Ambiguous Endings - Dundurn
May 30, 2022

Ambiguous Endings

I wrote The Petting Zoos because I suck at endings.

One afternoon at work I got an idea for a short story about petting zoos for humans. I played with it for the rest of my shift and when I got home I took my supper to my desk, turned on some tunes, and wrote furiously for four hours, at which point I had a complete short story – except for the ending.

All throughout the next day at work, while I wrote about markets rising and falling and the ongoing recession and consumer confidence, I thought about how to end that story. I went home and considered it some more, and nothing came to me.

So I turned it into a novel in order to put off worrying about how the story would end.

The idea of petting zoos for humans didn’t jump at me completely out of thin air.  I’d been thinking a lot about how we were all so active on social media but not actually spending time with people. Thinking about the social poverty of people who found themselves isolated in anonymous city throngs, having no contact with nuclear or extended family and the support (and hugs) they could offer.

I’d been finding myself looking at elderly women on the bus, wondering what it would be like to go untouched for decades. What that does to your body and your mind. One early spring day I put on a short-sleeved shirt and then picked up my cat. The touch of his fur against my inner arm gave me goosebumps and I realized that nothing had touched that skin for months besides my clothes. What would that feel like against the delicate, crepe-y skin of the elderly; what would it be like to know you might never be touched in love again?

I wanted my petting zoos to be more than cuddle parties I’d heard about or sex clubs, which despite the obvious need for them, in this society they are seen as being for the desperate, for losers, or the freaky. Not for moral, normal individuals. To take the inherent ickiness – or transactional nature – of physical intimacy with a stranger out of the equation, I’d have to create an environment where petting zoos would be credible. I wanted to talk about what was missing in this reality but to do so I needed to create a world where isolation was imposed from outside, was out of everyone’s control.

That’s why I situated the story after a pandemic, with people seeking touch after years of enforced isolation, made worse by masks and gloves. In 2009 this all seemed like a bit of a stretch.

I finished the book in March 2020. I’d been writing about skin hunger for 11 years but I didn’t hear the term until May of that year, after two months of lockdowns. It validated my premise, which was cool, but it was also a little frightening.

K.S. Covert examined her talents and realized she had two options for a career: writer or rock singer. Writing seemed more stable, and a career in journalism ensued. But always the idea of living to write, instead of just writing to live, bedevilled her. The Petting Zoos is her first novel. She lives in Ottawa. Read more here.