by Deborah Torr
I’m awake in the middle of the night again. Only, this isn’t my usual routine of waking at 3am before dozing off once more. The sheets are damp and there’s something beside me in the dark that’s not you. This is not like the time you came home drunk and whispered another girl’s name in my ear. This is much, much worse.
There’s a colossal weight pressing against me. I remain perfectly still. I listen to the heavy in-and-out breath. Sweat trickles down my neck. The air smells musty, like sardines and dirty dishwater.
At first light, I slink out of bed. There, outstretched, is a polar bear. You’re beside him, peaceful, spooning. His legs and lower half hang off the end of the bed. The MDF struts squirm under his weight.
I should feel terrified, but I think I was expecting him. Something about his arrival, nestling his way between the two of us, seems inevitable.
I make you marmalade on toast and boil the kettle because those seem like sensible, rational steps.
What the—, I hear you say from the bedroom.
You blame me for not locking the door properly, like he’s an unwelcome alley cat that’s scrambled in over the balcony, not a 12-foot, 900-pound polar bear.
At 9am we ring the RSPCA but they hang up on us at the mention of ‘polar bear’.
I whisper to you, Don’t polar bears need thousands of kilometres to roam about in?
Perhaps he’s hibernating, you whisper back. We should leave him be.
Around lunchtime I peer in. He’s still lazing there, eyelids resting half open, black nose quivering now and again. I think: I know where you came from.
Everyone said we had to go and see the polar bear. I’ve seen the documentaries, I know about their playfulness as cubs, the soft padding of their paws as they approach their prey, the ferocity of their jaws.
I’m at the zoo and it’s my birthday. I’m supposed to be having a wonderful time. You keep buying me things to try to make that happen—ice cream, hot dog, slush puppy. Earlier I saw a monkey try to eat its own faeces.
We leave the polar bear till last. The sky is now grey and dull. I get the feeling that this is one of those sad zoos.
There’s a window into the underwater portion of his tank. The glass is covered in algae, and in the background there’s the polar bear, his name is Otto, diving to the bottom, and then back to the surface. People are taking selfies in front of the window.
We climb the stairs to see the outside of his enclosure, and Otto follows us. He begins pacing pack and forth along the concrete, amongst the dead trees and empty barrels. He continues pacing for the fifteen minutes we are with him.
We get the metro back to our AirBnB. I think of him in that small tank, with the lights shut off, as the visitors go back to their hotels, as the zookeepers go home to their families and sit down for dinner.
The next night Otto starts snoring again. Somewhere, over the other side, is you, pressed against the wall. I had suggested we camp out on the sofa, but you refused to ‘let him win’.
I didn’t mention to you my theory that this is Otto, the Danish polar bear. Perhaps if I did you’d have more sympathy, but as it stands you see this as a war of attrition.
I worry for him, so far from home in our little tank of an apartment. We talked about getting a dog once or twice. You wanted a Rottweiler or an Alsatian. I said no.
The next night, and the night after that, Otto is still there. He dozes in bed all day like a lazy teenager, with not even a trip to the bathroom or to eat. He’s all we can talk about, think about. I adjust to sleeping on a sliver of mattress, to his loud snoring that makes the bed tremble.
After a week the sheets are filthy, and I can’t bear to sleep in them any more. I manage to nudge his huge body this way and that, and wriggle the sheets out from under him. He grunts lightly in his sleep as I put on the clean ones.
After visiting the zoo, we carried on like regular tourists. Yet everything, from drinking gluhwein on Paper Island, to the science museum, to the swinging chairs at Tivoli, was overcast.
On the flight home, with you sleeping on my shoulder, I had this desperate sense that I had to break up with you. When you woke up, you smiled at me sleepily and offered me a winegum. We went home to the flat and nothing happened.
With as little warning as when he first arrived, one morning a few months later, I wake up to find Otto has gone. I expect the front door to be open, or for furniture to be upturned and the place a mess. I wait to feel relieved but the feeling never arrives.
You see the empty bed, and strip the sheet off, stuff it into the washing machine. You take a duffle bag, and start folding t-shirts into it. You say your Dad will come to pick up the rest.
Perhaps you would have left earlier if it hadn’t been for Otto. Or maybe you would have tolerated our mutual unhappiness for longer, indefinitely. Either way, there’s an unspoken agreement that now Otto has gone, so should you.
That same day I thought about all the things bigger than a polar bear. I jotted them down in my phone:
the Atlantic Ocean
a black hole.
Deborah Torr is a writer from south London. Shortlisted for the Sunderland Short Story Award, Deborah has words in Reflex Press, Great Weather for Media, and Fiction Kitchen Berlin and was one of the London Library’s Emerging Writers 2019. You can find her on Twitter @deborah_torr.