|The Dolphin Lady
For some days I had not perhaps been paying enough attention as Frieda imitated the clicking sounds our cat Esme made, mixing in squeaks and meows that resembled tender moans.
"Eek-eek-eek, click-click-click" is the closest I can come to my wife's calls that resembled the haunting squeals, squawks, whistles, and groans we'd been hearing in the countless videos about dolphins she'd been bringing home. All the while, Frieda had also been amassing a fine collection of dolphin pendants, rings, bracelets, and earrings.
I really hought nothing of it when one evening she cooed to Esme, "You're so happy when someone comes home. Click-click-squeak-squeak. Yes, you know someone's going to rub your belly, don't you?"
Frieda had been talking about the cause of dolphins' rights so ardently that, in fact, I don't think I would've been surprised if, on the bridge of my wife's eyeglasses, a dolphin's tail flukes made of gold enamel had flashed as she asked whether I noticed anything new.
"Is it your hair, sweetie?" I might've asked as Esme squeaked away.
Lately, Frieda had taken to buttonholing strangers on the street, holding forth on the horrors of wall of death nets, purse seiners, drift nets, harpoons, and poisoned waters. She had even been arrested once for criminal trespass in a demonstration against corporations strip-mining the oceans and rivers, leading to the near-extinction of the Yangtze River Dolphin and the California River Porpoise, to name just a few. Folks on campus had taken to calling Frieda the Dolphin Lady, but she didn't seem to care. If so-called enlightened people didn't see that they were taking part in genocide against spiritually-advanced creatures who'd rescued drowning swimmers, who only wanted to nip innocently at canoe paddles, crooning and cuddling with their human playmates--well, to hell with these cretins. That was how Frieda looked at it.
A big, gray English short-hair we got from the pound, Esme had run from us at first, so we thought her previous owner might have abused her. But Esme did after some weeks warm up to us, purring for as long as we would pat her. Her high-pitched pleas touched our hearts, and we responded, rubbing her ears, neck, and belly. She especially liked it when I petted her with strong, firm pats down her back to her tail, until she began nibbling--little love bites with her sharp, strong teeth on my fingers.
"She's a man's cat," said Frieda, sounding both playfully jealous and proudly affectionate. "You're her man."
It wasn't kind to nickname our anxious cat Flipper, but her squeaks did resemble a dolphin's clicks when we opened her favorite can of Healthwise Salmon. And as she purred with us in bed, I shouldn't have compared Esme to a sea mammal. But her eek-eek's could range from plaintive longing to firm demands to frank desire, whether for food or affection. Sometimes I all but expected Esme to stand on her tail on the bed covers, do a back flip, and smack her large tail down on my pillow in rapt abandon.
As far as Frieda was concerned, Esme's clicks were food for thought--e.g., what kind of mother had Esme had? What family of origin? What traumas before the pound picked her up? Me, I was working as a watchman, evening shift at North Terminal in the town of Sehome, ninety miles north of Seattle. The job was more window dressing than work, a sop to the insurance company so the Port could get lower rates. As I sat in my guard shack, I waved in the longshoremen, noting down any suspicious license plates. Frieda had often told me I should finish my Ph.D. on the rare species of oysters I'd been working on for fourteen years, but no, I told her, Island Security lets me bring a book, and for now this was all I wanted.
Frieda had for the same fourteen years worked as executive secretary in the psychology department of the university during the day, and evenings when I got home about midnight, she'd be in bed reading, ready to turn the lights out, her short brown bangs falling softly over her thin face, our bedroom lamp bathing her in a seraphic, domestic glow. Esme would be settled in beside her, yet she always got up and asked for pats when I got home. "Eek-eek-eek."
One night I came in a bit late, and the lights were out. I went into our bedroom, got undressed, climbed in bed, and turned to Frieda to give her a goodnight kiss. I knew she worked hard and needed her rest, for she ran the Psych department in fact if not in name. As Esme's friendly eek-eek's rose around us, I patted her strong, furry body until she settled down again beside me, purring in the dark. Life is good, I told myself.
However, Esme's clicks and squeaks didn't stop, as they usually did when I petted her, and they didn't seem to be coming from my side of the bed, but from Frieda's.
Apparently, my wife was not yet asleep. And Frieda's imitation eek-eek's didn't sound playful but ardent. I turned to my wife, pleased and surprised, for our love life had been missing something lately, I confess. Our working these different schedules, day and evening, had put a crimp in things.
"Eek-eek-eek," said my wife, her ability to mimic Esme's calls quite good. Though I knew Frieda was kidding, something in her high-pitched squeals in the dark made the hairs on my neck stand on end.
"Eek-eek-eek!" said my wife, more loudly.
She's been turned into a big porpoise, I thought--well, a little porpoise, I corrected myself, making the catch in my mind. Frieda--alert, dark-haired, and long-waisted--could all but read my mind sometimes, and I had to watch myself.
"My little porpoise," I said affectionately.
"Eek-eek-eek." My wife's cries rose higher, sounding more like moans, and she wriggled frantically from side to side in bed. When I reached out to her, Frieda's face had a sleek, rubbery texture. I should really be getting more rest, I thought.
Ridiculous as I knew it was, I had the curious sensation that my wife was trying to tell me something but could not.
Alarmed, I said, "Frieda, okay, enough already."
I reached out to turn on the light, but before I could reach the lamp, I received a firm whack across one shoulder that swept me out of bed onto the hardwood floor. Esme jumped off the bed beside me, and she wasn't purring.
"Eek-eek-eek.... I need water, Tom," my wife managed to get out in high-pitched gasps, clicking sounds rising like frantic balloons.
Dutifully, I ran to the kitchen and was filling a glass of water when I heard a loud thump. I barreled on back to our bedroom. Turning on the light, I saw, to my astonishment, a quite lovely, five-foot-two gray porpoise--or was it a dolphin?--flopping back on forth on the floor, and no Frieda in sight. I didn't know if I was supposed to hand the glass of water to this new additon to our household or just wet the creature down, so I stood there, wanting to please, eager to do the right thing, but as usual not knowing what it was. Did dolphins need heated pools?
"Frieda, where are you?" I called out. "Frieda!"
"Eek-eek-eek. Click-click-click-click. It's me, Tom."
Something in her ardent, frantic tone told me this was, in fact, my wife.
"Click-click-click. Eek-eek." Her tone was plaintive yet exploratory, as if she were patiently trying to teach me some difficult, new concept.
My wife's gray flesh was starting to look unhealthy, so I quickly splashed the water over her forehead, avoiding her short, sharp teeth.
"Eek-eek.... Not in my blow hole. Click, click. You want to drown me?" She gasped and clicked away like a Geiger counter gone berserk.
"Should I fill the bathtub, Frieda?" I asked in what I hoped was a loving tone of voice.
In response, Frieda flopped closer, anxiously nipping at my heels. Unlike a seal, she couldn't maneuver on our shiny floors, so I had to lug her onto a throw rug that I used as a sled to haul Frieda to the bathroom where I started filling the tub. Hauling my wife into the tub was--well, I don't know how I did it, but I guess an adrenaline rush gave me extra strength, and I let Frieda slip into the water. Soon her clicks sounded if not content, then at least less frantic.
Poor Frieda, I thought. How was she going to adjust to this? I made up my mind I would be there for her, come what may, for better or for worse, in sickness and in health, in clicks and eeks, whether for minutes or hours, though I hoped not weeks-weeks-weeks. Stop that, I told myself. This was no time for jokes.
Esme had crept into the bathroom and sat on her gray haunches beside me, gazing up with her calm, inscrutable look--mute acceptance in her slitted, green eyes. Arching her back, she began to rub against my leg, as if to say, "Pay attention to me, not her."
The tub was now half full, and I told myself I would have to look at my life in this way: Yes, the tub was half full, not half empty, though it did cross my mind that Frieda would probably not be able to fulfill her duties as department secretary, and I didn't know how we would get by on my minimum-wage job at Island Security. Damn, I should've finished my Ph.D. when I had the chance.
Live and learn, I sighed, wondering what kind of fish my wife would like to eat--it was my turn to cook--and where would I find fresh fish at this hour of the night? I knew my wife wouldn't accept canned tuna, whether it was dolphin safe or not. Would I have to go out and catch sole and flounder myself? How would I do it, and would I have to start living on a marine diet so Frieda would feel less alone? I didn't consider offering my wife any of Esme's Healthwise Salmon.
The water almost to the rim, my wife made happy clicking noises, splashing and slapping her fins, even though our tub was a bit short for her, her tail flukes half out of the water, and I saw I would have to make some other arrangement. A swimming pool in the backyard? But how to keep the water from freezing in winter during northeasters? Did dolphins needed heated pools? And what would the neighbors say? Maybe an indoor pool was best. Or would Frieda need the freedom of the open sea? I would have to make a trip to the library in the morning so I could learn more.
First, I went to the kitchen and took out some frozen halibut to thaw, putting the package in a pan of water, then deciding to plop the pound of fish in our fancy new microwave to defrost. I didn't want to be unprepared should Frieda's eek-eek's grow frantic once again.
After I left my wife's thawed-out midnight snack by our bathtub, I thought of kissing her goodnight, but decided not to risk it just yet.
"Goodnight, dear," I called out fondly.
In the morning, Frieda's halibut was gone, skin and all, and the water in the tub definitely needed changing, a greasy green film floating like pond scum. I turned on the tap, pulled the plug, and scooped off what dregs I could with a frying pan, then fastened the plug and let the tub fill again to the rim. When Frieda butted my face in a convivial way, I did attempt a cautious kiss on her blunt snout as she clicked and squeaked gratefully. Then I headed off to the library.
That afternoon before work, I freshened the water in Frieda's tub, put out Healthwise Salmon for Esme, and tossed some fresh cod I'd bought to my wife, which she caught sideways in her snout as if she'd been doing it for years. I confess I was shocked when Frieda flipped the codfish in the air, nabbed it like a center fielder, and downed it head first, but at least she had approved of my choice of cod for lunch.
At the library, I learned that my wife--strange as it seems--had been changed to a bottle nosed dolphin, the species seen performing in dolphinariums--blessed with a short beak and with an expression that resembles a smile. Pleased to learn also that dolphins live in coastal waters, I began looking at boat ads, figuring, What the hell, we could max out the credit card this once, and I soon had dreams of hoisting a jolly roger, starting a new life on the open sea.
I also read that there are dusky dolphins (a species of ploughshare dolphin), spotted dolphins, white-sided dolphins, and false killer whales, all of them related to the actual killer whale. Bottle nose dolphins live in groups of two to five, and they power themselves through the water by moving their tail flukes up and down, their dorsal fins providing balance like a keel. When they dive, their lungs collapse and their hearts beat slower so they can adjust to the greater pressure. Dolphins can mate in any season, but they are most active in the spring, which was only about a week away on the calendar. Hmm, I thought, goose pimples starting on my arms.
In the wild, dolphins are thought to have a lifespan of at least twenty-five years, I read, so getting my wife to the coastal waters as soon as possible would be essential. Dolphins can't live long out of water because their bodies become overheated, and I thanked my stars I had understood Frieda's desperate clicks last night as her urgent need for water.
When I got home from work, I once again freshened the water in Frieda's tub and tossed her twenty or so fresh herrings, as I cheerfully told her about my day. Then I began to read to her as I'd done so often in the past.
"Hey, listen to this. It says dolphins evolved from land mammals, perhaps creatures that resembled wolves, and they have two bones near the ribs, remnants of what once were prehistoric legs."
"Click-click-click. Eek-eek." Frieda tossed her head right and left, splashing me, so I gathered this theory was incorrect. Thus began my tutelage, as my wife taught me her language, closely related to Swahili, quickly turning our bathroom into a small language lab. Though I'm not good at languages, I did soon learn that dolphins are more highly evolved and intelligent than humans, especially the females of the species, and certainly more peace-loving and attuned with nature--not to mention more fun-loving and playful, as everyone knows.
The next day, I bought a wet suit and rented a U-haul truck, for our Subaru Legacy wouldn't hold the plastic wading pool I'd filled for Frieda. I wedged the wading pool between some volumes of Frieda's books I'd been meaning to read but hadn't gotten around to: Jung's Autobiography, Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway, Ariel by Silvia Plath, and stacks of Psychology magazines from the 1960s we'd carefully tied with twine. Some of the water did slosh over, I'm sad to say, but what the hell.
Wearing the wet suit, I drove the U-Haul down to Marine Park, crossing the railroad tracks and passing the brick warehouses of South Terminal, where I'd pulled a few night shifts once, walking through an abandoned cannery and shining my flashlight as I did my rounds, trudging through a freezing, desolate warehouse.
When I tried to back the U-Haul over the curb onto the grass that goes down to the bay, I heard Frieda making anxious, high-pitched squeals. I stopped the U-Haul, yanked on the parking brake, got out and saw to my horror that most of the water had overflowed the rim of the wading pool, which had upended, and Frieda was thrashing and squeaking away.
"Oh, Frieda, I'm so sorry!" I cradled her in my arms, staggering over the dark grass down to the water. Once, she almost slipped out of my grasp, and I lugged her up against me as I considered slinging her over one shoulder in a fireman's carry. Frieda's sharp teeth glinted in the moonlight. Her thin dolphin face didn't appear to smile by any stretch of the imagination, though her desperate clicks were tinged with frank anticipation as we got to the round stones of the sloping beach.
With a grunt and sigh that came out more as a savage cry, I launched my wife into the shallow water, not knowing if this would be goodbye. If I loved her, I had to let her go, as the saying goes. If she still loved me, in spite of my flaws, then our relationship would endure, if not in the same form excactly, then in some exciting new phase. Frieda had always told me I needed to be more open to change.
As she dove, I glimpsed a dorsal fin flashing for a second before her tail smacked the black water, and my eyes stung from the salt. Frieda was playful even now as she said her goodbye and I stood in chest-deep water, shivering and crying, wishing I had told Frieda I loved her more often, wishing also that I'd been able to put on the flippers I had bought so I could swim fluently with her.
"I love you, Frieda," I cried as she burst up out of the water, did a back flip, and glided beside me, clicking happily. Frieda had always been a bit of a show-off, always the life of the party. I told myself that, as the man says at the end of Casablanca, "This looks like the start of a beautiful friendship."
Once again Frieda splashed me in the face with her strong tail. Could she really read my mind? Did she want our relationship to continue--if not as man and wife--then as man and dolphin?
Frieda, in answer, burst out of the water and gave me a smooch with her cold blunt snout on my lips.
"Oh, Frieda," I cried, blinking back grateful tears. "You still do care." One of her fins seemed to cradle and caress me, as she started swimming us out to deep water, which made me anxious, since I'm not a strong swimmer. The speed of the ride was exciting, though, and the lights of South Hill over Marine Park glimmered in the cold March air.
Frieda was giving me her form of affectionate nibbles and kisses, little love bites, as she fondled me with her strong flippers, playfully spashing her strong tail that made lascivious flutters around me. I floated on my back, saving my strength, gazing up at the faint stars, which had never in my life seemed so cold and far away.
All at once, Frieda took me underwater, rubbed herself against me, and began nipping my thighs, at the same time frightening and exciting me, as she tore a hole in my wet suit, which started to fill with freezing water. Deftly, she freed my penis, and we burst up out of the water with a splash. I gulped air just in time, for she took us back underwater--down, down to the bottom of the bay, where I penetrated my wife, or more accurately, she thrust me into her and tugged against me.
"Eternity here I come," I thought as I began coughing and choking, water in my lungs. Clicking away, Frieda swam us back to the surface. Several other dark fins in the water appeared out of nowhere, and as if borne by invisible wings, I was ferried back to shallow water where I stood once again, crying, bewildered, ravished, and suddenly ravenous for fresh herring.
Frieda and her friends disappeared and left me, a stranger on the cold stones of Sehome Bay.
"Goodbye, Frieda," I called out as I shivered in the dark, then staggered back up to the U-Haul, mission accomplished, yet feeling my life was more than half over.
For some days I hung out at Marine Park, but there was no sign of Frieda. I began reading Jung's Autobiography as a tribute to my wife, and I also listened to recordings of dolphins' songs, trying to recognize what sequence of clicks matched Frieda's, and I practiced them in bed in the dark after I said my prayers for Frieda's safe return. Was she my dark, female other--my anima--my dolphin mistress and bride? Oddly, what stuck in my mind were my wife's last words in English at our house: "Not in my blow hole.... You want to drown me?"
In a daze I completed my shifts at North Terminal, though of course I didn't tell anyone what had happened, for who would believe me? There was no one, I felt sure, who had been through what I had, who had seen his life so transformed, only to find his round of the mundane return with such a vengeance. Savagely, I called in each hour to the dispatcher at Island Security.
"All present and accounted for," I said in my best James Cagney voice.
One day, the police came to my door and asked to speak with me. A young officer with short, dark hair named Jenny Guy and her partner, Snead, said they had a few questions for me. Detective Guy asked firmly if they could come in, and even though they had no warrant, I didn't see how I could refuse.
"Is Frieda Pangborn home?" asked Jenny Guy, standing squarely inside my door.
No, she isn't, I said, nor had I seen head or tail of my wife for seven days, and I hadn't heard a word from her. I did mention that Frieda had been talking a lot about wanting a vacation by the sea, some place warmer, and I assumed she had upped and done so, and that was why I hadn't reported her missing. Yes, l knew that sounded lame, but the truth was, I was ashamed my wife had left me.
"You know she hasn't called in to the Psych department?"
No, I didn't know that, but my wife was nothing if not spontaneous, I said.
Actually, a fussy-sounding Professor Siegfried had called me one morning to express his concern for what he saw as Frieda's looming identity crisis and to offer his help. Needless to say, I hung up on him.
"You mind if we look around?" Jenny Guy demanded.
Well, no. Esme, whom I'd taken good care of, was hissing and snarling at Jenny Guy, who gave me long detective looks with her blunt, dark eyes, as she jotted things down in her notebook, asking the same questions over and over, in slightly different order just like on TV. "Just routine," said Jenny Guy.
Late that night, three squad cars pulled up, but I had already decided to take Esme and sleep in the back of my Subaru Legacy, which I had parked down the block. I didn't turn on the headlights as we eased away in the dark down to the boat harbor, where Esme and I got on our brand-new Stratocruiser and headed out into the black waters toward Lummi Island. I had never missed Frieda more in my life.
How I had loved reading with her at night, telling her about my day, all the little trials and trivials, mixing in my childhood memories of walking on long flat beaches over ribbed yellow sand when life seemed to stretch out in endless possiblilty. And I thought of a vacation Frieda and I had once taken on Lummi Island when, our daily cares behind us, passion had come back to us. I should've paid more attention when she said we needed a change.
Easing the Stratocruiser out into the bay, I chugged toward the humpback bulk of Lummi Island, darker than the sky. Near dawn, safely anchored in a horseshoe cove by Lummi, I opened some Healthwise Salmon for Esme and three cans of smoked oysters for myself. I was downing a bottle of red wine and singing, "What Shall We Do With a Drunken Sailer?" when I heard friendly clicking sounds out in the gray dawn mist.
"Frieda?" I cried.
Together with a cohort of her new friends, their dark dorsal fins circling the Stratocruiser, Frieda was clicking invitingly. Though I didn't know if I would survive another ravishment, I sighed as I got into my wet suit, which I'd repaired as best I could, and eased down into the cold water. Que sera, et cetera, I told myself. Again, as if reading my mind, Frieda gave me a blunt but reassuring smacker on my chops, promptly swam us off into the Straits of Georgia, then barreled back toward the Stratocruiser, clicking away like a stopwatch.
Ah, such dulcet dolphin tones--those connubial clicks meant love, I knew--and it was grateful love I felt. Other tones in different sequences of clicks and squeals, which Frieda patiently and plaintively repeated for me, meant dinner, friend, help, safety and return, the most important words in my wife's new language, I gathered, as I settled into her salty tutelage and what I hoped would be a lifelong apprenticeship.
Touchingly, Frieda went easy on me in our trysts, and our honeymoon in the horseshoe cove passed all too quickly as I picked up Frieda's expressive, musical language and also came closer to mastering her powerful dolphin kick. Our lives were on the upspwing, I told myself. Our love life was improving, too, though adjustments on both our parts were necessary, for our first attempts had been crude, and I had to work at holding my breath for three minutes, which was about my limit.
For some days we docked the Stratocruiser off the north coast of Vancouver Island, B.C., Frieda's suggestion after I told her about Jenny Guy and those three patrol cars. However, I did risk setting foot in Tofino for an hour one foggy afternoon to apply for Canada's Landed Immigrant Status, though the term scarcely applied, another one of life's small ironies.
All in all, Frieda was quite happy as a fisherwoman. She didn't seem to miss her old job, and she caught more than enough fish to support us both, so I didn't have to feel guilty about not getting my Ph.D., and I didn't have to be window dressing at North Terminal, either. Esme, too, was happy with her diet of fresh fish. Frieda had let me know she did miss patting Esme and was teaching her to swim, with a surprising measure of success, and Esme's clicks and eek-eek's in time grew less spooky and more like purrs.
My own clicks have remained rudimentary, I'm afraid. At times I crave a double burger, waffle fries, and strawberry shake from Boomers, and I do worry when Frieda and her new dolphin friends circle the wagons, as it were, protecting themselves from a shark by taking turns ramming the shark's underbelly of soft cartilage with their hard, blunt snouts.
When I hear Frieda clicking away, leaping and gliding in the wake of our Stratocruiser as we hit thirty-five mile per hour, I wonder if Hollywood might be interested in a movie about us--you know, a racy but tasteful Dolphin Knows Best. We could call it I Married Flipper.
But we don't seek fame, God knows. Late at night, when Frieda's dozing with her friends in the dark waters, Esme and I gaze at each other in the warm cabin of our Stratocruiser, practicing our clicks and squeaks. Although Esme's glad she gets to have me all to herself in our bunk at night, I don't think she quite approves of my staring at my bare feet in the morning and murmuring sadly, "Hmm, no tail flukes yet."
At times I've wondered if Frieda will someday prefer her more sonically endowed and--damn them!--perhaps more potent friends, with whom she can move more fluently. Maybe If we could have offspring, that would be something. My fondest hope is for Frieda to realize that, as the man says at the end of Some Like it Hot, "Nobody's perfect."