He started his morning shift with six different Sara(h)s, an auspicious sign for a Wednesday. They booked the shuttle on the app and he watched, incredulously, as they piled in one at a time, a grand cosmic joke about the homogeneity of white women in San Francisco. Their hair ranged in hue from seal brown to chemical blonde, and their clothes were of the same expensive ilk—drapey linen, dark, tapered denim with tailored plaid button-ups, chunky patent leather shoes that might’ve cost more than his monthly rent. Their faces? Identically lacquered: sooty powder around the eyes, lined with a dark streak of black, hair artfully tousled, and skin so glazed and even it looked like an artisan plate.
He dropped them off one by one, first along Geary and then in the Financial District and SoMa, where they teetered onto the slick sidewalk on perilously high heels before disappearing into the mouths of revolving doors. In the lobbies, he could see illuminated marquees with names like “GigaGo,” “Digivest,” and “HomeSmart,” splashy and obscene in tall sans serif. The city had changed on him, like a years-old ex you run into on the street. He remembered, from childhood, an era when the only neon lit up late-night bars, when SoMa’s visible majority was leather daddies and drifters.
On his lunch break, he went to the Embarcadero with a tuna salad sandwich and watched the tourists walk towards Pier 39. Occasionally, the wind carried the sound of a sea lion barking, so when he finished, he swatted away the pigeons and went over to the docks where they lay basking in the midday sun, large and unwieldy like wads of meat.
He’d read of seal pups washing up on Ocean Beach, losing their way en route to places he’d never been, would likely never go. The fisheries were collapsing, some said, causing the large-eyed infants to search closer inland for food. A video had gone viral of a baby scooting its tubular body over a much-trafficked curb, dazed and baleful. Pedestrians who looked just like the Sara(h)s—coiffed and casually moneyed—walked obliviously by, or paused briefly to stare, phone still affixed to their ear.
Tomas gazed at a smaller female, one of the few on the platform closest to the pier, whose mottled back looked different than the rest. He shoved his beanie down further over his ears, huddled against the wind coming off the water. He was wearing a thin windbreaker emblazoned with the crest of a country club somewhere in Marin, purchased at a thrift shop for $3.99.
“ARK!” went the female, and she looked back at him, eyes furrowed as if in frustration or curiosity, maybe both. He absentmindedly put his hands together, as if in prayer, and she reared up on her tail, at attention.
“ARK!” she yelped again.
He threw away the saran wrap he’d balled up in his pocket and left. The Sara(h)s would be awaiting their chariot.
Home was too far away, across the Bay in Pinole, so he took to eating by the lions every day. Monday’s sandwich was baloney and mayonnaise, made hastily before his 4 a.m. departure, and it tasted stale and slippery on his tongue. He threw half in the garbage and smoked a menthol. When he finished, he stubbed it out and clapped his hands together again, rubbing them against each other for warmth, and in a far corner, the speckled creature jumped up again on her tail, a runt in the cluster of brown carcasses.
She watched him again, alert, and he clapped once more. It was overcast that day; there was no one around. She swiveled in a circle and stared at him again.
“Good girl,” he said to no one at all, then left for the van lot near the Transbay Terminal.
The days passed like this, the two of them watching for each other around 11am, when he’d arrive and clap for her, so she’d stand up and swivel. Occasionally, she’d dart through the water with balletic ease, perching, wet, on the wooden docks that bobbed in the tide. Further out was the Bay, where sailboats and yachts contended with the wind and fog, dividing the water between Tomas and Oakland across the bridge.
Their maneuvers grew more graceful. He’d whip his hand in a circle and she’d wobble in a circle herself. He tried every hand gesture he could imagine, mostly to no effect, until he snapped once and she began clapping her flippers together, whooping mawkishly like an aged vaudeville star.
Crowds began to gather, mostly tourists who didn’t know better than to believe that Tomas was hired for this very purpose. A woman tried to shove a five dollar bill in his hand after the mottled sea lion—had she been wounded by a boat propeller?—executed a perfect pirouette, followed by a series of hops and a dive into the murky, oily seawater. He’d taken to calling her Bonita, sometimes Bonnie, because although she wasn’t conventionally pretty, he saw beauty in her nonetheless—her whiskered snout, her beady, anticipatory eyes. Even when he did something she didn’t understand—a gesture that wasn’t in her limited vocabulary—she’d try her best to perform, wobbling her tiny head back and forth in confusion and anticipation. He grew to love her as he loved anything that remained unchanged—glimpses at a home that had all but left him, the last vestiges before the all-consuming metamorphosis. The small outdoor roller rink in Golden Gate Park; the dusty interior of his abuela’s San Carlos apartment; the high school kids that skateboarded beneath the underpass; a slice from North Beach, eaten in the solitude of a dark bar at midday; Bonita.
So she humored the eager passersby, the children and adults, the visitors and the employees of the nearby restaurants, who came out in their aprons. Camera crews showed up once for a news segment, on which animal specialists were consulted, furrowing their brows at this curious arrangement. Had she been a circus performer? Was Tomas secreting her fish? Was this an evolutionary development or a genetic mutation caused by all the pot that drained into the water? They broadcast his face on KRON 4. They asked him question after question. These things didn’t trouble him; she was simply special, and she had chosen Tomas.
The passengers rarely spoke on his daily routes, which began before the sun rose, but when they did, it was banal chatter he’d learned to tune out—office politics, relationship woes, app talk. He had a chatty cluster of Kates one Friday in June who leaned back and forth over the seats to look at each other’s identical faces, the reflections of their Apple Watches bouncing on the upholstered roof.
“Do you know what I heard?” said one, a hoarse twenty-something he’d picked up near Tiki Vic’s, deep into the foggy avenues where college students binge-drank piña coladas and Scorpion bowls. “There’s this seal at Pier 39 who does, like, tricks and stuff. This guy taught her all these cute little moves. I’m totally taking my team there at lunch today.”
“That’s so cute!” said another, reaching across the armrest to put her hand on the first girl’s shoulder. He stared forward at the road, which narrowed near Japantown.
“Sea lion,” he said. “I think they’re sea lions.”
The women looked up as if they’d forgotten he was there.
“Right,” she said eventually. “Sea lion.”
He drove on, the city growing denser around them. By the time he reached SoMa, the bright company fixtures glaring through their glass fronts, he’d emptied the van, and dread, like a swallowed seed, began to ferment in his stomach.
When he parked in the lot before lunchtime, he had a strange suspicion that something would go awry, and jogged the two miles from the van to the pier. It was slightly, imperceptibly warmer, and he found himself in shirtsleeves, staring at the water, the docks less congested with huge brown bodies than normal. He searched for Bonita and found no trace of her small, gymnastic form.
“Bonnie,” he called out, but he looked crazy, and the rest of the sea lions barely lifted their heads, more lethargic even than normal. The tourists walked by in their fluorescent t-shirts and bucket hats. The city blinked in the new sunlight; a crisp summer was creeping over the Bay, descending with its music festivals, its bottles of rosé, flip-flops, barbecues, and Bonita migrating South, every creature true to its kind. And what kind was he?
He left before anyone could notice the absence of the daily show. He left his sandwich for the gulls. He strode past the ferry building, into the bowels of the BART station, and caught a train headed East, towards home, away from the piers and the glowing start-ups, reminders of a life that wasn’t, would never be, his.
LINNIE GREENE is a writer in San Francisco. She has written for The New York Times, The Millions, The Rumpus, Pacific Standard, Joyland, F(r)iction, and Hobart, where her essay on Twin Peaks was a notable mention in The Best American Essays 2015. She works as a marketing assistant at Stanford University Press. She’s on Twitter as @linnievii.