Chùsi is ten today, double digits, an achievement marked by the coming-of-age sacrament of frybread with sprinkles and icing for breakfast. Cupcakes are scheduled for 3:00, but Chùsi got what she came for.
This is the year of the brick-by-brick dismantling of the Soviet Bloc, the ascent of Vaclav Havel, and Chùsi’s pronouncement, for the first and only time, of her aspiration to become a professional roller skater. The coming years will be rife with disillusionment regarding the prospects of a career in roller skating––to say nothing of the ideological affinity between East and West—but today these things are irrefutable.
Chùsi drapes herself over the rail of the penguin habitat, propped on the rubber toe stop of her size three, white Chicago Rollers like a pro. Her legs, precariously long, shiver with the chill of shipped-in ice, the glinting heat of an eternal San Diego June.
A few yards off, a khaki-slacked guide delivers a careful, sweeping monologue about the tundra biome to a coterie of tourists, none of whom has given any indication of understanding English. They peer from beneath sun visors in every direction, but primarily upward, where members of the zoo staff balance on ladders, winding streamers over the stumpy limbs of faux baobab trees. Chùsi watches, mesmerized, as though witnessing an act of suburban vandalism transpire in slow motion.
“Decorations for the annual gala,” the guide explains. He launches into a brief lecture on permafrost, and then, because no one is listening, he says, “The zoo, ladies and gentlemen. A shrine to anthropocentrism.”
From his perch atop one of the ladders, a zoo employee, arms laden with crepe paper, looks down at Chùsi, a thing she feels before she sees. The moment is nothing until her mother steps beside her, overtly close—the instinctive, violently watchful posture of a mother lioness.
Chùsi rolls along the pathway, away from her mother, from the man.
At 1:00, Chùsi’s father will be joining them for birthday lunch at the Olive Garden, and as she shuffles toward the reptile pavilion, Chùsi tries to focus on what she will order. She is suddenly aware of her salmon pink terry cloth shorts, her thin, tanned arms. She hates her skates, though it is hard to say why. Later, at lunch, she will ask her father what anthropocentrism means. He will know.
As the pathway slopes into shade, Chùsi braces herself against the rail amid a gallery of plexiglass rectangles, each box a slithering tableau. She fixates on a placard describing the tiger snake, Notechis scutatus. Chùsi, at ten, finds this hilarious, the premise of an animal named after another animal. A thing masquerading as another thing.
She wonders if the snake is fooled, graceful and fixed as a ballerina in a music box, by the limp, verdant plants in its 2×2-foot plastic cube.
She wonders if it was young enough, when it first arrived, to believe that this is the size of the world.
Mildly inebriated and infinitely bored, Chùsi gazes upward through a constellation of Christmas lights. A massive improvement over the chintzy streamers of yore.
It is June, and the world surges with the scot-free thrill of having outwitted Y2K. Chùsi is 22 and cloaked in magic, the chosen emissary of an effort by the Old Globe Theater to concurrently resurrect Shakespeare and raise money for the Elephant Odyssey exhibit. How these two things could possibly be connected is unclear, but the initiative seems to be propelled by high-cheekboned, ethnically ambiguous youth and a nebulous zeal for the finer things.
As Chùsi takes a delicate, focused pull from her cranberry vodka—the first drink she’s learned to order—a resentfully handsome, bow-tied emcee announces her. Chùsi Chen. Chùsi’s agent has convinced her to hold onto her real name like a life raft. Chùsi had made a joke about whitewater rafting with an exotic name, but the agent had stared blankly, as if to say: I make the jokes around here.
Chùsi ascends the stage, a vision in floor-length gold, the texture of half-wet nail polish. She has seen the way this audience looks at the animals. She throbs with this feeling—the sensation of worship, the lent power of being adored.
“I am fire and air; my other elements
I give to baser life. So; have you done?
Come then, and take the last warmth of my lips…”
She kisses the air, feeling at once majestic and profoundly silly.
“If thou and nature can so gently part,
The stroke of death is as a lover’s pinch,
Which hurts, and is desired…”
She presses an imaginary asp to her breast.
“With thy sharp teeth this knot intrinsicate
Of life at once untie: poor venomous fool
Be angry, and dispatch…”
Chùsi dies on stage, grandly, then bows beneath a halo of lights, unfazed by the tenuous causality between a 400-year-old play and saving the animals. They will write checks, this sea of pocketbooks and suit jackets, and she will have been part of it, touched by the tumid thrill of casual largess. She, too, will save the elephants tonight.
* * *
In the shadowy corridor of the Reptile Walk, the order of rectangles has changed a bit; upgrades to the plant life are visible—the result, no doubt, of the proceeds from preceding galas. Still, the tiger snake is not difficult to find.
From behind her, a slurred interjection: “You’re Chùsi Chen.”
Chùsi turns and smiles a deterrent smile. But he is not deterred, this middle-aged heir in a garish leopard-print smoking jacket, gesticulating with a martini like a prosthetic limb.
“I liked your Cleopatra.” He sways toward her, the martini glass dipping precariously in his grasp. His eyes rove over her cheekbones, her mouth.
“What are you?”
Chùsi smiles, a taught smile. “I’m an actor. And a philanthropist tonight, like everyone.”
“No, what are you? Ethnically, I mean.”
“Half-Native American, half-Chinese,” she says, an admission that feels like unbuttoning the top button of one’s blouse, not intending to.
“How did that happen?”
“My mother had unprotected sex with my father.”
The man laughs, the laugh of someone clever enough to have commissioned this joke. “I was like, in what war?”
Chùsi fixates on the man’s Adam’s apple, a flimsy gyro wheel bouncing with his laughter, tugging against the paper-thin tissue of his throat.
“I saw you in that film. The one with the robots. You were very good.”
“Thank you,” she says, not knowing what she is supposed to be thankful for. Her gaze shifts back to the snake in its cage, an object of cramped, impeded dignity.
As Chùsi fixes her gaze on the serpent, the man leans forward, his scent both damply corny and expensive.
“Do you know who I am?”
He snorts a laugh. “You would kill to get my business card.”
Chùsi laughs. She would not kill for his or any business card.
“Chùsi Chen,” the man says again. And when Chùsi does not react, he sneers and exhales, a haze of alcohol and heat, then vanishes with a flourish of imagined triumph.
Chùsi watches the tiger snake, its golden belly etched in slivers of charcoal.
And then, for no other reason than that she is partly drunk and has always wanted to, she steps toward the unmarked employee door that looks like a seam-hinged stone. The slab folds inward onto an orange-lit hallway, a basic, unmagical tunnel of doors and buckets and latches.
With an unhurried certitude, Chùsi unlatches the door to the tiger snake’s cage.
The creature glides and sniffs around the edge of the opening. Then, like a drop of molasses, the snake slides across the threshold, a gaping invitation, and descends into a graceful curl on the floor.
* * *
Chùsi returns to the party, blushing with the elite thrill of crime without repercussion. The man in the leopard-print jacket haunts the bar beside his wife, a blossom of hair above a patchwork of hard edges and unyielding curves.
Beneath the tinkling, tittering sounds of civilization are the scents of earth, of sweat and hide, of the world as it has always been.
Chùsi has visited the zoo only once in the past decade, shortly after receiving her license as an EMT. A suicidal visitor had climbed into the Northern Frontier, hoping to invite some mortal violence from either the polar bears or the caribou, but had slipped and fallen into the arctic pool before being whisked off to Scripps Mercy to be treated for a humiliating, nonfatal case of hypothermia.
Chùsi has given up acting, the latest in a string of not-quite-careers. She has seen the world stretch and curl against its stitches, rejecting its wounds, healing oddly.
It is now June, and Chùsi slips through the gala, lit by a pulse of red and blue, with the finesse of an unrecognized god. The attendees part like water, a muted rustle of unlikely fabrics.
Overhead, Chinese paper lanterns swing from the trees like phosphorescent corpses, likely recycled from last year’s gala. The Year of the Dragon.
The patient—a snakebite victim—is transferred to the stretcher, her ankle budding with a bloated, blackening bruise. Aside from this flaw, she is a paragon of splendidly molded limbs and symmetrical features.
Chùsi presses the stretcher toward the glow of the ambulance. From behind her, a slurred interjection: “Thank you for saving my wife.”
It is the man from 12 years before, the martini-armed cyborg. It’s a new wife, of course, the former presumably lying around somewhere like so much shed skin.
As the doors of the ambulance are flung open, the man’s eyes drift to the rod of Aeschylus, the serpent coiled around its staff, stitched above her breast. He reaches behind a zebra-print pocket square and presses a business card into her palm, saying, “That’s my direct line.”
As the doors of the ambulance swing closed, Chùsi fits a BVM over the patient’s mouth. She listens for the languid seethe of oxygen while her partner—a “former barista, future doctor,” as he likes to say—rifles through an onboard collection of anti-venom medication. The patient’s blood shoves itself along the veins beneath a crepe paper sheath of skin, slugging toward the taut, violet-grey bulb of the snakebite.
Framed by the glass of the rear doors, the party recedes from foreground to background, a hub of light amid a shroud of constructed wilderness. The guests hunch in elegant postures of worry, then slowly break off and mill about, testing the mood. Around them, unseen but felt, animals stir like phantoms in the dark.
Chùsi fingers the business card, etching a light, insistent rectangle against the skin through her pocket.
It will be a very good year.
A. J. BERMUDEZ is an award-winning writer and filmmaker based in Los Angeles, California. Her work has been featured at the Yale Center for British Art, the International Festival of Arts & Ideas, and in a variety of literary publications. She is winner of the 2018 Diverse Voices Grand Prize, the 2017 Cinequest Screenwriting Award, and was named one of the ISA’s Top 25 Writers to Watch in 2019. She is also co-host of the new podcast Two-Person Book Club, to which everyone should subscribe, immediately. www.amandajbermudez.com