Strange Books (1995)

This story first appeared in Plazm #18

We could have seen a movie. It would have been cheaper, too. Instead, we went to the aquarium. We went to see the new shark exhibit, the temporary thing. There were plenty of shark things to talk about, really, we could have talked about shark things. We got there around mid afternoon; the aquarium was empty, except for us and two or three separate groups of foreign tourists.

“Lookit this,” I said, “sharks can smell blood in the water two miles away.”

“It’s not like a lump of tissue,” you said, “it’s not really like that at all. It’s not like it’s a tumor.”

We stood in front of the big temporary exhibit tank. With the new shark exhibit, dozens of sharks swim around inside, all kinds. Mako and tiger and blue and sand and wobegong and chimera and hammerhead. I watched your reflection in the glass. You folded your arms and frowned.

“Sharks have a protective eyelid that shields their eyes when they attack. See. Look, you can see the thing.”

“Don’t change the subject,” you said.

In a movie, we couldn’t have talked about the abortion. They would have made us shut up. I like to be quiet in an aquarium, too, that’s why I thought it would be safe. An aquarium should be quiet like a library, a library of fish. Fish, swimming like strange books in green light behind glass. Cleverly concealed stereo speakers could play music, maybe, slow eerie music with harps and flutes. The only sounds would be bubbling and sloshing and splashing, and thin lonely music.

At that moment, a Japanese tourist took a photo, a flash photo. The tiger shark passing smoothly in front of us, startled by the light maybe, flicked its tail in an unlikely way. It twisted its head, mashing its toothy face against the glass. We imagined—you, me, the Japanese tourist—we imagined being underwater, seeing that shark face pushing at us and knowing that it would be the last thing we’d see.

“It’s a done thing,” I said. “We’re just being belligerent now. It’s a done thing, and it’s not your problem any more.”

“That photo won’t turn out,” you said, after a pause. “If you try to take a flash photo of a pane of glass, all you get is a white glare. You know.”

“Just the reflection,” I said. The air between us was perceptibly heavy. I could feel its weight on my bare arms, moist and humid with a smell of seawater. In the green light from the tank, your face looked bloated, morbid. You unfolded your arms and looked away from me, at the fish.