My mother said she wanted to make my last birthday in childhood special, so she drove three small children over a hundred miles to go to Marine World Africa USA. My seventh grade class had just taken a field trip there three months earlier. The concrete habitats so close to concrete freeways made the Pacific Ocean a distant memory. The smallness of the enclosures and the bigness of the mammals inside them made me want to steal something. Because we were straight-A students, we were able to convince ourselves that stealing would be a form of protest. So at a gift kiosk, I took a magnet shaped like an otter. As we walked around the park, it became apparent that her father had never tried to persuade her to keep a lost change purse that contained ten dollars in quarters. It had been my single greatest discovery in third grade. But I knew who the leather coin purse, in the shape of a moccasin, belonged to. The girl with blonde hair had always been mean to me. I remember when she brought the coin purse to class the first time, weeks earlier. She was showing it off to a crowd of our classmates, letting them all touch her new treasure. She had blond hair, was named after a mountain range spelled wrong, and claimed to be a quarter Navajo. I knew all about lies back then. I told kids at school I was born in Japan. I asked if I could hold it, and she grabbed it away from me, as though I was like Frank who didn’t bathe. She also shared her markers with everyone around her, except me, even though I sat immediately behind her. The day she forgot the coin purse, I knew she had ten dollars in quarters inside because she had been gloating about wanting to buy an ice cream at lunch, and I was glad she forgot. It didn’t have her name on it. I could claim it rightfully. It was more money than I had ever been given or earned. When I brought it home, my father made me dump it out and count the quarters. He said I could keep it. He said I’d be stupid to give it back, especially to someone like her. To this day, I am not sure if he was serious or if he was testing me, but the next morning, I gave it back to the girl whose parents had misspelled her name.
After having been able to walk away with the otter magnet in my pocket with no one noticing, I did not feel as vindicated as I thought I would. I had a fantasy of being apprehended and giving a speech about animal rights and how antithetical to the park’s mission of conservation it was to acquire and train wild animals. Being a straight-A student meant certain other straight-laced morals as well, and in the time it took us to take the magnet and walk a circle between the shark experience and beluga whales, my friend became sullen and withdrawn. I felt worse for her than even for myself, for I felt no guilt whatsoever, aside from bringing her in on my plan. I said that stealing a magnet was too small an act of protest, that it hadn’t effected the operations of the park at all, so I might as well put it back. And I did. I even told the cashier I had “accidentally” left with it earlier, and I was thanked instead of questioned.
Returning the magnet didn’t change my friend’s mood, though. She stopped being my friend after that anyway, and I didn’t really want to go back to Marine World Africa USA.
But my mom knew I loved animals. At this time, I wanted to be a veterinarian.