At first she sees nothing but worms in water. But as her sight adjusts to the darkened aquarium, she sees that each seahorse is unique. Some are saddled with stripes, some are crowned with wreaths, some have tiny dragon wings. Each moves in its own way, speeding, or rocking, or gently idling. She follows a red one, a green one, a swift orange courser. One pair seems to be mated. Freckled in gray and brown batik, they rise together, slide sideways through the long green grasses together, descend to the coarse sand floor to sway back and forth in place like Javanese dancers. They have proud ridged manes, outthrust chests, long articulated tails, gold sequin eyes.
She smiles, thinking of her husband. She remembers that seahorses are loyal and mate for life, that the male even carries the babies.
A docent sidles up as she peers into the tank. “See how small their mouths are?” he says in his retired salesman’s voice. Yes; she sees; their mouths are tiny yellow suction cups at the end of a fairy’s long trumpet. “They can only eat what will fit into their mouths,” he confides, “and,” his voice lowers in disgust, “they eat all the time.”
The woman is relieved when he leaves. She does not want him to see what she now wants to watch.
For her two are about to have sex.
The larger one passes over the smaller one. He pauses, returns, brushes over her again while she waits, submissive, the eyelash fins at her neck and flank fluttering. When he descends, she dips her head. He winds his tail around hers, seeking her center with his tip. The woman holds her breath as both lift their necks in unison. Just then another seahorse, a slim young gilded thing, slips out of nowhere, dances toward them, pirouettes around the male, brushes him with her pretty tail, and then—unbelievably—draws him toward her.
The woman leans forward and raps the glass with her wedding ring. All three seahorses separate and rise to different sides of the tank, indifferent, inviolate, upright, acting as if nothing has happened, as, of course, nothing has.
The docent, beside her in the dark, chuckles.
The woman spins away. Back on the cold city streets, her cell phone pressed to her ear, she listens as it rings, unanswered, again and again.