We heard about the beached whale from our friend Keegan, who told us there was nothing else so sad and incredible. We drove to the beach around sunset, hoping for a glimpse among the throngs of people. When we got there, we could already see the humped shape of the whale along with the tourists— bright spots of red, green, and yellow like confetti left over after a parade. It only took us a couple of minutes to traverse the beach and at first the whale seemed to grow no larger. It wasn’t until we were a couple feet away that a great gray bulk loomed in our field of vision. A crowd of people surrounded the whale, just staring, endlessly. We all remained at a respectful distance.
There appeared to be lined grooves running the length of the body and clusters of white near the tail. A single long pectoral fin poked out of the gray mass, as though it had been trying to swim away. Behind the whale, the sea reflected the sky pink and purple like a bruise. I wondered why the whale had beached and if it had a whale family that missed it.
A man in bright orange shorts and a camera slung around his neck leaned closer to us and whispered, “That’s a humpback.” He seemed the sort of guy who would gather facts like currency to always be the one in the know.
I turned to Jeff, my not-quite-boyfriend, and said, “It makes you feel like you’ve done something wrong, doesn’t it?”
He slipped his hand in mine and for a moment, I was thankful for the whale. Two children in single-piece bathing suits, a boy and girl, ran up to the whale and paused. Then, they both reached out and touched the solid mass and darted away, giggling into their hands. Their mother grabbed them both by the arms and pulled them down the long stretch of beach, lecturing in low tones.
“Want to touch it?” Jeff asked. I shook my head no. I had no desire to touch that rubbery, lifeless body that I couldn’t help feeling that I was responsible for.
Jeff let go of my hand and walked up to the whale slowly, glancing around at the people as though waiting for permission. When he reached the body, he placed his palm on the slick gray surface and held it there, his face slack with the mystery of it. I wanted to join him, to place my hand next to his, to solidify this event as another in a series of us, one I couldn’t be erased from later in the retelling. But I felt as though my sandaled feet were buried in the sand, and so I stood, watching his communion with the whale and noting the distance between us.