by Karin C. Davidson
In the Berlin Zoologischer Garten, I stare at one gorilla. Her fur is dark, beyond black; her gaze is dark as well, a gaze that moves past shadows into sad, deflated corners. Beside me, my daughter Alice kicks at the stray popcorn and leaves, which have blown in through the entry doors. It is March and still very windy. We have come inside the ape house to rest, to be out of the wind for a while.
When Alice, who is four, tires of her kicking game, she stands on tiptoes to peer at Ben, her baby brother, in his carriage. It is one of these fancy Italian buggies with tight navy fabric and enormous wheels. I think about reminding her not to wake him, but then decide not to.
“Mummy?” she says.
“What do the signs say?”
Above the exhibit are signs, posted in German, and I understand that direct eye contact with the gorillas is ill-advised, nicht erlaubt, anstrengt verboten.
I continue to stare at the one gorilla and lie to my daughter, saying, “Oh, those just explain where the animals come from, what they eat, that sort of thing.”
Alice nods, almost satisfied. She prances around, then plants her feet and looks at me. “What do they eat?”
I point to the center of the enclosure. In the crook of a dead tree, a young gorilla holds a crescent of yellow melon above his head. He smells the rind.
The female gorilla looks down at the backs of her hands, then turns them over and examines her palms. She appears caught, trapped inside a thought, and covers her face.
* * *
I remember arriving home from the dinner party last night, my own hands blocking the sight of him. Peter, my husband, the tall, brooding man that women—strangers—stare at, follow, reach for. Standing in the doorway of our bedroom, still in my coat, I considered walking outside, away from him, from the moment—the unforgiving, relentless disapproval. But I stayed, a fixture in the threshold of a room once lovely and intimate, now cold, its clean lines desperate with angles and perfect order. Perfume bottles of thin hand-blown glass; photographs of the children in sterling frames; an antique hand mirror from the Straße de Siebzehnte Juni Flohmarkt; an invitation to his sister’s wedding. All aligned, all placed, as he wished, just so. If ever he found something out of place, he questioned me, repeating my name, Sandra, Sandra—the “S” an accented “Z,” brilliant, under his breath—holding me quickly by the wrist, his grip tightening, twisting if I protested. Had Alice ever heard me cry out?
I look down at Alice. She is bored and has begun to speak in German.
“Mutti,” she says. “Ich möchte gerne die Flamingo Babies sehen.” She reaches inside my unbuttoned coat and pulls at my sweater, at the strap of my camera. “Mutti, bitte,” she whines. I ignore her until she stretches the tweed-colored wool and I feel the yarn start to give.
“Alice, stop that.” She leans back, still holding my sweater, her short blond hair flying, full of static. “Alice, stop it right now.”
“Nein, ich will nicht!” she shouts.
I lean over the pram. Inside the netting that hangs from the handle are toys, extra blankets, a cloth bag filled with apples the size of Alice’s fists. I give my daughter an apple and tell her to stop speaking to me in German. She continues to fuss, but still takes the apple, her rosebud mouth pouting, her bright eyes angry and unkind.
“You know, Alice, you are to speak to me in English,” I say. “You know what Daddy wants.” I hate what I am saying. If I could just not speak, not say anything at all.
Still, the gorilla covers her face. There is silence now, disturbed only by the thin, reedy sound of wind outside. She is motionless. I wonder if she sleeps. I touch the window that separates us.
* * *
Yesterday, in bed, wrung out by his words, his gestures and posturing, I found myself awake. Peter laced his fingers through my hair. I always gave in—my board of a body, stiff with insult and silent censure, eased and warmed by his touch, by the memory of sex for love’s sake. He pulled me close, my thighs in his hands, my lips against his earlobe—breaths, forgetting, a shudder at the center of my spine—uncertainty, even after all these years.
I slept and woke. He was gone. Marissa was in the kitchen with the children, giving them warm rolls and marmalade. Breakfast.
Once we ate in bed, Peter and I. Before the children. Before Marissa—the girl he’d hired to cook and clean and see to the children. For me, he said. So that I had time to myself, he said. But, yes, we’d eaten Brötchen and jam, enormous appetites, the sheets lacquered with spilled fruit and tea, his arms wrapped around me as if the morning had never come. And then we’d walked the boulevard to the Tiergarten: Kurdish children kicking a ball back and forth in the grass, Peter spinning me in circles, the sun falling between the treetops and shattering down around us.
His parents liked me, even though I was American. I suppose my British heritage, all of our holidays in Sussex, made up for that. Perhaps it made me seem more European to them. But that was years ago: the days when I interned at Vogue, the long wrung-out days amongst the models and photographers, the wide-angle lenses and the drugs.
Lara was lovely then. Peter’s sister, only seventeen, she adored my brown curls, my innocent Stateside demeanor. She was so accepting, so naïve. And I was just three years older. We stole her father’s Dunhills and tucked ourselves against their apartment’s balcony walls to smoke. An old apartment that had survived the war—its high ceilings laden with ornamental relief, its circular stairways always leading up, vast rooms that through double doors opened even wider revealing leather, parquet, velvet. And the views. The glorious views of the River Spree curving below, while red-tiled roofs cast themselves like roughened Kilim beyond the riverbanks. In the street below were voices and sirens, and a scratched jazz record murmured from the open rooms next door. Our backs against the walls, taking in the height, the incredible view, we smoked. Peter joined us sometimes.
Once he asked us how much we cared for him.
“I mean it, really, “ he said. “How much difference do I make to you two?”
Lara laughed at him. “What are you talking about?” she asked.
I held my cigarette down at my side and watched them lean into each other. Lara grabbed his sleeve and Peter pushed her away—nothing mean in their gestures, just the unfinished sort of touching that brothers and sisters do. I stepped between them, trying to smile, and slowly, still holding the cigarette, divided the air between them with my hand. A thin wall of white smoke, Peter’s bright sigh, Lara’s arm looped through mine, the impossibility of what might happen.
Lara led me to the balcony’s edge, her fingers tightening around mine. She pointed to a child looking out a window across the way. And then she took my face in her warm hands and kissed me. The seconds spun away, and then she laughed—blond and diminutive in the late afternoon light. Peter lingered, a little away from us, and I couldn’t quite see him. She did it for my reaction, for Peter’s reaction, and afterward—more than anything—I remembered her breath, like anise.
* * *
Under my hand, the glass begins to fog. The viewing area is completely empty, save Alice tearing at her apple, Ben asleep, and myself. It is almost three in the afternoon. The sun shines at a low angle through the ape house windows, and I become warm, my layers burdensome. Soon Ben will wake and Alice will attempt a bout of jealous fury, the intrepid older sister—how emboldened she is at screaming louder than her brother cries. I will try to calm them and feel hopeless. It is amazing how little I can cope with my children’s behavior despite my love for them. For this I bend and surrender my days to Marissa, who is certain and kind and reveals nothing. She is entirely private, without friendship, offering respect only for my position as Alice and Ben’s mother.
* * *
Earlier, before we left the apartment, Alice chose which camera we should take to the zoo. Peering into the voluminous camera bag and touching the inscriptions of the three cameras, she pulled out the Voightländer and examined it: as always, her curiosity unadorned, almost reckless, but not so much that I felt worried. The small black camera fit in her hands. She held it to her face as if she might take my picture. I guided her fingers to loosen the lens cap, which fell and sat on the hallway runner like a black hole. Alice looked down at it, then kicked it with the rubber toe of her shoe. Then she pointed the camera at me and pressed the shutter release—a slow, metallic sound.
* * *
The gorilla uncovers her face. Her eyes are like ocean channels. Like black coral, polished and weighted. She seems tired, and I understand. A sense of the indefinite floats between us: the weight of the afternoon, the heaviness of the indoor air. There are no answers, only demands. Her despondency is measured in the absolute stillness, her gaze searching, her fingers clenched before her unspeaking mouth.
“What do you mean you can’t go?” Peter took the tie from around his neck and placed it on his dresser, a long silk line of charcoal.
“I just can’t,” I said, an undeveloped argument forming at the back of my throat—the glass finials of our bedside lamps reflecting odd, disjointed patterns about the room.
His impatience always grew quickly, an ugly flower. The swift slap, his fingers flying against my cheek, thrust into my clavicle, mostly at my face, where bruises later deepened, dark and violet. I waited for his hand, knowing that I would stay indoors until the marks subsided, covered by layers of foundation, a thick twist of scarves around my neck.
“I don’t understand you, Sandra.” He seemed to plead, almost beg, and I knew I liked this. This fleeting bit of power. I wanted more: to be in charge, for once; to see his helplessness; to have him love me from the floor, on his knees.
I moved to my bureau, took the invitation, and tore it in two. “I won’t go. How much more do you want me to say?” I dropped the white and gold paper at his feet. His shoes were so beautiful, thick Italian leather, almost new.
I expected the back of his hand across my face. Instead he sat on the edge of our bed, staring at the invitation. The usual blue of his eyes darkened—like pitch, like night they were. I followed his gaze to the raised letters of Lara’s name, the cathedral, the early evening hour, a Sunday wedding. The pale paper lay like ivory, like brittle morning light. Peter’s shoulders heaved slightly, and the top of his dark head, appeared soft, approachable. The folds of my coat draped against the bedspread as I sat next to him.
“Lara really plans to go through with this marriage?” I said. “As if a wedding means a new start? It’s all just façade.” I glanced at the fine wool of his trousers. “She made promises to us, to me. You know that.”
“I don’t know anything anymore.” His hands rested atop his lap, palms up, one gold band shimmering in the strange light.
I kneeled down at his feet and picked up the invitation. His hand grazed my temple. I held the pieces out for him to take, and he did. I lingered, the bare floor hard against my knees as I undid his laces: thin black lines, as thin as his expression when I finally looked up.
Down the hall, Ben began to cry.
“Leave him,” Peter said. He pulled me up and grasped me about the waist—gratuitous, reckless movements. I lost my balance and fell into him. I stood there unwillingly, unable to protest, listening to my son wail, while my husband undid the buttons of my coat.
* * *
“Mutti, schau mal.” Alice laughs. “Look!”
A group of young gorillas chase each other, one of them wielding a long piece of rubber, something like a torn bicycle inner tube. I imagine Ben—who in the past few days has just managed to sit up on his own—as a boy running. He will shriek to his friends just as this gorilla boy calls to his. The tubing flies through the air and hits the window nearest us. Shielding her head, elbows askew, the female gorilla looks at the boys and puckers her lips. She pulls at the tuft of grass where she sits. Verdant, almost too new, the blades between her fingers roll and twist and fall.
In the doorway of the interior house, a silverback stands, his weight forward, easing onto his knuckles. His brow is calm as he surveys the yard. Thick ropes, leafless tree trunks, hillocks, flat expanses lie before him. Here, there is room to move. He swings out onto the grassy surface and eyes the female. She ignores him.
* * *
Lara has been hospitalized several times. I have tried to give up our friendship. What has become more than friendship, seductive and vague. The clear tubing, that each time cleared the drugs from her thin body, has become an everyday attachment, like so much jewelry. Under stiff white sheets, she would gesture to me with her hands, holding up one finger. One more time, only one more. And I’d think, one more chance, promise, lie. She said she is done with the needles, the late night lounging in back alleys, in abandoned apartments near the Görlitzer Bahnhof. Her parents, my in-laws, have sequestered her. Only the best facilities, this time off the Baltic coast, a place where everyone is a stranger, where the wind is strong and clean. Just like she will be, strong and clean. Of course, she will. In time for the wedding.
Who is this man she is marrying? A filmmaker? A man who will give her every freedom. I wonder if he will beat her. If he would limit his blows to the midriff, the area right above the kidneys, never approaching her face except to caress it gently. Or perhaps a lawyer? Able to treat her fairly, justly, handcuffs safe in the bedside drawers, secrets under her long sleeves. Surely not an architect—like Peter. Elegant, fine house of a man. Everything in straight, clean lines. Expectant, amused, preferring a fine wine to an old scotch. When the unexpected throws him off, he is embarrassed. To answer for his embarrassment is often painful.
Last night I looked at myself in the bathroom mirror, past the flanking sconces illuminating my face and throwing shadows over my shoulders. My throat was scarlet from Peter’s trimmed beard, from the stranglehold meant to quiet me while our baby screamed in the background. Once, I found him stunning, exquisite, unequaled. No, I still did. I knew there was no such thing as redemption. He affirmed his displeasure—of my latest photographs, of my afternoon absences, of my friendships with people he didn’t know—and I embraced the brutality. Without it, there was no breath, only despair. I had my children, my lovely children. And so I held on—to the bedpost, to the towel rack, to anything that might hold me beneath the beautiful weight; a weight so unforgiving and yet, strangely, unfathomably desirable.
* * *
The female gorilla approaches the window. Her head is angled. Does she see me, or her own reflection? Slowly, she places her hand on the glass. I move mine so that it is even with hers. Cautious, I look sideways at the pram, at Alice who sits on a bench now, staring at her fallen apple, moving it gently with the toe of her small blue shoe. Looking back at the gorilla, I see her eyes widen with an immediacy that is startling. She must see me.
* * *
Lara’s eyes are dark and layered with colors like green and gold. When I was pregnant with Alice, Lara told me that her father beat her. The first time, when she turned seventeen, the night of her birthday. Delirious with champagne and in love with a boy named Kai, she barely remembered her father shouting and crowding her. Later, when her mother was away in Schleswig-Holstein, caring for her dying grandmother, he reproached Lara and her love of sullen boys, comparing his disappointment of her with his anger. And then, whenever he could. Passing through the hall, a simple slap for her bad marks in school; his hand against her shoulder, crushing her, telling her to be good; in the kitchen, before her mother, his wife, a whispered good morning, a threat.
I tried to understand, and found myself not understanding at all.
“How can a father beat his daughter?” I asked her.
“You don’t know?” she said. “Really?”
We stood in my kitchen on a winter afternoon. Marissa had put bread in the oven, and its sweet aroma cut into the day like too much disagreement.
“He was jealous,” Lara said. “He never knew how to talk to me. He liked damage more than words. He could get more results that way.”
“Jealous?” I leaned against the closed window. In the courtyard the sound of heels—someone leaving the building—echoed upwards. “That’s a reason?”
She shrugged her shoulders. Her response felt its way into the room, evasive and numb.
“Did you ever tell Peter?” I asked.
In the kitchen, surrounded by the smell of baking bread, she laughed at me. Later I laughed at my own stupidity. We, wives and daughters, lean into the strength of our men; we are meant to be hit, to be struck, to be rendered into so much senseless beauty.
* * *
“Mummy?” says Alice. She stands next to me, looking up at the female gorilla and me, our palms separated only by a window.
“Nicht jetzt,” I say.
“But I still want to see the flamingo babies,” she says. “You promised.”
“We’ll go in a moment,” I say, my voice shaking, my hand still on the glass.
In a swirl of grey and black, swift and massive, an enormous explosion of movement and sound, the silverback rushes the window. He flies at us—large, unburdened, unbelievable. I am convinced he will kill the female and then crash through the window and maul us. Alice grabs my sweater, this time curling her fingers through the wool, and buries her face in the weave of my coat. Children believe that by hiding, by not looking, anything frightening will go away. I am glad that Alice still has this to hold onto. For me, there is no reason to look away. I remain there, hand against the glass. Immovable.
The silverback is enraged. He strikes out once, at air. The female continues to hold her padded black palm against the glass. Her great nostrils widen, and she pushes against the window, the tips of her leathery fingers almost touching me, dwarfing my small pale hand. I am amazed at the silence of her stance, the dignity. Alice begins to cry.
Inside of her small cry is the guilt and fear that I know all too well—the times she certainly has witnessed her parents at odds, late at night, when she should be sleeping. Muffled breaths and blows, the open bedroom door. And eventually night becomes day, and in the daylight we go along: we are a quiet family. Peter has never shouted at me. But Alice knows. Her father has always been quiet. Controlling and exacting and so very sure—his blows measured to the millimeter.
The silverback roars and bares his teeth—yellow and wicked, covered with strands of saliva. He is so close. His face is furrowed with dark, weathered lines extending from his enraged eyes. His breath is heavy, and there is a thick odor, which marks the afternoon like a mistake. Alice glances out from the folds of my coat and screams, the immense gorilla above her, on the other side of the double-thick glass, bellowing and beating himself. I am unfastened by my daughter’s terror, her tumultuous emotion, by the unbearable din. The viewing area reverberates with loud, horrific sounds; still, I hear Ben’s slow, small cries.
The female gorilla stands at the window, not moving. Her eyes deepen and then glaze over. She blinks, a quiet comment on the unavailability of deliverance. Not today, not tomorrow. The silverback strikes against the window near her head. The crack of his knuckles against the glass is quick, and the quickness of the sound is undone only by the female’s expression, not one of surprise, but of expectancy. I am outside of myself, beating on the glass, shouting, not shouting.
* * *
Peter caught my arms before I could cut myself on the shattered mirror. In the web of reflection, I watched as he pulled me down to the floor. Again, the bathroom—the tiles hard and grooved but never cold, a layer of hot water pipes snaking beneath.
“Sandra,” he said. “How could you have done this to yourself? Tell me that you won’t hurt yourself again.”
I lay beneath him and listened to the concern in his voice—his mouth close to my ear and his breath unlocked; his legs over mine; his hands tangled in my hair, surrounding the crown of my head—to the idea that this should be so obvious: that this sort of passion was granted to him and him alone. My betrothal to him, his allegiance to me—a sweaty, despicable thing—our marriage. The sex, sweet and brutal, and then the abandonment, how he left me there on the floor.
In the morning, Marissa found me, my nightgown swaddled against my legs. She never asked, only helped me find a towel, a fresh soap, a cup of linden tea.
Lara understood. That is why she told me long ago of her father’s attempts to silence her. That is how she knew to bring me tranquilizers. We lay in my bed together that afternoon when Peter was at work and Marissa out with the children, shopping. And then on another afternoon, our palms together, promising. She studied me, then kissed my hands and my face, again and again. She lied to me about love, telling me that it was more suited to those who could keep quiet. She didn’t know if I was capable of that kind of silence. She emptied the bottle into my open hand. More pills and more promises. The pink of her face, the cant of it. She seemed as insubstantial as a photograph. The dark and the light of it; the shame and the dare of it.
“It all started because of you,” Lara said. “You are too beautiful and too talented.” She tucked a stray strand of hair behind my ear. “And too intelligent.”
“What?” My thoughts had already blurred against the neat white pill, the second, the third, the long swallow of water that Lara had given me.
“The men in our family.” For some reason she smiled and then stroked my arm. “They don’t like that in women. It’s too dangerous, or something.”
The familial secrets, the bedroom whispers. Lara unwrapped promises like they were meaningless. She attempted tenderness, but I recognized only cruelty in her tone. It is one thing to make a promise and another to keep it close. Peter had known all along, about his father and Lara, and then about Lara and me. What began by his own introduction—that kiss on the balcony—had become more than love between sisters. And still, I remained with him, acquiescent. I gave into the durability of his anger. Lara would marry and perhaps know the same. She’d let go of what we’d had. The promise fell, frail but not quite forgotten, at the edge of our friendship. Wide boulevards, innumerable beatings. Still, the family name linked us.
* * *
The gorilla house becomes hushed. Alice tugs hard at my sweater, the hem, the sleeve. Ben whimpers, his moment for attention muffled under quilted layers. Silence presses us all into submission. The silverback watches from the highest vantage point, pacing. The female gorilla has turned her back to me. She appears to sigh, and I believe she is waiting. For more room, for a lost breeze, for a different view. She tilts her head back as if to look up. I imagine her eyes are closed; I imagine the jungle of her mind, crowded with thick green vines, with fragrant lush trees, with hope of reaching out and brushing the brilliant clouds beyond.
About Karin C. Davidson
Karin C. Davidson’s stories have appeared in The Los Angeles Review, Passages North, Post Road, and elsewhere. She has an MFA from Lesley University, Pushcart and Best of the Net nominations, and awards including an Ohio Arts Council Individual Excellence Award, the Orlando Prize for Short Fiction, the Waasmode Short Fiction Prize, and a Peter Taylor Fellowship. Her fiction has been shortlisted in several writing competitions, including the Jaimy Gordon Fiction Prize, the Faulkner-Wisdom Writing Competition, and the UK Bridport Prize. A chapbook of her story collection was a finalist in the Iron Horse Literary Review Single Author Competition. Originally from the Gulf Coast, she also writes at www.karincdavidson.com.