My ex-wife asks me at drop-off whether I would be interested in attending a reptile exhibit with her and the kids at her town recreation center on Sunday, and asks whether I would be interested in having dinner with her—salmon filets with a Cajun spice rub and bisque—at her newly furnished and decorated 1.3-million-dollar house near the lakefront, then sleep over. I found the house for her myself. I spent nine months doing real estate drive-by’s, avoiding power line properties and swamp yards in the wealthiest towns in the Midwest because of her relocation and promotion.
I love reptiles. Most of them live solitary lives and rest curious in isolated, fearless places just looking around for most of the day and do not have to shave when they wake up confused and tired of work in the morning. Reptiles do not hunt or think about seeds and territory rights beginning at 4:21 a.m. every day like birds do—like the one bankrupt sparrow who cruelly awakens the rest of the birds on the industrial street in the close-to-abandoned tumbleweed town in Wisconsin where I rent a safe place so that my kids can visit me. Reptiles spend the mornings eye-lidding their trustworthy, black olive pupils from left to right in complete stillness and satisfaction for hours on end to greet the unpredictable day and to succeed at something. It takes reptiles hours just to decide whether to lift a leg or to slide blameless toward the unknown in some meaningful direction. They do not have friends or sustain gossipy or hurtful, dramatic relationships. They do not attract each other based on first impressions. I involve reptiles in my children’s education during “Daddy School” on my every other weekend with them. I teach my son to avoid brightly colored snakes when we walk the forest preserves of Lake County. I teach him not to touch them—to stay away from them, to stay away. I teach my daughter to curl up and to forget about the consequences of divorce, motionless on her side in her Pottery Barn bed like a lizard at bedtime for sleeping.
I already know what happens if I spend the day handling lizards and coral snakes, eating salmon and bisque, and staying over for the night at my ex-wife’s place. I know what the difference is between sustainable suffering and reconciliation. I know my ex-wife. She wants me to hold a horn-nosed tree lizard in my teaching hands and to present it to my six-year-old daughter in some kind of warm gesture of affection. She wants my son to feel the molted skins of rattlesnakes while I take his picture because she never touched me at night, not even on weekends.
So we go to the reptile exhibit at the lakefront recreation center. My daughter holds a five-foot-long white rat snake first while my ex-wife scans the wealthy, affectionless expanse of the gymnasium for her Executive Vice President friends who wear spandex running pants and surf Expedia all day in their offices planning vacations for the $400,000 a year that they make. There are at least 150 children in the gymnasium. My son holds an iguana, next. My daughter holds a boa constrictor while my ex-wife ignores me in front of her running group friends—seemingly ashamed of me—refusing to involve me in her conversation with her two-carat friend Karen who sells carrot cakes and cupcakes on local morning shows on TV.
The history of touch is an unimaginable reality of evolution that I will have to explain to my children someday. The first man. Foot to Earth. Hand through warm air to air then to Earth or water. Hand to arm. Leg through air to Earth. Kings used to assemble the wealthy of entire communities in extravagant assemblies to witness them touching some rare, unique, unusual, or foreign animal, person, or thing. The idea was that if you could touch something and it did not kill you, then you won, they would think. Queens would bankroll entire estates to prove that they could touch an African male, for example. To touch something or someone meant that you could control it or them—if it or they did not fight back or kill you.
I cannot find my ex-wife, but she must be somewhere in the gymnasium. It does not matter where she is, anyway. She never involves me in her conversations, in any case. Thirty-five children are assembled in the corner of the gym waiting to straddle, squat down, and sit on a sleeping alligator. There is a sign that says, “Sit on the alligator for 25 cents.” Sitting on something is touch. The children form a perfect circle and surround the sleeping alligator that is alone there in the corner without friends. Thirty-five millionaire mothers and wives wait with the same children in the perfect circle around the sleeping alligator. They will terrify and disappoint their husbands with not a single touch later that evening after the reptile exhibit—not even on their floral-patterned love seats in bay window family rooms watching bad TV or in their mahogany sleigh beds reading People magazine in yellow bedrooms after their children are asleep. My son and daughter join the perfect circle of millionaires surrounding the sleeping alligator in the corner of the gym. They are hoping for the same ethereal, philosophical touch and fascination. My ex-wife joins them in the circle. Thirty-five children, thirty-five millionaire mothers and wives, their Executive Vice President husbands, my ex-wife, my own children—just waiting there in a perfect circle around the sleeping alligator—not a single touch.
Don Hymans has taught at the University of Iowa, Emerson College, DePaul University, and other places. He has also worked in editorial positions at Houghton Mifflin Company, Penguin Putnam Inc., and The New York Review of Books Inc. His work has appeared in The Best American Poetry 1997, Black Warrior Review, The Boston Review, Colorado Review, Denver Quarterly, Indiana Review, and Verse, among other places. He is completing Daddy School, a collection of short stories.