Litro #183: Place – My Polar Summer, an Essay by Agatha Lin

Picture Credits: hans-jurgen

No offense, Ms. Sharma, but I hate writing essays about what I did during the summer. It’s hard enough being a new girl in a new school in a new country, but I’m doing it during my last year of middle school. Eighth grade was supposed to be my “glide” year. As the big kids on campus, we were going to plan school dances and put our friends on the cover of the yearbook, all before grades start to matter for real in high school. But here, no one knows me, and I have to keep smiling so no one thinks I’m a depressed emo girl.

Okay, sorry for dumping on you. From the ten minutes I’ve known you, you seem really kind and understanding, and not just because you’re so pretty. Usually, I don’t have much to say about summer and will embellish whatever comes to mind. Like I’ll say I learned how to code computer games and went to a horseback riding camp when what I really did was play Roblox and ride a pony at the state fair. The weird thing is that this summer was actually exciting. But I wish it had been boring. What happened is what drove us out of Seattle to settle here in Port Hardy, which, no offense, is not exactly a big city and has really bad Asian food.

Can you keep a secret, Ms. Sharma? If you can’t, just rip up this essay right now. Still reading? Okay. What happened is my dad turned into a polar bear. 

I’m totally not making this up. One moment, he was human dad, and the next he was polar bear dad. I was right there when it happened but didn’t notice at first because, don’t judge, I was right in the middle of leveling up on a game that was going to award me this really rare cat. So, I heard his clothing rip and the sofa collapse, but was too focused on my game to notice whether his limbs and body stretched out like Play-Doh, or just “pop!” he became a bear. Anyway, the thing is, I knew it was Dad and not a polar bear who’d eaten Dad because he was still wearing his glasses. A strange but true fact is that even though his body became ginormous and hairy, his head was about the same size, at least as far as fitting glasses is concerned. They were propped up perfectly on his snout. So, I didn’t scream. I was more like, “Dad, what the F? Mom’s going to kill you for wrecking the sofa!”

You might be thinking, “What’s the big deal? Most kids would love to have a dad who’s a polar bear.” But it’s not that simple. I mean, it’s not like some Disney Channel movie, where you leap onto the polar bear’s back and go riding through town while everyone applauds. In real life, a polar bear can’t walk outside without attracting police helicopters. (I know this from experience.) 

Worse, there are good reasons why polar bears live alone in the wide-open, frozen tundra. Up close and inside the house, polar bears smell super-bad. And it’s not straight-up B.O., which is bad enough. It’s full-on animal stench plus fish breath. Dad as a human snored; Dad as a polar bear snores so loud it feels like your teeth are shaking loose from your head. Having a polar bear dad is really stressful. 

I don’t mean to sound petty. Mom always says we have first-world problems. I mean, Malala got shot in the head just for trying to go to school. But that doesn’t change that Dad totally wrecked our summer… Or at least Mom’s and my summer, because my brother was like, “Whatever,” and never helped sweep up his shedding fur, feed him frozen fish, or carry out trash bags full of poop because Dad is too big and heavy to sit on the toilet. Mom has been totally cool, even sleeping in the same room as Dad the polar bear with a white-noise machine going full blast. But polar bears can’t drive you to dance class, or your brother to soccer practice; polar bears can’t cook dinner or make the bed; polar bears can’t change light bulbs or fix a dripping faucet. I know why Mom kept blowing up at us over the summer. She suddenly became the sole breadwinner and had to call Dad’s work to say he had checked into a drug rehab center in the Californian desert. Dad was bummed about becoming a polar bear, but compared with what Mom had to go through, he had it easy.

Why was it so hard for him to stay out-of-sight? Mom installed air conditioning downstairs, had blocks of ice and fish delivered daily. She even set up her iPad so that Dad could tap flashcards with his nose when he wanted to communicate with us. But late at night, Dad paced back and forth like he was locked up in prison. He would nudge aside the curtains and look out at the moon, whining as if he was the loneliest creature in the world, even though all of us were right there in the house.

So don’t tell my mom, but I was the one who let him out. It was nearly midnight, everyone else was asleep, but I couldn’t sleep with all of Dad’s groaning, sighing, and pacing. I made him promise not to leave the yard, so it’s not really my fault he didn’t listen, is it? Our house was two blocks away from the ferry terminal so as soon he was out the front door, he was off like a bolt, leaping our fence and loping down to the beach. By the time I made it to the waterfront he was swimming out into Puget Sound. By the lights on the ferry dock, I could make out the wedge of his head above water, an arrow heading seaward, growing smaller and smaller. And no matter how furious at him I felt, I got scared that maybe he was swimming away from us forever.

So, I was relieved when he returned, carrying something heavy in his jaws. Relieved until he hurled a dead seal at my feet and began devouring its intestines right in front of me as if he was gorging himself at an all-you-can-eat buffet. I can still see the seal’s vacant, liquid-black eyes staring at me in an accusatory “I can’t believe I’m dead” way. But I didn’t have time to let that register because some nosy person on the dock was using his phone to live stream the whole thing. People yelled at me to run away because Dad’s fur was covered in blood and they thought I was next (as if a polar bear would bother with a scrawny thirteen-year-old after eating a whole seal). And then came the propeller roar of a helicopter, and we had to hide in the ravine. By the time we slunk back home, it was nearly three a.m.

My mom and brother slept through the whole thing, which if you know them, isn’t as surprising as it sounds. But they couldn’t ignore those annoying emergency alerts that pop up on your phone even when you’ve turned off notifications. “Danger: polar bear loose in the neighborhood. Stay indoors until further notice.” Heavily armed, heavily armored police officers came pounding on doors and peering in windows. 

My brother was annoying and unhelpful. “We should just put him down. Dad wouldn’t want to keep living as a polar bear,” he said, as if Dad weren’t sitting right there in the room with us, looking as guilty and sad as a fully satiated polar bear can possibly look. I wish Dad would have swiped him with a paw. Not to kill him, just to remind him he was being a jerk.

That’s when I said, “Mom, why don’t we give him to the zoo? They can take care of Dad better than we can.” I mean, we were all thinking it. I just happened to be the first one to say it out loud. And it wasn’t like Dad disagreed. He just sat there and covered his glasses with his paws. 

We made up a story about finding him in our refrigerated basement. And we tried to make him look less threatening by dressing him in a sweater vest and a straw hat. But the zookeepers still tranquilized him and dragged him into a windowless van. I can’t get that image out of my mind: his head bouncing down the front steps. 

Objectively it’s way better for a fully grown polar bear to live in a zoo than in an air-conditioned basement. Dad’s enclosure was huge. He had his own swimming pool that came right up to the viewing glass so you could see him swim underwater. He had a huge, concrete play yard littered with tractor tires, rubber balls, and big tug ropes. And he even had this cool-looking, fake igloo made out of light-blue plastic to shelter him from the rain. But all he did was lie down on his stomach and stare out into the distance. 

One time, a little brat with popsicle juice running down his chin said, “That bear must be retarded.”

And I couldn’t stop myself from saying, “Shut up. He’s near-sighted and they took away his glasses.” 

Sometimes my brother isn’t as useless as he acts. He’s the one who came up with the escape plan, and it had to do with a documentary he saw at Pacific Science Center about spirit bears in Northwest British Columbia. Spirit bears are apparently related to black bears but have white fur, so if you squint, they look like mini polar bears. We showed up early on a school day at Dad’s enclosure so no one else would be around. Then my brother set up a FaceTime call with naturalists from the Kitasoo/Xai’xais First Nation, who had a few questions for us and for Dad before agreeing to help us. We sent them hair and blood samples; they forged a birth certificate and medical records that showed Dad was a spirit bear afflicted with giantism (which is what wrestler Andre the Giant from The Princess Bride had). Zoos are super sensitive about their history of going on safaris, killing animal parents, and stealing animal babies. So even if they were convinced Dad was actually a polar bear, they felt huge pressure from protestors to send Dad back to re-join the spirit bears in his adopted, ancestral home in the Great Bear Rainforest.

That’s how we wound up in Port Hardy. It’s a few hours away from Dad, but Mom needed reliable internet service and to be near an airport, and my brother wanted to continue to play club soccer. This way we can still visit Dad every weekend, and he’s got a lot more space to swim and hunt. We’re thinking of applying for Canadian citizenship. Mom says it depends on the next U.S. election and whether The Handmaid’s Tale starts happening in real life. For my part, I’m getting used to things, even if Canadian food is a little bland. Poutine’s okay, but it gives me a stomach-ache.

So that was my summer. It was kind of interesting, I guess. But I’m hoping next summer will be less eventful. And Ms. Sharma… Please don’t make me read this essay in front of the class. I’m trying to fit in.

—Agatha Lin

About Harold Taw

HAROLD TAW is a multi-form writer. His debut novel was Adventures of the Karaoke King. His writing has been featured on NPR, in a New York Times bestselling anthology, and in The Seattle Times. Harold co-wrote a musical adaptation of Jane Austen’s final novel Persuasion, which became the highest-grossing show in the 45-year history of Seattle’s Taproot Theatre. He is currently collaborating on a steampunk musical that traverses parallel universes.

HAROLD TAW is a multi-form writer. His debut novel was Adventures of the Karaoke King. His writing has been featured on NPR, in a New York Times bestselling anthology, and in The Seattle Times. Harold co-wrote a musical adaptation of Jane Austen’s final novel Persuasion, which became the highest-grossing show in the 45-year history of Seattle’s Taproot Theatre. He is currently collaborating on a steampunk musical that traverses parallel universes.

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