Summer jobs are supposed to be fun. Earn a little money to help save up for a car or maybe college. There’s a whole bunch of movies about the people working for carnivals or as life guards. Even if they’re miserable, they still have adventures and get to make out a little bit.
I work at the Milwaukee County zoo. Next to the elephants. And I’ll be honest, there is nothing romantic or adventurous about standing next to elephants all day. They smell, they’re loud, and nobody cool ever wants to hang out around them. I wear a stupid uniform and a little plastic name tag: Carlos. The money I make doesn’t go into some fancy savings account. It helps keep the lights on and food on the table. I don’t even have a cool job like feeding the animals or helping with demonstrations. I sell ice cream from a cart at the corner of the exhibit.
Early morning is bad for ice cream sales. Parents like to save it for an after lunch or going home treat, so I spend most mornings on my phone, tucking it away before a supervisor can see me. It’s against park policy to be on a phone at work, but everybody does it.
I’ve checked the weather, my email, and texted David about six times already this morning. He hasn’t answered. It’s not a big deal, though, because his job is pretty important and I’m just bored. Other than the group of Girl Scouts that came by earlier, it’s been quiet.
Off to the side, there’s a movement that catches my attention. I see this funny line of little ducklings charging along the sidewalk, like they’ve got somewhere to be, and behind them, David. Like most of the zoo staff, I look ridiculous in my uniform: unflattering colors against my awkward teenage limbs. I’m too tall for the shorts to look good and too narrow in the shoulders for the shirt to sit right. David, though, looks like he’s just stepped out of a jungle and onto a TV set, all tan arms and legs, his dark hair pulled back and glossy in the sun. Even at a distance, his light blue eyes make my mouth dry. I grab a handful of crushed peanuts from the cart and throw them in the path of the ducklings so they’ll stop.
“Hey,” I say as David catches up.
He’s taller than me, with permanent dimples I want to press my fingers into while I hold his face. “You shouldn’t feed them.”
All I can think about is David standing over the ducklings. He’d been so protective of them, watching out for dangers, keeping them safe. But it’s a lie, he’s not trying to protect anything, he’s a predator.
I shrug and try not to feel like I’m one of the kids in his exhibit that he’s just scolded. I met David because I needed a tutor for physics. Mom couldn’t afford to hire somebody, but he got extra credit in another class to help out. He was nice when he wasn’t around his soccer friends and he said I made him laugh. We got close as the school year ended but since summer started, it’s like we’re not even dating.
Not that we are. Dating, I mean. Not really. We hang out and we’ve messed around a few times when his parents weren’t home, but it’s not like we hold hands in public or he tells his friends he’s going to spend the weekend with his boyfriend. Mom thinks he’s keeping me a secret, but that doesn’t make any sense because the whole school knows he’s gay. He says he just wants to keep me to himself, and I don’t mind.
“Did you get my text?” He might have missed it. He’s real particular about following the park rules.
The ducklings aren’t going anywhere until they’ve eaten every last peanut, so he clips his walkie back on his belt and crosses his arms. “Yeah, about that—”
“Cause I thought we could do something Saturday since we’re off.” It’s not cute to stalk the employee schedule, but he forgot to text me his hours for the weekend. “If I don’t make plans now, my dad will try and drag me out across the state to see the world’s biggest penny or some shit.” Dad’s trying to make up for lost time, I guess, from when he wasn’t around when I was little and mom says I should let him.
He picks these weird trips for the two of us, the windows rolled down in his truck because the air busted three years ago and he’s never gotten it fixed. We’re supposed to be building memories, I think. Of something other than sitting around his trailer watching reruns.
David won’t meet my eyes. I move a little so the sun isn’t directly behind me, but he’s still shifting his gaze between the ducklings and looking over at the elephants. “Maybe you should. You don’t get to see him that much.”
“I get to see you less.” I swallow against the tight feeling in my throat. He won’t look at me, he didn’t smile when he saw me, the way he’d smiled when we crossed paths at work before. Every time I edge a little closer to him, just to draw in the scent of his woodsy cologne, he leans back or waves off an imaginary fly.
It seems like he’s going to say something, so I lean in. But the lead duckling picks up the last peanut and then darts off like he’s late for an appointment. The rest of the ducklings follow their leader and David steps away, breaking the last illusion of intimacy between us. “Sorry. I have to go. They got separated from their mom and we’ve been trying to get them back all morning.”
He walks off, following the birds, his shoulders back and his posture perfectly aligned as I hunch in on myself. Something’s not right, but I can’t tell what it is. David didn’t even answer me about Saturday. I wish there was a way for me to wait for him at his car after the end of my shift, but he usually leaves before me. I don’t start until the park opens and he’s here an hour or two before. I pull out my phone and send him a text to call me when he’s done, even though I can still see the shape of his broad shoulders in the distance. I think his head dips and I tell myself he’s smiling at my message.
The sun’s creeping up, so I duck back under the cheerful striped umbrella that does a terrible job of keeping me cool. An older man comes up to my cart, though his attention is on the same outline of David and the ducks. He’s in slacks and a tie, like he’s on break from a meeting, a little girl with pristine blond hair at his side.
There’s a faint smile on his face when he finally turns away from the ducklings. “Hi,” he looks at my name tag, “Carlos.” I hate it when they do that. “Could we have two vanilla cones, please?” He speaks slowly, like because I’ve got brown skin and look more like my Chippewa mom than my white dad I won’t understand him.
“I want sprinkles.” The little girl doesn’t look at me, but to be fair, she doesn’t look at him either.
I start to pour the cones from the soft serve machine. “Sorry, we don’t have sprinkles.”
She turns to me. I’ve got her attention now. “But I want them.”
“I could add peanuts.” She shakes her head and I hand over the cones. “That’ll be eight dollars, please.” I expect some kind of comment about how expensive it is, but the guy just hands over a twenty like it’s nothing, doesn’t even bother checking the change when I hand it back.
In my back pocket, I feel the quiet vibration of my phone. I bet it’s David. I can’t wait to get rid of this guy so I can check. David’s probably sorry for how little time he got to stay. I understand. Keeping after the ducks is part of his job.
The guy starts to wander off, headed to the elephants, or maybe the giraffes, but the girl lingers by my stand. She takes a slow lick of the cone and sneers at me. I’ve never seen a nine year old sneer like that before, and I’ve got, like, a million cousins. “You should really have sprinkles.”
I shrug. “Okay.”
“Who was that boy?”
I look down at her, then off after the missing space of David. “He’s a friend.”
She grins and it might be a sweet look on some other kid, but on her it’s wicked. “Are you dating? Is he your boyfriend?” Her voice takes on a sing-song quality, high pitched enough to draw attention. “He didn’t seem very interested in you.”
The guy gets a little farther away and doesn’t seem to notice that she’s not with him. “You should go keep up with your dad. You don’t want to get lost.” I try to shake her words off, shooing her in his direction.
“Oh, he’s not my dad.” She takes one more lick of the cone, then dumps the half-eaten thing in the trash. “He’s my mom’s assistant. He’s supposed to keep me busy while she has an affair with our gardener.”
Jesus. I don’t know what to say, but she doesn’t seem to expect an answer, just curls her lip at me and wanders away. How hard must it be to know that kind of thing? I’d probably try to pick fights with strangers, too. Better not to have parents together at all, like mine, than to see them break up when you’re still young enough that juice boxes are a highlight of your day.
Once she’s gone I check my phone, the happy face at the top of my screen lets me know I have a text and I smile back in response. I open the message. The smile is a lie. Instead of an apology, David’s message is brutal. I don’t want to see you anymore.
No one’s waiting for ice cream, and even if there was, I don’t think I would care. I take two steps away and dial his number. It goes right to voice mail, so I hang up and try again. After the fifth time, he answers. “I’m working, Carlos,” he hisses. His voice is echoey, like he stepped into a bathroom, maybe.
“What do you mean?” I stutter over my words, my tongue thick and caught on my teeth.
“I was pretty clear. I’m sorry if you’re hurt, but I thought you understood when I saw you earlier. It’s just,” he pauses and I can hear him suck in a deep breath. “This year is going to be a big year for me. Scotty Harmon got a full ride last year and coach says I’m a better player, easy. I can’t have,” he stops again and I want to see him so badly I start to walk toward the bird sanctuary, “distractions.”
I remember his flushed face, tucked against my neck. “I thought you liked my distractions.” I hate how young my own voice is in my ears, how far away he sounds. I’m gripping my phone so tight that it’s slippery in my sweating palm. If it crashed to the ground, at least the conversation would be over.
“You’ll understand when it’s your senior year.”
I breathe into the phone, unable to speak. All I can think about is David standing over the ducklings. He’d been so protective of them, watching out for dangers, keeping them safe. But it’s a lie, he’s not trying to protect anything, he’s a predator. I want to warn the little leader, to scoop up his soft, warm body and hold it close to my chest. Watch out little duck, the world is full of foxes.
“I have to go back to work. And you shouldn’t be on your phone in the park.” He hangs up and it takes all of my strength not to hurl the phone into the elephant enclosure where they could stomp it to pieces. Sweat is falling off of me and the sun feels like it’s going to set me on fire.
I want to go home. Mom won’t be there for hours and I can sit in my room with the music as loud as I want, no matter how hard Mr. Henderson bangs on the wall. I need the soft edges of my blankets, the rounded corners of my windowsill, and space to breathe. The precisely placed sidewalks and manicured lawns of the park are too sharp against my eyes. But we need the money. I can’t just walk out. I can’t.
The only reason I took this job, twelve miles away eating up time and gas, was so I could be close to David. I could have worked at the Pick ‘n Save in my neighborhood instead of coming all the way out here every day. The cart mocks me, standing empty, waiting for me to slink back over and take my place. I’ve never walked out of a job before and the thought of it makes me sick. My hands are shaking at just the thought, but I can’t make myself do it. David is friends with everyone in the park and he’ll know that he made me leave.
I don’t understand what happened. Is there someone else? I bet it’s one of his teammates; he and Amir are always together. David ditched me more than once to hang out with Amir, but he said it was for soccer.
One of the elephants trumpet. Informational tours come by sometimes and if there are little kids in the group, they always talk about how smart the elephants are. How long their memories last. Elephants who spent a day together can remember each other after twenty years. Twenty years from now, would they still remember my humiliation?
I pace back to my spot because I can’t make myself leave. But I can’t stand still so I roam around the edges of the cart, my breath high and short and hands shaking for almost half an hour. I torture myself by reading his last text, butted right up against others: I had a good time, ur funny, send me another pic.
I take a picture of my middle finger, but I don’t send it.
A little while later, just before families start coming by for their afternoon treats, I see the little girl wander back by, only now she’s got a balloon tied to her wrist and a cuddly monkey wrapped in her arms. The price of her silence, I guess. I feel almost bad for her until she slides up to my cart.
She looks me over, the way people with money look at cashiers in grocery stores. How did she learn that look so young? “They’re laughing about you, you know. Over in the bird sanctuary.” She pouts a fake lip at me. “Poor Carlos.”
I shake my head and look around for the guy she was with, desperate for him to take her away. “No, they’re not.”
“We followed them all the way back to the birds. That boy you were talking to said he doesn’t know why you won’t leave him alone.”
He wanted me. I know he did. It couldn’t all have been a lie. “What else did he say?”
Her eyes light up the way a normal kid would for ice cream. “I shouldn’t tell you. It’s not very nice.”
I want to play it cool and not get taken in by a kid seven years younger than me, but if David won’t talk to me, I want to know what he said. “I don’t care.”
“He said you were—“ Her mom’s assistant calls her away before she can finish. She doesn’t hesitate to run after him and I’m left with nothing. She probably did it on purpose. I bet she thinks it’s funny.
All the anger comes flashing right back at me, and I’m shaking again. Of course he’s talking about me to his friends; he worked at the park for three summers and I’ve only been around a couple of weeks. Of course they’ll take his side. I didn’t need that little girl to tell me what David said, I could imagine it well enough on my own. I turn, like I can see through the trees and exhibits and see right to where David is standing. He’s probably laughing right now.
“Hey!” A guy is standing at my cart; I don’t remember him coming up. He’s got money clutched in his hand while his kid bounces around his legs. “I said I want two cones.”
How does this guy not know? How is it possible that there are any people in the world who can look at me and not see the way David ate through my heart? My chest hurts and I wonder if I’m too young to have a heart attack.
I take a step back, out from under the useless umbrella. The surprise on the guy’s face is pleasant, but it’s not enough. He’s still just seeing the uniform, the way my dad sees lost opportunities, the way David only ever saw a diversion. I place my hands on the side of the cart. The metal is hot under my fingertips and I can see the guy move away, clutching at his wife and kid. I might not be as built as David, but the cart is cheap. First it wobbles, then tips with surprising ease as I shove against it. The ice cream spills out in lazy, looping swirls. Behind me, the little family starts shouting.
The dad waves his hands at me. He sees me now. “What the hell are you’re doing?”
It’s the question of the day. What am I doing? I try not to think about David on the other side of the park with his cluster of friends, of the paycheck that will be half as much when it comes through next week, of how hard it’s going to be to replace this job already halfway through the summer. But I can’t stand here another second and pretend everything is all right.
I open my mouth to respond. If I was in that summer job movie, I’d know what to say, but all my words get stuck in my throat. Instead, I rip off my name tag and throw it on the ground. My car is waiting in the parking lot and I have a long drive home.