March 24th, 2016 – Crystal River, Florida
I stand on the dock—shoulders hunched, arms folded over my stomach— and exchange embarrassed glances with the other members of the tour group, who, like me, have just stripped to their bathing suits. Our guide kneels in front of us, rooting through a plastic tub, pulling out wetsuits and holding them in the air judiciously, sizing us up one by one. When she finally presents one to me, I snatch it from her greedily. Turning, I lay the suit at my feet, step into each leg, and then struggle my arms into the sleeves before pulling the zipper up to my neck.
It squeezes me like a corset.
“Now I know how Marie Antoinette felt,” I say as I watch my wife, Susan, zip up her suit. “I hope I don’t break a rib.”
“Don’t start already, we’re not even on the water yet.”
“You know what I mean. Don’t sabotage the day before it even begins. I’ve been looking forward to this for months.”
After handing out the last suit, the guide mingles among us, barking instructions. “Your wetsuits should feel snug, the snugger the better.” She stops in front of me and inspects my suit. “That’s a good fit, sir.”
I frown. “Does it make me look paunchy, though?” Looking down, I poke both index fingers into my belly. “I thought it’d be more slimming.”
Susan covers her eyes and turns away as the guide glances up and down. “It’s not the suit’s fault, sir.” She flashes me a wry smile before moving on to the next person.
I turn to Susan in disbelief. “Did you hear that? I don’t think I like her.”
Susan moves closer to me. I wrap my arm around her, thinking she wants to snuggle. Instead, she stomps on my foot.
“Stop embarrassing me,” she whispers through clenched teeth.
I lift my foot from the dock and shake out the pain. “I was just being affable.”
“No. This is how you act whenever your nervous about something. It’s some kind of weird coping mechanism you have for your anxiety.”
“I don’t have anxiety.”
“You’ve been anxious about this trip from the beginning.”
I shake my head.
“Oh, no?” She begins counting on her fingers, the way she does whenever she’s listing a series of complaints against me. It’s just one of the million things I adore about her.
“On the day before our flight, all you talked about were the different ways the plane could crash. Well, guess what – we landed safely?”
“There’s still the flight back.”
“At the Walmart in Orlando, I had to beg you to get out of the car. You were convinced we’d be murdered in the parking lot.”
“There were sketchy people everywhere. What about that woman who approached us with the pamphlets?”
Susan places her hands on her hips and gives me that look, as though she’s speaking to an imbecile. “You mean the Buddhist nun? Yeah, she was a real threat.”
“And then that guy asked me for a cigarette. Why do people always assume I’m a smoker? I’ve never smoked a day in my life.”
I notice another member of the group, a slim, grey-haired woman with a camera around her neck, eavesdropping on our conversation. She has a knowing smile that I find disconcerting. When we make eye contact, her eyes dart away, but, like the Cheshire Cat, her smile remains.
Susan continues with her list. “Yesterday, when we went to Cocoa Beach, you wouldn’t shut up about sharks. You wouldn’t go into the water past your ankles.”
“Shark populations have exploded off the eastern United States in recent years. I watched a documentary about it on Animal Planet.”
“What was the point of us even going to the beach? We saved up a long time for this vacation, I want us to enjoy ourselves.”
“I am enjoying myself.”
Sighing, she pulls her hair back into a ponytail and slips it through an elastic to hold it in place. “I’ve looked forward to this manatee encounter more than anything else we’re doing on this trip. Today is special for me, you know that. Why are you trying to ruin it?”
“I’m not. Honestly. That’s not my intention.”
“Isn’t it? What did you talk about the whole way here?”
I shrug. “Lots of things.”
“One thing. Alligators. That’s all I heard for the two-hour drive from Orlando.”
I point to the water. “You can’t say with any certainty there are no alligators in this river.”
“Do you really think they’d give snorkelling tours in a river full of alligators?” She lifts her arms. “I don’t see any teeth marks in these suits. Do you?”
I turn my head and catch the grey-haired woman watching us again, still with that knowing smile. Susan gently places her finger on my chin and guides my gaze away from the woman and back to her. She takes my hands in hers and implores me with her brown, hopeful eyes, eyes that, on more occasions than I deserved, made me believe they saw a better man than the one who stood before them.
“Please try to relax and enjoy the day,” she says. “For me.”
I feel ashamed. I’d do anything to make her happy. Anything. She must know that. “Okay,” I say, squeezing her hands, “let’s have a great day.”
We line up with the rest of the group and board the boat – a catamaran of sorts – and find a seat on a bench near the front. As far as boats go, it’s a boxy-looking thing, with a flat roof and square railings, and an open platform at the back with ladders leading into the water. As we pull away from the dock, I fix my eyes on the banks of the river, watching for any signs of alligator life.
Several minutes pass, minutes spent watching the river. Its beauty sneaks up on me, disarms me. Against my will and without my permission, it silences my own noisy thoughts. I’m hardly aware of the other passengers. The din of their voices mingles with the hum of the engine, but both sound distant and faint. There is just me and the river, and I can’t pull my eyes away from it.
The emerald water sparkles beneath the morning sun as a warm, southern breeze combs through the reeds along the shore. I turn to my right just in time to see a long, graceful crane swoop down from the sky and perch amongst the tall grass of one of the river’s many islands. I breathe deeply and almost start to relax. That is, until our guide walks to the front of the boat.
“Does anyone have any questions?” she asks. “Any concerns?”
The group members exchange glances. Nobody speaks.
“Anyone worried about what may be in the river?” She smiles, as though this is some private joke amongst the tour guides. “Anyone worried about alligators?”
I try to raise my hand, but Susan clutches my wrist to keep it anchored at my side. The guide doesn’t notice.
“No? Good, because there’s nothing to worry about. The most dangerous animal in this river today will be us humans.”
I hear polite chuckles from the group, Susan included, but I remain stone-faced.
Susan pats my knee and, leaning close, speaks into my ear. “There you go. No alligators.”
“That’s not what she said.” The words come out louder than I intended. Heads turn toward me.
Susan places a finger on her mouth to shush me as her eyes glance at the faces gawking at us. “Yes it is,” she whispers. “More or less.”
I shake my head. “She deflected. In media-speak, they call that a pivot.”
Susan withdraws her hand and turns her back to me, folding her arms and crossing her legs. I look up to see the grey-haired woman sitting across from us, fiddling with her camera, but obviously eavesdropping.
The guide resumes her speech. “Before you begin your personal manatee encounter, I’d like to go over a few things. First of all, I want to remind you that the manatees in Crystal River are wild animals, we can’t control their movements. Although we do our utmost to ensure you have the best experience possible, we do not guarantee you will see a manatee today.”
Murmurs from the group.
“Some days they are easier to find than others. People are often surprised to find out that manatees are actually solitary animals, not herd animals. Other than a mother and her baby, you usually won’t find two or more manatees travelling together. I think because they are sometimes called sea cows, people assume they are herd animals.”
“Or maybe it’s because of your website.” I say this to nobody in particular, just as a general comment.
The guide looks at me. “Excuse me? How is that, sir?”
My cheeks flush as I feel everyone looking at me. I wish I had kept my mouth shut. “Well, it’s just that your website has pictures and videos of swimmers being swarmed by herds of happy manatees, all wanting their bellies rubbed… ”
“You can’t rub a manatee’s belly, sir.”
“Figuratively speaking, that is.”
“You can’t rub a manatee’s belly, sir, figuratively or literally. Doing so is punishable under Florida state law by a fine of $1500 and up to six months in a state penitentiary. But we’ll get to that in a bit.”
I gulp. Susan slides away from me toward the end of the bench.
“Does anyone know what other animal the manatee is most closely related to?” The guide pauses, waiting for an answer.
“The walrus?” I ask.
The guide shakes her head.
“The narwhal?” I’m wrong again.
I lean toward Susan. “Maybe it’s your aunt Mildred, she has a similar build.” She looks straight ahead, pretending not to hear me.
The guide waits for more answers. “Anyone?”
A young girl speaks up from the back of the boat. “The elephant?”
The guide claps her hands together. “Excellent! That’s correct.”
I roll my eyes. Nobody likes a know-it-all.
The guide continues. “You’re lucky, because the winter months are the best time to view manatees in Crystal River. When the temperature of the coastal waters drops, the manatees come into King’s Bay to keep warm. The bay is fed by three underwater, hot springs that keep the water temperature a constant seventy-two degrees. The manatees stay in the bay and feed; they eat up to fifteen percent of their body weight every day.”
I turn to Susan. “That definitely sounds like your aunt Mildred.”
“Manatees are a vulnerable species, and, as such, are protected by the Florida Manatee Sanctuary Act. This act prohibits the molestation, harassment, or disturbance of manatees. Crystal River is one of the only areas in the state where it is legal to interact with manatees in their natural habitat. But when you are in the water today, you cannot approach a manatee, chase a manatee, surround, hug, grab, prod, or ride a manatee. Doing so will result in a fine and possible jail time.”
“But the people on the website…” I say, brimming with righteous indignation. I look around the group for moral support, but find none, least of all from Susan, who still refuses to look at me.
“Excuse me, sir?”
I tug at the collar of my wetsuit. It feels tighter than before. “It’s just that your website has pictures of people frolicking with manatees. It’s kind of misleading.”
“You can’t frolic with the manatees sir. Doing so is punishable… ”
“Yeah, yeah, I know, punishable by Florida state law.” Exasperated, I throw up my hands. “Can I say the word ‘manatee’? Is that allowed? Can I think about a manatee? Or will that land me in jail too?”
The guide raises her eyebrows. “Is that a joke, sir?”
“Not a very funny one,” Susan says under her breath, but loud enough for me to hear, as she stands up to walk to another bench at the back of the boat.
I want to follow her, to tell her I’m sorry. Once again, I feel ashamed. Her prediction is coming true. I’m sabotaging her day, even though it’s the last thing in the world I want to do. I just can’t help myself. Can she be right? Is this my coping mechanism?
I turn back to the guide. I’ve taken it this far; I can’t back down now. “What, exactly, can we do if we see a manatee? That won’t get us incarcerated.”
She addresses her answer to the whole group. “Stay still and let the manatee approach you. They are friendly, inquisitive creatures. If one comes close enough and invites you, you may then gently place your hand on its back.”
She smiles. “It’s hard to explain, but you will know if and when a manatee wants you to pet him. They make their intentions quite clear, there’s no mistaking it. That’s when you experience the manatee love. Many people liken an encounter with a manatee to a religious experience.”
Some members of the group ooh and aah at this remark, but I remain skeptical. As the guide concludes her speech, I turn around on the bench to see Susan sitting alone in the corner, still refusing to look at me. I turn back and find the slim, grey-haired woman staring directly at me. I point to her camera.
“A picture lasts longer.”
“Do you take anything?” She asks.
“Do you take anything for your anxiety?”
I wave my hand dismissively. “I don’t have anxiety.”
“I overheard you and your wife arguing earlier. I understand exactly how you feel. I suffer too, not full blown panic attacks, just a general sense of anxiety about everything. I could never relax, never enjoy the moment. It almost ruined my marriage, until my doctor gave me these.”
She digs into her handbag and pulls out a bottle of pills. “You should try them.”
I shake my head. “I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
Her eyes focus on something behind me. “Look at your wife back there, so angry with you, so mortified she won’t even acknowledge you. I’ve seen how you look at her. I can tell you love her. Why would you risk losing her?”
I turn again to see Susan chatting with a tall, slender man who has sat down beside her. He looks much better in his wetsuit than I do in mine. She makes eye contact with me – just long enough to shoot me a dirty look – then devotes her full attention to him. He makes a joke and she laughs loudly, rocking back and forth and slapping her knee.
I turn back to the grey-haired woman. “What are those? Xanax or something like that?”
She smiles. “Something like that.”
I hesitate. I don’t like taking medication, not even over-the-counter pain killers. After all, I’m old enough to remember the tainted aspirin scare from the eighties. But I think of Susan, how excited she was about this trip, how much I want her to be happy.
I extend my hand timidly. “Well, maybe it wouldn’t hurt to try, just this once.”
The grey-haired woman twists off the cap, plucks out the cotton ball, and drops a couple of tablets into my open palm. “Take two.”
I pop the pills into my mouth and dig through my bag for a bottled water to wash them down. Just as I swallow, the boat comes to a stop and the guide hands each of us a mask, a snorkel, and a personal flotation device.
“This is a pool noodle,” I say, examining the pink, foam noodle in my hand.
“What were you expecting, sir?”
“Not a pool noodle.”
Before long I’m descending a ladder into the river as the warm water fills my wetsuit. I push off from the bottom rung and float on my back for a moment or two before tucking the pool noodle under my armpits and rolling onto my stomach.
My breaths come in short bursts as I look around me, scanning the surface of the water. I close my eyes and envision alligators – dozens of alligators – up and down the riverside, sliding off the banks into the water, all smelling fresh meat in the river.
I submerge my mask to defog the glass and then pull it over my head, tugging the strap taut. The rest of the group, including Susan, start swimming away, following the guide. I shove the snorkel into my mouth and try to keep up. My heart races, and I can hear nothing but splashing and the sound of my own short breaths echoing through the shaft of the snorkel.
I swim face down, trying to see through the water’s green haze that shimmers in the sunlight. The water is clear, but I can’t see far, no more than a few feet ahead. Beyond that is a blur. I expect at any minute to swim directly into the open jaws of an alligator.
What’s that I hear? Commotion! A group member thinks he sees something – something resembling a manatee. Much splashing ensues, with kicking and thrashing and jockeying for position. Snorkelers nudge and push, trying to get the best view, trying to get their money’s worth.
It turns out to be a rock.
Another call, from another direction. More kicking. More thrashing. A foot to my head and an elbow to my ribs. I’ve had enough. I drift away from the group, away from Susan. She doesn’t notice, or perhaps she doesn’t care; I can’t blame her either way. For me, I don’t care if I ever see a manatee. I just want to wait this out, to get back to the boat as soon as possible, to not be eaten.
Minutes pass. I keep my face underwater and my eyes peeled as I drift farther and farther from the group. Then a strange thing happens. A feeling of calmness flows through me. It comes quietly at first, like a tentative knock on a door. But when I open up and let it, it quickly rushes in.
My heart no longer races. My breaths become longer and slower. I forget all about alligators and focus instead on the swirling sunbeams that cut through the shallow water. Up to now, I had only noted them in passing, as you would a mailbox or a telephone pole on a car ride through the country, but now I reach my hands out to touch them, dazzled by their beauty.
The commotion is gone. The splashing is gone. All I hear is the water rhythmically lapping against my ears and my long, measured breaths that whistle in and out through the snorkel.
I lift my head from the water. The group is nowhere to be seen, though I still hear them somewhere on the other side of the boat. I submerge my head again and watch my own hands wave back and forth in front of my mask. Suddenly, from beneath them, a dark mass appears, not a menacing mass, just a mass. I feel no fear as the object grows bigger and bigger, moves closer and closer, and slowly comes into focus.
Floating in front of me, just below the water’s surface, is a lumbering, elephantine giant. A manatee. We meet face to face, me with my snorkel and mask and he with his stubby snout, pouty jowls, and whiskers. We’re no more than two feet apart. With a sweep of his flippers he turns sideways to look at me with this right eye.
“Hello,” he says.
He didn’t speak, exactly, at least not in the traditional sense, but I heard his voice in my head. It was distinctly male, deep and booming, like the voice of God heard from the bottom of a swimming pool. Why hadn’t the guide mentioned that manatees are telepathic? It’s such a glaring omission on her part.
“Hello, manatee, sir.” I answer by simply thinking the words. The manatee understands.
He studies me closer. “You’re one of those bipeds, aren’t you?”
“The dominant species.”
I blush. “Well, who’s keeping score?”
He looks at me with that one eye – so dark, so knowing, so wise – and I realize this is it. He’s about to impart on me some great manatee wisdom. This is the religious experience the guide promised us.
He lifts his flipper to his mouth, pulls it away, lifts it to his mouth a second time, and then pulls it away again. “Got any smokes?” he asks.
I’m taken aback. It’s not a question one expects from a manatee. I pat down my wetsuit as though it has pockets.
“Sorry, I don’t smoke.”
He looks disappointed. “Neither do I,” he says. “But I’ve always been curious to try.”
“It’s probably best not to start.”
He keeps his eye on me, but says nothing. His expression is unreadable.
I keep talking, trying to fill the silence. “Not to mention, we’re under water. I’m not sure how that would even work, logistically speaking.”
A bubble escapes his nose, which I understand to mean: “Huh?”
I do my best to explain. “Well, how would you light the match? Fire requires oxygen, after all.”
“Fire?” He seems frightened by the word. “What does fire have to do with it?”
“You have to light the cigarette on fire.”
“The whole thing?”
“No, no. Just one end. You put one end in your mouth, then you light the other end on fire.”
Lots of bubbles now, as my head fills with the sound of his uproarious laughter. It’s a full-bodied, warm laugh that’s both gregarious and entirely contagious. I find myself laughing along with him, inside my head, that is.
“What an absurd thing to do,” he says, once he’s composed himself. “And you’re the dominant species?”
I shrug. “Go figure.”
He flourishes his flippers again and turns his body so he can look at me with his left eye now. “Would you like to pet my back?” he asks.
I look at his grey back, pockmarked with patches of green algae. Strangely enough, at this moment there is nothing in the world I want more than to pet his back. I reach my hand toward him, but stop short. “You sure this isn’t too forward?”
“Not at all. I know you bipeds are such tactile creatures. Please, feel free.”
I find a spot on his back free of algae and rest my hand there. I expect his skin to feel course and tough, like an elephant or rhinoceros, but it’s soft to the touch. He twitches his whiskers as I gently stroke my hand toward his tail.
“How is this?” I ask.
“A little to the left,” he says.
After a moment or two of petting, I withdraw my hand and the manatee nods his head slightly, never taking his eye off me. I lift my hands in front of my mask; they look different to me now. Formerly, they were just my hands. Now they are hands that have petted a manatee.
“Now, biped, is there anything you want to ask me before I leave?”
I have so many questions, about life and love and the universe at large. But there is one question above all others that I must know the answer to.
“Can you settle a disagreement between my wife and me?”
“Disagreement?” For the first time since I met him, his voice sounds disapproving.
“Can you tell me if there are alligators in this river?”
“Alligators?” He pronounces the word as though it’s foreign to him.
“You know, alligators.” I fashion my hands into mandibles, opening and closing them in a pantomime of alligator chomps.
A look of recognition flashes in his eye. “You mean those long, green, toothy creatures.”
I nod. “Yes, toothy being the operative word.”
“Sometimes,” he says.
“Sometimes like when?”
“Sometimes like right now.” He points with his flipper. “Directly behind you.”
I whip around and nearly swallow my snorkel when I see what must be a ten-foot alligator floating in front of me, just below the water’s surface.
“Hi y’all,” the alligator says. “Got any smokes?”
“I already asked him,” says the manatee. “He doesn’t smoke.”
I think of the search party. I think of Susan. I should be panicked and screaming for my life, thrashing and kicking and swimming back to the boat. But I don’t do any of these things. My mind just wants to appraise the situation rationally, logically.
“Am I in danger here? Are the other swimmers in danger?”
“In danger of what?” asks the alligator.
“Of being eaten…by you, mostly.”
“What? Heck no, I ate me a river turkey a few miles back.”
“A river turkey?”
“A big, juicy one too. I won’t be hungry for hours.”
Relieved, I exhale forcefully through the snorkel. “Wait. What’s a river turkey?”
“You telling me you aint never had yourself a river turkey?”
“I don’t know. What is it?”
“It’s a four-legged, furry thing.”
“A four-legged turkey?”
“Ah, heck, I ain’t no good at explaining stuff.” He looks at the manatee. “How would you describe a river turkey to somebody who ain’t never seen one before.”
The manatee considers for some time before answering. “Well, they bark a lot.”
The alligator laughs at this. “You got that right, some of those dang critters never shut up. They come down to the river, chasing some ball or stick or whatnot, sniffing around and digging holes, wagging their tails and barking the whole time. They’re tasty, though.”
I suddenly feel sick to my stomach. “You mean a dog? You ate a dog?”
“Is that what you bipeds call’em? Mighty odd name for a turkey, if you ask me. Now if you don’t mind, I gotta go stretch my legs and walk off this meal. I’m gonna find a golf course to stroll through.”
He swims away, taking some time to pass in front of me, like a long, slow train at a railroad crossing. Soon he is out of view, and the manatee and I are alone once again.
“So, I was right,” I say. “There are alligators in this river.”
“Does it matter?”
“Sure. Alligators make a big difference.”
“No, does it matter that you were right and your wife was wrong.”
I consider the question carefully. It seems to be the kind of question that has a definite right answer and a definite wrong answer. I’m just not sure which is which.
He senses my indecision.“Does it matter that some aspects of life will always be out of your control? Like alligators in a river? Like planes that crash?”
“Like people asking me for cigarettes?”
Again, I don’t know the answer. “Is this a rhetorical question?”
I look away from him, trying to think of a pithy response. For once, I can’t. “I love my wife,” I say. I wasn’t expecting to say that, but it was the only thought I had. “I love her more than anything.”
He slowly blinks that one, great eye of his. “Perhaps that’s the answer to all these questions.”
A whistle pierces the air from somewhere far off, though it sounds muffled under the water. I lift my head to see the group heading back to the boat, being led by the guide as she blows her whistle once again. I plunge my head back into the water, but the manatee is gone. I feel emptiness and regret, as though so much has been left unanswered.
I’m the last one to climb back onto the boat. As I look around, I see nothing but disappointed faces. The guide is apologetic, explaining to everyone that some days the manatees are more elusive than others. Some days, like today, we just catch a glimpse of one.
After slipping out of my wetsuit, towelling off, and changing into my clothes, I approach the slim grey-haired woman who is sitting alone on a bench, changing the lens on her camera.
“Excuse me, ma’am, but what was that medication you gave me?”
Her expression becomes sheepish. “I’m sorry, dear, I realized after you left that I had mixed up my pill bottles. What I gave you was just an anti-inflammatory for my arthritic knees. You must have been wondering why you didn’t feel any different.”
I smile. “Well, my knees have never felt better.”
I stroll to the back of the boat and find Susan sitting alone by the railing. I stand in front of her and wait until she looks at me.
“I’m sorry you didn’t see a manatee,” I say when her eyes finally meet mine. “I really wanted you to.”
Her eyes became moist. “I’ve been looking forward to this for so long.”
“Did you see anything at all?”
“Just a tail, far off in the distance, and only for second. That big jerk over there pushed me out of the way so he could get a better look.”
I turn to see the tall, slim man she had been sitting next to earlier, the guy whose jokes she found so funny.
“Want me to fight him? Because I will, just say the word. I’m a fighter, you know. I’m a lover, primarily, but I’m also a fighter. Some of us are both.”
She laughs. Watching her expression change from sadness to laughter, and knowing that I made it happen, brings me greater happiness than I have ever known.
She pats the bench, inviting me to sit down. “What’s gotten into you?”
“It’s the river. It has an effect on me.” She leans into me, and I place my arm around her. We stay like that for a minute or two as I watch the river and wonder at the magic that lies beneath its shimmering surface. I ponder the manatee’s question, finally realizing it wasn’t rhetorical at all. I know the answer. I know what matters and what doesn’t. I turn to Susan. “Listen, because you didn’t see a manatee today, let’s come back tomorrow.”
“You heard me, tomorrow.”
“But you wanted to go to a ballgame tomorrow.”
I shake my head. “It doesn’t matter. We come back tomorrow. If you don’t see a manatee, then we come back the next day, and the next day, and the day after that if we have to. We keep coming until you see your manatee.”
She looks at me with her brown eyes, still moist, but full of hope again. When they look at me now, I know they see the better man. “You mean it?”
I nod. She wraps her arms around my chest and squeezes me tight, resting her head on my shoulder. As we leave King’s Bay, I realize I’ve left my fears behind amongst the unknown secrets of those temperate waters. Without them, I’m free to embrace Susan’s hopes, to take them as my own. I no longer have to be a reluctant participant in my own life.
I hear Susan’s stomach growl. She sits up and pats me on the knee. “I’m starving,” she says. “What should we do for dinner.”
I ponder for moment and then smile. “This may sound strange, but I have a real craving for turkey.”