The New Year’s Eve we were fifteen, my best friend Molly and I had a plan. We told my uncle that her crush thought she was dating a much older man. I’d ad lib-ed the lie to help her make Zev jealous, but if we didn’t produce this mythical adult sometime soon, it was all going to backfire. Carl, my dad’s much younger half-brother, was not quite thirty and an aspiring actor; he readily volunteered to play the part. He drove us to Zev’s house, waited around the corner for thirty minutes, and then arrived in a supposed jealous snit to pick her up. She was to rebuff him, leaving her open to a midnight kiss with Zev. Somehow, though, he was invited in. For some reason, though, he brought a case of champagne. For the first bottle and a half, it was the most fun we’d ever had. But when Uncle Carl pulled Molly into his lap and Zev stormed out of the room, I followed. I didn’t want to see that either. As the ball dropped, Molly was with Carl and I was with Zev.
Sophomore year of college, we were sitting on our respective beds when my roommate Lila said, “You’ll never believe this.” I didn’t look up from my laptop because what I couldn’t believe was that she clearly expected me to spend the night discussing the intricacies of her not-so-recent break up for the hundredth time. When I ended things with Zev, I didn’t talk about it with anyone. The guy I was sleeping with that semester had a girlfriend at another school, but if she didn’t know and I didn’t get attached, who cared? Don’t get attached, I’d told Lila—how many other ways could I say it?
The next morning, my keys were missing; Lila texted she’d taken them by accident and that I should meet her in the basement of the bio building. As a literature major, she was my only intersection with the pre-med world, so it took me a while to find my way down the strange fluorescence of the right subterranean hall. Approaching the swinging doors where Lila said she’d be, I was nearly felled by a dense, murky smell, an odor so strong it had a shape, a deep deathly color. I was surprised I could see Lila through it when she, clad in a mask, opened the door. “A body?” I asked, flattening myself to the wall, extending my hand to take the keys she didn’t quite proffer.
“Not exactly,” she said. I couldn’t see her mouth, but could tell by her eyes that she was smiling. On the table behind her was a mass the size and basic shape of a car, covered in what looked to be flesh and fat and some raw rough sort of skin. “An elephant from the zoo died and was donated,” she said. “We get extra credit to help clean the skull. The email from last night explained.” I don’t know what she thought I’d do, apologize? I gagged, grabbing for my keys. I wished I could call Molly to mirror my outrage; she always loved those stories of safaris gone wrong, of animals exacting revenge.
When I explained to my new roommate why I’d requested to switch dorms, she said she thought the thing with the elephant head had been a hoax. “I can still smell it,” I told her, and I could.
I’ve been in Brooklyn for a decade when I run into Zev at my favorite bar, the one with the fireplace and Christmas lights year round. “But this is my bar,” he says. “How are we only just seeing each other?”
“I didn’t recognize you,” I say. He’s thicker through the chest now, his whole bearing different. His voice still has that North Jersey nasal edge to it, though. It’s such a sense memory, hearing him talk, that I drain another drink leaning against the bar as we catch up. My friends salute me as they leave, although one texts a moment later to make sure I’ve noticed Zev’s wearing a ring. Another round appears and finally I sit down beside him.
“It’s hard to catch up after so many years,” he says. “Tell me your funniest story.”
Of course I tell him about the elephant. He hoots. There’s something about getting a rise out of him; for a blink, I catch myself feeling fifteen again.
“I read in the alumni magazine that she’s a plastic surgeon,” I say. “One of the bloodiest jobs there is.” Meanwhile, I can’t even sniff milk to see if it’s spoiled, any whiff of rot taking me back to that day, before I knew that the hundred and first time talking something through could be the time to crack it.
Zev’s swivels his stool so his knee is between mine. His right hand, warm and manicured, is touching my left, a light in his eyes like a laugh. “Did you ever patch things up with Molly?” he asks. “Is it true that she married the custodian? Obviously she had a thing for older guys, but the school janitor?”
I nod. “That’s what I heard, too.”
I wish I could say: I know it’s true because I was at the wedding; she was beautiful and they were happy. Also, don’t put it like that, the school janitor, he has a name and here is what it is.
What I can say is this: No, we never patched things up, me and Molly, me and Lila, me and that girlfriend from college who did always know about me, but I can see the elephants, now, without someone showing them to me. I pull back my hand from under Zev’s. I go home alone. I take out my phone as I walk and I write thank you back to my friend, who I’m sure knew I saw his ring, but wanted to remind me of the person she knows I’m trying to be.