In Hippopotamus, a harried mother of three whose husband is deployed somewhere in Afghanistan resorts to a time-honored escape: She goes to the mall. Once there, she finds herself inside the multiplex watching a movie with a total stranger.
About the Author
Bette Ann Moskowitz was born in a grand apartment building at the top of the best sledding hill in the Bronx. She is a former songwriter and a member of ASCAP. Moskowitz has recently started writing short fiction, and Hippopotamus is a happy result.
Moskowitz has published a novel, memoir, non-fiction book-length essay, and numerous personal essays and articles. She is the recipient of a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship in Literary Non-Fiction and achieved finalist status in the same category.
You can learn more about Moskowitz and her writing at betteannmoskowitz.com
Or peruse her blog at vinegarmother.wordpress.com
Hippopotamus by Bette Ann Moskowitz
Here she is. Here I am, she thinks.
“I don’t know how I got here,” she says, as if it were a location rather than a life.
Not really a life, she thinks. A predicament. A pickle. How does she find herself in this pickle? She was in the flow, rising and falling with the tide of her happy Bonnie young wife life. Baby on the way. Baby on board. Now—seems like five minutes later—she is stuck in the mud as events wash over her. John, as good as dead, in Afghanistan. She, mother of three fatherless children under five, one of whom has a worrisome cough. She does not sleep, does not breathe easily. Everything is in durations, expected, elapsed, ongoing. The baby’s been coughing for a week.
Last night, John's buddy, who had recently returned with one leg amputated above the knee, called, and she waited him out, half an hour with nothing good to say to her about John’s present situation, or the likelihood that he would be stateside anytime soon. She wanted to say did you call to upset me? But she felt she couldn’t because he was missing a leg.
Her mom's famous words are “don't think about it,” which makes Bonnie laugh, because as soon as someone tells you not to think of something, what’s the first thing you think of? Try it. Don't think of the word HIPPOPOTAMUS. Ha.
Today she needs to be elsewhere.
You can get elsewhere from a location but not from a life or a predicament. The best you can do is go to the mall.
So, here she is now, at the mall, which is neither day nor night. There is a new tropical fish store in the same place that houses the Ghostly Goblin store at Halloween and Santa's Workshop for Christmas. Today its windows are green with splashes of pink and yellow. And they are giving three free goldfish with a purchase. Maybe she will stop later when she no longer feels in danger of slipping her tethers and flying off.
For now, she will just sit in front of the multiplex gripping the bench like she’s on a roller coaster. She has been in and out of the GAP, Macy's, Sears, and Target, and it is barely noon. Sun slashes through the skylight and scores a direct hit and she feels it warm on her cheek. She zones out for a second and when she zones in, an old man is sitting next to her.
“Do you come here often?” he says.
It is an ancient pick-up line and makes her grin coming from a man this old. All of a sudden, she is giddy.
“All the time,” she says. “I work in Macy's.” She doesn't know where the lie comes from.
“On your break?”
“Oh, yes,” she says.
They are a body's space apart, and they sit quietly for five minutes. How long can two strangers share a bench before they are linked together, so if someone sits between them, they feel . . . broken up?
Now that Bonnie has lied about Macy's and being on a break, she has to get up and go toward Macy's. “Actually, I'm done for the day,” she says. “I'm resting here before I head home.”
The man nods.
She wonders if he wonders why a young person has to rest. “I have a heart condition,” she says, another lie.
He nods again, as if he believes her, as if she looks like a heart condition type person.
“So do I,” he says, and then he adds, “My wife is demented,” as if it’s part of the heart condition remarks.
Bonnie says, “I see,” though she wonders if he means nut job or something like Alzheimer's.
“I miss her,” he says. “We were a solid unit. Now she's in Gold Pavilion.”
“That’s supposed to be a good place,” Bonnie says. She doesn’t know. It is an old people’s place is all she knows.
He nods. “They take good care of her. But I can't get used to it.” He takes a sip from a large coffee he is holding. His hand wobbles, as if he wants to see what is left, or he can't hold still. “Morning coffee,” he says. “I have to go out and buy it now.”
Oh, boo hoo, Bonnie thinks. Boo hoo hoo, thinking of John's buddy, missing a leg, thinking of John, in hazardous terrain. “Well, she's in a safe place, anyway,” she says.
“I go see her every day,” the man says. “But today I took a day off. And I don't know what to do now.”
They sit a while longer, watching the ticket taker opening up the multiplex.
Bonnie says, “Let's go to the movies.” She does not know where the idea came from.
He puts his coffee cup in the trash bin next to the bench and joins her at the ticket booth. “Allow me,” he says, opening his wallet, and she says, “No, no,” but he slides a twenty through the hole in the glass, saying, “One senior, one adult,” and when he points to The Meeting, Bonnie nods. “I'll get the popcorn,” she says.
As easily as they agreed on the movie, they agree to sit in the middle of the almost empty theater. They settle in comfortably, passing the popcorn. The Meeting is a spy thriller, very suspenseful. Bonnie gets lightheaded, which sometimes happens when she gives herself to a movie, knowing she will “come out of it” slightly disoriented, feeling as if she is one or the other character for a moment, before she comes back to earth, to her life.
Here is the unbelievable part: during the movie, she and the man hold hands. She doesn't know if she reached for his or he reached for hers, but there they are. His hand is warm and dry, and she holds it tightly. At the approaching end of the movie, she hears him breathing deeply, and she thinks maybe he is sleeping. Then she thinks he is breathing hard. He leans toward her and she wonders if he is about to kiss her, and she wonders what she will do. But he does not kiss her. He whispers that he has to go and asks if she will please come back next week. Meet him there next week. Then he untangles his fingers from hers, pats her hand, and is gone.
She stays to the end and comes to in the bright mall, blinking, feeling slow. She buys an eggroll at Wok Wok and some starter goldfish for the kids and then remembers a credit she has at Cooks Country, so she buys a beautiful utility knife and a small cutting board. On the way home, she stops for a ripe tomato and some lemons, so she will have something to cut. She calls John's friend and invites him to dinner over the weekend.
She takes another day off a week later, and she goes back to the mall, to the bench near the multiplex, but the old man is not there. She sits for a while, hoping he will come.
She wants to tell him not to feel guilty; he is doing the best he can. She thinks if he shows up, she will take him to Cook's Country and insist on buying him a single-cup coffee maker. She will insist on it.
She wants to tell him to try not to think about his wife when he is not with her, but to just enjoy his days, making friends, meeting people, being a nice person.
In her mind, he thanks her but says there is no use trying not to think about something; it only brings it on harder. You might as well tell yourself not to think Hippopotamus. You might as well think about it all the time, with all your heart.
About the Story
As a writer, Moskowitz loves to explore the territory where funny and sad meet. This inclination is evident in Hippopotamus, as Bonnie -- a mother at wit's end -- finds momentary happiness in an unexpected place.
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