Marriages, like life, are three-dimensional; divorce papers aren’t. As carefully as she had once dissected mathematical problems, she now beheld the impossible miracle by which years of shared breakfasts, damp bathroom mats, and shopping-cart-steering had transformed into four leaves of stapled paper, slid across a varnished tabletop by an overpriced attorney with brittle fingernails. There was magic, after all.
She had left the lawyer’s office earlier to find that the world was still there, unchanged. Wyatt was already walking to his car; he hadn’t said a word, hadn’t even looked in her direction, and she didn’t mind. Growing smaller by the second, his trouser legs too short, his head balding at the crown, he receded into the background, small and self-conscious. She thought that perhaps she wouldn’t go home just yet. Never waste a blue sky, her mother used to say.
Her parents were long gone now, but she remembered this: when she was a child, no older than seven, her father had often decreed that she had hands so beautiful she could model. By the time she was an adult, he had changed his mind: now they were too atypical, and she would always remember that word. Wyatt always used to say, funny what you can tell of a person simply from looking at their hands. He wasn’t talking about watching the gestures we make as we speak, but about taking a magnifying glass to the back of a hand and reading, along every callous inch, a new truth about its owner.
Her father had passed away before he could see her hands enter middle age, one faster than the other after she’d poured a saucepan full of boiling water onto it, the skin forever more wrinkled, lines carved deep and parallel, very close to one another. Now she held her left hand up as she waited in the shade to buy an entrance ticket. There were traces of pastel nail polish she hadn’t bothered removing from the crease where her fingernail sloped into the plump skin of her fingers. There was the slight hint of color on her knuckles, the brown spots at the birth of her wrists, the blue veins apparent on the inside of her thumb. And there was the polished skin, pink and soft like the place of a recent scab, where her wedding ring used to be.
In front of her was a mother, sweating, her two children on either side of her, one pulling her sleeve, asking incessant questions about the zoo (‘Will there be a lion?’, ‘Will there be dinosaurs?’), and the other silent and alone in her own world, her arms dangling.
There had been few warning signs, proper. Over the years, the marriage’s expiration date had changed, daily, like the price of a share, swayed one way or another by every small thing they did and said to each other. One day, the expiration date had been ten days away, and no action undertaken after that could have pushed it back any further.
Once inside the zoo, safe amid swarms of microscopic flies and the distinct smell of animal shit, she made for the insect wing, guided by memories she hadn’t known she still kept, in the hidden geography of her mind, of a trip to the zoo as a college student. In the butterfly garden, the air was thick and warm and smelled like rainwater, and she wondered if she might be able to live here, inside the greenhouse. She wouldn’t feel more alone here than she would in her home, which she had gotten to keep. She wouldn’t even entertain the thought of moving, because she knew a thing or two about the power of inertia. She understood that she needed the routine that they’d built, a routine she’d devoutly carry on, like the legacy of something that didn’t deserve to be remembered. The butterflies fluttered all around, hundreds of flapping wings, and she felt a strange kind of sadness for the simpler, duller ones, with less beauty to their design.
In the area reserved for odder, less consensual insects, she stopped before an empty tank. A young man looked inside, at nothing, fascinated, his brow furrowed. ‘They’re called phasmids,’ the man said. She saw it, then, moving slowly across a leaf: life.
Eventually, she had begun to despise the very things she had once loved the most about him. He seemed pathetic, in the literal sense, pleading for affection, begging for the world to see him in his despaired grandeur. She could tell he was done thinking of anything but the destruction of age settling on him pore by pore, wrinkle by wrinkle, its hold over him tighter with each prescription issued by the doctor’s office. He’d once said that if you didn’t wake up with some sort of pain or another after you reached fifty, you were probably dead. This was followed by a snort, and she’d begun to suspect that if this was the way he reacted to his aging body, he’d have no pity for hers.
And it wasn’t long before words had come jolting out of his mouth as if held behind his front teeth too long, words that hinted at the idea that perhaps she didn’t take care of herself enough, that perhaps she was turning into something lowly and sickly, the mere presence of which may taint him. He started suggesting things, and those suggestions dug invisible marks into her mind, drawing blood, growing infected, festering for weeks. She looked in the mirror, at the saggy skin below her neck, the lines on her face, dozens of times a day. It wasn’t the specter of age or even simple, disappointing ugliness that stared back at her; she hadn’t caught ‘old’ like one catches an unsightly disease, no; it was something else altogether that she stood to catch if he remained too close: hate.
She never once daydreamed, as she folded his laundry, of shoving it down his throat through his opened mouth at night. But if she had, it would have gone like this: she’d grab and pinch his nose with determined fingers, forcing the gaping hole to open more, and there, in between the resting thickness of a tongue and the sharp little teeth, she’d shove his dirty gray underpants where they’d fit snugly. He’d wake up emitting a muffled gurgle, an animal in danger, looking at her with perfect confusion, yet not seeing her.
But she wouldn’t, because she couldn’t, and shouldn’t. And that was it.
Stepping out of the insect garden, she looked up to find that the skies were now bluer than they had been in decades, at least since some unnamed day in the mid-80s when she last thought of gazing up like this, for no reason at all. In those days, she had felt like the world would soon be hers. The ghost of that idea now moved through her, sad, but blunt and fleeting, fast eroding under the power of something new: life, gritty and wrinkled, but real and hers. She focused on the movement around her, the children running and screaming ecstatically, and the soccer moms walking slowly in white sneakers and the college students licking ice cream cones.
Everything smelled of summer as she made her way to the monkey shed and sat on a hard rock bench, contemplating the animals across the deep trench. They were heavy and dirty, their skin covered in lustrous hair; the dignity with which they carried themselves, their expressions, their eyes were so human they were hard to look at. She imagined perching on a branch, lazily, then dangling off with one hand like the smaller monkeys. She imagined sitting next to the large ape who sat apart from the crowd, leaning against him. His mouth hung, shiny and slick, with eyes like charcoal, the sharpest she had seen. Suddenly they were on her, and she knew, staring back, that they were equals.
MARIE BALEO is a French writer born in 1990. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Litro Magazine, Tahoma Literary Review, Panorama: The Journal of Intelligent Travel, Five on the Fifth, Spilled Milk, Jersey Devil Press, Five 2 One Magazine, and others.