At the Zoo
There is an overhang of smoke in the air. It rides low and oppressive; it’s been there for weeks. The smoke has drifted north from Mexico. On the news, they interview scientists about air quality, they interview worried parents of asthmatic children, they show footage of all the acreage still burning. The fires themselves are normal, set annually by the farmers to clear the land, but it’s been dry and windy this year and now the fires are a problem. Brynn likens it to what is happening in her own body, the spark that has sent her cells multiplying, fanned by the flames of some unlikely confluence of events. She has become completely self-absorbed, the way people are when they are at a crossroads, desperate for a sign of what to do. Everything--billboards, movies, song lyrics, even bathroom graffiti--is portentous. It’s exhausting to be bombarded like this by the outside world. Brynn is the daughter of a psychologist and an English teacher, and she was raised to believe that feelings will make themselves known to you, taking on whatever form until you are ready to tune in. She both believes and doesn’t believe this, the way people generally are about a belief system blindly passed down to them as children.
But back to the smoke--everyone is being told to avoid time outdoors, which explains why the zoo is mostly deserted on this Friday morning. It’s a small zoo, easily walkable in an hour. The last time Brynn was here, she noticed there was a disproportionate number of birds and wolves. The wolves looked more like dogs, to be honest, and not particularly fierce ones either.
This is Austin’s only zoo and it’s usually crowded with school children and families. Brynn imagined herself blending in among these nameless people, a young woman walking alone. A young man wandering the zoo might be suspect. Occasionally there are perks to being a woman. She thinks this even though she is a Women’s Studies major. Brynn is one of the few women in the program who has not been chastised by her family for choosing such a major. She is often asked by other students, mostly men, but sometimes women, whether she’s a lesbian, whether she hates men. No and yes, she says sometimes. Yes and yes. Rarely--no and no.
Brynn knows that she needs to make her decision today. She wanted to be surrounded by people as she thought, she wanted there to be people who would push her over to the yes camp, and others who would yank her back to the no side. And after walking the perimeter of the zoo with all these people, she wanted to get in her car and not leave the parking lot until she decided. She remembers going to the zoo with her kindergarten class, how hungry she was that day, she didn’t care about the animals, she only wanted to eat the contents of her sack lunch. And the disappointment of being handed someone else’s lunch. No memory of what was in the lunch she was so anxious to eat, simply that she wasn’t given what she’d expected, and wanted, and she’d cried in disappointment.
She does not want to be responsible for packing school lunches, even though the packing of lunches will come much later. Being responsible for someone else’s nutrition feels like a huge responsibility, bigger than losing sleep, bigger than her body changing. She’s never been a great sleeper. Her twenty-year-old body is on the thin side now, and it will be on the thin side later--she doesn’t know how she knows this, but she does.
“Just one ticket,” she tells the woman at the zoo entrance. Brynn does not want a zoo membership but she takes an application anyway, because the woman looks tired and probably she is being paid to hand them out. Last summer Brynn worked at a department store in the mall and was supposed to ask customers if they wanted to open a store credit card. Usually she forgot. Occasionally she lied and told the manager the customer said no. She wasn’t fired from this job, but she wasn’t asked to return at Christmas, unlike the other salesgirls.
Her boyfriend Martin said she shouldn’t worry about not getting asked back. Today he is in Washington D.C. asking for money for the non-profit group he founded their junior year. When people ask what the group does, she says, “Similar to the Peace Corps but with more emphasis on community building.” The non-profit’s name has changed a few times already: World Corps, Leadership Corps, World Initiatives. Currently it’s Global Leadership.
Martin is on the short side with reddish hair. He is earnest, smart, sincere. He looks and acts nothing like her two previous boyfriends, both of whom were tall and funny, but in a mean-spirited way Brynn now recognizes. Her mom said she likes Martin just fine, although she worries he’s the kind of man who will be married to his job, who will never feel like his contribution to the world is enough.
Brynn told her mom she doesn’t care about that, that she believes in Global Leadership and she believes in Martin, who is changing the world, not just blabbering on about his middle-class guilt and why don’t women get paid as much as men and how awful that so many people die every year from no access to clean water. Martin is a doer, a man of action, and she will gladly trade comfort and security to be a part of something bigger than herself.
Well, you’re only twenty, her mom said the last time they had this conversation. That’s a very admirable position to hold at your age.
I guess you’d prefer I was with a man married to his soulless job as long as he made enough money to take care of his little wife.
Oh, Brynn, honey.
She says these things to her mom because she worries Martin will someday suspect something terrible about her, that he will discover, in the course of their travels to third world countries and remote villages, that she is the worst sort of feminist. She is a straight A student, she can write papers on rape culture and all the ways gender stereotypes influence literature and politics, she can hold her own in a discussion about layers of identity and the intersection of racism and sexism. But she also wants the house and the kids and the Christmas traditions and she wants those things in a stable environment, one where she is teaching women’s studies to other hopeful and angry women and isn’t this what feminism is all about, the right to choose these things and not have them chosen for you? She doesn’t know if she believes this anymore and that is why she feels that Martin will discover someday, in the distant or not so distant future, that she’s a fraud.
With her other boyfriends she could usually guess what they were thinking, rarely had she been surprised by what they would, or wouldn’t say. With Martin, she is off-balance, unsure, but in a pleasurable, intellectually satisfying way.
Brynn does not know what he would say about this baby conceived while on the pill. She does know what he would choose to do, however, and in certain moments when she is not feeling heavy and tired, she thinks this very topic would make an excellent thesis paper.
She sits on a bench by the entrance. She cannot make herself walk around this lonely, godforsaken zoo today. The smoke is thick, suffocatingly so. The woman selling tickets has pulled out a magazine and Brynn watches her avidly turn the pages. Maybe she’s reading Scientific America or The New Yorker. Martin would have faith in this woman, wouldn’t he? His actions, his belief system, imply that if you expect greatness from humanity, you will get it.
No one really believes that, she told him once. This was when they first met, when she was wary anyone could truly believe such a thing. How can you believe that about people, about these people? They were at a party, surrounded by college students behaving the way college students would always behave. Even the two of them, sitting in a corner and carrying on a too serious conversation at two a.m. struck her as slightly ridiculous, as if they had been typecast as characters in a T.V. show.
Whether I do or I don’t isn’t really the issue. You can either believe that people are who they are and they’ll never change, or you can believe something else.
What’s the something else?
That’s what I’m trying to figure out.
The woman holds up the magazine and it’s Us Weekly and something opens up inside Brynn, like an old time elevator whose cables have been suddenly cut. It’s not a sign but of course it is.
Of course it is.
About the author:
Kelly Morris holds an MFA in Writing from Spalding University, and her short stories have appeared in various literary journals. She currently teaches at SMU in Dallas. When she’s not writing or grading papers, Kelly can be found hanging out with her kids, who remain unconvinced that being a writer is actually a very cool job.