Originally published by The Citron Review on September 25, 2018.
Randy and Taiko are standing at the chimp habitat. Taiko doesn’t recall the sight of the chimps ever affecting her this way. They just look so miserable. One perches atop a fat jutting pole. Rounded like driftwood. Do apes heave sighs? This one looks about to.
The zoo is a small but nice one. Less than a mile from their modest home. This is their first visit in years. They are neither the age of the unshowered mothers and tousle-headed fathers, or the grandparents with their utility hairstyles and dark blue jeans.
They watch along with the melancholy chimp as a young mom—no makeup, hair scraped back —tucks Cheerios into her toddler’s upturned mouth. “Go with Daddy,” says the mom when she is done.
A gaggle of four-year-olds arrives, herded by their teacher and an elderly male docent. They stand against the glass, watching the chimp with solemn eyes. The docent is explaining that when human beings make eye contact, it means we are curious. “It means something different to these guys,” he says.
“What about smiling?” a fat little boy asks.
“Well, to them it might mean you’re angry,” the old man says. As if in response, the chimp circumnavigates the enclosure, swinging and screaming. When he drops to the ground, the docent tells the children to get back. Their damp handprints vanish from the glass.
On the way to the brand-new sky ride, they pass the old retired one, the one they used to ride with their kids. The mechanism remains, its pale yellow buckets stilled. How nervous it had made Taiko to ascend in the old ride, just a few yards above the slumbering tiger.
In contrast, the new “aerial gondolas” are carpeted and enclosed. One by one, they glide to an almost stop on a wide concrete pad. Plenty of young staff members are there to guide riders in. Taiko and Randy sit across from each other.
It is only when they’re alone that he reassures her that he intends to stay connected. He’ll be living with his girlfriend at her apartment. Taiko will keep the house. They’ll tell the kids later, on Skype. Neither of them has slept.
Taiko says at last, “This place is a kind of portal.” To their earlier years, she means. Imparting the animals’ habitats, eating preferences, and extinction statuses as though they weren’t reading from the placards. Just like all the young parents are doing today, as young parents have always done. The snacks, the strollers; all of it. They pass a large billboard, announcing the future home of brown bears, buffalo, eagles. California fauna. “This was a bad idea,” she says.
Back on terra firma, Randy excuses himself to use the restroom. He asks if she’ll be okay, and Taiko snaps, “Of course.” She regards the hyenas. She doesn’t recall them looking so sinister. A young mom in yoga pants approaches with her kids: a toddler boy and an older girl. The children begin laughing, loudly and falsely. Taiko realizes why: they are called “laughing” hyenas. She even joins in, but her laugh comes out more like a bark, or sob. The mom and the girl look alarmed, but the son shambles over to Taiko and takes her face in his sticky hands. He meets her eyes and smiles at her, showing tiny wet teeth.