nov 1

It all starts with the sea. Byron knows this from the bright illustrations in his thick cardboard books of prehistoric lizards, cutting through tides and baring their endless arrays of teeth. But Mother, who leaves at half past six every morning to go work at the museum, tells him it all started even before the Earth served as a massive swimming pool. After the sun leaves and the frogs start singing, she opens the windows, welcoming the balmy night air, and sits on the Stegosaurus on Byron’s blanket (he always bunches the Plesiosaurus’ long neck in his tiny arms; it’s his favorite). Here Byron lets the picture books and giant sea creatures pile by the foot of his bed and listens to his mother transport him away to a different kind of sea: the primal soup of the universe, the twinkling shells above them, and, even bigger than the fish in his books, the planets, each with their own long gone seas and serpents and stories--imagine that! These nights are Byron’s favorite: he dreams of giant frogs gliding through lime green bedrock, of swimming out past the Mulberry trees and into the night sky alongside giant plenary creatures, all scales and fins and gills.

But today Byron is very much anchored. He is at Chariot State Beach with his mother, father, and sister Margaret. It is the kind of overcast East Coast day that can’t make up its mind if it is spring or summer. It is the kind of day that isn’t nice enough to really justifying taking off work, but could well serve as the placard for a fun (if not frosty) Sunday afternoon. There are no rows and rows of umbrellas lining the grey sand like peppermint candies, and no scent of the bacon-wrapped hot dogs Byron’s father always bought four of from the old Mexican ladies. There is only their family’s grey SUV, with the left back door that required a bit more effort than others to close, and the roar of waves against everything else in the world.

“Do you two think you can help me catch tonight’s dinner?” asks Byron’s father as he carefully maneuvers four fishing poles outside the car trunk. Byron nods as he hops off the car, a dinosaur book in hand. From past trips he’s learned that fishing is mostly waiting for his dad, and he’s already tried chasing away seagulls and putting his fingers close enough to his face to see if they turn into a delicious hotdog, so today, Byron is very proud he brought a book like his mother usually does.

Maggie, on the other hand, spits a “Nah Dad, fishing’s boring!” and runs off towards the water with a red shovel and yellow bucket in her red and yellow dress, kicking up a stream of sand behind her. Byron watches his mother sigh, remove her shoes, and slowly follow Margaret.

“Dad, I thought you said it was too cold to go into the water today! How come sis can, huh? I’m a better swimmer!” asks Byron, fingers turning white as he clutches his dinosaur book.

“She’s not going to, Byron,” his dad steadily replies as the SUV chirps, confirming it has been locked. “Your mom’s gonna bring her back over soon. I think she’s just a bit jealous that you managed to reel in that big Sunfish last week.”

Byron grins from tooth to tooth. That fish was as big as his head! Dad had put it in a soup with onions and potatoes afterwards, and the smell warmed up their whole apartment. “Yeah! That soup was delicious! I felt like a Plesiosaurus!”

Byron’s dad chuckles. “Let’s try to catch one just as big today, okay?”

By the time their first catch finds its way into their family cooler, their mother has brought out their jackets and Byron has already read his dinosaur book twice. “The Triceratops has three horns. The Stegosaurus has the smallest brain of all land dinosaurs,” he mutters, eyes squeezed in an attempt to entrap these creatures in his brain.

But a “Byron, don’t you ever do anything fun?” interrupts his memorization. Byron opens his eyes to see Margaret prancing around the pier, swinging her bucket around. “Dinosaurs are dead! Who cares? Look at all the crabs I found!” She proudly holds the yellow bucket in front of her, and Byron notices the backs of tiny crabs buried in the sand, like shy silver bottle caps.

“I think they’re very nice, Margaret,” interjects their mom, setting down her own book on her chair. Byron’s chest feels strangely heavy until his mom adds, “But I think dinosaurs are quite important, even if they are dead. Most of my work involves looking into a telescope at a world that has happened ten years in the past.”

“I’m nine!” chimes Margaret. “Does this mean you’re seeing a world that happened before I was born?”

“Yes, exactly! And the world of dinosaurs--which Byron is experiencing through his books--is no different.”

“But if I wasn’t born yet, why should it matter to me?” Margaret frowns and digs her hands into the bucket of crabs.

Their mom pauses. “Take a look at that pelican over there,” she motions to indeed a pelican over there, ruffled up on a pier post. “With the exception of magpies and other members of the corvid family, like crows, no birds show signs of self-awareness. If this pelican saw itself in a mirror, it would think it’s looking at another pelican.”

“I don’t understand how this deals with me,” says Margaret, but she would very soon know. The great pelican unfolds its wings and, like the Great Red Dragon, dives in one extravagant swoop towards the Girl Clothed in the Sun--the unassuming Margaret, with the crabs she so proudly collected an hour ago crawling through her fingers, nails stuffed to the brim with soft sand once the stars and now recycled by the sea, finite body and brain only now grappling the beginning of being--the great pelican opens its big beak and swallows Margaret and her bucket of crabs.

The pelican flies forty meters east and dives into the sea. Surprisingly, there are no screams. There is only Margaret’s red shovel and the grey SUV in the parking lot.

nov 2-3

The first major American corporation to fall is not Walmart, like everyone was honestly expecting. The combination of California’s longest drought in the early 21st century and ardent animal rights activists sent crumbling not the financial skyscrapers of Fight Club but closed the gates of SeaWorld San Diego. I’d been working there for six months to the day when news broke--I know this because I had celebrated surviving this long by finally hitting up that Artisan Cupcakery kind-of-not-really on the way to work, and I had walked in late on some of the most solemn shit, with a Maraschino cherry curving the “o” of my new lipstick like some goddamn early ‘50s movie flaunting Technicolor. It was really all a spectacle, the first leaks in late capitalism, and probably not the kind Marxists would throw a party over. I wanted to laugh at the absurdity of it, the kind of absurdity Oedipa follows with the Trystero, or whispered at primary school sleepovers to impress the blokes. But as Flightless Marine Bird Life and Systems Director of the San Diego branch, I had to at least glance at the floor in solidarity with my fellow probably soon-to-be jobless SeaWorldians, even if it only meant reaffirming that my thrifted-and-refurbished mahogany ankle boots were indeed the classiest footwear in the room.

To be fair, I had no competition. In the room were 11 other pairs of worn out sneakers, belonging old white men with regretful marriages and probably Type 2 Diabetes. When capitalism is in trouble the least of its concerns are the service workers: the little old Asian women with their army of mops deployed after the last popcorn kernel lands on the floor, the Hispanic mothers selling stuffed Shamus or bacon wrapped hot dogs so their kids can go to college.

“The state government has required us,” says the manager of the managers (like myself) to the managers, quieting the murmur of our collective stifled panics, “to immediately vacate our tanks of all marine life. They will instead be delivered to our Orlando location, except for the Orcas, which will be re-released to their original fishing locations with fantastic scientific monitoring.” There are a few gasps, but not me--my babe Abbie holds down animal justice in her sleep. I am immensely proud: of her, and of me, for seeing it coming.

“J-Just so you know, the results of the Governor’s Executive Order on Water Reduction has, regardless, proved our practices financially unsustainable, so the overhead of shipping our animals to the Orlando location is trivial in the long run,” says the manager. Blaming the government. Very good.

“I am confident this is a minor bump for the shareholders. Perhaps our branch will rebrand as Six Flags,” he quietly adds. “But the franchise fee and competitive market...uh, anyway, I’ll leave Martha to explain and dictate the beginning of the shipping process.” Martha was the biggest person in the room: size, status, wallet. I once stole $80 from her when she asked me to hold her purse as she took a shit.

Martha’s mouth moved and she said some things, but I only heard the words “alphabetical order” and, as the Queen of the Penguins which begin with P, right behind the Otters but before the Sea Lions, I decided to walk outside to take a smoke.

“They’ve started to move Ikaika,” says a voice as I turn the corner belonging to no other than my second babe, Dave. We relate since he’s from Edinburgh and I, as a good suburban Cornish child, have many times appropriated his city’s zoo under the pretense of Art Club trips (growing up amongst grey sparrows and crested tits, the pandas and polar bears were very exciting to compulsory school me). He does the polar bears in Seaworld, too, and always refuses my offers of exchange. Who resists penguins waddling around dumbly for pieces of fish? The heartless bastard.

“Do you think he knows where he came from? How the belly of his father also once contained the arm of his trainer?” Dave is referring to, for the very uninformed or cinematographically ignorant reader, the well documented and recently Sundance award winning incident of one of our biggest male orca’s manic attacks.

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that dolphins exhibit signs of self awareness, but I have no ideas about orcas,” I say. “But I think he looks pretty damn sad right now.” Ikaika is huddled in the corner of the tank, away from his three mates like a six-year-old realizing the consequences of detention for the first time. Workers in yellow construction jackets operating bright red machinery clamber and shout things above. There is an annoying beeping, accompanied by a light that meaninglessly flashes against the overcast sky, as Ikaika's shipping harness begins to unfold.

“I mean, he was born here. Does he even know how to like, I dunno, catch fish once we put him back in like, Iceland?” Dave looks almost as bad as Ikaika, and he has a nice terraced studio and stable rent payments. I consider offering him my cigarette. “Other programs do some kind of wildlife reintroduction training. Have we even looked beyond our own foolish entertainment? What do those goddamn researchers do besides avoiding their emails?”

“You sound like Abbie, my vegan friend,” I say, since Abbie and Dave did once meet at my birthday dinner, but it’s been four months. “And if I were her, I would guess that Ikaika hasn’t a damn chance, fuck the scientists.” I take a long drag. “But since I’m me, I’m going to tell you that capitalism is the culprit. It always is, babe. And who really cares about the life of one whale who’s never seen the sea, if we can plaster his face on our paper tickets and keychains.”

The machines beep in agreement. “They’re saying fuck you,” I tell Dave. “Fuck you, Ikaika, we need to comply with regulations. Fuck you, elementary school girls with high ponytails and even higher dreams, for spending your parents’ money on these stuffed replicas. Fuck you, Dave and Morgan, for standing around and smoking and not doing a thing.”

“I can do a thing about that,” Dave says suddenly, and gestures to a girl in a yellow dress observing the whole affair. I didn’t notice her until the construction crane moved to lower a mesh net that a sad Ikaika swam into. “Hey! You’re not supposed to be here. Is your father one of the shippers?” he yells.

The girl silently turns her head full of thick black hair. She is holding what I thought to be a stuffed European magpie, until it proves its vivaciousness by curiously cocking its head.

“Woah, you can’t have--” but Dave stops. He sees it. I see it too.

I look into the girl’s eyes. Nothing looks back. Not like the way a doll looks in a slasher film, where the only women are thin and blonde and eventually have their intestines on the floor. Not like a ghost, either; something is distinctly alive and raw about all of it. If the infinity of the ocean could be contained in the single body of a child clothed as the sun, and if eyes really could serve as windows into the depths of the uncharted, the periscopes of the most innovative submarine: well, babe, it is here. I look into the girl’s eyes and I’m not blinded by the sun, but drowning in the sea. I am Ikaika’s fragmented corpse, four weeks later, floating around unfamiliar Icelandic waters, feeding the feast of seals. I am the mouth of the Morgawr my mother told me tales of on long autumn evenings when she said it was too cold to swim--the Morgawr, with teeth larger than any shark’s and the body twice the size of our leaking fishing boat, loves any warmth it can get against the arctic English waters.

There have been times, recreationally fabricated times, where I would lie on the carpet, too limp and abject of dignity to move to a couch, and stare at the dimples of my ceiling until they blurred into patterns of crashing waves. From high up on an airplane the specular rivulets of the Atlantic look much harsher than the warmed splines of the Pacific. Who hasn’t tested the sturdiness of a cliff, stepping across ropes and ignoring signage, just for the cheap thrills? Skipping a meeting for a smoke, stealing money, catching a whale: they’re all cliff dives, really. Off the land, through the sky, and into the sea. A red splattered sky, a sun as big as an orange. It isn't my job to paint the horizon.

nov 5

Room A286 was tucked down the hall from, strangely, an unused industrial kitchen. It looked like a bomb shelter. A tall girl with nice shoes who usually sat near the back of our class was talking to the teaching assistant as I approached.

“Thanks again for your help, babe. What did you say your name was, again? I’m Morgan,” she said.

“Byron,” said Byron, without looking up from his laptop. The blue from his screen mixed with the fluorescent light of the room to further accentuate his high cheekbones. I thought about cupping Byron’s face in my hands, only to slice them on the curvature of his skull. I liked to think about kissing people when I met them for the first time.

“Well, it was good to meet you,” said Morgan as her wood-soled oxfords click-clacked out, taking all the color in the room with her.

“Out goes one and in comes another. Sorry you can’t get a break,” I said, sitting down across from Byron. He remained silent, staring at me with eyes as dark as the depths of the ocean.

When a few seconds passed and he still didn’t say anything, I took the cue and offered, “Oh, it was a botched surgery at four months.” Most people wouldn’t ask about the lazy eye, so at the end of high school I vowed to just tell them upfront to avoid future awkwardness.

“I don’t care,” said Byron, as if it were as easy to say to a stranger-student say as any other phrase. “Last night, at The Red. Was that you on the banjo?” I realized it was not nervous interest for the perverse that he held on his face, but a musician’s curiosity for a fellow creative.

“Haha, yeah, that was me! Banjoist for Cactus Cats, no autographs please. Sorry about Dave--that’s our lead singer--ranting off about his boyfriend during the last song, he was stoned out of his mind…” I paused, because admitting your bandmate’s drug habits and relationship troubles is probably in no one’s book of socially acceptable things in first conversation with your TA. “Uh, anyway, it was a pretty small turnout--I’m surprised I didn’t see you there!”

“I was in the back,” Byron said, helpfully. “What’s your name?”

Ah, yes: the lazy eye, followed by the name. “Harvard.”

“How may I help you, Harvard?” he asked, crushing of one my many iterations of pre-prepared comebacks.

Bending down to get my laptop and hide my surprise, I turned my half-complete tritone mess to him. To be honest, it was almost as nerve wrecking as jury--and Byron hadn’t received any Polarises. As far as I knew.

Byron slightly pressed his lips together as he scanned over the screen. I could almost hear the gears turning in his head as he jumped from line to line, imaging the violin and bassoon.

“It’s not very good, and I don’t have many ideas where to go after this suspension,” I said after a minute of silence.

“Clearly,” muttered Byron, which hurt more than I had expected--and, you know, with the eye and name, I’ve gotten pretty good at expecting little. “Do you compose your own music when you play the banjo?”

“Uh, yeah, but I’ve been messing around with it since middle school,” I replied. “I honestly have no feel for what’s fun for a violinist or a bassoonist. I didn’t do so hot in Theory I last semester.”

“I’m a violin performance major. But it doesn’t take someone like me to tell you that this note here is a…”

“E natural.”

“And the violin’s lowest note is a…”

It was my turn to be silent.



Byron glanced at my computer clock. “If this weren’t due in three hours I’d tell you to scrap the whole thing.”

I grimaced. Surely teaching assistants had some kind of class they had to go through, that taught them how to tell students their work sucked, gently?

“Scrap the whole thing. I’m giving you the weekend to redo this assignment. I want it emailed to me by Monday morning,” said Byron, and passed me--get this--a business card. “Your problem is that you’re trying to be scientific about composition, when you’re clearly an artist.”

“Sorry, what?” I meant this for both the extension and his comment. The whole time we’ve been talking, actually. Even before I stepped into room A286, into this warehouse of a building. Come to think about it, my entire life. Sorry, what?

Byron actually chuckled. “This school’s relapse to the ivory towers of theory is ridiculous. It worked for me, but the violin is fundamentally inseparable from Bach. It’s obviously not working for you, and I hate seeing creative potential go to waste. You’ll figure it out. Email me if you have any questions. I guarantee I’ll at least read them.” He stood up to leave and I noticed that he was taller than me, which was impressive, since I was six foot three if I didn’t slouch. “See you around, Harvard.” As he got up, his long grey coat dramatically swished as if taking a stage exit.

“Uh, thanks,” I said to the door, and glanced down to his business card.

Byron Pham-Davidson
(617) 826-4012 |
Principal Second Violin, Boston Symphony Orchestra

nov 7

“Your TA is the principal second violinist of the BSO!?” exclaims Adrienne. The people in the dining hall look up from their dry chicken breasts, at her, and back down to their plates.

I try to cover her mouth with my hands. “Shh, I told you not to freak out!” She wiggles away.

Adrienne pulls out her phone. “Brian Pham-Davidson?”

“Byron, with a y,” I correct. “Wait, are you Googling him?”

“No,” smiles Adrienne, eyes glued to the screen. “Oh, dude, I found his LinkedIn.”

“You’re so creepy. What does it say? Do we finally unveil the secrets of super human Byron, who TAs, takes classes, and heads the second violins of one of the best orchestras in America while still in school and TAing?”

Adrienne reaches out over her corn salad, passing me her phone. “He went to high school in DC, but it says that he’s from here. Do you think his parents are stacked?” she asks.

“The better question is, how did an alumnus of The Thomas Jefferson Magnet School for Technology and the Sciences end up here with a bunch of stoners? Did he miss-shoot the nerds across the pond?” I give Adrienne her phone back and take a bite of the now cold eggplant parmesan. It tastes like the sole of a shoe, so I spit it back out. (I really don’t know why I’m still optimistic about dining hall food.)

“Hang on, I found something else. It’s an obituary from the Lakeshore Times about fifteen years ago for someone called Margaret, put out by the Pham-Davidsons. To our dearest Margaret: all may end with the sea, but you will forever live in our hearts,” Adrienne reads. “Spooky, isn’t it? I wonder if his grandma drowned or something? All may end with the sea.

“How do you know it’s him?” I ask.

“Who else has the last name of Pham-Davidson?” Adrienne rolls her eyes like I asked if water was wet. “Oh, hey, it says here on the BSO website that they’re playing a show tonight. In, let’s see, thirty-six minutes. Stravinsky and Ravel and some contemporary thing.”

“Are you suggesting I go?” I look at my sad plate. “I haven’t even eaten dinner yet.”

“Well, aren’t you fortunate that not only do we students get $5 rush passes to the best orchestra in town, they also perform three T stops away. You’d make it if you left within the next, like, seven minutes. Eat dinner after. With him.” Adrienne looks very proud of her dictation of my evening.

“Just me and him!? Me and the principal second violinist of the BSO!?”

“You waste, like, four seconds every time you say ‘principal second violinist of the BSO,’ by the way.”

It’s my turn to roll my eyes. “We met an hour ago, Adrienne. Now you’re expecting me to to ask my TA to dinner. Then what, going back to his place and a shag? Get us both kicked out?”

“I knew there was something more!” Adrienne smiles her self-congratulating smile, the one where she squints and tilts her head to the side a little, the one I absolutely love to hate.

“Okay, maybe,” I admit. “He’s really tall and has nice cheekbones. And I think he implied that I was creative? It sounded more like an insult the school, though. But it’s nothing serious. Just like another pretty boy on your Tumblr.” That was Adrienne’s favorite hobby, showing me the aggressive abs and smooth butts that populated her likes.

“Uh, there’s no need to turn this into a personal attack,” she says, picking at the bits of corn between her teeth. “But, since I am your best friend and moral compass, I’ll do you a huge favor and put your plate away, even though you insulted something I know we both greatly enjoy.” She stacks our clunky dining hall tupperware with the semi-professionalism only a part-time waitress who hates customers but loves money can muster.

I sigh. “But it’s weird. What if he sees me? He knows I don’t know shit about classical music--I didn’t know what the lowest note a violin could play was. It’s so obvious I would only go for him. And I need to rewrite my composition piece. And I thought we had plans to--”

“Dude, stop making excuses,” she sighs. “Just yesterday you were complaining about how boring everyone was, and how you wanted to go skydiving or take an African safari. Here’s your chance for adventure! And it might end in a blowjob instead of, like, I dunno, a lion chasing you up a tree.”

“Both are equally fun experiences,” I mutter. “But okay. You win. I’ll just sit in the back, so he can’t see me.”

“Mmm,” says Adrienne, and pats my back, pushing me in the direction of the T.