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Sea Change

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A MOST ANTICIPATED BOOK • An enchanting novel about Ro, a woman tossed overboard by heartbreak and loss, who has to find her way back to stable shores with the help of a giant Pacific octopus at the mall aquarium where she works.

“Immersively beautiful.... A kaleidoscope of originality." —Weike Wang, acclaimed author of Joan is Okay

Ro is stuck. She's just entered her thirties, she's estranged from her mother, and her boyfriend has just left her to join a mission to Mars. Her days are spent dragging herself to her menial job at the aquarium, and her nights are spent drinking sharktinis (Mountain Dew and copious amounts of gin, plus a hint of jalapeño). With her best friend pulling away to focus on her upcoming wedding, Ro's only companion is Dolores, a giant Pacific octopus who also happens to be Ro's last remaining link to her father, a marine biologist who disappeared while on an expedition when Ro was a teenager.

When Dolores is sold to a wealthy investor intent on moving her to a private aquarium, Ro finds herself on the precipice of self-destruction. Wading through memories of her youth, Ro realizes she can either lose herself in the undertow of reminiscence, or finally come to terms with her childhood trauma, recommit to those around her, and find her place in an ever-changing world.

ISBN-13: 9780593469347

Media Type: Paperback

Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group

Publication Date: 03-28-2023

Pages: 288

Product Dimensions: 5.17(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.83(d)

GINA CHUNG is a Korean American writer from New Jersey currently living in Brooklyn, New York. A recipient of the Pushcart Prize, she is a 2021-2022 Center for Fiction/Susan Kamil Emerging Writer Fellow and holds an MFA in fiction from The New School. Her work appears or is forthcoming in The Kenyon Review, Catapult, Gulf Coast, Indiana Review, Idaho Review, The Rumpus, Pleiades, F(r)iction, and Wigleaf, among others, and has been recognized by several contests, including the American Short(er) Fiction Contest, the Los Angeles Review Literary Awards, and the Ploughshares Emerging Writer's Contest.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

This morning, Dolores is blue again. She’s signaling her readiness to mate, her eagerness to mount the rocks and corals of her tank and push herself against a male octopus, who will insert his hectocotylus into her mantle cavity and deposit sperm packets inside her until she is ready to lay the eggs. Unfortunately for Dolores, there is no bachelor octopus around ready to father her orphan eggs, and so when she turns that milky, almost pearlescent blue that I know means she is in the mood for love, there is no one but me to see.

Dolores can turn herself as flat as a pancake or puff up like a mushroom, and when she propels herself through all one thousand gallons of her tank, air bubbles dance around her like they’re laughing with her. When she undulates her arms through the clean, dark water, she looks like a storm of ribbons. She can be cranky, like any old lady, but she loves seeing me come in with a bucket full of shrimp and fish for her. I could swear that sometimes she waves at me.

So this morning, when I wished her good morning and told her how the weather was outside and she responded by turning blue, I didn’t bat an eyelash. “You and me both, Lo,” I said before turning the radio on and mopping up the floor. It was eight a.m., and I wasn’t about to empathize with a thirsty octopus over her sexual needs when I hadn’t gotten laid in months.

This is my own fault, I know. After Tae left, I basically coped with it by not coping at all. I’ve been broken up with before, but never because the guy in question was actually planning on leaving the planet.

Tae never liked my working at the aquarium. He couldn’t understand why I had “tethered myself to a sinking ship,” as he said. No pun intended probably, knowing Tae. And it’s true that we don’t get too many visitors these days, especially with more and more of the animals being bought up by wealthy investors who want to be able to gawk at a giant endangered sea turtle in their at-­home aquarium. The exhibit hall feels ghostly sometimes during the off-­season, like an abandoned carnival ground.

But Dolores is still here. She has been one of the aquarium’s crown jewels since I was a kid pressing my nose against the glass to marvel at her shimmering colors. She’s probably one of the oldest giant Pacific octopuses in the world.

“Look at the size of her,” Apa would say. “Isn’t she a beauty?” He was a marine biologist and a consultant for the aquarium, tasked with making sure that the tanks replicated the animals’ natural environments as much as possible. Umma always said, not really joking, that she wouldn’t be surprised if he left her for Dolores someday.

My manager, Carl, walks in, all hair cream and business. Dolores immediately turns inky dark and makes herself scarce. I don’t blame her. Carl is the kind of guy who thinks everyone is happy to see him and always talks like he’s wearing a headset. He’s both fairly harmless and extremely irritating.

“Morning, ladies!” he says, radiating caffeinated goodwill.

“Morning, Carl,” I say, not looking up from my mopping.

Carl pats the glass like it’s a flank, and somewhere in the water I see one of Dolores’s huge eyes open, a horizontal pupil flashing as she watches the movement of his fleshy pink hand, but Carl doesn’t see her. “Cheryl’s out today and Francine’s got a field trip. Mind overseeing cleanup in Tide Pools, Ro?”

I open my mouth to tell him no, and he hastens to add, “There might be a day off in it for you. I’d do it myself, but I can’t stay late tonight.”

“Hot date?” I say, and then wish I hadn’t, because the smile that spreads across Carl’s face is the kind of smile that announces it’s got something to say and it won’t let you go till it’s been said.

“Her name’s Christina. Since it’s our first date, I thought we’d—”

“Fine.” Just stop talking to me, please, I don’t say.

Days off used to mean something to me, back when Tae was still around and I had a life in which I did things outside of work. We used to plan weekend trips to towns we picked at random, either in Upstate New York or down in South Jersey. Tae always took care of all the logistical details, but I was the one who planned out what hokey roadside attraction or niche museums we’d go see, like the wooden clog collection we found once in a town we breezed through on the way up to Hudson. Tae liked our jaunts, my propensity for seeking out the strange. “I get to see more of the world with you,” he told me once after I’d forced him to go to a jug band concert played by animatronic squirrels somewhere outside Albany.

But who says I can’t take trips on my own, now that Tae’s gone, somewhere in the Arizona desert? It’s been months since I’ve had a break of any kind.

Carl is surprised by my acquiescence. “Super!” he trills. “See if you can get Dolores to come out and say hi later this afternoon when the field trip comes by. The kids always love her.” As if in response, Dolores waves one pale arm through the water in his direction, which startles a yelp out of him. I suppress my laughter at the idea that anyone could get Dolores to do anything she doesn’t want to do.

Dolores is somewhere between eighteen and twenty-­five years old, so technically, she’s younger than me. But by sea creature standards, she’s practically nonagenarian. In addition to being one of the last known giant Pacific octopuses in the world, she has the prestige of having been spawned in one of the most polluted zones of our warmed-­over oceans, the Bering Vortex, where my father disappeared fifteen years ago on what was supposed to be a routine research trip.

I’ve saved and studied just about every known photo of the Vortex. I’ve made notes on the sheen of its waters, which are red and green and violet with toxins and spills from the refineries in Alaska. I’ve imagined going there myself, to look for my father.

Officially he’s listed as “missing, presumed dead.” I don’t know if that last part is true, though. Sometimes I get calls from unknown numbers or numbers with area codes I don’t recognize, and when I pick up, I swear I can hear waves of sound, spray and roar, or breathing, a voice that sounds like it’s trying to break through. When I first told Umma about the calls, she said it was just perverts or spam, but I can’t shake the thought that it might be Apa. That somewhere out there he might still be trying to find his way back, and that the calls are his way of checking in. Of letting me know that he’s thinking about me, wherever he is.

The Bering Vortex isn’t on any of the Alaskan cruise stops. The only people who go there are pollution tourists or researchers. The creatures that have managed to survive, mutate, and breed there, passing on their irrevocably altered genetic material over the last few decades, are biblical in size and shape and hard to see or catch. Climate scientists and marine biologists alike haunt the Vortex, hoping for a sight of them, for a chance to discover what’s allowed them to continue living under such harsh conditions.

When Dolores was first caught, she was about fifteen feet long and still growing, and powerful and smart enough that they had to lid her tank with iron. Now there’s more than twenty feet of her, and her round, wicked eyes are the size of classroom globes, the kind I used to spin and place my finger on when I was a kid, trying to guess where I would land when the spinning stopped.

“The women of our family have never had luck with men,” Umma said when I told her Tae had broken up with me. She cites my grandfather’s untimely death, which widowed my grandmother at the age of thirty-­two, as well as the fact that her younger sister was never able to find a husband as further examples of this bad luck. She’s not the type of mother to whine about my never calling home or visiting, or to say things like “between us girls.” But every once in a while, she comes out with pronouncements like these that make me realize there is a person with feelings somewhere underneath her usual veneer of chilly poise and disapproval.

Umma actually liked Tae, couldn’t believe that her daughter had finally gotten herself a boyfriend who was not only Korean but also smart, handsome, and had a real job. In a way, he legitimized me, made me into a girl she could finally start to understand the shape of. I’ve never brought anyone else home to her before, so it’s highly possible she thinks he was the first person I’ve ever dated or slept with. Umma never told me about sex, and when I was a kid, I imagined that I must have been born from sea-­foam, a tiny pearl that bobbed to shore that she and Apa had scooped up one day.

Tae wasn’t supposed to leave on the Arc 4 mission. He was just one of thousands of volunteers on the waiting list, waiting to hear the results of a lottery that would determine who’d get to join the crew for years of spinning around in the dark toward Mars, to build the first human colony out on the red planet. I hadn’t taken his interest in the mission seriously, dismissing it as one of those fantasies that scientifically minded boys always have, about saving the world by leaving it.

“So what, if you get picked, then it’s off to Mars?” I said skeptically when he first told me he’d signed up for the lottery. He shook his head.

“It doesn’t work that way,” he’d said. “I have to get picked, then pass the fitness and aptitude tests, and then there’s a training program out in Arizona. A simulation, to see if we can take it.” By the time he started going into the different initiatives and goals of the program and the types of people they were looking for (apparently there were diversity and inclusion quotas that Arc 4 was supposed to be fulfilling), I had already stopped listening. The vast darkness of outer space—which is totally unlike the darkness of the ocean, where even the most unfathomable, seemingly inhospitable depths still glimmer with signs of life, the kind of life you can see and touch—has never interested me much.

When Tae finally got into the program, he waited until two weeks before he was supposed to leave for the desert to break the news. “Ro, I have to tell you something,” he said one night over bowls of green curry at his place. My stomach dropped, because nothing good has ever happened after someone says that they have to tell me something. It was how Umma had told me that Apa’s ship had gone missing and that there was no sign of him or the rest of the crew.

So I steeled myself and watched my curry grow cold as he showed me the confirmation and plane tickets they’d sent him, and the glossy welcome packet he’d received in the mail with the gold Arc 4 logo embossed on it.

“I’m sorry,” he said after I’d failed to say anything in response. He took his glasses off and polished them, the way he always did when he got nervous. “But I can’t turn this down.”

“Can’t you?” I said, my throat as dry as sand. “What’s out there that you can’t find here? Why is this so important?”

“Ro,” he said gently, as though I were a child. “The planet is dying. Arc 4 is about finding solutions to an untenable problem. I’ve wanted to be part of something like this since forever.”

“What about me?” I asked, my voice becoming high and strangled the way it always did when we fought. Tae hated that. “What am I supposed to do? Just wait until you come back?”

He was quiet, and then I knew that he wasn’t going to come back for a very long time, if at all. Tae had told me, back when he’d first signed up, about all the mission preparations, beyond the usual necessities: seeds, water purification kits, even condoms, in case the crew got lonely—but also ovulation kits. Europa, the company funding the mission, wasn’t being subtle about the fact that if the crew of Arc 4 should want to start populating Mars with a new generation of humans, they should feel free.