I walk and walk, paying little attention to where I am going and what I am doing. I think about marriage. How it’s just a lie. How it means nothing now and no one can change that. I think about how easy it was for James to throw it all away. Maybe the right thing is to go. To move on. Let him be free to be with the woman he’s loved since high school and I can find a new life somewhere else. Just me.
When I do stop to look up, I freeze as I’m accosted by the gaze of bright bluish green eyes staring back at me. The face is white fur with a pink nose and the mouth seems to be smiling at me. A snow leopard. I pause and study the sign, an advertisement for the Central Park Zoo. I realise I’m close to it and drawn by the image of the snow leopard, head towards it.
I remember the animation ‘Madagascar’ and realise the place looks just like it. The buildings are old, covered in green foliage and though the gates to the park are closed, there are people cutting through the outside.For some reason I feel like I’m in another world, another time and place, like I’ve somehow escaped the city and my life and entered into something magical. I take a seat and from my vantage point, can see over the wall at the sea lions twirling in their pools.
I want to go inside for a walk. I want to see the snow leopards. More than that, a deep part of me wants James to see them with me. I stare at the sea lion popping its head out of the water. I really can’t let go, can I?
I take a picture and message it to James. His response is immediate.
James: I’m on the way.
When he shows up I don’t say anything. He sits on the bench beside me and we stare at the sea lions.
“I want to see the snow leopard,” I say.
“Let’s get the tickets.”
I get up and follow him to the ticket booth where we do just that. We enter through the gates and begin at the aviary, following the map around the zoo. We don’t talk. We don’t discuss anything that happened or what had transpired hours earlier. Instead we just stare at the exhibits.
I remember another time we were at a zoo. It was a birthday treat for him. The first birthday of his we’d celebrated together. We’d had breakfast at a seaside cafe, walked a coastal walk, then headed to the zoo. We’d talked and laughed and made fun of the animals. We’d given them voices and accents and realised after a while they all sounded the same because we were terrible at accents.
Things really could change overnight.
We reach the snow leopard exhibit and I rush inside, but there’s no sign of a snow leopard.
“They tend to hide out in the tall grass. It’s rare to spot one,” a lady wearing a staff uniform explains to everyone walking in. I can’t help but wonder if they just have an empty exhibit and tell everyone the same thing. I’m disappointed. We wait it out. Five minutes. Ten minutes. I don’t want to leave. I just want to see a snow leopard.
“Let’s see the rest of the zoo and come back,” James says. Reluctantly, I nod and follow him out. We see birds and bears and lizards and all other kinds of animals, but it’s the red panda that really catches my attention. Eventually we sit down and James buys us cold drinks from the kiosk. Sitting on a bench, it seems he wants to talk, but I’m not ready yet.
“Let’s go see the snow leopards,” I say. He relents and we head back to the exhibit. I stand by the corner looking through the glass, while he disappears as a family crowd around him.
“Look! Look!” I hear James’ voice rise above the children. I try to peer past heads as the crowd begin to shout excitedly.
“There! A snow leopard!”
“There’s another one!”
I crane my head, stand on tiptoe, but all I see are heads. James is waving at me to get to him. I want to, but it’s impossible as everyone crowds in. A part of me deflates, thinking I’ll miss them. Then, right in front of the glass strolls a snow leopard, giant, majestic, panting. She passes and hides in the corner where only his tail can be seen. A second follows after it, smaller in build, unhappy at being growled at by the other, but obediently following. It’s cub.
My heart leaps. They’re so beautiful, yet terrifying.
“Did you see?” James is next to me and the crowd is dispersing. I nod, happy that I at least saw them. We watch them for a little longer, hiding in their corners, just able to be glimpsed if we press our faces to the glass. Then we leave and the excitement slowly ebbs and I’m back in reality with James.
We pass the gift shop and I see the stuffed toy snow leopards sitting in the stand. I pause and look at them and for a moment wish James would buy me one – to give me a gift, no matter how small, because gifts were always my thing and never his.
I could count off my hand the number of gifts he’d ever bought me in our relationship. I’d learnt to go without them. Given excuses. Said it wasn’t him. But as I stare at the snow leopards I realise it doesn’t matter if it’s a part of you or not to do something. You do it because you love the other person. You do it because they love it, not because you do. Maybe that’s what was lacking. Maybe Lisa was right. It was always me giving and him taking, never the other way.
We leave the gift shop and after a quick glance at the food on offer, decide to head elsewhere. We wander back through Central Park towards the city and James stops me.
“Let’s sit over there for a bit.” He points to an empty spot on the grass where other people have already laid out rugs and towels and are busy chatting and lunching.
“I’m hungry,” I say.
“Just for a bit.”
I know I can’t get out of it, so I follow him and we sit on the grass. I don’t tell him how I hate sitting on grass. How I always think about there being poo or pee or nasty bugs crawling around. It’s worse when it’s slightly wet grass. He should know this though right? Does he really know so little about me? Have I lived in this fantasy world just as badly as he lived in his?
“Let’s talk about this,” he says.
“I think we should get a divorce,” I cut in.
His jaw clenches and his eyes well up. He obviously didn’t see that coming.
“This is not going to work. I don’t want to spend forever wondering and doubting. I’ve read about people who are still trying to understand it years later. Relationships where no one trusts the other. I don’t want to be like that. I don’t want that. I don’t want to go through this again and have you decide one day that you really did prefer someone else. That I didn’t matter. I’ll head home and get the paperwork ready.”
He closes his eyes. I hate to hurt him. I really do. But some things I can’t change.
“Is there no other way?”
I stare at the people eating their lunch. The joggers and cyclists passing. People walking their dogs, going about their lives, looking peaceful, calm and perfect.
“I think it’s for the best.”
“Isn’t there anything I could do?”
You’ve already done enough…haven’t you?
“No. Let’s just get this out of the way and move on.”
He starts to cry. Not uncontrollable sobs partnered with wailing. It’s more masculine, quiet, but somehow uncontrollable.
“I’m so sorry I hurt you like this…” There’s regret on his face and I see the realisation on his face that it’s really gone. Us. What we had and shared. What he was there to save. Then his face changes and he shakes his head. “No, I’m not letting you go like this. I’m going to keep fighting for you.”
“It’s too late for that.” You should have fought for me when it mattered. “I don’t want to see you again, James. Once I go, I’m gone. Don’t come looking for me. Don’t show up on the doorstep. I can’t…” I start to cry. A beautiful warm and sunny day surrounded by happy chatty people in Central Park and I’m bawling.
I get up and he follows after me. He grabs my hand to stop me. Hollywood would be proud. I turn around and thump him on the chest.
“Why can’t you just get me a stupid snow leopard?” I blurt between tears. He swears and then he’s hugging me and I’m crying into his chest, hating myself for being so weak, so indecisive, so incapable from walking away from someone who has broken me.
He takes my hand and walks me back to the zoo gift shop. We stop at the stand and he picks out one of the snow leopards, the one with the cuter face that looks like it’s smiling. He buys it and hands me the bag. As we head out he pauses at the stand and gets a red panda as well.
“So she has a friend,” he says. He pays for it and returns with a second bag, red panda inside. I take the bag and stare at the two stuffed toys. For some reason, I can’t help but smile. Did he just bring our marriage back from the brink with a toy? I’m such a kid. But more than that. I really am an emotional mess.