It was 2006, and I had just arrived in Florida for a marine biology excursion sponsored by a certain theme park that dabbles in ocean rehabilitation. To spare myself from any lawsuits, let’s just call it Ocean Planet. Me and the other teens were making our way from Orlando International to the Ocean Planet dormitories. The van was filled youthful giddiness. This was the first time most of us we’re going on a trip away from home. As everyone talked about where they were from and compared who loved animals the most, I stared out the window wondering when they were gonna’ shut the hell up.
Becky O’Kent, a girl from Beverly Hills (but zip code 90212, not 90210) sat next to me. As the others laughed and giggled, she turned to me and said, “I wanna do Broadway when I grow up, but my parents hate that so they sent me here to encourage me to major in the sciences when I go to college.”
I looked at her in a baffled silence. Nobody in Ohio talked to me unless it was to call me a fag.
I tried to think of something to say. I never really enjoyed taking on the whole loner-quiet-outcast role. Those were skills I had to learn to keep myself from being harassed and beat up. By nature, I was actually always a very outgoing person.
I told myself I was on an adventure, and away from home. And my fundamental reason for taking this trip was to try and find that person I had buried deep beneath my bitterness. I thought maybe I’d try opening up…at least just a little.
So I smiled awkwardly and said, “Yeah, I’m kind of stuck between becoming an actor, or a marine biologist, so I get it.”
I almost flinched as I waited for some kind of insult, but it never came.
I took a deep breath and rolled down the window to feel the warm tropical breeze. Florida may be a Republican shithole, but when you come from an area known as the Great Black Swamp, anywhere with palm trees and blue skies seems wildly exotic.
The van approached Ocean Planet’s main gate, and everyone’s eyes grew wide. We were greeted by the camp counselors who welcomed us to the park. Everyone seemed to be a lot more thrilled than I was, which, really, isn’t that shocking considering that back then I rarely felt much reason to get out of bed.
The rest of that first day at Ocean Planet played out like your standard camp scenario. We did ice-breakers, we were shown our rooms, we met the people who were in charge, and we had a horrid “picnic dinner” consisting of a shittily made sandwich and a cheap-ass bag of chips…Thanks Ocean Planet. The one cool thing we did get to do before bedtime was go see the Orca show. It being 2006 meant that it would have been between the second and third murder committed by their star attraction. It felt disturbingly cool to be looking at a killer whale that was in fact, a killer whale.
The next morning at breakfast, Jean, the Animal Rescue Specialist (ARS), told us that it was going to be a hands-on day in the Rehabilitation Unit of the park. Now, if any of you have ever been to Ocean Planet, let me tell you, the Rehabilitation Unit is nothing like what you’ve seen before. The public sees crystal-clear waters, and beautifully themed tanks with massive, immersive viewing areas. But the back of the park looks more like the bowels of a ship. It’s solely utilitarian. It feels like walking through a Nightmare on Elm Street dream sequence with all of its exposed pipework, sludgy drippings, and the echoes of injured animals calling out for mothers that will never come.
I was walking at the rear of the group with Becky. We passed pools with colossal filtration systems that roared like jet-engines about to ascend to the heavens, which was odd considering this place looked more like hell. Jean was up front telling the group how this area was the true life of Ocean Planet. Saving animals was her main goal, she said, and this job was her means to do it. She talked about how heartbroken yet motivated she feels when injured animals come in for care. The most common are sea turtles. Trashy little shits in Florida make a hobby out of spray-painting turtle shells, binding their fins together with barbed wire, and hammering through their shells.
And for those who don’t know, turtles don’t crawl into their shells. The shell is literally part of their body. So, when the shell is punctured, the fat and muscle of the turtle becomes exposed, gets infected, and then fissures into a bacterial cesspool that kills them. Turtles are slow and graceful animals that can live up to a hundred years. Their docile nature however, makes them easy prey for asshole humans.
I remember having to hold the shell in place as one of the ARS’s drilled little openings to sew in a metal plate to cover the exposed section of the turtle’s insides. It became clear early on who the weak people were. Anyone who squirmed at the sight of the turtles had a really rough summer ahead of them, especially since the afternoon’s task was going to be one that none of could have prepared for.
Once again, me and Becky were gossiping at the back of the group.
“What kind of future marine biologist is too afraid to get involved with marine biology?” she said under hear breath, as we both broke out laughing.
As we whispered, I heard Jean say from the front of the group, “The smell of the rotting flesh is worst.”
My head perked up, and then suddenly I too caught a whiff of something very wrong. The group in front of us stood completely entranced. I wanted to know what was going on, so I ran up to get a glimpse, and what I saw has stayed with me forever.
It was a manatee. Or more precisely, it was half of a manatee. The front half to be exact. I stared at it with confusion, repulsion, and oddly enough, curiosity. The smell of rotting manatee, for anyone interested, is like vinegar, pistachio, and dead fish. It’s oddly acidic and gives you a strange tingle in your nose. Jean looked solemn as she walked over to what was basically a reinforced above-ground pool.
“She was brought to us last night,” she said, putting her hands in her pockets. “She was struck by a speedboat, and they just left her there to die. It was another boat in the area who actually called it in.”
I walked up to the pool, captivated by the sheer absurdity of a half manatee. As I got closer I could see how truly horrific the situation was.
Its eyes blinked. It was alive!
I lost my breath for a second. I couldn’t believe that this thing wasn’t dead. I stared directly into its eyeball, lost in disbelief.
“Why don’t you put it out of its misery?” I asked.
Jean looked at me with caution, as if she knew there was no good answer. “Because she’s pregnant,” she said, “we want to try to keep her alive long enough so when we pull out the baby, it has the greatest possible chance of survival.”
Becky walked up next to me with a face that was somewhere between looking like she might throw up, or just cry. I grabbed Becky’s arm and pulled her along as I circled the pool, gazing at the murky green water.
Jean spoke loudly so the whole group could hear, “We had to put this pool up overnight. We couldn’t risk putting her in an actual tank because there would be a risk of infection to the other animals.”
Pieces of lettuce and cabbage floated around the pool, untouched. We walked to the manatee’s backside so we could see the wound, although, there was no wound really, because there wasn’t a place for a wound. There was literally no back-end to her at all. She wasn’t sown up or bandaged because there was no way to sew her up. Manatees are actually much larger than humans. They’re immensely thick animals, so there was no way to just graft this shut. It was as if someone threw a manatee onto the ground, took a chainsaw, and in the most rushed and sloppy job ever, began to cut it in half. You could see chunks of pale flesh-colored meat dangling. Severed veins and arteries slowly leaked some kind of plasma or puss that only had a vague red tinge left to it.
Most of the kids in the group couldn’t even bring themselves to look at her, and the ones who did, couldn’t handle the sight for very long. This was the first time most of them had physically seen how awful and unfair this world truly is.
I hated those kids. I was already aware of how cruel life was. That lesson was taught to me when I was eleven. In my crap-tastic hometown in Ohio, my life went south early on. By age nine, I knew I was different from the other kids. Everyone in my class started writing love notes. One boy would pair with one girl and they’d write to each other. Then boys started fighting over which girl they’d get to write their love note to. One day during lunch, a massive argument broke out in my class over who could pair with who. After hearing such a commotion from the classroom, our teacher rushed in and began yelling at everyone and then asked what had happened. As all the boys fought and argued, I sat silently, trying to figure out why anyone would give a fuck about girls. From then on, I was known as Faggot.
In the sixth grade, I was beaten up for the first time. After tackling me to the ground, everyone gathered in a circle around me and spit on me. I looked up and saw a mass of bodies closely huddled around me, then my vision blurred as a wad of spit went right into my eye. After that, I couldn’t get up. All I could do was lay on the ground, stunned by the realization that life would always be shitty. I started crying, and couldn’t stop. I cried for hours. I hid in the back of my school’s chapel until almost the end of the day. When I returned to the classroom the teacher didn’t even ask me where I had been or what had happened. I knew they had told her, and I knew she didn’t care.
That night at dinner me and Becky couldn’t stop talking about the manatee. Even though life had taught me to remain silent, something about turning a corner and seeing a half manatee sitting in a shallow pool demanded discussion. It was just too insane and unbelievable to not talk about. In fact, we we’re talking about the manatee so much that we felt we needed to name it.
“How about Marco?” I said, and then we both busted out laughing.
Becky could barely sit up straight, “But she’s pregnant! She’s a girl! You can’t name her Marco!”
Part of me felt bad that I had made a friend by joking about the cruel fate of a harmless sea animal, but at the same time…I had made a friend. And it felt good not to be alone.
At one point, one of the other girls, Shawnee Brew, from Boonfuck, Idaho, walked over to us and was like, “You know, you’re being really immature right now. You can’t be making fun of that manatee, it’s in pain!”
I thought it was pretty hypocritical for a girl who was so disgusted she could barely even look at the manatee, to be telling me to respect it.
That night as I lay in bed, I couldn’t stop thinking about Marco, and oddly enough, I couldn’t help but feel an intense sense of relief. She was the one suffering, not me. I was finally thinking about misery that wasn’t my own. No matter what horrible things happened to Marco, it really wouldn’t impact my life at all. That night I slept better than I had in years.
At breakfast the next morning Jean assigned tasks. Everyone got fun tasks; some with penguins, some with dolphins, and me…I got Marco.
“You were pretty much the only person who could handle looking at her,” Jean said to me as if I had won a prize.
I looked over at Becky, who was giggling.
Ok, I’m gonna’ digress here real quick to talk about my disgust for manatees: I hate them and they’re fucking gross. Their skin looks like leathery cellulite. And even worse, they move so slowly that barnacles and algae grow on their backs! How fucked up is that? Can you imagine other living things penetrating your skin and living off of you? I hate manatees! They’re like floating feral mounds of fat, and I despise them beyond belief. And on top of that, this particular manatee happened to be rotting away into a pool. So you can only imagine my dread of having to see Marco again.
Jean paired me off with another ARS named Dale. Dale…how fucking Florida. Dale was, however, a young and sexy man. He was a tall guy with a swimmer’s body and dark hair. At one point I saw him take off his wetsuit, and he had a happy trail that started a little above his belly button (squeal!). I silently fantasized about how great Dale’s life must be. I imagined he had lots of friends, and probably spent his Saturdays at some beach kegger (Because that’s what hot guys do, right?) But with looks like that, I assumed he was a total asshole.
I stood in front of Marco’s tank, feeling the warm Floridian summer and inhaling the putrid stench of rotting manatee. Dale walked up with two pairs of chest-high waders and handed me one.
“That water is extremely dirty and you wanna’ make sure to not get any on you,” he said as he put one of his legs in his waders.
I started putting mine on, “So what do we need to do?”
He told me that we needed to get in the pool and try to keep it as clean as possible. We were going to take a pool sweeper and try to filter out some of the crap in the water, and by crap, I mean the insides of Marco that had been falling out. He also wanted to pull out the old lettuce and cabbage and toss in fresh pieces. In my opinion, why keep throwing leafy greens into a pool when they’re just gonna’ rot anyways, but whatever. So there we are, me and Dale, just doing a normal day’s work of filtering the pool and skimming the water as a half manatee casually floated around, dying slowly.
At one point, and I swear to God I’m not making this up, I was walking backwards with the sweeper and I feel my back bump into the fucking manatee! I turned around and came eye-to-eye with Marco. Her eyes looked at me as though they were begging me to put her out of her misery. I stared back, entranced, knowing that feeling all-too-well.
After my little crying episode in the sixth grade, everything went from bad to awful. I had already lost all my friends, but now I was enemy number one. I was the scapegoat for anyone needing to release their rage. My grades plummeted and I spent the summers of sixth, seventh, and eighth grades in summer school because I was failing classes. My weight meanwhile, skyrocketed. I hid in my room, eating my feelings away. I felt like I was kept together only by small threads that could snap at any minute. I felt stuck in someone else’s body. I knew the real me was nothing like this fat, awkward, ugly monster I had become. And if you’ve never been the victim of bullying, let me tell you, the only thing worse than being the gay kid, is being the fat gay kid. I couldn’t handle it anymore so I stopped eating. Within a year I went from being overweight at two-hundred pounds, to being underweight at one-thirty-seven. The weight loss didn’t help though. I was the still the fat faggot.
“Are you ok?” Dale asked as he threw a chunk of brown lettuce out of the pool.
I realized I was still looking at Marco, stuck in the past. I took a deep breath and quickly turned and smiled.
“Yeah, I’m fine, why?” I said, as if my comatose stupor was totally normal.
“You just look like you’re about to have a panic attack or something,” Dale said.
Dale was incorrect. I wouldn’t start collapsing from panic attacks until I was in my twenties. But something was wrong, and I was too afraid to admit that to a stranger, especially one as hot as Dale. So instead, I waded in silence.
“…Well,” Dale said, “I know how hard this probably is. I know it’s a gruesome sight, but I want you to know that you’re doing work that’s messy, but necessary.”
I kept my head down. “It’s not that…It’s…” I tried say something, but I couldn’t find the proper words to string together. “…It’s nothing.”
I was so distracted by my own thoughts that it was hard to focus on Marco at all, which perhaps was for the best. Had I been able to fully reflect on the fact that I was sweeping a pool as Marco’s organs fell into it, I would have thrown up. My emotional distance from the outside world was probably why I was the one standing in this pool, rather than someone else from the group. I continued to sweep in silence, making sure to keep distance between me and Dale to avoid conversation, and also to keep distance from Marco because…well, because her backside was rotting away. Do I need a better reason to not want to be too close to a dying animal? There was no avoiding Marco though, Marco was all over the pool. I had been wading through Marco the whole time. Marco was even in the air I breathed.
“So, what do you and your friends back home do for fun?” Dale asked as he flung some grime out of the pool.
Inside, I gave an exasperated sigh. I hated when people asked me that question. Was I supposed to be like, oh yeah, actually, my life sucks. I’m beat up and made fun of, I have nobody to go to for help, and I’m starting to wish I was dead because I can’t keep going on like this?
Lying about my life was something I had gotten very good at. My parents weren’t too cool with the whole gay thing. My dad was a firefighter, a man’s man. He didn’t want his son to be queer. And my mom, she was even worse. As a devout Irish Catholic and Republican, her first allegiance was to her God and her church. I couldn’t tell my parents that school had become a war zone for me. There was no way to bring up why I had lost all my friends and why I was getting beaten up without bringing up the fact that I was gay. So, I started lying. I told my parents I was doing poorly in school because I simply wasn’t smart. I told them I had no idea what they were talking about when they asked me about my weight. I told them I stopped hanging out with others because I just didn’t find them fun anymore. But the lies started building up, and it was too hard to align them all. So I turned from lying to avoidance. When asked how my day was, I simply said, “It was fine.” My parents knew something was wrong, but they didn’t know what they could do. They had busy lives and were going through some things themselves, so none of us had the time or patience to deal with each other. And thanks to some lies on my part, and some hefty denial on theirs, we never had to.
The barking of a seal from a nearby tank snapped me out of my thoughts. I took a deep breath of Marco, and looked up at the sun. Even the sky in Florida seemed bluer than ours back home.
“Yo!” Dale said waving his arms, “I asked if you do anything for fun back home?”
Oh fuck, I spaced out again. I turned to Dale, exhausted from just the thought of my life, and said, “Not much.”
I wasn’t in the mood to get into my life’s story with a guy whose name was Dale. Dale wouldn’t know anything about struggles, and probably would hate me for being gay anyways. I had never had a handsome straight guy be nice to me. Deflecting conversation was the easiest way to avoid to getting hurt.
But he tried again.
“C’mon bro, I’m sure you do something. You’re kinda’ tall, you play ball or anything?”
The very idea that I would play sports was laughable. I imagined myself walking up to all the jocks - the juggernauts who ran my school, the people who abused me the most - and asking them if I could throw balls around with ‘em. Dale obviously had no idea what it meant to be gay in Ohio. I cracked a little grin as I silently laughed at him. But he was also a cute straight guy and he was talking to me. So maybe, despite my fear and hatred of straight men, I kinda’ liked it
“Oh hey there!” Dale howled out, “I see that grin! So you do play ball?”
I bit my lip trying not to blush. Dale was a fuckin’ moron. “No Dale, I don’t play sports…they’re not really my thing.”
He put the skimmer down and crossed his arms. He was in the mood to talk, not work. “So then what?” he asked, “Are you, like, one of those guys who spends all his time with his girlfriend or something?”
Now I was really blushing. It’s embarrassing how easily my face will glow red. “No, I don’t have a girlfriend,” I said as I turned around to hide my face.
“Oh… well how about a boyfriend?” he asked.
I stopped moving. My heart stopped beating. I blinked a few times, and had a moment of shocked silence. But then I reminded myself, I’m not in Ohio. There was a palm tree nearby, swaying in the breeze, and this may have just been in my head, but I remember the air even feeling different than back home. It felt like the ocean. It felt like adventure. So maybe it wouldn’t kill me to open up. And at worst, if Dale hated me, then at least I knew I’d never have to see him again.
I quietly replied, “No…I haven’t had a boyfriend yet.”
Dale smiled, pleased with himself for getting me to talk. “Well don’t worry, I’m sure you’ll be a total player when you hit college. I hear gay dudes score like crazy!”
That made me smile uncontrollably.
Is it sad that the best moment of my life was taking place in a pool filled with a rotting animal? …Sure. But, I wouldn’t trade that moment for the world.
Throughout the day Dale kept asking me questions about my life and about my hometown. It was odd for someone to be taking an interest in me. I had become so used to either being someone’s enemy or being forced to lie about my life, that I forgotten how to just be me.
I could feel myself starting to relax. It felt good to have a real conversation with someone. So good in fact, that I almost forgot I was in a pool with a rotting manatee…until I felt something rubbing up against my backside. I turned around and saw Marco wiggling her snout. Was she trying to eat? Was she sniffing me? Was it a desperate plea for a mercy killing?
“I still can’t believe she’s alive.” I said to Dale as I slowly backed away from Marco.
“You know,” Dale said, “sometimes life gives you two choices. One is shitty, and the other is even shittier. Manatees are becoming endangered here in Florida. Keeping this one alive for the sake of potentially bringing a healthy baby into this world is a risk that we have to take for the continuation of the species.”
I looked at her exposed organs, feebly held in place by rapidly decomposing meat. “Do you think she’s in pain?”
“I’d imagine it’s probably pretty bad,” Dale said somberly. He started pulling apart a new head of iceberg lettuce to scatter around the pool.
“You know,” he said, “There used to be a giant manatee species called the Steller’s Sea Cow. They were about thirty feet long, even longer than Great White Sharks. And they would have been about two to three times as thick as a White as well. They were docile and curious animals that would even swim up to people like they wanted to be friends. But once the fur trade caught on to how much money there was in their fat and skin, they were hunted to extinction in under thirty years.”
He threw some lettuce in Marco’s direction, “It’s sad actually, humans have this cruel nature to target the easiest prey they can find. It’s like we let out all of our aggression on things we know can’t fight back.”
I knew that all too well. I wanted to tell Dale about my life.
“Sounds like what happens to sea turtles,” I said.
Dale started making the hang loose gesture with his hand as he stuck his tongue out.
“Dude!” he said, “sea turtles are the shit! They’re my total spirit animal!” Then he reached under his shirt and pulled out a piece of a turtle shell that he had turned into a necklace.
“Sea turtles are what got me here! My first job with animals was at a turtle rescue center down near Miami.”
Oh my God, he was hot and had a big heart. Dale was now the most attractive guy I had ever met.
“I can’t believe the things people do to them,” I said. “If I ever saw someone abusing a turtle I’d probably go crazy and kill em’ or something.”
Dale starting making the yyyyyeeeessss gesture with his head, and then was like, “Dude, I’d totally be right there beside you!”
I fantasized about me and Dale roaming the Florida beaches at night and roughing up delinquents who got their rocks off by abusing turtles. Dale was a full-blown, walking, talking wet dream.
Later that evening when we were having dinner I told Becky all about how awesome it was to work with Dale.
“You’re so fucking lucky!” she said. “I got stuck with that homeschooled girl and we had to clean the starfish tank with some woman who wouldn’t shut up about how the ocean isn’t a foodchain, it’s a foodweb.”
And ya know, Becky was kind of right. I actually had fun that day. My life meant something that day. I was helping to keep an endangered species alive. And on top of that, I was having a good conversation with someone. And not just someone, but a hot straight guy!
I never thought I’d ever have anything in common with straight guys. In fact, at that age I never even saw myself as a guy. Guys were these strong, confident, and often evil things that made a career out of telling me that I would never be one of them. And honestly, at that point in my life, I barely even saw myself as human. People in my hometown avoided me like I was patient zero for the Ebola virus. But here in Florida, nobody knew my reputation. People treated me like a person. People may have even genuinely liked me!
The next morning, I was excited to get up. I scarfed down breakfast as fast as I could so I could have as much time with Dale as possible. When I got to the manatee tank, he was standing there with about seven other people, huddled in conversation. I walked over, wondering what was going on, and when I got close enough, I could tell something was very wrong. Marco hadn’t had much life in her as it was, but today she seemed even less alive. In fact, Marco seemed flat-out lifeless. You know how there’s that difference between being around something alive and something dead? Like you somehow just feel the presence of a beating heart? Well, now I had a sense that Marco was no longer Marco, but instead, just a lump in a pool.
“We need to cut the baby out now!” a woman argued.
“I will not let that thing inside one of the operating rooms. The risk of bacterial infection to other injured animals is too high,” said a man, who I later learned was Ocean Planet’s hospital director.
“Well we have to try,” Dale yelled. “Otherwise why did we keep her alive in the first place?”
“If we take that into an operating room, do you know the kinds of diseases that exposes all the other animals to?” the hospital director fired back. “And the clean-up that will be required? We can’t have rotting flesh spewing all over a sanitized space!”
That was followed by a lot of arguing about Ocean Planet policy. I silently walked up next to Dale, feeling somewhat relieved that Marco was no longer in pain, but at the same time curiously upset at her death. I may have hated manatees because they’re gross, but Marco was different. Marco had become me and Dale’s manatee.
“Then we’re gonna’ do it here in the pool!” a woman shouted. She was blonde with a ponytail, and had been furiously taking notes during the argument. She was one of the Ocean Planet surgeons.
“The chances are low,” she said, “but she’s already in half, cutting her again can’t hurt her. Everyone gear up! I want this to be happening in twenty minutes, the longer she sits here, the less chance the infant has.”
I wanted to help. I wanted to pull that damn baby out because I wanted to show this shitty world that the little guy can have a victory.
“Dale,” I said, tapping him on the shoulder, “Let me help! I wanna’ help with this!”
Ocean Planet protocol did not permit a teenage summer intern to get involved with matters such as these, but amongst the chaos, nobody had the time to question. And I knew that even though Dale was older than me, he was still young. Probably only about twenty-five, so he was young enough to be down to break the rules.
“Alright, follow me,” he said, “we gotta’ get ready.”
We quickly changed into our wetsuits. I watched Dale take his pants off. He was wearing navy blue boxer briefs. I looked at the brunette hair on his thighs. Dale even had flawless leg hair. My heart thump-thumped harder than it ever had before. I felt oddly alive, torn between disgust with Marco and arousal with Dale. But something about that moment felt more real than my life ever had. It had been so long since I’d felt anything besides dread. But now, I was being defibrillated by an emotional lightning storm, and it felt great. I realized in that moment why other people don’t want to kill themselves.
Dale zipped up his wetsuit, and again I snuck a peak, watching his back muscles get slowly enclosed. Waders went on top of the suits, along with elbow-length gloves, and a surgical mask. Me, Dale, and a guy who had the body of a weightlifter, were tasked with holding Marco in place as the medical team went to work. The surgeon was unfazed as she began cutting through what was left of Marco’s body.
“Alright boys, I’m about there, I need you to keep the body as still as possible.”
The water started turning a rusty red.
“Shit,” the surgeon said, as her hands moved vigorously.
I looked down at the water. If the baby was dead, I didn’t want to see it. I didn’t even know where, in this half-corpse, a baby manatee could even be. I just kept my eyes down as the water continued to darken into a putrid brown, the kind of color that shoots up when you pop an infected ingrown hair.
“It’s a stillborn,” the surgeon said.
I looked at Marco’s side. I wanted to make it seem like I was watching what was happening without actually looking.
“Damn,” the surgeon said stoically, like she was anticipating this outcome. “We got to her too late. She must have died early in the night. The oxygen supply could have been cut off for hours.” I could feel the frustration ripple through her voice.
I felt lost and confused. I thought that saving Marco’s baby was going to be the moment I righted the world’s wrongs. But now, I was simply standing in a foul smelling brown colored pool of water, with a dead half manatee, and her dead infant.
After everyone else left; me, Dale, and the muscular guy were tasked with loading Marco’s body into a cargo trailer. A truck was brought to the tank. We covered the bed of it with tarp, tied Marco’s body with rope, and the three of us pulled her out of the pool and into the cargo bed. We covered the body with more tarp, and tied it tight. From there, the truck drove away and Marco was out of my life. They said they were going to have to cut Marco up into smaller pieces, and then, for sanitary reasons, incinerate her.
Marco had one hell of a story. Torn in half by a boat, being forced to die slowly, having someone cut your dead baby out of your dead body, and then being chopped up further, just to be burnt to ashes. It’s hard to believe all that happened to one manatee.
But at the same time, I saw myself in contrast. Marco’s death was long, painful, and grotesque. After watching that, the idea of dying seemed terrifying and sad. Thoughts about my life started to change from wishing it was over, to wishing it was different.
Me and Dale undressed from the wetsuits and went to the showers.
Ocean Planet is full of large gym-style shower rooms because anytime you exit one of the tanks, you’re required to shower before doing anything else. With Dale in the stall next to mine, I kept thinking about my life. My life wasn’t ideal, but I was young, and I was healthy. I was alive.
“So, I named her ya’ know,” I yelled as I looked at the sun shining through the skylights above.
“Oh yeah? What name did you give her?” he asked back.
“Marco. Marco the manatee.”
Dale laughed. “Dude, she was a female!”
I smiled. Going through rough times seemed so much easier when you had someone there with you. Maybe this is what friendship felt like.
“I like it though man,” Dale said. “It’s respectful to the animals. Naming ‘em shows that they’re living creatures, not just objects.”
I felt the water run through my hair, as I decided that I could listen to the sounds of Dale calling me respectful until the end of time.
“You know dude, you’re pretty brave for a teenager.” Dale said, “You weren’t afraid to do what needed to get done and that’s pretty cool.”
Now Dale was calling me cool. I helped try to save a dying animal, and got to shower next to a hot guy who thought I was cool, all in one day. This was not Ohio.
“Ya know Dale, You’re not so bad yourself.” I said in a newfound confidence.
The next day our group left Ocean Planet. We were going to drive to the east coast, head down into the Keys, and then come up the west coast before heading back inland to Orlando. Everyone came out to say goodbye as we got into the van. Dale walked up to me and put out his hand like he was asking me to shake it. I grabbed his hand, and before I knew it, he pulled me into a bro hug. He smelled like saltwater and laundry detergent. It was great.
“Hey!” Becky yelled from the van, “I’m saving your seat, get in here before someone takes it!”
Dale gave me a nod, and I nodded back.
“Thanks,” I said, not knowing what else to say.
“No worries dude,” Dale said as he patted my shoulder in that way that guys do when they talk to each other. “When you go back to Ohio, remember how brave you were these last few days. You’re a cool guy, show people that.”
I turned and walked to the van wearing the biggest smile the human race has ever seen. I threw my duffel bag into the back and then sat next to Becky.
“Well, someone sure looks happy…” she said, as I slid the door closed.
I looked at her, smiled, and gave her a little nudge.
She rolled her eyes, “I want to know everything that happened.”