“When I first met Yaba, I was so nervous I threw up on a fern in her enclosure.” Norman Spitzer sat back in his metal chair wearing a satisfied grin. He took a sip of water from a Styrofoam cup held delicately as a champagne flute, wrists handcuffed together.
“You must understand,” he said, “Yaba was the last female giant panda in captivity, and the first panda I ever met in person, so I had worked myself into a fit of anxiety before going in. That is not to say I’m anything less than a panda fanatic. True, the world is brimming with enthusiasts; you’ve seen those teenage girls who carry a panda bear plush around the mall like a fashion accessory, or a street canvasser in boho sandals and a World Wildlife Foundation vest, cornering pedestrians with guilt.
At 6:35 AM, on a Tuesday mid-July, Alberto Salazar woke up. It was not, however, a literal awakening, considering Salazar had tossed in bed for hours, white sheets twisting into a tourniquet around the upper half of his legs as he maneuvered fitfully. His feet stuck out from the too-short mattress into the cool morning air, yet they were damp and clammy and felt slick against the hardwood floor when he finally sat up. Salazar was feverish and grim – a voice had been nagging at him through the night, preventing him from drifting into sleep or even closing his eyes with any real conviction.
Two flight attendants bobbed down the aisle with gyroscopic grace as our plane taxied off the Pearson runway toward a squad of chemical trucks. They smiled, waving little bundles of wire in clear plastic wrappers as an offering from CrossCan. I frowned at the window – the Plexiglas was already steamed over by the exasperated breathing of the human cargo, forced to suffer the indignity of a twenty-minute deicing procedure. Outside raged a storm lit up in streaking currents by the pulse of the wing lights. I could think of only one thing as I stared into the blizzard: my father’s abrupt death. Try as I might, an awareness of this reality would not come into focus before my mind’s eye.