The way I got into this work was through my love of the water. I’ve always known it was where I belonged. Given that I was born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio, home of one of the least inspiring of the not-all-that-interesting Great Lakes, I’ve had to work pretty hard to get to where I belong. But I did it. Right after college, my Stanford marine biology degree in hand, I got an unpaid internship at the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago working with the marine mammals. I worked in a Starbucks and ate a lot of ramen noodles for those five months but I was the happiest I’ve ever been. It was a lot of schlepping, a lot of cleaning up, and maintenance but I got to work with the dolphins sometimes and touch their smooth gray skin. They felt like heaven to me. I was one hell of an intern. Miraculously, when my 20 weeks were up one of the full-time animal trainers quit and they asked me to stay on. This job allowed me to get to know the dolphins—their personalities, their quirks, everything about them. It was wonderful. Part of the job was of course, learning how to get the dolphins to do tricks—we weren’t supposed to call them tricks—they were behaviors. It’s true, we never made them do anything they wouldn’t have done in the wild—and they didn’t always cooperate. But when they did the crowd always responded like they were tricks done especially for them.  

I loved working there. I didn’t even mind diving to scrape the algae off the sides of the tank (one of the nasty jobs that rotated among the junior staff) The Shedd is spectacular. It was built in 1929. The ceiling is like a cathedral covered with images of sea life instead of Jesus: simple, earnest paintings of starfish and turtles and fish. There are bas-relief of sea shells—the whole building has that temple-like grandeur that buildings of that time have. Every day I walked in looking up over my head, open mouthed, like a little kid.

The greatest thing about the job was getting to be in the water nearly every day for one thing or another (for all the fun I had with the dolphins, in many ways, the job was just more high-level schlepping). My favorite part was after I had all my dive equipment on. Rolling in backwards and letting the water close over my head. The air came into me from the oxygen tank on my back and I was buoyed up and breathing even though there was water all around me. I cut through it and the fish came up to me, all around me like jewels. They swam in front of me like butterflies in a field. I loved the way it felt to be breathing in the water but safe, held, protected. The weightlessness. I never feel that the rest of the time. Life weighs a ton. That’s why I love the water. Nothing weighs anything there.

The other women who had the gig were all white and they only had to snatch their hair back into messy ponytails before they dived. I had cornrows at the time; I hadn’t yet seen that I had to cut off all my hair and let my head be free. It took me a year to realize it; to get up the nerve to deal with my mother’s disapproval. After I my first trip to the barbershop though, I never looked back. I looked like a sculpture, a beautiful hardened piece of wood. I started to wear big earrings all the time when I wasn’t diving; inexpensive silver hoops and flashy teenage-girl sparklers. Now I shop for earrings at places where I’m the oldest person in there by at least 10 years. I cut my hair myself once a week with clippers. Sometimes I run my hand over the short, assertive bristles up there and it makes a little shiver go down my legs. I’m never growing it back. Never.

Daniel, my husband, is white. I don’t know why I say that first except that it’s the first thing you notice, especially around here; the two of us. People don’t disapprove but they do notice. Sometimes I wonder what it would have been like to make a life with someone who looked more like me, maybe had lived more like me. I know race isn’t a smart way to make these decisions—I haven’t let it make decisions for me. But in my secret heart, sometimes, I just wish Daniel knew certain things, certain sounds, certain feelings, in a way that he just can’t. At first my father was very suspicious of the whole business—Daniel was the first white boyfriend I introduced him to (none of the others ever got that serious). But as he got to know Daniel, he came around.

Daniel is kind, precise, and quiet. I was drawn to those things about him. I try to be precise but it takes a lot of effort—it doesn’t come naturally. Another way we’re different is about diving. Unlike me, he can take it or leave it—he’ll do it for work but he doesn’t love it like I do. He’s a couple of years older than me, an ichthyologist. He loves sorting species, classifying them. Me, I’m pleased to see a really rare specimen of something and God knows there’s plenty of detail in my work, but I’m not as moved by the idea of collecting. I want to understand how systems work.

When Daniel came along, I had just broken up with a bartender who enjoyed his wares a bit too much. I don’t even quite know how I got involved with a guy like that. He was good in bed; he had the kind of authority that men who don’t think too much have. That can keep you going for a while. But not forever. Daniel came along, same field, same smarts, those kind blue eyes that could not stop gazing at me. What could I say? What could I do? I went with him. I loved him. I mean, I love him.