Caleb – November 10-11 (Sunday-Monday)

“White, black, white, black, white, black,” sang my four year old cousin Tan as he watched the zebra intently. The zebra grazed quietly in the short yellowing grass of its zoo enclosure. I imagined what it would be like to live as a zebra with nothing to do all day but nibble on yellow grass. The idea was both heaven and hell to me. To have no responsibilities, free from homework or chores or nagging parents. All there was to do was sleep and eat and sleep and eat, though the pungent odor wafting toward me from the large animals attested to at least one other activity. Heaven and hell.

“Let’s go look at something else,” I proposed. I craved their simple lives, but I couldn’t stand the smell. The stench didn’t seem to bother the zebras though. In fact, they didn’t seem to express any emotions at all. How would anyone know whether they were fed up with the smell as well. Maybe they had given up already, knowing there was nothing they could do. The zebras had accepted their fate. They could not be happy, being where they were, but not knowing any other life, wouldn’t be overly unhappy either. I still envied their ignorance.

“Come on,” I said to my aunt and her two small children. “I think the snake house is over that way.”

My words had the desired effect. “Snakes!” shouted Tan cheerfully.

“Nake, nake, nake,” echoed his younger sister, Tarla. I only ever knew what she was saying because she copied her brother whenever she could. If he was excited about something, she was too, even if she had no idea what he was excited about. I was sure she had no clue what she was saying, but she kept repeating the word again and again. “Nake, nake, nake, nake.”

“Okay, okay,” my aunt said, giving in to their enthusiasm. Seeing her relative lack of enthusiasm suggested to me that my Aunt Rachel did not share her son’s fondness for those beautiful reptiles.

“I think they’re this way,” I pointed. The four of us walked together in the direction I had pointed, but never actually found the snake house. As we walked, Rachel pushed Tarla’s stroller and I tried to hold onto Tan’s hand. He kept slipping out of my grasp though every time he got excited about some animal he saw along the way. He would run this way and that, remarking on everything he saw. I did not wonder why my aunt had wanted me to come along for their trip to the zoo. This would have been nearly impossible for her alone.

I felt responsible. I felt dependable. But I also felt trapped. Sometimes, I looked at the animals with envy because of their freedom to do nothing, but I realized that few of those animals, if any, appreciated that freedom. As we passed one large enclosure, we didn’t see anything and were about to move on when suddenly, a large gray wolf stepped out from the foliage and onto a rock jutting out over the moat.

I gazed upon him with awe and appreciation for his beauty. As I watched him, he turned to me at one point and we locked eyes for a few moments. Beautiful, but fierce. He was no tame dog to keep in your home. Of all the animals I had seen that afternoon, that wolf seemed the least at home. He didn’t belong there. Of course, none of the animals really “belonged” in a zoo, probably, but where the other animals had seemed at least somewhat part of what was meant to be there, the wolf seemed more like a prisoner. Maybe it was the intelligence I saw in his eyes. Nothing that intelligent should be locked up.

I reflected on that experience all that day, and into the next. As I sat down for breakfast with my own parents and two sisters, Grace and Charity, I couldn’t get the wolf’s eyes out of my head. I was never a particularly talkative or interactive person during mealtimes, so nobody seemed to notice that something was going on in my head beyond the usual.

As I walked to school, I saw the wolf in my mind stepping out into the open, wishing to reach some inaccessible place that only he could see. I wondered if he had once lived outside the zoo. I felt sorry for the wolf. Not because he was in the zoo, but because he didn’t understand how great it was to be free from responsibility. The wolf no longer had to hunt or struggle for his survival. Everything was taken care of for him and no one cared if he was thinking about or planning his future education or career.

If only the wolf would accept his current state. Maybe he could be happy if he would just let go. That kind of freedom that the wolf thought he wanted was surely overrated. What was the point? I just couldn’t understand the wolf. I couldn’t understand why he wasn’t happy. He wasn’t a stupid zebra with its putrid smell. He had a large space to himself, as far as I could see. Sure, he couldn’t roam over incredibly large territories like wolves on the outside might, but why would he want to if he didn’t have to?

Oh, to be him! If I were the wolf, I would just relax every day. I would have everything I needed and could just be free from all the pressures of life outside. Why didn’t the wolf get it? The zebras seemed to have figured it out. They weren’t fretting about living in the zoo, even with the stink. They were free from worrying about wolves, even when one lived so close to them. Did wolves even hunt zebras? I didn’t think so because they lived in different parts of the world, but what if they were brought together outside of the zoo and the wolf was hungry?

“Morning Caleb,” a female voice greeted me from behind. I knew her voice immediately, but I turned around to see her before greeting her in return.

“Hey Tricia,” I said with a smile. The two of us had met at the start of seventh grade over three years ago. Now we were both in tenth grade and had become good friends. Unfortunately, that is all we were. I mean, it seemed obvious enough to me that we both liked each other. We shared three classes together and sat next to each other in the two classes that allowed us to choose our seats, Physics and Math. The third class was P.E., and we were often separated for obvious reasons.

In our shared Physics class, we were partners and did all of our lab work together. I had been to her house to work on homework and she had been to mine. We were both warm smiles every time we saw one another and we could talk about almost anything. Of course, “almost” is the key word there. We never talked about our relationship – what it was or what it could be. She was beautiful though, and smart. Smarter than me probably, but don’t tell her that.

I thought about the wolf again, wondering if the wolf I had seen had been the only one in that space. Did he have a girlfriend? Did wolves have complicated relationships like people did? I remembered that male lions had whole harems to attend to them. Did wolves have that kind of relationship too? Somehow, I doubted that. The one I had seen at least seemed a lot smarter than a lion. What would an intelligent male want with more than one female? Why complicate your life? Of course, I knew that it was pointless comparing animals to people, but I couldn’t help myself.

“Um,” Tricia started. “Are you okay? You seem kind of out of it this morning.”

Yeah, that’s why I liked her. She noticed everything. I could spend the whole day with my family and no one ever had a clue when I had something on my mind, but it only took Tricia a few seconds to realize that something was up.

“I’m okay,” I said, which was true. There was nothing actually wrong at the moment. I was just busy contemplating the purpose of my existence is all. I knew I would have to explain more though. The problem was that I myself didn’t really understand my own thinking. What could I explain? I said, “when was the last time you went to the zoo?”

“The zoo? Um, I guess a few years ago. Why?” Tricia used a hand to push an errant lock of her silky black hair behind her ear. God, she was beautiful. Her mixed Chinese German genes had turned out the best possible result. I couldn’t get enough of looking at her. Don’t get me wrong though. The things I liked about Tricia went far beyond her looks. She could lose all of her outward attractiveness in a day, and that wouldn’t change a thing for how I felt about her, but I’ll discuss that all later.

“Caleb?” Tricia prodded me with a hand to the side. I think she knew I had been looking at her, and I suspected that she probably knew what I was thinking as well, but she never said anything about it. She never brought up our relationship in any way, or ask any question that could result in my telling her how I felt about her. I don’t know if she was more afraid to be right or to be wrong about what she suspected. Or if she knew how I felt about her, maybe she kept the conversation away from that issue because she didn’t like me in the same way. I had no idea what she was thinking. I knew she liked me, but I didn’t know in what way.

Tricia’s prodding though with my thoughts were probably as close as we had ever come to one of us asking the other about our relationship and feelings. I knew she wasn’t talking about our relationship though, even if it was on my mind. “No, I…,” I couldn’t seem to form a coherent thought. “I’ll tell you about it later,” I said, though what I was going to tell her I didn’t know. In fact, by telling her that I was going to tell her later was saying that there was something to tell, and I wasn’t sure that there was.

“Promise?” she asked.

Oh great, I silently mumbled to myself. This nothing was becoming bigger by the moment. “I promise I’ll tell you later,” I said. “We’re here already.” And we were. We had to say goodbye as our first period classes were in opposite directions.

What was I going to tell her later? All thoughts of the wolf had already left my mind as thoughts of Tricia replaced them. The issue was no longer about a wolf in the zoo, but rather about a girl that I liked, and I wasn’t ready to risk our relationship by telling her about those thoughts. Which meant that I would still have to tell her about the wolf instead. I would tell her the truth, though it seemed that the truth was changing. Can truth really change? Why did it suddenly feel like talking about some stupid animal at the zoo was lying? My feelings for Tricia were the truth, but those hadn’t been my thoughts when she first asked about what was going on.

Now I needed to think about the wolf some more in order to create a truth out of my thoughts worthy of being shared. This really shouldn’t be so complicated. The wolf didn’t have such difficult questions to face. And there I was, facing the wolf again. The wolf didn’t have to face difficult questions. The wolf didn’t have homework or worries about his future. He had no responsibilities, obligations, or duties. He was free.

I knew there was a conflict though. I had seen it at the zoo. I knew I didn’t believe the things I was repeating to myself again and again. No, I did believe them, or why would I keep saying them? I was so confused. I didn’t want to lie to myself. The world was complicated enough without lies getting in the way, and self-told lies were the worst kind. So what was the truth then? What did I believe? I remembered thinking that the wolf didn’t belong in the zoo, but why had I thought that? It was more a feeling than a thought, and I didn’t understand the feeling.

Learning was something I enjoyed, despite my regular complaints about homework and unwanted responsibilities. I could admit that much to myself. I supposed that if I really could be an animal in the zoo, I might eventually get bored, cut off from access to learning. But if I were actually an animal, I wouldn’t care. Right? Animals don’t read books or try to figure things out. If I didn’t have an overactive brain, maybe it would be easier for me to be happy. I remembered what I had thought at the zoo – animals that smart shouldn’t live in a zoo, or something to that effect.

Maybe it wasn’t living in the zoo that was the problem but rather the excess intelligence. My parents were always telling me that they expected great things from me on account of my brain. Stupid brain! Other kids didn’t have to get A’s all the time. Sometimes, I just wanted to relax. I could skip doing homework from time to time, or just do it without thinking too much, like most of my classmates. I could get C’s and D’s. If I even got an A-, I felt guilty. I knew my parents would be disappointed. How could I expect to become a world renowned neurosurgeon, or the president of the United States, or the CEO of a major company worth billions of dollars? These were the sorts of things my parents expected of me. And my teachers. And even my classmates. But I just wanted to be a zebra. Give my brain to someone else. I don’t need it.

Like I said before though, I wasn’t as smart as Tricia. In fact, I didn’t think I was really that smart at all. If I were really smart, I would stop getting good grades. My grades only seemed to encourage everyone to lay on the pressure. I should miss a few questions on each test. It wouldn’t have to be a lot. I should get an answer wrong occasionally when the teacher called on me in class. I was so stupid.

History and English passed quickly with me absorbed in my thoughts. I wasn’t able to come up with any good answers for Tricia though, at least not any good answers that would also be honest. “So?” she asked as I sat down beside her in Math class. What to do? I considered telling her to wait until later, but what was the point? There was no story to wait for, and waiting wouldn’t solve anything.

“Nothing really happened,” I began. “I’ve just been thinking a lot about my future, my life, .. you know.. the point of it all.. like what is it? People expect so much sometimes, but sometimes I just want to be a zebra.”

“A zebra?” Tricia asked, raising her eyebrows. Even her eyebrows were attractive, and I got distracted by their motion.

“Um..”. Why did I have to mention the zebras? Stupid. I could have been finished already, maybe. “Well, I went to the zoo yesterday with my aunt and her kids. We were looking at the zebras and I guess I was actually feeling a little envious of them. Their simple lives. If it weren’t for the smell, I really don’t think I’d mind being one at all.”

Tricia smiled, and what a smile it was! Her whole face lit up, all the way to her green eyes. “You wouldn’t last a day!” she teased. “Even if zebras smelled great, you would be trying to jump over the fence by the end of the day.”

“There isn’t really a fence,” I said. “It’s more of a plastic barrier.” I knew what she had meant, but I couldn’t resist.

“Look,” she responded without acknowledgment of my correction. “Everybody feels stressed. We’re all worried about the future. Me too. You would not be happy as a zebra though, or any other kind of animal.”

“Not even a dolphin?” I asked playfully. “They seem pretty cheerful most of the time.”

“Maybe if you traded out your brain for a dolphin brain, then you wouldn’t mind being a dolphin, but then you wouldn’t be you. You could never be happy with your brain as an animal.”

“That’s what I thought,” I groaned. “I’d end up being like the wolf instead. There’s no hope.”

“The wolf? What do you mean?”

“The wolf I saw at the zoo didn’t look happy. He looked like he just wanted to get out. But you know, when you watch movies with wolves in them, they almost never look happy. They’re always barely surviving. Fighting other animals for food. Risking death all the time. Cold. Wet. I would just hate to be a wolf outside. But in the zoo, you might think he could be happy for once. He’s taken care of and he doesn’t have to suffer anymore. Instead, he just wants to get out again. It’s like he’s anxious to continue suffering. The other animals in the zoo seemed okay. They didn’t look happy necessarily, but at least they didn’t look anxious to get out. They at least looked happier than the wolf.” I hadn’t meant to share all that, but I was glad that I did. Sometimes saying something out loud helps you to understand things more clearly.

Tricia looked ready to respond, but a new thought occurred to me and I continued talking before she got the chance. “Both dolphins and wolves are really smart animals, but one seems happy most of the time while the other one doesn’t. It doesn’t seem to matter if they’re in a zoo or not, though they both probably prefer to be outside.”

Tricia smiled. “I think you’ll be fine,” she said. “Just be a dolphin then. Don’t be a wolf. If you have to be an animal.” And before I could respond, the teacher started the class and our conversation ended. My thoughts never ended though. I couldn’t seem to ever get that inner voice to just shut up. Now, I was thinking about dolphins. My problem wasn’t solved though. Tricia had said it herself just a little while earlier. A dolphin would be happy being a dolphin, but I wouldn’t. Not if I still had my brain.

But why? Why couldn’t I be happy? Why couldn’t I be happy being a dolphin, even if I had my brain? This was all stupid anyway. I could never be a zebra, or a wolf, or a dolphin. I was a human unfortunately with a brain that tormented me all the time. I was either too smart or too stupid, and I couldn’t decide which, though I tended to side with being too stupid. If I were even smarter, couldn’t I figure out a way to enjoy my life more? But that thought wasn’t right either. I regularly thought of things I could do that I believed would make me happier. The problem was that I never did any of those things. As I said before, I didn’t have to work so diligently on my homework. I didn’t have to always get A’s on everything. But I always did. Why?

I had had enough of thinking about animals and their issues for the time being. For all of my thinking, I received no benefits. Perhaps, it was time to turn my attention to the subject at hand. I wasn’t going to magically turn into any other animal, and so I decided to do what everyone else expected of me. At least for now.

Tan – November 22 (Friday)

Most of the time, Tan was glad to have a little sister. She couldn’t talk much yet, and sometimes, she played with his toys without asking, but anyone was better than no one, and without Tarla, he would have no one to play with most of the time. Tarla couldn’t quite keep up with Tan’s imagination though and this caused some frustration.

“Okay,” he said to his little sister. “You’re the bad guy. You have to try and hide ’cause I’m the police and I’m going to put you in jail.”

Tarla looked up at her brother and said, “Okay,” nodding her head up and down as if she understood. Clearly she didn’t though as she picked up a toy car from the floor and tried to roll the wheels around with her fingers.

“Go hide,” Tan instructed. “I’ll count to ten.”

Before Tan could start counting, Tarla started, “One, two tee, two, tee, one,” and on and on.

“No!” Tan complained. “I count and you go hide.”

“Okay,” she replied.

When Tarla still didn’t make any movement to hide, Tan yelled, “Mom!”

“What?” his mom replied.

“She’s not hiding! I told her to hide but she’s not listening to me!”

“Are you sure she knows what you want her to do?” his mom asked.

“Yes. And she said okay, but she’s not doing anything. She lied.”

“I don’t think that’s a lie,” she responded. “Sometimes she says okay because she wants to play with you, but that doesn’t mean she understands what you want.”

“Why doesn’t she understand?” Tan asked.

“She’s only two, Tan. She’ll learn. She’ll understand more when she gets a little older.”

“When will she get older?”

“She’ll get older when she gets older. You just have to wait. Now Tan, I have things I need to do right now. I can’t keep answering your questions. Just play something else if she doesn’t understand. Or you can show her what you want her to do. Okay?” Tan’s mom walked back into the other room where she had been busying herself.

“Okay, Tarla,” said Tan. “I’ll show you what to do. Just do what I do.” He walked around behind the sofa and ducked his head. “See? Like this. You have to hide.” Tarla walked around the sofa where Tan was and ducked down her head as well.

“Ike di, Ike di,” she said. Their mom would have understood that Tarla was copying Tan’s “like this”. For the next twenty minutes, the two small children played happily together. Tan forgot his original idea and play turned into a game of follow the leader. Tan did some action and Tarla copied it to the best of her ability.

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