map How to Stay in the Whale

by Anna Bernstein

Published in Issue No. 237 ~ February, 2017


彥熹 李


The first thing Brandon says, after coming to, is a lie.

“What happened?” his father asks.

“I was trying to get the dog away from the stairs,” he says. And although the doctors at the hospital are sure there is no evidence of concussion, they release him without much question later that day. One says they should keep the dog in a crate. A nurse who waves them goodbye tells him to be more careful.

But the boy’s dizziness has not been purged by merely one episode of syncope, and later that week he faints again. This time it happens standing in front of his mother as she is arranging mah-jongg tiles, undeniable. Later she describes, with a reminiscent panic that borders on excitement, the moment of his failure: legs shaking, eyes rolled to white in his head, he threw up one hand as if to assume the classic damsel-in-distress pose and fell back like a log to the floor before he could finish it. She is breathless with frightened love. He cringes, squirms in the hospital bed at each detail.

“Don’t tell anyone,” he begs. She begins on a tirade, a list of people she must tell, that it would be irresponsible not to tell. Eventually he gets her to promise that she will at least spare the actual notes of how it happened, how his skin looked, the positioning of his body. She agrees, but leaves the hospital room baffled.

He was diagnosed quickly, they tell him, for such a rare illness. Rare, but not hugely serious. With a little perseverance he can live a normal life despite it, and possibly even recover through doing so. “A girl’s disease,” someone says. Doctors explain it to him in various ways. “Something has happened to parts of your nervous system, and your body has forgotten how to operate under gravity,” says one, “like an astronaut coming back from orbit.” He smiles at Brandon, as if he is talking about the chance to eat astronaut ice cream. “Imagine for a moment that your body is a tree,” says another, and rambles a little about sap. “If we cut off your legs, you’d be fine,” says the last, thoughtfully, turning back to a counter covered in files.

He is taught childish lines to explain it to people: “My body doesn’t work like yours.” “The way I stand and walk is special.” “I have a condition, but I’m still just like you.” He wants in some way to have faith that the people around him don’t need this, are not children. But he finds that they do not understand him when he explains the actual circulatory issue and its effects, even when he carefully reworks it to a couple clear and straightforward sentences. Just two lines long. Maybe two and a half. It doesn’t matter: they look trapped, reel back slightly, reply “Uh, so what does that mean?” Plenty furrow their brows and dutifully fail to grasp any of it, or grasp that they have failed. He switches back to the childish. “My body doesn’t work like yours.” And even though he knows that this is all they will understand from him, always they assume he chose to phrase it this way because, to them, he is still a child. They lean forward, maternal cooing swallowed back down on just the other sides of their mouths—which remain open, slightly, in concern.

His mother tells him that the promise she made in the hospital, to leave out the details, is neither realistic nor safe. His teachers at school need to know the signs of it before it happens, and he should talk to his friends as well. To make sure they can recognize it, help him.

“If you feel like it might be coming on, make sure you tell a friend,” she says. “And ask another friend to go get you a bottle of water or something while the first friend sits with you. Believe me, you’ll find they’re actually happy to help.”

So before school when everyone is sleepy-eyed on the front steps, during free periods when they are writing out homework on picnic tables, when they get to roughhousing behind the gym while girls sit splay-legged in a distant soccer field, he thinks of trying to tell the boys that might be his friends. In his head he runs through variables of each potential boy and each potential conversation, trying to wrangle some acceptable combination out of the possible topics—just some health stuff; could you please; clammy paleness; unfocused eyes; a pounding heart; my blood that is lazy; my signals that don’t work; slowing down for me; somewhere to sit; a bottle of water, gotten by you. Oh, what happens otherwise? Well, fainting, mostly.

The results of each simulation are devastating. Any hope of continued friendship mutates under the rays of disability. What haunts him most are not the boys who might say “Brandon, you should’ve seen it, you fainted like this,” with a hand on their forehead, or who might only let him tag along to anything so they can throw out “Hey Brandon, do you need to sit down now? Do you need some water? A tampon? Do you need your mom?” These are boring jokes. The jokes about him are always boring. Rather it is the boys who might say, instead: “Why are you telling me this? Why not your actual friends, whoever that is? We did a drama skit together, last fall. It went well. It was compulsory. We are not friends.” He worries that what they will say is, “I will not. I will not be getting you water, or finding you a place to sit down. And if I come across you, I will not sit with you, and wait, while your body tries its hardest to be like mine.” These, Brandon thinks, are most of the boys.

He finds that he feels better walking than he does standing still or even sitting. He walks all the time. He develops callouses on his ankles from the edges of his Converse. He is pulled out of school often by strange byproducts of the thing: an absence of breath that wakes him up in the middle of the night, nausea that leaves him unable to open his eyes, bouts of dizziness in which he lies in bed while his head floats up to the ceiling like a balloon. And in the middle of class, body collapsing at a desk, he feels the urge to stand up and pace ferociously between the aisles. He can’t talk to anyone while he is focused on something so difficult as sitting upright.

Sometimes he feels he has been built with a careless negligence: an architect who did not measure twice, fitted every beam wrongly. And then, he thinks, moved on to some other body, to do the same thing again.

At a class field trip to an exhibit about whales, he finds his head reeling unexpectedly. He is on the edge of throwing up while he moves between tall white placards. He thinks he can feel his blood plummeting down into his feet. His classmates have moved on to another room, and ahead of him there is the centerpiece of the exhibit: a giant model of a whale made for walking through, with an audiotape echoing inside its cavity. He gets himself well enough in that he won’t be seen and slides all the way to the floor, lying flat down. He hopes no one comes in and steps on him. To his left he puts a hand on a wall in the darkness, feels hard fiberglass imitating the irregular ripples of organic tissue. From the tinny voice overhead he learns that the whale’s heart is the size of a car. That a human could rent an apartment in Manhattan with the same square footage as its stomach for around 1,700 dollars a month. He learns that whales are peaceful and serene, while also imbued with a deep sense of joy. He is told of whales of various types throwing themselves with abandon against the surface of the ocean. He learns that in order to migrate they must travel thousands of miles, at one mile per hour, and so in their brains lives a patience as massive as their other organs. He turns to the wall and breathes in the scent of hard rubber. He comes out of the model believing less in the whale than when he went in.

His mother notices first: it is not merely the freak weather of his nervous system that leaves him lying in bed all day. Even when school lets out he does not seem to improve. He is far away when they ask him questions, smiles tersely in a way that frightens her on the face of a thirteen-year-old boy.

He has an uncle, that he met a long time ago, who has a house, near the Florida beach, that sits on stilts. That is the way the trip is introduced to him, as he blinks sleepily at his father sitting on the end of the bed. A week later his mother waves him off with genuine tears in her eyes and goes back through the sliding doors into their living room to continue calculating mah-jongg stats. The whole way to the airport his father talks quietly about the childhood he had with this brother, about hunting for turkeys in the West Virginia undergrowth, about repairing the backyard fence when deer would tear it down over and over again, about picking herbs and little flowers from the weeds growing under their father’s bedroom window. He does not talk about the ocean his brother left the woods for. Brandon has seen the ocean three times, once when he was very small. His father talks only of trees.

Getting off the plane, two of the flight attendants insist on pushing Brandon out in a wheelchair. He fusses, picking at threads on the knees of his jeans, and remains silent. There is barely anyone in the echoing hall of the airport. It has high windows that let in yellow light, as if they are already outside. He looks around for any man who might resemble his father, but instead he and the flight attendants are approached by a middle-aged woman, her wiry brown-and-gray hair cut in a short bob. She wears a yellow flannel that matches the light.

“Are you Brandon?” she asks. Behind her, the last of the departing passengers stride through a set of automatic doors to the heat of the parking lot outside. The woman spends a moment looking at him, her face still and blank. She announces: “I’m your aunt.” The flight attendants nod at her, smile at both of them and take their leave. She introduces herself as Rhea. “I met you when you were three,” she tells him. There is no hint of cheek-pinching sentimentality; it is stated as fact. He looks up at her.

“I can walk,” he says, still in the wheelchair.

“Then why don’t you?” she says.

It is dusk by the time they arrive and he can barely see the stilts he was promised. Rhea doesn’t speak to him from when they leave the airport until nearly dinner, but she motions him into the kitchen to cut up a parsnip, an onion, a red pepper. Each one is a little puzzle of shapes. He does well. The shapes go into a soup that, oddly, they do not eat in silence. Instead, their conversation moves with the steady beat of a tortoise, measured pauses matched by both of them between each answer. Afterwards she shows him to bed in the high corner guest room. He likes that it feels like a grown-up’s bedroom, sparse and earth-colored, and he decides he will keep it that way. His uncle, he is told, will be back in two weeks. He thinks back to his father in the car and knows that he does not know.

The next day, his aunt takes him to the ocean for the first time. She loads him up with hard-edged aluminum folding chairs and a red umbrella, and walks ahead of him with her own load and never looks back. He follows her along the sides of furnace-hot roads and over narrow walkways of gray wood and through the scratchy grass at the top of a sand dune. The ocean is the ocean. He remembers it. He does not know what to say to his aunt about it, and is relieved to find that, as it has been so far, she expects very little of him. They set up camp right above the water-line and she sits down, driving the points of the chair legs into the sand. She closes her eyes. He is going in by himself.

Brandon can swim. He proves this by walking until he is deep enough in water that his trunks float around him, crouching down so that he is submerged up to his neck, and then paddling in circles until he feels silly and stands up. He looks around him at the others who have waded in, and spots a group of boys, his age or a little older. They are way out past him, scooping and diving in the surf. They do not paddle. Their shouts barely reach him. He stares, and already he feels like he should be shouting. He decides to cross the distance between them. And as he starts he notices that a few paces ahead, at calf height, something large and near-black is gliding, its elongated shape distorted and dappled by patches of watery sun. His first thought is of a miniature submarine.

A man near him screams, a woman he didn’t know was behind him screams also and tugs him backwards by his bicep (he assumes, somewhere in this, that from behind she thought he was younger than he is). Around him the air bursts into panic. He is pulled back to shore by a current of people. All the swimmers rush up onto the sand to stand looking at the waves until the whole ocean is only solid cobalt blue, no bright dots of bathing suits or sunburned backs anywhere in its furrows.

That night he dreams ocean dreams: fantastical beaches, labyrinthine coral reefs, colorful grottoes that exist only on postcards he does not remember having seen. At the very end of the dreams his aunt wakes him up briefly to ask him if he wants eggs or toast for his weak stomach that morning, and so he answers her and falls back into the last beach. It seems to him that he drops, with a splash, into a pool of warm shallow water made dim by algae. Minnows flit around him. Their little arrows of bodies grow longer, larger, are joined by the huge black darting shapes of sharks that cross and re-cross each other’s paths, as he lays blissful on top of them, still sleeping, just underneath a blanket of water.

He walks back to the beach a few days later, finding his way through the gray wood walkways, slipping on sand kicked up between the soles of his feet and the sandals he chose to wear this time. They slap uselessly until finally he takes them off, already halfway to the row of umbrellas. The whole beach seems edgy. There are round-bellied fathers calling to their children to herd them back in from uncertain territory, and mothers who look up from conversations and paperbacks to watch for just a little too long. He leaves his shirt and sandals at the end of the row and begins to walk out, dragging his feet through the water, alone.

The same group of slightly older boys are playing out where the surf breaks. Brandon finds his way to a shallow sandbar and sits down to wait for something to happen. He wants the ocean to do something to him. He watches the boys out of the corner of his eye from a distance, and he sees that they are not afraid. They throw themselves joyously into the roughest parts of the whole contraption of the wave, slap their torsos upright and flat against the coming wall, even jump up to invite the white blade of the thing to cut them in half at chest-height, and all the while they make painful, appreciative noises. Or else some of them break off and wait prone, glancing conspiratorially at those on either side of them, also stomach-down on their boogie boards, arms ready to paddle-paddle-paddle like a wind-up toy in the hopes that this time they will not be bucked by the water charging up behind them. He watches them and as always, thinks: “How nice it must be, to be a boy.”

And so he stands and wades out past the sandbar quickly, in the space of a calm moment. He does not have long to prepare. He watches a crest approaching, bullet-eyed, and he means to jump up with his head back, or twist one side into it, or let it slap full against him, and then shout the grinning shout of a good sport losing. But he does none of these things. As it rushes towards him he finds almost instinctively that he throws himself under, at the last moment, into the glass center of its belly—in a downward swing with everything calm, everything dark, the parabola of his body a mirror-opposite of the curve above him. He can hear the muted fury of it crashing down somewhere high over his head, and in the scoop of the dive his own weight eases off the beams of his torso, his legs, flesh floating around bones, as on every side smooth water lifts upwards. It is like kneeling in a crawl space of a house through which someone is raging. He resurfaces and shivers at the air with his whole body, squints and rubs the salt out of his eyes. He looks for another, and another after that. Even walking back to the shore he listens for the growl of a new swell behind him, so it won’t take him by surprise, and with his back turned he folds himself slip-limbed back into it, then walks out to find it full-on again.

He does this over and over. He leaves the beach for the house on stilts where he eats dinner with his aunt and uncle, and the soup is always good, and in time he finds that his parents do not come back for him after all. His aunt tutors him every day until lunchtime so that he does not have to return to his school, and when he goes to bed each night he spends his sleep dreaming of taller and more powerful waves, that crash harder, and louder, and drag everyone he knows out to sea one by one, and each wave opens a door for him to a hollow calm in his body even larger than the last. He wakes up and walks again to the beach to spend all day in the surf. He stands rib-deep and waits for it to rebuild itself out on the edge of darker water, and he thinks it is very bold. He admires it. He admires it but he never lets it win, safe in its stomach, again and again victorious.