I’ve never envied my older sister, Marlene, until a handsome seal fell in love with her and not me. While kayaking in the Queen Charlotte Islands in western Canada, a group of friendly seals suddenly surrounded us. After five or ten minutes, the one pictured above stayed near while the others wandered off. The seal came so close to me and communed for a few minutes. As the photo reveals, I warmly welcomed it, gushing about its beauty. But flattery didn’t work. It turned away and swam to my son, in his mid-twenties. The big-eyed, long-whiskered mammal ventured close and gazed at my young, strong off-spring. At that moment, I named the seal Whiskers. It promptly left to visit Marlene’s kayak.
I loved my sister, but, perhaps like many siblings, we haven’t had the easiest relationship. We grew up in a combative and competitive household where I could never forget that I held the lowliest position: the youngest, smallest and stupidest. Eight years older than me, Marlene seemed like another adult, just as big, loud and superior. And more dangerous. My parents rarely employed corporal punishment on me, other than a spanking once in a while. But a sibling had no such restraint. If our parents looked away, I could expect shoves, spitball strikes and being tripped and sent sprawling. Heaped upon these, insults frequently assaulted my ears, which my parents never seemed to mind, probably because they also spat them out.
Like my parents, Marlene maintained an extroverted command over those around her. Sadly, she inherited Mom and Dad’s weight problems. As an adult, Marlene celebrated when the scale stayed below three hundred pounds. But, often, it didn’t. This broke my heart, both for my parents and my sister. My father had died of a heart attack at age forty, so we all remained hyper-aware of the health hazards of being overweight. For some odd reason, undue weight gain never bedeviled me. Vicariously experiencing my family’s diet agonies over the years, I felt deeply grateful at my surprising dissimilarity.
Regardless of size, our family always loved the outdoors, camping and hiking our favorite activities. Marlene enjoyed inexhaustible strength in the wilderness. That’s why I’d invited her to join us kayaking in Canada, even though she had reached her seventy-first year.
Because of her weight, the kayak sat low in the water, the black line that ran around the rim, submerged. Perhaps that’s why Whiskers favored her. It could get closer to her than to my son and I, who bobbed farther above the water line. Perhaps Marlene’s overall body shape resembled a seal and Whiskers felt a kinship. I tried to refrain from applying the epithet, “blubber,” highly esteemed by ocean mammals, but not so much by humans. I imagined I felt only compassion for Marlene’s affliction. Yet, when searching for an explanation for Whisker’s attraction to my sister, “blubber” had sprung to mind, with its negative, taunting implications. I thought I’d rejected our family tradition of name-calling and mean teasing, but it seemed I hadn’t. That I’d used this word, even silently, made my cheeks heat up with shame.
For whatever reason, Whiskers stuck to Marlene, swimming around and around her, and under the small boat, to pop up on the other side. With its sharp barks, Whiskers might have been laughing. Much to our amazement, it began to propel her canoe by pushing it from behind. Next, it glided up to the bow and shoved the side with its nose, first on one side of the kayak and then the other, effectively turning the kayak this way and that. All of us giggled at the seal’s antics. Whiskers remained persistent, seeming to flirt with my sister.
I grew jealous. What did Whiskers see in Marlene that it didn’t see in me? I wanted the seal to fall in love with me instead of her, a rare case of sisterly jealousy. Our eight-year age difference meant we’d never wanted to date the same guys. Until now. Whiskers should have preferred me because I had the expertise in communing and meditating with wild animals: manta rays, a stag, coyote and bobcat. Marlene had no such inclination or history. I felt like she trod on my territory.
I called out, “Hey, Whiskers, come over here, boy.” It didn’t even glance at me. The seal had made up its mind, and remained devoted to Marlene.
The sprightly animal swam to Marlene’s side, giving little barks and nipping at her kayak. We continued to chuckle at the seal, perceiving no danger. It never occurred to us that my sister, a tough lady, should be cautious around a cute, pesky sea mammal. But we underestimated Whiskers.
After playing at Marlene’s side for ten minutes or so, at last, it seemed to make a decision, Enough of this courtship, it’s time for a bold move. All at once, with great flaps of its tail and flippers, it leapt into the kayak, its head landing in Marlene’s lap. Whiskers teetered on the rim, its back end wiggling in the air, as if trying to push its whole body onto Marlene.
Marlene yelled, “What the hell?” She picked up her oar and began shoving the seal with it. Whiskers might have been a boyfriend who’d gone too far and needed firm boundaries. The two tussled for a few minutes as more expletives and barks flew through the air. Tall for a woman, at five feet nine inches, Marlene proved to be a good match for Whiskers, who looked to be about six or seven feet long, from nose to outstretched tail-flippers. Their body weights may have been comparable. With her kayak low in the water, Marlene provided substantial ballast, keeping her craft stable. At last, the animal seemed to comprehend Marlene’s rejection and Whiskers slowly slid back into the water. A fierce glare from Marlene’s furrowed brow followed the chastised seal. “That’s right, keep away from me,” she called out to Whiskers, who, nonetheless, stayed near her.
Now, it might turn to me, I thought, hopeful. But Whiskers kept its eyes on Marlene, although it didn’t attempt to jump in her kayak again. Boundary setting could apparently work with over-eager guys of all species.
Whiskers swam near Marlene as we slowly kayaked back to camp and they began speaking again. I heard her mummer, “Hey buddy, you’re all right as long as you stay in the water. Don’t get me wrong, you’re a good-looking guy.”
The faithful animal gave low grunts and affectionate nose pushes to the side of her vessel. We saw its clan at a distance, playing in the water. When we neared the shore, Whiskers gave a last bark and swam away to join its group. My sister and the seal seemed to part on good terms.
Our family still laughs about Whiskers falling in love with Marlene, but, secretly, I wish it could have been me.
Cate Burns is the author of Libido Tsunami: Awash with the Droll in Life, in which she unearths the ludicrous in the emotional live traps surrounding us — in families, friends and disastrous romances. Get it on Amazon today.