At the Meet-Up event, most of the women wore sexy tribal costumes, but I dressed up as Pumba from the Lion King. The elastic snout kept falling down over my mouth, making it difficult to hold a conversation with anyone. Julian sat in my booth and lifted the snout up past my eyes.
“Hakuna Matata,” he said.
When I asked why he wasn’t dressed like an animal, he said, “I am an animal,” which shut me up pretty quick.
Julian asked how I made the warthog head—turns out he’s something of a seamster himself. “I made this poncho,” he said, then held his arms out to showcase the sleeves fraying yarn at the hems. The head opening, too small, imprinted a troublesome looking bruise into his neck. He waved his paper ballot around and promised to vote for me, but after a herd of women in zebra-printed spandex grazed by, didn’t write on it. Julian observed them migrate until their camouflage kicked in at the bar, where they blended into a solitary white stripe.
“How’d they do that?” I asked.
“I’m not sure,” Julian said. He didn’t seem aroused but he was definitely looking.
My mother designed my costume at her nursing home three weeks before Safari Night, and it took her all that time to do the intricate detailing on the removable snout. Yet, best costume went to the guy with an elephant mask tied to his belt. The trunk fell just past his knees. Women leashed him around by it all evening, which most people found hilarious.
I found Julian again and whispered, “Real original,” but he studied the guy and said quietly, “I respect that.”
Julian lived next door to the bar, and he invited me over to his studio, where African masks stared down from all four walls. One had condoms hanging from the empty eyeholes. I removed my warthog head and took a long look after circling the perimeter of the apartment.
“This is interesting,” I said, pointing at the condoms.
“It’s abstract,” he said. “Tusks.”
“Ah,” I said.
“You want to see something else cool?”
“Sure,” I said, sitting on the couch. I tried to cross my legs in a sexy way, but my toe hit my beer and knocked it off the table. “Sorry about that.”
Julian retrieved what looked like a rolled up parchment from his bookshelf. We each grabbed an end and walked backward, and in a few seconds, it became clear that the parchment was actually the skin of a giant snake.
“Sweet, right?” Julian asked. He scanned the length of the snakeskin, clearly awed. I wondered if this was one of those fetish things.
“Sometimes the men call me a snake,” I said, still trying to be sexy.
“Do they call you a twenty-foot boa constrictor?”
“No,” I said. Once a man called me his little guinea fowl, but I didn’t tell Julian that because that’s pillow talk, and it’s personal.
There was also a small bag of weed rolled into the snakeskin, so Julian turned on some music while we smoked it. The vacant-eyed masks swirled around the apartment with the recorded chanting, and the walls became a blurred streak of expressionless faces that casted their judgments like gods. Julian tried on my warthog head, and we took turns wearing it until, for some reason, we retired it to the kitchen sink. The faucet protruded from the mouth like a reptilian, silver tongue. Julian turned the water on and off, laughing.
“Check it out,” he said, “It’s drooling.”
Julian asked if he could keep the warthog head. He seemed to have developed a certain kinship with it and consummated his ownership by tying a bandana around its forehead. I scavenged the kitchen and placed a butter knife behind its ear so it stuck up through the fabric like a switchblade.
“My costume is wearing a costume,” I said, thinking it ironic.
“He’s a killer now.”
Julian explained that in the wild, warthogs are fairly fierce creatures, and was confident of this fact due to his whole shelf of books devoted to the world’s deadliest beasts. The shelf also displayed a framed photo of Julian in a speedo, his legs waxed and posed Tarzan-like in front of a golden desert landscape. In the picture, a tattoo ran from his collarbone all the way down his chest and spread out in a fork over his belly button.
“That’s a strange tattoo,” I said.
“It’s Hieroglyphics,” he said.
“What do they say?”
“Fuck me like an Egyptian.”
With that, both of us were naked and wearing masks from his wall. We did the orangutan beneath the windowsill, the gazelle on the plains of the couch, and were about to try something Julian called the Anaconda, until he stood up from straddling me.
“That reminds me,” he said.
Julian went to the bathroom to get some cream. The tattoo was still healing and required frequent moisturizing. His chest and stomach were all slippery after that, which killed the mood a bit for me. Also, he brought the warthog head out from the kitchen and forced me to put it on.
“Do I really need it?” I asked. “For the Anaconda?”
He smiled, then submerged my mouth beneath the snout. “I’m the anaconda.”
A day later, I went to the nursing home to tell my mother I met someone. Since finishing my costume, her room had overpopulated—animal print baby blankets were nestled into the recliner; infant hippo onesies drowned her habitat of sheets. She appeared to be knitting yellow baby socks with webbed toes.
“You’re costume,” she said. “It inspired me.”
I held up one of the designs, an orange toddler sweater complete with a tiger-eared hood and striped tail. The tiger teeth were the same pearl beads she used on my warthog snout. “This is cute,” I said, tracing my fingers over the teeth, imagining a little Julian cozied within the sweater.
“Mom, I’m in love,” I said.
“Mmm hmm,” she said, keeping her eyes on the socks.
“And we are very serious,” I clarified.
“Try that on,” she said, pointing at the tiger. It was made for a toddler, and I argued that I’d barely get it over my wrist. She poked my breast with her knitting needle until I’d at least squeezed myself into the hood.
She made some adjustments with her needless, then tied off a few knots with surprising strength. When finished, she patted my head between the ears.
After several dates, I learned that Julian had a seasonal job as a rafting guide, but what he called, “hydro turbulence technician.” He owned a van that he drove outside the city to lead tourists down whatever river seemed to bear the strongest torrents. The whole business was on hold because last year he guided the raft down an unmarked spillway. He referenced some lawsuit going on, but seemed very hush-hush about it.
“Where do you keep the van?” I asked.
We walked two blocks from his apartment until we came upon a narrow alley. The van sat wedged between the brick walls with only inches of space on either side. The back was concealed by a large, orange tarp.
“Nice,” I said. Julian folded it neatly and stashed it in a nearby dumpster.
“I have to find a new spot every few days,” he explained.
“People are suspicious of vans.”
There was a wet, dingy smell throughout, but Julian draped all the lifejackets from the roof, which projected a nice secure feeling. Most of the seats had torn pits in the centers from too much sitting. Julian settled in the driver’s seat and showed me the river maps. I sat in his lap while he rehearsed the safety protocol speech he gave to all the rafters.
“Wedge that foot securely down beneath,” he began. “And be ready. Sometimes piranhas jump inside the raft and you’ll need to smash them with the paddles.”
“Wow,” I said, imagining it.
For kicks, Julian spoke in an Australian accent that didn’t sound that Australian at all. “Over here we have what looks like a giant graffiti!” He motioned to the block letters spray-painted on the brick wall then fluttered his knees like we’d crossed into class four waters.
The graffiti was the only thing to see in the alley, so Julian drove us to a nearby park. We didn’t stay for long because the lot was crowded, plus Julian was right—all of the mothers stared at us accusingly. A group of them had collected at the corner of the playground and fortressed around their strollers.
“Maybe we should leave,” I said.
“We’re not doing anything wrong,” he argued.
Julian didn’t know what to make of the whole scene. By the time we arrived back at his apartment, he was convinced the prosecution in his lawsuit had organized some kind of sting operation. We spent the next few hours lighting matches beneath official looking documents and disposing of several bags of weed down the sink. I thought the cleansing finished, but Julian grabbed his speedo photo from the bookshelf with a tortured look.
“You can’t,” I said.
“It could be demonstrative evidence.”
Julian used permanent marker to deface the picture. His blacked-out face and broken glass flowered the carpet, and behind us, the coat rack speared the warthog head like a pagan shrine. If I were the stranger storming in, I would have little to make of it.
“We’re safe now,” Julian said.
Julian grew paranoid and wanted to camp out at my place. He paced through my darkened apartment for the entire week, peeking occasionally through the blinds he insisted we keep closed. I wanted to do something romantic to distract him, so I drove us to a carnival outside town. I fed him pieces of cotton candy as we walked through the rows, forcing my finger through his tight lips when he wouldn’t open his mouth. We stopped at a Strongman hammer game, and I asked Julian to try and win me a giant, Rastafarian Banana.
“These games exploit masculinity,” he said. “The probability of winning is quite low.”
“Don’t be silly,” I said.
“I’m not using eight tickets for this game.”
The carnival worker gnawed her gum and stared at us. I turned and looked at her.
“Lover’s feud,” I explained.
“There are people waiting,” she said.
The bananas stared down at me with their glazed, cartoon eyes, and I imagined spooning with one of them, wrapping my arms and thighs around its fuzzy peel and burying my nose in the dreadlocks.
“I really want a banana,” I said, but Julian stuffed the strand of tickets down the front of his pants. He didn’t realize I had my own tickets, and I pulled them dramatically from the front of my pants just to spite him. A little girl in the bathroom asked me to hold them while she peed, and when she shut her stall, I ran out. I handed the tickets to the carnival worker and told her my boyfriend was going to win me all the prizes.
“He looks kind of scrawny,” she said.
From the side, Julian looked to have lost ten pounds overnight. He kept glancing back distractedly at the Wild n’ Wet Adventure ride. He refused to uncross his arms, so I scratched at his t-shirt and pushed the foam hammer against his chest, until I realized I’d irritated his tattoo. Bloody hieroglyphs started soaking through his white shirt, and it looked fairly gruesome. Some of the parents had removed their children from the line.
“Where did you get those tickets?” he asked.
“I found them.”
He sensed that I was lying, but had no proof.
“It has become clear that we are not a good match,” he said.
He pointed to his blood-stained t-shirt. “Because you did this.”
Visibly angry, I abandoned Julian and walked back to the carnival worker. “How many tries do I get?”
“For eight tickets?”
“This is our most popular game,” she said, motioning to the line behind us. “Because of the bananas.”
When I raised the sledgehammer, I imagined Julian’s perfectly waxed upper thighs spread open on the target. I grunted as I swung it down, and the puck traveled all the way to the top and struck the bell. “Suck it!” I yelled, dropping the hammer at the worker’s feet. She handed me a banana, still chewing.
For the next two hours, I sat in the Giant Kurly Fries tent eating curly cues and hanging them from my ears, nostrils and the dreadlocks of my banana. The little girl from the bathroom was at the Gyro tent, and when she spotted me, she tugged on her Dad’s sleeve and pointed in my direction.
I ran toward the parking lot with the banana draped over my shoulders, both ends securely tucked underneath my armpits.
The next morning, the banana sat at the kitchen counter with a bowl of Raisin Bran. I proactively propped him there the night before to cheer myself up. I put sunglasses on the banana and one of Julian’s t-shirts that read, “It’s Five O’clock Somewhere.” He left it on my floor after he used it to wipe cum off the ceiling. I never asked him how it got there.
That’s just how it was with Julian. It was that good.
I realized I had to break the news to my mother, who’d be incredibly disappointed. In the nursing home cafeteria, I explained that Julian might have to leave town for legal trouble. She poked at the yellow substance on her tray that looked like scrambled eggs.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“They poisoned it.”
“Oh, mother,” I said, but she lifted her sleeves to show me the rash breaking out all over her arms.
“That looks serious,” I said.
“But the chicken is good,” she said, taking another bite.
I wandered the hallways searching for a nurse, but the whole place was abandoned. It felt apocalyptic. An unoccupied wheelchair was left outside one of the empty rooms, so I asked it, “What’s going on here?” then pushed it down the hall just for the effect. It rolled on its own several yards in front of me, wheels squeaking each time they completed a rotation, and I imagined my mother in the chair, her long white hair flowing behind her, hands and knitting needles outstretched, reaching toward the bright light of the common room.
“Can I help you?”
I opened my eyes to a male nurse standing in front of me. The wheelchair was on its side. It appeared that I had slammed it into the wall.
“I need a nurse,” I said.
“I’m a nurse,” he said.
We walked together toward the cafeteria and the whole time, the male nurse smiled at me without showing his teeth.
“Nice banana,” he said.
“Thanks,” I said, adjusting where I’d been carrying it against my hip.
By the time we returned to the cafeteria, the bumps had traveled up my mother’s arms and dispersed across her face.
“She’s been poisoned,” I explained, motioning toward the eggs.
The nurse stabbed some with my mother’s fork and lifted it below his nose, sniffing.
“That’s poison alright,” he said. He sat down next to my mother to check her pulse and take her temperature. Before he left, he gave her a shot, then scraped the scrambled eggs onto a separate plate.
“I’ll look into this,” he said.
He claimed that my mother might be a bit foggy for a few hours, and he was right. Halfway through her dessert, she nudged me with her elbow and asked, “Is this your boyfriend?”
“Oh, Mother,’ I said, but it was too late.
My mother asked the banana about his job and career goals and where he grew up. She wanted to know if he could support her daughter with his upcoming legal proceedings. I answered her questions in my best impression of Julian, lifting my collar over my mouth to make my voice sound deeper and puffing up my chest to stay in character. She wanted to hear how we met, and I told her about Safari Night, how Julian saw the beautiful pearl tusks on the warthog head from all the way across the room.
“I do good work,” she said.
After her meal, I accompanied her to the room and guided her into bed. I used her creations to form a layered blanket over her, and she wrapped her arms around one of them—a green turtleneck sweater with a detachable brown shawl-shell. The banana and I stayed with her as she slept off the medication, and the entire animal kingdom carried on, one more inhabitant of the wilderness adapting to endure the earth until extinction.