...lives with her aging mother out in the suburbs. She used to have her own place before the recession. She used to have a job and spent her nights with friends in a garage band on Lake City Way. She tells me all this at a bus stop at 6:30AM on a Saturday. There's no cover over the stop, so we stand under a fir tree to semi-avoid the drizzle. The streetlight gives her pale blue, watery, red-rimmed eyes a purblind cave fish look. Her frizzy, chin-length red hair sticks out pyramidal from the crown of her head, making her look like a goofy One Piece character. Her breath smells like alfalfa. She is on her way to the zoo, where she's volunteered for decades. She spends every Saturday morning mucking out giraffe pens. All the giraffes have Buddhist and Hindu names, and she tells stories about them like they're her children. Her favorite giraffe was transferred to the Oregon Zoo. She talks about him like he was her boyfriend. His Hindu name started with an H, but what everyone called him was "Houdini", because he always found a way to escape his pen. The Oregon Zoo staff once had to retrieve him from the streets of Portland's Pearl District. He was found looming over a hot dog stand.
She really misses Houdini. It broke her heart when they transferred him. Once, she and her mother dove down to Portland to see him. The Oregon "keeper" took her out to Houdini's field, and he definitely remembered her. She could tell by the way he immediately looked up when he heard her voice.
On the bus, I try to get my own seat, but she insists that we sit together. "It'll be packed soon," she tells me. "We might as well sit with someone we like." I try to look enthused. I'd rather be reading my Aleksandar Hemon, but I try to convince myself that every day life brings us unique opportunities, and that we need to be receptive to them. Besides, I'm cornered in the window seat. What can I do?
She tells me about the length of giraffe gestation, about giraffe lifespan, giraffe nutrition, giraffe illnesses. When she runs out of giraffe facts, she gets a nostalgic look in her eyes. She smiles, shakes her head, and wistfully reminisces, "That Houdini... He was really something." I silently vow to never catch the 6:30AM Saturday bus again. Listening to her makes me want to bolt. Her soul feels lonely. Her breath must smell exactly like a giraffe's. It is more than I can handle.