Tengku 1920 1280 DS Levy

This afternoon, Tengku dangles a stick. Some days, it’s a rag or a cardboard box—environmental enrichment. His interest in these objects appeases the keepers and gets a good rise out of visitors. Which is better than what he did last week. While two mothers and their kids admired him from the safer side of a Plexiglass window, he upchucked his afternoon meal of bananas and oranges. The kids squealed with delight. The mothers turned up their noses.

I’d like to come here more often.

A dental hygienist, I get Fridays off because Dr. Morrison likes his golf. He also likes his bourbon and the pretty young hygienists. I’m sixty-one, out of bounds. I plan to retire next year and take my Social Security. I already know what I’ll do with all that free-time—volunteer here at the zoo.

Now, Tengku swings onto a branch in one of the fake trees. He drops his stick and watches it splash into the exhibit’s watery bottom which is painted blue to resemble a pond. He scratches his neck. Even in these fancy enclosures, black gnats find their way in.

Last year, Tengku wasn’t alone. He had Milati for company, an experiment that didn’t work out. They ignored one another, and when they failed to produce a baby, Milati got sent to another zoo in Mississippi.

I stand at the Plexiglas window, hand on the thick pane. As a child, I once dreamt I paddled a wooden boat through cumulus clouds. The ride was smooth and easy and I wanted it to last forever. Paddling through the clouds seemed like something I could be good at. When I got older, I dreamt of marriage and family, and had my chances. But I wanted kids. My chances didn’t. Instead, I went to school and became a dental hygienist.

Now, I float through my days. Nights, I watch TV game shows on the retro channel.

Tengku sighs. Sumatran orangutans sigh just like people. I never knew that until I started visiting the zoo. The things you learn.

I enjoy the lush green Indonesian Rainforest. Darkness bathes the visitor’s side of the exhibit and a squeaky floor fan circulates a feral-musky odor. Sometimes I sit on the wooden bench. Other times, I stand in front of the display and put my hand in the mold of “a typical orangutan’s hand.” I pretend it’s Tengku’s. My fingers swim in it.

Today, there’s a pall over the zoo. Zahara, an eight-year old reticulated giraffe, died this morning. I know animals can’t talk to one another, or at least not with other species, but even Tengku seems withdrawn. He won’t even look my way.

I’ve probably seen Zahara, but I don’t remember her because I rarely spend time in the African Safari. All that sun, those burnished Savanna grasslands. Once, I bought some leaves and fed one of the giraffes, but its black slithery tongue reminded me of a snake and I never went back.

Tengku tugs at his feet—I’ve noticed he does that whenever he’s upset. Like the other day, when his keepers kept him from coming out of his cage into the exhibit. He poked his nose through the door, and as soon as they let him out, he jumped on a perch and grabbed his feet. Well, it had been a bad day for me, too. Work was hectic, and when I left the office, I knew that all I had waiting was that dark oral cavity called home. The rooms were so still they squeezed my heart. Walls were walls. Windows might as well have had bars.

Of course, many humans live in self-imposed cages and never make their escape. They strap themselves with mental and emotional shackles. I could write a book, but why bother. We’re all creatures of habit.

Tengku gazes at the tiny window slits at the top of his exhibit. Up there, the sun’s rays manage to break through, casting tiny shadows through the slender iron bars. I slide my hand out of the mold, wondering what it would be like to sit next to him, to feel his warm, hairy arm against my skin.

Header photograph © Melanie Votaw.

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  • Thank you, Rebecca!
    Your words are music to my ears.
    P.S.: How the heck did you figure out how to comment here? I’m computer illiterate, can’t seem to figure it out. LOL

  • Beautiful. “Tengku sighs.” Perfect brevity there at the turn–thank you!

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