To Be an Animal
It was while on the toilet that it dawned on Dominic that what he wanted to be was an animal.
A hot evacuation of shit and air came in triumphs; each more cartoonishly onomatopoeic than the last. My god, he thought. This is fantastic. His wife Grace was down the corridor, babysitting her sourdough as it fermented. The bread saturated their home with a moist, bitter smell, as it did every Saturday. Dominic stared at the flecks of faeces that dotted the white porcelain, and realised with both curiosity and resignment, that this would be the singular highlight of his day, if not his entire weekend.
Pressing the handle to flush, he felt sad. Why eliminate this pungent proof of his existence? He switched on the shower and let the bathroom fill with steam, gazing at himself in the mirror. His naked body was obscured by condensation: the unchallenged fact of his being an attractive, white male. He rubbed the back of his fingernails against the fresh stubble on his chin and neck, the rough tenor of his masculinity, a gesture borrowed from a police procedural drama watched late one night on the BBC.
It had been a while since Dominic had considered himself an animal of flesh and meat. There would be changes to make. He would have to dress differently. This could be monumental for him. This could really get the juices flowing.
He was previously not without animal qualities; had always prided himself on his keen sense of smell. He could sniff out chorizo long before a Spanish restaurant emerged into view. He could identify which combination of colleagues had been using the meeting room for their lunch. What types of sandwiches they’d eaten. Their brand of crisps. Smell had always been important to Dominic and it felt as good a starting point as any other in his transition. He switched the shower off, having failed to step inside. He felt as cleansed as he needed to be; hair plump with humidity, skin mushroom soft.
His shelf above the sink contained the tools with which he ordinarily attended to his body: clippers, electric toothbrush, his Bulldog Original Face Wash—now they seemed an affront. They made him think of the flowering hedge that separated his childhood home from their neighbour Sharon’s. The vigour with which his father administered a cordless trimmer before hacking at it with shears. How beautiful it had looked, un-pruned. Branches askew. Flowers blooming like mouths. Sharon eyeing his father’s handiwork, then, after her divorce, fetching him Diet Cokes from the kitchen, reaching over the hedge to squeeze his bicep.
Stepping out of the bathroom with a towel slung low across his waist, he walked through to the kitchen and poured himself some coffee. Grace slipped past him, eyes to the floor. There was a time she might have dispatched a jokey wolf whistle, a slap, perhaps, on his behind. There was a time that was still possible to imagine.
‘I’ve laid out something for you to wear,’ she said, dusting the countertop with flour. ‘Your mustard sweatshirt and jeans.
He sipped his coffee. Grace often set out his clothing. It was something to do with Instagram. She knew about contrast and filters. She knew that if you read a book you had to place a succulent right beside it; if you made a cup of tea, you let the lapsang souchong label dangle over the side. She knew that if you were going to the garden centre, mustard yellow looked good against all those earthy greens. She would tell him stuff like that and he felt uncomfortable in the knowing.
‘Can I wear my navy sweatshirt?’ he ventured. ‘Or the one that says ‘Toronto’?’
Grace thumped at the dough with the heel of her palm. Some mornings, she frightened him. Her looks were more vulpine with her hair pulled back. Her features warring it out, fighting for real estate toward the tip of her nose.
‘Darling’, he said. ‘I don’t want to wear the mustard sweatshirt.’
But Darling wasn’t listening. Was kneading bread with the mad industry of a doomsday prepper.
‘What I want,’ Dominic said, pulling his wife toward his hip. ‘Is to be an animal.’
Grace had always been a patient woman. She conducted herself with a poise it was impossible to feign. Grace knew the key to composure was waiting; and she was a woman who could wait and wait. It allowed for inventory of the every day, she thought. A moment to take stock. Her husband’s large palm sprawled across her waist like a starfish—and much as if she had just found a starfish suckered across her middle, her instinct was to panic. But instead, she waited. It would be over soon.
‘I don’t want to wear the mustard sweatshirt!’ Dominic started, and then louder, ‘I don’t want to wear the mustard sweatshirt!’ Amping up the volume until he was shouting at the top of his lungs. ‘I don’t want to wear the mustard sweatshirt! I don’t want to wear the mustard sweatshirt! I don’t want to wear the mustard sweatshirt! I don’t want to wear the mustard sweatshirt!
Dominic was screaming—roaring!—his face red as his fists pounded down on the counter. The sourdough landed on the floor. Grace paused, arranging her face into a simulacrum of composure. Her voice was high and practised as she comforted him: ‘there, there, you don’t have to; wear the navy shirt, it’ll look just as good.’ Her fingers manipulated his spine.
He breathed in and out, feeling his anguish drain away; allowing the tips of her fingers to rest perhaps a moment too long. He felt alive, tearing through the fabric of things like that. He didn’t know that as an adult you could still scream. You could stand right there in your kitchen and scream.
Grace’s arms were wrapped around him, her tiny bones and pale skin. You sweet silver fish, he thought. You delicate little thing! He’d slowed his breathing and straightened up. He felt like a large thing, unfurling. He couldn’t believe how tall he was. He wanted to touch the tops of all the cabinets just because he could.
Grace went to the garden centre alone. She preferred going alone. She liked to take her time. To wander the outdoor aisles and contemplate how she looked surrounded by vegetation. She couldn’t think when Dominic was around; he dominated the space: her mental space, her emotional space, her physical space—this large, noisy boy. She wanted to eat hazelnut wafers in the café without anybody complaining that they needed the loo. She wanted to consider the best way to frame the geraniums without someone saying her preoccupation with angles was stupid.
These things were important—serene moments amid the drag and chaos of life. She’d gotten it from her mother, from her sisters. Her family operated a baseline assumption of hopelessness. At best, one could wish only for brief respite. Little boost, her mother would say, in reference to a mid-afternoon cup of camomile. Little break, she would announce, setting aside the ironing and sitting down to watch a single half-hour episode of Coast vs Country.
Grace found herself stood before an ornamental pond. Water splashed and trickled artificially, propelled by the pump. A pot frog perched at the side, a dainty sign next to him read: frogetaboutit. She stared at the pond, the frog, the sign. Frogetaboutit. Something fluttered in her belly.
She turned around at the sound of giggling and feet on gravel. Twin girls, slapping and yanking at each other. Their mother was nowhere to be seen. Children made Grace feel funny. Like seeing a spider or something slimy on your hand. They’d talked about children. These things were inevitable. The girls spilled toward her. One of them tugged the hem of her dress. ‘You are a pretty lady!’ she said, almond eyes upturned. The other followed suit. ‘Pretty lady!’ she squealed. ‘What a pretty lady!’
‘Well, let me tell you something,’ Grace said, without a trace of remorse. ‘You two are very bad girls. And when I find your mother, I’m going to tell her that. Tell her what horrible, bad girls you are.’
As Grace walked towards the café, she thought this year she would buy herself three birthday cakes. And she would take a bite out of all three.
At home, Dominic had been napping. He’d napped on the floor at the base of the bed. He had considered crawling between the freshly laundered sheets, relishing the idea of himself like that. Fetid and soiled and wrapped in white cotton. However, now that he was an animal, he needed to sleep on the floor. And he needed to sleep for longer. The larger the animal, the more sleep it requires.
Stretching out, he surveyed the furred landscape of his chest. He thought about masturbating, but realised his hunger was for food. Prowling the kitchen, he found only the airy nibbles his wife allowed. Clearly, what he needed was meat. They lived in the acceptable part of town; food was readily available. There were matcha lattes and Greek delis and froYo, but there wasn’t a whole lot of meat. He mentally paraded the street, sniffing out chicken; imagining where he might sit down to a plate of prime rib. His thoughts drifted to the base of his building, a fixture so familiar he had mentally papered over it—Buffet King, all-you-can-eat Chinese. It had seemed unfortunate. But now he recalled the MSG radiating from the extractors. The bones that littered the pavement. They could be an arresting sight.
Buffet King was both very much and not at all the animalistic experience he anticipated. He had to pay using his debit card before he was allowed to sit down. The restaurant had a taxonomy that he couldn’t discern. He took his seat and found water cost three pounds fifty a glass. There were groups of hen dos and stag parties surrounding him, wearing gaudy costumes he found crass. He caught himself longing for the pristine sanitation of the places Grace would take him; places with large wooden tables and spritzes served in jam jars. Perusing the options, he piled his plate with spare ribs and crab cakes and stewed fish and chicken chow mein. He began eating; gobbling up the salty, samey food. He went back for another helping, spearing forkfuls of meat and swallowing dryly. There was something tantric about it. Something that made him forget himself. The food was making him hum; he could feel the surface of his skin begin to vibrate. It was transcendental! He felt powerful, yet half asleep. He felt fantastic. He took a lap around the room, watching women notice him. He felt their eyes on his flesh, though felt little towards them, perhaps just a passing interest in their scent. Though there was one young lady who caught his eye.
He angled his seat toward her. She was nervously checking her phone, ignoring her lunch. He eyed her flinty gestures, her gaze darting across the room. He felt a kinship with her. She, it seemed, had something of the animal about her, also. Though she appeared more like prey, something vulnerable and hunted, perhaps something crepuscular. He took it upon himself to sit opposite her, gawping at her in silence—enjoying the view.
‘Do you want to take a walk?’ he asked, after some time had passed. She glanced up at him. Occasionally, a person’s face could look like a road, he thought; it could open up into a floodlit boulevard.
‘Sure’, she said, and put on her coat.
They walked out of Buffet King and down the street. The air smelled like gravel, dry and scorched. They walked past a shop that sold old books and another boasting vintage pornography. They walked past the outdoor markets, with boxes of fruit Dominic could not name. They walked past a display of expensive Swedish lamps. These things were making him uncomfortable; he no longer felt like an animal at all.
‘Hey,’ said the girl. ‘Let’s go to the park.’
Grace found a newspaper and sat with her wafers and soya latte. She removed her phone from her pocket, placing the newspaper diametrically opposite the clean, white cup. She spotted a smudge on the corner of the paper and flipped it upside down, before reviewing the little vista. The cup was too close to the paper, the back page not as attractive as the cover. She spaced them out further and took a couple of test snaps. She returned to the central table and found the food supplement. Much better and with a nicely muted colour palette. She switched in the magazine and rotated the cup slightly. She took another shot, made a couple more rearrangements, and finally she was happy, considerately cropping the image and applying a drowsy filter. Her coffee was cold, but as she watched the notifications illuminate her phone, she felt calm.
Entering the park, Dominic instantly felt more of an animal. He had removed his shoes and was enjoying the squelch of the still-wet grass between his toes. He had not yet learned his companion’s name, but that was okay. Walking beside her he sensed a symbiosis. He felt threads of himself connecting to the girl, to the soil, to the whole universe. He couldn’t believe his luck. This morning he had decided that what he wanted was to be was an animal—and now he was prowling the wilds with a mate. He’d never felt more certain of himself. He wondered what he would do this evening. Whether he should return home with her and explain things to Grace. Whether they would just sleep here, in the park. Whether he could burrow them somewhere to live.
‘Do you want to run?’ he asked the girl. ‘Do you want to run from here to the lake as fast as you can?
She nodded and they both took off, sprinting gracelessly across the grass. Dominic felt the veins plump in his shoulders, his heart pounding like a kettledrum. I am man of the year, he thought, racing like a beast. I should be in GQ. Reaching the lake, they paddled their feet. The girl giggled. Dominic noticed she was wearing garish turquoise eyeliner that didn’t suit her complexion. He wondered if he could ask her to take it off. He scanned the wooded area behind them.
‘You know, if we went round there,’ he said, ‘nobody would see us.’
The girl blinked, rubbing her nose.
‘If you catch my drift,’ he added.
‘Okay,’ she said, standing up and walking towards the trees. Dominic followed, and when certain he couldn’t be seen, grabbed her wrist and pulled her towards him. They kissed feverishly as Dominic squeezed the flesh of her hips. Meat, he thought. Meat! He pushed her against a trunk and went to town on her neck and clavicle. He began to unbuckle his belt while reaching a hand up her skirt. He tried flipping her round, so he could have her from behind.
‘What the hell are you doing?’ she screamed, violently wriggling free. ‘I just wanted to make out with you.’
The girl looked him up and down. ‘You’re...old,’ she said, smoothing her clothes with more aggression than was necessary. She ran her finger under her eyes, tidying that unpleasant liner. Dominic thought he would like to bite that finger. He would like to bite it right off. But of course, he wouldn’t be allowed. Things never worked out for him. Nothing worked out, ever. He started kicking the tree. Kicking it hard, bark chipping off, denting the front of his shoe. His toes hurt but he carried on. Holding the tree with both hands, slamming alternate feet into its base.
‘Stop it!’ the girl cried. ‘What are you doing?’
‘I’m upset,’ he said, crumpling to the floor. ‘I’m sad!’
He whimpered, then wept, tears pouring down his face as he howled. The girl knelt next to him and rubbed his back, just like Grace, working her fingers through the notches of his spine.
They eventually walked back through the park. The girl asked if he had anyone he could call, and he told her, yes, he had a wife, and he’d be going back home.
‘You know what I do when I’m sad?’ the girl said, as they reached the gate. She turned to face him, with the poise of a person about to deliver great wisdom. ‘I take a photograph of one tree.’ She made her hands into frame and angled them towards a towering sycamore. ‘Just one tree.’
He looked through her fingers, appraising the gargantuan presence of wood and leaves. She dropped her hands and left. He had made a mistake. He thought he’d recognised a similar impulse in her, to be an animal; now he understood what she wanted was botanical. The slip and tangle of foliage. The fecund moisture of a greenhouse. She was not his mate. He wondered who was. It had been a strange day.
At the flat, Grace was waiting, wrapped in her mermaid blanket, salmon baking in the oven.
She pulled the wool to her waist and shimmied toward him. ‘What do you want?’ she asked, her face not quite a road, but perhaps a driveway, perhaps a cosy cul-de-sac. Love, the old dog. He sat on the breakfast stool and took stock of his wants, realising, at that moment, what he wanted was a slice of toast. She began slicing the sourdough she had baked that morning. Toasted, it was delicious. He asked for another slice, and then another. She seemed happy watching him eat. She seemed relieved. ‘Are you still hungry?’ she asked, nervously hovering. He told her he was not, though his stomach growled as he licked the last of the butter from his paw.
Photograph by Nik Merkulov / Thinkstock