than me, but he was still young. Probably only about twenty-five, so he was young enough to be down to break the rules. “Alright, follow me, we gotta get ready.”
We changed into these things that looked like wetsuits to keep any germs off our body. I watched Dale take his pants off. He was wearing navy blue boxer briefs. I looked at the brunette hair on his thighs. Dale was one of those lucky bastards who even had flawless leg hair. My heart thump-thumped harder than it ever had before. I felt oddly alive. My mind was torn between disgust with Marco and arousal with Dale, but something about that moment just felt so much more real than my life ever had. It had been so long since I felt anything besides dread, and now it was like someone had flipped the switch. I started realizing why other people don’t want to kill themselves, like maybe life could be exciting after all.
Dale zipped up his wetsuit, and again I snuck a peek, watching his back muscles get slowly enclosed by the suit. The waders went on top of the suits, along with elbow-length gloves, and a surgical mask. Me, Dale, and one other guy who had the body of a weightlifter, were tasked with holding Marco in place as the medical team went to work. The surgeon was completely unfazed as she began cutting through Marco’s body.
“Alright boys, I’m about there, I need you to keep the body as still as possible”. The water started to become a rusty-red. “Shit”, the surgeon said, as her hands moved vigorously. At this point I couldn’t look. If the baby was dead, I didn’t want to see it. I didn’t even know where, in this half-corpse, a baby manatee could even be. I just kept my eyes down as I saw the water continue to darken. The spewing rusty liquid brined with the already murky water and developed a putrid brownish tinge. The kind of color that shoots up when you pop an infected ingrown hair. “It’s a stillborn”, the surgeon said. I kept looking at Marco’s side. I wanted to make it seem like I was looking at what was happening without actually having to. “Damn”, she said, as if she was already expecting this outcome, “We got to her too late. She must have died early in the night. The oxygen supply could have been cut off for hours”. I could tell the surgeon was someone who took her job seriously and didn’t like losing. I could feel the frustration ripple through her voice. I felt a great sense of despair as well. I wanted Marco’s baby to survive because that would have been a sign of hope. A way for the underdog to strike back, and a reason for all this pain. I was desperate to know that pain wasn’t always pointless. But now I was merely standing in a foul-smelling, brown colored pool, with a dead half manatee, and her dead infant.
After everyone else had left, me, Dale, and the muscular guy were tasked with loading Marco’s body into a cargo trailer. I’m guessing they brought this other guy because he was pretty large and was going to be doing most of the heavy lifting. A truck was brought to the tank. We covered the back of it with tarps, wrapped Marco’s body with rope, and the three of us pulled her out of the pool and into the cargo bed. We covered the body with more tarp, and tied it tight. From there, the truck drove away and Marco was out of my life. They said they were going to have to cut Marco up into smaller pieces, and then incinerate her for sanitary reasons. The feelings I have about Marco are still mixed and intense. Marco’s life and death was awful. Being torn in half by a boat, being forced to die slowly, having someone cut your dead baby out of your dead body, and then being chopped up further, just to be burnt to ashes. It’s hard to believe all that happened to one manatee. But at the same time, I saw myself in contrast. I was alive and I was healthy. Looking at how horrible Marco’s death was made me terrified of my own. Thoughts about my life started to change from wishing my life was over, to wishing my life was different. That may seem like small change, but the difference in the two thoughts is literally life and death.
Me and Dale undressed from the wetsuits, and went to the showers. Ocean Planet is full of large gym-style shower rooms because anytime you exit one of the tanks, you’re required to shower before doing anything else. As Dale showered in the stall next to mine, I kept thinking about my life. I was young, and I was healthy. I was alive. The past few days had existed on a level I had never experienced before. Marco’s death was painful, and yet Dale’s friendship was exciting. I had too many emotions going on in my head, and I didn’t want to feel the emptiness of silence. I didn’t want to feel alone, and I wanted a friend. So I spoke:
“So, I named her ya know”, I yelled as I let the water ran through my hair.
“Oh yeah? What name did you give her?” he asked back.
“Marco. Marco the manatee”, I said.
Dale laughed. “Dude, she was a female!”
I smiled, even though Dale couldn’t see it. Going through rough times seemed so much easier when you had someone there with you. Maybe this is what friendship felt like.
“I like it though man,” Dale said, “It’s respectful to the animals. Naming em shows that they’re living creatures, not just objects.” Dale paused, then said, “You know dude, you’re pretty brave for a teenager. You weren’t afraid to do what needed to get done and that’s pretty cool.” Dale called me cool! I helped try to save a dying animal, and a hot guy called me cool. Fuck yah!
I felt the water run over me, cleaning me of not just Marco, but also of my past. There had been a sea change within me that day; something big, and something good. Dale was right, sometimes life does give you two choices, where one is only slightly better than the other. After this summer I’d have to go back to Ohio and go back to my life. But now I had perspective, which I didn’t before. I could either ride out the storm and try to make my life better, or I could end my life. And after watching how horrendous death can be, I no longer wanted that option.
The next day our group left Ocean Planet to hit the road. We were going to drive to the east coast, head down into the keys, and then come up the west coast before heading back inland to Orlando. Everyone came out to say goodbye as we got into the van. Dale walked up to me and put out his hand like he was asking me to shake it. I grabbed his hand, and before I knew it, he pulled me into a bro hug. I think part of me melted as I felt his embrace. One of the parts that melted was the walls I had built up around me.
“Hey, I’m saving your seat, get in here before someone takes it!” Becky yelled at me from the van. Dale gave me a nod, and I nodded back. “Thanks”, I said, not knowing how to fully express how much Dale’s friendship had changed me. “No worries dude” Dale said as he grabbed my shoulder in that way that guys do when they talk to each other, “When you go back to Ohio, remember how brave you were these last few days. You’re a cool guy, show people that”. I turned and walked to the van wearing the biggest smile the human race has ever seen. I threw my duffel bag into the back and then sat next to Becky. “Well, someone sure looks happy…” she said as I closed the door. I looked at her and smiled as I gave her a little nudge. She rolled her eyes. “I want to know everything that happened, and don’t leave out the details!”
As the van started pulling out of the parking lot, I rolled down the window and waved one last time. Marco would always be gone, and Dale would probably always be in Orlando, but what I learned from them was always going to be with me.
~ The Dark Horse