The day following my release from the psych unit, my father took me on a trip to the zoo. We were the only ones there, save for a few mothers and their small children, because it was December, and the animals were brought inside for their safety.
This zoo remained open for the few patrons dense enough to think otherwise. Somehow, I was one of them. Facing the attendant, I said, “I want to see a giraffe.”
When he didn’t respond, Dad said, “There’s always bears. You liked them when you were little.”
He paid of our tickets and took me by the hand like a little girl catatonic from a tantrum. I reminded him I was capable of walking by myself.
“Echo,” he said. “Your hands are shaking.”
He wasn’t wrong, and if he’d let go I might have slumped onto the ground. I held his hand and faced forward, afraid to divert my eyes from the path.
I willed it to be cold enough for us to slip on the ice. “I left my prayer cards and gems at home.”
“You don’t need them,” he said.
“I don’t want anything bad to happen.”
“Take a break from that. Please. Just for today.”
We passed the endangered species carousel and the adjacent Cat Country display only to be met with scratched, empty enclosures. Primate Canyon yielded similar results; Tropical Birdland was closed until February.
“Why don’t we try the Asian Gardens?”
I said again, “I want to see a giraffe.”
He wanted to tell me no, but didn’t have the stomach to let me down the way genetics had the day before. My control on this day was dependent on seeing that animal.
All Dad said was, “Well, we’ll see.”
Wading through the quiet, we walked for a bit, looking for birds, or meerkats, or really, anything. Dad held my hand the whole time, pulled my body to keep me in motion. After a while, I told him I wanted to sit down.
We stopped at a playground with damp, plastic benches. He set me down and said, “I’ll be back in a minute.”
I shoved my hands in my coat pocket so I wouldn’t stare at them, and instead, watched some kids play on a crooked jungle gym. One approached me. “Ma’am, can you help me on the monkey bars?”
“Do I look like a ‘ma’am’ to you?”
The bite in my tone sent her running, and I glared at the mother across the flat and dared her to say something about what just happened. Dad came back, slid a small carton onto my lap. I waited until he started eating to open mine, picking around the horseradish he’d spread over my hot dog.
“Don’t question it,” he said. “Just eat it.”
A nagging shiv poked around my brain, saying it was parasitic, and I clawed at the meat until it was diced and mushy. Dad watched me, and I didn’t want to ruin this day, so I forced it down my dry and lumpy tongue.
“How are you doing?” he said after a while.
I gave a shrug that sufficed as my response. After some consideration, a thought came into my head. “What if Dr. Goldthwait was wrong?”
He sighed, chest giving way to the stress. “Echo, Dr. Goldthwait is not wrong.”
“This could just be some alkali exposure or a vitamin deficiency. Misdiagnoses happen all the time.”
“That’s true. They do.”
“So, he might be wrong.”
“Echo.” That was the end of this discussion.
Leaving my half-eaten food on the bench, I stood and rubbed the itch from my thighs. “Are you done?”
He stared at me for a moment before saying, “Yes.”
We continued to the heartland of captivity, past more vacant compounds. The closer we got to the African pagoda, the further my equilibrium got disjointed. The giraffes wouldn’t be there, and neither would anything else.
My feet snapped. “I’m going to the bathroom.”
It was colder in the stall than it was in the open, and I collapsed on the toilet seat too fast to lock the door. My fingers jerked inside my pockets and I shoved them deeper into the fabric, forcing cohesion through the vessels in my wrist and hand.
I sat like that for a while until my father came looking for me, each door slapping against the walls until he found mine.
He stared down at me, unsure of the proper approach.
Coltish sobbing jumbled my words. “I just wanted to see the giraffes.”
Sinking down to my level, he stopped centimeters from wiping my tears. “I know. I wanted to see them too.” He had nothing else to say, so he stooped there and let me cry. When I was done, we left the bathroom like nothing happened. And we could act like nothing happened, because from the outside, it really hadn’t. Stuffy cheeks aside, there was no indication things were abnormal.
I was able to walk on my own this time. I still stayed behind my father as we looked for bears, fish, birds, only to turn up with nothing but the cold. The giraffe enclosure was bare, as anticipated. We leaned against the fence for a while.
“It’s not the end of the world,” Dad said. He smiled, but it was empty, like his knowledge had burnt out its grace. “We tried, but sometimes these things are out of our hands.”
“‘Out of our hands’ makes it sound like some bigger picture nonsense. The crazy train in this family runs so deep it’s forming a Soul Train line in my head.”
Dad didn’t laugh, because it wasn’t funny. “Echo, yesterday was the worst day of my life.”
He left it at that, didn’t say anything more. Sticking my neck out, I looked down to the giraffe’s pen. This time, I made the delusion my friend; rose above, and waited for an animal to crawl to my open hand.
It never did. My dad cried for me, and I cried for the giraffes.
Anastasia Jill (Anna Keeler) is a queer poet and fiction writer living in the greater Orlando area. She is an editor for Smaeralit as well as The Chaotic Review. Her work has been published or is upcoming with Poets.org, Deep South Magazine, Cleaver Magazine, Dual Coast Magazine, Queer Stories, FIVE:2:ONE, Drunk Monkeys, Hawai’i Pacific Review, and more.