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Marlene

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The hardest thing about death, Marlene thought, was not the loss of her wife but the fickleness of language: Coral was no more. She is, was , she corrects herself, her everything. Coral’s death was unexpected - a barracuda attack. In the blink of an eye, Marlene’s entire world imploded into nothing. Well, not nothing, she still had Nemo, their inquisitive son, her anchor. But there was no Coral, who could, in every manner of the word, understand her. Even when she herself could not. Especially on the gloomy days. Coral would gently poke Marlene with her fin, slide close to her, and squeeze it in a show of assurance. She sensed Marlene’s inner turmoil, one that she had grappled with even before they first met. Although it had been a year since the fateful event, Marlene had not yet gotten accustomed to shouldering that grief but she knew that her son needed her - Coral may have been her wife but she was Nemo’s mother.  

A year without loving pokes or squeezes, Marlene believed that she would not love again. There just was not enough space in her heart, or time. Not when you have a son like Nemo, who trusts everyone and everything, who wants to know everyone and everything. Just like Coral, Marlene would muse. Time flew, as time often does, and before she knew it, it was Nemo’s first day of school. The night before, she tossed and turned, cracking her eyes open every now and then to look at Nemo, her Nemo, her curious son. Coral would have known what to do but Marlene surely did not; she felt unprepared, unsure of herself. The dawn came soon and with it an excited Nemo. Mr. Ray, the teacher, had planned an excursion of sorts for the benefit of all his enthusiastic students. Marlene was hesitant to leave but Mr. Ray looked exactly like the fish you could trust and so she did. In hindsight,iIt was Nemo that she should have worried about because the minute he saw a boat, he swam towards it. In his defense, Nemo had never seen a boat before. 

Since the minute she got back home, Marlene paced around, parting the sea anemone every now and then for a sign of Nemo. She did not know how long the school trip would take but she worried nonetheless. After half a day of pacing, occasionally venturing out of the curtain of sea anemone, being reprimanded by her neighbours whose naps she was interrupting, she decided to take matters into her own fins. Her first stop was where she left Nemo in the morning. An apologetic Mr. Ray kept tripping over his own words as he attempted to explain Nemo’s disappearance. Marlene was furious but mostly wracked with guilt. She thought it was all her fault, and in what can be only explained as a parental instinct, she swam towards the Other side, where no fish went. At least not alone. 

Marlene had anticipated a possible barracuda attack, running into turtles, being trapped in a fishing net, being eaten by a seagull, but nothing in the world could have prepared her to be accosted by a royal blue tang, who apparently talked too much and in circles. Her name was Dory, a fact that she repeated after every four sentences because she could not remember. She could not remember who her parents were, where she lived, if she had any siblings, or how she met Marlene. Truth be told, Marlene does not remember the latter either; one minute she was swimming to the Other side and the next minute this strange fish swam up to her. After three minutes of listening to her blabber, Marlene tried to put an end to it by frantically explaining her situation. All it did was strengthen Dory’s resolve to tail her because having two pairs of eyes was better than one. Then she laughed about fish with four eyes, grew silent, and started all over again. 

If Marlene was being honest with herself, she did not mind Dory or her seemingly endless chatter. Forced to focus on her words, Marlene could not pay attention to the anxiety brewing in the pit of her stomach. She realised two things: first, Dory was right, two pairs of eyes were better than one. Second, she reminded her of Coral in ways that should have hurt but somehow did not. If she had been left to her own devices, Marlene would have blamed herself, again and again, willing a squeeze of assurance that she knew would never come. Dory’s presence quietened her mind. Or she had no time to listen to her thoughts because Dory would not stop blabbering. It was one thing to talk non-stop and it was another to expect a response, which Dory did, more frequently than required. At first Marlene would simply hum to let Dory know that she heard her but that seemed to egg her on. Then Dory started asking questions: What was Nemo like? How tiny was he? Who chose the name? What was Coral’s favourite sea shell? Did she sing? The more they talked, the more Marlene realised that it no longer hurt to talk about Coral. She possibly would have realised it sooner if she had someone to talk to. The Coral Nemo missed was his mother, and the Coral Marlene missed was her wife. Two different Corals. Nemo could not understand but Dory appeared to, judging by her smile. 

They had swum for long and their fins were aching. Marlene wanted to swim further, her mind stuck on Nemo. Dory managed to convince her to rest for some time before they would resume their search. That is how Marlene found herself in a small cove with a fish that she had only met this afternoon. When it seemed that Dory had fallen asleep, Marlene found herself pacing around again. All she could think of was Nemo. Was he safe? Was he all alone? Was he crying? Had he eaten? Was he eate-? Something poked her. A fin. Dory’s fin. For the first time in a year, Marlene found herself at an utter loss for words. Dory did not notice or she pretended not to. The last thing she expected was her wife dying but then she did. Then a year had passed. Then Nemo went missing on his first day of school. Then a strange fish found her. Then said fish touched her with her fin, in the same gentle way that her dead wife used to. For the first time since her wife’s death, Marlene found herself wondering exactly how much she had missed out on. 

When they resumed their search, Dory seemed to have taken it upon herself to cheer Marlene up. In some ways, Marlene was grateful for the distraction from her thoughts which had decided to fixate upon the former. Dory was kind, compassionate, clever, and outgoing. Her jokes were terrible but they managed to make Marlene chuckle. Sometimes she would forget the punchline but it did not matter - dorky jokes do not need a punchline, they just need to be told by the right fish. Coral, in that wonderfully charming way of hers, always said that Marlene was rather dense, which was apparently funny because they lived in a sea. In any case, any dense fish could have sensed that Dory liked Marlene the same way Marlene liked Coral the first time they met. Even the passing nest of turtles would have recognised the way Dory kept stealing glances at the other fish. For a moment, Marlene allowed herself to bask in that attention even though she knew that it was probably a selfish thing to do. She met a dork once and perhaps one was more than enough? Maybe her silence said what she could not because before she knew it, Dory had stopped talking too. Marlene wanted to say something, anything, to let her know that it was not her fault. It was just that she was not sure if she had stopped hurting. Maybe one never does, she reasoned with herself. 

Of all the places she had expected to find her son, sitting on top of an elderly turtle’s shell was not on her list. Apparently she had been lost in her thoughts when the nest swam past them but Nemo noticed her. He screamed her name but Dory’s chatter drowned it out. It was only when the awkward silence engulfed them in the early hours of the morning that they heard the faint Mamma being carried through the waves. Dory was the first one to hear it. She hesitantly touched Marlene’s fin with her own, careful not to startle her. The brief contact was soothing. Then Marlene heard it too: Nemo’s voice barreling towards them. It was not just his voice, Nemo flung himself into her arms. She could not stop sobbing. The kind turtles explained that he swam into them, far beyond the Other side, so they agreed to give him a lift back home. Throughout this, Dory stood at a polite distance, watching the mother and son reunite. She flashed a quick smile at Marlene, who returned it far more enthusiastically than she had before. In that moment, Marlene realised that Dory had been right all along - two pairs of eyes are better than one. She whispered something to Nemo and swum towards Dory. The latter awkwardly swayed in the water, seeming unsure of herself. Their parting was bound to happen, she consoled herself. Then, in a move that surprised Marlene more than anyone, Marlene squeezed Dory’s fin. Dory smiled.