“Sea Otters” by Elizabeth Han16 min read

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Illustration by Lay Hoon (Arty Guava)

When Jon called two miles from the border crossing, Aria nearly threw the carrot slices for her stew into the bin. She stayed her hand just in time and put him on speakerphone. Jon had forgotten to get the damned PCR test showing proof of health seventy-two hours before. The moronic Canadian guard at Peace Arch had turned him away. Jon’s voice shook. @Rycee53 was only staying in Vancouver for a week before returning to Seoul. The Korean prodigy was so known she didn’t even have to put “tattoo artist” in her bio. He’d spammed her on Instagram for months to get this appointment the next day. For the sea otters.

“Are you still driving?” Aria said. She was glad she wasn’t on call that night at the hospital and could deal with this. Her accessibility advisor at the hospital had said it was time to tell the Chief and make arrangements for less call, but Aria had refused. She wasn’t ready. “Pull over. That’s an order, Private.”

“Fucking Canada,” Jon said, sounding like he was spitting out the window.

#

Sea otters, his father’s favourite animal. On his left bicep. The fashionable style of tattooing these days, in full watercolour, would assimilate Jon with OG Seattle, even though Jonathan Bucknell wrote Java for Amazon on a team whose members were all recent transplants.

It was like that with him. Always one foot in, one foot out of the granola. Enlisting straight out of high school, Private Jonny B had let them brainwash him in the Army to get away from his mother’s bawling and his father’s losing more function day by day. By the time Jonny got out eight years later and started in tech, his father was down to writing his words on a little device with a stylus that could be erased by shaking it like an Etch A Sketch. His mother’s glucose control was damned to hell. Whenever they went to the doctor, they danced around who should be seen more urgently. His father would carve on the device: HER FIRST.

Jonny, the youngest child of five, including two sets of twin sisters, had wanted to be first himself, for once. So he’d moved one state—the final state—north. The plan was that one day, Jonny would return home, successful, buff, trophy wifed-up, a new Jesus who would rescue his parents with all the money he’d squeezed from Amazon, Bezos, and putting up with the SJWs in Seattle spouting critical race theory, when he was actually a rifle-toting, Joe Rogan-quoting Republican. Jon knew he could say all this to Aria because they’d never meet. Not at least on this side of the pandemic.

Much to Aria’s disapproval, back in Oregon, in high school, Jonny B had been smoking his life away. Jon acknowledged to Aria he knew just how blessed he was that Jonny had gotten into pot and not anything harder. Cocaine, heroin, meth—any of those and it would have been game over. But now, in Seattle, settling in Ballard, no trace of camo in his profile, Jonny had reinvented himself as Jonathan, after King David’s loyal best friend, a churchgoing, steadfast young man who gave dinner parties and prayed modestly over the food he prepared from homegrown, organic ingredients. Jonathan had bought when the market was good and the gorgeous three-floor house had a David Bowie room, where he took the young Christian girls, let them pick through his vinyls, and hid his sneer when they pronounced “Modern Love” as their favourite song of The White Duke.

“I’m like Christian girl catnip,” Jon said.

Maybe. Sure, Aria thought he was cute in his pictures with his white blond crop cut and lanky yet muscled frame, and he had a good job, car, and house in a city where people were being priced out of the neighborhoods in which they had grown up. But things weren’t quite that straightforward. Aria could tell the wife hunt wasn’t going well, not when Seattle was “hippy-dippy post-Christian whatever.” Jonathan wasn’t interested in the overflowing trough of eager single girls that his church family kept pushing at him. Not seriously. As soon as Jon saw Potential, as he called candidates for the role, excuses abounded.

The week before, Potential had been a blonde with ringlets and dimples, talking in a corner with the pastor and the pastor’s wife, both of whom had just been to Jonathan’s the other day for his secret-recipe curry.

Aria had asked, “Why don’t you go talk to her?”

“Fuck that. Potential comes to me. I own a fucking house.”

The question of whether Aria and Jonathan could ever date had been settled when the promised reopening of the Canada-US border was delayed and then delayed again.

“I do weird things with dating apps,” he’d texted her when she said she lived on Vancouver Island and that the app’s radius thing should really be reworked to avoid dipping into other countries, especially during a global pandemic. “This is fine.”

Aria fulfilled all of Jonathan’s criteria—Christian, Asian, graduate degree or MD, black hair, big butt. She’d set her distance preferences to as far as possible because Victoria was known as Chicktoria and she didn’t want to date one more person for whom hiking was an entire personality. Aria was Potential in a different way. Potential energy stored up for something neither he nor she knew.

She had recently begun a zero tolerance policy for odd jokes, after the CT scan that showed the tumour in her pancreas was real and growing.

“You’re a bit of a weirdo, aren’t you,” he’d texted three days into their correspondence.

She took all night to think about the way it was phrased, not answering. She was about to block him when a second text arrived in the morning.

“I’m sorry. I realized that could be taken the wrong way. What I mean is, I sometimes do weird stuff, like starting work at 7 a.m. for a couple of months, earlier than the rest of my team. The way you talk, you seem okay with being a bit different too.”

“The distance. It’ll never work,” she said. “But what’s your testimony?”

#

Jon was trying to get over Amy-Anne. AA was an app girl, too. Then it was Candice. Or did he start sleeping with Amy-Anne while waiting for Candice to forget her ex and let Jon wife her up already? He was always fighting with Amy-Anne, making up with Amy-Anne, fighting some more over the fact that Amy-Anne didn’t want to live in Seattle forever and had a consulting job waiting in NYC, and driving Amy-Anne to the airport crying like a bitch. Meeting Aria was post-Amy-Anne, but pre-Candice’s decision. Candice’s decision was a non-decision. Candice wasn’t into guys that smoked pot, though Jon had cut down a lot since Jonny B.

Jon had sent a picture of Candice to Aria after the former had gotten a haircut, shaved on one side and studded with stick-on rhinestones. Candice was a Chinese doctor like Aria, a resident in medical oncology, but she had the punk rock edge that Jon loved and he didn’t know what to do with or how to win over. Yes, he had a type. Yes, he did weird things with dating apps.

Jon talked to Aria as though they were sprawled in their shared Humvee disassembling, polishing, and reassembling their rifles together. Her dating advice for him was limited. Aria had had a boyfriend in college who’d yelled that he didn’t love her anymore and hated all her succulents, yet had watered them to death (with his tears, she hoped) after she left. The ex had offered to let her stay in the shared apartment as friends, but who would’ve taken the asshole up on something as cruel as that?

Aria liked Candice. But Amy-Anne—that girl didn’t know what she wanted. She and Jon were fucking. They were not fucking. When they weren’t fucking, they were mind-fucking.

After everyone was double vaccinated, Jon had called to say that AA was finished with him. For good, this time.

“Are you going to call Candice?” Aria asked.

“I’m going to go to Peru for two weeks,” he said. “Restrictions are lifted.”

“What’s in Peru?”

“Not Seattle.”

“Catholic girls, I suppose.”

“Sure, and you know they only go to Mass at Christmas,” he scoffed. “Maybe Easter.”

“I’ll pray that Candice changes her mind,” Aria said.

#

Resting her laptop on the breakfast bar, Aria Googled the options for him. In Bellingham, they did PCR but they needed three days for the results. Rapids weren’t accepted.

The noise of Jon’s palm smacking against the hood of the car distracted her from her browser. “Fuck, fuck, why am I a fuck-up. God is a toddler with a gun. A God-damned toddler with a gun. I fucking needed this,” he moaned.

“God can’t be God-damned.”

“You’re not helping.”

“You’re out of the car, aren’t you?” she said.

Aria had been rounding on her family medicine inpatients at one of the two hospitals in Victoria when her own doctor called. He had said that while resection was possible, the cells were multiplying out of control. In a way, online dating felt like multiplying too—herself, over and over, before her cells could—to outdo them, outrun their poison. She’d made and deleted so many profiles. She didn’t know when she would tell the Chief. Maybe she really needed to follow the accessibility advisor’s advice and cut down. None of the co-residents knew either. She’d somehow managed to explain away the absence for her surgery and convalescence. Maybe she was going to die soon. Oncologists gave too much hope these days.

Jon had said, “You’re not going to die.”

“Bowie died.”

“That was uncalled for. You’re a doctor.”

“What is this obsession with doctors? Do you think that if you marry an Asian doctor she won’t die and you won’t die and both your parents won’t die and your dad’s board and stylus will disappear?”

He was very calm when it wasn’t his own problem. “Wear this like a loose garment,” he said. “Loose garment. I learned this in therapy.”

“You can’t put on and take off cancer, dumbass.”

“K, I’m calling back when you’re nicer.”

Other times, Jon had been the only one. The only one who could comfort her. Her parents, satisfied she was already a doctor, wouldn’t be able to handle the cataclysm. They had told her not to buy long-term disability, just take the mandatory life insurance policy in residency, what did Human Resources mean that the beneficiary form had to be mailed and not emailed, and just put down Dad, it’s never going to kick in, don’t worry about marriage, don’t worry about getting a man. Her whole life ahead of her.

“Aria,” Jon said once, in a surprise voice text that she’d favourited. “Aria—that means song, right? You’re a song. That won’t die. Like that one kids sing at camp—the song that never ends. Why not just think about that? Loose garment, Babe. Loose. Garment.”

The obviously pot-addled, warbling voice, as she hit the play button over and over again, so different from the ambitious tones of the Chief and the other residents, had pulled a stupid smile to her face. She slept soundly that night.

#

There had been a non-doctor, a non-Asian, a few months into their friendship, and just a month before Peru, when AA and Jon were on a break. Six missed calls on Aria’s phone. She had had to wait until she got home to call him back with Whatsapp on her home wi-fi because the hospital’s network was too feeble and her mobile plan lacked long distance to the States.

“I just got back from a date,” Jon said. “I told her. This girl.”

“Your thing?”

“Yeah.” He could hardly speak. “I’m running down the street. Like, screaming. Just walked her home. I told her, like as an experiment, even though I like her, because, well, fuck it, I’m tired of being scared of this. So we’re in this restaurant, there’s this long silence, and I’m like well that’s that. But then she, like, smiles at me and says she’s always wanted to adopt. I don’t know why—I cried. I broke down. God, she’s so nice. We’re going out again.”

“Sounds like Potential,” Aria said.

When Jon first told her months before, high on his weekly “cheat” day, that he couldn’t have children, she had suggested getting a second opinion. Or seeing the urologist again. She wouldn’t take his word for it, that he had zero sperm.

“What,” she asked. “Made you even think of getting tested?” He was thirty-one.

“I dunno. Potential.”

Aria waited.

“The drugs, too.”

“You think that the drugs caused this?”

Jonathan couldn’t stand the idea of it, not being able to procreate. It was the first command in the Bible: be fruitful and multiply. At the same time, he didn’t know if he should. His father. The ALS. Jon called it genetic decrepitude. Was this natural selection? He had never told AA or Candice.

Aria didn’t know if she could have kids either. She’d stopped birth control because she and the ex had never had sex anyway. Every month, she watched the red water swirl down the toilet bowl and wondered if Jon did something similar, standing before the line of urinals just a little too long.

#

Jon had sent one text from Peru—that Candice wasn’t changing her mind.

Two days before he’d boarded the plane, he had told Adoption Girl he wasn’t feeling it after all.

“But you were feeling it. You cried,” Aria said, pacing the nephrology floor, peering into patient rooms.

“I know, but…it faded.”

“Huh.”

“At least I’m doing it before I go,” he offered. Jon thought it was cruel to break up with people after Christmas, their birthdays, etcetera, as a rule.

“Right.”

“I’m sorry,” he said. “It was her first kiss too.”

“You took her first kiss?” Aria stared dumbly at her pager. She didn’t know why he was apologizing to her and not to Adoption Girl, AA, Candice, or God.

“She was really kind about it, though,” Jon said, sounding far away. “She said she felt the same.”

#

The photos from Peru that had followed depicted Jon bounding down the beach with his Army friends. Squinting into the sun. Drinking things in a science-themed bar from test tubes and flasks. Aria thought it was a bit show-offy, but enjoyed the virtual inclusion, the thought of going somewhere, Canadians in general not yet as blasé about international travel.

On the last night there, Jon had popped a tab of acid and gritted his teeth through a tattoo of the Andes on the back of his calf. It was nice and everything and there was a cool foreign trip story aspect to it. Still, it wasn’t watercolour and it wasn’t sea otters. It wouldn’t suffice. So when @Rycee53 made a rare update to her Insta and Twitter, he was all over it even before the plane left the tarmac at Lima. Jon had confirmed his appointment in Vancouver for the first week of December, a month after Amy-Anne’s vitriolic hand-written letter from NYC arrived, in which she stated, “Fuck sea otters,” and Candice followed with, “Let me think about it some more.”

Jon had chucked old record sleeves all about his room on a rare video call to Aria.

“This is the only thing I have to look forward to,” he’d said, finally puddling onto his bed with his long legs dangling in the air.

#

This man—this boy—this boy whom Aria had only ever heard on the phone, and sometimes seen on webcam, had often smoked marijuana not to cry. The worst times were right after he returned from Oregon. But now, on the side of the freeway, he sobbed openly. Adoption Girl came to mind.

Aria stirred the carrots. She touched the area corresponding to the head of her pancreas, the remaining portion still pliant, still pretending as though it were just chilling in the pool.

She thought of the PCR machines for the clearance tests, multiplying samples taken from nasal swabs at the rate of millions upon millions of nucleic acids in just a few hours. When they tested your sperm, you were told not to masturbate for two days and on appointment day they left you to produce a sample, one way or another, the urologist later examining it under a microscope to evaluate the count, morphology, and motility.

“Will you come over here, Aria?” Jon’s nose was plugged. “Will you come over here and date me?”

Where was his mind? Upon Aria, as though falling gently, layered, in water, were the plain film of her lungs, the CT scan, the PET scan, the MRI, the bone scan, staging, searching for mets, moving in palimpsest. Potentials with ringlets and dimples and others who looked like Aria but weren’t Aria. Dinner parties. Jon’s father, shaking the Etch A Sketch imitation again and again. HER FIRST.

Aria never took Jon seriously. He went first. He always went first. Not even Candice went first. Who was first again?

“The problem is,” she said. “I’d marry you.”

“Shake it,” he said. His version of “shut up,” ever since his father. Shake it, shake it, shake it like a Polaroid picture.

“Ha.”

“Maybe I’d even let you,” he said, sniffling.

“Let me do what?” She shut her eyes, imagining the tips of his ears pink.

“Date me. Marry me. Whatever.” He exhaled, a long pursed-lip exhale. “Call me Babe, again.”

Babe? Have I ever?”

“I don’t know. I want you to.”

“Babe,” she said. “Babe.”

“Amy-Anne,” he said finally. “Candice.”

She wasn’t either. But she let him say it anyway. She pictured him scratching repeatedly at his arm, rubbing red where the tattoo–two otters, holding paws, floating on their backs–would have gone. Once, she thought she heard him whisper sorry to his father, to whom, sterile, incomplete, and prodigal, he believed he could not yet return. At least not for good.

He sat on the roadside for hours and neither hung up. They played with names. She was Babe, Aria rubbing at her ring finger, the carrots cooling to cream.


 

Elizabeth Han is a British Columbia-based writer and physician, specializing in family medicine. Her short fiction has recently appeared in Ricepaper Magazine and Island Writers Magazine. She was born in Nanjing, China. Further information about Elizabeth is available at elizabethhan.com and on Twitter @effyhan.

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