Land Beyond Sorry

by Karen Gsteiger

After Adam and Eve had their great fall, the Garden of Eden was turned into a tourist hotspot. The angel that had guarded the entrance of the garden with a flaming sword now tore tickets for thirty hours a week for all the creatures of the earth who wanted to remember what it had been like Before. And one day they came back. One day Adam and Eve returned to the paradise they had once called home. They paid their $15 admission fee (with audio tour). They walked hand in hand through that garden, their bare feet treading through the freshly mown grass. They stopped to read each and every sign that was posted throughout the exhibit. They pretended for a moment that they had never been there before, gazing at the animatronic animals and flowers, murmuring, "Ooh, isn't that nice?"

They never made it to the center of the garden, where stood the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. "It's all so big, you can't see it all in one day," Adam remarked and Eve concurred. So as the sun set, they headed towards the exit, back to the world of serpents underfoot and rigorous childbirth. All in all, it had been a good day. Cathartic, even.

With that in mind, Brian and I went to the zoo.

* * *

As we wove our way in and out of the crowd, we glanced at a cheetah reclining in the tall grass. We stared at him for a moment without interest, and he stared back at us with an equal lack of curiosity. Then we moved on to the leopard, resting on a high ledge. Only the top of his golden ear was visible from the ground. We stared at that ear for a moment, then moved on to the mountain lion, who paced back and forth in his small habitat, leering hungrily at every small child who strolled by.

Brian stiffened as the toddler behind us emitted a piercing shriek. It's not as though he hated children. He loved our many nieces and nephews. In fact, when my sister's three-year-old daughter, Alena, vomited all over his laptop (and his lap), he didn't yell or even complain. He simply scooped her up, carried her to the bathroom, cleaned her up, and put her to bed. My sister immediately wrote him a check, and that was the end of that. That was the day that I knew that somehow, someday I would marry that man.

So, it's not as though he hated children. Going to the zoo can test anyone's nerves because any nine out of ten given children at the zoo are screaming, crying, whining, or sniveling about something. Why, I wondered, do kids without fail start sniveling at the zoo? What moves them to throw fits when they should be enjoying themselves? Did they not look at an animal long enough? Did they want to take an animal home regardless of its status as an endangered species? Did they not get the overpriced french fries shaped like tigers and gorillas and toucans to go with their overpriced hot dogs? Did their parents not buy the right stuffed animal, toy, or puzzle at the gift shop? Were tantrums contagious? Why? Why? Why?

Brian would of course theoretically adore any children we would have together. He only hated Other People's Children, the "little bastards" who would grow up to become the surly adolescents he endured five days a week at the Lake County Juvenile Detention Center. I worked as an intern there when I was nineteen, during the misguided year when I supposed that I eventually wanted to "do something with kids" for a living. Afterwards, my dreams were altered slightly; I next supposed that I would like to "do something with statistics," but during that summer I did have the distinct pleasure of being trained and supervised by Brian. We exchanged phone numbers my last day there. He asked me to marry him six months later. I was 20 years old, and he was 42.

* * *

We stood by the large mammal habitat and watched two young elephants play a primitive version of soccer with a large plastic garbage can. I reached for Brian's hand, the old affection brewing in my heart. He dropped my hand immediately. I hate him, I hate him, I hate him! I thought. We were not having a good time. But then I remembered that we, unlike most people, were not going to the zoo to have a good time. Hell, Brian wasn't even going voluntarily. We were going to the zoo because we could not afford a therapist.

* * *

The Padraig O. Johnston Seabird House was rather crowded that morning. Senior citizens, parents with their weeping children, and a gaggle of teenagers on a biology field trip subtly battled for positions in front of the window to the penguin habitat. After digesting twenty-some years of commercials and cartoons, you would expect the penguins to be a little giddier than they really are. Sometimes they'll hop in their small pool for a short swim, but for the most part they just stand still on their fake glacier.

Brian was one of maybe four people (at the most) who knew that penguins were my favorite animals. Seems like a harmless enough piece of trivia, but I knew that if everyone else found out, then I would suffer the same fate as my friend Cara. Five years before, she let it slip to family and friends that pigs were her favorite animals. So after that, for every Christmas, birthday, and Valentine's Day, everyone got her pig paraphernalia. Stuffed pigs, pink ceramic piggy banks, pig coffee mugs, battery-operated pigs that walked and snorted. It got to the point where she could hardly stand the sight of them, but she was surrounded by them everywhere. Thus, telling Brian about my fondness for penguins was a big thing--a matter of trust. He laughed at me when I sternly lectured him about how I didn't want penguins to become some sort of motif. He said I was being silly, like always. But he rewarded my faith; he did not shower me with seabirds. But every time we went to the zoo, we always made a point to visit the penguins. It was where he kissed me for the first time. It was also the place where he asked me to marry him.

It was a Wednesday morning in November, and we largely had the zoo to ourselves. We were sitting on the bench in front of the penguins, holding hands. A destitute-looking elderly man lay on his back on the bench to our left. He mumbled incoherently in his sleep. We sat there in silence for a while, happy to be out of the cold. We watched the penguins stand. Finally, Brian asked, "Iona, will you marry me?"

I looked at him and said with a calm, steady voice, "Yes, Brian, I will." The only reason he could tell I was nervous at all was because my hands were trembling, and I couldn't put the ring on. He had to help me.

Now I worked my way alone through the crowd towards the window. Brian stood at the back of the exhibit, pretending to be reading about the intricacies of the penguins' diet. I enviously eyed the teenage couple in front of me, so disgustingly in love, the boy's arm wrapped around his girlfriend's shoulders, their eyes radiating a hideous, sweet delight. I wondered if God had ever tried to create another perfect couple out of clay and ribs after the eviction of the originals, and if so, were they as irritating as the pair that stood before me? As they watched the animals and entangled their tongues in an especially moist kiss, they probably dreamed of the frolicking children they would one day have if their relationship survived college. Despite our age gap, I had always felt that Brian and I had been like that. Our joy was a sweet childlike joy. And tears actually sprang to my eyes when I realized that there's nothing so irrevocably gone as a lost childhood. Christ, I thought, surreptitiously wiping the hot tears away with my right hand, now I'm sniveling at the zoo.

I knew that many of my friends, relatives, former co-workers, and other acquaintances would have viewed this whole pathetic situation through the lens of I told you so. They were the same people who, when I was 11, scoffed at my claims that I would never, ever like boys (a vow that I quietly broke a year later when I developed a debilitating crush on Mark Czesnik). They were the ones who told me when I was sixteen that I'd better make some kind of backup plan, because I would never make a dime as an artist (and indeed, it's been how many years since I picked up a paintbrush?). They were the people who predicted that I wouldn't make it half a year at Arizona State, far away from Indiana and everything in it (and of course, at the end of first semester, I came crawling back). So not surprisingly, when Brian and I announced our engagement, the home crowd was less than optimistic about our chances for future marital bliss.

I tried to explain to them that the Age Thing didn't matter. Brian and I always had a lot to talk about, and we had much in common--crazy Slovak grandmothers, left-handedness, seasonal allergies, a tendency for road rage, a love for Tolkien books, the Rolling Stones, Terry Gilliam movies, and Thai food, as well as an unrealized desire to see Australia. And, of course, we enjoyed going to the zoo now and again. He was still good-looking to me--strong arms and legs from years of pursuing outdoor activities, short reddish-brown hair with no signs of male pattern baldness, a smooth, tanned, hairless chest that I would absently run my hand across when we lingered in bed together on Sunday mornings. A light seemed to shine at the center of his blue eyes, and his kisses tasted like spearmint. He was youthful without being creepily immature. Besides, I argued, I knew plenty of people my age who acted like they were forty. Would I somehow be better off with them?

Sadly, I did not win many converts with my line of reasoning. Instead of a bridal shower, my closest friends arranged an intervention party, during which they offered me all sorts of housewares in exchange for not marrying him.

"Oh, a set of steak knives..."

"Read the card! Read the card!"

"'He's. Too. Old. For. You. Love, Jason and Marnie.' Um, thanks, guys."

But I persevered, fervently hoping that for once, I knew myself better than they did. At least when I fail, they are never cruel to me. They never rub it in. They always welcome me back with open arms. They don't even remind me that finally I'm back where I'm supposed to be. So I knew that when Brian and I would get our nigh-inevitable divorce, I could quietly go home and no one would make a fuss. But once--just once--it would have been nice if I could have made something work out for a change.

I turned around, looking for my husband, who was probably weary of this whole futile business. He stood so far away from everyone else. I suddenly realized how stupid I had been all along--stupid for thinking that coming here would change anything at all. As if we'd catch a glimpse of some fucking smelly animals, then hallelujah! He'd put his arm around me like always, all debts would be paid, all sins forgiven, and then I wouldn't have to go to bed every night next to a cement slab of a husband, feeling bad, bad, bad. So here we were, looking at said animals, and despite the penguins' inherently comic attributes, he still didn't love me anymore, and I still loathed him for it.

* * *

"Do you just wanna go?" I asked, irritated that he wasn't even trying.

"But we still have the tickets for the dolphin show."

"Oh, what's the point?" After I spoke, I realized for a horrific moment that I had inherited my dad's tone of bitter resignation. I was probably only a few years away from developing his "Huh," a brutal bark of sarcastic laughter that he used to punctuate his most pessimistic statements. (i.e., "Give you a break? I ain't never had a break in my whole goddamn life. Huh!").

"You wanted to see it, remember?" Brian sneered in return.

"Fine!" I cried, the only way to finish a conversation such as this.

So we headed furiously towards the Exxon Marine Arena.

* * *

The George H. Weber Zoological Park in Valparaiso, Indiana, was one of the last places I knew where you could catch a dolphin "show." Most places, like the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, had dolphin "presentations," during which the dolphins' natural behaviors would be on display. If you wanted to see the animals jump through hoops to a Jock Jams soundtrack, however, then the Weber Zoo was your last recourse.

So we sat on the wide concrete steps, waiting for the show to begin. We were pressed closer together to accommodate the swelling crowd, but there still seemed to be a few thousand miles between us. Well, buddy, I thought, I told you I was sorry and I meant it. I don't know what else I can do for you. If sorry doesn't cut it, well, I don't know where we are then.

The peacefulness of my silent wallowing was suddenly shattered as the lights dimmed and the crowd applauded. The Mission Impossible theme played as spotlights rolled over the crowd, momentarily blinding Brian and me. The dolphin trainers, dressed in wetsuits, took their places on various sides of the large tank. Our host, a plump, gleeful college-age girl named Debbi, was inexplicably dressed for a Kenyan safari, complete with beige Pith helmet.

"How're ya'll doing today?" Debbi bellowed into the microphone.

The audience, largely made up of children who had miraculously stopped sniveling, cheered appreciatively. But Debbi was not content. "I say-id, HOW'RE Y'ALL DOING TODAY?"

The crowd repeated the cheer some decibels louder. Debbi, then satisfied, began her spiel about the animals in question, introducing us to Kirby, Khalil, Kelila, and Kanya. Two other young females, Kiah and Kalinda, hung out in a portion of the tank that had been sectioned off, as they were apparently Not Ready for Prime Time.

I was only half listening to her explanation of the training procedures, which involved fish and a dog whistle. I looked over at Brian, who frequently sighed heavily to indicate his boredom and general annoyance.

"Now, Kirby here is our newest male dolphin, and we're real happy to have him here at the Weber Zoo. Because he's such a big, strong fella, he's been really popular with our other dolphins here, especially our females--kinda like the dolphin version of Tom Cruise...ha, ha..." Here Debbi paused, looking for recognition of her joke, but no response from the audience was forthcoming. "Now we've been working real hard with him so that he could join us for our show today. So we're going to ask him real nice if he'll do a front flip for us, okay? Can we clap our hands together and say the Magic Word?" Debbi asked.

"PUH-LEEEEEEEZE!" sang the children, clapping their hands.

Kirby, in response, dove under the water, and waved his tail at the crowd.

"Um, that's not quite a front flip," Debbi chuckled nervously. "It's okay...when we first start training our dolphins, we don't always expect them to get everything right the first time. Let's try that again. Can we say that Magic Word one more time?"

"PUH-LEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEZE!" cried the children more vehemently.

Kirby jumped high into the air and landed on his belly with a giant thwack, dousing the visitors in the first few rows with a mini-monsoon.

"Uh, ha ha," Debbi stammered, "well, that's still not a front flip. That's what we call a 'breach,' and we're going to tell y'all about that in just a second, okay? Now where's he going?" she asked, stunned.

Kirby swam over to the sectioned-off area of the tank and started furiously splashing around. Kiah and Kalinda were clearly thrilled and leaped high into the air.

"Um, well, it seems that Kirby would rather hang out with his little girlfriends right now, but that's okay." Debbi announced through clenched teeth. I could hear Brian snorting softly to himself. I quickly looked over and caught his eye, but his face dropped.

"Well, maybe one of our older gals can show Kirby how it's done. So, let's give a big hand for Kelila, and let's see if she can do that front flip!" Debbi cried with increased enthusiasm, and the crowd responded with lukewarm applause.

The trainer gave the signal for a front flip, but Kelila merely swam over to the other side of the tank.

"All right, well, it seems that Kelila would rather not do that right now. That's okay, it's okay. Don't worry, we're not gonna punish the dolphins. We never punish the dolphins when they don't do what we want them to. We just don't reward them, that's all. And sometimes, when they're not hungry, they're not so crazy about getting the rewards, and...well, let's try something else, okay? I think what I'll do here is I'll just turn my microphone off, we'll get the music going, and then you can see what our dolphins can do!"

Debbi stepped aside. Large hoops were lowered from the ceiling, and beach balls were tossed into the water. Gary Glitter's "Rock and Roll Part Two" blared from the speakers. Trainers gave the signals for all sorts of wonderful feats.

"Duh-duh-DUH-duh....HEY!" the crowd sang along with the song.

And nothing happened. Nothing at all. No dolphins were visible, except for Kirby who was still intensely engaged in his splashy foreplay. The other dolphins must have thought, "Well, if he's not going to flip or wave or breach, then fuck it." And they stayed underwater for the entire duration of the song.

The audience shifted in their seats uncomfortably as Gary Glitter plodded on, despite every evidence that the whole piteous farce should just end as quickly as possible. The song mercifully concluded, and a red-faced Debbi reappeared.

"Well, now, we hope that you're having a good time here at Weber Zoo, and we hope you' our show. Let's give one more hand for our dolphins!"

The crowd clapped weakly. Some children had even started to cry again. Everyone quickly filed out of the Exxon Marine Arena with a low rumble.

Brian and I sat on the concrete steps for a while after most of the crowd had left. We looked at each other and laughed. It felt for a moment as if he belonged to me again--the warm body on which I could heat up my freezing appendages, my own personal masseuse, the man who forced me to canoe ten miles at Turkey Run with him at least once a year, the person who knew that I never wanted onions to touch my food, the one who promised me that we could get a St. Bernard the minute we moved out of our apartment and into a house (even if it wasn't going to happen any time in the near future). For a moment--and only a moment--it seemed as though we had forgotten our nakedness, our Knowledge. But then that moment passed, and all I could notice were the lines at the corners of his eyelids, and I'm sure that all he could see were the dark circles under mine.

After a pause, Brian asked, "So, was he better than me?"

"Oh, no," I quickly replied, "No, not at all."