One day I woke up and had a body that wasn’t completely covered in hair. I had two long legs and two arms and brown eyes and breasts. I wasn’t in the water, I was on the deck of the pool. I said goodbye to my mother and father, kissed their fur, then climbed over the fence and left the zoo.
The first woman who saw me screamed. The second rushed her kids into the car, slammed the door, and scowled at me. I was naked but I did not understand what that meant, not yet. A third woman asked me if I was on drugs. I was still experimenting with my tongue. “Dra-uggs?” I asked. She sighed. “No-oh,” I said, and she took me into her house because I was the same size as her grown daughter, away for college. She gave me the daughter’s clothes to wear.
I got a job at a makeup counter in Sears and it turned out well because the work was not challenging and I got along well with the other girls. My favorite pastime, when the counter was slow, was to watch the women and girls walk through the store and try to guess what animals they had been. There were llamas and pigmy goats, hyenas and street rats. I sold laquer to an elephant and mascara to a falcon. Days I took my break alone, I’d sit at a table in the food court, sipping my soda and staring out into the crowd, wondering if there was anyone out there like me.
I only ever became close with one person during this time. He wasn’t a customer at the makeup counter at all; I didn’t even meet him at the mall. He was a boy named Kyle and I met him at a party. It used to be that when I told boys about how I’d once been an otter they’d say things like “slippery” or “I’d get you wet.” So I stopped and started making things up instead, composites of what I’d heard other girls say: “Yes, I’m from Vancouver.” “I love dogs.” “Once I was a vegetarian, but I’m not anymore.”
The morning after Kyle and I met, he made us peanut butter sandwiches. “I’m sorry I don’t have anything else,” he said. “But I can cut off your crusts for you if you’d like.”
His roommate, Brian, was startled when he came into the kitchen. “Oh,” he said. “I didn’t know you had someone over.”
It was not complicated. We met in the park and he brought fresh bagels with him. They were soft and warm; we ripped them apart with our fingers and dipped them into the cream cheese packets he pulled out from his pockets. “I never pay for cream cheese,” he said. It was a matter of principle. “They charge too much.”
We took a walk and got lost. After talking for hours we looked up and didn’t recognize any of the street signs. It was unbelievable; he told me he hadn’t gotten lost in the city since college. In college he had studied anthropology. “Monkeys and stuff,” Kyle said.
“I’ve known monkeys,” I said.
He laughed. “You’re crazy,” he said. “You’re wonderful.”
And I have not even mentioned the sex. How quickly we learned to move our bodies together, how happy this made me, how much it made me think of water. Kyle’s girlfriend was a nurse. But I didn’t know he had a girlfriend yet.
One day we met for rotisserie chicken and Kyle was not himself. He was not smiling, and when he did, even I, an otter, could tell he didn’t mean it. He scowled and hardly ate his drumstick. He poked at his coleslaw until I asked “What’s wrong?” three times and he said, “I’m sorry but I haven’t been honest.” He hid his head in his hands. “Sometimes you just get caught up in pretending.”
Then he reached for me, squeezed my hand. “Tell me,” I said.
“You’ll hate me.”
I promised I wouldn’t.
His girlfriend’s name was Marisol and they had been together for seven years, since high school. He didn’t know what he was doing. It was complicated because her mother was in the hospital. “I didn’t know I’d meet you,” he said. “How was I supposed to see this coming?”
It rained on the way home and when I started to shiver he put my hand in his pocket. It was where his hand was too. His hand and a cream cheese packet. “You can’t come over tonight,” he said.
“Will I see you later?” “Yes,” he said.
At my house, when I was alone, what I liked to do was try out samples of the new products from the counter. I’d look at my painted self in the mirror, always on the lookout for new names for colors: aubergine, crimson, boredom, fire. It became easy, very quickly, to forget I’d ever been an otter. When I painted myself up and stood in the mirror like a woman from a magazine. You could hold your head high, your shoulders back, a posture that said no, not me, I’ve never been an animal, I’ve never been small or trapped in a cage. No, not me, you must be thinking of a different girl.
There was a legend I’d been raised on, in which a child comes to the zoo to visit his favorite animal. Before this the animal was only a rumor to him, an idea from picture books to dream to. But here is the animal right in front of him so he climbs over the fence, unmindful of any danger. Danger, what danger? As the story goes it is the animal, always the animal, who is punished. “Yes,” my friends would say at a later date, “but that is just a story. What was it about this Kyle that was so special? We are serious. What was his dick like?”
Kyle rented a room from Brian in the house he’d inherited from his father. It was modest, with a third bedroom he was also looking to let. It was the location, apparently, which made this difficult. Kyle and Brian knew each other from school but were not close. Neither worked as an anthropologist, though Brian had a white cat named Indiana Jones with whom I once crossed paths with in the hall- way. “I know what you are,” he purred. “Don’t think I can’t smell it on you.”
To be naked with someone. To be naked with someone and not want to be anywhere else. I was happy. No matter what anyone told me about Kyle later, I was so happy then.
“Obligation,” Kyle told me of his girlfriend. “Do you understand? History.”
“When we wanted to get married,” he said. “Our parents forbid it. Now that we are older, we are not so sure anymore.”
A year prior, she had fallen in love with someone else, a man who was in training to become an immunologist. First she told Kyle it was nothing, then that it only happened one time. This was when Kyle moved in with Brian. He did not see Marisol for an entire month. “For us that’s an eternity,” he said. “And for all I knew she was with this other guy the whole time. I thought I would die. Seriously. I started getting these pains in my stomach.” He lowered his voice. “I couldn’t shit. The doctor put me on psychiatric medication.”
Then one day she called him while he was having breakfast and said that she needed to talk to him. She sounded very upset, as if she had been crying, so Kyle assumed that perhaps it hadn’t worked out with the immunologist. He was giddy. “The clouds parted,” he told me. “I felt so excited.”
But when they met at a café she told him it had been over with the immunologist for some time. “My mother is sick,” she said. Then she started to cry. “The doctors don’t know yet.”
“I needed to be with someone else,” Kyle told me. “So that being with her could feel like a decision again.”
It was summer during all of this, record heat waves. Animals and senior citizens died all over the city.
One morning when I was sleeping in with Kyle his phone rang and he took the call in the hallway. When he came back he said that it was Marisol, that she was coming over right now from the hospital. “There isn’t time to hide you,” he said. I scrambled through the bedsheets for my clothes. “There isn’t time!” He was panicked. “You’ll have to pretend you’re Brian’s girlfriend. That’s the only way.”
So Brian and I didn’t have a choice. Marisol arrived, a redhead. Brian and I went into his room to give them privacy.
“So . . .” I said to Brian.
He shrugged. He asked me where I was from. “You don’t seem like you are from around here,” he said.
“I am,” I said. I told him I was from quite nearby.
We had to stay in Brian’s room until Marisol was done crying, which took some time. Then both she and Kyle left the house so I went to the bathroom and Brian made himself some coffee. When they came back Marisol and Kyle had pizza and beer that Marisol wanted to share with us. She was smiling now. “I’m so excited to meet you,” she said. “I had no idea Brian had a girlfriend.”
Brian shrugged. “Yeah,” he said.
Kyle said that Brian liked to keep things close to the vest.
The cat made a show of climbing onto Marisol’s lap. “How did you two meet?” Marisol asked.
“Mutual friends,” Brian said very quickly.
That night I slept on the floor of his room, which had a view underneath his bed: a roll of toilet paper, dirty socks, and an empty takeout container. Kyle texted me in the middle of the night, asking me to meet in the bathroom. When I found him he started to cry. “She is like my mother too,” he said. He said he loved Marisol’s mother more than his own. She was his mother. He and Marisol were more than boyfriend and girlfriend; they had come from the same place. They were pieces of the same heart. “I’ve never been so happy,” he cried, “as seven years ago when we started to date.”
“How much longer?” I asked after the mother.
“Not more than a month,” he said, though everyone was praying for a miracle.
“I will wait for you,” I said.
“I’m sorry,” said Kyle. “I’m horrible.”
I told him he wasn’t and brushed his hair off of his forehead. Something about the way Kyle cried made me feel very close to him. He got wet all over his face, and his tears shimmered in the light. I felt almost like an animal but only in the best way, swimming through the water and the kelp. “I want to tell you something,” I said.
He looked at me with wide eyes. I surprised him. Later, I’d learn that statistically when a boy turned out to be the boyfriend of another girl, little he said was to be believed. When a boy you were sleeping with spoke to you of the love he had not only for his girlfriend but for her entire family, statistically you are sup- posed to scream. A slap. How dare you? But I hadn’t been human long enough to know the rules; I was only lonely.
I told him how I’d once been an otter, how not so long ago I’d been living in a different body and then through no volition of my own woke up in this body, the one he was now getting to know so well. My family were still otters. I did not have very many friends, especially now that it was summer and turnover at the makeup counter was high. So as he could imagine my life could feel quite lonely, though I had not been as lonely of late, since I’d met him. “I’m sorry you are going through such a hard time,” I said. “But you make me really happy.”
Kyle asked me why I thought I had become a girl. How was I supposed to know? “Well,” he said. “I’m happy you did.”
I asked him why he had become a boy.
“Maybe I shouldn’t have,” he said. “There might be a reason but I don’t know because I’ve never felt very good at it. Maybe I wish I hadn’t. When I look at you upset I wish I hadn’t.”
Another midnight I told Kyle I wanted to take a shower with him. I wanted to feel his body in water and have him feel mine, to show him what it used to be like to glide through the pool in my old body.
How lucky we were to meet now. “If we’d met while I was still in my old body you would not have taken a second glance at me.”
He said that was not true. “I would have loved you in any body,” he said.
I said I would love him in any body too.
On the day that Marisol’s mother died Brian recommended I go home. But I said that I wanted to be close to Kyle, in case he needed me. Brian didn’t argue with me. Kyle and Marisol came home and were very quiet. We knew her mother was dead from a text message Kyle had sent Brian. He hadn’t texted me all day.
Brian came out of the room and told Marisol he was sorry. “Me too,” I said.
She gave me a hug and said thank you. “We’ll be out of your hair soon,”
she said. “Kyle just needs to shower and then we’re going over to my sister’s.”
I thought of Kyle in the shower without me. He came out of the bathroom completely dry. They left. I could have gone home but I didn’t want to; I didn’t feel like making the trek.
“If I was your girlfriend,” I asked Brian. “Would you always dry yourself completely when you got out of the shower or would you leave a little portion of yourself wet, just for me?”
He looked at me as if I were crazy. “If you were my girlfriend,” he said, “I’d make you my girlfriend. Single, not plural. Easy, not complicated.” Then he got up from the couch and went into his room to play video games. I heard the guns and the screaming through the door.
They buried the body. Then, as I understood it, there were other brief rituals, a waiting game before life returned to normal. And I had been waiting. You get used to it. Once I asked my mother, “What is a tree?”
“An animal who couldn’t decide,” she said. An animal who stopped moving.
One night (alone) I started to get these pulses in my body. I was going back to the zoo; I could feel it. I went to Kyle’s to say goodbye because he hadn’t been calling me but I felt I had to see him one last time. Marisol was there and told me she was sorry I had broken up with Brian. “He seemed so happy,” she said. But she also understood how sometimes people preferred to be sad. She gave me a big hug. I smelled her animal.
“Goodbye,” I said.
Now sometimes (it has been years) I like to imagine him. They must have children by now. I’m going back, I said to Kyle in a text message. Where? he finally responded, late that night. My old body. And I really believed this to be true.
Kyle takes the children named for his mother to the otter exhibit at the zoo. He peers over the fence and thinks he’s looking at me, but he’s not. I thought I would, I even wanted to, but I never went back. That morning, after I said goodbye to him, I sat with my feet in the water, waiting, waiting. But in the end I became something else.