Yalçin Tosun's chubby, despairing Turkish teenagers find solace in visits to the zoo. But an unexpected change to their routine abruptly alters their lives and their relationship.
Cutting last period was my idea. But getting on a crowded city bus and going to the zoo on this hot May day was Ali’s. He wanted to see the old chimpanzee at the zoo, whom he’d felt an affinity with for some time. Whenever he couldn’t take his workaholic father and Cubist-painter mother anymore, he came here to have heart-to-hearts with the old chimpanzee. He liked his calm and devil-may-care attitude.
He had first introduced me to Muzaffer when we went to the zoo a few weeks earlier. Yes, the chimpanzee’s name was Muzaffer, or at least that was the name Ali thought fit him best. Nearly toothless, with most of the hair on his body ripped out, this chimp had the most melancholic eyes in the world. Not caring at all that we were there, he gazed around motionless from the back corner of his unkempt cage, having detached himself from all relations with the world.
When we got on the bus, we raced toward the empty seats next to the ticket collector and as difficult as it was, squeezed in beside each other. We were both quite fat, but Ali’s body carried more promise than mine. He was about four inches taller than me, and had nice broad shoulders. (I’m not even going to mention how his beard had already started coming in.) These characteristics didn’t make his ass smaller than mine though. The moment we got on, the people on the bus started looking us up and down with those expressions of disgust they probably reserved especially for fat teenagers. Oh those looks . . . If only I, like Ali, could succeed in not noticing them, or looking like I didn’t.
When the bus had picked up the other passengers and began moving, I started looking around. Ali was lost in thought, but I wanted to make sure he had noticed the girl standing a bit in front of us. I nudged his leg with mine. He didn’t notice—the girl wasn’t even that pretty anyway. That nudge was one of those things I felt I had to do to pay dues to adolescence, and if I hadn’t I would have felt like I was lacking something. But Ali didn’t feel the same way, facing out the window murmuring something or other.
“Let’s get some bananas for Muzaffer.”
I couldn’t help giggling. I put my hand over my mouth to make sure my crooked teeth didn’t show. Muzaffer and bananas . . . It was just funny—those kinds of things were always funny for me back then. When I noticed that Ali wasn’t laughing I wanted to say something.
“I don’t have any money.”
Yes, he always had more money than I did, but unlike other kids who had money, he never used it to show off. It had almost become the norm for him to pay the bill when we went somewhere. And I can’t say that I was uncomfortable about it. Even if I had been, I wouldn’t have let anything come between me and my only friend in the world.
The not-very-pretty girl who nevertheless succeeded in getting my attention had moved a few steps forward so she was standing right next to me. Her bag was bumping my shoulder and I was reveling in this. I lifted my head a bit and looked at her face out of the corner of my eye. She had to be about three or four years older than us, but she looked around as if she knew a lot about life. I wondered if she had ever kissed anyone. And if she had, I wondered how she kissed. I had seen a lot of kissing in movies. Some people just suck on the other person’s upper or lower lip, other people stick their tongues out audaciously with brazen speed. I would kiss politely, I told myself. And I approved of this thought with a nod of my head. I would neither boorishly suck lips nor would I use my tongue. I would plant a kiss on those timid lips gently, like brushing the naked skin of a bird’s wing. But I had only lips in my mind. Not a face, not a body, not a person. Just lips.
The girl opened her bag like she was going to get something out of it, then without getting anything closed it again. Oh, women and their mysterious actions. I looked at her out of the corner of my eye again, as if to show that I noticed, but she didn’t see me.
When we got off the bus, something Ali had said about women came to my mind. The other day in the locker room we both heard the other kids saying what they wanted to do with Miss Ayla, the gym teacher. Slowly walking away afterward, I stopped and asked him.
“Do you also like Miss Ayla?”
He looked me in the face with a flirtatious look.
“Dude” (he sometimes called me dude), “you don’t understand women at all. I would make a bet that that woman is as cold as the poles. I bet when she has sex she passes the time by imagining what kinds of animals the stains on the ceiling look like.”
I wasn’t sure if he really knew more about women than me or not, but he liked it to look that way, so I believed him. Yet I was sure that we both had the same doubts, which we had never shared with each other, about the unlikelihood of our fat bodies ever appealing to anyone. Not saying these things aloud was one of the secret agreements between us. Then the topic of kissing came up and he told me a few things about the ins and outs of kissing. According to him, kissing must be done with eyes closed. And teeth—and he looked away from me when he said this—had to be particularly well cared for at all times, because it is never clear when a person might have the chance to kiss. And also, if I ever got the chance to kiss a girl I’m into—like a friend, on the cheek—I should plant my kiss on the borderline between the lips and the cheek—the girl would understand from that how much I liked her.
“How do you know these things?”
“I would know, dude.” (Yes, he said "dude" again.)
“Have you ever kissed anyone?”
He gave another suggestive laugh and silently walked toward the greengrocer, where the colorful fruits were aligned in rows.
We put the bananas in Ali’s bag. When we got to the zoo the security guard at the door reminded us that feeding the animals was strictly forbidden. Because we knew this rule was not enforced, we didn’t say anything.
We walked slowly in the heat, escorted by the strange smell emanating from our fat bodies. In many of the corners of the zoo there were couples interested more in each other than the animals. And our looks gravitated toward those couples, not the animals. As we approached Muzaffer’s cage and looked around for a security guard, we pulled the bananas out of the bag. There were four bananas; Ali gave two of them to me. We were excited about seeing Muzaffer, but he wasn’t there. As we were wondering if they had changed his cage, we learned that he had died the night before. Actually, he had committed suicide. The security guard who looked indifferently at the forgotten bananas in our hands didn’t use the word suicide, but that was the conclusion Ali came to after hearing what the man told us. The night before, Muzaffer had gotten himself into a run-in with the roughest young chimp and gotten himself killed. Because he couldn’t stand his baldness, his toothlessness, his painful joints, he had committed a sort of suicide as any honorable old chimpanzee would.
As Ali translated these thoughts to me, he didn’t show the slightest sign of sadness. But I knew that Muzaffer was the only creature in the world that I envied, and I knew how much Ali loved him. He had told me even more about him than he had told me about his mother and father. I didn’t know what to say; I peeled one of the bananas in my hands and started to eat it. I didn’t have the chance to eat bananas often, and at that moment I couldn’t think of anything better to do. Ali came over to me and took the other banana and threw it toward the cage. Then he did the same thing with the ones he was holding. I stood there with the half-eaten banana in my hand. In that moment, I understood just how sad my friend was.
While Muzaffer lay prostrate in his grave—I assumed that dead chimpanzees are buried just like dead people—Ali’s fat body shook as he began to cry. It was the first time I’d seen another boy crying. I put down my half-eaten banana, went over to him, and put my arm on his shoulder. “Get away from me, dude,” he said. Without taking my arm off his shoulder, I said that maybe there was a heaven for chimpanzees and that he shouldn’t be sad. I regretted it the moment I said it. What idiocy! He looked into my eyes and he put his arm on my shoulder. We stood there face to face, arms on each other’s shoulders. He was still crying, heaving sobs. We were two fat teenagers facing each other on the grass in front of the cage. Muzaffer had died, and these two teenagers so often prayed the same thing would happen to them.
“Ali,” I said. “You haven’t ever kissed anyone, have you?”
He remained motionless. He was trying to stop crying. With my hand I held his chin and lifted his face, and I placed a kiss on the borderline between his lip and his cheek, and ran away as fast as my heavy body would carry me.
"Muzaffer ve Muz" © Yalçın Tosun. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Abby Comstock-Gay. All rights reserved.