Maternal Impression

She tells you she’s part bison.

“It’s my mom’s fault,” she says. “Mom was always sneaking up on wild animals when she wasn’t supposed to be.”

You’re at the ice rink in north Phoenix, skating shaky circles against the wall, mittened teenagers chasseing by in mists of ice. This is your third date. It’s the height of Arizona summer, too hot to sweat even, and you were hoping the cold of the ice rink would encourage closeness. Hot cocoa on lips, hands clutching hands for warmth, one thing leading to another . . .

But now that she’s pointed it out, the bison part of her, you can’t stop seeing it. Her hair, which she wears in a French twist, is brown and coarse. Her wrists are the same thickness as her forearms. Her forehead is wide enough to fit your hand. When you skate close, you think you smell sweet hay.

You’ve dated girls who were part animal before. Girls who were part brown bat, with larger than average ears and curling pink tongues. Girls who were part red fox, with ginger fur creeping up their forearms. Girls who were part jack rabbit, with adorable, symmetrical noses. They called it maternal impression. If their mother experienced fear or strong emotion while pregnant, especially in reaction to animals, the fetus girl would be imprinted with evidence of the upset.

But this girl isn’t a creature of neighborhoods, of attics and vegetable gardens. This girl is an animal of the plains, large and roaming. This is the daughter of a woman who faced a bison and lived.

“How long have you known?” you ask, unsure of how to approach the topic.

She says that when she was a baby her feet curled into themselves like hooves, and she had a thing for pulling up grass in the backyard and chewing it into pulp with her molars. When she was older the nightmares started, nightmares of being driven off cliffs into valleys of sharpened stone.

She says she feels safest in groups of female friends. She says she has dreams that everyone has gone extinct and she’s the only one left, alone in a vast field.

Lately, you’ve started to suspect that you aren’t as nice as you think you are. In high school, you were voted Most Likely to Lend a Helping Hand. But Nice has started to feel more and more like a mask you wear because it’s expected of you.

You feel it now as you listen to her speak. You’ve skated to the penalty box and wobbled your way onto the bench, and now you and the girl sit side by side watching the other skaters zip by. They barely look at you as they pass, they’re so intent on their own experiences, the cold and their aching ankles and the threat of falling.

She tells you that the bison part of her makes her aggressive. She’s flirting with you now, her hand on your leg. She says that bison in heat can be unpredictable, reckless. But instead of being turned on, you are imagining leaving the ice skating rink, putting her in the passenger seat of your car and driving north, out of the Sonoran desert, driving until you reach the great plains.

Bison—this memory from third grade history class bobs to the surface of your mind—were driven to near extinction by humans and disease. But the bison survived. They roamed again. You wonder if there’s part of you that is the hunter, like there’s part of her is the bison. You wonder if you were to face her in the plains, you with your fists and her with the thick slab of her forehead, who would survive. You wonder if you, a man, could survive a creature that survived extinction.  

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