In the spring before graduation, I began to lose my sense of time. I mistook this feeling at first for freedom, and even joy. More than once I woke up in the dark and did not know if the world was still holding off morning or had become the next evening without me. I remember nothing of the essays I generated to complete the last necessary credit hours and not much more than impressions from the evenings—the chaos of voices and faces—that were then what I and everyone else seemed to believe was the best possible way to live.

The last night, we bought from someone’s guy in the Chick-Fil-A parking lot. Later, there was a backyard lit by strings of Christmas lights, a thunderstorm. In an apartment with a seven-thousand-dollar TV and a broken bathroom mirror, a sly dark-lipped girl in red stripes didn’t believe me that I could slice into my own thumb with a kitchen knife, or maybe just wanted to see if I would.

Around three, a stranger appeared in his sleek rented graduation robe for a joke, but then I saw it was someone I knew. In a sticky dark kitchen, promises I don’t remember were made.

I also don’t remember how I got back to my place.

For whatever reason, I didn’t immediately go inside to pass out.

I discovered the face of my thumb was bleeding again, so I wrapped it in the bottom of my T-shirt and squeezed hard, so it hurt.

I stood in the parking lot listening to the silence of lights left on in other people’s apartments and it was like waking up from a dream and finding myself on a path halfway through a dark forest.

*

I mean to be honest. I know I am not in the end a rebel or an artist or a monk. I will not, in the end, renounce or escape my upbringing.

I grew up outside Dallas. My father is a lawyer. His most frequent client develops technology for use in increasingly surreal techniques for extracting oil and natural gas from vast impure deposits deep beneath the surface of the earth. My mother grew up with some money, as she says, and studied art history and now serves on the boards of several arts organizations. They attend charity galas and golf tournaments and have serious conversations on the phone about preparations for charity galas and golf tournaments. They are capable, even exceptional people; they are even now only mildly and temporarily disappointed in me.


There was and is a space in their world carved out for me. All I had to do to enter it was complete the hours of a day, then the days of a week...

There was and is a space in their world carved out for me. All I had to do to enter it was complete the hours of a day, then the days of a week, then the weeks of a month, then the months of a year, and so on. My grades were good overall and my personal statement had been polished by a helpful man in a tucked-in University polo at the career center who circled words with a pen silver as a mirror. His final verdict on my statement was, “This is good. You really make sure to say what employers want to hear.”

After graduation I had an offer of a paying yearlong internship in an elegant silver building, experience that would have been very attractive on law school applications and in the planned future.

But there were questions I needed to answer and I didn’t even know what they were. I chose an unpaid summer at a zoo.

*

In the parking lot of the zoo there are grackles. In certain angles of light, there is a subtle blue sheen to the black feathers on their heads; otherwise they are deeply unpleasant. Their eyes are flat. Their beaks are crooked, like overgrown fingernails. They sound like malfunctioning appliances. Across the pavement in twos and threes they spastically stalk insects, bits of blown trash, smeared french fries, nothing. On branches overhead they perch, nosy and uncertain.

I found myself noticing them in a new way as I settled my bike into the rack on my first day at the zoo. They had been familiar presences in parking lots large and small, in landscapes weedy and unsettled and landscapes groomed weekly, and so usually blended into the blur of daily life. But, because of the fact that I was going to work at a zoo, a structure designed to confine animals for the purpose of observation, the idea of an animal living so freely just outside (as well as, I would discover, inside, among the lions and gorillas even) seemed at once noteworthy.

I watched one for a few moments, tried to absorb his pointy lack of grace, imagined what it would feel like to jerk-walk over hot pavement with feet made of a few long scaly fingers, each tipped with a claw.

*

My last semester, one day not long after Donald Trump’s inauguration, my friend Bryce was driving us through campus and we stopped at a red light next to a cop who had pulled over a beat-up green pick-up and was standing over a man he’d handcuffed. The man on the curb was Hispanic, wearing thick overalls stained at the cuffs and across the chest with black grease, like he’d come directly from some difficult heavy work. He was staring into the pavement between his feet. Bryce gave me this look, this bare nod, this unfamiliar tight, triumphant smile.

“Once his ass gets sent back to Mexico,” he said, “he’s not coming back.”

Bryce had never said anything like that to me before. I didn’t know what to say.

“Maybe,” I managed and felt untethered. I pretended to respond to a text I hadn’t received. Then I looked out the window at girls walking past on their way to class and imagined their names and let the feeling dissipate, to my shame.

But in the summer, at the zoo, I thought about that moment often: sitting on a bench facing the tiger enclosure, crunching through a handful of almonds one by one, watching the tiger stalk the boundary of his enclosure, back and forth, following the path his instincts had worn in the earth. He had a round, strong face, like Bryce. “You asshole,” I thought. Then I thought, what kind of loser silently insults a tiger?

*

I enjoyed watching giraffes eat. Their tongues are blueblack and powerful and, together with their lips, operate with surprising sensitivity, more like a hand and wet fingers than like the much weaker human tongue and lips.

Giraffes are of course known most for their height, but as a giraffe, would you think of yourself as tall? All animals, even the strangest to us, know themselves as normal.

It’s very difficult to consider an animal without getting stuck in your own human body’s expectations.

The giraffe’s height alone does not make imagining what it would feel like to be a giraffe interesting; what does is the distance between the creature’s soul-brain— which must center in its sensitive lips and tongue—and the earth. Your attention is most often in the trees, much like a bird. How unusual it would be to see a giraffe watching its own feet as it walked. Like them we trust the earth is always beneath us.

*


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The World and The Zoo
Rob Roensch
150 pages
$10.00 paperback ISBN 9781944853679
$5.00 ebook
February 2020

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"This book’s tenderness amplifies the tenderness of being on the outer edge of being young—where nights are wide open and everything seems to be beginning and ending and straining toward the future."

- Benjamin Warner


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