Odera reminded me of a wounded sparrow. Even a neophyte like me realized that I had just one shot at getting it right, so I chose to maintain firm boundaries. This all or nothing thinking prohibited handholding. Once I surrendered even that much physical contact, more would follow. As we toured the Zoo’s pathways, Odera refused to drop the handholding matter and beleaguered me until I walked with my hands jammed into pockets, drowning in stubbornness to prove that I could stand my ground. And though I realized I fought not to surrender, it did not alter how I felt.
“What are you playing with? Which hand is winning?” she asked.
“I’m playing with the idea of throwing you to the tigers.”
“That could be difficult.”
“The guard rail is all of four feet high. If you’re lucky, you’ll stop rolling down the hill before you splash into the moat and the tigers beyond. Although, in truth, I doubt if I could be so cruel,” I said with exaggerated sincerity.
“I always suspected that you had a kinder side.”
“I meant cruel to the tigers.”
“Wouldn’t you have to take your hands out of your pockets? Like, seriously, friends and couples hold hands.”
“Grownups don’t hold hands unless they’re friends with benefits.”
“Don’t be such a dinosaur. This isn’t the Jurassic age, Rex. It doesn’t have to lead to anything else. And trust me, it won’t. It’s an innocent and appropriate form of affection and besides, you’ve already benefited.”
“Bingo. Give the lady a prize,” I announced grinning at my newest nickname.
“What? Affection? You believe physical affection between friends is wrong, or that it’s foreplay?” she baited, wearing an expression that said I was doomed no matter how I answered.
“Both.” If I’m damned, let it be for good reason. “Men and women who practise physical affection create complications that diminish friendship.”
“Enhance, not diminish. Like at the Watchtower.”
“What’s with the random histrionics?”
“What about Vesper Lake? We’re friends with occasional benefits. Though I’m getting the short end of the stick.”
“What do you expect when you wear canoe lingerie? And why do women automatically fire dick insults when they don’t get their own way?”
“Jeez, I don’t know. Maybe because we’re right, and men can be dicks rather than admit to being wrong. What do you call a man who asks for directions?”
“Easy with the man-bashing, I’m right here.”
“As if it would be any fun if you weren’t. By the way, you kissed me back at the lake. And how about the kiss in the park and yesterday wasn’t too horrible.”
“The flesh is weak.”
“Oooh, now there’s a risky piece of disclosure.”
“Odera, shut up and look at the tigers.”
“Hold my hand Rex and I promise not to let the matter rise between us.”
“Your barbs are dull.”
“If we held hands, we might erect a topic,” she giggled.
“What am I, a do-it-yourself Ikea man-kit with some assembly required? Pick out a stuffed animal if you crave fuzzy warmth. My treat.”
“God, you’re stubborn. I’m not going to jump you. You’re not God’s gift to women. More like our special irritation,” Odera chortled. “And it doesn’t define us as anything but friends, even though we’re more. Stop knuckle-walking, Rex. Your calluses are thickening.”
At those words, Odera turned to engage a Zoo employee who walked briskly in our direction. Her nametag said, ‘Leslie.’ Dressed in a khaki shirt and matching shorts, Leslie was the ugliest woman I had ever seen. Dry and frizzy hair partially covered eyes that were set at different angles. A Cyrano de Bergerac nose, skinny and jutting, ended in a balloon tip and cast a long shadow on her thin-lipped mouth. Buckteeth protruded over her bottom lip, sitting above where a chin should have been but was not. Her mouth went from lips to neck quicker than a duckbill. She’d give a blind baby nightmares.
“Excuse me.” When the forty-something woman smiled obligingly, and while I tried not to stare at an ugliness so intense that it made me want to study it, which started to transmute into attractive the longer I looked. Odera solicited, “Hi. Leslie?”
“I’m Odera. Would you give an opinion on something, please?”
“Sure, if I have one.”
“Rex here thinks friends don’t hold hands. Where do you stand?” asked Odera taking a step toward Leslie so that it was two against one.
“Dear friends hold hands, yes. Most men may disagree, falsely believing it’s uncool to exhibit public affection, or that its permission to be more intimate. They’ll pat each other’s bums playing hockey but won’t show affection to each other off the ice. And they have the nerve to call us conflicted.”
“I know! Isn’t that ridiculous? Unless they’re secretly comparing firmness,” Odera posed, eliciting infectious laughter from Leslie. “Thank you for solving that for us.”
“Happy to help.” The woman turned a gaze upon me that held me steadfast with Medusan intensity. “Rex, that’s a rare old name. Hold her hand, Rex. Friends should make each other happy.”
I nodded briskly, at a loss to engage a stranger while Odera laughed behind her hand. Leslie strode down the path on long, flawless legs connected to a backside as perfectly shaped as her face was ugly.
“I told you so. Now would you hold my hand?” Odera beleaguered and hooked her arm through mine in protest.
“Do women swear a secret blood pact to stick together?”
“Would you rather pat some bums? Go ahead, give mine a pat if it’ll soften your inflexibility.”
“Do mothers sit you down and inform you of this treaty against men? Is that what enables you to recruit a stranger’s aid?”
Donning a secretive grin that didn’t discount my theory, she proposed, “Would you feel more comfortable at the rink? Should I start carrying a hockey stick?”
“On second thought, I’ll throw myself to the tigers.”
“When are you going to ask about Vesper Lake?”
“Didn’t you make a promise about that?”
“Aren’t you curious? Sometimes I want to shake the words out of you.”
“Not curious enough to ask.”
“Like, I believe that. Ask me,” she urged and adopted a bottom-lip-stuck-out, pouting look ― her newest ammunition to highlight my emotional adolescence. “You can’t tell me that you haven’t thought about a second sensuously sexy sunny day,” she said and giggled at her alliteration. “I promise not to rub your palm suggestively.”
“Face it, coercion and trickery won’t always win you your way.”
“Fine. Tell me why you―”
At her sudden break in speech, as her voice bled off, I turned to her. Twenty feet away, seated on the opposite side of the path beneath a big oak tree, an infant wearing a pink dress cried. Tiny hands waved as the woman placed the infant in her lap and unbuttoned her shirt. Pressing a finger on either side of a dark and swollen nipple, she inserted it into her daughter’s mouth. Contented suckling commenced. The woman lovingly stroked angel fine hair murmuring a litany of sweet-nothings as one of the tigers loosed a throaty growl. Beside a garbage can, two seagulls swooped in to battle over a discarded hotdog bun, screeching noisily. The larger gull extended its neck victoriously. A chipmunk chattered its indignation at the seagull while tiny hands clutched the breast’s bloated contours pushing and kneading. The nipple popped loose. The infant wailed chipmunk displeasure. One tiny hand grasped the glistening bud where a milk drop hung. The mother wiped a wet chin. Suckling noises recommenced.
Odera trembled, fighting to quell tears.
Why this scene held emotional trauma for her, baffled me. Past instances flared into memory: their images sharp and heart-rending. Either an infant or a small child had always been central. Rather than speak, I had fallen into the habit of just holding her. The episodes had intensified in recent months. Grief seeped through my clothes.
Arms around my waist and cheek pressed my chest, Odera stood transfixed and quietly wept without regard for the world. The anguish she expressed made me feel helpless, which forced me to wonder at the origin of her doleful feelings and at the specifics that reduced a strong person to bitter woe. After the mother and child had departed, Odera composed herself. As much as I disliked witnessing her distress, I enjoyed imagining that holding her helped.
Odera murmured, “Sorry, Bruce. It snuck up on me.”
“You’re okay now?”
“Umm, hmm. Yup.”
“You suffered greatly this time.”
“I warned you that Dr. Brinkman said they will worsen before improving.”
“Then you must be getting a whole lot better.”
Emotional pain lurked in her eyes. Hope battled for supremacy and lost. Raising her chin with my thumb and forefinger, I nibbled at her lips. They tasted salty. She grasped me tighter, needing to know there was hope beyond an enduring pain that seemed to have no end. Feeling her despair strengthened my resolve to remain only a shoulder to cry on.
I said, “No worries. I’ve had one or two daymares myself.”
“You mentioned them in the parking lot.”
“And you remembered from more than a year ago?”
Her expression softened; vulnerable affection flowed into view. I shrugged my shoulders.
“I still wear your talon marks.”
“But you’ve never asked?”
“Should I have?”
“Not then ― but now ― if you cornered me. Maybe. I don’t know. Sometimes I want you to. Like now, for instance, but I know I’m not ready; even though I desire you like mad this very second and want you to know everything, but I can’t. Soon though ― maybe,” she sputtered. “Oh God, I’m so fucked up.”
“You certainly have a gift for clarification.”
“I should know better by now, shouldn’t I?”
“For a moment you stopped being a turtle. You were almost human.”
“Then it was a close call. I don’t want to mislead you.”
“Too late. It would make me feel better if we held hands.”
“I think I feel a daymare coming on,” and disengaged myself. “Come, I’ll buy you a teddy bear to pester.”
“Kiss me again.”
When the silky sensation of her lips faded, I noted that she had gone from badgering, to crying, to hugging, to kissing and back to normal all within fifteen minutes. Two relentless hours of debate filled the rest of the afternoon. During supper, Odera re-tabled her desire to tell her mom and dad about us. Long before we went our separate ways, I lamented my decision not to have joined the tigers for dinner ― for not offering myself up as the main course. Death by consumption would have proven infinitely less painful.