The Nature of Jade: Excerpt « Deb Caletti
Deb Caletti
Deb Caletti

The Nature of Jade: Excerpt

Chapter One

Humans may watch animals, but animals also watch humans. The Australian Lyrebird not only observes humans, but from its forest perch, imitates them, as well. It’s been known to make the sound of trains, horns, motors, alarms, and even chainsaws…

— Dr. Jerome R. Clade, The Fundamentals of Animal Behavior

When you live one and a half blocks away from a zoo like I do, you can hear the baboons screeching after it gets dark. It can scare the crap out of you when you’re not used to it, as I found out one night right after we moved in. I thought a woman was being strangled. I actually screamed, and my mom came running in my room and so did my dad, wearing these hideous boxers with Santas on them, which meant he’d gotten to the bottom of his underwear drawer. Even Oliver stumbled in, half asleep in his football pajamas, with his eyes squinched from the light my parents flicked on.

The conversation went something like this:

Dad: God, Jade. Zoo animals! Baboons, for Christ’s sake.

Mom: I knew we should never have moved to the city.

Oliver (peering at Dad with a dazed expression): Isn’t it August?

I was told once, though, that we really would have something to fear if there ever were a big earthquake, like they’re always saying is going to happen at any moment here in Seattle. Then we’d be living in the most dangerous part of the city. See, all the electrical fences are, well, electrical, and so if the power went out for any length of time there’d be lions and tigers (and bears, oh my) running loose, panicked and hungry. You hear a lot of false facts around the zoo — you’ve got the husbands incorrectly correcting wives (“No, ha ha. Only the males have tusks, honey”), and you’ve got those annoying eight-year-olds you can find at nearly any exhibit, who know entirely too much about mole rats, for example, and who can’t wait for the chance to insert their superior knowledge into any overheard conversation (“Actually, those teeth are his incisors, and they’re used for protection against his greatest enemy, the rufous-beaked snake”). But this bit of frightening trivia came from one of the Woodland Park zookeepers, so I knew it was true.

That’s one of the reasons I have the live zoo webcam on in my room to begin with, and why I see the boy that day. I don’t mean I keep it on to be on alert for disaster or anything like that, but because I find it calming to watch the elephants. I also take this medicine that sometimes revs me up a little at night, and they’re good company when no one else is awake. Besides, elephants are just cool. They’ve got all the range of human emotion, from jealousy and love to rage and depression and playfulness. They have one-night stands and then kick the guy out. They get pissed off at their friends and relatives or the people who care for them, and hold a grudge until they get a sincere apology. They are there for each other during all the phases of their lives. A baby is born, and they help it into the world, trumpeting and stamping their feet in celebration. A family member dies, and they bury the body with sticks and then mourn with terrible cries, sometimes returning years later to revisit the bones and touch them lovingly with their trunks. They’re just this group of normally abnormal creatures going through the ups and downs of life with big hearts, mood swings, and huge, swingy-assed togetherness.

When we moved into our brick townhouse in Hawthorne Square by the zoo during my first year of high school, I had this plan that I’d go there every day to watch the gorillas and take notes about their behavior. I’d notice things no one else had, make some amazing discovery. I had this romantic idea of being Diane Fossey/Jane Goodall/Joy Adamson. I liked the idea of bouncy, open-air Jeeps and I liked the outfits with all the pockets, only I didn’t really want to live in Africa and be shot by poachers/get malaria/get stabbed to death. Bars between gorillas and me sounded reasonable.

I went over to the zoo and brought this little foldout chair Dad used for all of Oliver’s soccer and baseball and basketball games, and I sat and watched the gorillas a few times. The only problem was, it felt more like they were watching me. They gave me the creeps. The male was the worst. His name is Vip, which sounds like some breezy nickname a bunch of Ivy Leaguers might give their jock buddy, but Vip was more like those freaky men you see at the downtown bus stops. The ones who silently watch you walk past and whose eyes you can still feel on you a block later. Vip would hold this stalk of bark in his Naugahyde hand, chewing slowly, keeping his gaze firmly on me. I’d move, and just his eyes would follow me, same as those paintings in haunted-house movies. If that wasn’t bad enough, Vip was also involved in a tempestuous love triangle. A while back, Vip got gorilla Amanda pregnant, and when she lost the baby, he ditched her for Jumoke. He got her pregnant too, and after Jumoke had the baby, Amanda went nuts and stole it and the authorities had to intervene. It was like a bad episode of All My Primates.

So I moved on to the elephants, and as soon as I saw Chai and baby Hansa and Bamboo and Tombi and Flora, I couldn’t get enough of them. Baby Hansa’s goofy fluff of hair is enough to hook you all by itself. They are all just so peaceful and funny that they get into your heart. When you look in their eyes, you see sweet thoughts. And then there’s Onyx, too, of course. One notched ear, somber face. Always off by herself in a way that makes you feel sad for her.

I didn’t even need the little soccer chair, because there’s a nice bench right by the elephants. I went once a week for a few months, but after a while I got busy with school and it was winter, and so I decided to just watch them from home most of the time. There are two live webcams for the elephants, one inside the elephant house and one in their outdoor environment, so even when the elephants were brought in at night, I could see them. Twenty-four hours a day, the cam is on, for the pachyderm obsessed. I got in the habit of just leaving the screen up when I wasn’t using my computer to write a paper or to IM my friends. Now I switch back and forth between the cams so I can always see what’s going on, even if the gang is just standing around sleeping.

I never did really write anything in my “research notebook” (how embarrassing — I even wrote that on the front); making some great discovery about elephant behavior kind of went in the big-ideas-that-fizzled-out department of my brain. But the elephants got to be a regular part of my life. Watching them isn’t always thrilling and action packed, but I don’t care. See, what I really like is that no matter what high-stress thing is going on in my world or in the world as a whole (Christmas, SATs, natural disasters, plane crashes, having to give a speech and being worried to death I might puke), there are the elephants, doing their thing. Just being themselves. Eating, walking around. They aren’t having Christmas, or giving a speech, or stressing over horrible things in the news. They’re just having another regular elephant day. Not worrying, only being.

That’s why the elephant site is up on my computer right then, when I see the boy. I am stretched out on my bed and the elephants are cruising around on the screen, but I’m not even really watching them. My room’s on the second floor of our townhouse, and if you lie there and look out the window, all you see is sky — this square of glass filled with moving sky, like a cloud lava lamp. Sometimes it’s pink and orange and purples, unreal colors, and other times it’s backlit white cotton candy, and other times it’s just a sea of slow-moving monochrome. I’m just lying there thinking lazy, hazy cloudlike thoughts when I sit up and the computer catches my eye. The outdoor cam is on, which includes a view of the elephants’ sprawling natural habitat. Chai is there with baby Hansa, and they are both rooting around in a pile of hay. But what I see is a flash of color, red, and I stop, same as a fish stops at the flash of a lure underwater.

The red — it’s a jacket. A boy’s jacket. When the outdoor cam is on, you can see part of the viewing area, too, and the people walking through it. At first it’s this great big voyeuristic thrill to realize you can see people who are right there, right then, people who are unaware that you’re watching them from your bedroom. There’s probably even some law that the zoo is breaking that they don’t know about. But trust me, the people get boring soon enough. It’s like when you read blogs and you get this snooping-in-diaries kind of rush, until you realize that all they talk about is how they should write more often. People’s patterns of behavior are so predictable. At the zoo, they stay in front of the elephants for about twelve seconds, point to different things, take a photo, move on. The most excitement you get is some kid trying to climb over the fence or couples who are obviously arguing.

But this time, the red jacket compels me to watch. And I see this guy, and he has a baby in a backpack. The thing is, he’s young. He can’t be more than a year or two older than I am, although I’m pathetic at guessing age, height, and distance, and still can’t grasp the how-many-quarts-in-a-liter type question, in spite of the fact that I’m usually a neurotic overachiever. So maybe he’s not so young, but I’m sure he is. And that brings up a bunch of questions: Is he babysitting this kid? Is it his huge-age-difference brother? It can’t be his, can it?

The boy turns sideways so that the baby can see the elephants better. Baby? Or would you call him a toddler? I can’t tell — somewhere in between, maybe. The boy is talking to the baby, I can see. The baby looks happy. Here is what I notice. There is an ease between them, a calm, same as with zebras grazing in a herd, or swallows flying in a neat triangle. Nature has given them a rightness with each other.

My friend Hannah, who I’ve known since I first moved to Seattle, would say I am interested in the boy on the screen only because he’s cute. Hannah, though, seemed to wake up one day late in junior year with a guy obsession so intense that it transformed her from this reasonable, sane person into a male-seeking missile. God, sorry if this is crude, but she had begun to remind me of those baboons that flaunt their red butts around when they’re in heat. Talking to her lately, it goes like this:

Me: How did you do on the test? I couldn’t think of anything to write on that second essay question.

Hannah: God, Jason Espanero is hot.

Me: I don’t think it’s fair to give an essay question based on a footnote no one even read.

Hannah: He must work out.

Me: I heard on the news that a fiery comet is about to crash into the earth and kill us all sometime this afternoon.

Hannah: He’s just got the sweetest ass.

It is true that the guy on the screen’s cute — tousled, curly brown hair, tall and thin, shy-looking — but that’s not what keeps me watching. What keeps me there are the questions, his story. It’s The Airport Game: Who are those people in those seats over there? Why are they going to San Francisco? Are they married? She’s reading a poetry book, he’s writing in a journal. Married literature professors? Writers? Weekend fling?

The boy doesn’t take a photo and move on. Already, he is not following a predictable path. He stands there for a long time. The baby wears this blue cloth hat with a brim over his little blond head. The boy leans down over the rail, crosses his arms in front of himself. The baby likes this, pats the boy’s head, though the boy is probably leaning only to relieve the weight of the backpack. The boy watches Hansa and Chai, and then Hansa wanders off. Still, he stands with his arms crossed, staring and thinking. What is on his mind? His too-youthful marriage? His nephew/brother on his back? The college courses he is taking in between the nanny job?

Finally, the boy stands straight again. Arches his back to stretch. I realize I have just done the same, as if I can feel the weight of that backpack. You pass a bunch of people in a day — people in their cars, in the grocery store, waiting for their coffee at an espresso stand. You look at apartment buildings and streets, the comings and goings, elevators crawling up and down, and each person has their own story going on right then, with its cast of characters; they’ve got their own frustrations and their happiness and the things they’re looking forward to and dreading. And sometimes you wonder if you’ve crossed paths with any of them before without knowing it, or will one day cross their path again. But sometimes, too, you have this little feeling of knowing, this fuzzy, gnawing sense that someone will become a major something in your life. You just know that theirs will be a life you will enter and become part of. I feel that sense, that knowing, when I look at this boy and this baby. It is a sense of the significant.

He stands and the baby does something that makes me laugh. He grabs a chunk of the boy’s hair in each of his hands, yanks the boy’s head back. Man, that has to hurt. Oh, ouch. But the baby thinks it is a real crack-up, and starts to laugh. He puts his open mouth down to the boy’s head in some baby version of a kiss.

The boy’s head is tilted to the sky. He reaches his arms back and unclenches the baby’s fingers from his hair. But once he is free, he keeps his chin pointed up, just keeps staring up above. He watches the backlit cotton candy clouds in a lava-lamp sky, and it is then I am sure this is a story I’ll be part of.

Copyright © 2007 by Deb Caletti