"Was it up here at the Catskill Game Farm or down at the Bronx Zoo where they closed the African Wild Dogs exhibit because somebody had dropped their baby into the pit?" Jim asked, tapping the steering wheel with his thumbs.
Janet, Jim's wife, didn't turn from the window she'd been looking out for miles of their trip back up the Thruway. "Bronx Zoo," she said.
"Sure? There were police all over and yellow caution tape. It had happened the day before, but they were still investigating, I guess, or hadn't cleaned up yet." It was dusk and overcast, but bright enough for Jim to catch the sheen of his wife's raven hair. It was no secret she dyed it to hide the gray, but he'd lost track over the years-how gray would she be now? Janet was ten years younger than Jim, still in her early forties. What if her natural hair was already cotton white? His hair had been the same steel wool gray for decades.
"Definitely the Bronx Zoo." Despite the failing light, Janet still wore the sunglasses she'd donned that morning when they'd left home to drive their son Jesse to college. Rain had been in the afternoon forecast, and the parents of matriculating freshman had cast wary eyes upward as they shifted their children's possessions from vans and SUVs to dorm rooms. Janet's glasses hadn't been to hide tears-she'd been nearly giddy as she blew Jesse a kiss amidst a barrage of good-byes. "Don't forget to have fun!" she'd advised, while Jesse smiled patiently, clearly eager for his parents to leave. It had been Jim who'd choked up as he engulfed their only child in a bear hug he worried he'd held too long.
"The Bronx Zoo," Jim repeated. He picked at the tragic story as if it was an old scab. "I remember scooping up Jesse when we found out what was going on, even though he was too old to carry. We should have known-why didn't we know? You'd think you'd feel something like that the minute you walked into a place—like the atmosphere would be charged. Maybe we were just too happy, the three of us, out for a fun day at the zoo."
Rain began to speckle the windshield, and Jim flipped on the wipers, smearing a paste of dirt and insects across their view of the Catskill Mountains. The game farm named for them had been closed for years.
"It was the mother who fumbled the baby over the railing, not the father, right?" he asked. "Police must have questioned her. She'd have been hysterical, of course. But there'd have to be an explanation. Always and forever she'd have to explain how she let wild dogs eat her baby."
"They said the baby died from the fall. It wasn't the dogs. We read that when we got home, remember?"
"What do people do with their lives after something like that? That couple couldn't possibly have gone on living together."
Drumming rain muffled Janet's words and washed away the wiper streaks. "It was nobody's fault," she said. "It was an accident."
"What if somebody was standing behind the mother while she was holding the baby," Jim speculated. "Maybe at first the baby wasn't facing the pit—it was looking over its mom's shoulder at a total stranger, somebody like you or me who thought it was cute. What if the stranger made faces at it, smiling and winking and waving, and that made the baby start wiggling, just as the mom turned it so it could see the wild dogs. And she lost her grip, and the baby flipped over the railing...." The wiper beat a pulse through Janet's silence. "What if you knew you'd stirred up the baby with a wink?" Jim persisted. "Would you confess it?"
"Some things just happen," Janet said. Billboards advertising hotels and amusement parks, their messages obscure in the dwindling light, were set against the backdrop of the mountains like windows into the past. Home was still two hours north. Lightning flashed in the distance, and Jim's thoughts leaped from one zoo to another.
"Hey—remember that pygmy elephant from the Catskill Game Farm, last time we were there? 'Misty,' wasn't it? We'd let Jesse go watch the bears on the bicycles by himself, because I refused to see something that was so ridiculously anti-nature, and you said he was old enough to go on his own. You and I sat on a bench in the shade and watched the little elephant. It was chained to a tree right in the middle of the main path, but people walking by it acted like it wasn't even there. Seeing that elephant chained up made you cry a little bit."
"Her name was Millie. Misty was the pony from Jesse's book. Misty of Chincoteague."
"Right. Millie. She held one of those disposable flash cameras in her trunk, remember? They don't even make those anymore, do they? She crushed the camera, and the flash kept going off, again and again. You couldn't tell if she liked it or if it scared her. Mmm." Jim lost himself in the memory. He saw the stream of patrons—parents with strollers, children holding balloons or ice cream cones—marching indifferently around the elephant. "No wonder you were crying," he said. "I wonder if somebody—one of the keepers—got that camera and had those pictures developed. They could have sold them, like the way they sell those paintings by that elephant that's been on TV. Can you believe that was ten years ago?"
"Nine years," Janet said. "Nine, not ten."
"Okay, nine. Maybe there were pictures of me and you. Maybe Misty—Millie—got the two of us sitting on the bench. Maybe somebody famous bought the picture for a thousand bucks. Maybe we're hanging over a millionaire's fireplace, or in a museum somewhere. Maybe we'll take a vacation to Paris and see ourselves hanging in the Louvre. Do they have photographs in the Louvre?"
Janet sniffed without answering, her lips pinched as if she held a coin between them.
"I feel like the car's on automatic pilot," Jim sighed. "We've made this trip at least a hundred times, back and forth to the city. And now we'll be up and down with Jesse all the time. You know what? We should take a trip down South again. Like when we drove to the Outer Banks. What year did we do that? Remember Kitty Hawk? Remember the dunes at that state park at Nag's Head? Jesse ran wild over them. Kids were surfing down them on boogie boards. If you stood in the middle of them, you'd think you were in the Sahara Desert."
"You could see telephone wires and rooftops."
"Only if you looked back toward the ocean. If you didn't want to see signs of civilization, you could avoid them. I loved that place. The borderline between the white dunes and the blue sky was so sharp it almost cut your eyes to look at it. We could go there, or we could drive to Florida this time and take that hundred mile bridge all the way to Key West."
Red and blue trooper lights flashed ahead, and the raindrops on the windshield glittered like gems. Bands of light spilled over Janet. The tang of burned rubber made Jim's eyes water, and Janet coughed.
"Something broke down," he said. On the right shoulder three state police cruisers, their lights rioting through the darkness, barricaded a smoldering bus. Troopers in yellow slickers conducted traffic past with flashlights. Evacuated passengers waited on a grassy slope. A few huddled under umbrellas. "They look like a parade of ghosts," Jim said. "Should we stop?"
"We could get some of the people out of the rain until another bus came." Jim watched the flashing lights in his rearview mirror.
"The police waved us on. They know what they're doing. The people will be fine."
The highway curved, and the lights disappeared. Jim wondered how many of the passengers standing in the rain had someone waiting for them. Somebody was probably missing an important event.
"Remember what people said at our wedding?" he asked. "'Rain is good luck,' and 'Nobody's going to forget this one.' You could hear the rain pelting our tent during the toasts, and the caterer was freaking out because we had no Plan B. I looked like a Dalmatian because of the mud spots on my tuxedo. 'Look out for Cruella DeVille,' somebody said. People were slipping down on the dance floor, but nobody minded. I wonder if anyone would have sued if they got hurt. But your wedding dress is clean as snow in all the pictures." Jim blew a long, one-note whistle. "You know what got everybody through that party? Joy. That's what those people standing in the rain waiting for a new bus lack—some joy to keep them going. Joy binds people together." Jim reached over and patted his wife's hand. "Didn't I propose to you on the road? In the Chevette?
"Yes, I guess," Janet said. She slipped her hand from under Jim's and hugged herself. "I'm cold. Can we turn on the heat?"
"Go ahead," he said, and watched his wife struggle with dashboard knobs her dark glasses must have made it difficult to see. The Thruway sign for Coxsackie loomed. They'd left the Catskills behind and would be home in an hour. Not many cars were headed north-they'd been chasing the same pair of tail-lights for miles. The rain had stopped, and the wipers squeaked on the dry glass.
"You can turn those off," Janet said.
Jim flicked the switch. "Remember," he said, "how when I sneezed while I was driving, I'd turn on the wipers, and you'd laugh every single time?"
"Jim," his wife said, so abruptly it felt like a slap, "stop. Stop talking."
He waited. The dotted white line shot at them from the black road.
"Listen," Janet began, "this is not a confession. I don't think what I have to say is even going to be surprising. Maybe, I don't know. But I have to tell you before we get back. You understand?"
Jim's head bounced, as if he'd driven through a pothole.
There was love, Janet said, and there was love. Different kinds. Really, she still loved Jim, just as she always had. No one would ever be more familiar to her. But, she said, she had been young when they met, young when they married. Not until years later, years after Jesse was born-and their son had nothing to do with what she was telling him—did she learn she could feel a different kind of love.
"Passion," Janet said. "Something electric. A feeling that takes my breath away. I'm comfortable with you. But comfort's only one thing. I'm alive with Robert. There are things inside me that light up when I'm with him or even just think about him—even right now, just saying his name."
"Robert?" Robert, Janet's co-worker, the slight man with the puzzled smile Jim had known for years? The guy Jim had played golf with and beaten soundly?
"This is not a confession, Jim. The time for confessions is long past. And what's to confess? Robert and I are in love, have been for ten years. But we have never kissed. We haven't held hands. We don't send email messages to secret accounts or call each other in the middle of the night while you're sleeping. We've loved each other quietly. At work, with our eyes. Over lunch. Mostly we just feel. I can't help it if this hurts you, Jim. This is a statement of facts, not a confession. I don't love you any less. But Robert and I have waited, and now it's our turn. It's not like you won't be in my life. We'll always have Jesse to share. He's old enough now to understand this—I'll explain it to him after he's settled in at school. So—you won't be dropping me off at home, Jim. Not at our old house. Robert's waiting for me at his place. He lives by the mall, across town. We were there once for a barbecue. But I swear to you, I don't see him there. This isn't about trysts."
Images swirled through Jim's head-smoke from a sizzling grill, boat shoes on a brick patio, sweating beer bottles, condiments on a picnic table. The barbecue he envisioned might have been from a TV show, except for a conversation he remembered with the fair-haired, thin-voiced, aproned host that had led to a golf date. Robert hadn't a wife. Jim had wondered later if he was gay, and Janet had said that she was pretty sure he wasn't.
This was hard for him to hear, she knew that, Janet said. But she was asking him to separate himself from the situation for just a second. If he could, he'd understand how it had been for her and Robert all these years, once they'd made the decision to wait until Jesse grew up to start their life together. It took endurance. She'd become an expert on time. The pain had been almost physical sometimes, as if she was stuck in childbirth. It had taken all her strength to keep from resenting both Jim and Jesse, though they were blameless, of course. But waiting had only intensified her feelings for Robert—"Crushed them into a diamond," Janet said.
"And you and I will always be connected," she continued. "Those wild dogs at the Bronx Zoo? I dreamed about them last night. In my dream I was carrying a baby, except it wasn't real—it was made of clay or carved from wood, and its features were composed, like it was sleeping. It wasn't Jesse. I lifted the hard little baby out of the sling I was wearing and propped it on the railing of the wild dog pit. People pushed from behind to look at the dogs. I never saw them down below, but I knew they were there, like you know things in dreams. Maybe they were barking. Then I let go of the hard baby, and it toppled forward. Nobody in the crowd surrounding me reacted, but you did. 'The baby fell,' you said, as calmly as if you were telling me the sun had disappeared behind a cloud. 'I'll get it,' you said, and you vaulted over the rail—your shirt caught on something, and I heard it rip, but you were gone. When I woke up, I knew today would be the day I'd tell you about Robert and me, and I knew you'd be okay."
Jim listened. His only thought was that Janet was mistaken: Wild dogs don't bark.
They'd almost told him years ago, Janet said. "Twice. Me once, Robert another. Robert when you went golfing, while you were having beers afterward. But he couldn't get the words out. And me, a few years before that. At the Catskill Game Farm. You thought I was crying about that little chained up elephant with the camera-"
"Misty," Jim murmured. Now they were only a few miles from their Thruway exit, a familiar stretch they traveled weekly. As a couple. Or with Jesse, as a family. But was he being asked to believe that when they passed through the toll this time, his wife would dictate directions to someplace other than their home?
"Millie," Janet corrected. "Misty was a pony, remember? But I wasn't crying because of Millie. Jesse had run off to see the dancing bears, and then a horrible groan echoed through the park, and everything seemed to stop. Time froze. People—kids and adults—stood in their tracks, listening. Something was suffering terribly. After a second groan a nearby attendant said in a voice loud enough for everybody to hear, 'That's the giant tortoises mating. You've got to see it to believe it—' And the crowd blew apart—it was like glass shattering. Like a mirror had been dropped. Everybody rushed off to see the mating tortoises. You asked me if I wanted to go see, and I said, 'What about Jesse? He won't find us—' and we stayed on the bench, and you put your arm around me. That's when I started to cry and almost asked you for a divorce. Now I'm not crying, Jim. I'm telling you that I love you the same way I always have, but I'm not going to be living with you anymore. We're going to get a divorce, and I'm going to marry Robert. It's not your fault. There's nothing you could have done about this."
The night had closed around Jim like a black-gloved hand. He exited the Thruway, approached the toll area's pool of light, and guided the SUV beside a booth. He was plumbing his memory for the sound emitted by a copulating tortoise—was it something like the squeal of twisting metal in a train wreck? The attendant, a middle-aged woman in a wig of golden curls, gazed at him through thick glasses. He needed to pay the toll, but where had he put the ticket? He couldn't possibly ask Janet for help. He stared at the waiting attendant.
"Go," Janet said. "We have EZ-Pass, remember?"
A few feet in front of their SUV a miniature traffic light glowed green, "EZ-Pass Go," printed across its face. But Jim couldn't move. It was as if the brake had turned into an iron boot, and his foot was locked in it. He clung to the steering wheel for dear life, waiting for his past to catch up to his present.