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A Lesson from Penguins

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The table groaned, burdened down by heaps of Thanksgiving dishes. Creamy mashed potatoes, salty green beans that mixed with the scent of syrup soaked carrots, pies stuffed to the gills with pecans and pumpkins and cinnamon apples sat stately upon the old wooden table, a feast of the eyes. At the center, in the place of honor beneath the dim glow of the chandelier, the turkey gleamed, just begging to be eaten. Whatever else Thanksgiving might be, you could never say it wasn’t a good meal, thought Luke. As his mom began ladling out helpings of home cooked applesauce, her horn rimmed glasses glinting in the light, Luke examined her. He hadn’t seen her in a year, and their greeting today had been outwardly pleasant. Hellos and how are yous and frail hugs glossed over the rocky history between them. Even now, though he no longer lived under her roof, he marveled out how such different people could be related. How could he share some traits with her (the strange craving they both had for tomatoes, their obsession with Denzel Washington, even their tendency to wake up before dawn) but yet values he held truest were deemed repugnant to her. He still didn’t understand. Last night, in the fitful turns of sleep one catches on Red Eye flights, Luke had dreamed about it again. The moment when he had first understood how different he was from his mother.

“Wow” breathed Luke. “Look mom, look! The penguins are swimming! Mom, I think that one waved to me!” “That’s nice dear” replied Sally. Hmmm, Luke thought. Mommy really just doesn’t understand how cool this place is. Luke loved this place, he loved it with his whole heart. He loved the ice cream vendor who always saved the last mint chocolate chip scoop just for him. He loved the way the paths were neatly marked and there were always nice people who would help him find his mom if he got lost. But most of all he loved the penguins. Their little beaks, thrust in the air, haughtily looking as if they were dressed to the nines in tuxedos as they strolled down the icy boulevard of their enclosure. Their squeaks and squeals they emitted whenever they dove into the pool, completing loop de loops for the entertainment of the crowd. Sometimes Luke wished he was a penguin, so he could tobaggan on his belly too. As Luke searched for his favorite penguin, the one with the white dot on his head, he noticed two penguins off to the side of the enclosure, with their necks intertwined. “Aw, mommy look! Look at those two penguins! They’re in love!” Sally craned her neck to where her son was pointing. “Oh my Luke, you’re right. That is cute, sweetie.” “Ah you’re looking at Bobbie and George right there. They’re our own little Romeo and Juliet, they are.” Sally turned to look to the zookeeper who was leaning against the plexiglass enclosure, gesturing to the two penguins Luke had indicated. “Bobbi?” she laughed, “Surely that’s a strange name for a girl penguin? What about Mary or Sue?” The zookeeper looked at her quizzically. “You haven’t heard, ma’am? Bobbi is a boy! That’s right! Rockaway Zoo has its own pair of gay penguins! Ain’t that something? It’s been on the news and everything, I’m surprised you missed it.” Sally straightened up, snapped her beige purse on her shoulder, and snatched up Luke’s hand. “Yes, well, I’m sure we’ll catch the news later. Come on Luke, we need to leave! Bedtime’s soon, you know that.” “But moooomyy” wailed Luke, sinking to his knees and refusing to walk. “We can’t leave now! They’re just about to feed the penguins!” Sally impatiently brushed her dark hair, escaped from her winter hat, out of her eyes. “Luke, you’ve seen the feeding a hundred times. Now come on, let’s go.” Luke puddled in a heap on the brick pathway, desolate in the thought of missing precious time with his penguin friends. “Alright young man, no dessert for you tonight. We are leaving right now!” And she yanked Luke up, draping him over her shoulder, as his inconsolable sobs trailed behind her.
Sally scooped carrots onto her plate, being sure to separate their juicy orangeness from the turkey stuffing. She knew it all got jumbled in the end, but she liked to see everything in its place as long as was possible. Looking around the Thanksgiving table, she beamed, thinking how her family all seemed to be nicely in place, just as the carrots and the turkey stuffing were. Her eyes lighted on Luke, and she noticed he was mashing around his food, swirling the contents of his plate until his dinner was a muddy colored conglomeration of tastes. They were so different, Luke and her. She knew Luke struggled with their differences, knew that this first family gathering in a year must’ve seemed strange to him. He still didn’t understand; no matter the differences between them, he was her son. The arguments they may have had, the split in values they may have experienced, he viewed them all as evidence of her trying to get him to conform to her way of life. But that wasn’t it. Sally knew, as she thought every mother probably knew, that everything she told him, everything she wished he would have done was born out of her love for him. She often thought back to those years, those first times Luke began to pull away from her. Would she act differently if she could go back to them now?
“Mommy, guess what? I finally named my stuffed penguin. His name is Bobbie. Can we get him a friend named George? That way he’ll be just like those penguins at the zoo! ‘Member them Mommy? Remember?” Sally glared at her son. She had hoped he hadn’t heard what the zookeeper had blurted out at the zoo the other day. As a matter of fact, she intended to write the zoo in protest. What were their zookeepers doing talking to pedestrians in the middle of the day? Shouldn’t they be working? “Luke, no. He cannot have a friend George. Let’s get him a nice friend named Mary, shall we? Doesn’t that sound nice.” Luke’s little brow furrowed, readying for a fight. “No, not Mary. Mary’s a stupid name. I like George, just like those two penguins at the zoo. They looked happy, and I want Bobbie to be happy.” Sally snatched the stuffed penguin away from Luke and threw it on the couch. “Luke, come here honey. Listen to me.” Sally patted the toddler chair next to her, contemplating how to explain this situation to her son. “Those two penguins at the zoo, Bobbie and George, were not normal penguins. Normal penguins make friends with Mary penguins and Sue penguins. Bobbie and George are not good penguins, okay? You want your penguin to be good, right sweetie?” Luke screwed up his eyes in the tell tale signs of a tantrum. “But I want my penguin to be named Bobbieeee. And I want him to have a friend named George!! Those are good names, and they are good penguins! YOU don’t know anything about penguins! You don’t know about anything!”
The heat emanating from the wood fire in the dining room was making Luke uncomfortably flushed. He tried to scootch his chair farther away from the flames. “So Luke, dear. Your sister mentioned you’ve been attending some rallies at the White House? What were you protesting this time?” Luke shot a scathing glance at his younger sister. She knew better than to bring his political events up to their mother. He had hoped they could remain on the safe topic of his job as a marine biologist. He sighed, wearily readying for battle. “Just the usual Mom. We’re trying to organize a coalition of animal scientists, you know, going with the theme that homosexuality is accepted among animals, so it should be accepted in society. That kind of stuff.” His mother narrowed her eyes, seeming to draw a heated breath before she remembered that it was Thanksgiving and she hadn’t seen him in a year. “I see. Pass the potatoes?”
Trying to calm herself, Sally piled the carbs onto her plate. Why Luke had to bring all this up she didn’t know. She had just been trying to show some interest in his life, extend some friendly feelers, not drag this controversy up. The thought of him battling for gay rights always made her fearful. She still didn’t know what he was; gay or straight, and the terror it caused in her to think that her beloved son might suddenly split from everything she held dear was too much to deal with at Thanksgiving. That was the worst of it though. She saw him so rarely, she never got to address the issues she felt needed to be hashed out. She wondered, as she had often, whether she should know her son better, know the inner workings of his life. After all, maybe this whole affair was her fault. She had been the one to take him to see the penguins in the first place. Maybe she hadn’t reacted fast enough. She should have ended it sooner.
Sally had been so tired that day from trouble with work that she hadn’t had the strength to stand up to his tantrum, screechingly loud and gratingly annoying as they always were. “Alright, Luke! Alright! Name the penguins whatever the hell you want! Just go to your room!” she had screamed. Luke stopped mid sob, his big brown eyes going wide as frisbees and his bottom lip quivering as he picked up his penguin and shuffled towards his room. Sally sighed, shaking her head. She shouldn’t have lost her temper like that. She wavered, struggling between her urgent need for a strong glass of wine and the inkling that she should man up and parent better. As usual, the wine would have to wait. Creaking open Luke’s door, she peaked her head in. “Luke, honey, sorry to yell at you. Mommy’s sorry. It’s just that you’re too young to really understand. Bobbie and George the penguins don’t love each other, in their heart of hearts they know that they’re wrong and someday they’ll find normal girl penguins, okay honey? Can you understand that?” Luke nodded slowly, then sneaked into his mom’s arms for a hug. She smelled so familiar, just like always. Who needed penguins, right?

Luke grimaced. The expression his mom had made when he detailed his Washington adventures was all too familiar. He had been on its receiving end since the time he was four and had first been yelled at for his opposing viewpoints. He remembered that day clearly, he remembered struggling between the warmth and comfort of his mother’s embrace and the confusion he felt about his penguins; he didn’t understand why Bobbie loving George was wrong. They were both penguins, weren’t they? What did it matter if George’s name wasn’t Mary? But for a four year old, the promise of mom’s kiss, sweet against his cool forehead, was enough to push back those confusions. As he grew older however, his mother’s embraces seemed less like promises of comfort and more like walls she put up around him, forcing him into a carbon copy of herself, a man with her ideals and her values, a man she didn’t have to fear.

Once the bellies around the table, at first flat and slim, were plumped to the waistband with all the Thanksgiving delicacies and the wine glasses were low, the turkey’s slow poison seemed to work itself through Sally’s veins, instilling a sleepy contentment throughout her. She smiled lazily. “Well, before you all help me load these plates into the dishwasher, shall we say grace? Why don’t I recite a prayer and then everyone says what they’re thankful for? That would be nice, don’t you think?” People nodded in agreement, Luke among them, all though under the baleful tone of his mother’s meal prayers, he often felt more estranged from her than ever. But nevertheless, he grabbed his cousin’s hand and bowed his head, waiting for his mother’s words to lash out at him. “Dear Lord, thank your for this dinner. Thank you for the food, thank you for the health of all at this table. Thank you for seeing Luke through his first year as an official biologist. We’re all so proud of him.” Luke snorted. No mention of his valiant efforts spreading love through the streets of Washington. He had always had an issue with his mother’s god, who seemed more interested in food and health than the tolerance of all. But he kept his comments to himself, as his mother continued. “Thank you Lord for sending Uncle Walter off as he would have liked to go. Thank you for your blessings. Amen.” Chairs started scraping as the family cumbersomely rose to collect the dishes. “Oh and God!” Sally cried. “For next year, it’d be real nice if you could drag Denzel Washington out of retirement and star him in a movie. Preferably one where he eats tomatoes. That’s all. Amen.” The family laughed good naturedly, rolling their eyes at Sally’s strange obsession with Denzel and tomatoes and the weird ways she tried to put the two together. Luke, however, didn’t laugh. He set down his stack of dishes, looked at his mother and said “Amen to that.” She smiled at him, triumphant at last in the only positive response she had illicited from him all night. Her eyes widened as Luke walked over to her and muttered “After a dinner like that, you deserve a real hug, mom.” She wrapped her arms around him, holding close the memories of doing so when he was a little boy. For an instant, she didnt fear him, didn’t feel a surge of disgust when he talked. She hugged him as her son, and nothing more. Luke leaned into the embrace, melding into her arms which for once weren’t walls, but the soft promise he had remembered from childhood. Inhaling her sweet scent, unchanged in more than twenty years, he felt for a moment that the two of them weren’t that different. Maybe even if she couldn’t go to one of his Washington rallies, she could at least take him to Denzel Washington’s next movie. The two lingered in the hug for a moment longer before breaking apart. The rush of air that filled the space between them brought back the old arguments, the usual feelings of fear and resentment. Nothing had changed between them, they were still two very different people. And yet. They were also mother and son, and that moment that bond seemed as strong to Luke as the bond between his penguins Bobbie and George had seemed when he was little.





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