January 29, 2012
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h a l f e m p t y
We kick off our flip flops, wiggle out of our khaki shorts, and pull off our green Volunteer polos.
"I'm going to burn," Katie sighs, lying down on her stomach on Ariana's bed sheet, which our clothes anchor to the sand. "I'll be a lobster. I can see it now."
Towheaded Nadia nods profusely in agreement, already applying ultra protective sunscreen on her equally pale skin. Ariana takes a swig out of her aluminum New York Aquarium Docent water bottle-which has and will always have a nasty alcohol aftertaste since she drank beer out of it-and announces, "Today, we're going to get f***ed up and bag some cuties." I laugh, and she winks at me as I lie down next to Katie. The three of them are always caught stumbling around on zigzagged paths on the beach, but never with boys who grab their hands and whisper in their ears. I push my sunglasses away from my face, lay my forearm over my eyes, and offer my body to the sun.
We talk about boys. We always talk about boys. The only cute boy at the aquarium is Alec, who we relentlessly Facebook stalk because he won't talk to us and tell us all about his life. Katie recently managed to get a few words out of him: he said, "That's disgusting," after she said that she had a peanut-butter-chocolate-chip sandwich for lunch. His usual is a taco from some stand down the Boardwalk. "We should all get tacos sometime. They must be really f***ing good," Ariana said to him once. He smiled politely at her and backed away.
We talk about his eyes, which are blue-green, the color of the big waves whose arms welcome us when we dive into them.

A few days ago, we wrote up a summer bucket list of thirty items, on which the only item we've crossed off so far is "stalk Alec." As a protest to our strict uniform code, we planned on popping our shirt collars for a day-or however many minutes before Kim caught us. As an inquiry into the effect of shark fin soup on the shark population, we aspired to taste the delicacy. "It must be really f***ing good," Ariana reasoned after Kim showed us a documentary on the topic. As a celebration of summer and being young and alive, we wished to throw three house parties, the biggest and baddest one at Alec's. We were going to get Alec's number, go to Alec's house, and sailboat with Alec. "What if he actually liked one of us?" Nadia wondered aloud, the list completed and ready to be tackled. I was imagining what Alec's sailboat was like. If he had one. Katie piped up dreamily, "I'd be so happy." Ariana nodded in assent. I thought, If he liked one of us, it'd be one of them.

"Coronas, Coronas!" a man yells, his voice closer than the rolling waves, krrrehahing seagulls, and shrieking children running into the water.
"I'll take one," Katie calls out. My arm moves to my side and props my body up; my eyes adjust to the sunlight and focus on the man dragging the cooler to the edge of our bed sheet. He wipes his forehead with the back of his hand. The lifeguards here are orange; the man is unnaturally brown, rough, like an amalgam of leather and oak tree bark, a farmer of a hundred years. Katie digs through her purse without shifting on the bed sheet and exchanges her three singles for the bottle he's holding out.
"Oh, why not," Nadia says, coming up with three dollars of her own. The man hesitates for a second. Nadia, who looks ten but is really fifteen, stares steadily into his scrutiny. He takes her money and averts her gaze. When they've popped the caps off their beers, he trudges forward through the sand.
I'm too busy tanning to have a Corona, I tell myself, flopping over onto my stomach and watching the man walk away. "Coronas, Coronas!"
But next time, I won't be.

When I get home, wet, sandy, and significantly darker than when I left in the morning, I grab a bottle of Daddy's cold beer and pour it into a mug.
A tentative sip. A forced swallow.
When the sun was high above Coney Island and the four of us lay on a paper-thin white bed sheet which set us on the hot sand underneath like coals on a rippling fire, Katie had said, "It's so bubbly and happy." Now, I stand alone, the lights off but the brightness of the early summer evening sneaking in through a living room window. I didn't offer this place for one of our sure-to-be-phenomenal house parties.
Bitter, heavy water. A forced swallow.
No matter how quickly or slowly I drink out of my Teen Resource Center mug-oh, the irony-I don't feel the romance Katie imparted to the Corona she nursed as her sensitive skin grew redder.
Gasp. Hands gripping the counter. It's not working. Why isn't it working? Mug half empty. Not one pleasured, tingling taste bud. Not the slightest buzz.
I pour the rest of the beer into the sink and wash the mug well.

t h e p e n g u i n o r t h e e g g
Ariana, Katie, Nadia, and I walk back to the aquarium. Our lunch break is going to be over in ten minutes, and we need to be armed with our "biofacts" and at our stations by 1:00 p.m. Every time I'm handed my biofact, I resist the urge to push it back towards Kim. "You can brandish this today," I would say. "I believe I would be much more awesome at giving exhibition talks about penguin life and preservation and conservation without a furry hand puppet flailing about. I use a lot of hand gestures when I speak."
I would soon learn that Kim wouldn't have a problem with me not using the little scruffy penguin. "Okay! Take this biofact instead," she would say when I broached the topic. I would stare, horrified, at the speckled imitation penguin egg, and eventually take it cautiously from her. I would hold it, cupped in both hands in front of me, for four hours and give particularly pithy responses to the visitors that day.
Q: "Aww! What are these?"
A: "African penguins. From South Africa. Also called jackass penguins."
Q: "From Africa? Wow, I thought penguins only lived in cold places, like the North Pole. You know, with Santa. Hahahaha!"
A: "... Yes."
Q: "What do they eat?"
A: "Fish. They like fish."
Q: "What are you holding?"
"Penguin egg replica. Want to touch?"

"Wow. Sex and the City: The Aquarium," a shirtless, barefoot man with a beer belly bawls before we turn off the Boardwalk to enter the aquarium.
"What the f***? That was so f***ing creepy," Ariana says, yanking down her short shorts, which cover perhaps a quarter centimeter more of her long legs. We're not supposed to wear bottoms above fingertip level when our arms hang straight at our sides, but I seem to be the only one who follows that rule. I'm laughing. If we played the stars of Sex and the City, Ariana would be Samantha: confident and outspoken. Nadia, the actress (who we all bow down to after seeing her in the T-Mobile commercial), would be Charlotte, the artist: smart, creative, and romantic. Carrie would be replaced by Katie, because she's classy, what with all those peanut-butter-chocolate-chip sandwiches and deep conversations with Alec (cue the peanut gallery to sigh). That leaves me with Miranda, the practical and moody one with all the problems. I'm reasonable, but not temperamental. Right?

We flash our ID's and head to the docent office to sign back in. I decide I'll discuss my biofact issues with Kim another time.

i f y o u t o u c h i t , i f y o u b r e a k i t , t h e n y o u p r a y f o r i t
Kim had us all convinced after docent training that working at the New York Aquarium would make this the best summer of our lives. She gave us an example of a past aquadventure: a woman got chased down by the aquarium's security forces after a docent staffing the touch pool radioed them. We sixty incoming docents were impressed and ready for everything Coney Island had to offer us.

Questions we hate:
Q: "What animals do you have here?"
A: "It says on the sign... (The channeled welk, horseshoe crab, and sea star.)"
Q: "Where's the channeled welk? Can I touch it?"
A: "It likes to dig deep. We don't know where it is. No one really wants to touch it anyway. It's kinda gross."
Q: "Oh, come on. We came all the way here from neighborhood one to five subway stops away. Can you find it?"
A: "... Yes."

- 10 minutes of digging -
"Touch it."
"Ew! No! That's disgusting!"

<i>It was finally her turn. She pushed past a group of schoolchildren and sidled up to the pool. She slid a finger into the water, then another, and they combed through the sediment, moving like the legs of a sprinter-faster when she heard another group approaching to replace the remaining children, to replace her. She had to find it. She had to have something to show for that frozen hour in the sultriness.
"'Scuse me, Miss," the boy leaning over next to her, in the green Volunteer polo and khaki shorts, said. He had a streak of yellow in his otherwise dark hair, and a piercing in his nose that shined in the sun. A submerged sea star lay sprawled in his palm. "We gotta keep this line moving. You wanna touch some animals, or what?"
The animal didn't flinch when she did. She ventured to touch it again, and this time she stayed on and traced the sea star's lithe rays. They felt like five series of goosebumps. The boy was blabbering about its regenerative powers when-"What the f***?" The woman didn't look back. She held the star tighter, its wet arms pressed against all ten of her spread-out fingers. Still praying, she started to run. She was so close to the finish line.</i>

Questions we hate, Part II:
Q: "Is this a stingray?"
A: "No. According to the sign, it's a horseshoe crab."
Q: "Can I touch it? Is it gonna sting me?"
A: "Yes, you can. No, it won't. It's a crab, not a stingray. None of these animals will hurt you."
Q: "Why is that crab on top of that other crab?"
A: "... You know."
Q: "Will the starfish bite me?"
A: "... No. It doesn't have a mouth. None of these animals will hurt you."
Q: "Why can't I pick it up out of the water?"
"It can't breathe when it's out of the water."

<i>She was hyperventilating. She filled a Ziploc bag with water from the sink, dropped the sea star into it, and held it to her chest. She didn't know if they were waiting for her outside the bathroom. She didn't do anything wrong. The animal didn't want to be there, to be touched all the time, always with people but always completely alone.
She opened the door.
"Miss, you're going to have to come with us."
Always with people but always completely alone.</i>
That was last summer.

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