• Barbarella

The whales, you see, eat up the little fish.

-- Thomas Churchyard

As Jane piloted her monstrous mom-mobile and I read directions aloud, I was suddenly distracted by the sound of my name. Swiveling in my seat, I turned to look at my diminutive niece. "What, Bella? Did you ask me something?" Her lips were white from the pressure of being held tightly closed, and her long flaxen curls bounced back and forth as she shook her head from side to side. I turned back to Jane. "Okay. You're going to want to make a right up here and then--." There it was again, my name on that child's lips. Because Bella seemed to zip it only when I looked directly at her, I kept my eyes on the road ahead and listened: "Barba Barba, why're ya buggin'...Barba Barba, I need your lovin'.""Okay. I give," I said to Jane. "What does that mean?"

"Nothing. It's a song," Jane said, and sang, "Mary Mary, why're ya buggin'." She hummed/rapped a few more verses of the hip-hoppy remake. "Mary J. Blige," Jane explained, dragging out the performer's last name, Beeelayejaah .

Already bored with her improvised riff, Bella called out, "Superstar, Mama!"

I pointed to an intersection ahead, "You need to make a left here, not this one, but the next one. And what does 'superstar' mean?"

Jane smiled, pressed a button on the stereo, and the minivan's speakers blasted to life with Ol' Dirty Bastard and Mya singing "Ghetto Superstar." Bella whispered along to the words. "You should hear her do 'Baby Got Back,'" Jane said, with no small amount of pride.

"All right, Dr. Dre, step off -- you just missed the turn. You can flip a bitch up here and then make a right into the lot."

It was 10 a.m. on a Thursday. The marine layer had finally burned off, revealing a cloudless cerulean sky. Jane passed me a bottle of sunscreen and asked me to apply it to Bella's face and arms while she prepped the stroller. My sister, still on maternity leave, was trying to make the most of her free time, and Sea World on a weekday was part of the plan. She'd asked me along because she couldn't both run after the toddler and hold baby Olivia. Having first tested me in the laboratory setting of Chuck E. Cheese, Jane was now confident that my aptitude for holding infants and corralling children was sufficient to attempt an excursion into the real world.

Not wanting to be a Mommy doesn't preclude me from enjoying the role of Auntie. Like the sweetened, zero-calorie sodas I favor, being an aunt offers me the pleasures of parenting with none of the responsibilities -- it's Mommy-Lite. So when an offer to relive my childhood through my nieflings comes along, I'm game.

I was looking forward to a day of gawking at marine mammals and playing "Bella has two mommies." I knew I could relax, because my responsibilities were few and I have an explicit "no diaper change" clause in my unwritten auntie contract. Delighted to see so few people out on a weekday, I collected a map and led my two-seater-stroller-pushing sister toward the Sea Lion and Otter Stadium at the back of the park.

Sure, Shamu's speedy and agile and huge and stuff, but all that grandiose showmanship doesn't hold a manicured flipper to a small-clawed otter running across a stage clutching a can of Pepsi. Animals acting like people make me giddy. Before finding seats for "Clyde and Seamore's Risky Rescue," Olivia generated a smelly gift for her mother and Jane whisked her away to the ladies' room, leaving Bella and me to check out the sea lions and seals at "Pacific Point."

"Wanna sip, Aunt Bob?" Bella queried, brandishing her water bottle.

"No thanks, honey," I said.

"Are you aflaid of my germs?"

"No, I'm just not thirsty."

A lower lip jutted out. Eyebrows furrowed. "You don't like my germs." Not a question -- an accusation.

"I like your germs fine," I said defensively.

"Then sip." A direct challenge. I had lied to my niece: the truth was I was terrified of toddler spit, and the last thing I wanted to do was inadvertently ingest any of it. Despite my horror, I found myself grabbing the bottle and letting its contents trickle down my gullet as I struggled to banish any thoughts of backwash.

Desperate to distract the kid before she had a chance to make me eat a soggy goldfish cracker, I pointed at a leopard-spotted harbor seal and said, "Hey, look at that, Bella, he's waving at us!" I looked down at the seal, a plump and glistening creature, and blinked a few times, unsure of my vision. The seal floated vertically in the water and, looking right at me, leaned a bit to one side, lifted a comically small flipper out of the water, and wiggled it back and forth. Holy Mary, Mother of God , I thought. It really is waving . For a moment, the little girl in me wondered if, like Sheena Queen of the Jungle or Sleeping Beauty, I'd magically inspired the animal to do what I had lied and said it had done. Bella smiled and waved back while I struggled to regain my adulthood.

A teenager approached the enclosure and tossed a fish at the waving seal, which caught the treat and gulped it down whole. Now the rubbery wagging appendage made sense; I imagined the grunts of the seals and the barks of the sea lions translated as, "Will wave for food." I considered lifting Bella above the rail so she wouldn't have to peer through the thick, water-spotted glass but thought better of it -- I wouldn't be able to handle the look on Jane's face if she returned from the restroom to find her daughter swimming with seals.

"Want to feed the seals, Bella?" Like I had to ask. Bella squealed in anticipation, and I scooped up the darling moppet, who'd freed herself from the stroller and was making a break for the fish stand. "Mommy wants to feed the seals too, Bella Boo, so let's wait for her," I said. I knew Jane wouldn't want to miss this.

"Thanks, sorry we took so long," Jane said, after appearing at my side. "Bella, did you have fun with Aunt Barb?"

"Fish!" Bella shrieked in a seemingly random outburst. I explained to Jane that we needed to buy a few fish to feed the seals. This idea seemed to please her as much as it had dazzled her daughter. Bella jumped up and down and sang a made-up song about fish, perhaps to the tune of one of her favorite hip-hop numbers. As we stood in line for our paper tray of dead smelt, I was looking at Jane's face when her expression suddenly changed, betraying the exact moment she realized that in order to throw the fish, one must touch the fish.

I dug my camera out of Jane's designer diaper bag and smiled impishly. She looked at me with desperate, beseeching eyes. "Hey," I said. "I'm only the aunt. You're the mom, and I know you'll want to fling fish with your daughter, so I'll just do my job and document the occasion."

Jane caught my eye, and, with an "I'll-get-you-for-this" smile, mouthed the word, Bitch .

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