Sylvie erected a totem pole in the corner of the yard. She carved each face with a kitchen paring knife, creating an inartful do-it-yourself monument of North American guys. Distinctive faces were stacked one atop another in quick succession, not in chronological order, or by the various measurements of the vises between which her heart had been clamped. From the bottom Sylvie sculpted a Michigander, followed by a Californian, New Yorker, Iowan, and Torontonian. Their initials were sketched into the back of their heads, across the grain of oblong tree rings.
Sylvie stood on a ladder for the better part of a year to carve the guy gracing the top of the pole, a Chicagoan, modeled after the Christmas tree lights she strung across her living room each December, which changed from green to red to white on a timer, Silent Night playing from loudspeakers, an angel atop the tree spinning round and round. The guy at the top flipped his hair out of his eyes, an affect that let him, as his moods dictated, be hidden or seen. Sylvie rigged the hairflip to alternate between three settings: summer blonde, chestnut brown, and flecks of gray. As the hair flipped, Sylvie walked in circles around it, studying the facial features, fingering the initials. Then she wrapped her arms around the pole and slid down. She was unprepared to leave the yard, to meet Gabriel at the bus stop across from the Pleasure Palace.
Sylvie met Gabriel precisely three weeks before, in the Trader Joes checkout line, where she went directly after her Vinyasa 75 class at a heated studio around the corner. Sylvie had stood in line patiently, leggings clinging to her lower half in a cold dried sweat, heels and toes nestled into the cork of knock-off Birkenstocks, a red plastic basket hanging from her arm stuffed with organic greens and frozen sprouted grains. Sylvie swayed ever so slightly in a post-Savasana stupor, with heavy lidded eyes, not noticing at first when a guy started talking to her.
The ambiguous voice behind her was asking about the stack of peppermint soap in her basket, which had begun to perfume the aisle. Five bars of apothecary styled soap were stacked in her basket neatly, next to sealed bags of pre-washed power green mixes of Swiss chard, baby arugula, and Lacinato kale.
From behind her, the guy’s voice was saying, “that’s quite the stack of soap you have.” Sylvie involuntarily reached for her once-centered ponytail bun, which had since traveled to the Southeasterly corner of her head, as if it were a microphone that she could grab and switch off. Her face was still flushed from repeating trikonasanas and utkatasanas. Frizz rose from her temples, encircling her face in a damp halo of coarse chaos.
Sylvie turned around, to find that there actually was a guy standing there, and that he actually was talking to her. He was roughly her age, mid-thirties, wearing a gray parka vest and olive green nylon pants with a collection of perpendicular mesh inserts and zippers, and blazing blue eyes that circled at her like high beam spotlights. She looked away, down into his basket, where she saw aluminum cans of ‘lite’ coconut milk and knobby stumps of gingerroot.
She didn’t feel like speaking. But she was a born Midwesterner, and not speaking to someone who was speaking to you was unconscionably impolite.
“Coconut milk,” Sylvie said.
“Yes!” the guy said. He lifted his heels out of his flipflops, seasonally incongruent with his parka vest, and showed her the can’s label, which said ‘65% less fat than regular coconut milk.’
“I’m making a lighter version of a Thai soup called Tom Kha Gai,” he said, overpronouncing the consonants, Ta, Ka, Ga. “It’s made with coconut milk, red chilies, ginger, galangal, and lemongrass. Tom Kha Gai,” he said again, in a neutral offhanded manner this time, a pleasant instructor on a Rosetta Stone tape. Sylvie heard it as Tom a Good Guy.
“Sounds good,” Sylvie said, her Midwestern all-purpose response when she had nothing to say. She pined to be lying once again in final resting repose, a damp, warm towel over her eyes, listening to Tibetan flutes and Patagonian birdcalls, without the interference of human voices.
Tom a Good Guy continued.
“I’m also making sticky rice, steamed in lotus leaves. In a three-deckered steamer that I brought back from Thailand, handwoven and made of sustainable bamboo. Served with this.” Tom a Good Guy held up a cardboard six-pack of Trader Jose’s Mexican style beer that he’d been holding next to his leg.
“How complex,” Sylvie said.
“Complex indeed,” he said, tipping forward. “I learned to make it in Thailand, in an outdoor cooking class, where we made soup in clay pots, over an open flame, in the Northern part of the country, in a lush, green, and mountainous city called Chang Mai.” He flourished Mai with a long second syllable, while scanning Sylvie from the top of her head down to her red-orange polished toes.
“I like your bag,” he said, scanning back up to look at her midriff section, where a woven bag was slung across her body diagonally.
Sylvie reached down to feel the soft cotton of her patchwork bag.
“Thanks,” Sylvie said. “Guatemala.”
“Oh!” Tom a Good Guy said. “I’m just dying to go to Tikal.”
Sylvie pictured him dying, relishing in the quiet she stood to regain.
“I absolutely love hiking,” he said. “I’m obsessed, actually.”
Sylvie pictured him walking fast through the rainforest, with an obsessive gait, eyes blazing straight ahead, hiking too quickly to notice anything.
“Is that where you got your bag? In Guatemala?” he asked, craning his arm around his head to crack his neck to one side.
“No,” Sylvie said. “Evanston. At The Mexican Shop.”
“Oh,” he said, blinking.
Sylvie turned away, toward a display of dark chocolate and sea salted caramels placed next to the register.
“Well you should buy this dark chocolate then,” she said, offering him a fair trade raw cacao bar from Central America. He smiled broadly at Sylvie, tossing the large brick of chocolate into his basket.
Sylvie felt relief at reaching the front of the line, where a young man at the cash register took her basket from her arm. He wore black vinyl leggings and a boxy, short-sleeved Hawaiian shirt over a gaunt frame, oversized black glasses, with a red beard that reached the middle of his chest. The checkout guy began swiping Sylvie’s items across a glass scanner, with a kaleidoscopic forearm covered in black, turquoise, and red ink. Sylvie tried to read his arm between swipes. She deciphered ‘House of Mystery,’ in shadowy medieval calligraphy, a free-floating keyhole, fallen dominos, and a crowned heart flanked with roaring lions. A literal coat of arms, Sylvie thought. The checkout guy chattered at her, trying to infuse the checkout experience with good cheer.
“Never too much peppermint soap!” he exclaimed, scanning the bars one after another, in a loud, surprisingly deep voice. “Oh maaaaan, shishito peppers! Completely killer! Mad notes of pepper! But also wickedly sweet and surprisingly mellow! But wait!” He scanned more slowly as his voice trailed off, his arm coming to a complete stop, as he raised a second bag of shishito peppers in front of Sylvie’s face.
“You need to promise me something,” he said, his beard fluttering as he spoke. “Promise me you will blister them. On an extra hot grill. And that you will then finish them. With Togarashi. Preferably through a hand grinder. Calibrated to a coarse to medium setting. Trust me. You will be saying yes, please. Followed by more, please.” He nodded vigorously as he finished scanning, his oversized black glasses falling down his nose, his beard hitting his chest like a paddle. I have no idea what you are talking about and I can’t promise you anything, Sylvie thought.
“Sounds good,” she said.
Behind her, Tom a Good Guy brushed close again, standing at the back of her shoulder.
“How do you plan on preparing the frozen Peruvian quinoa?” he asked.
Since when are men so interested in grains and vegetables, Sylvie wondered. Here, read the microwave directions on the box.
“Not sure,” Sylvie said. She pulled canvas totes out of her Guatemala bag like Russian dolls, and filled them quickly, while swiping her credit card, the two guys staring at her while she signed a cracked miniature screen with a stylus pen hanging off a frayed cord. Then she fled with the bags to her clean, compact car, where she put her air conditioner on high, reveling in the white noise, feeling an early life fatigue that belied her fresh, round face and clear green eyes.
Statistically, given how seldom she left her studio apartment, mostly only for yoga, greens and grains, Sylvie wouldn’t have predicted the improbable quaint subterfuge of the formal printed rectangle upon cleaning out the front pocket of her Guatemala bag.
Sadly, his name isn’t Tom a Good Guy, Sylvie thought, reading his business card. It was Dr. Gabriel Garcia Wallace, and he worked in the Neuropsychiatry Department at Greater Chicago Memorial Hospital, a Fellow in Anxiety and Panic Disorders.
Sylvie tried to recall Gabriel’s face, pleased at her ability to conjure it up at will. Even under all that natter at the cash register, she remembered Gabriel as having compelling thick eyebrows, hovering over eyes that, while reckless, were welcoming amidst the blazing blue. Sylvie put the business card back in the pocket of her bag, buttoned it, and retreated to the yard.
Sylvie hid behind the tall fence that ran the perimeter, barbed wire strung across the top. Behind it, Sylvie rearranged a set of cheek dimples and a chin cleft, hanging sweetly on a laundry line, attached with wooden clothespins. She moved them sideways, along with swimmers shoulders and chapped lips covered in balm. As she ran out of room, she pushed at the edges, finding more. She added Gabriel’s eyebrows to the end of the line.
Sylvie walked across the yard to a two-person outdoor dining set with a white tablecloth where fallen wax had dimpled the sides of a lit candelabra before pooling at the base. Braised pork chops with rosemary and garlic sat half-eaten on large white dinner plates with goblets of abandoned Beaujolais.
Sylvie grabbed a pork chop and sucked with hollow hungry cheeks, pulling at the last bits of meat with her teeth. Once stripped of all sinew and marrow, she tossed the hammer shaped bone into a pit at the center of the yard, which she’d dug herself with a hand trowel. Then she took the last swill of wine, from the glass across the table with the empty seat.
Under an open sky, Sylvie watched the dead gestures of her twenty-something optimism, strung about like day-time lanterns, languish in plain view. Fastidious strong hands shimmied back and forth in perpetuity, using polish from a tin and chamois soft as cashmere, to buff male soles. A pair of wing tipped oxfords hung by tied laces from a tree branch, the shoes so polished Sylvie could look up and see in them the long distorted reflection of her own face.
It began to rain in the yard. Sylvie smelled cologne coming up from the pit, mixed with acid rain coming down, condensing into fog which obscured her view. Sylvie didn’t mind the cloudiness or musky smell. Sylvie roused black, blonde, and hair from Africa, which tied above her into a woven roof bog to form a canopy. The locked-in humidity absorbed residual sweat from treadmills, full-sized mattresses, and city bike lanes, to ice the grass into a dewy cold carpet. Sylvie made snow angels on a small patch of wet lawn, soaking her dress and giving her skin a pleasing chill. She rose and grabbed the wet handlebars of a rusty tandem bicycle, and rode in the front seat around the yard, all alone.
Sylvie abruptly snapped her laptop closed, causing the water in the fish bowl to slush around. She spit the stringy fermentation at the bottom of the kombucha jar into a napkin as she watched her goldfish, Momo, swim on the kitchen counter, darting to find his bearings in the temporary roil, his purple iridescent tail fanning out behind him. Sylvie stood over the bowl as Momo stopped to rest in a corner near the rainbowed sandcastle set into the gravel. Bits of glued-on sand that had dispersed into the water settled, while Momo caught his breath, his tiny fish mouth gently opening and closing. Sylvie got up to put the empty mason jar into the sink, grasping the mistake it had been to e-mail Gabriel three days before.
Subject: Trader Joes
When did you put your card in my Guatemala bag? Haha. Hi. It’s Sylvie. Of the peppermint soap.
He hadn’t responded, until today.
She’d just read the e-mail in her Inbox.
Subject: Trader Joes
Hi Sylvie. Hope you are well. Sorry for the delay, I’ve been out of town on business, and busy. So, anyway. I’m glad you found the card and contacted me. I’d really like to take you out and I hope you might be game. There is this nifty little comedy show in the back of the Lincoln diner (do you know it? the one with the gigantic 1970s neon red, white, and blue sign of the Abraham Lincoln bust with flashing bulbs around his head?). Haha. Or JaJa as they say in Guatemala. Think about it. No pressure. It’s on Saturday at 3pm. It would be nice to see you again. It’s in our neighborhood, so we could walk and meet in front of that weird sex shop that no one ever seems to go into, the Pleasure Palace (lol). Be well. Gabriel
After reading the e-mail for a second time, on her phone, Sylvie retreated to the yard. Sylvie chose to sit in a ripped red vinyl booth in the wood paneled Abraham Lincoln Diner, her hands on a steel edged formica table. Sylvie practiced laughing. She found a knee on the clothesline, which she snapped off, pretending it was Gabriel’s, and slapped it hard, singing HaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHa in the counterfeit currency of ironic mirth. Then Sylvie summoned real mirth, laughing until the coca cola she drank out of a straw squirt out her nose, burning her nostrils, which brought on sudden hiccups.
At the sound of fabricated laughter, a Zydeco percussion circle took shape behind her. Taut cowhides stretched over round metal bases and domesticated straightened teeth started clacking. Bottle tops rubbed the ridges of galvanized steel washboards. The yard filled with tobacco-stained porcelain clatter, the boom of drums, and metal scraping. Sylvie grabbed a cowbell and played along, hiccupping, swinging her hips wide, causing concave shoulder and hip bones to pop from the pit, rustling with her to the beats.
When the percussion set ended, Sylvie sat in a deafening silence, letting cool gray ashes from the pit run through her fingers like sand.
Sylvie got into bed for the night, propping herself up on pillows, and booted up her laptop, clicking open a wikiHow entry on how to dehydrate organic fish food, while Momo swam around on her nightstand.
As she read about smoke drying fresh mackerel, before crushing it into flakes, a new e-mail from Gabriel arrived in a pop-up bubble that faded away into nothing in a matter of seconds.
Hi Sylvie. Can we Gchat? it said, before evaporating. Sylvie suddenly felt guilty for not having responded to his e-mail. She typed.
S: Sounds good
G: Hi Sylvie! How are you??
S: hi gabriel. i’m fine. u?
G: Glad you are alive.
S: yep, still here. breathing. so u do remember who I am, right?
G: Course I do. So calm at the checkout.
S: do you go to TJs looking for young ladies in yoga pants?
G: Haha. No. Honestly I’ve never asked out another woman in a checkout line. You stuck out. Sorta peaceful in the middle of all the ruckus.
S: my mind was on holiday
G: You had the post-yoga glow. Nice to see. Have you blistered those shishito peppers yet? That checkout kid needs an emergency Hipsterectomy. To cure the Hipsteria. Doctors orders.
S: haha. no, I haven’t
G: Hey, have you given the comedy show at the Lincoln Diner any thought? It’ll be good. I would really like to take you.
S: can I let you know tomorrow?
G: Of course.
G: So, Sylvie. What Netflix shows do you watch?
G: Not any?
Sylvie felt her exhaustion return, becoming mortally frightened by a future full of television. She tapped out a final message:
S: sorry gabriel, it’s late, gotta run. will let you know tomorrow re: the show. ttyl.
Sylvie went straight to the yard. There, she staged her and Gabriel’s divorce. Sylvie and Gabriel had melted together into a tasteful gray flannel sofa with angled wooden legs, the flat screen television screen frozen permanently at the end of The Walking Dead, Season 3, episode 4, asking them to give it a rating out of five stars.
Gabriel was shaking Sylvie out of a lucid dream, where she was playing a pink guitar while sitting comfortably in a basketball hoop attached to a tricycle, and he was saying “Honey, just one more episode.” They had become androgynous, their sweatpants baggier and their pullovers fleecier, with matching insulated mugs: his with hoppy brown ale, hers with sugar-free mint iced tea. They smelled of the same shampoo.
Gabriel had bought Sylvie hiking boots with the same level of ankle support as his. They had twin toddlers, a boy and a girl, dressed in mini water repellent cargo pants and vests, in a panoramic Christmas photo taken on a precipice of the Grand Canyon.
While the marriage ran aground on mistaken expectations and broken promises, Gabriel was such a good guy that the divorce was uncontested, a “no-fault divorce under Illinois law,” the lawyer said, through creamy hot pink lipstick and a Botoxed forehead that wouldn’t allow for concern.
Sylvie swiveled like a dervish in an office chair, incoherently repeating, “It was the Netflix!!!!!! It was the Gore-Tex!!!!!! He was obsessed with TedxTalks!!!!!!” over and over and over, while Gabriel’s lawyer patted his shoulder, affirming the general consensus that he’d be better off without her.
Sylvie threw the women’s cargo pants, flat screen television, and Gore-Tex strollers into the pit, which overflowed in a bonfire of smoldering vanities, along with Gabriel’s tortoiseshell glasses, S.U.V. car keys, micro-checked British tab collared shirts, gourmet grilling cookbooks, and cuffed Levis in the darkest wash. Sylvie stuck her hands in the flames.
She threw a divorce party for herself, tiki torches dotting the yard, handing out daiquiris with tiny oriental umbrellas to no one, Hahahahahhahahahhahas floating up, up, and away, swirling blue and white, late into a starry night.
Sylvie sat at the bus stop across from the Pleasure Palace, where she’d finally agreed to meet Gabriel after discussing it with Momo, who’d reluctantly agreed. Gabriel was right, the Pleasure Palace was open, but no one went in.
She looked down at her phone, where she had a Pinterest page of Fishbowl Design pulled up, but it consisted of wedding centerpieces with floating candles and flower petals, not at all what she was looking for, when a cavalry of firetrucks whizzed by with sirens at full blare, sending hair into her eyes. The firetrucks kept coming, one after another, down the main artery of her normally quiet neighborhood. Sylvie closed the app, put her phone away, and watched in terror.
Gabriel arrived within minutes, out of breath. “The Abraham Lincoln Diner is on fire!” Gabriel declared, huffing loudly.
“I’ve never actually seen a fire. Not in my neighborhood,” Sylvie said, from the bus stop bench.
“Weird, right? We should do something else. Are you ok?” Gabriel sat down next to her, his eyebrows cresting up together at the middle.
“I just don’t like to see a fire in my own neighborhood,” Sylvie said.
“Of course. No one does. How about we leave. How about we walk to the zoo instead? There’s a baby gorilla that was born two weeks ago.”
They laughed nervously at the same time. His gestures hung in mid-air, his lips creeping up to show healthy gums and even white teeth. Gabriel was much more attractive than Sylvie remembered. He was wearing nondescript jeans and a light blue v-necked sweater with a white t-shirt underneath, his face freshly shaven and smooth. His hair was combed into place with gel. He smelled of antiseptic mouthwash and eucalyptus deodorant.
“I’m really glad you could make it today,” Gabriel said.
“I didn’t expect a fire,” Sylvie said.
“No one expects a fire, but they happen,” Gabriel said. They got up from the bench and walked toward Lake Michigan, side by side, down streets of two-flat graystones, toward the zoo.
“You’re really unusual, you know that?” Gabriel said. “You haven’t asked me many questions. Girls, sorry women, are usually dressing me down from the get-go, running me through a checklist.”
“I barely know you,” Sylvie said.
“I knew you were different,” Gabriel said.
“Different how, different strange?” Sylvie asked. Joggers and bikers veered around them as they crossed under Lake Shore Drive onto the lakefront path.
“Not different strange. But don’t you have any questions for me? Or are you not interested in me at all,” Gabriel asked. They reached Belmont Harbor, where boats bobbed safely in their slips, the fire far behind.
“Sorry,” Sylvie said. “Well. I am kind of curious why you chose to specialize in anxiety and panic disorders.”
“Ah,” Gabriel said. “Simple. Episodes of panic sometimes precede the onset of schizophrenia. My sister Tasha is schizophrenic. Always the smartest in her class growing up. She has too much going on upstairs and can’t slow it down. She has unclear thinking and hears voices.”
“Oh,” Sylvie said. “Now there’s an answer. I’m sorry.”
“It’s completely ok,” Gabriel said. “She can’t function in the real world, not as an adult. The weird thing about hallucinations is they deploy the same brain pathways that actual perceptions do. If she hallucinates voices, her auditory pathways are activated, when she hallucinates a face, the fusiform area of the brain, used to perceive faces in the environment, is stimulated. She can’t tell the difference between what’s real and what’s not.” Seagulls played above them in lazy, loopy crazy-eights, skimming the lake. Ducks honked nearby.
“Where does she live?” Sylvie asked.
“In Arizona,” Gabriel said. “In a living facility that’s also a Tibetan monastery. She’s a lot less frightened in there than out in the world by herself. Although she tried to jump from the roof once. Luckily, they stopped her.”
“Wow. That’s a lot to deal with,” Sylvie said.
“It’s ok. I don’t have fantasies about how her life should have turned out. It helps me to study it. To understand it. To see it in different people who are not my sister.”
Sylvie looked at Gabriel. All men looked sturdy to her, even slight ones, but Gabriel looked strong the way a small horse does, when it comes up from far behind at the end of a race to win, with preternatural speed.
They arrived at the entrance to the Lincoln Park Zoo.
“To the Primate House,” Gabriel said, grabbing Sylvie by the hand. They walked into a dark, echoing chamber toward a large cage, where sunlight streamed in dusty cylinders from above. They joined a crowd gathered in front of Bella, the baby girl recently born to two popular adult gorillas, Kwan and Bhahati, 27 and 26 years of age.
To the collective crowd’s delight, Bella lay belly up, wide-eyed, on a bundle of hay. Sylvie pulled Gabriel and circled the side of the crowd, getting as close as she could to the glassed-in habitat. She looked up close at Bella, and also at Bhahati, whose swollen breasts and fiery purple nipples rested upon a bloated abdomen, while Kwan paced on the other side of the cage. Their male offspring, two adolescent gorillas, swung wildly from tree to tree.
The crowd was hushed, watching to see what this family of five apes would do next. Within moments, one of the older sons swooped down and swiped newborn Bella into the crook of his arm, taking her up a tree branch and into a perched hammock, where he released her, only to start jumping, causing the baby to fly up and land down, like a see saw, wanting his little sister Bella to experience the joy of a trampoline. The crowd gasped as the baby bounced higher and higher over a fifty-foot drop. All eyes shifted to Bella’s mother Bhahati, who stared away from the crowd, and away from the hammock, and away from her family, preferring to look at faux rock formations affixed to the wall.
Sylvie became alarmed. She grabbed Gabriel’s shoulder.
“Why isn’t she clobbering everyone in her family and grabbing baby Bella back? Where is the zookeeper? Someone needs to call the zookeeper!”
“Post-partum blues,” Gabriel said, calmly. “It’s amazing they bred at all. Most animals in captivity don’t. They don’t have the normal cues or they are too old to care or they were ripped from places like the Congo and the food and smells are off. Many just refuse. But it’s possible, as we see here. Takes some coaxing. Don’t worry, baby Bella will be fine.” He grabbed Sylvie’s hand off his shoulder and put his arm around her.
“It’s an unsupervised madhouse in there,” Sylvie said, looking up at Gabriel.
“Lincoln Park Zoo has birthed fifty gorillas,” Gabriel said. “They know what they’re doing.”
“This is just an accident waiting to happen,” Sylvie said. “Someone needs to get in there and prevent it.”
“There was this study once about Sun Bears in captivity,” Gabriel said, squeezing Sylvie’s upper arm and bringing her in closer. “The female Sun Bear wouldn’t mate, even though the male Sun Bear was doing all the right things, crouching down physically. The female Sun Bear wouldn’t budge. The zookeepers were stumped. Finally, the male bear flattened himself like a pancake on the ground for weeks. The female Sun Bear finally settled down, they had a child, and it was considered a success for the zoo.”
“I thought I was part goldfish, but now I think I am part Sun Bear in captivity,” Sylvie said. Gabriel laughed.
“Let’s go,” Gabriel said, heading toward the door out of the Primate House. Sylvie followed. They walked out of the dark house into the shocking sun, squinting together.
“And there once was a one-armed gorilla named Lenore,” Gabriel said, as they adjusted to the sunlight. “She mostly ignored males, but when in estrus, she grabbed any male nearby by the ankle and threw him to the ground with her one arm to mate. Everyone loved Lenore. She was a star of the zoo and one of the first gorilla great grandmothers in captivity. She died at the age of thirty-six in 1999. True story.”
“One-armed gorillas in estrus,” Sylvie said. “How do you know so much about zoos?”
“I’m a strange guy,” Gabriel said.
“Not strange,” Sylvie said, happy suddenly to have both her arms. She grabbed Gabriel’s hand with both of her hands.
“A good guy,” Sylvie said. “Gabriel, you’re a very good guy.”
“Let’s go see the lions,” Gabriel said, taking his remaining free hand and putting it on hers, both of his hands clutching both of her hands, like they were in a sports scrum, on the same team, about to say a prayer before running into the game.
“Wait,” Sylvie said, continuing to hold his hands, pulling him down to sit on a bench in front of a pond, not letting go.
“I’m freaking out,” she said, looking at him with a frozen stare. She was breathing hard, her fatigue returning. She wanted to retreat to the yard, but couldn’t, not with Gabriel there.
“What is it?” Gabriel asked.
“I’m being cruel to Momo, my goldfish,” Sylvie said, starting to hyperventilate. “He should be back at the store with a fish community. Maybe I should call the store and find out where he’s from. I should take him back there, and release him.”
Gabriel paused, to make sure Sylvie was finished. He took an exaggerated deep breath through his nose, lifting his chest, while Sylvie, turning shades of pinkish brown purple, looked at him expectantly, holding her breath as if she were underwater.
“Breathe with me,” Gabriel said. Their four hands were still clutched, his bushy eyebrows peaked into a canopy for Sylvie.
Sylvie took a long breath with him. She inhaled strongly, her nostrils suctioning, just like the ujjayi breathing she’d learned in her yoga class, from deep in the diaphragm. Ocean breaths, said the yoga teacher. Sylvie felt like Gabriel was giving her CPR while sitting across from her, without touching her mouth.
“Momo doesn’t want to be back at the fish store. He’s used to being with you now,” Gabriel said, between breaths.
Sylvie nodded, feeling a sudden peaceful rhythm in her body, down her back and shoulders, like a cool wash of ocean waves. Her eyes drooped. Her heart slowed.
“Right,” Sylvie said. “Of course. Haha.” She looked away, biting her upper lip, feeling foolish in front of Gabriel, a practical stranger, her panic having receded. She dropped Gabriel’s hands and hopped up from the bench, laughing it off.
Gabriel shuffled to catch up. Sylvie hid behind a curtain of hair that fell forward to obscure the side of her face. As they headed toward the Lion House, Gabriel measured his gait with hers.
“Tell me about Momo,” Gabriel said.
Sylvie’s breathing had returned to normal, and the day felt clear, the squeaky equilibrium that immediately followed a storm. They walked slowly, stepping through the zoo together in a lazy lockstep. Sylvie pulled the thick section of hair between her and Gabriel behind her ear, and began to talk.
© Claudia Cadavid
[This piece was selected by Rachel Wild. Read Claudia’s interview]