It’s an honor for me to even have been invited to this seaside post mortem exam. I’m only a second-year grad student, and the next lowest ranking academic to attend the cetacean necropsy is a post-doc from my department named Ismael. He’s the one who invited me, and I am grateful for the opportunity — I truly am.
I thought we might all recite an invocation or prayer over the bloated and deceased body of the blue whale cow before us, or at the very least a non-denominational Earth blessing, but instead my fellow marine mammal researchers mount the carcass like a creature on a carousel. Flensing knives at the ready, they straddle the dead animal and grin for group photos as if it were merely a fiberglass representation of a whale. Granted, it’s a rare and vital opportunity for those in our line of work, but the optics of it make me dizzy, as though I’ve sipped too much helium from latex balloons at a children’s birthday party.
Ismael observes my unease and herds me over to a tide pool to suggest that I reel in those notoriously volatile feelings of mine.
“We’re scientists, Sequoia. It’s not like we killed the whale, and we can learn a lot from its demise. We can’t let sentiment interfere.”
I hadn’t started sleeping with Ismael for career reasons, but given that he was the favored protégé of our mutual advisor, I’d lately realized — perhaps a little too late, I’ll admit — that things could go abruptly south for me if (or really, when) I ever wanted to stop sleeping with him.
“Right-o,” I reply and cock a salute — fake British accent included — which renders me ridiculous, I know. “Stiff upper lip will be henceforth deployed!”
He cringes, and I hope he doesn’t think I am making some sort of a veiled Moby Dick reference, an understandable pet peeve of his given his name and occupation. In all my straining to remain cool and blasé about our affair I know I am failing magnificently and drawing unwanted attention to myself to boot, the way a swimmer gets pulled under by a riptide the harder she tries to break away, but I can’t help being awkward.
Everyone knows, of course. How could they not know, in a department this small? We hooked up last year at the holiday party. We’d both been sloshed, and he’d leaned into me at the punch bowl to smell my shampoo and said, “Don’t you want to find out if we fit together? For science?”
His lips and tongue seemed bruised from all the grenadine.
“Sure,” I’d said in reply. “Why not.”
I’d thought it would be a one-night stand or a quick fling, but soon after it all began he’d declared us “fuck buddies for life,” which seemed like a contradiction in terms. But Ismael is the king of mixed messages, the emperor of ambiguity. Serious / not-serious. Joking / not-joking.
To reach the whale’s vital organs, the team needs to carve deeply with the whaling knives to fashion a gargantuan rectangle, then hook the open end to a cable connected to a winch on the back of a pick-up truck and crank it backwards until it unfurls like a banana peel. I’m not squeamish, but the blue whale before me is now red and radiating a powerful heat from the rapid decomposition taking place inside, the microbes converting all that calorie-rich blubber into thermal energy. It is like standing by a furnace that’s covered in reeking soiled clothes spread out to dry.
All at once there is a sudden variance in pressure from piercing the seal and the body expels something large and unexpected into the approaching surf. It’s another dead whale, this one much smaller, about half the size of a newborn calf. The body is all white and perfect looking, though deflated, like a discarded rubber exam glove bobbing on the open waves. The fetus was perhaps only six months into its twelve-month gestation, but it is still larger than your average human five-year-old.
“Oh man,” Ismael hums, glancing my way. “This is post-doc pay-dirt.” His eyes bulge into uncanny white orbs as he regards the lifeless remains.
It hits me with a satisfying thunk somewhere in my body — perhaps my spleen — the same way it feels to press that final, elusive shape into a 5000-piece jigsaw puzzle. Oh — he is an asshole.
I mean, I’d suspected this before, but here it was suddenly independent of my own flaws or character. He has always been an asshole, yes, but now objectively so. I am slightly giddy from the discovery, light-headed from a feeling of release, and swoon as though I might faint in the waves.
I glance around at the crowd of researchers and perceive a subliminal rift in their various reactions. Some seem about to cheer but restrain themselves out of tact, others mourn, and still others try mourning first, then celebrating after. One research fellow — Jenny, I think her name is — scrunches up her eyebrows in a grotesque grimace, half-ready to laugh or look away, as if she were watching a hot-dog eating contest where the winner seems about to hurl.
“Good lord, that startled me!” Jenny cries, hand to her chest. “The last time I came to one of these, the carcass flat-out exploded from the pressure and burst right open in our faces.”
“Really,” is all I manage to say. The water laps at my calves and I feel myself involuntarily start to sway.
“Are you okay?” Jenny asks. “You look like you’re about to pass out.”
The second, more recent termination of my own pregnancies had been more difficult than the first because of the sense that it should’ve been avoidable somehow given how unpleasant the first time had been. But Ismael is Catalonian and claims this makes him macho, in that he refuses to wear a condom but persists in having sex, and I have various pre-existing conditions including rheumatoid arthritis and a history of blood clots that make most medical birth control options difficult if not impossible, and so we arrived at the so-called rhythm method, though it turns out that I’m not very rhythmic, reproductively or otherwise. I can’t dance either.
When I’d emerged from the bathroom in his apartment that first time after the initial round of cramping, he’d arranged a set of absorbent pee pads across his couch for me to lie down on. The kind used for potty training puppies.
“I’m wearing a maxi-pad big enough for a gorilla,” I told him.
“Well, in case you leak,” he said.
I accidentally sliced my finger the other day with a chef’s knife while slicing an onion, and it struck me in the moment that the two experiences progressed in a similar fashion. First there is the catch of breath and involuntary crying out. Then the waiting period, during which you hang numbly in a limbo of suspense and uncertainty — has it truly happened or was it only imagined? Then comes the clutching, the squeezing, the certainty of what’s to come. Then — finally — there is the long-awaited (or so it seems, anyway) seeping pool of blood.
After we picked up the medication the second time, I drove us back home, but to my place this time. He sat there in the passenger seat scanning the package as if he were carefully scrutinizing the instructions.
“I forget — how long before we can have sex again after this?”
I looked around the dashboard in the ridiculous, futile hope of a hidden camera recording our conversation for posterity, but there of course wasn’t one. It must be me then; I must be crazy.
You would think that that comment alone — or any of the other myriad slights over the last several months — would have been enough for me to call it quits, even with the risk to my standing in the department, but I didn’t really hear him. Or I heard him, but it turns out that the more awful he was the more I felt that things were as they should be. That his treating me like shit was merely evidence that I was, in fact, a shitty human being. That he was exactly the man I deserved.
I turn and move away from the team through the shallow water hissing up the beach in the low tide. My trousers are wet and my shoes fill with mud, so it is slow going, plenty of time for Ismael to venture after me if he is so inclined but he isn’t. Instead, I hear him whooping and hollering behind me after that white whale that never was, like a hyena approaching a lion’s kill, and I am glad.
As I move farther away from the carcasses toward the parking lot, I am reminded of something I read as an undergraduate on the history of the whaling industry. The wives of whalers were left alone for years, and to encourage fidelity while they were away, husbands sometimes presented their wives with porcelain dildos from China. Only, the picture in the article depicted one found in Massachusetts that was made of plaster, suggesting it was homemade, perhaps by the wife herself. The head of this plaster dildo was peculiarly stained a deep reddish purple, a color which incidentally matches precisely the inside of a whale — maybe, too, a woman.
I trudge up the sand dunes picturing this 19th-century abandoned housewife seated before an earthen bowl with her sprinkling of lime, a cup of cement, and a pour of warm water from a jug — not realizing at first what she intended to make, exactly — then kneading the dough of it with cracked fingers into the particular size and shape that pleased her. What sort of smile must have graced her lips? What songs must she have sung, then? In my mind, the woman croons in a soft contralto: “Glory. Glory hallelujah.”