Tyler placed his hands together above his head, his naked torso a diamond vision to behold, and bent his knees as if a wooden mallet sent from heaven tapped him right there. It was a variant of a standing lotus position that he had perfected. Tyler dived, as gracefully as his body was trained so meticulously to do. Glowing after extracting himself from the pool, Tyler shook off, water droplets falling onto the bumpy cement floor. He padded over to the locker room, empty now this early in the morning. In his locker hung a mirror, a picture of him and his boyfriend, and medals of varying hues.
“Marker, you up yet?” he texted into his phone.
Tyler always felt a deep hankering after a morning workout, and he wanted to keep this wave up for the rest of the day. He thought about jogging over to Whitman Hall just to bang on Mark’s door, but he saw the drizzle through the sliding glass door as he turned into the foyer and stopped in his tracks. As much as he loved feeling and pushing through the rush of water, he had a strong aversion to rainwater. He hated getting wet, and because he had forgotten his umbrella at home, he beat himself up a bit before taking off his duffel and sinking into a red plush chair. He wondered how long this would last. He texted Mark again with “Sweetie, wake up, and bring me Rihanna’s best song, please.”
Not ten minutes had passed when a lean tan body carrying a subdued Mark materialized through the window. He leaned in to give Tyler a sloppy kiss on the cheek.
“How was your workout?”
“Same old, same old, no one was around.” His refreshed attitude from before had dwindled to the same languor he felt exuding from Mark.
“So what do you wanna eat?”
“Let’s go to Pappa Charlie’s. And then afterwards, let’s head to the marine lab.”
There was an aquarium in the front lobby of the marine lab, which was where Mark and Tyler had first caught each other’s gazes. Tyler loved looking at the bottom feeders with their long whiskers and their downward facing vacuum-like mouths. It was the biggest pet peeve others had of him– that he always brought up bottom feeders whenever anything bad happened to him. They would be waiting at the back of a line, and Tyler would say, “Look, we’re bottom feeders again,” or he’d get a C on an exam and he’d invoke them again. Mark had noticed this immediately about him, his downward gaze, and had come over that first day to nudge him in the ribs.
“You know there are rainbow fish, angelfish, 6-inch goldfish and what I believe is an electric eel in there too.”
“Yeah, but do any of them eat detritus?” I blurted out.
Mark gave him a smile, and his handsome eyes twinkling were enough. They went out to a Japanese restaurant, the only one in the area this far away from the coast, and bonded over griping over how bad the quality of the yellowtail, and the skipjack tuna and how they both lost their first goldfishes– Mark’s was called Poseidon and Tyler’s was Snapple.
Before, when Tyler went to lab, he smelled chlorine in the air around the aquarium but after he started dating Mark, the smell of wasabi and soy sauce began to mix in too. It was the place that he was drawn to again and again, and he often took his laptop there, and stayed late into the night, to write essays and his stories. The water shimmering with a dark sheen mesmerized him for minutes at a time as his thoughts ran into the empty spaces of his mind.
He wanted to write a story about his father, who died when he was still a prepubescent because of what the mortician called a “myocardial infarction,” words that seared in his mind for years. In the year before his death, his dad had taken him camping, which had been a strain for both of them.
One time, amid the fir trees and evergreens, a pair of rabbits scampered out of their sight. His dad had looked at them and asked Tyler if he wanted to catch and eat one. It followed logically with what he had been talking about- how his life in China was so poor and his parents never gave him anything to eat. “Not enough full rice,” he said in his harsh, direct tone. It was only recently his dad had started making comments like that– he had been a mostly silent presence in his life except for his occasional shouts at him to stop playing with toys, the little Matchbox cars he had bought for him, and to journal every day.
Later, the two rabbits showed up again when he and Mark went hiking in the forest grounds around the campus, and Mark had joked, “Look at the two newlyweds, going off to enjoy their honeymoon. Before long, the whole forest will be overpopulated again by springtime- just in time for the hunters.” They were such starkly different men, his father and Mark.
Mark accepted Tyler’s stories with a sympathetic ear, listened to him and gave nothing back as a response except to say that it sounded hard, and his life was so privileged in comparison. The story Tyler kept repeating to Mark though, the one he never got tired of hearing, was what he called, “the motivation of my life.” It was when his dad was just a bit older than he was now, and took it on himself to finally escape poverty-stricken communist China by swimming across the Pearl River.
Tyler had never reconstructed this history, because there were not enough memory fragments to piece together. He studied other great swimmers, Matthew Webb, the first man across the English channel, Mao Zedong, an image builder who swam the Yangtze even in his waning years, Lynne Cox, the human-surrogate mother of a baby gray whale, Michael Phelps, dominator of news coverage during the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and Matthew Mitcham, poster boy for gay athletes. Their stories took over the space in his imagination reserved for his father’s.
That day, though, looking into the aquarium to bid a silent greeting to his aquatic friends, with Mark beside him, he noticed that one of the bottom feeders was missing.
He pulled on Mark’s elbow and said, “Do you see Fanny is missing?”
Mark studied the glass and sure enough, the dark gray spotted benthic fish, as much as his coating had allowed him to camouflage before, was clearly gone from his usual place on the aquatic floor.
Unsettled, Tyler stalked over to the receptionist to see if he could get some answers from her. Tyler was a regular, so of course, Cindy would know him, but she hadn’t a clue that he had been so fond of such a fish.
“Hey, Cindy, I was just noticing that one of the fish is missing from the aquarium– any idea where she went?”
“Wow, so observant. Actually, we took him out since one of the PIs saw his spots getting lighter. He was right, and she’s too sick, so she’s being observed over in the Murray Lab.”
“Oh, all right, thanks so much.” She smiled back at him and he turned back to return to Mark, who was still standing by the aquarium.
“Hey, can we stop by the Murray Lab?” Mark, ever indulgent, nodded and they headed off up the stairs to see what they could get by way of answers to this sudden detour in their day.
There was just a researcher, a first-year, new to the lab, named Joe making dilutions at the counter, when they walked in.
“Cindy says you have an ill fish.”
“That’s right, we think she’s on her last legs.” Joe smiled as if only ichthyologists would get the joke.
“Can we see her?”
“It’s just a bottom feeder, I didn’t think someone studying sharks would have any interest.”
Tyler ignored his comment, and followed him to the back of the room, near the window. There was Fanny, lying there, as pale and motionless as if she had already accepted her fate. Tyler stared down at her, and the thoughts of the nights they had inadvertently shared together passed through his mind’s eye. She had passively collected his thoughts, he knew, and now her non-judging self, hampered by the years, was sinking to a deeper low than she had sunk before.
It clicked in Tyler what his father had seen when he crossed the river in the decade before he was born. His father was still a young man, and as word spread throughout the city of Guangzhou that there was a way out, the man inside him with nothing to lose took over. Without a word to his sisters, brother or parents, he took off one day, striding out of his unfurnished family apartment, down the dusty streets of an as-yet undeveloped modern city. He would phone home after he landed in a place they could not reach him. The low buildings stood bowing to him, ushering him silently out of this forsaken place. As he joined up with some fellow men, the only thought in his mind was a survival instinct. He knew that when you hit rock bottom, all you could do is swim. So he dipped into the water, the chill going through his emaciated body refreshed more than shocked him, and in went his entire body. As he submerged into the sea, the man who would become his father, took off into the night, a black dot in a sea of black dots.