The Zookeeper's Wife
Has many lovely and moving moments but fails to capture the many layers of this unique story, relying instead on plainly-stated metaphors.
September, 1995. I was eleven, and had just started the sixth grade. Going to movies with your mother was no longer a cool thing to do. It was actually always a little strange going to the theater with just my mother. We'd often run into large, two-parent families, which, although neither of us ever said anything, made both us feel self-conscious of the image of a young boy escorting a middle-aged woman. And yet we would go, just the two of us, often. My parents' divorce had been finalized earlier that year, and my younger sister's active social life didn't leave much time for movies. I had a tight group of friends too, but I was increasingly distancing myself from them, leaving most Friday and Saturday nights wide open. So without anything else to do, I'd go to the movies with my mother.
We parked in the underground lot of the old Trolley Corners Cinema, a three-screen theater that within a few years would make way for the offices of local radio stations. I moved to get out of the car, but my mother said, "Give me just a minute." She reached into her purse sitting on the back seat and pulled out a bottle of wine. She poured a healthy amount into a coffee mug she kept under the front seat. I sat there silently as she finished off the mug in a few big gulps. It in no way seemed strange that she would use a mug; one can't just drink straight from the bottle.
We walked into the lobby and bought our tickets. We were there to see David Fincher's "Seven" on opening night. The film had garnered a lot of hype, so the theater was packed. Still, we managed to grab seats in our preferred spot—left side, right on the center aisle, about half way back from the screen. We had both seen trailers, but my mother still didn't know much about the movie going in. I told her it was Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman on the trail of a serial killer. Not an eye was batted. We were not strangers to bloody murder mysteries.
The moment the movie started, there was trouble. The opening credits are a montage of fingertips sliced with razor blades, then thumbing through the notebooks of a deranged mind—drawings of demons, photos of ghastly medical experiments, and snatches of perverted writings—with the industrial thump of Nine Inch Nails playing over the top. "I'm not sure I can deal with this," my mom said. "Let's just give it a chance," I replied.
For the next two hours, we stayed put through the cavalcade of torture murders and grisly crime scenes. That word, "grisly," had been the key word used by the MPAA to describe the violence in the caption I had read in the newspaper that morning. I was tense and rigid. I knew my mother was angry and embarrassed, and that the fear of further embarrassment is all that kept her in her seat as the graphic images rolled in front of our eyes. When a man was questioned by the police about being forced to have sex with a prostitute while a knife was strapped to his penis, my mother grabbed my arm and squeezed till it hurt.
We ran out of the theater as soon as the movie ended. My mother was silent, but had that narrow glare and tightly pursed lips that I knew meant she was furious. We made it to the car, and I sat next to my mother in the front seat. She gripped the steering wheel till her knuckles were white. "What the hell is wrong with you?!" she screamed. "Why on Earth would you pick that movie?! That was just horrible! You just love to see what you can get away with, don't you?!" Those last words fell as she slapped me across the shoulders and back of the neck. She took a deep breath. "You're just awful sometimes," she said as she turned the ignition.
She had a point. It was a hard R-rated movie I wanted to see but couldn't buy a ticket for on my own, so I soft-pedaled what I knew of the content when describing it to her. I guess I didn't know it was that bad a thing to do.
January, 1998. My mother was dating a guy named Randy. They had started seeing each other several months prior, and they would be together on and off and on again for the next few years. It was hard to follow the rhythms of their relationship, even living in the house where it played out. Happy periods would quickly devolve into shouting matches, with Randy storming out and my mother shutting herself away in her room for days on end.
But during peaceful stretches, going to the movies with my mother meant tagging along on her dates with Randy. It was a strange dynamic that Randy was never easy with. I think having me there though gave my mother a perverse sort of comfort, and so Randy barely tolerated me by cracking jokes about my awkwardly pubescent body.
I'm not sure how the idea of the three of us going to see Paul Thomas Anderson's "Boogie Nights" was first broached. It was a popular, critically lauded film, and it was no secret that it was about the pornography industry. My best guess is that there was no dramatic discussion, no real discussion at all. The three us just silently drove to the Broadway Centre trying to think about anything else.
We didn't last long in the theater. I'm not sure what the inciting moment in the movie was. I clearly remember Burt Reynolds speculating that behind Mark Wahlberg's jeans "is something wonderful just waiting to get out." We may have been there long enough to see Wahlberg wearing nothing but tiny underwear. I doubt we caught the first exposure of Heather Graham's breasts. But at some point my mother's audible dismay turned into picking a loudly whispered fight with Randy. "We are leaving!" she insisted. "I paid for my ticket!" Randy replied, refusing to budge. They continued back and forth, drawing the attention of other patrons. For my mother, the embarrassment of disrupting the movie with her outrage was greatly outweighed by the embarrassment she would have felt complacently watching such explicit sexuality with her boyfriend and son.
Finally my mother gave up on getting Randy to leave with her. And before I could protest, she had moved past my seat, grabbed my arm, and yanked me into the aisle. Unprepared, I stumbled to the ground, banging my leg on the armrest. By the time I picked myself up, my mother was marching up the aisle, gesturing for me to follow. Focused on the pain in my leg, I meekly hurried along without complaint.
Once outside, my mother deeply exhaled, her face tight with anger. I was visibly nervous and she warned me, "Just don't say a word." Walking down the street towards the car, she rifled through her purse. "F@#&!" she yelled, "Randy has the goddamn keys!" She paused to look over her shoulder, but there was no way she was going back to get them. We walked back up the street. A few blocks away was the old Bar X. "Wait here," she said, and ducked inside.
It was a cold day, and the heavy grey sky was threatening snow. Even with my winter coat on, my arms started to feel numb. About half an hour had passed when Randy showed up outside the bar, having relented and left the movie early, maybe feeling guilty, or bored, or annoyed. His face showed all three. Barely acknowledging me, he walked in, and a few minutes later came out with my mother. Her eyes were red, and her steps were slightly skewed as the three of us walked. Back in the car, Randy drove us home the same way we came, silently, all three of us trying to think about anything else.
May, 1998. Memorial Day was approaching, the school year was almost over, and I was going to be leaving to stay with my dad for a few months. Before I left, though, I needed new summer clothes, so my mom took me shopping. At the Crossroads Mall, long-since demolished in favor of grander downtown development, my mother steered me towards the preppy boys store. When I protested that the clothes there cost too much, she restated her belief in the importance of putting forward a good appearance. My anxiety over money was crippling. I had no real idea of the state of my mother's finances, but she swung wildly from spending freely to panicking over our family's imminent destitution. I knew my dad sent child support every month, but I had no idea how much it was or where it went. In spite of my fears, I went along to the store, and managed to find a few pairs of shorts that were practical and that I wouldn't be embarrassed to wear.
We were rung up by a salesman with bleach-blond hair and a bad fake tan. My mother made a point of looking at her watch. "Oh, we've got to hurry," she said, angling for attention, "we're trying to make a movie."
"Godzilla?" said the salesman, asking if we were going to see that summer's first mega-budget popcorn flick, even though it didn't open for a few more days. My friends and I were planning to skip school to see it, although I'm sure we were too chicken to follow through.
"No, it's called 'M'" my mother replied. "It's a Fritz Lang film from the '30s. It's playing at the Tower."
The salesman offered a polite but uninterested "Oh," and shoved our purchases in a bag, eager to be done with the conversation.
My mother had no idea who Fritz Lang was. For that matter, neither did I. My mother's posturing was inspired by a lavish writeup in the Friday arts section of the local paper, saying that "M" was a must see for all those who "value culture." Announcing that she was one of those people was important to my mother.
Which is not to say that we were not both genuinely excited to see the film. It was a gorgeous day as we drove across town, the sky so bright that it stung the edges of your eyes. My mother was in a buoyant mood for no particular reason. I can't remember her having anything to drink that day. I'm pretty sure Randy wasn't in the picture at the time.
The Tower—a one-screen theater and video rental shop—was not far from our house, and in the days before it was renovated it promised an approximation of boho cool. The screen was scratched, the sound system terrible, many of the seat were broken, and the floor was the type of sticky that can't be cleaned. We bought our tickets and some stale popcorn and killed a few minutes looking at the posters for erotic European movies that lined the lobby walls.
Lights go down. The film is a propulsive montage, a language unto itself that I somehow know intimately without having encountered it before. Each image suggests the next, and each image explains that which came before. A syntactical chain expressing a wrenching and profound sense of grief, violation, and perverse desire. A little girl, bouncing a ball on her way home from school. The shadow of a man taking an interest in the girl. The man buying the girl a balloon. The girl's mother watching the minutes tick further away from when her daughter should have been home. An empty basement. The girl's ball rolling out of site. The discarded balloon caught on power lines, fluttering in the wind.
My mother and I didn't speak during the film. When the lights came up, we walked back into the daylight, the sun washing away all the shadows we'd seen on screen. "That was really good," my mother said, hushedly.
"Yeah," I agreed, exhaling. "The part where the mob had the killer-"
"Peter Lorre," my mother interrupted.
"-the killer trapped in the basement, putting him on trial, and he breaks down screaming that he can't help what he's done… I thought his eyes were going to pop out of his skull."
She sighed. "It was hard to watch. He did evil things. But also-"
"-But I also felt sorry for him," I said, finishing her sentence.
"Yeah, so did I," my mother said.
March, 2012. The last movie I ever watched with my mother was the Coens Bros.' "Raising Arizona." We were in my mother's hospital room. She had just finished her first round of dialysis, an effort to keep her kidneys functioning long enough to give her badly damaged liver a chance to recover. She was exhausted and heavily medicated, and I had to remind her of which character was which, and what was happening when. But she got a few laughs at the Loony Tunes-like action before falling asleep. I was too inside my own head to follow things through to the end.
My mother died a few weeks later. And so things go.
This message came to me from a reader named Peter Svensland. He and a fr...