Otter

By

“I dreamed in a dream of a city where all the men were like brothers”
–Walt Whitman, “Live Oak, with Moss”

I was hella lonely, as they would say there, in my Bay Area neighborhood of baby strollers pushed by techies staring down at their phones, in the swipe-left-swipe-right world of cyberspace where I spent too much time. Loneliness would pulse in my teeth until they ached. I found myself shirtless one night looking into the bathroom mirror, grabbing hold of one love handle and pushing it back. I leaned to one side, heard my restless father say, “All my life I’ve wanted to belong to something.” Heard my Castro therapist declare, “I don’t think you know who you are.” Her clothes, her hair, and her armchair were all black, so during our sessions, she was a just pale face. Then I raked at my chest hair and took a shirtless selfie with the phone I used to text my mother and read Shakespeare. I stood up straight and scowled. My mind replayed the young Pacific Heights doctor telling me on a date, while cradling my head in his hands, “You’re so cute I should take a box cutter to your face—to bring you down some notches.” I had to get away from San Francisco—to get away from men, to go smell the cold ocean and put my arm in it up to my elbow. But more than anything, as my thirty-fifth birthday neared, I wanted to see otters in the wild.

Everyone in my family but me had an animal when I was growing up in Florida. Not a pet, mind you—they were too much mess and fuss—but a goofy mascot, an unspiritual spirit animal, which together seemed caricatures of power and powerlessness. My father was a moose; my mother a sheep; my grandfather a bear; my grandmother a mouse. In true Florida fashion, my poor brother was a mosquito, though my mother decorated his bedroom with mallard ducks. “They’re masculine,” she would say. She said the same of the nautical, colonialist theme she chose for my room: Christopher Columbus’s ship framed above the twin bed’s baseboard, a fake brass dive helmet on the dresser. Beside the door was a small giraffe, a holdover from my nursery, where my crib cage protected me from the zoo animals stalking the wallpaper. Gnawing on the white vertical bars, I would stare at the periscope of a neck, the synthetic tufts of black and yellow.

In ordinary ways, usually egged on by my mother, my family’s animals expressed themselves through their human counterparts. It began, maybe, when she was a child riding on her father’s back past the dining room table into the kitchen. A brilliant Army colonel, first in his class at West Point, he pawed at the air, growling like a grizzly. When I was in grade school, my grandparents and I would squeak and grrr at one another over the phone—we were trying, I think, to express inexpressible affection, a love blurred with play, made urgent by Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. And for every holiday, my mother managed to buy each of us a moose-themed Hallmark card to give my father, who had a bushy Tom Selleck “moose-stache.” Not a creature was stirring, not even a moose, one card read. Merry Kissmoose. When pleased with a good grade or a clean room, she might baaa and exclaim, “Hoof check!” and my brother and I would hold up our “hooves,” our hands making a sort of live-long-and-prosper sign. A waiter would tell us about the mutton special, and she would declare, as if we had religious objections, “Heavens, no, we don’t eat lamb,” and give us a wry, dire smile. Mint jelly made her grimace. She even had a plush toy named Brownie—her lamb daughter, an ovine teddy bear bought on sale at JCPenney on Black Friday. Sometimes Brownie, who was actually a light beige, would join us at the breakfast table for cheeseburgers and Pringles. Through my mother’s high-pitched ventriloquizing, Brownie would offer foul commentary.

“You’re stinky.”

“I love apples.”

“Barbara Bush looks like a linebacker!”

My family members, I should make clear, never tried to resemble their animals, like the burly man I met in Papua New Guinea who was ritually scarred to resemble a crocodile, the most sacred creature of the Sepik River. Not part of some cosmic mythology, the five creatures were simplified, playful, necessary identities—masks to don when my family’s more authentic selves were too scary or boring. They were a way for us to pretend that abuse had never occurred, or had been a form of love. A form of dissociation.

“So what’s my animal?” I would ask Mother.

“You’re a Pegory,” she would say, and even with prodding, her answer never went beyond those three words. I felt left out; I felt special. When I was a baby, a very big one, she would bounce me on her knee and say in a halting, singsongy way, “GREgory—is PEgory—a bouncing baby BOY!” I’m told I would smile and gurgle and giggle. What this mythical creature Pegory looks like I still don’t know, but I picture a mindless sprite with a pot belly, a round, furry face, and a few tentacles reaching out to steady itself.

Needing, perhaps, to carry on the family tradition, I’ve given animal names to the three long-term partners I’ve had as an adult—Lemur, Raccoon, and Seahorse, respectively. Lemur called me Greggie. Seahorse called me Slugger (he was also Coach). Raccoon half-heartedly called me Giraffe, but only to make me happy.

Even at thirty-five, I wonder—what is my animal?

*

At the beginning of this decade, gay culture’s label for a fairly slim, hairy fellow—“otter”—took off, a trimmer version of a cub or bear. In Northern California I was a textbook example of one, I suppose. My beard, which I couldn’t stop touching when I was nervous, was big. I didn’t shave my body hair, which had a totemic, lumbersexual power there that it absolutely did not in the South. In dangerous situations, standing tall with all that hair, wearing flannel and boots, and lowering my voice could have meant the difference between being left alone and beaten up. My look was not simply a hipster fad. Ask the victims of hate crimes every year at San Francisco Pride (though butching it up would have meant nothing to Omar Mateen at the Pulse Nightclub).

I planned a long weekend ninety minutes south in Santa Cruz, where my hero Adrienne Rich spent her final twenty years. Observing sea otters cavorting in Monterey Bay, getting as close as the Marine Mammal Protection Act allowed, I hoped to better understand the animal label that men online and at bars were giving me. When confronted with real sheep at a petting zoo, my mother was relatively unimpressed. The emblem, not the animal, mattered. We swatted mosquitoes, made no pilgrimages to Vermont to see bears and moose. I wanted to get as close as possible to my potential animal totem.

I also hoped to meet, away from the Bay, an earthy, less jaded man, someone who would slow me down and love me. So I posted a Craigslist ad with the subject “Visiting Otter.” In it I announced—in strategically euphemistic, breezy, all-lowercase language—“i’m coming to santa cruz next week to research sea otters and would like to meet good guys to get beers with and see what happens,” and included a measurement I’d rather not repeat here.

Jake was the first guy to respond. Beside him in his pic was a carved pronghorn wearing a leather mask. Behind him was a tapestry of a big buck in a mountain meadow.

*

At a beach several miles up the Pacific Coast Highway from Santa Cruz—that’s where Jake and I agreed to meet. I got there early and felt as if I had entered a different dimension, one in which there is no cell service, and a few men, wandering the cliffs above, seemed on perpetual alert for oncoming enemy ships. As I sat on the beach waiting for him, a bit spooked and catching my breath, slathering on SPF 30 but convinced that my body hair, not my skin, was absorbing most of it, the wind got chilly. Up the beach, a short man was slowly walking along the edge of a river. As he charged them, hundreds of gulls scattered. I put my hoodie back on, keeping him in the corner of my eye, and scanned the sea. Nothing but rough waves and spume and the occasional drifting kelp bulb. The southern sea otter, I had read, prefers calm waters.

I stood up to stretch and saw Jake walking down the dune path. He was a handsome, gentle man with a swimsuit-calendar body. He was frowning. Was he anticipating rejection? Or was I too hairy? Not fit enough? Within the first ten minutes, as if to convince me to be wary, he told me that he couldn’t work full-time because of a disability; he hadn’t had a boyfriend in ten years; he grew and sometimes sold “medicine,” which I can attest today is the dankest organic bud this side of Mendocino. Nothing he said fazed me. We soon found a sheltered spot to sunbathe at the foot of a low brambly cliff. “The rangers won’t bother us here,” he said.

As I brought up my “research,” he unconsciously began to rub his tan, mostly smooth chest and stomach. In an area of otter fur the size of a postage stamp, I told him, there are around a million hairs, while the typical human head has a total of 100,000 hairs. Between his pecs he fluffed curly gray hairs. “Months of dry brushing gave me those,” he said, his voice cracking a bit. He wished he were a true otter or bear, he quickly admitted. He said that after years of being rejected by men for being too smooth, he now avoids gatherings of hairy men—it’s simply too painful. Of his older brother, who is considerably hairier, he simply said, “It’s not fair.” With a flourish of mild disgust, he gestured to little bumps I hadn’t noticed on his sides. “Must be my well water,” he said in his SoCal surfer way.

Then a clean-shaven man in a black bomber jacket walked onto the beach, his blondish-gray hair carefully parted. “Watch your step,” Jake said. “That’s Seaweed Man.”

“Who?”

“He puts kelp bulbs in his butt.”

“Gracious!”

“Then throws them back onto the sand.”

Horrified, my mind churned, thinking of a documentary I’d seen on kelp and climate change. Without otters, the kelp that Seaweed Man collected for internal use would rarely wash ashore. Sea urchins, with their five self-sharpening teeth, eat the holdfasts of kelp at the ocean bottom, causing the 100-foot plants to drift away like balloons released by a child’s hand. The forest ecosystem collapses and in its place is a virtual wasteland called an urchin barren. Once otters return the situation reverses: they take out the rocks they store in pouches under their arms and crack the urchins open, eating up to a third of their body weight daily. Until 1938, when a small population was discovered under Bixby Bridge in Big Sur, sea otters were considered extinct in California due to overhunting. Since then, otter populations have rebounded, and so too have kelp forests, one of the most efficient carbon absorbers of CO2 around. Recent research by Chris Wilmers and John Estes indicates that kelp ecosystems absorb twelve times more greenhouse gasses when otters are present. The extra carbon that North Pacific kelp forests sequester every year because of otters is equivalent to taking at least three million passenger cars off the road.

So, given this research, I don’t really judge you, Seaweed Man. You’re an extreme example of biologist E. O. Wilson’s biophilia hypothesis (“the innate emotional affiliation of human beings with other living organisms”), and I think you mean well. Who wouldn’t want to merge with something so alive and purifying when so much else seems like a dead, oppressive lie? Maybe all of your family had plant names but you. But don’t you also wish that you were hairy enough to be called “otter”? Otters won’t be our ultimate saviors, not at all, but they are adorable helpers, slowing our accelerating, slow-motion undoing.

*

The next day I fantasized about renting a tandem kayak with another otter dude at Elkhorn Slough, the best place in California to see wild otters. That didn’t happen. Jake couldn’t come—we were never able to commit to one another—and no one else promising had responded to my Craigslist ad. So, with cheap binoculars, I went alone.

Looming over the estuary were the tall twin stacks of the Moss Landing Power Plant, which emits 3.5 megatons of CO2 a year burning methane. But in a kelp ecosystem roughly the size of West Virginia, Wilmers calculated, the presence of otters annually results in 4.4 to 8.7 more megatons of CO2 being removed from the atmosphere. That’s a soberingly small difference between the two sets of figures, and the world currently has plans for around 1,200 coal-fired power plants. Above me, Priuses whooshed over the Pacific Coast Highway bridge as I paddled against the tide into the estuary; a big rig blasted its horn. An unbearable smell blew in from the nearby dairy farms and the stained, floating dock where a seal colony lazed. I headed to the opposite bank lined with eucalyptus, my paddle cutting through brown froth.

Several minutes later a second otter popped up, this one whiter, and floated on his back, rubbing his ears in circles, like a hairdresser shampooing above a client’s ears, and he moved on to scrubbing his diamond-shaped nose pad. He kicked his webbed hind feet, barrel-rolling as he swam away. Another otter appeared to bite his neck playfully and roll on with him.

I kept paddling.

I came to Seal Bend, where I saw what looked like a partially submerged oyster bed. It was actually, I realized as I got closer, forty or so otters congregating in what is called a raft. At Elkhorn Slough rafts nearly always consist of males floating close together, often holding paws. It was an adorable sight. Down from a couple of beached seals, I paddled my kayak up onto a sandbar to watch the raft, a distant truck beeping as it backed up. One otter, perhaps the watchman, floated opposite me, intently staring at me between his hind feet, the soles of which faced me. It reminded me of lying supine in bed as a child with my feet pointed up, wiggling my big toes, pretending my feet were squirrels talking to one another, hoping my brother wouldn’t suddenly open my door. Pushing off from the sandbar, I headed to the side of the raft, paddling swiftly, euphoric to see so many otters, giving them a wide berth but still close, and some lines from Whitman came to me, the otters swimming closer and closer to one another—

I will plant companionship thick as trees along all the rivers of America, and along the shores of the great lakes, and all over the prairies
I will make inseparable cities, with their arms about each other’s necks
__________By the love of comrades,
_____________By the manly love of comrades.

Tenderness; acceptance; solidarity; safe, platonic touch; even basic safety—when had I felt them with a group of men? Not at Little League, where in elementary school I was always publicly chosen last by my coaches and exiled to the outfield. Not in a chat room or a bar. Not with my brother and father.

Forty otters made me want something that seemed impossible.

They dove all at once and were gone.

*

The first wild otter I ever saw, though, was alone. He was less than twenty miles to the northwest, off Seal Rock, in sight of the boardwalk amusement park in Santa Cruz. Paddling out to the submerged forest, excitement turning into disappointment, I mistook several large kelp bulbs for otter heads. Then I found an otter, with a blond face, floating on his back, wrapped in kelp to keep from floating away. To anchor myself, just as the woman at the rental shop had suggested, I hurriedly wrapped a strand of kelp around my wrist. He eyed me indifferently, his paws together as if to pray but in fact to keep the pads of them warm. He yawned. Then he fell asleep.

I wondered if the otter was lonely; he was certainly cute. On my online dating profile, I used to declare that I wanted an otter as the ring bearer at my wedding. I thought it a wholesome, quirky image to liquefy the heart of a future husband. “Imagine it padding down the aisle,” I wrote, “with a cushion on its back.” As I let go of the kelp and paddled away, I wanted to doze in safety with an equal. Comrades who wouldn’t use me. Who could see me exactly as I was.

*

One cloudy day I nearly googled away, I found a research paper by with the title “Lesions and Behavior Associated with Forced Copulation of Juvenile Pacific Harbor Seals (Phoca vitulina richardsi) by Southern Sea Otters (Enhydra lutris nereis).” It had been referenced in a slew of shocked blog posts and nature articles with titles like “Otter-be Ashamed of Yourself.” Dr. Heather S. Harris and her colleagues found that male sea otters, to put it bluntly, are necrophiliac, pedophiliac rapists. They will have intercourse with a baby seal—male or female—until it dies, and hold onto the body for up to a week, using it from time to time for their own pleasure. Sometimes victims are female otters: a tenth of mating attempts, in fact, are lethal for them. The research paid special attention to classifying the various types of trauma, most of which occurred at Elkhorn Slough. An otter, like a raccoon, is perpetually hard, and its penis is long, longer than the average American’s. So it is unsurprising that as the otters violate their victims, a large air bubble (a “severe pneumoperitonem”) often forms in the victim’s abdomen. An image I can’t shake is that of a female otter victim “floating on the surface with a markedly inflated abdomen and attempting unsuccessfully to dive. Her carcass was recovered the following day after biologists observed one of the tagged males drag­ging it through the water and attempting copula­tion.” I had a difficult time getting through the article and won’t quote any more of it here.

But in another horrific case observed at Monterey in May 2011, a male otter went up to a male seal pup onshore and tried immobilizing him with his mouth and front paws. The pup soon escaped to the water, but the otter chased him and grabbed his head, chomping down on his nose again and cutting it badly. For a quarter of an hour, perpetrator and victim spun around in the water, thrashing so wildly that at times they were indistinguishable. After 105 minutes, the pup was dead. The otter released him. The otter began grooming himself.

*

After getting to the end of the article, the room was too small, my body was a clenched fist. Panic, nausea. I picked at my beard. Still, tenderness for the seal pup fluttered through me as at once coldness and heat. I identified with him intensely, not the otter, in ways I couldn’t fully grasp. Memories surfaced, an alarm ringing through my being—

I’m not going to describe those flashbacks of image and emotion, or how I learned as a child to equate love with violation, how that conditioning plays out now in my bed or in the back of some stranger’s SUV. As Mark Doty writes of his and Whitman’s sex lives, “Ask the collector, the curator, the accumulator of sexual experience, the person who touches and touches what he desires: he is making, on paper or in his head or in his dream-life, a list.” You don’t really want my list, and I’m not going to read it to you. In California, after stretches of feeling disgusting, I convinced myself I was superior to the world. And so I retreated from it and tried, like Rilke locked in a tower, to write poems and “be spiritual.” Once the loneliness would get unbearable, I sought out the kaleidoscopic offerings of meaningless sex: pleasure, punishment, validation, and numbness. I didn’t seek, as Doty puts it, “to know the men who moved through my nights like passing comets.” Mostly they moved through my San Francisco sky like dim, sooty meteorites. Many of my “comrades” could say the same.

I didn’t know who I was. I wanted to belong to something, to stop bringing myself down so many notches.

Otters repulsed me.

Hold my hand and float with me—

*

Today I got a massage in Virginia, where I’ve just moved: it’s slower here in the Shenandoah Valley; warmhearted people look me in the eye and smile; I take full breaths; even after several months, I have more friends than I ever did after six years in San Francisco. As Michael began to work on me, I imagined he was oiling up all of these paragraphs, some incarnated version of them lying face down on a table. I imagined his pressing into the gaps between sections where a black dot smolders, into what has been left unsaid, kneading the names of my family members, of Jake, Seaweed Man, scientists, and past partners, so that they might finally say what I don’t know how to. At one point, he forced his elbow into a tight, tender place below my back left hip and kept it there a long time. Then he put one of my hands behind my back and ran his elbow slowly underneath my protruding shoulder blade, and I stupidly thought some epiphany about sex and identity—about emblems and animals, about the traumatized, restless body and mind, about the goddamn paradox of being human—would come, like oil pressed from acorns, so I could end this essay. And interrupt this cycle of desire and alienation, and not need a totem.

I could end by recounting the game night I went to last night with two gay married couples and a chemistry professor. Although we played a particularly racy version of Cards Against Humanity, there was love in that living room—a nourishing, uncomplicated love that only gay men can give one another in a society inimical to our very existence. I looked over at one of those couples, Rob and Chip, and remembered when they answered their door the night I arrived to town: they handed me my apartment key and a pint of blueberries they had picked. In that moment, after years encased in self-hatred and distrust, it was easy to see the ending of California, the start of a new, simpler life of less holding on, less holding back. I would be embarrassed to tell them, but I savored those berries as if they could bring me into communion with the Earth herself, her dogwoods and chrysalises, her smallpox and bull kelp, her redwoods, mud-puddling swallowtails, river otters and sea otters—the brain and hands of David Duke and Harriet Tubman, Omar Mateen and Harvey Milk—linking me, at last, with love stripped of fear. With the creative, destructive intelligence that cannot be tamed.

After all this self-involved questing, I can say that my sex life doesn’t make me akin to an otter and neither does my body hair. I want to be more loving, more tender, but the darkness inside me isn’t going anywhere soon. I want community where I feel safe and held, but not one that will define me with stupid, airbrushed labels: my face is not an emoji; my being is not an online profile. Given what we know about mammals, my deep yearning to be cherished by only one person isn’t actually natural. Cherish yourself instead, I could tell myself, be kind to yourself. Be less narcissistic. Text your mother.

I will end with her.

At seventy, she’s not so interested in sheep anymore. Brownie has been put away. She has pets now, two tuxedo alley cats, Sylvester and Miri. And a giant hedgehog boot brush, which I gave her last year. Henrietta is her name, she decided. “Nein! Nein!” she makes Henrietta shriek with a spot-on German accent.

One afternoon before I left California, my mother was visiting me. We were walking along Monterey Bay and at one point I offhandedly asked if she had long-term care insurance, which would defray the costs of a nursing home if she ever needed it. (She is in perfect health—but I worry, I don’t want her to suffer, don’t want her to die.) Glaring at me, she said, “Do you think I have Alzheimer’s? Because I don’t.” I tried to explain that wasn’t what I meant, but she was furious and didn’t say much more that afternoon.

Eventually we came to Lover’s Point and shared an ocean-side bench. She pulled her windbreaker hood over her head. She crossed her arms. In silence I watched the bobbing kelp bulbs.

“Hey, Mother, there’s an otter!” I exclaimed, pointing to a big one.

“Looks like a log.”

My eyes blurred with tears. “He’s sleeping,” I croaked.

“I think—yes, I think I see it now.”

I took several big breaths, staring at the milky clouds obscuring the sun. “You think I look like one?”

“Not really,” she said, adjusting her wool mittens, pulling them on tight. “Why on earth do you ask?”

***

Rumpus original art by Cody Bubenik.


Greg Wrenn's first book, Centaur, was selected by Terrance Hayes for the Brittingham Prize in Poetry. His poems and essays have appeared in The New Republic, AGNI, The Kenyon Review, and elsewhere. A former Stegner Fellow and Jones Lecturer at Stanford University, he is an assistant professor of English at James Madison University. He is currently at work on an environmental memoir about a remote, pristine coral reef. More from this author →