I opened my eyes and stared up at the ceiling. It took a minute or so for my vision to adjust to the dark room. As it did, I slowly turned my head and sighed at what I found. Clara’s eyes were also open. She was watching me. She looked tired and concerned.
“I can’t sleep,” she whispered.
I ran a hand over my face. “Uh huh…” I mumbled.
And who could blame her? We had been warned several times the previous day that the neighbors would snore tonight. But what was happening on the other side of the wall to my left sounded less like snoring and more like a group of kids racing motorcycles in circles on a dirt track. Then, behind the opposite wall, to my right, it sounded like our other neighbors had transformed their home into a gambling casino in the night. The place echoed with a cacophony of shouting, laughing, cheering, and disappointed groans. I grimaced as a shrill cry rebounded through the wall and bounced around inside the large room where we were camped out on the floor. My instincts, from years of living in an apartment, was to pound on the wall and hope for maybe five minutes of peace so I could drop off to a deep enough sleep to not notice when they became loud again. But I knew, in this case, it wouldn’t matter. Because, in this case, the kids on the dirtbikes were literally a pair of snoring sea lions, and the casino was being run by a flock of roosting puffins and ducks.
Clara lay motionless. Her lips barely moved as she said, “You know… I wish we didn’t have to stay the night here. I wish we could have come and done all of the fun things like we did this evening, and then when it was bedtime, we could have gone home to sleep.”
I stared back up at the ceiling and yawned in response. “You’ll be happy you did it… someday.”
“Dad…” she said.
“I know…” I said into the darkness.
“I have to go to the bathroom.”
This was the fifth time this evening that we had repeated this routine.
I quietly climbed out of my sleeping bag, trying not to wake up any of the sleeping bodies scattered across the room like logs in a large forest clearing. Clara lifted herself up off the floor as well and then promptly slipped on one of her sleeping mats. I caught her by the elbow before she collapsed on top of her sister who was sound asleep, tangled inside of a pink sleeping bag.
I put a finger to my lips and gently maneuvered the little girl through the maze of people.
We had been planning this trip down to Seward for months now so our kids could stay the night at the Alaska Sealife Center. Our girls were joining up with a homeschool group from the area which included several of their dear friends that used to live nearby. We tiptoed around them now as we made our way to the bathroom.
We had arrived at the Sealife Center as it was being closed for the night and a group of about fifteen children and maybe ten chaperones explored the empty hallways filled with aquariums and touch tanks. The girls and I had a staring contest with a school of silver salmon. We leaned over railings and yelled, “Get a job!” at the sea lions. “Quit being a bum, looking for handouts!” (They just blinked at us slowly and leaned back onto their warm stones.) We stood in the seabird exhibit and mimicked the different bird calls. (This was when the bird calls were still novel and interesting, before screeching puffins roosted inside our very dreams). We poked at sea anemones and gently pet starfish. Then we had dinner in a small classroom, and looked at sea lion poop with a magnifying glass and deconstructed a wet squid.
Before bed, the kids played hide and seek among the fish tanks and fake rock walls. The setting sun filtered through the tanks of water and cast flickering shapes on the floor where barefooted boys dashed through them from darkness to darkness. Little girls crouched inside small wooden boats. Boys stuffed themselves into cubby holes near the ceiling, overlooking the octopus grotto. The energy of the evening took a long time to bubble out of the kids. A group of boys camped out a few feet away from me continued to whisper and giggle for close to an hour after everyone had finally gone to bed. But they were out cold by the time the sea lions started racing their motorcycles and the puffins set up their blackjack tables.
I held Clara’s hand and walked her down the long twisting corridor on our late night journey to the bathroom. After ushering her in, I leaned on a railing at the top of the main staircase and looked down at the ticket counter and gift shop and out the large floor to ceiling windows that kept out the night.
I checked my watch. It was 3:30.
A few minutes later the girl appeared beside me.
“I’m probably not going to walk you to the bathroom again tonight. We both really need to sleep.”
She yawned and scratched her head, an odd sight in her pink pajamas here under the great hanging whale in the entryway gazing down at the machine that crushes pennies and the stuffed otters inside the gift shop window. We stood there for a long while. We watched the ocean moving in the distance outside the giant windows, listened to the buzz of the exit signs and the building’s low rumbling hum as if it too were deep in thought. Considering the sea. Considering life.
Clara rested her head against my arm and yawned again. “Thank you for coming with us,” she said. “This really is pretty awesome I guess.”
“Yeah.” I put my arm around her shoulders and laid my head on top of hers. “Thank you for being my ticket in.”
We turned together and followed the signs back to the sea lion tanks.