New York |

Mary Lee

by Nicola DeRobertis-Theye

edited by Kyle Lucia Wu

The heat was just starting to fade that October when the shark first appeared off the coast. I noticed the change while biking home from the lab at night, and when I undressed in my apartment by the river I saw that my mosquito bites, which had swelled to the width of tapas plates, had finally begun to shrink. The ping from the shark’s satellite tag had come in my third month of graduate school, and there was great excitement—we were marine biologists, or would be, and we’d all been following the tagging experiments up north off the coast of Cape Cod. A sixteen-foot long female white shark at least fifty years old, she surfaced a few miles off of the fishing pier at the beach. The local news followed her excitedly—it was a month past the end of tourist season, and the only people in the water were the surfers, most of whom, when interviewed, treated the newscasters with such distain that they had barely any usable clips. They’d had to resort to shots of waves against spindly legs of the pier, pelicans flying in angular groups overhead, looking threatening, prehistoric.


My lab studied a one-molecule ocean creature that had a long, hyphenated name with words from three languages. We just called them Freddies. When I had trouble falling asleep at night I would recite its hierarchy to myself: Protozoa, Ciliophora, Ciliatea, Spirotricha, Oligotrichida, Tintinnina, Ptychocylididae, Favella, Favella arcuata. It charmed me, that a level would often repeat a syllable or two of the one before it, as if the list were a poem. I’d wanted to study whales since I was young, but hadn’t every marine biologist? By the time I was in my third year of college I knew I would never be selected by those professors, for those research trips. I began to aim lower, finding in the nooks of the department the experiments that were mostly ignored—ignored, but funded. So here I was, in a small city in a southern state I’d never visited before moving to it, with the favella, a statue downtown commemorating the Virtues of Confederate Manhood, and a group of labmates I referred to privately as the island of misfit toys. I was determined to love this little ciliate. And sometimes I did, when the structure under the microscope resembled a champagne flute, when I watched them struggling to move in the bit of water on the slide, propelled only by their tiny hairs.


I’d arrived in North Carolina that August, in a taxi from an airport I found unnervingly close to the town—if I was outside when a plane came in it always seemed as if I could reach upwards and touch its belly. My grandmother had moved there a few months before. She’d bought a beach condo suddenly that spring, found online, announcing she could no longer stand Arizona, that she wanted to be by the water. Everyone in the family was sure she’d been scammed, so when she and my father debarked the plane he was still thinking of contingency plans. But when they arrived at the complex, there was, in fact, a real estate agent waiting for them with two sets of keys. “I got the feeling,” my father had said when he came back, “that she’s been planning this a long time.” The real estate agent was a man in his late twenties already sagging under the eyes and at the belly, and as they toured the apartment my grandmother would compare features disparagingly to the pictures he had sent her. It was clear which of them had gotten the better of the other, my mother told me my father had said.

I knew that my father was hurt she hadn’t chosen the West Coast—my parents lived in Santa Cruz, after all, they also had a beach. My mother asked him why one evening, in her gentle way, and he’d sighed and said she’d said it was cheaper, that she didn’t like the fog. I wondered, though, if it the sudden need to leave Arizona had to do with my cousin Amy, who, we’d recently discovered, lived in Tucson as well. “Listen,” my dad had said when I’d answered the phone, mid-application season, after he’d returned from helping my grandmother move in, “We’d never ask you to do anything, but what if you applied to Wilmington as well?”


The shark pinged again three weeks later—this time she was only about five miles up the coast. The built-in GPS attached to her dorsal fin was capable of tracking her anywhere in the world, it would ping a satellite whenever the device surfaced above water. When I looked at the online map of her movements on my computer I saw she had been not far at all from the beach. It was unusual for a shark to stay so close to the same area—these white sharks were capable of traveling hundreds of miles in a single week. I had read that she was named after the head biologist’s mother—he’d waited, he said, for an appropriately formidable female. Mary Lee.

The day after the second ping, a Sunday, I arrived early for my regular dinner at my grandmother’s condo, perhaps with the thought of helping her cook or clean, unable to shake the idea that she was old and I should be taking care of her, thinking of the tentative way my mother asked if I had been checking in. “Your father worries,” she’d said. It was strange, having never lived in the same place as my grandmother, to now be navigating a relationship unmediated by my parents. I felt guilty for not spending more time with her—my parents were helping with my tuition, part of the reason I’d chosen UNCW, but the times I tried to make plans outside of our regular Sunday dinners she acted awkwardly, would reschedule or change our plans at the last minute. “You don’t need to spy on me for your father,” she’d said once. My father sighed when I asked for advice. “She’ll do exactly what she wants to do,” he had said. “Best not to try to change her mind.”

I was only a little surprised, then, to find she wasn’t home. I sat in the outdoor stairwell waiting for her, looking over the railing at the water. From my low angle, just a story up from ground level, the surfers sitting atop their boards instead appeared to be standing in the water, stoically facing me, their boards covered by the rise of closer waves. I shivered. There was someone swimming beyond the surfers, parallel to the beach, out past the break of the waves. I watched the yellow swim cap appear and disappear in the swells. As the figure made its way out of the water I realized that the swimmer was elderly. It took me longer than it should have to recognize my grandmother.

“Are you okay?” I called as she walked across the sand below me, the water gleaming off her calves, an enormous towel held loosely over her shoulders. I followed as she climbed the stairs. “Don’t you need a wetsuit?”

She gave me a look that I read as disappointment. “It’s bathwater out there right now,” she said. “It won’t be cold enough for that until January.”

I’d known she swum laps in Arizona—her body had always had a taut quality that belied her age—but it had never occurred to me that she’d continued here, in the ocean. “Why don’t you use the condo pool?” I asked.

She extracted a key from a hidden zippered pouch in her bathing suit and unlocked the door. “That’s a kiddy pool,” she said. “I like to swim a full mile.” The towel she was wrapped in was comically large on her small frame, but I could see now that under it she was shivering. She went into the bedroom, emerging a few minutes later in a robe.

“Don’t you know about the shark?” The words left my mouth before they’d formed in my mind.

“Well that would be exciting, wouldn’t it?”

“It pinged again,” I said. “Yesterday.” She didn’t answer, and began unloading the dishwasher in the open kitchen, her back to me, stacking and unstacking glasses, trying to arrange them to fit into the small cabinets. Her bones seemed suddenly as brittle as the glass in her hands.

“It’s my routine,” she said, after she’d finished. “It’s what I do. I’m not going to change it because there’s the smallest chance. If I start making excuses I’ll just get fat and die.”

I turned to look out at the view. My grandmother, I’d come to realize throughout my youth, hated obese people with a strength of feeling I didn’t understand. I dressed carefully when I visited her, terrified she would notice the weight I’d gained since moving here, this city where a pint Yuengling cost two dollars, where I’d first encountered pulled pork, new forms of fried starch. It was one of the many topics I was learning to avoid in conversation with her.


The shark began to appear more frequently. Sometimes she pinged twice in one day, once within the same afternoon. The short red lines drawn between her locations on the GPS map had the erratic angularity of children’s stars. For a few days she’d wandered as far down as Myrtle Beach, but she always came back. My grandmother continued to swim every afternoon. I was starting to invent reasons to text her around dinnertime, just so I’d be sure she’d returned. Still alive, she’d begun to respond.

In the lab that night, I spread a premade tuna mix onto a sheath of crackers I’d brought from home. We were stimulating our tank of Freddies with electricity, so that there was a pulse of light every three minutes, making the dark lab illuminate as if it were a shock of lightening. Every twenty-four minutes I recorded the results—so far, all signs were pointing to inconclusive, but still we’d keep at it for another three months. Sometimes the Freddies froze, found later as microscopic sediment on the bottom of the tank, and sometimes they continued as if unaware. In between the flashes of light, I watched twenty-two minute episodes of Cheers on my laptop, racing to record my observations so as not to fall behind and have the episodes escape their confines. My eyes were brought involuntarily to the tank every three minutes after the pulse, landing only after it was dark, the speed of human muscle proven again and again to be slower than the speed of light.

Sometimes during these nights in the lab I watched videos of bow whales swimming underwater. I found it peaceful, how their large bodies undulated. They were so huge that they didn’t need to make accommodations for anything, just proceeded along their way, their forms thick and unelegant. I could see why the humpback was more beautiful. But the bowheads were powerful, capable of using their own bodies as battering rams to break through arctic ice.

At eleven Arthur came in to relieve me. He was quiet and very tall, from Minnesota. I often wondered if he was in love with our professor, who was beautiful and had been born in Thailand and who would sometimes bring her three young children into the lab to visit, but most of the other graduate students assumed he was gay. He opened the door just as a blast of light hit the tank, and I started. I’d been imagining the shark again, lifting out of the water, nose breaking the waves. Sometimes they rolled on the surface to show their girth, to intimidate their prey.

Arthur was usually working these overnight shifts; even though the students assigned to the lab were supposed to rotate, somehow it was frequently him being relieved at seven o’clock in the morning, bleary-eyed from the overnight. I’d made sure to make a fresh pot of coffee before he’d arrived—though we weren’t close I felt silently protective of him, and the half-wounded, half-bewildered expression he wore when he thought no one was observing him.

We’d once had a conversation about how we admired the Freddies for their simplicity of action. Everything was a preprogramed response, a reaction to stimuli without thought or wavering. The Freddies nibbled on plant-like molecules their own size, were eaten by other, slightly larger, forms of life. How simple it must be, I still thought, to float along through an ocean and have everything one encounters be either predator or prey.


We’d all found out about my cousin Amy the summer before I started college. It was clear to me then that I was on some sort of borderline within the family. They didn’t make sure I was out of the room before talking about it, but neither did anyone tell me directly, so that everything I knew I’d had to piece together from half-conversations I was not included in.

Amy had contacted the Catholic agency after her adoptive mother had died. Her father, she had said, was in a nursing home—dementia. They were older, closer to fifty than to forty when she’d become theirs. They’d never wanted her to look, but what did it matter now? Amy was significantly older than all of us cousins, with three girls of her own, all teenagers. When she’d found out my Aunt Judy had passed away years before, she’d said, oh, quietly, into the phone. My Uncle Steve had cleared his throat, and offered the information, though, that he was her father.

Steve and Judy had eloped as soon as the baby was taken away, as soon as the hospital had let Judy out. They had two more children, later. Amy had two full siblings. I had also been raised an only child, and discovering I had another family, a large family, one in which I had brothers and sisters, was something I had often imagined in my childhood. I wondered if she had, too. It was my grandmother who had put Judy in the home for the duration of her pregnancy, who’d made her give the baby up. But that’s what happened then, everyone said, now.

I asked my mother if my dad had known. With my friends it was an explosive story, my secret cousin, but my family had always had a Midwestern quietness about large events. It was only years after they had passed that we would talk about them, like when my father had casually mentioned my grandfather’s alcoholism, almost a decade after his death. I had been too young to read any connection to liver failure when he’d died. My father had been too young when it happened, my mother thought. “There were a few years in his childhood when he didn’t see Judy and Steve. I guess now he knows why.” She’d added after a pause, “Your grandmother has never compromised in her Catholicism.” My mother would have known; she’d had to convert to marry my father.


I’d been to the small town in Illinois my grandmother was from, about an hour and a half drive from Chicago. We were on vacation in the Midwest, and my father had said we might as well. We’d met with some great-aunt or second cousin who’d served us pineapple upside down cake, syrupy and still warm. My grandmother’s family was descended from immigrants who’d come from the Catholic part of Germany to Illinois in the mid-1800s, and these generations had passed on very little in the way of ethnic identity to the generations I knew, except for what I observed as a rigid practicality. My grandmother had raised two younger siblings after their parents had died and her older brother had left for the war, had put herself through exactly as much college as she thought she needed. The town had the smallest church I’d ever seen, surrounded by fields of corn. Some of the older gravestones were written in German. “This must have been where everyone was baptized,” my father had said.

It was on this trip that we met Amy for the first time—it was in fact the whole reason we were in the Midwest. My father and his two remaining sisters, Steve, and most of the cousins of my generation had a reunion on the shore of Lake Michigan with the rest of the family that had stayed there. But I never, the whole weekend, heard anyone even mention my grandmother—her absence, her role in the drama. It’s as if we all preferred to think of the forced adoption—for that’s what it was, really—as some sort of unstoppable event only attributable to nature, some kind of divine will. A flash flood, perhaps, or an earthquake. How else to explain how suddenly and irreversibly Amy had been taken from her parents.

I’d been only thirteen when Judy had died of leukemia, and hadn’t gotten to the point where I thought of the adults in my life—the aunts and uncles I saw as a group each summer—as individuals, with their own histories, their own secrets. I respected Steve and Judy’s estrangement from my grandmother, when I had found out. And I wondered what it had been like, raising their first child together—their first child who was really their second.


I had once kissed Arthur impulsively at a party, both of us drunk. It came less from a feeling of lust, we’d been far enough into graduate school to have seen the first wave of single students pairing off, rather I thought it sprung from a growing sense that the two of us were being left behind. We were on a porch bench and the aggressive sound of the cicadas competed with the music from inside. If we had been standing I would have had to bend his face down to meet mine, but sitting next to each other I simply leaned in quickly while he was describing summer thunderstorms by his family’s lake house. It was brief, and when I pulled away he looped his arm over my shoulder and squeezed me into his chest. After a moment he’d gestured to the dome-shaped bites on my legs, and told me I must be allergic.


My grandmother and I were taking a walk along the beach before dinner. She had told me that when she’d moved in the beach had been in the process of being ‘renourished,’ which entailed a giant tube spewing the sand currently under our feet, dredged from the ocean floor. With each wave that had come through the summer, a bit more sand had been reclaimed for the ocean, and now it formed strange small cliffs parallel to the water. I was trying to explain to my grandmother what the Freddies were. We had chosen to walk below the small cliffs of sand, where it the beach was wet and easier to walk on, but the waves were hard to avoid and the water was surprisingly cold. My grandmother scanned the horizon as we walked, not paying attention to the waves that threatened our feet.

“My older brother liked science,” she said. “He used to study the bugs in the backyard. Once he found an anthill, and told me to guard it, to mark the spot, while he ran back to the house for a magnifying glass. While he was gone I was watching the ants walk all the way up their hill to the hole at the top. It seemed so far, they were so tiny. So I tried to brush away some of the dirt, to lower the slope so they wouldn’t have to walk as far. But when my brother got back he was enraged that I had destroyed the hill, he thought I’d done it out of maliciousness. Not even my mother would believe that I was only trying to help the poor little ants.”


I was surprised when my grandmother accepted my invitation to the end of the semester party for our lab—Professor Kittitanaphan had invited us all to her home, romantic partners and families included. Though it was December we’d had a sudden run of warm days, and it was decided at the last minute to make it a barbecue, or, rather, a pig pull, a word I had just learned. Mary Lee had surfaced the day before, but, ominously, I thought, she hadn’t been above water long enough for the satellite to pin her location. We stood on the lawn in our sweaters, the mosquitos finally gone. A few of the boys had started a bonfire in a pit in the center of the yard, and Professor Kittitanaphan’s children ran around it excitedly, her husband calling one of their names occasionally, warning them not to get too close. Her face was flushed as she talked to Arthur, glass of wine in her hand, but I saw the glances she exchanged with her husband, how his voice, repeating the names of the children, seemed to orient her. It occurred to me that she was a woman born in a country half a world away who had achieved everything she wanted while remaining kind. I wondered who had first told her that it would be possible to have such a life.

“Why didn’t you come to meet Amy?” I turned to my grandmother, emboldened by my second drink, the smell of smoke, the calls to the children. “You should have met her. She—”

“It was wrong,” she said, cutting me off. “It was the right thing to do. That baby went to a real family.” I looked down into my beer. I knew that I would never repeat the question, that the courage that had welled up in that moment was mysterious in origin and impermanent to my nature. My grandmother would continue to swim in an ocean shaded by creatures of teeth and bulk; my father would attempt to believe her interventions had not destroyed his eldest sister. I thought instead of the Freddies, the Freddies who would move in their slow way through the water as they always had, indifferent to whether they were in lab tanks or oceans, finding them both equally infinite.

“It wasn’t a bad life,” my grandmother said, and nodded, as if putting the finishing touch on some work of art, some sculpture made of flint, or steel.