In the Zoo

Just in time for Valentine’s Day, a sort of love story

John Irsfeld

Editor's note: This is an excerpt from John H. Irsfeld's unpublished novel, Life in Iceland. In the manuscript, it's a story within the story—a tale told by a character named Lilla Vargas. Irsfeld, author of several published books, including the novels Little Kingdoms and Rats Alley, and the collection Radio Elvis and Other Stories, chairs UNLV's English department.

The day was warm. A slight breeze blew through the zoo, stirring the just-budded trees, fondling the hibiscus and oleander, caressing the few people walking around looking at the animals. It was cool enough, still early enough in the spring that there were no stark, pungent smells assaulting the senses as the people walked around, like little dolls, peering intently, ironically, at the wild animals caged for their amusement and edification.

One couple in particular stood out. Perhaps it was because they were so attractive, or perhaps it was because they were more intent upon each other than they were upon the animals beyond the barriers, that they gave only a slight impression they were here to watch. That is, the couple moved from animal group to animal group, following the pennant-shaped signs with elephants painted on them, and zebras and lions, and so on. Their movement made it appear that they were seriously engaged in what they were doing, but closer inspection revealed that they only appeared to be looking at the animals. That is, they did move from one group to the next, they did follow the signs that sent them through the zoo in such a way that they were guaranteed a view of everything with only minimal repetition; they did, even, look down upon, or out at, or up to the animals beyond the barriers. But it was clear, one could see if one looked closely, that they were preoccupied with something else, not with the animals. They were not enjoying the animals. They were too busy carrying on some kind of business between themselves; they were using the zoo as a backdrop for their own private business.

They were standing at the railing that separated them from an orangutan and his mate. The female was busy doing something at the rear of the simulated mountain retreat, off near the simulated back cliff into which an opening had been carved that led to their private quarters. The male was seated about halfway between the backdrops—the back wall—and the sudden drop-off at the front of the compound. The drop-off must have been intended to serve as a challenge to his desire, if he ever had one, to walk out of the zoo and off up into the arid mountains, or down the way into Mexico. He sat, his feet pulled up, his soles and toes touching idly, his arms folded languorously before him across his giant belly. His reddish-orange face was grotesque and sad. Even the couple who were so deeply engaged in doing whatever it was they were doing seemed periodically to look at his sad countenance from their vantage point, to linger on it as if they were somehow affected by it. Many people obviously were.

If one paid especially close attention he could hear the tiny voices of the couple wafting out of the zoo; could make out what it was that was causing them to ignore the entertainment, the recreation, so thoughtfully provided them.

"You haven't heard a word I've said to you," she was saying. She was holding on to his arm, like lovers do, looking mostly at him, but away from time to time in what appeared to be impatience, exasperation.

"Yes I have," he said to her. "You haven't been paying attention to me." "Let's don't go through that again," she said.

He didn't speak. They both looked at the orangutan, seated out there before them, holding itself close, looking forlorn, defeated, abandoned.

"OK," he said. "You tell me again. Because I don't think I do get it."

"Look," she said. "I love you. Don't you understand that?"

"OK," he said. "If you love me, then why is it our relationship is confined to meeting once or twice a week and talking to each other as if we were the same sex? Brother and sister?"

"You always fasten on just one element of our relationship," she said crossly. "You always come back to the one thing. At least as far as I'm concerned, it's the only thing that's missing from our relationship. I mean, I love you, and I respect you. I think you are my closest, best friend."

"But you won't make love with me."

"But I won't make love with you."

"Then I don't understand why we even keep this charade going. I mean, you come closer and closer, and then, just when I think we've agreed to go off somewhere for the day, then you jump back. I mean, the minute I reach out to grasp you, you're gone. Now explain that to me. I mean, this isn't olden times."

"You think I'm a tease," she said. Her voice was like a little girl's, plaintive, sad, as if she didn't understand what it was she was doing wrong, had done wrong, to make the relationship between them settle on this sand bar.

"I'm beginning to think so," he said. He was petulant, angry, self-righteous.

"Well, it's just my way," she said.

They started away from the orangutan compound.

"Maybe we shouldn't see each other at all," she suggested.

"Maybe," he said, his voice tight, reserved.

They walked on until they came to some stairs that led up toward a peacock sanctuary. She was now no longer holding his hand. She had her arms crossed over her breasts much like the old bull orangutan had.

They stood before the peacock display. "I wouldn't like that," she said.

"I'll bet," he said.

"Well, I wouldn't."

"What you don't seem to understand ...," he started.

"No," she said, grasping his arm again and clinging to him. "I do. I do understand. It's different with men. But what you don't understand about me is that now, as it is between us, I'm in control."

"Of me," he said, interrupting her.

"No, no," she said, "I don't mean that. I mean I'm in control of myself. And I know me. I know from experience if we ... if you and I ... made love ... had sex ... then I wouldn't have that control anymore. And it's important to me to have it."

"Why?" he asked.

They moved now away from the peacocks and down the stairs on the other side from where they had come up. They passed a complex of signs showing a water buffalo, a giraffe, and an elephant, the arrows pointing in different directions.

"Which one?" he asked her. She was again holding herself rather than clinging to her partner.

"I don't care," she said. "The giraffe."

They turned in the direction the giraffe sign pointed.

"Because," she said, "because, for one thing, you're married."

He did not say anything.

"That makes a difference," she said.

"Not to me," he said.

"Well it does to me."

"Anyway," he said, "so are you."

Again they were silent as they walked on toward the giraffes.

"It was a mistake to ever even start this," he said.

"It's my fault," she said. "I gave you the impression somehow that I was ready. And I wasn't."

"Somehow?" he said with feeling. "Somehow? You said, 'When I get back from vacation.' Those are your words. I said, 'We've got to do something about this. I can't take seeing you like this, holding hands. We've got to go some place and make love.' And you said, 'When I get back from vacation.'"

"Yes," she said, taking his arm again. "I can see how you'd get the idea that I meant that. Make love."

"You can see," he said. His lip curled a little.

"Oh, come on," she said, tugging at his arm.

He pulled away from her as if he wanted her to let go of him, but he did not pull so far that they stopped touching each other.

"So you think we should just stop seeing each other?" she asked.

"What do you think?" he asked.

"I don't. But it's up to you, I guess. I mean I like our relationship like it is. You're my best friend. I like being with you."

They walked until they were in front of the giraffes.

Two of the strange beasts were chewing buds from a tree near the front of their compound. One was a male, the other a female. Their long necks touched occasionally and it seemed almost as if they were doing it on purpose.

"I love you," she said, her voice tentative and small in the open air of the zoo, in the face of the all the animals they passed.

"I love you, too," he said. His voice was strained and angry. "God damn it."

"Well," she said. "If you love somebody, then you don't want anything from them, do you?"

"I don't know," he said. "But I do know that if you love somebody you want to please them. Don't you?"

"Yes," she said. "I guess so. I don't know."

They left the giraffes and walked on down the paved path, following the signs toward the elephants.

She was grasping herself now again, clinging across her breasts to the ends of her own elbows.

"You just don't understand," he said. Their voices trailed off as they walked on down the path, growing smaller and smaller as they headed toward the tiny elephants they could not yet see ahead of them and around the corner, almost exactly opposite the back of the giraffes.

"I know," she said. "I do. But you don't understand what I'm trying to tell you."

There were light stringy clouds in the sky now and some still white trails of jet airplanes between the ground and the sun, so that shadows fell in bars across the grounds of the zoo, and not just across the tiny, serious couple that moved about inside its walls not looking at the other animals placed there for their entertainment, study and enlightenment.

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