My fourteen-year-old son is a human boy. I know this because I am a human and had the sex with a human that caused our respective cells to multiply in my uterus. I pushed my human son out of my human body while his human father watched, unable to hide his disgust at my bloody, inflamed human parts. I fed my human son human milk, and the jars of baby food with the pictures of a human baby on the label. Because of a hole in his heart when he was six months old, I watched an ultrasound, and his was very much a human heart. I know my son is a human, but this is a fact he denies. Adamantly. I call him a good kid, and he reminds me, “No, I’m a bunch of clownfish and a lobster in a person suit.” I ask him where the insulin injections go then? Does one fish absorb it all, or does it pump through his human suit distributing it to the school of himself as needed. I never remember his answer for this. I imagine it depends on his mood.
My bunch of clown fish and a lobster in a person suit’s favorite place in the world is the Georgia Aquarium. His favorite place within his favorite place is the Ocean Voyager exhibit: a giant salt water swimming pool stocked with whale sharks, manta rays (not “manna rays” for the love of all that is peaceful), cow nose rays, groupers, sawfish, black tipped reef sharks, guitar fish, wobbegong sharks, and about 50 species of etc.
The funny thing is when I was pregnant with my son, him bumping around the fluid inside me, I felt like an aquarium. I wanted to replace my belly skin with Plexiglas, and walk around in a bikini top. I called him Fish.
Clown fish are not just cute little cutie fish, swimming all orange across a movie screen. Clownfish are territorial, covered in a protective layer of mucus, living in the soft, stinging tentacles of anemones. Mutualistic symbiosis. The bunch of clown fish protect the person suit, the person suit gives its vulnerable creature a place to haven.
My son was around five years old when the sharks came for him. We learned all their names, sizes, teeth type, diet, and where you would most likely find each species. Our favorites are the Great White and the Whale Shark, both large and misunderstood. I bought him a coral reef field guide and he took it with him everywhere. Bedtimes were spent reading the characteristics of coral, octopus, jellyfish, sea urchins, and sea stars in scientific language with scientific words and scientific sentences that clumsy-ed their way off my tongue. To him, it was the secret, magical knowledge of his ancestors. The creatures of the ocean called to him. He could not get enough. Could not know enough.
We take the “Behind the Seas” tour every time we go to the Georgia Aquarium. During one of these tours, the guide points at a stack of boxes behind my son, says there are a bunch of clown fish inside. Stuffed animals for the gift shop, but my son’s eyes expand outward touching God. “Me?” He asks her. “No,” she laughs. “Unless you are a bunch of clown fish in a person suit.”For fuck’s sake lady, is what I am thinking. You have no idea what you have just done here. “Yes! That is exactly what I am,” he announces to a tour group of strangers who laugh at him.
At school, there is no place for him. The mean kid tries to steal his shoes, to see my son kick and scream and squirm. The same mean kid pays another kid a dollar to pull down my son’s pants. My son moves too much in class, gets upset too easily, can’t pay attention, can’t settle down, can’t keep track of assignments. He gets kicked out of the arts based charter school he’s in because “we just don’t have access to the resources he requires.” He doesn’t quite fit into his new classroom either. He is engaged. Bright. So high-functioning he doesn’t belong anywhere.
In the aquarium my son, my bunch of clownfish and a lobster in a person suit, my human child, is in his element. Light off the water and through the tanks ripples over his human hands, traveling up his human nose, settles in the corners of his human eyes. His bunch of clownfish and lobster are at ease, they swim taller in his person suit as he walks step by step to the touch pool full of swishing bamboo sharks and swooping rays.
I have no idea where the lobster came from. My son went through a crustacean phase. A waitress at Red Lobster let him play with someone else’s dinner. Before it was ordered. Before it was cooked. Before it was a taxi for butter. When it’s insides still filled its outsides, pulsing. I am. I am. I am. Even with claws rubber banded. I am. I am. I am.
My bunch of clownfish and a lobster in a person suit’s second favorite place is closer to home: The Greensboro Science Center. His favorite place within his second favorite place is the Wiseman Aquarium. One of the aquarists there spots his coral reef field guide, full of bent pages and post it notes and takes him behind “employee only” doors every time he goes, to see the new expansion, to see the jelly fish blooming, to see the rehabilitating sea turtles that will never go on exhibit, to see all the things the humans will never get to see.
© Caroljean Gavin
[This piece was the runner-up for the 2020 Forge Flash Nonfiction Competition, and was selected by Rachel Wild]