Lost At the Aquarium

4 Oct

Eels slithered, sinewy, in the dark water of the dirty tank. Electric eels. Lala stared at them, watched them dance, mouth agape. Absently, she poked at her dry lips, twirled a soft curl. What made them electric, she wondered? She stood closer, pressed her nose to the glass, and smeared her little finger on the fog prints she created. Thought of Miss Janet in a hot pink leopard print leotard, teaching the electric slide in jazz/tap class.

The din of Mrs. Burger’s second grade class trickled away, but was easily replaced by new din. Lala looked at the information on the electric eel’s plaque. She read the words quickly, her eyeballs jumping from line to line, then looked back at the undulating animals.

“Did you just read that whole thing?” a strange woman asked, astonished. Lala didn’t want to hurt the lady’s feelings.

“No,” she said. This seemed to satisfy the adult. Lala looked around to find her classmates gone, the parent-volunteer having ushered them away—but when? How long had she been staring at the eels?

Lala walked toward the exit of the Eel House, picking her nose. She wiped her finger on the yarn around her neck, attached to a construction paper ID card. “LALA” it said in red glitter on glue globs. Her school, grade, and teacher neatly printed underneath in Mrs. Burger’s cautious hand.

Lala wandered from the dark building into the gray light outside. She squinted, and found the penguin habitat. The penguins seemed stuffed, standing so still on their plastic rocks, painted white to resemble ice and snow. Lala wondered if they were real. She peered closer. Finally, a penguin dove into the water, its awkward wings becoming graceful fins. Lala wanted to be graceful too. She gave herself a twirl, watching her skirt fly up, and skimmed her palms against the soft, ruffled denim.

She looked at the penguins again. One of them was stuffed. How lonely it must be, Lala thought. It was a very mild winter. Lala fidgeted in her wool tights.

She moved on, twirling her hair, and found the polar bears, great big lumps of whitish gray fur. They seemed to sleep, paws shielding their little black eyes from the harsh Coney Island light, the wrong type of salt wafting in from the Atlantic. Lala found them sadder than the penguins. One bear rolled on his back, paw out like an open palm. Then it rolled again, dragged itself up and dove into the water, its tired face becoming serene as a manatee.

Lala had enough. Where was her class? She was ready for lunch. The errant parent-volunteer, Chichi, had promised cupcakes. Lala had spied multicolored sprinkles. She considered consulting a security guard. But there they were, lining up at the gate to leave. She joined the end of the line. Mrs. Burger tapped her head, the last in the count. They filed onto the yellow bus with the squeaky green seats.

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