“So are you going to tell me where we’re going, or should I just aim for the sun and go?”
“Neither,” I say. “I’ll navigate.”
Even driving full speed with all the windows down, it feels like we’re standing in front of an open furnace, its blasts racing through our hair and clothes. Today’s heat makes yesterday’s look like the first day of spring.
We are going to be spending a lot of time outdoors today, and I make a mental note to buy enormous water bottles the first chance we get.
“This next left,” I say, and when the sign appears ahead, I cry, “Ta-da!”
“The Living Desert Zoo and Gardens,” Alex reads.
“One of the top ten best zoos in the world,” I say.
“Well, we’ll be the judge of that,” he replies.
“Yeah, and if they think we’re going to go easy on them just because we’re delusional from heat exhaustion, they’ve got another think coming.”
“But if they sell milkshakes, I’m inclined to leave them a largely positive review,” Alex says quickly under his breath, and turns the car off.
“Well, we’re not monsters.”
It’s not like we’re zoo people, but this place specializes in animals native to the desert, and they do a lot of rehabilitation with the goal of releasing animals back into the wild.
Also they let you feed giraffes.
I don’t tell Alex this because I want him to be surprised. While he is a young, hot cat lady in his heart, he’s also just a general animal lover, so I expect this to go over well.
The feeding goes until eleven thirty a.m., so I figure we have time to wander freely before I have to figure out where the giraffes are, and if we happen upon them by accident before then, all the better.
Alex still has to be careful with his back, so we move slowly, wandering from an informative reptile show to one about birds, during which Alex leans over and whispers, “I think I just decided to be afraid of birds.”
“It’s good to find new hobbies!” I hiss back. “It means you’re not stagnant.”
His laugh is quiet but unsuppressed, rattling down my arm in a way that makes me feel light-headed. Of course, that could also be the heat.
After the bird show we head to the petting zoo, where we stand among a coterie of five-year-olds and use special brushes to comb Nigerian dwarf goats.
“I misread that sign as ghosts, not goats, and now I’m just disappointed,” Alex says under his breath. He punctuates it with the face.
“It is so freaking hard to find a good ghost exhibit these days,” I point out.
“Too true,” he agrees.
“Remember our cemetery tour guide in New Orleans? He hated us.”
“Huh,” Alex says in a way that suggests he doesn’t remember, and my stomach, which has been somersaulting all day, rolls into a wall and sinks. I want him to remember. I want every moment to matter as much to him as it has to me. But if the old ones don’t, then maybe at least this trip can. I’m determined that it will.
In the petting zoo, we meet some other African livestock, including a few Sicilian dwarf donkeys.
“There sure are a lot of tiny things in the desert,” I say.
“Maybe you should move here,” Alex teases.
“You’re just trying to get me out of New York so you can swoop in and get my apartment.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” he says. “I could never afford that apartment.”
After the petting zoo, we track down some milkshakes—Alex gets vanilla despite all my desperate pleading. “Vanilla isn’t a flavor.”
“It is too,” Alex says. “It’s the taste of the vanilla bean, Poppy.”
“You might as well just be drinking frozen heavy cream.”
He thinks for a second. “I would try that.”
“At least get chocolate,” I say.
“You get chocolate,” he says.
“I can’t. I’m getting strawberry.”
“See?” Alex says. “Like I said last night, you think I’m boring.”
“I think vanilla milkshakes are boring,” I say. “I think you are misguided.”
“Here.” Alex holds his paper cup out to me. “Want a sip?”
I heave a sigh. “Fine.” I lean forward and take a sip. He arches his eyebrow, waiting for a reaction. “It’s okay.”
He laughs. “Yeah, honestly it’s not that good. But that’s not Vanilla as a Flavor’s fault.”
After we’ve polished off our milkshakes and tossed the cups, I decide we should ride the Endangered Species Carousel.
But when we get there, we find it’s closed due to heat.
“Global warming’s really hitting the endangered species when they’re down,” Alex muses. He wipes his forearm up his head, catching the sweat gathering there.
“You need some water?” I ask. “You don’t look so good.”
“Yeah,” he says. “Maybe.”
We go buy a couple bottles and sit on a bench in the shade. A few sips in, though, Alex looks worse. “Shit,” he says. “I’m pretty dizzy.” He hunches over his knees and hangs his head.
“Can I get you something?” I ask. “Maybe you need real food?”
“Maybe,” he agrees.
“Here. Stay here and I’ll get you, like, a sandwich, okay?”
I know he must be feeling awful because he doesn’t argue. I walk back to the last café we passed. There’s a long line by now—it’s almost lunchtime.