Sunday, June 17, 2012

Zoo Wives

I want to write about how we try to make sense of things, and how we're wrong, how we empathize, and we're wrong, how we capture what is wild so we can understand it, but we only understand within the limits of our own captivity. We learn something, but because it's in the wrong context, we can only confirm our previous opinions. In other words, every story tells our story. 

People tell me I'm a saint. They call me a saint in a particular, hushed tone that indicates revulsion. They misunderstand me because they aren't really judging me, they're judging themselves
After an hour on the highway the voice of the GPS leads the car in  spirals away from our destination, Aisha unplugs the GPS. My ex-husband had packed the GPS along with sandwiches, cold drinks, and fried chicken for our trip because he knows I'm terrible at directions and we love to eat. Aisha hands me a chicken wing and tells me to relax.

          As I turn onto Girard Avenue in Philadelphia, Hamid's eyes fill with tears. He shakes his soft, brown curls, and gasps, "No zoo! I want birthday party!"

          Hamid is three years old and has never been to the zoo. He says it in Arabic now, so there can be no doubt, "Mafeesh zoo!"

          In the rear-view mirror, I see my 13-year-old daughter, Noor, rolling her Egyptian eyes as Hamid pounds his fist on the armrest of his car seat. Aisha turns to face her son and says, in her beautiful accent, "You want to hoof the candles?"

          "Yes," Hamid sighs, still pouting.


          Hamid has his own language, neither English nor Arabic, which he is gradually letting go of. I grieved when he first uttered  "I hungry" instead of "Na-na nee." He used to call me Sha-Sha, now I'm called ShaNett, and before long I'll just be Charlotte. He still says hoof, which can mean many things, depending on the context.

          I tell Noor to let her brother blow out the candle. She rolls her eyes again, but she's smiling when she extends her pointer finger, holding it straight and slim as a candle, and commands, "Now make a wish!"

          Hamid shouts hoof at the candle and we all clap.

Although we had a late start and it's only a couple of hours till closing time, there are several things Hamid must see at the Philadelphia Zoo today: monkeys, lions, and giraffes for sure.

          Hamid sees the black spider monkeys before we do, closer to the zoo entrance. What they lack in opposable thumbs, the monkeys more than make up for with their long tails, which they use with the dexterity of an extra hand, and I can't help but notice their long, flaccid penises. No one says anything about this; there's not so much as a suppressed giggle. I find their penises distracting and in poor taste, like Curious George with a schlong, and feel frustrated that everyone else pretends not to see the obvious. This is my burden. It makes me feel like a prude.
          We continue to where the rest of the primates are kept behind glass in a dark, cave-like building. Surrounded by cement walls, the lemurs sleep on shelves and monkeys swing from ropes, eating heads of lettuce, and picking their noses.

          We stop for a long time before a two-story pane of glass, almost an inch thick, to watch a gorilla circle his habitat. I press my palm against the glass and tell Aisha my secret wish: that the gorilla will fix his intelligent gaze on me and press his black, human hand over mine. I, alone, know he is human, and admire his perfect, human ear.

          Aisha shakes her head and laughs. I'm glad I didn't say anything about the spider monkeys.

          "Noor, you know your mother is crazy?"

          My daughter says "yes" to Aisha the same way Hamid said "yes" in the car, exasperated and resigned, or perhaps she's just embarrassed.

          Below me, Hamid presses his palm against the glass, and we wait while the gorilla races in circles around the small, artificial, green hills you see on putt-putt golf courses. When he finishes each circuit, he pauses in front of us, by a little door that leads to an indoor playroom. He studies us without much enthusiasm, chewing thoughtfully on a couple of long, reedy tufts of grass, as if we are the animals. He squats, pressing his hairy ass against the glass, so close I can count each crack on his black, calloused heel. Abruptly, he leaps up and resumes his circuit.

          As we walk along the winding paths we are followed by bored peacocks whose shrill cries seem full of pathos. We stop where a crowd has gathered in front of a chain link fence. A mother peacock struts around the fence and looks at her tiny chick stuck on the other side. He hops and peeps, agitated, while his mother pecks the ground. The crowd, drawn in to this small drama, takes sides. Children shout at the chick to walk around the fence, while grownups urge the mother to go to her chick. Someone says, "She's not a very good mother."

          Hamid says, "Go, birdie," and the chick hops through the links of the fence. The crowd cheers.

          I tell Aisha I've noticed a lot of Muslim women here. I can tell by their hijab, their headscarves.

          "Yeah, I guess," Aisha says. I realize there are probably more Muslim women than just the ones I've observed wearing hijab. Aisha doesn't wear a scarf. I swallow my embarrassment.

Hamid wants to ride a camel so Noor stands on line with her little brother. The camel is fitted with a special saddle that has a metal handlebar children can hold onto. Hamid sits in front of the hump and Noor behind. The man holding the leash halts the camel and the children smile so Aisha can take photos while I wave. In Egypt, camels are pack animals and tourist attractions, not kept in zoos, but Aisha is just as excited as Hamid and Noor.

          We still can't find the lions. When Noor was Hamid's age, we visited the zoo in Cairo. One of the zookeepers led us through a maze of cinder block rooms, into the pen where the cubs were kept. The smell was shocking. The lion cub ate a thick slab of raw steak from the cement floor. He made guttural, inhuman sounds, opening his mouth wide and squirming as the zookeeper held him under the armpits and instructed us each to touch him quickly. The fur was coarse and, afterwards, I could smell his  scent on my fingers. I felt a wave of nausea, but the zookeeper didn't seem to notice.

          "You don't see this in America, I think." He smiled and shook. "Welcome to Egypt, Madam!"

          It's already 5 o'clock and the zoo is officially closed. Aisha is not about to leave without showing Hamid lions or giraffes.

          We are hot, cranky and thirsty, but all the food stands are closed. We ration a bottle of warm water, which Noor finds at the bottom of our backpack, passing it down to Hamid last, so he can finish the bottle.

          Aisha stops at a bench to have a hoof-hoof before we leave. She lights her cigarette when she sees the the head of a giraffe above the treetops.

          "Look!" She leaps up, pointing with her cigarette, and Hamid chants, "Giraffe, giraffe!"

          By the time we get to them, I'm preoccupied with the vision of gulping as much ice-cold water as I can swallow. I sit on a bench by the giraffes. Beside me is a woman breastfeeding a little boy who looks as old as Hamid. The father stands by the iron fence, watching the giraffes and turning back to make remarks to his wife in Portuguese and English.

          There are three giraffes, the male larger than the two females. Fortunately, his penis is unobtrusive. He follows the smaller of the two females, but she seems annoyed by him. At first, I assume she's his offspring, then realize that his attention is different.

          He cranes his long neck and tangles it with hers, nuzzling her. When he finally gives up and stops following her, she grudgingly approaches him and licks his neck with her long, blackish tongue. He bends his head and she licks between the two knobs on top. When she appears to lose interest, he dotes on her again.

          The larger female stands, somewhat removed, and watches the other giraffes, occasionally extending herself towards the branch of a tree and munching its leaves.

          The Portuguese man turns, grinning at his wife, and says in English, "She must be the ex-wife." We all laugh.

I tell Aisha what the man has said and she looks away politely as if she hasn't heard me, like she did with the spider monkeys, because I am the ex-wife.

           I remember the time Aisha and I treated ourselves to a pedicure  and sat side by side on our vibrating chairs, while two Korean girls massaged our feet with lotion. Every time we closed our eyes, succumbing to the pleasure of the girls' touch, one of us would crack a joke and we'd all start laughing, even the Korean girls.

          "How do you know each other?" my girl asked.

          Aisha looked at me. I wondered what made people so curious about us.  Maybe it was our age difference—I'm in my late 40s and Aisha is 20 years younger; or our style—Aisha is stylish, I'm not—or that she speaks with an accent and I translate words for her (which is odd since, I don't speak Arabic, and yet we understand each other).

          "Come on," my girl said.  "Does she work for you?  Are you neighbors?  What's the secret?"

         "She's married to my ex-husband," I answer, hoping it's enough to satisfy her curiosity.

          "No, really."

          Aisha has less patience for this than I do, so she says, "Yes, what she says is true. She was married first and now I am married. We are just friends. That is all."

          "No shit!" The girl's fists make a hollow smack as she pounds one of my greased calves on both sides, up and down, over and over. This part hurts but I'm embarrassed to say anything. "I could never do that.  You're a saint—" she turns to Aisha warily. "Sorry. But I just couldn't."

          "Why not?" I ask. "If you like your ex-husband but you're not in love with him, if you have children, if you're friends, why not?"

          Aisha's girl lets the water drain out of her whirlpool and looks up at her.

          "But they were married, why do you want to be her friend? Unless, in your country, don't men take more than one wife?  That's okay, I guess. I've heard about that."

          There is no hesitation before Aisha raises her index finger and responds. "Let me tell you something: My husband only has one wife. That's me."

          "Aish'," I say, "Next time, let's just make up a story."

          "Yes, okay, Charlotte! A crazy story, so people believe us next time." While the Korean girls paint our toenails in silence, lilac for me and turquoise for Aisha, we discuss the pros and cons of different stories.

          Of course, the questions don't stop, and they still take us by surprise. Just last month, I took Aisha and Hamid to the pediatrician when he had a bad cough. Hamid sat on my lap while the doctor asked Aisha questions. When the doctor gave me the prescription, I handed it to Aisha and explained, "She's his mother."

         The doctor said, "I really don't need to know, it's not my business. I'm not here to judge." When I explain her mistake to Aisha afterwards, she repeats what I've told her several times to make sure she understands.

          "She thinks we are gay?"

          I ask Aisha if her husband, my ex, would get a kick out of this.

          "No kick, are you crazy? Don't tell him, Charlotte! He'll kick the doctor."

Noor calls us across to where she stands, in front of one of those mid-century coin-operated binoculars you find at scenic lookouts. "Can I have a quarter to see the hippos?"

          Two gigantic hippos stand side by side in the dust, not moving a muscle except to blink in the dazzling sunlight. Their expressions are unreadable. A middle-aged woman with bangs and long red hair leans against the railing with her chin in one hand and a clipboard in the other. She pushes her nerdy glasses against the bridge of her nose and watches the hippos as if they are the most fascinating creatures in the zoo. The zoo badge that dangles from a lanyard around her neck shows a smoother, softer version of herself, with shorter hair.

          I ask if she takes care of the hippos.

          "Nah, the hippos aren't mine. I'm just a docent here at the zoo, but they're my favorite. I come here to watch them in my spare time."

I ask Hamid if he thinks they are mama and baba hippos and he says no.  The docent tells him, "You're right. These are two girls." She explains that the hippos were born at different zoos and came here when they were both about a year and a half old.  "They've been together 20 years. They're good friends, like sisters."

          Very slowly, one hippo lumbers towards the water's edge, closes her eyes, and steps in until she is submerged. The other one follows in exactly the same way. All we see are two dark shapes, like boulders moving under the water.

          Noor asks, "Are they walking or swimming?" The docent says they are walking now, but they're capable of swimming in deeper water.  She says they can hold their breath for a very long time. Hippos are almost invisible when they're in the water, even when they need to hoof, because then only their upturned nostrils break the water's surface.

          The docent nods her head at Hamid and Noor, who have moved a little further away now, still watching the hippos' shadows beneath the water.

          "Are those your children?"

         There is no language that describes our relationship, Aisha's and mine or Hamid's and mine, but I think the docent will understand.

"That's my daughter," I say, "and the little boy is my hoof-hoof." I point to Aisha, who is behind us, in the shadow of a tree, smoking another cigarette. "My friend over there is his mother." Aisha smiles and waves back at us, blowing her smoke up into the canopy of the tree.

          It's so easy to explain this to the docent, who appears to understand me intuitively. I realize how much I enjoy saying the word hoof, which means anything at all, from the horned casing of an animal's foot, to the ability to move swiftly, blow smoke, inhale, exhale, or even explain love. I wish I had someone like her, my very own docent, available to explain should any questions arise.


  1. After a hectic week I am back reading these blog posts in a quiet moment during the day. They remind me in a curious way of a book I discovered in a second hand book shop in Woodstock. The book is call The Museum of Purgatory. It might be out of print but I have a copy & the illustrations combined with text are charming. These posts are a bit like that. Charming & strange. They are like small intense postcards written & sent to an unknown reader. Lovely!

    1. A hectic week--I'll say!

      I'll look for the book you mentioned. I love it when images and text enrich each other. (You do it so well in your blog, and with your own illustrations.) So often images and text compete for attention and the result is disappointing.

      (Also, love it that I remind you of someone.)

      Thanks for writing, Roma!