She wanted to see the sea lions fed, but when they arrived it was just past noon and the trainers were leaving the ring with empty buckets. The air smelled of fish and of salt from the pretzel stands. It was cold air for April, the sunlight weak, and she had dressed her boy in his winter coat. She could remember, a long way back, standing in the cold to watch the sea lions do tricks, and she expressed her disappointment to the ticket-taker.
“The next feeding is at one-thirty,” the ticket-taker said.
She thanked him and took the stubs and change he handed back, slipped them into her pocket and pushed the sunglasses higher on her nose. The boy squirmed in his rickety stroller, restless, overheating. In their tank the sea lions swam in sated circles.
She pushed the stroller across the cobbled pavement and into the penguin house. It was dark, almost as dark as her curtained room, and the briny smell of fish was stronger here. The room was full of noise. People crowded to the glass behind which black birds were diving into green water, surfacing, diving again; the painted sky above them was brighter than the one outside, an unreal blue that made her glad she’d kept her glasses on. Parents held up children too small to stand. There were other strollers against the far wall, empty and unattended, so she undid the boy’s straps and lifted him out, found a gap in the crush of bodies and held him up to see. The boy leaned his forehead gratefully against the cool glass and stared into the water. A penguin slid past, trailing tiny, luminescent bubbles. The boy cooed and smacked the glass with his palms.
“That’s right, baby, see the birdies?” She couldn’t see the diving birds well; they were just dark shapes in the water. Only the ones on land were visible to her, standing tall on rocky outcroppings with chins tucked to violently white chests that gleamed under the glare of the false sky.
Bodies rustled around them. Someone jostled her from the right. Somewhere a child shrieked in glee but it seemed to her a sound of abject terror, a sound that made her shrink into herself. The boy was wriggling happily in her arms, but the child shrieked again and the crowd around her seemed to close in. She tried to make herself small, holding her boy tighter, wishing his daddy were here to hold them both and keep the others away. The birds on the rocks looked down coldly, and she pulled her boy back from the glass and backed away. She strapped him into the stroller in the half-darkness, operating on touch alone, and hurried to the exit.
Outside a double-bladed sign pointed two paths: straight ahead – Monkeys, Leopards – and due right. The sign pointing right said, Bears. “Bears, baby boy, let’s find the polar bears, yeah?” She remembered the bears. There had been two, or maybe three; but she’d only seen one of them, huge and yellow-white, swimming slowly the length of his pool. The others are asleep, her daddy’d told her. But that one there, he just keeps on swimming. She remembered the vast rear paw flattening against the glass as the bear kicked off from the wall, and how the long hairs on his belly had drifted and swayed underwater, the way the hair on her head did in the bath.
But the pool was empty when she reached it, and the sign on the exhibit wall said that these bears were grizzlies. There were pictures, too, brown bears instead of white. She wondered if she’d remembered it wrong.
At the far end of the pool stairs rose to a higher level, where you could look down at the bears when they weren’t in the water, and she struggled to lift and carry the stroller. Her sunglasses slipped down on her nose and she tossed her head to get them back in place. The boy was quiet as his stroller went juddering up the stairs, frightened into silence by the sudden listing and reeling of the world. “Almost there,” she whispered to him, and felt every jolt in her bones.
She was panting when they reached the top, her arms shaking. Here above the tree line everything was sunlit, making the space behind her eyes pulse and ache. She felt exposed. The boy, feeling the solid world beneath the wheels again, began to cry, and she unstrapped him and carried him to the viewing platform that looked down over the rocks and the water inside. It took her some time to find the bears, off in a corner, camouflaged against a patch of dirt the color of their fur. They lay immobile, sunning themselves, and when she squinted she thought she could see their sides rising and falling with each breath. She pointed to them but the boy, damp-lashed and hungry, did not see.
A young man in a green zookeeper’s shirt was standing to one side of the viewing platform, a clipboard in his hand. Cautiously she moved closer to him and after a moment asked if there had not been polar bears here once. Had there been a polar bear who liked to swim? She was sure there had been.
“Yes, ma’am, you’re thinking of Gus, but he died about three years ago. We got the grizzlies to replace him.” He smiled. “A lot of people ask about Gus. Did you know the zoo brought in a specialist, like an animal psychologist, to diagnose why he was so obsessed with swimming? He wasn’t interested in the other bears, the females, and he didn’t respond to toys or anything. Just swam all day.”
He waited for her to say something. She was thinking of the bear, of the powerful, gentle movements of those massive paws through the water.
“The specialist diagnosed him with depression, said the repetitive swimming was bad for him. They tried everything to get him to stop: medication, games, hiding his food so he’d have to get out to find it. Cost the zoo thousands of dollars.” The man lowered his voice. “Personally I think it was a waste of money. The swimming wasn’t hurting him. Wild polar bears can swim more than thirty miles without resting, you know.”
In her arms the boy writhed and fussed. He was hungry, sweltering now in his winter jacket with the warm sunlight on him. She looked down into the bear enclosure, at the empty pool with its cool, clear water. It sparkled up at her and the sparkle of the light hurt her eyes, and then she heard the boy fussing and realized that it must be almost feeding time.
The exit from the viewing platform was a long ramp down which the stroller slid easily.
She bought a soft pretzel and sat on the amphitheater steps that ringed the sea lion tank with the boy between her thighs, tearing off small pieces of pretzel for him to eat. The sea lions knew the trainers were coming soon; their underwater laps gained speed, making the water slosh around, and now and then a sleek dark head would break the surface to survey the horizon.
Other people began to gather on the steps. Children fought for tank-side views. Families carrying hot dogs and soda bottles seated themselves around her. She gripped the boy more closely with her knees. If his daddy were here, she thought, he would smile and buy them all sodas and ice cream cones, and carry the boy on his shoulders like her daddy used to do for her. Then a gasp went up from the throng and she saw the trainers entering the main square, green-shirted with blue plastic buckets in hand. A sea lion surged onto the rocks, streaming water. Another followed and barked as the trainers unlocked the outer door of the enclosure. The boy watched open-mouthed, a half-chewed bite of pretzel on his tongue.
This was as she remembered it, the animals diving and splashing and balancing on front flippers, one trainer droning facts that the crowd hardly heard as they cheered and clapped for each new trick. The boy’s small body was slack with wonder and heat; he lolled back against her stomach. She bent to smell his head, inhaling the singular baby-scent that still lingered, impossibly, in his hair and on the soft skin covering the crown of his skull. She wanted to remember the way he smelled. Her sunglasses slipped down and she blinked and winced and with a salt-dusted finger pushed them back onto the bridge of her nose.
When the show was over, she stayed on the steps until the last families had moved on and the sea lions returned to their slow revolutions. The boy was heavy against her and he made no protest when she put him back in the stroller at last. In the gift shop she spent the last of her cash on a small stuffed polar bear, which she tucked securely into the crook of the boy’s arm. He suffered it to be done, thirsty but too tired to fuss. His eyelids, the color of new bruises, fluttered and drooped as they left the zoo.
They followed paved paths to the other side of the park, and she was pleased to find when they regained the street that the boy had fallen asleep. That would make things easier. She paused on the corner and felt in her pocket for the subway card, reassured herself that it was there alongside her ticket stubs.
The Columbus Circle subway station lay beneath a shopping center, and it took her several minutes to find the elevator that would take her below. Ladies with large purses and crinkling shopping bags moved aside as she backed the stroller in among them. Down below the subway was equally crowded; the lunch hour had ended and men and women in smart suits stood about, tucking chins to crisp shirt collars as they tapped at their cellphone screens. Shoppers bustled past, talking in high voices. The artificial light made her head ache worse than daylight, and she longed to be back in her room with its blackout curtains and the bolts pushed home.
Maneuvering the stroller to the middle of the platform, she squatted beside it to check that the boy was securely fastened in. She kissed his forehead, felt the damp heat of his skin on her lips. He stirred at her touch and arched against the straps, whimpering, eyes squeezed shut. There was a rumble of wheels on tracks in the distance, growing louder. She stood up, steadying herself on the stroller, and caught a gust of hot wind to the face as the train hurtled into the station. The boy felt it too, and came awake with a start and a shriek. “Shh-shh,” she said, but he could not hear over the noise of the train. He was hot and thirsty and furious, unable to see her, and he began to cry loudly.
The train slowed to a screeching stop. Its doors opened. People stepped off and made room for others to step on. She let go of the stroller and in three quick steps she was on the train. She had prepared for this. She was calm and full of purpose, and turning she looked back at the platform to see the rest through. Now the boy could see her, and seeing that she had left him he shrieked again and reached his small arms out to her. The white bear fell out of the stroller onto the platform floor.
A middle-aged woman who had just come down the stairs saw the stroller and the fallen bear, and picking up the toy she handed it into the boy’s outstretched arms. When he only screamed louder, the woman looked about her, searching. Her eyes fell on a girl in sunglasses standing on the train, watching her with a smile of gratified approval. Bewildered, the woman opened her mouth to call out but before she could speak the doors slid shut and the train pulled away into its tunnel, leaving her alone on the platform with the crying child.
As the train rattled through the darkness, she reached into her pocket and felt the ticket stubs. She ran her thumb along their ragged edges. She was tired and weak, dizzy with the day’s efforts, but it had been worth it: now her boy would have a good life, with a good mother who could afford to shop at fancy stores and take him to the zoo every day.
And she had given herself a gift, too: the memory of their day together. She would take that memory and keep it to look at when things got bad, would store it away with her boy’s first laugh, his dead daddy’s smile, her own daddy holding her high on his shoulders singing We’re going to the zoo, zoo, zoo, how about you, and the bear that swam and was happy.
Julia Sternberg was born in New York City and raised in Paris. A classically trained singer, she excels at belting Disney hits at top volume in the shower. She is currently completing an MFA in Writing at Sarah Lawrence College. This is her first published story.