Jack and Lauren stared into the compound that held the spider monkeys.

“Do you know who that one reminds me of?” Jack pointed to the queen chattering non-stop.

Lauren scowled and dug him in the ribs. “My mother doesn’t talk that much.”

“Sure she does. Emma opens her mouth and fills her day with semi-colons, colons, and commas…but nary a period.”

Lauren folded her arms, her mouth cutting a tight line. “Really? You want to continue berating my mother? I came here to take a break, to do something fun.”

They stared at the cinnamon-colored matriarch who seemed offended by their attention. From her tree branch, the monkey used her thick tail to swing down and drop to the ground. She scooped up a pile of poop and heaved it at them. They quickly turned away and crouched. The wire screening stopped most of it. A chorus of laughter from the Kookaburra birds didn’t help the couple’s mood.

Jack straightened. “Here, give me a wipe and I’ll clean your back. Then, you do mine.”

Lauren dug in her purse. “At least my mother doesn’t do that.”

“Not literally. But figuratively, she heaves it my way all the time.”

“How would you know? You’re never home, and Mom really helps with the kids. If she hadn’t helped, we wouldn’t be here now, taking this so-called break.”

They continued walking. Jack extended a hand toward Lauren, but she refused to take it. On that sultry morning, the zoo seemed deserted. From a distance, big cats roared. The couple passed a corral where an impala and her calf cowered against the fence.

“See there,” Jack pointed to the quivering calf, “that’s how our kids act after a few hours with your mother. I know Emma means well, but she’s such a drama queen. Everything she does becomes a stressful deal. The kids pick that up.”

“Look, I’m here because we never get to see these wonderful animals by ourselves and not to get into a snit about our mothers. But if that’s what you want, at least my mom wants to help. I’m surprised your mother ever had children…since they’re so…messy.” Lauren pointed to a Lady Amherst pheasant preening itself in a cage. “Just look at that thing, every feather in place, clean, colorful, beautiful to look at but never to touch. That’s your mother all right.”

Jack grinned. “That bird’s the male, dear. The female is that dull brown one in the corner.”

Lauren snorted and quickened her pace, passing the elephants spraying themselves with water, steam rising from their wrinkled backs. Jack caught up to her and tried to take her hand, but she shook him off. They found a shaded bench outside the lion cage. Lauren sat clutching her purse to her chest. The silence between them grew.

Jack cleared his throat. “The snack bar is right around the corner. Let me get us something to drink.”

“So, you’re ditching me already? We haven’t even been here half an hour.”

He encircled her with an arm. Her body stiffened. A lone male lion paced the compound, ignoring them. The big cat stopped every few passes and peered through the thick wire mesh. His roar made them jump.

“Is that how you want to end up,” Lauren asked, “pacing a room by yourself, calling out to nobody in particular? You spend six days a week editing other peoples’ crap then complain about me asking Mother for help.”

“It’s called work, Lauren. It pays the bills.”

“Oh, don’t give me that. You just don’t like being around us.”

“If the us you’re talking about is you and the kids, I miss that. I…I love you guys. But Emma…she puts me on the defensive. And with you on her side, I feel outnumbered in my own home.”

Lauren stared at him wide-eyed. She rose and walked into the sunlight, the zoo quiet in the late morning heat. Jack followed. They stood under a towering sycamore and gazed across a fenced-in plot pockmarked with burrow holes. A gang of meerkats scurried about, some resting upright on their hind legs, little faces with black noses staring at the couple.

Lauren pointed. “See, it takes a village to raise their young. You and I need that. We can’t do it alone.”

Jack sighed. “You’re right, honey. But we gotta find ourselves first. It’s not an either-or thing…it’s a matter of balance. And right now, I feel we’re off balance.”

Lauren hurried down the path toward the zoo exit. She slumped onto a bench in front of the tiger cage and covered her face with her hands. Jack sat next to her and waited for her to calm.

She wiped her eyes and stared at him. “Look, part of my village is my mother. How am I supposed to tell her to back off? After her divorce, our children became the center of her life.”

“I know, but maybe she should wait for us to ask and not expect to be included in everything.”

“So, what do we do? You used to work at home sometimes. That really helped…we were closer then.”

Jack opened his mouth to say something just as two tigers started growling, hissing, and batting each other with their huge paws.

Lauren bounded to her feet and roared at the big cats, “WILL YOU STOP THAT! WE’RE TALKING HERE!”

The massive beasts froze in mid-motion. The male wore a guilty what did I do? look, took a feeble swipe at the female, then flopped onto the hot pavement.

Lauren sank onto the bench, her lips trembling, eyes ablaze. “Jeez, that felt so good. Now what were you gonna say?”

Jack grinned. “You’ll do just fine telling your mom to cool it.”

“But…but how are you going to help?”

“I can bring my editing work home, be with you guys more.”

“Your bosses will let you do that?”

“Yes, but I’ll only do it when it’s just…us.”

They came into each other’s arms and kissed. The two tigers lay in the sun, legs stretched out, paws splayed, the female’s head tucked into the male’s soft belly, her eyes closed, purring.