It was my thirteenth birthday when my adoptive pet giraffe died tragically at the San Francisco Zoo due to gangrene of the left rib, caused by an angry elephant that escaped during a cage clean out. The ten and a half ton male zoo animal charged and gored the tall, docile beast with its tusk. The zoo vet was very sorry but couldn’t do anything about it.
My parents didn’t know how to break it to me. After putting down the receiver they sat me down on the couch and said to me quietly, “Billo flew to heaven this morning.”
So that evening as I sat around the table with candlesticks melting onto my birthday cake and mindless children chorused their congratulations, I tried to imagine Billo flying away with his gigantic new pterodactyl wings and his long, stringy neck flopping left and right to the gust that attacked him from side to side, rising up to who knows where.
It was hilarious. I couldn’t stop laughing. So they had to skip the present openings and send the guests home early. Roger and Terry’s father looked pissed and a little drunk when he came by to pick up his two sons two hours too early. It wasn’t my fault and I wasn’t sorry. It was just too strange for me to accept. My parents tucked my giggling body into bed early that evening, begging me to calm down. They switched off the light and spoke quietly between themselves. I caught a few words like, “no,” “doctor,” and “too far.”
I had adopted Billo back in the third grade. I used to beg my parents for a dog but they just could not afford one. Or so they told me. The truth of the matter was that they could in fact afford it. They just didn’t want to raise another living thing. I was enough up keep aside from the house. The little house in Jersey was bought by my parents from a friendly Italian. On the day of the open house we were greeted by a startlingly loud man whose lips were ripe and purple, and he only spoke with a cigar jammed between his molars. Whenever he pulled the cigar out, he grew silent and from his heavy breathing a scent of sweet sausage and Chianti lingered. He told my parents that the house was kept in good condition for over thirty years and shouldn’t give any of us any problem for the next ten.
I was sent to Steinberg Elementary for the next three years, which was located ten blocks away from our new home. The classrooms were small. Even as I remember back as a child they looked small to me. And all I could ever think of the place was the color green. Like grass. Like toxic waste. Like the color of my thoughts. Green like Melissa’s hairband. Green like the tile floors of our hallways and classroom doors.
On one particular day Melissa had engaged me in a little raffling contest. The overgrown child had decided that she wanted more cookies and was willing to sell her ticket to me for twenty five cents. I had never raffled before so I accepted. After the numbers were announced it turned out that Melissa’s ticket was worth more than three pieces of undercooked cookie dough—it was worth a giraffe and a cage with my name on it at the San Francisco Zoo. It was two years old and I had won it.
Melissa was distraught. After the raffle she gave up on cookie dough altogether. I heard that she stopped eating for a period during high school as well. By graduation she had turned into a lottery ticket junkie. One stormy evening she called me at my parents’ house in slurred tongue, saying that I had ruined her life. But I shot back at her to say that it was she who had ruined things for me. If it weren’t for her stupid cookies I would never have had my heart broken over that inane creature.
It was a very odd thing for me. How could I, here in Jersey, own a pet giraffe in a zoo 3000 miles away? It didn’t matter. I had won a giraffe. I got to tell people that I owned a 17 foot tall animal. I couldn’t sleep for three days straight. With my head embedded against the comfort of my pillow, I dreamed of riding on the giraffe’s back, telling it to charge through the tundra, shrieking with excitement as it trampled over the school of my classroom peers. So great was this conscious dream in my head that I associated it to what I was resting on, my pillow. It didn’t seem right to name a giraffe after an object of my bedroom so I came up with a brilliant pseudo, a code that only I would be able to unlock and toy with the secret delights its name contained: ‘Billo.’
But my dreams of riding Billo on his spacious back never came true. The zoo sent pictures of my giraffe along with postcards that the keepers had written themselves, telling me that Billo was doing just fine and awaiting my arrival. I wrote back, telling them to tell Billo that I wanted very much to see him myself and politely asked them to give him an apple as a gift from me. With my letter I enclosed a check for two dollars for the apples.
My parents never had the time to fly with me to San Francisco. I wish I could’ve flown on my own but for an eight year old to fly on one’s own was out of the question for these two. They told me that they would during winter vacation as my Christmas gift. Instead I was given a clock. I was promised to meet Billo over Easter break after our Sunday service. But it never came to be. On my long, boring summer days I sat alone in my room reading up on giraffes.
“The giraffe’s species name is camelopardalis, which describes its characteristics of both a camel and a leopard.” This sounded outrageous. If a leopard were ever to come across a camel then it would surely devour it. I slammed the book shut and cried until my mother arrived in time for dinner. As I stood there, greeting her at the doorway with the hiccups and choking on snot, she squeezed my shoulders then asked me to please set the table. After a plate of lasagna I felt a lot better. I returned to my room to resume my reading.
“It prefers trees of genus Mimosa and can eat 140 pounds of leaves and twigs daily.”Mimosa like my Aunt Gina’s favorite drink. She sipped it out of that tall, stemmed glass. Tall like Billo. With four stems to support his weight. A hundred and forty pounds of Aunt Gina would fill him up for an entire day. “The giraffe defends itself against threats by kicking with great force. A single well-placed kick of an adult giraffe can shatter a lion’s skull or break its spine.” But too bad for Billo, he had been attacked by an elephant, not a lion. Oh, if only it had been a lion.
That night Billo came to me in my dreams. He asked me where route 4 was. I pointed the direction out to him. After thanking me kindly, he turned to gallop down route 4, west bound. I tried to follow but a great big snake was charging up all three lanes of the freeway. I woke up and found myself standing in our drive way with my father’s lighter in one hand and a tube of tomato paste in the other. When my parents ran out to cover me with a blanket and ask me what the trouble was I responded that everything was fine and that Billo was okay—he found route 4 west.
By the time I turned twelve I was on three types of medication, one of them being Ritalin. The side effects were terrible. There were nights when I fell asleep, slumped over the toilet with puke dribbling down my neck. By morning it’d be cold and pieces of carrot would be hardened onto my night gown. So I decided one morning to stop taking the meds. Then I packed my suitcase and left the house, walked up 10th Street and caught a bus on Brinkerhoff Avenue to take me to Port Authority. From there I took the A train to JFK Airport. I pulled out my crumpled allowance and bought my ticket to San Francisco, California, departing time 11:04 p.m. I had four hours to kill so I headed over to McDonalds and had a happy meal. As I sat there chewing on my cheeseburger, I realized something funny; my mouth had gone completely numb. I stood up and tried to speak but pieces of my masticated burger fell from my lips.
“Hey, young lady. You okay there?” The voice faded as my vision blurred. I felt a cold, hard slap against my cheek and when I opened my eyes I saw steel chair legs standing horizontally across my face and a soggy french fry in front of my nose. Soon a pair of arms wrapped around my back and two hands grasped my ankles. My body was floating and the fluorescent lights moved around in circles. I grew dizzy and nauseous then realized that the numbing had spread throughout my body. I became a free-floater, flying about the food court on my back. The chattering of people, sirens from a distance, a roaring of a plane, and clattering of trays fused into one big ball of sound. It vacuumed out from my ears, replacing it with a high frequency noise, like a television screen. A darkness crept over from behind and invaded my vision, taking over everything.
A clock was ticking loudly from behind. I opened my eyes and sat up in a strange room. Have I been here before? I don’t know. Was I in California? Cause I imagined it differently. I looked over and saw the penguin shaped Christmas present my parents had bought for me three years ago. Big hand on the 7, little hand on the 8. It was the only live object in my room. Nothing else hung from the walls. There was a plain white desk that I’d once seen from an Ikea commercial and a wooden stool, two sizes too short to reach the desk, was placed right beside it. The windows were barred and locked. I rolled off the bed, where the cold, tiled floor assaulted my feet. I walked to the window and looked out through the steel webbing to find a large rose bush blocking my view. What the hell kind of hotel was this, anyway?
A pair of rubber shoes came squeaking down the hall, outside my door. A man was screaming, “1972! 1972!” over and over again. A mad laughter followed. A stray dog barked in response from some far off land. It was not a part of this world. Not where I was in. Some keys jingled as the door knob turned. A petite woman with a pale face dressed in a white one piece and foamy clogs walked in. She wore a new leaf-green hair band and strawberry-red lipstick.
“Melissa,” I said to her, “you’ve lost weight.”
She smiled uneasily then waddled toward my desk with a four sided silver tray. She set it down to a dull clank then turned to walk out.
“Melissa,” I called again.
She looked back and faced me with a blank expression.
“Are we in California?” I asked her. She pointed to the clock on the wall.
“That’s from your parents. They wish you well. Now I’ll be back by noon with some lunch. There’s a book on top of the radiator if you want to read it.” She glanced down at her brown wrist watch and clicked her tongue.
“Mr. Carl should be awake by now. I gotta go.” She hurried out and closed the door. I heard the keys rattle again then a quick swish of a turn. A flat click resounded its absolution in every corner of my room. “Clock.” It stayed in my ears. Clock, lock. Tick? Tock! I was locked in.
“Melissa!” I ran toward the door. A small frame, the size of my forehead, outlined the glass panel. I stood on my toes and shouted against the glass.
“What the hell are we doing here?”
My question set off a grown man’s cackling again and it was all I heard in response. I didn’t feel fear. I didn’t feel anger. I felt like peeing.
I walked over to the radiator and picked up the giant, hard covered book. A photograph of a giraffe was on it. It was eating from a Mimosa tree.
“Ha ha. Cute.”
I opened to the page where I left off from and continued to read. But the words kept running away from the paragraphs. The sentences started to loop and turn like a silly carnival roller coaster. ‘Some sick joke this place is playing on me,’ I guessed.
Melissa will be back here soon. She’ll come in here and tell me that I fainted on the floor of the food court.
“Filthy,” she’d say, shaking her head.
The physician couldn’t figure out as to why on earth a healthy young girl like me would just pass out like that so she passed me over to a psychologist. They’re still working on it, apparently. Meanwhile, they put me in a cramped white room because that, supposedly, fixed everything.
It was a beautiful Thursday afternoon. A tall, plump maiden, dressed in familiar attire walked out with me to the patio. Patio. What a fun word. I felt pretty tall myself. A coffee and biscuits were waiting for me at the table. The smell of coffee was inviting. As I ran greedily toward the afternoon snack I tripped and landed on my stomach. Then I noticed my hands, how chapped and bloody they were. Scars shaped like craters on a moon riddled the back surface, like pieces of flesh had been dug out. It was all very confusing but what I was seeing was very reminiscent of some other days. I tried to remember but I my thoughts were interrupted.
The tall woman picked me up by my armpit and sat me down in a lily white chair.
“Let’s have a look at those fingernails,” she said and took my hands into her own big, heavy palms. She pulled out a tiny pair of scissors from a small pocket in her skirt and began to clip at my pinky.
“Easy there, sister,” I mumbled. I reached out for the little white cap stuck in her hair. Curly strays were fallen on her face. She pulled away.
“You’re looking a lot more like yourself, Melissa. It’s so good to see you’re doing better again. Still shoving those cookies down, eh? It’s good, it’s good. Ha ha.” She didn’t reply. She continued to clip away silently.
“How could he have known that I have loved him since the day I knew of his existence?”
She looked up at me briefly, then back down to focus on my index.
“Yes, yes, his head and ears would always have been far too high up to hear me tell him this. And I noticed the moon the other night. My father used to tell me that the sun and the moon followed me everywhe—Ow.”
She mumbled “Sorry,” blew at my fingernails, and resumed.
“But I look at the moon more often cause it’s easier to stare at. And I don’t think it really follows me. Stupid old man lied. I think I just get the illusion that it does because it’s so far away. And it’s actually following everyone or just not following anyone. It’s so high up in the sky that anyone who looks at it falls in love with it and starts to romanticize over it because it’s just so far up there, where it can’t be touched by anyone.” Melissa switched hands and started on the other. She snipped away mechanically. It showed that she had done this many times before. Melissa, my nail cutter.
“And if I could’ve touched Billo just once, I would’ve been fine with that. It didn’t matter to me that he was in a San Francisco, California, in a zoo, in a cage with other giraffe friends. It only mattered that he was mine and I was his.”
Melissa was looking at me in that same old expression, just like mom and dad used to twelve years ago. I looked down at my nails. A few of them were trimmed too short and my thumb was bleeding. I clapped my hands loudly at her face.
“So, what now?” I asked.
“Now it’s time you went to bed,” she replied.
She walked me into my room and laid me down, asking if I needed anything else. I told her, “No, thank you.” She turned off the light and closed the door behind her. I lay still inside my powder white bed sheets and stared up at the gloomy ceiling. Little gray horses began to dance before my view. An elephant trampled around a merry-go-round and Billo stood by watching them play from a far, far away distance.