On birthdays Mom lets us kids, that’s my brother and me, choose to do a fun activity, or have a party, but we can’t choose both. Last year when I turned eleven, I decided to go on a hike with my best friend, Machelle. Mom, Dad, and my brother Eli came too. We had a picnic at the top of the mountain.
Machelle and I stomped around the picnic table, pretending to be animals. We waited behind the garbage can, and when my brother tried to throw away his plate, we leaped out and growled at him. He jumped. We giggled.
“Look at my two little bears!” my mom said. “You silly girls. Be nice to your brother, Karen.”
On our way home, we got ice cream. We sat on the grass outside the drive-though to eat it. Machelle, Eli, and I ate as quick as we could to give ourselves brain freeze. The one who could do it with out making any noise was the winner. I won three times, Michelle twice and Eli four times. I think he might have been faking his brain freezes.
It was the best birthday I ever had.
This year I was going to have a party, but I changed my mind because of Michelle. That’s Michelle with an “I,” not Machelle with an “A.”
Michelle moved onto our street a few months ago. She was only a little bit older than Machelle and me, and really into fashion and being annoying.
One day right after she moved in, I walked to Machelle’s house to see if she wanted to play my new video game. “Michelle doesn’t like video games,” she said. “We’re painting our nails.” Sure enough, Michelle sat in the middle of the living room with a cherry red bottle of nail polish blowing on her fingertips.
After that, Machelle and Michelle were always together. At school, people started calling them “Machelle with and A” and “Michelle with an I”. I was still just Karen.
Every time I wanted to do something with Machelle, the other Michelle was there. I ended up painting my nails a lot more often.
I wanted to hang out with my best friend without the other Michelle butting in. So I changed my mind about the party and chose going to the Zoo instead. I invited Machelle, and she said yes.
It was going to be another perfect birthday.
Mom, Dad, and I went to pick Machelle up at 10:00, but her mom said she wasn’t ready and sent me back to find her. I wandered back to Machelle’s bedroom.
She peered into a mirror that she’d propped on her desk.
Machelle and I were both small, but that was our only similarity. If we were really bears, she was like a polar bear with fair skin, and straight blond hair. In the last few weeks, she’d complained every day about her hair “falling flat”. I was more like the black bear with dark skin and super curly hair. My hair never “fell flat”.
I smiled at her through the mirror. “Hi.”
She sat with her mouth open and her eyes wide while she brushed black goop on her lashes. When she finished, she slid the brush into a pink tube. “Is it time to go already?”
“Yeah, my parents are waiting in the car.”
“Okay, let me grab my purse.”
Purse? Since when had Machelle carried a purse?
She must have seen the expression on my face because she held a bag up for me to see. It was purple with a shiny cat on the front. “Cute, huh! The other Michelle bought one too, but hers is blue.”
I tried to smile. “Cool.” It wasn’t, but I kept that to myself.
We headed outside and climbed into the car. My parents greeted Machelle while we buckled our belts, then Dad pulled out onto the road.
I turned to Machelle. Sunlight glinted off the sparkles on her purse and flashed in my eyes. I tried to ignore it. “What animals are you excited to see?”
“Does it matter? I’ve been to the Zoo before you know.” While she spoke, she pulled her new phone from the purse. The glittered case made me wonder if the phone and the purse were having a contest to see which could blind me the fastest.
She typed. I watched. She finished and looked at me. “Sorry, what were you saying?”
“Um… we were talking about the animals.” My voice got quieter as I said it. Machelle’s attention had turned back to the phone.
She laughed. “It’s Michelle. She said to make sure we don’t get eaten by any lions.”
“Haha funny,” I said, even though it wasn’t. I slumped against the seat. It looked like Michelle would be interrupting us even when she wasn’t here.
The whole car ride went like that. By the time we arrived, I knew that Michelle was doing chores today, that she hated it, and that she couldn’t wait to talk to Mark Williams at school on Monday. I also learned she found a “super cute” hair clip to match her new purse and had gotten one for Machelle.
Things didn’t change at the Zoo either. When we saw the giraffes, I found out Michelle doesn’t like giraffes much because the tongues freak her out. When we saw the monkeys, I learned that Michelle likes small monkeys but not gorillas. When we saw the elephants, I learned Michelle doesn’t like spaghetti, which didn’t have anything to do with anything. Between text messages, Machelle told me about Patrick, the boy at school who she thought was “super cute.” In my head, I compared him to a hair clip. Out loud, I said, “I guess he’s fine, but we’ve known him since second grade.”
Machelle put her arm around my shoulder. “You’ll understand someday. Maybe you’re just not mature enough yet.”
I scowled. Machelle was only two weeks older than me. How much more mature could she be?
We were on our way to see the bears when Mom asked if we wanted ice cream. Machelle offered to help get it, and they walked toward a kiosk. Dad and I wandered ahead.
The polar bear’s enclosure came first. It held a cave and bushes on one side, and a giant swimming pool on the other. He looked majestic as he swam under the water. I stared at him even after Dad wandered toward the brown bears.
“Being a bear must be nice.” I leaned toward him. “You don’t have to worry about your best friend turning into a boy crazy, makeup-wearing, glitter fiend.” I sighed and took a deep breath. I didn’t want to cry at the zoo.
The bear stopped swimming and looked right at me. “Everyone has ta worry ‘bout their friends, kid.” His voice boomed through the glass.
I looked around. No one else seemed to notice the talking bear. When I looked back, he was waiting for my answer. “You have friends?”
“Of course. I’m a bear, not a brown recluse.”
I laughed. “Well, it doesn’t look like you have friends. You live in a cage.”
He raised his eyebrows and tilted his head. “Shows what you know. Do ya live in a house with all yer friends?”
“Neither do I.”
I glanced around again. Nobody else paid any attention to us. I shrugged my shoulders at the bear. I wasn’t sure what he meant.
He sighed. “I suppose I’ll have ta show ya.” He pulled himself from the water, shook out his fur, and waved me closer.
“Um…Are you going to eat me?”
He laughed. “A boney thing like you? Don’t be silly.”
There was no way I could get to him anyway. I tapped on the glass to show him, but my hand went right through it. It felt like cat hair brushing my skin. “Alright, I’ll come.” I stepped forward and climbed onto the bear’s wet back.
He dove into his pool. The water was freezing, but I didn’t feel cold. I held my breath as he swam down, down, down. A few seconds later, he moved upward until we broke the surface.
I slid off his back and looked around. Pine trees with snow-coated branches surrounded us. And the snow on the ground sparkled like Machelle’s purse when the sunlight hit it just right. Floating icebergs filled the water behind us.
A little way to our right was a forest full of pine trees and quaking aspens. There was no snow there. On our left, desert sands with scrubby bushes reached out to the horizon. In front of me, moist warm air blew out of a thick jungle.
The bear waved his paw around at it all. “Welcome ta the break room. This is where we rest and exercise.”
It was like being everywhere in the world all at once. Every so often, I saw a bird fly through the trees or a lizard scamper around the desert rocks. “How does all this fit in the zoo?”
“It’s not literally in the zoo. It’s best if ya think of it as imaginary.” The bear puffed up his chest. I got the idea he rather liked it here. “Yer only allowed by special invitation.”
I smiled around at everything. It was fantastic. “Thanks for inviting me.”
I heard splashing and turned around. A seal popped his head out of the water. He took us both in with his giant black eyes then turned to the bear. “I didn’t think you were off duty for another hour.”
The bear gave a giant snort. “I’m not, but this kid,” he jabbed at my belly with his paw, “was about ta break into tears right in front of me. I had ta do something.”
I stumbled backward but caught my balance and heaved in a deep breath. The bear’s words reminded me about Machelle, and I felt my stomach sink. But, I was NOT about to break into tears. Not right now, anyway.
The seal rolled his eyes, and his whiskers twitched. “You’re a softy, Guffy.”
“As long as ya don’t tell the zookeepers, I’ll let ya live.”
The seal barked out a laugh. “Like they ever listen to us anyway.”
The bear, Guffy, nodded his enormous head. “Isn’t that the truth?”
I gaped as they talked. Who knew animals were like this?
“Well, good luck with the human. I’m off to take my break.” The seal glided back into the water. A few moments later, I saw him climb onto a snow-covered rock to enjoy some sun.
Guffy turned until all I could see was his huge black nose. I felt his warm breath on my face as he spoke. “There’s someone I want ta show ya. Come on.” He walked toward the forest.
I coughed at the fishy smell and scampered after him. We had to walk single file to get through the thick pines. Guffy’s massive white bum reminded me of vanilla ice cream. He was easy to see in these surroundings.
We came through the trees onto another beach. It didn’t look like the one we’d left. Dark mud and rocks surrounded clear water. Grassy plants grew in patches around us. Across the lake, I could see mountains.
Guffy lifted his fluffy paw and pointed to our left. I squinted, and it took me a minute to spot a giant grizzly bear asleep on a rock.
“That’s Horton. He used ta be my best friend, but we don’t talk much now.”
“As cubs, we’d a lot in common. We were both born here, and the same keepers took care of us. When we grew older, our differences became clearer. For one thing, it’s much too warm here. I like ta eat meat with lots of fat, but Horton enjoys plants. Our differences made us grow apart.”
I thought of Machelle and me growing apart like Horton and Guffy. It wasn’t what I wanted. “So, your not friends now?”
Horton sighed and sat his ice cream bum down on the beach with a thump. “We’re still friends. Only we don’t play together like we used ta.”
“Doesn’t that make you sad?”
“It did for a while. But now I’m glad.”
“Because if I hadn’t moved on, I wouldn’t be the awesome polar bear I am today.” He sat up taller and puffed out his chest. “I could have tried ta eat like Horton or do the things he likes ta do, but pretending to be like him would have made me sad. We are both happier being what we were born ta be.”
“Oh, I see,” I said. Only I didn’t really.
Guffy looked at me. He must have heard the doubt in my voice. “My point is ya have ta let yer friends become themselves, so ya can also become yerself. Then, in the long run, you’ll both be happier.”
I still didn’t get it. I took a deep breath. “Okay. Thank you, Guffy.”
Guffy glanced toward the sun, “Looks like time’s gettin’ on. We’d better get back.”
We walked to the other beach, and Guffy swam me back to his exhibit. He dropped me off where he’d picked me up. “Think about what I said. It’ll make sense someday.”
“Uh, okay. Thanks.”
He smiled at me, a big polar bear grin with a scrunched up nose and full of teeth. I waved.
He went back to enjoying his pool. I went to look for Mom, Dad, and Machelle. I walked toward the next enclosure where the brown bears were. The three of them were watching Horton as he took his nap.
When I arrived, mom handed me an ice cream cone. “That polar bear must have been something special.”
Did she know where I’d been? “What do you mean?”
Mom pulled me into a side hug. “No matter what I said, I couldn’t pull you away. I decided to bring dad his ice cream and head back over to get you. Were you trying to read the bear’s mind?” She laughed.
I tapped my chin with my finger and gave her a crooked smile. “I guess you could say that.”
Machelle nudged my arm. “Did it work?”
I didn’t think my little adventure would interest Machelle, so I only shrugged. She linked arms with me, and we took our ice creams to a nearby bench. We grinned at each other, and she said. “Remember last year, the brain freezes?”
The empty feeling I’d had in my tummy felt a little less empty. I nodded. “1, 2, 3, go!”
We slurped our ice creams as fast as we could, and both ended up holding our foreheads.
“Ow, ow, ow.” Machelle scrunched up her face. “I think that was a tie.”
I grinned and nodded, still holding my head. “Let’s go again.”
We played the game until the ice creams were gone. I giggled. It was just us, no Michelle. On the car ride home, Machelle told me all about her plan to get Patrick to hold her hand in English class on Monday. I smiled and nodded in all the right places but couldn’t bring myself to care so much.
Then she turned to me and said, “What about you?”
“What about me?”
“Well, who do you like?”
I thought about all the boys at our school but couldn’t think of any that I liked. Not like that. “I don’t like anyone.”
“Come on. There has to be someone. What about Robin? You talk to him all the time.”
I grimaced. “He’s friends with my brother.”
Machelle nodded. “Well, there has to be someone. Come over to my house tonight, and we’ll figure it out. Michelle is coming too.”
I was happy to be invited, but then I imagined the conversations they’d have about purses, hair, and boys. I remembered what Guffy said about him and Horton being different bears. It suddenly made a lot more sense. Playing video games with my brother sounded like more fun than all that other stuff.
“Maybe another time. I have other birthday plans tonight.”
Machelle looked a little disappointed, but she nodded. “Ok, another time.”
I smiled at her. We were still friends, but maybe a different kind of friends than we used to be.
We dropped Machelle off, and I waved at her when she got up her front steps. She waved back before she went inside. I felt then that whatever happened, everything would be alright with us, just like things were alright with Guffy and Horton.
It had been a good birthday, after all.