In the Den of Penguins

It is hard because we are still friends.

I want to hate him.

I can’t hate.

I can’t hate.

I wake up to this thought every morning.

It’s like premeditated shell shock.

• • •

“We should’ve planned this in advance,” I say.
“But I hate planning.”
“Yeah, well, there’s only one spot left now.”
“So just call them back and go do it yourself.”
“That’s silly.”
“I’ll take pictures of you.”
“I didn’t come here alone, you know.”
“Which is why I’ll take pictures. Look, you came here to see penguins.”
“I know.”
“Do you want me to call them?”—His voice is rising. Shit.
“No, I got it.” I got it.

I got it.

• • •

There is a plate on this countertop.

It looks so fragile.

• • •

We head into Auckland with a reliable map. Unfortunately, I can’t read maps—or couldn’t. Oh, but on that fateful day, we discovered how World of Warcraft equipped me with map-reading skills.

“Which way?”
“What way?”
“Pick a way.”
“Any way.”
“NO, YOU—”

Two more hours of this.

• • •

The best way to describe Auckland is traffic circles, parked cars, and—well, more traffic circles. The roads are narrow as a one-man highway. A highway into hell.

Despite the unforgiving driving conditions, the people are reliably kind. The scenery is godly. The weather is fair.

We try to live with that.

Then suddenly, my ex and I are screaming again. For the record, this is not entirely his fault. We are two adults who choose to act uncivilized. But the words are too vulgar now. My brain is dumping everything he says into a black hole, chip-chopping the memory with moment-by-moment scissors.

I turn the map different directions. I’m treating it the same way MMORPG’s rotate mini-maps. “Based on where the avatar—err, car—is facing, we need to go this direction,” I say.

He responds with something terrible, and I lash out with something horrible, because he’s intelligent, and and he’s observant; and I’m a wordsmith, and I’m trained. The map—it is just a paper wall between us.

• • •

U-turns are difficult. When you go the wrong way, you have to make a bunch of right left turns through a grid spiral system in hopes you get back to Street A, before you went down piece o’ crap Street C, that was meant to be Street B, to get to XYZ.

Once we find the Auckland Zoo, I clamor out of the vehicle, a Gretel no longer wanting Hansel. Which is good, because while he might not leave me cookie crumbs, it’s Gretel who has to free Hansel from the oven. We’re both aware of this disintegration.

• • •

The zoo has red pandas, box-munching tigers, and aviaries galore. So, seriously: to hell with stress.

I point at the tiger. “Looklooklook.”
“Take pictures of him!”
“I am, I am.”
“No, not with me in them!”

Then the star of the show: little blue penguins. I pay an additional $50 NZ to join their seaside encounter, so I get to hold, feed, and interact with these birds.

• • •

Little blue penguins are softer than one would think. Their tiny beaks eat the fish like bent straws. Their feathers, they’re as soft as the blankets lining a crib. They make a whiny cry, a choked alarm clock sound, which pulls on every “cute fluffy animal” fiber in the body.

They also have a call that sounds similar to their bigger relatives. (Blue penguins, also called fairy penguins, are the smallest penguin on earth.)

• • •

Oh, and I play with seals.

The seals—I guess they’re predators to penguins—so, at first, I approach with hesitance.

How could I not flounder to their side, though? The zoo has seal “saves” with blind eyes. Their zesty attitudes are the best. Their appetites have no comparison.

• • •

Outside of the zoo, we make our way to the tallest building in the Southern Hemisphere. Unfortunately, this oblong tower is booked for the evening. (It only sports two restaurants and a casino, anyway.) With the early CLOSED signs yet again plaguing us, we hit the road back to Paihia.

• • •

“You good?” he asks.
“I’m great,” I say. “You?”

Bunch of professional liars, we are. Once-gold-intentioned liars.

• • •

We think we’ll find a cafe along Highway 1, but we continue to encounter closed doors. When we discover one random, Italian place out in the middle of nowhere—it’s not even part of a hamlet—we indulge in subpar spaghetti from a chef that doubles as a fairy godmother.

She asks us what we think of the cooking, and it’s impossible to answer negatively.

When we smile at each other, for a brief moment, it’s genuine. But then, anyone can share dinner with a friend.

• • •

The Paihia ice cream stand is closed.

That doesn’t stop us from hitting the grocery store, though. Countdown has the same brand, in Double Chocolate, which is more than enough to quietly pass the evening.

I am not sure if we remember the contours of each other’s bodies. How many years did it take to forget? I tell him that the spoons are curved differently here. He agrees. I don’t blame him for not knowing what he’s agreeing to.

Next Chapter.

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