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Places I'd Never Been

by Alix Ohlin

After my husband died, my mother-in-law and I started hanging out at the zoo. My friends said this was weird on any number of levels, and probably they were right. But sometimes, I told them, weirdness is a current in life you just have to slip into, let it carry you for a while. Also, it gave me something to do.  

This was how I came to be standing, of a Saturday morning, outside the polar bear habitat, while the older woman beside me threw salmon sashimi at a sleeping polar bear, all the while making soft, cooing noises.

Marilyn, my mother-in-law—was she still my mother-in-law, or were we no longer, technically speaking, related? We never discussed it—had always had a soft spot for animals. She supported the SPCA. She bought those calendars with pictures of puppies, a parade of cuteness, different breeds for every month. I had seen her turn red-faced, almost hyperventilating, during episodes of that animal-cop show on TV, the one where they go around rescuing abused pets. She belonged to the World Wildlife Federation and proudly carried their red canvas bag.

The polar bear thing was, however, new.  

She thought the bear looked peaked and way too thin, and she brought the sashimi to tempt his appetite. Thus far, the bear was sleeping through it.

Marilyn was a sensible person. She wore orthopedic sandals and kept her hair cut short, so it didn’t take long to style. She wasn’t much for adornment. Nothing about her called to the extreme. So this behavior, this intense concern for the bear, was not entirely consistent with her known profile. That’s the kind of language my husband would have used, not entirely consistent with her known profile, because he was a very exact, very careful, very evidence-oriented person. But I would have said to him, if he were around to listen: Listen, my heart, not much feels consistent in this world, anymore.

*

A couple of months ago, Marilyn called me on a Saturday morning and said, “Would you like to go see the new seal pups?”  

She said this as though everybody in town knew about these pups and was buzzing about their arrival. This was typical Marilyn; she was a reader of newsletters and brochures, a joiner of groups, attender of meetings, an avid watcher of the local news. I myself stopped watching the news a while ago, so for all I knew, the seal pups were the biggest story in town. Truthfully, even if they hadn’t been, I would have been happy to go. Saturdays, lately, were a stretch of infinite, terrible Sahara until drinks and sitcoms started at five. My husband and I had had rules against daytime drinking and television watching, and I tried to adhere to them. He wouldn’t have wanted it otherwise.

So I said, “Sure.”

At the zoo, kids were running around yelling at the monkeys, throwing food into cages, slipping out of their parents’ frustrated grasps like the little animals they are. We spent some time in the bird habitat—Marilyn knows a lot about birds—before heading over to the seal pups. We had to muscle our way through a crowd to see them. But if the seal pups were disturbed by all the attention, they didn’t show it. I had to admit that they were cute: little brown blobs with whiskers, so glossy and floppy and plopping in and out of the water and both Marilyn and I forgot ourselves and giggled at them, and it was the nicest moment either of us had probably had in a good long while.

After a while, it got hot, and other people wanted to see the pups, so we meandered over to the drinks kiosk, and on the way we passed the polar bear. Alone in his habitat, he looked hot—and why wouldn’t he? It was a sunny, summer day—and lethargic. He lay in the shade, under a rocky overhang, staring morosely at his own paws. His coat was a dingy yellow, like dog pee on snow. I was still thinking about the seal pups, the tiny exuberance of them, their slick wet skin. Marilyn started talking to me about the polar bears, how their natural habitat was disappearing due to global warming. How they were losing ground, or more properly the sea ice they needed. How, without their usual hunting resources, they were moving into towns, foraging for scraps. How these massive, glorious animals might soon disappear.

“It’s a tragedy, Kayla,” she said. “And it’s all our fault. Humans, that is.”

I nodded. We both stared guiltily at the bear, who ignored us.  

“This guy looks miserable. Doesn’t he? He belongs on ice floes, not in this damn zoo.”

I glanced at her; she wasn’t much given to swearing. I could see she was shaking with anger. We hadn’t been so close, before—there’s an uneasiness in the triangle of an only child, his wife, and his mother—but now she was deeper in my heart than my own family, because she was the only one who understood. “I know what you mean,” I said.  

“This is what the future holds for them,” Marilyn said. “They’re going to be totally out of place.” We stood there for a while, and I tried to picture the melting of the ice, the far northern landscape pale as the moon, snow giving way to rock, the contours of a disappearing place I’d never been.

 

That week, I went to work each day—I’m the manager at a craft supply store—and came home and fixed myself a drink, safely past the five o’clock boundary line. Veering away from sitcoms, I started checking out those nature shows, Animaand the like. I figured it would help me understand the strong reaction she had to the polar bear, and I had to admit that the shows were pretty mesmerizing. Hours would pass with me just sitting there in the dark, with the foxes and wildcats and the neon-colored deep sea fishes. I imagined Marilyn in her house, too, in front of her set, watching the animals as they were poised to eat or be eaten. Divorced for ages, she lived alone, and before my husband left the last time, he asked me to look after her. He knew we didn’t get along so well, had mediated many a dinner-time and holiday dispute—the arguments were over nothing, I realized later, except who came first with him—so this request was an eyebrow-raiser. After he was gone, I found out that he’d asked Marilyn to look after me, too. At first, this made me mad—it seemed like he was playing a joke on us. Then I thought it was sweet. Then I didn’t know what I thought, except that I wished I could talk to him about it and couldn’t, and then I felt terrible and empty and hopeless, and decided I might as well do like he asked.


 

The next Saturday, Marilyn called again. “I’m just going to check on that polar bear,” she said, as if the bear were a sickly neighbor. “Do you want to come?”

I said why not.

We also went the next Saturday, and the next, and the next. It was a hot summer, humid, the sky pregnant with haze. Marilyn got pretty concerned about that polar bear, his weight and appetite and generally melancholy demeanor. She even asked to speak to the zookeeper to express her concern, and a young woman in a blonde ponytail and khaki shorts came out and said that summer was not ideal weather for the polar bear but he could always cool off in his temperature-controlled pool and he had made it through quite a few scorchers already and she thought he would be fine. This didn’t satisfy my mother-in-law. She was getting obsessed. If my husband had still been alive, I would have told him about all this over the satellite phone, making it funny, nothing to alarm him or bring him down, and he would have laughed. On the computer screen—there’s a hookup thing you do, with video—his head jerked clumsily as he laughed, like he was a cartoon version of himself, and his replies came back with a few seconds delay. We did email and stuff too, but my husband was a terrible typer, he always sounded much more stupid than he really was, so video conferencing was the way to go. And that’s how I often thought of him, as a big, brown blur filling the screen, his shoulders hunching as he laughed. In dreams I could feel him, his touch, his smell, his weight, but when I was awake the blur was all that came.

He died in an explosion in Afghanistan, which was another place I’d never been. Marilyn and I didn’t talk about him much. Probably we started going to the zoo because it was a new place, one without associations of him, although the two of us were nothing but associations of him to one another. So we avoided and invited our pain, both at the same time. Like I said, it gave us something to do.

*

Weeks passed, and it was August. The frenzy over the seal pups had died down a little. They were still cute, but not as tiny, which seemed to make a difference to people. Then one night there was a huge storm—one of those brilliant, terrifying summer squalls, heat lightning and rolling thunder, and the power went out in patches all over the city. Marilyn called and said she was concerned about the bear. (She didn’t even ask how I was, of course.) So practically before the zoo even opened we were there, with some bento boxes Marilyn picked up the night before and kept in her cooler. She was the kind of person who kept a cooler and bought extra ice when the forecast was dicey. She had a kerosene heater and batteries stashed everywhere. She thought you could be prepared for everything.

The zoo looked a wreck—branches down everywhere, water pouring off roofs. Around the place we could hear the angry squawks and chatter of upset animals, and the zookeepers we saw running around carrying buckets and so forth were so preoccupied with their charges that they didn’t pay us any mind.

The polar bear habitat was trashed. In addition to the fallen trees, litter from nearby garbage cans had blown in, ice cream bar wrappers and napkins and straws. The polar bear was on his rock, asleep. He did look like he’d lost weight since our first visit of the summer. Marilyn gently spoke to him—“hey there, hey buddy, hey you,” she said, in a sweetly bullying tone—trying to wake him up, and then she threw him a piece of sashimi, which she’d decided was the closest thing to live fish she could get.   

The bear ignored her, and she tsk-ed him a little, the way you would a child who refuses to eat broccoli, then threw another piece. Her eyes wrinkled disapprovingly. Her throw was a little short, and the sashimi sat on the rocks between the bear and us, little pink blobs like a trail of candy.   

“Maybe he already ate,” I said.  

She ignored me.  

“I’m sure he’s fine, Marilyn,” I said.

She was still looking at him, squinting. I could tell she’d have liked to take the bear to the doctor. That she’d have liked to get the bear back to her place and fix him a home-cooked meal.

After a while, the sun came out. The thunderstorm was major and left in its wake a clear, pretty day. People started filtering in. They, too, wanted to check on the animals.  

“See, honey?” said a mother to her son. “The giraffe is doing just fine.”

I was looking at this mother and son combo and that’s why I first missed Marilyn clambering over the iron railing and down into the habitat.

“Marilyn! What the hell are you doing?”

She had her red canvas tote bag in one hand and was using the other to balance herself as she hiked over the rocks.  

For the first time, I realized that Marilyn wasn’t a sensible person anymore. Hadn’t been for some time. The polar bear reared his head, waking up, and I was suddenly very afraid.

I ran over to the closest person in a brown uniform, a guy hosing down the otter pool. “Help me!” I said. “My mother-in-law is in there with the polar bear.”

“What? What? What?” the guy said.

“She’s in there with the bear. She’s feeding it.”

“Is she crazy?” he said, just standing there with his hose, like he couldn’t even begin to understand it.

I started to cry from frustration and a sick, swooshing kind of panic. I didn’t know if Marilyn was crazy or not, at least definitively, and I felt like the question was beside the point.

“She loves animals,” was, for some reason, the only thing that came out of my mouth, and the blood was speeding and hopping through my veins like I’d taken every kind of drugs there was, and I sprinted back over to the polar bear habitat.

Marilyn was sitting on her haunches, opening the plastic cover of a second bento box. People at the railing were pointing and muttering and shouting, most of it unkind. They seemed to think she was an activist, that she was making some sort of protest. A zookeeper—the same young blond woman we’ve spoken to before—ran up behind me and started shouting.

The polar bear was on his feet now, his yellow-white skin shaggy in the sun. With his rise, everyone quieted. We held our breath and for a moment, all was still.

In spite of the storm’s destruction, the air sparkled and there were gentle drops on the downed branches and the rocks were clean and wet and the foil of the ice cream wrappers gleamed and the world looked strangely lovely to me in that moment.  

Marilyn left the bento box in front of him and stood immobile. The blonde woman in the ponytail, shaking her fists, yelled at her to get the hell out of there, immediately. Marilyn looked diminished, tiny, a child. She looked defenseless and alone. What could I do? I hopped the railing and got in there with her.

“Oh, come on,” the blonde woman yelled. “You people! This is dangerous!”

It took me a while to reach her, and my legs trembled, unreliable, as I went. Up close, the bear was enormous. His expression was inscrutable. He didn’t smell good.  

“Marilyn,” I whispered, “it’s time to go.”

She was acting like it was no big deal. She said, “He needs to eat.”  

“The zookeeper will take care of it.”

“I don’t trust these people,” she said.

“I know,” I said.  

I took her arm and gently tugged at it, and awkwardly, slipping a little, we made our way back over the wet rocks to the railing. It took us a while and the whole time the bear was behind us, doing I didn’t know what. I thought I felt his breath on our legs, but later, I decided that it was just my imagination. Once back, finally, we climbed over the railing, and we turned back and looked.

The polar bear had forgotten us, if he ever even noticed we were there. Who knows what goes through a polar bear’s head, confronted with two crazy women and a lunch serving of Japanese food? Probably he had other things on his mind. In any case, he wasn’t even looking in our direction. Instead he was standing on his four legs, head down, eyes open, surveying his wrecked little habitat. He seemed pretty calm. Maybe he was thinking, this world isn’t what I thought it would be. Maybe he was thinking, it’s not much, but it’s all I have left.

Marilyn said, “I don’t know why he doesn’t try to get out.”

I said, “Maybe he doesn’t want to be free.”

© 2014 Alix Ohlin


Alix Ohlin's novel Inside (Knopf) and her story collection Signs and Wonders (Vintage) were both published on June 5, 2012.  She is also the author of The Missing Person, a novel, and Babylon and Other Stories. Her work has appeared in Best American Short Stories, Best New American Voices, and on public radio’s Selected Shorts. Born and raised in Montreal, she currently lives in Easton, Pennsylvania, and teaches at Lafayette College and in the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers.


“Placed I’d Never Been” was originally printed in Alligator Juniper. It is listed as a Distinguished Story in Best American Short Stories 2014. Learn more about Alix here: http://alixohlin.com/ 

 

Like this story? Check out another great short from Issue 100.