Lee bit into his PB&J and watched Bono, the dominant Silverback Gorilla, knucklewalk from the back of his enclosure to the front. Bono stood upright near a puddle, reaching his full height of six feet. Even though Lee had seen him do it before on rainy days, it was still unsettling. Despite fitting every depiction of King of the Jungle, Bono also exhibited several endearing high-maintenance attitudes, like never allowing his giant hands to drag through the mud.
Bono sat by the glass closest to Lee’s bench, his leathery face reproachful. Lee’s tendency toward anthropomorphism was on point when it came to Bono; he believed he could read subtle emotions like awe and even amusement. Bono eyed Lee’s sandwich slyly before looking away. Lee yearned to look his friend in the eyes but had learned to love the gesture instead. For gorillas, direct eye contact meant a challenge. Lee didn’t want Bono to feel like he had to be territorial with him.
“I know, man. I’m sorry,” Lee said around a bite of sandwich. “It’s been what, three months? There was a pandemic, you know.” Lee grabbed his face mask from the bench and waved it in the air. “Where’s your mask?” Bono scratched his potbelly in lazy circles and focused his heavy-lidded gaze somewhere near Lee’s shoes. “They’re making me wear this damn thing all day at work now, as if business attire weren’t torture enough.” Bono slapped his thighs as if in agreement.
“Barely got in here today, you know,” Lee continued, loosening his tie. “They’re limiting zoo guests. Luckily, the season pass puts me to the front of the line.” Bono foraged a sunflower seed from the dirt, letting it rest on his lip before pushing it into his mouth. Lee paused, looking behind him to make sure they were alone. “I’ve missed you, man.”
Lee had spent every lunchbreak for five years at the bench by Bono’s exhibit. His office, the only office he’d been at since graduating from college and since Sarah left, was just a short walk to the zoo. Lunches with Bono went long, but he preferred working later to make up the time he took midday.
He wasn’t sure what made Bono take notice of him and join him for lunch each day. Maybe it was the same things that attracted his co-workers, the neighbors in his building, and the ladies from the dating app—because he was tall and wore dark suits, his hair had a slight wave, his smile was friendly, and his complexion clear. He looked like a young Marlon Brando. Lee laughed at his vanity, realizing Bono only watched him because he stood out against the gaggle of school-aged children on field trips. Lee only spotted Bono because he was a huge gorilla, big for even a silverback’s normal standards, and how could you miss him?
A gust of wind ruffled the greying hair on Bono’s shoulders. It wasn’t the first time Lee found himself wondering if the aging gorilla was nearing retirement, or if he seemed older than his years. He meant to ask a zookeeper but didn’t want to spend his entire lunchbreak fending off the advances of the women who worked the primate enclosure. There were five of them, each more aggressively single than the last.
Lee put down his sandwich, unable to continue eating it. The wind carried the smell of animal shit, and rainy days made the smell more intense. A new plaque stood out against the cinderblock next to Bono’s enclosure. Lee stood to read the sign, drifting his fingers over the engraved script and an image of a gorilla that Lee didn’t recognize.
“Meet Barb, the newest member of Bono’s troop! Barb is a nine-year-old female, and she’s ready to mate. Gorillas are critically endangered, and the numbers are staggering. Over 100,000 western lowland gorillas exist in the wild, with 4,000 in zoos; eastern lowland gorillas have a population of under 5,000 in the wild and 24 in zoos. Thanks to conservation efforts like captive breeding programs, gorillas now have insurance against extinction!”
Barb’s plaque reminded Lee of the dating app on his phone, where pictures and biographies of possible matches were at his fingertips. Lee sheltered himself during the start of the pandemic alone, but that was nothing new. After Sarah left, he started a sexual quarantine for five years, but being trapped in his apartment had thrown his normal solitary life into the harsh light of reality.
A few weeks later, he downloaded the dating app with the stupid name, Love Fool, and ended his celibacy period. Lee had been open to any type of woman—playboy bunnies with aggressive makeup, crafty women with sharp haircuts and heavy costume jewelry, granola gals with nose rings and natural looks, and muscled tomboys with thick thighs. He was never alone, but lonely all of the time, which made his thoughts drift to Sarah.
“You avoiding her?” Lee asked, nodding toward Barb with the other females in Bono’s enclosure. They idled on the ropes while eyeing Bono. “The new one?” Bono yawned, flashing his yellowing canines that made Lee thankful for the glass between them. “I get it. It sounds counterintuitive, but quarantine kept my dance card full too. Women brave enough to come over were suddenly afraid of exposing themselves to the virus when it was time to go.”
Barb slipped away from the group. She approached Bono from the side, slow and leisurely with uninterrupted eye contact while puckering her lips. Lee laughed out loud.
“Aww, man. She’s into you. Doing those stupid duck lips and everything.”
Bono broke eye contact with Barb, gazing out of the enclosure with disinterest. Barb edged closer to Bono, reached out and touched him, and a pang of worry twisted in Lee’s gut. Would Bono hurt her? Did he ever act on that primal anger that tainted the blood of the male species, men and ape alike?
“Reunited and it feels so good!” a high-pitched voice screeched from behind Lee. He didn’t know if it was the irritating voice or Bono’s rejection, but Barb scampered away to join the other females.
“No, no, no,” Lee whispered to Bono before turning around. “Cheryl,” Lee said, grinning stiffly, “Good to see you. I was just ending my break.”
Cheryl, the most sexually aggressive of the zookeepers, tossed her red hair and turned slightly to present her ass in khaki shorts. “Thank God we are open again. Glad to see my favorite boys are back together,” she said.
Lee, astounded that she had the audacity to call him one of her boys, hurried to the trashcan and threw away his sandwich. He took too long waving goodbye to Bono, and Cheryl blocked his path out of the viewing area. Lee shuffle-danced side to side, trying to get by without touching her.
“Cheryl, I need to get back to—”
“—excuse us,” said a woman, tugging her young son by the hand.
As Lee and Cheryl stepped aside and watched the woman pass into the viewing area, he was hit with sudden recognition. The woman was one of many rotating though his apartment during the haze of lockdown, during what he jokingly referred to as his “mating season.”
The pandemic had made all of the women from Love Fool unapologetically ferocious, like Cheryl. Lee continued to swipe on the app. The women continued to appear, entering the confines of his apartment, needy, horny, and out of control. The threat of the virus seemed to tear away all of their inhibitions, and they scratched, screamed, and hair-tugged their way through orgasm after orgasm, just as Lee did.
Lee looked at the mother looking at Bono and tried to place her face. Erect nipples and wax came to mind. Biting. But that could have been anyone. Was she the one that refused to kiss? Refused to remove her mask? The musk of her sweat was at the edge of his memory, but she spoke, breaking the olfactory connection.
“Lee, right?” She took a step away from the boy and toward Lee. The over-eager look still simmered in her brown eyes, and it somehow didn’t jive with being a mother.
At first, he’d loved the willingness of all the ladies on the app. He didn’t have to hide the toys that kept him busy during captivity—his lightsabers, novelty bongs, gaming accessories, and action figurines. Hell, he didn’t even have to shower, cook dinner, or watch a movie. They didn’t care if he had a job, a car, or a 401K. It was all about sex.
After weeks trapped in his apartment with sex-starved strangers, he’d suspected he was courting melancholy. He waited until his dates made a trip to the bathroom to rummage through their purses, overstuffed shoulder bags, slim clutches, totes, and everything in between. Lee sifted through eyeliner stubs, condoms, lipsticks, gum, and credit cards, coveting clues of who these women were. For a few weeks, he’d believed the truth hid in the unusual items they carried. But the odd items he found in their possession, Scrabble tiles, butter knives, a lightbulb, and even the full calligraphy set, failed to penetrate the haze of sexual need that surrounded the women. None of it was enough to piece together a life or to hold a mirror up to his loneliness.
The person he thought he knew the most, without going through her things or exploring her body in a kinky way, was Sarah. He’d grown up across the street from her, had always known her, and planned to grow old with her. Sarah promised a life with him that seemed so comfortable and unremarkable that it bordered on boring. They would have careers, kids, dogs, and a house. The prospect of normalcy was exotic to them; Lee’s Mom rotated through volatile husbands every year, and Sarah’s Dad drank until he erupted with anger.
Lee and Sarah checked all of the boxes together, including prom, losing their virginity, graduation, college, and cohabitation. It was traditional, run-of-the-mill, and routine, but Sarah held extraordinary magic that made it into something else. It was a quality Lee tried to articulate, but something that dissolved under close inspection. Her magic was turning their shitty college apartment into a home without spending money, or how she could whip up gourmet pancakes out of nothing but was a miserable cook when it came to anything else. The heavy river of curly hair that trickled down her spine. The way her smile went crooked when she laughed. How she held Lee during thunderstorms. The way her body fit against his. Her magic was more than he could explain, made all the more mysterious now that she was gone.
The Jesus-looking guy in Sarah’s senior writing workshop the semester before she was due to graduate would prove to be their downfall. On the day she’d met this man, Sarah’s green eyes simmered with yearning, a look that Lee didn’t understand at first, but later found repellent on other women. She spoke about Fake Jesus often, her breath quickening and her face aglow. Still, Lee naively chalked it up to admiration for the man’s writing.
The day Sarah left she’d scrawled a quick goodbye on the whiteboard, as if she only went out to grab milk. Lee tried to put emotions like love, devotion, and heartbreak aside, which clarified his vision and made him wonder if he’d known her at all. The Sarah he thought he knew was dependable and wouldn’t quit college so close to the end. The Sarah he thought he knew wouldn’t leave most of her belongings behind. The woman he thought he knew wouldn’t steal money from their joint account to start a new life with Fake Jesus on a bus. Since then, Lee had graduated and started his career, but he floundered to craft a personal life on his own. Instead, he created a solitary existence in which he relied on a captive gorilla for emotional connection.
Bono slapped his large hand onto the glass, something he rarely did. Lee moved closer to examine the almost-human appendage, the universe in the primate’s fingertips, filled with unique loops and whorls. He pushed his own considerably smaller hand against Bono’s. The glass was frigid, and for the first time, Lee felt culpable for supporting Bono’s captivity. How healthy was it for an animal from the Congo to live in this chilly Colorado climate?
“Lee? It’s me, Rochelle,” said the woman holding the kid’s hand. Lee stopped his racing thoughts of Sarah and about Bono’s comfort. He turned his head toward the woman. Her teeth chattered as she hugged herself against the cold. Why did these women dress in so little? Lee fought the impulse to rescue her by giving her his jacket.
Nodding and waving hello, Lee began to recall who Rochelle was. She’d sent him dirty photos, but never typed a greeting or even an introduction. This was the first time they were properly meeting. But that wasn’t unique among the women on Love Fool. Not all of them sent dirty photos, but every single woman started with physical intimacy, eschewing the societal norms of courtship. What was unique to Rochelle was that she wanted him to choke her.
They’d been in a naked tangle in Lee’s sheets, Lee inside of her when she’d slapped his face. Lee stopped moving, his penis threatening to shrivel.
“What’s wrong?” he asked, stopping and pushing his arms against the mattress to make some space between their bodies.
“Keep going, but choke me,” Rochelle said, pulling at Lee’s torso until they were skin to skin again. “Sometimes, it helps if I slap first, primes your anger. You need more, or can you be a man and choke me?”
In the split-second that Lee hesitated, he hoped she would forget about the whole thing. Instead, she slapped him again, harder.
“Now,” she panted.
Lee put one elbow on the mattress, and Rochelle grabbed his other hand, clamping it around her tender neck, squeezing her hand around his. Torrents of uncharted hate flooded his system, unexpectedly intensifying his sexual experience. He mashed her neck harder between his fingers and bit his lip until the coppery taste of blood saturated his mouth. She rose her pelvis to meet his thrusting until the blue vein snaking by her eye seemed dangerously engorged. Lee stopped.
She gasped for air, and Lee rolled onto the empty side of the bed, allowing his primal rage to simmer and cool. Looking at the marks on her translucent skin and tasting the yeasty exhalations of her breath kept the confusing mix of anger and arousal roiling. Lee dressed and left the room.
“Lee?” Rochelle asked, bringing him back to the present. Lee looked at her neck instead of meeting her eyes and relaxed at the sight of bruise-free skin.
Cheryl, seeing another female approach Lee, asserted her dominance. “Ma’am? Need you to socially distance from Lee and me. See the X over there? Our patrons must stand that far apart,” she said.
“You’re standing next to him,” Rochelle said in a whiny voice that Lee found irritating. “And you’re not wearing a mask. Aren’t zoo employees supposed to wear masks?”
Lee was vulnerable, caught between the two women, away from the safe confine of his apartment. Rochelle’s son, who looked to be around ten, climbed the benches and jumped at the glass near Bono and Lee. He seemed numb to his mom’s complaints, and screeched with each jump, looking to see if Rochelle had noticed. While Rochelle and Cheryl bickered, Bono slipped his hand down, made a fist and pounded on the glass, sending vibrations down Lee’s arm. He took a step back. It was enough to shock the group into silence until the boy pointed to the enclosure and yelled, “Gross!”
Bono hunched over, vomiting an oatmeal-like spew. When he was finished, he panted for a moment before shoveling handfuls of the vomit back into his mouth to eat.
“He’s eating his puke,” the boy said, laughing.
“What’s wrong with him, Cheryl?” Lee asked, fighting the urge to vomit too. “He never does this.”
Bono barfed again and started eating the vomit before Cheryl answered robotically. “They do that when they aren’t getting proper nutrition.” She stared at Bono, but then had the good sense to blush when she seemed to remember that she was responsible for Bono’s nutrition. “It’s hard to get the diet right for captive gorillas. They get the calories they need, but not the way they need them.”
“What does that mean?” Lee asked.
“In the wild gorillas spend half of their life eating, but there’s no need to do that in captivity. They’re starved of the behavior they instinctively want so they eat their vomit, feces, urine—”
“They drink their pee?” the boy asked. He crouched on the bench, his delight looking explosive.
Lee slammed the glass with both of his palms. “I’m sorry,” he said to Bono. He turned to face Cheryl. “Why do we get this privilege? We put him in a box and watch his life deteriorate?”
“Lee, don’t get dramatic. You’ve known him for years. He’s healthy and happy.” Cheryl’s face reddened to match her hair. “Besides, what’s the alternative? What’s your big plan, Lee? Release him onto the city? He’s used to captivity now.” Cheryl continued with the standard zoo-employee response about education, conservation, and sustainability, but stopped when Lee shook his head. “He has all he could ever want here—food, drink, entertainment, women,” she continued. “We’ve freed him up for his real purpose, breeding.”
It sounded reductive, especially for a woman specializing in primate care. Lee flashed to his claustrophobic apartment as it was during stay-at-home orders. Greasy take out containers, alcohol, the constant ticker of death tolls on CNN, and the revolving door of frightened, horny, women. Like Bono, he technically had enough to keep him alive. He was going through the motions of breeding in captivity. Still, he was missing his connection with Sarah, some soul-sustaining and vital connection.
“If this were all he could ever want, why is he eating his puke?” Lee asked. He hated that his eyes were tearing up, so he focused on Bono’s silverback and blinked. Cheryl had already answered his questions, but he couldn’t stop. “He’s not the same as before the pandemic.” Lee took a steadying breath, feeling disoriented and not remembering who he was referring to.
“It’s expensive to feed gorillas a more natural diet. We’re trying, though. We dice the food and spread it out. They forage what we can scatter—peanuts, seeds, dried fruits.” Cheryl looked proud of her answer like she’d cured both Bono and Lee of what captivity had sapped from them.
Lee pounded on the glass until Bono looked up. For the first time, he gazed directly into his friend’s caramel-brown eyes. They were ringed with creped skin, brimming with tears that trickled down his face, into his fur. If Bono felt threatened, he was too sick to care.
“He’s crying!” the boy yelled.
“That’s from vomiting,” Cheryl explained, “when you throw up your eyes water.”
A ripple of disappointment crossed Bono’s face. Lee touched his own eyelids, unadvisable with the virus, and wondered what his stare revealed. He understood now that he possessed the look he detested; he was an unending pit of need. “I’m sorry,” he muttered, backing out of the viewing area on stiff legs. “I’m sorry, man. I love you.”
“Lee,” Rochelle said, “I thought we could get together again?”
“I…I can’t,” Lee said.
“Are you seeing someone?” Cheryl cut in.
“I can’t come back here,” Lee turned to Cheryl, “I was starved of something, acting out of instinct.”
“Your instincts were great,” Rochelle purred.
“Cool down, sex kitten,” Cheryl said, rolling her eyes. “He’s comparing sleeping with you to eating his own vomit.”
Lee backed away, ignoring the mating calls from the two unmasked women, their Botoxed lips puckering in disappointment. He considered visiting a less complicated exhibit, maybe the aviary where many of the birds mated for life. But the thought of caged birds proved just upsetting as Bono’s situation. He could never return to the zoo and the comfort he had found in Bono’s captivity. Before turning to leave, he made eye contact with Bono for the second and final time. The 500-pound silverback met his gaze, leaning his giant head to the side as if confused. The new gorilla, Barb, moved forward and started grooming Bono, over-eagerness swarming in her dark eyes. Lee turned his back, and a familiar need to feel Sarah’s body against his returned like a slap in the face. He knew how it felt to be enclosed in a small space, how it eventually felt smaller and smaller until there was nothing left. But Bono had Barb now, and Lee had something now too, something he’d suppressed for months, and up until now, didn’t know he had the courage to begin.