Things have changed since our last visit. The otters have a new water feature, the lemurs have new ropes. The lion enclosure is empty, the last two euthanised. They were sisters—one sick, both elderly. My daughters miss the lions and can’t understand why they both had to die.
“They’ve never spent a day apart,” I say. “It wouldn’t be fair to leave one. She would have been too lonely on her own.”
We wait for their father at the squirrel monkeys. A sign on the enclosure says they’re moving soon to the big space vacated by the baboons. Lee arrives, and apologises for being late. The girls accept his hug, then race ahead, leaving us dangling, safety net gone.
“Any house progress?” he asks after a moment.
I’m still in the place we bought together, until I find somewhere to move. His new partner owns their house, and two others. The first time the girls visited, they came back full of talk about the three bathrooms and deck, where you can see the harbour and sometimes real live dolphins.
“Still looking,” I say.
“Much out there?”
I shrug. I went to three open houses that morning. What’s out there is so expensive it should come with a butler and a pool. But what’s out there comes with earthquake warnings. What’s out there comes with black mould.
“I’ve been thinking,” Lee says, “wouldn’t it be good for the girls to stay in the home they’ve always known?”
I start to speak but he cuts me off.
“So how about a quarter?” he says.
“A quarter what?”
“You pay me out one quarter, and the house is yours. I know you can’t meet half the market price. A quarter would recognise that your career lost steam when the girls were little,” he said.
They’re still little, I think. He’s looking at me like a magician who has performed a trick, waiting for a response.
“I’ll think it over,” I say.
“Yeah. Yeah, of course.”
We catch up with the girls. They’re transfixed by the chimpanzee’s bums. Lee tells them to look at their thoughtful expressions. But it’s hard not to be distracted by all that skin, wadded under them like chewed gum.
We bought the house for next to nothing. It was his idea. He said it had good bones.
It was next door to a once-handsome mansion with wraparound verandas that was a halfway house for recovering addicts. A sign on the gate said ‘NO guests after 7 NO exceptions.’ Soon after we moved in, a notice was dropped in our letterbox. I guess they did it for anyone new. It explained that the house was run on Christian principles, that residents were carefully vetted and there was a zero tolerance approach to breaches.
An elderly couple lived opposite, their bungalow a muddle of mobility ramps and hand rails. The rest of the street was rundown rentals.
“Give it a few years,” Lee said. “It’s all going to change.”
When we started renovating, our cat defected to the halfway house. We could see her sitting with residents on the sunny veranda. “Never live next to junkies,” Lee said, mock-gravely to our friends. They leaned in, hoping for drama.
“They’ll steal your cat. Lure it with cheese.”
“Former junkies,” I said. “There was no cheese. She went of her own volition.”
As our house was deconstructed, Lee asked my preference on things I didn’t know had names. Cornices, mullions. Our walls were a subtle patchwork of sample shades of white. He refused to believe me when I said I didn’t have a preference. In a building recycler’s he buzzed with excitement when he found a 120-year-old door that matched the others in our house. We stood in an aisle looking for a matching handle. I pointed to the nearest one.
“Totally wrong era,” he said. “You’re not even fucking trying.”
I can’t claim this was out of character for him, or for me. But it was an intensification of our characters and an incompatibility of optimism we didn’t see coming. His optimism was a belief that everything can be improved. Mine was a belief that things are fine as they are.
But I let myself get convinced at some level that things would get better. And so we got married. And so we had a child.
When I was pregnant, he was solicitous, gentle while we waited for the future to arrive. The ultrasound images turned my belly into a strange crystal ball and technicians identified a strong heart out of the blur. But with the arrival of a baby, we entered a whole new set of scenarios to exercise our differences of opinion: the length of her naps, the frequency of her feeds, what to do about her tiny razor-sharp fingernails. We had bitter, whispered arguments in the soft glow of a unicorn night light. None were resolved by the time I was pregnant again—surprise!—eight months later.
A sun bear gives a log a desultory scratch, then slumps back to sitting. The girls are unimpressed.
“Why isn’t he moving more?” the younger one asks.
“He’s day-dreaming,” their father says.
“He looks bored.”
“He does,” I say.
“Is he bored because he’s in a zoo?” the older one asks.
“Probably,” I say. “He’d face more danger in the wild—predators, poachers, loss of habitat. And he’d have to search for food. So his life would be more interesting, but not necessarily better.”
“Couldn’t you just go with daydreaming?” Lee says as we walk away.
My daughters hate being bored. I’m bored, I’m bored, they groan, like their bones are being extracted. I want them to understand that boredom is fine. Boredom is under your control. There are far worse states. Rage, Anxiety. Extinction, in the bear’s case.
I dismiss a phone call from the real estate agent. She’ll be following up on the open houses. She is optimistic to the point of delusion. She talks about replacing a kitchen like it’s changing a t-shirt. But I like her. The first time we met I alerted her to lipstick on her teeth. She joked she was doing intermittent fasting and now she’d need to reset the clock, damn it. The real estate agent and I can’t be friends, though, because we can’t give each other what we want. I want from her an affordable house. She wants from me more money than I have.
The banks have online calculators where you plug in the cost of the house and your income, and it tells you how long it will take to pay it off. When not actively thinking about something, this is where my mind goes, sliding that bar back and forth, the decades stretching in and out. A quarter would be lower than the worst of the houses I’ve looked at.
I know his offer for the house isn’t for my benefit, or even the girls. He is doing it so he can tell other people. I’ve sat through enough of his stories to know. He doesn’t look great at the moment, resettled with his harbour views. But now that he has made this offer his generosity been asserted, whether I accept it or not.
The girls overfill their bottles at the drinking fountain while Lee reads facts from the giraffe information board. He turns and sees the girls aren’t listening, but keeps talking about neck vertebrae to anyone in earshot. A passing family pauses, mistaking it for an official talk. I fight the urge to apologise to my daughters for saddling them with this man as their father for the rest of their lives.
He used to accuse me of only ever saying sorry for things that were out of my control.
We stop at the playground near the lizards. The girls, predictably, claim to be starving. I get out containers of crackers and pre-cut fruit. Lee helps himself.
“I really brought this just for the girls,” I say.
“Fine, fine,” he says, holding up his hands like I’ve drawn a gun. “I’ll get myself something from the café.”
The girls are in quick. “Can we have something too? Please, please?”
“Of course,” he says and I stop myself from cautioning against the expense and the sugar. They walk off together and come back with gingerbread camels. They scrape at the pink icing with their teeth, and we go to find the kangaroos.
Lee had been right. Over the years, the street changed. For Sale signs popped up and families moved in. Houses were painted and primped. The elderly couple went into care and their bungalow was transformed into a sleek prism of bi-fold doors and skylights. Prices went up, and up, became obscene.
The halfway house, though, stayed. Living next door had always been an odd source of pride for Lee—a marker of his tolerance. He made a point of saying hello to anyone sitting on the veranda, introducing himself like he was doing a good deed. I didn’t, assuming that like most people they wanted to be left alone. He didn’t say it outright, but over time it irked Lee that the house was still there. He talked about how the property was a gold mine and the charity was nuts not to sell.
But residents kept rotating through; some visibly on edge, some less so. The ‘NO guests’ sign faded to nothing in the sun, and was replaced. Our cat, ancient by then, still hung out on the veranda. When she saw us she washed her belly, head tucked down and leg pointing skyward, like she hoped we wouldn’t recognise her.
Sometimes, I imagined climbing over the balustrades, taking a place next to her. What a relief to live with rules, and someone to enforce them. In our house, nothing was off limits anymore. I wondered how well sound travelled. I hoped that if they could hear us, they thought it was the TV.
On the way out, we have to walk past the empty baboon enclosure. It’s boarded over now and painted with a jungle mural that went up when the baboons were still there. After the death of the patriarch they had to be kept out of view. He had been easy to spot with his huge silver mane and entourage. When he died, multiple lesser-maned baboons vied to be on top. Factions developed, society broke down. The violence was extreme, became indiscriminate. Baby baboons were taken by rival groups and torn limb from limb; females were bitten and clawed. Injuries and fatalities occurred at such a rate that the zoo veterinarians were left with little choice. The baboons are not getting replaced.
The vicious streak had always been there. Once I was here with the girls and a male baboon loped towards us. I told the girls he was coming to say hello and we leaned closer. Then all at once he dashed at us, pounding both hands against the glass, baring his teeth and shrieking.
When we got home the angry baboon had been the only thing the girls had wanted to talk about from the whole visit. They recreated its run for Lee, told him it had hands just like a person.
And even as I dismissed it as ridiculous, I couldn’t shake the feeling the animal had been reacting to something specific in me when he ran at the glass—something instantly oppositional, antagonistic, that I brought out in him.
Near the end, we went on a summer holiday. Nothing was neutral by then. We drove through sun-bleached hills, past signs saying Fire Danger Today with dials set to extreme. The girls asked what that meant. I told them it meant we had to be extra careful. A tiny spark could set everything ablaze.
In the cramped holiday house kitchen, the youngest one, chased by the oldest one, knocked a pot handle on the stovetop and boiling water spilled down one side of her body. Lee scooped her up, ran for the bathroom. And even then, with him doing exactly what needed to be done and my child screaming and my heart in my mouth I found space to hate his hero run, his self-importance yelling ‘out of my way’ although no one was blocking his path.
Soon after that trip Lee told me he had met someone. I was being improved upon, and all I felt was relief.
Up ahead, the girls pause at the entrance to the gift shop.
“We’re not buying anything,” I call out. They ignore me and go inside.
“It was good to do this, today. For their sake,” Lee says.
I nod, but, really, will they remember it? They request these outings, but never ask if we’re getting back together. They never mention the fights, and I’d like to believe they never knew. After the worst nights they were always up early, breakfasts made, lunches packed, hair done in lopsided pigtails, trying so hard to be good.
“Let me know about the house,” Lee says. “I can get the lawyer to write it up. If you prefer to sell we should get it on the market this side of Christmas.”
“I’ll let you know,” I say.
But I already know. We both do. I will accept his generous offer and stay in the house. Anything else would be dumb. Living somewhere else would make no difference. He will be in my life, either way. The girls will shuttle back and forth. We will keep attending things if not together, then near each other, for them.
Sometimes I see the back of a person who I know is not him but reminds me of him and that resemblance is enough to make a knot form in my stomach. I feel like there should be something to learn from this, a warning to pass on to my daughters. I can’t conjure up the way things felt at the start. So what is the lesson? Trust your heart. Or, don’t trust your heart.
The girls have found puppets: plush, anatomically censored versions of the animals they’ve just seen. One selects a penguin and red panda, the other a snow leopard and sloth. They pull them on like boxing gloves and hold them up. There’s a mechanism inside each puppet to move the head up and down, side to side.
“Are you hungry?” my daughters ask the animals on their hands. “Do you want to come and live in our house, belong to us forever?”
Careful, I think.
Yes, the animals nod their heads. Yes, yes, yes.