Something was wrong with my pictures.
I took pictures of the usual things—myself, my dog, my meals. I used the right filters. Every time a new iPhone came out, I waited in line and bought it.
And still my pictures were bad.
I posted my pictures on Instagram. Other people liked them and wrote comments. But I could still tell: something was wrong. My pictures were not like other people’s pictures.
I scrolled through Instagram and saw my pictures above and below other people’s pictures. My pictures stuck out. Other people’s pictures were alive. Their selfies and dogs and meals hummed with reality. Their pictures hinted at so much—at the full, complex lives of other people. Their pictures were the tips of icebergs—little pieces of something big and deep.
I wanted to be big and deep too. Every time I took a picture of my face, I hoped to see a strange creature—something I didn’t recognize, some new species. The picture always showed a white man with a big nose.
All my pictures were like that. My dog was just a fat old beagle. My meals were just vegetables and pieces of meat. My life was just my life.
But why? I was a normal guy. I had a job and an apartment and a college degree and a girlfriend and debt. I was like other people. But my pictures didn’t look like other people’s pictures.
I couldn’t understand it, and for a long time, I was unhappy. I took my phone to bed with me, and for hours I scrolled through Instagram, looking at other people’s pictures. I fell asleep with my hands raised over my face, holding the phone. Sometimes my sleeping hands dropped the phone, and it hit my face and woke me up.
I hated looking at other people’s pictures, and I loved looking at other people’s pictures. I looked at their pictures for hours. The scroll was infinite.
I woke up tired. My eyes barely opened. The dropped phone left my face bruised and sore.
I wanted to change. So I took more pictures. I took pictures of my tattoos, the sunset, old pairs of jeans, interesting graffiti, other people’s tattoos, fireworks, the beach, old factories, trees, the flag, brick walls, full moons, old barns, clouds, my legs, my girlfriend, my knees, my kitchen.
I took a picture, and then immediately looked at the picture, searching it for depth and reality. Depth and reality were never there. So I took another picture.
If I could—somehow—take just one good picture, the infinite scroll would stop.
Somehow. That was the problem. I didn’t know how to be deep. So I scrolled and scrolled.
And then there was Tsimsha.
My girlfriend was a consultant. People consulted with her. She traveled all over the country, consulting. And now her company was sending her to an international conference of consultants in Tsimsha.
I read about Tsimsha on my phone. It was a big city on the southern coast of China. It was a Dutch colony for a while, but then the Dutch gave it back to China, and now it was one of those cities of the future—miles and miles of towers and money.
I looked at pictures of Tsimsha on Instagram. There were pictures of windmills and pagodas, skyscrapers and sea, baskets of dumplings and bowls of eel and noodles. It was all so strange—like nothing I had ever taken pictures of before. I scrolled and scrolled.
And then there was the pink dolphin.
It was on National Geographic’s Instagram. The picture showed the tail of a dolphin, sticking out of green water. The tail was pink like candy. The pink dolphin, said the caption, is one of the rarest creatures on earth. They live only in Tsimsha Bay, at the mouth of the Pearl River.
I looked at pictures of the pink dolphin on Instagram. There was the National Geographic picture, and there were few grainy shots—pink dots on the horizon. I tried to keep scrolling, but I had come to the bottom. That was it. No more pictures. The pink dolphin was one of the rarest creatures on earth.
When my girlfriend came home, I made my announcement. I was going with her to Tsimsha.
She mentioned my debt. She asked if I had enough money for a trip across the world.
“I have credit cards,” I said. I was a little disappointed in her. Money didn’t matter. This wasn’t just a trip. This was my life, my happiness, my reality.
I couldn’t stay mad at her. I was too excited. To celebrate, I ordered Chinese food. A man on a bike bought us little white crates of rice and chicken. I arranged the crates on our table and took a picture. It was as bad as my other pictures. The crates were just paper, the dinner just rice and chicken.
But I was happy. It was one of my last bad pictures. Soon I would get away from here—and away from myself. I would take new pictures and have a new life. The windmills and the pagodas, the skyscrapers and the sea, the pink dolphin—these would be the tips of my iceberg.
We landed in Tsimsha at night. I took a picture of the skyline over the window the plane, and then I looked at the picture. The skyline was just metal and glass and light. My first bad picture in Asia.
Our hotel was a tall glass building. It looked onto two other tall glass buildings. As soon as we got to our room, my girlfriend fell asleep. I lay there in the dark. I scrolled and scrolled. It was morning in America, and my friends were posting their first pictures of the day. I saw so many good pictures, and I was very happy. Soon, I would be like them. I was so happy that I kept scrolling. I wanted to see more and more of my future.
I woke late the next morning. My girlfriend had left for her conference.
I was here now. I was ready to see. How would I find my pink dolphin?
I read the internet on my phone. I found a company that gave dolphin-watching tours. “ONE OF A KIND TOURS,” said the website. They took you to the mouth of the river in a little boat, and you waited for dolphins. “NO GUARANTEES,” said the page. “ONE IN FIFTY TOURS SEE A PINK DOLPHIN. PINK DOLPHINS ARE EXTREMELY RARE.”
I was very excited.
I called the company. A woman answered. She spoke English in a funny way—too many D’s and L’s and Z’s. Was she Dutch? Was this how Dutch people talked? I listened to her, and I got even more excited.
“No tours today,” she said in her funny way. “The water’s too choppy. Try again tomorrow.”
“I will,” I said. But I wasn’t so sure. Maybe I would find my real picture today. Maybe I wouldn’t even need a pink dolphin.
As I dressed, I read Tripadvisor on my phone. I found all the best things in the city, and I marked each one with a pin on Google Maps. And then I went into Tsimsha and took pictures.
I went to the harbor and took pictures of the old Chinese ships and their big red sails. I went to Oudestad and took pictures of the stone windmill. I went to the Temple of the Eight Thousand Buddhas and took pictures of the Buddha statues and the pagodas. I went to market district and took pictures of the neon Chinese signs.
The sun set, and people started to set up tables in the street. They put things on the tables—spices, DVDs, old cameras, ceramics, little red books, underwear. Tripadvisor told me that this was the night market. I walked through the crowds and took pictures.
The pictures were bad. The wooden boats were just logs. The windmill was just rocks. The Buddhas were just paint and plaster. The neon was just lights in tubes. The night market was just junk on tables. I was just a tourist.
I left the night market and walked south. I was meeting my girlfriend for dinner.
I came to a long, crowded street. Red paper lanterns were strung overhead. It smelled like gas and vegetable oil. My phone said that this was Tseun Mun, the famous street of outdoor restaurants. There were hundreds of them—storefronts, each with a stove and a few plastic tables.
My girlfriend was easy to find—she was blonde, and we were in Tsimsha. She was sitting in a plastic chair at a plastic table.
The owner showed us a picture menu. We pointed to things, and he cooked them for us. We ate dumplings from a wooden basket. We ate eel and noodles. I took pictures. The dumplings were just blobs of dough. The eel and noodles were just long pieces of slime. I posted the pictures on Instagram and frowned.
“What’s wrong?” asked my girlfriend.
“Nothing,” I said. I had never told her about my picture problem. I couldn’t explain it to another person. I barely understood it myself.
She looked at me. Her eyes were very large. I loved her, of course. We had been dating for a long time—since the iPhone 3, at least.
I picked up my phone. I had an idea—an inspiration. “I want a picture of you,” I said. “Here.”
I had taken pictures of her before—bad pictures. But now we were in Tsimsha. We had brought our love across the world. Our love would be my iceberg.
“Wait,” she said. She did things to her hair. I watched her, and I was sure it would be a good picture. Her hair fell on her shoulders, and the red lamps glowed behind her. She was so beautiful, and she was my girlfriend, and we were here, and I loved her.
I took the picture and looked at it. It showed a woman with yellow hair and a small nose and many teeth.
I woke up late again. My girlfriend had already left for the conference.
Tourism and love had failed me. But there was still my pink dolphin, the rarest of all things. I called the tour company. The funny woman answered, and spoke again in her funny way. I wondered again if she was Dutch. Maybe she was Chinese. Was this how Chinese people talked?
No tours today, she said. Try again tomorrow.
I looked outside. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky.
“The sun doesn’t matter,” she said. “The water matters. If it’s too choppy, we don’t sail.”
I tried to explain. I had come from across the world. So much depended on the pink dolphin.
“You want to see animals?” she said. “Go to the Taipa Country Park today. See the monkeys. And then come see the dolphin tomorrow.”
The monkeys? The Taipa Country Park? I hadn’t seen that on Tripadvisor. Did it really exist? I asked the woman where it was. She gave me the number of a bus, and told me to ride it to the end of the line.
So I did. I sat on the bus for a long time. I looked at my phone and followed our progress on the map. We were headed north, toward the border with mainland China, toward the high green hills.
I searched the internet for information about the park. It didn’t even have a Yelp page. Was there something wrong with it? Was I even allowed to go there? I was scared and excited all at once.
I found one website about the park—the official Tsimsha Tourism Board page. In bad English, it told me that the Taipa Country Park had the oldest trees in the city. It also had monkeys. In the nineteenth century, said the website, there was a great craze for monkeys. The Dutch brought them from Borneo for pets. But when the monkeys grew up, they became too big to handle, their owners released them into the Taipa forest. The monkeys had thrived. They had outlasted the Dutch.
The bus left me at the bottom of a steep, curving path. I started to walk. The skyscrapers behind me were tiny. The trees ahead were massive.
At the top of the path was a big wooden sign. BEWARE! it said. MONKEYS! There were smaller signs in Dutch and Chinese and English. Monkeys can be aggressive, said the sign. Do not make eye contact. I took a picture of the sign—another bad picture, just paint on wood.
The path branched in several directions. I picked one and walked. The forest smelled terrible. The monkeys had left little brown messes all over the path. I walked very carefully.
The forest got darker and darker. The trees seemed to fuse together over my head. Soon I couldn’t see the sun. I turned my phone to flashlight, and held it in front of me as I walked.
And there he was. He was sitting in the middle of the path, in a little blotch of sunlight. He had a red face and an angry red thing between his legs.
I didn’t make eye contact. I pointed my phone at the monkey and looked at him through the camera.
I took a picture. It showed a little furry thing surrounded by little brown piles. Slowly, I moved closer. The monkey looked at me. He was very still.
I was looking at him too. I was not looking at the ground. But I heard a little squish. I looked down, saw the brown stuff on my shoes, and jumped back.
I dropped the phone.
It landed—not in a pile, fortunately—between me and the monkey. We were both very still. And then the monkey moved. The monkey picked up the phone.
The glow lit his face. I stood on my tiptoes, trying to see the screen. The fall had hit the “flip camera” button. The front camera was on. The monkey was staring at his own face on the screen. He looked at it for a long time, and I watched.
He opened his mouth and showed his teeth. So did the monkey on the screen. The monkey got scared and pawed at the screen. The phone clicked. The monkey dropped it, screeched, and ran off the path, into the darkness.
I picked up the phone and wiped his monkey fingerprints off the screen. The phone had clicked: the monkey had taken a picture. I looked at it. Most of the picture showed the palm of his monkey hand. But between his fingers, there were his eyes. There was so much in those eyes—confusion and fear and curiosity and anger. I looked at those eyes, and I glimpsed his whole monkey life—his poor Bornean ancestors, pulled from their homes, his own days of climbing and hunting in the deep dark forest, his animal joys and struggles, his long life interrupted by an American with a strange flat device.
Even the monkey had an iceberg.
When I got back to the hotel, I called the funny woman again. “How does the water look for tomorrow?”
“A little choppy,” she said. “But we’ll sail.” She told me to come early—the tour was very popular.
The company’s office was near the harbor. Their boat bounced nearby in the waves. I arrived at sunrise. The office wouldn’t open for another hour. The door was behind a metal shutter covered in Chinese graffiti. I didn’t take a picture. There was only one picture I wanted to take now.
A line formed behind me—white people with backpacks, Asians with umbrellas. The line spoke in English and German and Chinese and French. A few of the people had selfie sticks: they took pictures with the rising sun at their backs. Most of us scrolled through our phones. A young German couple behind me looked at their own pictures. I peeked over their shoulders. The pictures were good.
At eight, a woman came and raised the metal shutter. “Come in,” she said.
Her voice—she was my funny woman. I looked at her face. Was she Dutch or Chinese? I couldn’t tell. She might have been both, or neither. She was unrecognizable, somehow. I could imagine all sorts of different lives she might have had. I was sure she took very good pictures.
We followed her into the office. She sat at a desk and asked how many tickets I wanted.
I looked behind me. The office was very full. We would all be together—all on the same boat, all taking pictures of the same dolphin. All of these people and their good pictures—and me.
I asked the woman if she offered private tours. She shook her head. The boat, she said, stayed out all day. Sometimes it took seven or eight or ten hours to find a pink dolphin. The company only gave one tour a day—that was why the tickets were so expensive.
“I’m willing to pay,” I said.
“It’s me,” I said. “The guy who kept calling. I went to the park,” I said. “I saw the monkeys. It didn’t work. I need to see the dolphin. By myself.”
She kept squinting.
“I’m serious,” I said. I took out my wallet and fanned my credit cards in front of her. I was serious. Money was no issue. This was my life, my happiness.
She shrugged. “You could buy all of today’s tickets,” she said. “It would be very expensive.” She took out a big calculator, pushed some buttons, and showed me the number. She was right: it was very expensive.
She reminded me that there were no guarantees. One in fifty tours saw a pink dolphin. But what choice did I have? I had come all the way around the world, and I wasn’t going to return without a good picture.
I handed her all my cards. She swiped them, one after another, and they were declined, one after another. I had a lot of debt. Finally, we found a card that worked. The woman gave me all of that day’s tickets—each with a drawing of a pink dolphin leaping out of the waves.
The woman stood and announced told the rest of the line what I had done, first in German, then in Chinese, then in English. I stood there, holding my stack of tickets. The rest of the line said things to me, first in German, then in Chinese, then in English.
The other people were not happy. I wished I could make them understand. They were unhappy, yes—but they were not as unhappy as me. They could go about their days in Tsimsha, taking good pictures and living deep lives. I could not. They were other people, and I was not.
The engines started, and the boat crawled across the harbor.
There were rows of benches on the deck—empty except me. The crew did boat things. The funny woman was the tour guide. She stood at the front of the boat and spoke into a microphone. She said that it would take us an hour to reach the mouth of the river, where the dolphins fed.
She started to tell me facts about the harbor. I asked her to stop. Facts only helped me to recognize things. I had come around the world to get away from facts. She turned off the microphone.
One of the crew came to me with a snack cart. I bought a Diet Coke and scrolled through Instagram.
It was hard to look at my phone. It kept moving up and down. I tried to drink my soda, but it was moving too. Some of it went in my mouth, but most went on my face and my shirt. The whole boat was moving—bouncing in the water.
“Can we do less bouncing?” I asked the woman. She shook her head. “Let me guess,” I said. “Choppy water.”
I tried not to think about it. I scrolled and scrolled. When I took a drink of my soda, I held my phone out at arm’s length, to protect it from the spilling soda. I had already had one close call in the jungle. I wasn’t going to come all this way and then damage my only way of taking pictures.
We left the harbor, and the bouncing got worse. The little bit of soda that had made it into my stomach started to rise. I felt it, waiting, at the back of my throat. I stared at my phone.
The woman told me I looked green. “Stand up,” she said. “Watch the horizon.”
It was too late for that. The soda was definitely coming back. I shook my head very quickly.
“Over the side,” said the woman.
I pushed my phone into her hands. It was a hard thing to do. I didn’t want to drop it over the side. But at the same time, it was like I was handing over my arm or my ear. Be careful! I wanted to shout. My life is in your hands!
I didn’t shout that, of course. I couldn’t. I was leaning over the side of the boat. The soda was falling into the sea.
It fell for a while, and then it stopped. I looked up and saw a long brown river narrowing toward the horizon. We had come to the mouth of the river, to the place of the pink dolphins.
The boat stopped. We bounced in the waves and waited for the pink dolphin.
We bounced a lot. I was sick once or twice an hour. My stomach ran out of soda to throw into the sea, but still I was sick.
The woman still held my phone. “You have to give it to me as soon as we see the dolphin,” I said.
She told me not to worry. The crew had a high-quality digital camera. They took pictures of every dolphin they saw. “Don’t worry about taking pictures,” she said. “Just look. When we get back to the shore, you can buy one of our high-quality digital prints.”
“Oh no,” I said. “No, no, no.” I asked her to put the digital camera away—to keep the crew from taking pictures. “It has to be me,” I said. “Only me.”
“The prints are high-quality,” she said. “Much better than an iPhone picture.”
She didn’t understand. I didn’t blame her. I was the flattest man in the world. No, not even the flattest man—the flattest primate. How could anyone else understand that?
But I didn’t need her to understand. I needed her to act. So I kept talking, asking, pleading. Finally, she took the camera from the crewman and put it into a trunk in the middle of the deck.
We bounced at the mouth of the river and waited for the pink dolphin.
The sun moved over our heads, and then fell to our left. Still, we bounced and bounced and waited.
“Can you throw them some food?” I asked the woman. “Some bait? What do dolphins eat?”
The boat didn’t have any fish. But the snack cart had some premade tuna sandwiches wrapped in plastic. I bought them all. One by one, I unwrapped the sandwiches and dropped them into the sea, and one by one, the sandwiches broke apart and sank. The smell of tuna filled my nose, and I was sick again.
The sun was now halfway into the ocean. The light deepened, and the brown river changed to purple and red. The woman touched my shoulder and told me that the boat had to go back.
“The sun’s still up,” I said.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
“Ten more minutes.”
“Only one in fifty tours see a dolphin,” she said. “They’re very rare. You could try again tomorrow.”
I refused. I had bought all the seats. I had bought all the sandwiches. I had bounced for hours and hours. I had given everything in my stomach to the sea. No—I had earned a dolphin.
She spoke to the crew in Chinese. “Ten more minutes,” she said. “That’s all.”
We stood next to each other at the railing. We looked out at the sunset.
“What is it like?” I said. “The pink dolphin, I mean.”
“It’s pink. You’ve seen the pictures.”
Of course. If she could have told me, I wouldn’t have needed to come to Tsimsha at all. It—the real thing, the secret of depth—was unspeakable.
We watched the sun for a while. I counted the seconds, hoping that my counting would slow them down. And then someone shouted in Chinese. The woman went very stiff. “They saw it,” she said.
“My phone,” I said. “My phone.”
She gave it to me, and we ran to the other side of the boat. The crew were at the railings, pointing. I raised my phone, framed the dolphin, and pushed the button.
The screen glowed. I looked at the picture.
There it was. It was there. A dot of whitish-pink in the purple-red water.
The tickets and the sandwiches, the sickness and the worry, the debt and pain—these were supposed to be my iceberg, and the dolphin their tip. But they weren’t. Nothing was anything. The picture was just a dot and some water.
I took a picture, and then I took another. I pushed the button again and again. But the dolphin remained a dot in the water.
I knew that there must be another way. “It’s just sitting there,” I said to the woman. “What if it jumps? Can we make it jump?” I regretted using all the tuna sandwiches.
It was just a dot. It was there, and I was here. I wished I had one of those selfie sticks. If I could just get close enough, I could make a long perfect chain—dolphin, phone, self. But I didn’t have a selfie stick. So I improvised.
I put my right foot on the railing, and then my left. The crew shouted. Two of them grabbed my legs. “Yes,” I said. “Good. Steady me.” I stretched out my arms as far as I could. It hurt. I tried to keep stretching. It was almost close enough now. I held the phone by my fingertips. Slowly, I moved one finger toward the button.
The boat bounced. I fell forward, and the crew pulled at my legs. The phone jumped from my fingertips, and my pictures fell into the sea.
It was ten o’clock when I got back to the hotel. I opened the door to our room and saw my girlfriend, still in her conference clothes, holding her phone to ear. She looked very tired.
She dropped the phone onto the bed. “Oh, thank God. I called and called.”
My poor phone—ringing alone at the bottom of the sea.
She hugged me. I winced. I had spent ten hours on the boat, and I was very sunburnt. She went to kiss me, but stopped. “Your nose.” She touched the bandage lightly, and I hissed in pain.
“I think it’s broken,” I said. My voice was flat and wheezy. “The boat bounced. I fell. I almost went over. The crew kept me on board. But my face hit the railing. The woman bandaged me.”
“Broken? What woman? What boat?”
I didn’t want to explain. My stomach was empty, my skin burnt, my nose smashed, my face bruised, and my phone at the bottom of the sea.
I fell onto the bed and made a terrible noise. Everything hurt, but my nose hurt most of all.
My body was still bouncing to the rhythm of the boat. The bed seemed to rock, the ceiling to scroll by infinitely.
My girlfriend sat on the bed. “I think you should go to the hospital,” she said. “You look terrible.”
“You look terrible”—the words opened up some wonderful hole in me. They were a hint of something. My heart sped up. I smelled something strong and metallic. Blood—and hope.
“Let me see your phone,” I said.
“I can look up the hospital—”
“No, no, no,” I said. I held out my hands. She gave me the phone.
I opened the camera, held the phone in front of me, and took the picture.
I looked at it for a long time. I tried to understand it.
The white man with the big nose was gone. He had been replaced by burnt pink skin, purple lumps and bruises, wet red bandages.
I stared at that face. I could not recognize it. It was not me. It hummed with some strange reality.
The skin was not just skin. The bruises were not just bruises. The blood was not just blood. Beneath them were huge depths.
But depths of what? Pain, disappointment, pride, anger—those were big words, but none of them were big enough. I did not know what was in the depths. That was how I knew they were really deep.
I was very happy. It had happened, somehow. I was other people.
The bed continued to rock. I closed my eyes. Everything hurt, and I was very grateful. I no longer missed my phone. I knew it was happy—as happy as I was. It was ringing at the bottom of the sea, among the rocks and the dolphins.
Ryan Napier was born in Plant City, Florida. He has degrees from Stetson University and Yale Divinity School. His work has appeared most recently in Lowestoft Chronicle, Per Contra, and Stoneboat. He lives in Massachusetts.