For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to be an otter. When I was six, Mom brought me to the Maritime Center in Norwalk. It was my birthday. Things had been really difficult for us since Dad died the year before. Mom worked long hours and I spent so much time in day care. For a while, it felt like everything was falling apart. But Mom knew I was having a hard time. She did her best to let me know I was loved. And on my sixth birthday, I truly realized how much.
Mom knew how much I adored otters. I had pictures of them from National Geographic hung up all around my room. This one was the best. I had little stuffed otter toys, too, like Ollie here. They made me feel safe and happy. But until then, I’d only seen otters on television and in magazines. When Mom surprised me with a trip to the Maritime Center, I started crying. We walked through the halls, bypassing all the aquariums featuring stingrays and jellyfish and giant lobsters. After what felt like an eternity, we made it to their glass-walled habitat.
I stood, transfixed, and watched their sleek, furry bodies navigate their enclosure. It’d been designed to look like the local estuary from which they came. I marvelled at how quickly they could dart across solid ground and dive into the water where they’d move with equal speed and grace. Then, as I watched, I finally saw it. Two otters, tired from playing around, floated together in the water. I shook with anticipation, praying I’d get to witness what I’d dreamed about. The otter on the right held out its left paw. The left otter held out its right. Then they clasped them together in a gesture of closeness while they peacefully floated.
While I watched the beautiful display, I felt a soft hand wrap around my own. It was mom. She looked down at me and smiled her warm, loving smile. We stayed that way for a long time.
Looking back, that was the best moment of my life. The decades that followed were nothing but heartbreak. Mom passed away when I was 14. Cancer. We had no other family, so I was put in foster care. My foster parents were kind, but distant. They didn’t try to understand me. I know they thought I was weird. I guess maybe I was. A teenage boy with a love of otters and no friends doesn’t sound normal. Because of that abnormality, I started getting picked on at school.
It started off innocuous. Just some name-calling in the hall. “Freak,” “fag,” “retard;” the basic high school Freshman insults. Over time, though, starting around my Sophomore year, the negativity got worse. A lot of it stemmed from when I tried to join the swim team. I’d never been a competitive swimmer. I wasn’t in particularly good shape, either. Add to that a body that was extraordinarily hairy for a 15 year old, and I became an easy target of the school’s more vicious bullies.
Verbal insults increased in frequency and physical violence became the norm. I don’t need to get into it, because it makes me sad to think about, but there were many times I was simply punched in the face as I walked down the hall. Sometimes I’d get kicked in the crotch. One time, someone reached up my shirt and smeared their gum into my chest hair. And all the time, they laughed. I wouldn’t wear my otter shirts anymore. The other students were ruthless with their bullying whenever they saw me with a picture of my favorite animal. Someone started a terrible rumor that since I’d never had a girlfriend, I must have sex with otters. And when they noticed I cried whenever they insinuated such a hurtful, despicable act, it became their insult of choice.
Once or twice, school officials would punish the most flagrant abusers if their words or actions happened to be noticed. But for the most part, it was under the school’s radar. I never said anything. As it all went on, my foster parents never had a clue because they never asked how I was doing. Even if they did, I don’t think I would have told them. My grades were decent enough. That’s all that mattered to them.
By the time I was a Senior, the bulk of the bullying had died down. Still, not a day went by when I could say people were kind to me. I was growing sick of the feeling of isolation that plagued me from the moment I woke up to the time I collapsed back in my bed at night, usually in tears. When the school posted a notice asking for someone to work in the pool area in the afternoons, I decided to apply. It was pretty low-effort work. Some organizing, some water testing, but mostly just cleaning up the messes of the day. No one else was interested, so I was hired on the spot.
The shift was short; about 3 hours starting at 4pm. Most of the students were gone by then. The swim team’s season was over, so they didn’t have practice. Some of the teachers liked to swim and get some exercise around that time, though, so I made sure their locker rooms had towels and were relatively clean. It all went well. I made a few bucks. Nothing much, but more than I was used to.
Once everyone left, I’d swim by myself. I’d float on my back and glide through the still water while my imagination ran wild. I’d imagine myself in an estuary filled with otters and fish and seabirds. We’d all be happy and everyone would get along. I stretched out my hand, half hoping another understanding person would grab it and we’d float away together. Soon after, I’d leave. While I walked home each night, I would cry.
After graduating high school, I kept the job. They were happy to have me. There wasn’t a chance I’d go to college and endure any more abuse, so I was perfectly content with keeping the status quo. My foster parents were glad to have me around, especially once I began giving them a small bit of my take-home money as rent.
When the next school year started up, the swim team started practicing again. I’d hover around the pool area, doing my various jobs, and every so often I’d hear the team laughing at me. They’d point an insult or two in my direction, but I’d just keep my head down and stay on task. After work, I’d head home like I always did, have my dinner, and retreat to my bedroom where I’d sit at my computer and watch videos of otters until I was too tired to continue. This one was my favorite. I still think about it all the time.
On a night in October, when I was finishing up my shift, someone was banging on the door to the pool and demanding that they be let in. It was two swim team members and their mother. They’d missed practice in the afternoon and they said they had to get their laps in or else the coach would force them to miss their next meet. I apologized and said the pool was closed. Their mother started to yell, so I unlocked the door to let her in so we could discuss it. As soon as I opened it, her sons pushed by me, stripped down to their swimsuits, and jumped in the water. While the mother screamed, her pregnant belly bumping against me as she got closer and closer, I closed my eyes and wished I could run away. So I did.
I turned around and ran toward the supply room. I’d left it open while I cleaned, so once I got in I slammed the door behind me, locked it, and sat on a bucket while I cried. The mother laughed at me from the other side of the door while yelling to her sons, “is this that otter fucker you told me about?” I heard the boys laughing as they did their laps. The woman gave one final pound on the door before she muttered, loud enough for me to hear, “I can’t imagine what that freak’s mother must be like.”
Everything went red, then white. I found myself travelling down a lazy river. I was on my back, staring at the sky. It was bright blue and dotted with puffy cumulous clouds. Thick, green grass grew all the way to the riverbank. As the river turned and I bumped into the grass, it felt soft against my furry skin. The water slowed as the river drained into a wide, clear lake. I craned my neck around and saw her. I let the gentle current take me, and I gradually drifted closer. Once I got there, I held out my paw. She grasped it in her own.
Mom and I floated together for a while. The sensation of closeness was almost as wonderful as my birthday at the Maritime Center. Then it got even better. Mom had been hiding my new baby brother in the crook of her other arm. She reached over and sat him on my chest. He squirmed for a minute, but then he was still. Comfortable. Safe. I closed my eyes and felt the warm sun on my downy fur.
When I opened my eyes, I was staring at the ceiling of the pool room. The bodies of the two swimmers floated lifelessly in the shallow end, blood blossoming in the water from their slit throats. I floated, silently, clasping the hand of their mother. She was facing the ceiling, breathing shallowly. I glanced over at her. A gaping wound in her belly was spilling blood all around us. Her breathing stopped. I felt her start to sink and I turned to pull her toward me, but something on my chest shifted and nearly fell. I dropped the dead woman’s hand and picked up what was resting on me. Her baby. It wasn’t breathing.
I worked hard not to panic and I retreated back to my safe place. If I ever really wanted to be an otter, this was as close as I’d get. I felt the sunlight on my fur again as I clutched my baby brother to my chest. I looked over, hoping mom would be there, ready to hold my hand. But she’d ducked underwater to get us some fish to eat. It would all work out in the end. My paws stroked the tiny form of my brother as I floated in the tranquil lake, waiting anxiously for him to wake from his nap so we could play. I love him so, so much.