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Beneath the Blue Water of the Belugas

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The last time I saw the beluga whales at the John Shedd Aquarium I had tears in my eyes.

They were beautiful. Elegant and white, with deceptive “smiles” that hid any sorrow at their imprisonment. Such majesty should never be confined, and some souls were not meant to be tethered. My boyfriend was breaking up with me, and we stood beneath the blue water lost in our own thoughts, no longer together, no longer a partnership.

Maybe it was the magnificence of the whales, but I’ve always remembered that moment at the aquarium, when we were right at the end, quite vividly. Maybe it was the pain that was searing my heart – the burning scar being rendered upon my soul as the calming belugas swam in the blue.

They were still here, seventeen years later.

I’d gotten up early to beat the crowds. Chris slept in, so I was on my own in Chicago again. The day was sunny but cool – the perfect embodiment of spring. Arriving a few minutes prior to the opening hour, there was already a little line. I joined it, surrounded by families and couples, and soon they let us in. Nothing about the entrance was familiar. Had I even been here? I started to wonder.

Wandering through the exhibits near the front, I took my time and peered at the rainforest creatures behind their panes of glass. The fish swam languidly before us. Some kids squealed with delight, others, too young to know what was going on, cried with disinterest. I hurried away from that, and walked deeper into the building, seeking out the blue viewing room of the beluga whales, if it was even there, if I hadn’t imagined the whole thing.

I thought I would remember more. I thought I would feel an instant return to those days in Chicago, to that winter when it all fell apart. I thought I’d be overcome by emotion, and be able to turn it into a redemptive moment of empowerment. I didn’t think it would be easy, but I didn’t think it would be completely devoid of feeling. At most, there was just a faded ache, though it may have simply been the weariness of having walked so much in the last day. I was almost two decades older than when I last climbed all the steps to the aquarium. Perhaps that was all.

At the end of a faux-wooded path, I came upon the beluga pool. I did not recall being able to view it from above, but there they were, surfacing and spewing air and water. Like quickly-moving icebergs, their white bodies broke through the water as if it was a visit from other-worldly ghosts. Still, nothing here was familiar. I didn’t remember watching them from above, I only remembered being immersed in the blue, as though we were underwater too. That’s how the end of some relationships feel. Like a drowning. Not in the sense of suffocation, though I suppose that sometimes plays a part, but more like a heaviness from which you can’t escape. The only way out was to go deeper into the darkness, to dive down and wrestle with the specter of loneliness.

I walked along the edge of the pool and found the stairs that led to the underwater viewing room. I had remembered correctly after all. This, then, was the room where we once stood. In the mottled blue light, we had awkwardly balanced on the precipice of past and future, beside each other for one of the last times, watching the beluga whales glide through their only home. This, then, was the moment I remembered.

I couldn’t get enough air as I stood next to him and realized that it was over. I don’t know why it hit me then. We’d broken up a couple days before that, but I guess I still held out hope that it wasn’t over. I remember riding the train deeper into the city with him next to me, and seeking out any sense of reconciliation. The hardest part of the whole thing was that there wasn’t any awful reason for it – no infidelities or abuse or distinctive breaking point – we simply weren’t right for one another. Somehow, we ended up at the aquarium together. We would still be friends, we just wouldn’t be boyfriends.

Welcoming the darkness, I let the tears well up in my eyes. Before us, the belugas played. It looked like they were smiling. We smiled along with them.

There was so much unhappiness in that room and in that water.

Seventeen years later, I stand there again, in that same spot, amid the rising noise of excited children and scolding parents, and I remember. Vague echoes of all that pain invisibly travel over the space like waves of sonar. Yet it’s a sadness I can’t fully access, and for that I’m grateful. I take my leave of the whales. It’s unlikely that I will see them again in our lifetimes.

In the next tank over, a group of dolphins flies through the blue. They seem to smile too.

Soon after this, I take my leave of the aquarium. I need more light, and the day is sunny. The Chicago skyline, so clearly delineated along the lake, beckons me to other memories and new adventures. I do not know it then, but Chris and I are about to take part in a revolution…

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