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Creative Nonfiction

Nearly every week, I visit Claude. Despite the changes in the world over the last two years, he remains stoic and indifferent. He looks exactly the same each week and doesn’t seem to age. His name reminds me of a renowned chef trained in classic French techniques or an Haute Couture designer who makes made-to-order clothes. I would spell his name with an accent mark like Claudé. I always wondered who was in charge of naming him and why didn’t they give him a friendlier name like Wally or Buddy. Claude is not a chef, a fashion designer, or a human for that matter. He is an albino alligator and one of the most famous residents of the California Academy of Sciences, a museum in San Francisco. My toddlers and I live half a mile away from Claude, so we try to take advantage and visit him regularly. 


The first time I saw Claude was a few years ago before I was a parent. We decided to take my visiting in-laws to the museum where none of us had been before. Claude is a celebrity fixture on the must-see list. He lay perfectly still on one side of the swamp, an indoor wetland seemingly overrun by dirt and mold. The water was dark and murky. The area was covered with woody plants, shrubs, and trees. 


Claude looked like a wax mannequin, fake yet lifelike. He had all the makings of an alligator; a muscular flat tail, a spiky armored back, four short legs, and a rounded snout with upward facing nostrils, except for his color. His white skin had a chalky texture with a faint pigment of green, revealing the color he should have had. They say your eyes are the window to your soul; I was convinced that Claude didn't have one. His were pale like milk. 


Now when my children and I go, Claude’s albinism and popularity are at the center of our visit. My brief animal encounter is now the subject of their curiosities and fascinations. Every time we step inside the museum, I announce, “Let’s say hi to Claude!” the way I nudge the kids to greet a family member or a close friend. 


Claude often hangs out on a rock structure surrounded by other reptiles and amphibians. The best way to view him is through the enclosed balcony from the top level. A safety net and fence separate his world from ours. As you continue through the depths of the museum, there’s another eye-level view through the swampy waters offering a second perspective. With the way the exhibit is structured, we often end up passing Claude multiple times as we make our way around. 


I usually catch him motionless as if someone yelled, “Freeze!” The only proof that he is, in fact, alive, is when I pass the viewing area again and he’s moved to another spot. It’s as if someone is lifting him up and setting him down in different areas of the swamp every five minutes. 


One day, Claude crawled around the swamp more times than I’d seen him do in the past, a captivating sight to someone who visits him weekly. I looked around but no one was as excited as I was. My children gave him a full two seconds of their attention before going back to playing with the stairs and benches around the exhibit. 


Claude reminds me of a turtle, slow and steady. I wonder how he would feel knowing a complete stranger is so invested in his well-being. I have so many questions. What does he think of the constant flow of spectators? Does he even realize he’s living on display? Does he know he has poor eyesight? Does he still have his alligator instincts? He doesn’t look menacing like how the other animals of his caliber usually do. I’ve never seen his teeth or seen him snap at anything. 


I know that loneliness is a human emotion and that Claude is incapable of feeling this way, but I can’t help but think he does. As someone who became a mother of two during the pandemic, I can relate to this sense of isolation. The busyness of caring for a baby and a toddler didn't stop my loneliness from getting the best of me. 


Sometimes, I don’t know why but I picture myself accidentally falling into the swamp, leaning too far over the railing and slipping, going over the other side. I bounce off the net and land on my stomach in the swamp’s rock area. Stunned, I slowly get on my hands and knees, push my body up, and find myself staring face-to-face with Claude. We are two lonely beings isolated from their natural environments. We have an intimate connection but then we remember who we are. I am a human and he is a reptile. He smiles deceitfully, ready to snap. I read that we tend to think of alligators as sedentary creatures, but this perceived laziness is actually them storing energy. I take a step back from the rail as this scenario unfolds in my head. 


Claude lives on display like a circus performer estranged from the rest of society, an outcast from his kind. A contradiction that I choose to live with because my children and I wouldn’t be able to see him if he weren’t displayed this way. His own children’s book for sale at the gift shop, titled “Claude: The True Story Of A White Alligator” tells the story of his estrangement and journey to the museum. He hatched out of his egg, only to look different from the other hatchlings. The other hatchlings avoided him because his color made him vulnerable to predators. When he was later placed in the museum, the scientists hoped that another alligator named Bonnie would be Claude’s friend, but Bonnie didn't like Claude’s differences either. Claude ended up living in the swap alone until snapping turtles joined him where they now coexist and interact together. Claude's albinism is a burden to his survival, yet the museum spins this as him finding joy by accepting his exoticism. 


I welcome the museum’s portrayal of Claude. He may be lonely but he is celebrated all over the city. For twenty dollars, you can buy a soft plush version of Claude. My daughter has one that she takes with her to bed. If she doesn't see him in her crib at night, she’ll whisper “I want Claude, Mama.” When I bring it to her, she gives him a big hug. 


Ultimately, the story of Claude’s identity is what I want my children to learn. I want them not only to embrace their differences but celebrate them and invite others to do so. Claude is not a detriment but a source of uniqueness and strength.  


April 29, 2022 05:35

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4 comments

Gareth Hopkins
14:20 May 05, 2022

Hi, Eunice, I came across this because I was sent a link from the critic's circle thing. I have to say, as someone who also became a parent (and now stay at home dad) during the pandemic, the part about feeling isolated at home really struck true with me. I think one of the strangest experiences of my life was when my wife returned to work and I took over parenting our daughter and realising how...lonely that can be. Especially given that at the time, we were still locked down and it was a pretty miserable Winter in Northern England, so ev...

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Eunice Ross
19:36 May 06, 2022

Thank you so much for reading Gareth! When I wrote it, I slowly realized that Claude and I are similar, we're both in isolation. Parenting during the pandemic was isolation! I hope that you're able to do more fun things with your daughter, especially this summer time. Cheers!

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Allen Learst
19:00 May 03, 2022

I like this non-fiction piece. As I was reading, though, I thought what another great children's story this would make. The lesson is already there, written by you. Have fun with the story and happy writing?

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Eunice Ross
19:42 May 06, 2022

Thank you for reading it, Allen! I haven't thought about this essay as a children's story but it is! You are right. My stories tend to include my toddlers (accidentally or intentionally), I'm excited to have them read it when they are old enough to do so.

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