Connie did not like to leave the tall canal house on the Prinsengracht where she lived with her pink dolphin Blondie. She didn’t go out unless it was to the marine research center, where she worked night shifts as a custodian, mopping the floors with warm suds as the blue light of the aquariums held her. When Connie walked over to Blondie’s tank, the water a flushed rose, and she pressed her palm against the glass. It felt alive. She imagined her body mazed-through with glass tubes that pumped roses and dolphins. Her body might as well be made of things she could see. Flowers and water and glass. She pushed play. A recording of her own voice, half-speaking and half-singing, began.
Connie cycled through the tourist-thronged streets toward the only pet store in town that sold dolphin food. On the streets: so many people. People walked with woolen coats pulled tight at the collar, hats tipped down against the mean, wet spray. People biked with umbrellas held above them, used just one hand to steer. She hated to be so close to people, these dirty people with their cell phones and their headache-inducing perfumes and their capitalist caw. Pollutions frothed in puddles. Rain yelled at the ground. Cyclists veered off the road to find dryness inside shops. Connie rode past a group of people huddled together beneath a bridge but refused to join those ringing out their pants and jackets. She kept going, relieved to be the only one outside, making her way through the Vondelpark as the rain beat down and the wind knocked leaves from the trees and scattered trash through the streets.
Inside the pet food store smelled like feces and urine and calcified mice. Mold grew in furry patches on the walls. The ceiling sagged like a wet diaper. A teenage store clerk with a greasy ponytail approached Connie but she drew her jacket across her face and said—I need no help!
Something about the clerk’s mouth reminded Connie of Sven, the woman from Iceland who had once lived as an anti-squatter next door. Maybe it was the way the clerk smiled, so coy, as if he knew her—which of course, he did. Everyone knew Connie or at least could identify her by sight. The knowing smile. Uh, huh. Sven had smiled that way, too. Sven had smiled like she knew Connie—not-yet-famous, perfectly square, pre-dolphin song Connie.
Connie used to pass Sven on their stoop in the red-streaked dawn when she was coming home from work and Sven departing to go to it. By day, Sven made her living as a sex worker. By night, she took classes in computer programming, learned 1’s and 0’s, Python, and Objective C. Sven’s window was jammed into a lesser trafficked area of the Red Light district, down an alley paved with crude cobbles that also housed Connie’s favorite bakery. Sven would sit on a stool with the curtains drawn open, her pinched face pulling eye contact from strangers.
One day, Connie had stopped in front of Sven’s window and raised a hand. She lifted up the bag of hot bread like want some? Sven waved back, and the rest happened very naturally. Sven was the first woman Connie ever loved. She visited in the weekend and they would drink cups of hot water and eat salted herring and spread their coats down like blankets in front of Blondie’s tank. The pink light slipped across their bodies.
Before the fame had quarantined Connie to a hermetic life, she would go with Sven to patron the anarchist house on the Spuistraat where Sven’s friends performed guerilla theater and housed bedroom parties and screened documentaries about prison abolitionism in Russia. They ate vegan popcorn from plastic bowls and sat on a floor so unwashed it had sprouted a kind of hair. The graffiti on the walls fumed around them, caked in decades of sweat and breath. Sven rubbed at the knots in her neck. Connie had felt like she had stumbled into a warm womb.
Now Connie found her way to the back of the pet store where crates of water held marine animals of all kinds. She stood before a captive dolphin, a manta ray, a baby shark. The tanks in the pet store made Connie’s brain feel like a forgotten galaxy of muck. She would never buy an animal here, even though they probably needed her the most. Their auras were contagious, cancerous, cadmium-colored. Connie watched the shark’s nose pump against the glass because the tank was too small to hold him. She gave him a name: Prince of the Caged.
During her long nights cleaning the halls of the marine research center, Connie found herself doing a little research of her own. For one evening, two scientists had emerged from their laboratory dens. Their excitement had been smelly. It transformed into brown moons that stained the fabric under their armpits. Their faces looked like crotch mushrooms. They paused in the doorway of an office, elated. Their bodies squirmed with success. They did not even lower their voices. Connie mopped in their direction. These men, white beards and white coats and white faces, conducted research in the field of Animal Translation Studies. Access, thought Connie, swallowing down a wad she’d wished to spit. The scientists had, that very day, successfully spoken to a dolphin. And the dolphin had spoken back. They had broken through.
Not fair, thought Connie.
In the lead scientist’s office, with only the light of his desk lamps to guide her, Connie discovered a digital library of phonemes. The scientists had attached recordings of dolphin pulses, snaps, and whistles to actual human words. Here were common greetings, condolences, expressions of obvious anger.
Connie began to teach herself the language. She stole thumb drives filled with entire dictionaries of sound. She put her face to her computer screen until her eyes dried out and listened to dolphin prattle until her ears buzzed. She whistled and hummed and cawed at Blondie until one day she could tell from the way he whirled with enthusiasm through his water that he understood her.
Connie wrote a song in dolphin and played it while she went to the research center so Blondie wouldn’t be lonely. The song was a mix of Connie’s voice and actual musical melodies. Melodies, not tones! In between the melodies she spoke facts about humans so that Blondie could learn about her. For instance, she instructed, humans must put their feces in a toilet. Humans in Amsterdam eat mostly sandwiches of cheese. Holland is located in the upper west corner of a continent called Europe. She showed the song to Sven, and they danced through the descants as if it were another time and Drone Wave had not yet come. Sven twirled Connie through the living room and Blondie seemed to dance with them. Outside the lazy water in the canals seemed to dance, too.
For as many years as Connie could remember, the most popular music in the world had been a single note played for minutes at a time called Drone Wave. The single note played in cafes, hummed into earbuds, rung out in the grand open spaces of Central Station. People no longer danced. Instead of dancing, people stood in the sound with their eyes closed. They raised their hands above their heads and spun in a slow circle. Not dancing, but trembling. Connie despised Drone Wave. She longed for music from another time – Whitney Houston, Beyoncé, something heavy metal. Connie’s favorite music had words, multiple notes and even, sometimes, a melody. Oh, that feeling, like her face was melting, when a song hit a chorus that she loved. Drone Wave could never do that to the chest.
Connie had composed only this one song for Blondie, just this single one. But she had made the mistake of playing her song at high volumes in her apartment. The notes kicked her walls. Sound scattered across the street and struck people. It drew the masses toward her door. People gathered outside her steps. They held parties in the streets in front of her house. They danced in mesh tops and put glow sticks in their mouths and wore underwear of faux-fur. It had been enough to slide the country out of the trance of Drone Wave and into a new sensation of sound people named Animal Podcast-Punk. That was all it took to ruin her life. Nothing had been the same after that.
Though Connie had been well paid by the record company that bought the rights to her song, she’d kept her custodial job. She needed the ritual. The monotonous tasks jiggled her heart. It felt religious, or at least ceremonial, to walk up and down the vacant halls of the marine center and bow before the dorsal fins, the blistered bodies of man-of-war, and cephalopod tentacles stippled with suction cups. She knocked on the manta ray tank and stared into the pinhole of its eye. Its cape rippled in the water.
The building was unpeopled and silent but for the calm whirr of the heating system that buzzed and coughed. Glass held the water back. Like, Moses, Connie thought, as she walked through the halls where water could rush. Let my people go. The pure clean glass glinted like a villain’s teeth. Even with so much water around her, the air inside the halls felt surgical, rinsed of any condensation. Her mouth parched. Connie’s skin peeled and her lips chapped. She leaned against the mop until the grit and grime and gum-stains disappeared under her. The laminate shined.
Connie would never give up this job. She commuted home from work just before dawn when no one was out except cruisers and clumps of coked-out kids. She cycled under a raw pre-dawn sky, fresh and star-specked. The commute was the only time she left her house and she knew she needed it, these weekly pilgrimages across town. Outside her door, no one congregated any longer. She made sure her house was silent as a museum. There would be nothing for anyone to listen to.
Connie couldn’t leave her apartment without at least one person saying: aren’t you that gal that with the Dolphin Song? Connie hated the word gal as much as she hated questions and strangers. So she had everything she needed delivered through Amazon Prime: groceries, 101 documentaries on meditation, dental floss. Normally she even arranged to pick up dolphin food from the marine research center so she didn’t have to go to pet stores, but this week, she had forgotten the cans of food by its door. Drat, she had thought, peering through the plywood she had hammered over her windows. A slit of light blinked through. It was a special kind of food made out of raw, wild-caught sea turtle and squid, unfindable on Amazon.
Now, as she stood in line at the pet store, Connie’s song began to play. It poured like syrup from the speakers. It covered everyone in goo, and they got high. It lit the air. Connie stood in line and listened to the hoots and whistles and clicks her tongue had recorded in her bedroom, the synthetic beats she had strung together on the piano inside her laptop. The men and women in the store started to dance. Dance! It embarrassed her, the way they flung their stiff bodies through the pet store and flailed their limbs. Dancing in public, as much as she had once wanted it, now made her uncomfortable. To see people lose their inhibition like that? It should be a private thing. In her brain, Connie hummed a single note, Drone Wave-ish, and felt her tense neck release.
She told herself: this is just an overactive third eye chakra. You’re being paranoid.
She told herself: no one recognizes you here. They can’t tell who you are because your beanie is pulled down over your face. Even if they notice you, they are being polite and will let you go about your day.
But here came a woman toward her, one eye wild with suspicion.
Here she is here she is here she is, said the woman, a gnarled finger outstretched into a hook. Here she is here she is here she is.
Connie clutched the dolphin food to her chest. Even with her beanie pulled across her eyes, they knew her. A headache moved into her neck—Sven, why wasn’t Sven there? Connie had once been able to leave her house without a soul looking her way. She’d faded into the crowd of black coats. Now, this. Always, this. She peered through a hole in the piled fabric of her beanie. Connie could smell herself. A fishy odor squirmed up and out of her turtle neck. She had rubbed a deodorant crystal furiously against her pits this morning, but it did nothing. She had scraped her tongue and stimulated her lymphatic system with Ayurvedic skin brushing, circular strokes on the stomach to relieve digestion, but still, her body rebelled. It leaked a stench. A necklace of acne had recently appeared on her chest and a red fear rash on her face. She worried she would become sick all alone inside that house. Better sick and alone, she thought, than bombarded like this.
People became a mob and the mob circled her, gnashed their teeth and lashed their arms as if to say, Dance! Dance! Dance! They wanted a concert! Another song! Dance, Connie, dance!
Connie dropped the cans of dolphin food and ran into the rain.
She wished Sven was with her now, that Sven could have gone out to get dolphin food instead. She would have. Sven would have done that. Sven with her pink lipstick marks on cups and her head filled with 1’s and 0’s. Sven who could tie a cherry stem with her tongue and pick Connie up with strong arms and a deep laugh, spin her in her arms. With Sven, Connie’s third eye chakra did not over-activate. Sven was like a black tourmaline stone, calm and pure and pinning her back to the ground. But Sven now sat in some open office layout in the orange sun of Silicon Valley, typing the future into a screen. What would Sven do, if she were there? Sven would tell Connie to waltz. Just dance with the people! Give them what they want. Play your song. Make a concert. Touch the lovestuff.
A handless girl now sat on Sven’s stool in that alley tinted with appeltaart and sugar. Once Connie had raised a bag of hot bread to the new girl. Nothing. Not even a look. Sven said Connie should come visit her in California, of course she should, but they both knew it would never happen. Connie could never get on a plane. Never leave Blondie, never sit on a chemtrail as it streaked through the sky.