The semester I was best friends with a seal
I don’t know if you’ve ever done therapy or gotten The Look but if you do therapy you’ve probably gotten The Look. It’s what happens when you’re telling a story that to you is whatever, it’s your life — maybe you know it’s a little off-beat, but it’s funny now, it’s a schtick. So you tell this story that you’ve told a million times before. But this time you’re telling the story to your therapist, probably on the way to telling something else more recent, something that seems more pressing, and then halfway through the throwaway story your therapist gives you The Look and you realize Oh Shit. This story isn’t funny at all.
One of those stories, for me, was the semester I was best friends with a seal.
It was first grade I think? First or second. We spent the first semester in London, which I loved, where my parents were on sabbatical. Then we returned to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where my teacher hated me, I don’t know why.
Maybe because I never knew the answers to her word puzzles? She started every morning with a little quiz on the chalk board — the only one I remember is the word “cat” at the top of the board and the answer was “ketchup.” To this day I can’t do verbal/visual puzzles.
WanderFinder is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
Maybe for that reason or for arguably many others, she abhorred me and would not give me a hall pass to go to the bathroom until I was about to pee my pants — or, in one instance, had already done so.
The other kids probably picked up on the teacher’s vibes, or possibly the pee smell, and they had all made friends in the first semester anyway so I also didn’t have any friends.
I solved this problem in two ways: one, I lied to my parents and claimed I had lost one of my mittens when I had not — I kept it in my desk and made it talk to me.
And two, I found a picture of a baby seal in an encyclopedia and made it my best friend. The baby seal was obviously my best friend over the mitten because it was perfect: round and furry and pure white, its eyes liquid jet orbs, its tail lifted up off the ice delicately as if it were in an Esther Williams movie.
I told it everything and it didn’t seem to mind a thing — not the fact that I didn’t know the answer to the ketchup puzzle, not the fact that I smelled like piss. It was always there for me, waiting on the same page of the children’s encyclopedia, just as perfect as the day before, though the page did become a little worn as the semester dragged on.
It had exactly the expression of this seal, found in a cabinet devoted to animals figures on the 4th floor of the Museum of American Indian History.
Some of the animals depicted there are straight up. Some morph, changing from one animal to another in the same piece. Some seem designed to help you to morph into the animal a little.
I know now why I got The Look from my therapist, and why being best friends with a picture of a baby seal probably isn’t ideal or particularly funny.
Even so, there’s a part of me that wouldn’t change a thing. Spending four or so months talking every weekday to a picture of a baby seal, studying it, getting to know the light reflecting in its eye and the pearly moisture trapped in between fur strands — during that time, I morphed into the baby seal, and the baby seal morphed into me, just a little. The artists who portray that transformation — yes. I feel that.
The museum had an indigenous market this weekend, which was my original reason for stopping by. Everything for sale was stunning — I was particularly struck by this woman who made jewelry using seal and other skin.
Fuzzy jewelry! It had never occurred to me.
All the animals I wear every day though — the way I slip into their hooves when I slip into their slippers, the way I see from their limpid eyes when I wear my suede jacket. They become me, and I them. We are one, the animals and I — finally we are one.