17 January, 2020
JENNIFER SCANNED the waiting room of her dental office, dividing the patients into predators and prey. The compact man seated against the front wall, with the completely shaved head rolled back and legs spread a foot apart was definitely a predator, likely a dominant male leopard. The lithe woman on the left side, with cheesegrater cheekbones, blond bob and blood red lipstick? Also a predator, perhaps a cheetah. Jennifer paused at the teenage girl, a jumble of doughy cheeks, stringy, dark hair, and meaty thighs in tight jeans hunched over reading a book in the right corner. Prey, she determined, maybe a wildebeest. Jennifer blamed her six-year-old daughter Lily’s teacher for this involuntary reflex, which had started two weeks ago with a field trip to the zoo. Since that visit, with the gusto of a gleeful dictator, Lily demanded that her environment be filled with animals. Immersed in a fog of animal-shaped foods, animal-printed clothes, and animal documentaries, Jennifer’s vision was altered like she was wearing a pair of 3-D glasses. As she bent over patients, filling cavities and installing crowns, she envisioned herself as an Egyptian plover, seated inside a crocodile’s mouth, cleaning away the debris.
“Mr. Eckhart?” she said, addressing the leopard. “I’m ready to see you now.”
The leopard rose, creating a vacuum in the waiting room that prompted the cheetah and the wildebeest to readjust themselves, recrossing their legs and extending their arms as they watched him saunter towards the office entrance. The wildebeest lifted her book and Jennifer caught a glance of the title, Sylvia Plath’s Ariel. Jennifer felt a pressure in her chest, a burst of guilt, and a flash of recognition. The leopard bumped into her as he passed and she followed him, closing the door behind them.
As Jennifer drove home that evening, navigating the smooth asphalt streets and crisp curbs of the leafy suburb where she lived, her mind replayed memories with the low resolution of an old VHS tape.
“Thanks for driving me home, Mr. Slade.” Jennifer tried to control her heart rate, conscious that her left elbow was only inches away from the cute English teacher’s right hand on the stick shift between them.
“No need to be so formal, Jennifer. We’re not in class. Call me Greg. Mari- el and I are glad we found someone Michael actually likes. He looks forward to us going out now.”
“He’s a great kid,” Jennifer said, looking straight ahead, not trusting herself to make contact with Greg’s pewter grey eyes. “I enjoy babysitting him. Beats sitting at home on a Friday night.” In the enclosed space of the car, Jennifer could smell the combination of Greg’s Irish Spring soap and Old Spice cologne mixed with something else she couldn’t place.
“A pretty girl like you? I’m surprised you don’t have boys beating down your door.”
“You don’t have to be nice.”
“I’m not being nice. I’m just stating a fact,” he said, patting her plump left thigh. “Don’t sell yourself short, Jennifer.”
Parked outside her home, a large colonial among a sea of colonials of varying neutral colors, Jennifer felt the phantom heat of a hand on her thigh. She looked down and confirmed that her legs were now taut and toned, clad in fitted black trousers. As she ascended the granite steps up to the entrance of her house, accompanied by the reassuring clatter of her heels, she closed her eyes to recenter herself.
“Where’s my Lily doll?” Jennifer called, as she entered the foyer of her home. She walked towards the living room, where the “The Circle of Life” from The Lion King was playing.
“Mommy’s home!” Lily yelled, leaping up from the floor. Jennifer smiled as Lily’s slight and stretched bones embraced her. She was always grateful that Lily was an ectomorph like her father, Peter.
“Did you have a good day, sweetheart?” Jennifer asked, embracing Lily, inhaling the scent of her apple shampoo.
“Yes, I drew a picture of an elephant. Daddy put it on the fridge.”
“Well, I can’t wait to see it,” Jennifer said, pausing the video. “Go wash your hands and we’ll have dinner soon, okay?”
“I thought I heard you,” Peter said, entering from the kitchen, the lines of his pinstripe suit emphasizing his height. Predator, most certainly a lion, Jennifer thought with a flash of pride, admiring Peter’s mane of thick black hair and lean, muscular limbs. He drew her in for a hug, and she inhaled deeply, wanting to dose herself with his pheromones. She could only smell his expensive cologne, a pleasant chemical reproduction of the scent of burnt cedar. Her temporal lobe whispered a line from Sylvia Plath’s “Applicant”: “Will you marry it, marry it, marry it?”
“Have you seen The Lion King before?” Peter asked, motioning to the television screen, which was frozen on the image of little Simba being presented to the predators and prey comingling peacefully below to celebrate his birth.
“Once or twice,” Jennifer said, looking down. “God, that movie is like twenty-five years old now. Damn, I feel old.”
“We’re not old. Just oldish. Don’t worry about dinner. I put the baked ziti that Marcella made in the oven. It should be done in a few minutes,” Peter said. “I hope you don’t mind if I hide in the study to work a few hours after dinner. I’ve got that trial starting tomorrow.”
“Of course, do what you have to do,” Jennifer said, forcing a smile. “But I’m not finishing that movie with Lily tonight. We’ll never get any sleep if she sees Mufasa get trampled.”
Throughout dinner that evening, Jennifer’s head throbbed. The lights from the chandelier in the dining room seemed too bright, and the laughter of her husband and daughter seemed canned. She felt she was in a play, reciting the same lines and responding to the same cues that she had for many years. The sauce that coated her pasta tasted metallic, and the Malbec she usually enjoyed burned her throat. Neither Peter nor Lily seemed to notice that she rotated her food around her plate instead of eating it.
Later in bed, overheated and wide awake, Jennifer removed the comforter, then the sheet without trying to disturb Peter sleeping beside her. She saw herself sitting in English class, and could feel the hard back and seat of her desk, which felt too small for her. She saw herself focused on the notebook in front of her, drafting a sonnet in the style of Shakespeare as assigned. She could hear the barely suppressed giggles of Michelle and Karen chiming behind her
as they passed notes, and felt a warm rush of self-consciousness. She was certain that they were writing about how fat she looked in her new babydoll dress, which suddenly seemed too short. Or maybe they had noticed the week’s growth of hair on her legs, which she had forgotten to shave that morning. She still hadn’t gotten into the habit of shaving her legs regularly. Maybe that was the difference between herself and the popular girls like Michelle and Karen, who always had smooth shiny legs. Feeling eyes on her, she looked up towards the front of the classroom, and Greg winked at her.
Jennifer grabbed her iPad from the nightstand, causing Peter to stir and grunt before rolling further to his edge of the bed. She logged onto Facebook and typed in the search bar: “Greg Slade.” Her breathing became shallow as her index finger hovered above the search button. She would know more, but never enough, and maybe knowing nothing was best. She inhaled and pressed search.
Greg’s profile was minimal, consisting mostly of photos in which Mariel had tagged him. His face and figure were the same, though the black curls were now streaked with strands of silver. Jennifer tried to reconcile the image of the middle-aged boys’ soccer coach with the charismatic, young teacher who had dominated her thoughts in high school and college. With a flash of satisfaction, she noted that Mariel had not aged well, with a slight paunch and dull brown hair. And little Michael, the boy she used to babysit, was now a tall, handsome man, several years out of college, engaged to be married.
Jennifer looked at the time on her iPad. 4:23 a.m. As she feared, she had opened a dam that she would be unable to stop, and she had no one to blame but herself. A hunger pang traveled from her stomach to her throat, reminding her that she had barely eaten dinner. She crept out of the bed and tip-toed down the stairs to the kitchen. She microwaved the leftover pasta, taking it out before the microwave beeped. It’s okay, she reasoned, as she lifted heavy forkfuls of cheese-glazed macaroni to her mouth before the dim light of the microwave. You didn’t have dinner. You won’t get any sleep if you’re hungry. But don’t make a habit out of it.
After several nights of minimal sleep, Jennifer was feverish and desperate for distraction, trying to stem the flood of humiliating memories that she hoped she didn’t remember properly. She watched wildlife documentaries with Lily, slowly becoming Lily’s willing accomplice in her animal obsession. To Lily, the lions were huge cats who would purr loudly if she pet them, and the zebras were pretty striped horses that she could ride. Jennifer, however, was intrigued by the unwritten and unspoken codes that seemed to govern all the animals in their interactions with each other. There were the elephants, gentle grey giants who traveled in breeding herds led by matriarchs. The females, protective of their calves, would kick out rambunctious males who threatened the younger ones. Then there were the solitary leopards, with their spotted lithe bodies and hungry pear green eyes. The female leopards would eventually abandon their cubs, leaving them to roam and hunt alone. Still, all the animals were guided by the same primal drives. Hunting and grazing to eat. Mating to procreate. No right or wrong. Just instinct and survival. Hunger and satiety. While she only watched documentaries geared towards children with Lily, she spent each night glued to her iPad watching videos of wild animals stalking, chasing, growling, and biting. Only picking at her food during the day, Jennifer would find herself ravenous as she tried to fall asleep. With Peter slumbering beside her, her growling stomach would compel her to creep downstairs to scavenge on leftover rotisserie chicken and cold pizza by the low light of the refrigerator.
“Ah, my two favorite girls are here,” Jennifer’s mother Nancy said, welcoming Jennifer and Lily to her home. “Come here Lily, give your grandma a hug. I have a gift for you,” she said, handing Lily a blue bag.
Lily pulled out a small safari guide outfit. “Look, Mommy! I love it, Grandma! Can I wear it now?”
“Of course, go try it on.” Nancy said, and Lily ran off to change. Nancy’s eyes narrowed on Jennifer’s hairline. “Too busy to get to the salon, dear?”
“I’m sorry, Mother,” Jennifer said with a roll of her eyes. “I didn’t mean to offend you with my horrible roots.”
“No need to be fresh, Jennifer. Blonde hair suits you. But you do need to keep up with it.”
“I really wish you hadn’t bought her that outfit. I’m not sure this is a healthy obsession anymore.”
“The only way out is through,” Nancy said with a knowing smile. “Don’t fight it. Just let her immerse herself until she grows bored and another bright shiny object will distract her.”
Jennifer looked around the living room of the house she had grown up in, and her eyes fell upon the prom picture placed on the mantel above the fireplace. There she was, in a satin violet gown, her round face framed by permed hair and bangs teased high. Jennifer winced at the bulk of her teenage self, especially compared to Amy, the slender friend she had attended the prom with, standing beside her in the photo. She closed her eyes as she recalled when Greg had approached her that evening as she stood alone in the hotel corridor, escaping the ballroom full of teenage couples bound by hormones slow-dancing.
“You look beautiful in that gown,” Greg said with a wide smile, drawing her attention from the framed Renoir print she was inspecting on the wall. “What are you doing out here by yourself?”
“Oh, I didn’t want to sit at a table alone while everyone else was dancing with their dates,” she said, regretting her honesty as soon as she spoke.
“I wish I could ask you to dance.”
“Please stop that,” Jennifer said, with a conviction she didn’t feel. “What?”
“Stop leading me on.”
“I’m sorry,” he said, taking two steps back. “I didn’t mean to upset you. We’ve discussed this before. You know I have my career and family to consider.”
“Nobody would have to know,” Jennifer said, emboldened in her heels and long satin gown. “I would never tell anyone.” “You would wind up hating me.”
“You would feel like I took advantage of you. I don’t want to hurt you.”
“I just turned 17, you know. I’m not a kid anymore.”
“I care for you, Jennifer,” he said. “But I’m doing what’s best for us both.”
“So I ran into your cousin Stacey and her daughter Beth the other day,” Nancy said, interrupting Jennifer’s thoughts. “You wouldn’t believe how much weight Beth has gained.”
“Mother, Beth is like twelve years old. Can we not criticize a child’s weight? What if Lily heard you talking like that?”
“Lily doesn’t have anything to worry about. She’s thin as a rail, like her father.”
“That’s not the point,” Jennifer protested.
“You’re making a big deal out of nothing, Jennifer. I don’t know why you’re so moody today. Would you mind helping me with the garden after lunch? There’s so many weeds this summer, I can hardly keep up.” Working alongside her mother in the garden in the hot afternoon sun, Jennifer licked her lips. “Do you remember Mr. Slade?”
“Mr. Slade? You mean Greg? Your English teacher?”
“Oh, yes, very nice guy. He always thought very highly of you. Are you still in touch?”
“No, I just came across some pictures of him and Michael on Facebook recently. Would you believe little Michael is engaged now?” “Really! Doesn’t time pass quickly?”
As Jennifer dug into the soil, reaching under the roots of the weeds and pulling them out, her temperature rose. It was irrational, she knew, to be mad at her mother for not asking questions that she was desperate to answer.
“Careful, dear, you’re pulling up some of the flowers,” Nancy said with a creased brow.
“Can you keep an eye on Lily?” Jennifer asked, peeling off her gardening gloves. “I thought I might take a look at some of the stuff we have stored in the attic and take it off your hands.”
“I thought you’d never ask. You’d be doing me a favor.”
Jennifer ascended the stairs to the attic and quickly found the cardboard box marked “BOOKS” that she was looking for. There, buried in the bottom, beneath her college chemistry and biology books, was her dog-eared copy of Sylvia Plath’s Ariel. She flipped through the pages, smiling at the emphatic exclamation points, question marks, and underlined verses, made by her own hands years ago but seemingly by another person. She stopped turning the pages at her favorite poem, “Daddy”: “You do not do, you do not do, any more black shoe…” Jennifer couldn’t read the words without reciting them aloud, as she had when she was a teenager. And there, on the inside cover: Dear Jennifer: I hope that you enjoy this as you embark on the chapter of your life. You will be missed. With affection, Greg 6/24/97. The date reminded Jennifer of the warm summer evening Greg had given her the book.
“I’m glad you could come to the poetry reading with me.” Greg said as they walked back to his car. “It’s certainly not Mariel’s type of thing.”
“Thanks for inviting me,” Jennifer said, trying to match Greg’s long strides in her platform sandals. She had chosen her outfit carefully, a low-cut floral dress that defined her waist. Not being invited to Karen’s graduation party had stung, but being here with Greg would have been her first choice anyway. “You didn’t have to buy me a book.”
“It’s nothing, just a small graduation gift. I know how much you enjoy Plath’s poetry.”
“God, her work is so electric,” Jennifer said, flipping through the pages. She wouldn’t tell him that she already had a copy. It was this one, the one that he had signed, that she would keep. “Forget becoming a dentist. Maybe I’ll run off to England and become a poet like her.”
“I’ve no doubt you can do whatever you put your mind to.”
“I only wish I could speak the way she wrote. Her genius makes me feel inadequate.”
“You’re a very impressive young woman, Jennifer. You graduated seventh in your class and you’re enrolling in the most prestigious school in the area this fall. We should go somewhere and celebrate.” He grabbed her left hand, and for several seconds they awkwardly attempted to interlace their fingers. Once their fingers were intertwined, he gave her hand a squeeze that accelerated her heart rate.
“I don’t know, maybe…” This was almost too perfect, she thought, exactly how she had imagined it would happen. “Alright, if you have time.”
Jennifer’s shallow breathing was interrupted by Lily singing outside. She bit her lip, wondering if her mother had ever stumbled across this book with its inscription. Tucking the book under her arm, Jennifer descended the stairs.
“Can we stop for ice cream, Mommy?” Lily asked as Jennifer drove home. Jennifer’s eyes were drawn to Lily’s legs, swinging in the passenger seat beside her. Lily’s shorts seemed tight, cutting into her thighs, which had a faint coating of light hair. Was Lily gaining weight or just outgrowing her clothes? Jennifer considered the generous serving of potato chips that Lily had eaten with her tuna sandwich, and became conscious of her own jeans cutting into her abdomen. It had taken effort to button them that morning, likely the result of her late night visits to the kitchen. “No,” Jennifer said. “Dinner’s only a couple of hours away.”
Date: September 7, 1997
How are you? College is okay. This semester is mostly prereqs for dental school but I was able to fit in a poetry course. It’s interesting to study how Yeats and Dylan influenced Plath. It’s hard to focus though. All I keep thinking about is seeing you again, and feeling the vibration of your voice go through me when you hold me in your arms. Let me know if you want to see me when I come home for Thanksgiving.
From: jennifer.ballard @pearson.edu To: email@example.com
Date: October 29, 1997
I’m not sure why you haven’t written back. Maybe you’re too busy or you’re sick. Or maybe Michael’s new babysitter is prettier. But sometimes when I think about the evenings we spent together by the soccer field over the summer, I wonder if you didn’t take advantage of me.
Subject: RE: Hello
To: firstname.lastname@example.org Date: October 30, 1997
Jennifer- I’m sorry that you feel I’ve neglected you. My primary concern has always been your well-being, and I thought some distance would give you some perspective. I remember agreeing that this would end when school started. I think it’s best that we don’t have any contact and that you focus on your school- work and give some lucky fellow at Pearson a chance. Greg
Subject: RE: Hello
From: email@example.com To: firstname.lastname@example.org
Date: November 1, 1997
I should have loved a thunderbird instead;
At least when spring comes they roar back again. I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)
Sylvia Plath, Mad Girl’s Love Song
One evening, several days after visiting her mother, Jennifer tried to remain still in bed, attempting to control the buzzing in her head and the electricity in her legs that demanded release by movement. Even in her lightest linen night- gown, with the air conditioner blasting artic air, her skin was a feverish shell that refused to cool. Though she had placed her old copy of Ariel on her nightstand several days ago, Peter hadn’t commented on it, and she doubted he had even noticed it.
There was, she had to admit, something familiar, almost nostalgic, about the obsession, the unhalting thoughts traveling an infinity loop, reminiscent of the sleepless nights and hunger pangs when she was in college, which had seemed romantic in its own way. Fresh from Greg’s rejection in the fall of her freshman year, she avoided the loud voices and bright lights of the school dining halls, nursing her starvation like a flame, holding a vigil she intended to keep until she received some affirmation from him. She had watched with satisfaction as her curves disappeared, thinking he would be sorry if he saw how ravaged she was by his rejection. She recalled her parents’ campus visits, when they would comment on her weight loss with approval, and Jennifer would feel pride knowing that the shift in her shape was visible.
Jennifer ran her hands along her stomach, threateningly concave, as if something inside was attempting to punch its way out. The late night trips to the kitchen could not continue indefinitely. She almost wished that her movement would wake up Peter and that he would ask if she was okay. Perhaps the words, whatever they were, would come with his prompting. Then again, Peter would view it as a problem to solve, and she herself couldn’t clearly define what the problem was.
Suddenly Jennifer recalled there was one outlet where she might get some relief. On her iPad, she logged onto XOXO, a women’s site that she and her receptionist had read and mocked during their lunch hour earlier that day. Jennifer created an anonymous account and started a thread on the discussion board in which she poured out all her memories, trying to create an accurate portrayal of all the interactions with Greg that were haunting her. The innuendo-laden conversations and the intentional grazing of her arms and legs on the drives home which escalated to declarations and rejections that never stuck. The evenings in the parking lot of the soccer field which began the night of the poetry reading the summer after she graduated. The depression that swallowed her years in college after he cut off contact. The lack of appetite that nearly
led to an eating disorder which had recently morphed into binge eating at night decades after her last contact with him. She concluded her 652 word post: “Should I report him?”
Jennifer waited until her lunch hour the following day before checking for responses to her post. Seated in her office with the door closed, she was shocked to see 81 replies, an almost universal condemnation of Greg:
KittyKat• 6 hours ago
Girl, OF COURSE you should report him. The man committed a FELONY. He GROOMED you. He RAPED you. Do you really think you were the only one? What about all his other students and babysitters? Don’t you have a responsibility to help all the other girls who are unfortunate enough cross this predator’s path? DO IT NOW.
PeachesAndCream • 5 hours ago
I’m so, so sorry you had to go through this. This guy sounds like a real piece of shite. Seriously, we had to invent the word “fuckboy” for men like this. Just follow your gut and do what you think is right for you. Stay strong!
Then, like a punch in the stomach:
TequilaRain• 3 hours ago
Why does everybody have to be a victim these days? She was old enough to consent, and she did. She wasn’t even his student when they started sleeping together. #metoo is not for bored women processing midlife crises. Stories like this make people doubt the experience of real survivors. I’m going to save my outrage for real abuses of power. Go ahead and report if you want, but I doubt you have a case.
Jennifer’s blood warmed and rushed to her face. How was it possible, she wondered? How could a stranger she had never met size her up so well?
“First, are you our sort of person?” Jennifer’s memory echoed Sylvia Plath’s “Applicant” as she entered the steakhouse with Peter for their tenth anniversary dinner. For Peter, the answer was an unequivocal yes. In his striped dress shirt, unbuttoned just so, and suit pants perfectly tailored to skim the top of his leather shoes, he was a man in his natural habitat who appreciated the code of conduct of a place like this. The silverware would be replaced between courses, the wine would be served at the right temperature, and the breadcrumbs would be swept before the entrees were served. Jennifer felt constricted in her black lace cocktail dress, which she had struggled to zip earlier. She hoped, with her cheekbones contoured by NARS blush and her stomach flattened by Spanx, that the effects of her late night visits to the fridge weren’t showing.
“Are you ready to order?” the waiter asked, with a practiced smile, as he placed a glass of Shiraz in front of Jennifer and a glass of draft beer in front of Peter.
“I’ll have the 16 ounce New York sirloin. Well done.” Peter answered.
“And you, Madame?”
Jennifer’s stomach rolled with hunger as read the menu. “I’ll have the 8 ounce filet mignon. Rare. And…an order of the parmesan truffle fries.”
“Someone’s hungry,” Peter said with a teasing smile as the waiter walked away.
“I didn’t have lunch today,” Jennifer countered. Her eyes focused on the pan of rolls, glossy with butter and dusted with coarse salt, at the center of the table. Her mouth salivated, though Peter appeared oblivious to them, and she clasped her wine glass to avoid reaching for one. She had promised herself that tonight she would focus on Peter, eat her dinner, sleep through the night, and avoid a late night trip to the kitchen. Maybe the wine would ease words to her lips that she otherwise could not form. She tried to make eye contact with Peter as he scanned the room, full of well-dressed pumas and panthers, seated in curved cognac leather booths, washing down bite-sized chunks of pink meat with red wine. Not a wildebeest or warthog in sight.
“Tell me a secret,” she said, running a finger along the rim of her glass. “Something about yourself that you’ve never told me before.”
“You think we have secrets from each other after all this time?”
“I know we do,” she said, hearing the effects of her second glass of wine in the flirtatious lilt in her voice.
“Hmmm, well, when we first started dating, I was actually seeing someone else. A teaching assistant for my constitutional law class,” Peter replied with a mischievous grin.
“Really?” she said, leaning back with wide eyes. “I was the other woman?”
“I was going to break up with her anyway, but I waited until the class was over. It was never really serious.” Peter placed a large piece of pink-brown meat in his mouth, revealing paper-white incisors and canines as he chewed. “Now it’s your turn.”
“Well…” she said, taking a large sip of wine. “You know how I told you Elaine and I studied in the law school library because the medical school library was too loud and distracting?”
“Well, that was a lie. We were there because Elaine wanted to meet law school guys. She thought the dental school guys were too nerdy. She had her eye on you for weeks.”
“Really?” Peter asked with a chuckle. “You mean I was being stalked?”
“I suppose you were. And we had a nickname for you. Prom King. Like, if law school had a prom king, you would have been it.”
“I’m flattered, I suppose.”
“You know, I always wondered,” she said, watching Peter take a sip of beer. “There were two of us that you always ran into at the library, and I’m the one you asked out. Why me?”
“Maybe because it seemed like you cared less and would be a challenge,” Peter said with a shrug. “And I always had a thing for petite blondes.”
Jennifer recoiled at the description of herself as a petite blonde. But she supposed that’s what she was by the time they had met, or at least closer to that than the dark-haired chubby girl she was in high school. And he had mistaken her shy insecurity for cool indifference. She recalled Elaine regularly approaching Peter, asking him for a spare pen, asking what time it was, presenting herself like one of those lionesses in a wildlife documentary with a lifted tail signaling she was ready to mate. He would never admit what Jennifer suspected, that Elaine’s thick eyebrows, faint mustache, and zaftig figure made her like a member of another species that he could never consider seriously breeding with.
“She never forgave me, you know, for dating you,” Jennifer said. “I broke girl code before it was even a thing.” Jennifer’s face flushed when she re- called first telling Elaine that she and Peter were dating, and how she had feigned ignorance of Elaine’s own interest in him. With a coldness that she didn’t know she was capable of, Jennifer later ignored Elaine on campus, trying to avoid the flash of guilt when she saw her. The delight she felt at being chosen by Peter, however, had overridden any remorse she felt.
“Well, here we are, married ten years later,” Peter said. “I would say things worked out the way they were supposed to.” Peter reached for her hand, and Jennifer winced at its cool touch. She remembered the few times Greg had held her hand, and how its warmth would radiate through her body until she felt inebriated. Surely, she thought, this must hint at some important difference between the two men, between their metabolisms and appetites. It had seemed so reassuring in those first days when she and Peter started dating, when she was certain that a man with a cool hand was one she could trust.
Peter released her hand and reached inside to a pocket in his coat and withdrew a navy blue Mikimoto box. “Happy anniversary, my dear.”
Jennifer opened the box, revealing a set of white pearl stud earrings. Creamy and smooth. Tasteful and elegant. Hard and cold. “They’re beautiful,” she sputtered.
Peter leaned back with a self-satisfied sigh that churned Jennifer’s stomach. Usually his ease with himself would transmit itself through osmosis to her until she adopted it as her own. But tonight she was impermeable. If he initiated sex tonight, maybe she would go along. But he probably wouldn’t, and she didn’t really want him to. Grateful, Jennifer reminded herself. Be grateful. Wherever Elaine was now, she would probably be jealous.
“Mommy, hurry up! It’s starting!” Lily said, yelling from the living room to the kitchen.
“Be right there, sweetheart,” Jennifer called, cutting the ham and cheese sandwiches into triangles, the way Lily liked. The National Geographic channel was broadcasting a safari live from South Africa that morning, and Lily’s anticipation was infectious. Jennifer smiled at the sight of her daughter in her safari guide outfit gripping a stuffed leopard doll.
“There’s reports that Prince Leopold, the dominant male leopard in this park, is nearby,” said the safari guide, a young blond woman with a pleasant South African accent. “There’s fresh tracks to our right. If you listen closely, you can hear the impala barking and racing out of the area, so he’s probably close.”
“Mommy, are they going to show a leopard?”
“We’ll see, sweetheart.”
“Look, look!” the guide said excitedly. “He’s poking out from behind the termite mound…he might have waited too long, the impala have a head start, but wait…there’s a little one…the poor thing is having trouble keeping up…it looks like she has a limp…there he goes!”
“Look, Mommy, they’re racing! They’re so fast! Oh, oh, he caught her! He’s biting her…Mommy, the deer’s bleeding! Is she okay?”
Unable to tear her eyes away, Jennifer leaned forward as the leopard sank his teeth into the neck of the impala and lifted her body. She recalled the words of Plath’s “Pursuit”: “Crying: blood, let blood be spilt; meat must glut his
mouth’s raw wound.” The impala let out a plaintive wail, waving her limbs in a desperate attempt to reach the ground. Blood dripped from her neck as she twitched from her ears to her hooves, and her large brown eyes stopped blinking. Once the struggling stopped, the leopard lowered the impala to the ground and began to licking the impala’s stomach tenderly, as if thanking her for her sacrifice.
“You see,” said the guide, “Leo first has to remove the hair so that he can break through the skin. It’s easy work with those rough tongues.”
Suddenly, with swift efficiency, the leopard chomped at the impala’s trunk and began separating the muscle from the ribs. Within seconds he had the smooth, round pink stomach in his mouth, and he dropped it to the ground. Leaving the stomach behind, he began walking with neck of the impala in his mouth, limbs and head dangling on the ground.
“And now Prince Leopold has his dinner,” the guide said admiringly. “The poor impala didn’t really have a chance. As you saw, Leo took out the stomach contents, which means he is probably going to hoist his meal up a tree to protect it from other predators. And look at him, there he goes up now, racing up the marula tree! Never fails to amaze me. Of course, this may not be appropriate for our more sensitive viewers.”
Jennifer suddenly became aware of Lily beside her, white as snow and breathing deeply. Jennifer grabbed her towards her chest, anticipating the howling she sensed creeping to the surface. Suddenly Lily exploded. “Why, Mommy?” she wailed. “Why? Why did he eat the deer?”
“When I see things like this,” the guide continued, as if hearing Lily through the screen, “it always helps to remember that predators are only doing what they are meant to do. And the herbivores are an integral part of the delicate balance out here in the bush. Every animal has a role. The circle of life, and all that.”
Later that evening, Jennifer sat on the bed, face in her hands as Peter paced their bedroom. “I don’t know how you let this happen. Jesus, Jenn.”
“Will you please keep your voice down? I’m sorry. It just happened so quickly.”
“Right, it was completely unforeseeable that a live safari would show a hunt and a kill. Damn it, Jenn.”
“For God’s sake, she’ll be fine.”
“She’s probably going to have a breakdown in school and then we’ll have DCF on our backs.”
“Stop overreacting. I’m sorry I’m not perfect like you, Perfect Peter.”
“I don’t know what’s wrong with you lately. You’ve been up all hours with your face stuck in your iPad, walking around like a zombie every day. We haven’t had sex in weeks. You’ve been sneaking downstairs to eat in the middle of the night. And now it’s starting to affect Lily and you’re lashing out at me.”
Jennifer flushed with embarrassment learning that Peter had been aware of her late night forages in the kitchen. She stared at him pacing, admiring his tall, solid form and his graceful, strong gait. So righteously angry, with his puffed chest and dilated pupils. This was the man who chose her, the one who was here now. And yet he still knew so little about her, meeting her only after she had smoothed all her edges into something polished and opaque. Re- served, conscientious, nurturing; highlighted, shaved, and toned. A woman who would appreciate Mikimoto pearls and who never made him angry. That was the Jennifer Peter knew, at least until a few weeks ago.
Jennifer opened her mouth, uncertain of the words that would follow. “I have something to tell you, but I don’t know if it’ll make any sense.”
“You know you can tell me anything.”
“Remember when I told you that my first time was with an older guy?” “Ah, yes, the mysterious man you never wanted to talk much about.” She exhaled. “He was a teacher I babysat for. And I think that maybe he took advantage of me.”
“You mean he raped you?” he asked, finally stopping his pacing and turning towards her.
“No, I mean, not exactly. I was 17 when we started sleeping together. But I was 15 when he started coming on to me.”
Relief dawned on Peter’s face. “And why is this on your mind now?”
“I don’t know exactly. Maybe it’s watching Lily grow up. I don’t want the same thing to happen to her. And what if he’s doing this to other girls now? Maybe I should report him. Should I?”
“I don’t know, Jenn,” he said, rubbing his temples. “That’s a big decision. Do you really want to put yourself through that? And what about the statute of limitations?”
“So you don’t think it’s a big deal?” she asked, her voice rising.
“I’m not saying that, Jenn.” Exhaling deeply, he scanned her, barefaced in her bathrobe. He pursed his lips the way he sometimes did when he was displeased with a glass of wine. “I’m just trying to be rational about this.”
It hadn’t been Peter’s fault, Jennifer realized. She had lowered her voice, made herself smaller, and rid herself of the prey scent that she feared would lead to her being consumed. This allowed her to stand beside a predator, feeling safe and protected. But hierarchies, once established, could only be altered by a disruption to the natural order.
A chill originated from the sacrum of her spine and radiated to her fingers and toes.
“I think I need some time on my own,” she said. “I’ll take Lily and stay with my mother for a while.”
Later that evening, after packing her bags, Jennifer disrobed and entered the shower, letting the hot water run through her hair and over her skin. She remembered the theory from high school biology that every seven years all cells in the human body have died and replaced themselves. By that measure, she was two or three regenerations away from the girl who last had contact with Greg. But there was a caveat, which she hadn’t learned until her college anatomy class. The neurons of the cerebral cortex lasted from birth to death, and it was that remaining fragment in her brain that would never yield. Jennifer lathered her torso with citrus body scrub, thinking of how many changes her body had been through: overweight teenager, malnourished college student, pregnant mother- to-be. She recalled Plath’s Lady Lazarus: These are my hands. My knees. I may be skin and bone, Nevertheless, I am the same, identical woman. She looked down at her legs and was shocked at how long the hairs had grown. She ran her hands along her right calf, and was surprised that it felt smooth, as the hairs were too long to be prickly. She grabbed the can of shaving cream and lathered her right leg with a coat of white foam. She placed a new razor on her ankle and dragged it up to her knee, leaving a track of slick, shiny skin where the razor had removed the cream, hair and skin cells.