I was working that year as an administrative assistant at an all-girls private high school. It remained unclear to me why I had been selected for the job. My resumé was weak and obviously padded; I had no prior experience; during my interview I caught myself sucking absentmindedly on stray tendrils of my own hair, twice. When asked why I thought I’d be a good fit, I spoke at length about how much I ‘really related’ to adolescent girls. This was an insane thing to say. Yet my supervisor assured me that the hiring process had been very competitive. They were thrilled to have me. They had been impressed by my extensive credentials, my positive attitude, my genuine passion for women’s education. I, too, was thrilled. I needed cash, a lot of it, to pay my rent and the quack psychiatrist I had found to dish out a steady supply of Xanax, Adderall and Ambien.
At work, my duties included drafting emails, proofreading emails, sending emails, scheduling emails to be sent at a later date, replying to emails, sorting emails into categories based upon importance and reminding my superiors about emails to which they had yet to respond. In my own emails, I said ‘thank you’ too often and used many exclamation points, which caused other members of the faculty and staff to think that I had a low IQ. I did not know my real IQ, but I did have a vague idea that if I took an IQ test the results would reveal that I was a genius. Still, I was aware that my manner at work was idiotic and overly friendly, like that of a drooling, poorly-trained dog and though I hoped my enthusiasm would eventually win me a fond, if condescending, benevolence from my colleagues, it seemed to only fill them with hatred.
Occasionally when a teacher was absent I was asked to fill in as a substitute for their class. The children hated me even more than the faculty did. I was horribly afraid of them. When I looked at their moist, vicious faces I was reminded of something one might find in a nature documentary: a colony of secret, oceanic worms, buried in the deepest sand, slippery, pink and blind. My fundamental lack of authority was dazzling. The children sensed it intuitively. When I tried to take attendance, it released in them an animal frenzy.
‘Sarah Gardner? Is Sarah Gardner here today?’ I croaked one morning from the front of the classroom.
The girls whooped and hollered. A beautiful blonde leapt up from her desk, kicked it aside, threw herself to the ground and began to perform a series of technically perfect push-ups, the muscles in her silvery, hairless arms rippling. Her identical twin ran over and took a seat on the flat of her sister’s back, the two girls’ small buttocks rising and falling with each repetition. The twins’ hair was pale and soft, like the stringy bits on a husk of corn. Each liked to insist that the other had lice. I felt cowed and inspired by the push-ups. I felt that I should quit my job, get into shape, stop consuming such enormous quantities of roast beef.
‘Ms Stern,’ someone whined from the front row. ‘If I don’t go to the bathroom right now I’m going to have my period all over this chair. I get these huge clots in my panties. They soak straight through.’
The twins had collapsed and were now lying on the floor with their arms outstretched and their knees drawn into their chests, panting.
‘She’s a liar,’ said a girl near the back. ‘She doesn’t even get her period. She has diagnosed anorexia. It’s so filthy to lie. I personally do not have anorexia, but I do have a significant number of debilitating food allergies, says my nutritionist, who also happens to be my mother’s new boyfriend. He’s done so much for our family already.’
‘Oh my God, Clarisse, ew,’ someone screamed. ‘Your mom’s new boyfriend is literally a pervert.’
‘That’s so filthy and homophobic,’ Clarisse said. ‘He’s not a pervert, he’s bisexual.’
‘I have a video lesson here for everyone to watch,’ I said loudly. I could feel a film of sweat dampening the pits of my faux-silk blouse. ‘Mr. Handelman assured me that you would all enjoy it very much. It’s about outer space. It invokes the concept of infinity.’
I turned up the volume of the video, backed out of the classroom and closed the door.
From the stillness of the hallway, the shouts of the students were muffled and opaque.
My parents were in town the week of the school gala. I had decided that I would bring them along as my guests because, even though they drove me insane, even though when I thought about my childhood the image that always appeared before me, like a dream or a hallucination, was of a huge toad, half-dead, being thrown repeatedly against a wall by two smiling adolescents, I still thought that their wealth and good looks might afford me some level of prestige in the eyes of my colleagues. I imagined people would like the delicate, expensive scarves my mother made my father wear, even in the heat, and my mother’s well-cut linen pantsuits, and that through my own relation to these objects of taste and subtle luxury, a general sense of goodwill would come to envelop me as well.
‘You are mentally incontinent,’ my mother said to me over an early dinner the day they arrived in the city. She was in a very cheerful mood. ‘I just thought of that. Can you believe it? I just thought of that phrase right now!’
It was an unseasonably warm April evening. We were sitting outside at a wrought-iron table on a busy patio, a red gingham umbrella drooping above us, the sun only just beginning to fall below the assemblage of glass buildings that obscured the horizon. A half-empty bottle of white wine was nestled in a bucket of melting ice in the center of the table; to its right, an assortment of Mediterranean dips sweated pearls of liquid onto a pale stoneware platter. I had taken a bit of legally prescribed Xanax in preparation for our dinner, and my arms were feeling interestingly long in relation to the rest of my body. I looked away from the dips, which oozed, and instead attempted to gaze upon my parents with calm neutrality, as if they were two harmless strangers, a technique that I had read could be healing for a person like me. Where had I read this? I could not remember; perhaps I had made it up. What was a person like me? The answer to the question suddenly appeared, to my mind, to be overwhelmingly important, with far-reaching implications – not only for me, but for everyone I knew, every member of my generation, every politician who purported to represent me. In terms of personality, I was obviously infantile, paranoid, obsessed with authority. I had not received enough attention, I felt, in the womb or outside of it. I was incapable of enacting discipline or eliciting respect. Once, several years earlier, when living in an area where fauna roamed more freely than I was accustomed to, I had mistaken a tortoise for an interesting rock and given it a firm kick with my hiking boots, not understanding my error until the creature’s reptilian underbelly was made visible in its arc through the humid summer night air. The wonderful little legs! Even in the moment that it was happening, I had felt the event to be somehow significant.
I looked now – calmly, neutrally – across the table at my parents. They were middle-aged, slim, of average height. My mother’s hair was dyed dark with a burgundy tint and my father’s had gone entirely gray. On his head was perched a strange straw fedora. They were two normal people, I told myself, two normal people who hated dogs, who had become, in the past decade, increasingly preoccupied with tracking data analytics related to violent crime.
‘A city needs a strong mayor,’ my father was explaining in my direction. ‘A mayor who projects strength. Otherwise the populace grows rowdy, uncontrollable. Shootings. Rapes!’
I dragged a carrot through a puree of legumes and gave what I hoped was a thoughtful nod.
‘Now, that strong mayor could be either a man or a woman,’ he added hastily.
My wine was cold and tasted like rocks. I did not care about the gender of the strong mayor. I was not a strong mayor. I was an email. I was a little bit high. We are what we repeatedly do, I had once read. Every morning before work I made toast that was too pale, took it out of the toaster, sighed, put it back in the toaster, burned it, then used a butter knife to scrape off the black stuff that was sure to someday give me cancer. Whenever this happened, I would think, Is this a dumb analogy for my dumb life? But that thought didn’t stop it from happening again the next day.
‘I’m happy you’re here,’ I said to my parents in my most pleasant voice. ‘I’m excited that you’ll be coming to the gala. Dad, I love your chic hat.’
‘What is wrong with you?’ My mother asked interestedly. ‘Who is it that told you to become like this?’
I peered up at the sky, colored pink by the deranged and blazing sunset. All around there was the sound that was so much like rain but was not rain; it was only the spring wind moving horribly through its attendant trees.
‘Ham,’ I said, ignoring my mother’s question. ‘I’d love some thinly-sliced ham.’
We ordered the ham and ate it silently, sloppily, pinching the translucent slices between our fingers, tearing the meat with our teeth. The Xanax was making my mind engage in gentle floating movements. I envisioned my brain as a small, calm ocean contained in the cup of my skull, pulled this way and that by forces that had nothing at all to do with me – gravity; the curvature of the earth; the moon. The thought was soothing. I felt close to my parents as we ate, in the way that I imagined a snail might feel close to a different, unrelated snail’s shell.
The sun continued its ignorant descent.
I was hungover when I arrived at work the next morning. I sat stiffly at my desk, staring at the round, childish wall clock positioned above me, three minutes too slow, and taking small sips of water from my reusable stainless-steel bottle. Occasionally I would vomit a little in my mouth, at which point I would swallow my puke and chase it down with more water. Between sips I gazed into the hall through the half-open door of my windowless office and typed out emails about the forms I was paid to keep track of.
Please don’t hesitate to reach out if you are having any trouble!, I wrote, then hesitated, my cursor hovering over the ‘send’ button, before returning to the draft box to type out a smiley face next to my email signature.
Of course I was unhappy; I was a loser, a flunkee, a flop. I envied the bodies of children. I envied the sun for its manner of being, both infinite and limited, and I envied the trees I could see from my second-story apartment window, how each year they received praise from passers-by just for regenerating themselves. I envied the wealthy and the successful, I envied the talented and I envied my own parents, who were wealthy, successful and talented, and who, in addition to this, did not want to give me any of their money. They wanted, instead, to purchase a pied-à-terre, maybe in Paris or in Amsterdam, and though they never actually went through with this, they talked about it all the time – mostly, I suspected, so that they could have the pleasure of driving me to my psychic breaking point by their use of the phrase pied-à-terre.
‘You are not French people!’ I would scream over the phone, and my parents would laugh in my face, metaphorically speaking, because although it was true that they were not French, it was also true that I was an adult woman without a savings account, high on Adderall, status-obsessed, getting fat from a diet of jelly donuts and pre-packaged cold cuts.
I would very much appreciate it if the form could be returned to my office by 4 p.m. on Friday! I typed. I looked down at the pile of printed forms next to my keyboard. At 1.30 p.m., the top form noted, Mrs. Niedaker would be meeting with Cassie Donovan in Room 415 to discuss Cassie’s recent presentation on the competing leftist parties involved in the Spanish Civil War, for which she had received a B+. I triple-hole-punched the form, placed it into the relevant binder, and added the binder to a closet full of other binders, arranged by year. The closet was deep and dusty and made my allergies flare up. Often, after placing a binder onto its proper shelf, I would stand in the dark for a few minutes and feel the floating particles of grime reddening my eyes, hoping that when I emerged it would appear to my colleagues that I had been weeping for some mysterious but legitimate reason, and that someone, having caught a glimpse of my substantive, hidden interior, would take pity on me and no longer require that I do my job.
Sometimes just thinking about this possibility made me actually weep.
‘Uh oh! Are you crying?’ My supervisor asked me when I stepped out of the closet. Her tone was sympathetic and curious and only thinly disguised what was clearly a vast reservoir of disgust.
‘Just allergies!’ I said quickly. ‘Terrible allergies this season.’
‘Phew!’ She mimed wiping her brow, then returned to her office, shutting the door. Her hair was pulled back into a high, tight, glossy ponytail that I found so impressive I thought I might once more burst into tears.
The most important form I kept track of was the one that teachers filled out if they planned to meet privately with a student. The time, date, location and subject of the meeting were to be recorded; the door to the meeting room was to remain open. If, for any reason, the door needed to be closed, the teacher was required to position themselves in view of the glass window that paneled each door. No one ever looked at the forms; they sat in the closet, would continue to sit in the closet, for years. I wasn’t sure what could be proved or disproved by their existence, anyway. But the form itself was imbued, I thought, with a potent bureaucratic symbolism, and it gave me a gnawing, panicked feeling to consider the fact that I was its keeper. Whenever I added a binder to the closet I recalled my own high school, where there had been four sexual predators engaged in active predation during the years of my education – though I had not been aware of this at the time. In retrospect, however, it did appear to me that the predators had been rather obviously predatory, in that they were charismatic and domineering and had a tendency to employ transgressive sexual innuendos as pedagogical devices and to invite their favorite students over to their homes for raunchy barbecues on holiday weekends. These teachers had, as is often the case, been generally beloved by a faction of students, doggish in its sense of loyalty and in its ability to constitute itself as an un-individuated pack. It may be important to note here that, though each teacher’s faction was comprised of different sets of students, there were a few kids who were so naturally compliant, so dumbly susceptible to power of any kind, that they managed to slink their way into being members of the loyal parties of all four teachers, which was actually quite intense, quite a time commitment, requiring real diligence, cunning and motivation. Of course, one such student had been myself – idiot that I was, that I continue to be.
Out in the hallway I watched a sophomore glance in both directions and, once she had determined that she was alone, bang her head discreetly against a glossy blue locker. Her skull made a dull thwacking sound when it struck the metal.
During a crash, I read in the driving manual PDF I had taken to studying when no one else could see the screen of my desktop, a person not properly restrained becomes a flying object and a danger to each person in the vehicle.
Was it four o’clock? Was it Friday?
Not once in my life had it been four o’clock on Friday.
The theme of that year’s gala was ‘Zoo’. The event would be held at a zoo after closing time; there would be an opportunity to observe evening animal feedings, to watch the seals flop around in their impressively pre-determined fashion. Hors d’oeuvres would be served and there would be, to my delight, an open bar furnished with top-shelf liquor. Students, parents, faculty and staff would all be in attendance – any member of the community who so chose.
All week the gala had been the central topic of any inter-colleague conversation I happened to enter into. During the interminable elevator journey up to my eleventh floor office, the discussion would invariably alight upon one of several possible gala-related topics: whether one was going to the gala; what food one imagined might be served at the gala; what one would be wearing to the gala; if one had heard the anecdote regarding a gym teacher’s inebriated rant about environmentalism at last year’s gala; whether one liked zoos.
‘I cannot wait to see the animals after dark!’ I overheard a science teacher saying in the cafeteria as I accepted my allotted pile of finger-sized French toast sticks and shoved several plastic packets of maple syrup into my pants pocket. His statement bothered me; it seemed to imply that the animals would be engaging in exciting and illicit activities after closing time, when I was fairly certain they would just be asleep.
I did not like zoos. Not for ethical reasons, but because the animals were always smaller than I imagined and often seemed to have clinical depression, which ruined my fun. The seals were, of course, the exception to this. They did not seem to have clinical depression, but I disliked them for other reasons: the reality of their rubbery, bulbous bodies and the way they appeared to be content with a ridiculous form of domestication in which they were made to perform the same repetitive, degrading ritual over and over again, just for the opportunity to listlessly chomp down on some bits of fish. The seals, I thought, had no self-respect. Watching them made me feel totally humiliated.
‘Are you a fan of zoos?’ Sandy, the new HR assistant, asked me on Thursday as we waited for the elevator.
‘I love zoos,’ I said, ‘because they remind me of my childhood!’
The elevator ticked majestically up to the seventh floor, and then the eleventh.
On the evening of the gala my parents had agreed to meet me for a drink at a bar that was close enough to the zoo that we would be able to walk to the event with relative ease, but far enough away that I doubted we would run into anyone I worked with. I got there early and asked the bartender for a shot of whiskey, which I carried to a table in the back corner, taking small, careful steps in an effort not to spill the substance that was becoming more precious to me with each passing moment. I slumped into a chair, downed the shot and slipped the empty glass into the front pocket of my purse. The bar was cool, narrow and dimly lit. I kept thinking of it as a burrow, probably because I had the zoo on my mind. There was no music playing and the majority of the tables were adorned with Tiffany-style lamps that wouldn’t turn on. The only other patron at that time was a thin man with long, gray hair, who was sitting at the bar. The back of his T-shirt read prepare to grind in tall gothic lettering. On the wall behind him hung a great variety of black-and-white photographs of Jimmy Stewart in a series of charming and surprising poses. It was difficult to imagine what possible relation there could be between this establishment, which, according to the menu, had opened in 1999, and the esteemed actor, but I did not care enough to investigate.
When my parents arrived, my mother was wearing a long silk skirt and a leopard-print blouse with an oversized collar; my father wore dark-wash jeans and a crisp cotton shirt the color of a live trout. They looked as elegant as I had hoped. Did they like this bar? I asked. No, they did not. Also, the weather was bad. They had not had a good day. They had visited a museum whose folksy Americana quilts struck them as totally pathetic. Their tour guide had braces, which was childish and disgusting. They did not know why they were in this city. They were feeling disillusioned with the nation as a whole. Violent crime, they reminded me, was on the rise. My mother ordered a gin and tonic and stirred it with her pinky while she rattled off a list of the zoo animals she did and did not like.
‘I like bears, tigers and zebras. I hate fish. I hate those horrible monkeys. I like giraffes. I do not care about the hippopotamus.’
‘I myself am fond of the penguins,’ said my father. ‘Slip, slip! Down the hill they go.’
‘You’ll never have children, probably,’ my mother whispered to me.
‘Dear God! I cannot live like this, without the one I love, my heart’s twin!’ howled the man in the prepare to grind shirt. He threw an empty pint glass onto the floor next to his stool, but it didn’t break. The bartender seemed unfazed. My mother rolled her eyes. I ordered another whiskey.
By the time we left the bar I was wobbly on my feet. In an effort to reduce bloat, all I had eaten that day were two containers of fat-free Greek yogurt, four Twizzlers and a fistful of grapes. The shot of whiskey, the second shot of whiskey and the third shot of whiskey were manifesting psychologically as alternating feelings of glory and total abject horror. I was wearing a clinging knitted dress that I had stolen from a glamorous roommate a few years earlier and a pair of strappy kitten heels that I had worn to my own high school prom. As we walked toward the zoo I caught a glimpse of myself in a store window. My mauve dress was too close in color to my skin; I looked like two stacked raw sausages. My hair, which I had imagined to be in a European-ish state of artful disarray, hung around my face in weird, scraggly chunks. My parents, on the other hand, looked very healthy and very clean. I had never before noticed what excellent posture they had.
My parents had been right; the weather that evening was terrible, overcast and humid. At the entrance to the zoo the school principal stood greeting the crowds of good-looking parents and students and worse-looking faculty and staff as they poured through an elaborate archway made up of hundreds of blue and gold balloons. The arch opened out onto a large marble fountain decorated with statues of naked cherubs, their fat little hands twisted around the necks of the snakes and lizards that they rode bareback, out of whose mouths spilled torrents of rushing green water. There was a cotton-candy machine and an ice-cream bar and lots of depleted-looking catering staff, dressed in black, who circulated subtly among the guests holding trays of tiny, elevated versions of children’s foods: fried balls of macaroni and cheese topped with brownish dabs of truffle aioli; miniature bratwurst; sticky chicken wings served individually on plastic plates. I grabbed three small sausages from a woman’s tray and swallowed them quickly, then placed the empty plates back on the tray in a stack. ‘Delicious!’ I said; the caterer frowned and moved away. A pop song blasted over the sound system, its lyrics explaining that this was the last night on earth and so, in some metaphysical sense, the only real and authentic night, and therefore also probably the best night ever. As we wandered through the savanna-themed area and then the prairie-themed area, I began to understand that I looked embarrassingly uncouth, that my attire evoked an aura of immature but desperate sexuality, though there was nothing I could do about it now. Chugging a weak whiskey and Diet Coke from a compostable cup, looking around in a daze at the swarms of guests, I came to the sudden, horrible conclusion that the only other people who had brought their parents to this event, rather than a husband or wife or partner or even a friend, were the students themselves.
‘Where are the lions?’ my mother asked. She removed my father’s fedora and began to fan herself with it. In his left hand, my father was holding aloft a single chicken taquito.
Somehow we had ended up in front of a fenced-in field where two rhinoceroses loped, one’s face pressed into the other’s posterior, in a dumb and continuous circle, while a group of children watched and made demonstrative farting sounds with their armpits.
‘Didn’t you see?’ said a tall freshman for whose history class I had once substituted. ‘Those lions are dead. It was all over the news. They had these powerful invasive parasites. They got eaten from the inside out. Science is amazing, but so gross, too.’
‘I have to pee,’ I said quickly, before my parents could complain about the dead lions. I stumbled toward a row of green porta-potties near some prairie dogs that no one seemed to care about. The line for the bathroom was long and slow. A warm, fecund smell drifted back toward me, unavoidable and alive. I didn’t really need to pee. I didn’t know what I needed to do. I couldn’t believe all those impressive lions were actually dead. How had it happened? By what mechanism, specifically, did those parasites operate?
I had almost reached the front of the line and was looking forward to puking into the gaping, unflushable hole of the port-a-potty when I felt something tugging on the hem of my dress. I looked down. Hanging onto me was a small child, four or five years old, with spiked brown hair and plastic glasses that clipped together at the back of her head. She wore a purple shirt with a large, crusty brown stain down the front.
‘Excuse me,’ she said. I watched as her eyes drifted away from my face and toward my feet. ‘Are you a teacher?’
‘Sure,’ I said woozily. Behind me, someone coughed. I stepped out of the line. ‘Are you lost? Do you need help finding your parents?’
‘No, thank you,’ she said, still avoiding my eyes. I was impressed by her formality and her sense of decorum. I found myself wanting, suddenly, to reach out and touch the stiff spikes that covered her large head like a porcupine’s back. I wondered if she gelled them herself in the morning, or if her mother did, or her father. And whose decision had it been, anyway, to style her hair this way? Who decided these things? I felt at my own hair, still matted, and now a little damp with sweat. Who, in my life, had decided these things for me?
The girl pulled at my dress again, more impatiently this time, and pointed somewhere in the distance.
‘You want to go there?’ I asked, then allowed her to take my hand, following her automatically through the dusty crowds as if she were an interesting and authoritative tour guide. Every few seconds she stopped to tug at her shorts, which seemed to encumber her. Beneath me, my heels buckled. I thought of my parents, standing by the rhinoceros, waiting for me to return. Or maybe by now they had moved on to another animal.
After a couple of minutes we arrived at a mid-sized stony area, surrounded by a tall metal fence, populated by two fluffy red foxes. I understood, then, what the girl had wanted me – or not me in particular but anyone, any adult – to see. On top of their large, flat rocks, the foxes writhed, their strong limbs threshing and contorting in what could only be construed as an attempt to claw each other’s eyes out. It was a disgusting sight, violent and bewildering. The tails were so bushy, so sweet; the ears were pricked; the snouts lean and familiar. Inside of their furious mouths, the teeth were stacked neatly, like a human’s I wanted badly to look away, but the girl’s fat little finger extended out toward the foxes like an accusation.
‘What is it?’ she demanded.
‘Um,’ I said. I crouched down so that I would be closer to the girl in height, in the same way, I realized, that I might have done with a dog. From my new position, the world appeared somehow more accurately rendered than it had when I was standing up. The girl stared at me with suspicion. Behind her glasses, her eyes were mournful and dark. And suddenly I knew that it was strange, truly strange, that I hadn’t asked for her name by now; and that, both for her sake and for mine, it was essential that I pull her away from this gruesome scene and try, as I should have from the start, to find her parents.
I reached my hand out and rested it on the girl’s head; the spikes felt pliable and softer than I had imagined.
‘Those foxes are best friends,’ I heard myself say. I turned back to look at the scene inside the enclosure, where her eyes were glued. I thought for another moment. ‘Actually, they’re boyfriend and girlfriend. They’re touching each other intimately. What they feel for each other is love. Isn’t that beautiful?’
We looked together at the foxes. It was possible there was a trickle of blood dribbling from one fox’s ear, though it was difficult to see clearly because of its thick, vibrant fur. The other fox started to screech, a horrible high-pitched sound. For a moment I struggled to come up with a plausible explanation, but then I saw that the girl had already visibly relaxed. She put her thumb in her mouth and chewed on it, leaning against my shoulder, staring calmly into the enclosure. Her body burned against mine. ‘Love can definitely be confusing, but it’s also the most beautiful thing in the world,’ I explained happily. I took her hand. It was so small, so mysteriously damp! From far away I heard a tinny voice played over the sound system; the seal show would be beginning in five minutes. I found myself clasping the girl’s hand tighter, panicked. ‘Foxes are known for their love of play and their cunning natures – ’ I said loudly, trying to drown out the announcement.
‘Seal show,’ the girl screamed. And before I understood what was happening, she had tugged her hand out of mine and sprinted away, disappearing into the crowd.
I remained crouched on the ground for a few moments. The foxes had stopped their shrieking. I didn’t care. The air was warm. All around me, children were screaming. To my left, I saw a plastic bucket of raw meat leaking blood onto the dusty faux-savanna earth. Someday – and the thought pulled me toward and away from myself like a current – I was going to be a mother.
I stood up, then, and found my way back to where I had left my parents. My father was now holding in his hand a second, different taquito. My mother still had his hat. There they remained, exactly themselves, as if no time at all had elapsed.
‘Can we go now?’ my mother said.
We walked back to the entrance of the zoo, past the pool where the seals were performing their final act, obscured from view by hordes of small children, their skin sticky with sweets, twitching in piles on the ground. I called my parents an Uber using my father’s phone, then sat on the curb to wait for their car to arrive. I felt calm and strangely pure, a clean suburban pond. My parents loomed above me like weird, fleshy statues. Their hands almost touched, but didn’t.
‘I never told you this,’ I said suddenly, ‘because you never asked – but I think you should probably know that when I was in high school, I was preyed upon, sexually, by four trusted figures. That’s why this job is so important to me.’ I started to tear up. ‘So that I can be a role model to these young women. So that I can make sure that nothing like what happened to me ever happens to anyone else!’ I thought of the little girl, her warm skin, her interesting hair.
My mother looked at me for a moment. She was chewing, I noticed, on a stick of peppermint gum.
‘No, you were not,’ she said. ‘That’s a terrible thing to lie about.’
A few feet away a child threw a candy wrapper on the ground, picked it up, then threw it on the ground again, and I watched the treacherous look in his face as he waddled triumphantly back into the zoo. In front of us, the Uber finally pulled up, a handsome Toyota Corolla.
It was true, of course, that I had been lying; but that didn’t stop me from being heartbroken that she didn’t believe me.
The Uber driver leaned his head out of the window. ‘Looks like a party!’ he said. ‘Come on in!’
My mother handed my father her large leather handbag and slid into the backseat. She blew me a kiss and then appeared to immediately fall asleep, her head lolling back, her chest rising and falling in small, steady repetitions.
My father patted me gently on the shoulder before getting into the car. ‘What a nice zoo,’ he said. ‘We love you very much.’
It was dark. Overhead, the enormous clouds had loosened their grip on the sky so that you could just begin to make out the dull light of a few meager stars. The music had been turned off and crowds of guests were streaming out toward the street, hailing cabs, hugging each other goodbye. I removed my shoes and wiped a dab of blood from the back of my heel where, over the course of the night, a blister had formed and popped, then pushed against the crowds back into the zoo, which was quiet and wet, the ground littered with Dixie cups, toothpicks, paper napkins. A number of balloons in the archway had deflated and were now hanging off the structure like floppy growths. As I entered the zoo, I heard laughter coming from behind the reptile house and instinctively followed the sound, hoping that I could somehow wade into it, as if into a hot bath. A huge Komodo dragon had once been painted on one of the house’s walls, it seemed, though it was fading now; you could only really discern one bulging eye, two legs, and the midsection of what must have once been a large tail. Drawing closer, I could make out a cluster of caterers smoking and talking, shoving each other playfully, untucking their shirts. Under the floodlights, their faces shone like moons.
I walked toward the group, smiling vacantly, ready to ask for a cigarette and to take, if possible, the opportunity to become a part of things by launching into a story that would prove to be moving, engaging, and maybe even a little sensual, and then I noticed that two of the caterers were not caterers but women in short, chic dresses, pretty women with pale hair that grazed the middle of their backs, women wearing smart little sneakers, and then I thought that maybe ‘women’ was the wrong word, because really what they were, I saw now, was two members of the senior class, Ella and Andrea, the beautiful twins in Mr. Handelman’s science section. I stopped walking and wondered for a moment if it would be possible to turn around and leave without being noticed, but I was too late – the girls had spotted me and were waving me over, unperturbed. My bare feet carried me to them. I felt that I was gliding, as if I were on skates. I still, I could tell, had that dumb smile on my face. One twin, who I thought might be Ella, handed me a cigarette, which I took. A caterer flicked his lighter on and I leaned automatically over his chest, moving my mouth toward the flame.
‘Don’t worry, Ms Stern,’ the twin who might have been Andrea said cheerfully. ‘These are our boyfriends.’ She gestured at two of the more handsome caterers. ‘This is Tommy and this is Joe. They’re on a gap year. Next fall they’re going to be freshmen at Georgetown.’
I looked at Tommy and Joe. They looked back at me. One of them had a delicate tattoo of a sea turtle on the side of his neck. They both appeared to be about thirty-five.
‘Really nice to meet you,’ I said. ‘Congratulations on Georgetown. What a great school.’ I nodded enthusiastically to show what an esteemed institution I thought Georgetown was, and to make clear that I absolutely accepted without reservation that these men were, at most, nineteen years old.
‘Thanks,’ said Tommy or Joe. We stood there for a moment. I looked up at the sky. The gaps between the clouds were widening, revealing more and more stars. Beside me, Andrea wiggled her arm around one of the men’s necks like a snake. I could smell the dull, warm scent of hard liquor hanging in the air. I remembered other nights, nights that had both been like this and not; but all of those had been so long ago, I realized– so much longer than it sometimes seemed.
‘Can I say something to you?’ Ella asked, swaying in my direction.
‘Sure,’ I said. I flicked away the stub of my cigarette. I was an open flower. I was ready for anything. I was hoping that she would invite me to an interesting party.
When I looked at her, her eyes were perfect, so large and so green.
‘Ms Stern,’ she said, ‘You look like a slut. But you don’t know how to act like one. I bet a lot of people have given you a lot of opportunities. A lot of people have probably left things lying on the ground for you, right there on the ground for you to pick up. It’s okay that you’re like that. It’s important to know what you are.’ All around her, the fireflies were coming to life. They hovered near her face and neck, brushing against the soft down on her cheek, then drifted and spun away in pinwheels and loops. ‘That’s why I’m excited for college,’ she continued. ‘In college, I’m going to find out a lot of things about myself. I’m going to join a lot of different clubs. Each club will let me explore one part of me. It could be a part of me that I don’t know so well yet. That’s what’s so exciting. I have a lot of interests. I like the theater. I like robotics. I like business management.’
I closed my eyes and thought about Monday, about all of the emails that had yet to be sent, emails that would be nothing, absolutely nothing, without me. I could no longer see the stars or the fireflies, but I knew that they were there. Each one was an unintelligible miracle, a pinpoint of light drawn perfectly into its fold of darkness.
‘I can’t wait for college,’ Ella repeated. ‘I’m going to join a lot of clubs.’ I opened my eyes and watched as she flicked away an unlit firefly that had landed on the strap of her dress.
‘I promise you,’ she said, ‘Those are going to be some incredible years. Ms Stern, I have a feeling that those might be the best four years of my life.’
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