Portrait of My Lover as a Zebra
O grant me, Lord, one night
beside a zebra,
one perfect sandy night
beside a zebra
that lets me rest my head against its neck.
While Jim is upstairs she decides, what the hell, she’ll try it.
She has heard they turn awful, bloated with warts and bony knobs. Right now it looks innocent enough. Just a little ball of shag, like a shearling slipper turned inside-out and tossed on the kitchen table.
She pulls the instruction pamphlet towards her, though she already knows how it works. It’s simple. It will hold everything she and Jim don’t want to, all of the bad grown up between them, the resentment and frustration and boredom. It will carry that so they don’t have to. Without all those feelings clouding their vision they will have a clearer view of what they need to do to fix this.
It’s not a long-term solution; eventually the thing will fill up and she and Jim will have to go back to hiding barbs in exchanges about household maintenance. But the hope is, at least their therapist says the hope is, that by then they’ll remember why they got married in the first place.
It’s a vessel, inert until her first whisper animates it. She reaches out, though her palms prickle when she thinks of the texture of that fleece. She knows it is against the thing’s nature to hurt anyone, but still she expects it to leap for her.
It’s not clumpy twill beneath her fingers, but more like hair, thick and silken. She picks the thing up and turns it to find two dull eyes buried in the fluffy mop. It looks like a toy.
Then it feels like she is holding a toy, a kid’s thing, and she begins to set it down. But she hears Jim thudding towards the stairs and quickly lifts the fluff to her lips.
“He never lets me drive,” she whispers to the dead face. And it shifts in her hand. Its eyes flick to hers.
She sucks air like she’s been slapped and sets it down. She has wished it to life.
Jim stomps into the kitchen, headed for the fridge.
“I woke it up,” she says. Her voice startles the quiet of the twilit kitchen.
“Huh.” Jim opens a beer. “Just couldn’t wait to get started, could you.”
She is always surprised when it grows. She leans down to tell it something–it’s been too big to pick up since the first week, the size of Jim’s dead retriever Bucky now–and by the time she straightens up again it has another inch of tail, or a new fringe of mane or a hoof where a formless paw had been before.
Or she’ll find the thing sitting next to Jim in the TV room sporting luxurious new eyelashes, and she will know Jim has been hissing bitter shit into its ear between Brewers innings.
Another surprise is how much she likes the thing. She never liked Bucky, but this isn’t like having a pet. It doesn’t slobber for dinner or whine for affection. It just follows them from room to room, waiting for her or Jim to whisper something hateful.
“He snores,” she confides, warming her fingers deep in its soft hair. “He didn’t snore for eleven years and now all of a sudden he’s a freight train. I didn’t sign up for that.”
She sees sympathy in its blank eyes. She doesn’t care about the snoring now. She strokes its neck, and her fingers find an unexpected series of small warm plates running down its spine. That’s where Jim’s snoring went. Not actually–Jim will still snore tonight. She just won’t care.
The plates feel nice, like the skin of a sun-warmed snake.
They are supposed to spend more time together as part of the therapy. They go out for taco Tuesday like they used to, sit so they can see the game. A draft from the window creeps up the back of her jacket.
When they get home she flicks the basement lights on, closes the door quietly behind her. They are keeping the thing downstairs now. It’s so big it has been getting in their way.
It is waiting for her. She puts an arm around its long neck. It is wide as a sofa, tall enough that she doesn’t need to crouch to hug it. She buries her face in its side and warmth soaks into her. It just stands there, unblinking.
“He eats like a slob,” she whispers into its silky bulk, fingers finding the plates up its spine, its teddy-bear ears. She thinks the thing likes to be stroked and snuggled, even though the pamphlet said nothing. “He thinks tipping a lot will make him seem classier but I can’t stand listening to him chew.”
She feels the lightening of her own anger. The thing smells musty-warm and clean, like a new wool sweater.
Something sucks at her equilibrium, perhaps the three margaritas she had, and now there are tears in her eyes. She wants to tell the thing her secret. But no, she won’t tell it everything. There are some words that maybe even this thing can’t forgive.
When she wipes her eyes clear the thing has sprouted two more nascent legs. She had never even considered that it could have more than four.
Back upstairs, she latches the basement door. Jim is at the kitchen sink, filling a glass. “You spend so much time with that ugly bastard I’m starting to get jealous.” Then he grins. It’s a joke.
Early the next morning Jim puts on his running shoes. He hasn’t done this in two years, and it must be hard to carry the extra weight he’s put on, but he returns sweaty and bouncing on the balls of his feet.
“You going to the store?” he asks. “Wanna pick up the stuff for me to make those ribs you like? I haven’t done that in a while.”
While the meat slow-roasts they clear out one side of the garage. She never parks in there during the summer anyway, and the thing is outgrowing the basement door. They assemble shelving that has been in boxes for months, and Jim hauls bags to Goodwill and returns with bales of straw on a tarp in the back of the Highlander. When she splits them open it smells like childhood summer horse camp. She pauses to suck that up.
She feels Jim behind her, his hot sticky arms around her waist, and she holds her breath.
When she goes to shower the grime and straw dust off her she locks the bathroom door.
She slides from the bed, aching with sleeplessness. Jim is a furnace and she has lain beneath his arm for hour after slow-witted hour listening to cars yawning by on the street.
In the garage the thing waits. She leaves the overhead lights off, enough illumination seeping from the house that she can see it step toward her as she hurries to it.
It is bigger than a horse now, and it smells of sweet hay and the summer night when she buries her nose in the shag of its shoulder. It was suppose to turn monstrous–Jim says it is monstrous–but she thinks it is majestic, this thing made out of their hatred.
She knots her fingers deep into its hair.
“I don’t want to fix it,” she tells the thing. This is her secret. She can’t go back upstairs, not after she tells it this. “I don’t want to love him at all anymore.”
She is watching, this time, when the antlers sprout and grow from its blunt skull. They start the size of doorknobs but inflate to flat, pronged balloons, like surgical gloves full of air, and then belly out into a broad and leafy crown.
The thing tosses its head. It looks at her.
She draws a shuddering breath. Then she scrambles to the house and hits the button for the garage door. In the starlight the thing lowers its shoulders. It has been waiting for her, so patiently, this whole time. Waiting for her to decide. Waiting for her love.
She grabs a fistful of mane, puts one hand on its broad rump, and vaults onto its back.
Childhood horse camp lessons return. She tucks her knees and turns her ankles out and holds on with her thighs.
The thing gathers itself. Everything that is wrong with her and Jim has made it powerful. She feels it full of love, full of strength and forgiveness.
It leaps out into darkness. They disappear.