Joint Custody

“Daddy, look at that giant turtle!”

“That’s a tortoise, baby. It’s like a turtle, but a little different.”

“It looks like a turtle,” she said, crossing her arms and glaring up at him.

“It does. You’re right. It’s a lot like a turtle.”

“I’m going to call it a big turtle. I’m not going to call it what you said.”

He sighed. “Okay, Taylor. Call it what you want.”

“I’m tired of looking at the big turtle. Take me to the pandas now.”

The panda exhibit, he had realized shortly after they arrived at the zoo, was closed for maintenance. The pandas were being kept somewhere out of sight until the maintenance was completed tomorrow. Fucking tomorrow, when Taylor went back to her mom and he went back to the office and neither of them would be around to watch the damn pandas.

He was an adult; he accepted that there would be no pandas in their zoo visit, and that it might be a while before he was able to bring Taylor back to see them. That was life, in his experience—you get your hopes up and then you get disappointed. If that wasn’t a rule, it was at least a probability.

But Taylor hadn’t seen the sign at the park entrance. Taylor, just four years old, had been talking about the pandas since he’d picked her up at his ex-wife’s apartment yesterday. She had seen pandas on a TV show last week and was an expert on them, by his standards. And just then, she looked up at him and grabbed his hand, tugging him away from the tortoise.

“Please, Daddy?”

He should have told her about the closed exhibit immediately upon reading the sign. If not then, after they’d seen a few exhibits and she was being delighted by the bathing elephant. But he hadn’t, and the pandas were the only animals in the park that they hadn’t visited. He looked down to tell her, but he couldn’t get the words out.

“Okay, baby. They’re this way.”

He began to sweat as they walked. It wasn’t hot, but he could feel the beads forming on his forehead. Taylor was chatting about butterflies and caterpillars and her preschool teacher, but he wasn’t listening. They were close to the panda house when she stopped and asked him why no one else was there

“Let’s go look,” he said.

They walked up to the Plexiglas barrier and he picked her up to look inside, but all they could see was a man in white coveralls pressure washing the faux rocks. He felt her small body tighten.

“Why is that man in there, Daddy? Where are the pandas?”

“Oh, baby. I don’t think they’re here today. I think they had to take a trip out of town.”

“NO!” she screamed, sudden and violent, and she began writhing out of his grasp. He put her down on the ground and she kept crying. The maintenance man turned off his pressure washer and looked around. When he saw her crying he walked over to the side of the exhibit where they were standing.

“Is everything okay?” he called, his voice traveling over the wall and down to Mike and Taylor.

“Fine,” said Mike. “She’s disappointed about the pandas.”

“Ah. Sorry about that. Not many people have walked over here since there are signs everywhere saying the exhibit’s closed,” he said loudly.

“Yeah, I must have missed those. Say, you couldn’t help us out, could you? She’d really like to see those pandas. I kind of promised her. I’d make it worth your while.”

“No, I can’t,” said the maintenance man. “I’m just the guy who washes their walls.” And with that he walked back to his pressure washer and turned it on, not looking back to the sobbing girl and her father.

“I’m sorry, Taylor,” he said. “I’m so sorry. Is there anything else you wanted to see? We could look at the polar bears again, or the giraffe. You liked the giraffe.”

“I want to go home,” sobbed the girl. “I want to go home to Mommy.”

He wondered for a moment if the sting would ever leave those words, then he bent down and picked her up again and they began to walk to the zoo’s exit.

“Ice cream?” he asked as they walked, using his last card.

She sniffled.

“Okay.” A pause, and then, “But only if I can have chocolate.”

“Deal,” he said. “I think I’ll have the same.”

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