She didn’t come up with the idea then but rather weeks earlier on a summer evening as they were running late to a friend’s house. He had the bad habit of opening his car door and hopping out before the car was even off—but not that night. That night he sat there transfixed, both hands on the wheel.
“Come on,” she said.
“Shh,” he whispered.
“What is it?”
“Can you at least turn the car off?” Now she was whispering too and looking up and down the street. Were they in some sort of danger?
“I don’t want to scare it.”
“It? What it?”
He pointed to a lone rabbit in their friend’s front yard. The rabbit was white and mottled with brown patches, one of which colored its left floppy ear just so, and it was eating a dandelion. It took the flower by the stem and chomped down like a wood chipper so that the stem got shorter and shorter, one half-inch by one half-inch, until the bright yellow flower replaced the rabbit’s lips, hiding its expression entirely. Then, in one fluid motion of the mouth, the flower popped out of existence.
“Is that not the cutest thing you’ve ever seen?” he asked.
She agreed that it was, in fact, very cute. Even so, he made them wait until the rabbit had eaten two more dandelions and hopped away before turning off the car and walking up the steps to their friend’s house. That was when she had the idea.
She didn’t put it into place until several weeks later. They were again having dinner but this time at an over-priced Italian restaurant downtown. (He was always taking her to places like that when they were first dating—and they both hated it.)
Pointing toward a small triangle of grass between an alley, a trashcan, and a concrete sculpture of children fishing, she whispered, “Don’t look now,” and then described what—if it had existed—would have been the most adorable scene ever assembled: a rabbit having tea with a baby pig.
“I know there is nothing there,” he said. “That you’re going to call me gullible. And yet…” He turned to behold the ordinary grass.
“Gotcha!” she said.
From that point forward it became a game for her. Sometimes the woodland creatures would be dressed in top hats or tuxedo vests. Often they were enjoying mini cupcakes or biscotti. Once they were even joined by a yellow baby duck wearing a sleek, black bow tie. Every single time she painted the scene, he inevitably looked.
The couples’ lives changed radically over the years, but the petting zoo tea parties remained a bright constant in their ever-evolving relationship. He proposed; they married shortly after college graduation; she earned a master’s degree; he began his; they put a down payment on their first home; and then, to leave all other milestones in the dust, she announced that they were going to be parents. He became excited and then anxious and then even more excited because of all the anxiety. They bought tiny furniture and thick, contradictory books and the sort of clothes that make even the hardest of hearts turn to jelly. When they thought their life could not get better, she learned that she would not be a parent after all, that they would not be parents.
For a time, the animals did not assemble. They did not have tea or wear top hats or eat biscotti, and the couple could not remember why it had been so very funny that they had. The seasons changed, a new year brought new goals and distractions, and one spring morning she announced again, though more cautiously, that they might just be parents after all. And he was not anxious—wouldn’t dare it. The tea parties, however, did not return. Like so many inside jokes before them, they were forgotten. They may have been lost entirely had the husband not, two years later, started watching a show about sheep with their nine-month-old daughter. She saw the two of them snuggled up one morning laughing at a sheep carrying a too-large watermelon over its head and thought, Oh right. I almost forgot.
That day the family ate lunch at a sandwich shop halfway between her office and their home where he freelanced and watched shows about sheep with their daughter. She seized the opportunity of their window seats and, without segue or introduction, began describing the scene outside.
“There’s the rabbit, mottled of course, and the spot on his back, well, you won’t believe this, but the brown spot on his back is in the perfect shape of a bunny.”
“A bunny within a bunny?” he asked. “How Shakespearean.”
“Oh and there’s a baby chick and a newborn deer wobbly on his long legs and, of course, a family of sheep.” She held her sandwich up and continued: “They’re eating tiny sandwiches, like these but smaller, and each animal has its own tiny bag of chips. The deer is nosing one out as we speak. Oh, if only you could turn your head and see it, then I wouldn’t have to just describe it.”
Her husband smiled but he didn’t look, didn’t even seem curious. Instead, he pointed to their daughter in her high chair, as if to say, Why do I need to look out there when the most astounding thing we could imagine is sitting right here at our table? What he actually said was, “When did you put her in that lobster costume?” Then, when she turned to behold their daughter, red-faced and mid-bowel movement, he added, “Gotcha!”
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