Nonfiction from Jennifer Fliss

Photo: Kris Mikael Krister

My Body Is an Aquarium

Up to 60% of a woman’s body is made of water.


There was a time I was so sick I ate nothing. My illness lasted for three months and doctors could not figure out what was causing me such pain. I worked at an aquarium at the time. It was a good place to start, being young and new to town. It was a civic centerpiece of a marine city. I made friends. I walked to the office. I liked the work. I watched harbor seals frolic in the bay when I needed inspiration. It was wonderful until it wasn’t. I had no idea about the lionfish.


I moved from my home, New York, to Seattle. In my twenties still, I was young and thin and healthy. Seattle was really different.


I wonder why scientific names are always italicized. It’s like an exclusive way for the marine biologists and scientists to step in when you say “clownfish” or “seahorse.” This is how the conversation must go:

You: “So, yeah, I was just looking at this really cool starfish.”
Aquarium Staff: “Sea star.”
Marine Biologist: “Asteroidea.”


Like many aquariums, this one had touch tanks, which were a major attraction for those under four feet tall. The tanks were meant to mimic the natural habitat of the creatures within: flowing water and rock formations with little caves, presumably for the animals to seek shelter. Violet sea stars, red coral, anemones—in that soft seafoam green that so many 70s brides wanted for their bridesmaids—steeled themselves for children’s grabby hands. TV screens mounted above showed the names and the corresponding images of the animals. Volunteers hovered near to ensure proper handling. One finger only! Sea stars, urchins, shrimp, and sea cucumbers—like marine jewels—were subjected to a near constant molestation. Education! I think often of the smooth velveteen purple of a sea cucumber (Parastichopus californicus); if the creatures feel threatened, they can spill their internal organs.


Different feeling, but just as memorable were the cool gray floor tiles of the office bathroom. That is where I went when the pain became too terrible. The chill of the tiles an urgent and necessary soothing; I did not think about how I was face down on a bathroom floor, one that I was usually loathe to even place my bag. Co-workers came in and out and occasionally asked if I was ok. My husband picked me up in his 1990 teal Acura. I was not ok. They didn’t seem to care.


The aquarium had two kinds of otters: river otters (Lontra canadensis)—the kind that mess up people’s boats here in the Pacific Northwest, so they were tucked away at the end—and sea otters (Enhydra lutris). The sea otters are the cute ones. They snuggle and hold hands and scrub at their faces and crack mussels and other shellfish cutely. They are, to many people, the raison d’être of visiting the aquarium. They are the cutest! Also, they have little red penises and one time, early in the morning before the aquarium opened, when no one else was around, with only the lapping of the water of the bay as company, I came around the corner to find one of the otters masturbating. It wasn’t cute. It wasn’t awful either, but I could never see them the same again.


When the pain came on, I would lie in bed on my side, half fetal, but not completely—that would coil my insides too tight—my husband spooned me from behind and placed his big man hand on the bare skin of my stomach. The warmth was the only thing I found that eased the pain, even if just a little. About two hours after eating, the pain began as a rumble. Like a small bout of indigestion. Then like a couple rocks were in my gut, they began rubbing against each other, dancing around each other, and then the asteroids moved to crescendo into planetary banging. It would last for hours. I moaned until I fell asleep.


People always say stress lives in the body.


I was no longer in New York. The pace was different. The ethnic makeup of this new city was different. Everything felt different. This took some adjustment.

Boss: …and then they Jewed them out of money.
Me: You can’t say that.
Boss: What?
Me: Jewed. Just today you were agonizing over which was more PC, Hispanic or Latino. You can’t say “jewed.”
Boss: I’ll try. My family says it all the time. Ha ha ha.
Me: Ha.


I was hurried into a CT scan. It showed intestinal outpouching and tethering. I immediately thought of tether ball in summer camp. Not the same thing, it turns out. There followed an innumerable amount of scans, and –scopies: colonoscopy, capsule endoscopy. In the latter, you swallow a pill that contains a camera. It bumps through your GI tract filming the whole thing like that 1987 movie, Innerspace. I pictured Dennis Quaid cruising through me: “I’m right here. Inside you. Inside your body.” The problem with this, the doctor said, was that it didn’t really film everything, as the camera only faces one way. What the camera catches, it relays to a little box you wear on your hip. I got outfitted with my technologically forward set up and left for work. On the freeway, the hospital called. They gave me the wrong hip-box. So I turned around and they supposedly set it straight. The camera found nothing anyway.


The correct word is “octopuses” (because it is Greek and not Latin it’s not octopi) and they get out often. More than once, the night cleaning staff found the resident Giant Pacific Octopus (Enteroctopus dofleini) on the floor outside its tank. These remarkable cephalopods have three hearts and can open jars. They are excellent at escaping and hiding. Cells called chromatophores allow them to change color to blend into their surroundings.


In the employee handbook, along with information on sick days and vacation days and the dress code, was a section on the lionfish. How to handle it if there was an emergency and it became free of its tank. I imagined a great earthquake—you know the one, the one that’s coming to take down the entire West Coast—and finding the brown and cream striped creature on its back beside its shattered glass tank, gasping for air, and pleading help me help me, only none of us had read the handbook and so could not help and we allowed it to die.


Toxic people, like toxic fish, can cause great damage. The Marketing Director was a lionfish. But she didn’t live in a tank or a box and could easily strike any of us. And she did. Her lashings were common. She was the protective surrogate mother to my boss. So when I went to HR to ask for assistance in helping my boss and me communicate, the HR director told the lionfish, who in turn struck me. There was nothing in the handbook about her.


The only criticism I had in the first three years of my aquarium employment: “Be less direct and use more smiley faces in your emails.” This was a directive from my boss. A different boss than the one with the anti-Semitic words. Things were different here.


The doctors’ list of procedures and diagnostics was long. While I sat naked under a paper robe, the doctors issued these orders and when I untangled my tongue I asked a few questions. Their answers were either vague or remarkably detailed, filled with jargon. I nodded. Yes, yes, I understand, thanks. (I did not.) I can’t even remember all the varied tests I was subjected to. There were inks injected into me. Circular tubes to be inserted. Drinks the consistency of oatmeal or oranges gone too soft. Chalky. They were all chalky. For the nuclear scan radioactive material was injected and I had never felt such glacial cold within my body. To prep for this, there were more vile beverages. After the scan, after being told not to move at all—at all—technicians and nurses asked are you okay? Yes, yes, I am, I said and barely made it to a nearby bathroom, my shoes shrieking a warning call on the linoleum, for volumes of liquid to spill from my body. I could barely stand for the toll and the dehydration and the exhaustion. No one told me what I could eat when I got home, how I could survive. And then I paid the parking attendant and drove myself home.


The aquarium had no sharks—well, technically they did. In the big glass dome (modern from 1977!) there were dogfish (Squalus acanthius). You walked under the dome and watched dogfish, catfish, sturgeon, and others. The mini sharks often had bloody noses because they’d ram up against the glass. But there were no “real sharks” and every day I heard the cries of another disappointed child.


Here is an exhaustive list of the things I ate while in the throes of it:

• Jell-O
• chicken broth from a cube or an envelope
• milkshakes
• water


Laparoscopic surgery. Exploratory. I checked into the hospital, walked myself into the operating room and hopped up on the board. In go the drugs. I was out and woke with my teeth chattering. Frigid. The room was gray and dull, but not totally dark. Beeps and blips surrounded me. A nurse saw rather immediately that I had woken. After not too long, I attempted the bathroom on my own. Beige tiles cold under my feet. Soaps and antibacterials, urine sample cups, and the smell of sterile plastics. The room was small and yet felt like a yawning open space. In can’t-miss-it-red: PULL IN CASE OF EMERGENCY. I’d always wondered what kind of thing would make someone pull that cord. I understood now and I pulled.


Related to the dogfish is the much larger sixgill shark (Hexanchus griseus). Along the wall of the aquarium, in the shadow of the octopus tank and jellyfish ring, is a cutout shape of this large predator. Stand next to it and compare your size. You are considerably smaller, no matter how tall a human you are. The sharks can grow to fifteen feet in length. Though the aquarium didn’t have the species within the confines of the building, the animals lived in the waters beneath the pier on which the aquarium sits. Deep and solitary lives, elusive and mysterious. Their relatives have been around for 200 million years, which is a really long tenure on this earth, but some scientists now worry about their potential extinction.


“You people and the media . . .” said to me over lunch one day by the young man who ran the aquarium events.


Things I know it was: Nepotism. Egoism. Provincialism. Narcissism. Anti-Semitism.


Things they decided it was not: Irritable Bowel Syndrome, Irritable Bowel Disease, Diverticulitis, ulcerative colitis, Whipple’s Disease, Crohn’s Disease, ulcers. It was not my gallbladder, my pancreas, or my liver. It was not polyps, pyloric stenosis, mesenteric ischaemia. It was not cancer.


I was warned: never go to HR. That seemed absurd to me. Wasn’t it their job to diplomatically and professionally handle things and issues? I should have listened. Later, after I left the aquarium, over lunch with a former co-worker, it was relayed to me the things I said at my exit interview, but skewed. I wasn’t surprised.


Lionfish. Pterois volitans. Oh, the lionfish. Their red-brown and white striped bodies can grow to up to nineteen inches. Venomous spines stick out of its body. This specific type of lionfish can be found in the Pacific, but in the Southeast and Caribbean, they are considered invasive. They’re not native to that area. It is believed they were released from pet aquariums over the past few decades and the fish bred quickly and easily. There are no known predators, so the lionfish is free to do whatever it pleases with little consequence. The Florida Museum of Natural History says that “Despite the high number of ‘stings’ reported every year, this species is a very popular fish in the aquarium trade.”


There were so many cords and tubes and wires. So many needles pushed into my body. So many jabs and stabs and they still weren’t sure what was wrong with me. My husband and I were the ones who realized solid foods were the problem. We figured out a diet that kept me alive, if exhausted and malnourished. Eventually, the doctors stopped calling after the myriad tests. After a slow ramp up to regular food—a plan devised by my non-medical expert husband and me—I called the gastroenterologist’s assistant to report I was doing better. The doctor will want to see you. I said no, I will not be coming in. We have insurance. Good insurance and still we paid thousands. Mysterious line items on endless pink and blue hospital bills.


“We have to watch our shekels,” said by yet another staff member at the aquarium.


My illness has flared up many times since. Each flare, I resort to my liquid diet for a week, then slowly introduce solids. Smoothies. Rice. Shredded chicken. This plan seems to keep the illness at bay. For now.


I eventually saw another doctor. A woman. She said she agreed with the initial findings the first doctor wrote in my file. This was not shared with me. What? What was wrong with me? Why did no one tell me? Your intestines are moving around and sometimes are getting jammed into itself, she explained. I envisioned an earthworm with its rings and how it pushes back into itself to move forward. It could result in a complete blockage, the doctor told me. That’s the worry. Then there’d be emergency surgery.


During my tenure at the aquarium, I heard about how local sea stars were succumbing to some sea star disease. It’s decimating the population in the Pacific at numbers greater than they’d ever seen before. What happens, in general, is this: first the stars appear diminished, then lesions appear, decay ensues, and then it dies. This whole process happens usually within a few days. It is called Sea Star Wasting Disease.


That doctor, the one who saw me and told me what she thought was wrong with me and listened to me and acknowledged me as a human, left her practice. One month after I went to see her for my initial, healthy, consultation, I received a letter that she was leaving. Right now, I have no plan for when it happens again.


A woman’s body is more buoyant than you’d think.


Jennifer Fliss is a Seattle-based writer whose writing has appeared in PANK, The Rumpus, The Washington Post, and elsewhere, including the 2019 Best Short Fictions anthology. She is the 2018/2019 Pen Parentis Fellow and a 2019 recipient of a Grant for Artist Project award from Artist’s Trust. She can be found on Twitter at @writesforlife or via her website,

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