Some fish like the dark.
I’d been to the Boston Aquarium multiple times and had never seen that sign. It hovered over a set of thick black velvet curtains near the main doors, like an entrance to some haunted magicians’ supply store. Nearby, the chaos of aquatic gifts and Dippin Dots churned together with other important missions — men and women running around in PHOTOGRAPHY STAFF blazers, ticket-givers and ticket-rippers. Children screamed. Strollers collapsed and folded. A man in a wetsuit and headpiece microphone entered neon water and announced the penguins’ names.
“No, no,” he explained with forced patience, his tired voice skipping across imitation boulders and settling into a tank of crustaceans at our left. “That one’s Denzel. What did I say about the tags?”
“Some fish like the dark,” I read to my mother. “Deep sea fish. No flash photography. Interested?”
It was the end of our journey, and by this point we had become desperate to escape the pushing bodies, the legs attached to torsos attached to arms attached to digital cameras. My own camera pulled heavy on my shoulder. It had been a surreal day, with adults and children alike pausing at each tank just long enough to capture the Giant Pacific Octopus in their tiny, glowing preview screens, only to run to the next exhibit, cameras extended. This crowd was causing me to seriously question my interests.
The black velvet curtains rustled invitingly, promising secrets, a land of silence and darkness. We pulled them to the side and met with more layers of fabric — layers and layers of drapery that we pulled and pushed for five and a half years.
Suddenly I saw silhouettes, and hundreds of darting, little red lights. We had arrived, like so many valiant knights.
There is a certain awe to the darkness. You could have put a squealing pig in that room and the reverential quality would still be there, as long as you couldn’t see it. Darkness brings vulnerability. Vulnerability commands respect. You stand there, blind except for the blink of flurrying red lights, and it’s nearly spiritual. That’s their organs, doing that. They’re like deep sea fireflies.
I leaned against the wall and surrendered everything, for a moment.
“Ohmigod! Guys, guys, this is so crazy, I’m going to take a picture.”
The whole room lit up with a glowing preview screen, with a curly-headed teenage girl as its owner, revealing three other teenage girls in the group of assorted strangers. She pushed the lens toward the glass, and the fish continued their sporadic, alarmed dance. Blink, blink: red, black, red, black.
“In here?” one of them squealed. “It’s dark in here!”
“Ohmigod no, you can’t take pictures, remember?” another cried in alarm. “The sign said!”
“It just said you can’t take flash pictures. I’m not going to take a flash picture.”
Click – beeeeeeep. Her preview screen showed black, with a few red streaks. “Ohmigod lame, that didn’t even work!”
There was a problem-solving pause.
“. . . I’m just going to take a flash picture.”
“Ohmigod, are you serious?” one of the girls burst into a long giggle.
“Who’s going to know, right?”
“You should totally take a flash picture!”
“Ohmigod, do it, doooo it!”
The room filled with blinding, white light.
As my eyes recovered I looked over her goddamn shoulder, in an attempt to catch the fleeting, glowing preview of the picture she had just taken. And I saw it. Her picture was a murky grey tank, with a few dull, grey fishes — any magical red glow had been lost in the light from the flash.
It was a boring picture, likely not worth the few megabytes it took on a memory card. If she had any sense she’d delete it later, to make room for more boring, poorly-lit pictures of distant creatures behind glass: the Giant Pacific Octopus, lazy stingrays, shrunken blowfish, the named and sadly waddling penguins — and her friends, crowding together at the Dippin Dots to escape the cold ocean wind, squealing in terrifying chorus.